Words are a big deal.  They matter.  But words can be weird.

Among many others, here are just a few of the linguistic mysteries (linguisteries?) that furrow my (considerable) brow.

Why is it that if I am listless, I may or not have a list?  In fact, I can be both listless and holding in my hand a list.

If I’m feeling festive, I’m eager to go to a festival–or a fest!–perhaps even a celebratory feast.  But if I’m restive, I’m not at all about to rest and I don’t feel rested.  In fact, if I’m restive and you try to make me rest, you won’t be feeling very festive.

Perhaps my longest lingering linguistery, however, is the relation of canny to uncanny.  We grasp quite early the relation of a word to the same word that begins with “un-.”  If one is coordinated, one moves about with alacrity.  If one is uncoordinated, one lumbers about like a lummox.  Add “un-” and you have a word’s opposite.

Canny and uncanny confound this rule.  One is canny if one is shrewd or astute, something admirable.  Following linguistic convention, one thinks that a person is uncanny if he is a blockhead or a simpleton.

Not so.

Uncanny has reference to something that is so astonishing it seems to have only a supernatural explanation.  For example, “Gombis’s capacity to recall baseball statistics from the mid-1970’s is uncanny!”

In certain situations, then, canny and uncanny can be near synonyms.

Very odd.  Linguistifying indeed.

8 thoughts on “Linguisteries

  1. John Mortensen

    So many things to straighten out here.

    To list is to lean, as in listing heavily to port. To be listless is to lean in no direction and thus be aimless.

    Canny is etymologically related to ken and connaitre, which mean to know. To be canny is to be clever and knowing. An uncanny thing is an unknown thing, a thing not seen and therefore surprising.

    In conclusion, the finest word in English is festoonery.

  2. S Wu

    Tim, since English is not my first language, I find this most interesting and confusing. 🙂

    By the way, your blog is full of valuable and invaluable insights! 🙂

    1. timgombis

      This reminds of the conversation in The Three Amigos, when they are asked to come and put on a show for the “Infamous El Guapo.” “What’s ‘infamous’ mean?” “Infamous is when you’re more than famous. This El Guapo is so famous, he’s infamous!”

  3. Pingback: Awards, Awards, Awards–Thank You, Thank You, Thank You | The Lamehousewife Blog

  4. Steve W.

    Don’t get me started. Drive in a “parkway” and park in a “driveway.” Don’t need a “Hot water heater” if the water is already hot. And why are “Apart”-ments all together? BTW–after two glasses of Chardonnay, I’m listing Starboard…

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