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Soporific / Annihilate

To sleep, perchance to vaporize.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, I was re-watching an episode of one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing, when I heard a particularly good line from the President (who is played by Martin Sheen). He is remarking to an assistant that he has a meeting with the Treasury Secretary, “… a man so soporific one shouldn’t operate heavy machinery in his presence. A meeting that would feel interminable at three minutes is likely to stretch into a soul-annihilating 50….” I’ve been in meetings like that as, I’m sure, have you. In any case, I think “soporific” is a great word, exceeded in greatness, perhaps, by “annihilate” which bears little resemblance to any other words I know how to spell. If I have to choose, I’d rather learn the history of “soporific” — but I hope I don’t have to choose! — Fernando.

The West Wing! Hey, did you hear they’re going to be bringing that series back in a remake starring Charlie Sheen? Jon Cryer is gonna play a Biden-esque doofus VP, and they’re relocating the White House to Vegas. This all sounds entirely too plausible, doesn’t it? I must admit that I never watched The West Wing when it was on because I have a deep and abiding … let’s call it an allergy … to Aaron Sorkin. I tried to watch his Newsroom on HBO a while back and just the memory of that ten minutes is making it impossible to finish this sentence in a family-friendly manner. But a lot of people I like love him, so there’s that.

“Soporific” is a great word, much better than merely “dull” or “boring.” The root of “soporific” is the Latin noun “sopor,” which means “sleep,” plus the suffix “fic,” which is a form of the verb “facere,” meaning “to make.” So “soporific” means literally “causing sleep.” English borrowed “soporific” from the French “soporifique” (everything sounds classier in French) back in the late 17th century, and used it initially to mean things (drugs, medicines, etc.) that literally put a person into a state of slumber (or at least caused extreme sleepiness). “Soporific” as a noun is still used to mean a class of drugs that promote sleep or drowsiness. (Interestingly, so is “hypnotic,” from the Greek “hypnos,” sleep.)

Given the natural aptitude some people have for boring the pants off other people, it’s not surprising that “soporific” was also almost immediately applied figuratively to people, topics of conversation, books, plays and other elements of culture that were deemed likely to either put people to sleep or to make them wish they were asleep (“Hibernian matrons thus of old, Their soporific stories told,” 1727). Less commonly, “soporific” is also used to mean literally “drowsy or sleepy” (“The soporific tendencies of … a portion of the congregation,” 1896).

It’s quite a leap from “soporific” to “annihilate,” but this column can turn on a dime, so fasten your seat belts. “Annihilate” means, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) so cheerfully explains, “To reduce to non-existence, blot out of existence.” Whoa. Can’t we talk about this? Anyway, “annihilate” (which I’m glad you can spell, because I have some weird mental block about the word) comes ultimately from the Latin verb “annihilare,” which meant “to reduce to nothing” and was formed by combining “ad” (to) with “nihil,” meaning “nothing.”

“Annihilate” has all sorts of modern uses both figurative and literal; for instance, it turns out that the scientific term for when a subatomic particle encounters its antimatter “antiparticle” is “annihilation.” And in theology, “annihilation” means “to destroy the soul as well as the body” (“God can no more be the Author of Evil, than he can Annihilate himself, and Cease to be,” Daniel Defoe, 1727), which would make Mr. Sorkin’s phrase “soul-annihilating” a teensy bit redundant. So there’s “annihilate” (and I’m still trying to spell it annihiliate”). Not cheery, granted, but every word has its uses, and when nothing but utter obliteration will do, “annihilate” is just the ticket.

Ingénue / Ingenious

Who, me?

Dear Word Detective: What is the connection between ingénue (which my spell checker insists is not a word, foolish thing) and ingenuity? It’s hard to imagine they’re not related, but on the surface they seem almost opposites. — Patrick Bowman.

I don’t know what spell checker you’re using but my LibreOffice rightly points out that all “ingénue” needs to pass muster is that accent over the first “e.” LibreOffice is the free open source word processing suite I use and highly recommend, although I have more or less given up trying to pry people away from Microsoft Word. Everybody seems to hate Word, but they’re all afraid to try alternatives, and when I suggest they take it for a spin they recoil as if I’ve offered them a bite of squid-flavored ice cream.

You’ve asked a question to which the answer is weirdly complicated, so we’ll just begin with “ingénue,” which is defined as “an innocent or naive young woman” (or, by extension, the sort of young actress who typically plays such characters in movies or plays). The first appearance of “ingénue” found so far in English literature came in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 1848 (“When attacked sometimes, Becky had a knack of adopting a demure ingénue air, under which she was most dangerous”). Though you can’t tell from that quote, Thackeray italicized the word because he was borrowing it from French, where it is a feminine form of the adjective “ingénu,” meaning “naive, innocent” or (its English equivalent) “ingenuous.”

