Words at Work by Kathy McIntosh: Musings on Latin may evoke memories, provoke discussion

KATHY McINTOSH, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.July 9, 2013 

Kathy McIntosh

A recent trip to Arizona evoked memories of many childhood vacations spent there. We took a short hike to the V-Bar-V Heritage site, the largest known petroglyph site in the Verde Valley. One could speculate that the people who created this rock art used it in part to invoke their gods or spirit guides.

This of course guides me to the difference between words with -voke as their roots: evoke, invoke, provoke, revoke and their many forms and cousins. The words stem from the Latin vocare, to call. Their prefixes refine their meaning. Invoke means to call in, evoke means to call out (from Latin ex or out), provoke means to call out or excite to action (pro in Latin means for), and revoke means to call back or take back.

Context and usage distinguish the first three: Evoke generally means to call up something intangible, like a memory, while invoke means to call up something specific.

One often invokes a rule or a law in support or justification. An invocation before a meeting is a call for a blessing. An invocation can also be the act of using an incantation to call up a spirit.

Provoke is a synonym, but is generally used to mean incite to anger or resentment, to issue a challenge.

Vocal, vocabulary, advocate, vocation and avocation also have similar roots. The Latin verb vocare is related to the Latin noun vox, or voice. Thus vocal pertains to the voice, vocabulary is a set of words. Advocate means to give a voice to, or plead for someone or something. Vocation and avocation are callings: vocation means one's work, what we're called to do; avocation is what we do when not working, when we are called away.

I never had the opportunity to study Latin, so my interpretation of the varying sources for these words may provoke those well-versed in etymology to disagree. That's great. Nothing makes me happier than when my words evoke email responses.

Dictionary browsing brought me some words related to these. Vocable is a noun meaning a word considered only as a sequence of sounds or letters rather than as a unit of meaning. The adjective vocable means capable of being voiced or spoken.

Vocalic is an adjective meaning containing, marked by, or consisting of vowels, or having the nature of a vowel.

Another word stemming from vocare is vocative. In Latin the vocative case is used for a person or persons to whom a sentence is addressed: "Et tu, Brute." (And you, Brutus). In English, the form of the proper noun doesn't change in direct address: "Fred, the phone's for you." But a vocative can be added or removed without affecting the construction of the rest of the sentence. When I edit fiction, I see too many vocatives used in dialog. "You know I love you, Mary." "Yes, Albert, I fed the dog." Now that I've learned the word, I'll tell clients to cut out excessive vocatives.

I mentioned vociferate in the past, but for new readers, it means to cry out or utter vehemently, especially in protest. The adjective vociferous means clamorous or making an outcry.

Should you wish to disagree with me, please do, vociferously or with calm restraint.

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kathy@awellplacedword.com

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