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Cogitating on cognizance

By Debra Dobbins


 

 

 

A synonym for “cognizant” (found in today's editorial) is “aware.” “Cognizant” is a back formation of “cognizance.” (Back formation occurs when words are clipped to create new words. A few other examples are “edit” from “editor,” “baby-sit” from “baby sitter” and “handwrite” from “handwritten.” These are verbs created from nouns, while “cognizant” is an adjective created from a noun.)

There. I should stop now. Other work awaits, but looking up “cognizant” this morning set me onto many enticing semantic paths. I'll try to limit myself to just a few.

Webster's first definition of “cognizance” is “perception or knowledge, especially the range of knowledge possible through observation.” There are other definitions, but I promised restraint. The English word winds its way back through French to Latin cognoscere “to know,” according to Webster's.

OK, just one more definition: In the late Middle Ages in England, “cognizances” were another name for heraldic badges, according to Wikipedia. They were worn to symbolize “allegiance to or the property of an individual or family.”

I didn't know that historical tidbit until this morning, but it made sense. I'm always aware that wearing my Sentinel nametag sets the stage for conversations I have with strangers. In essence, the nametag heralds a professional allegiance and likely prompts some cognition in others as to the type of person I might be even before any introductions are made.

I'd be thrilled if anybody ever considered me a cognoscente in journalism, but chances of that are as rare as a goal in the first minute of a World Cup match. That would mean I'm an expert in this field, and I'm far from it. “Dilettante” is a more apt descriptor, but, hey, at least I'm cognizant of all that I don't know.

I digress and really must move on to other tasks so I'll leave you with one final observation on back formations: Writers sometimes get carried away with them. If you wish, kindly take cognizance of one whimsical example:

"He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled, so I tactfully changed the subject."
P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938

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