EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Bill Long 2/5/05
Asperse, then, is the more frequent verb (not asperge) to express the notion of sprinkling. When the word came into English in the 15th century, it had the positive sense of sprinkling to purify. There is also an interesting attestation from 1607 where foxes are said to be "aspersed over with black spots." By the time you get to the 17th century, however, a distinctively negative "reading" of the term develops. At that time asperse could mean to "bespatter a person with damaging reports, false and injurious charges or imputations." This change in usage of the term is a nice reflection on the development of English society. Before the Elizabethan period, religious questions were paramount, and the more religious use of asperse could be assumed. But after her death, in the rough and tumble days of the Stuart kings, the "religious" society changed increasingly to a "litigious" society.
The change in significance of asperse is one of the signs of this social transformation. So asperse gradually came to mean "to traduce, defame, vilify." And then, the Century Dictionary gives us a veritable word feast when it lists and differentiates various synonymns of asperse: "defame, calumniate, slander, malign, traduce, libel, vilify, decry, depreciate, disparage, slur, run down, lampoon, blacken." Why don't you take a few minutes to memorize this list? It will so come in handy in situations you can hardly imagine now. It is handly to have a bunch of words not only to denigrate someone but to describe that denigration. Then, you can make clever distinctions between the words, as the Century Dictionary does. For example, it says:
"Calumniate, slander, and malign represent the most deliberate and deadly assaults upon reputation. The calumniator is most often the inventor of hte falsehoods he circulates. The slanderer is less inventive and more secret, his work being generally behind the back of the injured person. The maligner is most mischievous, malicious, or malign in his motives."
And all of it is thanks to asperse. Then we have an asperser as one who vilifies another, an aspersory comment is one that defames, and someone who speaks aspersively is one who speaks in an aspersive manner. Oh, by the way, an aspersive manner is one that is "defamatory; calumnious; slanderous." An entire vocabulary of malignity is growing up around us as we speak.
It is only a very short step from what we have said above to the invention of aspersion in both its sprinkling or purificatory sense and its injurious meaning. Shakespeare uses it positively when he says in Tempest (4.1.18): "No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall/ To make this contract grow." Or, the great Francis Bacon, writing at the same time as Shakespeare, could say, "There is to bee found besides the Theologicall sence, much aspersion of Philosophie" (i.e., philosophy added as an ingredient in the argument). But as early as 1596 Spenser could talk about people laying "any particular aspersion upon some families." A few generations later someone could speak of the falseness of the "aspersion of his being a great usurer." By 1749, in Fielding's Tom Jones we have an appearance of aspersion in almost the only way it is used today: "I defy all the world to cast a just aspersion on my character." 'Casting' is necessary in fly-fishing, but why can't we drop the 'cast' occasionally from the aspersion and return to a richer use of the term--to "lay aspersions" or the "aspersions" without a verb connected to it immediately?
Inventing a Word
A new type of forensic expert grew up in the 1970s in the criminal law. Experts were trained to look at the pattern of blood spatters at a crime scene and reconstruct precisely how a blow was delivered. Such "blood spatter testimony" could often impeach the testimony of defendants who argued that the victim really did X or Y. Thus, by the 1980s, the "blood spatter expert" became a fixture in murder trials, especially those in which there was a lot of blood. But I don't think we have a term in our language to describe a "blood spatter expert." And, the three word term is as messy as the task in which s/he is engaged. So, why not try to take something from the sprinkling or scattering of terms listed above to come up with one term for "blood spatter expert?" At first I thought we should call such a person an asperge, realizing that the same form often stands for the substantive and the verb, and we have very little use of asperge attested as a substantive in English.
Why couldn't we say, "I call Mr. Splat, an asperge, to the stand." But this may not work. We might think that an asperge himself scatters the blood, and that would be false. So, why not put a "blood" prefix to it, something like a haimasperge, to capture what we are intending? But this mixes a Greek and a Latin root in the same word, but I guess I don't mind that as much as the 19th century linguistic purists did. So, we have it. A blood spatter expert can be referred to as a haimasperge. Now, if only I could convince one other person, much less an entire culture, to agree with me....
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long