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PLEASED BY CHAOS

Three common words: qualify, qualification, quality. Three more: clarify, clarification, clarity. The verb, the action or effect, the result ó simple enough sequences and word-forms, arenít they? Standard ones, you might think. Youíd be wrong.

There are umpteen English verbs ó Iíve totted up over 40, and no doubt there are more óthat end in -ify, plus a few oddities ending in -efy, such as liquefy, stupefy, putrefy and rarefy. They all derive ultimately, mostly through French, from the Latin word facere, to make or do, which survives in the French faire and Italian fare, but, curiously, not in English (though its past participle, factum, does so, as our word fact).

The Romans would stick almost any word they chose in front of the ending -facere to make a compound verb with some special meaning. Mediaeval Latin later converted -facere into -ficare, and then created nouns ending in -ification. Hence our own nouns such as qualification.

Just as Latin made free with -facere and -ficare, so has English with -ify. Not all of our -ify verbs have any Latin equivalent. Some donít even pretend to, such as frenchify, which is over 400 years old, or transmogrify ó a jocular way, now outdated, of saying change the shape of someone or some thing ó which is almost as old. The recent movement of Britainís middle classes into working-class city areas led to gentrify. We use -ize, originally from ancient Greek, in much the same way; as in sermonize or bowdlerize (from a certain Dr Bowdler, who tried to clean up Shakespeare in the 1820s), or in todayís tenderize, Indianize or dollarize.

Latin roots

The -ify verbs include a few oddities: we have humidify and solidify, but, for no obvious reason, not horridify or liquidify. Nor does every -ify verb give rise to -ification. Horrify, yes, albeit rarely, but terrify, no. Other oddities include crucifixion and petrifaction. And those four -efy verbs that Iíve cited above donít even lead, as they reasonably might, to -efication, but to -efaction.

Still, rare oddities these are: by and large, the pairing of -ify and -ification, and those two word-forms, is indeed pretty standard. The -ity nouns such as quality or clarity, in contrast, are nothing of the sort.

These words too began in Latin. The Romans would take an adjective ó say, dignus (worthy), and turn it into a noun, dignitas. Hence our dignity. But while nearly all -ify verbs have their -ification noun, only about a quarter of my 40-odd such verbs produce an -ity noun. You can classify, modify or amplify, each of those verbs having its -ification noun. But where are classity, modity or amplity? They donít exist.

Specify gives us specificity, not specity; simplify produces simplicity, not simplity. Magnify and rectify produce magnitude and rectitude. Horrify and the result is horror, mystify and itís mystery. Beautify and you end with beauty, uglify and you get ugliness. Itís chaos.

No rule

And to add to the confusion there are plenty of nouns such as asperity, celerity, paucity and many more, that are linked to no verb at all. These nouns began life in Rome with -itas, just as dignity did. But, there or in England, they never got round to an -ify verb. Todayís Greek government can force austerity on its citizens, or at least try to. But no way can it austerify them.

Me, Iím pleased by this chaos: no study of English offers testification to its uniformity. But Iíd better brevify this column or some sub-editor will see the justity of doing so for me.