Category Archives: word sommelier

ill-starred disaster

Dear word sommelier: I just read the phrase “an ill-starred disaster.” That’s redundant, isn’t it?

Ah, this is a question not simply of linguistics and etymology but, as it happens, of one’s metaphysics and world-view as well.

As you evidently know, but others may not, disaster comes from dis “bad, ill, adverse” plus aster, from Latin astrum, from Greek ἄστρον astron, “star”; a disaster was originally not any old bad accident but specifically one attributed to a bad aspect of a star (although one could contend that pretty much any major mischance was, in the Europe of centuries past, typically attributed to a bad celestial influence; in case you’ve forgotten the extent to which the stars were thought to have a role in everything – not without input from human action, to be sure – go back and look at Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or perhaps read E.M.W. Tillyard’s excellent small book The Elizabethan World Picture; similar views were common throughout the continent). If you look in the OED’s entry on disaster, it suggests that you compare English ill-starred.

So, in origin, a disaster was by definition ill-starred, and vice-versa. But, now, tell me, is that how you use these terms and hear them today?

I could ask first whether you consider all disasters to be due to the operations of the stars. You very likely will say no, since you probably don’t hold so tightly to astrology and you must be honest and admit that disaster is today used to mean “calamity, catastrophe, cluster-f***, etc.” and not specifically “unfortunate occurrence due to adverse celestial effect”. Words often drift from their original meaning, as I mentioned yesterday in rile (see the comments too).

More loosely, since ill-starred could be said to be an allusive way of saying ill-fated, do you consider disasters all to be the operation of fate or acts of God? If you do, there may be a job waiting for you in the claims department of an insurance company. But you likely believe in human error as a cause of many a disaster, and in definable if unpredictable forces – plate tectonics, for instance – as the cause of many others. Given that, specification of a disaster as “ill-starred” would set it apart from disasters that had causes other than ineffable fate.

And you likewise may hold that things may be ill-starred without being disasters per se – for instance, Romeo and Juliet, being star-crossed lovers, were ill-starred, but not everyone would classify adolescent love suicides in the category “disasters” (“bad things”, yes, but disaster, travelling often nowadays with natural, tends to be thought of as involving mass destruction of real estate – or else a really bad outcome for a social event).

However, if you don’t believe in the existence of anything that anyone could in any way call “fate”, then is there still a distinction to be made? If you use ill-starred to mean “a thing that shouldn’t have happened but did”, which is pretty much the meaning available for those who hold no truck with fate or celestial influence, then isn’t a disaster automatically something you’d call ill-starred, like calling water wet?

One could make that argument, but one would risk overlooking all the other effects of lexical entries besides those of paraphrasable definitions. For instance, one might say that a disaster is automatically upsetting, and that dammit expresses being upset, and that therefore “This is a disaster, dammit” should be edited down to “This is a disaster.” Yet can you honestly say that there is no difference in what is expressed about the speaker’s attitude between one and the other?

In truth, even for those who don’t believe in fate or astrology, ill-starred brings an image of either a certain inevitability or a particular conjunction of adverse forces. It also, of course, has the flavour of ill, which can seem a bit green at the gills and which, along with being popular in youthful use lately (ever since the Beastie Boys, really), has rhymes with chill, kill, spill, etc., and a certain similarity to eww. And there is the flavour of star, which has an éclat, a flash and bang, or at least a little twinkle. Don’t miss those double letters in the spelling, either, sort of like the motion lines of a cartoon object entering a collision.

Disaster, for its part, has its own flavour, and although it has similarities with ill-starred (the s t r hint at the fact that aster and star are cognate way back), its sound has more in common with catastrophe (even though that’s not a cognate word). You also get a feel of blast, cast, disturb, and perhaps zaps – less likely sister and Zoroaster, which have resemblances in form but not in sense.

