or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Okay. I was preparing a sandwich with melted cheese and the word "molten" occurred to me; "molten cheese" has a nice ring to it, and I suddenly wondered if the word "moult" was related to "molten". I was pretty sure it wasn't, but you never do know, do you? So I started looking up various words, and then I came across a most curious assertion under "molten" in Answers.com: "v. Archaic".

I agree that "molten" is old, and that it forms the past participle in an archaic way (though that's nothing odd--we have lots of irregular past-tense forms in English, such as "bring/brought" and "sling/slung"); but the word itself it anything but archaic (assuming we use Answer.com's very own definition of the word, and I'm compressing here a little: "1) Of a much earlier, often more primitive period: 2) No longer current or applicable: antiquated: 3) Of words and language that were once in regular use and are now relatively rare").

"Molten" rare? Primitive? No longer applicable? In fact, it shows up all the time. A popular dessert in restaurants is known as the molten chocolate cake, which is a little cake, served hot, with a liquid chocolate centre. The term "molten lava", redundant though it seems to be (lava must be molten, or else it's rock), is widely known; a Google search reveals over a quarter million hits. The word is old, yes, but it's in no possible sense archaic; it's as modern as any other.

And what's more, "molten" is irreplaceable, because "melted" has a different connotation. "Molten" carries with it the idea of the application of extraordinary heat: "molten rock" sounds right where "molten snow", although it is usable, just feels strange. (We use "molten" for food items because we're used to encountering those in their solid, room-temperature form, and because we're accustomed to using poetical or extravagant words for the things we eat; look at a menu some time.) What's more, a molten chocolate cake is clearly not the same thing as a melted chocolate cake, which would be either a cake made from melted chocolate or a chocolate cake which has somehow melted. In this way, "molten lava" is not, as it first appears, redundant, because the adjective "molten" doesn't mean it's lava which has melted, but lava which is liquid and flowing, as opposed to solidified lava.

So: "moult" and "molten/melt"? Any relation? The same basic word with a mere change of vowels? Nope; just a coincidence. "Moult" is from Latin "mutare", "to change", obviously the root of "mutate". "Melt", on the other hand, comes to us more or less intact from Old English, which got it from Gothic "maltjan", "to dissolve": "melt", carrying a sense of softness and softening, is also related, through various languages, to soft-fleeced "mutton" and the squishy-bodied "mollusc".


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