Monday, August 20, 2012

The Inch and the Oate

We played MyWord yesterday afternoon and Brigitte gave me inchoate as my test word. I got there, actually, but it was a struggle, in part because I didn’t really know the word, you know, up close and personally. I didn’t know how to spell it, either. I’ve heard it spoken hence when I read it I read it as in-ko-ate—and every time I do it, I always wonder what that H is doing there. The H is silent, not like in cha-cha-cha. And I’ve always understood the word, from the context, as meaning incoherent, which is close but no seegar.

Very confusing word. It should be banned. Its actual meaning is “rudimentary,” thus something  still in early stages, undeveloped. Sure enough, its origin is Latin, a variant, mind you, of incohare, a verb meaning “to begin, to hitch up.” Therefore that H got moved. The confusion comes because the word derives from in and cohum. Notice where that H is. Cohum means “the strap affixed to an oxen’s yoke.” In is used in its second sense, thus “in, into, on, upon,” not it its first Latin sense meaning “opposed to, not, against, etc.” Inchoate entered the language first. Then some people, misunderstanding what it meant—or at least what the in meant, began using choate as an adjective to mean “finished.” They thought that inchoate meant “unfinished,” therefore removing that in would produce “finished.” The Online Etymology Dictionary informs me that Oliver Wendell Holmes lamented the use of that choate in a letter in 1878, calling it barbarism in legal language. What are things coming to…

Pronunciation also varies, and Webster’s gives two versions. In what follows the emphasized syllable is italicized. in-ko-ate. in-ko-it. I’ve been pronouncing it in-ko-ate, so getting that wrong too. Satis. Basta. Done with it.

My test word for Brigitte? Solecism. Meaningful coincidence, in a way. That word means “mistake in speaking or writing.” Applies, generally, to inchoate, I’d say. I’ll stick to rudimentary.

1 comment:

  1. "Inchoate" -- what an excellent word to describe 2/3rds of my projects. Alas!


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