If I ever knew, I had forgotten that impregnable “is actually a Middle English malapropism for imprenable,” as Mark Liberman explains in this Log post, quoting the OED:

Etymology: Corrupted < impreignable, imprenable, < French imprenable, < im– (im- prefix2) + prenable able to be taken, < pren-, stem of prendre to take. The g was evidently in imitation of the g mute in reign, deign, and the like, though it appears to have sometimes led in 16th cent. to the pronunciation /nj/

There is much discussion of etymological and semantic confusion, and some of baseball (the post takes off from a quote that mentions “the impregnable glove of Adrian Beltre at third base”). Check it out.

I should mention that I am experiencing severe computer problems at the moment (yesterday I foolishly tried to download a Windows Vista service pack that apparently didn’t download completely and left the computer hung up betwixt and between, unable to load Windows); while the situation continues, I will try to do necessary weeding and upkeep but will not be commenting and posting as often—I don’t like tying up my wife’s computer any more than I can help.


  1. I hope your personal files are backed up.
    If so, then get yourself a recent Ubuntu CD or DVD and install it. You’re not a gamer, you don’t work for The Man, you aren’t dependent on any specialized hardware or software (LibreOffice will do fine instead of Word, and of course there’s Firefox). You have nothing to fear but fear itself.
    “Friends don’t let friends run Windows.”

  2. What’s the history of “poignant”?
    (I hope you know the old joke to which I allude.)

  3. I don’t, Dearieme, and neither does Google. The actual history is straightforward: it’s a French version of pungent.

  4. Some time back I was thinking about backing up everything that had been posted so far on my blog, in case Mars was attacked by Earth for instance — I would be very sad to lose everything that has been written up to now —, but I must confess I haven’t got a clue about how to do something like that. (If it’s possible.)
    Impreignable would be “that can be impregnated” (i.e. impreigné). I’m a bit too lazy tonight to get up and fetch a dictionary, but I’m reasonably sure that it is possible to impreigner a woman, i.e. to make her pregnant. And this even if one speaks English, in which case it would be called “to impregnate”. But a Frenchman can also “prendre une femme”, i.e. possess her (in a very carnal way). Except, of course, if la forteresse est imprenable.

  5. Oh, dear, it’s only now that I read the Language Log post, where everything has already been said about pregnant and so on. Well, maybe I could add that French also has prégnant(e). (No, not systematically feminine.) “Une idée prégnante” (a ‘pregnant’ idea) would be a weighty idea/concept/notion.
    When it comes to “prendre” (to take), which gave birth to “imprenable”, it is apparently possible to “prendre son pied” (have a lot of pleasure) while…
    Hmmm, impregnable you said?

  6. I see John has beaten me to the punch, but I second his recommendation. Life is really too short to spend time mucking about with Windows. (And you can always try dual-booting if you have Windows-separation anxiety.) [Even if you are a gamer, there’s a Windows emulator for Linux which runs an awful lot of stuff.] {And even if you have a masochistic streak, you can use an Ubuntu (Linux) live-cd to repair Windows boot-loader: }

  7. “Impreigner”/”impreignable”: oops!
    > imprégner/imprégnable
    But there is also a verb — empreindre — which can be similar in form and in meaning: make pregnant. And somewhat like imprégner, it can also mean “to impress”, “to imprint”, “to mark”.

  8. Sorry to hear about your Vista problems, but as a longtime duualbooter, it gives me a chance to plug Windows 7. After several years of working mostly in Linux of various distros, lack of good speech recognition software forced me back to Windows XP. A few monthys ago I got a new PC with Windows 7 Professional, and the comment above that “Life is really too short to spend time mucking about with Windows” made me smile – my Win 7 box has worked without a hitch from day one, in stark contrast to the ultimately unsuccessful week I spent trying 4 different Linux distros to find one that would play nice with my GPU. Most importantly of all, Dragon has never worked better. So, as a fan of Linux, I say, “life’s too short to waste time trying to find a distro that works”.

