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When opposites don’t attract. February 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Hasty disclaimer: This post is about language, not relationship issues.

Our friend Ben is a wordaholic, so when there’s something unusual about a word (such as the three “u”s in “unusual”), it tends to attract my attention. One thing about words that I’ve given some thought to is word pairs that happen when a positive word is given an opposite and negative meaning by adding a negative prefix, such as de-, dis-, un-, anti-, mal-, in-, mis-, and the like. (Think of deconstruct/construct, disinclined/inclined, uncomfortable/comfortable, antimatter/matter, malcontent/content, inhospitable/hospitable, mispronounce/pronounce.)

Language being what it is, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes pairs are made by adding both negative and positive prefixes to a root. Some that come to mind are malevolent/benevolent, destructive/constructive, antipathy/sympathy (or empathy), dissolution/resolution. And sometimes, the negative opposite can lose its negative connotation: incredible and unbelievable can be used as exclamations of approval or amazement, or as the opposites of credible and believable. And inflammable and flammable, by an unfortunate fluke (“inflammable” actually derives from “inflame”), actually mean the same thing, that something burns easily. 

But the point of today’s post is those orphaned words that have, as our language evolved, lost their opposite numbers. Our friend Ben learned this lesson the hard way because of the phrase “inclement weather.” I had read this all my life, and assumed it was a unique expression for bad weather. I had never actually heard it, so, like many words I’d only read but hadn’t realized I’d never heard because I sounded them in my head, I mispronounced it: inkle-ment. It was only when someone finally took me to task for this that I realized that this word was the opposite of clement, good, since I had never heard or read of anyone referring to “clement weather.”

Here are some other orphans that have lost their opposites:

Detestable: Nasty, hateful, yucky. But whatever happened to “testable”?

Derivative: Eeewww, you’re pretty much just copying somebody else’s stuff, you pathetic little worm. But as far as I know, there’s no “rivative” applying to original thought, inventions, or discoveries.

Anarchy: The promotion of chaos. But somehow “archy” has been lost as its opposite. We retain hierarchy for a rigidly structured system, but since that has its own negative connotations, it’s hardly the opposite of anarchy. And other “-archies” like monarchy, patriarchy, and matriarchy are too limited to oppose it.

Indisposed: Oh, sorry, she’s indisposed. But when did you last hear that someone was disposed, in the connotation of feeling well as opposed to inclining to a favorable view?

Displaced: You have a displaced shoulder, collarbone, or the like? When did you have a “placed” bone or joint, I wonder? 

Malware: Bad stuff that infects your computer and wreaks havoc. But what about the good stuff that faithfully does its job to help the computer run? There’s no “ware” or “beneware” or anything else like that that I know of.

Misogynist: Someone who hates women. God knows what the opposite of this one is; I’m sure there is one, but I’ve never heard it.

Indecorous: Oops, you’ve somehow failed to act in a socially approved manner. But when have you last heard that someone behaved in a decorous manner?

Insipid: Bland and boring. Lots of stuff is insipid, but have you ever encountered something “sipid”?

Detrimental: Ouch, this one’s definitely no good for you, it’s harmful (to, say, your career or reputation) instead. But if you’ve ever heard of anything that builds you up by being “trimental,” please do let me know.

Derelict: Yo, you’ve skirted your duties, or that abandoned building looks like it’s about to topple. If only you (or it) had been “relict” instead.

Needless to say, there are plenty more. Our friend Ben invites you to submit your own favorites!

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Let’s play word games. February 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Our friend Ben is sick of watching the snow come down and being trapped in the house. So I’d like to suggest that you join me in a fun word game. This game was originally started by The Washington Post, which publishes the top contenders every year in its Neologism Contest. It involves making up a new definition for an existing word. (They also have a contest, the Style Invitational, that involves adding, subtracting, or changing one letter of an existing word and then providing a new definition, but let’s save that one for another day.)

Examples of 2009’s top entries in the Neologism Contest include: flabbergasted, appalled over how much weight you have gained; gargoyle, olive-oil-flavored mouthwash; willy-nilly, impotent (my favorite); and pokemon, a Rastafarian proctologist (close second).

So this morning, our friend Ben was thinking about how appallingly deficient my knowledge of geometry is. I could remember the name “isosceles triangle,” but couldn’t recall to save my life what the triangle looked like. And what was the hypotenuse?! (For those who simply must know, it’s the longest side of a right triangle.)

Hypotenuse, however, struck our friend Ben as a wonderfully humorous word that was begging for a new definition. So here it is: “A species of hippopotamus whose diet consists chiefly of cannabis.”

Your turn! Please share your new definitions of old words here. We’re eager to enjoy them! And who knows, perhaps you can submit them to The Washington Post and gain world renown, or something…

Word play: frisee. January 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are not only avid readers, we make our living as freelance writers and editors. All of which is to say that we love words and think about them a lot. So it’s not often that a word sneaks up on us and takes us by surprise, but it happened to me last night.

I was making a colorful salad to go with the creamy pasta, baked sweet potatoes, and broccoli our friend Ben and I were planning to have for supper. In winter, especially, I like to use some of the fuller-bodied greens in salads, and one of my favorites is frisee (which actually has an accent over the first e and is pronounced “free-ZAY”), aka curly endive (which you can pronounce “EN-dive” or “ahn-DEEV,” depending on how French you’re feeling). So here I am, enjoying the delicate color and tightly frilled leaves as I separate them and mix them into the salad and share them with our parrot Plutarch and the parakeets, and it suddenly hits me: frizzy. Frizzy is an English mispronunciation of frisee!

I don’t know why this had never dawned on me before. Our language is rich in mangled mispronunciations of French and other languages, and frizzy/frisee would seem like an obvious example. (One of my other favorites is a little less obvious: bedlam, for Bethlehem. Our Lady of Bethlehem was a famous hospital for the insane in London, which is why “bedlam” is now a synonym for chaotic, unpredictable behavior.)

From homely items like buckles, buttons, bracelets, and even biscuits to beef, pork, mutton, and trout, experts estimate that we’ve gotten between one-third and two-thirds of our language from the French, starting back in 1066 when William the Conqueror made Norman French the official tongue of the English nobility. (Tongue, language, experts, estimate, official, conqueror, and nobility among them.)

And the farther back it entered the language, the more mangled it’s likely to have become over time. Thus, comparatively modern imports like beau, bon mot, bonbon, canape, adieu, au revoir, ballet, buffet, cloche, cabaret, cafe, chauffeur, and bon vivant, as well as cooking techniques like saute and flambe (pardon the Luddite-induced lack of accents) and dishes like ratatouille, quiche, mousse, and souffle, have retained their spellings and close enough pronunciations to be far more recognizable to the French than older imports like boil, bacon, bullet, catholic, theater, chef, salad, lettuce, tea, and coffee. There are even French words that differ wildly in their British and American pronunciations, both of which would be unrecognizable to the French: lieutenant comes to mind (loo-TEN-ant to us Americans, LEF-tenant to our British cousins, lee-eww-teh-NAHNT in the original).

But frizzy and frisee? Sheesh. Why didn’t I see that right away? Maybe it’s because my own experience of frizzy is so far removed from the gentle curls of the salad green. On a hot, humid day, my hair transforms itself into something worthy of Louis XIV’s finest wigmaker. Louis, wherever you are, eat your heart out. Or maybe have a lovely frisee salad instead.

          ‘Til next time,

                       Silence