Yet Another Peculiarity of the English Language

Until I sat down today to compile a review worksheet on Latin prepositions, I had never noticed an inconsistency or inconcinnity in the names of the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. If non-visible frequencies of light are seen as metaphorically going beyond or falling short of the visible spectrum, the opposite of ‘ultraviolet’ should be ‘citrared’. On the other hand, if they are seen as metaphorically placed above or below the visible spectrum, the opposite of ‘infrared’ should be ‘suprared’. I wonder if other languages are more logical or (if you like) more pedantically Latinate.

Which reminds me: when I first saw the word ‘infrared’ in (I suppose) 5th or 6th grade, I thought it was a disyllable, the perfect passive participle of a verb infrare* that I had somehow never run across before. I wonder if that is a common misapprehension.

And speaking of illogic: why does the spell-checker tell me to write ‘pedantically’ rather than ‘pedanticly’? There’s no such word as ‘pedantical’. I suppose I could research this, but I have more worksheets to put together before I go to bed. I would have thought that two Snow Days in a row would be enough to catch up on my work and my blogging, but apparently not.

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4 Responses to Yet Another Peculiarity of the English Language

  1. Alfred M. Kriman says:

    I just realized that text in angle brackets is interpreted as HTML tags (and usually ignored as invalid). The “metadictionary site” I referred to above is <>, and it was <> that reneged on “cicly.”

  2. Alfred M. Kriman says:

    Regarding the EM spectrum: the earliest instance of “infra-red” cited by the OED is from 1881. Citations for “ultra-red,” an earlier name for the same part of the spectrum, are from 1870 and 1875. It makes intuitive sense to me that both sides were regarded as beyond the visible spectrum.

    IR light was discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1800 (he dubbed them “calorific rays”); the term “thermic rays” was also used. Johann Wilhelm Ritter discovered UV light in 1801, and that was called “Ritter rays,” “actinic rays,” and “chemical rays,” in I-don’t-know-what sequence. It seems obvious now that the qualitative differences between visible light and IR and UV arise from a single quantitative difference (wavelength, frequency, momentum, or energy — only one independent variable). This was not clear in 1800, when the corpuscular theory of light was still viable and when the wavelengths of UV and IR light were not yet measured. Therefore, since UV and IR were first discovered by using glass prisms and detecting effects beyond the range where light was visible, the “ultra” names made sense.

    Maxwell’s theory that light was electromagnetic waves was first published in 1861 or 1862, and Hertz’s experimental confirmation of the theory (with radio waves) came in 1885 or so. So it took the
    better part of a century before it became clear that IR, visible, and UV light were fundamentally very similar. This realization made it increasingly attractive, though certainly never necessary, to describe different regions of the spectrum by names referring to the magnitude of the frequency (low for IR) or the wavelength (high for IR). I don’t know when the wavelength of IR light was first measured, but it would not be surprising if the switch from “ultra-red” to “infra-red” reflected that change in viewpoint.

    Also, it’s hard enough to measure the speed of visible light, let alone directly measure the frequency. So IR light could not be thought of as “low” (in frequency) until Maxwell’s theory made it clear that all light had the same speed in vacuum, and the low frequency of IR light could be confidently inferred from its long wavelength (whether that was measured, or guessed from its position relative to the visible spectrum).

    One might wonder why frequency should have been the quantity of reference, rather than the more easily measured wavelength — that is, why ultraviolet didn’t become “infraviolet” on account of its low wavelength. I would assume that it’s because the frequency of light stays constant through refraction, whereas the wavelength depends on the medium, so frequency is a less ambiguous description. Wavenumber (inversely proportional to wavelength) is also “low” for IR light, but I don’t think wavenumber became a common variable of description until the twentieth century. Energy and momentum (both also “low” for IR) would not have made any sense as intrinsic descriptions of light (as opposed to descriptions of light intensity) until 1905 and after.

  3. Alfred M. Kriman says:

    Ugh. I meant “-ly adverbs” in the first comment. There are -ly adjectives, of course, but no -ically ones, I think, strictly so spelled.

  4. Alfred M. Kriman says:

    Regarding -icly: I don’t know of any particular reason for it, but the default is to form -ly adjectives from -ical adjectives and not from bare -ic adjectives, even if the -ical adjectives don’t exist. I believe that -ical adjectives were relatively more common a couple of centuries ago. It might be that the -ic forms came to be thought of by many as shortened forms somehow inappropriate for suffixing.

    The only common exception I know is _publicly_. I just ran searches for words ending in “icly” and “ically” on a list of 175K English words and found only ten of the former (anticly, chicly, cubicly, cyclicly, folicly, hecticly, impoliticly, mysticly, publicly, rusticly) and 879 of the latter. At least a few of the ten -icly words are less-common variants of -ically words.

    A similar search at the metadictionary site nets 33 -icly words, including _pedanticly_, but some of these are prefixed versions of others (semipublicly, suprapublicly), some may not pan out when followed to the dictionaries that offered them when indexed (e.g., reneges on cicly, although Acronym finder gives CICLY an expansion “Centre for Information on Coconut Lethal Yellowing”), and many are spelling variants that I would count as misspellings that aren’t even common.

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