or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Yes You Can

Here's a Slate.com story about quinceanera, the gaudy coming-of-age ceremony which is evidently the Spanish-speaking version of the gaudy sweet-sixteen party. And here's the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph:

How dizzying is it to be caught between conventional old-world expectations and typical American license?

Isn't "license" an interesting word when you really look at it? First of all, even though I had never thought of it as anything but a unit, on closer inspection it reveals itself to be a root with a very common suffice, "-ence", which turns adjectives ending in "-ent" into nouns, as in, say, "concupiscence" or "arrogance" (which ends in "-ance", granted, but it's exactly the same as "-ence", a mere vagary of the history of English spelling).

Second, the American spelling is different, on first glance, from the British spelling. This is because a few British words take "-ce" for the noun and "-se" for the verb, such as practice and practise. Americans, though, have done away with this distinction, and use "practice" and "license" for both noun and verb. (As you can see, they didn't try to make it uniform: they evidently just grabbed whichever came to hand and discarded the other. Canadians, typically, kept some British usages--we still make the distinction between "practice" and "practise"--but discarded others as the Americans did.)

And finally, the root in question is tremendously interesting: it's from Latin "licere", "to be permitted", and if you rack your brains you will discover that every single meaning of "licence" or "license" in English means, in some way, "permission to do a thing". Sometimes you're granted this permission, as with a marriage or driver's license: sometimes you grant it yourself, as in poetic or sexual license. But it's always permission.

And finally, that root, "licere", gave us some other words: both "licit" and "illicit", of course, but also, marvelously and unexpectedly, "viz.", a Latin term meaning "that is to say" or "namely", which is an abbreviation of "videlicet", literally "to see it is permitted".


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