Saturday, July 09, 2011

Word of the Day: Lachrymatory

As an adjective, it means 'tear-inducing', 'of or related to tears' (i.e. something to do with crying). As a noun, it means a small vessel designed to keep human tears (like a reliquary).

My first encounter with the lachrymose was my exposure to 2-bromobenzyl bromide. This substance is a real tear-jerker. It is a simple lachrymator, a starter component for the making of "tear gases" of various kinds. I was using gloves and goggles, I had been pretty careful — or so I thought. A droplet of the stuff got somewhere near my eyes, and I was out in the corridor crying a river.

The word 'lachrymatory' and other related words (like the more common 'lachrymose', meaning 'weepy') have their basis in the Latin lacrima, a sort of bastardised offspring of the Greek dakryma, which means 'tear'  (cf. δακρυσμένος, tearful). This accounts for the transcription and subsequent alternative spellings beginning with lacryma-.

What is really interesting to me as an amateur linguist is the change from d- to l- when going from Greek to Latin. The same fate was suffered by daphne, the Greek word for the Latin lavrus, or laurel tree. It is, however, a different change (with a different significance) from the one when d- compounds (dextro) in organic chemistry are changed to l- compounds (laevo).

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