Daily Archives: April 30, 2009


This word may look like a bad typo for elementary, but I beg you to be charitable. It’s true that the elee beginning is very odd to the English eye, and a “long e” in the syllable before the stressed syllable is certainly a rara avis. But it’s the mo that is stressed, and indeed in eleemosynary matters the important thing is always to give mo’. One might hope that this word’s prodigality of form will encourage prodigality of giving, and that the e‘s will inspire one to give with ease. Look on the y‘s as receptacles (they do resemble toll baskets, but that’s a different thing) into which to put the coins (o and e‘s). How did this word get its shape? Blame the Greeks: eleémosuné, “compassionateness,” is a derived form of eleos, “compassion.” The Romans borrowed that to eleemosyna (and that third e is long in the Latin, too!). It made its way through the grinding wheels of assorted western European languages, arriving in English by AD 1000 as ælmyssan and making its way, even further shaved down, to Modern English as alms. This economical four-letter word – a third of the letters and a sixth of the syllables found in eleemosynary – may seem to be in straitened circumstances through giving so much to charity, perhaps. But munificence sometimes calls for grandiloquence; largesse may demand largeness; and 17th-century writers, wanting an adjectival form relating to alms, felt that a return to the Latin would be, if not structurally elegant, then at least genteel. Nowadays, however, ostentation is not the mode, and if in eleemosynary you may find meals for others, it is good form to share the letters, even if you are left with nary a one for yourself.