or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Leaders and Followers

What happened to me? A KINDLE HAPPENED, that's what. I was thinking about buying one but I was gonna wait until we got back from New York and then a co-worker was reading hers at work and let me play with it and dammit, I had to have one, and now I do, and I have a LOT of books on it--you can get SO MANY for free at Project Gutenberg--and now I am just reading reading reading all the time, on the bus at home at work (during breaks), more than I have in years, probably, and my knitting is falling by the wayside and my blogs are being ignored (by me, I mean) but at least the household chores are getting done, so I'm not completely a lost cause.

But I'm still listening to the Cleopatra audiobook (might as well use it up), and late into it the author used the word "formidable" to refer to the queen, and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I did not know where it might have come from, and also that it was really a very strange word, because can you think of another English word that might be related to it? I couldn't, except possibly "formicidae", the family of insects that are the ants, and also therefore "formic", as in "formic acid", which is found in the bites of ants and which is colossally interesting stuff, because in quantity it apparently smells like ants, like an anthill, and because it substitutes for hydrochloric acid in the stomachs of anteaters, who devour so many ants that the formic acid in their bodies does the work of digestion, and also because it decomposes (in the presence of heat and other acids) into water and carbon monoxide.

But "formidable" is obviously not related to "formicidae", is it?

No, it is not. But the two words, thanks to their related sounds, evolved from words that are likewise similar to one another. "Formidable" is, as "-able" words generally are, from French, and the French naturally enough got it from Latin: in this case, "formido", which means "fearfulness, dread, terror", making "formidable" another excellent example of that class of words in English that has shed its original connotations of horribleness and come to be a mere intensifier: "terrible", "awfully", "dreadfully". "Formido" in turn seems to have emerged from Greek "mormo", a goblin, through a process called dissimilation, in which sounds are mutated sometimes beyond recognition.

"Formic" and "formicidae" are also from Latin, obviously, from "formica", their word for an ant, which was more or less accidentally re-coined for commercial purposes a century ago from the words "for mica", since the product was originally intended to be a substitute for mica in electrical insulators. Latin "formica" is from Greek "myrmex", "ant", through the exact same process of dissimilation, and "myrmex" may still be seen in English "myrmidon", originally a warrior, now usually taken to mean an unquestioning follower.


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