or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Left and Right

As I have said before and will say again, the pronunciation of words changes in English (and in every other living language). The vowels slide around fairly rapidly while the consonants take longer, but sounds mutate based mostly on simple physiology (it's not a big jump from the voiceless "f-" of "fox" to the voiced "v-" of "vixen"); the Great Vowel Shift is the best-known of these changes, but they're still happening today. Here are a couple of very old, very interesting changes.


From an infuriating Salon.com article about the bloodthirsty George Bush and his desire to bomb a cable news station in Qatar:

Despite the smokescreens that politicians and diplomats are attempting to throw up by suggesting that Bush was just joking, there is every reason to suspect that he was deadly serious and that Blair barely managed to argue him out of this parlous course of action.

"Parlous" is an odd-looking word, isn't it? Doesn't it suggest "parlour", or, if you know any French, "parler", which means "to speak" (and which shows up in English in "pourparler" and "parley", which both refer to kinds of discussion)?

It isn't, though. It's a wonderful alteration of the word "perilous", and if you roll both words around in your mouth, you can easily imagine how, over time, the one became the other. (Although "parlous" comes from Middle English, it helps to imagine yourself a Dickens character, possibly Joe Gargery.)


A recent Slate.com column from the invariably fascinating William Saletan discusses the Catholic church's new bigot-in-chief Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, and starts with this paragraph:

The Vatican's new policy on gay priests has been leaked. Officially, it proposes the incorrigibility of deeply rooted gay tendencies. Unofficially, it exposes the deeply rooted, incorrigible antigay tendencies of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI.

We could talk about this all day (the Catholic church thinks it has a priest shortage now? Imagine what would happen if it actually could and did get rid of all the gay ones!), but that's not what this blog is all about. What interests me is the word "incorrigible".

It's obviously related the word "correct": "incorrigible" literally means "un-correctable". But what's the deal with "-rig-" and "-rect-"? It looks like something that would have evolved over the centuries in relatively modern times, but in fact Latin had both forms, because the source of "correct" and "incorrigible" is a word that branched out in a number of related directions.

The "-rig" of "incorrigible" comes from "regere", "to lead, to rule", with a sense of straightness or straightforwardness--to lead forward, to rule properly. Eventually this word opened up into "rectus", "straight", which gave Latin "correct-", with the same meaning it has today. Both of these words have led to an amazing panoply of English words: "regere" gives us "reign", "royal", "regal", "regulate", and "regular", among others, while "rectus" leads to such words as "rectitude", "right", "rectum" (the straight part of the otherwise curved bowel), "rectangle", "direct", "erect", and, finally, "correct".


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