envatment /ɛn’vætmənt/

There is a philosphical thought experiment known as the “brain-in-a-vat.” It’s a fun thing to bring up at a party, especially if you’ve imbibed a few fermented beverages. What you have to do is imagine that you have had a terrible accident where all that the doctors could salvage was your brain. In an effort to provide you with some quality of life, the wire up your brain to a computer and float it in a big bucket of fluid.

The computer is designed to run a virtual world that is just like the one in which you live. It can send electrical impulses to your brain in just the same way your sense organs would. The computer is so fast and the virtual world so realistic that to all intents and purposes, you feel exactly as you did before the accident. And to make it even more realistic, you have lost all memory of the accident and so have no idea your brain is no longer attached to your body.

Now comes the fun question: how do you know you are not already a brain in a vat?

Those of you who have seen the movie The Matrix or Vanilla Sky will have a sense of deja vu. Both these involve people who “wake up” to find their world is not the “real world” but a computer-generated virtual life.

This little thought experiment is now so well known that a word has appeared to described the process of being a brain-in-a-vat; envatment.

Envatted brain

Envatted brain

The word is so new that you are unlikely to find it in a dictionary but it is used by philosophers and science writers alike. What spurred me on to writing about it in the first place was its use by Paul Davies in his book The Goldilocks Enigma, first published in hardback in 2006 as The Cosmic Jackpot. It also appeared in a 1992 paper by the philospher Hilary Putnam entitled “Brains in a Vat.” I also found reference to it as the basic noun envatment, as the adjective envatted, and the verb envat in a 2009 in-press paper by Diego Cosmelli and Evan Thompson with the title Embodiment and Envatment: Reflections on the Bodily Basis of Consciousness.

The word clearly derives from the word vat /væt/, which is a variation on the Old English word, fat /fæt/. It corresponds to the Middle Low German and Dutch vat. Its earliest use seems to be in Beowulf, where it refers to a vessel capable of holding fluids. This is the most commom meaning still.

What’s also of interest is how the word envatment is constructed. The word is built using what is know as affixation, a process whereby pieces are added to an existing word to create a new one.

One affixation process is prefixation. Here, something is added to the beginning of a word. And one example of prefixing is to add the opener, en-, to change a noun to a verb. Thus, if you want to make a word to mean “put inside a vat,” then envat is the option.

Then, a second piece of affixing is applied to change the verb into a noun – suffixation using the -ment ending. This gives you envatment.

Notice how cleverly the word goes from noun to verb then back to noun – but in the process becomes a different noun! The original noun refers to an item – a thing; the second derived noun refers to a process – an operation. Two different types of noun but from the same root.

And when someone talks about an “envatted brain,” the word has magically shifted again to become an adjective. Yes, the -ed makes it look like a verb (and it could still be used as such) but the -ed form of many verbs can be used as an adjective. For example;

He polished the car versus The polished car

He smashed the plate versus The smashed plate

Affixation is an important process in the English language; it allows for the rapid creation of new words in very short periods of time. Anyone who has googled or spends a lot of time googling already knows this.

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Filed under Etymology, Morphology

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