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shameless pleading

Inchoate / Chaos

Probably preferable to mature chaos, anyway.

Dear Word Detective: Last night in my dreams, my goofy subconscious pondered for what seemed like hours over the connection between the words “inchoate” and “chaos.” Their definitions are similar, and the root word looks similar, but the dictionary does not indicate any relationship. Is there? — Doris Render.

Hey, I’d rather have a goofy subconscious than a subconscious Goofy, am I right? And what is Goofy, anyway? Some kind of mutant talking kangaroo-spaniel hybrid? I think we should thaw out Uncle Walt and make him tell us. Strangely enough, I rarely dream about words, but I did have a dream last week in which someone used the term “tall thunder.” In the dream it meant “very important or significant.” Makes me wonder who’s buried under this house.

Back to work. You’re not the only person sensing some sort of connection between “inchoate” and “chaos.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) even offers a small note on the subject, to which we will return in a moment.

“Chaos” is a grand old word, and by that I mean very old and profound in its origin. English took “chaos” directly from the Latin “chaos,” which came from the Greek “khaos,” which meant “a vast chasm; the yawning abyss; empty space; the first state of the universe.” The Proto-Indo-European root that produced “khaos,” in fact, also gave us the word “yawn.” In English we initially used “chaos” to mean “a formless void,” especially the primordial state from which the universe arose. By the late 16th century, we were using “chaos” to mean a condition resembling that primitive disorder, “a state of confusion” or “a mixture of several things where the parts cannot be distinguished” (“The meeting dissolved into a chaos of shouts where nothing could be clearly heard”). This “state of utter confusion” is the most common sense of “chaos” today.

“Chaos,” of course, is a noun, while “inchoate” is an adjective. English developed “inchoate” in the 16th century from the Latin “inchoatus” (more properly spelled “incohatus”), the past participle of “inchoare,” meaning “to begin.” The root of “inchoare” seems to be the Latin “cohum,” the part of the harness with which draft animals were attached to a plow, etc. So the root sense of the Latin “inchoatus” was something like “saddled up and ready to go,” i.e., just beginning.

The basic meaning of “inchoate” in English has been “just beginning,” “immature, undeveloped,” or “imperfect, unformed, vague” (“Steve’s plan seemed plausible but inchoate, so investors were leery of committing actual bucks.”). “Inchoate” is most often pronounced “in-KOH-et,” by the way, although “in-koh-ATE” is also acceptable.

“Inchoate” does, however, have a second meaning, which is “disordered, confused or incoherent,” i.e., characterized by chaos, or “chaotic.” The OED suggests that this sense of “inchoate,” which first appeared in print in 1922, might have resulted from simple confusion with “chaotic,” but also notes that the “undeveloped” sense of “inchoate” might logically imply the “lacking structure” sense of “chaotic.” So perhaps treating “inchoate” and “chaotic” as near-synonyms makes a certain sense, even though the words are unrelated.

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