or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Toast of the Town

Etymology in English is so twisted and convoluted, so multifarious and indiscriminately, almost promiscuously, tentacular that however large your vocabulary, unless you are specially and lengthily trained, you are forever presented with words that you cannot make out the provenance of.

Yesterday I couldn't figure out where "destroy" came from, but that was mere carelessness. Today I was confronted with another pair of words related to destruction (as well I might be when reading a book about a great fire): one of them I cleared away in short order, but the other eluded me, and with good reason--it is as misleading as a word can be.

"Conflagration" is pretty easy: the ubiquitous "con-" means together, and "-flag-", or "-flagra-", really, is also seen in "flagrant" and the middle word of the familiar phrase "in flagrante delicto", and means "blazing, glowing with heat", from Latin "flagrare". Something that's flagrant (a sin, usually) isn't just obvious, it's burning so brightly that it calls attention to itself, and "in flagrante delicto" means "caught in the act", literally "in blazing offence".

"Combustion", on the other hand, threw me completely. There's that Latin prefix, again, with en turned into em before a labial consonant for ease of pronunciation. And then...what? What is that? "Bust"? As in "burst"? Did it burst into flames? No, that's ridiculous, but...what?

The verb "urere", "to burn, to singe", that's what. You've probably never heard of it, because it doesn't have much of a presence in English. "Urere" shows up in just one other not particularly common English word: "urticaria", otherwise known as hives, from Latin "urtica", "nettle", because stinging-nettles cause such a rash (as can many contact allergens, including, in my case, cardboard, unfortunately).

But even if "urere" had had all sorts of offspring in English, "combustion" doesn't show any sign of it because of a tangled etymology. "To burn all about" was logically enough formed in Latin as "ambi-urere" and reasonably shortened into "amburere". When someone decided to intensify "amburere" by adding "com-", which literally means "together" but also acts as an intensifier, they hacked the word apart incorrectly and ended up with "am-" plus "burere", giving the demonstrably incorrect (but now-we're-stuck-with-it) "comburere", "to burn up". The verb "comburere" was turned into the noun "combustionem" by the usual rules of Latin, and there you go: "combustion", as well disguised as any word I know.


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