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August 27, 2017  |  Friday words #85  |  3613 hit(s)

Order is slowly emerging after the move. ("Chaos is a ladder"—Bran on GoT.) Instead of writing about words these last couple of days, I've been working (gasp!) and assembling a desk in my new home officenook. I assure you my tardiness this week is not for lack of interest or for lack of words, oh, no.

In the annals of new to me this week, we have a word I learned from Facebook Friend Deb: amathia. This is a pretty rare word; you won't find it in many dictionaries. It's a Greek term that shows up in The Republic, where Socrates uses it to refer to ignorance. Some people gloss it as a "willful ignorance"—a refusal to understand something, which distinguishes it from ignorance based on, say, lack of experience or exposure. Another gloss is "intelligent stupidity" or "disknowledge." This view is discussed in some detail in the essay "One crucial word," which was written in 2016 but has been getting attention recently.

There's a very long Reddit thread (more than 2000 comments) about this term, which includes some discussion about how this word is used in modern Greek. Not everyone agrees that Socrates uses amathia in a specific way. (For details, you can try this page from the essay "Plato's politics of ignorance.") In general, I think it's an interesting idea to have a word for the idea of willful ignorance, and I guess I'm rooting for amathia.

And now for unexpected origins. At work this week, one of the writers turned to an editor and said, "I'm going to sic so-and-so on you." Which sent me to the dictionary to try to figure out where sic had come from in this particular sense. I believe most of us would associate "Sic 'em!" with inciting a dog to attack, altho the writer's usage tells us that it's not entirely limited to a fossil usages.

The OED doesn't have a separate entry for sic as a verb, but other sources tell us that this verb comes from to seek. And indeed, the OED lists an obsolete sense of to seek that means "to pursue with hostile intention, to go to attack." Their last cite for to seek in this sense is from Shakespeare. We've lost to seek in this sense, but apparently a dialectical variation—to sic—survived.

There are a couple of interesting wrinkles. One is that although the command form is definitely sic, it's a little murkier what other moods and tenses are. One dictionary lists siccing and sicking as the progressive forms. In that vein, how would you personally form (and spell) the past tense?

The other wrinkle, which is minor, is that we can use to sic without a heavy overtone of "hostile intent." Either that, or I misunderstood what the writer was saying, haha.

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