OK, you know refrain, obviously. As in refrain from doing that, meaning ‘restrain yourself from doing that’ or, in common use, ‘I’m asking you not to do that again’. And as in sing the refrain, meaning ‘sing the part that you sing over and over again’. Which therefore means that refrain from singing the refrain means ‘I’m asking you not to sing the part you sing again again’.
So wait. Is the re– in refrain as in ‘restrain’ the re– that means ‘hold back’ or ‘go back’ – and thus ‘double back’ – while the re– in refrain as in ‘repeat’ is the re– that means ‘do again’ – and thus ‘double up’?
Why, yes, that’s right.
So the re and re in refrain from the refrain cancel each other out and leave us with frain from frain.
We seem to experience life as a continuum, but when we remember it, it is often more like a series of moments, glances through a window, connecting to a sequence – sometimes a sequence that just repeats itself. Life flickers by in an incessant ring, turning and turning again: a zoetrope. Continue reading →
When They Found Out What These Words Are Supposed To Mean, He Was Bemused But She Was Nonplussed!
More often than we even tend to admit, we learn words by seeing them in context and figuring them out by what they look like they should mean, with an eye to what the context allows. This is how, for instance, internecine came to have a sense of ‘mutually destructive’: people saw inter and thought ‘between’, when in the original the inter was just an intensifier, sort of like how in English we can say through and through or up one side and down the other or right down or downright or…
But also more often than we like to admit, when we learn that a word has a traditional or original meaning that is different from how many people use it now, we like to use it as a weapon. See decimate for a sparkling example. “You idiot, don’t you know that decimate refers to a practice of killing one in ten? You use it like it means reducing to one tenth, you illiterate barbarian!”
I wouldn’t be surprised if you were bemused by the one and nonplussed by the other. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you were bemused by the one and nonplussed by the other. Continue reading →
O, how we are misled by appearances and strange attractions! We use a lodestone or follow a lodestar to lead us to the motherlode, but so often we find ourselves stuck in load-eye again, with loadstones and loadstars and motherloads. How can we load such ill-starred stones? But, you see, it is all because we see what we want to see. We see a difference just if we want to see one. Continue reading →
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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