Learning a word’s history at the same time as its meaning helps reinforce our understanding of the word and remember it more effectively. If you know, for example, that volition comes from the Latin word volo, meaning “wish,” you’re likely to remember that volition denotes relying on one’s will or choice, as in doing something of one’s own volition. Then the rarer, related word avolition is easy to decode, if you know that the Greek prefix a means “without,” as in amoral. Avolition, used in psychology, describes a profound lack of motivation, literally “without wishing,” a disinclination to, well, do anything.
Encountering two unfamiliar words in recent New Yorker magazines (I thought), I checked out their etymologies to help me comprehend and retain their meanings. Cynthia Ozick’s story “A French Doll” (7/2423) includes the word ukase. Its meaning is “command” or “edict,” but I had to know where that weird-looking word is from. In Russian, ukaz is a decree issued by the emperor. Because the story concerns Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, many of them Russian, that unusual and interesting word is apropos.
The second unfamiliar word appears not in a New Yorker short story (although I just reread an entire story trying in vain to find it), but in an online interview with author T. Coraghessan Boyle about his story “The End Is Only the Beginning” (8/14/2023). The story concerns the randomness of Covid and the randomness of fate. His main character, Boyle explains to his interviewer in a remarkable sentence, “is not me, or not entirely, but a shadowy simulacrum existing not in our terrifyingly stochastic world but in the orderly paginated one I have created in order to work out my own anxieties.” As it happens, I’m familiar with simalacrum and paginated, but not stochastic, which means “random” or “unpredictable.” This Greek-derived word, which appeared first in English in 1662, related originally to probability; its Greek root means “to aim at a mark, to conjecture, to guess.” Later writers have used it to mean “random.”
I was interested to see that the term, as many of you smart people probably know, is used in mathematics, natural science, physics, computer science, finance, linguistics, medicine, music, and other studies, including geomorphology. Regarding that last science, in case you wanted to know, the direction of a river’s meanderings has been studied as a stochastic process.
Some readers might be annoyed at T. Coraghessan Boyle’s tossing about of such rare and recondite words. Words that you have to look up, at least if you’re me. But at one time all words were unfamiliar to us. How else do we learn new ones? I ask you. And if you read the story, which I recommend, you’ll see that “our terrifyingly stochastic world” encapsulates his story in four perfect words.