Nocent and Innocent. . . or. . . What a Difference an In Makes

What do you think when you see the word nocent? Upon first glance, it appears to be a street version of innocent, shaved down to fit a rapper’s screed. Or perhaps a text version, considering the character limits of texting and the inverted brain limits of some texters. If used in either context, however, it would be incorrect.

You might then consider it a misspelling of nascent, an adjective speaking to the beginnings of things, first drafts, raw origins. Nascent would only apply if one was at the very beginnings of a notorious career of nocent activities.

The origin of nocent is Middle French, spelled the same, descending from the Latin nocens, meaning injurious, guilty, guilty person, and, nocere, meaning to hurt, injure. So to be nocent was to be guilty of some injurious action.

How did nocent become innocent? The prefix in can be found in ready use in Old English, in its autological meaning, but is of Latin origin. In this sense, in creates a negative force, modifying an adjective such that the meaning is switched to the opposite of the original. Thus decent becomes indecent, decisive becomes indecisive, and nocent becomes innocent.

It’s often said that the little things in life can mean a lot. This is certainly the case with those wrongly accused of nocent behavior. . . what a different an in makes.


Concatenating To Complexity

For those training towards a specific goal, whether it be an endeavor of personal athleticism, titling in a competitive dog sport, publishing a novel, or any of a myriad of other ambitions, moving in a logical manner is paramount.

A vital key to success is to learn in steps, breaking down each aspect of the exercise into singular component parts. In dog training, this is known as chaining. Individual chains, in this sense, finds its origins in the Latin word catena, meaning “a connected series.” It’s the perfect way to clarify the elements of dog training. And clarity is very much needed in dog training, not only for the dog, but also for the trainer. One must be precisely clear in what one’s goals for the dog are, but also one’s own, as well as how to achieve them.

This is not as easy as it may seem at first. Even the most basic commands require more than one step, more than one link, each serving to connect one part to the next. Link comes from the late Middle English link, which descended from the Old Danish laenkia, “chain,” a word kindred to the Old Norse hlekkr, “link.”

Forming these various links into a successful goal requires one to concatenate, the action of uniting links into a chain. The origin of this word requires us to concatenate late Middle England back to Italy, then connect the Latin past participle concatenare, meaning “to link together.”

The ultimate objective is to achieve mastery. This is the final, highly-polished product of learning, then becoming proficient in all the intricate links. The path to success is a matter of concatenating to complexity.

Hypocoristic Hypocrisy

Have you a nickname, a pet name used by those closest to you? The word itself is a nickname, having its origin in the erroneous splitting of a mid-15th century English word ekename, meaning “an additional name.” The root is an Old English word, eaca, meaning “an increase.” This is just one fascinating example of how fresh words enter into any language. At the deepest root, they germinate from action and interplay between people.

The seed of ekename is much deeper, sewn in the rich linguistic loam of ancient Greece: hypocoristic. The etymology of hypocoristic is fascinating, originating in another word, hupokorizomai, meaning “I speak in the language of children.”

What, exactly, is the language of children? For me, the language of children is naturally one of curiosity, exploration, discovery, and joy. In the case of nicknames, the origin is surely between siblings, one child unable to pronounce the name of the other. In my childhood, I spoke many languages—of play, of study, of nature, and even a secret language shared with my sister. Thus was the hypocoristy of my youth.

Have you ever known someone with a self-chosen nickname? It’s always seemed a smug thing, not self-awareness, but a pretense of virtue. This is hypocrisy defined, the source being, again from the grounds of ancient Attica, the word hypokrisis, “acting” and “pretense,” as in playing a role onstage. Beneath this is a more specific word, hypokrinesthai, to “play a part, to pretend.” From Greece, the word evolved through Late Latin and Old French, then lost its “h” in Middle English to become ipocrisie. (The “h” returned sometime in the 16th century.)

I’ve never known a child who chose her own nickname; it seems an adult choice. But what would motivate self-denomination? Perhaps it’s not as hypocritical as it appears; perhaps it signals a very autogenous gesture by a very confident individual, someone choosing to negate the power of a less-than-laudatory label bestowed by someone else.

For me, at least, I think I prefer the hypocoristic tagging rites of my childhood.

Better Cunctation than Cessation

What’s the first thing you thought of when you saw that first C word? Whatever first may have come to mind is almost certainly not what it means. Rather, it’s a word for the opposite of timeliness, the flipside of punctuality. To be a cunctater simply means to be one who is tardy. Cunctation is the noun form. Like so many of our English words, the origin of cunctation is Latin, the base word being cunctation, meaning “a hesitation.”

Being delayed or tardy may be regarded as annoying, especially for one who is used to being on time, or preferably, early, it is better than never starting, never showing up, or never accomplishing. Even worse might be starting a journey, destination clearly in mind, getting life-swipe sidetracked—with all intention on retracing the path—but never returning, cessation.

