Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Incite v. Inspire

I've been grading some Moot Court briefs, and this one came up.

Incite comes from the Latin "in" for "in" or more realistically, "to cause a person to be in" and "ciere" for "to set in motion" through a Late Latin derivation "citare" for to summon to a church court (related to citation). So it is not a big leap to get to the current usage of "to cause a person to be set in motion" or "to stir, encourage, or urge on; stimulate or prompt to action". Meanwhile, inspire comes from the same Latin "in" and "spirare" for "to breath", so quite literally, "to breathe into". It was originally meant as to breath life into, and then "to give rise to" like breathing life not just into a physical body, but into activities, and then their ideas, and then all intangibles. The initial usage has been abandoned mostly, but all the others remain in varying degrees. So pretty much, you can inspire anything.

So, what is the difference. Motion v. breath (life). Hmm. Well, incite can only be used with an activity as from the etymology, whereas, inspire is broader. English teachers incite reading with summer reading lists. English teachers inspire reading? Maybe, but not really. English teachers inspire writing novels. Incite requires an impetus--a deadline or an adjudication or guilt to motivate the action. Waiting for the opposition to my motion, my call to Plaintiff's counsel finally incited him to send it to me. Having promised his mother that he would clean his room, the threat of being grounded incited him to actually do the work. Inspire requires a new thing come from the action. While writing my opposition to Plaintiff's counsel's motion, I was inspired not just to attack it on the substance, but also on issues of bad faith. While cleaning his room, he was inspired to wash the car and take out the trash as well. Yeah, like that would ever happen. As for things beyond activities, the rousing cheer of the fans inspired the rookie with confidence to hit yet another double. In am not infrequently uninspired with any ideas for sentences using the wotd. I may be inspired to incite Plaintiff's counsel to be a better lawyer. However, I cannot incite Plaintiff's counsel to inspire his client to settle.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Consort v. Valet (vassal)

By request we have this analysis.

Consort comes from the Latin "con" for "with or through" and "sors" for "lot" as status or class, with some Indo-European roots in "sers" for the same. Then through the French "consort" to Middle English, it came to mean "to associate" and then the noun as of one who associates with another. It is now used predominantly to describe a spouse of a monarch.

Meanwhile, valet is a Old French derivative, c. 1560, of vassal which is a Middle Latin derivative ("vassallus"), c. 1300, of the Welsh "gwas" for "a young man" and Celtic/Irish "foss" for "servant". Of course, vassal still retains the meaning of a servant (a squire or a page to a nobleman), but c. 1600 came to be used exclusively with one who was tied to the land from the Feudal system. It's an interesting bifurcation of the word, needing one for the man and the land (vassal), and one for the man and the person (valet) generally inside the home. Today, valet is typically used for someone who takes care of clothing or your car. Odd division of labor, but both functions are still relative to the personal property of the "lord", and now the "lady".

Now the interesting comparison is that valet in the technical etymological sense would accompany the noble, much as the consort in the literal etymological meaning would, however, a consort had no particular gender associated with the position, and was frequently applied to women (that the reigning monarch was almost always a man until modern times), whereas a valet was only a manservant to a gentleman. There is also an inherent usage with consort that the individual is not a servant, although not an equal, but more of a companion. We can make all kinds of disparaging observations about the role of women relative to men in society, but there is no reason to give such a companion a different title when the word servant (or it's equivalent) already exists if his/her sole function were just as a servant.

That said, these words have fairly limited and specific usages. When I arrive at the hotel, I send my dress to the hotel valet to be pressed before the concert. Her husband has often extolled the virtues of having a personal valet, but the best she did was send his shirt out to be laundered. Since watching Ferris' Bueller's Day Off, I don't like having my car parked by the valet--never know what they do with it while I'm having dinner. Boring. After the Trojan War, the women of Troy were apportioned to the victorious Greeks as consorts (some may say concubines, but we'll deal with that word later). Prince Philip is the consort of Queen Elizabeth. Ok, you get the picture. The unequal spouse.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Another of my favorites that rarely gets used.

