INFINITESIMAL.

I usually nod in recognition when I see odd verbal usages in my reading—ah yes, “penultimate” for “ultimate,” an old acquaintance. But this, in Andrew O’Hagan’s review essay “The Powers of Dr. Johnson” in the Oct. 8 NYRB, is truly weird:

He used Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden at the head of an army of brilliancy; he sourced and copied over 100,000 examples for the Dictionary to best illustrate the meanings and uses of English words. In doing so he revealed a republic of letters as a rich, voluble, human culture, a summit of what men might do to civilize their days and exalt their common circumstances. The Dictionary indeed is a work of art, encapsulating an almost infinitesimal belief in the magic of poetry and prose. The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper.

What on earth could he mean by “infinitesimal” here?

Comments

  1. unimaginably large?

  2. I think he means “an almost infinite belief.”

  3. I think that O’Hagan thinks that infinitesimal is the technical denominal adjective from infinity. It’s not such a stupid idea: English words in -esimal are both few and rarely used. The biggest group is vigesimal, trigesimal, quadragesimal, etc., which simply mean ‘pertaining to 20, 30, 40, etc.; based on 20, 30, 40, etc.’, as in vigesimal number system ‘number system using base 20′.
    The OED accounts for the special sense of infinitesimal by pointing out that ordinals and fractions can have the same form: the tenth means ‘number 10 in some order’, but a tenth means ‘one part out of 10′. Similarly, an infinitesimal means ‘one part out of an infinite number of parts’.
    The only other words in English that are semantically analogous to infinitesimal are irregularly formed directly from it: planetesimal ‘tiny separate part of a (past or future) planet’ and satellitesimal ‘tiny separate part of a (past or future) satellite’ (not yet in the OED). Artificial satellitesimal doesn’t show up in Google so far, but it’s just way cooler than piece of space junk.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Such examples seem to show that when an unfamiliar affix (= prefix or suffix) is added to a recognizable word implying a large quantity, many people will interpret the affix as having “augmentative” meaning, indicating a quantity surpassing that suggested by the word.
    So “penultimate” is interpreted as “beyond the ultimate”, the latter understood not as the pedestrian “last in a series” but as the more evocative “as remote as one can imagine” (perhaps like the constantly receding edge of the universe): “penultimate” therefore seems to mean “unimaginably remote”. “Infinitesimal” must have been understood by the author quoted here as having a similar meaning: “beyond the infinite”, that is, as erik suggests, “unimaginably large”.
    This reminds me of some people whose traditions said they had lived in a certain place “from time immemorial”, claiming that they had been there “even before time immemorial”, “time immemorial” itself apparently being understood as a nebulous but finite temporal limit.

  5. What it means is that he couldn’t manage to actually use a “Dictionary.”

  6. Nora Carrington says:

    Seems to me like an error caused by a reliance on spell-check. It’s spelled correctly and close to the sequence of letters intended. I wish more authors took the time to proof their own work, or better still have someone else read it for such errors.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    We don’t usually use a dictionary to check the meaning of a word if we think we already know what it means.
    spell-check: What word would be so close to “infinitesimal” that the spell-check would assume this was the word intended? only “infinite” comes to mind, and would a spelling error in that word (“infinate” is a common one) cause the spell-check function to add five extra letters?.

  8. I think that O’Hagan thinks that infinitesimal is the technical denominal adjective from infinity. It’s not such a stupid idea: English words in -esimal are both few and rarely used.
    I agree with the first sentence, but not with the second. One particular English word — inifinitesimal — is a very frequently used word in the sort of English I read, and I would be amazed to see it misused in this way by a physicist or mathematician. But I presume O’Hagan is not a physicist or mathematician. We all have gaps in our knowledge, and usually we are quite unaware that they are gaps — we hear a word once, common, perhaps in a technical field, but uncommon otherwise, and try to interpret it in the context we hear it. If a physicist referred to Malayalam as the name of the family to which Malay belongs we wouldn’t be particularly surprised, as they might have met “Malayalam” only once in their life, in a context where that meaning is not impossible. If a linguist used it that way we’d be very surprised.
    A few months ago we discussed how many people have passed through a period in which they thought “misle” was the verb from which “misled” derives. I find this a similar case — we don’t use a dictionary to check things we think we know.

  9. That’s hilarious.
    John C. is kind to explain how “[i]t’s not such a stupid idea”, and marie-lucie is ingenious in her discovery of an analogy between affixed “recognizable word[s] implying large quantit[ies]“.
    But really, was there a process of thought at work? Or, as several posters seem to be saying, was O’Hagan too lazy to check his $20 word before he crowbarred it into his praise of a — ironia ironiarum — dictionary?
    -
    I agree that there’s a small group of commonly similarly-misused words- fancy words that look and/or sound like, but don’t mean, what they’re used to mean. One that catches my eye, oh, two or three times a year: inchoate to mean chaotic. Another, less common, funhouse mutation: adumbrate to mean add to; augment.

