or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, June 12, 2005

This or That

See, here's the sort of thing that makes people hate prescriptive grammarians. I was snippily told once that if you're trying to decide between two things, you can't say "I have two choices" because "choice" means "the act of choosing", and therefore you have one choice between two things.

As if every word in English had only one meaning! "Choice" means quite a few things--it even serves as an adjective meaning "of the highest quality"--and one of those meanings is (and has been for a long time) "option", which means "having two choices" is a legitimate expression.

I thought of this because, as usual, I was poking around in dictionaries looking up words that interest me, and I wondered if "knife", "spoon", and "fork" all came from the same language. They don't: "knife", as I had guessed, is Nordic--it just feels Norse, somehow--which "spoon" is pure English. And "fork": well, that's from the Latin "furca", with the same meaning, and that was when a tiny light bulb went off and I realized that that was the root of the word "bifurcate". And then the "two-choices-is-wrong" bell went off (clearly there are a lot of electrical devices in my head), and I thought, "A fork is already two things, so isn't 'bifurcate' redundant? Shouldn't it just be 'furcate'?"

Sort of. But sort of not. If you're thinking as literally as possible, the adjective "bifurcate" ought to mean "having two forks, and therefore at least four branches". But we don't operate that literally in English, thank goodness, or we wouldn't be able to say anything as simple as "How are you?" without getting a half-hour discourse on medical and emotional problems. The "furca" in "bifurcate" doesn't mean a literal multi-pronged fork: it means "a forking", and "bifurcate" is saved from redundancy by meaning simply "forking off in two directions".

And we will not have any cheap jokes about mispronunciations of the word "forking", thank you.


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