Saturday, April 27, 2002

Words in twos

AS schoolchildren all of us went over the chants of mortal-immortal, kind-unkind, so on and so forth. A language constantly adds to its vocabulary in two ways. One, by creating an antonym for a word by adding a prefix, like the pairs above. At times, the reverse also works, as in the case of sipid, created from insipid. Two, through back-formation, which is the creation of a simple or simpler word from one already in existence. For instance, edit is a back-formation from editor. There are many such words in English. The language user may be familiar with one word from the pair, ignorant about the existence of the second. Most negative adjectives have a lesser-known positive form.

Impervious — as unaffected, uninfluenced — is used commonly enough. The less popular positive partner, pervious, as easily influenced is unknown. Both come from the Latin pervius, made up of per (through) and via (way). Similarly, invincible (too powerful to be defeated) is frequently encountered but vincible (easily defeated) is hardly known. They hail from the Latin vincere, to overcome. Unfurling a flag is a common enough expression but what about furling one? When one can unfurl a flag, one should also be able to furl it. Both words come from the French ferler, made up of ferm (firm) and lier (bind).

April 13, 2002
March 16, 2002
And the romance goes on...
March 2, 2002
Less etymology, more romance
February 16, 2002
Random tales"
February 2, 2002
History and meaning
January 19, 2002
Psychiatry and Greek
January 5, 2002
Classic loans
December 22, 2001
Elected words
December 8, 2001
The Italian connection
November 24, 2001
Words in writing
November 10, 2001

If unrequited love can make you sigh, when your love is requited, you should be jumping over the moon! If you are aware of the word requited, that is! Unrequited is used as an adjective for love not returned, requited is used as a verb, mostly, for love that is returned. The origin lies in the Middle English quiten, to pay. Usage has firmly held onto ruthless, an adjective for a person with no compassion and has conveniently given up on the original ruth, a noun meaning the feeling of pity.

Sometimes, both words may be adjectives, but one may be more frequently used than the other, another one of the little mysteries language keeps indulging in! Uncouth, in the sense of ill-mannered, gave birth to the back-formation couth, in the sense of well-mannered but it didn’t become as popular. Immaculate (perfectly turned out) has the back-formation maculate for imperfectly turned out, but who uses it? Ungainly (clumsy) has its spouse, gainly (graceful), which turned obsolete long ago. But then, why are both scrupulous and unscrupulous both used frequently? Illicit (illegal) is a well-used word but hardly anyone would have heard of licit (legal, lawful). Both come from the Latin licitus (allowed). The same goes for inevitable (unavoidable) and evitable (avoidable). These two come from the Latin evitabilis (avoidable). Wieldy (controlled) is a less popular back-formation of unwieldy (uncontrolled). The list can go on and on…scrutable-inscrutable, impeccable-peccable, clement-inclement, corrigible-incorrigible….



The mystery of selection and elimination flourishes in every language. One of the biggest mysteries is the acceptance of a word from another language when a native word already exists with the same meaning. Perhaps, in the case of the conquered, it was a means of making peace with the conqueror. A case in point is the taking of badshah from Persian when raja was already in existence. The same relationship applies to sher (Persian)and singha; nafa (Arabic) and laabh; and kaish (English) and nagad.