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June 10, 2015

Iridescent comes from Iris

between-you-and-meFrom Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris:

“Etymology” is from the Greek and means the study (logia) of the “literal meaning of a word according to its origin” (etymon). (Not to be confused with “entomology,” the study of insects [entomon].) It can be a huge help n spelling. For instance, people sometimes misspell “iridescent.” It’s a trick that often appears on copy-editing tests. Webster’s Collegiate supplies this enthusiastic definition for “iridescence”: “a lustrous rainbowlike play of colour caused by the differential refraction of light waves (as from an oil slick, soap bubble, or fish scales) that tends to change as the angle of your view changes.” Rather than just try to memorize the spelling, if you look at the etymology—study the entrails of the word—you find that “iris, irid” is a combining form that comes from the Greek Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the gods. Wow! Like Webster, I could go off the deep end in finding significance in this: it seems like magic—a word that appeared in Homer’s Iliad and that we associate with Noah’s ark (the rainbow), and with optimism and promise, connects with puddles in Cleveland that I marveled at as a girl (there was a lot of grease in the puddles in Cleveland) and an indelible image from the opening pages of The Catcher in the Rye, in which Salinger has Holden remark on the “gasoline rainbow.” Anyway, once you know that “iridescent” comes from Iris, you’ll never spell it wrong.

(Am reading this book on the recommendation of Ann Patchett, and enjoying it very much. Even the parts without irises.)

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