lative and fluous

I often encounter the word superlative in my English language teaching, but it also cropped up recently in a business magazine article I was subediting. When I first encountered superlative, I reasoned that it was pronounced super-lative, just as superfluous was super-fluous. But they’re not: they are su-per-luh-tive and su-per-flu-ous respectively.  

 Even though super comes from Latin, most English words starting with that morpheme are modern, and are attached to real English words, whether nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Super retains its usual stress and so does the real English word following it. Lative and fluous aren’t English words, but many others based on Latin ferre/fero/latus and fluere/fluo/fluxus are. Note also that superlativus and superfluus were/are real Latin words. Wikitionary says that the pronunciation of superfluus was as in English, but that of superlativus was super-lativus. (By the way, the literal meanings in Latin and English are ‘carried over’ and ‘flowing over’.)

There are three other English words which are pronounced su-per rather than super: superb, superior and the rare supernal. –b, –ior and –nal are clearly not English words, and in fact represent the Latin suffixes –bus, –ior, and –nalis – the Latin words were superbus (not super-bus), superior and supernalis (not sure of pronunciation).

To sum up: don’t embarrass yourself in public by pronouncing these two words as super-lative and super-fluous.


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)

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’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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Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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Misled by the egregious treachery of memory

Right at the end of my previous post, I said that I’d love to see someone deliver commentary on current events in the sesquipedalian style of JEL Seneker. In particular, I was imagining insulting public figures by stealth by using very long words.

That reminded me of an exchange in an episode of the British tv series Yes, Minister, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby (a career civil servant) convinces Jim Hacker (an occasionally well-meaning but usually self-serving politician) that egregious is a compliment. I remembered the exchange as:

Jim (reading a newspaper): “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What does “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: It means “outstanding”, Minister.
Jim: Oh, that’s nice of them to say so.
Sir Humphrey: I’m glad you think so, Minister.

Searching online just now, it seems that my memory is faulty. Various websites record the exchange as:

Jim: “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What’s “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: I think it means “outstanding”.
Jim: Oh…?
Sir Humphrey: In one way or another.

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Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism

While I was researching for my previous post, I stumbled across an extraordinary book titled Frontier Experience or Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism from the Occident, by J.E.L. Seneker. The first paragraph gives a taste of its style:

Most Sophomorical Sir:–

Your Græco-Latin epistolet or cabalistical abracabra, lies before me, deciphered and eclaircised to the best of my linguistic, pasigraphical, and exegetical ability. As merited castigation therefor, and to test your wonted longanimity, I shall recalictrate by effunding upon you, in epistolic form, my scaturient cornucopia of lexiphanic sesquipedalities, Johnsonian archaisms, exoticisms, neologianisms, patavinities, et id genus omne.

A little is explained in the front matter to the book. In the Prefatory Remarks by the Author, he states that after some study, he spent:

several years in the far west, Mexico, California, British Columbia, Alaska, Ontario, &c., &c. These fustian letters, a few copies of which I have, at the request of many of my friends, printed, give, to a limited extent, that part of my varied experience in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico:– at that time wild west frontiers … I have greatly amplified the original text, and incorporated many lexiphanic words.

In other words, as I understand it, he wrote the letters as a young man, and published them in an expanded form later. 

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