Abscond derives from the Latin "ab" for "away", "con" for "with or together" or alternately, "completely", and "dere" for "to put or place". From there, it took form as the Latin "abscondere" for "to conceal". And finally c. 1605, abscond emerged for "to depart in a sudden or secret manner" particularly so as to avoid capture. This is beginning to feel like a steeple chase with these hurdles. So, "to put away completely" becomes "to conceal". Ok, perhaps not such a great leap. But from to innocently "put away" to the neutral or borderline secretive, we get the nefarious overtones to stealing and withdrawing with the booty. Something that needs to be kept hidden. But of course, because the word did not originate in the Middle Ages, at least the meaning is linear to the tone of the evolution.

So, why do I like this word so much? No, I am not a cleptomaniac. I like to use it completely for the sarcastic value. I will not infrequently abscond with Plaintiff's counsel's brief before my boss "loses" is in the paperwork on his desk. Or I will abscond with the DVD that I loaned to my friend when I asked her if she done with it since I saw her using it as a coaster. Of course, there is nothing illegal or even remotely wrong with what I am doing, but the idea that I need to "steal" the brief or the DVD before worse things happen to these things, and withdraw before I am caught is the real merit of the word and its humor value. I probably would even tell my boss that I am "absconding" with the document--so he'll know where to find it later--which of course, defeats the implied usage of the word, but it still sounds funny.

As for correct usage, which is not nearly so much fun... She should have absconded with her grandmother's necklace before it became part of the estate and was given to her sister. On New Year's Eve, the employees frequently absconded from the store with a bottle of good cheer. People who fail to abscond with their unpaid goods are prosecuted for shoplifting. Since it derives from to put an object away, abscond must be used with a tangible. You can't really abscond with an idea. That's stealing or plagarism or just plain theft. Plaintiff's counsel absconded my theory of the case for his closing? Well, that sounds stupid for several reasons, not the least of which is that we're on opposite sides of the case, so my theory could never help him. She absconded the tractor from the farm. No. Abscond is an intransitive verb, so it doesn't take a direct object. She absconded from the gang my moving to Utah. Maybe. She absconded from the farm with the tractor. Better, although not sure how secretly you can depart with a tractor, but you get the idea. The word requires surreptitious behavior to leave and usually taking something which is the basis for the need to leave. The inside man on the bank job absconded with the money. Yes. Now, how often do you have need to use this word? Hopefully not that often, which is why I so seldom hear it, but it has so much possibility, I'll hope it can get more humorous use.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Well, I absolutely love this word. It does not roll trippingly off the tongue, so it must be said with intent and clear diction. I don't think people use it enough, and I certainly don't think that those who do, use it correctly, so, let's dig in...

Inane simply enough comes directly from the Latin "inanis" for "empty, void or worthless" through the French "inanité". From c. 1400 to c. 1800, the word went from empty in a physical sense (including as a technical term for the void between dominant realities or the space between atoms) to empty-headed in an conceptional sense to silly in a behavioral or connotative sense. Ok, natural extensions. Nothing in space, nothing in your head, nothing worth hearing. So, of course, while it still retains a probably archaic usage about space from its etymological origins, now it refers to the things that empty-headed people would say. Which segues nicely into my first usage.

Plaintiff's counsel's inane arguments did not persuade anyone. This should draw the natural comparison to "insipid", which I analyzed earlier this week, and which means basically uninteresting. Certainly, Plaintiff's counsel's arguments could be both inane and insipid--silly and uninspiring--but I would probably lean towards inane. Although along the lines of rhombus and square, something which is inane could be insipid as the thing which is silly may also not inspire. But the articulable difference between inane and insipid is that insipid generally refers to intangibles which have "taste" from it origins in the taste of food, while inane may refer to anything which should have intellectual value. His thesis was filled with inane theories. Ok, if this was an astrophysical thesis, it could be a double entendre, but as a medieval literature thesis, it should be implied to be only the "modern" meaning. Her new novel had an inane plot where the dog did it. Blondes have a bad reputation for being inane. It doesn't work as well with people, as with their thoughts, but since this reputation is based on vacuousness and/or ditziness, the empty-headed and silliness works particularly well. Plaintiff's counsel is inane? possibly if he didn't study hard in law school and barely passed the bar exam. He would be technically devoid of knowledge. She gave him an insipid look indicating that she did not understand his discussion of the nuances of binary coding. I prefer vacant here. I still like inane better as a modifier of the intellectual thought, not a modifier of the alleged intellectual, but it has raised for me a number of words which may describe the void as well. Ah, well, as I said, I love this word, but I think I use is exclusively with Plaintiff's counsel. That I have so much occasion to use it just indicates the state of tort law. You'll need to find your own group of incompetents to apply this word (e.g., teachers, bosses/supervisors, coworkers, customers, relatives). Hmm. Maybe I need to use this word more...

