Wood on Words: A brief history of specs

Barry Wood

If you have something made “on spec,” it’s likely to turn out the way you expected. However, if you invest in something “on spec,” it’s risky business.

In the former usage, “spec” is short for “specifications,” and there’s probably a blueprint that will guide the makers.

In the latter, “spec” is short for “speculation,” and you should know from the get-go that you’re taking a chance.

In either case, you might need your “specs” to read the fine print.

“Specs,” of course, is short for “spectacles,” or eyeglasses, so spectacles are something to be seen and something to see with.

All of these “spec” words, and a wide spectrum of others (including “spectrum”), have their origin in the Latin verb “specere,” meaning “to see.”

A couple of others with logical connections are “spectator” and “specter.”

The latter is something that not everyone can see: “a ghost; apparition.” It also can mean “any object of fear or dread.”

On the branch of the family that includes “specification” we also find “specific,” “specimen,” and “special” and related words like “speciality” and “especially.”

Three others merit special mention: “specious,” “species” and “specie.”

In Middle English, “specious” meant “fair, beautiful.” This notion of “pleasing to the sight” is considered obsolete.

Nowadays, “specious” is “seeming to be good, sound, correct, logical, etc. without really being so” or, in other words, “plausible but not genuine.”

Is anyone else thinking politics right now?

“Species” has a specific application in biology, the last main category of classification in a line that begins with kingdom (or, in some systems, superkingdom). We human beings are a species, for example.

In general usage, “species” can mean “a distinct kind; sort; variety; class.”

It can be pronounced SPEE-sheez or SPEE-seez, but whichever you choose, use the same one for one species and many species. It’s one of those unusual words that’s written and said the same in singular and plural.

Another is “series.”

The word “corps” also is spelled the same as singular and plural, but the “s” is sounded in the plural: singular, same as “core,” plural, same as “cores.”

Notice that in both cases, the “p” is silent. If you pronounce the “p,” you have “corpse,” which is a dead body.

In the phrase “esprit de corps,” for example, meaning “sense of pride, honor, etc. shared by those in the same group or undertaking,” it conjours up a different kind of spirit if the “corps” is pronounced “corpse.” And a different kind of undertaking, for that matter.

As for the word “specie,” sometimes mistaken for the singular of “species,” it actually refers to money, either “coin, as distinguished from paper money” or coin made of precious metal rather than base metal.

But wait, there’s more. That Latin ancestor “specere” also is at the root of many other words containing “spec,” including “aspect,” “circumspect,” “expect,” “inspect,” “introspective,” “perspective,” “prospect” and “respect.”

And I “suspect” there are more.

Barry Wood is a copy editor for the Rockford Register Star. Read the Wood on Words blog at