or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 31, 2005

A Reader Writes

A few days back I said I didn't know of an adjective that meant "of jellyfish", because a website had used the serviceable but ultimately unsatisfactory "jellyfishoid". Frank wrote,

"For jellyfish, I expect it would be "cnidarian" or "cnidarinine" or something along those lines. "Cnidaria" is the name of the Order (or family; I don't know which) jellyfish belong to."

"Cnidarian" is a very pretty word, and it makes me think of Salvador Dali's "Apparition of the Face of Aphrodite of Cnidus in a Landscape", which you may look at here if you have a mind to. (You may also look at the original Aphrodite of Cnidus here. This is unrelated to jellyfish but interesting nonetheless.) As it turns out, "cnidarian" is the word most often used to describe members of the jellyfish tribe, along with hydras, sea anemones, and their ilk. I would have preferred "cnidarine", which has the advantage of bearing the usual "-ine" adjectival suffix for animals, but nobody asked me.

There is, however, a word meaning "like a jellyfish" and excluding all those other cousins, and that word is the unmelodic "discophoran".

Cnidaria is actually the phylum to which jellyfish belong. I was lucky to find it at all, because when I Googled it, I accidentally typed in "jellydish".


There's a small handful of words in English that end in "-cede"; accede, intercede, precede, and a few more. There are three that end in "-ceed": succeed, proceed, and exceed. But only one ends in "-sede".

If I were learning English from scratch, I'd be railing against such nonsensical spelling rules. All these words have the same sound: why can't they all have the same spelling?

Let's blame Latin. It isn't going to complain. All the "-cede" words come from the same root, "cedere", to go. Intercede: to go between. Precede: to go before. All the "-ceed" words come from...well, the same root, unfortunately. Their spelling is a mere accident of history: it would have been nice if their spellings had been standardized to match the others, but they've been cemented in place by centuries of usage. (All the "-ceed" words had alternate spellings of "-cede", and with a few variations such as "ceede" for "cede", the reverse is also true.)

The one holdout, "supersede", comes from an altogether different source: "sedere", "to sit". (The word "sedate" comes from a related meaning of "sedere": "to settle".) To supersede is to literally sit above something; its current meaning is almost metaphorical, but the sense is still there.

And this is why I get ticked off when I see the spelling "supercede". It's understandable, but it's also wrong.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Pig Latin

I'd dreamed about it, but I thought I'd never see it. Until yesterday! Until the Sunday edition of the Halifax (N.S.) Daily News, when there it was, in a photo caption above an article about how women can avoid gaining weight just before their wedding:

LOREM IPSUM DOLOR: Bride-to-be Kristie Kauffman (left) works out 10 weeks before her nuptials to Jon Seale (far right), in the doorway) in April. Kauffman is working with personal trainer before the big day.

It isn't the clumsy extra parenthesis I had been waiting to see, and it isn't the awkward lack of an article or a pronoun before "personal trainer". It's Lorem ipsum dolor.

Yes, it's Latin, of a sort, but it's unintentionally there, because it's nearly meaningless. It's filler--dummy text you use to replace something you intend to write later, or to mock up an empty page so you can see what it will look like when it's full of text. You could simply copy a paragraph of English-language text and paste it repeatedly, but it can be hard to see layout in terms of design when looking at a page of readable text: the content of the words is powerfully distracting, and so filling a page design with lorem ipsum (as it's usually called) is the perfect solution--it looks like language, but it's content-free and therefore neutral. Many word-processing programs allow you to fill empty space with lorem ipsum; what probably happened in the Daily News is that someone marked the space with dummy text, meaning to write the caption head later, and simply forgot to do so. (Perhaps either the writer or the photographer had written the photo caption but not the caption head.)

It did occur to me that the passage wasn't accidental, because the subject of the text it's taken from is pain for the sake of pain. There are two problems with this theory, though; first, it isn't correct Latin but a bastardized version of the original text, and second, how many readers would know any of this? So the theory may safely be discarded, I think. Lorem ipsum dolor was printed in error, and I'm delighted to finally see it in print. It's the sort of thing proofreaders and typesetters dream about, believe it or not.

If your word-processing software won't generate lorem ipsum, you can always go here and crank out as much as you need, and maybe Paypal the guy a few bucks if you use the generated text.

Sunday, March 27, 2005


Here's a sentence from the thoroughly wonderful BoingBoing:

"A series of 'before and after' methamphetamine addict photos are making the rounds on various blogs."

