Sunday, April 1, 2012

Misdemeanant v Misdemeanie or, better, Misdemien

Speakers of legalese are generally fairly avid worders.  While they don't do much in the way of verbing (generally the most common manner for coining new usages), they absolutely love overextending the application of prefixes and suffixes—three of the most common being -ant, -ee, and -or.  This is where we get words like the common “granto” and “grantee,” the less common and significantly uglier “mortgagee” and “mortgagor,” and, among the worst, “misdemeanant,” the epitome of inartful legalese, employing an impressively articulate and accurate suffix, at the total expense of poetic expression.  Not that this last has any rightful place in the law; imagine how much worse (or better!?) the U.S. Code would be if the Legislature were poets (though I think there's a contrary argument there, though definitely for another time).

So what if, really, on the other hand, a little freedom of expression were employed—creativity moderately restrained by accuracy of intent and con-/denotation—by those on the hill?  Intent is where it's at, anyway, right?  For, after all, both textualists and purposivists alike (no matter what the staunch representatives of either caste may claim) are dominantly easily swayed in their statutory interpretations by the clear intent of language by those who spoke and wrote it.  In all actuality, I think this is where the scriveners (scribblers) of the law get it wrong!  I mean, come on!  How much sense does misdemeanant really make?  (Remind me sometime to post a list of the worst of single-word legalese.)

I think what the legal coiners should actually do, and in all sincerity, rather than hyper-extend prefixes and suffixes to the point of straining their roots to near meaninglessness (see what I did there?), should employ the very Carrollian portmanteau: a strategic combination of two words, rather than the rote equation of prefix + root + suffix = x, to make a new word, which, when effectively employed, can ascribe additional or tangential meaning, which flexibility, really, is at the very heart of the English language anyway (yeah, I am fully aware how dangerous this could be in the practice where legalese is used—and (*shudder*) in the hands of those who use it – but how much more fun!).  

So take a look at these (etymology taken directly from the most excellent

misdemeanor:  also misdemeanour, “legal class of indictable offenses,” late 15c.; from mis- (1) “wrong” + M.E. demenure (see demeanor). Related: Misdemeanors; misdemeanours.

-ant:  agent or instrumental suffix, from O.Fr. and Fr. -ant, from L. -antem, acc. of -ans, prp. suffix of many Latin verbs.

meanie: also meany, “cruel person,” 1927, from mean (adj.) + -y (3).

mien:  “facial expression,” 1510s, shortening of M.E. demean “bearing, demeanor” (see demeanor); infl. by M.Fr. mine “appearance, facial expression,” possibly of Celtic origin (cf. Bret. min “beak, muzzle, nose,” Ir. men “mouth”).

The combinations, I think, are obvious (as designated in the title, above).  “Misdemeanie,” is fairly sophomoric, but how excellent, especially considering the apropos circularity of origin, is “misdemien”? Huh!?  Right!?  Is such flagrant potential for inaccuracy of usage dangerous?  Sure.  But the law would be so much more fun!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


PENURY (ˈpɛn jʊri), n.  [A middling truncation of an obscure usage, declinated from “penitentiary,” for “holding down by tying and steaking all persons of little means in a community to encourage remorse;” from OE pinn “pin, peg,” and a combination of M.Fr. paene “scarcely” + Gr. pan-, combining form of pas (neut. pan, masc. and neut. gen. pantos) “all,” and from L. -arius-aria-arium “connected with, pertaining to; the man engaged in,” from PIE relational adjective suffix -yo for “of or belonging to”; the 19th century usage of penitentiary to mean “an asylum for prostitutes” shifted, semantically, to penury, in the sense given above, shortly before its final devolvement to pen, circa 1881, as a corral not for prostitutes or the poor, but pigs and other cloven-hoofed lifestock.]

1.  A person, or the state of being, involved in piggy banking.

1644  Milton: “But as for the multitude of Sermons ready printed and pil’d up, on every text that is not difficult, our London trading St. Thomas in his vestry, and adde to boot St. Martin, and St. Hugh, have not within their hallow’d limits more vendible ware of all sorts ready made: so that penury he never need fear of Pulpit provision, having where so plenteously to refresh his magazin.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


GRAVAMEN (grǝˈveımɛn), n. [From an unlikely combination of grave (Du. graaf) “count” (whose many cognates happen to include M.H.G. pfalsgraf, which, coincidentally (coincidentally, because of gravamen’s common occurrence within the limited realm of legalese) is a spectacular and notorious case, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., with an elegant opinion by Justice Cardozo, whose analysis of legal cause v. cause-in-fact inspired the movie TheButterfly Effect, starring Ashton Kutcher and, predictably, generally panned by critics) + amare (PIE am-) for “to love” or “loving,” and derived from the Latin and Celtic for “mother” (esp. in the context of nursery rhymes) + -en, truncated from L. –antia and –entia, as a suffix affixed to verbs such as to generate abstract nouns.]

1. abs. The condition of being in love with a German or Dutch accent.

1837  Greenleaf:  “For the gravamen is, not that their property has been directly invaded; but that an act has been done in another place.”

2. A grievance.

1986  W. Rehnquist:  “The gravamen of any sexual harassment claim is that the alleged sexual advances were ‘unwelcome.’”


AWOL (ey-wawl), adv., adj. [From the Modern English AWOL, passed through FCE and NJE.  While the reasons for the new derivation remain a mystery to etymologists, lexicographers, and decent people of good sense everywhere, the current consensus hypothesis is twofold: a combination of an attempt to appear "hip" with back-formation of "a-wall" from the OE "wall" with the Gr. prefix "a" (without), which approximates the Modern English colloquialism "off the wall."]

1. Superior, awesome, off-the-chain; bad-ass

2011 P. McGuire: "Pavel Datsyuk went absolutely AWOL that period, Edzo!"  

Monday, March 5, 2012


konstrukt (kən-ˈstrəkt), v. [From a late formation from Swed. koloss for "colossus" and PSHA nuk for "anoint."  The present stem of the PSHE v. has given onomatopoeia for a quirky laugh.  Early derivation is unclear and possibly may not stem from Swed., but from Idio. (a) ko for "kool," i.e. to substitute k, emphatic for tsheeky or kutsie alliteration; variously (b) Idio. k, extension, and under the ekstreme sirkumstanse that an umlaut is insuffishiently linguistikally violent; (d) PMI k, a passé pseudo-movement to rid English of the letter c.]

1. trans. To make, erect, or construct a hollow kolossus, hulk, or leviathan for the purpose of laryngeal lubrication, remedy for incessant screaming.

kognates: konstrukting, konstrukted, konstruktshun

2012 T. Haake and Meshuggah, et al: Kunstrukting the Koloss (album title)