Etymology gone wrong: (un)impregn(at)able

« previous post | next post »

A few days ago, Larry Horn sent this note to the  American Dialect Society's discussion list:

On an article lauding the Texas Rangers’ defense in today’s NYT sports section, I did a double-take on reading that

The defense—anchored by shortstop Elvis Andrus and the impregnable glove of Adrian Beltre at third base—has saved more runs above average than any other team but the Rays.

Once I got past the metaphor in which baseball gloves may or may not become pregnant, my first thought was that the writer (Neil Payne) had meant “unimpregnable”, i.e. incapable of being impregnated, just as “uninflammable” means 'incapable of becoming inflamed'.  I checked the OED and found to my surprise that, as they say, “there is no such word” as unimpregnable, and that the im- (i.e. iN-) of impregnable can only be a negative prefix, so that impregnable already (officially) means what I had thought unimpregnable would mean, rendering the doubly-prefixed form otiose.  Evidently, unimpregnable does not and never did exist.

Except that it did and does.  Google Books includes 300 or so hits for unimpregnable (while asking me if I meant impregnable), including one from William Harvey’s classic 17th century treatise on the circulation of the blood, several from assorted 19th century journals, monographs, and novels, one from a 1917 novel by Jack London ("Had he been more than a normal thoroughbred dog, he would have continued to assail his unimpregnable enemy until…"), one from a 2010 novel by Francine Prose ("Having been incarcerated in the Castel Sant'Angelo, he had somehow escaped Valletta's unimpregnable fortress-prison and had left the district without permission…”), and so on.  Of course, unimpregnable has the virtue (absent, I would argue—with some support from regular Google entries—from its monoprefixal counterpart) of being unambiguous.  But officially, it seems, unimpregnable is a hypernegation, and the NYT sportswriter was not employing a hyponegation.  Go know.  (I still think unimpregnable *is* a word and belongs in the OED, though.)

But there are a couple of etymological glitches here. Specifically, there are two kinds of pregn- words as well as two kinds of -in words, plus the -atable ~ -able problem.

First, impregnable is actually a Middle English malapropism for imprenable, as the OED explains:

Etymology:  Corrupted < impreignable, imprenable, < French imprenable, < im- (im- prefix2) + prenable able to be taken, < pren-, stem of prendre to take. The g was evidently in imitation of the g mute in reign, deign, and the like, though it appears to have sometimes led in 16th cent. to the pronunciation /nj/

Thus the glosses "Of a fortress or stronghold: That cannot be taken by arms; incapable of being reduced by force; capable of holding out against all attacks", and "fig. That cannot be overcome or vanquished; invincible, unconquerable, proof against attack".

In contrast, impregnate "To make (a female) pregnant; to cause to conceive; to get with young" is from "late or medieval Latin imprægnāt-us, past participle of imprægnāre", which comes from the same Latin verb praegno "to be pregnant"  that pregnant does.

And the OED's im- prefix2 is the "assimilated form in Latin of the negative prefix in- prefix3 before b, m, p", whereas the im- of impregnate is the assimilated form of a prefix that the OED glosses as

used in combination with verbs or their derivatives, less commonly with other parts of speech, with the senses ‘into, in, within; on, upon; towards, against’, sometimes expressing onward motion or continuance, sometimes intensive, sometimes transitive, and in other cases with little appreciable force.

Additional confusion is provided by the fact that some  Latin-derived verbs in -ate have -ble forms without the -ate, or both with and without it.

Thus calculate ~ calculable ~ calculatable, separate ~ separable ~ separatable.

Actually, calculatable and separatable are not in the OED, nor in Merriam-Webster's — but both of these words do  have (small numbers of) respectable-looking hits on Google books. For that matter, so do impregnatable and unimpregnatable, though these have different meanings from their -ate-less counterparts.



26 Comments

  1. Trimegistus said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 7:47 am

    Why don't we just abandon "Impregnable" altogether, then? It's based on a mistake, it's confusing, and anyway there's no such thing as an impregnable fortress.

  2. Will said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    I used to think that the title of Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" meant "those who can be crucified".

  3. Oskar said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 8:29 am

    @Trimegistus: There's nothing wrong with impregnable, it's a perfectly lovely little word! Just because it came to us as a corrupted form of another word doesn't make any less part of English. Lots of words come to us that way.

