The Compulsive Copyeditor

May 1, 2014

Fossil Mixed Metaphors

Most high-flown abstract words started life as physical, material metaphors, colorful analogies between actions of the body and actions of the mind. (To “deliberate” is to weigh.) The root words for those physical actions still lie buried inside their abstract descendants. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

The example I’m looking at right now is “precipitated a quagmire.” You can’t do that, somehow.

“Quagmire,” like most Anglo-Saxon words, is a much “younger” abstraction than the Latinate “precipitate.” That is, you can still hear the metaphor loud and clear. A “quagmire” is barely one step removed from a quaking bog in which you would “bog down” (heh) and flounder: a slower sort of quicksand. In Latinate words, on the other hand, the physical root is hidden and forgotten, unless you take an obsessive kind of interest in these things. “Precipitate” is, thanks to the indispensible Online Etymology Dictionary, “from Latin praecipitatus, past participle of praecipitare ‘to throw or dive headlong,’ from praeceps ‘steep, headlong, headfirst’ (see precipice). Meaning ‘to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of’ is recorded from 1620s. Chemical sense is from 1620s; meteorological sense first attested 1863.”

Look at the layers of metaphor in that abstraction! It’s a thing of beauty, like a first-rate geological dig site. It goes back to “prae-ceps,” “first-head,” and a precipice is something you fall off headfirst. It’s interesting too that the chemical sense and the metaphorical sense (“to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of”) date to the same time. What is the physical action behind that metaphorical sense of the word? Is it the chemical meaning — when a solid suddenly forms out of a solution — or is it getting something rolling by pitching it downhill?

Either way, YOU CAN’T DO IT TO A QUAGMIRE.

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16 Comments »

  1. In chemistry, the Germans use ausfällen as the verb (separable prefix) and der Niederschlag as the noun. Metaphorically, these both refer to where the precipitate winds up (on the bottom). In English, I also recall the lab slang verb “to crash out” — “Hey look, come see what crashed out overnight.”

    I’ve been away from here. I’m back, if you don’t mind.

    Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

    • Mind?? It’s you I write for!

      Comment by amba12 — May 23, 2014 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

      • Mind?? It’s you I write for!

        Very sweet! Then I owe you many apologies. Actually, I recall you writing that here before but I didn’t believe it or stopped believing it. I’m sorry.

        Back to the metaphor: I think the only exception to a precipitate not falling is ice which floats on its liquid.

        Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

  2. precipitated a quagmire

    “To precipitate” sounds best as an intransitive verb — the solid precipitates — taking no direct object. But it’s not wrong to say something can be precipitated which requires a transitive verb. German may muddy the waters: Ausfällen seems cognate with “to fall out” (intransitive) but it’s also close to our verb “to fell” (as in a tree, which is a transitive usage). The Germans have both verbs fallen and fällen for these reasons. Cf. liegen and legen.

    Somewhere I have a book of chemistry grammar written by the late Louis Fieser (Harvard) whose pet peeve was the incorrect transitive usage of “react.” The chemicals react; they are not reacted.

    Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

    • We have “lie” and “lay,” too.

      Comment by amba12 — May 23, 2014 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  3. Speaking of “young” Anglo-Saxon metaphors, how about “flounder”! Am I alone in seeing a flapping, stranded flatfish in that word? And which came first — was the action named after the fish, or the fish after the action? I repair to OED (the Online Etymology Dictionary, that is):

    flounder (v.)
    1590s, perhaps an alteration of founder (q.v.), influenced by Dutch flodderen “to flop about,” or native verbs in fl- expressing clumsy motion. Figurative use is from 1680s. Related: Floundered; floundering. As a noun derived from this sense, from 1867.
    flounder (n.)
    flatfish, c.1300, from Anglo-French floundre, from Old North French flondre, from Old Norse flydhra; related to Middle Low German vlundere, Danish flynder; ultimately cognate with Greek platys “flat, wide, broad” (see plaice (n.)).

    That suggests that the fish is not named for the action, and the action is not even named for the fish; if not, the word has certainly been kinesthetically enriched by the fishy contamination.

    Comment by amba12 — May 23, 2014 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

    • Flounder (n): I have a German etymology dictionary, Duden Band 7, doesn’t add much except to give other North Atlantic cognates for the noun. I’ll bet the noun came first. It seems intuitive to name things first and then what they do comes later, especially if it’s done differently than other species.

      or native verbs in fl- expressing clumsy motion.

      I didn’t know that! So where does “flounce” flit in? :)

      Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  4. Is a change of state from liquid to solid (because of temperature) correctly defined as “precipitation”?? Or for that does something have to be in solution>

    Comment by amba12 — May 23, 2014 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

    • My thinking was clouded. Water precipitates as rain, but it doesn’t really start out as steam. Solids precipitate from solutions. Ice freezes from water.

      Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

    • Now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem wrong to use “precipitate” in the sense of a phase change — but it’s rare. It’s rare to encounter a situation where you see a pure substance — say a solvent — begin to freeze and separate from its liquid. I guess you need to see enough dry ice slush baths or liquid N2 baths surrounding a clear vessel surrounding a pure solvent.

      Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  5. Speaking of chemistry and “fl” words, here’s a puzzle. I make a cocktail called an “Aviation” and one of the ingredients is creme de violette which is a liqueur made from crushed Austrian violets. It’s intensely blue-colored. It can be added to the mix and shaken together cold or added last at room temperature as a float which sinks. I haven’t figured out if it sinks because of temperature or because of weaker proof.

    Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

    • A “float” which sinks. Let me contemplate that.

      Comment by amba12 — May 23, 2014 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

  6. Gotta go now, but I’ll be back!

    Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  7. I found the reference book I mentioned earlier: “Style Guide for Chemists” by Louis F. Fieser and Mary Fieser. Reinhold Publishing, New York (1960). Husband and wife. He was a “Sheldon Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry”; she was a “Research Fellow in Chemistry.”

    Amba, didn’t you go to Harvard? Did you take any chemistry? Do you remember the professors’ names?
    _______________

    Fieser and Fieser on verbs:

    3.2. Intransitive verbs (cannot have an object and cannot have a passive voice).

    autoxidize
    effervesce
    fall
    flow
    react
    rise

    3.3. Verbs that are either transitive or intransitive.

    coagulate
    condense
    cool, heat
    crystallize
    decompose
    dimerize, polymerize
    distil
    drop
    filter
    ionize
    isomerize
    precipitate
    rearrange
    reflux
    separate

    Comment by chickelit — May 23, 2014 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  8. I did go to Harvard and I did not take chemistry. I took an amazing introductory biology class that included some chemistry, George Wald’s “Nat Sci 5.”

    Comment by amba12 — May 23, 2014 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  9. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

    Radical! (but not Radcliffe)

    Comment by chickelit — May 24, 2014 @ 10:58 am | Reply


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