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A Passel o' Words

December 11th/12th, 2001 - 11:38 p.m.

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Look! It's A Passel O' Words!

alembic (n. uh-LEM-bik)

1 : an apparatus used in distillation

2 : something that refines or transmutes as if by distillation

The type of still known as an alembic is used even today for the production of cognac, a distinctive brandy distilled from white wine in western France. This ancient apparatus was named al-anbiq (the still) by 8th-century Arabs, who borrowed the Greek word for a still (ambix), and who perfected its use as they made great advancements in chemistry. When the alembic found its way into Medieval European laboratories, scientific texts first transformed the Arabic word into Medieval Latin as alembicum. English speakers shortened the word to alembic, and also sometimes transformed the a to an article (a lembic). That misdivision led to limbeck, a standard variant still in use today. We gave alembic its figurative use in the 17th century.

hark back (v. HARK-BAK)

1 : to turn back to an earlier topic or circumstance

2 : to go back to something as an origin or source

Hark, a very old word meaning listen, was used as a cry in the hunt: Hark! Forward! the master of the hunt might cry, or Hark! Back! The cries became set phrases, both as nouns and verbs. Thus a hark back was a retracing of a route by dogs and hunters, and to hark back was to turn back along the path. From its use in hunting, the verb soon acquired its current figurative meanings. In the early 20th century, we began using hearken back and its variant harken back synonymously with the verb hark back. (Like hark, hearken and harken can mean listen.) And since the 1980s, there's been another development: harken can now be used alone to mean hark back.

bona fides (n. boh-nuh-FYE-deez)

1 : good faith : sincerity

2 : evidence of one's good faith or genuineness -- often plural in construction

3 : evidence of one's qualifications or achievements --

often plural in construction

Bona fides looks like a plural word in English, but in Latin, it's a singular noun that literally means good faith. When bona fides entered English, it at first stayed very close to its Latin use -- it was found mostly in legal contexts and it meant honesty or lawfulness of purpose, just as it did in Latin. It also retained its singular construction. Using this original sense one might speak of a claimant whose bona fides is unquestionable, for example. But in the 20th century, use of bona fides began to widen, and it began to appear with a plural verb in certain contexts. For example, a sentence such as the informant's bona fides were ascertained is now possible.

nocuous (adj. NAH-kyuh-wus)

: harmful

You are probably familiar with the adjective innocuous, meaning harmless, but did you know that it has the antonymous relative nocuous? Both nocuous and innocuous have immediate Latin predecessors: nocuus and innocuus. (The latter, of course, combines nocuus with the negative prefix in-.) Both words can also be traced further back to the Latin verb nocere, meaning to harm. Other nocere descendants in English include innocent (not wicked, or free from guilt or sin), nocent (harmful), noxious (physically harmful to living beings), and nuisance (which originally meant a harm or injury). Nocuous is one of the less common nocere descendants, but it does turn up occasionally.

sylvan (adj. SIL-vun)

1 a : living or located in the woods or forest b : of, relating to, or characteristic of the woods or forest

2 a : made, shaped, or formed of woods or trees b : abounding in woods, groves, or trees : wooded

In Latin, sylva (or silva) means wood or forest, and the related Sylvanus (or Silvanus) names the Roman god of the woods and fields -- a god often identified with the Greek god Pan. These words gave rise to English sylvan/silvan in the 16th century. (Sylvan has emerged as the more common spelling.) The English word was first used as a noun meaning a mythological deity of the woods, eventually taking on the broader meaning one who frequents the woods. The adjective sylvan -- now the more common word -- followed soon after the noun. Some other sylva/silva offspring include silviculture (a branch of forestry dealing with the development and care of forests), the first name Sylvia, and the U.S. state name Pennsylvania.

compurgator (n. KAHM-per-gay-ter)

: one that vouches under oath for the character or conduct

of an accused person

Compurgator comes to us from the Latin word compurgatus and the suffix -or. Compurgatus is the past participle of the verb compurgare, meaning to clear completely, which was formed from com- and purgare (to purge). Purgare also gives us our purge (to clear of guilt, to cause evacuation from, to get rid of) and expurgate (to cleanse of something morally offensive or erroneous). Compurgator has occasionally been used in a more general sense of one who supports or defends another, but its primary application is to the specific legal situation in which someone appears in court as a character witness for the defendant. Compurgator has been used in English with this specific legal meaning since the 16th century, but is now a relatively rare word.

melee (n. MAY-lay or may-LAY)

: a confused struggle; especially : a hand-to-hand fight among several people

Fray, donnybrook, brawl, fracas: there are many English words for confused and noisy fights, and in the 17th century, melee was thrown into the mix. It comes from the French melee, which in turn comes from the Old French meslee, meaning mixture. Meslee comes from the Old French verb mesler, or medler, which means to mix. This verb is also the source of medley (a mixture or hodgepodge) and meddle (to mix oneself in others' affairs, to interfere).

eventuate (v. ih-VEN-chuh-wayt)

: to come out finally : result

Eventuate started life as an Americanism in the late 18th century, and was stigmatized for that fact in the 19th century. A British commentator called it "another horrible word, which is fast getting into our language through the provincial press," and some American grammarians agreed. A few modern critics still consider eventuate to be pompous and unnecessary, but it is less controversial these days. And despite any and all controversy, eventuate has a perfectly respectable history. It is derived from the Latin noun eventus (event), which in turn traces to the verb evenire, meaning to happen. As you may have guessed, eventuate is related to the English words eventual and event, both of which also derive from eventus.

hare (v. HAIR)

: to go swiftly : to move or act with extreme haste

No doubt you've heard the Aesop's fable about the speedy hare and the plodding tortoise. The hare may have lost that race due to a tactical error (stopping to take a nap before reaching the finish line), but the long-eared mammal's overall reputation for swiftness remains intact. It's no surprise, then, that hare is used as a verb meaning to move quickly. The noun hare (which refers, in its most specific zoological sense, to a member of the genus Lepus whose young are able to hop about a few minutes after birth) is a very old word. It first appeared in a Latin-Old English glossary of around the year 700 as hara. The verb was in use by 1719, and people have been haring off and haring about ever since.

fountainhead (n. FOWN-tun-hed)

1 : a spring that is the source of a stream

2 : principal source : origin

When it first entered English in the late 1500s, fountainhead was used only in a literal sense -- to refer to the source of a stream. By the early 1600s, however, it was already beginning to be used figuratively in reference to any original or primary source. In his 1854 work _Walden_, Henry David Thoreau used the word in its figurative sense, while paying full homage to its literal meaning as well: "Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world."

Ugh. Walden. Blech. Henry David Thoreau and his pretentious book can just go away. So...Pennsylvania is supposed to just be...Penn's Woods? Because there used to be a lot of trees here, before we built cities? Hmm...guess sylvan forest is really redundant, isn't it? I'd swear I'd seen that someplace. Or maybe it was slyvan glen, or glade...I guess that would be okay.

Just out of curiousity...is my older page getting too crowded? Do you think I should start organizing years now too? I might update again later...that'd be something. It's not like this was a "real" entry anyway. Just a really big list of vocabularly words that no one really reads anyway. But I think this is quite long as it is at the moment, so no use making it longer. Well, there could be use in making it longer, but I don't really see the point. Like I said, maybe another one later.

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