Invalescence and Others
Bill Long 10/25/04
Words that Mean their Opposites
It just dawned on me that the subtitle for today's essay might be a topic for a Jerry Springer show. If you can have people that change their sexes on the air, then you ought to be able to "interview" words that change their meanings. What I am talking about is a peculiar phenomenon that I can only partially explain but is fascinating nevertheless. How do we explain the phenomenon of a word meaning its opposite?
Let's start with a few terms that mean their opposites. We have already seen, for example, that invigilant can mean watchful or inattentive. Something inflammable is either combustible or unable to be burned. We will meet another of these "in" words today: "invalesce," which means either to get better or to get worse. Thus, it will be pretty important to know which is meant. A few of these "in" words are easily explicable because they use the prefix "in" in two different ways: (1) to mean the opposite of the thing (i.e., "inattentive" is the opposite of "attentive") and (2) to be a sort of intensifier or a directional prefix. Thus, the "in" in invigilant can either be the intensifier (very vigilant) or the negativizer (not watchful).
More difficult to explain for me are a few other terms. For example, a sanction in law is either an approval or prohibition of something. If you study a statute, you usually have the congressional findings first, then the definitions, then the substantive principle(s) of law, then the way the law will be administered and finally, the sanctions--which means the penalties that are on you if you violate the law. Yet, lawyers can also use the term "sanction" to mean approval. "Sanctioning that conduct will make me do something I don't want to do. In addition, to cleave means either to connect or to separate. The Scriptures talk about marriage as a man leaving his father and mother and "cleaving" to his wife, and the two becoming one. But, on the other hand, if you took a meat cleaver to something, including a marriage, it divides it. In addition, a bar in music is a vertical line, whereas a bar in law is the horizontal divider between the onlookers and parties in the courtroom. Well, this is enought to illustrate the issue of how the opposite can be the same. Who says that Aristotelian logic must operate when you start to speak English?
Invalesce/Invalid and Others
So we come to the word family for today. Let's start simply. The Latin word vale (two syllables) can mean "to say farewell," and we have terms like valedictory in English to capture that use of the word. Valediction is the action of bidding or saying farewell; a valedictorian is one who, usually because of meritorious performance, delivers the farewell address. The Greek word apopemptic ("to send away") has also entered the English language and means the same thing [see my earlier essay on piscivorous/ichthyophagus where I reflect on words from both Greek and Latin that mean the same thing in our language] so that one can have an apopemptic hymn or apopemptic speech.
But the Latin verb valeo means "to be well" or "to be physically powerful" or "have strength." It is a great word to describe a person's robustness. Therefore a valid explanation is one that has strength. Something that has validity has "legal authority, force, strength." On the other hand, an invalid is someone who is weak, and an invalid explanation has no strength.
So we run into confusion when we make the word longer. Let's start with the Latin. Valeo is, as we have seen, to have strength, and valetudo means "soundness of body or good health," but a valetudinarius is a person who is "incapacitated by illness;" "invalid, bedridden." Latin even had a word valetudinarium as a place, like our sanitorium, for the treatment of the sick. We have made "hospital" or "infirmary" bear the weight of that concept, though I rather like the idea of a valetudinarium. Thus, when the word is connected with "inarium" it takes on the opposite of what we would expect.
And that is also taken over into English. A valetudinarian is a person who is "in weak health, especially one who is constantly concerned with his own ailments." We usually refer to a person like this as a hypochondriac, but I like the sound of valetudinarian better. "She continued in her valetudinary state for years--always threatening to die, but managed to outlive all the robust males of the family who cared for her for years."
Adding the "In" Prefix
When we add the "in" prefix, the contradiction emerges clearly. Latin had a verb valesco meaning "to become well" (there is no English equivalent), and it also has a verb invalesco meaning the same thing: "to become physically strong or gain strength." When we come into English, we not only have invaletudinarian, which means the same thing as valetudinarian (a sickly, infirm person), but we have the verb invalesce. By applying the prefix "in" with each of its meanings, we see how invalesce can be a "contradictory" word also. There is attestation for invalescence as "the state or condition of being an invalid," but there is also the meaning of invalescence as "strength, health, force." Thus if you say to someone that "he convalesced until he invalesced," you really would have to ask one more question to see if the person is in robust health or if he died or was near death. Maybe that is why no one uses invalescence anymore, if they ever did. Just too confusing to wonder if the person is dead or alive after you hear the word. But, then again, for those for whom confusion is their trade, such as political consultants and tons of other professionals, bringing back invalesce should be a major focus of their time. They should coalesce around invalesce.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long