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November 15, 2019  |  Friday words #197  |  381 hit(s)

I read a sad article last week about an old man who had been abandoned by his family because he'd become too difficult to care for. Apparently this happens regularly, although this case was notable because the family had flown him to England to abandon him there.

Anyway, in talking about the elderly gent, the article mentioned that older people are sometimes sent to the hospital with unspecific problems; one word for these is acopia, which one article glosses as the "inability to cope with the activities of daily living." Once you know the definition, the derivation is obvious: a- (meaning "without", as in amoral) and cope[ia]. That said, it's not a word you'll find in a general dictionary.

The term acopia is used in medical circles, and as it turns out, primarily in reference to older people. My wife, who's in healthcare and has done work in geriatrics, says it describes a state "between depression and dementia." And adds, "It's a description, not a diagnosis." Indeed, the article where I found the definition notes that although acopia might be written on a chart, it's "unhelpful," at least with respect to treatment.

Still, it seems like an interesting word to me. At the risk of misusing a term that already is considered dubious, it feels like it could be expanded to include the general condition of "can't even." Or maybe not.

Origins. My wife asked me today about maelstrom. I knew that it referred to "turbulence or confusion," but a trip to the dictionary revealed two surprising things. The first is that maelstrom (or Maelstrom, capped) is an actual place! It refers to a famous (infamous) and large whirlpool off the coast of Norway, "which was formerly supposed to suck in and destroy all vessels within a wide radius." (OED)

Discovering this initially led me to think that the word maelstrom was therefore a toponym—a word derived from a place-name. But no. The word maelstrom didn't come to us from, say, Norwegian. In fact, it comes from a Dutch word for "whirlpool." In older Dutch, strom was "stream." The surprising part is that mael does not mean, as someone (me) might think, "bad, evil." It actually refers to grinding (malen in German), alluding to the action of going round and round. The mael part is also related to meal (as in cornmeal), and more distantly, to mill. All referring to the actions of, or products of, or tools for going round and round. And if you add strom, you've got a stream going round and round, so there's your whirlpool.

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