April 26, 2009

Hooked on Mnemonics

Being a writer naturally leads to a fondness for words. And when you study enough etymologies, eventually you reach a point at which you can figure out what words mean by looking at their roots.

But this can backfire sometimes.

A word that has tripped me up for years is solecism. It looks like it has the same root as "sole" and therefore should mean something like "singularity." But it doesn't.

Barbara Walraff once observed, back when she was editor of the "Copy Editor" newsletter (before its name was changed to "Copyeditor"), that most folks can get by with the dictionary that's built into Microsoft Word. And she's mostly right, except that it only gives you definitions, not etymologies. So grammar geeks like her and me turn to something that does.

Figuring that knowing its etymology would help me remember what "solecism" really means, I looked it up at Merriam-Webster, my favorite online dictionary.

Here's what I learned about the origin of solecism: "from Greek soloikismos, from soloikos speaking incorrectly, literally, inhabitant of Soloi, from Soloi, city in ancient Cilicia where a substandard form of Attic was spoken."

That should do it. I don't think I'll ever again forget what solecism means.

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