De-mystification

Vallarta Tribune #681, article entitled “Our Twisted Way of Speaking

Dear Tommy Clarkson:

I loved the use of your phrase “semantic forensics” in referring to the investigation of ‘de-‘; and I thought that, as a fellow LSI (Linguistic Sense Investigators, a language twist on CSI), I could offer a few more details to those interested in this etymological topic.

The difficulty with disassembling words that English got from Latin (when the Romans occupied England) and French (when the Normans conquered the Anglo Saxons in 1066 or somewhere there abouts) is that we recognize neither the word parts (from Latin and “made vulgar” by the Gauls) nor do we realize that most words are distilled forms of expressions, which to us may not have made sense even if we had heard the expression back when it was spoken natively!

An example of distilled forms of expression that pops into my mind in English is Watergate. We now have all kinds of different –gates, and we don’t need the Nixon back-story in order for the ‘gate’ particle to have a whole new meaning. How did that happen?

Let’s take, as an example from your article, the word ‘debacle’: désbâcle <= desbacler to unbar, free, “un-bar” which came from the French sense of “breaking up of ice on a river” that later was extended to “the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts.” Now, if enough people share this experience over enough period of time, it is human tendency to distill the meaning down to a more general reference. Imagine: if we had a flood debacle resulting from some government agency’s malfeasance where ice was the main point of failure, we could have ‘ice-gate.’

In the paragraph above, I said that a sense was “extended to” another reference, signifying that meanings can drift. Take the word “hearse” in English: it first referred to a piece of cloth placed on a coffin, then it drifted to refer to the curtains in the carriage carrying the coffin, then it drifted to refer to the carriage itself. The term ‘debauch’ (in your article) appears to have experienced some similar strange evolution from “shaving away” [wood] in addition to being derived from some culturally shared, wild-ass concept of the time. What was the “wild-ass concept of the time” for our own word ‘plowed’, as in, “he got plowed yesterday.” That would be a fun history to know! (Let’s hope it has nothing to do with farm instruments as sex toys!)

But besides the dictionary-definition senses you list, de- is also a particle that makes something pejorative or that intensifies something. (The word ‘up’ is the most common intensifier in English: he ate all his food; he ate up all his food.) Then there are the subtleties in meaning of the particles themselves: De- is sometimes a contraction or corruption of dis- (not, not any, apart) or des- (off).

If we take the words (below) that you mentioned in the article and apply some etymology to them, we can see that these words do, indeed, follow a pattern — but from the parent language whence they came. In most all of them, you can see where the native English translations also use two “particles,” but in the form of full words: break down, fall apart, lead astray, go away, take in, clear up, ward off, etc.

Debacle désbâcle <= desbacler to unbar, free, “un-bar,” free up.
Debris <= debriser: break down («down break»)
Debauch <= “to trim (wood) to make a beam” (shave something away) a to lead astray.
Decadence, Decay <= from decay: de- “apart, down” + cadere “to fall”: fall apart.
Decease <= de- “away” + cedere “go”, literally: a departure as a euphemism for mors (dead). We say: pass away.
Deceive, Deceitful <= from de- “from” or pejorative + capere “to take”: to ensnare, take in.
Decide <= from de- “off” + cædere “to cut”: to cut off, with the sense of making up one’s mind “at a stroke”.
Declare <= from de- intensifier + clarare “clarify”: clear up.
Defend <= from de- “from, away” + fendere “to strike, push: to ward off, push away.

So, I don’t think our speaking is as twisted as it is anachronistic.

Maybe next edition, you’d like to tackle the -ed suffix when talking about pitted olives or light-hearted discourse. That’s a great topic!

-ron biggs

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One Response

  1. […] chaos reigns, as so many conclude in discussions about things like this judging by titles like “Our Twisted Way of Speaking” or conclusions as “English is a jumbled […]

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