What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 8 of 132

Alluring alliteration

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, March 14, 2014

Oh, please don't! Such lively alliteration should be given free license …


Strengthening a blade

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Forte” comes to us from French. Nowadays it means someone's strong suit, skill or talent. (Mine is procrastination — difficult to maintain, but I manage.)

The word is often pronounced FOR tay. The more correct pronunciation, though, is simply as one syllable: fort. (Using the first pronunciation more precisely refers to the musical term that comes to us from Italian. It means loud. )

I learned today that this abstract idea of strength derives from a concrete term. The forte in the blade of a sword is the section running from the hilt to the middle; it's considered the blade's strongest part.

Both the French and the Italians took the word from the Latin word fortis. That meant brave, strong, powerful and courageous, according to the Latin Dictionary at wikidot.com.

It's tempting to discuss the various forms of fortis, depending on gender, number and case, but doing so would be far too pedantic on such a bright, sunshiny day. I'll somehow force myself to procrastinate, leave that explanation for another time and refuse to be offended upon hearing any sighs of relief.

Illustration special to the Sentinel


Daft, not deft

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, March 10, 2014

“Deft” means to be “skillful in a quick, sure and easy way; dexterous,” according to Webster's. Courtesy of Cambridge Dictionaries Online, here are some examples of “deft” in sentences:

“She answered the journalist's questions with a deft touch.
He's very deft at handling awkward situations.”

Yesterday I was not deft. In fact, I was quite close to being daft. (Those who don't know the definition of “daft” may look it up for themselves; I can't bear to define it today.) My excuse for the temporary aberration from my usually rational self was the fact that we “sprang forward.” My internal clock is still adjusting.

I can take slight consolation in knowing that “deft” and “daft” come from the same Old English word “(ge)dæfte,” which meant mild or gentle. (As with other words, minor changes in spelling led to major differences in meaning.) I would like to think I was at least (ge)dæfte yesterday.

Now, with a full Monday workload, there's no time for daftness and even being (ge)dæfte is looking iffy. Judging by my typos, I've yet to be deft. I definitely hope, though, that “brighter” days lie ahead.

Illustration special to the Sentinel


Zulu, anyone?

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, March 4, 2014

English seemingly knows no international boundaries. Our language is like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up words everywhere it can.

Case in point: impala. Used to describe a small antelope in central and South Africa, it came into English in 1875 from the Zulu word for gazelle, im-pala, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Zulu is the language of the Zulu people, most of whom live in South Africa.

It's easy enough to understand why Chevy dubbed one of its vehicles after this creature. Impalas are quick runners, and their curved horns (on males, anyway) and sleek bodies are elegantly eye-catching. “Impala” thus implies speed and good looks.

Wikipedia notes that impalas “communicate using a variety of visual and vocal communication.” Considering the technological advances found in modern vehicles, that connotation seems appropriate, too.

Oh, I can't resist: Bravo to the Zulus for such an interesting word!

Zulu dancer
Photo by Ernmuhl courtesy of Wikipedia


The impala is also known for its giant leaps, as high as 3 meters (9.8 feet), according to Wikipedia.
Photo by Arturo de Frias Marques courtesy of Wikipedia


Almost paradise

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, February 28, 2014

The Acadia advertised in today's paper evokes a mental image of people freely dashing off to all sorts of blissful destinations. Such a vision was likely behind GMC's decision to name this vehicle as it did.

“Acadia” is yet another interesting example of how words evolve – or devolve – over time. Besides being the name of a vehicle, it is a proper noun describing a French settlement on the northeast coast of North America. According to Webster's, that settlement existed from 1604 to 1713. The dictionary notes that the area includes “what are now the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, plus parts of Quebec and parts of Maine.”

This vast region, however, was not always known by this exact name. According to Wikipedia, the entire north Atlantic coast north of Virginia was actually dubbed “Arcadia” by the 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who admired the beauty of the trees he found in Virginia and Maryland. In later years, though, the “r” would be dropped and the region would be known as “Acadia.”

Da Verrazzano is said to have taken his inspiration for the region's original name from the ancient Greeks. As sea-lovers, the Greeks were constantly exploring – and conquering – new lands, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History, Not every Greek, however, wished to venture far from home.

In inland Greece was a land-locked district known as Arcadia, Asimov writes. “The Arcadian townsmen and farmers did not travel or colonize. Lacking the stimulation of foreign ways, they clung to their older, more primitive life.”

As time went on, Asimov adds, the Arcadians came to be admired, even envied, for their uncomplicated ways. “The Roman poet Vergil, about 30 B.C., wrote of Arcadia as a place of the ideal simple life, the home of pastoral happiness, where shepherds piped to their flocks and were free of all the vice of cities.”

In 1590, Asimov continues, Sir Philip Sidney entitled one of his poems “Arcadia,” and “that fixed the word in the English language … [I]t now means any place of ideal but simple happiness.”

Thomas Cole's The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1834
Photo of painting courtesy of Wikipedia


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