or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Discouraging Word

I was reading this blog entry today about a company that charges a disgraceful 99.25 per cent annual interest rate--how can such a thing even be legal?--and noticed that one of the commenters used the relatively common misspelling "exhorbitant".

If you Google that mistake, you'll find (as of today) 279,000 hits. Some of them are going to be things like this posting, discussing the fact that it's in error, but most of them are in earnest: people do in fact think the word ought to be spelled that way.

Predictably, the spelling once had some currency, but it doesn't now and hasn't for a long, long time; the spelling "exhorbitant" really has been in error since the word entered the language (in 1534), because it stems from...

Well, why don't you take a guess?

The prefix is pretty obvious: Latin "ex-", "out of". The suffix is also very common: Latin again, and used to turn something into a noun meaning "that which" or "one who" ("litigant", "one who litigates"). The middle part, therefore, is "orbit", which means more or less just what you think it does.

"Orbit" now most usually means "the path which a planet or satellite follows in space", but it can also have, at a small metaphorical distance, the meaning of "sphere of influence", and a couple of other ones besides (such as "the eye socket"). "Orbit" was originally a Latin word which literally meant "wheel track", so it's easy to see how it got its modern meaning, and also easy to see what "exorbitant" means: "off-track", which is to say "outside from the usual bounds of propriety"; it's generally limited to matters of money, but the sense of disapproval is unmistakable.

Some people, I'm sure, don't just spell "exorbitant" wrong but also pronounce it with that "-h-" inside it (also wrong), and you can sort of see where they might have gotten that from: there's another not-uncommon English word, "exhort" (and also "exhortation"), which does have that "-h-". But it comes by it honestly enough, because it's related to "hortatory", "encouraging, inciting", from Latin "horiri", with exactly the same meaning.


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