And don’t forget the different effect the length and rhythm of the phrase will have. “This is a disaster” is a simple declaration; “This is an ill-starred disaster” is much more epic and solemn, not only because it’s longer (and more rhythmic) but because it’s more literary-seeming. It says as much about the speaker as about what’s being spoken about. After all, how often do you even hear ill-starred these days? Surely you wouldn’t want to delete it when you actually do see it, would you? That would almost seem to be tempting fate…

key, crucial, pivotal

Dear word sommelier: Today @BloombergStyle tweeted, “Key is vague as a modifier. Adjectives such as crucial and pivotal are more precise.” My question is just, “What?”

A valid question. Why is key supposed to be vague? What would make crucial and pivotal more precise? Have I missed something somehow all these years of being a professional word person? Or am I encountering yet another hoary prejudice of which I have heretofore managed to remain innocent? Or what?

Certainly key seems more popular right now as a modifier, especially in business writing (and we know how many language sticklers have a hate-on for business English – not without some justification, assuredly). It’s a nice, short word, and it carries an image of a key that opens a door – perhaps a golden key, something of value, something shiny. You readily read of a key role, a key question, key players, key issues, key elements, key factors, and so on (I’m getting these frequent collocations from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The keystone is the most important stone, and when you “set the tone” for something you “set the key.” Plus it’s a short word, two sounds and three letters, an explosion of air from the tongue tight at the palate.

So it’s easy to see why key would be popular, and overuse can dilute effect; we also see it a lot in more workaday terms like keyword. But that doesn’t make the word itself imprecise; it just means that it is sometimes used imprecisely. One may as readily use crucial and pivotal imprecisely. Perhaps @BloombergStyle dislikes it in part because it’s in origin a noun, not a “proper” adjective. I’m also tempted to wonder whether its plain Anglo-Saxon source counts against it.

Crucial certainly seems more dramatic, and if greater drama is what you want then it will be more precise (but if it’s not then it won’t be). The mouth screws up tight and puckers out as you say it, the tongue crushing air against the palate, and you can almost express excruciation just with the sound and vocal gesture. Its sense comes from Latin crucem “cross” with the idea of being at a crossroads, a decision point: something that’s crucial is deciding. Nowadays we would probably view it more as meaning “absolutely necessary” – something you can’t do without, as opposed to being merely important. We may speak of a crucial role, a crucial question, a crucial part, a crucial point, a crucial moment, a crucial factor – notice more singulars than for key: this indicates that crucial signifies greater importance. Key things may be multiple; crucial ones are more likely to be singular.

Pivotal has a clearer image because its original reference is still plain in the word: pivot, a word we got from French and French got from we’re not entirely sure where. This is a tidier word, starting and ending with stops, and with a possibly ambisyllabic /v/ right in the middle – which, in written form, even looks like it could be a pivot. Something that is pivotal is clearly something on which everything turns: a pivotal role (seriously, role is the most common collocation for each of these words in the COCA), a pivotal moment, a pivotal point, a pivotal player, a pivotal figure. Again, singular: pivots always come one at a time.

So key may seem vaguer to @BloombergStyle, but that may just be because it indicates something important but not as important. But that’s not the same thing as vague. It’s not at all precise to say something was hot when it was just warm, for instance.

I wanted more feedback on this, so I asked some of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for their off-the-top-of-the-head evaluation of the differences between these three words, leaving the dictionary on the shelf. Here are some of their responses:

crucial: very very important all by itself.
key:  the most important of a bunch of important ones.
pivotal: similar to key, except the less important concepts surround it; “key” they seem more like they’re in a hierarchy.
—Rosemary Tanner

key = it matters; this is important but not necessarily as much as the following
crucial  = it matters especially, it is critical to (for example) something happening or not happening
pivotal = crucial/critical but using the image of the pivot point, it is the factor/concept/assertion/etc. that could cause a change in direction, taking this path over that path, etc.
—Laura Edlund

“Key” and “crucial” are the most synonymous – both meaning “essential” – but “pivotal” of course also implies a moment of change or a feature that changes the way the entire context can be understood.
—Aaron Dalton