  10. I’m not sure what you mean by “content”, robertslucker. How does one get to the “content” except by the “language”?

  11. chemiazrit says:

    Does the NYRB not employ editors? I’d have flagged the absurd, muddy hyperbole of anything being “almost infinite,” let alone the misuse of “infinitesimal.”

  12. Andrew O’Hagan’s former girlfriend’s mother is the ex-wife of Norman Foster.

  13. Andrew O’Hagan’s former girlfriend’s mother is the ex-wife of Norman Foster.

  14. Just to note that the history of the theory of infinitesimal quantities is a rather interesting and technically non-trivial story– here’s a link to get into it.

  15. Inchoate more or less does mean chaotic.
    Dictionary.com says inchoate means “not organized; lacking order”, which is pretty much how I would define chaotic.

  16. It’s Claire Messud who’s single-handedly turning me into a crank. These consecutive lame ledes!
    From the current issue: “Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer unlike any other. This may seem a truism—what writer, after all, is not unlike others?—but Ishiguro’s fiction is, in fact, very strange indeed.” I guess she had a hint that the first sentence was blah, but then figured she could distract her readers with the blinding insight that writers are different? In fact. Indeed. (She then goes on to discuss his “unerringly calm, even placid” prose.)
    The opening of her story “Land Divers” (published in Oct 22nd NYRB): “The burglar stood at the bedroom window and watched them drive the Mini into the garage. They’d had the car windows open and Noddy and Cissy had been singing….” — was there nobody there to point out that switching tenses accomplishes nothing but sapping all tension from the scene?
    May 28th (a book review, remember): “Recently stopping by our old house, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Berniss, who, with her particular combination of fluster and devout resignation, informed me that her husband—a night-shift cabbie invariably encountered grumbling amiably on his front porch, flat cap on pate and cigarette butt dangling from his gray lip—is in the hospital, dying, as she put it, ‘of the cancer.’” ????????????????????????
    O’Hagan, on the other hand, can write beautifully (from the June 11th LRB):
    “Those who spend most of their lives being alert to the demands of others – and that’s most employees, most husbands, wives, parents, most believers – will know the rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void.”

  17. Dictionary.com says inchoate means “not organized; lacking order”, which is pretty much how I would define chaotic.
    I think there’s actually some space between those states.

  18. I think that O’Hagan thinks that infinitesimal is the technical denominal adjective from infinity.
    You must be right about this, although I agree with Athel C-B that this is surprising because the word is very frequently used (by the sort of people who read and write for the NYRB, of course).
    Does the NYRB not employ editors?
    Yes, it’s not all that surprising that O’Hagan misused the word—we all have our blind spots—but it does surprise me that the editors did not catch it. Is the NYRB turning into The New Yorker? (Burn!)
    I’m not sure what you mean by “content”, robertslucker. How does one get to the “content” except by the “language”?
    Now that I have pruned the thread of spam, this is left hanging, so I’d better explain that spammer robertslucker, like all the best modern spammers, left a vaguely relevant comment to go with his spam URL and hopefully protect it, and in this case it was so beautifully appropriate that I actually regretted my deletion as soon as it was too late (in such cases I sometimes delete the URL and leave the message): it was something like “but isnt it the content rather than the language that matter?” That may not have been the exact wording, but it ended with a glaring bit of ungrammaticality.

  19. Alan Palmer says:

    In addition, what’s “a republic of letters”?

  20. “Inchoate” really means “in the process of creation, not fully formed”. It has come to mean “not organized; lacking order”, and this is now reflected in some dictionaries, too, as it should be.
    You can try to explain the new sense by noting that what is not fully created yet may be not fully organized yet.
    Deadgod sees the influence of “chaotic”. I always think of “incoherent”. Between the two, the former looks more like “inchoate”; the latter sounds more like it.
    *
    I note that in order to misread “misled” as a regular past form, you have to mispronounce it, whereas mispronouncing “inchoate” in the obvious way might help you not to confuse it with “chaotic” or “incoherent”.
    *
    Could O’Hagan have been using the word as an attributive noun? After all, infinitesimal calculus (a.k.a. calculus) is not meant to be infinitely small; it the calculus of infinitesimals (a.k.a. infinitesimal quantities). (Just kidding.)
    *
    Some would say that the world was not even inchoate (in the process of creation) yet when all was chaos. What I mean is that in some creation myths there is a state before the start of creation called “chaos” — and unlike your everyday chaos this may be a state of nothingness, not (as one might think) a state in which the pieces of creation have not been sorted out yet.

  21. This is not the only example of a scientific word misused by someone who doesn’t really know what it means. A current example I hear on tv is “optics” used to mean “appearances,” as in “We have to consider the optics of the situation.”

  22. I think the simple explanation is that the author wanted to say ‘infinite’, but then thought that the short ‘infinite’ was not exalted enough, so he added the extension which he thought would give more power to infinite, but in fact gave it the opposite meaning…
    but is it really for NYRB? sounds too frilly.
    I agree with deadgod about :
    fancy words that look and/or sound like, but don’t mean, what they’re used to mean.
    Infinitesimal reminded me of the famous Russian ‘anti-word’ – congenial’no (конгениально). Ostap Bender in the Twelve Chairs uses it instead of the simple exclamation гениально (meaning the same as in French – génial – great). He thinks that adding con- adds power, but does not realise that it changes the meaning.

