Verbal Energy

Lost illusions, and the LEGO way of making new words

The Monitor's language columnist finds a new term for words snapped together like LEGO bricks from 'spare parts.'

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    In the English language, words can be assembled like LEGO bricks.
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A reader has written in to invite my attention to the punch line of a recent Charles Krauthammer column: "You can only be disillusioned if you were once illusioned."

The columnist's subject was the Obama healthcare proposal, and his point was that you can't be disappointed if you don't expect much in the first place.

The reader, for his part, suggested that disillusioned should have a more positive connotation than it does. After all, it's rooted in the idea of "undoing an illusion," and shouldn't all right-thinking people welcome that? (I'm paraphrasing.)

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Ah, but "disillusioned" has a negative tone because of the general idea that happiness is built on some form of illusion. Lose your illusions, and there may not be much left, is the thinking. There's a case to make for that worldview, perhaps. But many people will want to challenge it.

Disabused is cut from this same cloth. It's made up of two elements that, standing alone, are negative: "dis" and "abuse." These two negatives combine into something ostensibly positive; the word's dictionary meaning is "to free someone (from an erroneous belief)." What's not to like about that? But in practice, the "erroneous beliefs" from which disabusers seek to liberate others often sound much like the cherished illusions noted above. "Let me disabuse you of the notion that you have any talent," for instance.

Then there's disappoint as another element of this dispiriting group. Back when I was an extremely literal-minded child, I might have thought disappointment was what happened when someone canceled your appointment. Now that I look it up, I find there's something to that. Disappoint came from a Medieval French word meaning to undo an appointment or to remove (someone) from office.

It apparently had a secondary meaning, though: to fail to keep an appointment. To stand someone up, we might say today. From that came an extended meaning: Someone or something that disappoints us is one who fails to keep an implicit promise. For instance, "Our new car has disappointed us with its gas mileage."

As I've noodled over these three words, I've wanted to see them as examples of parasynthesis, a word I ran across this week, as I walked my fingers through the dictionary to confirm for a colleague that yes, paraprofessional was really there.

Different dictionaries give it somewhat different definitions, but the nub of parasynthesis seems to be the formation of new words by affixing prefixes and suffixes fore and aft. Thus big-hearted, (big+heart+ed), or denationalize (de+national+ize), to give a couple of common illustrations.

You might think of this process as the LEGO approach to making new words by snapping pieces together – or occasionally, by breaking a piece off. That's the idea behind the wordplay (disillusioned/illusioned) in the Krauthammer column cited above.

Synthesis you will recognize as meaning "putting together." But paging through my Merriam-Webster, I'm struck by what a hardworking prefix para is. It's from Greek, and means variously "beyond" (paranormal), "beside" (library paraprofessionals who work beside those with library science degrees), or "around." When I paraphrased my correspondent's comments above, I metaphorically hovered around his actual words.

And parable is put together from para, "beside," and ballein, "to throw." And yes, that's ballein as in ballistics. A parable is thus an analogy "thrown out" in conversation as a "verbal aside." This means the parables of the Bible and other wisdom literature have something in common – etymologically speaking, at least – with strategic missiles. Who knew?

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