The words this week just keep coming and coming. This was one of those weeks where I had already decided on which words I wanted to explore, and then, bam, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigns amid an incident that occurred earlier this week. As of this writing, the details of the “incident” are not forthcoming because, as it’s reported, the victim or complainant wishes to remain anonymous for, as we can see in the Kavanaugh-aftermath, frankly obvious reasons.
So the phrase being bandied about these past couple of days comes from Gov. Walker’s statement on Mallott’s resignation: “inappropriate comments.”
Naturally, we all want to know what Mallott said. It must have been pretty bad to warrant this response and, in my estimation, pretty much kills Walker’s re-election bid, pitting Dunleavy against Begich.
The word inappropriate is actually a relative newcomer to the English language, being coined in 1791.
In-, of course, is a prefix in this case, and means not. We can trace this prefix back to the Romans, who probably borrowed it from the Greeks, who spelled it an-. The likely Proto-Indo-European root is ne, meaning not.
In fact, speakers of Old French and Middle English often used the prefix en-, but it didn’t quite survive. Though we do see it still in the word enemy, which literally means not a friend: en- meaning not, and the base word em is a form of the Latin amicus, or friend.
The base word, appropriate, an adjective, came to English in the early 15th century from the Late Latin appropriatus, and meant proper. The verb form pre-dates the adjective form in English, and meant to take possession of.
The Late Latin appropriatus was earlier spelled adpropriare, and it’s in that word we can better see the base word and its hidden prefix: ad-.
Ad- is Latin for to, near, or toward. It is used to emphasize how close something is in space or time, or in relation to something else. It was the French who got rid of the d in the prefix, but the English brought it back in certain words like advance, address, and advertisement as a silent form of linguistic protest against the more pedantic French.
The base word of appropriate is the Latin propriare, which means to take as one’s own. From that word we get proper, an adjective that could refer to anything adapted to a purpose, or something commendable. The French used the word to mean exact or fitting.
But we can dive further.
The Latin proprius is another combined form that includes a prefix and a base word. That’s right. At this point, the word inappropriate has three prefixes embedded in it.
The prefix here is pro-, which means for or forward, and I think I’ve written about this prefix in previous columns at length.
The base word, which often gets lost, is privo, which meant individual. It’s where we get the word private from.
So, in Latin, the phrase was originally pro privo, which literally means for the individual, but really meant something more like the adjective particular.
Pro privo was ultimately combined into one word, proprius, and then we get to the English proper.
In the early 14th century, the word proper still retained its Romantic meaning as belonging to pertaining to individual, that is, it was a word to describe something intrinsic to someone, like a distinctive characteristic.
By the mid-14th century, it added the meaning of what is acceptable by the rules, the rules being a distinctive characteristic of a community.
It wasn’t until 1704, however, that proper finally came to mean what it does today: socially decent and respectable.
What an interesting shift. It went from primarily meaning something right or fitting for an individual, to something right, or in accordance with, society.
Not that a word like inappropriate has completely lost that privo meaning because, certainly, something we may label inappropriate, such as Mallott’s “comments,” can have personal and societal consequences. It certainly does for whomever Mallott offended.
And when that hurt person wishes to retain her privacy, as is her right and deserves respect, we still deal with the betrayal of societal rules. In other words, there is a characteristic of mutual respect that we hope would be intrinsic to the character of our Alaskan culture; Mallott’s comments do not fit, so they were exorcised.
Also: Calling a woman “horseface” on Twitter does not quite fit into that paradigm, either. That attitude should be exorcised, too. Just a thought.