  23. Think of all those chumps who think that “epicentre” means the very quintessence of a centre.

  24. @dchamil: “Optic” has become a figure of fun in my day job; given that it entered English in that sense via French literary theory (so OED), I’m assuming the vehicle was not people who misread a physics text, but MA students who ended up in the public service or as suits. “Optic” = “perception” is a lot closer to optique (“II. n. perspective”) than “the study of light”.

  25. @dchamil: I really doubt that the newer sense of optics is a result of people genuinely not knowing what it means; rather, I think it started as a sort of witticism or figure of speech — a briefer, catchily scientific-sounding version of “how it strikes the eye” — and has since been picked up more widely. (After all, it’s hard to imagine a context in which a use of optics‘s usual sense could really lend itself to this sort of misunderstanding.) Further, I assume that most of its users are still quite familiar with the more common sense, even if they (hopefully) no longer think they’re being witty.
    By the way, it’s not just on TV; I’ve noticed it on NPR a while back, which prompted me to look for print examples (so I could add it to http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/optics). I found no shortage.
    @Nick Nicholas: I don’t know, the relationship between the optic that you mention and the optics that dchamil mentions seems rather tenuous to me, seeing as the latter doesn’t have to do with viewpoint or perspective. The only commonality between the two seems to be that they’re both metaphorical (if we take the physics senses as literal).

  26. “Optics” and “orbs” are much misused in poor fanfiction, by inexperienced authors who’re fixated on eyes. I haven’t read the Twilight series, and I do not plan on doing so, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it occurs there, too.
    Cowan is indeed very generous. With that interpretation this becomes one of those errors that only a relatively smart person can make. I mean, who actually knows words like “vigesimal”?
    Does anyone know the authors style? Could this be a *nudge*nudge*wink*wink* to tease people like us who know “infinitesimal” and send people who don’t to – wait for it – look in the dictionary?

  27. Bill Walderman says:

    Re inchoate: Lawyers (who else?) actually use the word “choate.” It means something that was formerly merely potential but has come into existence, for example, a right that was originally contingent on the occurrence of an event and was “inchoate” and could not be exercised before the contingency occurred, but that can be exercised once the contingency occurs.
    This is interesting because it involves a reinterpretation of the prefix “in-” in the Latin word “incoho,” from which the English word “inchoate” is derived, as a negative prefix. (No, I’m not saying that the meaning of a word is forever limited by its etymology.) In fact, the Latin word means simply “begin” and the prefix is “in-” meaning “into,” not the negative prefix. (This is, of course, a persistent ambiguity in Latin and in English words derived from Latin).
    The Oxford Latin Dictionary says that the verbal element, “-coho” is from “cohum,” which means the vault of the sky or the hollow in the middle of the yoke into which the pole is fitted or the thong used to attach the pole to the yoke, but doesn’t explain the mysterious semantic process by which “incoho” was derived. However, “cohum” seems to be related to “cauus,” “hollow.” Lewis & Short has a different explanation for the etymology of “incoho,” connecting it with a Sanskrit root “kuk-,” “take” or “grasp.”

  28. Could it possibly be a miscorrection of “inestimable”?

  29. Ostap Bender in the Twelve Chairs uses it instead of the simple exclamation гениально (meaning the same as in French – génial – great). He thinks that adding con- adds power, but does not realise that
    Ostap is my favourite!! it can’t be he does not realize anything, that witty funny ironic man, he realizes, but uses the wrong word just for the added laughs and accordingly to the audience
    Ellochka lyudoedka could though

  30. John Emerson says:

    I vote for spelchek. Probably he slightly misspelled the word, and spelchek wrongly corrected it.

  31. John Emerson says:

    We do not thank Jamessal for introducing us to Claire Messud. His intentions were of the best, I’m sure.

  32. I’m surprised no one has remembered the “inchoative aspect” of verbs in some languages. The Wikidictionary on inchoative says this “aspect” is often rendered in English as “to be about to …”. Duden gives a nice example of an inchoative German verb: erwachen (to be in the process of gradually waking up).
    O’Hagan’s review bristles with infelicities and culpable indelicacy, apart from the misuse of “infinitesimal”. I think the review on the whole was worth reading, but would have been improved by (I quote from the review) “high standards of excellence stringently applied”, i.e. editing by someone other than the author.
    we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor. Is scrofula a symbol of degradation? Perhaps O’Hagan doesn’t know that Johnson had scrofula? Would O’Hagan have cared if he had known? Isn’t it more likely that he just didn’t pay attention to the meaning of “scrofulous”?
    not only calling books and individuals to account but molesting them unawares. Molesting books?? Individuals? And what does “unawares” mean here? I don’t think a book could ever be aware of being molested, so it couldn’t be molested unawares. “Molest” is out of place here.
    He was Janus-faced but also Janus-souled: investing as much of himself in the opposite of rancor and enmity as he did in rancor and enmity, and sometimes within the same half-hour. Janus-faced already means Janus-souled. The repetition of “rancor and enmity” is not only just plain lazy, but it’s not even clear what “the opposite” of rancor might be.
    Art may often have had a deadline in Johnson’s cosmos—the cosmos of booksellers and periodicals—but that was, and is, something much less small than the vanity of a Lord Chesterfield. What is the meaning of “Art has a deadline”? What is a deadline in a cosmos? What does it mean to say “art is much less small than vanity”?
    The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper. “Nothing less than” suggests something impressive. A living culture represented by marks on paper doesn’t sound very exciting to me.

