congeries

Picture a congress of conger eels, all heaped together – perhaps several juries of them, dozen by dozen, but all in a pile, writhing as they may. Or not. Actually, make it a pile of paper cutouts of eels. Or, for eels, substitute whatever it is that’s piled up on your table or desk right now. I can tell you that before my very eyes is a heap with subscription renewal notices, bills, a candy wrapper with contest info, a photocopy of instructions on core exercises, a few pieces of note paper with things noted on them, and who knows what else beneath (I’m not peeking right now) – a real congeries of papers.

Did I make you stop and say “wait” there at a congeries? Ah, yes, this singular word seems as though it has had an s tossed on the end for no particularly good reason, just to add to the heap. It’s a word, like kudos, that appears plural when it’s not. But kudos, at least, is a mass object. Congeries is a countable: if one pile of accumulated detritus or assorted objects is not enough, you can have two congeries, three congeries, and so on… indeed, this noun does not decline (heaps never do, now, do they?), not for the plural anyway. But it just happens that people always seem to observe one messy heap – one congeries – at a time. Fair enough! Being faced with a whole series could give a person rabies!

We can see, though, that a person can get used to a congeries (the one on my desk has some archeological value) and perhaps also to a congeries – after all, we allow a series without batting an eye. But where series comes from Latin series “chain” from serere “join, connect” (which also gives us, for instance, insert and assert), all nice and ordered, congeries comes from Latin congeries “heap, pile, collected mass” from congerere “carry together” – which also gives us congest: a surfeit of stuff. The pertinent morphology is nonetheless identical; in both cases, the ies ending in the Latin is two syllables, with the e being long, meaning that this word in the Classical Latin would be said somewhat like “con Gary Ace”. In Modern English, unsurprisingly, it has mutated to “con juries”, “con jeeries”, or “conjure ease”.

Words, of course, are not formed of letters heaped together in whatever order (they aren’t formed of letters at all; they’re formed of sounds and represented with letters) – if you were to grab from this word as though from a bowl of popcorn, the results could make you cringe, even if with proper scoring and a good singer, no matter what region you may be in; best to ignore until it cries gone. But a congeries of papers on your desk can’t be conjured away.

2 responses to “congeries

  1. Wilson Fowlie

    I’m glad you gave the pronunciation guide, because I was pronouncing it analogously to the way I pronounce the eel name: “Kong! Grr…” (Well, not necessarily with that inflection, but with those phonemes.)

    I was going to ask if I’m wrong about ‘conger’, but really, that’s what search engines are for.

  2. Pingback: abracadabra | Sesquiotica

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