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 Here, it seems, lies the –id → –or connection between vapid and vapor, an outdated relationship betrayed by the modern word forms in which it no doubt resulted.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
Situated in the Irish Sea between Ireland and England, the Isle of Man is, according to its government’s website, “An internally self-governing dependent territory of the Crown which is not part of the United Kingdom.” Inhabited since the 7th millennium BC, the island has hosted a variety of cultures practicing diverse traditions.
Although the island’s official language is currently English, the native tongue was, until recent decades, the peculiar Goidelic language of Manx Gaelic (insular Celtic languages are split into two groups: Manx, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic are dubbed Goidelic, while Breton, Cornish, and Welsh are dubbed Brythonic. The two groups are widely believed to share a common precursor) . This historically significant era came to an end on December 27, 1974 when Ned Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx, died at the age of ninety-seven.
Fortunately for the sake of cultural preservation, Maddrell allowed linguists to record him speaking Manx in the late 1940s when he was one of only two living native speakers. Upon the 1962 death of the other native speaker, Sage Kinvig, Maddrell became something of a celebrity in linguistic circles. Students of Goidelic languages flocked to him in order to learn what they could of the imperiled language before his death. Maddrell’s willingness to expound upon Manx proved invaluable to its preservation, even if only for academic purposes. Here is an example of spoken Manx, available to us due in no small part to Maddrell:
To put the demise of Manx in context, here is part of a speech by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General of the United Nations from February of 2009:
Some further reading:
Irrational Geographic is so often concerned with notions ancient and arcane that, in this novel entry, I’ve decided to take an opposite approach. Today is Thursday, the 6th of August. So as to remain as temporally present and as commonplace as possible, I have decided to make an inquiry into Thursday itself. One seventh of our shared existence is spent inside of this designated period of time, so its origins, both as an entity and as a word, are of undeniable interest.
Thursday is designated the fifth day of the week according to the Gregorian calendar, which is currently the Western standard for the temporal demarcation of the year (There are, of course, other calendrical systems currently in use, including the Jewish and Hindu calendars, and that of the Nigerian Igbo with their curious four-day week). This is only the case due to the fact that Sunday is widely designated as the week’s first day, an honor bestowed upon the day, named after the year-defining sun (from the Old English word Sunnendaeg, “Day of the sun”), by Judeo-Christian calendrical tradition. Some nations including The United Kingdom, on the other hand, still consider Sunday to be the week’s seventh day, making Thursday the fourth. The Chinese word for Thursday, in fact, means fourth. The ancient Greeks and Romans would have taken issue with this, however, each designating their equivalent of Sunday as the week’s first day, associating it with supreme divinity.
Despite the fact that Thursday sits on the opposite side of the week from Sunday, its namesake is certainly a source of great historical power and significance. Its moniker originates in a culture very different than that of Sunday. Thursday takes its name from Thor, simultaneously the ancient Norse god of thunder and Germanic god of protection.
One of the oldest recorded deities of Scandinavian polytheistic culture, Thor (also referred to as Donor in some Germanic linguistic traditions) served as a symbol of Pagan resistance and cultural pride in the face of the monotheistic Christian encroachment upon Scandenavia beginning in the 8th century. Perhaps the fact that remnants of Thor grace our modern calendars (Thursday having taken the place of Dies Iovis, the ancient Latin “Day of Jupiter”) suggests that this resistance was never fully quelled despite the fact that, by the 12th century, Christianity had all but beaten Paganism out of the region.
Like the evergreen tree decorated with candles and ribbons displayed during the Christmas celebration, the prominent inclusion of Thor’s name in a predominantly Judeo-Christian calendar is an instance of the hybridization of Pagan and monotheistic traditions that has survived into modern times. While the Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages may have aimed to bend the world to their will, they themselves received some cultural battle scars that are still visible today. Our word for Thursday is just such a scar, scratched approximately fifty two times across the face of every modern Western calendar.
Some Further Reading:
Written mention of machines built to imitate human speech date as far back as the 13th century. Early devices, however, were deemed by the Church to be heretical and were often destroyed (in one instance, it is written, a talking device was smashed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself) or at least kept out of the public eye. It was not until the 18th century that the social climate was willing to permit the creation of mechanisms that imitated human elocution, safely protected under the umbrella of scientific pursuit.
