Dear Word Detective: Looking into the roots of “route,” I discovered that it comes from the Latin for “broken way” (“rupta via” or “via rupta”). Why? What was the meaning of “via rupta”? Was this later generations referring to the crumbling stones of the old Roman roads? If so, why was it expressed in Latin? — Lucy Merrill.
Yeah, what’s up with that? That’s a darn good question, dagnabbit, and you get bonus points for your mildly prosecutorial tone. It’s evocative of that moment in the old Perry Mason TV mysteries when Perry would finally get that weaselly husband on the stand under cross-examination. The feckless District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, would leap to his feet and object that Perry’s questions were “Incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial,” but the judge would tell Ham to can it and instruct the witness to answer the question.
That explanation you saw tracing “route” to “broken way” in Latin does seem odd. Unless the Romans were total slackers at road maintenance, the term seems to make no sense. But if the Romans were so lazy, how did they build that awesome system of aqueducts to bring water to Rome, much of which system still stands today? Fortunately, there is an explanation, and “route” turns out to have an airtight alibi which doubles as an interesting story about several other English words.
Today we use “route” literally to mean a regularly traveled road or a course of travel either commonly used (“Do you know the route to San Jose?”) or one we have selected in order to reach a given destination (“What route are you taking to Philadelphia?”). Figuratively, a “route” can be a means, method or progression of reaching a goal of any kind (“Bob’s route to office manager was smoothed after he brought a camera to the Christmas party”).
“Route” first appeared in print in English in the early 13th century in that literal “road” sense, and the figurative use followed almost immediately. We borrowed “route” from the French “route,” which the French had adopted from the Latin word “rupta,” short for the “rupta via” you mention. “Rupta via” did indeed mean “broken way,” “via” meaning “way or road” and “rupta” being a participle form of the verb “rumpere,” meaning “to break.” But the sense of this “broken way” was not that it was riddled with potholes, but that it was a trail, path or road that was well traveled and established after having been forcefully “opened” by clearing trees, brush, etc. So “rupta via” was essentially a “beaten track,” a sense that lives on in our “route.”
Incidentally, our modern word “rut” is probably essentially the same word as “route.” It first appeared in English in the 16th century meaning “track of a wheel,” and the colloquial use of “rut” to mean “a monotonous routine” dates to the 19th century. And speaking of “routine,” that’s another descendant of “route,” adopted separately from French. If we back up a bit to that Latin verb “rumpere,” meaning “to break,” we discover that its other English descendants include “corrupt,” “disrupt,” “erupt” and “rupture.”
Having examined the “rupta” of “rupta via” pretty thoroughly, it’s only fair to spend a moment with that “via,” which is a Latin noun meaning “road” or “way.” It’s rarely used as a noun in English, but the ablative singular form of the noun (which is, conveniently, also “via”) is used as a preposition millions of times a day to mean “by way of” (“Arthur and his father walked via the scullery into the living-room,” 1958) or “by means of” (“It would in theory be possible to provide five more services with national coverage via satellite,” 1977).