Technically--and I love technicalities--the sentence is wrong. The subject of the sentence, "a series", is singular, and yet has been given a plural verb, "are making". Corrected for subject-verb agreement, the sentence would read, "A series of 'before and after' photos is making the rounds."

And yet doesn't it sound better the way it was written? I think it does. A noun and a verb are butted up against one another, and following a plural noun with a singular verb sounds odd to many people--it forces them to stop and think about sound and sense, which drags them out of the sentence and destroys the flow.

If it were a more formal piece of writing--in a newspaper or magazine, say--I'd have corrected that sentence in a heartbeat, possibly rewriting it to remove any trace of grammatical disagreement (maybe "The destructive effects of methamphetamine are shown in a series of before-and-after photos making the rounds on various blogs"), but as it stands it has a breezy quality that I think I'd leave alone.

I cut them no slack, though, for failing to hyphenate "before-and-after". It's a phrasal adjective and should be linked into a single word with hyphens. I suppose, grudgingly, that putting them into quotation marks achieves a similar effect, but I prefer the hyphens. A lot.


From the same page of BoingBoing (it's in the archives, the January 2005 postings), the expression "jellyfishoid creature". That word will do--it gets its point across--but that got me to wondering: is there an established adjectival form of "jellyfish"? The only answer I could come up with is, "Damned if I know--but there sure are a lot of zoological adjectives." Canine, feline, bovine--all pretty obvious, not even "Jeopardy"-level. Ovine, vulpine, ursine? A little less common. (Sheep, fox, and bear, respectively.) Armadillo? Tolypeutine--who knew? You can find a staggering collection of them right here.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Rot, Ruin, and Vice

I don't pay much attention to the home-renovation shows (except Debbie Travis' Facelift), but Jim likes them so they sneak in under my radar. As he mentioned to me yesterday with delight, from time to time he hears people, usually the subjects but sometimes the designers, speak of "rod iron".

How does that happen? Looking solely at pronunciation, the spelled form "rot iron" would be more logical (and an aunt of mine would refer to the stuff jovially as "rotten iron"), but somehow people must have decided that it's made out of iron rods, so it must be rod iron.

It isn't. It's "wrought iron", "wrought" being an antique past participle of "work". It's worked iron, that's all; rather than being made out of iron bars that are cut and then soldered together, it's made of iron that's beaten into fanciful curlicues while it's still hot. This unexpectedly fascinating web page will tell you quite a bit about the physical properties of the iron and why it's "wrought" and not "rod".

While we're on the subject, I might as well admit that once upon a time before I became so smart, I got it into my head that "wrought" was the past participle of "wreak". Well, doesn't it feel as if it ought to be? (It lends a whole new meaning to "What hath God wrought", for one thing.) But it isn't, and never was. I might as well have decided that "fraught" was the past tense of "freak".


Games Magazine isn't what it used to be, but I still buy it fairly often. Ten years ago, it probably wouldn't have let slip the error found in the May 2005 issue, in which a game's elements were referred to as "ruin stones".

Dare I say it for the million-and-first time? It wouldn't have happened if the writer had seen the word "rune" in print instead of merely hearing it, if a skilled copy editor had vetted the piece, and if a spell-checker hadn't been entrusted to the copy editor's job. It's time to give the phenomenon a name, I think, or at least an acronym: perhaps Another Spell-Check-Enabled Error, or ASCEE.


From this Friday's Ask the Pilot column in Salon.com:

"Sting's greatest hits aren't any more palatable through ear buds...than they were through those old-style stethoscopic head vices."

Haven't I been through this already? Don't people know that there's a collection of words in which "-ise" has one meaning and "-ice" has another? (And it isn't as if the man's a bad writer; in the same column, he used the word "minima", which alone is enough to make me love him.)

Let's take a look at the two words in question, shall we? "Vice" comes from the Latin "vitium", "a fault", and it means a bad thing. It's related to "vitiate" and--this should be the clue--"vicious". "Vise" comes from an entirely different Latin word, "vitis", meaning "vine", because a vise has a screw mechanism to open and close it and the screw calls to mind a twining vine. They are not the same word. They are not interchangeable. They are not hard to tell apart.

And one more time: ASCEE.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Ring Piece

I heard a textbook mixed metaphor on Air America Radio recently--it's so mixed it's almost malapropic, a thing of peculiar beauty. The commentator said that someone was so politically powerful that people had to "kiss his brass ring."

