An Old-Fashioned Word of the Day
April 26, 2007
There will be two openings to this edition of the WOTD. 1) A ways back, my friend Kate and I got into a debate over New York pizza. I claimed that Chicago had better pie, and Kate sided with New York. In the end, Kate declared that we were both provincials at heart, which I seconded by saying that if we were true effete cosmopolitans, we would all it New Haven apizza (note: this is when I thought that New Haven’s pizza pretensions were the finest manifestation of provincialism). 2) The English language still has the capacity to astound you. As native speakers we seldom think about the nuances of our language, but it’s really pretty beautiful. But the more you learn, the more logical it becomes, the more you can derive meanings from known parts, the more you can really know without knowing. And then, every now and then, you find something truly surprising. Usually it’s surprising because it’s so obvious.
Today is the perfect example. In a Hebrew poetry class, Herr Professor, discussing the way languages accumulate treasuries of synonyms, gave us the etymology for the English word “effete”: fetus. Here’s the full etymology from the OED: “L. efft-us that has brought forth young, hence worn out by bearing, exhausted.” Once the connection is expressed, it seems blatantly obvious; however, as I only thought of the word as an adjective used to describe intellectuals and cosmopolitans, I never realized it.
The original, now obsolete meaning of effete is: “Of animals: That has ceased to bring forth offspring.” This quickly changes to refer to “Of material substances: That has lost its special quality or virtue; exhausted, worn out.” In both cases, the link is the exhausting, physical act of childbirth.
According to the OED, the most current definition is, “Of persons in an intellectual sense, of systems, etc.: That has exhausted its vigour and energy; incapable of efficient action. Also, of persons: weak, ineffectual; degenerate. More recently, effeminate.” Effeminate is interesting as it takes the word back to its original source.
The AHD also gives this definition, which I think is the one people usually intend: “Marked by self-indulgence, triviality, or decadence.”
That definition completely eliminates the word’s origin, even though the connections are still visible. Perhaps Derrida is right, and we should pay more attention to etymologies.