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The Word

Steep thoughts

Can a troop withdrawal be 'precipitous'?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
July 20, 2008

IN AN OP-ED article for the New York Times last week, Barack Obama said that his two-year timetable for redeployment of the troops now in Iraq "would not be a precipitous withdrawal."

"He meant 'precipitate,' of course," e-mailed reader Caldwell Titcomb of Newton. "I'm surprised that no Times editor caught the error. Or is this just another distinction that it is useless to maintain?"

The distinction of which he speaks - that precipitous means "steep" and precipitate, the adjective, means "sudden" - is indeed in the Times style guide. But it's not clear that most editors (or readers) hear a distinction.

The difference was most marked, says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, in the 19th century, when the once-wider sense of precipitous narrowed to "steep." Fowler, in the 1926 Modern English Usage, says that "formerly, -ous was freely used where we now always say -ate."

But that "always" is an overstatement. Merriam-Webster quotes Robert Frost, George F. Kennan, and even John Simon - theater critic and unbending language stickler - using precipitous to mean "sudden" or "abrupt."

And current newspapers tend to ignore the distinction. Precipitate, though common as a verb, is increasingly rare as an adjective. Precipitous is the usual choice, whether the phenomenon it describes is hasty, steep, or both: "motivated in part by the precipitous demise of Bear Stearns" (Los Angeles Times); "negotiations about a purchase price {hellip} might be precipitous" (Lewisboro Ledger); a "precipitous drop in physical activity" (New York Times).

Bryan Garner, like Fowler, insists on the distinction. But it's easy to imagine a parallel universe wherein they would denounce precipitate (the adjective) as a Needless Variant, and recommend using the word only as a verb, for clarity's sake. It's hard to imagine, however, that your choice of adjective will confuse anyone.

. . .

THE POLLEN PERPLEX: Mark Poirier of Pawtucket, R.I., asks why we spell pollen with an e, but pollination (usually) with an i in the middle.

The answer should be simple; pollen belongs to a class of Latin nouns whose roots change their spelling when the words go from the subject form (nominative singular) to other grammatical cases. The Latin "combining form" used to make English words is usually not the nominative spelling: For instance, "peace" is pax in the nominative but pacis, pacem, etc., in other cases, and in English we say pacify, not paxify.

Pollen (spelled thus as a singular subject) follows this model: the other Latin cases, and the combining form, are spelled pollin-, hence pollinate and pollination. But there has been popular resistance - enough that some dictionaries allow pollenation as an acceptable variant.

And if you think adopting that spelling would make life simpler, well, there's hope for it. Tendinitis, after all, was once spelled only with an i; now tendonitis is so well established that some people think the older version is wrong.

. . .

COOL CUSTOMERS: Peggy Farren e-mails to ask about a new word she spotted in last week's sports pages: nonchalanting. "Manny looked like he was doing his thing, nonchalanting it, and Manny's very deceptive out there," said Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

Nonchalanting - playing it cool, in the word's literal root sense - is new to me, too, but not to true-blue baseball fans. It's been gradually infiltrating sports coverage over the past 20 years.

And the NewspaperArchive database supplied an example from much earlier: In July 1970, the Holland, Mich., Evening Sentinel pinned the Kansas City Royals' loss to the Detroit Tigers on left fielder Lou Piniella, who bobbled a routine catch. It was "Piniella's nonchalanting of Dick McAuliffe's fly ball," the reporter said, that started the 10-3 rout.

Nonchalanting is bad when it results in a goof, but it can be neutral, too: "Telephone poles [at 55 m.p.h.] just sort of saunter by, like a sailor nonchalanting past a stewardess in an airport," said the Charlotte Observer in 1986. It's a useful concept, actually; maybe the word would have spread further if it weren't such a mouthful. Nonching, anyone?

. . .

SALTY LANGUAGE: "Have you ever heard of the phrase "down to the lick log?" asked James Maiewski recently, supplying a quote from a San Francisco judge: "We are about down to the lick log here."

I hadn't heard it, but Ann Richards, when she was governor of Texas, told questioners it was local lingo for "the nitty-gritty," or "down to brass tacks."

As for the lick log itself, it's a salt lick - a block of salt provided for livestock, "especially one framed in a log or felled tree," according to one source. I haven't figured out the connection between the salt and the metaphorical nitty-gritty, though. It could be that salt is essential, or that the salt is almost gone, and you're "down to" the bare wood, but those are just guesses. Natives of Boone's Lick, French Lick, Mud Lick, and other salt-lick-based settlements are invited to help us out.

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