or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, October 05, 2012

'Til Death

Here is an actual sentence from an actual Slate article:

Ellision is, understandably, mortified by what he sees.

Well, so what, you might rightly say. But here are the sentences that precede it:

"Sinister" opens with a scratchy home movie of their murder; later, while straightening up the attic, Ellison stumbles upon that film and several others, along with an 8 mm projector. The films capture the grisly murders of a handful of families, their cruelly snickering titles hinting at the slaughters within (“Hanging Out” for the family strung up on their tree, “BBQ” for a family barbeque turned arson, “Pool Party” for a backyard gathering that ends with several people chained and drowned, et cetera). They are shot from the point of view of the killer (or killers): happy family frolics captured from a distance, through foliage and window blinds, then hard cuts to victims bound and gagged, gruesomely murdered by the camera operator.

How can that be considered mortifying? Or, more to the point, how can the piece's author, Jason Bailey, think that "mortifying" means what he seems to think it means, whatever that might be, rather than what it actually means?

"Mortify" certainly has its its roots in the Latin "mortis", "death". But it hasn't really had anything to do with death for at least a couple of hundred years. There are two current meaning of "mortify". The less common, as seen in the phrase "to mortify the flesh", means to scourge or subdue the body for, usually, religious or quasi religious purposes. The most common meaning is "to cause to feel ashamed and humiliated": if you like, you can consider the "mortis" stem to mean, "I was so embarrassed I wanted to die." Neither, though, has anything to do with watching snuff films.

Professional writers shouldn't be using words they don't understand. They might want to hunt for at least a good dictionary, if not a proper editor.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


You totally need to be reading Exotic White Girls, although it's really about exotic white people, period.

If you don't think it's funny, that's fine. But if you don't get it and think it's racist (or "reverse racist"), then you're an idiot. Maybe you just weren't paying attention in school, like those people who were asked to retweet their name with no vowels in it and responded thusly:

I myself am an extremely exotic white person (I'm Canadian, a Newfoundlander, for god's sake, and you can't get much more exotic than that), and I bet a lot of you exotic types have had this experience: you're watching TV or listening to the radio or reading a news story about some crime, some multi-millionaire arrested for insider trading, some dirtbag in an expensive suit locked up for running a Ponzi scheme, some priest in the docket for molesting children for twenty years, some spoiled actress or heiress crashing her car into a nightclub or stealing from a Rodeo Drive jewellery store, and what you're thinking is, "Please please please don't let it be a white person!" And it always is, every time. Watching the news, you'd think all us exotic white folks were criminals and degenerates. And we're really not. There are decent white people out there, but you'd never know it from the media.


I wouldn't like to say that all us exotic types are persnickety about grammar and usage (in fact, I think not nearly enough of us are), but if you find someone who makes a really big deal out of those things, then they're probably an exotic white person. And I could defend it ("If you're writing 'threw' instead of 'through', then you are wrong," I might say), but I won't; it's just part of who I (exotically) am.

And here is a thing that really bugs me. I work in a craft store, and people are fairly often asking for large transfers, decals, to put on their walls. AND THEY'RE PRONOUNCING IT WRONG.

"Decal" is an abbreviated form of "décalcomanie", which is a kind of transfer. I don't much care what any dictionary says (although most of them agree with me): the word ought to be pronounced with accent on the second syllable, and when it's pronounced identically with "deckle", it just sets my teeth on edge. It's probably one of those lost-cause words (like "kilometre", even though I will argue my stress-the-first-syllable case until the day I die if need be), but I don't care. It's deCAL, dammit.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gold Mine

I guess I thought that if I ignored my blog it would get bored and wander off, but no, it's still here, begging for my attention.

My friend Ralph sent me this photo a couple of months ago, and I am only just now getting around to doing anything about it:

I don't know. Do you think that someone thinks that that is funny, that they're making a pun of sorts? Or almost worse, that someone doesn't understand that the word "rape" occurs twice in the English language and that the two versions are etymologically unrelated to one another?

The "rape" that is a hideous crime is from (of course) Latin "rapere", "to seize, to carry off by force", which is why the painting "The Rape of the Sabine Women"

(a popular subject for art, this version by Pietro da Cortona) depicts them being lugged away by Roman brutes: the aftermath is presumably for us to imagine.

"Rapere" gave birth to another very common English word: "rapid", which is presumably what you want to be when you are snatching away something that does not belong to you. It's also the source of the rather antiquated "rapine", the violent seizure of another's property.

The other "rape", as in "rapeseed" is from an entirely unrelated Latin word, "rapa", "turnip", a variant of which you may actually have seen in English as part of the vegetable "broccoli-rabé", aka rapini, whose Latin name is brassica rapa.

True story: a few years ago Jim and I were travelling by train through Scotland and passing large fields of those shockingly bright yellow flowers you see at the top. A couple of women sitting close by us were wondering aloud, as we had been wondering between ourselves, just what those dazzling yellow flowers were. One of the women was getting up to buy something at the snack bar or use the facilities, and she said to her companion, "I'll ask the porter." When she returned to her seat, she said, "He says it's grapeseed."

