Judy Hagey

Nonfiction Editor ~ Freelance Writer

Say It Ain’t So

The day after my Better Half’s (BH) recent shoulder surgery, while still under the influence of pain pills, he made a verbal faux pas that will be one of those family jokes that lives on.

With his arm in a sling, he asked for help with some small task, remarking as he did so, “I’m an imbecile, you know.”

“I think you mean invalid,” I corrected.

But the damage had been done.

Imbecile is now a euphemism for invalid at our house.

It turns out that BH’s use of imbecile was the original use of the term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original meaning of imbecile was “weak, feeble,” referring to the body. The association with mental frailty was a secondary sense in the original Latin and didn’t acquire primary meaning in English until a century later.

The noun invalid, an “infirm or sickly person,” originally referred to disabled military men. The adjective carries two distinct meanings and pronunciations. When the emphasis is on the first syllable (\ˈin-və-ləd), it echoes the meaning of the noun—weak, infirm, not strong. But move the emphasis to the last syllable ( \(ˈ)in-¦va-ləd\) and it means no basis in fact, or no legal standing. The root, validus, comes from the Latin for “to be strong,” and forms all or part of a wide range of English words, including ambivalence, convalesce, prevalent, valiant and valor.

BH has taken to using the second pronunciation to describe himself, presumably to soften the blow of being temporarily and minimally incapacitated. I’m just grateful that we’re laughing about this. I take that as a sign of strength, not weakness.

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