or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, October 21, 2005

Sic Semper Typos

I'm sure James Wolcott is a dreadfully busy man--it has to take some time to think up such wonderful sentences as "In the calm, autumnal reflection of Sunday morn, it is impossible to shoo away the sad conclusion that Bill Keller and Pinch Sulzberger have fucked the dog"--but can he not find the time to re-read his blog entries before he posts them? Not even once?

Here's the first line from his most recent:

I couldn't agree more with Pat Lang's post at Sic Temper Tyrannis:

Now, I understand that this is a very easy mistake to make; we've all done it. You've got a hot idea percolating in your brain, your fingers are flying across the keyboard, your mind is at least three words ahead of your hands, and you start two words with the same letter; I could easily have written "lame letter" just then. Your spellchecker won't catch it, but you might, if you re-read.

What Wolcott meant was "Sic semper tyrannis!", Latin for "Thus always to tyrants!", which is what you're supposed to scream just before you insert a knife or a bullet into said tyrant. It's what John Wilkes Booth said just before he plugged President Lincoln. I am fairly sure Booth got the "semper" part right.


So as usual a word popped into my head while I was doing the dishes, and this time it was "exaggerate". The "ex-" part, I was pretty sure, was a standard intensifier denoting outwardness, as in "express" (literally "to squeeze out"), but the rest had me stymied. Finally it dawned on me that the root was so similar to the verb "aggregate", or "gather up", that they must be related; to exaggerate was therefore to literally and figuratively gather it up and pile it on.

And nnnnnnnnnnnnnnope. But so close! "Exaggerate" does, in fact, literally mean "pile on"; it comes from the Latin "ex-" plus "aggerere", "to bring to", which itself led to the noun "agger", "pile". "Aggregate", on the other hand, is from "aggregare", "to collect", which in turn is from "greg-", "flock"; this is also the source of "gregarious", a word describing someone who loves to be in a crowd. It is also, marvellously, the root of "egregious" (starting with that "ex-" again, abbreviated thanks to the following consonant), which means "flagrantly offensive", literally "out of the flock"; someone who acts egregiously is someone who is about to be ejected from the herd.


Blogger armitage shanks said...

Interesting, I was just reading an old book entitled '100 Great Lives' and the life I was on, as you may have guessed, was Lincoln's. In this chapter Booth is quoted as crying "Sic SEMPER tyrannis!" This book is from 1946, but I would have thought it to be correct. Google gives both semper and temper as a possibility of what Booth said. Maybe I should check Wikipedia, ha!

Thursday, March 20, 2008 1:35:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

The trouble with Google is that it gives you the wrong and the right indiscriminately. "Sic semper tyrannis!" is the correct version, and Wolcott made a typo, possibly egged on by a spellchecker.

Thursday, March 20, 2008 6:27:00 AM  

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