At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

Increase your knowledge of English words by learning about the origins of flux, reflux, influx & fluctuate

in which we inspect an influx of borrowings like influence and effluent

Here’s a quotation from a Canadian government site that explains parliamentary procedures: “The Constitution states that no House ‘shall continue for longer than five years.’ Mindful of this deadline, all governments since Confederation have resorted to dissolution. In some cases, the dissolution took place within days of when the House would have expired through effluxion of time.”

Effluxion of Etymology
Effluxion is an outflow of any liquid or any thing flowable. The effluxion of time is constant. The coined noun was formed from the Latin adjective effluxus ‘flowing out’ from the verb effluere ‘to flow out’ from the prepositional prefix ex- Latin ‘out of’ + fluere Latin ‘to flow.’

Latin fluere and English flow seem to be cognates from the same Proto-Indo-European stem, but some linguists say not.

The Efflux of the Afflux of the Influx
The short noun and verb efflux ‘to flow out’ has always been rare in English. Afflux and influx are verbs meaning ‘to flow up to’ and ‘to flow into.’ The noun influx is common. But more frequently used is a related noun borrowed into English from French, influence ‘something that flows into a person or thing and alters it.’

The Italian word for influence is influenza, source of our disease phrase the flu. One meaning of influenza in sixteenth-century Italy was ‘mysterious influence,’ a disease that flows into many people all at the same time, hence epidemic outbreak of disease. The Italian word was borrowed by many European languages during a severe epidemic in 1743 that afflicted all of Europe.

The mysterious or astral flowing from the sky of an invisible heavenly fluid that flowed down to earth and “influenced” the destiny of humans was one definition of influence in medieval Latin and our English poet Chaucer uses the word influence in that sense by 1374 CE.

From this verb’s present participle comes a noun and adjective familiar in English ecological writing, effluent, literally ‘that which flows out of.’ Effluent from industrial processes is often polluted and needs filtering before being allowed to flow into natural streams used by people and animals.

Related Words in Other Languages
Latin fluere ‘to flow’ is cognate with some Greek verbs like ploein ‘to swim,’ pleein ‘to be full,’ plunein ‘to wash,’ and to Latin plorare ‘weep’ and Latin pluit ‘it is raining.’ Compare modern French la pluie ‘the rain’ and something used ‘against the rain’ une parapluie ‘an umbrella.’ They are all based on various vowel grades of the same stem /plv/ (where the italic v represents any vowel), a stem that began perhaps as PIE *ple- ‘fill up, be full.’

Once upon a time 400 years ago, this now obsolete scientific word meant an outflow of minute particles. It is only used today, sometimes humorous, to refer to a foul odour rising from some putrid pool of pollution. But do us old Latin hands a favour and don’t say effluviums as the plural form when the correct Latin is also correct in English: effluvia. Mephitic effluvia rose from the tar-sand tailings ponds and poisoned the very air of approaching birds.

from Latin fluxus ‘a flowing’
Flux is an old name for dysentery. Flux once meant any large flow of liquid from an organ.

I well remember learning to use a flux in high-school industrial shop class during lessons on soldering. In my school even those of us students streamed into academic courses could take electives like Industrial Shop.

Soldering is joining together, for example, two pieces of copper pipe.

The solder I learned to use then was an amalgam of tin and lead. A flux in our high-school soldering was painted on the surface of the two copper pipes to be joined. The flux was diluted hydrochloric acid. It prevented oxidation of the base metals and acted too as a wetting agent.

Soldering has been useful to humans for a long time, archeological evidence shows soldering used 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Consider The Old Testament, Isaiah 41:7 “So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil saying It is ready for the soldering and he fastened it with nails that it should not be moved.”

Conflux is a flowing together, for example of streams and rivers. The more modern word is confluence. In his tragedy Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare preferred the shorter word: “As knots by the conflux of meeting sap, Infect the sound Pine.”

Reflux means ‘a flowing back or a return. In reference to tidal bodies of water, it is used in the phrase ‘the flux and reflux’ of rivers, bays and estuaries.

In medicine, what is commonly and incorrectly termed ‘heart burn’ is in fact an esophageal reflux, a flowing back up of gastric contents to the esophagus. The injury to the esophagus from refluxed stomach acids is called reflux esophagitis.

And thus come we, gentle readers all, to the tristful efflux of this day’s omniscience. So said he humbly and withdrew, perchance to contemplate the overuse of the predicate-first mode which began this last paragraph.

Bill Casselman, July 19, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman