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Archive for the 'Morphology: Word Structure' Category

Words Lost in Words

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

We at Lexiteria are in the process of developing a collection of folk etymologies. Along the way we have stumbled over an interesting facet of words that might be called “reverse folk etymology”. Folk etymology is the conversion of a foreign or unfamiliar word into one that is more familiar, such as the conversion of French dormeuse “sleepy (one)” to dormouse and kith and kin to kissing kin. The opposite would be to make a recognizable word unrecognizable.

The following list of words have “lost words” in them, words we no longer see or hear when we speak:

  • sweater (hidden word sweat)
  • business (hidden word busy)
  • atonement (hidden words at one)
  • disease (hidden word ease)
  • necklace (hidden word lace)


We no longer think of sweaters as clothing designed to make us sweat but to simply keep up warm. Business in no longer ‘busy-ness’ and has come to be pronounced [biznis] or even [bidnis]. Atonement is a form of repentence, making up for bad deeds, and not making anything at one with another. The pronunciation of this word makes it clear that it has been reanalyzed as [atonment].

Disease has come to be something much more painful than simple uneasiness or discomfort. But that is the meaning it began with. Finally, Lace worn around the neck is no longer called necklace; necklaces are countable things made of almost anything but lace. Concomitantly, their pronunciation has shfted to blur the word lace: [neklis].

These are examples of two discrete processes. First, semantic drift, the tendency of the meanings of words to drift way from their original meaning over time . The second is the tendency of words to be reanalyzed and pronounced differently over time. The examples above starkly reveal the two critical historical changes that words undergo if they remain in English for centures.

Boning up on deBoning

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

BonerCharlene Moore notices the darnedest things in English. I always enjoy mulling them over because it inevitably gives me a tickle. Today she wanted to know why bone and debone mean that same thing. Well, it is a good question. Couple and decouple have opposite meanings. So do regulate and deregulate. May Day! May Day? What’s going on with bone?

Make no bones about it, to bone by itself means to remove the bones from whatever you happen to be operating on, just as to shell means to remove the shell from and to husk means to remove the husk from. So, I have no bone to pick with Charlene on this one.

However, as I boned up on the problem I discovered this: to bone also means to put bones in, as to bone a skirt with stays, originally made of whalebone. So, verbing nouns like bone can result in a verb meaning “to add to” or “to remove from”. To saddle, to soap, and to clothe all indicate adding saddles, soap, and clothes to something. In fact, the sense of addition is far more prevalent than the sense of removal, so that interpretation of bone would be far more natural. Hmmm. That could lead to confusion, couldn’t it?

Well, the solution is to add something to bone that would clarify the fact that we have in mind removing bones and not sticking them in. Now, what is the prefix we use for that? I know! DE-! Best of all, we will keep that meaning for both bone and debone so that any bonehead can use them without making a boner. Right? Right! Aren’t English-speakers smart? You betcha!

Livery, Grocery, and the Suffix -Ery

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

William Hupy has been struggling with the English suffix -ery, which seems to have at least two different meanings, neither of which fit livery and grocery. I wrote this up quickly in hopes of clarifying the functions of this suffix and its various relationships. I thought some of you might be interested, too.

The English suffix -ery is an adaptation of the Latin -oria which came to French as the suffix -erie, usually meaning “place of”: bakery, eatery, brewery, nunnery. However, it sometimes converts a noun into the quality that identifies the noun: tomfoolery, knavery, savagery.

When English borrows such words directly from Latin, the suffix -ory is the result, e.g. laboratory, observatory, dormitory, depository, a suffix more frequently used to convert verbs into adjectives: congratulatory, conciliatory, exclamatory. (Don’t be surprised that a suffix in English has more than one function. Suffixes are dying out like flies in English and, as the number of suffixes dwindle, the remainder must pick up more and more funtions.)

