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Chemurgy and other bits of the 'wright' stuff

Some surprising connections among our words for the making of things.

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Are you feeling the urge to work, even in the summer heat?

A little bit of word play in a headline in The Economist the other week has introduced me to a new term. It's also prompted some exploring of some of our vocabulary for work and for making things.

The headline was "Better living through chemurgy," a twist on the longtime DuPont slogan, which refers to "chemistry" instead.

The piece was a report on industrial biochemistry: "Efforts to replace oil-based chemicals with renewable alternatives are taking off," it said. Instead of making plastics from petrochemicals, in other words, scientists are working to develop them from plants. Chemurgy is made up of "chem," as in chemistry, plus "urgy," a Greek element meaning work.

This new-to-me term was evidently a 20th-century coinage; Wikipedia ascribes it to William J. Hale in 1934, an earlier period of great experimentation with agricultural byproducts.

Chemurgy may well be an ugly word, as The Economist opined. But it has some company in the vocabulary of work. Metallurgy is work with metals. Dramaturgy is work with drama. A dramaturge is someone who works with drama: a playwright, to use a closer-to-home synonym.

Most of us get over the childish urge to write "playwrite," but research shows a connection between the "wright" of playwright and the "urge" of dramaturge.

What I found was something noted in the dictionary as "PIE *werg." That's a sort of shorthand that tells us that linguists think some ancient word – "werg" – was a common ancestor for the "wright" stuff as well as the "urge" of dramaturge.


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