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Squalid, sordid and stupid

June 30, 2019

I was having a conversation with my brother-in-law at a barbecue yesterday, about adjectives ending in -id. We agreed that they are nearly all negative and the suffix -id somehow suggests this. Examples: squalid, sordid, horrid, rancid, pallid, turgid, torpid, lurid, vapid, stupid. Of course there are exceptions (rapid, liquid, solid) but not all that many. Why should this be?

Saussure stated that the connection between a word and what it signified was arbitrary. Words get their meanings from their contrasts with other words, not because of anything intrinsic about their sound. But I wonder. Granted that the first English word or two that ended in -id and had negative meanings, whatever they might have been, presumably were arrived at arbitrarily, still, once this expectation was set up, later coinages with negative connotations might well have gravitated towards that suffix, because that sound had acquired a negative meaning.

I only know Saussure’s theories at second-hand, so no doubt someone better informed will chip in and tell me why I’m wrong. Which is fine. But it does seem to me that if I heard a new adjective that took this form (krevid, for example) I would guess in advance that it was likely to have a negative meaning.

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11 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    A splendid post.

  2. Does the same rule apply for names? Kind regards, David

  3. No, David, I think you’re all right. The rule – or tendency, rather – only applies to adjectives.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    There is, though, the concept of nominative determinism where people named Cook become chefs and also of aptonyms- a policeman called Crook for example.

  5. True. We have a window-cleaner called Mr Payne.

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    Of more concern I had a dentist with the same name.

  7. Mark Allan Brafield permalink

    As Simon said, a splendid post Brandon. Written with your normal fluid style, vivid in execution and filling me with fervid enthusiasm.

    On the subject of nominative determinism, there was a famous court case in which the two barristers were called Mr Bright and Mr Brilliant. Counsel for the claimant introduced the case by saying ‘May it please your sir, I am Bright but my friend is Brilliant’.

    I have never had that, but I did once have a case in which the solicitors on either side were called Mondays and Tuesdays. Obviously, this pleased me no end, but not quite as much as a case in which – genuinely – the claimant was an elderly gentleman called James Kirk and he lived at Enterprise Court. When I told a friend of mine this who, like me, was both a solicitor and a Trekkie, he asked if the case number was NCC – 1701.

  8. John Dunn permalink

    I don’t think any of these words were coined in English; they all seem to derive from Latin adjectives in -idus. I haven’t got to hand a Latin etymological dictionary, but it looks as if that is merely an adjective-forming suffix indicating a quality (which may be positive, negative or neutral). I think you may be overestimating the negative component (fervid, florid, torrid can be, but aren’t necessarily negative), but if you are right, the question to ask may be a different one: why does English tend to use Latinate adjectives to indicate negative qualities?

    On the subject of nominative determinism, a few years ago the head of the Italian state police was called Manganelli — which is Italian for ‘truncheons’.

    • Hi John. You’re right about -id being simply an adjective-forming suffix for Latin-derived words ending in -idus: which means, as you say, that the question is why it’s the negative ones in this form which were (mostly) selected. For I still hold that the majority are negative. Fervid, florid and torrid, which were not in my original list of examples, are nearly always used negatively (fervid is less neutral than fervent); and there are others, such as gelid, rabid, morbid and putrid, which also didn’t make my list.

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