By which I mean, I'm nearing one full year as a hired employee of a local health and medical marketing agency, for which I fulfill the capacity of QA specialist, proofreader and copy editor. I could not be more pleased: on top of friendly and interesting staff, more than a spacious creative office, and beyond the stunning view of St. Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge—I am a valued member of a dynamic and cohesive team, and my function is to clear up the language we speak. I could not be more pleased.
Essential reading for this work are John McWhorter's The Power of Babel and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, by which the nascent editor will learn to take some power away from grammarians and lend it to linguists. No longer do you defend the idiosyncrasies of the American English dialect as "that's just how it is" (per those horrible Victorians, who just pulled stuff out of their butts and declared it Scripture); you can step up and say "this is where it came from and why we still use it". Isn't that exciting?
Well, I think so.
Anyway, this is something that came up in the course of my labors at work. The brochure we were developing was comparing several models of a surgery room implement that needed to be sterilized on the spot between uses. Some of these could be run under hot water or swabbed with an alcoholic pad, and others could be placed under water or a sterilizing agent, partially or wholly, for various lengths of time. The problem emerged with how to describe this gesture:
I had some choices to consider and some research to do. You, as the reader, can decide which of the above four terms means to plunge an implement beneath the surface of a fluid (not necessarily water). Look at the four words, decide which one wasn't legitimately generated but is a backformation of another word, and then decide which word you would use for this process.
I'm going to run through the definitions as I found them. And what I'd like to point out is that while Merriam-Webster is the editorial standard for the U.S., there are several very good online dictionaries and Memidex runs through them all for you. You can enter a word and it will cross-reference the most respected online dictionaries for a well-informed overview of popular and technical usage. Very useful.
- submerge—to put under water; to cover or overflow with water. (M-W)
- submerse—same as submerge; to plunge, sink, dive, or cause (same) below the surface of water. (Collins)
- immerge—to plunge into or immerse oneself into something. (M-W)
- immerse—to plunge into something that surrounds or covers (M-W); to cover completely in a liquid; submerge. (American Heritage)
You see what a mess this is? Now we turn to Etymology Online, to really drill down.
The Latin submersus is the past participle of submergere, where mergere quite obviously means "to merge with something". Likewise, the Latin immersus is the past participle of immergere. So why didn't submerge mean to merge with a concept or a non-water fluid? One thing comes clear in this overview: the sub- prefix ("under") makes the word specifically about water, for no apparent reason, while the im- prefix (assimilation of in-, "into, in, on, or upon") opens it up to any fluid or even an abstract concept, as when one immerses oneself into one's studies, as I have done.
Speaking of, it seems the word immersion was trademarked in 1965 by the Berlitz company, as it pertains to studying a foreign language. How about that?
And my "backformation" reference was a red herring. All four of those words are conventionally formed, though some may be labeled "rare/obscure" in contemporary usage.