Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Inchoate = Not Choate? Only by Accident . . .

On page 15 of his book What We See When We Read (Vintage Original, 2014), Peter Mendelsund says:
You may feel intimately acquainted with a character . . . , but this doesn't mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed - nothing so choate.
Mendelsund may well be correct that we don't picture a character as we read, but what does he mean by "choate"? Does he consider it the opposite of "inchoate"? This word (as we all know) means: "2. Imperfectly formed or developed; disordered or incoherent" (The Free Dictionary by Farlex). That would suggest "choate" means "Perfectly formed or developed; ordered or coherent."

But "in-" in this usage does not mean "not"; rather, it is the enceptive "in-," which signals the beginning of a process. By a stroke of linguistic luck, then, something is inchoate because the process has only begun, so the thing is still in a disordered state, not yet choate, i.e., ordered - just as if "-in" meant "not"!

But is "choate" actually a word? There is some dispute about this, but "choate" has been used as a legal term since 1828, according to Wikipedia, and it means "perfected, complete, or certain" in a legal context.

Whether Mendelsund knew all of this or not, then, he could justifiably defend his choice of the term "choate" since its legal meaning fits the context here . . . insofar as we are judging character.

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At 3:12 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I assume "choate" is pronounced "koh-eyt," in keeping with "inchoate."

When I was a sophomore at Georgetown, I saw a skinny dude wearing a massive sweatshirt with "CHOATE" written on it in typical college-style font. "Koh-eyt?" I asked when he got close enough. "What's that?"

"Choat," he replied, sneeze-rhyming the utterance with "goat." Turns out he had gone to Choate Rosemary Hall, a prep school in the northeast. I visited that campus later on, in the mid-90s; it's amazingly beautiful and doesn't feel like a secondary school at all: if anything, it looks and feels like a full-on university.

At 3:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting anecdote. I wonder where the name comes from.

Jeffery Hodges

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