My class was practicing changing nouns and verbs into adjectives. At the end of the activity in the textbook was a series of words for them to suggest suitable adjectives for. The last one was ‘yourself’. Various students suggested various adjectives. One hesitated, dived for his mobile phone translator app and said ‘involute’ (emphasis on the second syllable). I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know’. I said, ‘Neither do I’. He showed me his phone, which had a word in his language (which uses a script I can’t read) followed by the English words ‘inextricable, involute, involved, kinky’. I said, ‘Just don’t use any of those words to describe yourself’ (especially not ‘kinky’!) (even there’s nothing wrong with describing yourself as ‘involved’).
One of the problems in relying on translator apps is that they usually don’t include information on usage, for example, whether a word is common or rare, technical, formal or slang, or usually applied to humans, animals or things. This came right at the end of the last lesson of the week, so I was unable to talk to them about that.
Dictionary.com’s examples for inextricable refer to ‘maze’, ‘knot’ and ‘confusion’. Involute (stress on the first syllable) is defined as ‘1. intricate; complex. 2. curled or curved inward or spirally. 3. Botany. rolled inward from the edge, as a leaf. 4. Zoology. (of shells) having the whorls closely wound.’ It is certainly possible to describe yourself as ‘intricate and complex’, but if you want to, you say ‘intricate and complex’ and not ‘involute’. It can also be a noun: ‘5. Geometry. any curve of which a given curve is the evolute.’ and a verb with opposite meanings ‘6. to roll or curl up; become involute. 7. to return to a normal shape, size, or state.’ Latin had two variants volv- and volu-. Morewords.com lists 57 words containing volv and 147 containing volu. The first definition of involved is ‘very intricate or complex’, but the usual and natural application of it to yourself is ‘4. committed or engaged, as in a political cause or artistic movement’. Kinky is defined as ‘1. full of kinks; closely twisted, 2. (of hair) closely or tightly curled, 3. Slang. marked by unconventional sexual preferences or behavior, as fetishism, sadomasochism, or the like.’ It is possible that a student could be thinking of definition 2. (It is also possible that they could be thinking of definition 3. If so, I hope they don’t say so in class.)
Some time later I remembered a day with university friends, when we played a dictionary game – someone finds an unusual word in the dictionary and the others have to guess what it means, with points for correctness, plausibility and/or imagination. I don’t know why I remember that one word was ‘volute’ when I don’t remember any of the other words. Volute can be a noun ‘1. a spiral or twisted formation or object.’ with special reference to ornaments on Greek columns and handrails of stairs, shells and a kind of pump. It can also be an adjective: ‘6. having a volute or rolled-up form.’ This makes ‘involute’ and ‘volute’ synonyms, like ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’.
Slightly connected, my Korean diary has the following entry: ‘One class was learning about occupations. There was a list of descriptions of occupations, and a corresponding list of names of occupations. One description was “A person who is diligent, sincere, intelligent and good-looking”. The student looked down the list of names of occupations and burst out laughing when she got to “Your English teacher”, which was, of course, the answer that the writers of the book wanted. I said “Hey, I don’t write the questions, I just ask them”.’
PS The second point arising came courtesy of another student who changed care into cure. Umm, no – nice thought, but it’s still a noun or verb. Care is authentically English, from before 900. Cure came from Latin, around 1250-1300. Intriguingly, the derivation is from ‘cūrāre’,* which means ‘to take care of’ (cf curate, curator). The student also changed ‘sun’ into shine – again, nice thought. The two words are closely linked; we can say ‘a sun shines’, or ‘suns shine’, or ‘sunshine’.
*The South American poison is obviously completely unrelated!