Key: important, but could be one of many. A key concept, another key concept… A key piece of evidence is important, but you wouldn’t lose the case by mucking it up.
Crucial: stronger than key and bordering on unique. An entire case may rest on a crucial piece of evidence.
Pivotal: something that changes the game/situation/direction.
—Paul Cipywnyk

key – one of the most important items
crucial – not to be overlooked, above all others
pivotal – having a bearing on outcome, associated with desired results
—Carolyn Wilker

We see some general trends here, especially as regards the hierarchy of importance and the imagery of pivotal, but on the other hand there’s not complete agreement either. And these are highly literate people who work with words all the time. So consider the effect the choice will have on the average reader (who will most certainly not be looking at a dictionary either): probably a fairly impressionistic one, determined in part by prosodic and phonaesthetic factors and strongly by current patterns of use. (As I’ve said many times, words are known by the company they keep.) I’m not arguing against maintaining certain distinctions of sense, but always be aware of what your readers will be aware of.

And, now, is key less precise? Or is it just more often used imprecisely? It does seem a little milder in tone, but that’s a different matter. I’d say @BloombergStyle is a little off-key here, myself.

reticent, reluctant

Dear word sommelier: When should I use reticent and when reluctant?

I’m a little, um, hesitant to wade into one like this, because this gets to be one of those pedantics-versus-the-universe points. Not that there’s a whole lot of debate over reluctant, mind you – though there is a little specification of sense that some may stipulate. But reticent is one of those words that some people will use as a net to catch you with if you so much as offer a penny for their thoughts – or even if you don’t.

There is, of course, a difference in the feel of the words that will always have some effect, whether you’re a semantic stickler or not. They are similar-looking words, re____nt; one has tice where the other has lucta, both with a t and a c, so the difference in look is mainly i and e versus lu and a. The feel of the sound is more different. The rhythm, for starts, is a dactyl in reticent and an amphibrach in reluctant; ironically, the vowel in re is (or may be) “long” in the word where it’s unstressed but not in the word where it’s stressed. More to the heart of the matter, reticent stays on the tip of the tongue, a little more tentative and delicate with the /tɪs/; in reluctant the mouth is locked up with a clucking coarticulation after the lick: /lʌkt/.

There’s also the relative frequency of the words. Reticent is a much less commonly used word than reluctant. That makes it a pricier word – used when people want to sound more erudite, impressive, what have you. It’s also a newer word by a couple of centuries; it first showed up in the early 1800s, while reluctant has been around since the early 1600s.

Both come from Latin, naturally: the re at the beginning is the same, meaning “back” or similar things, and the [a/e]nt is a present participle ending. The root difference is in the occupant of the space for re____nt. In reluctant, it’s luctari, “fight”. Originally, to be reluctant was to actively resist something; there’s a verb, reluct, which doesn’t get used now, at least in part because now we view reluctance as more of a passive resistance or even simple hesitation. It might be as little as not truly believing you’ve lucked into something – for instance, if you’re reluctant to believe that the person calling telling you you’ve won a cruise vacation is on the up and up. I’d like to think the effect of the tongue backing away in the luc adds to that sense, but of course I have no data for that.

In reticent, on the other hand, the root is tacere “be silent” (compare French Tais-toi! “Shut up!”/”Be quiet!”). The original use, and the one still preferred by those who make it their business to prefer such things, is closer to “taciturn” than to “hesitant” or “resistant”: it means “disinclined to express personal thoughts and feelings; the opposite of loquacious”. It stands alone: “Herb was reticent.” (That’s a quote from MAD magazine. Yes it is.) But you may often see reticent used to mean, well, “reluctant” – the same sense of “reluctant” as we use today, often taking an infinitive complement: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.”

That last quote, by the way, comes from 1875. This usage, which undeniably uses it to mean what there’s already another word to mean, but with the added air of elevation, erudition, or plain misplaced prissiness, has been around much too long and is much too well established to eradicate. That doesn’t mean you have to use it, of course; you’re perfectly within your rights to reserve reticent for what you wish pedants would be. But if you are not reluctant to use it as a shiny substitute for “reluctant”, just be aware that there may be a semantic retiarius ready to cast a net of condemnation without so much as one red cent in payment for their liberally expressed conservatism.

