Saturday, June 03, 2006

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Q. I came across this word in a commercial. It is another word that appears to have changed its meaning through the ages. Should not WORTH-LESS mean that it is no longer valued at the original value? However, it now means 'Worth nothing'. I heard it and thought of you. Not to assume that you are worth nothing, of course.

A. Hey, thanks for the huge vote of confidence, Dave. Now I can start the day in a burst of adequacy. Oddly enough, the detached word LESS and the suffix -LESS are not the same word and do not come from the same word stem.

LESS as a detached word means "not as much as before," as you have pointed out:
My account is worth less today than it was a year ago.
As my son matures, he blames me less for the loss of his goldfish.
-LESS as a suffix means "not having; devoid of":
This cheap watch is worthless. [without value or worth]
I am blameless in this matter, your Honor. [without blame or guilt]

A good question, and one that reminds us that some word forms that seem to be identical are mere spelling accidents. An instructive example is the letter combination -PED-. Let’s give examples of its various uses:

pedant n. 1. One who pays undue attention to book learning and formal rules. 2.One who exhibits one’s learning or scholarship ostentatiously. 3. Obsolete A schoolmaster.
pedestrian n. A person traveling on foot; a walker. adj. 1. relating to a pedestrian 2. Performed on foot. 3. Undistinguished; ordinary.
pedocal n. A soil of semiarid and arid regions that is rich in calcium carbonate and lime.
pedometer n. An instrument that gauges the approximate distance traveled on foot by registering the number of steps taken.
pedomorphism n. Retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult, occurring in mammals.
pedophile n. An adult who is sexually attracted to a child or children.
peduncle n. 1. Botany The stalk of an inflorescence or a stalk bearing a solitary flower in a one-flowered inflorescence. 2. Zoology A stalklike structure in invertebrate animals, usually serving as an attachment for a larger part or structure. 3. Anatomy A stalklike bundle of nerve fibers connecting different parts of the brain. 4. Medicine The stalklike base to which a polyp or tumor is attached.
pedology-1 n. The study of the physical and mental development and characteristics of children.
pedology-2 n. The scientific study of soils, including their origins, characteristics, and uses.

Those last two are particularly confusing, since the identical word is used for two unconnected fields of study. (Well, kids do like to play in the dirt.)

What emerges is that there are three sources for the -PED- sequence:

(1) PED: Latin pes-/ped-, foot (pedestrian, pedometer, peduncle)
(2) PED: Greek pais-/paid-, child (pedant, pedomorphism, pedophile, pedology-1
(3) PED: Greek pedon, soil, earth (pedocal, pedology-2)

Your safety measure is this: when ascertaining the meaning of a word, especially an academic or professional field word, be sure to use context and dictionary etymology [found in brackets] as well as word parts that you may have memorized.

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