A patient patient

I have posted before about the dangers of students picking the wrong meaning from a dictionary or translator, because many words have multiple meaning or senses. Sometimes the two words are related, sometimes they’re not.

Today, a sentence included patient as an adjective. One student used his dictionary/translator, then about a minute later said “What does this sentence mean?”. I said “You wrote down that word. You tell me what it means.” He said “A sick person”.

Interestingly, patient-noun = a sick person and patient-adjective = bearing with fortitude without complaint are related, through Latin pati, patiens to undergo, suffer, bear. A patient is someone who is suffering illness or injury. They are patient if they do so without complaint, but a patient can be very impatient (and many are). Conversely, a doctor can be patient (and, at times, a patient) or impatient.

The relationship between patient-noun and patient-adjective may not be obvious, but the two words share the same form. Also today, another student said that the adjective related to happiness is happen (and immediately realised their mistake). Happen is not an adjective, but, surprisingly, is related to happy and happiness. The connection is the very old (1150-1200) noun hap, meaning one’s lot or luck – something that occurs for some reason. Happen dates from 1300-1350 and means the actual occurrence of a hap. Happy emerged at the same time and means the feeling resulting from a fortunate occurrence – not the feeling resulting from any occurrence. Finally, happiness dates from 1520-30. Generally speaking, the more basic form came first and the more affixed form came later (though there is also the opposite process of back-formation). Hap is now a very rare word, alongside mayhap, but perhaps (by lot or luck) and maybe are very common.

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Indo-European clothes

In 2015, many of my students were from Pakistan. Some of them wore traditional Pakistani clothes, especially on Fridays, when they went from class to prayers at a mosque. I asked them what those clothes were called, and they said “Shalwar kameez”. The shalwar is the trousers and the kameez the top. It’s a long way from Pakistani men to the chemise and camisole, but the garments and the words are related. 

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Live life

The noun life, the verb live and the adjective live often cause confusion for English language learners, especially the plural noun and the 3sg verb lives, and the base verb and the adjective live (in each case, same spelling, different pronunciation). Life can only be a noun, but even then could be uncountable or countable singular. 

Especially when they are reading out loud, students might say something like “Computers and mobile phones are an essential part of our /lɪvz/“. This is partly because of the fact that the plural of life is lives, not lifes – I don’t think any student would mistake “our lifes”. I usually explain it by comparing his life and their lives with they live and he lives.

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photopic, biopic, photography

An article mentioned photopic vision, which I guessed was pho-topic, which turned out to be correct, but I commented to our editor that it might just be photo-pic. Photopic is photo, light + opic, relating to sight, or the vision of the human eye under well-lit conditions, compared to that in low light.

One word that is often mentioned in many discussions of ‘words which I though were pronounced somehow until I found out that they aren’t’ is biopic, which many people think is bi-opic, no doubt influenced by bionic, biology and biography. The common meaning is bios, life, but bio + pic is blend of biographical picture (movie), with the ‘pic’ representing a real word rather than simply being a suffix like -(o)nic, –logy and –graphy. Speaking of which, another article mentioned bionic design, that is, “the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology”. I just had to have the headline “We have the technology”.

In my other job, I’m fighting a losing battle against photo-graphy. In the medium-to-long term, this word may develop two pronunciations, one by native speakers and the other by second language learners. 

Cyte, cite, site, sight

Yesterday I saw a car belonging to a pathology laboratory named 4cyte (presumably pronounced ‘foresight’). Cyte is not a word by itself: *“We’re going to take a sample of your cytes for testing” (indeed Pages for Mac just changed cyte to cute and cytes to cites), but it occurs in many words meaning cell, all of which are highly technical. At the beginning of a word, it’s usually cyt– or cyto-. 

The Greek word doesn’t mean cell, though, because the Greeks didn’t know about cells. Kýtos means container, receptacle, body, and was later applied to cells. Cell, meanwhile, is from Latin cella, small room (whence, obviously cellar).

Cyte, cite (Latin, to move, set in motion, summon before a court), site (Latin, setting down, position, arrangement) and sight (Germanic, a thing seen, later the faculty of vision – I hadn’t previously realised that see and sight are etymologically related) are all unrelated. And then there’s excite and excel. Excite is related to cite (set in motion) but excel is from -cellere to rise high < celsus high. (The one ‘l’ is clue. I originally thought that excell was ‘out of the cell’.)

The optometrist’s/optician’s advertising itself as ‘A site for sore eyes’ may be a joke. 

(information from various online dictionaries and etymology sights)

Not sure about these …

I recently encountered three usages which I’m not sure are good or bad. About half of the articles I subedit come directly from companies, and about half from PR agents. If PR agents have an official title, it’s usually something like “account manager”. But one has the title of “chief wordsmith”. It’s a real word, dating from 1895-1900, meaning:

1. A fluent and prolific writer, especially one who writes professionally.
2. An expert on words. (The Free Dictionary)

So a PR agent certainly fits that definition. But there’s something slightly strange about the word. Most smiths either work(ed) with metal (blacksmith (iron), coppersmith, goldsmith, ironsmith, redsmith (copper), silversmith, tinsmith, whitesmith (tin plate and galvanised iron)) or make/made artefacts from it (2). Also, the slightly problematic fingersmith, a midwife or pickpocket. A hammersmith may once have been an occupation, but the only references now are to the suburb of London. And goodness only know what a sexsmith such that it became a surname. One genealogy website suggests ploughshares (French soc) or sickles. That’s not what I was thinking.

Then there are wordsmiths, songsmiths and tunesmiths, all of which sound to me to be slightly less capable than writers, songwriters and composers, respectively. Maybe there’s something too non-physical about words, songs and tunes. 

In the end, it didn’t matter, as a PR agent’s name and title don’t appear in a published article.

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An amature mistake

I have seen the spelling amature on websites enough times to notice, but have never commented about it, either on those websites or here. I have just seen the spelling amuture.  

The correct spelling is amateur. Different dictionaries give its etymology as ama + teur and others as amat + eur, but the difference doesn’t matter. An amateur is a lover of what they do. Some amateurs are very, very good at what they do, but Dictionary.com’s third definition is “an inexperienced or unskilled person”. It has just occurred to me that amature might be a (not) + mature, but that would be adding a Greek pronoun to a Latin root (which does happen). (By the way, the original Latin spelling amator seems not to be used.)

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