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Words Sept. 15

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Mari B. Lee writes: My son and I were playing Scrabble. I used the word plode, he challenged, we checked the dictionary and I lost. How can there be words such as explode and implode without there being a root word, plode?” The same way there can be an explore and implore but no plore, I suppose. The language doesn’t always work the way we think it should. Explode, which dates from the 16th century, is derived from a Latin word, explaudere, “to drive an actor offstage by jeering and derisive clapping.” John Ciardi says this remained the principal meaning of explode until the 18th century, when the sense “to detonate gunpowder” developed. The original meaning is now obsolete. Implode didn’t come along until the late 19th century, when someone decided that if something that burst outward exploded, then something that burst inward must implode. I have an idea this is not going to satisfy Ms. Lee. She sounds less than gruntled. “Calling the citizens displaced by Hurricane Katrina ‘refugees’ is grating on a lot of people’s nerves. These are American citizens, and the term ‘refugee’ implies a certain amount of disassociation from other American citizens.” Refugee and evacuee are the words most in use by the news media, although others — victims, survivors, and such — are also applied. Random House says an evacuee is “A person who is withdrawn or removed from a place of danger, a disaster area, etc.” and a refugee is “A person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.” As for choosing one to the exclusion of the other, there are hairs to be split on both sides. Until now, I never imagined that anyone felt strongly enough to split them. But obviously some people do object to refugee, including some of those to whom it is being applied, and how people feel about a word can be more important than a strict dictionary definition, which is always subject to change over time. A few editors have banned refugee. Others defend its use. Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley said the Times has no official policy, but he personally is avoiding refugee.

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