"A Great Sewer Built by an Improved Method of Tunneling, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

"A Great Sewer Built by an Improved Method of Tunneling, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

I recently learned the difference between sewage and sewerage. Up until then I had always assumed that sewerage was a corruption of sewage, but no, they are distinct words. Sewage refers to the stuff itself, the gunk, the offal, the detritus, the waste material. Sewerage refers to the system that carries the sewage, the architecture of it all. This would be all nice and tidy except for the fact that one of the meanings of sewerage is synonymous with sewage. That is, you can refer to sewage as sewerage but you can’t call sewerage sewage. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I wasn’t made aware of the distinction between the two terms because of some unfortunate household crisis.

Anyway, I then started thinking about other linked words are often used interchangeably but in fact have separate meanings. I know there are more, but so far I’ve only come up with two pairs:

  • flotsam/jetsam: Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; broadly: floating debris. Jetsam is the part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore. (Both definitions from Merriam-Webster online.)
  • schlemiel/schlimazl: A schlemiel is a clumsy oaf, a bungler. A schlimazl is a born loser, one with rotten luck.

    The American distinction between the schlemiel and the schlimazl, summarized in the rule of thumb that says the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls, provides a helpful basis for definition. The schlemiel is the active disseminator of bad luck, and the schlimazl its passive victim. Or, more sharply defined, the schlimazl happens upon mischance, he has a penchant for lucklessness, but the unhappy circumstances remain outside him, and always suggest the slapstick quality of surprise. The schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazl tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is essential, deriving from his very nature in its confrontation with reality.  – Wisse,  Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, University of Chicago Press (1971).


Bonus observation: OB/GYN. I find myself utterly alone in preferring to pronounce this term as “ahb-gīn.” It obviously takes too long, most of the time, to say “obstetrician – gynecologist” or “obstetrics – gynecology” so it’s understandable that a shortened form’s arisen. But, to my mind, saying “oh-be-jee-wye-en” is unsatisfying for two reasons:

  1. At five syllables, it’s still too long and clumsy to say. It isn’t nearly as fluid as everyone’s favorite letter run, LMNOPQ (six syllables, by the way).
  2. It obliterates the distinction between the two specialties by running the letters together. My pronunciation of “ob-gyn,”  with its neat two-syllable formation, preserves the dual nature of the profession.
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