The fiscal cliff Next post: The fiscal cliff

Bringing warmth and cheerfulness to November Previous Post: Bringing warmth and cheerfulness to November

Remacadamize? Hybrid words and the development of the English language

I’ve recently noticed a trend for recipes to insist that I absolutely must use unsalted butter. Now I love the creamy taste of locally produced organic butter as much as the next person, it tastes much nicer with honey on bread than the salted sort. Nevertheless I just don’t get why, when I’ve melted my unsalted butter, and then, say, chopped my mushrooms and filleted my sole, I’m told to add a generous pinch of sea-salt. Would it be the end of all pretensions to sensitive cooking, I wonder, if I just used salted butter in the first place? The thing is, I suspect, that food gurus are devoted to the chimera of purity even when it doesn’t make any difference, even when it makes things harder. That’s food gurus for you. And language pedants are exactly the same.

Pedants care about purity. They don’t really like new words although they can see that sometimes you need them, so they have a rule that says if you must have a new word its parts must come from just one language.

For example in 1891 when Thomas Dallmeyer invented a lens to take pictures of things a long way away he needed also to invent a new word. He started with the Greek tele, far off, and joined it with photographic (itself derived from the Greek phos, light, and the Greek suffix -graphos, written) to make tele-photographic and that’s what his lens was called. Everything comes from the Greek. Beautiful. If it gets shortened to tele-photo, as it was by the following year (as my research showed), that’s all right, just so long as it all stays pure.

From television to ‘dark soil soil’

Television is similarly constructed from tele, far off and visio, seeing, to mean seeing things that are far off, which is what a television lets you do. The trouble is that whereas tele is, as we know, Greek, visio is formed from the participial stem of videre, which means to see in Latin. The word should never have been made and none of us should use it. It surprises pedants that many people can say TV without even a wince.

There are loads of words like this—hybrid words they’re sometimes called—geostationary, monolingual, claustrophobia, all made up of Greek and Latin elements. It causes as much pain to a pedant to see these two disparate elements jammed together as it would to a toddler to squeeze a piece of Lego into an electric socket.

If it’s bad to mix the classical European languages (which do after all both have their origins in Indo-European) how much worse to straddle continents.

After 1945, American agriculturalists surveyed Japan and tried to classify its soils using the American Department of Agriculture’s system. It didn’t work because of a dark soil made up of weathered glass from volcanos. The scientists didn’t have a name for it so they took two Japanese words, an meaning dark, and do meaning soil, to make ando meaning dark soil. They already had words for the soils you get in America, entisol, inceptisol, aridisol, mollisol, and many others. They all ended in -sol, from the Latin word solum meaning floor, ground, or soil. So they tacked that onto the end of ando to make andosol meaning dark soil soil. Later on the soil scientists changed the O to an I, to make the new soil sound even more like all the others: andisol.

Five roots, one word

The Japanese and Latin in andisol are from different sides of the globe but the word still uses only two languages.

The surname of the eighteenth century Scottish surveyor John Loudon McAdam, is a hybrid word, composed of the Scottish Gaelic word for son, which comes from the Early Irish, macc, and the Hebrew word, adam, human being, the name of the first man in Genesis. An ‘A’ was slipped into Mr McAdam’s name when it was used to describe the road surface that he invented: macadam, a word the Oxford English Dictionary first records in 1824. A verb soon appeared, macadamize, an easy business of adding an -ize suffix, which is Greek. From the verb it’s a small step, with the -ed ending from Old English (with older Germaninc roots) to the adjective, macadamized.

Irish, Hebrew, Greek, and Old English weren’t enough for the City that never sleeps. On 5 April 1837 the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York resolved, and recorded in their published proceedings, ‘That so much of the carriageway of the 3d avenue, between 28th and 35th streets, as may be required, be re-Macadamized and raised to the proper grade.’

Re- is a Romance prefix, with the sense of ‘back or ‘backwards’ in Latin. Remacadamized hasn’t made it into our dictionaries, and I haven’t been able to find any recent examples, but you can see it occasionally in the reports of city boards and legal cases into the early twentieth century.

Ingredients don’t make much sense unless you cook them together. Words don’t make much sense unless they’re in a sentence. Given that it’s all going to get mixed together why not start with salted butter? And if you ever need to describe a road that’s got a bit worn and dusty and been put back to its pristine dark state why not reach into the Japanese lexicon and say reanmacadamized? I’ll know what you mean.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.