The Grammarphobia Blog

What is a derivative derived from?

Q: I need a one-word option if it exists for the thing from which a derivative is derived. Any ideas?

A: Is there a word for the underlying asset that a “derivative” derives from? The answer seems to be no. But we might suggest one. 

Let’s start with a little history. The verb “derive” was first recorded in English in the late 1300s, adopted from a Middle French word (deriver) that came from Latin (derivare).

The Latin roots of “derive” are de, a prefix that means “from,” and rivus, a word that means “stream” or “brook.” The Latin rivus is also the source of our word “rivulet” (but not “river,” which comes from riparia). 

The ultimate meaning of “derive” is to divert or draw off water or another liquid from its source.

But from the beginning, “derive” and its cousins – the noun “derivation” and the adjective and noun “derivative,” all of which followed in the 1400s – have been used more or less figuratively in English.

The figurative uses generally have nothing to do with water, and everything to do with drawing something from or tracing it to a source.

The financial sense of the noun “derivative” was first recorded in 1985, according to published references in the OED.

The OED defines it as “an arrangement or instrument (such as a future, option, or warrant) whose value derives from and is dependent upon the value of an underlying variable asset, such as a commodity, currency, or security.”

If we were feeling inventive, what might we call this underlying asset? Since the “de” in “derivative” means “from,” why not just delete the prefix? That would give us as the source “rivative.”

Or we could go back to the classical root of “rivative,” the Latin word for “stream” or “brook.” That would give us “rivus,” a fitting image for the source of something. 

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