Isn't that a doozy? It's a messy collision between "kiss his ring" and "grab the brass ring". I'd be tempted to think that it was deliberate, but the way it was delivered suggests strongly that it was an unconscious mistake, albeit a good one.

And while we're on the subject, here's something that delights me; the word "phony" originally meant "brass ring". It's a variant of "fawney", an Irish word referring to a gilded brass ring sold to the unwary.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

This just in

A brief parenthesis from today's Salon.com:

"(vinyl records fit snuggly in the large version of the bag)".

I'm betting they don't, unless the writer is taking a quick detour into world of children's writing and means to say "(vinyl records fit, all snuggly and cozy, in the large version of the bag)". No, the adverb "snugly" is clearly what's called for here, and Salon, much as I love it, could really use a copy editor or two. (A couple of weeks ago, an article referred to "poet laureate John Betcheman". Perhaps other people wrote shocked letters to Salon; I know I did, and within a few hours the correction to "Betjeman" was made. It was clear from the context that the writer had simply typed out phonetically what the interviewee had said, never bothering to look for the name's spelling. I can hardly believe that someone hadn't heard of Betjeman, or rather had never encountered his name in print, but such seems to be par for the course these days.)

From today's Slate.com:

"she posed nude and lathered with body paint".

No. Just no. "Lathered" specifically refers to something soapy and foamy. Someone can't be lathered with body paint, unless it's that soap-based stuff you can use to trick kids into getting clean in the bathtub. The word the writer was presumably reaching for is "slathered", and even that's wrong, since "slather" refers to the application of a thick coat of something; you can slather yourself with moisturizer, for example. The coat of paint in question was thin, depicting as it did a business suit, pinstripes and all--certainly not a slathering.

Flair Game

As seen in a knitting pattern yesterday:

"Be sure to work tight, firm bind-offs so that the ribs do not flair out."

And if you Google "road flair" you will see far more instances of it than you would have thought possible, and if you Google "had a flare for" you will become even more depressed.

Come on, people. It isn't that hard. "Flair" is a noun that has a tiny cluster of meanings, all of which point to talent and style. One can have a flair for decorating, or one can have flair. "Flare" serves all other meanings of the homophone: as a verb it means to burst into flames or to expand outwards (which is what the pattern-writer was trying to get at), while as a noun it means a signaling device, a burst of flame, and an opening outwards, among other things. (There's a Canadian fashion magazine called Flare: since "flair" suggests fashion, I can't tell if its naming was a stupid mistake or if the sense of "burning brightly" or "expanding outwards" was intended.)

I'm sorry to be a broken record, but the knitting typo is what you get when people 1) don't read enough and 2) use a spell-checker under the flawed assumption that it will correct their writing. And then it's left to people like me to pick up the pieces, or at least grouse about them in public.

But I hate to end with a grouse, so let's take a walk through the tangled underbrush of etymology. "Flair" is related to "fragrant", of all things; it comes from an old French word, "flairer", meaning "to scent", which is descended from Latin "fragrare", "to emit an odour." Since "flair" is a relative of "fragrant", how beautifully symmetrical it would have been if "flare" had been a cousin to "flagrant"! After all, they're both related to things burning (and even though "flagrant" has lost its overt sense of burning, it readily brings to mind the related "conflagration"). Alas, it isn't so: nobody knows where "flare" came from.

But "flagrant" takes us to the phrase "in flagrante delicto", which literally means "as the crime is blazing" but, preceded by "caught", commonly means "in the act of having [illicit] sex." If you aren't thoroughly acquainted with Latin, doesn't "delicto" make you think of "delectable"? It's unrelated, of course, but it (along with "delight" and "delicious", which words "delicto" also calls to mind, in look and sound if not meaning) has its roots in the Latin "lacere", "to entice". And I can hardly believe this myself, but the English word "entice" almost certainly comes from a Latin word which means "to set afire" or "to add fuel to a fire".

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Again and again (and again)

Yesterday I used the word "redundant", and I thought it would be fun to talk about it a bit. In day-to-day English usage it has an entirely negative connotation (we even joke about it when we detect it in someone's speech: "Hello, Department of Redundancy Department?"), but in grammatical terms it's enormously useful. In fact, it's crucial to language.

Take the unexceptional sentence "All those buildings are factories." Five words, and four of them--any four--contain grammatical redundancy, because each of them contains a plural marker. In context, "all" can refer only to more than one thing; "those" is the plural of "that"; "buildings" has the "-s" suffix which marks it as the plural form of the noun "building"; "are" is the plural form of "is"; and "factories" not only has the suffix "-s", it has a spelling change which occurs when a word ending in "-y" is pluralized. Any one of these ought to be sufficient to cast the entire sentence in the plural, and yet the sentence is correct only if all the markers are present.

