Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Salient and Desultory

I discovered today that "salient" and "desultory" come from the same root word, the Latin "salire," meaning to jump. That's very interesting to me, considering how modern usage has shifted them into nearly opposite meanings.

Merriam-Webster's first definition of salient is "moving by leaps or springs: jumping." I would say the more common use these days follows from its third definition, "projecting beyond a line, surface, or level," or "standing out conspicuously: prominent." A salient point originally simply meant some kind of projection, often related to military formations or structures, but it has gone from that to being used to describe the main thrust of an argument or discussion. The Free Dictionary suggests synonyms for "salient point" including "essence," "cornerstone," and "focal point," none of which seem related to jumping around!

"Desultory" comes from adding the Latin "de" (from) to salire, i.e. to jump from (something), so think of grasshoppers, not butterflies. Desultores were circus performers who leaped from one galloping horse to another. Dictionary.com's first definition of desultory is "lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful" and its second definition is "digressing from the main subject; random." I've also heard it used in conversation to simply mean casual, in the context of a dilettante, as in taking a desultory interest in some topic. 

Again, de means from or down from (or in some cases, about); it's not a preposition related to opposition, such as contra or adversus. Logically and etymologically, desultory should not be an antonym of salient, despite how their usages seem to be evolving in opposite directions. But then, if you crave order and reason in language, I'm afraid that English will often frustrate you; you might want to try instead for being amused by its surprises.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. Maybe salient works if you think of it as a vector (connecting thrust and focal point and projection?).

    I guess desultory makes sense if you think of the grasshopper touching down lightly as it jumps from idea to idea, task to task, etc.

    It's the difference between rocket ships and grasshoppers!

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  2. I think of and use salient much more in its sense of "standing out" by comparison, similar to colors 'popping' as used in design these days. For me salient is nearly always connected with factor, feature, circumstance, point, or similar nouns; in other words something that may always be there, but given some particular context, theory, or question, it becomes salient.

    Beyond Latin, more contemporary usage is as you note rooted in military history. If I'm remembering correctly it's related to castles and forts: salients are projecting parts of the defending perimeter (buildings or walls). A salient is also ground taken that moves you into enemy territory (or incursion into yours that the enemy holds). Physically it is a peninsula, i.e. mostly surrounded by opposing forces, thus leaving those troops vulnerable on three sides and/or serving as a 'jumping off' point for them to launch further attacks. Related is sally, originally meaning troops rushing out from a fortified location for a brief but fierce attack.

    Both salient and sally come not directly from the Latin root but by way of Middle French usage* -- they were (believe it or not) great innovators in medieval warfare.

    *1535–45: Middle French saillie, attack, noun. Use of feminine past participle of saillir, to rush forward. From Latin salīre, to leap.

    With surprise and serendipity given my start to this comment, I note that Google translate gives the contemporary meaning of saillir as "to stand out".

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Let me know what you think about this!