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Archive for October, 2009

Idyl, Idyll, and the Ideal

Monday, October 12th, 2009

I received this note from Rebecca Casper today:

“The word that came up in the debate tonight was idyll or idyl. Some believe it is related to ideal. Others said, “No.” In any event, its full meaning is not altogether clear from a simple dictionary. Have you ever featured this word so that you could share your research? It is of Greek derivation, but I thought it was also an allusion to some Greek myth or legend. (But I can’t find anything.) Tennyson wrote ‘Idylls of the King,’ but that doesn’t give us a good etymology. Can you?”

First of all, how do we spell this word: Idyll or idyl? The US dictionaries don’t seem to care how many Ls we use but idyll is the original spelling. Idyl is a later misspelling that has become acceptable.

This word is unrelated to ideal though the latter may have informed the meaning of the former. Ideal is the adjective for idea under the assumption that the idea of an object is always a perfect representation of that object.

Idyll comes, via Latin idyllium, from eidyllion, a diminutive of Greek eidos “form, that which is seen, a person’s beauty”, from the verb meaning “to see”, the one that also went into the making of English video. The diminutive of this word came to refer to a type of short idealized poem, usually a bucolic one, which is to say, a romantic poem about the countryside.

An idyll today still retains a bucolic aroma but today it means “a simple, tranquil state of affairs”. It can also refer to a peaceful interlude that is absolutely perfect, a vacation or affair in a place we normally only dream about.

Look for this word as a Good Word toward the end of October.

The Prefixes Para- and Tele-

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Andrew Rowland dropped a line a few days ago and I finally got around to answering him today. The question is so interesting, I thought it might be worth sharing.

It’s really a question about to words, or part words that are used in many other words. I was wondering about the words para, as in paranormal, parachute etc. and also tele, as in telephone and television. Are there any meanings to these words, and if so, what are they?

These lexical items are sort of semi-prefixes. We borrowed a lot of them from Greek and Latin and they “sort of” have meanings though they are not always exact. Tele- is pretty straightforward, it means “distance” or “at a distance”. Tele-phone is a Greek compound meaning “distant sound” or “sound at a distance” and tele-vision means pretty much what it looks like “vision at a distance” or distant seeing. Tele-scope is “distant watching”.

Para- is a bit more difficult to put your finger on. It can means “beside” as parathyroid, parachute or “beyond” as in paranormal, or perhaps 4 or 5 other things. The trick to keep in mind is that these two prefixes are Greek, and can only be combined with other Greek, maybe Latin (paranormal) words. You can’t add them to regulary English words, like para-table or tele-car.

The Suffix -ery

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Last month William Hupy asked about an English suffix that he has spotted in a Romance language, too: “What’s up with the suffix -ery, as in livery and grocery? I detect a similar origin with the Spanish cafeteria, farmacia, etc.”

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

If we borrow these words directly from Latin, the suffix is -ory: laboratory, observatory, dormitory, depository, a suffix more frequently used to convert verbs into adjectives: congratulatory, conciliatory, exclamatory. But French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish are Latin as spoken in various parts of Europe today, so they will contain the same suffixes as those suffixes have changed over the years. English has borrowed liberally from all these languages, but especially Latin and French.

Livery and grocery do not contain this suffix. Livery comes from a French word meaning “delivery-boy” while grocery is simply the suffix -y added to grocer. The latter word has an interesting history. It comes from grossus “large, gross” 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 (by the gross), as opposed to a small-scale retailer.