October 21, 2005

Oh, all right, micturition

A lot of mail is being received at Language Log Plaza concerning the issue of whether the word micturation, as found here and here and here, is some sort of error for the standard medical term micturition. On the one hand, there are far more Google hits for the latter than the former. And although Douglas Adams uses micturation, his use is (i) found in a piece of appalling poetry putatively written by a member of a highly unsavory alien race from another galaxy, which sort of lessens its value as evidence, and (ii) occurs in the poem as a count noun, in the plural form micturations, apparently meaning "urination events" (or possibly "products of urination events"). But on the other hand, the people at Language Log Plaza are not very inclined to get all pissy about technical words for pissing. Especially not when there is an almost totally productive process of deriving nouns ending in -ation from verbs ending in -ate.

On the third hand, though, Moray Allan has come up with a nice case of a (rare) word ending in -ition related to a (very rare) verb ending in -ate that is hardly ever paralleled by a noun ending in -ation: ebullition has 265,000 Ghits, and although ebullate exists (with 1,460 Ghits), ebullation only gets 90 hits, which means it is pretty close to being nonexistent. In cases of this kind, it seems that the -ition word came (from Latin) into English first, and the verb was formed later. Verb/noun pairs like ignite/ignition seem to be extremely rare, so people tend to give the verb the -ate suffix. Let me summarize this inconclusive post with this recommendation: by all means use micturition as the abstract noun for micturating if you want. If you are in medical school, then always use it ("Excuse me a moment; I need to stop by the restroom for purposes of micturition before we go ingest nutritive material"). But don't regard the parallel existence of micturation as indicating some kind of an error. These things happen. Lexical word formation is not one of the domains (if there are any) in which language is neat and orderly and logical.

P.S.: David Pesetsky writes from MIT with this observation:

In J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter novels, a wizard who teleports to another location is described as apparating, but the process is consistently called apparition -- with an "i". See, for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparate#Apparition. That always seemed odd to me as I read the books, but I just assumed that wizards know the right spells to transform theme vowels.

So that would be another case of an -ition word related to an -ate word where there is no -ation word, one would have thought. Except that apparation gets 68,000 ghits. Go figure. I have never heard of such a word, and I am not going to slog through 68,000 pages to see whether all of the occurrences are misspellings or commercial coinages or whether it's merely most of them; I'm delegating that to one of the research assistants at Language Log Plaza. Oh, by the way, there is an opening for a research assistant at Language Log Plaza at the moment. Ph.D. in linguistics or a related field preferred. No riff-raff. Send your resumé with your $150 non-refundable application fee to: Human Resources Department, Language Log Plaza, 3650 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6024.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 21, 2005 02:28 PM