  33. John Emerson says:

    When I was 13 we would giggle in church on Sexagesima Sunday. We never went so far as to describe cute girls as sexagesimal, though.

  34. We do not thank Jamessal for introducing us to Claire Messud
    Yes, sorry about that.
    (There’s something depressing about crankishness that’s left to echo.)

  35. I can forgive Mr O’Hagan for his finitesimal error, but not for thinking that driving on the motorway pulls one back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    NN: “Optic” has become a figure of fun in my day job; given that it entered English in that sense via French literary theory … . “Optic” = “perception” is a lot closer to optique (“II. n. perspective”) than “the study of light”.
    In my youth I studied French literature before the advent of “French literary theory”, and I am glad of it, so I did not understand your reference on first starting to read your comment, but it seems to me that optique = perspective is much more widespread in French than just among literary theorists. But (not reading literary theory) I don’t think I have ever read “optic” with that meaning, let alone “perception”.

  37. By the way, I believe that some people pronounce it “infantesimal”.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    …to best illustrate the meanings and uses of English words. In doing so he revealed a republic of letters as a rich, voluble, human culture, a summit of what men might do to civilize their days and exalt their common circumstances. The Dictionary indeed is a work of art, encapsulating an almost infinitesimal belief in the magic of poetry and prose. The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper.
    These extravagant statements are typical of an attitude which thinks that a language exists first of all on paper, in written works. Of course the words of a language are representative of the culture that uses it, but I think it is quite a stretch to go from famous Johnsonian definitions (as opposed to literary quotes) such as those, often cited, for “oats” (surely a word that people will use in order to “exalt their circumstances”) or “lexicographer”, to “encapsulating a … belief in the magic of poetry and prose”. What about the spoken word? in the words of the great linguist Edward Sapir: When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam, and similarly Johnson walks with the carter in the streets of London. And he not only walks with him, he talks with him tooi.

  39. Empty, did you know that in Mongolian we call the crapper ‘noliin oroo’? It means 0(null) room.
    I’m just repeating what I heard.
    I read a novel by Andrew O’Hagan, but I didn’t like it. He must know something about Dr Johnson; he gets a credit in the acknowledgments of Boswell’s Presumptuous Task.

  40. Empty, did you know that in Mongolian we call the crapper ‘noliin oroo’? It means 0(null) room.
    I’m just repeating what I heard.
    I read a novel by Andrew O’Hagan, but I didn’t like it. He must know something about Dr Johnson; he gets a credit in the acknowledgments of Boswell’s Presumptuous Task.

  41. Do you remember which one, Crown? I read, and liked, Be Near Me.

  42. sorry, no offense of course, just it’s how we call it in the buildings, b/c all other rooms are numbered, so it seems our invention, not introduction from other languages
    empty is hooson in my language, so

  43. Owlmirror says:

    I know that there is a convention to label the loo with “00″ in some places (Wiki says “German-speaking”, but I know I have seen it done elsewhere). It never occurred to me until just now that this might be because one voids oneself within.
    Or I might have just invented a new folk etymology. Pass it on, folks!

  44. John Emerson says:

    Jamessal, crankiness is never a problem here, but the least whiff of Claire Messud, I have just now found, can stink up the place something powerful.

  45. Maybe I should try Be Near Me, I was very disappointed not to like Personality. I don’t know Claire Messud. I suspect her name makes some good anagrams (and may be one).
    I’m currently reading Indian Summer,by Alex von Something-or-other; it’s the book Language talked about a little while ago. It’s just as he described: for instance that Jinnah is a very interesting character & that Gandhi is portrayed in a much worse light than he normally is, but I’m not convinced I’m getting an unbiased opinion of Gandhi. In the late thirties Jinnah had hoped to be selected by a Labour constituency in Yorkshire to run for parliament; it’s only because they thought he was ‘too much of a toff’ that he went back to India. How different things would be today if a half dozen Yorkshire socialists had made a different choice: no Pakistan, for a start. Mountbatten was a walking disaster, according to Alex von Thing. She’s an enjoyable writer to read, it’s fun but it’s not a proper history; there are too many opinions based on guesswork or hearsay.

