Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Vid or Id? (Vocabulary #6)

Shirley Hazzard uses the word ‘gravid’ and Cormac McCarthy speaks of someone as ‘scurvid.’ The similar endings, ‘vid’ caught my eye. There are really only a couple dozen or so words in the English language ending in ‘vid’; avid and livid, David and vivid come to mind. Scurvid does not.

But a little investigation cued me to this: the ‘v’ in ‘gravid’ comes for the base word, ‘grave.’ I came to surmise the ‘v’ in ‘scurvid’ comes from a base word shared with ‘scurf’ and ‘scurvy.’ It’s the suffix ‘id’ that gives the words their commonality.

For Hazzard’s ‘gravid,’ you can actually check most any dictionary – the American Heritage on the shelf or any good on-line dictionary will tell you it means ‘pregnant or heavy with ripe eggs.’ I like my Dover sole gravid; how ‘bout you? The root is the same as the root for ‘grave’ – meaning ‘heavy, serious’ and so on. The pronunciation reminds us of 'gravity.'

McCarthy’s ‘scurvid’ is another matter altogether. I challenge you to find that in any printed dictionary. If you check on-line, you’ll likely be referred back to the McCarthy work Blood Meridian, my source for the word.

So what gives here? Did McCarthy make the word up? And if he did, can we tell what he meant? Can we use the word ourselves?

Yes, yes and yes again.

The suffix ‘id’ is used to form adjectives, very much the way the suffix ‘y’ forms adjectives in English. Thus, for example, ‘mess,' a noun, becomes the adjective, messy.

But, according my 1970 printing of the Oxford English Dictionary, except for a few technical uses, the suffix 'id' "is not a living formative in Eng." In other words, speakers of English no longer form new words by using the ending 'id.'

We might say someone forgot to tell McCarthy, but frankly it would be more accurate to say the OED didn't anticipate the arrival of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy takes the root from 'scurvy,' substitutes one suffix for another and produces a new variation with the same meaning. So, only a scurvid cad -- a worthless, contemptible man -- would leave a gravid mate to fend for herself.

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