or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, September 29, 2008


I've already written about "enervate" or some variation of it three times in the last week: first savaging a pretentious misuse, then taking Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to task for what appeared to be a similar error, and finally apologizing to Rowling (I was misinformed!) and poking around in the word's innards.

How about one more? The last time, I promise. Honest! It's quick, anyway, just a few short paragraphs.

It came to me as I was lying in bed last night--and I'm shocked that it didn't occur to me earlier--that one reason the verb "ennervate" does not exist in English is that we already have that verb, in a slightly different form: "innervate". It doesn't have the same meaning that Rowling applied to it: it actually means "to supply with nerves" or "to supply energy to through the nerves", as in "The human hand is heavily innervated".

"In-" and "en-" often serve the same purpose in English, and often both occur as prefixes to one word: both "enflame" and "inflame" are valid words, for instance, and while both have the same meaning, their usage has split somewhat over time; although you can be inflamed or enflamed with passion, you can say that a wound is inflamed but not enflamed, and so "enflammation" doesn't exist where "inflammation" does.

Similar stories can be told about numerous other such pairs of words. Sometimes the "in-" version eclipses the "en-" version, as in "inveigle" ("to entice"); "enveigle" is valid but not seen nearly as often. More usually, "en-" beats out "in-", as in "enfold", "entrap", "entrust", or "entwine"; the "in-" version of each word, though extant, is not much used. Most often, though, English simply settles on one form of the word and allows the other to atrophy and die: "envolve", for instance, is now quite gone from the language. If you want to revive it, though, be my guest.


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