Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Friday, June 18, 2010
I recently wrote a sentence that began "A big, black dog barked in a desultory way...". At the time, I thought I knew what I was saying. But in examining the word I'm thinking that maybe I did not. What I meant to say was that the dog was barking in a half-hearted, not particularly urgent kind of way. But is that what desultory really means, or is it simply the meaning I supplied it with?
As has come up recently on this blog, when we learn words simply by context and without knowledge of their roots, we can sound perfectly correct in our sentences while being perfectly incorrect in our thoughts. The error may never be revealed--to ourselves or anyone else.
I don't know what that '-sult' ending means, and haven't found the commonality that would result in, uh, "result" and also "insult" as well as our featured word here. I could guess , but, well, actually I couldn't. So shall we just cut to the chase and see?
Okay--in the first place, '-sult' is 'leap' so 'result' is 'spring, forward, rebound' and 'insult' is 'to leap upon, assault'. And 'desultory'?
It's 'to jump down' or off. This led to the image of a rider leaping from one horse to another. Our modern word comes from this image. For to leap from one horse to another is, in essence, to be uncommitted.
A desultory bark is an uncommitted bark.
I was right.
By the way, the photo above is of one Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford and his birthday was just a couple of days ago at the time of this writing. I can think of a lot worse ways to spend your time than to check out his short biography. And thinking about this a little, I think the last thing you can say about someone who jumps from horse to horse is that he or she is uncommitted...