Thanks to Stan Backs for suggesting reticent. A retiarius, by the way, is a gladiator who uses a net.

awesome, fantastic

Dear word sommelier: I’m at a friend’s place, and he’s made bobotie, and it’s really good. Should I say “This bobotie is awesome” or “This bobotie is fantastic”?

First of all, we must acknowledge that there is a certain set of people who will insist – quite vehemently – that neither is acceptable: that awesome can only mean “inspiring awe” and fantastic can only mean “characteristic of, or produced by, fantasy”. People of this set actually do have dictionaries, but if they look in them, they arrogate to themselves the right to declare the ones they disagree with (all of them, ultimately) wrong: only the “original” meaning of a word is correct, and by “original” they mean “etymological, as they understand it”. (In truth, awesome first meant “full of awe”, and only in the next century “inspiring awe”; the original term for that was awful, a word that picklepusses frequently use unreservedly in its much more modern meaning of “nasty”.)

But such people are among the most arrant fools in all of creation, and ought not to be heeded any more than one would heed an unknown petulant two-year-old’s admonitions. So let us proceed with reality. Reality does include the meanings mentioned above, to be sure, but it is not restricted to them.

The question you ask may reflect a shift in usage, though I’m not sure of it as yet. My friend Michelle remarked to me today that she had the sense that fantastic was overtaking awesome as a general adjective of enthusiastic approbation. This is quite difficult to assess objectively, as simple searches don’t sort semantically. In overall usage, fantastic has always been more common than awesome, but awesome is actually a newer word and has certainly increased in usage, reaching a soft peak around 1980 and holding fairly well since, if Google Ngrams are to be believed (and they do have their limitations!). A Google search for each does pick up twice as many hits for awesome, but wordcount.org places fantastic much farther up in the British National Corpus.

Awesome is the more bivalent of the words. It retains a more specific sense, and one may use it as such. When someone sings the hymn “How Great Thou Art” and pronounces “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,” there’s no risk of its being taken to be like saying “when I in totally wicked wonder” or “when I in way bitchen wonder” or something like that. But within the context of colloquial usage, it has a very clear air of youthful informality. It became so common and bleached in its peak (from which it has not subsided too much) that I used to think of this version of it as ossum, a sort of verbal marsupial hanging by its tail in the midst of the sentence. Which awesome is wanted can readily be specified by surrounding words and their tone: which would you take truly awesome to mean (I would take it to mean “awe-inspiring”)? How about totally awesome (“really good” for me)?

While awesome has had this bleached usage only since the late-mid 20th century, however, fantastic has been in similar broad service since at least the 1930s – which is still recent, given its existence as a word since the 1400s. But any use of it to mean anything other than “really good” now is very likely to have an air of quaintness. In the more cultured spheres, wherein dwell such people as know Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the sense of phantasm and fantasy is likely more present, and that large set of people who have see the musical The Fantasticks will have that charming tale (and its memorable tunes) imprinted in their minds, but hoi polloi will more likely think of a brand of spray-on cleaning solutions, Fantastik. (Observe the effects of the k with or without c, too, though.)

For either of the words, of course, usage on TV and in movies will have a strong effect, and we may assume those were prime vectors of the ascendancy of awesome for approbation. Fantastic likewise gets used by some notable personalities, and I can recall an ad from a few years ago for a lottery that paid $1000 a week for life in which  the protagonist exclaimed “Faaaaantastic!” on receiving each cheque.

And that takes us to the heart of the matter. The bleached sense of these words is fundamentally phatic, and relies strongly on expressive potential. Awesome allows the gaping “aw” to lead in, embodying an expression of awe, surprise, amazement, et cetera. It then closes off neatly with an unstressed second syllable. It works much better, rhythmically, with totally than fantastic does (try both and see what I mean). It’s a big, smooth, solid stroke.

