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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-07-31)

The derivation of words has been a recurrent topic in these columns, and indeed it is quite difficult to talk about words without mentioning derivation sooner or later. Derivations constitute a useful linguistic tool, up to a point, because they may give us clues to the meanings of words that we haven’t encountered before. To give us an idea of how we rely on derivations as clues to meaning, here are two words from languages quite unrelated to English or to each other: “Kinnikinick” and “Mbaqanga”. Both, broadly translated, mean “a mixture”. The first word comes from the Algonquian group of languages of North America, and the second from the Zulu language of South Africa. Absolutely nothing in either word gives an English-speaker a clue to its meaning, which is why both look so “foreign”.

To make matters even worse, the Indian word has acquired the further meaning of “a mixture used as a substitute for tobacco”, and the Zulu word, besides embracing the idea of “porridge”, now also means “a type of Black African urban music, originating in Soweto (near Johannesburg).” Presumably it is a mixture of various musical styles.

Derivation as a clue to meaning is useful only up to a point because meanings of words shift with time, and two words derived from the same source may have quite contrary meanings after a few centuries. Let’s consider the word “meretricious”, for example. If we were asked, having never seen the word before, “Is this word a complimentary description of someone?” we would probably say yes, because it seems to be connected with “merit”.

And so it is. The Latin verb “mereo” meant “acquire, deserve, earn”, and has given us “merit”, with its connotation of “excellence that deserves honour or reward.” But there was a related Latin word, “meretrix”. Literally, this should have meant nothing more than “a woman who earns,” but its actual meaning was “a prostitute”, and our word “meretricious” echoes that: “characteristic…of a prostitute; flashy, gaudy.” It doesn’t say much for the status of women in Ancient Rome that a female earner had to be a prostitute!

A different kind of confusion can be found in “prestige” and the related “prestigious”. We would regard both of these as complimentary words suggesting “status, charm or glamour,” and that is now the generally accepted meaning. But underlying it is an original meaning which is entirely different and which has never quite gone away. The Latin word “praestringere” meant “to dazzle or blind”, and the related noun “praestigium” meant “a delusion.” So if you feel a vague mistrust of anything described as “prestigious”, your feeling is well-founded.

Just in passing, here is the latest in our series of scientific terms misused. A book reviewer on the English radio service in South Africa referred to “the epicentre of a novel”, presumably meaning the true heart of the book or its main plot. “Epicentre” is a word borrowed from seismology. Earthquakes originate many kilometres underground, and the epicentre of an earthquake is the point on the earth’s surface directly above the point of origin. It’s quite a long haul from that concept to the plot of a novel, however earthshaking.

I offer my thanks to the people responsible for The Chambers Dictionary, an astonishingly comprehensive work, which contains all the words discussed in this column and its predecessors. I commend it to the attention of anyone who uses a dictionary. Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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