How getting into a good argument makes us all shine

In this political season it's heartening to know that the word 'argue' is rooted in the idea of 'making something clear.'

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Every once in a while I make a discovery in Anu Garg's "Word a Day" e-mail newsletter (http://wordsmith.org) that's like going to a favorite hardware store and finding some wonderful doodad – on special this week! – that meets a need I'd forgotten I had.

So it was last week with argillaceous. It means "made of, resembling, or relating to clay; clayey." I have a summer-weight suit in a color I've never quite found a name for. It might have been described in the inventory of the store where I bought it as a taupe.

Taupe is the French word for mole – the animal, not the beauty spot. Isn't it wonderful how nearly a thousand years after the Norman Conquest, substituting a French word for a plain English one is enough to get people to wear a color otherwise associated with a garden pest?

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Another option for my suit might be "dark khaki." ("Low-intensity green," I can hear one of my art teachers murmuring in the background.) But I tend to think of it (when I'm doing a mental packing list before a trip, for instance) as my clay-colored suit.

Now it can be my argillaceous suit.

But curiously, this word for an utterly earthy substance turns out to have some very refined cousins. Argillaceous comes ultimately from the Indo-European root arg. No, not the arg of arrggghhh, that variously spelled multipurpose expression of dismay, but the arg of the Latin argentum, silver – "Ag" on the periodic table. This shiny root shows up in a number of different silvery words.

In French, for instance, the word for silver doubles as the word for money. This is why Americans in Paris have to worry about running out of argent. Argentina was originally named Tierra Argentina, the land of silver. When Spanish explorers brought that precious metal back home in the 16th century, it knocked prices for a loop across Europe.

As a word in English, argentine means silvery, or refers to a kind of "any of various small silver-scaled salmon-like marine fishes."

At this point in my research I was beginning to think that the silvery branch of this word family was doing rather better than the more strictly argillaceous one. What's the meaning of this arg root? It means "bright" or "shining."

And just how does that fit with the earth tones of clay? It would seem not to refer to the red clay of flower pots or the dark khaki of my suit. Ah, but there is a white clay used in the production of fine china (I remember this from eighth grade, since I went to school not far from one of the places where it's mined), and this must surely refer to that.

But maybe even better than discovering deliciously bodacious argillaceous was finding that the word argue is based on the idea of "making (something) clear."

Now argument is generally seen as not a good thing: "We got into an argument over who should pay for the repairs." What a downer. To be argumentative is worse, especially if it's someone's general disposition and not just a passing mood.

Argumentative lives next door to cantankerous (which can be cute in a sitcom, but not much fun in someone you have to deal with in real life) and just a block over from fractious.

But if arguing a point makes it clearer, shining it up like a silver tea service being polished in honor of company coming this afternoon, well, that's not a bad thing at all.

I'm going to try to remember this in this election season, as argentine-tongued orators point out the argillaceous feet of their opponents.

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