or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


If there's a word that most people get wrong, and if everyone understands what you mean, and if the difference is really negligible anyway, does it matter?

Well, I'd say it does, but that figures, because it's just about the whole point of this blog. But in this instance, you be the judge.

Here's a Slate.com slide show about Spencer Tunick, the artist who takes pictures of throngs of naked people in public settings--you know the guy.

The very first page displays this early photo, "Wavy Line", a zig-zagging line of naked folks lying face up along a New York street.

The picture is described in the slide show thus:

Two years later, he was photographing small groups of nude figures on the streets of New York, as in this image of prone bodies snaking down the center of Manhattan's First Avenue.

Do you see the problem?

English has, fascinatingly, three words that mean "lying down flat"*: "prone", "supine", and "prostrate", all derived, predictably, from Latin, and each with a different refinement of meaning. "Prone", from "pronus", "leaning forward", means "lying face down". So does "prostrate", from Latin "pro-", "forward", and "sternere", "to stretch out", except that prostration has another wrinkle: you can have your knees folded under you (because you're kneeling in supplication, and then you go even further and touch your head to the floor). "Supine", on the other hand, means "lying face up", from "supinus".

So the people in the photo are supine, not prone.

Does it matter? Really?

I think so. I can't convince myself that most normal people would care, though.

* It has other adjectives for "lying down", though: you don't really think English would content itself with only three? "Reclining", for starters, from Latin "clinare", "to lean", which also led to "clinic", a place where you lie down and get treated for something. "Recumbent" means "lying down", but in any position: although on the back is usual, you can be recumbent on your side, too. The less-heard "decumbent" means exactly the same thing. The even rarer "procumbent" is an exact synonym for "prone". There's also the fascinating noun "decubitus", meaning "any position assumed while lying in bed". All these words come from Latin "cubare", "to lie down". They may also make you think of the word "incumbent", literally "one who lies upon", presumably because a political incumbent is lounging around on the position, waiting to be re-elected. Or because he lies. (That was a joke.) "Incumbent" might call to mind "incubus", a demon that comes to you when you're lying in bed, or perhaps "incubate", to recline upon a clutch of eggs to hatch them. All these words are self-evidently from "cubare".


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