Writing

Mysteries of the Universe, Explained

Dear Walking Encyclopedia,
I've heard of (and seen) some inept people, but I've never heard of anyone being referred to as “ept.” Why? While we're about it, I've also had people tell me they were “overwhelmed,” but never “underwhelmed” or even “whelmed.” Why is that? –M.F.

Dear M.F.:
When it comes to inept people, they're everywhere, but the reason “ept” people are rather like those baby pigeons of lore is because there aren't any. Yeah, that's right; you can be inept all you want, but the fact is, the opposite of “inept” is “apt.” According to Webster's New World College Dictionary (Third Edition), the word “inept” comes from the French word “inepte,” which comes from the Latin word “ineptus.” “Ineptus” was derived from the prefix in (meaning “not”) and the root word aptus, which means “suitable.” Therefore, something that is “inept” is, literally, “not suitable.” As for your question regarding “overwhelmed,” “underwhelmed,” and “whelmed,” well, the answer is a little trickier. Clearly, “overwhelmed” is a word, so we'll discard that for the time being and focus on the other two. Again, according to WNWCD, “underwhelmed” is, indeed, a word (even though my spellchecker went “ptooie” when I typed it). It is an “ironic allusion to “overwhelmed.” (You can decide for yourself what that means.) The definition of “underwhelm” is “to fail to make a good impression or have a significant impact on.” A quick flip of the pages, and it can be ascertained that “whelmed” is also a word (and one my spellchecker actually knows—go figure). It means two things: “to submerge, cover, or engulf” or “to overpower or crush.” Both “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed” derive from “whelmed,” which comes from the Middle English word welman , which came from the (surprise!) Old English word whelman. It means (drumroll, please): to overwhelm. As for why we never hear “underwhelm” or “whelm,” well, my guess would be that because “whelm” and “overwhelm” mean essentially the same thing—and “overwhelm,” with more syllables, sounds fancier—that “whelm” was dropped from our everyday vocabulary. As for underwhelm… well, I would guess that our society just got so busy and, well, overwhelmed, that we forgot how to be underwhelmed, so we stopped saying it. But feel free to revive it, if the urge hits you.

Dear Walking Encyclopedia,
Who was the original Murphy of Murphy's Law? –K.L.

Dear K.L.:
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? According to Murphy Laws Site, the eternal pessimist who coined the phrase, “if anything can go wrong, it will,” was none other than “ Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981, (a project) designed to see how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash.” According to the story, the law was first “discovered” at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949 in response to a fellow who continually messed things up. But theories on the origin of the phrase disagree. Some say that Murphy's First Law (as it has come to be known) has its origins in prehistory while others credit a magazine writer with the distinction of coining it. However, there seems to be a lot of pessimists in this world, as several more Laws (also attributed to Murphy) have cropped up over the years, including “If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.
Corollary: If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then.” But you can't forget O'Toole's First Law: “Murphy was an optimist.”