How would you describe a state of consternation? Is it when something just… throws you? Perhaps you’re even flattened by it? Or is that too strong?
I’m actually curious, because for me, a state of consternation is one where you’re, you know, concerned, but with more syllables. It’s like if you see an open flame near a table edge that might get knocked over and ignite something. It’s furrowed brows. Maybe pinching the bridge of your nose. Could be the sort of thing that makes you sneeze.
But no, I guess that would be consternutation (from Latin sternutatio, ‘sneezing’). According to the dictionaries I’ve checked, consternation is more than furrowed brows. It’s more than saying “Consarn it!” or other stern words. It’s like if the open flame has been knocked over and lit the drapes on fire and it’s spreading across the ceiling. It’s “amazement or dismay that hinders or throws into confusion” (Merriam-Webster), or “amazement or horror that confounds the faculties, and incapacitates for reflection; terror, combined with amazement” (Wiktionary), or “amazement and terror such as to prostrate one’s faculties” (Oxford English Dictionary). Or, per the OED or Wiktionary, “dismay.”
Well, yeah, dismay. I can get into that. But that’s maybe a different level than the whole incapacitation and prostration thing, no?
Well, now I’m in a state of consternation (the mild kind) over having thought of this word as meaning something that I experience on a more or less daily basis (what can I say? I’m easily piqued), as opposed to something that might damn well hospitalize me. But it’s clear that historically it did have that sense. Consider this line from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Such was the public consternation, when the barbarians were hourly expected at the gates of Rome.” I’m sure they weren’t just walking around staring at the pavement and mumbling “Oh, no, that’s not good, that’s just not done.” And yet that’s the sense I’ve always been used to it in. Maybe up to the level of someone writing a letter to the manager, y’know?
But if anyone’s going to know what the Original Generation version of consternation is, it’s the Romans. It’s taken from their word, after all. The Latin verb consternare, ‘affright, dismay’, traces to sterno, ‘I knock down, I flatten out, I stretch out, I spread, I scatter, I strew’. In fact, sterno is related, way back, to English strew. So if consternation leaves you feeling scattered or thrown for a loop, that’s entirely apposite.
I should say that sterno is not related to Sterno, the brand of canned jellied alcohol that is used for open flames in certain cooking applications. That brand name comes from the name of the company founder, Sternau. But I do think consternation can be related to Sterno… it’s just a question of whether the Sterno is near the table edge, or whether it’s already been knocked off and ignited the drapes. Can I spark some debate on this?
Last week, I quipped on Twitter, “Says something that English and French looked at a Latin word for ‘torture’ and the English used it for travelling and the French used it for working.” The next day, my editors at The Week emailed to ask if I had a topic for an article for them this week or next, and I said… hmm, yes! It hit the internet today:
This word belongs to that special class of words like monosyllabic that absolutely do not describe themselves. It may look like it’s a collection of cups (u o u n) spilling or running over (s s s) before your very eyes (e e), but if they have, what’s left in them is… exiguous. Which is to say, scanty. Meagre. Minimal. Crossed out, x.
Exiguousness does have a slightly briefer synonym, exiguity, but somehow that’s not quite as much fun, is it? They both come from exiguous, as I have implied. And exiguous is a word I am rather fond of. It’s fun to describe small things in large ways, like “a whole lot of not much.” There’s nothing wrong with being playful! There’s also nothing wrong with being expressive, and at least for me, exiguous has a sense of the exertion required in squeezing the last few drops out of a sponge.
Where did exiguous come from? Latin exigere, which also gave us exigent and exact. It meant ‘weigh strictly’ or ‘measure against a standard’. Now, of course, you can also weigh abundant things strictly, but you won’t get a baker’s dozen or a butcher’s pound (a butcher’s pound, by the way, is what a butcher will typically give you if you ask for a pound: a bit more than a pound – but the difference from a baker’s dozen is that they charge you for the extra). And to those of us who are used to getting more than we asked for, getting just exactly what we asked for can seem rather… skimpy.
But words are free, and even when they’re not, a long word costs no more than a short one. So luxuriate in the inexiguousness of this one. Nuff said.
On a map of our planet there are scarcely more than half a dozen great invious patches remaining, some at the polar edges, others splotched across the middle: Amazon, Sahara, perhaps Tibet. Slightly smaller but still formidable swaths number only in the few dozen. Well less than ten percent of the land on Earth is more than six straight kilometres from the nearest road.
