Printable Version
Pronunciation: ker-tay-kêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Custodian, janitor, someone who takes care of a someone else's land or building. 2. Carer (UK), caregiver, someone who looks after another person incapable of looking after him- or herself. 3. A person or people who holds power temporarily, as 'a caretaker regime'.

Notes: If take is the antonym of give, a caregiver (in Britain sometimes called a carer) suggests that a caretaker is the recipient of care—a caree, if you like. But he or she is not. If we advise people to take care, we are really advising them to give care to themselves.

In Play: The first sense of today's word is more often used to refer to buildings and estates rather than people: "Jerry Mander, once mayor of New Monia, after completing his sentence for bribery, is now the caretaker at city hall." The third meaning of this word is often used as an attribute of some word referring to the head of an organization: "Mary Dewey Dance demanded that the government resign and hand power over to a caretaker government."

Word History: So, what's going on here etymologically? Take care of is an idiomatic phrase that simply verbalizes care. Take in this instance has no more meaning than wage in wage war. This phrase simply means "do what is done in war". So, take in take care of simply means "do what you do when you care for something or someone". Caretaker was made from this idiomatic phrase. The origin of care is a bit murky. It would seem to be related to Latin caritas "affection, charity", which French converted charité before English borrowed it as charity. This would point to a PIE root karo- "to like, desire", which came down to Latin as carus "dear, beloved". Karo- arrived in English via its Germanic ancestors as, surprisingly enough, whore, from Old English hore, with the usual Germanic change of PIE [k] to [kh] to [h]. (Now let's thank David Myer for his keen eye in spotting the ostensible contradiction in the meaning of today's secretive Good Word and reporting it to the Agora.)

Dr. Goodword,

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