or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Rubbing Me the Wrong Way

Here's a sentence from a recent Slate piece on newspapers:

Yet now, as newspapers attrite and collapse, some scholars are telling us that newspapers are a necessary component of democracy.

Now, I am not a fan of business-speak neologisms. I think they usually sound unpleasantly artificial and pretentious at the same time. That's how I feel about "attrite" in the passage above. I really hate it: it sounds like something invented by a favour-currying middle-management type who throws around words like "leveraged" and "proactive".

The thing is, though, that it's really old, dating from the 1600s, not much younger than the noun "attrition" from which it is formed. Not as a verb, mind you. It was originally an adjective, in the same way that "contrite" is an adjective related to "contrition". Adjectival "attrite", no longer in common currency, originally meant "eroded: worn away", for reasons we'll get to in a minute. But something about the verb "attrite" just pisses me off. I can't defend this unjustified annoyance; I just feel it.

But whatever. The word is apparently in the language and I can't stop its spread. At least not yet.

Now, the root of "attrition", and "contrition", since I mentioned it, is Latin "terere", "to rub", because attrition is the wearing away of something and contrition is the wearing away of a person's will through penitence. I've discussed it before. The Greek branch of the "rub" words comes from "tribein", which I've also gone over.

Both Latin and Greek come from, naturally, Indo-European: in this case, "terh-", "to turn, to rub", which over the centuries spread in meaning so much that it gave birth to a wide array of words: starting from that notion of friction, the sense evolved into such ideas as repeated turning ("drill"), twisting ("thread"), piercing ("trepanation"), beating ("thresh" and "thrash"), affliction ("tribulation"), injury ("trauma"), and elapsed time ("diatribe", literally "wearing away" in argument or discourse).


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