Techniques In Language Control
7 . Within the Word
The great mathematician, G. H. Hardy, said of his friend and colleague, Ramanujan, that he knew numbers, including many very big ones, as though they were personal life-long associates whose idiosyncrasies were familiar to him. There are those, a happy few, who come to know words, a vast variety of them, in an equally intimate way.
Most of us, of course, have varying degrees of knowledge of even our most familiar words. We know what they will do and what they won't and, more or less, why they behave so. And we often find ourselves feeling around for the reasons why a particular word is just right for what we have to say and why another word just won't do -- things hard to be clear about. What is clear is the gain in power as well as interest that comes from such explorations. It is indeed, through such reflections that most people develop whatever command of language they achieve.
What this chapter will try to do is to take a look at a handful of important words, just a score of them -- the words beginning with an a which come a the head of the second column on the Basic English Word List. They are the first twenty of the 400 names of "general things," starting with account -- a word which we have already noted as capable of a widened range of meanings in Every Man's when used as a verb -- and ending with authority. These we will look up in a number of dictionaries which have rather different aims from ours. We will select from what these dictionaries have to tell us certain points about the sometimes very surprising histories of these words and their linkages with other words, points which help to account for (to use the first of them here) the peculiar character and powers possessed by each of them. What will result will be a type specimen display of some of the more important ways in which words do their work and particularly of how their meanings have come to hook into and depend from (hang on to) the meanings of other words. Even so small a sample, taken in the alphabetic order they have on the Word List, will be enough to show more than a little of these interactions among words and of the control exerted over them by their ancestry, their composition, their cognates, and their colleagues.
In most use of dictionaries, the pressure upon their space due to the great number of the words they are treating, the unavoidable crowding in of information, the distracting appeals of queer or highly-charged other words, all this often prevents the full character and range of a word from coming through. Besides, we are usually looking up a word for the sake of some sentence we have in mind. This sentence acts like a screen that lets us attend to some only of the word's possibilities. What we hope to do here is to relax these pressures by offering more restful and leisurely opportunities to think about these twenty and to notice how a word can come to have a more memorable individuality through such entertainment.
Many words, as we all know, have parts through whose cooperations they manage their meanings. Co-oper-at-ion is typically such a word. Its key meaning is "working together to some end." Its four parts have here the following meanings : co-, "with" ; -oper-, "work" ; -at-, "doing" ; -ion, "outcome." It is harder to find a good way to pit to the possible meanings of parts of a word than to indicate a meaning for the whole. In somewhat the same way it is easier to say what a man is doing when chopping wood than to say what his eyes, his hands, and his legs are doing in helping him to do it. Nonetheless, he couldn't do it without quite special service from them.
The part (in this sense of part) of some words which comes at their beginning is called a prefix (Latin (L.) pre-, "before" + fix). it may be claiming, that is, a very wide-spreading precedence. Fix. (L. fixus) no doubt refers first to the placing of the prefix in front of the word. But the more intently anyone reads a good dictionary's list of meanings and quotation for fix, the clearer it becomes that fix may be saying much more. It may be saying much about how any part of a word works for and with the rest : "make firm and stable, fasten, secure, implant . . . direct steadily, set (eyes, gaze, affection) on." . . . etc.
All this applies as much to the suffix, a part of some words coming at or toward their end (L. sub-, "under, below, after ; in time, place, order, degree, and importance"). Sometimes, as with co-oper-at-ion-s, we can count the word as having more than one suffix : -at (e), -ion-, -s. Here the work of -at (e)- is clearer if we consider the word oper-ate. (L. operatus, past participle of operari "to work," from opus, operis "work.") The -ion- contributes meanings such as "act, process, result, state, condition." The final -s here says simply "more than one."
Our twenty a . . . words at the head of that first column of General Things have among them thirteen -- account, addition, adjustment, advertisement, agreement, amount, amusement, apparatus, approval, attack, attempt, attention, attraction -- in which a with or without a following letter (c, d, p, t) is a variously contributing element shaping their meanings.
