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.
For some reason, I got thinking about the pairs of adjectives venereal and Venusian, martial and Martian, and jovial and Jovian. The second of each pair relates only to the Roman goddess or god or the planet, while the first relates to personality (jovial), soldiers or personality (martial) and love (venereal). The last could have positive collocations (affections, delights) but has come to be associated primarily with sexually transmitted diseases and their symptoms.
So, are there also mercurial and Mercurian, and saturnial and Saturnian? No, lower-case mercurial refers to personality and upper-case Mercurial to the god and the planet. Lower-case saturnian refers to personality ‘prosperous, happy, or peaceful’ and upper-case Saturnian to the god and the planet. But saturnine means ‘sluggish in temperament; gloomy; taciturn’ (somehow one god and/or planet was seen to be responsible for both happiness and gloom) as well as ‘due to absorption of lead … suffering from lead poisoning’ . (In Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Saturn is subtitled ‘The Bringer of Old Age’.)
These were the planets known to the ancients and early and middle English speakers. From the modern age come Uranian, ‘pertaining to the planet Uranus’ and ‘(of males) homosexual …from Aphrodite Urania heavenly Aphrodite, inspiration for male homosexuality in Plato’s Symposium’; Neptunian, relating to the god or the sea, the planet, or ‘(often lowercase) Geology. formed by the action of water’.
Where’s Pluto? For the sake of completeness, I’ll add Plutonian ‘Also, Plutonic of, relating to, or resembling Pluto or the lower world; infernal’.
Note also the chemical elements mercury (ancient), uranium, neptunium and plutonium (modern). In classical alchemy, Venus was associated with copper (?a woman’s mirror), Mars with iron (?a soldier’s weapons), Jupiter with tin (??) and Saturn with lead (see ‘lead poisoning’ above).
At a railway station in central Sydney, I saw a door marked EMERGENCY EGRESS ONLY. I guess that at least 99% of such doors in the English-speaking world are marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.
Egress is the slightly earlier word, dating from the 1530s. Exit as a stage direction (technically, a verb) as in ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ dates from the 1530s, but from the 1590s it was used as a noun, as in ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances’ and (occasionally) a ‘real’ verb.
From about 1650 to about 1850, the two words were used more or less interchangeably, but then the use of exit grew and egress declined, probably corresponding to the growth in public railway travel. Then in the early 1970s, the use of exit skyrocketed, for reasons I can’t think of, but curiously declined from 2000 to 2008. Most of this was due to the use of exit as a noun; exit really only began to be used as a verb in the 20th century.
When I was 4 years and 5 months old, my younger sister (then 1 year and 11 months) and I stayed for three weeks with our grandparents while our mother was in hospital and recovering. They were inveterate letter-writers and our mother kept (?many ?most ?all) of their letters from all times, and all of the letters from that time. Some years ago she photocopied the ones from that time and gave them to me in a plastic folder. I knew I had it, but found it while tidying up recently and have been reading them. There are comments relevant to first language acquisityion and use, but my first extract is about something not related to me.
In one of his letters, my grandfather suddenly broke off talking about my mother’s health and my sister’s and my doings to talk about a birth notice my grandmother had seen in the Melbourne newspaper. After the obvious details of names, place and date was ‘Birth by psychoprophylaxis’. He commented ‘It is the first time we have seen the final word in a notice’.
Yesterday, the textbook focussed on adjectives describing personality. One question for discussion was ‘Who is the most glamorous person you know?’. The students asked and answered the questions in pairs first, then I asked random students in front of the whole class. One student said ‘Teacher!’. I asked ‘Why?’. She hesitated, then said something to a classmate in Chinese. The classmate said ‘Body language’. Yes, I do tend to gesticulate and use a wide variety of facial expressions and tone of voice, as part of ‘total communication’, but I wouldn’t have called that ‘glamorous’.
I asked the second student the same question, and she said (you’ve guessed it) ‘Lady Gaga’. I asked ‘You know Lady Gaga?’, followed by a short discussion of ‘know’ in a question like this (know, know about, know of). I then asked ‘Why?’ and she said clothes, makeup, hair, lifestyle etc.
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.