Sunday, November 27, 2016

there's a (wrong) word for it

I am a word collector.

It all started in my high school Latin class. Mr. McCutcheon was a great teacher. Unlike all of our fellow students who were Frenching and Spanishing away in the halls, we were being taught some of the secrets of our own language. English may be Germanic in its form, but its vocabulary is fueled by Latin words that made their way to England in that little conquest of 1066. You may have heard of it.

During my Spanish lessons, I periodically thank Mr. McCutcheon for drilling roots and conjugations into my dense little head. It made English far more clear to me, and it has left enough residue to help me through my Spanish.

Several months ago, a woman in our class decided she was bored with the usual social greetings. She is one of those personalities for whom the word "ebullient" was retained in English. Witty. Charming. Ready with a smile.

She told our instructor that she was tired of the usual responses to the question of how she was doing. "I want to say I am terrific. Terrifico! Is that correct?"

Our teacher was taken aback. "You want to tell people that you are terrible? Why?"

"No. I want to stay I am terrific. Terrifico."

Cognates are one of the fun discoveries in every language. Words that sound similar in both tongues. They are like free words when learning to speak another language.

But, in every language, there are also false cognates. Words that sound similar, but that have different meanings. In some cases, such as "terrifico," they mean just the opposite.

"Terrifico" is a real Spanish word. And its meaning was exactly the same as "terrific" when it entered English around the 1300s -- “causing terror, terrifying; terrible, frightful; stirring, awe-inspiring; sublime.” That is not surprising, it is derived from the Latin root
terrere -- to fill with fear. Terror. Terrible. Terrific.

Somewhere in the 1700s, "terrific" took on a new meaning. "Of great size or intensity; excessive; very severe." You can still hear some English speakers (primarily rural folk) refer to a terrific storm. I may have even used the word in that sense myself.

In the late 1800s, "terrific" morphed into the form we use today: "an enthusiastic term of commendation: amazing, impressive; excellent, exceedingly good, splendid.”

No one knows why the term managed to turn itself 180 degrees around from its original meaning. After all, who knows, in just the past few recent years, how "iconic" went from being "a visual art executed according to a tradition or convention; characteristic of an icon" to being anything the speaker thinks is cool or awesome -- without regard to its visual quality.

And who says Mexpatriate is not a full service stop on the internet freeway?


OK. I could not avoid the temptation of dipping into the Monty Python grab bag. Here is one of my favorite Latin grammar bits.

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