or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 21, 2011


As I believe I may have mentioned, I'm listening to a lot of audiobooks these days, mostly at the gym and on the way to and from work. (Their existence is probably the only reason I haven't bought a Kindle yet.) Right now it's Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff*, which is fascinating, and beautifully read by Robin Miles.

However. It really threw me when Miles pronounced the word "unguent" to rhyme with "pungent". I had never, ever heard it pronounced any other way than "un'-gwent".

But guess what? Apparently rhymes-with-pungent isn't actually wrong, which is to say that I located a dictionary that allows it, specifically Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, which I'm not linking to because each page has an auto-start video which I find terrifically annoying.

I still don't like rhymes-with-pungent, but there is precedent, for some reason.


Speaking of Merriam-Webster, read this sentence from an A.V. Club piece about home taping**:

Since my Hee Haw problem was the first time I’d had a Macrovision issue with my TiVo, I’d hesitate to call this a huge crime against the consumer, but it’s definitely aggravating.

Nothing wrong there, you might think, and you would be right. But some really prissy protectionists of the English language, aka prescriptivist grammarians, say that "aggravating" is a barbarism in this context, because "aggravate" literally means "to make worse" . Well, no, actually it doesn't: if you want to get right back to the beginning, it means "to make heavy", from Latin "gravare", "to weigh down", also the source of "gravity" and "gravid", which is to say "heavy with child". But prescriptivists like Fowler, bless him, were and are given to making such pronouncements as, "To aggravate has properly only one meaning -- to make (an evil) worse or more serious."

Here's the thing, though: "aggravate" took on Fowler's meaning at the end of the sixteenth century, and not even three decades later had already acquired its most usual modern meaning, "to irritate or exasperate". It's meant that for some four hundred years now: surely we can admit it into the family as full kin and not some bastard pretender? (I suppose I should say at this point that due to an overzealous teacher in my past and a small hard nugget of prescriptivism in my soul, I don't in fact love "aggravate" in this context, and never use it, preferring instead to use one of English's massive collection of finely nuanced synonyms: "vex", "trouble", "bedevil", "annoy", "bother", "gall", or "infuriate", to name just a few.)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage has a lot to say about "aggravate", so you might as well read it if you have nothing better to do.

*Whose name through no fault of her own is the same as that of the fictional best friend of the fictional and hilarious Libby Gelman-Waxner, former movie reviewer for Premiere magazine and alter ego of Paul Rudnick, about whom I am forced to say that he writes great jokes but terrible, terrible screenplays.

**Remember that old industry ad line, "Home Taping is Killing Music"? One of the commenters parodied it as "Home Fucking Is Killing Prostitution," which is delicious. Not original, but still a great joke.


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