Monthly Archives: October 2013

elute

“For every problem,” Maury said, raising his glass, “there is a solution.”

“Of, in this case, twelve percent ethanol,” I said. I was examining the bottle from which Maury had filled his glass. I did not recognize the winery. The label had a convoluted, tie-dyed-looking design. “Where did you get this?”

“A loot bag,” Maury said. “Some conference thing.” He swirled the wine and sniffed for a moment and winced slightly.

“When was the last conference you went to?” The label was cagey about the exact year the wine was made.

“Er… a few years ago. I happened on this while cleaning out a closet.” He held it up to the light. It appeared opaque.

“That’s pretty dark, even for Zinfandel.”

“Even for Coca-Cola.”

“I wonder if it could elute the rust from a nail.” Coke can supposedly do that – elute means ‘remove by dissolution’: something is adsorbed (coated) onto something else, an a solvent picks it up and takes it away, or else binds better to the surface and displaces it. From Latin e ‘away’ and luere, combining form of lavere ‘wash’.

“Well…” Maury shrugged. He took a large sip from the glass. For a split second he attempted to swish it in his mouth, but reflex took over and he did a perfect spit take: he blew an aerosol of the wine all over the front of his refrigerator. I stepped back automatically, but by good luck I was out of the spray cone anyway.

“Aghl,” Maury said as he emptied his glass into the sink and filled it with water. He swished some water in his mouth and spat it into the sink. And again. He turned to me. “I think that would elute the enamel from my teeth.”

“Which conference was it you got this at?”

“Um… that eludes me. It doesn’t seem to have been an elite event.”

“Well. You found a bottle of wine. At first you were elated, but you turn out to have been deluded.” I turned to look at his fridge. “And your refrigerator… may soon be denuded.” The wine, as it dripped down the front, appeared to be making streaks in the paint.

“Good grief, it is eluting enamel,” Maury said. He leaned closer to look, then grabbed a paper towel and started to wipe, which almost seemed to aggravate the damage.

“And epoxy,” I said. “Appliance paint.”

I looked at the effect on the fridge for a moment, then reached over and held up the wine bottle. “I think I know where they got their label design.”

“Cork that and set it someplace safe,” Maury said, still wiping. “I’m going to keep it. I’m all out of drain clearing fluid. …What, by the way, were the tasting notes on the back of the bottle?”

I looked at the bottle. A drip from Maury’s pouring of it had made its way down across the back label and obliterated the centre of it. I held it out to him. “I’m afraid it elutes description.”

Why motherese?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on motherese, a.k.a. infant-directed speech, a.k.a. baby talk. Specifically, does it do any good? I mean aside from making the person speaking that way feel all parental and letting them project childish enthusiasm. If that’s any good. Find out what research says… and what I think:

What’s the point of baby talk?

peroration, perorate

I’m sure you have on some occasion experienced a persistent oratorical perambulation, some pertinacious, pervicacious, perhaps puerile or even purulent rotation of irate or Ruritanian hortatory, horologically imperious: a proration of perhaps a picomole of pure rationality over an hour’s duration, an operation impressing an over-important prerogative…

Somehow, this word has always had a feel for me of a quasi-aimless wandering over a broad deserted area, like an ant on a church pew that you’re watching while the person in the pulpit drones on and on… Or, of course, of an extended rant, what with the repeated /r/ sound that echoes what is often used to represent ranting or crowd noise, “rawrawrawrawr.” The word may start crisp with the pop of the /p/, but after that it just drones, with a little “sh” in it that fails to silence it.

The form seems even to suggest that to perorate is to make peror, whatever that is (not superior, that’s for sure). But actually, as you have likely spotted, it’s per + oration. The per in this case is the one that means ‘through, thoroughly, to the end, complete’; in Latin a peroratio was the summation of a speech, but in English it’s a speech that Just. Won’t. Stop. It can be a strongly persuasive one, but when you perorate, you are the president of the not-shut-up club. It might almost seem to be a shortened version of hyperoration, but it’s not – and why would anyone shorten a word for that?

Needless to say, these words have filled a space in English for a long time: peroration since the 1400s and perorate since at least the 1600s. They’re not common now, but they certainly have value, in particular in politics. But I would rather forget politics, which lately is going to the dogs; I’d prefer to go to the cats, and wrap myself up in a purr oration.

lysis

This word is easy to break down; indeed, when you break down many other words, this is part of what you get. It comes from Greek λύσις lusis (noun) ‘loosening, parting’ and refers to breakdown, dissolution, degeneration. Thus we get Lysol, which was originally an oil that dissolves or breaks down things: a solution of coal tar oil in soap.

