What does urtext mean?

Word count: 274 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: urtext.

Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted in 1979 for the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. At the time of the murders, MacDonald was a Special Forces Green Beret and practicing physician. You may remember the case as books have been written about it, including two famous ones, Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss and The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm.

But good stories don’t just fade away — as journalists like to put it, they have “legs” on them, which is to say they keep providing material for stories. Forty-two years after the murder, an Oct 15/12 New Yorker story by Mark Singer explored the release of yet another book on the subject. This one, titled A Wilderness of Error, is by the Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris.

And in his piece, Singer provided me with my word of the week, urtext. Here’s how he used it:

Morris found much of the Wilmington proceedings maddening, especially, he noted, the way that McGinniss’s book had become “the urtext of this case.” 

I hadn’t heard the word before, but I liked the gutteral grunt of it and the context allowed me to guess the meaning. Urtext is the original or the earliest version of a text, to which later versions can be compared. The word is of German origin: “ur” means original and “text” means the same thing it does in English.

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