Rape and rapeseed needed a new name, obviously, so in Canada the oil, which is used for cooking, is called canola oil (which you would think was a portmanteau of "Canada" plus "oleum", since it really is a Canadian oil, having been created in Manitoba in the 1970s, but is actually a sort of initialism for "CANadian Oil, Low Acid", the acid in question being erucic acid, which is thought to be bad for the heart and which rapeseed oil ordinarily contains in large quantities).

It may shock you (it did me) to learn that there is actually a third "rape" in English, an extremely uncommon word meaning "the leavings of wine-pressing used to make vinegar". This one is related to "rasp", coming as it does from French "râpe", that circumflex denoting, you may recall, the loss of an ess, meaning that its original form would have been "raspe".

Friday, August 03, 2012


Over on my other blog I quoted Lewis Carroll's illustrator as saying that he found a particular job to be "altogether beyond the appliances of art". And isn't that an interesting use of the word "appliance"? It's pretty much gone from the language altogether.

Nowadays, "appliance" means just about only one thing: a machine, usually large and immobile, that we use around the home, such a refrigerator or a clothes dryer, although there are also small appliances such as toasters. (We can also preface it with "dental" to mean braces and other orthotics.)

The suffix "-ance", from French (of course), is used to turn a verb into a noun: just as "contrivance" means "a thing contrived", "appliance" can be taken to mean "a thing applied", which was Tenniel's use: none of the things he might apply in the service of his art could accomplish Carroll's intention (although someone who drew a little girl dancing with a gryphon and a calf-limbed tortoise would, you might think, be capable of drawing anything).

Like "device", "appliance" has undergone a process called semantic narrowing, in which a word becomes more and more restricted in use, often as other words drift in to replace the older meanings. ("Hound" is a good example: it once meant any dog, from German "Hund", but now, means a very specific sort of dog, the hunting kind. You can have a basset hound or a greyhound, but not a Newfoundland hound, unless you jokingly say, "Get over here, hound.")

Not only the suffix of "appliance" is French, but the whole word: the stem, "apply", comes from the very old French verb "appliquer", which is still seen in English in the noun or verb "appliqué", most usually used to mean the decorative sewing of one kind of fabric onto another. And "appliquer" in turn comes from Latin "ad-", "to", plus "plicare", "to fold" (whence our "ply", as in "four-ply" and the verb "multiply"), which sounds strange until you take the sense as broadly as possible: to fold together is to bring two things in contact with one another, and from there a host of metaphorical association spring forth, as when you apply yourself to your work, apply sunscreen to your face, or apply your knowledge to the task at hand.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Damn it All

In a nutshell: the A.V. Club reviewed an episode of Monty Python, that led me to the Wikipedia page for William Blake's poem which was turned into the gorgeous hymn "Jerusalem", and that in turn brought me to the word "contemn", which I had seen before but never really thought about.

It looks like "condemn", doesn't it? "Contemn" is in fact so rare, almost archaic, that it's easy to guess that it is an older version of the word that fell by the wayside, like "riband", which was displaced by "ribbon". But that, surprisingly, is not the case: "contemn" and "condemn" are different words with different etymologies and different meanings.

Both of them start out with "con-", which usually means "with" or "together" in Latin-derived words ("conjoin"), but sometimes denotes an intensifier instead ("commodious"), as it does in both these words. The more usual "condemn" is therefore an intensified version of "-demn", which, a moment's thought might suggest, is related to "damn". In fact, you might even have seen this version if you have ever read "The Scarlet Pimpernel":

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

So "condemn" means "to damn utterly".

If you break up "contemn" into "con-" plus "-temn", however, you are going to be led down the wrong path, because "temn-" is going to make you think of "contempt", and the "tempt-" of "temptation" and the "-tempt" of "contempt" are in fact two different and unrelated words. It is traps like this that make etymology such an exciting field of study.

"Temptation" arises from the Latin verb "temptare", "to try out, to test", which also gave us "attempt". "Contempt", on the other hand, is from the verb "temnere", "to slight, to scorn", and so is an intensified version of scorn, and "contemn" means "to abhor and despise". I think the word is probably lost to us: I think that most people upon seeing it would assume that "condemn" was meant in its stead.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I don't know about you, but when I see a logo of some sort, my brain immediately and without being asked begins to unpick it for meanings.

Not everybody's brain works the same way. Jim's doesn't. He's a very visual person and an artist, but he doesn't analyze graphical images for subtextual meanings. As an example of what I mean, this is the outside of the Halifax Metro Centre:

I don't even know how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned the fact that the logo, which consists of two stacked squares, two right triangles, and a circle, was obviously meant to represent the letters H M and possibly C (I could argue it either way). I mean, it was obvious to me: Jim, who had been living in Halifax for years before we met, had seen the sign hundreds of times and had never even considered that the logo might be anything other than an abstract design.

When I saw the following ad on Pharyngula, I thought, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

It reads "Ascent of Atheism": it's for an upcoming conference in mountainous Denver, Colorado, and so the large 'A's are shaped like mountains. Very clever!