Livery and grocery do not contain either suffix. Livery comes from a French word meaning “delivery”, originating in the Latin word liberare “to liberate, set free”. Grocery is simply the suffix -y added to grocer. The latter word has an interesting history. It comes from grossus “large, thick” with the suffix -arius, a personal suffix meaning “someone who (does something)”. The original word, grossarius, meant “wholesaler”, i.e. someone selling on a large scale, as opposed to a small-scale retailer, rather like someone selling by the gross rather than by the item.

Words Hidden in Words

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Yesterday Martin Kirk raised this issue:

“I am trying to find out whether there is a word to describe the written linguistic situation where a word is unintentionally misspelled, resulting in another correct word which makes sense in the context but is the opposite of that intended in an ironic way, e.g. cease the opportunity instead of seize the opportunity or relive the pain instead of relieve the pain.”

“I have quries this with the Oxford Dictionary Press‘s ‘question line’ and they suggest that I am describing a malapropism. I do not agreee withn this. Have you any better sugestions.”

I can think of a couple of points in this connection. First, however, remember that languages are spoken or signed. Writing is a superficial attempt at symbolizing what is spoken. Fewer than 2000 of the world’s approximately 6700 languages and dialects have functioning writing systems. While writing has some effect on language change (adding the T in the pronunciation of often), it is marginal to the point of being trivial.

The question, then, resolves to one of whether mispronunciation leads to permanent language change. The mispronunciation of courtesy led to curtsy and, if you follow our Good Word series, you know that ornery was once a mispronunciation of ordinary. These words are examples of phonological reduction, very common in language; we see it all the time in contractions.

This process is not usually referred to as malapropism, which is usually the mispronunciation of a word so that it sounds like another, e.g. a fire distinguisher or a wolf in cheap clothing. My favorite was actually written in a freshman thesis at Bucknell some years ago: a devil-make-hair attitude.

The words you mention (relive – relieve, seize – cease) are only accidentally similar and are wholly unrelated derivationally and historically. The only similar normal historical change I know of is a change in pronunciation that leads to the loss of the relationship of a derivation to its base or origin. I call them words with hidden words within them for lack of a term and they seem to have caught only my eye (or, more properly, ear).

I’m thinking now of words like disease which today is unrelated semantically to ease, the word it was derived from. No one out of the cloth associates atonement with its origin, the phrase at one. We don’t think of business as simply the activity of being busy any more.

So far as I know, I’m the only one writing about such words and I haven’t named them yet. What do you think we should call them?

-Er or -Or?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Joe Kozuh asked a question yesterday that puzzles many more than him: “What is the difference between -er and -or on nouns and is there a rule of thumb that governs their selectioin?”

Generally, -or is a Latin suffix and -er is the Germanic equivalent meaning, roughly, “one who Vs”, where V represents any verb. Words borrowed directly from Latin, then, tend to end on -or: governor, calculator, arbitrator, legislator, alternator. Words of Germanic origin (English is a Germanic language) generally take -er: runner, thinker, worker, joker

However, two factors muddy the water.  English borrowed many words from French in the Middle Ages and the French equivalent of -or and -er, is -eur.  English generally reduced that suffix to -er, keeping it only in a few words borrowed late: amateur, restauranteur, raconteur, coiffeur. English also borrowed many verbs from French and added the English suffix: employer, deceiver, certifier.

So, you need to know the etymologies of many of the verbs that -er and -or are added to, in order to know how to distribute them. You can be sure that verbs ending on -ize and -ify will take the suffix -er and that verb ending on the suffix -ate will be suffixed with -or.  Other than that, though, we have the etymological rule of a very small and barely helpful thumb.

Nonce Words

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

One of the enjoyable pastimes in human experience that has exploded with the onset of Web communities is the creation of nonce words. A nonce word is a word that someone makes up for a specific occasion or situation without any hope that it will become part of the general or even specialized English vocabulary. A recent new word (neologism) added to Webster’s New World Dictionary is youthanasia, which is defined as “the focus on remaining youthful that possesses many Americans and Europeans”.