    And I really don't think it's all that confusing, nobody misunderstands "that fortress is impregnable" (I would hazard that most uses of this word refers to fortresses, castles or ladies underwear) and I suspect only professional linguists with too much time on their hands could misunderstand that sports quote.

    (No offense meant to either ladies or linguists, by the way)

  4. Kimball Kramer said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    Three recent immigrants were discussing the fact that their boss's wife was having trouble getting pregnant.
    "She's impregnable," said one.
    "That's not the right word; she's unbearable," said the second.
    "You're both wrong; she's inconceivable," countered the third.

  5. parse said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    "Impregnable" still seems an odd word to describe a baseball player's glove; I have visions of line drives bouncing off of the third baseman's mitt, unable to penetrate it. Which doesn't make for outstanding defense in the game of baseball.

  6. Marc Foster said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    What seems odd is that Mr. Horn either didn't look up impregnable or didn't read the either the etymology of the definitions. If he had he would have known that the word did not, in fact, mean what he thought unimpregnable should mean. It seems that he must have looked up unimpregnable, saw it wasn't there, and abandoned the OED for Google.

  7. Ø said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    To me, the mysterious part of the sentence is not the parenthetical bit

    —anchored by shortstop Elvis Andrus and the impregnable glove of Adrian Beltre at third base—

    but the rest of it:

    The defense has saved more runs above average than any other team but the Rays.

    My best guess is that "above" should be "on".

    [(myl) The original story had (and still has) "above average".

    As explained here, "At its simplest, this would be the league runs per inning, times individual innings, minus individual runs allowed".]

  8. Peter said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    @Ø: “runs above average” is a standard baseball statistic, not an error. I’d agree, though, that it reads a little awkwardly in this context.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    @parse: I am with you, the word makes no sense in reference to a baseball glove. I suspect the writer was reaching for something and missed, but I can't think of what it might be.

    [(myl) On the contrary, I think that Impregnable is a plausible term in the context of discussions of defense in baseball, where phrases like "porous fielding" are common.]

  10. Ø said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    Ah, sorry. I suspected that RAA might be a stat. I should have googled it.

    Getting back to (somewhere near) the main point: I wouldn't mind Beltre's glove being called "redoubtable", even though a redoubt is a fortification.

  11. Stephen R. Anderson said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    Additional confusion is provided by the fact that some Latin-derived verbs in -ate have -ble forms without the -ate, or both with and without it.

    Thus calculate ~ calculable ~ calculatable, separate ~ separable ~ separable.

    These pairs are quite common: the form with V-at-able generally has the literal meaning "able to be Ved" while the form without -ate often has a specialized sense. This is comparable to pairs like cómparable vs. compárable, where the one with shifted stress usually has a specialized sense ("roughly equal") as opposed to the one with unshifted stress ("able to be compared"). Level I vs.Level II derivation, for those who remember…

  12. Ric Locke said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    And, to add to the fun, at least some other languages fail to double the negative. in México, a gasoline tanker is "FLAMABLE" but one carrying milk (e.g.) is "INFLAMABLE".

    Regards,
    Ric

  13. Ø said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    "Impregnable defense" is a little more plausible to me than "impregnable glove".

    [(myl) But in baseball lingo, "glove" is often metonymic for "defensive skills".]

    By the way, the top Google hits for porous defense refer to many sports besides baseball, including boxing. A couple of them refer to biology, too, but those may be mild puns on the sports usage.

  14. rkillings said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    Malapropism?

    The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology by C. T. Onions (last of the original OED editors) has a rather different explanation:

    impregnable xxx that cannot be overcome. XV. Late ME. imprenable ‒ (O)F. imprenable, f. in- IM-2+prenable takeable, f. pren-, stem of prendre take :‒ L. prehendere ; see PREHENSILE, -ABLE. The latter forms im-pre(i)gnable, which depend upon OF. vars. (cf. PREGNANT2), induced the pronunc. with g.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    If defenses can impregnable (and I think they can be) and glove = defense, then an impregnable glove is unremarkable.

  16. John Walden said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    @Ric Locke; Of course in "inflamable" it's not a "negative" in- , it's an "into" in-. Just like in 'inflamed" . As it says further up:

    "whereas the im- of impregnate is the assimilated form of a prefix that the OED glosses as

    used in combination with verbs or their derivatives, less commonly with other parts of speech, with the senses ‘into, in, within; on, upon; towards, against’, sometimes expressing onward motion or continuance, sometimes intensive, sometimes transitive, and in other cases with little appreciable force."

