Saturday, June 20, 2009

Confusing terms

Many times, words seem to be simple enough but as with men, the face can be deceptive. For instance, ‘parisology’ has nothing to do with Paris, but refers to the use of equivocal or ambiguous language. It comes from the ancient Greek word ‘parisos’ that means ‘almost equal, balanced’ and ‘logos’ that means ‘word’. Similarly, the composition of ‘woebegone’ indicates a lack of sorrow but it means ‘affected with, or exhibiting, woe’. It is made up of the Middle English woe or sorrow and begon or beset.

Another set of words that can confuse any reader is the set made up of the words ‘suffragan’, ‘suffrage’, ‘suffragette’, ‘suffragist’, ‘suffragi’ and ‘sufferance’. Etymology comes to the rescue of innocent bystanders again, because the roots of these words resolve the confusion. The first four share a common origin as they all come from the Latin ‘suffragium’ that means ‘assistance or intercessory prayers’. Coming to the derived words, one, ‘suffragan’ refers to a bishop appointed as an assistant to a senior, two, ‘suffrage’ refers to the right to vote and the pronouncements made by a priest in church with the vocal support of the congregation, three, ‘suffragette’ is any woman seeking the right to vote through an organised protest and a ‘suffragist’ is any other person who helps her. ‘Suffragi’ owes its origin to the Arabic word ‘sufra’ or ‘food’ and is used to refer to a waiter in Arabic-speaking countries. The last teaser, ‘sufferance’ comes from the Latin ‘sufferre’ that referred to the pain of childbirth and later came to refer to the act of suffering. It is used in two senses, one, passive tolerance and two, the capacity to endure pain.

Sometimes, etymology can take one for a ride as well. A classic example is the word ‘sub’ that is used in many places as a prefix. As a prefix, it can be used in five senses: one, at/ to/ from a lower level as in subalpine or subatomic, two, somewhat/nearly/more or less as in subantarctic, three, subsequent or secondary action as in sublet, four, support, as in subjunctive and five, minor role as in suboxide.