Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ode to Ellipses

Oh, dear ellipses with your three evenly spaced points, you finisher of unfinished thoughts, you beautiful little . . .

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


In trivia I recently explored the word kudos to discern whether it could exist in the singular. My M-W posse didn't fail me, giving a lengthy explanation on the back formation of the singular version, kudo. In that lovely little treatise, they alluded to the fact that the words cherry and pea are singular backformations of Greek words that look plural in English. Unfortunately, neither of their definitions yielded any hearty etymological fruit. So I had to search elsewhere for the full scoop.

I imagine other people might have dissimilar reactions (or none at all), but I love this about the English language. We just make up stuff, but we do it so brazenly, yet artfully. So-called grammar Nazis will protest at the slightest departure from the so-called standards, but a true linguist will exploit the tiniest loophole to cook up new verbal recipes in this melting pot of a language. Yesterday's grammatical affront becomes tomorrow's literary haute cuisine. Yummy. (Which, I just learned, finds its etymological roots in yum-yum.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Say, Say, Say

Why is it, I wondered, that naysayers say "nay," but soothsayers don't say "sooth"? If either of the two were going to be contrary, I would expect it to be the naysayer, wouldn't you?

So I decided to search. As it turns out, soothe actually comes from the Middle English word for verify, which comes from the Old English word for truth. So, according to their marketing, soothsayers at least claim to be truth tellers, presumably being people who tell the truth about the future. Be that as it may . . . or as it may be in the future, this left me more confused about the word soothe. I mean, come on, do people who soothe really tell the truth?

I would expect a soothsayer to be just as reliable (if not more) in matters of fact as someone who just plain soothes. When you see someone in need of soothing, is your first thought, "Hey, just tell them the truth"? No. Because you know there's nothing soothing about "Yes, you are a loser," or "No, it's not the jeans' fault that you look fat," or "I don't know why she broke up with you. There are so very many reasons, all of which I assume would have been obvious to her when she first met you." Sure, you can use truth to soothe, because lies are so often the reason behind our distress . . . but the act of soothing is usually more strongly associated with telling people what they want to hear than with telling them the plain-faced truth.

I've never gone to one, but perhaps that is the secret of a successful soothsaying business: tell the people the future they want to hear. And maybe that is the mystery behind this strange etymology. Naysayers will claim to tell you the truth about soothsayers and those soothed by them: it is not the etymology of soothe that is in question, it is our understanding of truth.

In summary, soothsayers say what soothlisteners want to hear, while naysayers say nay to the idea that soothsayers tell the truth, because all a naysayer really wants to hear is that the truth that soothes is not truth at all, and in that dark corner of skepticism, the naysayer is in fact soothed by saying nay to the soothsayers who soothe with what could not be truth, thus completing the ironic circle of the soothing nays and the naying soothe.