    Mexican Spanish usage may be different, see below, but here's the online RAE on "inflamable"

    adj. Que se enciende con facilidad y desprende inmediatamente llamas.

    and on "flamable"

    La palabra flamable no está en el Diccionario.

    Here's what their "Dudas" has to say:

    ‘Que se inflama con facilidad’: «De mayorcito muestre al niño los peligros de jugar con sustancias inflamables» (Trabajadores [Cuba] 19.12.03). Deriva del verbo inflamar, por lo que la forma flamable, usada a veces en algunos países de América, carece de justificación.

    It looks to be the same as in English: they both mean much the same thing, though of course the RAE has the last word, as always, even if not everybody takes too much notice, also as always.

  17. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    A bit from the recent HBO series Game of Thrones (an adaptation of the fantasy novel by George R.R. Martin):

    Tyrion: So that's the Eyrie [a castle in the mountains]. I hear it's impregnable.

    Bronn: Give me ten good men with climbing spikes and I'll impregnate the bitch.

    Notice how the quip only works if you assume “impregnable” means “unimpregnable”.

  18. Xmun said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    Larry Horn mistakes the work he quotes from by Francine Prose to be a novel. No, it's non-fiction, an essay about the painter Caravaggio, who worked for a time in Malta.

  19. Xmun said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    I remember being told the late I. A Gordon (one-time professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington) that we owe the word "flammable" to Benjamin Whorf, who was a fire-fighter as well as a linguist. He believed the prefix "in" of "inflammable" to be misleading, because it might be misread as a negative rather than as an intensifier.

  20. Bathrobe said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

    In my understanding, the original English term was 'inflammable'. The term 'flammable' only came about because of a fear that people would misinterpret the 'in-'.

  21. Ø said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    "glove" is often metonymic for "defensive skills"

    @myl: Yes, and that's how I understood "glove" in the quote. But "impregnable defensive skills" is not quite so plausible as "impregnable defense".

    If defenses can [be] impregnable (and I think they can be) and glove = defense, then an impregnable glove is unremarkable.

    @GeorgeW: Maybe. On the other hand, a team's defense, or even a player's defensive skills, can be solid, whereas "solid glove" would not be entirely unremarkable.

    [(myl) It's reasonably idiomatic, though -- a bit of web search turns up

    Not much power, but a good contact hitter with a solid glove.
    Third base requires a very solid glove - most batters are right handed, and many of them love to pull the baseball.
    Above average arm and bat. Good speed and solid glove.

    One possible point of confusion, though, is that there are nicknames like "Stonefingers" (for Dick Stuart, also known as "Dr. Strangeglove") that have exactly the opposite connotation.]

  22. Ø said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

    I take it back. Even "rock-solid glove" gets some relevant hits, flying in the face of the notion that supple webbing is essential for web gems.

  23. John Walden said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 4:11 am

    Rooting around, I see that "unprenable" crops up on Google in contexts that include:

    There is a town in North Holland called Enchusen, of notable strength and unprenable, which governeth all that north part

    From: 'Elizabeth: January 1586, 26-31', Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth, Volume 20: September 1585-May 1586 (1921), pp. 322-345. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk

    Veering off-topic, I've been thinking about -able. It's attachable (see!) to most if not all verbs and is a sort of "potential passive" tense. I can see the logic of "I am uncomfortable in this room" but it's a leap to "This room is uncomfortable". "Comfortable" should mean "able to be comforted" but somehow has also got switched over to situations, sofas and beds.

    Geoffrey Pullum mentions "hypallage" in a post with no comments allowed, which this seems to be an example of, and -able is tangentially part of this thread, so I hope I'm forgivable for raiding it here.

  24. GeorgeW said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 5:29 am

    I don't think that metonymy necessarily entails transferring all the properties of X to Y such that a glove can be described in all the same ways that a defense can.

    As an example, a CEO can be a company 'head,' but if suffering back pain, it would not likely be described as a headache (except as a joke).

  25. Ø said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 5:55 am

    should mean "able to be comforted" but somehow has also got switched over

    "Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem [..]"

  26. Áhann Áhim said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 6:56 am

    Leonardo Boiko, that quip doesn't depend on thinking that 'impregnable' has anything to do with 'impregnate': it's a pun, that's all. And it works rather nicely with the educated Tyrion using the word in its 'correct' sense, and the crass Bronn bringing things to his low and common denominator.

RSS feed for comments on this post