This a-, the first prefix to be given in a dictionary, offers us a fine lesson in the caution needed in these matters. Etymology, "account of, facts relating to, the formation and meanings of a word," is notoriously a deceptive business in which anyone is likely to go wrong and to indulge in mere whimsies unless he is very careful to consult the best informed authorities. Nothing can show us better than a- how diverse the interactions (cooperations) of parts of a word can be (as governed by their history of its uses) and how easily an unprized opinion may be wildly mistaken.
To look now at our score of words in turn.
ACCOUNT . From Old French (O.F.) acount, later accompt, from a- + cont from Late Latin comptum, from classic computum. the putting in of the p was a fifteenth-century refashioning in French then in English, to bring the word nearer to the Latin. The ac- is through assimilation. (Assimilation is a change in a sound to make it like a neighboring sound. Thus we have goose, where the s is unvoiced, and gooseberry, where s -- in English pronunciation -- is voiced and sounds like z. The change came about because the following b in berry is voiced.) The prefix was ad-, "to, at." So here ad- becomes ac- to accord with c in count which follows. Similar assimilations appear in APPARATUS, APPROVAL, ATTACK, ATTEMPT, ATTENTION and ATTRACTION.
Account is a good word with which to begin this brief account of the workings of a few select words. Its earlier meanings were on the arithmetical side : "counting, reckoning, calculations, the doing of that sort of work" ; "amount in one's favor" ; more generally "statement, administration of money in trust, then of other responsibilities, and conduct ; estimation, importance" ; lastly a "narrative, report or description," 1614-. The word has moved over from numbering and figuring to include a record of the outcome of such work ; then to a record of fulfillment of duties, to evaluations : "I hold him in high account, of no account." Later an account can be "a tale or story."
ACT . From O.F. acte and L. actum "a thing done." (The Latin word is derived from the past participle of agere "to drive, hence to do.")
In part, too, from actus "a doing, an action." When we are walking downstairs, we are not doing something ; something is being done to us. Our role is not active but passive. special meanings " "represent, as when an actor takes a part in a play ; seem to be doing what one is not ' enact, pass a law ; put on a performance or demonstration." Thus very often the best way of demonstrating the meaning of a word will be buy an enaction.
For example, the motion of taking something up, say, a pencil, if reversed, as by a film run backwards, will be an enaction of putting it down. Naturally enough there are more than a few derivatives and prefix-compounds in which this word plays its part. Among them are : action,; active, activate, activity ; actor, actress ; actual, actuality ; actuary ; actuate . . . enact, enaction, enactment ; exact, exacting, exaction ; inaction, inactive ; react, reaction, reactionary, reactor ; transact, transaction.
ADDITION . As account called for consideration of count, so addition asks us to focus on add. This comes from that same L. ad- "to, at" (ad- + dare "to place, to give, put, put to"). It is this very prefix ad- "expressing motion, direction, change to, nearness, or more so," turned into a verb, add, with the general meaning "to increase the number, quantity, importance of whatever the addition is made to." The addition may be "what is added" or "the act itself of adding."
The same ad- and the suffix -ment from L. mens, "mind." In between them is -just-. Adjustment is a word which contains in itself a whole sermon on the powers of words and their due uses. Its suffix means "the result, product, outcome" and sometimes "the actual work" —- here of adjusting something. Similarly, arrangement can mean "the order that arranging them gives to the things arranged" and can also mean "the work of giving them that order." The history of -just- is complex. It comes, by various Old French and Romance steps from L. juxta "near." In adjusting something you make it nearer to what it should he, make a better approximation. But in the fifteenth-century came in the idea of "being just" from L. justus, jus "right, law, justice." In Shakespeare’s time the just, "the exactly right," could be used in opposition to near, approximate -— as in Portia’s warning to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:
Shed thou no blood; nor cut thou less, nor more,
But that a pound of flesh : if thou tak’st more,
Or less, than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple, nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diets and all thy goods are confiscate.
