Identity

A little Latin is a dangerous thing. Once you start realizing where words come from, you’ll never be able to utter a sentence again without thinking about what these words ‘really’ mean. I, who have acquired more than a little Latin, am a linguistic terrorist. I blow up entire sentences, leaving verbal debris.

More often, though, I just run around in circles, chasing an elusive insight through the tangled underbrush of meaning.

For example, I started this morning with the word ‘identity.’ We talk about identities being stolen, when what we really mean is numbers have been stolen, particularly that unique identifying string of digits we call a Social Security number. Society is much more secure now that we all have numbers.

Except when they are stolen. If I lose my identity, I am no longer unique. Possessing this, another person can steal other bits of my life — credit card numbers, checking account numbers, passwords.

But ‘uniqueness’ can’t actually be stolen, since what truly makes us all unique is DNA. Unless you’ve been cloned, no one has DNA identical to yours.

Linguistic point of order: No one is more unique than anyone else, or any less unique. That’s because unique is an absolute. You either are, or you’re not.

If we’re all unique, then none of us is really special. More

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Unpossible Words

The Romans were never able to conquer Germany, but they certainly stole English from the Germans. Originally a first cousin of German, English has acquired so many words from other languages, mainly Latin, that they now outnumber the Germanic roots four to one.

The resulting language is is a strange, hybrid monster.

Since English isn’t picky about how it creates new words, we’re always adding vocabulary. When students complain about how many words Latin has, I remind them that by some counts, English has over a million words. The Oxford Latin Dictionary has only about 40,000.

Prefixes are one way we add words in English, and many of these are stuck to Latin words. Because English draws both from Latin and German there are many redundancies: in– (along with its clones ir-, im-, and il-) and un– mean the same thing. Both turn a word into its opposite: necessary, unnecessary; sincere, insincere.

What’s sort of strange is that there are tacit rules about which prefix is used. We don’t have inhappy or unpossible. Who decides these things? In– is usually preferred with Latin roots, but necessary, a Latin word, has unnecessary as its opposite.

Further confusing things is the other prefix in- that means ‘into’: influence, induction, influx.

When we see a word like inflammable, how do we know whether it means ‘not flammable’ or ‘able to burst into flames’? It means the latter, but most trucks carrying combustible material use flammable, just so there’s no confusion.

And then there’s anti-, contra– (counter-), non-, dis– and a-, all used in much the same way: matter / antimatter, clockwise / counter-clockwise, advantage / disadvantage, sense / nonsense, symmetrical / asymmetrical.

When my students complain that Latin doesn’t make sense, these are the examples I pull out and ramble about for twenty minutes or so. By then, they’re all saying, “Can we just get back to Latin?” Mission accomplished.


Clues

Etymology always has a new story. No, not bugs – that’s entomology. I’m talking about where words come from, the roads they use to get here, and how the journey changes them. When they arrive, they often look very different from when they got on the omnibus.

A ‘clue’ is a piece of evidence, something we follow to solve a mystery or unravel a problem. It’s a rather general word – a clue can be fingerprints, a lab test, an observation, a phone call. Crossword puzzles have clues. Lots of people don’t have a clue.

Originally ‘clue’ was ‘clew,’ a ball of thread. Think of a labyrinth, trying to find your way out of those twisting passages. Even Daedalos, the inventor, had trouble with that. The Greek hero Theseus unwound a ball of thread as he pursued the Minotaur so he could quickly find his way back out. Clever Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, gave him the ‘clew.’

Writers must leave clews. As we wind our way towards the center of our story, we have to leave a way to get back out. It’s no good to get to the middle and then have to bring in a deus ex machina to rescue our story. Too contrived. If we unwind our clew a little bit at a time, the way out is no problem.

This is how I’ve been re-writing my most recent story, begun in November. I am creating a detailed outline – literally everything that happens, in order. Each event must lead naturally from the last. I am about halfway now, and see the value of planning before writing. On my first draft I wrote my way to the middle and couldn’t get out. Surprisingly, this method doesn’t produce a bland and predictable story; it lets me place clues where they can increase tension and raise suspense.

