or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Beginning

Okay, I had this thing I was going to talk about, but then I stumbled across something else that is really really cool. I guess if you are a grammarian or have studied Latin to the point of fluency, then you will have heard of this; otherwise, hang on, because it is tremendously interesting.

I vaguely wondered where the word "adolescent" might have come from, because it doesn't suggest anything else in English. It turns out that it is pretty much straight-up Latin which came about, though a series of little grammatical changes, from the verb "alere", "to nourish". To be nourished from infancy is to be able to grow up, of course, and so the Latin verb "adolescere" meant just that, compounded from, as we would expect, "ad-", "towards", and "alescere", "to be nourished".

All well and good. What really grabbed me is that "alescere" is derived from "alere" by the insertion of "-sc-" (and an extra vowel to make it flow), and that this infix is used to create a grammatical form not really seen in English; the inchoative. An inchoative aspect gives a verb the sense of just beginning to happen, and we can give a verb this sense in English by prefixing it with "to start" or "to begin" or occasionally "to get": "to start running," "to get going".

Naturally, when I learned this, I was delighted, and I began racking my brain (inchoative aspect!) to try to think of any words that had "-sc-" within them. "Coalesce" is from the same root as "adolescent", and devolves into "to grow up together", and therefore at one metaphorical remove "to grow together". "Dehiscent" is not a word you see every day, although it happens that I know it, and it too is an inchoative form, of the Latin verb "dehiscere", "to begin to gape open"; dehiscence is the act of splitting open, as when a seed pod pops and releases its contents. "Irascible" is related to "irate", from Latin "ira", "ire"; "tumescent" from "tumere", "to swell", "obsolescent" from "obsolere", "to fall into disuse" (itself from "ob-", "away from", and "solere", "to be accustomed to"). "Reminisce" is ultimately derived from "mens", "the mind".

That was where I ran out of words, but naturally I dug around and found some more for you. "Crescent" is the inchoative of "creare", "to create", because a crescent moon (or a crescendo) is increasing in size, creating itself or being created. Nouns ending in "-escence" such as "phosphorescence", "fluorescence", and "iridescence" (and their adjectival forms ending in "-escent") were devised after the Latin model and so are inchoative as well.

Not every word containing "-sc-" is inchoative. ("Descend" is from "de-" plus the Latin version of Indo-European "skand-" "to jump", and "ascetic" is from Greek "asketes", "priest".) But plenty of them are.


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