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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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Asea / At sea

Four-letter word for a small, damp foul.

Dear Word Detective: Crossword puzzle editors seem to have their favorite words that get used over and over. “Anon,” “ewer,” and “Tso” (“General on a Chinese menu”) are a few. One other frequently used word for “confused” is “asea.” Searching on-line only gets me “at sea” or “on the sea.” Was there a time that wanting to go to sea meant you were confused, or worse? (I would think that the navies of the world would object to such usage. Was it started by the Army or Air Force?) — Smitty.

Oh boy, crossword puzzles. I said a few years ago that I don’t do crossword puzzles, which is true, because I don’t like crossword puzzles, which is not precisely true. I don’t enjoy doing the puzzle myself, but I’m happy as a clam to have someone ask me for words. I guess it’s because I don’t have a horse in the race (and can just say “beats me” when I feel like it). But there’s something about actually seeing all those blank spaces that fills me with anxiety and dread. And there’s nothing sadder than getting on a train, finding a half-done, tear-stained crossword puzzle on your seat, and knowing there’s some lost soul out there standing on a bridge, racking his tortured noggin for a seven-letter word meaning “Himalayan gem.” What a waste.

I have also come to feel a wariness, justified by experience, toward crossword puzzle clues and their makers. I don’t trust them. Take the clue you mention, “confused,” which is intended to elicit the answer “asea,” presumably accompanied by a chorus of onlookers exclaiming “Of course!” The first problem is that the word is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), properly spelled “a-sea.” Note the hyphen, which appears in the only two print citations listed in the OED (from 1858 and 1878). (Not a popular word, that “a-sea.” One might even call it perversely obscure, a tactic to which General Tso would never stoop.)

Perhaps a hyphen is impractical in a crossword, so we’ll let “asea” slide on that score. But a bigger problem is that nowhere in the definition of “a-sea,” in either the OED or the Merriam-Webster Third International Unabridged Dictionary, does “confused” or anything like it appear. “A-sea” is defined as meaning simply “on the sea” or “toward the sea” (“We stood looking a-sea,” 1878), and is simply “sea” plus the obsolete prefix “a,” meaning “towards” or “on” (also preserved in “afield,” “abed,” “ashore,” etc.). There is no history of “a-sea” or “asea” being used figuratively in any sense.

My guess is that the creator of that crossword puzzle was actually thinking of the expression “at sea” or “all at sea,” an idiom which has been in use since the mid-18th century and is defined by the OED as meaning “In a state of mind resembling the condition of a ship which is out of sight of land and has lost her bearings; in a state of uncertainty or perplexity, at a loss.” This is an extremely popular idiom (“She was so plainly at sea on this part of the case … that Clennam was much disposed to regard the appearance as a dream,” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1857), and would make an excellent crossword answer.

But “at sea” (and certainly “all at sea”) didn’t fit, so the puzzle-maker decided that, since “at sea” and “asea” both meant “on the sea,” they must also both mean “disoriented, confused.” But they don’t, not judging by the actual history of “a-sea.” It’s not a big deal, but it seems like a fudge and it really isn’t cricket. “A-sea” is already obscure, no one stumbling across it would assume it has that figurative meaning, and if major dictionaries don’t include that definition, it really doesn’t belong in a puzzle.

July 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Stop the presses! After mulling over my savage pan of All Things Bright and Sweaty last month, I finally thought of something nice to say about summer.

This was not easy. As I write this, the Heat Index is 110 degrees and I’m not allowed to play outside. OK with me. As I’ve mentioned, due to my ms, above about 75 my legs stop working, my vision blurs, and I fall over sideways. So I don’t go outside much, but it’s no great loss. There’s nothing out there but biting flies and snakes and gray, soupy air. It’s like Jurassic Farm, especially at night. It also smells foul, partly from the paper mill ten miles southwest of us, partly from Toxco two miles down the road (I am not making that name up), and partly because the fields surrounding us have been repeatedly doused with herbicides and pesticides for the past month. Thanks, Farmer Bob.

It’s gotten to the point where I’m dreaming about the heat, like in that old Twilight Zone episode. Every so often it rains in small, exceedingly strange and violent thunderstorms. Yesterday we lost power for about four hours, but we bailed out after two and drove to Bob Evans. They were close to closing, so they put three sandwiches worth of chicken salad on mine, and the french fries were actually hot. High point of the week.

Incidentally, the columns in this issue were sent to subscribers back in January, so if you’re feeling faint from the heat you might try printing them out and holding them against the back of your neck. And don’t forget that the mere act of subscribing will make you feel better.

Speaking of dreams, we finally watched last year’s Inception on the DVR. Well, at least it wasn’t Avatar. I found it a bit frustrating, because the first half of the movie sets up some interesting ideas and subplots, which seem like they’re going to be developed in the second half. And they are, sort of. But first the whole thing turns into a standard Hollywood heist film (Assemble the team! Preferably by flying all over the world! Because nobody has cell phones!). And then it turns into Mission Impossible 10 with way too many pointless gunfights and car chases, and the interesting ideas, along with the main plot line, sort of melt into a half-hearted puddle. But at least it wasn’t Avatar. Avatar was genuine torture.

Before I forget again, please send me your questions. I need questions! Lots of questions! The more detailed the better, but just a bit about what you think about the term, where you heard it, etc., would help. As an inducement, if I pick your question as the basis for a column, you’ll automatically receive a free one-year subscription to TWD-by-Email. Or not. Your choice. Anyway, bring out your questions!

