Sunday, January 14, 2007

Them Ferrin Words

I was struggling for the right phrase the other evening to describe something that is the best of its kind. I found that I didn't know whether sine qua non or ne plus ultra was the more apt phrase. Then, as I was about to spew out "ne plus ultra", I realized that I wasn't sure that I had ever heard either phrase pronounced. Ah, the challenges of having a larger written vocabulary than spoken! (Which as I understand it is normal for literate people, but I'll be danged if I can quote a source for that.)

  • sine qua non: Late Latin; literally "without which not"; meaning something essential. As a mathematician, I wanted to pronounce "sine" as in "sine and cosine", but I know that in Latin that arrangement of vowels and consonants should be two syllables. I'll invent my own typology here to avoid diacritical marks-- "i" is short as in "tip"; "a" is as the "o" in "bother" or "cot": si' ni qua nan' preferred by Webster's but a long I as in sigh' ni qua non is also used.

  • ne plus ultra: New Latin (OK, next question--what's difference between Late Latin and New Latin? some other time, perhaps) for "no more beyond"; meaning the highest point capable of being attained or the most profound degree of a quality. Use "u" as in both the a and u of abut and A as in "day" or "fade": nA plus ultru.

In any event, I was glad to confirm that I had picked the right one and had pronounced it reasonably close to the correct manner. Another vocabulary faux pas avoided!

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