The adverb just in its wide range of uses— “exactly, precisely;
verily, actually; closely: of place, time, manner, degree,
number, sameness, etc. . . . no more than, only, merely;
barely . . . no less than, absolutely; positively; quite.
simply”— keeps on the whole to the quantitative (mensurable
and metaphoric) and leaves the moral meanings to the
adjective: “that does what is morally right; righteous, upright
and impartial in one’s dealings; equitable, “the sense in which
Job was “a just man and perfect.” There is often a close kind
of punning going on between the two sets of senses. It is
interesting to note that in Plato’s Republic—the greatest
cardinal (L. cardinals, cardio, “hinge”) discussion of justice
both in the individual and in the state—these two meanings
are made almost indistinguishable.
ADVERTISEMENT . ad-vert-ize-ment: ad- "to"; -vert-
"turn" ; -ize- (suffix, "make") ; -ment (compare adjustment,
agreement, amusement, argument). Advert "turn to, refer to"
comes via Old French from Latin advertere, which has also generated
adverse "placed opposite; contrary, hostile, hurtful,
injurious." (Notice jus, juris "right, law, justice" in the heart of
this last word.) The dictionaries play an almost Shakespearian
game here, not only with the etymologies but with the
meanings. Important early uses of advertise were "to warn, to
make public" (What might better have been kept private?).
The suspicions that the word so often seems to voice are thus
not due solely to malpractices of advertisers, but reflect deep
things in the word’s history.
The root ver "turn, bend" -— verse, versant, versatile, versed,
version, versus, vertebra, vertex, vertical, vertigino us,
vortex . . ., animadvert, universe, university, converse,
perverse -— is among the most widely ramifying (=branching
out) roots there are.
AGREE . O.F. agreer : a- "to, at" ; gre "will, pleasure" from L. gratum. OF. agreer : a- “to. at” ; gre “will, pleasure” from
AMOUNT . O.F. amonter "increase, go" from amount "upward" from L. ad montem "to the mountain."
AMUSEMENT . OF. amuser "to cause to muse, stare,
loiter or waste time" from L. musus “muzzle, mouth.” The
picture is perhaps of a cow not grazing, standing idle,
bemused. The meanings of muse arc amusingly various.
Coleridge. in his remarks on “the devotees of the circulating
libraries” is diverting himself with his etymology for “this
species of amusement (if indeed those can be said to retire
a musis. who were never in their company or relaxation be
attributed to those whose bows were never bent).”
(Biographia Literaria, Chapter III). He is punning on the two
words muse (Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene.
Polyhumnia, Terpischore, Thalia, Urania, daughters of Zeus
and Mnemosyne) and musus. And the prefix a- he is playing
with would be a variant of L. ab- "from, away from,
separated or departed from." An a- may represent L. ad- “to,
towards,” or L. ah- “away from,” or Greek an-, “without,
not.” Only the history of a word will show which it is. (See
Eric Partridge, Origins, "A list of Prefixes." p. 821. where
seventeen varieties of a- are distinguished as well as many
variants of ah-, af-, ag-, at-, urn-, an-, ap-, ar-, at-, and
av-. No wonder amateur etymology is a hazardous sport.)
ANIMAL . From L. anima, "breath" and a member of one
of the most enticing (L. in titio, 'firebrand') families of
words. Partridge suggests that "anima is perhaps the most
echoic of all words : a-ni-ma : a, 'slow inbreathing' : -ni-,
'a moment of relaxed breathing' ; -ma, 'a strong outbreathing.'"
He suggests. further that we compare it with "a breath" and
"to breathe," which may equally mimic the activity they
name. He contrasts L. animus "mind, spirit" with its parallel
anima "spirit, soul." "Strictly, anitnits is the thinking
principle opposed both to corpus, 'body' and anima, 'soul.'
As anirnus became an English word it took the sense of
enmity or ill-will. Sad evidence, perhaps, of the outcomes of
mutual misunderstanding among thinkers. Compare animosity
to be contrasted with equanimity "the equal, hence even,
no-ups-or-downs mind" and magnanimity (L. magnus
"great") "a mind of too much mass and scope to he moved
by petty feelings."
To revert to animal, the kinship and the contrasts found
between man and his bilogical cousins give this word an extraordinarily rich range of power which most people who search their experience can illustrate from " You beastly animal !" up to " Be a good animal !"
