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Jewish World Review August 24, 2004 / 7 Elul, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Guacamole = avocados?; 'bona fides' needs plural verb?; 'exact same' redundant?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Dear Editor:

Someone told me recently that not only is guacamole made from avocados, but the word "guacamole" also comes from the word "avocado." Is this true? They look so different.

— W.T., Bangor, Maine

Dear W.T.:

The word "guacamole" does come from "avocado" - the Nahuatl word for "avocado," that is. Let's step back and take a look at the histories of these words.

We owe the avocado, along with chocolate and the tomato, to pre-Columbian Middle America, and the words for these tasty items to Nahuatl, the language of several important Indian peoples, including the Aztecs who lived in the area that is now Mexico City.

The Nahuatl word for the avocado was "ahuacatl," which also means "testicle" - one sense presumably being a metaphor for the other, although we do not know which came first. This word was borrowed into Spanish as "aguacate," though by some peculiar twist of folk etymology some American Spanish speakers modified it to "abocado," identical with "abocado" or "abogado," meaning "advocate, lawyer."

This modification eventually lost out to "aguacate" in almost all varieties of overseas Spanish, but not before it was borrowed into French (as "avocat") and English (as "avocato" or "avocado") in the late 17th century.

The same Nahuatl word that gave us "avocado" is also the source of "guacamole." The Nahautl word "ahuacatl" occurred in the compound "ahuacamolli," which literally means "avocado sauce." It was borrowed into Spanish as "guacamole," which American English borrowed several centuries later.


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Dear Editor:

Shouldn't "bona fides" be a plural word, and appear with a plural verb?

— S.C., Hartford, Conn.

Dear S.C.:

"Bona fides" looks like a plural word in English, since it ends with that "s," but in Latin there is no such thing as a single "bona fide." Rather, "bona fides" is a singular noun that literally translates as "good faith."

When "bona fides" entered English in the mid-17th century, it at first stayed very close to its Latin use - it was found mostly in legal contexts, and it meant "honesty or lawfulness of purpose" as well as "good faith, or sincerity," just as it did in Latin. It also retained its singular construction. Someone using this original sense might speak of "a claimant whose bona fides is unquestionable," for example.

However, in the 20th century, use of "bona fides" began to widen, and it began to appear with a plural verb in certain contexts. For example, a sentence such as "the informant's bona fides were ascertained" is now possible. So the short answer is that while `bona fides" isn't necessarily a word that "should" be treated as a plural, it's certainly possible and acceptable to do so.

— — —

Dear Editor:

Isn't "exact same" redundant, and thus never appropriate?

— S.B., Biloxi, Miss.

Dear S.B.:

Redundancy is only part of the potential problem with "exact same." For one thing, "exact" appears to be modifying the adjective "same," in which case "exact" has to be an adverb (much like "very" in "very same"). But "exact" is generally not an adverb. Thus, the use of "exact" here would be purely idiomatic - it doesn't really fit into normal rules of syntax.

But it's possible to interpret both "exact" and "same" as adjectival. The two words of the phrase are often transposed ("the same exact thing"), and such interchangeability strongly suggests that both of them are functioning as adjectives. Other adjectives also sometimes occur with "same" in similar constructions ("the same identical thing").

If they're both adjectives, they certainly can be called redundant. But as we've said before, redundancy isn't all bad - it can even be useful. Words that mean essentially the same thing are used in succession for emphasis. Sometimes such duplication enhances the sound and rhythm of a sentence as well.

Ultimately, whether "exact" in "exact same" is a redundant adjective or an idiomatic adverb is of secondary importance. The primary question is whether the phrase is used by educated speakers and writers, and the answer to that question is yes. "Exact same" is in fact extremely common in speech and in informal writing, and its use in suitable contexts cannot be called inappropriate.


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02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
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11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
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05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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