Think of times when you have been in roadless places. How far in have you gone? An overnight hike the Rockies, perhaps? I did a few of those in my youth. You feel you could be in the dawn of days, surrounded by nothing but mountains, trees, birds, small animals, and traces of bigger beasts. But you are on a trail, and even on foot you are just a few hours from a main highway; climb a peak and you may see it. One time, on a day hike alone to Kindersley Ridge, on windswept scree above the trees, I could not find the trail to go on and then could not find it to go back, and I was as far from human company as I can remember ever feeling. And yet, while I frantically sought traces of human passage, as the crow flies I was all of about four kilometres from where my parents’ car was parked by the highway having its hatchback broken into and its gas siphoned.
Imagine being a hundred – two hundred, three hundred – kilometres from the nearest road. Imagine being on a road and coming to the end of it, and seeing ahead of you an expanse with no roads at all: desert sand, or tundra, or glacier, or mountain, all as invious as the undriven snow. What do you feel? Daunted? Or curious? Or envious?
The invious – the roadless, the places you can’t drive to, from via ‘road’ and -ous for an adjective and in- meaning ‘not’ (as in you can’t get in) – is both a threat and an invitation. It’s not that you can’t get places without taking the road; it’s just that it’s much more difficult. I have been bushwhacking through mountainside trees, scrambling up scrubby slopes, snowshoeing across open plains and frozen ponds, and no road or trail was required, but I less quickly got anywhere and more quickly got tired. But I went because I wanted to see.
There’s a term for footworn paths in grass from pavements to doors: desire lines. They show where we want to go. Paths, and then pavements, are the expression and enablement of desire. Where we can’t take our cars, or at least walk easily, we can still want to see, and we can be envious. So we add more roads. So much of the world as we know it is the world as seen from car windows. Our viae are our positional positivism, our empirical empire, determining what we see and how.
And away from them is the via negativa. It is not empty space; it is the space that can be filled with anything other than roads. As Max A.E. Rossberg writes for the European Wilderness Society, “the Earth’s surface is shattered by roads”; they interrupt ecosystems, introduce invasive species (notable among them being you and me), make it easier to take things away, and lead to the construction of still more roads. See this map, made by the Roadless Initiative, of global roadless areas, and this map representing the actual roads on the planet. Evidence of an overriding drive – but one that still meets the end of the road.
It is not that we can’t get to these invious places, of course. It’s just harder. Most of them are occupied – by plants and animals, but also by humans, though in low concentration and travelling by means other than motor vehicle. Feet, horses, dogs, airplanes, and – at the land edges – boats, all make travel across the invious regions possible. And most of that travel follows worn paths as well.
Roads are, in their way, the vocabulary of the world. In any language we divide up concepts in different ways, somewhat as roads divide up the land, though those boundaries are not always as hard as an interstate. And words help us to establish routes into areas of thought, and determine for us what we can see and keep in mind: just what stays in perspective from the car windows. There may be – there surely are – large areas that are lexically invious, without words to make inroads on them, and if we become aware of them we will be daunted or envious or both. If we once build a road, that will become how we think of the topic, and then we may build further roads off it, and further roads off those.
But if we build these new word roads, we will have to maintain them. The word invious has not seen much use of late, for example, so I’m refreshing the pavement. And at the same time, we need to remember that there will always be the unpaved places, the unbuilt lands where even paths disappear. They’re still there. And we can still go to them. But first, to find them, we need to take the via negativa: not this, not that. You can go off road with your vehicle, at risk of damage, or you can put on your hiking boots and find what has always been there, as other people have already seen.
Why is it, exactly, that we use a word for decay (and not tooth decay, but decay of civilizations) for delicious chocolate and other treats? I knew you were wondering, so I wrote about it in my latest article for The Week:
Any time I get to watch speed skating, I can’t help but notice two things: Dutch skaters are really good, and English-speaking announcers are really… challenged by Dutch names. So I decided to do a pronunciation tip that gives you a heads-up on some key details of Dutch pronunciation.
I don’t really need to explain the meaning and derivation of this word, do I?