Although cessation does not always mean to end, its alternative meanings, discontinuance and complete stopping, are the most common definitions. Cessation traces back to Middle English cessacio, with a Latin base, cessation, stoppage, delay, inactivity. Another closely connected Latin word is cessare, meaning “to be idle.”

She who hesitates may get lost, but it’s better to be a cunctater than a cessator.

Clear or Clean

I’m a lover of precision, whether it comes to a competition obedience judge’s scores, the scale at my weigh-in, or the cleanliness of a kennel. But I’m especially fond of the correct use of words and phrases. A well-honed sentence, read or spoken, is delightful, conveying an image that is clear and precise.

It bothers me to see poor language, grammar, and spelling in books, both fiction and non-, in business use, or heard in broadcast journalism. Beyond troubling is the lack of clear thought, reflected by the atrocious mangling of the native language all over the Internet. But on this very wintery day, nothing upsets my applecart more than the lack of clarity and precision shown by the current crop of so-called communication professionals, specifically those commenting upon the road conditions.

Last night, snow and ice fell, creating precarious road conditions. Naturally, morning dawned with a.m. newscasts dominated by school closings, work delays, and most important for those who had to go to work, road status reports. The traffic reporter constantly referred to improvement of travel conditions once the roads were “cleaned.” This irked me to no end. With all the snow, slush, and muck, I couldn’t imagine the city putting the street sweepers to work. My feeling was that the word the professional broadcaster really meant was “clear.” This word, originating from the Latin clarus, meaning “bright” and “evident,” gave rise to the Old French cler, also meaning “clear,” and finally, the Middle English clere, which also meant “clear.” “Clear” means to be transparent, to be free from obscurity, which for me defines journalism and reporting.

And though the reporter’s choice, “clean”—which means to be “free from dirt”—can also mean to be “free from extraneous matter,” it just did not seem to be the most precise word for the wintery situation. “Clean” arose from both Middle and Old English, (clene and claene), but there are linguistic ancestors in both Old Frisian—klene—and Old High German—kleini—which both refer to size, chiefly “small” and “delicate.” Mayhap my mood is hardened to all this cold and snow, but these wintery roads need to be cleared, not cleaned.

To be clear as a communicator means to be sharply defined, distinct, and free from obscurity. As should be our wintery byways.

An Ophid in the Orchids

Like most gardeners, one of my favorite occupations during winter’s frigid evenings is paging through seed catalogs, enjoying the glorious colors, imagining the tastes, and dreaming of the warm growing season. I’m starting to plan my 2014 garden and part of that planning is considering not just what I will plant, but how I’ll nurture and grow my garden.

Sustaining my plants has become more important to me than during my earlier years as a gardener, when birds and bees were a constant, drawn by native flowers and farmers’ blooming acres, insect foods free from laboratory intervention. But things have changed over the years; butterflies and bees and many birds are infrequent visitors. The remedy? Plantings that attract the pollinators of flowers, fruit, and vegetables, and the predators of the pests of plants.

A pleasant thought, imagining hummingbirds and honeybees floating and diving through the buds and greenery, songbirds snatching insect pests, and even a spider or two, charlotte-webbing the bushes to catch the biting flies.

But there’s another class of beneficial creatures, a group that humans seem to fear and dislike, the ophidians. Ophidians? Do I mean orchids? No. I mean a creature who might be lurking beneath the garden vegetation, a beneficial animal whom many reflexively fear.

Ophid is the diminutive form of the Greek word for “serpent,” ophis. Thus the ophid in the orchids is merely a snake in the flowerbed. I welcome the ophids to my garden, since they are quiet hunters of garden pests; they never touch the vegetation, don’t damage the grounds, and keep rodents—potential disease-carriers—away from my home.

As I peruse my seed catalogs, plan my plantings, and ponder on beekeeping, I’ll also be thinking about the beneficial creatures I want to attract to my garden and flowerbeds. I surely hope to see an ophid in my orchids.

Rat’s Ass

The other day, someone posted to a dog obedience competitors’ list that her dog “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about earning one title or another. The first response came from a very experienced competitor, a new judge, who kidded, “Perhaps she should have said ‘rodent’s behind.’” A third judge joked, “Then you don’t know TJ, do you?” A funny exchange.

Of course, my mind tilts in more than one direction at once, so I, once again, wondered at the meaning of the phrase, “doesn’t give a rat’s ass.” Just what the blazes does that mean? What is the importance of a rodent’s posterior, and why would anyone give or withhold one? The phrase, of course, indicates one’s lack of interest in the topic at hand, but why a rat’s ass?

Sometimes, a diligent search, or a short investigation, reveals the root, the seed of a phrase, but at other times, the origin of things remains obscure. Such has been the case of the rat’s ass. Idioms are all over the place, and multi-versioned, reflecting the country of use.

In England, to be “rat-arsed” means to be drunk, but it’s a more modern idiom, having stumbled into British usage in the 1990’s. One wonders about its connection to “not giving a rat’s ass…” perhaps once you’re rat-arsed, you no longer give a rat’s ass. Either way, it’s just another example of the strange inventiveness of the human mind searching for a clever imprecation.