or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 27, 2005

On the Move

As I was writing yesterday's posting, I had to brush aside a tumble of words in my head that started with "viridian" and ended with "vegetable". When I got back to them a little later, I had one of those flashes of insight that turned out to be correct. But more on that anon.

"Vegetable" is a particularly interesting word because it currently exists in English almost exclusively as a noun, yet a cursory inspection suggests that it ought to be, or at least once was, an adjective, with that "-able" suffix that we slap on to verbs we want to adjectify ("wearable", "doable"). And in fact it emerged into English simultaneously as an adjective meaning "referring to plants" and a noun meaning "a plant". (The sense of "an edible plant" emerged later.) The adjective "vegetable", or "vegetate-able", meant literally "growing as a plant does"; something which was vegetable was something alive and growing.

Now, of course, "vegetable" as a noun has another meaning, that being someone who is in a coma or who is mentally stultified. This has been helped along by the medical sense of "vegetative", which is to say, in common terms, "technically alive, but without having a life in any meaningful sense". So we move from the sense of "alive and growing [however slowly]" to a sense of "physically alive, but mentally dead".

Here's that insight. Since vowels shift slowly but determinedly over the decades and centuries, it seemed to me that "veg-" must be allied to either "vag-" or "vig-" in the past. And it is! "Vag-" is unrelated, but "vig-" gives us "vigour", which is from the Latin "vigere", "to be lively", and this word is also the stem of "vegetable".

And that is a wonderful irony: in "vigorous" and "vegetative" we have a pair of intimately related words that mean "vividly, thoroughly alive" and "alive, but only just".


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