Monday, October 15, 2007


In keeping with the words that "do not...mean[] what you think[] it means", this is a classic. When you get the reference, you'll understand why.

Like many words starting with "in" for "not", their given etymologies make you hunt all over a dozen other words to find what is really means. Conceivable comes from Latin "con" for "with or together" and "capere" for "to take" as the latter was derived from the Indo-European "kap". The Latin derivative was "concipere" which then became "conceivre" in Old French. Add a little suffix, "able" meaning "capable of", e voilĂ , we have "incapable of being taken with or together". Inconceivable. Yep. That does it for me. Not. Back to conceivable. Conceive generally refers to pregnancy, with a secondary meaning of creating an idea, not just life. [Ed. note: conception is not a related word, but there is the similar pair of concept, as an idea, and conception, as an creation of life which is interesting.] So, by extension, inconceivable should mean incapable making life. But inconceivable has no element of "life" associated with its usage. Somehow, c. 1631 when this word originated, creating life wasn't as important as stating what couldn't be understood. So the implication of creating an idea from conceivable became not being able to understand the idea for inconceivable, which is an incorrect negation of conceivable, which should instead be unable to create the idea. And we are left with the usage of "unimaginable, unthinkable and unbelievable". Oh, well, it wouldn't be the first word which etymology to usage is slightly askew.

That said, the usages of inconceivable, notwithstanding the movie, are pretty straightforward. It is inconceivable to me that people would not use the subjunctive tense, while it may be inconceivable to many more that the subjunctive tense still exists. The jury found Plaintiff's counsel's theory of the case inconceivable and awarded a defense verdict. I'd probably just go with unbelievable, but inconceivable adds a meta level to the unbelievability. Not just that the theory was unbelievable, but you can't imagine how anyone else could believe it. It is completely incapable of being grasped by anyone. Quantum physics, black holes, and imaginary numbers should be inconceivable, and once were. The homecoming queen found it inconceivable that she would not be admired by the entire school. A bit banal, but it does the trick.

Suasion v. Persuasion

Here's another archival post of mine.

Suasion. I remember this word raising my hackles a couple of years ago when it was the wotd on DD. Merriam-Webster defines both "suasion" and "persuasion" as "the act of persuading". Now, normally, I would reiterate that there are no true synonyms and distinguish the etymologies on each, except the etymologies are a little fuzzy. Suasion says it comes from Latin "suadere" for "persuasion" or "to advise", while persuasion says it comes from--wait for it--"per" and "suasion",so these are unhelpful. The mere addition of the "per" meaning through, doesn't add anything to the etymology or the meaning. Persuasion does not really mean through suasion, because the definition of suasion is backward to that construction. Suasion means through persuasion and therefore should actually be "perpersuasion" (Or do the “per”s cancel?) So, I think we have an issue of lazy usage being justified retroactively, since these words both originated in the late Middle Ages, c. 1380. But, I'll make one last stab at a distinction, just for old times sake. The usage of suasion from the examples from DD is non-specific, to a general perspective (e.g., moral or cultural norms), while persuasion is for a definite idea or opinion. I regularly persuade the judge to my argument, or try to persuade people to order different things off the menu so we can share and sample, but I might try to suade a child to be kind to animals or to always say please and thank you. Still not much use for suasion. Perhaps suasion is just insipid.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


I'm on a roll... This was not a DD wotd, but it sparks my interest as another word which may be both underutilized and misused.

