Thursday, January 17, 2008

Imprimatur; Indicia

A few days ago this word came up on DD, and it remedially tickled my fancy. Obviously, not too much, or I would have done this entry sooner, but what do you expect? I'm a busy person like everyone else, and not everything is immediately fascinating.

Imprimatur comes from the Latin "in" "primere" for "press in" as in to print by pressing. It shares a common etymological root to the word "impress" and therefore to the word "press", for quite literally to print by pressing or imprint. When we finally get to the command form of the verb c. 1650, the word took on the derivative meaning of "let it be printed", and retained that meaning through to the present, although now as a noun for an official printing, and therefore, a sanction or approval as for the printing or something that could be printed.

The securing of license of a copyright is an imprimatur. Ding. Technically correct. Idiotic to say. What it doesn't tell you about the word is redundant in the licensing reference so the sentence sounds unnatural, almost forced, which in fact it was because the first sense of the word, the approval to print, is not how it is most frequently used. As I've discussed with other words, the fun is in taking it out of the literal element. That the corporate president personally typed the plan gave it the imprimatur to implement immediately. Plaintiff's counsel frequently believes that because he asks for evidence to be admitted in a motion that the judge will give it her imprimatur. Doesn't even need to be in writing to have the usage work, although the writing would be a better inference from the word. So, the word works with things that actually are in writing, or could have been in writing (e.g., theories, ideas, hopes, dreams). When a dictator remarks on his desire this is as good as an imprimatur to make the desire a reality.

Ok, now that I've exhausted imprimatur, it occurs to me that truly interesting word is indicia. This is really just Latin borrowed into English without modification, like alumni, but at least in my circles, indicia gets inappropriately used for imprimatur, and so although I have my rules against defining foreign words, I'll make an exception for clarification.

Indicia is the combinative form of "in" and "dic" for "to show or declare" from the Indo-European root "deik", and gives us common words like indicate and index, and even the reference to index finger. Therefore, indicia is a sign that shows or declares something. A dog tag is an indicia of ownership of the pet on your leash. And herein lies the rub. Indicia is plural, indicium (like datum and memorandum) is singular. Therefore, technically, it should be a dog tag is an indicium of ownership of the pet on your leash, but now we've become overly erudite. It is Latin, and as such, we should observe its gender and number forms accordingly, however, I don't hear many people use datum correctly, either among scientists or lawyers, so to avoid being corrected, make sure your signs are always plural. The judge's frequent nods were indicia of agreement with the arguments I was making. Whew. Her groans were indicia that the masseusse had found the right tension points in her shoulders. Sometimes you might hear someone speak of an imprimatur of approval, and this is the misuse that I referenced. Obviously, we know that imprimatur is itself an approval so this usage is inherently redundant, and makes imprimatur into a sign, which as we know is indicia. Indicia of approval is the correct phrase. Signatures on the contract were indicia that the parties approved the terms. I will note that indicia are acts, not specific words, which show or declare, so the terms of the contract themselves are not indicia of the intent of the parties, but rather the signing of the contract which are indicia of the intent to abide by the terms. The negative can also be a sign. Her mother's unwillingness to sign the permission form for the field trip to go rock climbing was an indicium of her fear that her daughter would get hurt. Hyper correct and very odd sounding, indeed.

Personally, I like the word indicia much more than imprimatur, but I'm going to be especially vigilant to use imprimatur as the approval and not the sign and to see how the singular of indicia plays among my friends.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Friable v. Frangible

This is perhaps not the most auspicious post to mark my first post of 2008, but these words came up recently on DD, and I enjoy using them. Since, they're not interchangeable, and it's about time I learned the real difference! Call me inspired. I'll take it where I can.

Friable comes from the Latin "friare" for "to rub, break, or crumble into small pieces". Pretty straightforward to the current usage of "easily crumbled or reduced to powder". Must be because this word originated c. 1560, and not in the Middle Ages. What I find interesting is that it is related to "fricare" for "to rub", which gives us friction, but I'll save that for another time. Unfortunately, unlike the common word friction, friable doesn't have an easy association. Instead, it sounds like a word used to describe a cooking style or something having to do with the clergy, and not something which is broken through friction into small pieces.

Now, frangible comes from the Latin "frangere" for simply "to break", and is just as straightforward for its current usage of "easily broken, capable of being broken, brittle or fragile", even though it originated in the Middle Ages c. 1400. And just like friable, frangible doesn't give it's meaning away too quickly. Sounds like a pastry, even though I know with the "ible" suffix it is an adjective. Oh, well. Sometimes good words just need to be memorized.

So, with two straightforward etymologies to usage, the distinction is also blessedly straightforward. Even though friable has as part of its meaning "to break", in common with frangible, the difference is breaking due to the activity (rubbing) versus breaking due to the composition of the item (brittle). It becomes more obvious with usage.

Dry cookies are friable such that even milk can't revive them, but the glass the milk is served in is frangible. Children's toys are engineered to break in a frangible, not friable manner so that the child doesn't have an opportunity to ingest small pieces. Salt erodes concrete with friable results, back to it original sand and rock components. Snapping a pencil demonstrates its frangible qualities as well as the writer's total frustration. Ok, now that we've gotten the obvious usages out of the way. Because we have activity and composition at issue in the etymology of the words, the common usage is with tangible things. Forced to live in the South for too long, even her steely composure could be rendered friable. Perhaps a little too evocative and esoteric at the same time. You have to know that friable implies a rubbing element to understand that her composure was rubbed away. Not sure this works. Lashing out at a 4 year old may be a frangible result of holiday stress. Unfortunately, this usage also only makes sense if you know the brittle implication of frangible to understand that under the stress, the person snapped. Again, not sure this works, since no one would really understand what you meant to say. Plaintiff's counsel rubbed me all the wrong way with his friable personality. Ok, so it's a pun and it uses Plaintiff's counsel. Yeah, alright, next time I'll keep that one to myself. Plaintiff's counsel's friable client of the case crumbled under cross-examination. That's really just fragile, as well as requiring a colloquialism to get the point across, so, no. Whereas my frangible witness was subject to be treated as a hostile witness. Either that, or he'd be removed by a court officer. Yeah. Still not getting the meaning of this word from context, and my usages probably wouldn't motivate my listener to look up the word either. Friable ideas eventually yield to reason. Maybe, but just barely. Frangible ideas don't withstand even basic scrutiny. Also, maybe, but it leads me to believe that friable is a more versatile word. But I think it comes down to these words must be used with physically broken things in order to give your listener an opportunity to understand the word from context. If your listener is erudite enough to understand some nonstandard usages, then have fun!