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Chris -- 2018-04-11

#1 2011-12-24 13:41:44

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2589

obliviate << obviate

The web has hundreds of examples of “obliviate/s the need/necessity.” Almost all of these expressions should be “obviate the need.” “Obviate” derives from the Latin term for “go away from” (note the “via” in the middle of the word). “Obviate” means to dispose of/circumvent/remove.

The “obliviate” variation seems to be based on the Latin term for forgetfulness, the same term that gives us the modern “oblivion.” “To obliviate” was actually an English verb meaning to forget, at least until the middle of the nineteenth century. The verb has been scarce on the ground in the last century, though.

Scarce, that is, until J. K. Rowling started mining her schoolgirl Latin for names of curses.1 Harry Potter and his co-wizards use a curse called “obliviate” to make people (usually muggles) forget something. See Hermione use the curse at 1:50 in this clip: .

One suspects that part of the impetus behind the popular replacement of “obviate” with “obliviate” comes from the diffusion of Potterspeak. Those who say “obliviate the need” may not actually be thinking of the Potter spell, of course. The saturated exposure we all have to Rowling’s mythology licenses the subliminal substitution. Chances are that the word “oblivion” is the deeper semantic draw.

1 A score of the eighty-odd spells in the Harry Potter books end in the letter “o.” These ”-o” spells are either indicative first-person present singular Latin verbs or words pretending to be indicative first-person present singular Latin verbs. As the names of curses they should be nouns (“Nouns,” says my seventh grade teacher, “are name of person, places, or things.”) and they sometimes perform in their grammatical roles as nouns and adjectives. But they are the names, not of things, but of actions, and when spoken they are the actions. Which makes them more like verbs, and which explains Rowling’s predilection for Latinate “-o” names for spells.

Now that I think about it, just how did the characters in Harry Potter talk about the spells? Every time Harry’s teachers mentioned a curse they would also invoke the curse, wouldn’t they? “Obliviate” would be particularly difficult spell to teach. Each time the teacher mentioned the name of the spell the students would forget the lesson! It could also make exam crams a nightmare (“Better review my spell list before the test. Let’s see. Imperio, Lumos, Quietus, Obliviate, uh, uh.”)

Last edited by kem (2011-12-26 15:55:35)

Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.



#2 2011-12-26 13:48:53

David Bird
From: Montréal, QC
Registered: 2009-07-28
Posts: 1554

Re: obliviate << obviate

I wonder whether obliterate works its way into phrases like “obliviate the necessity for”.



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