or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Rhythm Method

I usually leave the rant to the end, but this time it goes at the beginning, just to get it out of the way. You can come back and read it later, or skip it altogether (because you've heard it from me before).

This is what happens when there are no editors. Writers can and do make mistakes, although this mistake, I have to say, shouldn't have been made in the first place: but it was, and it should have been caught and corrected, and would have been if Slate bothered to hire copy editors. But they don't (and a spellchecker wouldn't have noticed it, because the mistake is a valid word), and so we're stuck with errors like that which leave us to wonder if the writer just made a simple typo--it's just a single letter in a single word--or if he actually doesn't know the word in question, and I hate being forced to wonder that.

Here's a sentence from Watchmen, the book, not the movie (which I am going to see next weekend):

Gibbons found himself cramming his graphics into a neat box-arrangement of nine frames per page, and the result was a minimalist, Philip Glass-y, metronymic tone.

Now, if you know even a little about etymology, you will know that whenever you see "-nym" at the end of a word, it invariably refers to a name, because it is descended from Greek "onyma", which is a form of the word "onoma", which means "name". (A few days ago I wrote about the word "nomenclature", and Latin "nomen" is from the same source.) Therefore "metronymic" must have something to do with the name of something, and this cannot possibly make any sense in the context in which it is used.

The context instead suggests another word that has to do with music and rhythm, and that word is in fact "metronomic", from "metronome", a device used to count time. If the comic in question has a metronomic tone, then the writer is saying that the panels are repetitive and rhythmic in nature, which they are.

"Metronymic" means something else altogether. The "metro-" part is the same as that in "metropolis", which is to say "mother" (because a metropolis is a mother-city from which other, smaller cities are born when its residents move on to found their own). A metronym is therefore the opposite of a patronym; it's a name that is taken from one's mother or her line rather than one's father or his. (My own last name is just such a one: having been given my father's surname at birth, as was the style at the time, I discarded it and legally took my mother's maiden name instead.) "Metronymic" is a variant of "matronymic", the more usual form, but, as in "metropolis", "metr-" is common enough variation of "matr-".

In case you were wondering, which you surely were, I have already done "metronome", to which I will add only that the second half of the word, "-nome", is wildly complicated and interesting. Will I get to it tomorrow? I just might.


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