  46. Maybe I should try Be Near Me, I was very disappointed not to like Personality. I don’t know Claire Messud. I suspect her name makes some good anagrams (and may be one).
    I’m currently reading Indian Summer,by Alex von Something-or-other; it’s the book Language talked about a little while ago. It’s just as he described: for instance that Jinnah is a very interesting character & that Gandhi is portrayed in a much worse light than he normally is, but I’m not convinced I’m getting an unbiased opinion of Gandhi. In the late thirties Jinnah had hoped to be selected by a Labour constituency in Yorkshire to run for parliament; it’s only because they thought he was ‘too much of a toff’ that he went back to India. How different things would be today if a half dozen Yorkshire socialists had made a different choice: no Pakistan, for a start. Mountbatten was a walking disaster, according to Alex von Thing. She’s an enjoyable writer to read, it’s fun but it’s not a proper history; there are too many opinions based on guesswork or hearsay.

  47. Anyone who can explain so simply the healing power of the “rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void” deserves to be more widely read, although I could always stand to have my void a little more elegantly upholstered.

  48. Claire Messud. I suspect her name makes some good anagrams
    mired clauses

  49. Manolis, that third definition of “inchoate” in dictionary.com is not reliable.
    The OED offers ‘Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature.’ Now, an “undeveloped” group of things could also be ‘chaotic’, like the piles of books and magazines on my floor, but those piles were more or less the same last week, and will be next week, unless I organize them; they’re not now in any stage of ‘development’, nor in an “incipient” stage of slovenliness.
    The US government was in an “incipient” stage of organization in, say, 1800, but I’d say that it wasn’t, then, more ‘disorganized’ than it is now, though perhaps it was less complicated (in the sense of moving, and motionless, parts).
    Do you see what I mean? “Inchoate” implies ‘development’, and, while it can co-exist as a description of same group of things as ‘apparently disorganized’, that lack of organization is a matter of immaturity, rather than an intrinsic, or, in the case of my floor, cyclic, inward disarticulation.

  50. Yes, exactly. I ought to have gone to the trouble myself. Thank you, Ø.

  51. Yes, exactly. I ought to have gone to the trouble myself. Thank you, Ø.

  52. Where did you get that from, Nij? Jamessal sent it to me a few months ago, but I thought I’d lost it. Finally something you can both agree on.

  53. Where did you get that from, Nij? Jamessal sent it to me a few months ago, but I thought I’d lost it. Finally something you can both agree on.

  54. Bill W., that dropping of in- as though it were a privative prefix, so that the supposedly positive adjective is left, is odd.
    The most notorious example of a deceptively non-privative “in-” is “inflammable”, right?– not ‘not flammable’, but rather ‘flammable inside here; inwardly flammable’, (perhaps) thence the apparently intensified ‘quite flammable’. We see this easily with the more Greek-’looking’ verb: “enflame”, ‘to put “fire” into’. But the adjective is the source of 1001 misunderstandings.

  55. ø, infantesimal would be the magnitude of a than-which-nothing-tinier bit of something inchoate.

  56. Inflammable is the original word, as we see from its continuing figurative use. Flammable began to be written on trucks containing inflammable material as a safety measure, either for fear that, or because, people were interpreting it as a negative. As Quine says, semi-literacy is not a capital crime.

  57. “May catch fire” = 12 letters
    “Inflammable” = 11 letters

  58. “May catch fire” = 12 letters
    “Inflammable” = 11 letters

  59. marie-lucie says:

    JC is right: the initial in- was confusing and therefore dangerous.
    “Inflammable” is a hybrid, with a Latin-to-English “inchoative” prefix and suffix and a French body (flamme = Old French flame, hence English “flame”). It should really have been “inflamable” to go with “to inflame” (earlier “enflame”, from Old or Middle French enflamer ‘to set on fire’), except that “to inflame” has lost its original concrete meaning referring to fire. The modern acceptance of “flammable” is shown by the negative “non-flammable” which is unambiguous.
    In French there is a similar problem, because the adjective is not enflammable based on the verb enflammer ‘to set on fire’ but the Latin-French hybrid inflammable, which is as ambiguous as the English one, but the negative of which is the awkward ininflammable, where the first in- is negative but the second is inchoative.

  60. Jamessal sent it to me a few months ago
    AJP, it’s higher up in this thread: October 3, 2009 08:51 AM. I won’t show it to my brother though–only flying relaxes him. Being forced to drive a car turns him into a monster, where eight lanes of traffic curving into infinity puts me in the zone. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Amman, by bus, after studying Arabic amongst the goats for a month, and turned to my traveling companion and said “we’re home”. She, also from a big city, answered something like “The noise! The people! The traffic! We’re home!”

  61. Read: Ellochka lyudoedka could though
    Why bother with ifinitesimal when Little Ella the Maneater (Ellochka Lyudoyedka) could, famously, do happily with just 20 words? (Ilf&Petrov, The Twelve Chairs)

  62. Thanks, Nij, I missed that — sorry, Jamessal.
    was there nobody there to point out that switching tenses accomplishes nothing but sapping all tension from the scene?
    Excellent, Jim. You and Language ought to be writing the NYRB reviews, I’d actually buy it then.

  63. Thanks, Nij, I missed that — sorry, Jamessal.
    was there nobody there to point out that switching tenses accomplishes nothing but sapping all tension from the scene?
    Excellent, Jim. You and Language ought to be writing the NYRB reviews, I’d actually buy it then.