And also unfortunately a very bad idea, because if you treat the 'A's as literal mountains, as graphical objects, then the logo reads "Scent of Theism". Did it not occur to anybody involved in the design of this thing that when you chop off the first letter of the two main words in the logo — a thing which in fact the design invites you to do by making those letters perform double duty — then the logo would take on a drastically different meaning? Because it's the FIRST THING I THOUGHT OF.

This is really just a variant on proofreading: you have to let any kind of visual information, whether text or graphics, pass under at least two different, and I mean very different, pairs of eyes before you unleash it on the public, because if there's a critical mistake or an unintended meaning, you have to give as many people as possible the chance to catch it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spaced Out

This is just me whining. You really don't have to read it. I do, however, have to get it out of my system.

The other day on Slate — of course it was Slate; it's always Slate — there was an article about eating in outer space which contained this sentence:

Unlike robots, which don’t need to eat, drink, or even necessarily return to Earth, humans require fuel.

If you hack out that subordinate clause in the middle you get the following assertion: "Unlike robots, humans require fuel."

Robots require fuel. Duh. They don't eat, obviously, not in the way that people eat, so they don't have to eliminate — they don't create unpleasant waste products that need to be disposed of (except for heat, which is easily dealt with) — but they still require fuel.

How did this thing make it out of the writer's brain and into his word processor? And how did it get past the eye of an editor? Oh, right: there doesn't seem to be one.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hell's Belles

The other night I was Netflixing and I ended up watching St. Trinian's, an approximate remake of the 1954 film The Belles of St. Trinian's, and don't judge: it may not be a good movie in any of the usual senses of the word, but it is ridiculous, mindless fun, and sometimes that's just what you need after a long day's work.

What you see up there is a screen shot taken a few minutes in, and you will need to click on it to make it readable and see why it caught my eye. It flashed by on the screen, and of course my proofreader's brain caught the typo "attemps", and I thought, "Obviously the producers wouldn't make a mistake like that, and so it must be deliberate." And naturally enough it was. There are two other errors in the part of the letter that we can see, an unnecessary comma after the first word and "you're" substituting for "your", and therefore the filmmakers are indicating to those of us who pay attention that however bad the education may be at St. Trinian's, whatever banker wrote that letter has clearly had an even worse one, and therefore is no match for the headmistress and her students, which of course turns out to be true, or else we wouldn't have a film.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Amateur Hour

Here on Towleroad is a very nice video from the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention: it's probably safe for work, although it contains shots of men implicitly getting it on, but it's nothing you couldn't show on television. Cable television, anyway.

And then of course a concern troll had to make his voice heard in the comments section:

How about a campaign promoting gay monogamy?

whereupon someone else chimed in:

I would oppose a campaign to promote "monogamy" (in quotes because, etymologically, it means "one wife" which, to me, doesn't seem appropriate for a pair of men).


Etymology is not for amateurs. There's really no excuse for this sort of thing any more: if you're using the Internet to comment on something, you can use it to look up the facts of the matter, too.

I suppose "-gamy" and "-gyny" seem kind of similar, but they're not the same thing. "Gyne" is indeed the Greek for "woman" or "wife, but "monogamy" is from the Greek "monos", "single", and "gamos", "marriage": "gamos" is also the source of "gamete", a sex cell, either a sperm or an egg, given their name by Gregor Mendel, presumably after the fact that the two cells have to fuse together ("marry") and not the fact that people have to be married for this to occur.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Much of a Muchness

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend, and part of it ran more or less like this (dialogue not guaranteed accurate):

HER: You stopped writing your blog!
ME: Yeah, well, it was mostly fuelled by rage, and I just don't really feel it any more. Although I am increasingly pissed off by "of a", as in "It's not that big of a deal."
HER: I've...never heard that in my life.
ME: You should Google it! "Much of a..." is standard, but "not that big of a deal", "too long of a book to read", and the like are everywhere, and they're wrong.

And they are. And I do feel as if that structure is becoming more and more prevalent. Language Log has a piece about it dating from 2004 (the link to the Columbia Guide to Standard American English is lamentably dead), and the numbers are small: "big of a" got only 161,000 hits. Just this second? FIFTY-FOUR MILLION.

The argument against the "of a" structure is pretty basic: you say "a big deal", so you would reorder it to say "not that big a deal", which is to say "a deal [which is] not that big". The word "of" never even comes into play. But the influence of "much of a" is so strong that it has contaminated everything around it, and so we get things like this comment in the A.V. Club article Are Trailers Spoilers?: If someone says the spoiler will "ruin" something, maybe they've chosen too strong of a word. And from an actual A.V. Club article, People in Horror Movies are Stupid: Tasha can't get over the characters' stupid behavior, but Genevieve doesn't think it's that big of a deal.

It's spreading. It's going to take over. We are watching the evolution of the language, and I can't say I like it — in fact, I loathe it and it makes me grit my teeth every time I read or hear it — but languages change over time and it's probably just as well that there's nothing we can do about it.