  9. Re: Windows and Linux, my experience is more similar to Stuart’s than to Cowan’s. I have a Ubuntu laptop that I love dearly, but I have to cope with the fact that every time I get a kernel upgrade I run a 70% chance of breaking the laptop’s resume from sleep. Currently I’m running a kernel that’s two or three versions back from the newest in Ubuntu’s stable repository, because all of the newer ones are broken. My Win7 PC, OTOH, has never given me a moment’s trouble.
    Of course, I am a developer, I’m well-equipped to cope with and recover from these casual calamities, and I value the Ubuntu laptop for other reasons. I wouldn’t give it on a non-techie, though, unless I was prepared to do a lot of friendly tech support.
    Full disclosure: I do work for the Man.

  10. Oh, and I meant to add: Vista? Really? Ye gods, get yourself to Windows 7 and fast.

  11. Sig: But there is also a verb — empreindre — which can be similar in form and in meaning: make pregnant. And somewhat like imprégner, it can also mean “to impress”, “to imprint”, “to mark”.
    Bobby doesn’t list the meaning “to knock up”, although that too makes an impression. Could this be a Martian euphemism ?

    empreindre v. tr.
    • 1213; lat. pop. °impremere, class. imprimere -> imprimer
    1¨ (Rare à l’actif) Marquer par pression sur une surface (une forme, un dessin). => imprimer.
    2¨ Fig. et littér. Marquer. « Empreindre la pensée dans le fait » (Balzac). « Les beaux ouvrages ne vieilliraient jamais s’ils n’étaient empreints que d’un sentiment vrai » (E. Delacroix). — Pronom. Porter l’empreinte de. Son visage s’empreint de douleur. « Chaque littérature s’empreint plus ou moins profondément des mœurs et de l’histoire du peuple » (Hugo).
    Ä CONTR. Effacer.

  12. The Man requires that I run Windows XP SP3 (!), but I work around this by installing both Cygwin and Portable Ubuntu for Windows (which is Karmic Koala with a coLinux kernel, which is simultaneously a real Linux kernel and a Windows driver). I tried upgrading to Lucid, but it cabbaged the specialized kernel — does anyone know how to make apt-get dist-upgrade not do that?

  13. I run Ubuntu (etc.) inside VirtualBox on Windows (XP & 7). Cygwin and coLinux seem too fiddly.
    A colleague runs CentOS inside VMWare on one of those big iMacs.

  14. marie-lucie says

    empreindre: Grumbly is right. This rare verb cannot possibly be used to imply pregnancy of a female. Literally it means ‘to leave a permanent mark on sthg through pressure’. Forms other than the infinitive and past participle are practically never encountered.
    imprégner is used in the context of causing a sponge, rag or similar item to absorb a liquid, gel or other non-solid substance, usually for the purpose of cleaning something else. It is also used figuratively, somewhat like “suffuse(d)” in English.

  15. German is a bit all over the place with respect to “pregn” words. Imprägnieren is “impregnate”, but never a female – just raincoats and such, to make them waterproof. “Impregnate a woman” is schwängern. Prägnant is “concise”, never “great with child”, which is schwanger. “Pregnant with meaning” would be bedeutungsschwanger – but you can’t say bedeutungsprägnant.

  16. I’m now happily set up with Windows 7 and a shiny new ASUS laptop. It’s good to be back!

  17. At the risk of seeming prescriptivist: shouldn’t that be ASWE ? “My soul, Hat has the same computer ASUS” sounds rather folksy.

  18. dearie, you never told us your poignant old joke.

  19. Chez Rabelais: “Empreindre une femme, l’engrosser; terme pris des brebis.”
    The association known as “DLF” (Défense de la langue française) has a magazine. In issue Nº 230 of 2008 (pdf) there is a whole article about Prégnant et imprégner. On page 25:
    “Vers 1121-1124 apparurent empreignier et empreigner, au sens, dans le cas d’une femme, de «devenir enceinte» ; sous une forme transitive, le verbe signifie aussi «féconder, rendre enceinte». Par réfection, en 1500, on fit imprégner. Puis les choses se compliquent par confusion avec certaines formes du verbe empreindre, au sens d’«engrosser» (1530). Le nouveau imprégner prend vers 1620, dans le langage des alchimistes et dans celui des teinturiers, le sens de «pénétrer un corps dans toutes ses parties», en synonymie d’imbiber. En proviennent imprégnable et imprégnant, imprégnation étant calqué sur impregnatio déjà cité.”

