-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

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24 years old v 24 years older

Last night my wife pointed to a Youtube video about the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and asked ‘Did you know he married a woman 24 years old?’. I’d read headlines about ‘an older woman’, so ’24 years old’ didn’t sound right, but ’24 years older‘ didn’t sound much righter. Except she is. My wife really did know that Brigette Macron is ‘older’ and really did mean to say ‘older’, but either her pronunciation failed at the last syllable or I wasn’t paying attention.

It is perhaps more likely that a 39-year-old man would marry a woman 24 years old than a woman 24 years older. Thinking about it, I was grateful that she isn’t, for example, 15 years older than him. ‘Did you know he married a woman 15 years old?’ really doesn’t sound right.

Some time ago, she was reading about a host/judge on a cooking competition program here in Australia. She said ‘His wife is 19 years old!’ (he was then in his 40s). This is possible, but I wanted to check. The article said ‘his wife of 19 years’. (I remember, many, many years ago, being confused about this phrasing as well. It that case, it was something like ‘his wife of 13 years’.)

re-member me

Following on from the lesson about changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa by adding or subtracting suffixes (and enhancing the meaning by adding prefixes), I pulled out an activity from the teachers book of another textbook series. There are 18 cards, each divided into four diagonally, with, typically, a prefix, two main words and a suffix in the four quadrants. The students have to match up the prefix on one card with the root on another to make a compound word, building up a 3 x 6 grid. This is harder than it sounds because so many prefixes and suffixes go with with so many main words. For example, two of the prefixes are pro- and anti-, and some of the roots were government, communist, European and abortion. (Several students chose ‘pro-abortion’. I had to explain that no-one states their own position as ‘pro-abortion’ – everyone agrees that abortion is, in general, a Bad Thing; some people just prioritise a woman’s right to choose as more important.)

Several students put re- and member together to form remember, which is wrong (in this activity) and kind of right (etymologically). I join a choir and am a member. I leave it and am an ex-member. I rejoin it and am a re-member. Makes sense. Except that’s not what remember means. The re- of remember does indeed mean again, but the member is derived from Latin memor, memory: to remember is to memory again. Compare remind, recall and recollect, which are indeed to mind again, to call (to mind) again and to collect (your thoughts) again, and contrast reminisce, which does not mean to minisce again (minisce is ultimately derived from Latin mens, mind). Member, by the way, is derived from Latin membrum.

And a song.

heatable, heatful

I don’t like students depending on dictionaries in class (in fact, I don’t like them using dictionaries at all), for several reasons, another of which I might write about in a future post. Last night the students were practicing changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa (for the sake of completeness, I also added the appropriate verbs and adverbs). Most nouns change to adjectives and vice versa by the addition or subtraction of a suffix. However, there is a group of words which are clearly related but include other changes (long > length, strong > strength etc), sometimes enough to classify them as two  different words (poor > poverty).

One word was heat, for which most students had no trouble finding hot. (Though one student wrote tropical.) Another student then said ‘What about heatable and heatful?’. I said ‘What?!’. He pointed at the dictionary app on his phone. I said approximately ‘Well, I understand I those words but I’ve never seen or heard them in my life. Forget them. If you’ve ever got a choice between hot, heatable and heatful, keep it short and simple, and choose hot.’
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autumn leaves, improvisatorialness

On Wednesday, our choir director introduced a short round as a warm-up. The words are: “Summer sun, autumn leaves, winter comes and then it’s spring”. “Summer sun” is definitely noun modifier + noun, while “winter comes” is definitely noun + verb, but “autumn leaves” could be noun modifier + noun (like “fruit flies”) or noun + verb (like “time flies”) (apropos of which).

She also referred to the “improvisatorialness” of a solo piano piece our accompanist played at a performance last weekend. The internet does not recognise this word, or “improvizatorialness”. There is no standard word for “the quality of improvisation”, but the conductor was easily able to create a noun from the adjective “improvisatorial” and the noun suffix “-ness” and we were easily able to understand her. “Improvisatorial” is recorded in online dictionaries but Google asks “Did you mean: improvisatory?”. “Improvisatoriness” is not record in online dictionaries, but writers have used it, even in published books.

No one is alone … Nobody

For some reason, English has two parallel sets of indefinite pronouns for people: no one (no-one or noone) and nobody, someone and somebody, anyone and anybody, and everyone and everybody. There is no particular reason to choose one or the other, apart from consistency, if that is important for you.

According to Dictionary.com, based on the Random House Dictionary, nobody and anybody developed before no-one and anyone, someone and somebody developed together, and everyone developed before everybody. According to Google Ngram Viewer, anybody, somebody and everybody were more common in the 19th century, but anyone, someone and everyone took over between 1900 and 1930 (slightly earlier in British English than in American English), and are now considerably more common. Conversely, no one has been more common than nobody since before 1800.

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For some reason I can remember talking to a piano student (so, at least 19 years ago, now) about English words which end in ‘-spire’, from the Latin ‘spīrāre’ to breathe (the noun ‘spīritus’, from which we get ‘spirit’, is also related). (Possibly this cropped up via the musical term ‘con spirito’.) I’ve just been researching these in slightly more detail; there are eight in total: aspire, conspire, expire, inspire, perspire, respire, suspire and transpire. All entered English in the late Middle English period, either directly from Latin or via Middle French, and have spawned other derived words. All of the Latin prefixes are also found in many other English and Latin words, and are, ultimately, Latin prepositions.

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