“We’d like to invite you to… no longer live with us,” as the lady in the movie said. Or, on a smaller scale, “You are cordially invited to leave this party.” “Hope you enjoy no longer being around here!” And the classic line that the waiters at our annual Christmas party (back when I worked at a company) loved saying at midnight, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
Yes, just as out is the opposite of in, outvite is plainly the opposite of invite. Never mind that Word will change it to outvote every single time you type it (until you tell it to stop); it’s plainly a word, and an obvious one. (And anyway, you’re often outvited because you’ve been outvoted. There are a few politicians who know this. Many, in fact.)
Yes, yes, invite comes from Latin, invitare. So you might think that since Latin for “in” is in but Latin for “out” is ex, its opposite should be exvite. However, there are a few reasons this is not so.
First is that ex is not used everywhere; in many places, including prefixing consonants, it’s e, as in e pluribus unum(which means “out of many, one,” i.e., “there are many of us here, and one of you, get out”) and egress. Using this morpheme, the converse of invitare should be evitare.
Second is that evitare is a Latin verb, but it means ‘shun, avoid’ – a sort of self-outviting, you could say. It has survived in English, not as itself but as part of inevitable.
And third is that outvite is a perfectly cromulent word, so lay off.
There remains the question of whether outviting is brusque or diplomatic. Diplomacy, to borrow a line not from Churchill, is “the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they will look forward to the trip,” so it would seem apposite, but we know very well from experience that some outvitations are more on the order of ejections. There are a few websites that give definitions for this word, and their definitions disagree on this point, but none of the sites are the dictionaries of record (yet). So the currents of usage will have to sort it out over time.
And if you are outvited? Surrender to the inevitable – to quote the other classic line, “Don’t go away mad. Don’t go away sad. Just go away.”
Those icicles are sneaky things. You have to look up.
Specifically, you have to look up why it’s icicle and not icycle.
I mean, yeah, icicle looks sort of like an upside-down image of icicles hanging off eaves, but the y in icycle would actually hang down like one, right?
Well, anyway. We know why it seems like it might be icycle: it sounds just like bicycle without the b. But the thing about bicycle is that it comes from bi ‘two’ plus cycle, from Latin cyclus, from Greek κύκλος, ‘circle’. In English we use cycle to refer to something that is figuratively circular, but with bicycle, it’s taken a roundabout route back to (two) literal circles – what goes around comes around.
But icicles are not round (well, except in cross-section, maybe). They’re stabby.
So what’s this word icicle made of? Well, ice, for one thing – or, to look at it, kind of two things: ice plus ice, minus an e and plus an l. But if it’s ice plus icle (which in fact it is), what’s this icle?
Does it mean ‘little’ – like ‘little piece of ice’? As in versicle and fascicle and canticle, from the Latin diminutive suffix -iculus or -iculum or -icula, varying by gender? That would make sense, right? Sure, that’s from Latin and ice is a Germanic word. But that happens sometimes – consider gazebo, for instance.
But that’s not what’s happened here. No, the icle in icicle is also from a Germanic root. Icicle is from ice plus ickle.
Oh, right, ickle, meaning ‘little’, right? Formed from a baby-talk version of little? You see it in some British books. So ‘little ice’?
Nope. Ickle is fickle. This is the ickle that comes from Old English gicel (which was said about as we would say “yickel”), which comes from a Germanic root that also spawned Scandinavian words for ‘glacier’, such as Icelandic jökull. But a glacier is big, and an ickle is ickle. I mean little. Ickle means ‘piece of ice’ – or ‘icicle’.
So we find that icicle means ‘ice icicle’ – it’s redundant, like “watch out and careful.” It just came back around, full cycle. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!
A reader of Sesquiotica from India emailed me recently. He wanted to know the word for something. He recounted a recent experience a friend of his had:
He was visiting a famous hill resort near Poona and staying in an old and popular British-era hotel there. It so happened that once upon a time (say between 1950 and 70), a very famous Hindi film hero and his equally famous actress wife used to visit this hotel almost twice a month and stayed in a suite that was specially reserved for them. My friend is a fan of the couple, and has seen almost all of their films many times over. He knew about their suite in that hotel. (The hero is no more but his 90+ wife is still alive.) So while there, he casually asked the manager about the couple’s visits to that place. He was delighted beyond words when he was informed that the old actress was right then in the hotel, still occupying that old suite. He asked if he could meet her and pay his respects. The manager agreed to see what could be done. In less than half an hour my friend was ushered into that suite and introduced to the lady. Then she and my friend chatted for some time. He told her about his fondness for the couple and she talked about her husband. Then my friend took his leave.