Once my outline is laid, the writing will be easier because I won’t be thinking about what should happen next or how to solve a problem I just created by blundering into a dead end. All that pretty writing – how can I bear to unravel it? That is how my first drafts usually go; by the time I figure out I don’t need something, I’ve already committed too much time and emotion to it. I can’t cut the thread.

Today my creative writing students will each receive a box containing three clues. Some will find a stack of letters, twenty years old, or a page from a newspaper article. Some will find a watch, or a picture, or a diploma, or a ring. (None of these clues are actual objects, of course – this is a fiction class, you know.) They will ask themselves, who sent this box, and why? What does each item tell us about the person who put them inside?

Students always want their characters to be physically attractive, rich, famous. They forget about the little things, the small clues that lead to the really interesting stories. We will see how far these clews will unwind, what stories they will produce. That is my journey today.

Fun and Funner

We had a German exchange student once who kept confusing ‘fun’ and ‘funny.’ He would say, “We played paintball. It was funny,” or, “That was a fun joke.”

It’s funny – not ha-ha, but odd – that these two words behave this way. ‘Fun’ ought to be the noun, and ‘funny’ the adjective – like ‘love’ and ‘lovely,’ or ‘salt’ and ‘salty.’ And yet they can both function as adjectives – with different meanings. ‘Fun’ also works as a noun, but ‘funny’ is stuck with being an adjective.

They come from a common root: ‘fon,’ meaning ‘to befool,’ or ‘a fool.’

Going off in another direction, ‘fon’ is also the root of ‘fond,’ which used to mean ‘foolish.’ It is probably in this sense that Juliet uses the word when she tells Romeo,

“I am too fond; and therefore thou mayst think my ‘havior light.” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.102) She fears that he may think her frivolous or silly.

Here’s something else that’s funny about ‘fun.’ Most one-syllable adjectives add -er and -est to form their comparative and superlative forms, e.g. cold, colder, coldest. Longer adjectives use ‘more’ and ‘most’ – beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful.

But we don’t say, ‘fun, funner, funnest,’ except informally. Correct usage dictates ‘more fun, most fun.’ (Dax prediction: ‘funner’ and ‘funnest’ will be considered correct within ten years.)

We do say, ‘funny, funnier, funniest.’

Neither ‘fun’ nor ‘funny’ happily takes the adverbial suffix -ly. ‘Funly’ is not a word; though I’ve heard ‘funnily,’ it doesn’t strike my ear right.

And there are the idioms:

‘Making fun’ of someone recalls the obsolete usage – making a fool of someone.

‘Have fun,’ is an odd sort of command. As if fun could be demanded.

‘Fun’ is more versatile than its cousin; it can even be a verb (informally), as in, “I’m just funning you.” (Which must be said with the proper accent: “I’m jess funnin’ ya.”)

Both ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ are subjective concepts. For example, I think it’s fun to look up words, while most people would just find that funny (odd, not ha-ha).

Nice Story

Every writer knows that choosing the right word is critical. A word that is too odd or inappropriate can jar a reader out of the story, while non-descriptive words can be boring.

One of the most common words by far in English is ‘nice.’

It is common in both senses — ‘widely used’ and ‘ordinary.’ Everybody uses it a lot, but it doesn’t say a lot.

Pleasant? Agreeable? Kind?

An older meaning, which you may sometimes still hear, is ‘exact, precise, or subtle,’ as in: ‘a nice distinction,’ one so subtle that it wouldn’t be very noticeable.

But as it is commonly used today, nice has no ‘nice’ meaning. It means whatever you think it means, or nothing at all, and is used whenever the speaker or writer is too lazy to think of a more descriptive term.

An even older meaning, not seen these days, is ‘fussy or fastidious.’ It is this meaning that Shakespeare intends when he has Friar Lawrence lament, “The letter was not nice, but full of charge.” In other words, it wasn’t just a “Hi, how are you doing?” letter; it was a “Juliet’s not really dead, so don’t kill yourself” kind of letter. Not nice.

Going back further, we find the meaning ‘foolish or ignorant.’ Now we are coming close to the root of the word.

For nice actually is descended from nescius, which in Latin means ‘ignorant.’

To be more precise: a ‘nice’ person is a ‘fool.’

And next time you use the word, will you be precise? Or will you have no idea what you really mean?

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