Thursday, July 3, 2008

Improg word: Smitten

Every Monday, the Improg site posts the word of the week for your blogging pleasure.

On long car trips, I tell my kids that they shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to use the washroom, even if they don't think they need to, just in case. I follow the same principle when it comes to dictionaries: I rarely pass up the opportunity to look up a word, even if I don’t think I need to, just in case.

As I do almost every week, today I looked up the current improgging word, smitten. And, as I do almost every week, I learned something new—or really, I realized something I hadn’t put together before. I’d always thought of smitten in its meaning of “infatuated,” but, being the past participle of smite, it means more than that. The primary meaning of smite is to strike something with heavy force. The various meanings of smitten share the notion of being struck forcefully, literally or metaphorically. You can be smitten by a thug wielding a hammer, by the plague, by fear, or, like Margerie, by the charms of your kitten and your children.

You might be able to tell that I am smitten by words. I mean this in the love-them-want-to-marry-them sense, but I, like everyone, can also be smitten in the just-got-smashed-in-the-head-with-a-rock sense when words are used as weapons. I’ve been smitten (in the good sense) with language for as long as I can remember—not by literature so much (while I love to read, I am not particularly highbrow in my tastes and will read just about anything), but by the nuts and bolts of language.

I remember the first time I skipped out of school, smoked a cigarette, kissed a boy, had sex, rode a roller coaster, and drove a car (not all at the same time—what a day that would have been!). But I remember just as clearly the first time I realized I was thinking in French—not thinking about French, but thinking my everyday thoughts in French—and the first time I learned about the field of linguistics and realized that I could spend a ridiculous number of years learning about language with people who wouldn’t think I was weird (or, if they did, it was for other reasons entirely). I spent many, many hours of my prime with my head in dictionaries and grammars, learning or analyzing how one language or another worked.

To illustrate just how smitten (= strange) I am, I ask you this: Am I the only one here who wonders why the American Heritage Dictionary and the Nelson Canadian Dictionary say that smite has two past participles, smitten and smote, but the Oxford says it has just one, smitten? Did North Americans start using the past tense as the past participle for some reason, or did the British stop?

And am I the only one here who wants to know why smite, smote, smitten (or smote) doesn't follow the same conjugation pattern as bite, bit, bitten?

And am I the only one here who owns several English dictionaries and looks up words in all of them just to see how they differ? Or who owns dictionaries in a variety of languages that she doesn’t speak, some of which are dead?

Am I smitten or am I a total geek?


Hayley Townley, Breast Cancer Survivor Extraordinaire said...

I am smitten by your geekiness! But love you, no matter what!

Improgging Fool! said...

Thanks for improgging with us this week!

Definitely gives me pause to read your conjugation comments.

Now you are NOT the only one wondering. Because I am too.

But you may be the only one with all those dictionaries.

Margerie said...

May the smote be with you!

Great blog post!

Although you make me feel really stupid because I have no clue what a past whatchsmacallitiple is.

Mallu said...

this bite, bit, bitten -question sounds interesting. And it reminds me of a question I've been wondering about for some time:

How do you pronounce the word "Vancou verite"? Do you pronounce the "ite" part like you pronounce it in the word "bite"? Or does it sound more like "bit"?

Mallu said...

I can't pronounce it, and I can't even spell it!

Now I'll try again:


OK. It's time to go to bed. (01.04 am in Finland)

Susan said...

Hi Mallu!

The -ite in "Vancouverite" is pronounced just like the -ite in "bite."

Mallu said...

Thank you Susan! Now I know how to pronounce Vancouverite.

I still find it a very interesting word. Are there many similar words in English? I don't know any.

A person who lives in New York is a New Yorker, right? Parisians live in Paris. But how do you call people who live in Montreal or Los Angeles?

Have a nice day, Susan!