Daily Archives: December 28, 2013


If you’re concerned about something, you may well want to have something to say about it. But before you can say something about it, you really should be able to give a detailed account or description of it. In order to do that, you need to be able to perceive it thoroughly. And in order to do that, you need to be able to perceive it at all.

Usually the order of things is thought to follow smoothly enough: first you notice it, then you see it in detail, then you are able to describe it, then you can give your opinion of it, good or bad. But sometimes it goes the other way: first you start by shouting about something, then you learn more and are able to give a detailed account of it, and then you pull back further and are just looking at it, and at length you find you are only just able to make it out… and maybe at the end it’s gone altogether.

Language can be like that. Decry, descrive, descry, scry…

And thereby hangs a tail. I mean a tale. A tale of two words that came from Old French, one descrier from des plus crier, making ‘cry out’; the other descrivre, cognate with describe and having the same meaning. Descrier became English descry, meaning first ‘cry out, proclaim’ and then ‘denounce’, but the alternate form decry has taken on that sense. Descrivre became English descrive, which got worn down a little bit and merged in form with descry, but by the time that had happened the sense had shifted from ‘describe’ to just ‘make out’ or ‘perceive’. And descry has been further worn down in occasional use to scry.

So it’s not just that one’s awareness of language in general tends to take the backwards route, from loud opinion to observation to having more and more trouble even making out the object. It’s also that certain words move in that direction, and this one most appositely so. At the end you’ll be squinting and craning your neck just to scry the word as it gets scrawnier… it the sort of thing that makes a person cry; it’s almost scary. But it’s a normal course for words.