A little exchange happens in the new New York Review of Books that's simply too choice not to mention here. In response to a piece by Tony Judt the journal ran last time around, Sam Abrams writes:
It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic.” Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to the etymological resonances of English words. Didn't Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?
Abrams closes his letter, rather enigmatically, with a quote from Tom Paine, but even without such a flourish, readers were no doubt cringing by this point, since Judt died in early August, which is pretty much the only thing he could have done to make this letter look even sillier. Or so you'd think! Turns out before he died he had time for one last Parthian shot:
Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant – the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say that they were “chaotic” I would have said so.
At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.
Hee. I miss him more than ever.