or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 27, 2008


An anonymous reader wrote in reference to my raking J.K. Rowling over the coals:

It should be noted that the spell in the Harry Potter books is actually "Ennervate"- by chance does the geminated N create a non-sensical etymology, or something substantially more interesting?

Last things first: I had, believe it or not, never seen the word "geminated" before, or at least I can't recall having seen it. Without even really trying to figure out what it means (not like me, but hey, I just got up), I looked it up and saw that it meant "doubled". "Oh, of course," I said to myself. "Like the constellation Gemini, or French 'jumelle'," both of which mean "twins". And that's just what it is.

Thanks for the lovely word!

Now, on to the question. Since Rowling called her spell "Ennervate" and not "Enervate", then she's right and she knew what she was doing (and the Wiki link has the name wrong). "Enervate" wouldn't have done what she intended, but "Ennervate" certainly could.

There are hardly any words in English that begin with "enn-", and even if I didn't know what "geminate" meant, I'm delighted that I could call to mind the three most important without even trying: "ennoble", "ennead", and "ennui". (There are of course the tenses of "ennoble", plus the nine-sided "enneagon", some variant spellings of "ennui", and a few other extreme obscurities with which we need not concern ourselves.) Two of those words are borrowed directly from other languages: "ennead" means "a group of nine" and comes intact from Greek, and "ennui" is pure French and means "wearied boredom"; it's related to "annoy".

That leaves "ennoble", which is of course "noble" prefixed by "en-", much used in English to create verbs which general mean "to cause to be in a particular state". ("En-" turns to "em-" in front of labial consonants, making the class of "en-" words even bigger.)

"Enervate" doesn't begin with "en-" (this would have demanded Rowling's duple "-n-") but with "ex-", which generally means "out of" or "away from"; the "-x-" is always dropped before most consonants (all except c, f, p, q, s, and t). Doubling--geminating!--the consonant creates a word which is etymologically possible: "en-" plus "nerve", used in an existing sense which means either "brazenness" ("You've got some nerve!") or "strength, whether physical or emotional" ("He got up his nerve to ask her out"). The word "ennervate" happens never to occurred in English, or, more accurately, it never got used enough to stick around and make it into the vocabulary proper: it might have been coined in the past, but if so, it didn't get much use, for the obvious reason that it sounds exactly like its antonym.


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