What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 118 of 132

A pitch for parts

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, October 22, 2010

“Propel” is made up of two Latin/Greek word parts: pro, meaning forward, and pel, meaning drive. So, propel means to drive or push forward.

Knowing that, we can figure out other “pel” words. These definitions are provided with the help of Webster’s:

Compel:  com (with); pel (drive) to gather or drive together by force
Think of an ancient sheepherder working hard to get his flock to come together. Now the word means to “force to do something.” (The rain compelled me to find my umbrella.)

Dispel:   dis (apart); pel (drive) to scatter and drive away; make something vanish
(The mother wanted to dispel her child’s fears about ghosts and goblins.)

Expel:   ex (out); pel (drive) to drive out by force or to dismiss
(The paramedic tried to expel a bone lodged in the child’s throat.)

Impel:   im (in); pel (drive) to push into motion; a synonym for compel
(The upcoming holiday season will impel me to look for bargains at the mall.)

Repel:   re (back); pel (drive) to drive back
(In the Battle of Gettysburg, Union soldiers managed to repel Confederate attacks.)

If we know just one part of a word, often we can get a general sense of the word’s meaning, especially if we think about it in its context, the words around it. (See entries for Aug. 4, 16 and 17.)

English has hundreds of Latin/Greek word parts, but that fact shouldn’t dispel efforts to learn as many as possible. Why not? Here’s my pitch: When it comes to classroom assignments, standardized testing, college applications, etc., folks who have learned them will surely deal with fewer “curve balls” in the game of life.



Orange or Oakland crush?

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Will the Broncos crush the Raiders, or vice versa?

In an article in today’s sports section, Broncos’ coach Josh Daniels did not hold back in describing the power of the Oakland Raiders, who will face off with the Broncos this weekend:

McDaniels went on to praise the Raiders in so many other ways that a headline writer chose the word “juggernaut” to help summarize the story.

Used in this sense, a juggernaut is “any terrible, irresistible force,” according to Webster’s.

Wesbter’s says it also means “anything that exacts blind devotion or terrible sacrifice."

That definition stems from the original meaning of the word. Juggernaut is an anglicized version of the Sanskrit Jagannatha, which means “Lord of the Universe."

Jagannatha, again according to Webster’s, was “an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, whose idol, it was formerly supposed, so excited his worshipers when it was hauled along on a large car during religious rites that they threw themselves under the wheels and were crushed.”

According to Wikipedia, the story of frenzied worshipers flinging themselves under the car’s wheels was told in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a 14th-century work. Wikipedia says, though, that Mandeville may have gotten his facts wrong. Worshipers close to the car may have accidentally been pushed under the wheels by the huge crowds behind them. Wikipedia also notes that British colonists in India may have used this story as propaganda (deliberate misinformation).

Whatever the truth may be, the word has gained a strong foothold in Western culture. Now, for example, we have Juggernaut, a villain in Marvel comic books who’s been around since the Sixties. And the word remains irresistible for "hed" writers who need to explain “any terrible, irresistible force.”

May the force be with the Broncos this weekend!

The Car of Juggernaut, as shown in the Illustrated London Reading Book, published in 1851
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia
Original source: Project Gutenberg archives

A religious festival in India in 2007
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and
photographer G.-U. Tolkiehn


Pi defined

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Webster’s defines pi as:

1 name of the sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet
2 a) the symbol designating the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter b) the ratio itself, equal to 3.14159265+

In an increasingly technological world, male math majors should be the ultimate chick-magnets. After all, Melinda Gates dated a math whiz and look where that got her!


Weaving a word

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jeremy’s use of “subtle” cracked me up today. I knew he meant “delicately suggestive,” a definition given by Webster’s Dictionary. I assumed it would be the first definition, but it is actually the fifth.

The first definition is “thin, rare; tenuous; not dense or heavy.” Webster’s notes that the word is derived (taken) from the Latin word subtilis, originally meaning “closely woven.” That word came from three words that meant “under the warp,” according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, which is cited by www.encyclopedia.com.

A warp is a machine used by weavers. So, we can assume that ancient weavers sometimes used thin threads in creating intricate (highly detailed) tapestries, rugs and other woven products. These products probably were most admired by those with a keen appreciation for detail that was missed by more casual observers.

We don’t pronounce the “b” in this word. We say SUH-tul. Why? One of the three words was “sub,” which means "under." I can only surmise (guess) that when the words were woven together the “b” remained. People probably found it awkward to pronounce. It must have morphed into a silent letter, joining words such as “debt,” “doubt” and “climb” that have vexed English spellers for centuries.

To include “b” or not to include “b” … yes, that’s been the question. Learning the history of a word sometimes gives us the answer.


An albatross for merchants

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, October 18, 2010

 Some stores in downtown Grand Junction were flooded early Saturday. The story ran with the headline “Water, water everywhere.”

The “hed” alludes to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Published in 1798, this narrative poem tells the story of a sea captain who is hit with bad luck during a long sea voyage.

When the mariner kills an albatross, the members of his crew come close to mutiny, because they feel the albatross brought them better fortune.

From this poem, we have the expression “an albatross around your neck,” which means a heavy burden.

The ship eventually becomes becalmed (motionless):

“Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

The mariner survives to tell his hardships to a stranger he meets upon his return home.

Some of our downtown merchants also have distressing tales now as they figure out the cost of water damage to their establishments. Let’s hope that the flood damage will soon be an albatross lifted off the neck of every merchant affected.


Page 118 of 132


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