11 March 2010

I don't know and I don't care...

As grammatical or syntax errors go, I’ve always been fond of this one – modifying the word “unique.” Either something is one of a kind, or it is not, I’ve always believed. However, in our present not-rational world, things can be very unique, the most unique, uniquer-than-thou.

The word “uniqueness” passes spell checkers quite well, but it’s a clumsy word. I’d rather say “uniquity” for the quality of being unique, but although Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary recognizes uniquity as a word, it hasn’t caught on, probably because “uniquity” sounds a lot like “iniquity” or injustice, which reminds me that it’s always a mistake to write run-on sentences, not because you were told not to in high school, but because the reader will run out of breath reading or saying the whole thing at one go.

Uniquity/iniquity somehow reminds me of the use of the word “disinterested” to signify “uninterested,” as in bored. These two have become through usage interchangeable, but we don’t have to like it. To be disinterested is to be unbiased, fair-minded. Uninterested is just that – a distinct lack of interest, or apathy.

This all is very interesting, at least to me. Yesterday’s misused words may become tomorrow’s new words. No one can resist the progression of meaning in English. But we can try.

Teacher: What does the word “apathy” mean?
Student:  I don’t know, and I don’t care.

Apathy arrived in English about 1600, from the French/Latin/Greek “apathia” or “apátheia” meaning “insensibility to suffering.”

If you are not apathetic, you must be “pathetic,” from the Latin “patheticus” and the Greek “pathetikós.” Call someone pathetic on the school yard and you’ll start a fight, yet pathetic didn’t start out that way.

About 1600, we adopted the French “pathétique” to mean “affecting the emotions, exciting the passions.” A hundred years later “pathetic” had shifted meaning to “arousing pity, pitiful.” It wasn’t until the 1930s that scholars recorded the most current meaning: “so miserable as to be ridiculous,” and thus your Dead End Kids, your Bowery Boys, your East Side Kids brawling in movie school yards during the Depression.

Pathos derives from the same roots as pathetic, but it is no longer pathetic’s first cousin. You experience pathos as a kind of down feeling, a sense of sorrow. You may say an excellent novel has plenty of pathos, but people will mistake it if you instead describe the novel as pathetic.

My favorite book on English is Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue, English and How it Got That Way.” Bryson has nothing to say about pathos. But he’s eloquent on American dialects (yes, we have them), plosives and runes, and word origins.

He calls English “an adoptive, borrowing tongue” – shampoo from India, chaparral from the Basques, and so on. “As long ago as the sixteenth century English had already adopted words from more than fifty other languages – a phenomenal number for the age,” Bryson writes.

Take garbage. In fact, please take out the garbage. “It has had its present meaning of food waste since the Middle Ages, was brought to England by the Normans, who had adopted it from an Italian dialectical word, ‘garbuzo,’ which in turn had been taken from the Old Italian ‘garbuglio’ ‘a mess’ which ultimately had come from the Latin ‘bullire’ (to boil or bubble).”

In modern Italian, to boil or bubble is “bollire,” a change of one single letter from the Latin of two thousand years ago. That’s the Italians for you: slow food and slow language. Italians do change, but they take their time about it.


“The Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson. Harper Perennial paperback $14.99. ISBN 0380715430.

Jimmy Buffett is credited with saying “Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don't know and I don't care.”

“Disinterestedly Apathetic” is “disinteressatamente apatico” in Italian. Memorize this.

Not to mention lay and lie... less and fewer... “rest” rooms... it and it’s... irregardless... and so many more!.

A fascinating usage note  ... “Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean ‘not interested, indifferent;’ uninterested in its earliest use meant ‘impartial.’ By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense ‘not interested, indifferent.’ It is occasionally used to mean ‘not having a personal or property interest.’ Many object to the use of disinterested to mean ‘not interested, indifferent.’ They insist that disinterested can mean only ‘impartial’: A disinterested observer is the best judge of behavior. However, both senses are well established in all varieties of English, and the sense intended is almost always clear from the context.”

If I have made any mistakes in this essay, please don’t tell me. Okay, do tell me, but be kind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I was at university in 1970 a poster went up "Apathy Society (non-attendance at meetings obligatory)".

There was also a Psychology Society lecture, "New Perspectives on Schizophrenia". Someone had written underneath it, "I've half a mind to go.

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