The web is flooded with nonce words: they are easy to create and amusing and surprising because they sound like real words but their meanings are often connotations (associations, implcations) rather than denotations (actual meanings).

“Connotations without denotations?” you might rightly ask. Yes, I think that is the correct characterization of these creations. Cyberchondriac, another new addition to the same dictionary, is supposed to be a person who thinks he is sick because his symptoms turn up on a Web page. It was created by replacing the hypo- in hypochondriac, with cyber-, which has become a synonym for “the Web”.

Now the real meaning of cyberchondriac should be “stomach governor”, for kybernan means “to govern” in Greek while chondria is a Latin word meaning “stomach”. Granted cyber- is an English combining form meaning “network, Web”, we could squeeze the meaning “Web-stomach person” out of cyberchondriac. These are the possible denotions (meanings) that may be derived from the meanings of the word’s components.

However, because the word was created to resemble hypochrondriac, the meaning of cyberchrondriac carries the connotation of that word, hence “a hypochondriac who surfs the web”. If this word has the meaning or denotation mentioned above, that meaning must be memorized and put to use by a large portion of the English-speaking community.

Occasionally a nonceword becomes a model for many other such words, so that one of its constitutuents becomes an active means of creating a word family. This has happened to cyber- Here is a mere handful of words created by inserting or replacing another stem with cyber-: cyberspace, cybersex, cyberspace, cybernaut, cyberphobia, cybersquatter, Cyberia, cybercop, cyberart, cybercafe, cybercash, cybercrime, cyberculture, cyberlaw.

Once this occurs, the component becomes an affix or, in this case, a “combining form”, similar to the myriad of combining forms from Latin and Greek, such as cardi(o)-, cerebr(o)-, -crat, and the like.

However, nothing in the short history of cyberchondria or youthanasia suggest that they are any more than passing jokes that have not yet earned their admission to any dictionary.

Caducity and the Caduceus

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Jackies Strauss raised an interesting question after reading our recent Good Word caducity:

“You didn’t mention it, but is there a connection between the word caducity, and caduceus, the symbol for healing or physician?”

CaduceusI think the answers are “no” and “yes”. These two words are not related in that they do not have roots (cad-) that share the same source. Latin caduceus is a strange corruption of Greek dialectal karukeion “herald’s staff”, from karux “herald”. (Hermes was also a herald.) This leaves us with the question of how did such a major corruption come about? Latin C transliterated Greek K but D was not a usual transliteration of R.

Well, here caducus “falling, caducous” might have been influential. Since this word refers to falling in the sense of falling in battle and the falling of leaves, it might have influenced the transfiguration of karukeion in its journey to Latin. But the relationship would be influence, not shared origin.

An interesting sidenote if you don’t already know it: The caduceus was aAsclepius's Rod staff carried by Hermes, who was the protector of liars and thieves, as well as a herald. It became the symbol of the medical profession in the US as the result of confusing it with the Rod of Asclepius, the son of Apollo who was a practitioner of medicine according to Greek mythology. Only one snake crept around Asclepius’s rod and it had no wings atop it.

Phrasal Folk Etymology

Friday, November 7th, 2008

My old friend Chris Stewart in South Africa wrote recently:

I do however remember that I was pondering how certain words only survive in phrases (like Kith as in “Kith & Kin”, or Fell as in “Fell Swoop”—or, as the dyslexic community I belong to might say, a “Swell Foop”, which somehow seems to sound like it means something).

Phrases like “kith and kin” and “to and fro”, in fact, don’t survive. We insist on having current words even in our unpredictable idioms. Most Americans now say “kissin’ kin” and “back and forth” instead of using their archaic counterparts. You meet the archaic phrases only in the written word.

“One fell swoop” is OK because all the words in that phrase are current English words, with or without their original meanings. The important issue seems to be that the components of English phrases, idiomatic or not, be current words in English, whether they make sense in the phrase or not.

