sequelæ

In my word tasting note on malamanteau, I wrote, “that gives the benefit of a year’s perspective and the chance to see the sequelae.”

I imagine that might have caused a reader or two to squeal queasily, “Sequelae? Equals what, eh?” Well, the word does betray a certain acquaintance on my part with medical materials, as that’s where you’re most likely to see it.

But, now, can you guess, more or less, what I meant there, and what this word probably means if I speak of “a disease and its sequelae”?

What word does this word look most like? Sequel, of course. And that’s no non-sequitur; it follows the pattern because it follows. Sequelæ (note my extra-fancy use of the æ digraph) is just the plural of sequela, which is a word borrowed unaltered from Latin, while sequel is the same word passed through French and then anglicized. Not that they mean exactly the same thing now. Both have to do with following – sequela comes from sequi “follow” – but sequela was borrowed straight from Latin because it comes from a context in which Latin terminology persists: medicine.

So a sequela is a medical condition that results from a previous medical condition. And, from that, more generally, it’s a consequence. (Oo – note that word: consequence. What do you see in it? A sequ at the heart: con + sequence, and sequence also traces back to sequi.) So I could have said consequences rather than sequelae. But consequences is a common word, and it’s used enough to have acquired a certain stern-parent tone to it (plus the association with truth or consequences). Sequelæ is an uncommon word in most contexts, and so it has that polished gleam of a sharp new surgical instrument, one that you may not know the exact function of but that sure looks like it could do something and not make a mess of it. To the less-familiar reader, it has a more neutral tone; to the more-familiar reader, it gives a rather dry-wit comparison to diseases.

As an added bonus, it has that flash of a pensive moue that comes when saying a qu. It also has a certain uncertainty of pronunciation. I tend to want to say it as though it were ecclesiastical Latin, with the last two vowels as [e] (as in “lay”, roughly). But the great old British tradition of Latin pronunciation has flavoured the more official version of this word, so that those two vowels are both [i] (as in “machine”), making it like “squealy” with a catch between the first two consonants, or like “sick wheelie” (a stunt that may have its own sequelae).

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