Saturday, November 29, 2008

Leftover Morpheme Sauce

This one seemed appropriate this week, given what’s likely hiding in your tupperwear as I write this.

Also, we’re on the letter “C.” So there.
cranberry morphere (pronounced exactly like you think it would be) — noun: a morpheme within a complex word whose meaning is opaque to the present speakers of the language.
Fascinating, right? And perfectly clear?

This bit of grammatical formalese might not mean much to anyone, but this is nonetheless a cool concept. Allow me to illustrate by example.

In the word cranberry, the word part cran is a cranberry morpheme, also known as a fossilized term. This particular chunk doesn’t mean anything on its own, but its presence in the word cranberry has meaning nonetheless: it helps differentiate a cranberry from some other kind of berry. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the cran part comes from the low German Kraan, meaning “crane,” but that historical meaning has become completely lost despite the persistence of the word part in the name of the fruit.

It’s this disparity that lent the concept its name.

A small aside: Cranberry might be a bad example to use in explaining this concept. The association that the cran part has with the fruit itself has lent it a new meaning even when it appears separately from the berry. Look at any Ocean Spray bottle and observe that cran by itself signifies the presence of cranberries — or at least cranberry concentrate or cranberry-flavored sugar water. Cran-Grape is cranberry-grape, Cran-Orange is cranberry-orange, and Cran-Mango is cranberry-mango despite the fact that marketers missed out on the phenomenal opportunity to trandemark the name “Crango.” (As the blog Semantic Compositions notes, it helps to be fluent in the offshoot of English known as Marketing.)

Unfortunately, most explanations of the concept of cranberry morphemes begin with the history of the word cranberry and then springboard into other examples that also happen to be berries. Like gooseberry. It has no real connection with geese, and its current form is hypothesized to be a corruption of the French groseille, which refers to various types of currants. (Randomly, it also can be used “an additional person” in the sense that we sometimes say “a third wheel.”) And the rasp in raspberry used to be rapsis, possibly from raspise, “a sweet rose-colored wine.” (Also of interest: Etymologists say the raspberry in the sense of the the disapproving noise you make with your mouth comes from Cockney-style rhyming slang — “raspberry tart” with “fart.” News to me.)

These examples have doubtlessly fooled at least one person into thinking that cranberry morphemes only exist in the names of fruit, but that’s not the case. Other examples include the cob in cobweb (it means spider), the twi in twilight (it means both “two” and “half,” oddly, but I think it means the latter here), and the luke in lukewarm (it means “tepid”).

So take away from this, if nothing else: Cranberries may be just slightly more complicated than you would have thought otherwise.

But only a little more.

I mean, they’re still just cranberries.

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