  64. nu!
    but i thought she was not that specifically man-eater, but just generally cannibal, though i forgot why she had that nickname, b/c of her lexicon maybe
    congenial’no! “)

  65. David Marjanović says:

    Duden gives a nice example of an inchoative German verb: erwachen (to be in the process of gradually waking up).

    Well, “gradually”… it can just as well be a sudden, punctual event. The prefix indicates successful completion, as apparently does that of the synonym aufwachen (to more literally wake up).

  66. David Marjanović says:

    Actually, this goes so far that erwachen only occurs in the past (off the top of my head). You’ll see a lot of Erwachet! (imperative plural) in the streets, but that’s the “Awake!” of Jehovah’s Witlesses, marked by a grammatical archaism (-et instead of just -t, apparently considered elevated style till the 1930s or so, nowadays very hard to find outside of 16th-century church songs).
    On the other hand, aufwachen does occur in the present tense: er wacht gerade auf “he’s waking up” sounds fine to me.

  67. John C., that “inflammable” was the “original” form is clear from the verb “enflame/inflame”, right? I don’t understand how “we can see” the history of the word from its continuing figurative use (‘an inflammable situation’)- which use, I’m guessing, was an adaptation of an already-secure literal use.

    marie-lucie, I continue to say and write “enflame” because that’s how it ‘sounds’ right to me: ‘The orator enflamed the mob with ethnically antagonistic rhetoric.’ I pretty much only use “to inflame” in a medical way, having to do with infection: ‘The cut became inflamed because it wasn’t cleaned properly.’ Anyway, that’s just a spoken (and therefore written) habit that might be idiosyncratic or regional, but can’t reasonably be mistaken for a ‘prescription’.
    -
    Is it reasonably certain that the Latin “in-” of inflammo was inchoative (‘to exploit a readiness to burn’, as it were), and not locative (‘to put fire in’)? Lewis offers “to set on fire, light up, kindle”, which could indicate an emphasis of either ‘to cause to start burning’ or ‘to put fire from outside into‘, which latter was my guess.
    -
    You say that the prefix was a “Latin-to-English” borrowing, prefixed (I guess) to a Latin-to-French-to-English “body”. But Lewis has inflammo and inflammatio as established Latin words, and the OED has the Old French, the Spanish, and the Italian ‘inflame’ words derived from “L. inflammare“.
    I see that the Latin in- was written en- in Old French (and Middle French?), but I don’t see the “Latin-French” hybridity, as opposed to an Old French inheritance of the whole Latin word, which word is spelled slightly differently in Old French due (I’m guessing) to a change in pronunciation of the persisting word.
    -
    You also say that “[i]t should have been ‘inflamable’ [with one "m"] to go with ‘to inflame’ [...], except that ‘to inflame’ has lost its original concrete meaning referring to fire”. I’m not sure if you mean that the “original concrete meaning” changed in the inheritance from Latin by Old French or the admixture from French into English, but, according to Lewis, the verb inflammo and noun inflammatio have well-attested figurative uses in classical Latin: three examples from Virgil, and inflammatio animorum, respectively.
    I would guess, absent citations, that the figurative meaning evolved along with the literal meaning as the Latin verb evolved into the Old French verb, and the French verb was admixed whole, that is, with both literal and figurative meanings, into English.
    I don’t know much about French spelling rules, but, in English, the “m” which is there in the adjective but not the verb goes along with the pronunciation of the root’s “a”: inflame rhymes with and is spelled like Val Plame, while inflammable rhymes with and is spelled like yech! spammable.

  68. i thought she was not that specifically man-eater, but just generally cannibal
    The words “man-eater” and “cannibal” are synonymous when applied to humans (the first can also be applied to animals); here “man” does not mean “not woman” but “human.”

  69. John Emerson says:

    LH, “Man-eater” is also used to describe aggressive heartbreakers, women who love ‘em and leave ‘em.

  70. Late to the thread, but this is my favorite example:
    When I was visiting colleges, trying to decide where to go to school, I heard a student panel speak. Asked how the food was, one panelist said that when he first got there he didn’t like it, but that they’d done a renovation on the dining hall, changed things up a bit and “it has improved infinitesimally.”
    I couldn’t decide whether he intended that to be taken literally, or whether he was confused.

  71. LH, AJP, Read:
    thanks for spotting my Man-Eater addition to Russian cultural heritage. Yes, Ellochka has been Lyudoyedka (cannibal) until I, in my infinitesimal wisdom, saw that Man-Eater fits better. It keeps the original cannibalistic link, but includes the post-feminist meaning of the ‘material girl’.
    Does anyone know how old is the idiom ‘man-eater’? There was a pop song of that title in the 80s? But surely it existed before?
    Here is the opening passage from the chapter with delightful Ellochka which explains the nickname
    Людоедка :
    The vocabulary of William Shakespeare according to academics consists of 12 000 words. The vocabulary of a negro from the cannibalistic tribe Mumbo-Jumbo consists of 300 words. Ellochka Shukina easily and freely got by with just thirty.
    (Словарь Вильяма Шекспира по подсчету исследователей составляет 12 000 слов. Словарь негра из людоедского племени «Мумбо-Юмбо» составляет 300 слов. Эллочка Щукина легко и свободно обходилась тридцатью.)