Fantastic, on the other hand, has three syllables, the stressed one of which is the second – but the first may be stretched out and emphasized as well. Due to its rhythm, it is conducive to tmesis: you can slip in an expletive intensifier, as in fan-freaking-tastic, which is not done in a word such as awesome. So it is more flexible and extensible. Its sound is less full of round-mouthed amazement and more full of wide-mouthed joy, pride, or enthusiasm. It has voiceless stops and another fricative, giving it the éclat of fireworks.

Moreover, because fantastic is widely established as a simple term of strong approbation, it doesn’t carry with itself the air of “valley girl” or similar teen in-group-ness (of course it was an “in” term back in the ’30s, but that’s too far back to have influence now), and so there is less likely a sort of winkingness to its usage, at least currently.

In your case, given the rhythm of bobotie and of the sentence as a whole, I would incline towards fantastic. It also more likely carries a tone that is more ingenuous and sincere and less self-observing. It may seem a stronger term of approbation, mind you, and the shape of the mouth in awesome may seem more suited to a comestible, so you do have to go with your own immediate sense of the occasion. The truth of it is that usage in such matters is an art, not a science, and one may defensibly use either, for different taste sensations.

You will also, by the way, want to consider what term, if any, you will use for the blatjang that (I presume) has been served with the bobotie.

avarice, greed, cupidity

Dear word sommelier: I’m unsure whether what I want to describe is best called avarice, greed, or cupidity. Which should I use for what where and when?

Oh, heck, why have just one if you can have all three?

If you’re wondering about the semantic difference between the three, you’re not the only one. This question was discussed today on the Editors’ Association of Canada email list, and there were differing opinions about whether one or another was more or less money-specific. And while a dictionary might tell you some little difference like that – or actually more likely won’t be so obliging – what really matters is how the people who actually read or hear it, who are unlikely to be running every word through a dictionary, will perceive it. And we know that there are different views on that. In other words, never mind the label or the guidebook, let’s taste it and talk about food matching.

Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And they also gain flavour by other words and sound patterns that they bring to mind. So let’s swirl and sniff and sip and spit (or swallow) each one of these.

Greed is now the most common of the three by a fair measure, though if Google ngrams are to be believed it was not always thus (remember, though, that the Google ngrams search books, not popular usage in general). Its popularity gives it a certain commonness but also gives it more accretions. There are the pop culture references – “Greed is good,” as Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, and Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged also glorified greed; meanwhile, Han Solo blasted a slimeball named Greedo in a cantina on Tattooine – and it tends to show up with words such as corporate, human, personal, pure, sheer, and simple.

It has a taste of green, as in envy, and creed, as in a fixed statement of belief. And it has that growling, gripping /gr/ onset. Generally it is the most purely negatively toned of the three, Gekko and Rand notwithstanding. Interestingly, while greed tends to focus on financial and material acquisition, greedy, its related adjective, can also be used comfortably to refer to such things as eating. Just by the way, greed actually comes from greedy, not the other way around; greedy is itself a derivative form of a Germanic root for “hunger” or “greed”, however.

Avarice is less popular than it used to be – the word, I mean, not the thing, which is quite durable. It is found in more elevated texts – it is more erudite in tone, and seems a more expensive word. It’s like greed as practiced by “the right sort” of people – greed with a bowtie. It’s also one of the seven deadly sins. It comes from Latin avaritia, from avarus “greedy”, and it’s been used in English at least since Chaucer.

The feel of it may vary a bit from person to person – it makes me think of avaler, French for “swallow”; also avalanche, avenue, rara avis, avid, average, maybe aviatrix, and perhaps advice… Its adjective, avaricious, on the other hand, carries an air of vicious. Avarice seems comparatively open and airy in sound; certainly the mouth is much more open than for greed.

Cupidity, in the here and now, is one of those words that people probably feel a little twinge of pride in knowing, because it’s sufficiently uncommon. It’s a bit like avarice with a PhD. It keeps pricier company – words such as pudor and rapacity may be seen in the same sentence. Or maybe I’m only thinking of education because someone pointed out to me once, as we were walking by it, the cupid that is on top of the spire of The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, and I said it was a monument to cupidity (Harvard’s endowment is $26 billion. Yes, $26 billion). And, yes, that chubby little cherub shares a root with this word: Latin cupidus, “eagerly desirous”. It’s a little newer to our tongue, having arrived in the 1500s.

