or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spare No Expense

While walking home yesterday afternoon with the groceries in the pounding rain, I saw a sign in a church parking lot--why had I never noticed it before? Was it installed just this week?--warning interlopers that "Unauthorized Vehicles WIll Be Towed At Owners Expence".

Okay, there's no apostrophe after "Owners". Typical. What grabbed me was the word "expence", which looks for all the world as if it ought to be correct, or at least plausible, but isn't.

It used to be, back before spelling was cemented in place by custom and dictionary-writers. (The OED doesn't list it separately, though it does show it as an older variant under "expense".) Before dictionaries, pretty much any way you could think of to spell a word was a way that word could and would be spelled, and as long as people could understand you, possibly by sounding it out, you were doing fine. But these days, like it or not, we've got a little thing called orthography, and "expence" doesn't make the cut.

It looks plausible because "pence" is an old, old plural for "penny"*, and "expense" has to do with money, so why shouldn't "expence" logically exist? Because, in fact, "expense"--the noun form of "expend"--has nothing to do with money, at least not that literally. It's from Latin "ex-", "out", and "pendere", "to weigh"; "expendere" came to mean "to pay out", from the sense of putting something of known value, such as gold, on a scale. From "to pay out" come all the current meanings of "expend" (even "expend calories" or "expend effort"), "expense", and "expenditure" (and "spend", which I suppose is pretty obvious, but I've never shied away from stating the obvious).

"-Pendere" is also the source of "dispense", "compensate", and "recompense", not to mention "pound" (the weight, not the enclosure or the beating) and "ponder", to weigh an idea. If we move off in another direction--the sense of "hanging in the balance" from which "to weigh" comes--we also get another batch of words: "pendant" and "suspend", among others.

I love the way clusters of words erupt from a single source, encouraged by a battalion of affixes and a few tiny changes in spelling and pronunciation: it's one of the wonders of the language.

* After reading about "-pendere"/"pound" you might be tempted to postulate a connection: pendere/penny, pendere/pound. It isn't there. "Penny" comes from a fount of Germanic and Nordic words which mean the same thing as "penny": modern German "Pfennig" is an obvious ancestor, and in fact "penny" was once "penning", a linguistic structure that also held for the obsolete "farthing" and "shilling" (modern Austrian German "Schilling").


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