Why should this be? Why is grammatical redundancy universal? Because language evolved to fit the world around us, and because everybody's world has certain things in common. We don't transmit information flawlessly, nor do we receive it that way: perhaps we're talking through a mouthful of food, or yelling over a thunderstorm; perhaps we're not listening attentively, or perhaps our hearing is starting to go. Redundancy helps ensure that the message gets through intact. If we marked only one element of a sentence as plural, or randomly marked some and not others, there's the chance our message would be misunderstood: "Did she mean for me to brand only one of the cows, or all of them?". Language has built-in mechanisms so that people can make their meaning known.

English is a piker when it comes to really deep-seated redundancy. French, for example, has two genders (German has three!), each with its own articles, and certain nouns and most adjectives have endings for these genders which must also agree: depending on gender, "The Canadian manager" (note that there are no gender markers in English) is rendered "le gérant canadien" or "la gérante canadienne", three gender markers in a three-word expression.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

He said, she said

I saw the phrase "woman lawyer" on a web page, and for the umpteenth time I just don't get it.

How did this usage evolve? "Woman" is a noun, not an adjective. We have a perfectly good adjectival form, "female". We don't say "man nurse" or "man secretary", we say "male nurse" and so on. If we absolutely must specify the sex of the professional, why don't we say "female lawyer"?

And, to go further, most of the time we don't need to specify the sex anyway. If we say "He's a nurse" or "She's a lawyer", it contains all the information we need--the often-heard "He's a male nurse" is not only redundant (in a bad way), it's archaic, as if we were shocked that a person of that sex could actually be in such a profession. A male kindergarten teacher? A female doctor? O tempora! O mores!

Sometimes, of course, we do need the adjective. "She doesn't trust male doctors--she'll only go to a female oncologist" is a reasonable sentence. But the adjective is, or ought to be, "female", not "woman".

Monday, March 21, 2005

Impact with the Devil

I heard "incentivize" on television this evening. Do I really have to explain to anyone just how horrible this coinage is?

I blame businesspeople, for whom one long unwieldy word is better than a few simple ones. Rather than use a serviceable two- or three-word phrase, they do their best to bastardize the language by hybridizing words in ways which, while valid under the rules (we do convert some nouns into verbs by affixing "-ize"), sound unpleasant and made-up.

And this brings me to "impact" as a verb. Thanks so much, businesspeople.

"Impact" has a history as a verb, and an interesting one. If you say it aloud a few times you might guess that it was once the past participle of "impack", which is to say "pack into", using the standard "im-" prefix we use to replace "in-" where it sounds better. Before "-ed" came to be the standard past-participial ending, "-t" served its purpose in such words as "spelt", which still exists as a variant of "spelled", and likewise "burnt" and the unfortunately obsolete "yclept". "Impact" has its uses as, in its literal sense, a transitive verb and as its related adjective; a tooth may be impacted, and a blunt object may impact the head of some unwary businessdrone. But, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, the metaphorical use of "impact" is bad and ugly and wrong.

Why should we have to endure such constructions as "How will this impact on sales?" or, and I can't decide which is worse, "How will this impact sales?" "Impact" is a potent word, but in this setting it's so weak and passive it's hardly even there. They might as well say, "How will this, like, you know, do sales?"

Even in its original transitive form it's taken on a new life of its own, and what a sad, flabby sort of life that is. I once saw the usage "The downed airline impacted a row of houses" and almost wept; couldn't the writer have found another word, any other word, that would express the thought more vividly? "Struck"? "Demolished"? "Smashed into"?

I've seen in a business memo--I kept it to prove it exists--the word "impactful", and if you Google "impactfulness", you'll see that people have decided they could get some mileage out of that, too. Any day now I expect to see "unimpactfulness" (I didn't have the heart to Google it), and then maybe "impactation" and--why not?--"impactable". It's enough to make you want to Krazy Glue your eyes shut.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

I Try To Be Understanding

...but it isn't working. Here are some recent hearings that are going to drive me into an early grave.

It's not that big of a deal. I can see where this came from; "big of" has a structural parallel to "much of". The trouble is that "much" has long taken the preposition "of", whereas "big" never has, and "big of" is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I grit my teeth whenever I hear it. "Of" is showing up with other adjectives indicating size or extremity, too: "How long of a trip will it be?" "It wasn't that high of a building." "She always gives him too hard of a time." And soon my poor teeth will be worn down to stubs.

