or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Nicholas Murray Butler was...well, it doesn't matter, at least not to me, at least not right now. All you need to know is that 1) he was a polymath who 2) earned the sometimes smirking nickname "Nicholas Miraculous" because he was 3) so clever (he attained a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a Ph.D. within three years) and also 4) so completely full of himself, which also led to 5) his being pilloried in a famous poetry magazine (you can read all about it here) by having the phrase "Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse's ass" acrosticked into a poem: the magazine, which had unknowingly printed the insult, later called the hidden phrase "puerile and uninteresting".

I was thinking about hiding an acrostic in this posting, because I totally could, but then I starting thinking of how I'd have to calculate the average line length and insert hard returns so all the lines broke in the right place because different browsers or monitor sizes would screw up the scheme, and that would clearly be more trouble than it was worth to me, so I figured I'd look at the word "puerile" instead.

It means "childish", as you probably know, and it comes from Latin "puer", meaning "boy", "child". (Actually, all the words I'm going to talk about are from Latin, so I'll just stop saying it and you can assume it until I tell you otherwise. We may have lost the structure of that language, thank heavens, but in terms of vocabulary we owe an incalculable debt to Latin.) It still is that word in Italian: "pueri" is "boy". However, due to changes in the pronunciation of vowels, they pronounce it more or less "PWEH-dee" (it has a rolled "r" which resembles an English "-d-"), while "puerile" in English sounds like "pure isle" (or, if you prefer, "pure ull").

Some languages use affixes to denote tiny shades of meaning. In English, however, when we need a new but slightly different meaning we usually just borrow someone else's word or make one up, and naturally that's also the case with words meaning "childish". "Jejune" originally meant "dry and boring", then "uninteresting", and eventually expanded to mean "childish"; it's from "ieiunus", which is to say "jejunus", "meagre". (Another meaning of the word was "fasting", and so a non-nutritious diet can be described as jejune--which diet, to bring it full circle, would certainly be boring and possibly dry as well.)

One last word that comes to mind--there are others, but I'm not a thesaurus and the reader's patience is finite--is "infantile", which, fascinatingly, comes from "infans", "unable to speak"; the most notable characteristic about a baby, apparently, wasn't that it head was as big as the rest of its body or that it needed to be mopped up after for at least a year, but that it couldn't speak.

Well, after all that Latin we may as well sneak some Greek in here: "polymath", which I used in the first paragraph, means, more or less, "Renaissance man", someone learnéd in both breadth and depth. "Poly-" means "many" (and though it's tempting to guess that "polygraph", aka "lie detector", means "something that writes many squiggly lines", "-graph" meaning "to write", it's actually "something that writes many different things"--that is, that tracks heartbeat, respiration, and blood pressure simultaneously). "-Math", and this is something I did not know until just now and am delighted to discover, is from "mathanein", "to learn"; "mathematikos" originally meant simply "learning", aka "science", demonstrating that mathematics is in fact the foundation of all science.


Blogger Peggy said...

Glad to have inspired your positive comments on the G & M article. It is truly an honour considering the highly critical nature of your blog. The letter to Janeane is very funny.

Thursday, August 18, 2005 1:49:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Well, thanks for having written such a good piece (and for having gotten it published in the Globe and Mail without any typos, which is quite a feat). I suppose I am critical, but I'm critical of carelessness, of bad writing and sloppy or nonexistent editing. It's because I love the English language so much; I don't want to see people butcher and bastardize it. (I think one of the reasons your article resonated with me is that I know in my heart of hearts that I'll never know French, or any other language, as well as I know English, and honestly, I'm envious of someone who speaks two languages with equal grace.)

Thursday, August 18, 2005 11:12:00 PM  

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