Q&A: The origin of ‘vale’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, beyond the vale…

Q: Hi AWC, I noticed when someone passes away, people write “vale”. What do valleys have to do with it?

A: Ah, no. With valleys, you’re thinking of “vale” – as in rhyming with “gale” – and that’s from a different Latin root word, vallis. It’s of course where “valley” also comes from, as well as the Maltese capital city, Valletta.

Q: Oh I’d love to go to the Maltese capital one day!

A: Yes, Valletta has some impressive stone walls.

Q: What? No, I’d just love to tour the Malteasers factory.

A: Not in Malta, sorry. They’re British in origin.

Q: Oh really? Well that’s disappointing. Next you’ll be telling me that M&Ms aren’t made by that rapper.

A: We’d better move on before you lose yourself.

Q: Okay. So, back to “vale”?

A: Yes, so the “vale” YOU are referring to actually rhymes more with “parlay” and comes from the Latin root word, valere, meaning to “be well, be strong”. In Latin times, it was used as a way to say “goodbye”, much like you might say to someone “travel safe” or “go well” etc.

Q: Oh, yeah, I suppose we do say that.

A: Other languages do it too. For example, the Maori kia ora is typically used as a greeting akin to “hello” – but actually translates more as “be healthy”, and can also be used for “goodbye”.

Q: I’d love to visit the Kia factory in New Zealand. Their cars are quite nice these days.

A: No, actually that’s in South Korea.

Q: Of course it is. 

A: Anyway, people do indeed say “vale” in the context of someone passing away – and “goodbye” is its modern-day meaning in the Macquarie Dictionary.

Q: So using Latin just makes it all sound a bit more high brow?

A: Something like that. It seems to have a lofty, noble ring to it that people like in sombre moments like that. By the way, this same Latin origin gives us the word “valediction” – which is also the word for a farewell. In fact, you may have heard of a “valedictorian” at an American graduation ceremony?

Q: Yes I have, but wait – I always assumed that “valedictorian” was like “dux” and meant that you were the best student, no?

A: Not really. The word itself simply means the person who delivers the “valedictory” – or farewell speech – at a graduation ceremony.

Q: Mind. Blown.

A: Well, you’re not entirely wrong. It’s still an honour likely to be given to a top student.

Q: So what other words are related to this valere origin?

A: Quite a few actually. For example, “value” and “valid”.

Q: What do THEY have to do with goodbye? Unless you’re talking about something of value being a “good buy” hahaaaaa.

A: Hilarious. But no, this time, they’re harking back to the original valere meaning of “be well, be strong”. And if something has value or is valid, it is strong – it has worth. 

Q: So does that mean “valour” and “valiant” would also come from it?

A: Sure does. They are very noble, strong words indeed.

Q: Oh, ooooh. What about the name Valerie?

A: Haha, we thought you’d never ask! Yes, that too comes from the same Latin valere meaning “to be strong”.

Q: She’s in such good company!

A: Ahem. At this point, we need to mention that the names “Vladimir” and “Donald” also came from the Latin valere.

Q: Seriously?

A: Yep.

Q: Wow. Next you’ll be saying “Valium” comes from it too!

A: …

Q: You’re joking, right?

A: The drug was patented in 1959 in the USA, as a form of the drug diazepam. However, the marketing team wanted something nicer sounding for this treatment for anxiety, seizures and spasms. So they went with “Valium” – taken directly from “vale”, the Latin for “farewell or goodnight”.

Q: This really has been a roller coaster today. My head is spinning!

A: Would you like us to prescribe something?

Q: No thanks! So, to recap, “vale” is simply a fancy way of saying “farewell” – and it has stuck around this long thanks to its lofty Latin vibes. 

A: That’s right. Although we wouldn’t recommend using it at the end of a dinner party – it’s typically only used when someone has died, or perhaps when retiring after a long time. Also make sure that if you’re saying it, remember that it rhymes with “parlay”, not “pale”.

Q: Ah, so what about the word “valet”? Is that a “strong” personal assistant, or does it relate to saying “goodbye” to your car in terms of valet parking?

A: Haha, cute. But nope, that “valet” comes from the Old French vaslet as a “man’s servant, workman’s assistant”. Not related at all.

Q: Good to know. Well, we killed it today, so let’s say “vale” to this topic!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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