The Founding Fathers, Deconstructed: Patrick Henry

Time for Round Two of our look into the etymology of the Founding Fathers’ names! Yesterday we researched George Washington, and today we’re focusing on a fellow Virginian, governor and orator Patrick Henry. Will the man who gave us “Give me liberty or give me death!”, “If this be treason, make the most of it!” and other famous shouts have a name that lives up to his legacy? Find out below, and check in tomorrow for our final installment!

Patrick Henry

Patrick is a descendant of the Latin name Patricius, meaning “nobleman” (or, more accurately and evidently, “patrician”). At first this may seem ill-suited for a champion of republicanism, but if we delve deeper we find that a patricius was meant to act as a fatherly figure to those beneath him; you might recognize the “father” aspect in more familiar words, like “patriarch” and “paternal” (although funnily enough, the term “patronizing” looped back to having an elitist connotation in the eighteenth century).

The word “father” itself shares an ancient root with patricius, the Proto-Indo-European pater (the approximations of plosives like ‘p’ in Proto-Indo-European often split off to become fricatives like ‘f’ when becoming Romantic and Germanic languages, as seen in the Romantic roots patr-, frag- and pter- versus the Germanic father, break and feather).

So we can connect one of the Founding Fathers with the actual word “father”, which is pretty neat. But what’s even cooler is that Patrick is more directly related to an equally apt term: patriot.

Henry comes from the German Heinrich, itself from the Old High German Heimerich, an easily-split name meaning “home ruler” (heim meaning “home”, rich deriving from rihhi, meaning “ruler”). The first half is related to the English word “home” (surprise!), but also “haunt”, stemming from the word’s original denotation as a frequently-visited place; the ghostly undertones didn’t come about until the nineteenth century.

The latter half, rihhi, is part of a rich global family. On the Germanic side this includes the word “rich” itself, as well as “right” and the unfortunately-connoted “Reich”. But going back to its Proto-Indo-European root reg gives us a connection to the Latin regere (meaning “to rule”) from which we get ruler words like “regal”, “reign”, “regime”, “regulate”, “region” and “Regis Philbin”; we also have the Sanskrit raj and raja, which made their way to the English lexicon through India.

What I’m getting at is, there’s a lot of history crammed into the last two letters of Henry.

All in all, you can see Patrick Henry’s full name in two ways: either it’s incredibly ironic that the anti-monarchist’s name essentially means “nobleman king”, or the Virginia governor is perfectly described as a “patriotic/fatherly leader of the home”.


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