|Saturday, April 27, 2002||
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
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)