or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, May 06, 2006


I was doing a cryptic crossword yesterday and, apropos of nothing in the puzzle, it occurred to me (I must have seen this construction before in another puzzle) that if you tuck "-n-" into "orate" you get "ornate", and this of course led me to wonder if "ornate" could be related to "ornament'. I mean, it surely must be, but what I was really wondering was if that "-ate" ending which we regularly use to denote an adjective ("sedate", "abbreviate"--yes, "abbreviate" was once an adjective as well as a verb) had emerged from noun "ornament" to adjective "ornamentate" to adjective "ornate".

As it turns out, no; that never happened. Predictably, "ornamentate" has cropped up in English, but, unfortunately, never as an adjective, only as a verb by people who think that the more syllables a word has, the grander it must be, and love to employ horrible words like "orientate" when "orient" serves the purpose beautifully, and likewise with "ornamentate" versus "ornament".

They are related, though. They have to be; just look at them! They're both from Latin "ornare", "to adorn", which fairly obviously is also derived from "ornare", with the addition of the prefix "ad-", "onto".

In case you were wondering, by the way (I know I was, which is why I had to look it up), no, Latin "ornare" is not related to "ornery"; that's a contraction of "ordinary". I don't know how "ordinary" led to a word meaning "stubborn", but that's English for you.


Oh, hey; I used some semicolons up there! And another one just back there in the last sentence! Too bad Kurt Vonnegut doesn't approve!

I was leafing through the QPB catalogue today, and there, on the page advertising Vonnegut's new book, "A Man Without A Country", was this assertion regarding the semicolon:

They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.

Well, first off, the use of the semicolon is pretty well defined--here, for example--so clearly it has to represent something.

Second, "transvestite hermaphrodite" is a blindingly stupid way of describing anything, because a hermaphrodite is by definition someone with both male and female sexual characteristics, and so it's impossible by any definition for a hermaphrodite to be a transvestite--literally from Latin "[a]cross-dressing"--because there's no line for them to dress across; their bodies have erased any line that might exist between male and female.

And thirdly, what could anyone possibly have against the meekly subservient semicolon, which wants nothing more than for us to punctuate our sentences correctly and comprehensibly?

Vonnegut has one thing right, though; the semicolon is a hermaphrodite, neither one thing nor the other, straddling two worlds. It boldly announces itself as neither period nor comma, but a hybrid of the two, and this tells you how to use it; where a full stop is too abrupt--where you have more to say on the subject--and yet where a comma is insufficient or incorrect, the semicolon finds its home.

(Here's a snarling entry from a blog called Weasel Manor taking Vonnegut to task for this and other offenses.)


Blogger Bright Beak said...

Ok, the pitiful thing is that you've just given me the most salient explanation of the semi-colon's purpose in punctuation I've ever had! A sad commentary on the educational system that taught me my (paltry) grammatical skills. The purpose of most words and parts-of-speech were taught via Latin in university, but it was unable to provide much assistance in the punctuation realm.


Saturday, May 06, 2006 7:06:00 PM  

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