Saturday, April 6, 2002
R O O T S


Adornments
Deepti

Adjectives are the cosmetics of a language. They add colour, fragrance and drama to the bare bones of language. In addition to reflecting the diversity of life, they also provide adequate embellishment to a userís expression. Thinking carefully one realises that mostly whenever a new word sends a reader to the refuge of the dictionary, half the time the strange word is an adjective. A look at some unfamiliar adjectives is quite a worthwhile exercise.

In todayís world of models and beauty contests, the word anorexia is no stranger. Anorexia is lack or loss of appetite so severe that it becomes an illness. This word comes from the Greek an, without, and orexis, appetite. Anorexia nervosa is a related disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight, lately made famous by Princess Diana. Two adjectives have emerged from these words, anorexic, relating to anorexia and anorectic, suffering from the same. Next time the need to use the word ordinary arises, try quotidian which also means belonging to each day. Quotidian comes from the Latin cotidie, daily. Lugubrious, which means exaggeratedly or affectedly mournful or dismal, has taken birth from the Latin lugere, to mourn.

 
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The roots of a word may sometimes not be consistent with the evolution of meaning. A case in point is the adjective egregious which today means conspicuously bad, to the point of being shocking. Egregious was coined from the Latin ex, out, and greg, flock. Up to the late sixteenth century, it meant literally, standing out from the flock. Since anything quite bad also stands out, the ironical sense of the word took over after the sixteenth century.

Playing around with words often waters down literal meanings as well. Procrustean, an adjective, refers to anything intended to enforce conformity in an inflexible and arbitrary way. The origin of the word is more extreme in meaning. In Greek myth, Procrustes was a giant who ran a hotel of sorts, although sad to say, his hospitality skills werenít exactly the best. Procrustes forced his guests to spend the night on an iron bed, and if they were too long for the bed, he lopped off their legs; if they were too short, he stretched them until they fit. His name came from the Greek prokroustes, stretcher.

A similar word is the adjective protean, which means changing, variable, shifting in shape and form or exhibiting considerable diversity. Proteus was a wise Greek god who lived in a cave on the beach. Proteus had the gift of prophecy, but those eager to ask him about the future had a hard time pinning him down because he could change his shape at will. When Odysseus and his men tried to wrestle some information out of him, the shape-shifting Proteus changed into a lion, a leopard, a boar, fluid water, and finally a huge tree, before getting tired enough to give up and tell them what they needed to know.

Tap-root

Words can absorb the meaning of the surrounding context, which can then be omitted without any loss in meaning. This ellipsis leads to the creation of a specialised word. This happens frequently with the omission of an adjective or modifier. For instance, before ellipsis, the samagri used in the havan was called havan samagri; avadhi or time-limit was kaalavadhi; kunvar was rajkunvar; and manjan was dantamanjan.

This feature was published on March 16, 2002