or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Go with the Flow

Yesterday Jim and I went to see The Audition, a film about the semifinals and finals of the National Council Auditions, in which up-and-coming opera singers perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in hopes of winning a $15,000 prize (there will be five or six winners) and boosting their fledgling careers. Great stuff, and some great singing.

One of the shots in the film, taken outside the Met in 2007, shows this image printed on a fabric banner:

It's a painting by John Currin (an artist I generally dislike, since so much of his work is smirkily, post-modernly hideous, though I concede this one is pretty enough), commissioned by the Met to advertise an opera by Richard Strauss called Die Ägyptische Helena. The Wikipedia page for that opera contains the following line

Although not dense and magmatic as the orchestration for Elektra and Salome, it is still impressive

and as soon as I read that I thought, "There is no way that 'magmatic' belongs in that sentence," or, to use a popular Internet saying, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." (It's a version of a line from the movie "The Princess Bride". You could look it up.)

Even if you had never seen the word "magmatic" before, and I confess that I had not, it's pretty easy to see that it's a regular English word, formed in the ordinary way from the noun "magma" and the adjectival suffix "-tic". Most people know "magma" to mean "molten rock, liquefied by pressure and heat, under the Earth's crust", it used to mean "sediment" or "dregs of wine", and it has a couple of other rare meanings referring to fine particulate matter suspended in some liquid or other.

What could the Wikipedia writer have meant by "magmatic"? Was he or she aiming for "volcanic" or "incandescent", two words associated with magma? I honestly have no idea, and that right there is the peril of using the wrong word.

In all fairness, "magma" is a deceiver, because its etymology will happily lead you astray. It is pure Greek, meaning "ointment", originally one created by kneading a substance, and it derives from the verb "massein", "to knead", from Indo-European "mag-", "to knead". As soon as you see "massein" and "to knead", you will, if you are me, suspect that the verb "massage" must also come from this source. But it doesn't! "Massage", obviously French, comes instead from Arabic "masaha", "to stroke, to anoint".

"Magma" is, on the other hand, related to "maceration", another sort of suspension of solids in a liquid.


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