or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Skinny

In the letters section of this week's Salon.com television column, I Like To Watch, someone wrote the following sentence:

It looked like a rummage sale was when all the designers were grabbing fabric, unlike last season's first show where all the designers had to race back to their rooms and rip and destroy their own living quarters and then, have to return later exhausted and go to sleep in the emaciated rooms.

"Emaciated" isn't the word I would have chosen--"eviscerated" is better--but it's not professional writing so I'm not criticizing it. However, it did force me to ponder the extremely interesting word "emaciated".

It means, of course, "wasted away: made scrawny". The first letter is fairly obviously Latin "ex-", in this case probably an intensifier but possibly "out of", its most usual meaning. But what of the rest of it?

The actual root is pretty boring: "maciare", "to make thin". That's it. That's all we have. It didn't leave any other traces in English that I know of, and with good reason: it's extremely specific and not conducive to spreading itself out.

But its Indo-European root? Ah, now that's something.

The root of "emaciate" is "mak-", which means "long" or "thin" and so is an obvious source for "maciare". But it moved in other directions: it gave Greeks the word "makros", which in English led to the accent mark known as the macron, denoting a long vowel (as opposed to the breve, which denotes a short one). "Makros" means "long" or "large", a minor conceptual leap but an important one.

Another Greek derivative of "mak-", but one which was coined after the invention of the microscope, was "paramecium", because a paramecium is a little protozoan which is elongated: "paramekes" meant "oval" in Greek, because an oval is an elongated circle.

"Maciare" had a cousin in Latin "macer", "thin", and this led, eventually, to English "meagre", or "meager", as the Americans prefer to spell it after Noah Webster had his way with the language.