or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, August 03, 2012


Over on my other blog I quoted Lewis Carroll's illustrator as saying that he found a particular job to be "altogether beyond the appliances of art". And isn't that an interesting use of the word "appliance"? It's pretty much gone from the language altogether.

Nowadays, "appliance" means just about only one thing: a machine, usually large and immobile, that we use around the home, such a refrigerator or a clothes dryer, although there are also small appliances such as toasters. (We can also preface it with "dental" to mean braces and other orthotics.)

The suffix "-ance", from French (of course), is used to turn a verb into a noun: just as "contrivance" means "a thing contrived", "appliance" can be taken to mean "a thing applied", which was Tenniel's use: none of the things he might apply in the service of his art could accomplish Carroll's intention (although someone who drew a little girl dancing with a gryphon and a calf-limbed tortoise would, you might think, be capable of drawing anything).

Like "device", "appliance" has undergone a process called semantic narrowing, in which a word becomes more and more restricted in use, often as other words drift in to replace the older meanings. ("Hound" is a good example: it once meant any dog, from German "Hund", but now, means a very specific sort of dog, the hunting kind. You can have a basset hound or a greyhound, but not a Newfoundland hound, unless you jokingly say, "Get over here, hound.")

Not only the suffix of "appliance" is French, but the whole word: the stem, "apply", comes from the very old French verb "appliquer", which is still seen in English in the noun or verb "appliqué", most usually used to mean the decorative sewing of one kind of fabric onto another. And "appliquer" in turn comes from Latin "ad-", "to", plus "plicare", "to fold" (whence our "ply", as in "four-ply" and the verb "multiply"), which sounds strange until you take the sense as broadly as possible: to fold together is to bring two things in contact with one another, and from there a host of metaphorical association spring forth, as when you apply yourself to your work, apply sunscreen to your face, or apply your knowledge to the task at hand.


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