Chemurgy and other bits of the 'wright' stuff

Some surprising connections among our words for the making of things.

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Are you feeling the urge to work, even in the summer heat?

A little bit of word play in a headline in The Economist the other week has introduced me to a new term. It's also prompted some exploring of some of our vocabulary for work and for making things.

The headline was "Better living through chemurgy," a twist on the longtime DuPont slogan, which refers to "chemistry" instead.

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The piece was a report on industrial biochemistry: "Efforts to replace oil-based chemicals with renewable alternatives are taking off," it said. Instead of making plastics from petrochemicals, in other words, scientists are working to develop them from plants. Chemurgy is made up of "chem," as in chemistry, plus "urgy," a Greek element meaning work.

This new-to-me term was evidently a 20th-century coinage; Wikipedia ascribes it to William J. Hale in 1934, an earlier period of great experimentation with agricultural byproducts.

Chemurgy may well be an ugly word, as The Economist opined. But it has some company in the vocabulary of work. Metallurgy is work with metals. Dramaturgy is work with drama. A dramaturge is someone who works with drama: a playwright, to use a closer-to-home synonym.

Most of us get over the childish urge to write "playwrite," but research shows a connection between the "wright" of playwright and the "urge" of dramaturge.

What I found was something noted in the dictionary as "PIE *werg." That's a sort of shorthand that tells us that linguists think some ancient word – "werg" – was a common ancestor for the "wright" stuff as well as the "urge" of dramaturge.

If you were to meet two red-haired cousins, you might guess they had a red-haired grandfather somewhere, even if he was before your time and you never got to meet him.

Linguists tracing words back in time draw similar kinds of inferences. They relate words in different parts of the Indo-European family of languages – of which English is a part – to one another, and sometimes they speculate on what the ancestor word must have been like.

This speculation gets us to a hypothetical or inferred language known as Proto Indo-European – or PIE.

"PIE *werg" is the red-haired grandfather of both the "urge" and the "work," you might say. What's come into English as urge, both the verb and the noun, is related to ergon, a Greek word for work. Our English word energy also grows from this Greek root, as does ergonomic. And then there's the whole family of chemurgy, metallurgy, dramaturgy, and even liturgy, which is "the work of a public servant," i.e., performance of religious rites.

Whereas the Greeks hung onto the "erg" part of "werg" and dropped the "w," northern Europeans hung on to the "w" and dropped the "g," or turned it into a "k" or even a "gh" that eventually went silent. Thus in English we have work in all its forms and uses and also wrought. Wrought comes from another form of work that has retired as an active verb, though it does a little business as an adjective, or in specialized compounds: wrought iron; an overwrought response to the department head's memo.

"PIE *werg" also gets us to wright, more familiar nowadays as an occupational surname, but still in the dictionary, alone or in combination, to refer to one who makes or repairs something: millwright, shipwright, or wheelwright, for instance.

Thus those with the "wright" stuff will feel the urge to work even in the summer heat.

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