This morning while travelling back to Poona (where he lives), my friend was greatly surprised to see a song video that I’d forwarded to him on Whatsapp late last night. It featured this very couple and it was a song from a 1950 film in which they had acted together. Now I had no knowledge of my friend’s visit to the old girl just a few hours earlier. I had got the video from someone and just forwarded it to him, as I knew he liked those two. Imagine his great surprise when he opened it and saw the same lady whom he had seen the previous night (though much changed in appearance and looks due to old age).
My reader’s friend – and my reader – wanted to know what the word for this sort of thing could be. If, that is, there was one.
Well, you’ve already seen it. That’s the downside of titling these posts after the word of the day: there are no dramatic reveals. Yes, it’s synchronicity.
Synchronicity! But this is mere coincidence, no? There’s no kind of actual thing happening behind the scenes? No causal principle? It’s only meaningful because it’s perceived as meaningful?
Yes, that’s what synchronicity is, as Carl Jung defined it. It’s acausal: one of the things does not cause the other, and the two things are not caused by a third thing. They happen to occur in a way that a given person perceives as meaningful, and because of that perception, they are meaningful.
Is it just the operation of random chance, then? Well, we don’t really know, do we? There are too many factors going on in the world at the same time to be able to track and trace all of them. And at any given time, countless things are happening and any pair of them could be seen as having some connection if you look at them from the right angle.
It’s like constellations: we see connect-the-dots patterns in stars and trace shapes over them, but stars that appear to us to be in straight lines may be at wildly varying differences in distance, and if you could shift the perspective even a few degrees, the pattern would be entirely different. And yet constellations, fortuitously matched to times of the year, have been (through astrology) assigned to variations in personal inclination that could be due to differences in diet or weather at the time of birth, or due to nothing other than confirmation bias.
Wave your hand and say “pfaugh” all you want. Smirk at people who draw cards or throw coins to get advice on their present or future states. Snicker at people who, needing something to move them forward in a decision, pull an important book off the shelf and open it at random and read what catches their eye. Maybe even giggle when someone tosses a coin to make a decision and, seeing the result, realizes that they really wanted to do the other thing. But do you deprecate writing prompts? You know, when someone, wanting to get rolling on writing a story, gets a sentence or image or idea and uses that as the basis for creation?
We are all wanting to tell the stories of our lives, and sometimes we have writer’s block and need something to get us going. And these little prompts help us to crystallize what we’re thinking, and to start telling the story we needed to tell. We see patterns, and we make them meaningful, and we use them to write our stories. As Schopenhauer put it in Parerga and Paralipomena (E.F.J. Payne’s translation), all events in life stand “in two fundamentally different kinds of connection”:
firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dream.
And, frankly, some patterns aren’t so hard to make meaningful. Sure, if you walk in the dark through your house and see a threatening figure which, after a moment, you realize is a coat rack, or if you look into clouds or mountains or a slice of toast and see a face, you know that this is because your mind by default tries to find faces and figures, and sometimes it gives false positives. But when you just happen to find an old movie star in the hotel you’re in, and then to get – by pure coincidence – a video of that star in her prime sent by a friend, why shouldn’t you wonder if someone is setting something up for you? Someone is – you are! And maybe not just you, though you don’t know for sure.
But look, while relying on such things all the time might be problematic, the right coincidence at the right moment can sometimes be very useful. Here’s a famous example from Carl Jung’s book Synchronicity:
A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.
It was an extraordinarily difficult case to treat, and up to the time of the dream little or no progress had been made. I should explain that the main reason for this was my patient’s animus, which was steeped in Cartesian philosophy and clung so rigidly to its own idea of reality that the efforts of three doctors—I was the third—had not been able to weaken it. Evidently something quite irrational was needed which was beyond my powers to produce. The dream alone was enough to disturb ever so slightly the rationalistic attitude of my patient. But when the “scarab” came flying in through the window in actual fact, her natural being could burst through the armor of her animus possession and the process of transformation could at last begin to move.
The patient – and Jung – was waiting for something. And here was a something.
So here’s to something. To making meaning where we find a way to make it. Life is fun. Let it be fun.
Patrick Neylan, Eeditor of business reports. Permanently angry about the abuse of English, maths and logic. Terms and conditions: by reading this blog you accept that all opinions expressed herein will henceforth be your opinions.
The Economist "Johnson" language blog
In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world