Monday, April 09, 2007

Apothegm: A New Word To Me

I just started reading "The greatest living critic" on Salon, a book review by Allen Barra. Barra begins the piece:

Clive James' "Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts" is a collection of 107 original essays written on people whose apothegms James has collected over the decades …

I don't remember ever seeing or hearing this word before. Princeton's WordNet defines it merely as a synonym to aphorism: "a short pithy instructive saying." Wikipedia hints that it may have a less pure connotation: "a short, but memorable saying, which holds some important fact of experience that is considered true by many people, or it has gained some credibility through its long use."

The latter strikes me as a polite way to refer to many White House pronouncements of the past six years.

From the dead trees reference books: my Oxford English Dictionary says it's merely a variant on apophthegm (same definition), which strikes me as a needless squandering of consonants. My American Heritage Dictionary keeps the definition as terse as the one from WordNet.

Bonus: the entry following apothegm in my AHD is another new word to me: apothem, which means the perpendicular distance in a regular polygon from its center to any of its sides. Pretty big difference, given the two words are pronounced exactly the same: ăp'ə-thĕm'.

Double bonus: here's an image of the above pronunciation key, for those whose browsers don't handle Unicode so well:

apothegm pronunciation

Someday you'll be doing the Saturday crossword puzzle, and you'll thank me for all this.

Update: Oh, and by the way, I just finished reading the Barra review that got me started on this post. It's quite good, and he makes the book sound like a must-read, too.


Unknown said...

Shouldn't the plural be apothegmata? In for a penny, in for a pound...

bjkeefe said...

That sounds right, but since apothegm is evidently already the Americanization of apophthegm, maybe we use the American rules for pluralizing.

I once saw a pretty good rant on why the plural of millennium is not millennia, a case strengthened by the sarcastic question, "should the plural of forum should fora?"

I know those are Latin-rooted words, unlike apothegm, but really, this business of how to pluralize words borrowed from another language is all Greek to me.

Maybe you could take up the matter with Allen Barra. If you read that review, you can tell he's got some (language) game.