Thanks to the person who sent me a Google+ invite. They seem to be doing things quite a bit better than Facebook does, especially regarding privacy. The “circles” thing is a definite improvement over undifferentiated “friends.”

Oh, right, I was saying something nice about summer. Ready? No school buses.

Here’s the thing. We live on a typical rural Midwestern road, a two-lane blacktop (really 1-1/2 lanes) with no shoulder, and scary-deep drainage ditches on both sides awaiting the unwary. “Town” (gas station, post office, hardware store, tiny drugstore, dive bar and several not-good pizza shops) is about three miles down the road. So when you have to go there, you drive between immense fields of corn or soybeans (they alternate crops every year) until you reach the first problem, which is a sharp curve at the corner of one of the larger fields. If the crop is soybeans, no problemo; you can see what’s coming from the other direction. If it’s corn, you’re screwed; you’d think that cars coming into a tight blind curve would slow down and stick to their own side, but you’d be wrong. We’ve had several close calls at that curve with morons going way too fast in the wrong lane. The speed limit for most of this road is 45 mph, which is nuts, and many people try to take this curve at 35-45. A substantial percentage fail, as evidenced by the permanent deep wheel ruts at its apex leading to the newest telephone pole on the road. It’s always the newest pole on the road.

If you survive that curve, you drive another half-mile until you reach the woods, where things get really interesting. The road rises and then dips sharply, and at the bottom of the hill it takes a 90-degree twist to the left as it rises steeply into the woods. It’s exactly the sort of gut-wrenching dive and twist you find on roller coasters.

Bon Voyage, Bucko

If, perchance, you should miss the turn through inattention, you’ll quickly find yourself airborne above a 30-foot drop into the old Ohio & Erie Canal with only some sparse and scraggly trees to break your fall. Yes, people have done this. No, there is no guard rail, but there is a nice series of little yellow signs pointing to the left, all of which have been hit at least once.

Continue reading this post » » »

Discreet / Discrete

Tastefully separate?

Dear Word Detective: In electronics a component that is not part of an integrated circuit is referred to as a discrete component. In something I wrote, it read: “discreet component” (it’s a spellchecker not a meaningchecker). With appropriate discretion, a colleague let me know that it was not a “discreet component” but a “discrete component.” I checked; he’s right. “Discreet” is “circumspect” and “discrete” is “singular.” But, it’s so close, concrete, discrete, secrete, desecrate, the island of Crete. What’s up with that? — Gary Phillips.

Before we get to that, you know what’s really weird? My spellchecker doesn’t like your “spellchecker” and wants to change it to “spell-checker” or “spell checker.” Yet the other day it seemed to think that “abf” standing alone was just fine. Clippy’s revenge?

In any case, I was just sitting on the front porch thinking about your question. (Yes, it’s ten below zero with a nasty wind, but the dogs refuse to use the kitty-litter.*) It occurred to me that the sort of “discreet/discrete” confusion you note might be the best argument for not nuking Facebook (otherwise a very attractive idea). I’ll bet that at least 50 million of its 600 million users have made that mistake (or a similar one, e.g., “your” for “you’re”) in their postings in the past week. But probably at least two or three million of their “friends” have pointed it out to them! Hey, it’s better than nothing.

The fact that one word sounds like another and the two may closely resemble each other in form is often due to nothing more than coincidence; there are, after all, a limited number of sounds that the human mouth can make. In some cases, of course, the words share roots or components, which accounts for their similarity.

In still other cases, however, the two words are essentially one and the same word, with different spellings and meanings because of their separate historical uses. And that’s the case with “discrete” and “discreet.” They’re historically the same word. More specifically, “discreet” and “discrete” are what’s called a “doublet,” two words that come from the same source but arrived in English via slightly different routes and thus differ in form and meaning.

The root of both “discreet” and “discrete” is the Latin verb “discernere,” meaning “to separate, distinguish,” from “dis,” apart, plus “cernere,” to separate. (“Discernere” is also the root of our modern English word “discern.”) The past participle of “discernere,” which was “discretus,” was used in Classical Latin to mean “separate, distinct,” and entered English with that meaning in the form “discrete,” which became common in the 16th century. Two centuries earlier, however, we had adopted another “discrete” from French, with the different meaning of “discerning, prudent.” This “discrete” had apparently been derived from the original “separate” sense under the influence of the late Latin noun “discretionem,” meaning “the act of separating, distinguishing, discerning.” Thus “discrete” in English could, in the 16th century, mean both “separate or distinct” (our modern “discrete”) and “possessing the quality of making distinctions; prudent” (today’s “discreet”).

Making the situation more confusing was the rise of the spelling “discreet” in the late 16th century by popular analogy to the “ee” of native English words such as “feet” and “beet.” For a while the two spellings were used for both words, so “discreet” could mean “separate” and “discrete” could mean “prudent.” By the beginning of the 17th century, fortunately, most people recognized the common spelling differentiation between the two words that we (most of us, anyway) observe today.

That distinction, however, may be fading again. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (the sanest usage guide on the market, available online in full (free) via Google Books) notes that, as of the 1980s, some well-respected newspapers (including the New York Times and Boston Globe) were occasionally using “discrete” where “discreet” was clearly meant and vice versa.


* Subscribers saw this column last January.