EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Wandering with Words
Bill Long 5/31/05
Often, when I want to write on words, I have a theme or a word that catches my attention. For example, last night I wrote a page on "dys" words--words beginning with the Greek prefix meaning "difficult" or "hard." But this morning I feel like meandering. I want to take one word and go to another and see where it leads. That is the only "purpose" of this and the next page today.
Beginning with Dyscrasia
When I studied the list of dys words in the online medical dictionary and was overwhelmed by their numerosity and technical nature, I wanted to retreat from the specificity and return to a time when fewer and more general dys terms was the rule. For example, one term which has now been discarded in current writing but which held sway for five centuries is dyscrasia. Derived from the Greek for "difficult" and "mixing," the word was originally dyscrasy, and meant, "a bad or disordered condition of the body; morbid diathesis; distemper." Because the ancient Greek doctrine of four basic bodily fluids also reigned in medieval medicine, a "mixing" of the four was liable to produce some kind of bodily distemper. Hence, the word. We might say today, "He is all mixed up," and that is really not too far from the the original meaning of dyscrasy or dyscrasia in the 14th century. Soon the theologians loosed the word from its exclusive assocation with bodily matters, as in Jeremy Taylor's quotation: "The perpetual Meditation of my private Troubles, and the publike Dyscrasy" or Cudworth's sermon on I Cor 15:57, "Sin is but a disease and Dyscrasie in the soul." Skilled preachers can easily transmute bodily infirmities into spiritual debilities. Thus, dyscrasia bdcame a general term to describe a malaise or undefined but real condition of a person.
But this led me to look at some of the other older dys terms. I noted with interest, for example, that the Century had both dysgenesis and dysgenesic, both of which mean sterile or infecund but, because the dictionary was written in the first decade of the 20th century, did not (and could not have) dysgenic, the very useful word invented in 1915 to describe a phenomenon opposed to eugenics. That is, dysgenic came out of the trenches of WWI, when thinkers began to speculate on the dysgenic effects of war wiping out a generation of the best minds and bodies of a country.
Moving to Dyslogistic
So, I went further down the page and found dyslogistic, a word coming from 1812 according to the Collegiate, and meaning "uncomplimentary, censorious, conveying censure or disapproval." Again, it was meant to be the reversal of a "good" word: eulogistic. The Century has three quotations using dyslogistic, the first from the redoubtable and creative Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was so confident of his intellect, so hard-working and hard-writing that he had no compunctions about inventing new terms along the way. In his huge work on Judicial Evidence (1.8), which runs to more than 2500 pages, he had this to say:
"Ask Reus for the motive which gave birth to the prosecution on the part of Actor; the motive of course is the most odious that can be found: desire of gain, if it be a case which opens a door to gain; if not, enmity, though not under that neutral and unimpassioned, but under the name of revenge or malice, or some other such dyslogistic name."
Then, I went to the second quotation. In part it reads, "The paternity of dyslogistic--no bantling, but now almost a centenarian--is adjudged to that genius of common-sense, Jeremy Bentham." Good. But I wanted to know what "bantling" meant, not having ever used the term in my life. A bantling, according to the OED is a "young or small child, a brat." It is often used depreciatively, according to the dictionary. Not only does it have its literal meaning of a child but can attain a more figurative meaning, as when Byron referred to his works as his "poetical bantlings." So, the quotation makes sense. By the time the author was writing, nearly 100 years after Bentham, he could call dyslogistic no longer a bantling but almost a centenarian.
Wandering to the Third Quotation
The Century's third quotation under dyslogistic opens up another delightful topic, so let's pursue it. W.E. Hearn wrote:
"Gossip came to mean intimate friends; next, gossip meant the light, familiar talk of such friends, and finally, with a dyslogistic connotation, any frivolous conversation."
Well, of course, this got me thinking of gossip, which I proceeded to study. I should have been warned that there was more there than simply frivolous talk when the spare definition in the Collegiate had, in part: "1a dial Brit: GODPARENT b COMPANION, CRONY c: a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others." I had to repair to the OED, where I discoverd that gossip probably comes from god-sib and originally meant "one who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism." From 1649: "The parents being so poore that they had provided no gossips." Or, from 1711, "Fully designed to come and stand gossip in person to Dr. Hudson's child." I thought for a moment what would happen if churches today would recapture the word gossip in this sense. Here is the pastor speaking. "Today we baptize little Janie Jones. She is here with her parents. The Gossips are Mr. and Mrs. Smith." I could see that happen.
But then, as with many good things, gossip began to adopt other, less desirable connotations. Well, at first it was all positive. A gossip could be "a familiar acquaintance friend." At first it was applied to both sexes but then gradually became associated only with women. But why should this be so or how was it that gossip would have lost its "bisexual" character and become focused solely on women? Well, maybe the link was through the gossip, which was associated with infants (baptism), becoming associated in the 17th century with the women present at a birth. From 1661, "They are as good eveidence to prove where they were born, as if we had the deposition of the midwife, and all the gossips present at their mothers labours." The connotation is positive, but refers exclusively to women.
Let's continue this fascinating picture in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long