Palin and Lalia
Theological Terms I
Theological Terms II
Theol. Terms III
Noso and Noce/Nocu
Milton, Book I (PL)
Oo and Ovi
Labors of Hercules I
Oblectation et al.
Dissimulare et al.
Acroama et al.
Tetrous et al.
Commeate et al.
Obsolete et al.
Subtle et al. I
Hesitate et al. (Ovid)
Excoriate et al. I
Excoriate et al. II
Excoriate, Vellicate, et al. II
Bill Long 2/4/09
Introduction: Finishing Up on Vellication
1. Vellication, then, means "the action of pulling or twitching; irritation or stimulation by means of small or sharp points; titillation or tickling." It can also mean a "twitching or convulsive movement, esp. of a muscle or other part of the body." Samuel Johnson wrote in a 1783 letter, "These vellications of my breast shorten my breath." Presumably his recipient knew what he was talking about. Then, there is the word amyctic, derived from the Greek verb amussein, which means to "tear, prick." Thus, it is a sort of Greek equivalent to vellicating, but it never caught on in English. If we think long and hard about the various ways that people might be injured (burning, tearing, scratching, piercing, cutting, etc.), we realize that there are a host of classically-derived words to help us out and make our thought more precise. Becoming a good writer means that you take time to cultivate the ability to describe and differentiate among things.
2. Speaking of defining and distinguishing/differentiating, I ran across excrement, and it has an origin that may surprise you. I hope you will be saying "No shit!" after we learn about excrement. Our word excrement goes back to the Latin verb excernere in the following way. The Latin verb has four principal parts. Excernere, meaning to "sift," has these: excerno, excernere, excrevi, excretum. So, all the words derived from excrete/exrement are derived from the fourth principal part (past participle) of excerno. Let's look more closely at excernere, cernere and some English derivatives, such as excern, secern, discern. Ah, now you see where I am going. Well, excern in English means, relating to animals and plants, or their organs: "To separate (waste matter) from the blood or sap, preparatory to discharging from the body." Thus when we see the root "cern" we are in the process of separating, distinguishing, sifting for some purpose. But then, excern may also relate to the end result of the process, as this 1650 (again, a 17th century invention!) quotation says: "Phlegm that is excerned by the mouth." Secernment (I think this word has been used in a variety of kids' bees) means "separation" or "secreting." From 1894: "With the universal use of cosmetics and the consequent secernment of soul and surface." From 1835: "The means..for rejecting from the body the residuum after the secernment...of the finer life-supporting products. Of course, once we have done this little exercise, the meaning of discern, a word we use all the time, becomes crystalline. It means to "distinguish" or "discriminate" or "judge." The word discernment focuses more, however, on intellectual perceiving and distinguishing. Again, the word appears to be a 17th century invention.
Now that we have separated things from each other, either in a medical way (blood and serum; for example), or in an intellectual way (discernment), we are ready to do something with the products so separated. Some of them are eliminated from the body or mind. These things, then, are excreted. They become excrement--the product after the differentiation has taken place. So, the first definition of excrement given by the OED is "that which remains after a process of sifting or refining; the dregs, lees, refuse." From 1698: "This Earth..he stiles the very dregs and excrements of nature." A similarly old definition is the one we are most familiar with today: "that which is cast out of the animal body by any of the natural emunctories." So, from Cooper's 1565 Thesaurus: "Excrementum, the dregges or excrementes of digestion made in the bodie; as fleume, choler, melancholie, urine, seate, snivell, spittel, milke, ordure." Isn't that a fine list of things that are eliminated from the body?
But before I return to my words, I have to pause for a second with that word "emunctories." Excrement, apparently, is something cast out of the body by any of the natural emunctories. Emunctory derives from emungere, which means to "wipe or blow the nose." Lying deep behind emungere is mucus. Ok. But in English emunctory can either be an adjective or a noun and has a broader field of meaning. Thus it can be a part or an organ of the body which has an excretory or depurgatory function; or it can mean "excretory; depurgatory; serving to excrete, carry off, and discharge from the body waste products or effete matter." What originally might only have denoted something that gets rid of the mucus now can get rid of anything. Words expand. I wonder if you poop quickly whether you are activating something that serves as a "perfunctory emunctory."
3. Well, let's carry this on a little more. Did you notice that in one of the sentences just quoted there is the word "effete matter"? Well, the only time I remember the word "effete" being used in public discourse was through the words of former (and disgraced) Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who vigorously attacked the opponents of Richard Nixon by calling them an "effete corps of impudent snobs." I would say that most of those words just quoted were probably new for Agnew himself, but effete bears looking into. Effete is from ex meaning "out of" or "forth" and fetus, meaning "that has brought forth." Thus, someone who was effete, in the first instance was someone "past bearing; functionless, as a result of age or exhaustion." From a 19th century source:
"It is..probable that the females as well of beasts as birds have in them...the seeds of all the young they will afterwards bring forth, which...all spent and exhausted, ..the animal becomes barren and effete."
Thus, exhaustion through production is probably the best short definition of effete. It has, in the last century or so, morphed in meaning to describe anything unproductive or unprofitable. I much prefer the image that it creates, however--of barrenness or of being used up through bearing its total number of seeds.
4. There are tons more words to explore, and I will look at some phrases in the next essay (such as true skin, true crime, laudable pus and laughing heirs), but let's close this essay with impudent and pomp. I ran into the latter word (pompa in Latin), while reading Ovid's Metamorphoses yesterday. The Anglo-Norman and Middle French pompe mean "splendid display" and its etymon, classical Latin pompa, means "ceremonial procession, ostentation, display." In Greek the word pompe is derived from pempein, which means to "send off." An apopemptic is a valedictory speech, for example. So, when we say that someone did something with great pomp, we are using the English word precisely as it was used in Latin--to describe the splendor of a great procession.
But let's close with the word impudence. I first recall running into this word as a youth, because I was an avid reader of the Hardy Boys detective series. This group of "soft-core" crime stories described the life of Protestant-type boys (there was one "Italian boy" in the mix, Tony Prito) who wanted to imitate the great detective Fenton Hardy (father of Frank and Joe) in his detective work. Well, Aunt Gertrude, their cantankerous maiden aunt, used to visit them. On one occasion, as I recall, she alighted from a cab in front of the house, excoriated the driver and say, "And for your impudence, you shant get a tip." Thus, I learned the word. It meant, originally, "shamelessness, immodesty, indelicacy," because it is derived from the Latin in (opposite) and pudens (modest), but it has since come to mean "shameless effrontery; insolent disrespect, insolence; unabashed presumption." Aren't those nice phrases?
Well, so we continue to build our city of words. It really is a delightful place to visit, isn't it? Putting them all together, in various combinations and for different reasons, yields most excellent results. Thanks for joining me.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long