or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Bone Dry

Sometimes you can examine a word, mull it over, play with pronunciation and spelling, compare it to other words you know, and make a reasonably educated guess as to its meaning and derivation. Other times, you look at word and you absolutely cannot tell what it might mean; no clues whatsoever.

This page is from the irresistibly hilarious Gallery of Regrettable Food. Take a moment and read it--heck, take a half-hour and go through the entire site--and then come back.

"Costive inaction"? One could take a blind stab at it from the context, but it's such a strange word. What could "costive" possibly mean? Is it related to "cost"? "Caustic"? What?

As it turns out, it's a strange little corruption from an unexpected source: it's derived from the French word for "to constipate", and "costive" means either causing or suffering from constipation. (Latin had the verb "constipare", our word nearly letter for letter; the French turned it into "costever", and this is the source of "costive".)

Latin "constipare", since I'm sure everyone wants to know, consists of the prefix "con-", "together", and "stipare", "to cram". (It originally simply meant, as it seems it should, "to force together"; its use as a name for the ailment came later. "Stipare" or its offshoots also gave us "stevedore", one who crams boats full of cargo, and "stiff", descriptive of something that has been compressed into rigidity.)


On the other hand, as I said, sometimes you can tell what an alien word means just by looking and making an informed guess. Sometimes you're wrong, but at least you tried.

In this fascinating Wired article about absinthe appears the word "phylloxera". At first glance I naturally enough thought it might be pronounced "fill-OX-er-uh"; a closer study revealed that it must be divided into "phyllo-" and "-xera", and therefore might be "fill-oh-ZEER-uh" or something close by. Perversely, though, it isn't; the letter "-x-" has the damnedest effect on the English mouth (look at "Quixote", "key-HO-tay", and the adjective "quixotic", "kwik-ZOT-ik"), and "fill-OX-er-uh" is in fact how "phylloxera" is pronounced.

And what does it mean? "Phyllo-" ought to be familiar from the Greek pastry of the same name and also from "chlorophyll"; it's clearly related to French "feuille" and such English words as "foil" and "folio" and therefore means "leaf". The other half, "-xera", shows up in some form in a few uncommon words (such as "xerography" and "xeroderma") and is also the source of the English word "sere", and that gives us its meaning: "dry". Phylloxera, therefore, means "dry leaf" and is, from the context of the article, a disease that affects plants--in this case, wine-grape vines.

"Xerography", by the way, means "dry writing"; it stands in opposition to the wet process known as photography, and is another word for photocopying--the transfer of a powdered pigment to an electrically charged plate and then the heat-sealing of that pigment onto paper. The word "xerography" gave birth to the trade name Xerox.


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