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deriving from the Greek for 'true' (eteos/etymos) and 'word' (logos)

Curious about the origin of a word or term? Send it to us and we shall go forth and investigate.

This month Alison Strumberger is inspired by David Foster Wallace:

I recently picked up Both Flesh and Not, a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, from my postmodernist partner's desk. I began reading Wallace's work during my undergraduate studies, and while I consider myself to be a fan of his writing, I am forever resentful of such people - prolific wunderkinder who seem to have acquired their chops in utero - and therefore often wave off their work filled with long complex sentences and precocious vocabulary as, well, precocious.

I like Both Flesh and Not because each chapter is preceded by a spread of entries from Wallace's personal vocabulary list, and in flipping through these pages I have found, variously, a wonderful procrastination tool, a remedy for writer's block and the fledging of my own aspiring precocious lexicon.

In my most recent perusal of 'A', it was a definition rather than a word that caught my attention: 'helpless, naked, contains the tooth sockets'. While I was unable to conjure any kind of image to go with this disturbing phrase, something pathetic and vaguely pink began to surface and I read the word to which this mystifying meaning belonged: altricial.

This word, it turns out, derives from the Latin - surprise! - altrices and is the feminine form of altor (nourisher), from alere, which is a conjugation of al? (to nourish, to foster, to develop). And now the image in my head was getting somewhere: closed eyes, open mouths, gross-looking matted feather-like wisps. The other definitions I turned to solidified this image, all using words like 'helpless', 'blind', 'dependent at birth'. I have no idea where DFW got the tooth socket thing, which seems highly specific and somewhat leading.

Altricial's antonym happens to be precocial, whose Latin root translates loosely to 'fruits which ripen early', - a root it shares with apricot - and which finds itself in the word precocious (not, as it happens, in Wallace's word list). The Macquarie dictionary defines this word not only as 'prematurely developed', but also as 'cheeky, forward and impertinent'.

As a writer my mouth is always open and waiting for a feed, and while I often feel my vocabulary has a long way to go before I sit down to pen the newer, better, infinitely more precocious Infinite Jest, at least now I know my tooth sockets are in place.

Alison Strumberger