or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, July 14, 2008

Together Forever

Yesterday at work, something made me think of the verb "combine", and my brain was so addled with no doubt toxic paint fumes--long story, not very interesting--that I couldn't think where it came from. Can you?

I mean, I could figure out the first half. Anybody could. "Com-" is an extremely important prefix in English, and it virtually always means the same thing: "together" (or, in an extended meaning, "completely", which is to say "together all the way"). There are Latin or Latinate words that start with that sequence of letters but aren't prefixed by "com-", but you can usually guess which ones they are on sight; "come", "comma", and "comic" are three that come to mind, and I suppose there are others, but they aren't many. Some words that feel as if they couldn't contain this prefix nevertheless do; French "comte", which is occasionally seen in English and means "count" (the title, not the sum), is derived from Latin "comes", an imperial title that itself is a compound of "com-" and the verb "ire", "to go", and "comedo", a blackhead, is composed of "com-" plus "edere", "to eat"; "comedo" is Latin for "glutton", and the skin blockage took that name because the thread of whitish muck that can be squeezed from a blackhead resembles a little worm which feeds on the body's secretions. (Seriously. Yuck!)

"Com-" is the form that appears before the labial consonants "-p-", "-m-", and "-b-"; before other sounds, it's "con-", and that's even more frequently seen in English. Morewords lists 936 matches for "com-", 1947 for "con-"; I bet they're missing at least a few. Not all of the "con- words have that prefix ("conch" and "condom" come to mind), but most of them, and virtually all of the multisyllabic ones, do.

So have you figured out the second half of "combine" yet? I kept thinking, "Bind? Bight? What?" The answer is much simpler: it's related to "binary", and means "two", because to combine is to put two things together. So simple!

The noun "combine", which as usual has its stress on the first syllable rather than the second (as in "record", "desert", and numerous other words), can mean an assembly of financial interests hoping to form a monopoly, or a combine harvester, which gets its name from the fact that it is a single machine which performs several steps of the harvesting process (cutting, threshing, and winnowing), rather like, at the other end of the process, a modern home breadmaker.


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