Daily Archives: January 18, 2011


This word has quite the interesting dry sound, with its voiceless stops (two back, two front) and its four-beat rhythm stressing on the second syllable: perhaps mechanical, like an assembly line, the raw goods coming through conca and being formed by a stamping or bending machine into the final result tenate (the c’s pressed and formed to t’s – or to e’s with the t’s inserted; vowels inserted, removed, or reshaped); perhaps like a chain of tapdancers or stomp-dancers stamping a finale; or perhaps like the sputtering of someone with a mouthful of dry feathers – maybe Sylvester spitting and hacking as Tweety has escaped from his mouth (and left a little something behind as a lesson). He’ll never be the cat that ate the canary, but you can’t keep a cat from its innate disposition, not even with a chain.

Concatenate can’t avoid sounding like a technical word, but at the same time with a little tinge of taste of something out of whack or collapsing, discombobulated, perhaps (or maybe with a cry of “Suffering succotash!”) – a half-heard echo of catastrophe, plus the sense, like one gets with procrastinate, of being a useful long word for something that could of course always be said with a set of shorter words rather than a chain of morphemes.

And what are the morphemes? It’s Latin, of course, and you will know con: yes, “together” again. The ate ending is a verbal suffix, and a very common one in English; we still make new words with it on occasion, all to do with making something of something or changing something from one state to another or simply engaging in an activity of some sort (I leave it to you to meditate on examples to illuminate, such as your mind may prestidigitate when you cogitate). That leaves us with caten, which comes from Latin catena “chain” and can also be seen in the geometric term catenary, which names the graceful curve produced by a chain hanging from both ends.

So what are the shorter words we could use? Well, chain together would be one possibility. If you’re devoted to Anglo-Saxon roots, however, you’ll have to let chain fall; it, too, comes from catena. An alternative would be string together.

Concatenation is a useful thing. We use it a fair bit in English word derivations; it’s common in many languages, and some use it quite liberally (those long German words spring to mind, but agglutinating languages go even farther – meanwhile, isolating languages don’t use it for making new words). But it’s also useful in other areas. Concatenate happens to be one of my favourite commands in Microsoft Excel, for instance, because you can take sets of text in different categories (be they names and addresses or variable components of a URL) and string them together to coherent outputs. It’s saved me a lot of time from time to time.

But a difference between how we tend to think of concatenation and how real chains are actually made is the matter of overlapping. Chains work precisely because they overlap (though I suppose if you used glue to hold the parts together that wouldn’t technically be overlapping), while concatenation in Excel and in many other things is a matter of packing and sticking.

As it happens, concatenate has a bit of an aspect of overlapping: there is the a from catena and ate. And, of course, there are bits you can see in it that aren’t really source parts, just adventitious strings: cat overlapping with ate overlapping with ten (the cat ate ten what? Canaries? Ha – nary a one, not even the one on the catenary. But we do know he ate ’n’ ate. Maybe it was conch. Maybe it was just at a chain restaurant).

Watch your endings, genii!

A colleague just quoted from a website on which genie is pluralized as genii.

No, it’s not correct. Genie does derive ultimately from Latin genius (which can be pluralized as genii or as geniuses), but it came to us by way of French, and it’s an English word now, so it’s genies.

But this reminds me of a much larger issue that needs to be addressed: the idea – a rather common one, it seems to me – that there is a Latin plural ending -ii that should be applied to Latin-seeming (and some other foreign-seeming) words. I see it, for instance, when some people write virii instead of viruses.

To be as plain as possible: in Latin, -ii is not a plural ending. Ever. Nor is it one in English (unless this pseudoplural catches on, I guess…). In fact, I can’t think of a language in which it is a plural ending, though there might be one somewhere. Not English, though!

No doubt some of you are saying, “Hey! That’s wrong! What about genii for genius and radii for radius?” Continue reading