Wednesday, February 24, 2016

SHANE'S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: From ignis fatuus to fatuous and back again.

Welcome to another installment of SHANE'S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS, a regular Wednesday feature at NA Confidential.

But why new words? Why not the old, familiar, comforting words?

It's because a healthy vocabulary isn't about trying to show you're smarter than the rest of them. To the contrary, it's about selecting the right word and using it correctly, whatever one's pay grade or station in life.

Even municipal corporate attorneys are eligible for this enlightening expansion of personal horizons, and really, for those of us fascinated by the mayor's determination to rechannel his inner Walt Disney, all we have is time on our hands -- moments enough for us to learn something.

This week, we consider two manifestations of the same Latin word, fatuus.

ignis fatuus
[ig-nis fach-oo-uh s]

noun, plural ignes fatui [ig-neez fach-oo-ahy] 

1. Also called friar's lantern, will-o'-the-wisp. a flitting phosphorescent light seen at night, chiefly over marshy ground, and believed to be due to spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter.

2. something deluding or misleading.

Origin of ignis fatuus 

1555-1565 < Medieval Latin: literally, foolish fire

Historical Examples

It must surely have been a light in the hut of a forester, for it shone too steadily to be the glimmer of an ignis fatuus.
-- Guy Mannering, or The Astrologer, Complete, Illustrated ... Sir Walter Scott

A light which illuminates centuries must be more than an ignis fatuus.
-- Ten Great Religions ... James Freeman Clarke

In the second sense, we've used it here before:

Ignis Fatuus: Duggins says "I think we did an excellent job" removing snow.

A more commonly seen word in English is the adjective fatuous, also from the Latin fatuus (silly, foolish, idiotic).

1. foolish or inane, especially in an unconscious, complacent manner; silly.
2. unreal; illusory.

The fun doesn't stop there. Fatuous becomes fatuously as an adverb and fatuousness as a noun.

Duggins exemplified fatuousness with the remark, "I think we did an excellent job removing snow."

Isn't knowledge fun?

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