The same applies to folk etymology, which I have just explained in the latest addition to Dr. Goodword’s Office and the alphaDictionary resources (click here). Folk etymology converts strange-sounding foreign words into user-friendly English words. The interesting fact is that folk etymology does not care if the words involved make sense so long as they are actual, current English words.

Old French, mousseron, for example, became English mushroom. Mushroom? Mushrooms are not rooms and they have nothing to do with mush? That doesn’t matter to folk etymology so long as mush and room are current English words.

Contractions and Affixes

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Glenn Giro sent this note in reponse to the blog on “Apostrophic Memorials“: 

I guess this would fall under “Grammar and Style” but, I’m curious as to whether there are any other instances about which anyone knows. I saw a double-contraction used in a cartoon in the local paper that, upon contemplating, I realized was exactly the way it is pronounced in actual usage. The word as used is “you’d’ve” and, although either you would’ve or you’d have is obviously correct, when read aloud (as in “If you’d’ve seen it, you’d’ve been as surprised as I was.” is actually the way it is pronounced. Just wondering. In Baton Rouge after Gustav.
—Glenn Giro

I hope you escaped Ike unscathed. I find it hard to believe that Ike was only a category 2 hurricain after seeing on television the havoc it wreaked from Texas to Ohio.

For some reason publishers don’t like double contractions but they are common in spoken English. Contractions always involve grammatical morphemes—function words. Function words express meanings that are often expressed by suffixes and prefixes and so they are in a constant state of transition: from word to clitic to affix. A clitic is a suffix on a phrase rather than a word. The possessive -‘s in English is a clitic. In the phrase the king of England’s hat. the hat does not belong to England even though the ‘suffix’ is applied to that noun. The -‘s here is, in fact, a clitic that makes the entire phrase the king of England a possessive: “belonging to the king of England” since it is the king’s hat.

Contractions are function words that have been reduced to clitics on their way to becoming suffixes in English. You’d’ve represents a clitic added to a clitic just as suffixes are added to suffixes in words like theatr-ic-al-ly. The only other I can think of now is you’ll’ve. Can, could, may can’t be contracted because they begin on a full consonant. W is a semiconsonant (a glide) and H is a reduced consonant in the process of disappearing in English, especially in unaccented syllables as is the case with have when used as an auxiliary verb.

A New Function for the Suffix -en?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Returning to the topic of gifts from US Southerners to the English language I was writing on a few weeks ago (click here if you missed it), let me mention, perhaps, another one. Southerners are often chided for using young’ns for kids or children. The fact of the matter is, however, that except for the substitution of this expression for kids, it is a form found in many dialects of English.

Young’n represents a reduction of the adjective young plus the pronoun (not the number) one, that is, young one. This form has already been assimilated into the indefinite pronouns someone and anyone, suggesting that they do not have full lexical status in English, that is to say, on the level of cat, dog or rain. Rather, the pronoun one, as in “One must always be civil, mustn’t one?” is a grammatical morpheme, a function word.

The contraction of a function word like one with another word is often the first step in the conversion of that function word to an affix (prefix or suffix). Such conversions are slow transitions that take hundreds of years and it is always difficult to draw a line at an exact point when the independent or reduced word becomes an affix.

I think we have already passed that point in the southern US states and in other dialectal areas where this contraction occurs. I think so because of the consistency in the addition of this contraction to adjectives: “(Give me the) big’n, little’n, red’n,” and so on are just as common in those dialects as young’n.

This conversion is encouraged by the fact that English already has a suffix -en pronounced exactly the same way as the -‘n in young’n, etc. It is a little used affix found in a few outmoded adjectives such as wooden, woolen, and golden, and a handful of past participles like driven, written, and proven.

I am suggesting that young’n is on its way to become a regular noun youngen and that in the dialects of the southern US states a rule adding -en to adjectives making them nouns may already be in the grammar. Only time will tell if this change will spread as the addition of yall to the list of personal pronouns (click here for that blog).