By itsef lysis is pronounced “lie-sis,” but at as soon as you put it at the end of a longer word, it gets compacted: the usual habit with Greek-derived words is to put the stress on the antepenult (the third-last syllable), so you get electrolysis, glycolysis, autolysis, et cetera, all with the lysis as [ləsɪs] or [lɨsɪs]. And of course the same goes for catalysis, dialysis, and the best-known of the bunch, analysis.

Now, the next thing you’re probably wondering is, “If lysis means ‘break down’, does analysis mean ‘busting your ass’?” Ah, well, it’s not really anal + lysis; the first part is ana, meaning ‘back, again’ – so analysis is breaking something back down. Possibly your resistance, or your patience, self-respect, or fortitude, depending on where and when the analysis is being done and by whom. It could involve busting your ass. But it still doesn’t come from that.

Likewise, dialysis does not mean destroying clocks, soap, or other dial things. And catalysis will not lead to a reduction in the number of available lives for a given cat. Or, well, it may, depending on what is being catalyzed (note the z spelling in the verb, here as in some others; the Brits have generally kept it at s throughout, but oh the Americans and their z’s), but not for etymological reasons. Those would be what linguists call reanalysis… a kind of double-back breakdown. In the search for a solution, the sense is dissolved.

One thing that can be broken down is bellicosity – and armies in general. Take the word for ‘army’, στρατός stratos (as seen in such words as strategy – but not stratosphere, which comes from Latin stratus ‘layer’), put it together with lysis, make it a feminine Greek name, and you have Λυσιστράτη, Romanized as Lysistrata: the Aristophanic heroine who organized women to end the war by withholding sex. The plot of the play does not bear up well under analysis, but it’s a comedy, for heaven’s sake. And anyway, never mind the play: the name of the heroine hasn’t borne up well either. It was pronounced in Classical Greek something like “loo-see-stra-tee,” but it has managed to have the vowels shifted – and, in a fortunately now out-of-fashion version of the pronunciation, even to have the stress altered to match a Procrustean antepenultimate stress: “lie-sis-tra-ta.” Yeccch. Which just goes to show that you can destroy something not only without breaking it down but in fact because you haven’t broken it down.

combine

Today I am tasting the noun combine, not the verb combine. You can hear the difference, right? As with many similar words that have noun and verb forms, the verb puts the stress on the last syllable, the noun on the first.

The noun combine isn’t all that familiar for many people; they may see combination or combo quite a lot, or (depending on where they are) combi or combie, but combine shows up mainly in farm country and legal country.

Farm country, as it happens, is what I was driving through on my way from Toronto to Collingwood on Saturday. We were making good time, almost to Collingwood, when we found ourselves stuck behind what at first appeared to be a funeral procession: a long line of cars moving at 20 to 30 km/h. Once we were on a stretch straight enough, we could see the cause: a large tractor hauling a large combine harvester. I mean large. It took up a lane and a half, even with its various parts swung up. So we cars had formed an involuntary combine in the trail of a cumbersome combine.

Combine was first a verb, coming from Latin for ‘yoke together’ or ‘join by two’. The oldest noun sense of combine is ‘combination’ but more particularly ‘conspiracy, plot’; that sense is not used anymore. But a closely related sense, of a joint effort by various persons to further their financial or political interests (often anti-competitive collusion), is current, and you can see it in occasional legal use. For instance, in 1986 in Canada the Competition Act replaced the Combines Investigation Act. I recall seeing that legal use of combines in my youth and having a mental image of investigating harvesters.

I grew up in rural and small-town southern Alberta, so of course the noun combine was familiar to me. It’s a machine that combs the wheat in the front, binds the straw and dumps bales off the back, and blows the grain out the side into a truck. Pretty nifty. The first combine harvester, it turns out, was invented in 1834. They’ve gotten bigger and more sophisticated in the intervening years, naturally. And they’re quite a valuable thing for a farmer. Which is an important fact in the amusing song by The Wurzels, “Combine Harvester”: “I’ve got a brand-new combine ’arvester, an’ I’ll give you the key…” (also a nice example of southwest England dialect, if you take the time to listen to the whole thing).

The word has a variety of tastes and overtones: comb and bind, of course, and combustion and many other words that have an elbow at mb (from camber to cumbersome and beyond, and in particular columbine), as well as carbine and perhaps carabiner. It uses all three key locations in the mouth: the back of the tongue [k], the lips [mb], and the tip of the tongue [n]; it uses all three kinds of stops we have in English: voiceless [k], voiced [b], and nasal [m] and [n].

All of which was suitable fodder for thought as we drove in that slow line behind the combine from Singhampton until it turned at Duntroon. That and the combinatorics of cars: How many different ways could the 20 cars in line be arranged? And, incidentally, how much food would be left when we finally got to the family Thanksgiving face-stuffing?

kempt

Well, we all know what unkempt is, right? All messy, shirt untucked, hair to and fro – not well-kept-up. And we know that unkempt is one of those odd negative words that don’t have a positive version, so it’s always funny to say kempt because you’re using a word that’s not a word because English is kinda unkempt in that it has words like dishevelled and discombobulated and disgruntled that don’t have positives.

