Grammar Booty Call: Know Your Roots 0 Comments

Grammar Booty Call: Know Your Roots

Today, many of us in Australia will be at home—most probably in a cocoon of doonas to ward off the cold—because of the Queen’s Birthday public holiday. (Whether we’re actually relaxing or doing work from home, as I am, is another matter.) So, in the spirit of giving a nod to the country’s imperial roots, this month’s Grammar Booty Call will explore the etymology of some words and show that knowing their component roots can help in using or spelling them correctly.

affect / effect

The prefix ex–, from the Latin, means ‘out of’, and this sense can be seen in words like exert, exhume and express. Similarly, effect comes from ex– combined with facere (Latin, ‘to do’): it refers to the product of an action or change, or, in verb form, to the act of bringing about a particular outcome.

Affect, on the other hand, is facere preceded by a–, from ad– (Latin, ‘towards’). Thus, whereas ex– begins with the ‘doing’ and draws it out, the ad– indicates the ‘doing’ as directed towards something else. In affecting something, you cause an effect.

A rather specific meaning of affect, in noun form, points to the neurological or psychological effects—hence the confusion—that a particular piece of stimulus has, usually to the emotions.

imply / infer

People regularly misuse the verbs imply and infer. But knowing the component morphemes of both words can help clarify which is semantically appropriate.

Imply comes from in– (originating from Latin and meaning the same as it does in modern English) accompanying plicare (Latin, ‘to fold’). The word, therefore, means ‘folding in’—and a useful image is that the intended message is ‘folded in’ the words used by the speaker/writer. It’s as though meaning is packed into a delicious word-dumpling.

In contrast, infer is the combination of in– and ferre (Latin, ‘to carry’). Ferre is similar enough to the modern English word ferry (though, I should note that they have distinct etymologies—the latter is from Old English ferian, which coincidentally also means ‘to carry’), so imagine the listener/reader ‘ferrying’ meaning from what has been said/written to their minds. Or the fork, transporting the spinach-meanings from dumpling to mouth.

In short: implying is done by the originator of meaning, ‘folding in’ the meaning into the vehicle of language. But it is the listener/reader who infers, ‘ferrying’ meaning out of the spoken/written words.

flammable / inflammable

Both are acceptable spellings and are understood to be synonymous, but it’s interesting to examine how the two words came about.

Flammable has its roots in flammare (Latin, ‘to set on fire’), combined with –able (from the French, indicating capacity or possibility). On the other hand, inflammable is in– plus flammare (together indicating a state of being on fire, often used figuratively much like today’s inflame) plus –able.

A difference in nuance is evident, then: one refers to the ability to be set on fire, while the other, to the ability to be in a state of being on fire.

simplistic / simple

The word simplistic is distinct from simple but is often used as though it’s synonymous with the latter (e.g. I like her recipes, which are very simplistic).

The suffix –ist is used to convey that someone or something does or is an adherent of something, having origins in Latin and Greek. Compare: pianist, Marxist. Then, –ic denotes ‘having the characteristic of’ (from the Greek –ikos, ‘in the manner of’).

The literal definition of simplistic, based on its etymology, is therefore ‘in the manner of someone who simplifies’. The word, correctly used, is usually pejorative, connoting a failure to recognise the ‘big picture’. Taking a prescriptivist approach to language and asserting that there are absolute ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, for example, is simplistic, as it fails to recognise how language changes based on how it’s used (in the short term) and as part of cultural evolution (in the long term).

definately [sic] / definitely

In the process of assimilating Latin words into English, –ate is used to conjugate verbs ending in –are, as seen in cases like eradicate (from Latin eradicare, ‘to root out’). Thus, words ending in –ate are often verbs. (Note, too, the increasing and sometime erroneous use of backformations such as administrate and orientate—the latter of which is increasingly gaining acceptance. The standard verbs are administer and orient, but the –ate forms are becoming more pervasive. Evolution of language, et cetera, but in this particular situation I remain unconvinced.)

Nevertheless, –ate is often confused with –ite, which means ‘connected to’ or ‘having the characteristic of’—as in sulphite (relating to sulphur).

So let’s analyse each non-contentious element in the word definitely. De– can either mean ‘to nullify’ (as in dethrone and denounce) or ‘regarding the matter of’ (as in debrief). The morpheme fin is from finis (Latin for ‘end’ or ‘limits’), and –ly is used in English to denote a word’s adverbial status (e.g. quiet is an adjective, describing a person/thing, while quietly is an adverb, characterising an action, adjective or other adverb). So far, then, the word means ‘regarding the end/limits in adverbial form’. Using –ate wouldn’t make sense: ‘regarding the ending (verb form) in adverbial form’—that is, ‘to end-ly’. However, with –ite, sense is preserved: ‘regarding something having the characteristic of an end or a limit (i.e. certainty) in adverbial form’.

physco [sic] / psycho

This error is often made by younger people, who are aware that the letters are s, y, c, h and o, plus a silent p, but not in what order. Perhaps the misspelling can be attributed to the speakers/writers being introduced to phys– earlier—as in physical education. However, some insight into the words’ origins can easily dispel any confusion. Phys– is from the Greek physios, meaning ‘nature’ or ‘the physical world’, whereas psych– is from the Greek psykhe (‘mind’, ‘soul’). A psycho—short for psychopath—is a person with a mental disorder, like Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s eponymous film (and –path is from pathos, Greek for ‘suffering’). Thus, it is in the mind, not the body, that the affliction sits.

cede / supersede

Intuitively, it is clear that the prefix super– means ‘on top of’ or ‘beyond’; Superman has made this very clear. Yet the –sede in supersede is not merely the word cede with the prefix added on.

Cede originates from the Latin cedere (‘to leave’, ‘to yield’). This meaning has been preserved in modern English. But the stem morpheme is from sedere (Latin, ‘to sit’)—the same predecessor of the word sedentary. Thus, supersede etymologically means ‘to sit on top of’ and refers to something that takes the place of something else: Should Adam Bandt’s 2013 bill be passed, it would supersede the Marriage Amendment Act 2004.

The problem can be attributed to the two words sharing the idea of ‘replacement’: in ceding something, one gives it up; in superseding, something new or better supplants what was once there. However, to use the incorrect supercede would be ‘to yield beyond’, which seems nonsensical (beyond what?).


By Adolfo Aranjuez

Adolfo Aranjuez is the deputy editor of Voiceworks. He is also the in-house editor at independent publisher Melbourne Books—and submissions for the 2013 edition of its annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing are closing in less than a week (16 June)! If you’d like to send him a Grammar Booty Call, you can contact him via Twitter on @adolfo_ae.