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January 03, 2020  |  Friday words #203  |  2321 hit(s)

Happy New Year! If you follow words, you've undoubtedly seen a selection of "words of the year" from various sources: Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, Oxford, and Collins, among others. Today (Jan 3) this culminates with the American Dialect Society picking not only its word of the year for 2019, but its word of the decade for the 2010s. If you happen to be in New Orleans, by all means, show up at the ADS conference and vote—it's open to anyone who happens to be in the room. Otherwise, the voting is live-tweeted, or you can check out the results on their website.

Ok, words. Where to start in 2020? Well, over the holidays I watched the full season of Netflix's The Politician, a black comedy about a high school election. (Black, yes; comedy, sporadic.) At the end of the season I encountered a word new to me: thrupple (or throuple, though it was spelled with upp in the subtitles).

This is a portmanteau of three + couple; it describes a three-way relationship. One page goes into some detail about what a thupple/throuple is and isn't. For example, it's an actual relationship, not just an encounter or a triangle.

I found this term interesting for a few reasons. One was that it's new enough that it hasn't made it into mainstream dictionaries, though of course it's in crowd-sourced dictionaries (e.g. Urban Dictionary). I thought we also had the term ménage à trois for this, although it's possible that the French-based term is used for a wider array of senses than throuple (for example, just for encounters). Plus the French term is harder to pronounce, ha.

It also was interesting in that we seem to have an expanding vocabulary for non-traditional relationships; another term I learned recently is polycule. As people feel free to discuss their relationship arrangements, they find that they need to have terms for them. And English is happy to accommodate their needs.

On to origins. I've been fooling around with Latin recently (about time, dang) so I've taken a more specific interest in words that come from Latin besides just that they, you know, come from Latin. One of these is the word placebo, which refers to a substance that has no pharmacological effect but is given to patients—for instance, as part of a drug trial.

In classical Latin, placebo means "I shall be pleasing" from the verb placere ("to please"). In medicine, placebo arose in the 18th century to mean a medicine given to a patient to please them as opposed to treat them. (Of course, the joke's on the medical community, sort of; the placebo effect describes a benefit that the patient reports even when given only a placebo.)

Once you know the origin of placebo, it's easy to see that it's a direct relative of to please, which we got via Norman French plaisier. Other terms with this root are plead, pleasure, placate, placid, and supplicant.

I should also note that a long time ago, one of my then new-to-me words was nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect—people reporting negative outcomes from what they think is bad for them. Thus not only did we take "I shall be pleasing" from Latin, but we mangled that one up to produce something like "I will be unpleasing." Very pleasing.

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Todd Kopriva   05 Jan 20 - 10:02 AM

I am pleasantly surprised that ‘nocebo’ makes sense in Latin (re: ‘nocere’).