Friday, April 4, 2014

Words That Don't Exist, Or, You can't preg anything

A friend recently wondered what the opposite of "recessed" was--"uncessed," perhaps? The actual opposite is "raised," of course, as my friend knew. But sometimes our mind gets trapped by patterns in words (and sentences) and wanders off on blind trails. The issue with "recessed" is that it looks like "re-cessed" suggesting that "cess" is a word that can carry prefixes and suffixes. However, "recess" (in this sense) is, as far as I know, just a word that happens to begin with the letters "re."

English isn't a logical language and, because words come from so many places, there probably aren't any patterns that you can rely on. For instance, "impregnable" is a word that suggests the existence of the word "preg" (as in "Who will preg the impregnable?"). And, how, we wonder is this related to "pregnant"?

While "preg" may once have been a word (I don't know) it isn't any more. Though, interestingly enough you are allowed to say "That position is very pregnable" (though the spelling checker that comes with Blogspot disagrees, I notice).

As an another example, I once had a classmate refer to a team "mantling and dismantling" a scaffold. It makes you wonder why we don't have "mantle" as a word.

This desire to spot patterns and create words is so powerful it's actually added new words to the language (a process called "back formation": people move from what they consider to be a variation on a word to what they assume must be the base form of the word--in fact, that 'base form' did not, previously, exist). The noun "editor" existed long before the verb "edit" did but people, assuming that "editing" was what an editor did, added "edit" to the language (in fact, "editor" was a Latin noun that meant "producer of games"). Perhaps, it's only a matter of time before we start saying that what ushers do is "ush."

Moving beyond words that don't exist (at least, not any more) there are all those words that do exist but can only be used in particular situations. Some words, for example, are only used in the negative: You could, presumably, "mince words" but no one ever does; People only say "I'm not going to mince words." And you certainly can't "unmince" your words though, presumably, that's what you do when you put 'officialese' into plain language.

Language is fun.

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