• cancrine •
kang-kreen • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Crab-like, having the features and characteristics or the shape of a crab (cancriform); crooked, bent, moving sideways. 2. Related to crabs.
Notes: The English language exhibits an odd quirk when it comes to the names of animals: while the names themselves are of native Germanic origin (dog, cat, cow, horse, pig), the neutral adjectives that semantically correspond to those names are all borrowed from French (canine, feline, bovine, equine, porcine). This may be the case because we tend to associate negative characteristics with animals which carry over to their native adjectives: dogged, catty, cowish, horsy, piggy or piggish. Today's good adjective is among their number: cancrine is the neutral adjective because crabby has such pejorative connotations.
In Play: Crabs are taken to have jagged shapes, so today's word most often refers to squarish, jagged figures: "Dutch Masters wrote his name in a cancrine scrawl that couldn't be read but also couldn't be mistaken for another hand." Although cancrine itself is not pejorative, its associations are not particularly pleasant (crabs and cancer), so it can serve to underscore words that are already pejorative: "Featherstone's greasy leather jacket bore a cancrine swastika that announced his personality long before you were within range of his voice."
Word History: The Old French word cancre was borrowed into English both as cancer and as canker. The French word is a descendant of Latin cancer "crab", based on the Proto-Indo-European root kar- "hard". Since PIE [k] became [h] in Germanic languages, we are not surprised to see that it developed into English hard. It was also suffixed in Latin and Greek, where it emerges in karkinos "cancer", the root of English carcinoma and carcinogen. In Latin, however, it was first reduplicated into kar-kar, which would have been spelled "carcar". The repetition bothered Latin speakers, however, so they changed the first [r] to [n] (dissimilation), giving cancer. (We don't want Grogie of the Alpha Agora to be crabby, so we had better thank him for suggesting today's word.)
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