The English language, notorious for its pervasive irregularities and apparent inconsistencies, includes a trend that, when applied to certain word forms, leads to some curious results. The trend to which I refer is the relationship of adjectives ending in –id to corresponding nouns ending in –or. This trend is seen exclusively amongst words with Latin roots. Here is a table containing some examples of such adjectives:
It should be noted that stupor is not the exact noun form of stupid, which is actually stupidity. And, while stupidity and stupor convey different nuances, there is enough overlap in their definitions to make the noun-verb connection apparent. There are, however, just as many adjectives ending in –id with corresponding nouns that do not follow this trend. These nouns tend to end in the more common –idity and –ness. Here are some examples:
This second list acts as a reminder of just how irregular English conjugation is. A much more interesting list, however, includes adjectives ending in –id which, if run through the –id → –or conjugation mechanism, produce curious results. The following list includes the grammatically correct noun forms of these adjectives, as well as a list of nouns ending in –or which could possibly share some etymological relationship to the corresponding adjectives:
This is the list of most interest because, unlike the others, it does not merely consist of examples and counterexamples of the –id –> –or pattern. It presents us with an opportunity to explore the relationships between certain adjectives and the nouns that, coincidentally or not, are spelled and pronounced so as to fit the pattern established by the first list. Could the italicized nouns give us a glimpse into arcane uses of these adjectives? It requires no stretch of the imagination to see how the meaning of valid could be related to that of valor, the actions of a person possessing the Greek quality of valor being considered valid by the societal norms of the time. Similarly, it is easy to see how a relationship between liquid and liquor could exist somewhere in the recesses of word origins. But what of vapid → vapor and humid → humor?
While the word vapid is most commonly used as a synonym for insipid or lifeless, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that, in the 17th century, vapid was used to mean, “Of a damp or steamy character; dank, vaporous.” Here, it seems, lies the –id → –or connection between vapid and vapor, an outdated relationship betrayed by the modern word forms in which it no doubt resulted. To unearth the connection between humid and humor also requires the pondering of a definition that has fallen out of use. The Oxford English Dictionary lists, among its definitions of humid, several relevant usages that haven’t been common for centuries. While the primary definition is, “Slightly wet as with steam, suspended vapor, or most; moist, damp.”, several historical uses of the word include, “In medieval physiology, said of elements, humours…Said of a chemical process in which liquid is used…Of diseases: Marked by a moist discharge.” This conception of humor (a reference to the Four Humours or Temperaments, medical notions that hearken back to ancient Egypt and Greece), here referring to wetness, gave rise to our modern notion of the word, currently used to mean, “Mood natural to one’s temperament…” and, “The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition.” To uncover the relationship requires a look at classical medicine and its assumptions regarding the functioning of the human body.
According to this conception of human health, one whose composition is characterized by moistness walks the line between sanguine and phlegmatic. Those with sanguine temperaments were ascribed the traits of extroversion and sociability, while phlegmatics were considered kind and relaxed. It does not require a far leap to bridge the gap between the ancient notion of physiological humidity and our contemporary use of the word humorous to suggest a jovial and comedic personality. The following image shows how moisture was associated with a sanguine-phlegmatic temperament:
Having deciphered the aforementioned relationships through a bit of etymological archaeology, it seems necessary to address one final list of words. Here is a list of common nouns ending in –or with corresponding adjectives that seem to follow no discernable pattern:
While this last list does not present any immediately obvious clues regarding outdated word usage, it leads to another interesting line of inquiry. Why is there no adjective form of temblor in the English language, whether modern or arcane? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the world temblor, synonymous with earthquake, is an Americanism not seen in print earlier than 1876. Since the word is so young and is not commonly used, perhaps it simply never had the chance to sprout related adjectives. Perchance this could lead to the temblorous conclusion that English word forms only emerge if they are necessary, and do not merely arise out of grammatical convention.
Some Further Reading:
An exhaustive list of –id adjectives that makes special note of vapor and humor. Oddly, this list suggests that valor and valid are unrelated, while glossing over the relationship between humor and humid
Native to the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene (located in modern day Libya), Silphium (also known as laser) is an extinct plant that, in its heyday, was one of the most treasured medicinal resources of the ancient world. Employed by cultures all around the Mediterranean, Silphium was used as a spice, a cure-all medicinal remedy, a form of birth control, and an agent for pregnancy abortion. Famed scholars ranging from Pliny the Elder to Herodotus to Theophrastus all wrote of Silphium’s legendary potency. Despite its widespread popularity, Silphium allegedly refused to grow anywhere aside from Cyrene. The colony became so closely identified with the plant that it appears on the settlement’s coins.
