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Sunday, 25 October 2015

On being precipitate

Oops! It's been 25 days since I posted.  I had 9 days in new Zealand, and while I was there,my publisher asked me for another book. I thought "nope", but twenty minutes later, I said yes and gave a first treatment which I revised twice over the next two days, and since then, I have written more than half of it, assuming they will say yes.  If they knock it back, I'll go somewhere else.

So I've been kind of busy with Colonial Concerns, a working title that I rather like, and I now have 49,000 words of first draft in the bag.  So here's something I prepared earlier, about a word that sometimes describes my actions.

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There appears to be only one English word that changes its pronunciation, depending on whether the initial letter is capitalised or not, there is at least one word which changes its derivation as the pronunciation changes, and there are probably a few words that change their meaning as the latitude changes.

The word 'precipitate' falls into the second category, as we will see, and it is most certainly in the third category, because the further you travel from the equator, the more you become aware that not all water falls from the sky in wet form, even though it precipitates.

To people in cold latitudes, precipitation is the sum total of rain, hail, sleet, snow and dew, and the key point is that all of this water, in whatever form, falls from the sky, and as you leave the equator behind, this use of the term becomes more and more common.

The derivation is a straightforward Latin one, though as we shall see, the OED was a little precipitate in attributing all of the meanings to a single Latin root, since the meaning just used has a separate source. We will come back to that second sense of haste in a while, because it shows us that the word also fits the second category above.
The Tarpeian Rock

For most senses, this word family is related to 'precipice', a steep slope or headlong descent, something for falling down. Shakespeare has Coriolanus speak of precipitation from the Tarpeian rock, from which Roman criminals were hurled to their death, and in King Lear, Edgar speaks of feathers precipitating down, which rather contradicts the usual idea we have of precipitation as a rapid fall, but this seems to have come from confusion with the 'haste' sense of the word, or perhaps from the usual experience people have of falling from a precipice.

Even so, a precipice on our moon or on the asteroid Eros, where the gravity is less, and the fall much slower, remains a precipice, a steep or vertical rock face, and any fall past that rock face is a precipitation, so speed need not be part of the term. Unless you are a feather, the speed just happens to go with the territory on earth.

To a chemist, precipitation is what happens when two ions in a solution have a stronger attraction for each other than they do for water, so that particles form, and then fall to the bottom of the test tube, the retort, or the reaction vessel.

Chemists will even speak, quite comfortably of 'precipitating out' whatever falls to the bottom, or of that substance 'precipitating out'. Precipitates are important to chemists as a way of getting wanted or unwanted chemicals out of solution.

When others use the verb 'precipitate', they may mean to hurl something downward, but it is time now to look at the second form of the word, where the final vowel has lost its stress and the word has become an adjective. We tell somebody not to be too precipitate, meaning not to rush headlong into something, we think, because we are linking the word back to 'precipice' and its relatives.

In fact, there were two Latin verbs of similar sound, though with different origins, and with different meanings, and these have come together again in one English word, with the difference only flagged by a subtle change in the emphasis and pronunciation of the last syllable.

The Latin for a head is caput, which is indirectly why a beheading is capital punishment. The verb praecipitare, which the OED sees as the sole origin of all the forms, derives from a Latin word meaning head-first, praeceps, and this gives us all of the falling words. 

The Latin for take or seize is capere, which is related to our word 'capture'. The second source for precipitate is praecipere, means to seize beforehand, to take first, to preempt. This same verb also gives us modern words like precept, which the OED notes, while attributing the meaning 'advise' to praecipere, which must have been a sense that the word acquired later.

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And the word-pair that changes its pronunciation with capitalisation? As readers have no doubt realised, the words are polish and Polish.

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