or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


A little while back there was a commercial for Bacardi rum, and at the end of the commercial, at the bottom of the screen in small type, was a legend along the lines of "Bacardi and the bat device are registered trademarks of the Bacardi Corporation". Jim, baffled, said, "Bat device?" And, since it is a word not in the commonest of parlance, I explained it to him.

"Device" now has one predominant meaning; it's a machine of some sort. It doesn't even have to have any moving parts--I have a clever little hand-held gizmo for peeling citrus fruit that looks like a cheap ring with a tiny shark's fin attached (look two-thirds of the way down the page), and it's most definitely a device--but it has to be something that performs a function. In this sense, a wedding ring is not a device, but an orange-peeling ring is.

And yet "device" has a number of other meanings that aren't quite dead. If we think of "device" in terms of its root, "something devised or designed", then we can get closer to the panoply of meanings inherent in the word.

1) "Left to my own devices". To many modern ears it might sound as if it had something to do with machinery, but what it really means is just "left to whatever it was I could devise."

2) "A miracle of rare device". Once again that machine image intrudes: is this speaking of a miraculous machine like a DVD player? Nope; if we mentally replace the word "device" with "devisement", then we have the sense of "something so uncommonly well-made as to seem miraculous".

3) "A literary device". A typewriter? No, more like an allegory or a synecdoche: a literary tool that a writer uses to achieve a certain effect.

4) "The bat device"/"a heraldic device". A device is simply a graphic design of some sort. In the first instance, it means a single graphic element; in the second, a limited and unified collection of graphic elements. But the idea is the same: it's something devised to create a visual effect.


I used the word "commonest" up there, didn't I? That deserves a looking-at.

It's easy to create the comparative and the superlative in English:

1) add "-er" and "-est" to virtually all adjectives of one syllable (great, greater, greatest) and most words in which the last letter is "-y" (sly, slyer, slyest), except that we
2) change the terminal "-y" (after a consonant) to "-i" in virtually all words that end in "-y" and sound as if they end in a long "e" (grimy, grimier, grimiest), and
3) double the consonant before the suffix in one-syllable words that end with consonant-vowel-consonant (grim, grimmer, grimmest), leaving us to
4) place the words "more" and "most" before almost all other adjectives.

Rules 2 and 3 are really spelling rules: in terms of usage, there are just the two, and they serve us well. Yet because in ornery old English there has to be an exception to every rule (slippery, slipperier, slipperiest, but ordinary, more ordinary, most ordinary), there are words that break the pattern, and "common" is one of them. Some people prefer to use the suffixes; others, to use the adverbs. There's no right way.

One objection which I find a little odd is that some people don't like the suffixes for "common" because the comparative becomes "commoner", which is also a noun. But there are plenty of comparative adjectives which do double duty as nouns: dryer, madder, slicker, number, and crisper, to name just a few.


Post a Comment

<< Home