Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How to stop confusing words without memorizing the dictionary

It's happening more and more often. People who can fly planes, fix arteries and gain public office are saying "imply" for "infer" and "flaunt" when they want "flout". Why? I don't know. But I used to do worse things than that. Oh, I not only spent years sorting out "habilitate" and "habituate", no, I still struggle with "imminent", "immanent" and "eminent". At least I can tell "immolate" from "emulate", for which my role models must feel some gratitude. (Look it up if you don't believe it.)
But to the rescue comes the past. Under the bark of a word runs a grain of history. Its meaning is somewhere in that past. Whole teams, companies, labor to plot them for us. We pick up these records -- dictionaries -- and we find the story in the brackets.
To imply is to "fold in". The one adding a meaning implies it like a note concealed in a folded paper. Inference is different. It is from the Old French, from the Latin, "to bear in". It is to draw from evidence. One carries in one's inferences with the newspapers and leaves one's implications neatly tucked into the payment envelope, little tips. "Flaunt", though, hides its origins. Could it come from some corruption of "flavescent", "turning yellow"? All we can be sure of is that "flout" means "to scorn or disregard" and seems to have once been a French word, "flauter", to play the flute. A flautist flutes today, as does a flutist, the same thing. A flouter, though, flouts. She doesn't flaunt, except when she flaunts her contempt for society by flouting its laws. She waltzes off playing the flute at them all.
To habituate someone to your company, you may guide him to make a habit of visiting you. But if you don't want to manipulate, try just habilitating him to come and see you. That is, give him some gas money or let him know when you are available for company. Give him the ability, that is, from the Latin word for ability, "habilitas".
It is imminent that I start remembering what immanent means.
Here we go. The dictionary says, "existing or remaining within" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New Collegiate Edition 1976). The source? "In" is a Latin word that gives us our own word "in", and "manere" means "remain". It comes to us from as far away as the PIE "men", to remain, which has remained pretty much the same for at least a few thousand years.
Imminent is "in" and "minere", to project, from another word "men" that is also thousands of years old. And you were probably going to say this was confusing. We haven't even started on eminent yet.
Eminent: That's a "minere" combination too, but this time the first syllable is a shaved-down form of "ex", which means "out". The imminent projects in like the future looming over us, but the eminent project out like the noticeable, for they are the outstanding and the giants, the very famous, the unignorable ones. Not hard, was it?
So how about "immolate" and "emulate"? Well, OK. "Emulate" appears to be related to "imitate", and that is what it means, but not just to imitate. Doing impressions isn't emulation. It's imitating in hope of being more like someone, aspiring to be someone, walking in someone's footsteps.
"Immolate" was once "in" plus "mola", meal, that is milled grain. It's how people prepared sacrifices. They sprinkled grain on them. To immolate someone is to sacrifice him.
Please don't immolate anyone. Just emulate those you admire. And admire them for their eminence in good habits, ones worth flaunting.

1 comment:

  1. What a nice article!

    Nice in the sense of good, that is. In a couple of old novels I've read, a veddy correct adult admonishes a young person about using nice casually and incorrectly, since the real meaning of nice was--help me get this right, Serena--small, finely made, neat, or meticulous.

    I had a hard time with tortuous and torturous, even though their meanings are pretty clear from the spellings. And don't even get me started on eminent and its homophonous cousins.

    The problem is made worse by widespread illiteracy. When television, magazines, and even books misuse words, all the people who don't pay attention to words anyway don't stand a chance.