  72. Grumbly Stu: Is scrofula a symbol of degradation? Perhaps O’Hagan doesn’t know that Johnson had scrofula? Would O’Hagan have cared if he had known? Isn’t it more likely that he just didn’t pay attention to the meaning of “scrofulous”?
    OED’s sense 4: “fig. Of literature, etc.: Morally corrupt.” First citation from Browning, 1842.
    deadgod: that third definition of “inchoate” in dictionary.com is not reliable.
    The OED offers ‘Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature.’
    The OED has a 1993 addition: “Chaotic, disordered, confused; also, incoherent, rambling”, First citation Eugene O’Neill, 1922. And there’s an etymological note: “Often regarded as unetymologically developed through confusion with CHAOTIC a. 2, though perh. better explained as a regular development from ‘undeveloped’ to ‘lacking structure’.”

  73. Thanks for that, Breffni.
    Of course, one hesitates to argue with the OED, or even with a relatively recent “addition” to it, but I think their “though perh. better explained” isn’t a “better” explanation, but rather a philological act of generosity, allowing for an accidental similarity somewhere in a definition (between “‘undeveloped’” and “‘lacking structure’”) to conceal a vague or careless usage.
    Each “ch” is pronounced like ‘k’, the same vowels follow the “ch” (though reversed in order), both of these vowels are pronounced in each word (so they don’t form a dipthong in either), and these two vowels are both followed by a unremarkably pronounced “t”– but this bundle of likenesses is a reason to learn the distinction between the words, not to smear it, right?

  74. But surely it existed before?
    Yes, it goes back in print to at least 1600.
    LH, “Man-eater” is also used to describe aggressive heartbreakers, women who love ‘em and leave ‘em.
    Yes, of course I’m aware of that, but that’s a relatively minor and recent extension of meaning playing on the alternate sense of “man”; my concern was to make clear that the original and primary use of “man-eater” did not involve that sense.

  75. maa nee, i was aware of that sense too when commented
    but whatever, just shouldn’t joke on not mastered yet language, i know, too that, dangerous area
    what i thought how it is so opposite conventions, in Russian it’s okay to use n word and in English it’s like a taboo, if to use just chernui in Russian it would sound rude and they use the latin word and it sounds almost always sympathetic

  76. marie-lucie says:

    I am not surprised that many people confuse the sequences -choat- and -chaot-, but I find it interesting that inchoate is taken as a synonym of chaotic, instead of its antonym because of the in- prefix.

  77. scrofulous … OED’s sense 4: “fig. Of literature, etc.: Morally corrupt.” First citation from Browning, 1842.
    That’s interesting, Breffni. But note that it says “of literature”, not of persons. The quote from Browning in the OED is “my scrofulous French novel On grey paper with blunt type”. It’s not clear to me that scrofulous there is the primary bearer of the sense of “morally corrupt”. That would be “French novel”, as occasionally used by British writers in the 18th and 19th century. Perhaps his copy was tattered from having gone through many curious hands. It was physically ravaged, suggesting the moral impairment imputed to result from reading certain kinds of “French novel”. Both of the other two citations also refer to books, in particular one of them again refers to a “French novel”.
    To make my point more clearly, I should have written “pay attention to scrofulous as meaning ‘having (had) scrofula’”. What O’Hagan writes is

    If niceness was the only category known to posterity, we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor, for he could be alarmingly rude.

    Here we have both “scrofula” and “squalor” being flatly associated with having bad manners, i.e. with a person. I find this jumble of words to be ridiculously implausible. I’m sure O’Hagan doesn’t believe rudeness to be a kind of moral corruption. His sentence has none of the amusing suggestiveness of Browning’s expression. Scrofula was a common phenomenon in 19th century Britain, and probably elsewhere as well. From the scrofula entry in the OED:

    1897 Allbutt’s Syst. Med. IV. 597 Thus in the sixties and the seventies it was as common to see persons marked by the scars of scrofula as it still was to see the ravages of small-pox

    Writers in the 19th century did not, as a matter of course, associate physical disease straight out with a moral failing, but only where the physical disease was known to be often acquired by some kind of behavior regarded as immoral. Examples of this are syphilis and whoring, and gout and overindulgence in port. Smallpox and “consumption”, on the contrary, were not regarded in this way. In any case, rudeness is not moral corruption.
    I am certainly not an adherent of political correctness. I’m not saying here that I think one should not talk about a person being “scrofulous”, or “crippled”, or “blind”, but instead say “visually challenged” etc. I am making a stylistic claim, not a moral one. I am saying that, no matter who in the past used the word “scrofulous” in whatever sense and context (and I don’t see Browning’s expression as being in any way opprobrious), there is no good reason for using that word today with that sense and context, when it makes no sense in today’s context. There is never justification by dictionary. In the present case, O’Hagan’s link-up of “scrofulous”, “squalor” and “rude” is not even “fig. of literature” – it’s just rotten apple of sloppy writing, in my opinion.