In 1846, a German astronomer living in The United States named Joseph Faber unveiled his cutting-edge Euphonia at London’s Egyptian Hall, having accompanied P.T. Barnum across the Atlantic. Faber had spent the previous seventeen years perfecting this remarkable oddity, and had even dashed an earlier machine to bits out of frustration after American audiences failed to pay him much attention. A complex device controlled by seventeen levers, a bellows, and a telegraphic line, this machine was adorned with the movable replica of a human face, which was able to faithfully replicate the sounds of human speech. At the exhibition, Faber made the Euphonia sing a haunting rendition of God Save the Queen.
As author David Lindsay described it, “By pumping air with the bellows … and manipulating a series of plates, chambers, and other apparatus (including an artificial tongue … ), the operator could make it speak any European language.” Separate levers controlled the movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal chords.
While those who observed the Euphonia in action described its “voice” as ghostly and monotonous (one claiming that it had a, “horse sepulchral voice…as if from the depths of a tomb”), its imitation of human speech was remarkably advanced given the state of technology at the time. Many who viewed the machine in action, in fact, made the baffled accusation that a small person must have been hidden inside. Standing in sharp contrast to the pristine intricacy of the Euphonia, Faber himself appeared as the stereotypical disheveled inventor. As the London theater manager put it:
“The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which is was. The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.”
Even after being promoted by Barnum, Faber and his Euphonia generated little profit and received minimal respect, often finding themselves the subjects of mockery. One of the Euphonia’s few devotees was a Scottish professor of speech named Melville Bell. His son, the famed Alexander Graham Bell, made various attempts to reproduce speech, the most successful of which resulted in his device known as the telephone. Bell’s technological milestone marks Faber’s greatest impact on the field of speech technology as he himself died in obscurity in the 1860s (first destroying the Euphonia and then taking his own life), little more than a bizarre historical footnote.
Faber’s story is almost archetypical. He artfully played the role, whether aware of it or not, of the disheveled monomaniac who produced work that was shockingly advanced for its time, but which was not valued during his life. His inglorious death, followed many years later by posthumous respect, further cements this identity. An immigrant, an isolated genius, a professional failure, and a victim of suicide, Faber was a casualty on the battlefield of technological progress, only given his due respect decades after his bones were as cold and dead as the spectral face of the Euphonia itself.
Some Further Reading:
It is not uncommon for a specialized vocabulary to be spoken amongst members of a group united by profession. Sailors, soldiers, actors, and doctors all regularly speak words and phrases that are rarely, if ever, used by lay people. But only seldom throughout history does one find groups of people among whom nuanced and extensive systems of secretive slang, known as cants, have emerged. One of my favorite such bodies of slang is the cant, known as Ciazarn, spoken by American carnival workers (carnies), during the first half of the 20th century.
The word Ciazarn itself (pronounced KEY-uh-zarn) illustrates the mechanics of this cant. In order to convert a normal word into Ciazarn, extra syllables, usually consisting of i, a, and z sounds, are added into the middle of the word. Carny becomes key-uh-ZAR-nee, hence the name of the cant. Another example is the word gimmick which, in Ciazarn, is pronounced as gee-ya-ZIM-ick. The rules of this cant are simple enough, but when spoken rapidly it allowed carnies to openly converse with one another without being understood by the carnival patrons. When coupled with an extensive vocabulary of additional slang terms, this linguistic contortion allowed the carnies to easily collude in bilking rubes.
It should be noted that some contemporary hip-hop slang follows similar guidelines. In the early 21st century, rappers Snoop Dogg and Jay Z popularized the insertion of “izzle” into the middle of words. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the phrase “fo shizzle”, which is a modified version of “for sure”. This is very close to the Ciazarn version of the phrase, which would have been pronounced “for SHE-uh-zor”. Another popular cant used in modern English is Pig Latin, which follows a distinct yet similarly simple set of rules for word alteration. Pig Latin differs in that it requires a rearrangement of the word’s vowels with an “ay” sound added on the end, “sure” being pronounced “uhr-shay”,
See-uh-zum Fee-uh-zurther Re-uh-zeading:
An article about Parlyaree, a cant spoken among members of the British gay subculture during the 1950s and 1960s (some of the phrases remind me of Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, mentioned in a previous entry)
Years ago a poetry-obsessed friend told me that he’d read an essay in which the author proclaimed “cellar door” to be the English language’s most beautiful pairing of words. I ran the phrase over and over in my mind, but failed to see it as particularly impressive. The image of a weathered door leading to a dank stone cellar is captivating to a degree, but not particularly special. And the words themselves, experienced as phonetic sculptures or tongue exercises, are no more pleasing than countless others.
I’d forgotten all about this notion until I recently watched the 2001 film Donnie Darko. In one scene, the character played by Drew Barrymore states, with a gleaming of dull-witted awe in her eye, “This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that Cellar Door is the most beautiful.” Now I had to get to the bottom of this pseudo-intellectual hogwash.
It turns out that the “famous linguist” referred to by the film was none other than Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien (although Richard Kelley, the film’s director, later misattributed the quote to Edgar Allen Poe). Tolkien’s first mention of the phrase was in an essay entitled English and Welsh, which he originally delivered as an address to the Oxford University class of 1955. The line in question is as follows:
“Most English-speaking people…will admit that ‘cellar door’ is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful that, say, ‘sky’, and far more beautiful than ‘beautiful’…”
Tolkien’s appreciation of the phrase was divorced from its semantic meaning. In fact, according to a later interview, his use of the phrase was meant simply to illustrate the point that some phonemes, when combined in certain ways, are particularly euphonious and served as inspiration for names and places in his writing.
“Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me – ‘cellar door’, say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador’, and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”
So the beauty of the phrase clearly relies on Tokien’s English accent. While Drew Barrymore’s American character in Donnie Darko pronounced the phrase SELL-ur–DOR, Tolkien meant it to be pronounced SEH-luh–dor. I must admit that there is a fantastical, airy quality to the phrase when pronounced thusly. But my mind still isn’t blown by it. Here are some other words and phrases that I find just as delightful, although for different reasons:
Eggplant – More than any other word I know, eggplant forces the speaker to completely reposition his tongue, lips, and teeth in order to switch from the end of the first syllable to the beginning of the second. The word requires a certain acrobatic maneuvering of the mouth, which makes it very engaging to speak aloud. Other good examples of this are dump truck and retrograde, although they are not quite as severe.
Atom bomb – Pronouncing this word causes the speaker to essentially play the drums with his tongue. AAH-dum-BOM is percussive in a way that seems to reference the violent force of the object to which the phrase refers.
Nariokotome (Pronounced NAH-ree-uh-KOT-uh-mee) – This area, located near Kenya’s famed Lake Turkana, is where, in 1984, archaeologist Richard Leaky discovered the nearly complete skeleton of an adolescent Homo erectus male, dubbed Nariokotome Boy. I am fond of this word because when it is split down the middle, it becomes two three-syllable phrases that play off of each other wonderfully. NAH-ree-uh has a wistful quality, and could have easily been used by Shakespeare to name one of his female woodland faeries. KOT-uh-mee is much more sharp, and does not allow the syllables to lazily blend into one another. It reminds me of a heavy knife repeatedly striking a cutting board. When spoken as a whole NAH-ree-uh-KOT-uh-mee sounds almost like a first and last name, perhaps that of a mythical maiden with a first name denoting peace and mildness, and a family name implying that she comes from a clan of powerful warlords (I guess I’ve caught the Tolkien bug). It is this contradiction that makes the word stand out to me.
Anemone – The four syllables of this word flow effortlessly from one into the next, allowing an unbroken hum to accompany the pronunciation of the letters. When spoken over and over in rapid succession (uh-NEH-muh-nee-uh-NEH-muh-nee-uh-NEH-muh-nee…) it quickly dissolves into a chain of playful nonsense sounds, all undertoned by an ohm-like hum.
There are countless other words and phrases that are just as pleasing, if not more so, to the tongue and to the ear. I encourage you to reply to this post with some of your favorites. Please describe in detail what you like about them. Nonsense words are encouraged as well. I’m more interested in pronunciation than in meaning.
Some Further Reading: