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Friday, May 24, 2013

In Memori... um???

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend in the US, so today we are going to look at three words all having to do with remembering, and all very often misspelled.

The first is the phrase "in memoriam", frequently misspelled "in memorium". It is a Latin phrase, and the Latin word for "memory" is the feminine memoria. If you misspell this, just think of the word "memorial".

The second is "memento", frequently misspelled "momento". This also comes from Latin, being the imperative of the verb meaning "remember!" In the 16th century, it was quite common for people to have skulls or other lugubrious objects about to remind them of the transitory nature of life. Such an object was called a "memento mori", meaning literally, "remember that you must die". 

Over the years, the sense has weakened so that our mementoes  (or mementos) are more likely to be dust-gathering tchotchkes brought back to remind us of a trip. Souvenir shops probably realized quite early that skulls reminding us of our mortality weren't hot sellers. It should not be too difficult to remember how to spell memento, as the first three letters are also found in "memory" and "remember".

Finally, there is the word "remembrance", frequently misspelled "rememberance". Admittedly, this is one of those cases of inconsistent English spelling: why do we have an e before the second r in the verb but not in the noun? Back when we borrowed this from French in the Middle Ages, the French verb was remembrer and the noun remembraunce. (Since then, the French have given up on this verb altogether, preferring rappeler and souvenir.) As with the similar, but unrelated "member" (a word which has a titillating history of its own), which came from membre, by the Middle English period we didn't like having dangling schwas (that indeterminate "uh" sound) at the end of words, so we switched the order of the final consonant-vowel cluster around, and remembre (re mem bruh) became "remember" (re mem bur). But in the noun, we didn't have a dangling schwa problem, so it remained as it was.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    They say our national poet, Mihail Eminescu, was a good one.

    Here is his ''Memento mori'', apparently written at around 21-22 years of age:


    Here are a few of his poems, translated into English:


    I hope you like them (and him: he was superb looking, at age 19!).

    Thanks for your work!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.