Jewish World Review July 28, 2002 / 28 Tamuz, 5763
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Why debt has a b in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
My ever-curious 11-year-old often asks me questions about the spellings of words. The latest of these is "Why does `debt' have a `b' in it?'' It's a good question, I think. So, dear Editor, why does "debt'' have a "b'' in it?
_ C. S., Austin, Texas
Dear C. S.:
Often a silent letter in an English word is evidence of some former pronunciation of that word. In the case of "debt,'' however, the story is quite different. The word "debt'' is derived through Middle English "dette'' from Old French "dette'' or "dete.'' The letter "b'' was added to the spelling in both French and English in the late Middle Ages by scholars who wished to reflect the ultimate origin of the word in Latin "debitum.'' No "b'' was ever pronounced in either French or English, but the spelling gained acceptance nonetheless. While Modern French spelling reform has eliminated the "b'' in this position, the English form has become petrified, leaving schoolchildren with another silent letter that must be memorized.
The artificial alteration of spelling under the influence of other forms can also be seen in "doubt,'' "plumb,'' "plumber,'' "subtle,'' "indict,'' "receipt,'' "island,'' "isle'' and "aisle.''
I believe there is a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings book titled "South Moon Under.'' Can you tell me what that phrase means?
_ A. J., Bartonsville, Vt.
Dear A. J.:
Rawlings' "south moon under'' is the period when the moon is directly "below'' on the other side of the earth. In contrast, there is "south moon over'' (which can also be referred to as "south moon up''), when the moon is at its zenith in the overhead sky.
In her novel, written in the 1930s and taking place in Florida, Rawlings alludes to these two daily occurrences as affecting nature's activity, as some old timers in Florida still believe they do. In addition, "moon-up'' and "moon-down'' are considered significant in Rawlings' novel, although Rawlings employs, for the former, the less dialectical "moon-rise.''
The other day I came across the term "Peyton Place'' in reference to a neighborhood teeming with gossip and rumors. Is there a real Peyton Place somewhere?
_ R. M., Eugene, Ore.
Dear R. M.:
The term "Peyton Place'' comes from a 1956 best-selling novel of that title by Grace Metallious (1924-1964). The novel is about a small New England town that is purported to be based on a real town - Gilmanton Iron Works, N.H. - and the book is said to have revealed many sordid secrets about that town's real-life residents. These revelations led to an upwelling of unwanted interest in the small community from tourists and media, and eventually much backlash from the residents of Gilmanton Iron Works against the author and her family. The term is now used to refer to a town that appears quiet and innocent from a distance but in truth has many dark secrets lying underneath.
I am hoping you will be able to answer my question about the "Rx'' that is used for prescriptions. I know that "Rx'' stands for an actual Latin or Greek phrase. I would like to know the actual word or words that "Rx'' stands for and their definition.
_ C. A., Colorado Springs, Colo.
Dear C. A.:
The symbol "Rx'' used on prescriptions is really just an "R'' with an "x'' added or an "R'' with a stroke made through its tail. The "x'' or stroke, whichever is being used, seems to have no special meaning and was added originally just to avoid confusion. It signals that the "R'' is in fact being used as an abbreviation and not in some other way. The use of such an identifying mark is not unique to this "R.'' Another example is the symbol for the British pound, which is really just an "L'' with a line through it to signal that this particular "L'' is being used to refer to the monetary unit.
The "R'' in "Rx'' is historically an abbreviation for the Latin word "recipe,'' the command form of the verb "recipere,'' which means "to take or receive.'' Our word "recipe'' first meant "prescription'' in the medical sense. Only later was it used in connection with cooking, though this meaning is of course much more common today.
Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services