The taste of cupidity is conditioned by various odd echoes: stupidity, cube, cubic zirconium, cubit… It is a word with a cup that runneth over (and still wants to be refilled). And it may well have a tinge of sexual desire, not just from Cupid but from concupiscence (which might be practiced in combination with a cupidous concubine). But it is the crispest of the three words, chunky, blocky, or at least tapping; its four syllables have four stops, each with a vowel, while avarice has three syllables with fricatives and a liquid (and vowels before consonants), and greed has two stops, a liquid, and only one vowel.

So which to use? Consider the rhythm and the sounds of the sentence around; consider also the tone – how lofty or plain? How harsh or mitigated?

But certainly keep all three in your bank to use. Look, you can never have too many words at your disposal. And spending them is actually your best investment.

under the sea

Dear Word Sommelier: I was just watching The Little Mermaid and I was struck by the song “Under the Sea.” The sea is the water, right? All the creatures are in the water; only the sea bed is under it. So shouldn’t it be “in the sea”? Or is this one of those idiomatic things? If I wanted to write about the beauty of sea life, should I write about the colours in the sea or the colours under the sea?

Oh, prepositions are bedeviling. Which preposition goes with what is one of the least predictable things about any language. But I’m not going to wave this off with “It’s idiomatic” (which might be read as “It’s idiotic, Ma”). In this case you have two usable options, depending on your choice of schema for the sea: as container or voluminous body, or as surface with or without depth: without, like a boardwalk (“under the boardwalk, down by the sea”), or with, like a blanket of snow.

Under the sea uses the “surface” schema; it means below the surface of the sea, and – giving the sense that it’s a surface with depth – usually towards the bottom; the fact that it’s actually in the seawater doesn’t change the “under” relationship to the surface and to all the water on top of whatever is under the sea. Jules Verne’s book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is something that often hovers in the mind when one speaks of being under the sea, as does the Beatles’ “I’d like to be under the sea, in an octopus’s garden in the shade.” Another phrase that makes use of the same schema is beneath the sea – or, perhaps more commonly, as in “Octopus’s Garden,” beneath the waves (do remember that waves are more than just a pure surface phenomenon in reality). We must remember, too, the very common word and image underwater (and its counterpart underground).

In the sea, on the other hand, uses the “container” or “voluminous body” schema (that’s two different schemata, not two names for the same one). It presents an image of being in the water, surrounded by it or as part of it or using it as a medium. It can even involve being partly out of the sea (e.g., swimming, which you do not do “on the sea”).

There’s also the question of vantage point. If you’re looking at the colours in the sea, you’re most likely looking at them from outside, perhaps on a boat looking down into it. To see all the colours under the sea, you’d more likely have an undersea perspective yourself – if not in a submarine or scuba diving, then at least snorkeling or in a glass-bottom boat. Also, colours in the sea could imply or at least include the colours of the water itself, which colours under the sea would less likely do – though it might imply the colour of the light coming down through the water.

There’s also the phonaesthetic angle, which is a little fuzzier: under has that depth of sound, that hollow central vowel with the resonant nasal-stop /nd/ and the echo syllabic /r/, just like thunder (and also, of course, blunder, chunder, plunder, and wonder). Anyone who has had their head under water and heard hard things bonking together in the water (even if it’s just your shampoo bottle falling into the tub) will have some sense of that hollow sound. In, on the other hand, has a high front vowel into a simple nasal. It’s short, direct, less resonant, less capable of evocativeness. One might say it’s a jackknife dive to under’s cannonball, but it’s not really amenable to even that much flourish.

In a song like “Under the Sea,” of course, the rhythm is an important part of it. But for other uses, you may also want to consider the sound and the rhythm along with the image. Oh, and less-common usages tend to have a certain dearness compared to more-common ones… and under the sea is and (indications are) has always been somewhat less common than in the sea.

