Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Look Closer

If you're thinking about a word and you pay more attention to how it sounds than to how it looks, you can be led right down the garden path.

This morning the words "species" and "specie" popped into my head, followed in short order by "specious". The first two were obviously cousins, and it seemed pretty clear that the third was at least distantly related, though I had no idea how.

I definitely should have been looking at them rather than just thinking about them, because--as should probably have been obvious--they're all also related to the word "spectacle"; that is to say, they all reflect some aspect of looking.

"Species" originally meant "outward form or appearance"--that is to say, what something looks like. Its meaning eventually shifted to the modern one, "a category", which still retains a shadow of its earlier meaning: things that look alike to us are considered part of the same species, informally if not biologically. "Specie", which means "money" or, more specifically, "coin", first meant "in kind"--that is to say, "an exchange of something which is like something else".

"Specious", in retrospect, is the most obviously related to "spectacle" (from Latin "spectare", "to watch"): something specious is something which looks like the real deal, but isn't. (Jim just asked me about "spectacle", which is to say a thing worth looking at, and then he mentioned "speculum", which is a device used to look into something. I've already talked about "spectre", "specimen", and "spectrum", so you'd think I might have figured out "species" on my own.)

3 Comments:

Blogger Tony Pius said...

Dude, if you wanted to be thorough about "-spec-" words you would be here all day. No harm in missing one or two on the first approach.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005 5:13:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

It is staggeringly fecund, isn't it? "Specific", "prospector", "especial", "speculation"--pretty much every English word that contains "-spec-" except "speck" and its relative "speckle". And then we have through a vowel change "conspicuous" and "despicable" ("to be looked down upon"), and, from a related Greek word, "skeptic" and "telescope", not to mention "spy". It's nearly endless.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005 6:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tony Pius said...

Which, I think, raises the question: Why "-spec-" instead of "-vis-"? Sure, you could probably come up with a dozen or so "-vis-" words off the top of your head, but my hunch is that they're greatly outnumbered by "-spec-" words.

Accident of history? Conspiracy by the makers of Scrabble to keep the "v" tile difficult to use? You make the call.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 4:31:00 PM  

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