Guessing at meaning

Passed on by Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, this entry from Failblog:

The writer has guessed at the meaning of suffrage, taking it to be related to the verb suffer.

Ordinary people pick up meanings for lexical items primarily from the context in which they hear or read them; sometimes, there are morphological clues as to meaning. In this case, these two sources of information converge to suggest that suffrage is related to suffer.

Historically, it is not. From NOAD2 on suffrage:

noun  the right to vote in political elections.

ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense ‘intercessory prayers,’ also ‘assistance’): from Latin suffragium, reinforced by French suffrage. The modern sense of ‘right to vote’ was originally US (dating from the late 18th cent).

We can’t expect ordinary people to get things like this right all the time. It would be unreasonable to suggest that every time you come across an unfamiliar lexical item, you should consult an authority (like a dictionary) about its meaning; unfamiliar lexical items appear with alarming frequency, and often people don’t appreciate that they are in fact unfamiliar or otherwise in need of explication.

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