Daily Archives: December 13, 2011


The first thing to note about this word is that it is not biphosphonate. That opening syllable is bis, as in “again” in Latin. And what comes again? In this word, spho – not a real morpheme, but just a coincidental sequence. If bis repetitia non placent (repetitions don’t please), one might subject it to haplology and kill one spho to make bisphonate, which, ironically, would seem to mean “sounded twice” or “spoken twice”, as long as we allow the Latin bis to wed with the Greek phone without thinking it phony (a more classical Latin formation would use bi in place of bis, but that’s not our bis-ness here). We have to watch that our derivation is from ϕωνή phóné, “voice”, rather than ϕόνος phonos, “murder”, though… we wouldn’t want to kill it twice (if we killed both sphos we would end up with binate, which would seem to mean “born twice”, even more ironically, and where would we go from there?).

This is a formal-looking word, suited to a bishop, posh, neat. It has many flavours peeking from its orthography: hints of shop, hops, pose, phone, hosp(ital), p(r)onate, tea, and a big bite enclosing a heart set on Sappho (with a spare h). And for those who seek bliss from phonetics, that pair of paired fricatives /sf/ and /sf/ make a sufficient bed as soft as sphagnum moss between the headboard of /b/ and the foot at /neIt/. This is a word with no bones in the heart of it.

It is also a word for something that works on the hearts of bones. Bisphosphonates are a class of drugs used to prevent bone loss. They are used to treat people with osteoporosis; they reduce the risk of bone fracture. How much they reduce it by depends on the specific drug, the fracture site, whether you’ve had a fracture before, and whether you figure by absolute risk or relative risk: they may claim as much as a 45% relative risk reduction but with a 2% absolute risk reduction. I’ll explain the difference. Say you had 100 people with osteoporosis, and without treatment 4 would get a certain fracture, and with the drug 2 would get a fracture. In such a case, the drug cuts the fracture rate in half, from 4 to 2 – a 50% relative risk reduction – but in absolute terms it reduces the risk by only 2%, and you would on average need to treat 50 people for just one to get any benefit. But the problem is you don’t know which one, so you treat all 50. And more than one of them will get the side effects.

If you think you get a taste of phosphorus from this word, you are right. Bisphosphonates are so named because they have tandem phosphonates, and a phosphonate is an assembly of a phosphorus atom, three oxygen atoms, and some other stuff. Binding the two phosphonates is a carbon atom, and also hanging off that are a couple of other chains of stuff; it’s those other chains that differentiate between the different bisphosphonates, just as if along with bisphosphonate we had some other words like trisphosphonation and tetrakisphosphonetics. (Of course we don’t; that’s just philosophical phonetics.) Bisphosphonates work like decoys – when enzymes come along to break down the bones (bones are constantly being broken down and replaced, and the problem is when the rates differ), they step in for the enzymes’ usual dancing partners and keep them from doing anything. It sounds a bit like a seductress in a spy novel stopping an assassin. Perhaps James Bond… I won’t say you only live twice, but a new lease on life is a step in that direction. For the 2% who benefit.


It’s Messiah season again, which means the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir owns my evenings for the next week. Tonight was the rehearsal with choir and orchestra (tomorrow we do it with the soloists as well) and, of course, the conductor – Nicholas Kraemer this time. It will be good.

During the chorus “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” Maestro Kraemer pointed out that the long note on “our” in “he was bruised for our iniquities” was resulting in loss of precision on the following word so he couldn’t quite hear the quit. Well, there it is: sometimes we don’t know when to quit.

Is that a fair perspective on iniquity as well – not knowing when, where, and whether to quit? Deadly sins have a way of being normal things taken to excess: gluttony is simply eating too much food, greed is just wanting too much, lust is letting one’s attractions go a bit far, and so on. So is unquittingness in the propinquity? Not quite, though there is something to it.

Iniquity is often associated with elastic morals – I might more readily say with liquid morals, with a deliquescence of morals (caused by moral turpentine?), or perhaps even a deliquium of the conscience. It is also associated with archaism – that is to say, it shows up in old texts, and in texts that wish to call forth an old and formal style with strong Biblical overtones. In modern English its most common collocation is den of iniquity, and we know what that is: to quote Star Wars, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” – especially of those things considered grave moral transgressions, such as drinking, gambling, and fornication, and perhaps just incidentally theft and so on.

We see a particular eye on the most delectable kind of flagrante delicto in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: “A blessing on the righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madame Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!” We see it in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: “as the old woman shared in the profits arising from the iniquity of her daughter, she encouraged and protected her in it to the utmost of her power.” Oh, those three i’s in iniquity – are they candles on the dresser, are they the torches of the morally offended coming to smoke out the offenders? Or just the all-peeping eyes of the moral judges?

But concupiscence, favoured object of scorn for the gossips, is not the sole or original form of iniquity. (Nor is drug use or alcoholism, though both seem implied in many modern uses of den of iniquity.) Certainly we see theft and similar villainy covered by it; a good example is from Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering: “Glossin, though a bold and hardy man, felt his heart throb and his knees knock together, when he prepared to enter this den of secret iniquity, in order to hold conference with a felon, whom he justly accounted one of the most desperate and depraved of men.”

If we look back to the Bible (the King James Version, of course; we no longer use the word iniquity much, so it would be an odd choice for a modern translation), we see it used in many places as a general word for sin, for breaking the commandments of God, but if we are to find a specific kind of sin, then it is of the sort indicated in Psalm 53: “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And call not upon God?” Yes, people who devour others, who have no care for others, who show no mercy and give no justice.

What is justice? Equity. Fairness. Indeed, not grabbing all you can. So iniquity is inequity? Well, I can tell you that inequity is just a more recent reflex of iniquity. The Latin root is æquus “even, just, fair”; from it we get equal and equity. In Latin the negative of æquus was iniquus, and from that came iniquitas, whence iniquity. But though we’ve had iniquity in the language since the 1300s, its meaning shifted enough towards sin and moral transgressions in general that it was not functioning so well for “lack of fairness”. So by the 1600s we had inequity as well, formed in English from equity.

Which ought to remind us that harm to others is a very important factor in this, and lack of concern for others – and glorification of grabbing all you can – is surely much higher on the list of iniquities than grabbing a bit on the side, as Hester Prynne was labelled for doing. The greatest modern dens of iniquity, in truth, tend to be boardrooms and corner offices at the tops of financial district towers, and the computer desks where they trade in equities.