or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hard and Fast

The other day as Jim and I were walking to the supermarket, we had occasion to joke about giving someone an apoplexy, and, well, don't you want to know where "apoplexy" comes from? It is a tremendously interesting and vaguely Victorian-sounding word, after all.

It means "a stroke", the cerebral-hemorrhage kind. You can tell just by looking at it (can't you?) that it must be Greek. You can also guess--correctly, in this case--that it's formed of two parts, the prefix "apo-" and the root "-plex-".

Right. Now what do those bits mean?

"Apo-" has several meanings. It usually means "away from" or "apart from", just as Latin "ab-" (as in "abduct", "to lead away") does; you can sense the linkage between the prefixes. But "apo-" also acts as an intensifier, with the sense of "away" leading to the connotation "as far as you can go". That's the sense it has in "apoplexy".

I bet you can think of a half-dozen "apo-" words without even trying. I came up with apoplectic, apostate, apologize, apothegm, apocrine, apogee (really and truly, without looking them up), and there are lots more that didn't even occur to me: apocryphal, apostle, and apostrophe are the common ones, and Morewords lists 174 in all, most of them variant forms.

An apothegm is a pithy saying or aphorism: it's from the Greek for "to speak out". An apogee is the farthest point in a satellite's orbit; the "-gee" part is related to the "geo-" which means "Earth", so the apogee is literally the most away-from-Earth part of an orbit. "Apocrine" refers to the sweat glands under your arms and means literally "to set apart", because they're different from the eccrine glands which are used to regulate body temperature through sweat. If you want to know the meaning of the rest of the "apo-" words, well, dictionary's that way.

The second half of "apoplexy" is from "plessein", "to strike" (thus "stroke"). Unlike most other afflictions, an apoplexy attacks violently and suddenly.

"Plessein" is derived from the Indo-European root "plak-". If you play around with it long enough and consider its meaning, which is the same as its Greek offspring, you're sure to come up with at least one other word from this source. "Plaque" is too obvious, and wrong, to boot. "Plague", though, is from "plak-", eventually, though it's a tortuous journey. I didn't guess it, though it might be obvious; the only word I could come up with that I was sure was related (and it was) was "plectrum", the pick with which you pluck the strings of a guitar or mandolin.

There are others, though, most of them morphed out of easy recognition. "Complaint" is, as is its progenitor, "plaint", the relationship to "plek-" being that grieving or plaintive people beats their breasts in grief. "Plangent", "making a loud and plaintive sound", is also related. "Paraplegic" comes from "plek-" as well, though I confess I can't determine the function of the prefix "para-" in this case; it usually means "beyond" or "to the side of", and since "paraplegia" means "paralysis of the legs", well, what does "para-" mean in this context? Maybe I'm just too tired to work it out; it's been a long day.

One last unexpected word which really has been warped beyond recognition, because it comes to us from Old Norse: "fling", "to throw violently".


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