  78. I decided that today is a good day to “change the label, and think again”, as is my dictum. Now it seems plausible that O’Hagan’s sentence was merely intended to be facetious. This is clean from “inky squalor” alone. I still feel, though, that the word “scrofulous” might better have been avoided, instead of being jumbled together with mere “rudeness”. The sense of “scrofulous” that I now see was meant here, was only familiar in the 18th and 18th centuries, whereas intolerance to rudeness, as insistence on “being nice”, is more of a modern phenomenon: “If niceness was the only category known to posterity …”, as O’Hagan’s sentence begins.
    But my general claim, supported by examples, was that the review contains many infelicities of expression that should have been weighed by an editor, and perhaps found wanting. The “scrofulous” sentence was only one example. This view of mine was an expansion on Hat’s feeling that the word “infinitesimal” was being used in a strange way in the article. It is still my view, in the pragmatic sense that I have drawn certain lessons from it for use in my own writing. Mr. O’Hagan will continue to write as he pleases.

  79. J.W. Brewer says:

    GS: If the writer was being facetious, perhaps he intended “scrofulous” to include a subtle, almost punning allusion to Johnson’s own boyhood experience of the King’s Evil? (Not that the sentence works for me even if considered facetious, but de gustibus etc.) “Poxy” is a somewhat archaic pejorative with I think a bit of extended metaphorical usage, but perhaps that did not allude to small pox but to the “French” pox, a/k/a syphilis.

  80. John Emerson says:

    I remember that term “scrofulous” being used by Stravinsky, in his conversations with Craft, to describe the intermediaries who each took a percentage of the royalties to one of his pieces in some particular context. The sense seemed to be “loathesome”.

  81. I didn’t know that one. What would Freud have said about all these ‘French’ words: French Pox, French kiss, French letter, French fries, French toast, French polish?

  82. I didn’t know that one. What would Freud have said about all these ‘French’ words: French Pox, French kiss, French letter, French fries, French toast, French polish?

  83. In fact, you can make anything sound pretty shady by adding the adjective ‘French’:
    They were both holding French rocks, sitting on French stools, watching couples doing French dancing and he was drinking what looked like French water served in a French glass.

  84. In fact, you can make anything sound pretty shady by adding the adjective ‘French’:
    They were both holding French rocks, sitting on French stools, watching couples doing French dancing and he was drinking what looked like French water served in a French glass.

  85. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: What would Freud have said about all these ‘French’ words: French Pox, French kiss, French letter, French fries, French toast, French polish
    It is not something for Freud but for a cultural and linguistic historian. There is a somewhat ambiguous attitude in English about things French. But it may be a surprise to you that several of the English expressions which include “French” have counterparts in French which use the word anglais(e), eg “French custard” = crème anglaise (lit. English cream), “French letter” = capote anglaise (lit. English hood).
    They were both holding French rocks, sitting on French stools, watching couples doing French dancing and he was drinking what looked like French water served in a French glass
    This sounds like a reverse translation of something from Ionesco’s La cantatrice chauve (known in English as The bald soprano), which was inspired by Ionesco’s frustration with a book he was trying to learn English from.

  86. marie-lucie says:

    deadgod: re in/en-flammable, I don’t want to go through the whole thing again, but I made a mistake in thinking that the original form only had one m. I checked and the Latin base for these words is indeed flamma ‘flame’. You were right!

  87. “French letter” = capote anglaise
    This looks like the starting point for a dissertation of some kind. I don’t think ‘French letter’ is still in use, it’s not a phrase I’ve ever heard someone say. Do you know if these names emerged at the same time: WW1, say? And why? Unfashionable or not I still think Freud might have had an insight.

  88. “French letter” = capote anglaise
    This looks like the starting point for a dissertation of some kind. I don’t think ‘French letter’ is still in use, it’s not a phrase I’ve ever heard someone say. Do you know if these names emerged at the same time: WW1, say? And why? Unfashionable or not I still think Freud might have had an insight.

  89. John Emerson says:

    Nonsense French textbook by Benamou and Ionesco.
    I just bought it and will report back to the committee at a later date.

  90. J.W. Brewer says:

    With the French pox, it’s part of a larger pattern for syphilis in particular which (per wikipedia) was variously called: the “French disease” in Italy and Germany, and the “Italian disease” in France. In addition, the Dutch called it the “Spanish disease”, the Russians called it the “Polish disease”, the Turks called it the “Christian disease” or “Frank disease” (frengi) and the Tahitians called it the “British disease”. It’s sort of like that graph illustrating the “how do you say ‘it’s Greek to me’ in Greek” question, but with perhaps more interest to epidemiologists.

  91. So you’re telling me the only place the British were able to spread syphilis was Tahiti? That is something for Dr SchadenFreude; Tahiti should have been the place they used French letters.

  92. So you’re telling me the only place the British were able to spread syphilis was Tahiti? That is something for Dr SchadenFreude; Tahiti should have been the place they used French letters.

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