  20. marie-lucie says

    Bravo for your research, Siganus, but you will have to agree that this meaning of empreindre has long ceased to apply in French.
    I am puzzled as why the authors of this paragraph seem to see a difference between “engrosser” and “rendre enceinte”, since the two are synonymous (the first one being archaic or humorous).
    This could be related to another puzzling meaning of imprégnation which I remember coming across years ago: a theory that the first man to have sexual relations with a young woman would somehow leave a permanent genetic imprint which would affect her future children (whether by him or another). This theory was in support of the alleged observation that the children of a twice-married woman resemble each other more than the children of the second marriage resemble the second husband (a common resemblance to the mother was not considered).

  21. Sig: Vers 1121-1124 apparurent empreignier et empreigner, au sens, dans le cas d’une femme, de «devenir enceinte» ; … Puis les choses se compliquent par confusion avec certaines formes du verbe empreindre, au sens d’«engrosser» (1530). Le nouveau imprégner prend vers 1620, dans le langage des alchimistes et dans celui des teinturiers, le sens de «pénétrer un corps dans toutes ses parties», en synonymie d’imbiber.
    The alchemical connection is interesting. I have read about all kinds of ancient “theories”, from the Egyptians and Greeks onwards, as to how pregnancy arises. One I vaguely remember is that wives soak up the sperm of their husbands, and then swell like a sponge. I wonder if that is the conceptual background of the 1620 developments.
    It has been claimed that, in certain income groups of our more enlightened times, wives soak their husbands. Another sense change from intransitive to transitive !

  22. Don’t you think it’s the other way around? That one substance becomes pregnant with another the way a woman does?
    Also note that both English and French have two words pregnant, difficult to disentangle from the start. One from prægnans and the other from premo.

  23. marie-lucie says

    I think I have only once seen (and never heard) the French word prégnant, and that was not in the context of female pregnancy but a context that suggested translationese or intellectual posturing (or both). It boggles my mind to imagine that there are two such homophonous words with different meanings in French!

  24. translationese or intellectual posturing (or both)
    prägnant is a term of art in Gestalt psychology, for which the cognate is used in both English and French, even though the basic meaning of the German is now ‘concise’. The old Duden I have tries hard to explain how this arises from prégnant (enceinte rather than pressant).

  25. MMcM: prägnant is a term of art in Gestalt psychology
    Would you care to give a brief explanation of that term ?

  26. Here is Wikipedia on Prägnanz, but I’m not sure how good it is at expressing the core idea before diving into some details. Which, I believe, is that given a set of data, the brain picks an interpretation that is as simple as possible while matching most of the data. That it matches a whole structure is the Gestalt part. And pregnant structures are the ones it latches onto.

  27. Thanks. Having perused the article, I find it hard not to agree with the critical quote there from this book:

    “The physiological theory of the Gestaltists has fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a set of descriptive principles, but without a model of perceptual processing. Indeed, some of their “laws” of perceptual organisation today sound vague and inadequate. What is meant by a “good” or “simple” shape, for example?”

    It’s curious that women can’t be a little bit pregnant, however shapely they may be, but Gestalt shapes can.

  28. W.A.C.H. Dobson uses the term “pregnant” as a linguistic term, the meaning of which I cannot remember. Dobson is famous for his unique and almost-unusable system of linguistic terminology.

  29. 我 is pregnant and 吾 is determinant.

  30. Bathrobe says

    Glad you’re happy with Windows 7. I have the Chinese version of Windows 7 it on my Mac, but I never use it because whoever installed it for me (the friendly Mac dealer, not Apple Store) has somehow set it up so that various completely enigmatic popups appear. I’ve noticed Chinese people running Windows (usually XP) are quite at ease with the various kinds of crap that constantly pop up on Chinese Windows systems, but I hate not having control over my computer.

  31. m-l: The theory you mention goes by the name of telegony, and dates back to Aristotle. Even Charles Darwin mentioned a famous and seemingly compelling instance in several of his books. As far as I know, the Nazis were the last group to believe it, holding that if an “Aryan” woman had a non-“Aryan” child she could never be “Aryan” again.

  32. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, JC, I remember seeing the word “telegony” but had no idea what it was about. The book where I saw this theory presented as fact was probably written in the 1950’s, and the context was that of discouraging premarital sex.

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