Sunday, July 29, 2012

I dust the dust.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned a book titled "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Charles VanDoren.  This book differentiates reading skills based on the type of book and the goals of the reader.  For example, the authors present a set of simple rules to improve analytical reading of expository (essentially non-fiction) texts.  Their rules require active participation in the by the reader-- asking questions of the text, finding answers, identifying the unified whole, the parts that compose that whole, and so on.  Reading a novel or a poem is quite different and the authors talk about being receptive to the effects of imaginative literature.  The reader is still active, but to quote Adler and Van Doren,  "It is a sort of passive action, if we may be allowed the expression, or, better, active passion."

Well, I am not in a position to allow or disallow the expression, but that sentence sent my brain aswirl.  The authors go on to clarify their point, that "we must act in a way, when reading a story, that we let it act on us."  Ok.  I get the idea.

But, think about those words active, action, passive, passion.

Clearly, someone that takes action is active and someone that is active takes action,  by definition.

But is someone with passion passive?  Does someone who is passive have passion?  Is fire ice?  Is ice fire?

I didn't think so.

This led me to look up the etymology of the words passive and passion.  I wondered if it was accident of linguistic evolution that these two words sound similar but actually come from different origins.  You know, like ZigZag and Pippi look a lot alike, but are unrelated.  But no, passion and passive are two branches of the same  tree.  Both words come from the Latin word pati- which means to suffer or endure, which in turn comes from the earlier Proto-Indo-European root pei- which means to hurt.

And now that I think about it, that makes sense. 

Some say the world will end in fire
Others say in ice.

And either way it sounds painful.

I wondered if there were other examples of words that come from the same root, but have opposite or seemingly contradictory meanings.  I did a little research and found that such words are called contranyms and there are lots of examples.  For instance:

I had to dust the counter after dusting the cake with powdered sugar.  (Since it is me, I probably had to vacuum too!)

I sanction sanctions. (Like the ones received by Penn State in the Sandusky/Paterno debacle)

So, whether I sanction or sanction Adler and Mortimer's use of the expression "passive action,"  I certainly acknowledge that English, and I imagine all languages, are rife with ambiguity and inconsistency.  Just like the people that speak them!

Tonight I am grateful for the opportunity to visit with extended family!  It was wonderful to see my niece and nephew and their other halves.

1 comment:

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann