Saturday, June 3, 2006

Hide and seek, anyone?

Meanings of words often play hide and seek. With some, just a glance is enough to reveal the meaning. And sometimes, there is no correlation between the word and the meaning. Here are some bits of lexis that belong to both classes.

Parisology refers to the use of equivocal or ambiguous language. It originates from the ancient Greek parisos (almost equal, balanced) and logos (word). If not Paris, one would imagine it related to some obscure field of scientific study, at least. Anyone who fears mathematics would be happy with a word like ‘undecimal’, thinking it to refer to anything without a decimal, but actually, ‘undecimal’ is based on the number ‘eleven’ that is undecim in Latin. Another misleading word is ‘apian’, which refers to anything related to the bees, as in Latin, apis means ‘bee’. To make matters worse, anything related to the apes is ‘simian’.

Then, there are words that are word-pictures, so clear is their denotation. ‘Parachute candidate’ is one such lexical item. It refers to a political candidate drafted in to stand for election from a constituency in which he or she does not live. A person who feels nostalgia is… hold your breath! A nostalgiast, obviously.

Another self-evident word is ‘agony aunt’, obviously a person who deals with agonies and, more accurately, a woman who hands out advice through the media. A recent add-on is the agony uncle, for a person from the opposite sex, performing the same task. Quite a contrast to these two people is the ambulance chaser, a word that conjures up images of a person frantically running behind an ambulance. Well, the reality is quite similar to the imagined picture because an ambulance chaser is a person who seeks to profit from others’ misfortunes or disasters. This word came into existence at the end of the nineteenth century as a contemptuous term for a lawyer who sought out accident victims and tried to persuade them to retain him to act on their behalf in obtaining compensation. Very soon, it expanded its horizons to include any misfortune, making the ambulance chasing metaphorical.