Sunday, April 29, 2012

On the Inherent Beauty of Words (Not Including the Latin Term Superanus)

With simony, chlamydia, garage and elision at top of the list, I could name a great many words that sound beautiful if you dissever their forms from their negative or ordinary meanings. Oh, dissever! That’s one too.

Just recently a lifelong friend who once saved me from a burning car happened to introduce me to a word that fits into this category. I can say with almost certainty that I’d never heard it before, because it’s one I’d remember: The spelling and pronunciation are both are unusual to the point that it seems like something that must have been borrowed from another language just recently. It’s not. It’s been used in English for centuries, just never around me.
suzerainty (SOO-zer-un-tee or SOO-zuh-RAIN-tee) — noun: a region or group of people which serve as a tributary to a more powerful entity but which also retain limited autonomy; an overlordship.
Not an especially pretty definition, in the end. It’s basically like you have a boss that you respond to, but you’re more or less left to do whatever you want on a daily basis. The conquered lands of the Ottoman Empire were suzerainties, for example, and Britain apparently considered Tibet to be a suzerainty of China until just 2008. The entity in power — the suzerain — doesn’t have to be a municipality, however, as the term can also describe the relationship between a feudal vassal and his lord.

Like I said, the word seems very un-English to me, though I’d have trouble explaining that statement beyond the fact that these letters just don’t often show up in our language in this order. But it’s been around a while — since at least 1807, according to Merriam Webster and all the way back to the 1400s, according to Etymonline. Suzerainty ultimately goes back to the Old Fench sus, “up, above,” and vertere, “a turning,” with the ending coming from sovereign — or soverain, as it looked in Old French until confusion and general association with the word reign changed the spelling. Because it seemed germane enough to the discussion at hand — ooh, germane is another one — I decidedly to look up where sovereign comes from. The answer? Also Old French, though that word traces back to a Vulgar Latin term meaning “chief” or “principal.” This world also happens to be a counterexample to the idea of an inherently beautiful word. Why? It’s superanus. Yes, that’s a word: Superanus.

Superanus! Superanus! Superanus!

Ahem.

Not everything gets to be pretty.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:44 PM

    I'd never thought of "garage" as a beautiful word. And I still don't. ;)

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    1. Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce it the American way or the British way. Myself, I've been pronouncing it like a drunken Welshman. Pure verbal poetry, I tell you.

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  2. The garage? Ooh-la-la, Mr. Frenchie!

    I'd say "urethra" is another word that would sound rather pretty if it didn't mean what it does.

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    1. Yeah, "urethra" is a good one. "Vas deferens" too, now that I think about it.

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