or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 06, 2005

Free Association 3

So I'm reading Wonkette and there's a piece about the semi-literate George Bush's complete miscomprehension of the word "disassemble". "That means not tell the truth", he says. Well, kind of no, for a couple of reasons.

"Disassemble" is (self-evidently, I would think) composed of the Latin prefix "dis-", "apart", and "assemble", which itself is constructed from the Latin "ad-", "to", and "simul", "together": to assemble something is to bring it to a state of togetherness, and to disassemble is to take that assemblage apart.

The word Bush was flailing around for, "dissemble", has a slightly more roundabout provenance. The prefix is the same, but it has another, related meaning: "the opposite of". The root comes from Old French "sembler", "to appear to be" (in English, we have other traces of it in such words as "semblance"). This word comes from the Latin "simulare", "to simulate", and this in turn comes from the adjective "similis", "like". To dissemble, then, is to appear to be something, and yet not be that thing. Sort of like appearing to be a world leader.


A little later on in the same website is a picture of the twins Lauren and Barbara Bush, and they look amazingly unlike one another--you'd scarcely think they were related. Fraternal twins, I thought, and then, of course, I realized that they really should be called sororal twins. Why, I wonder, is that term never used? Unidentical twins who are sisters, after all, must be just about as common as unidentical twins who are brothers.


In what seems to me a marked deficit in the language, French has no genderless third-person plural pronoun. (No doubt the French consider English's lack of gendered third-person plural pronouns to be a deficit, and perhaps it is: but English dropped grammatical gender a long time ago, thank goodness.) In French, the pronoun for a group of males is "ils", and that for a group of females is "elles": if you add even one male to that latter group, the pronoun for the whole group becomes "ils". I don't know how French ladies feel about that, but I would think they might be mildly insulted to suddenly be referred to as "he-they" when a man wanders into their midst, just as, if the tables were turned, a group of men would find it insulting to suddenly become "she-they". (I expect they don't generally feel anything of the sort; it's built into the language, in approximately the same way that "son of a bitch", or "sonofabitch", doesn't actually refer to the target's mother unless the target is really determined to make something of it.)


I have long wondered at the fact that English is overloaded with derogatory words specifically aimed at women, and amazingly impoverished of similar words that refer only to men. You can call a woman a bastard, but we hardly ever do: it mostly belongs to the menfolk. Beyond that there are a few words for excretory organs that double as words for men, and that's about it. For women, though, the list is endless, colourful, and depressing: fishwife, termagant, virago, harlot, vixen, shrew, slut, bitch, skank, and on and on. It's no wonder women feel put upon; the language makes it pretty clear that they really are.


Blogger Frank said...

Your second, third, and fourth points all just showcase the misogyny and phallocentrism of our language! Only with a completely new, neuter languaged will women be truly equal! Down with English and up with... I got nothing. I really should make sure I engage in faux-indignation only when I actually have a punchline...

You know, I never thought about "sororal" twins, but it sounds right. I love using "sistren" (the equivalent of brethren).

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 1:27:00 AM  

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