This week’s Dictionary of the Week – ok, this season’s Dictionary of the Week, since the last one I did was in April – is a classic. It’s red, it’s got Webster in the title, and it sits on a shelf right next to my head, where I can grab it whenever I need a ruling on a word.
Today’s word: crenulate. I wrote a blog post about a crochet coral reef for Smithsonian magazine’s website, in which I referred to the edge of some structures on the coral reef as “crenelated.” That’s what I thought I’d heard people say. It seemed reasonable. I had a rough definition for it in my head – you know, ruffly, or something.
So this morning when I was writing about the coral reef for my own blog, and I got to that word, I thought, I should really check this. The blog post for Smithsonian was read by at least two editors, but I have no safety net on my blog. I also know that I have a problem with double consonants. It’s my spelling blind spot. I’ve looked up “accommodate” so many times, I think I’ve finally learned it, but…I usually look it up anyway just in case. As I flipped through the dictionary, I predicted that the correct spelling of crenelated would be one N, two Ls.
Boy, was I wrong. Both crenelate and crenellate are acceptable spellings. But they’re acceptable spellings of the wrong word. “Crenelate” is a verb that means “to furnish with battlements or crenels, or with squared notches.” (Crenel: “any of the indentations or loopholes in the top of a battlement or wall; embrasure.”)(Embrasure: “An opening (in a wall or parapet) with the sides slanting outward to increase the angle of fire of a gun.”) The adjective form is crenelated. Coral comes in many shapes, but it does not generally have battlements, crenels, embrasures, or squared notches.
The word I wanted was the next entry in the dictionary: crenulate. It means “having tiny notches or scallops, as some leaves or shells.” And here’s the other wacky thing: it’s an adjective. So you can just say a piece of coral or a nudibranch is crenulate. The dictionary allows “crenulated,” too, but this obviously doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying an apple is “redded.”
Crenelate and crenulate do come from the same root, as does crenate, which means the same thing as crenulate. (They come from the Vulgar Latin crena, a notch or grove.)
I guess most people use online dictionaries to check this kind of thing, but I don’t like online English dictionaries. I don’t like the way they look. I appreciate the tiny visual and tactile break that I get when I stop and take the dictionary off the shelf. And, most importantly, if I’d looked up crenellated here, I wouldn’t have seen the next entry and realized that was the word I was going for.
Dictionary Stats: Webster’s New World Dictionary: Third College Edition
publisher: Simon & Schuster
length: 1574 pages
guide words on p. 469: euploid adj. with the complement of chromosomes being an exact multiple of the haploid number, as diploid, triploid, etc.: see HETEROPLOID; euxenite n. a lustrous, brown-black mineral containing columbium, titanium, yttrium, erbium, cerium, and uranium
introduction: Includes an essay on language by John Algeo, who writes, “Language is not a Platonic idea abiding in a realm of archetypal truths. Rather it is a system we infer from the sounds that come out of the mouths of speakers and the marks that come from the hands of writers.” That means this is the kind of dictionary that includes “crenulated,” rather than scolding you about “redded.”
obscenities: I actually used this dictionary last night to look up quite a rude word – I wasn’t sure of the technical definition. No, I will not tell you which one.