At the Wording Desk

Increase your vocabulary by investigating these "dye" words

Bill Casselman

Simpleminded nincompoops throughout history have clasped to their damp bosoms an excusing sentence first penned by the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.” “Yep!” say all the illiterate morons and stupid losers who comprise the total waste of protoplasm which idiots represent, “I’se sure glad I’m not smart like them there eggheads, cause most of them’r nuts ‘n’ crazy.” This lets the synapseless schnook off the hook of ever even trying to be thoughtful and perhaps assuages the disesteem which properly befalls the born dunce.

In fact, modern psychiatry offers annual statistical proof that smart people are seldom mad. On the contrary, citizens of fuzzier mind are the usual victims of insanity.

Apt too is this snippet from the British polymath Bertrand Russell: “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason.”

From the dawn of the fifteenth century when the word first appeared in our prose, great English writers have been fond of the intrinsic seepage in the noun tincture and the longer, pronunciatory delight of its Italian predecessor tinctura. Its very sound seems to stain and dye the meaning. Shakespeare wrote of “the perfumed tincture of the roses.” “Nature has left this tincture in the blood, That all men would be tyrants if they could,” said wise novelist Daniel Defoe.

Such is my elitist introit to the study of English words like tincture, mezzotint, tinge, distain and taint, all derivatives of the Latin verb tingere ‘to dye, to stain, to paint, to soak in colour, to wet, to bathe, to moisten.’

Tint, Mezzotint & Aquatint
A tint is the delicate hue of a colour, a softer shade of chromatic intensity. Tint may even be a misspelling of tinct, influenced by the Italian tinta first borrowed by English painters who had travelled to Italy to study the masters, where tinta was a word for ‘hue.’ Also from the vocabulary of art is mezzotint. Wikipedia’s definition is worth repeating: “Mezzotint is a printmaking process of the intaglio family, technically a dry point method. It was the first tonal method to be used, enabling half-tones to be produced…” The word is from Italian mezzatinta ‘a shade between light and dark, a middle tint.’

A fellow artistic term is aquatint, likewise from Italian aqua tinta from Latin acqua tincta ‘dyed water.’ Aquatinting is a mode of copper etching by brushing a diluted nitric acid solution on the metal sheet, with effects resembling water-colour drawing.  

Rare is the noun tinct, now chiefly of poetic use to name colouring matter or dye. Latin tinctus ‘a dyeing’ is the root here. Tinct could also mean a hint, or a trace of something. In medieval alchemy, a tinct was a magical elixir capable of transmuting one element into another.

Our verb tinge springs directly from Latin tingere and meant first ‘to impart a slight shade of some colour to a thing.’

This mighty word began as a mere vowel gradation of tint, assisted into English through Norman French teinter and older French teindre, both from the Latin verb tingere (see above). Writers have much used this word, adored for its monosyllabic hammer on the flimsy tin of an otherwise soft English sentence. The British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose histories of England are still hailed as masterpieces of style wrote “He had inherited from his parents a scrofulous taint, which it was beyond the power of medicine to remove.”

Early in its English use, taint referred to a colour change in food that was going bad, for example, the bruising squelchy brown rot of an autumn pear plucked too soon from a ripening limb then kept too long on a sideboard. From a mere change of colour in putrefying fruit, taint in its developed uses came to mean a blemish on one’s character, a “dark spot” in one’s personality, any disgrace of utterance or action.

 The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time and not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections, not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.”

William Shakespeare employed the word’s starkness often. “I hate ingratitude more in a man / Than lying, vainness, babbling drunkenness, / Or any taint of vice whose strong corruption / Inhabits our frail blood.”

To distain began as a transitive verb from Latin, dis negative prefix + tingere ‘to dye’ and so first meant ‘to alter the colour of a thing to a hue not its natural colour.’ All the later meanings arise from that original sense: ‘to sully, to dishonour, to defile and to outshine.’

So, even as we paint these sources for readers’ verbal enlightenment, the darkness of time’s tincture doth bedim and obfuscate and coat with brittle, yellowed age our sundry etymologies, which, obedient as autumn leaves in densest frost, do crinkle and wizen and tumble, pulverized to illegibility, upon the stark dead sward of winter.

Bill Casselman,

June 27, 2016

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