or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, September 12, 2005

Razor Sharp

I miss Pauline Kael. Even when she was wrong (not that she ever would have admitted it), she had a way of getting into the pulp of a movie, of making you feel something visceral about how she loved movies and about how you do, too. The New Yorker has a couple of movie reviewers, both terrific and readable but not, frankly, Kaelian. They're undeniably opposites; David Denby, in my opinion the better writer, can be a bit stodgy, while Anthony Lane has a way of writing towards the joke rather than the point. (What fun it would be to see them arguing!)

In this week's Lane offering, we find the following sentence:

It’s almost a definition of highbrow modern theatre: middle-class people pay to sit for three hours and have their lives exposed and scarified.

"Scarify" is an odd, odd word, because it's two unrelated words, one with a tiny constellation of meanings, and it's not always immediately clear which one is intended.

Let's start with the newer one. "Scarify" means "to scare"; it's a coinage almost certainly derived from "terrify", with which it rhymes, and it looks very modern and made-up, so it's a shock to discover that it dates from at least 1794. The older version (from the mid-1400s!) is pronounced "scar-ify" (sometimes it's spelled "scarrify" to make that pronunciation obvious--but sometimes the other one is also spelled that way to make it visually match "terrify" better). The older word sure looks as if it ought to mean "to scar", which it can; but that meaning is incidental to its real meaning. The original sense of the word is is "to scratch" or "to make shallow cuts", from the Greek word for "stylus": scarification is, despite its alarming name, how allergy testing used to be (and perhaps still is?) done, with tiny amounts of allergens placed in scratches in the skin. The meaning broadened in two directions; first, it came to mean "to lacerate" or "to wound", both in a literal and in a figurative, emotional sense, and later to mean "to scar"--doubtless because of the look of it as well as the fact that scratches can leave scars.

"Scar", however, is unrelated to any sense of "scarify"; it comes from the Indo-European root "sker-", meaning "to cut", which gives rise to a large number of English words such as "shirt" and "skirt" (both cut-off versions of full-length robes), "score" (a tally cut into a stick), "shear", "short", and "ploughshare" (which cuts the soil).


Post a Comment

<< Home