But of course there is a word kempt. It’s just not used much. Especially not in its original sense.

You’d have to comb a dictionary for it, but if you look you’ll see that kempt is the past tense of a verb. Now, we know that kept is the past tense of keep. But there is no keemp. No, this is more in the line of dreamt. The present tense verb – no longer used now except in some dialects – is kemb.

And what is kemb? It’s a verb that has been supplanted by a related verbed noun. Kembing is something you do with something. That something you do it with – also from the same original root – is a comb.

So yes, you kemb your hair with a comb, and if you have done so, it is kempt. But kemb gained extended senses – ‘make smooth or elegant’ (OED), for one. So something that is kempt is something that is well presentable. And something that is unkempt is… not.

(Kemb is – was – also used to refer specifically to combing wool. And a woman who did this as her line of work was a kempster. Which looks to modern eyes like a word for someone who, by being tidy and kempt and so on, is a sort of opposite of a hipster.)

Here’s one more thing to think about: How kempt is your pronunciation? And how kempt do you even want it to be? When you say kempt – or unkempt – do you really say the [p]? It’s easily inserted between the [m] and the [t], since it has the place of the former (lips) and the voicing and manner of the latter (voiceless stop). But it is also easily dropped. And when you say unkempt, do you really say [n] before the [k]? Place assimilation often draws it towards the [k] so it becomes a [ŋ]. And the preceding vowel is nasalized and sounds the same regardless of where the next consonant is, so you may not even notice the difference.

Or at least not until you hear it said overly scrupulously. Record yourself saying unkempt normally in a casual environment. Then record yourself saying it precisely, with the n as [n] and the [p] present. That sure does sound more precise and kempt, doesn’t it? But I bet it doesn’t put you at ease. It’s possible to be too kempt.

dewildered, smartfounded

Today, watching Toronto city council in action and live-tweeting it, @cityslikr tweeted, “Crowdsource: We need a word that describes being surprised but not being at all surprised. Anyone? Everyone?”

Several people made suggestions, most of them portmanteau words and the remainder based on humorous reanalyses. My first effort was subprised, which I wasn’t altogether satisfied with. Surprise is actually formed from Latin parts meaning ‘overtake’; replace the sur with sub and you get parts meaning ‘undertake’ – but in this case the sense seems really more like ‘underwhelmed’. But that’s not what @cityslikr had in mind.

I knew just what was intended. I’m sure you know too. The city hall instance that provoked the question was not likely a pleasant surprise, but the same word could serve equally well for a pleasant one. I think of the time when a very capable, intelligent, calm, steady, and devout young woman who had been one of the leading lights in the production department where I work (she programmed websites) announced she was resigning to pursue a life as a nun. It was (for me) quite unexpected, and yet at the same time it made perfect sense for her. It was not astonishing at all, simply unforeseen and rather momentous. (She is, incidentally, progressing well in her path to her chosen vocation. It happens that convents need webmasters too, for one thing.)

One suggested word that seems to have gotten at least a little traction was from @squideye: mehbergasted, a blend of flabbergasted with meh. But to my mind the not-at-all-surprised part is not necessarily a “meh” – that’s a dismissal born of disinterest and uninterest and boredom. I think what we need here is more in the line of a “Well, whaddya know… of course.” Or, for Toronto city council, perhaps “Good grief! And of course. Sigh.”

One I particularly liked was from @MayorNPhillips (an account named after a now-deceased mayor after whom the plaza in front of Toronto city hall is named): dewildered. A lovely construction: a simple change of articulation from lips to tongue in the opening consonant, and a flipping of the letter b to d, and the engaging be becomes the disengaging de. The wilder is the same one as in wilderness; if you are bewildered you are left in the wilds – a landlubberish version of all at sea. Dewildered would be expected to be a reversal of that, which is certainly not what is intended; this is not an anagnorisis or de-astonishment. But it still has a certain nice something to it. And clever words often go elsewhere than expected.

I made a second effort that I like better than my first: smartfounded. This is patently jokey; the dumb in dumbfounded refers to muteness, not unintelligence. That word is actually already a portmanteau word – it grafts dumb onto confounded. This replacement of that part with another plays a false reversal and at the same time has smart that can signify the awareness, the not-at-all-surprisedness.

None of these is quite perfect, though. In earlier times, of course, some confection of Greek and/or Latin parts would have been made, perhaps something like the breathtaking ugly triskaidekaphobia (‘three and ten fear’ for a phobia focusing on the number 13). One possibility here would be something like isoecstasis. But that is not a fun word, nor, at present, anything other than an opaque tangle of letters for most people.

I think this question needs more thought. And suggestions.