Fun with "Expi"
Bill Long 9/15/06
Stretching the Limits of the English Language
I am working through the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) once again. I am not doing this to prepare myself for the 2007 National Senior Spelling Bee but to make up a list of 1000 words for a celebrity spelling bee sponsored by Schoolhouse Supplies to be held in Portland, OR in January 2007. It is delightful to return to the dictionary for this purpose. I can't help, however, straying a bit, and wandering off, with the help of the OED and the OLD (Latin Dictionary) into linguistic fields plowed and virgin. This essay will describe how I "paused" on the letters "expi."
The Two "Familes" of "Expi"-words in Merriam-Webster
The two words beginning with "expi" most familiar to most people are "expiate" and "expire." The former is a term originating both in secular and theological speech around 1600 and refers either to attempts to do away with/extinguish the guilt resulting from human sin or to pay the penalty for one's action. In Christian theology sin is expiated by the death of Christ on the cross. A secular usage comes from 1774: "They expiated their crime by restoring the plunder." Francis Bacon talked about felons' being able to expiate offenses by "Assiduous Labors."
I actually recall the first time I heard and learned the word expiate. I had moved to CA from CT in the Fall of 1967 and then, sometime in 1968 or 1969, decided to join the local Presbyterian Church. I had to meet several times with a pastor, who patiently explained the basics of Christian doctrine to me. He made a point of trying to explain (the inexplicable) Romans 3, where the words expiation or propitiation are used (depending on the translation). His point was that sin is expiated but God is propitiated in the death of Christ. I, frankly, have little interest in the reality of that idea today, since it is basically unknowable, but I am very interested in the fine shades of meaning between words. Isn't that rather wild that a 16 year-old would be spending his days worrying about the difference between expiation and propitiation?
Well, the OED has eight other words from expiate's "family" which have been attested in our language, but the most important of them, to me are expiable, expiation, and expiatory. All you have to do is think for a moment and you can come up with usages. "Thi offense of insulting parents was scarcely expiable in that society." "In certain primitive societies, human sacrifices, being the most valuable, were considered the most expiatory."
Moving to Expire
We have a veritable word feast when we move to expire and its friends. Though the root meaning of the verb is to breathe out, thus leading to the meaning of the verb "expire" as "to die," I think the most popular form of the word used is in expiration date. "Ya just have to read the expiration date to determine if the sour cream has gone bad.." But if you think about the word long enough, you become confused. On the one hand by emphasizing simply the "breathing out" part of the definition, we may have something good. Everything needs to breathe out in order to live. To expire, in this sense, means the same thing as to exhale. But it seems that the cluster of meaning that gathered around expire related more to dying than living. Thus, an expirer is merely defined in the OED as "one who expires," but the first attestation of the use of the word (1793) gives no doubt that it has to do with death: "The personal property of the abrupt expirer.." Who cares about personal property of one who just breathes abruptly? But lots of people show up when personal property of a dead guy is being parceled out.
Two interesting usages of words in this family come through expiree and expiry. The former, we would think, would be the same as the expirer except from the perspective of the guy after he has died. That is, when you die you are an expirer--you have "breathed out" your last. Then, after this is happening, while you are lying around dead, wouldn't you become the expiree or the one who was the expirer? Well, that is an academic question, because we have a definition of expiree: "One whose term of punishment has expired; an ex-convict."
I thought this was an unusual definition until I saw to whom it was first attributed: Jeremy Bentham. Bentham, in addition to being one of the most prolific writers in English history, surpassed only by my former teacher Jacob Neusner (going strong at 74, at nearly 1000 books), was an inveterate inventor of words. Most of them didn't "stick" (like "post-prandial vibration" for afternoon stroll), but some did (like "international"). In 1802 he said: "As to returns to England, the idea of preventing them on the part of expirees...is now disclaimed."
Let's close this essay with a word on expiry (accent on either the second or last syllable). Merriam-Webster lists three significations for the word: (1) exhalation of breath; (2) death; (3) termination of a time set by contract. It is this third definition which merits mention. From 1807: "He left the situation..before the expiry of his indentures." But a phrase grew up in Scottish law, which has contributed so many nice words and phrases to English, in the 19th century--"the expiry of the legal." According to the OED citation (from Bell's 1861 Scottish law dictionary), the term is defined as "the expiration of the period within which the subject of an adjudication may be redeemed...on payment of the debt adjudged for." Ah, on this analogy we could use the word expiry to describe when anything has run out...isn't it a far superior word to the phrase "expiration date."
Well, I am not done on my wanderings into "expi," and so I need one more essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long