This week’s etymology posts will be brought to you by the Scripps National Spelling Bee and NPR. Somewhere along my training in linguistics, my own ability to spell went to heck. It’s hard for me to hold onto many of the conventions I learned as a kid when I’m also aware of historic, British, and phonetic ways of spelling them. Maybe if you stick with historical linguistics all the way through to a Ph.D. you eventually manage to get things sorted in your head, but I’m only a muddle-headed hobbyist who knows how her collection of excellent dictionaries. That being said, I have a great deal of respect for people who know how to spell. Today’s word is the one that lost the bee for speller who cam in second place.
NSB endgame words are often characterized by their “Huh?” factor, so here’s the definition for you: “A form of argument in which a series of incomplete syllogisms is so arranged that the predicate of each premise forms the subject of the next until the first subject is joined with the predicate of the last in the conclusion” (AHCD, s.v. “sorites”).
All clear now? What do you mean, “No”? I thought that definition all but sparkled with useful clarity. Kind of a case in point for how dictionaries are poor tools for teaching new words, isn’t it?
Fortunately, the key to understanding the word is its history. “Sorites” is jargon in philosophy, logic, and their close cousin mathematics and it has been from its coinage. That means the word has traveled to us almost unchanged through the path I think of as the “philosopher’s highway,” which is to say that the idea started with the Greeks, passed to the Romans, then traveled out into the wider world through the standard channels of classical education.
The original Greek is soreites, meaning “heaped up,” which comes from the word for “heap” – soros. The word is named for the first noted example of a type of flawed argument. It goes like this: 1 grain of sand does not make a heap. If 1 grain of sand does not make a heap, then 2 grains of sand do not make a heap. If 2 grains of sand don’t make a heap, then 3 grains of sand do not make a heap. If you continue this line of reasoning, you must accept that 10,000 grains of sand do not make a heap.
Of course, we can see where the argument fails in the Bee itself. 1 right word + 1 right word, added indefinitely, do not make the champion. The spelling champion is made by 1 + 1 + 1 … + 2 right words.