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Word Wisdom: Idiosyncrasy

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

A friend at indoor lawn bowling asked the other day that I investigate a word suggestion. They recalled idiosyncrasy as the 100th word on a spelling list in primary school back in England. (Probably equivalent to grade 6/7 in Canada)

Idiosyncrasy means a peculiarity of constitution or temperament. Constitution refers to the structure, composition, physical makeup, or nature of something. So, an idiosyncrasy is a uniqueness in characteristic or habitual inclination of something.

Putting salt in your hot chocolate or tapping your head while you think are idiosyncrasies. A microwave has an idiosyncrasy if you must do something weird to it to make it work, like having to bang it on the left side to get it to start. If you talk about the idiosyncrasies of someone, you are referring to their rather unusual habits or characteristics. All of us have a few minor idiosyncrasies. Are you aware of yours?

Idiosyncrasy comes from the Greek idiosynkrasai, meaning a habit of the body or a peculiar temperament. Idios refers to ‘one’s own.’ Kerannynai is ‘to mix or mingle.’ Syn is ‘with.’ So, idiossynkerannynai means to mix with one’s own, adding a peculiarity to your own habitual actions or personality.

In the early 1600s English language borrowed the term to refer to human idiosyncrasies and over time started to use it in other contexts. The English language itself has numerous idiosyncrasies, making it one of the hardest languages to learn. Although all languages have exceptions to the rule.

The following are courtesy of Caroline Hoon. The plural of box is boxes; but the plural of ox became oxen not oxes. One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese, yet the plural of moose should never be meese. You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice; yet the plural of house is houses, not hice. If the plural of man is always called men, why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen? If I spoke of my foot and show you my feet, and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet? If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth, why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth? We speak of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say mother, we never say methren. Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him, but imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim. 

These are from Richard Lederer. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger, neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? We ship by truck and send cargo by ship? We have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another.

Then there are the words that are spelled the same but mean something different. These idiosyncrasies of English come from Deborah Magallanes. The bandage was wound around the wound. The farm was used to produce produce. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse. He could lead if he would get the lead out. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert. Since there was no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes. I did not object to the object. The insurance was invalid for the invalid. There was a row among the oarsmen on how to row. They were too close to the door to close it. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line. After a number of injections my jaw got number. Upon seeing the tear in the painting, I shed a tear.

Idiosyncratic means an unusual characteristic of an individual. Albert Einstein famously had lots of idiosyncratic habits. He rarely wore socks, and he talked to his cat. Yet he was one of the most brilliant human beings to ever live. Your idiosyncrasies have no direct bearing on your intelligence or usefulness to society. Don’t judge others by their idiosyncrasies.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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