or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 02, 2008

One-Track Mind

Here is a very silly list of Gadgets That Go Inside You (artificial heart valves, sex toys, that sort of thing), one of which is the IUD. Here's part of the little write-up on that device:

Strangely, though, the intra-uterine device is FDA approved to swim around in the human vagina for five to ten years. The alternative is worse, of course: a blind mucousy parasite that claws its way out of your genitals in an explosion of blood and gore, then demands a college fund. It's for this very reason that women have been stuffing the scariest looking foreign objects they can find up their uterine tracks since 1902.

There are more than a couple of things to complain about in this demi-paragraph, but I'm ignoring most of them in favour of a usage that's always irritated me greatly; confusing "track" and "tract".

I mean, they don't even sound alike! You could almost forgive someone for using "they're" instead of "their" (almost), because there's no way to tell them apart aurally, but "track" doesn't sound like "tract" unless you're a lazy speaker who just drops the last consonant off the latter word. (I suppose if you've once, or always, heard "tract" as "track", then you could come to think of it as being spelled and pronounced that way: I know people who pronounce "specific" as "pacific", which baffles me a little--do their brains just lop off the "s-" whenever they hear the word properly pronounced, or do they think that we are pronouncing it wrong?)

And "tract" and "tract" are not even related etymologically! And they don't even have the same meaning!

As a pretty good general rule, a tract is something that's wide and encompassing, while a track is narrow and restricted; think "tract of land" versus "racing track". Naturally, you will say, "But the urinary tract is narrow and restricted! And so's the digestive tract!" You seemingly have a point. In biological terms, a tract appears to mean something linear, something that channels things in a specific direction towards a specific end, almost like...a track. But in fact, a tract is a region of the body that encompasses a number of parts; the urinary tract isn't just the urethra, through which urine flows, as most people think, but a large system incorporating the kidneys, the ureters (which empty urine from the kidney to the bladder), and the urethra. Likewise, the digestive tract isn't a simple tube, not just a straight line from the mouth to the disposal unit; it involves a number of organs, including the pharynx and the stomach as well as the esophagus and the intestines.

Enough of the anatomy lesson. "Tract" is from Latin "trahere", "to pull, to draw", and is therefore predictably related to "tractor" (which pulls a plough) and "traction". (The "tract" which is a little pamphlet, nowadays usually religious, is also from this root, but with a radically altered meaning: it began as "tractare", the frequentative of "trahere", "to draw", with the repetition giving it the sense of "to handle", and so a "tractatus" was the handling, in print, of a particular subject. "Tractatus" became "tractate" in English; "tractate" is, contrary to appearance, a noun which means "treatise", and, through a sort of parallel evolution, "treatise" also grew from "tractatus" through Anglo-Norman "treteiz".) The usual senses of "tract", therefore, of an expanse of land or of a region of a body, come from this sense of being stretched out and spread; drawn to cover an area or fill a volume.

"Track", on the other hand, isn't from Latin at all. It seems to be from Old Norse, from a word "trathk", that means just about what "track" means in English; a path or a place walked upon.


Blogger Frank said...

"Track" and "tract" may not sound alike in the Canadian accent, but a lot of Americans pronounce them almost, if not exactly, the same.

Monday, June 02, 2008 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Do Americans do that with all words that end with "-ct"?

I'm serious. I don't know. Do they pronounce "attract" as if it were spelled "attrack", "pact" as if it were "pack", "inflict" as "inflick", "instinct" as "instink"?

Now that I think about it, "pack with the Devil" sounds all too plausible. Maybe it's only, or mostly, one-syllable words that get singled out in this way.

On a hunch, I just Googled "packed with the Devil", vaguely remembering a short story called, I think, "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Pact With The Devil" (a play on an old cigarette advertising slogan), and the very first hit contains the sentence "yes i believe in that we have all made a packed with the devil because god and the devil are the same person but split in 2." I don't know which it's more: depressing or hilarious.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008 12:43:00 AM  

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