Monday, April 20, 2009

Urgent! Urgent!

You can't read Adorno without coming across, on every other page, the word "reify", which, as everyone knows, refers to the mental act of giving a concrete form to something abstract. Anyone who's had Latin, moreover, should recognize the derivation from the noun res ("thing"). The OED confirms this - someone in the 19th century thought it was a good idea to take the stem of the Latin word (re), stick an -ify on the end, and hey presto! You have a verb that means "to make into a thing."

Except that the Latin res does not have the same connotation as the English word "thing". Generally, a better translation is something like "affair" or "matter". Here, for example, is a sentence you are unlikely to see in Latin:

Tum quando purgabat casam suam, Cicero nigram rem deformem in cubiculo invenit.
(While he was cleaning his house, Cicero found a hideous black thing in the closet.)

No-one ever uses the word res that way, because there's no need - Latin has a neuter gender, so it suffices to use an adjective substantively with a neuter ending, and it's understood that you mean "thing". So, for example:

Multa iucunda ad colosseum vidi.
(I saw many enjoyable things at the colosseum.)

or, in the Nicene Creed:

. . . per quem omnia facta sunt.
(. . . by whom all things were made.)

In both cases, there is no need to use the word res to indicate "thingness" - one understands by the neuter ending that "multa iucunda" means "many enjoyable things", and that "omnia" means "all things". The word res is necessary, therefore, only when you're using a purely abstract sense of the word "thing". Consider, for example, the expression "in medias res" (literally, "into the middle of things". It should be obvious here that res has nothing to do with physical objects; it would be better translated as "affairs" or "matters".

In short, the word "reify" is an etymological traffic accident. The dictionary definition says that it means to turn an abstract "matter" into a concrete "thing", but the connotation of the word res suggests the opposite. This is what happens when you let amateur etymologists start creating new words - an illiterate, macaronic mess that the rest of us now have to clean up. Ugh.

The preceding post was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Pedant of the Year Award application. If you wish to commend my post for its unnecessarily picky scholastic distinctions and complete irrelevance to your life, please contact the competition organizers directly.


Miss Mussel said...

I'm on break from writing mass amounts of email and much to my delight, happened upon this post.

All I can say between fits of giggles is well done, sir. Well bloody done.

I will gladly support your application for Pedant of The Year. Just tell me where I need to send my recommendation letter.

Yvonne said...

Bravo! And welcome to Pedant's Corner.

Nostalgic Modernist said...

Excellent point.

And yet I cannot help but recall the (blushing) legal definition of sodomy in the Renaissance: "res in re." Yes, the thing had to be in the thing.


shogart said...

Um. I think your status as Pedant of the Year -- or Decade, or Century -- was firmly established long ago.