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Logophile Language Puzzlers: Stolen Tunes and Dirty Spoons

In Issue:

1. Diane’s music being too loud was a ____ offense compared to the fact that she was playing it on a stolen stereo.

a. venal
b. venial
c. vernal

2. When I told him he wouldn’t be allowed to go to the party until the dishes were clean, Donovan, in a state of torpor,

a. washed them all in record time.
b. just sat there like a lump.
c. argued that it was Jenny’s turn to wash the dishes.

3. Take a breather before you tackle this toughie: Can you name a common six-letter English word that starts and ends with the same vowel and has no other vowels in between?

 

Answers and Explanations

1. b. venial

Venial means “forgivable or pardonable.” Other venial offenses include driving a few miles over the speed limit, accidentally under-tipping a server, and forgetting your mother-in-law’s birthday.

Venal indicates something — or someone — that can be bought and sold, and it’s usually used to refer to corrupt bribery. It comes from the same Latin root that gives us the word vendor and vending machine.

A mnemonic that has worked for me to keep these words straight is to remember that all of the sins I commit are venIal. If you are hopelessly corrupt (venal), this memory device might not work for you.

Vernal is an adjective indicating spring, the season. The first day of spring is the vernal equinox.

 

2. b. just sat there like a lump.

Torpor is a noun that began appearing in the early 1600s to describe both mental and physical sluggishness. Used in a veterinary sense, it indicates the lowered metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature we expect to find in a hibernating animal. You don’t have to hang around bears to experience torpor, though; sometimes an unmotivated couch potato can be just as torpid (the related adjective).

 

3. asthma

That “take a breather” line wasn’t just advice, it was a hint! Besides asthma the only other common noun (as opposed to a proper noun) that starts and ends with the same vowel with no other vowels between is isthmi, a rarely used plural of isthmus.

—Andy Hollandbeck is the Post’s copy editor and managing editor.

This Logophile is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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