What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 8 of 127

A complementary compliment

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An immediate reaction to clue 41 across in today’s crossword puzzle could be, “Who’s Yang and what nice thing did he or she say?” Discerning readers, though, will note there is no “i” in the second word, so it does not mean praise.

“Complement” and “compliment” started out from the same Latin word, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Both words wend their way back to the Latin word, “complere ‘to complete’" the dictionary notes, adding that the word had to do with the “notion of ‘complete the obligations of politeness.’” Perhaps in ancient Rome one’s manners were considered incomplete if one did not routinely sing the praises of others.

In the sense used in the clue above, “complement” means a complete set. Another of its meanings is “that which completes or brings to perfection,” according to Webster’s. For example, home decorators frequently use “complement” to describe painting one wall in a different color than the other walls in a room; the color must be of a hue that helps complete the aesthetics of the room. Car manufacturers are careful to ensure the colors in the interiors of their vehicles complement the colors of the exteriors.

Speaking of automobiles, here’s a tidbit about Seattle businessman Craig McCaw, who has been quite successful in the cellular phone industry. In 2012 he was able to fork over $35 million for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, according to Bloomberg News. The car was first built for British race driver Stirling Moss, according to the same source.

McCaw apparently does not believe he is entirely a self-made man. On Brainyquotes.com he is quoted as saying, ” I think the way I look at things gives me a different perspective. I'm most valuable when I work with a team of bright people who complement my weaknesses with their strengths.”

So, there you have it: a complementary compliment.


Out of order

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, November 7, 2013

As a child first encountering the adjective “extraordinary,” I was a bit confused. It seemed to me that it was two words squished together: “extra” and “ordinary.” So, to my way of thinking, the word ought to have been describing something really, really common, rather than something exceptional.

What I didn’t realize then was that “extra” can also mean “out,” as well as “more.” With that idea in mind, the “extra” in “extraordinary” makes better sense.

According to the Online Dictionary, the word came from the “Latin extraordinarius ‘out of the common order,’ from extra ordinem ‘out of order.’” In its beginning, it seems, the word really just meant “unusual.”

The dictionary also notes that the word came into English in the early 15th century. As has occurred with many other words, over time the meaning of “extraordinary” began to change.  It took on a more positive connotation of “remarkable” or “exceptional.”

The author of the quote above is Paulo Coelho, a popular Brazilian novelist. “The Alchemist, his most famous novel, has been translated to 80 languages,” according to Wikipedia.

To me, Coelho’s quote is in harmony with one found at brainyquote.com by Orison Swett Marden, a physician and an American spiritual author who lived from 1850 until 1924:

Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Weak men wait for opportunities; strong men make them.”

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Paulo Coelho
in Davos, Switzerland, 1999
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Orison Swett Marden
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia



Something to consider

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, October 31, 2013

“Aught” is an archaic word that means “something.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the “Old English awiht ‘aught, anything, something,’ literally ‘e'er a whit.’"

This excerpt is from a Christmas hymn written by Sir John Bowring. Bowring was an English political economist and Britain’s fourth governor of Hong Kong. According to Wikipedia, he “allowed the Chinese citizens in Hong Kong to serve as jurors in trials and become lawyers.” The dictionary adds that he is given credit for “establishing Hong Kong's first commercial public water supply system."  Wikipedia notes, too, that Bowring enjoyed learning different languages and trying his hand at writing. 

The full lyrics of this hymn may be found at http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/w/a/t/watchman.htm.

Sir John Bowring in 1826 by John King
Photo of painting courtesy of Wikipedia



Taking a turn or two for the better

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Versatility” is the noun form of the adjective “versatile.”

We generally think of versatility as the ability of a person to easily go from one skill to another or a thing to have many uses or applications. (Let’s face it: Smart phones these days are pretty darn versatile when one considers they also serve as cameras, hand-held computers, music players, Day Runners, alarm clocks, etc.)

Zoologists use the term to describe something “capable of turning forward or backward,” such as a bird’s toe, according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary. Botanists use the term to describe “turning about freely on the filament to which is attached, as an anther,” according to my trusty desktop Webster’s.

“Versatile” came into English about 1600, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes. It came from the “Latin versatilis - turning, revolving, moving, capable of turning to varied subjects or tasks," from past participle stem of versare ‘keep turning, be engaged in something, turn over in the mind.’"

Illustration special to the Sentinel

I will never forget the pleasure and instruction I derived from working with a true master of his art, such as Edward G. Robinson was - and is. Surely his record for versatility, studied characterization - ranging from modern colloquial to the classics - and artistic integrity is unsurpassed.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Edward G. Robinson in 1930s publicity photo
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia



Monday? Meh ...

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, October 14, 2013

Meh. Not a bad word for a gray Monday.

It connotes apathy or indifference, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and it apparently has not been in popular usage all that long. It was generally used by 2003, the dictionary notes, and perhaps from 1992.

Some folks give credence to the TV show, “The Simpsons” for the word's increasing popularity. Though “meh” sounds like a Yiddish word, the jury is out as whether it really is. For more details, head to:


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