ANSWER . . . . p 106
APPARATUS . L. ap-parare "to make ready for, to prepare." Connected with apparel and perhaps with L. parere "to bring forth" (a child). The apparatus is that without which x won't happen.
APPROVAL . From L. ap-probare, Probus means "upright, honest, good" from pro- "toward" + -bus "going or being." From probus comes probity "the state of being morally upright" and, via probare "to find or think good and aboveboard, to prove "turn out, test, show to be true" as well a probable and probe.
ARGUMENT. . . . p106
ART . Via French from L. ars, artis "a way of being or acting, a skill." Interesting are Latin derivatives : iners (in "not" + ars) "inactive, lazy, inert" ; artifex "artificer." whence artifice, artificial, artificiality, words, which formerly carried more praise than they do now. When the chewing gum "Juicy Fruit" first appeared, the public were invited to "enjoy its delicious artificial flavor," but the advertisement soon ceased to appear. It didn't attract. Artisan comes form Italian artigiano via French (Fr.) artisan, whereas artist comes from Fr. artiste, from which, via artistique, we get artistic, but artistry is from English (Eng.) artist, suffix -ry. These are all words which in varying setting have highly distinctive flavors.
ATTACK . O.F. tach, tache "nail, fastening," whence, via an Old Northern French variant, taque, came the English tack "carpet tack." O.F. attachier, thence English attach. Of Old Germanic origin is Italian attacare
"to attach and join," hence, "to join battle with," French attaquer and English attack.
ATTEMPT . L. temptare "to touch, to feel experimentally to try, to test, to undertake, to attack." Eric Partridge, in Origins, gives "In form a frequentative [see ARGUE above] temptare is o.o.o. [of obscure origin] and distinct from tentare, "to agitate," a frequentative intensive of tendere, whence attempt. Tend, originally "a probe," taunt, tentative.
ATTENTION . . . . p107
ATTRACTION . . . . p108
For draw you yourselves will have to consult Origins : "to draw, to pull, haul, drag, bear or carry along, to change the shape of, hence to represent in line, etc. . . ." The last two phrases come home indeed at the end of this sketch -- a mere draft (see Origins ) -- of the composition and the resultant interactions of a sample handful of English words.
There is one more word beginning with a- in this column.
AUTHORITY . One of its major meanings has been illustrated throughout this chapter. No one can escape absurdities if he tries to puzzle out, without using what those who know most about their history have to say, how the parts of words work together. Anyone using any of the better modern dictionaries can hardly refrain at times from a flat disbelief in the human capacity to know as much as the authors (and editors) of these works seem to know. Actually, of course, what we are dealing with when we consult a big dictionary is something that quite outranges any one mind's ability. What it offers is an outcome of human ability to make careful critical use of the outcomes of the forgotten labors of former able minds. All the sciences are (or aspire to be) like this : building upon what proves (APPROVAL) best worth (ATTENTION) as being able to be ADJUSTED to the ever growing AMOUNT of ADDITIONS to ANSWERS to our ATTEMPTS to see what should (APPROVAL) be done.
It has often been noted that single words -- especially those with a number of lucidly distinguishable parts -- can be, as it were, condensed theories about the matters which they may be called on to discuss. A word can very well be (in fact usually is) through its history -- including its recent uses -- a highly partisan contributor to a discussion, throwing its weight (historically assigned to it) into the confusion of issues which may have called it into service. Perhaps half the words in any such discourse as this are open to such suspicion. How are we to protect ourselves? How avoid having the patient -- the subject under treatment -- the diseases which our instruments, the words we use, may bring in? How, when we need to, in a measure, sterilize them. This is, of course, a major concern for the teaching and use of Every Man's English. Above all, if, as seems likely, computer-run lexicological services become widely available, we are suggesting here that certain modes of examining words which alert dictionary use can promote may be the only way of shielding the community of their users from needless misdirection. Basic as a nucleus of full English, with the modes of deliberation which Every Man's offers for expansions beyond it, can furnish such models on a scale that makes their study generally accessible.
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