Silphium was so strongly desired by various ancient civilizations that it was, at times, valued above currency. With some Romans contending that the plant was a gift from the god Apollo, its extinction was considered a great tragedy. Pliny even wrote that the last known Silphium plant was given to the Roman Emperor Nero himself.
The Egyptians shared the Romans’ veneration of the plant, associating its with human love and sexuality. The Egyptian glyph signifying the heart portion of the soul, in fact, may have been meant to picture the seed of the Silphium plant. This character, known to the Egyptians as Ib, is likely the origin of our modern heart symbol.
While the world has been without Silphium and its powers for well over a millennium, our modern culture still bears its mark. Every time a love-dazed youth carves a heart into a tree or inserts a whimsical, heart-shaped emoticon into an online conversation, the plant that once commanded a king’s ransom is winking at us from the ghostly recesses of the Earth’s past. Like the Dodo bird that gave us an insult implying stupidity or the dinosaur that inhabits every child’s imagination, Silphium’s potency is strong enough to overcome the silencing power of extinction itself.
Some Further Reading:
The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most famous statues in the world, residing on the West bank of the Nile River near Cairo, Egypt. It measures 241 feet long by 65 feet high, making it the world’s largest known monolith. Along with the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx is part of the legendary Giza Necropolis.
Mainstream modern history contends that the Sphinx was constructed during the 3rd millennium BC under the Pharaoh Khafra. It is widely believed, in fact, that the Sphinx’s face bears an intentional likeness to that of Khafra. Others contend that the statue was built by Khafra’s father, the Pharaoh Khufu, and was merely repaired or modified by his son (who perhaps altered the statue’s face to resemble his own). Some alternative historians, however, have put forth the claim that the statue was originally built thousands of years prior to either of these Pharaohs, and is historically attributed to them due only to the modifications made to the Sphinx during their respective reigns.
The startling lack of any mention of the Sphinx’s construction in the written records of ancient Egypt is cited as evidence for this hypothesis. While the process of designing and building the Great Pyramids of Giza (built approximately contemporaneously, it is widely assumed, with the Sphinx) is extensively outlined in Egyptian records, the only mentions of the Sphinx regard repairs performed on the statue.
French Egyptologist R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz fist noted in the 1950s that the Spinx shows evidence of water erosion that could only have been caused by heavy rainfall over an extended period of time, or perhaps even exposure to flooding. This was a curious observation due to the fact that Cairo is located in a desert climate. The last time that this area of the world is believed to have experience rainfall sufficient to produce the erosion found on the Sphinx was immediately following the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, a minimum of 7,000 years before the accepted start of Ancient Egyptian culture. Skeptics shoot down this theory by chalking up the Sphinx’s erosion to the result of acid rainfall or the weakness of the limestone from which the statue was built, and hold fast the the claim that the Sphinx is no older that 5,000 years.
If the Sphinx were in fact built more than 10,000 years ago, this means that it was constructed before the date currently associated with the widespread employment of agriculture, which has been historically equated with a sedentary lifestyle and thus the possibility of civic works. So, assuming (if only for argument’s sake) that the Sphinx was constructed shortly after the end of the last ice age, we must make one of two unprecedented allowances. Either a pre-agricultural “civilization” (I here include the word civilization within quotations because the word’s traditional definition implies a mastery of agriculture) somehow managed to build an astoundingly large and complex statue, or the agricultural revolution took place millennia earlier than it is widely believed to have done so. Perhaps a happy medium can be reached by allowing for the possibility that a culture dating earlier than 8,000 BC mastered agriculture (or at least horticulture) on a scale sufficient to sustain an advanced, sedentary lifestyle while avoiding the trend of expansive totalitarian agriculture. This would allow for the phenomenon to have remained confined within a limited geographical range while the rest of the pre-historic world led a nomadic, hunting-and-gathering existence, unaware of astonishing accomplishments of their North African neighbors.
Some Further Reading: