EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Asper et al.
Bill Long 2/4/05
On Asperity, Asperges, Aspersion, Aspermous and Aspernate
Knowing your word root goes a long way in the English language. The array of words I will address in this and the next mini-essay come from four different roots: (1) asper (Latin), meaning something rough, harsh, sharp or violent; (2) aspergo (Latin, ad + spargo), meaning to besprinkle or bespatter, either with water or with dirt, and the latter is extended to mean "to sully with disgrace" or to "stain the reputation of" ("cast aspersions on"); (3) aspermos (Greek, a + spermos), meaning without seed or impotent; and (4) aspernor (Latin, ab + sperno), meaning to push away or expel. Two of them are therefore combined with the Latin prepositions, one suggesting a fleeing from ("ab"), one connoting a movement in the direction of ("ad"), while one is a combination of the alpha privative in Greek (negating what follows) with the root, seed, following.
Beginning with Asper
Asper has 15 distinct usages in classical Latin according to the OLD, though most of the meanings fade into each other at some point. It can mean disagreeable to the touch, rough, harsh to the taste, unrefined, coarse, violent, hard to bear, uncompromising, severe, grim or even drastic or acute. The asper arteria was the windpipe or trachea. No one knows really whether there was a picture at the origin of this word, that is, whether asper was originally an object that was rough to the touch, but the linguistic field of the term should be pretty clear.
Asper has come down to us in English and is actually attested in three meanings in the OED, though one of them is a Turkish coin and another means the rough breathing (an "h" sound) mark over a Greek vowel or rho at or near the beginning of a word. Its most frequent attestation is directly derived from the Latin, and means harsh to the feelings; bitter, cruel, severe; rough, rugged; harsh to the senses or, with respect to a person, harsh, severe or stern. The OED says that the word is obsolete, but I think it ought to be reclaimed and combined with a word like "glance," so that one would have an "asper glance" or "asper glare." "The pictures of the forefathers looked down on the family with a typical 19th-century asper glare."
Asper has not been aspermous, so to speak; it has given birth to many related terms in English, especially in botany. A plant that is asperfoliate is one "having rough leaves." Though formerly applied specifically to one species, it appears to be available for broader usage, but someone first has to ask it to dance. I suppose a plant that is asperfoliate would not have prickly leaves--but the leaves would be rough or uneven. Asperulate and asperulous are not attested in the OED, even though Webster's 3rd International has them--also in a botanical context, and similar in meaning to asperfoliate.
More Practical Usages
By far the most frequent use of a word with the asper root today is asperity. Asperity is a wonderfully useful word, and carries such meanings as (a) a characteristic making for hardship; (b) the roughness of a surface; (c) raucousness; (d) a characteristic making for bitterness; or (e) severity of manner. Clever use of the word asperity can make one a smooth talker. For example, Havelock Ellis could say that the "path of beauty is not smooth and soft, but full of hardness and asperity." One can have "ultramicroscopic asperities" on a surface, and Aaron Copland even used the word to describe the reaction of elderly ladies in the audience to a new style of music. They were shocked by the "asperities" of the new style. One can repent of one's asperity and even have some asperity in the voice. I recall reading the introduction to a book once in which the author wanted to thank his editor for correcting his "stylistic asperities." I have since reflected that this felicitous and even eloquent use of asperities probably means that there were not very many of them in his manuscript.
I suppose that we ought to stay with GWF Handel's words in Messiah that "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain," rather than talking about the asperous places, though now that we have that word in our quiver, we have a richer conception of the notion of roughness or unevenness.
Finishing with Aspernate
The Latin verb aspernor means "to push away, expel" or "to feel or show aversion for, scorn, spurn, reject." It can also mean to "decline to accept or subject to a judgment or to refuse to endure something. The Latin also uses sperno synonymously. In English we have aspern, meaning to despise or spurn, along with aspernate, suggesting "to contemn, reject..or abhor." and aspernation, which the OED says is obsolete but at one time meant a neglect, disregard or disdaining. We could paraphrase Jesus, 'Don't aspern the little children, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.' I think we need another term for contemn or disdain in English; aspern should fit the bill and carries with it both the notion of disdaining (or despising) and rejecting. It suggests both an emotion and an action, the feeling of despising someone and the action of repelling them, and hence is richer either than disdain or spurn or expel or reject. Any word that can carry the burden of two words on its shoulders ought not to be quickly dismissed, rejected or asperned.
Having introduced aspermous above, let's turn to the last one on the list, aspergo and its rich associations.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long