[U Texas :] Pokorny Etymon: 3. mē-, m-e-t- 'to measure'
Semantic Field: to Measure

[...]   Italic:   Latin:   mēnsa

[ Wiktionary : ]

  1. a table
  2. a table of food; meal, course, feast
  3. an altar (sacrificial table)
  4. vocative singular of mēnsa

2 reminds me of the semantic shift of the English 'meal', from this same PIE root to >repast or time for eating<. But what explains the semantic shift to 1 or 3?
Is it as direct and simple as the fact that tables were used by the Romans to eat?

  • Not sure if I understand the question, but I've been doing some research: the noun mensa matches the pasive participle of the verb metior (to meassure). That seems to confirm the idea of a link between both. (And may be the reason why scholars mention such a link).
    – Rafael
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 14:47

1 Answer 1


The entry for this word in the Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic languages (2008), by Michiel de Vaan, may provide some illumination.

De Vaan says that mensa has an Umbrian cognate mefa that is supposed to have the meaning "a certain sacrificial object, maybe cake".

As Rafael said in a comment, the derivation from the verb meaning 'measure', met(ior), is supposed to have occurred via a participle form. A sacrifice of food could be described fairly literally as "a thing measured out". De Vaan suggests that

In Latin, the meaning then shifted from the offering itself to the object on which the offerings were placed.

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