or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, November 30, 2007

Title Match

Here's a quoted sentence from a recent posting in Broadsheet, Salon.com's women's blog thing:

Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life, in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?

"Titrated"! A lovely and unexpected use of this word.

The literal meaning of "titrate", according to Dictionary.com*, is

to ascertain the quantity of a given constituent by adding a liquid reagent of known strength and measuring the volume necessary to convert the constituent to another form.

Whew! But that isn't the whole story, because there's something a definition can't really portray. In a laboratory, a titration is performed using a device like this:
The stopcock on the right-hand side delivers the reagent to the solution one drop at a time, and this is the sense that Hochschild is getting at: the paid intimacy of a spa or a salon is doled out in small, measured amounts rather than being given freely.

"Titration" has a very interesting etymology, because it's the result of a string of metaphors, and even though it's very close etymologically to its source, in sense it's extraordinarily far away. I usually start from the ground floor--the root language--and work my way up to the word in question, but this time, it's better to go in reverse.

To titrate is to test the quantity or quality of something. This is an extended sense derived from the French word "titre", which once referred to the purity of precious metals; the relationship in senses is obvious. This stems from an earlier French meaning of "titre", "qualification", and this in turn stems from yet another sense of the word, "title", which is to say "that which distinguishes one thing from another"; it's not hard to follow this chain of changes. The whole thing derives from Latin "titulus", originally meaning "superscription" and then "title". "Titre" is in fact the modern French word for "title", and is, predictably enough, the source of that English word. So a titration is literally an entitlement: the bestowal of a classification or categorization onto something.

*I used to use Answers.com all the time, but then they added an unknown something, probably a form of advertising, to their pages and suddenly my browser, Safari, would crash every time I went to their site. I stopped using them. It may be the case that they fixed the problem, or that the newest version of Safari did. Don't care. They're dead to me.


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