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August 23, 2019  |  Friday words #185  |  1021 hit(s)

Every once in a while the universe gives you a nudge. Back in March I collected a new-to-me word, and then this week my wife sent me the same one: abecedarian.

This is a great word that I’m surprised I never learned before. It has multiple definitions, all useful. It can mean “of or relating to the alphabet,” which makes perfect sense once you realize that abecedarian consists of the Latin names A-B-C-D plus the suffix -arian (“of”). It’s often used to refer to something that’s arranged in alphabetical order. I found two good examples on Twitter. One was an abecedarian list of insults, as posted by the qikipedia Twitter account:

Another abecedarian example that someone mentioned was Edward Gorey’s mischievously macabre book The Gashleycrumb Tinies, which describes, in alphabetic rhyming couplets, how 26 children met their untimely deaths. For example, “F is for FANNY, sucked dry by a leech”:

The word abecedarian can also refer to someone who’s new to something—a novice, like someone learning their ABCs. And by extension, it can be used to mean something that’s elementary or rudimentary. (See if you can work that in the next time you’re called upon to critique someone’s work.)

A final reason that the word abecedarian seemed timely to me is that it is, I believe, one more instance of a prolegonym (“intro-name”): a word formed from the beginnings of an expression. We’ve seen some before.

Ok, word origins. I’ve been reading (and so should you[1]) Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet, which is about how language is used on the internet. In the chapter on texting, she happens to mention that the word text is related to the word textile. Those words are in turn related to texture. All these senses pertain to weaving—"that which is woven, web, texture.” (Nice cite from Quintilian: textus is the “tissue of a literary work.”)

As if that weren’t cool enough, the tex- stem is related to the tech- stem in words like technology via a common root that originally meant “craft.” So sending messages on your phone is not only textured technological text, but it’s in some distant etymological way like architecture and tectonic.

[1] Yeah, grammatically dodgy. Whatevs.

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