nugatory

This word leads off with the n-g pair that tend to mean something bad or sweet: negative, nag, niggle, and an assortment of racial epithets on one hand, but nougat and nog on the other. And then there’s nugget. It ends with that technical- or formal-sounding atory, a highbrow suffix used in fancy adjectives such as laudatory and hortatory and more common nouns such as laboratory and observatory. It must be conservative; it ends in tory. It doesn’t wag the jaw too much, just bouncing and sliding the tongue back and forth. But is it sweet or sour? Heavy or light? In fact, although it has nothing to do with nougat or nog, it does refer to a trifle – not the dessert, but simply a trifling matter, something of no significance, perhaps a futile effort. We get it from Latin nugari, “to trifle.” Still, its use is seldom so sweet. Perhaps by rub-off from the military jargon usage negatory (a flak-suited way to say “no”), it tends to get used as a little verbal grenade to lob at annoyances that aren’t as minor as one wishes to make them.

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