Submerged in semantics

Welcome to installment number 118 of the blog, in which we discover that our heroine is an incurable word geek.

It’s true. I am obsessed with words, with grammar, with the byzantine glories of this language that we share. Today’s gushing homage to vocabulary was inspired by Colin Dexter. If you saw yesterday’s column you’ll know that I’m really enjoying his work.

I love these novels because they challenge me. Not only does the author provide the mystery puzzle for the reader’s solving pleasure, but he gives poetry quotations and shares clues from the cryptic crosswords in the British press. He also uses a lot of words that I have to look up. I find it a joy to learn new words, so I do not take this as a negative, as some readers might.

Yesterday I learned the word tmesis. The American Heritage Dictionary defines tmesis as the “separation of the parts of a compound word by one or more intervening words; for example, where I go ever instead of wherever I go.” This word also describes the interpolation of profanities (or other words) into the middle of words. Next time you hear someone say ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY, you have listened to an example of tmesis.

I am fascinated by the words we use to describe and catalogue our language, and this example particularly delights me. I am tickled by the fact that you can use such a pedantic word to describe such a coarse practice. It is this contrast of the bitter and the sweet that makes this particular definition so marvelous.

While reading the same novel I was also spurred to look up the expression beyond the pale. I knew what it meant, or thought I did, but I suddenly wondered about its origin. My online research revealed that pale is an archaic noun meaning “a stake or pointed piece of wood.” There is a remnant of this usage in the related word impale, which means to “pierce with a sharpened stake.” It doesn’t come up very often, unless you are trying to kill vampires. Pales were sometimes used as fence stakes, and so the word came to mean fences as a whole, and later fenced areas where certain groups were required to stay by law. To be beyond the pale meant to be outside the fence. This is why the term now means away from home and safety, and can also mean outside the law or unacceptable.

These are only two of the things I looked up in that novel. I’m having so much fun reading Colin Dexter’s books!

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

118. Next time you read something, pay attention to the words and phrases within. Does something spark your interest for further research? Have at it! (Hmmm, I wonder where that phrase comes from. . . .)

Links, should you desire them:


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