Daily Archives: March 27, 2014

nictate, nictitate

What’s the difference between these two words? What dictates – or dictitates – the inclusion or exclusion of it?

You know, it – that intrusion, that blink in the middle of the word? It’s as though your eyes are seeing it as you are struggling to stay awake, and the sideways skipping saccades result in a double vision. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – you know how they say “Blink and you’ll miss it”? Well, perhaps in nictate you blinked and you missed it. And yet somehow, you’re still left with something intact, even if you don’t have something to tie it together.

I’ll give away the game: the two words are synonyms. But this isn’t an aluminum/aluminium or orient/orientate kind of thing; it’s not American/British. No, it’s just because there were two possible suffixes. The word comes from Latin, the verbal root being nict-; you can have the -are ending, a simple infinitive, or you can have the –itare ending, implying iteration: a frequentative… doing it over and over again.

So that would seem to mean the two words aren’t synonyms, right? Like, if you blink once, that’s not the same as fluttering your eyes, blinking repeatedly, right? And yet in modern English, both nictate and nictitate mean ‘wink, blink’ (but not ‘nod’). Well, experience says that if you blink once, you’ll probably blink again… and if your consciousness is going on the blink, after a series of blinks increasing in frequency you will end up with a blink that stops at the closed position, and consciousness will be a blank. Good nict, sleep tict!

Oh, yes, you do say it the way it’s spelled, and not like “nightate.” The nict is not related to night (which is a Germanic word, not Latin). But there is another word that it has fed into – one that refers to two parties winking at something together: com plus nictare somehow became connivere… which we have as connive.

Well, my two eyes are conniving to wink together, and that means sleep is heading my way. I am not like a Calabar angwantibo, either – the only primate to have a functioning nictating membrane (or should I say nictitating membrane), which is a third translucent eyelid under the regular two that allows a creature to wet the eye without closing out the light. Nope, my two eyelids per eye are intact, and nictating with increasing frequency. No need to intinct my eyes with any eye drops. A better tactic is simply to let the eyes drop and the lids fall as they may.