or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sheer Poetry

It's not bragging to say that I'm a crackerjack speller. I always have been, even from a very early age, and since English is generally very difficult to spell, this ability is always considered a sign of intelligence, even though it really isn't; it's more of a particular brain configuration than anything else, as far as I'm concerned. Word gets around that I know how to spell, and people ask me to spell something they need to write down, and then when they get it on paper they almost always say, "You're so smart!"

But yesterday, when I was writing my blog post, I needed to use the word "onomatopoeic" and I just couldn't get it right. Although I usually have a photographic memory when it comes to spellings, I have a couple of blind spots, and that's one of them. (I couldn't remember what the fourth vowel was. I thought it should be "-e-", and then when that didn't work I tried "-a-", and that wasn't right, either, so I tried various combinations of them with "-a-" as the second vowel, and finally I just looked it up.)

I think there are two problems. First is that the word is (self-evidently) Greek, in which I have not the slightest training, and second, I didn't even know the etymology of the word; that's usually a help, because you can sort out the pieces of a complex word and figure out what they ought to be spelled like.

So. "Onomatopoeia" comes from "onomato-", which is the combining form of "onoma", which means "name", and "-poi-", which is a form of the verb "poiein", "to make", and the suffia "-ia", which turns it into a noun. Onomatopoeia, therefore, is the making of a name out of something else--specifically, the sound of something. ("Onomatopoeic" simply replaces the noun suffix with the adjectival suffix "-ic", and this is very usual in English: many nouns that end in vowel sounds take "-ic" to become an adjective, such as "lethargy/lethargic" and "anorexia/anorexic". You may also use "onomatopoetic", which is prettier, and this is fitting, because the verb "poiein" is also the source of the words "poetry" and "poetic".)

And now that I know, I will never, ever forget how to spell it again.


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