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Words with a watery background

The Mississippi's historic highs remind the Monitor's language columnist how rich our vocabulary is in metaphors for inundation.

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The ancients believed there were four elements: air, fire, earth, and water. The last of these has been particularly in thought of late as floods have overwhelmed people along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

I was the recipient of an unusual travelogue the other day: A colleague en route back to the East Coast from California pinged me at 36,000 feet over the country's waterlogged midsection.

His in-flight Wi-Fi connection let us trade instant messages to fill each other in on loose ends. In between the professional back and forth, I got a report of rivers far wider than they should be and countless acres of farmland under water.

Floods are a recurrent theme of human history. Humanity has had a love-hate relationship with rivers over time. When the relationship is working well, we get irrigation and transportation. Learning to work with rivers is a fundamental process of development – think of the Egyptians and their great civilization on the Nile. But when things aren't going well we can get death and destruction.

No wonder our language is filled with flood metaphors. Lately I've found a spate of familiar words with watery backgrounds. Indeed spate is one of them. It's often used in journalism to describe "a lot" of something, or a string of episodes – "a spate of robberies" in a neighborhood, for instance.

Spate is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, an early 15th-century word, originally used in Scotland and northern England and meaning "a sudden flood, especially one caused by heavy rains or a snowmelt."


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