Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Efface \ih-FAYS\ , transitive verb;
1. To cause to disappear by rubbing out, striking out, etc.; to erase; to render illegible or indiscernible
2. To destroy, as a mental impression; to wipe out; to eliminate completely
3. To make (oneself) inconspicuous

This word is weird to me because it seems pretty common, but I didn't know what it meant. I may have guessed there was something destructive involved because of it's outward similarity to deface...but without the benefit of hindsight, that seems like kind of a stretch.

According to Etymonline.com:
Efface has been around since the late 15th century and is derived from Middle French effacer, which comes from Old French esfacier. This Old French word is from the 12th century and it means "to wipe out, destroy." The literal translation is "to remove the face" from es- + face ("out" + "appearance"). This face comes from Latin facies, meaning "face".

So maybe my association with deface wasn't such a stretch after all. This etymology is pretty predictable and makes sense...especially when you take into account our love for adopting French words into English.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
1. a. To rub out, obliterate (writing, painted or sculpted figures, a mark or stain) from the surface of anything so as to leave no distinct traces.
1. b. In wider sense: To cause to disappear entirely, do away with (a visible feature or object).
2. To expunge, erase (words or sentences) from a written composition or document. No only in [figurative] sentences.
3. [figurative] To obliterate, wipe out (a memory, a mental impression); to 'blot out', pardon, obtain oblivion for (an offence); to abolish, destroy (distinctive characteristics, etc.).
4. a. [figurative] To cast utterly into the shade, reduce to virtual nonentity
4. b. [reflexive - after French s'effacer] To reduce oneself to insignificance; to abandon or forfeit one's claim to consideration.

So I read 4.b. and thought, "Aha! That's why I thought I knew that word...self-efficacy!" I quickly realized that I was dead wrong. Self-efficacy means you believe in yourself. Self-effacing isn't related either, it means you're really shy. Oh well, so I'm an idiot on this one...stranger things have happened.

Because the OED is such a massive volume - 20 books! - they can't exactly re-print it every year (in fact, they are only 28% done with the third edition...it's been in print since 1928). Language evolves pretty fast though, so in order to keep up, the wonderful OED people write yearly 'additions series' so they can add new words. In the 1993 addition series, efface got a new medical meaning:
5. [Obstetrics] To distort (the cervix, umbilicus, etc.) to such an extent that it is unrecognizable or indistinguishable, usually through the distention of and adjacent organ in the course of labour.

Okay, say it with me: "OUUUUUUUCH!" That sounds horrible, is that common?

Turns out it's not only common, it's a necessary step in child birth. The medical definition is not nearly as scary sounding...whew!

*Today's word and the first definition were both taken from Dictionary.com's 'Word of the Day' for Tuesday, September 28

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