or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


After doing some research, I began to suspect I had done today's batch of words already, and maybe I had; I'm away from home and therefore from my complete archive, so I can't easily check. (I did a cursory check online and there's no evidence that I'm repeating myself.)

At any rate, this morning I woke up to daylight and the sun, for the first time since I got here Thursday afternoon, wasn't shining: the sky was covered with a thick scum of greyish clouds. I searched for the exact word to describe the sky, and came up with "congealed", "clotted", and "curdled": a minute or two later, the word "clabbered" joined them, followed shortly thereafter by "coagulated". After being struck by the fact that all of them begin with the letter "c-", I was running them through my head and noticed that as far as I could tell, none of them were related to any of the others.

Why would a language need five different words for what amounts to the same thing?

Well, whether or not we need them, we've got them. Can you figure out where they might have come from?

"Congeal" is obviously Latinate: when it's visibly a prefix, "con-", "together, with", denotes a Latin word, and "-geal-" suggests "gel" and therefore "gelid" ("frozen; icy") so strongly that it can only mean "frozen", the whole word meaning "frozen together in a mass".

"Clot", I thought I recalled, was related to "clod", so a clot is a lump or mass of something.

"Clabber" is short for "bonnyclabber", which is a word I had never heard of before: it's Gaelic, and the "bonny" part doesn't mean what you think it means: it's "bainne", "milk". The "clabber" part means "thick".

"Curdle", I decided, must be the frequentative of the verb "to curd", assuming such a verb existed, which it does. "Curd" is a variation of "crud", a process called "metathesis", in which letters and/or sounds change position in a word: when you hear someone say "nucular" instead of "nuclear", that's a metathetical change. Some common English words or pronunciations were formed by this process: "third" ought to be "thrid", by analogy with "three", "wasp" used to be "waeps" (and in fact in some British dialects, "wasps" is "wopses"), and we pronounce "iron" as if it were spelled "iorn".

"Coagulate" looks Latinate as well: "con-" or "com-" plus something else that started out as or turned into "-agul-". And this is what it is: it's actually related closely to "cogent", which is from Latin "con-" plus "-agere", "to drive, to move", which is, a moment's thought will disclose, the source of "agent", a driving force (and also "agitate", to move, to put into motion), and so "coagulate" means "to drive together (into a mass)".


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