There are words in the English language that I feel majority of speakers do not understand but are kept in use nonetheless: exacerbate, succinct, plethora, ambivalent, etc. These words catch my attention, because I don’t understand them or remember a time I didn’t. The feeling is especially strong when I learn there is an easy-to-decipher alternative with the same meaning that people choose not to use. To exacerbate means to worsen for example.
Except that it doesn’t. In Latin, to exacerbate literally means to make bitter, a metaphor for making things worse, which got forgotten when it was adopted in English. If you were to use the word on a Latin-speaker who hasn’t heard it before, they would be able to deduce the meaning since they would know acerbus means bitter. But if you were to eliminate the word from every writing and dictionary of the Anglosphere now, exacerbate would cease to exist in a 100 years. That’s because it doesn’t share a connection with any other word; it’s dangling out in the open.
This is not a rant against loanwords and foreign elements in language; many tried that before and achieved success to a certain degree. Linguistic purism in the industrial age have mostly been motivated by nationalism and identity politics. My concerns, which motivated me to write this are based on comprehension and communication efficiency.
When used, dangling words evoke the need to shout out “Speak English!”. Instead of contributing meaning, they confuse the listener. This may be strategic when a speaker wants to misdirect his/her audience from what is being said, which may be something disagreeable or nothing of value. Many people use obscure words as leverage in a conversation, to confuse and dominate the listener. Practitioners of law can do that very easily, for example.
My purpose for writing this is not to talk you out of using dangling words; I used some myself up until this point. I want to give you they key to unlock the meaning behind these words: etymology.
I am not a native speaker of English but Turkish. But I had the same problem in both languages: not being able to remember some words by their definitions in the dictionary. I used to write them down many times, but I had trouble remembering in school. I had a hard time breaking down the words into concepts. Yes, I understood that exacerbate meant to make worse, but I didn’t understand how exactly: did exacer mean make and bate worse? I couldn’t associate conceptually, namely tie those imaginary strings between words. How was I supposed to remember, and how did everybody else manage to do it?
Years later, when I discovered etymological dictionaries, I found my answer: I had been taught wrong all along. In computer science terms, what my teachers wanted me to do was to create a new slot for every word in an array. What I’ve been yearning to do was to create a graph, because deep down I found it impractical to remember without making any connections. And those dangling words: they were the most difficult ones because they didn’t belong to my graph.
With Latin and Greek words, the problem was that I didn’t have the necessary software to read and write to that graph; I hadn’t learned the basics of grammar. Fortunately I didn’t have to learn all of the grammar, but only the part related to word-building. So I learned the few prefixes, suffixes and root words dictionaries had to offer and bam! I was able to guess the meaning Latin and Greek words I haven’t heard before.
For example ascend, descend, condescend and transcend are connected because they come from the same root, meaning to climb. But exacerbate is still dangling because there is not a loanword that shares the same root. The conclusion is that there are different levels of dangling:
- Not dangling: Words’ connection can be deduced without knowledge of foreign grammar. Examples: bold and embolden, smart and to outsmart.
- Semi-dangling: Words’ connection can be deduced with knowledge of foreign grammar, root words and affixes. Examples: art and artificial, impress and express.
- Dangling: There is no connection to another word. Examples: exacerbate, myriad, ephemeral, fulcrum.
This also implies that compound words are easier to remember.
Learning etymological roots
- improved my writing and understanding of English,
- kicked up my bullshit detector a few notches,
- increased my ability to assess a person from the words they use,
- and gave me immunity against technostrategic language.
But this was English, which is not my native language. I still wasn’t feeling smart enough in Turkish, so I had to repeat the same procedure for Arabic and Persian, which are to Turkish what Latin and Greek are to English. But there was a problem: Despite there being Turkish etymological dictionaries, there was no modern book for the grammar of Arabic and Persian loanwords. There are accessible books of “Ottoman Turkish”, but you have to learn the old script and grammatical terminology in order to understand them.
I did that and it took me a few months, but its results will last a lifetime: I feel competent at speaking, reading and writing my native language. I taught myself the Turkish my teachers failed to teach.
It was bothering me that there was no modern book on the grammar of loanwords. Almost all of the conceptual words neologized in the pre-republic era are built from Arabic, accounting for 90% of the words that confused me. For example, the vocabulary legal Turkish consists mainly of Arabic loanwords and neologisms native to Turkish. So I mainly focused on Arabic.
First, I created a web app for compounding Arabic roots. Then I scraped an etymological dictionary and manually classified all Arabic words according to their declensions into a data file. Using that data file, I wrote a book containing a modernized grammar of Arabic loanwords and dictionaries mapping between different roots and their declensions. This helped me to connect 90% of the words I knew. My mind map was finally complete.
I wasn’t satisfied with the way I was taught how to read and write, so I hacked my brain to make it right. At school, they teach you that language is this rigid thing you can’t change and there is only one right way of thinking and writing. Like us, language is fluid and shaped by everything we do; dictionaries and grammar books are futile attempts at tying up something that can’t be tied up. I found my own way to interpret it and undangled my words. Now, the world makes more sense.