Friday, January 23, 2009


This small Latin word has come up in two different contexts in the last week, a sure clue from the gods, or at least from the control panel of the simulation we are all living in, that it's time to do a little post about it. The first time was in a passing reference to Lincoln's assassination, when John Wilkes Booth is reported to have shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!", or "Thus always with tyrants!", a good thought unfortunately very misapplied to his particular situation. It turns out that it is also the motto of the state of Virginia, which frankly, I feel they might have wanted to change up a bit after Booth's misappropriation.

The other sighting was in a way with which I am more familiar, yet really fairly ignorant of all the same. This is when you cite a word or phrase and then say sic. Now the way I always more or less read this is to say to myself, this word or phrase is spelled or even perhaps grammatically wrong, but we all take the meaning anyway, and we are not going to clean up the original just to make the whole thing look better. I am afraid that whenever I see this, I also read the word 'sick' into it, so my gloss is something like 'this is the sickly version, but please take no offense here, as there is nothing we can do about it'.

I am not sure how this 'sic' squares with the first one, which means something like 'thus' or 'so'. I'll do a little check now, but please feel free to elucidate the whole thing further...

Apparently the second type of 'sic' does still mean 'thus' or 'so', but it's kind of an emphatic use, saying something like, yes, it looks wrong, well, pathetically so, really, but it's staying in. In other words, it's not a typo, it's deliberate, so don't get on my case about it,I know what I'm doing here...Yeah, short word with a lot of baggage.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Okay, I do already know what this word means. But that's not without getting it wrong in the first place. I was talking with some friends at work today. One said that when she read the galley for Angels of Destruction, the new novel by Keith Donahue, she found herself having to look up about two words per page. A couple of us asked, give us an example. 'Gravid' was the one she came up with. She asked, "Do you know it?" I guessed "Stagnant?"

I guessed wrong.

'Gravid' means 'pregnant.'

So the other friend asked, does that mean that we can say, "She is gravid?"

I'm guessing it does mean that, but that it has passed out of common usage. This is the point I will now explore.

I am still not sure why 'gravid' seems to have passed out of the common parlance as regards to human pregnancy. It does have its origins in the Latin "gravis" or heavy, and so means 'heavy with child', or in the last stages of pregnancy. But the examples I see of its use have little to do with women being pregnant at this point, or at least not until their pregnancy has been rendered either biological or medical. Many other species are cited as gravid with eggs or young, but it does begin to seem like a word that's being used to make pregnancy and birth, i.e., the bearing and delivery of new life into something very scientific and amenable to study.

Oh, I can'' wait to ask some friend who is showing, "Oh, how gravid are you?" I'm sure that will meet with a polite reply.

Keith Donohue, you are on my list. I read The Stolen Child and loved the premise and the writing, but it didn't totally fulfill its potential for me. But I'm sure that I missed much of the word play. I always do. I'll have to look at the new one more consciously.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

per se

A recent commenter on Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders mentioned that we semi-educated types often use the term per se incorrectly, attempting to sound more high-falutin' than we really are. Having just used the term myself in some post within the 24 hours preceding this, I was perhaps more sensitive than I might have been normally to this criticism--enough so that I feel a little frozen in even attempting to think of a sentence that I would use it in. So let me take a more lighthearted approach to this and give an 'example' of a way I might use the term in a sentence.
"It wasn't a crime, per se--my hand just happened to slip into her wallet as I was helping her across the street."

I am not a hundred percent sure that this is the way I do use it, but it's a starting point. I guess in my mind, per se means, in actuality, or as strictly or legalistically defined, or even more informally, 'as you might ordinarily define it yourself'.

So what's the root of this phrase? I'm guessing Latin. Legalistic Latin is the way I'm betting it's come down to us. Time to take a look...

per se: Latin for 'of, in or by itself, or oneself'. Intrinsically. Essentially.

So I think my sentence above is a little bit off, as I somehow felt it was. A better sentence might be "The fact that my hand slipped into her wallet as I was helping her across the street wasn't a crime per se--it was bringing it out again with that fifty and taking off down the street that put me on the wrong side of the law."

Now I'm curious about common misuses of the word. How do people most typically make mistakes with it?