Just as a parting shot, ask yourself whether you would use under the ocean. I suspect most people would find it less idiomatic. Sea, an English word as long as there has been an English, has more native idioms and a greater literary accretion. Ocean is a loan from Greek (via Latin and French, arriving in English in the 13th century) and, like many such, is a little more technical and precise, and a little less flexible.

Thanks to Gael Spivak and several other editorial colleagues for input and inspiration.

Questions for the word sommelier are always welcome!

incessant & unceasing

Dear word sommelier: Is it better to speak of unceasing devotion or incessant devotion?

Well, I’d say that depends at least in part on how you feel about the devotion: is it commendable or annoying? It also depends to some extent on whether the devotion is continuous or continual. The two words are supposedly synonymous, but we shall see that they do have differences in flavour and usage patterns.

Incessant and unceasing are like long-lost twins separated at birth. Only they’re not quite identical anymore – they’re sort of like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins. Well, not quite, but they have elaborated differently from the same root. Both come from the Latin verb cessare “cease, stop”, which is in turn derived from cedere “yield, cede”. Both came to English by way of French. But in the case of unceasing, just the verb root was borrowed over and Anglicized as cease in the 14th century, and English affixes were added to make unceasing (also dating from the 14th century). In the case of incessant, the whole French word was borrowed over (with a change in pronunciation) – about 200 years later than cease showed up.

We can note the different sounds and feels of the two words: although both have a scissor-like quality, unceasing starts with the dull, mid-central “uh” vowel and has a “long” vowel peak (written with that more open-feeling ea), while incessant is higher and tighter from start to finish: in is more acute and perhaps pushier than un, the stressed vowel [ε] is a bit lower than the [i:]  in unceasing but tighter because shorter, and the following [s] may be thought of as longer (without actually being so) because it’s written doubled. As for echoes, unceasing has sounds of sea, sing, and seizing, while incessant is more likely to bring to mind such words as incense and necessity and perhaps insensitive.

Have those factors helped shape the current shades of meaning and usage of the two words? I can’t say. Actually, it would take a lot of work to come up with even a suggestion of an answer. But we can see what has shaped up. Words are known by the company they keep, and have a look at the kinds of words each one is likely to travel with: unceasing shows up with such as struggle, flow, activity, rain, wind, and demands; on the other hand, incessant shows up with demands, noise, rain, activity, wind… Whaddya mean they look the same?

Actually, while there are overlaps, the emphasis is indeed a little different. Something that is unceasing is typically continuous (like flow), and may be positively, negatively, or neutrally toned (it can be applied to kindness, as by Walter Scott, or a progression, as by Willa Cather, or care or change or toil, as by William Wordsworth). Something that is incessant may be continuous or may be iterative (repeating), and is usually at least slightly negatively toned (like noise; it can be applied to shocks or war, as by Wordsworth, or slashing, as by Sherwood Anderson, or weepings, as by Shakespeare, or pain, as by Christopher Marlowe, or uneasiness, as by H.G. Wells).

Consider, for instance, incessant visits versus unceasing visits. Neither is likely to be very positively toned, though unceasing visits could be; but also, incessant visits means the person is visiting, for instance, every day, without cease, while unceasing visits may mean that or may mean that the visits are of great duration, or both.

And so, too, unceasing devotion may be admirable (though it may be annoying), but it is certainly truly unceasing – as the affixes indicate, is doesn’t cease; it’s continuous. Incessant devotion, on the other hand, is much more likely to be annoying, and has the option of something that happens with great frequency (though that would be more likely with a plural: incessant devotions). It’s a little more removed from the clear literalness of cease because of its lesser resemblance.

For what it’s worth, incessant is also the more common of the two words; if Google Ngrams are to be trusted, it shows up about two and a half times as often as unceasing, and has done so pretty consistently for at least two centuries – although both words had a peak in the mid-1800s and have been subsiding ever since. But, yes, their use has not ceased – which is not to say it is incessant (which implies a very notable frequency).

At a guess, you probably want unceasing devotion – it’s the safer choice in that case anyway (but you can see that you may do better with incessant in some contexts). But there are many other cases where incessant would be the better choice.