Insipid derives from "in" meaning "not" and "sapidus" meaning "tasty". Cute. So "not tasty" becomes "flavorless" (not a big stretch there) to "without distinctive, interesting or stimulating qualities" generally. Ok. It's part of the natural shift to broaden the usage. At least it isn't a complete reversal of the word's etymology. Probably because this word evolved c. 1650, and not in the Middle Ages, either (see facetious and sarcastic). Was civilization smarter then? I'll leave that for someone else's discussion forum.

So, this insipid soup needs more herbs and definitely more salt. Poaching tenderloin makes great soup, but insipid steaks. After having found a recipe for pie crust that uses vodka, no one will claim that my apple pie is insipid. Alright, so that's the classic usage of the word that no one really uses. We just say bland. Now, the real fun begins with the expanded usage. Some words that DD proposes on wotd are just insipid. Jeremiad, pukka and mulct just don't inspire me. [Ed. note: These are words I do not intend to discuss on this forum. Look elsewhere if you want to know about them.] As a rule now, since I don't have time to deal with wotd on the daily basis that DD intends, I just skip the truly insipid ones and swoop for the most interesting (to me). Plaintiff's counsel's arguments are insipid. Insipid applies to intangibles and tangibles that rouse the taste element. The table is not insipid. The design scheme is insipid. Plaintiff's counsel may even be insipid, but I have some reservations about using this word with people or animates. I think since the modern definition comes from tasting, it has to be something that we perceive like a taste. I can "taste" the design scheme or the argument. I don't taste the furniture or the person. So I would use it sparingly with inedible tangibles, unless you're going for the sarcasm. I am diminishing Plaintiff's counsel to a bowl of soup. Sounds good to me. That's a double entendre of sarcasm!

Facetious v. Sarcastic

Facetious popped up a few days ago, while I was too busy to deal with it, but I think I'll go on a kick to discuss words that we hear all too commonly and wonder whether they are being used correctly. So...

Facetious comes from the Latin "facetus" for "witty" through the French "facetie" for "jest". It is a rare word, indeed, that maintains it etymological roots. Probably because the word didn't originate in English until after the Middle Ages, c. 1590. And today, it still means "not to be taken seriously or literally" or "amusing or frivolous" as from lacking serious content. Contemporaneous to the evolution of frivolous, sarcasm came into being, from the Greek "sarx" or "sarkos" for "a piece of meat" and pre-Indo-European base "twerk" or "thwares" for "to cut", and by a further Greek derivative through "sarkasmos" for "to sneer" and then the late Latin "sarcasmos". Approximately 100 years later, sarcastic came into being. Why it took 100 years to get the adjective from the noun, we may never know. Now, this may seem odd, to get from rending flesh to sneering, but the idea of the sneer is the biting comment, harsh or bitter derision, akin to rending flesh not with an instrument, but with words. So, the difference appears to be that facetious is a comment that is cute and not hurtful, while sarcasm is irony intended to taunt. Of course, many mask sarcasm in the guise of facetiousness, so as not to offend (as much).

When he whistled at the girls on the street while leering from his convertible, it was easy to make a facetious comment that he was acting like a dog. When he whistled at the girls on the street while leering from his convertible, it was easy to make a sarcastic comment that he was acting like an angel. Too easy, and going to get boring quickly. Facetious and sarcastic both refer to speech. Since these words refer to the witty or biting remarks of people, it doesn't work with acts of people. Plaintiff's counsel's facetious conduct to twirl his pencil while in Court just doesn't make sense. Plaintiff's counsel's facetious remark about the witness' disheveled appearance as indicative of whether the witness cared about his testimony was not appreciated by the jury. I make sarcastic remarks about Plaintiff's counsel's lack of competence repeatedly in these posts. Again, much too easy. The only thing I will add is that the type of speech to which facetious and sarcasm apply is usually not formal. It's not a facetious statement or a sarcastic order. Both are off the cuff, not formulated or memorialized. Sarcastic has a sotto voce or behind one's back connotation to its usage since you should not be inclined to make hurtful statements deliberately to someone. Telling your adversary that she is your best friend is sarcasm. Telling your friend that the big pink bow she is wearing in her hair makes her look 10 years younger is facetious, and borderline sarcasm.

Both great words. Use them well. Use the comments which are the basis of the words sparingly.