or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Better Late Than Never

Well, I've been trying to post this for days, but you know how it is.


Slate is running a series of articles about procrastination, and here is a piece about the word itself and why we even have one. (Short form: Latin "pro-", "forward, outward" plus "crastinus", genitive of "cras", "tomorrow", plus verbal ending "-are", making "procrastinare", "to push forward into tomorrow". Long form: the article.)


Here is a sentence from another recent Slate.com article by the wonderful Emily Yoffe about procrastination:

I didn't blame Dr. Fiore; maybe I had worn too deep a dilatory groove in my brain to ever spackle it in and become efficient.

"Dilatory". Don't you love it?

"Dilatory" is from Latin "dilatorius", which is hardly recognizable as a form of the verb "differe", "to postpone", but there it is: "dilatory" means "tending to delay: tardy".

"Differe" looks just like a progenitor of "differ", and that's just what it is. The meanings have diverged drastically, but that happened long before English. "Differre" is composed of "dif-", a variant of "dis", "apart", that precedes the letter "-f-", plus "ferre", "to bear", and therefore "differre" originally meant "to carry apart", which is a pretty good definition of "differ". "Dilatory", however, comes at one metaphorical remove: to carry two things apart in time means to delay the second thing.

Knowing this, "defer" would seem to be an obvious relative of "differre" and therefore "differ", and it is, too.

Even though "dilatory" looks for all the world as if it were the adjectival form of "dilate", the two are unrelated. "Dilate" is instead from Latin "dilatare", "to spread out", from "latus", "broad". When a pupil or a blood vessel dilates, it becomes wider, and when you dilate upon a subject--a rather archaic usage of the word, more's the pity--you expand on it at some length. "Latus" also gave English "latitude" and the back muscle known as the latissimus dorsi, literally "the widest [muscle] of the back", because the Latin names of many muscles tell you where they are, how they're shaped, or what they do. ("Biceps": two heads. "Gastrocnemius": belly-leg, the big calf muscle that's fat and rounded like a belly. "Deltoid": triangle-shaped. "Flexor hallucis brevis": short flexor of the hallux, which is to say a muscle that curls the big toe under. It goes on and on, and it is fascinating.)


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