A word to the wise – March 2014

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

A spelling conundrum surfaced recently as I was talking with an alert reader who knows her way around a library. “What’s a good way to distinguish between complement with an ‘e’ and compliment with an ‘i’”?

The wisdom of spellcheck won’t help us with this one, nor with any homonyms, but I did have a ready answer here. Complement has an “e” in the middle, just as complete does, so you can think of a necklace and pair of earrings as completing––or complementing––a dress. And it might even draw compliments.

We think of homonyms as words that sound alike but have different meanings. Homophones, more particularly, have different spellings as well, and are distinguished from homographs, referring to two different words that are spelled the same (for instance, savings bank and riverbank).

See how good you are at picking out the right homonyms in this little test.

1. “Oh God, give us serenity to (accept/except) what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” ––Reinhold Niebuhr.

2. “Society is now one polish’d (hoard/horde), formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and the Bored.” ––Lord Byron in Don Juan.

3. “Labor in this country is independent and proud. It has not to ask the patronage of (capital/capitol), but (capital/capitol) solicits the aid of labor.” ––Daniel Webster in an 1824 speech.

4. “Reason lies between the spur and the (bridal/bridle). ––George Herbert, early 1600s.

5. Robert Frost describes a day in May, fair at first, but then “A wind comes off a frozen (peak/peek/pique).”

6. “We are quick to (flair/flare) up, we races of men.” ––Homer’s Odyssey.

7. “The devil can (cite/sight/site) Scripture for his purposes.” ––Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

8. “A human being; an (ingenious/ingenuous) assembly of portable plumbing.” ––Christopher Morley in the 1930s.

9.  With him is wisdom and strength; he hath (council/counsel) and understanding.” ––Book of Job

10. “A (complement/compliment) is something like a kiss through a veil.” ––Victor Hugo.

And now for the answers:

1. It’s accept, of course. This was an easy one to make us all feel good.

2. Horde is correct, meaning a grand collection, especially of persons, while hoard means a usually hidden fund or supply, with the verb meaning to gather such a heap of stuff.

3. One of the meanings of capital is money, especially investment money, with a capitol being a center of government.

4. A horse’s bridle is what Herbert had in mind in this memorable quotation. Bridal has to do with weddings.

5. Frost had in mind a mountain peak in this poem, while peeking is what the kids do looking for Christmas gifts, and pique refers to a moment of peevish indulgence.

6. Flare is the image Homer had in mind here, meaning a sudden kindling, as of a fire. Flair is a certain aptitude or talent, and also can mean a stylish elegance.

7. The devil can cite Scripture; think of citation. Sight refers of course to vision, while a site is a place.

8. This is a tough spelling distinction. Like its root genius, the adjective ingenious has an “i” in the middle and is surely what Morley meant. Ingenuous means frank or open. The negative form, disingenuous, is probably more common and describes someone being insincere.

9. Counsel, meaning advice or guidance, seems the more reasonable choice, and it is indeed what the author wrote. A council is a deliberative or advisory body, which often gives counsel. Meanings and spellings of the two words are quite fixed in modern times, but over their long histories, both meanings and spellings have been jumbled.

10. Compliment with the “i” seems right here for Hugo’s descriptive image. Nothing here is really “completed” that I can judge.

How about your score?  No more than one wrong is pretty darned sharp; two or three, call it good or just fair. Four or more?  Keep it to yourself.

Word for the month

Arch (pronounced as in March) is a common enough word, noteworthy here as both homophone and homograph, with a number of quite distinct meanings that seemingly evolved from one another successively, but without any meaning dying out. First, an arch is the familiar curved structure. Then, perhaps because an arch is “above” us (overarching), it also came to mean prime, pre-eminent or principal, both in its own right and as a prefix (e.g., archbishop or an arch deed). Finally, apparently in being associated with negative words like a crime or rogue, arch also evolved into an adjective meaning crafty or cunning. For instance, “Her arch expression was at home with her quick tongue.”

For more on this subject, check my July 2005 and February 2011 columns online at marquettemonthly.org

––Gerald Waite

Editor’s Note: Questions or comments are welcome. Write MM or email marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org

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