To those of us who are almost synesthetic about words, two different words with one dictionary meaning (denotation), or one word with two different spellings, become completely different animals. If denotation is a word’s DNA, then connotation, the waft of resonances and associations around it, is its epigenetics. Two such words are like identical twins who have grown into very different individuals.
Two examples I’ve recently come in contact with:
1. grey vs. gray. The only difference is that the first is the British and the second the American spelling. But how different their tone colors are. Grey is grim, yellow, and sallow. It speaks of London industrial grime and gaslight, maybe even gaol (there’s a hollow spelling for you!) and gallows. Gray is blue-gray—softer, more open (the vowel isn’t pinched), less hopeless, a color you might feel drawn to touch, like some clouds or feathers. (Interestingly, neither spelling, to me, seems right for gray hair, which is more metallic—steely, pewtery, silvery, until it goes snowy.)
2. persistent versus persevering. Do these words mean exactly the same thing you? To me, “persistent” has a more active and interpersonal connotation than “persevering.” “Persistent” could be a kid pestering its parent for an ice cream cone (the alliteration between “persistent” and “pestering” is probably one of the keys to my reaction), or Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out the Watchtower, or Martin Luther nailing the theses to the cathedral door—sort of repeated attempts to get the world’s attention. “Persevering” means not quitting, just keeping on going. One is head up, one head down; one insistent (another sound clue), one stoical. A dog jumping over and over at a closed door versus a tortoise plodding doggedly (!) along.
Is it just me?
You people are getting me going.
Relating the spelling of “devastate” to its etymology in the comments on the last post — “vast” is in there, and is related to “waste,” as in “a desolate waste(land),” so “to devastate” is “to lay waste” — reminds me of reading this proposal for reforming English spelling by an innovative Australian thinker in her 80s, Valerie Yule. If the goal is solely to communicate, why not “mischivus,” “gardian,” “sovren”?
I realize that it’s not fair for me to weigh in on this topic because I have the gene for spelling. (I was the spelling champion of Lee County, Florida, in 1958. So there.) You either have it or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or cogency of expression. Spelling is an autistic-savant talent, like seeing numbers in colors, probably owed to a synaesthetic crossover between the auditory and visual cortices. If you care about getting spelling right (as ever fewer people do) but don’t have the gene for it, just get a compulsive copyeditor, or a spellchecker, to do it for you.
But I have to confess that even though I’ve watched it drive generations of immigrants mad, I love English spelling. Love it. It’s an archaeological treasure trove of the uniquely layered history of our language. You’ll be going along glibly in lubricated Latinate and all of a sudden the plough turns up a rough chunk of Anglo-Saxon. There are at least two of them in that sentence, what I think of as the “fossil gutturals.” If you’ve ever heard the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales read out loud, you’ll forever hear a ghostly echo of that marvelous rasp and traction whenever you see the letters “ough.” There are silent Greek-Latin fossils too: you may have noticed the one in “synaesthetic.” I like the “ae” too; it shines, like Au.
It isn’t practical to be dragging this museum along with you as you speak, text, and tweet at 21st-century speeds. But it is beautiful.