“Ingenuous” has an interesting history in English. It first appeared in the early 17th century meaning “free-born” or “of free and honorable birth,” derived from the Latin “ingenuus” (“in” plus “gen,” from “gignere,” to beget). In Latin, “ingenuus” carried not only the meaning of “native, free-born,” but also “noble,” “frank” and “honest,” assumed to be qualities of a native Roman. In English, “ingenuous” carried those same senses at first, adding “generous,” “high-minded” and “honest.” By the late 17th century, “ingenuous” was also being used in the specific sense, now common, of “innocently open or frank” as an ingénue would be (“These were fine notions to have got into the head of an ingenuous country maiden,” 1877). This is a sense sadly more often encountered in its antonym “disingenuous,” meaning “insincere” or (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), “morally fraudulent” (“It is a disingenuous thing to ask for advice, when you mean assistance,” 1875).

“Ingenuous” is often confused with “ingenious” because they differ by only one letter, but the connection between the words is deeper than form. English developed “ingenious” from the French “ingénieux” in the late 15th century. The French word was adapted from the Latin “ingeniosus,” which meant “clever, intellectual, talented,” and was based on “ingenium,” which meant “innate abilities” and came from the same roots that produced “ingenuous.” So the words are very close cousins.

In English, “ingenious,” applied to a person, originally simply meant “intelligent, clever,” and describing a thing meant “showing cleverness or talent.” By the late 16th century, both these uses had shifted a bit, and “ingenious” began to be used in its modern senses of “clever at constructing or developing things” (“The division of labour leads to invention, because it enables ingenious men to make invention their profession,” 1878) and, of things, “cleverly and skillfully designed” (“The most ingenious and beautiful contrivances for deep-sea soundings were resorted to,” 1860).

Lastly, if you find yourself confusing “ingenious” with “ingenuous,” you have good company. There’s a long history of famous writers doing just that, and even Shakespeare used “ingenuous” to mean “talented” when he meant “ingenious” (in Love’s Labor Lost) and vice-versa (“ingenious” for “ingenuous,” well-born, in The Taming of the Shrew).

Out of hand

In your dreams.

Dear Word Detective: I recently used the phrase “rejected out of hand,” meaning “rejected automatically or without having to consider it.” I could not imagine a story that would explain why this phrase should mean that, unless the idea of autopilot has been around much longer than I suspect. Is it maybe a corruption of a non-English word or phrase? — Mike Fairman.

Hmm. That’s interesting. I realized just now that the word “autopilot” makes me vaguely anxious; it’s not quite as bad as “hand grenade,” but it’s close. The whole idea of handing that kind of control to a machine is creepy; didn’t anybody see Kubrick’s “2001″? Google, of course, is developing “self-driving” cars, an enterprise to which far too little attention, in my opinion, has been paid. These are the people who, when you search for “Charles Dickens,” show you pictures of squirrels on water skis. But I’m sure their cars will be awesome. What could possibly go wrong?

Hands are useful things. They’re “handy” (a term originally meaning “done by hand” in the 14th century; later “useful,” “easily accessible” and, of people, “clever or proficient with one’s hands”). The word “hand” itself is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (in a very old entry, in part from 1898) as “The terminal part of the arm beyond the wrist, consisting of the palm and five digits, forming the organ of prehension characteristic of man.” Our modern English “hand” comes from the Old English “hand” or “hond,” which came from ancient Germanic roots.

“Hand” in English has developed dozens of meanings, many of them figurative, from “hand” meaning “assistance” (“lend a hand”) to “symbol of marriage” (“In obedience to your commands I gave him my hand within this hour,” 1794). A “hand” can also be a person, from the “deck hand” on a ship to the “hired hand” on a farm. “Hand” can also denote the position of something in a metaphorical series of “hands” though which it might pass, e.g., “first-hand account” or “secondhand shoes.” And if you do something well, you deserve a “hand” in the sense of “applause” (“Three lusty cheers and a big hand for Charles, Our Star Square Dance Host!” 1948).

“Out of hand” meaning “immediately; without consideration or thought; summarily” (“When his brother asked to borrow $10,000, Dennis snorted and dismissed the suggestion out of hand”), is the opposite of the phrase “in hand,” which appeared in the early 15th century. “In hand” has a number of senses (including “in possession of,” as in “I have the money in hand”), among which is “in the control of; under consideration or being dealt with” (“He … gave his whole attention to whatever he had in hand,” 1888).

“Out of hand” first appeared at about the same time as that sense of “in hand.” Probably its most common use is in the sense of “out of control,” i.e., no longer “in hand” (“Your temper seems to have got rather out of hand,” 1883). The use of “out of hand” in the sense of “with no pause or consideration” simply means that the question posed was not held “in hand” for even a moment, i.e., never seriously considered. People rarely react well when their concerns are dismissed “out of hand” (“Salome and her Faction were Tooth and Nail for dispatching her out of Hand,” 1733), which is probably why so many customer service recordings today begin with “Your call is important to us.”