Tad bit. This almost certainly arose to parallel "little bit" or even "wee bit", but of course "tad" is a noun meaning "bit", not an adjective. "Bit bit". It sounds stupid, and I would like everyone on Earth to stop using it immediately. Thank you.

Kih-LOM-uh-ter. I can't help it. I scream inside whenever I hear this. Popular usage and even a bit of history have made this a common pronunciation, but the alternative, and in my opinion correct, pronunciation, "KILL-uh-mee-ter", is superior for one simple reason: we have two classes of words ending in "meter" or "metre", and it would be a simple matter to pronounce them uniformly. Measuring devices all end in "-OM-uh-ter": barometer, thermometer, sphygmomanometer. Measures of distance all end in "-MEE-ter": centimetre, decimetre, kilometre. See how easy that is? (I know that my hated pronunciation of "kilometer" once had a matching and now blessedly obsolete pronunciation for "centimetre", "sen-TIM-uh-ter". I'd just as soon forget about that, thanks. Besides, the existing pronunciation scheme is beautiful and logical; I can't see why it isn't used more.)

Eck cetera. Jesus Murphy. This is what happens when people approximate things they've heard without ever having seen them in print, which is what happens when people don't read. "Et cetera" is not only correct, it's physically easier to pronounce.

I'm not single-mindedly stringent. I don't care whether people pronounce "dour" to rhyme with "tour" (the historical and arguably correct pronunciation) or "sour" (increasingly common). I don't even wince any more when people say "irregardless", because even though it's illogical, its meaning is clear--it means "regardless". But some things are beyond the pale, and those four usages above (and many more besides!) I will never, ever countenance. As far as I know, anyway; check back in twenty years.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Reader Writes

From the comments in one of the posts on Monday, March 14th:

"A question for you, pyramus: What of "offense"/"offence"? Both are nouns, and "offense", despite looking like it should be a verb, seems to be the preferred and most common spelling. Any idea how this came about? "

This is interesting, and I didn't touch on it because I was speaking of verbs and, as you note, "offense" and "offence" (and their cousins, "defense" and "defence") are nouns.

The two spellings of those, and others besides ( such as "pretence" and "pretense"), are artifacts of the development of the English language. Since their story is all much the same, we'll deal with the pair you asked about. Originally, "offense" would have been the logical spelling, because it stems from the Latin "offendere", the past participial stem of which is "offens-". However, as English evolved and was cemented into its written form, the spellings "ofense" and "offense" would have been inappropriate, because the terminal "e" was vanishing from the spoken form, softening the final consonant: for instance, the spelling "hense" (a now obsolete form of "hence") would have been pronounced as we now pronounce "hens". That wouldn't do, since spelling was meant to be an exact visual match for a word's pronunciation. (That's why, in the days before dictionaries, there are so many variant spellings--because there were so many variant pronunciations. It's also why so many English spellings are such a poor match for their pronunciations; because pronunciation changes over time but spelling, being committed to paper, is much more inflexible.)

So. As the terminal vowel sound vanished, "offense" would have been the written counterpart of a word that was pronounced "offenze", and since that was clearly wrong, the spelling "offence", with its hard "-s-" sound, sprang up. In time, the inaudible terminal vowel reappeared in the spoken language as a marker for that same hard "-s-" sound (think "pars" versus "parse", for example), and we were left with two different spellings for the same word. American dictionaries chose the "-s-" spellings of these words as standard while the British retained the "-c-" spellings. Except "hence", of course; that belongs to everyone.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Homing Smidgen

Jim and I are very fond of reference books. Well, me in particular, because I always need to know the answer to something right away, but he does his share. We have French/English, German/English, and Italian/English dictionaries because every now and then one of us is going to ask, "What's the Italian for 'walnut'? I used to know it...." and the answer will be found. A number of regular old English-language dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, because it knows everything. A thesaurus. An atlas. Various other unclassifiables, such as dictionaries of Indo-European roots and dirty words. We used to own more, but when you move every few years, you get rid of books that the Internet handily replaces.

The OED is a never-emptying well of information; I invariably turn to it when I want to know when a word entered the language or where it came from, and it rarely disappoints. But sometimes I see the unfortunate legend "Origin unknown". How can the OED not know? Why doesn't it just make something up? I'd believe it.

