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Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Chronic Case of Idiocy

Saturn-Kronos-Chronos-mythology-god.gifI don't know about you, but I find it fascinating that words will sometimes break free the shackles of learnèd disquisition and find their way into the common vocabulary, but that in so doing they will often assume a new or even contrary identity?

A case in point is the word decimate, which means "to reduce by one tenth" but which is nowadays construed as reducing to one tenth: a terrible, drastic elimination? It must be said, however, that the new meaning does carry forward some small part of the horror of the old?

My pet theory, completely untested, is that such words are hauled into everyday idiom because they sound like they mean business? They acquire a meaning to suit. To decimate sounds like it ought to mean to devastate, to destroy, to annihilate?

What might such a figure of speech be called? Not ono... onomatae... onomatopaella... onomatopoaeia!, in which a word imitates the sound it represents; but rather a word whose sound imitates the action it represents? An auto-locution, perhaps, or an evocution? Sadly, neither of those words appear to exist. What we really need is an existing word that sounds like it means "a word whose sound imitates the action it represents", but which means something entirely different. I'm sure Volokh would know, if anyone: this kind of trickery is right up his alley? But I'd rather not pester him more: his replies to all my previous suggestions and remarks have, rather uncannily, and with exquisite politeness and delicacy, shown me to be a total arse who really ought to keep his idiot gob shut?

Anyway: I was struck forcibly by another example recently - which landed like a whump on my forehead: chronic. All my days I've believed the word "chronic" to mean bad, serious, out-of-control, irreparable? A chronic illness, a chronic liar, a chronic idiot? As in, "He has a chronic case of the pox, poor fellow, and is not long for this life."

But it means no such thing: chronic simply means old, longstanding, habitual. Thus evidence of active and chronic nerve inflamation means that there's new trouble mixed-up with old. How disappointing?

If I'd thought about it for even one half of one pawky second in all those past forty-two years, it would have been entirely obvious and self-explanatory? But I never did. Not once. Despite twenty-odd years coding under Unix, with its cron tasks; despite being captivated by the "Incarnations of Immortality" as a youth; and despite an abiding fascination with Robert Graves in later days? I have known all along who Chronos was, what gimbaled chronometers do, how chronologically is ordered. But never given chronic second thought?

And how did my ignorance come to be so revealed? Under most humiliating circumstances: while trying, with only limited success, to retain some dignity whilst stretched and pinned upon a physician's table, being stuck about the arms and neck with lengthy needles, being lit repeatedly with an electric prod, and all the while being measured on an oscilliscope; playing Toad to High School biology class.

In short, E..M..G..

To be so pricked and prodded and jabbed and zapped, and then to be told, as kindly riposte to unseemly squawk, "Oh nonoNo, Mr. Bearded, that simply means it's old..." was icing on the bloody cake.

Most awkward.

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