October 28th, 2006


Shadow words

Seeing the word "desultory" in some context and I began thinking of that class of words that seem to have a mistaken shadow meaning attached to them, usually only in our minds and not the minds of others, which they can't shake even when we know they are mistaken.  "Desultory" (which means going from thing to thing or matter to matter in a disorganized way -- desultory reading -- always had an air of depression and joylessness in it which it doesn't really have:  maybe borrowed from other "de" words; maybe from that "sultry" expressive of torpid inactivity, or "sulky" too.  "He studied philosophy in a desultory fashion"  means he is depressed, easily bored and dropping a book to pick up another one he finds boring too.  But it doesn't.

Another:  "Querulous" which means argumentative, complaining, raising endless questions.  To me this word always suggests a timid, fretful soul, anxious and worried.  But it doesn't mean that.  I can be surprised and put off by a phrase like "A  large , beefy, red-faced loud querulous gent."  No, no. 

I don't know where these shadows arise.  They may be suggested by punning similarities ("querulous" may have been shadowed for me by "tremulous" or "quivery" or something) ort influenced by the first context we found them in and from which we derived what we thought were there connotatiions.  We don't look them up, ususally.  Studies have shown that  80 - 90% of our vocabulary is derived from context alone. (I just made that up.)