I came across today’s word in a novel the other day and it just tickled me. Some words are like that, right? You know what they mean, but it’s hard to say how you learned it because it will forever be a word that you connect with a specific author. No one else ever bothers to work it into a sentence. So hands up, class: who can use the following word in a sentence?
Not sure about that? Here’s a sample: “J. Pierrepont Finch inveigled his way to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company.”
You’re going to love the background of this one. Its most recent noteworthy ancestor is the Middle English envegle, which is a minor alteration of the Old French verb aveugler, which means “to blind.” I’m not quite sure what happened to turn the “a” to an “en.” My best guess is that a similar word (perhaps “inveigh”?) started with an “in-” and influenced the way people thought they heard the foreign word. “A-” and “en-” can both be negative prefixes, so there would have been no particular issues for semantics in the shift.
The Old French comes, naturally, from Latin. In particular, we can trace the root aveugler to the Vulgar Latin aboculus, i.e. “blind.” Did I hear you say, “Hold the phone…how on earth did you get from point A to point B on that one?” The words look completely different, right? Wrong. Say “v” over and over for a few minutes. Notice the placement of your teeth and lips. Now say “b” a few times. The only difference between the sounds is a tiny shift in articulation (teeth to lip vs. lip to lip). The shift between the two sounds is actually a very common switch in language shift.
On a similar level, play around with “c” and “g.” Do you feel the way your tongue hangs out toward the back of your throat for both? The only difference between these two sounds is whether or not your vocal chords are making themselves heard. Again, it’s so simple a change that it’s very common.
As for the vowels…well, vowels are vowels. They’re a mess to represent and a beast to sort out from one another, so for now, let’s just leave it at this: Sound change is completely regular. There is nothing strange about the difference in the vowels.
Now that we’ve cleared that path up, we can pull the Latin apart. You all know “ab-” already, right? (Nod your heads, class, we’ve been over this one several times. Look it up if you missed a lesson.) Who’s got a guess about –oculus? What’s that? You think oculus might mean eye? Very good! A+ use of cognates. The general sense of the word is “eyes turned away.”
With a whole history of the word behind us, we can imagine great scenes of people inveigling their way into things. “Jenny inveigled her way into that club” could invoke a picture of Jenny stabbing bouncers in the eye with the heel of her stiletto. “Stanley inveigled his way into that great job” could suggest a scene where Stanley hires a circus for the express purpose of shouting “Look over there!” to his interviewing committee, thus distracting them and allowing him to then pretend they’ve already made him an offer. Take your pick.
And the next time you hear the word “inveigle” and get a fit of the giggles in an inappropriate location…you’re welcome.