Deceptively Tough Words I
Bill Long 10/22/08
Lots of words, when you look at them quickly, seem as if they should be familiar to you but are, on further inspection, words that are quite foreign to you. Those that fit this category for this essay are plenum, helicon, agger, pledget, crump, huck, argle and adject. Let's see how far we can get with each.
1. When you see plenum, you might think of plena, a Puerto Rican style of singing and dancing. Or, you might think of something "full." You would be closer to being correct with the second one. Plenum has at least two meanings, the first of which is best learned if you think of it as the opposite of vacuum. A vacuum is vacant, empty, while a plenum is "full." The classical Latin term meant a space completely filled with matter (the full term was spatium plenum, so I guess the word plenum by itself isn't the "full" term). How does anything "completely fill" a space? I don't know, but a figurative or metaphorical use take it out of the strictly scientific world.
Interestingly enough, the term developed in English in the 17th century as a way of describing pre-Socratic philosophy. From a Cambridge Platonist (Cudworth) in 1678: "Leucippus and his Companion Democritus make the first Principles of all things to be Plenum and Vacuum (Body and Space)." A preacher had to get into the act in 1822: "In a perfect plenum, motion would be impossible." Well, that definition has been relaxed a bit to mean: "a condition of fullness or great quantity." Literary authors so use it. From 1992: "He'd realized how thoroughly he had duped himself, how ludicrous was his willingness to enter the cold vacuum of death, which he'd always mistaken for the plenum of full spirit." Think fullness, think plenum.
More specifically, however, plenum can signify a "full assembly or meeting of a body in which all members are expected to be present." We normally use "plenary session" to describe this today.
2. An agger is not the Bostonian pronunciation to designate someone who went to Texas A & M. Rather, it is derived from the Latin word aggero, meaning "to form a high place" and agger, "a mound or rampart." Specifically, it referred to two things: (a) the dirt dug out from a ditch around the Roman camp that was then set up as a wall to protect against attacks and (b) the graded area on either side of a Roman road gradually sloping down to the ground level on either side. Here is a picture of an agger.
3. A pledget has nothing to do with a small person, or a female who "pledges" to a sorority or other body; rather it is a plug or a flat mass of absorbent material laid over a wound to absorb the matter discharged. We might also refer to it as gauze or lint. Here is an article, with picture, of a "Novel Surgical Biomaterial" which received regulatory approval just a few months ago. It is designed to protect the wound. It is used "during cardiac procedures for suture-line reinforcing, buttressing for soft tissue reapproximation, repair of cannulation sites and bleeding sites, and as an intracardiac patch or pledget for tissue repair.."
4. A helicon has nothing to do with the sun, though heliacal, for example, relates to a star emerging from the sun's rays and becoming visible after sunrise or setting after sunset. Helicon, too, has two meanings: (1) if capitalized it refers to a mountain in Greece, at whose base the two streams of Hippocrene and Aganippe flowed. This was a mountain sacred to the Muses and, therefore, could be used figuratively as the place of poetic inspiration. So, from 1651 we have this humorous line: "Poor shallow scoundrels...that never drank any Helicon above a penny a quart" (i.e., his poetic inspiration was in cheap alcohol). But the second (2) meaning is more prevalent today: "a large brass wind-instrument of a spiral form." It resembles the French horn but has keys and valves. Here is a helicon that needs a little cleaning but which you can buy for $785. Don't rush out..
5. I don't think we ever really think of what the word adjective means, but it comes from the Latin adjicere, derived further from ad + jacere, to "throw to." So, it means something that is an addition or added qualification to a word. Thus adject, which the OED calls "obsolete," is an addition. But the verb, which means "To annex, add, join" is still in use today. From 1832: "The law adjects to the title an element which is properly accidental." Or, speaking about the formation of names, from 1662: "They made the child's name by adjecting the syllable 'son' to the appellation of the father." Thus, we have "John-son" or "Ander-son." We have the word eject and everyone knows what we mean. Why not adject? I will not become abject if it isn't included in our vocabulary, but why should it be a reject?
6. Crump has a few meanings, as a noun, which can be disposed of quickly. It's "modern" meaning is a thump, thud or hard hit. In "soldier's slang" in WWI it was the explosion of a heavy shell or bomb, and the "crump-hole" was the crater left behind by such explosion. The Guardian, as recently as 1961, used the word: "The steady crump of falling bombs." Crump's older meaning is "crooked, chiefly of the body or limbs from deformity, old age, or disease." One might be "crump-backed" or "crump-shouldered." This relates to the word crimp, but I'll not pursue the link here.
7. Huck is not the most engaging character in American literature but is the "hip" or "haunch" but no one seems to know why means that.
8. Let's conclude this essay with argle, which is not someone wanting to say gargle with a mouthful. It is a verb meaning "to argue" or "dispute about" or "dispute." It is more usually used in the phrase "argle-bargle," which means "disputatious argument, bandying of words, wrangling." From 1927: "Can't they stand up to a good and sufficient argle-bargle that lasts for the better part of three hours?"
Let' that suffice for now...