A few days ago I needed to know the origin of the word "smidgen". I'm fairly sure that when I got home from work I said, "I have a headache--not too bad, just a smidgen," and as soon as the word left my mouth I needed to know its provenance. It sounds kind of Dutch, doesn't it? Not to the OED. Origin unknown. Maybe it's distantly related to "smut". Or maybe not. It's all monumentally unsatisfying, particularly to someone who thinks that everything is eventually knowable.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The New Republic strikes again

In less than a week, two more clumsy errors in The New Republic within a paragraph of one another:

"In almost every role since, he's seemed like a cartoon character reigning himself in, trying desperately to pass as human."

That's reining. This is just stupid and inexcusable.

"Murphy is a far funnier sidekick as Mushu the miniscule dragon in this sorely underrated Disney release."

And nobody can spell "minuscule" properly any more. Granted, when writing that word, people tend to think of "miniature" and its jauntily abbreviated form "mini", but so what? A misspelling is a misspelling. I'd like to believe that if people knew its opposite, "majuscule", they might get "minuscule" right, but I suspect that then people would think "majesty" and end up with "majescule", and then wind up with "minescule", which is worse than "miniscule".

Goddammit, why doesn't TNR hire a copy editor?


I ran across the most delightful error on a web page today: "lowsy". It's part of a small but tangled thicket of words that bear inspecting.

The correct spelling, "lousy", is based on the word "louse". What baffled me about the misspelling, charming though it is, is that the word "low" is never, ever pronounced to match the first syllable in "lousy": whether noun ("Well, that's a new low"), verb ("The cattle are lowing"), or adjective ("How low can you go?"), it is invariably pronounced with a long "o". How could the writer have come up with that thoroughly illogical misspelling?

Which brings me to the second word in the thicket, "blowzy". For a long time, having read but not heard it, I thought that it was pronounced "blow-zee" to rhyme with "go see", but in fact it rhymes with "lousy". (I wish it were spelled "blousy", which would reveal its pronunciation, but that word exists solely as the adjectival form of the noun or verb "blouse". It does sometimes take an "s"--"blowsy"--but never a "u". "Blowzy" comes from the obsolete "blowze", a beggar-woman.) The misspelling "lowsy" would make more sense if the writer had been thinking of "blowsy", but someone who doesn't know how to spell "lousy" is unlikely to know how "blowsy" is spelled, either.

And another word: "frowzy". Where did it come from? It is a portmanteau word? It looks like one: "frumpy" plus "blowzy". Even the OED doesn't know; maybe it's related to "frowsty", or maybe not--and in any case, it doesn't know where "frowsty" came from, either.

And one last word: "drowsy". Why ever not "drowzy"? You'd think that as words were being set down on paper, a more logical system might have arisen--words ending in "-ouse", with their hard "s" sound (grouse, house, mouse, louse, souse) would keep the sound and the "s" on being converted into adjectives, and words ending in "-owse", having a "z" sound (drowse, dowse, browse), would similarly take a "z". It didn't happen; we ended up with a jumble of sounds and letters. The hard "s" of "louse" is padded into a soft "s" in "lousy" while "mousy" retains its hardness. This is why people have such trouble learning English: the verbs are a snap, but the spelling is a nightmare.

And full circle back to "lousy". I love this instance of evolution in action--the way "crawling with lice" came to mean something unpleasant but insect-free ("I feel lousy"). An identical transformation happened with "maggoty", literally "infested with maggots". When I was growing up in Newfoundland, "maggoty" was a synonym for "begrimed": "Go wash your hands--they're maggoty!" I'm surprised that there's no mention of this usage in the generally thorough and always fascinating Dictionary of Newfoundland English; it was a common usage at the time, which wasn't all that long ago.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Shovel it on

A news story this weekend contained perhaps the oddest pair of conjoined metaphors I've ever seen:

"Discount airline Jetsgo was burning money in spades when the Montreal carrier pulled the plug early yesterday...."

Burning money in spades? Wouldn't it have been easier to burn the money in shovels, which unlike flat-bladed spades are scooped?

The problem, of course, is that even though the idiomatic meaning of "in spades" is appropriate, the literal meaning can't help but come to the fore. It works as a pure idiom in such expressions as "She gave it to him, in spades", or the mildly clever CNN.com headline "Ireland's spuds are back in spades", but juxtaposed with another vivid idiom, "burning money", it's jarring. Almost anything would have been better than "in spades". "Hand over fist" would have been a slight improvement. Even better, "by the bucketful". The story's lead shows what happens when writers use metaphors reflexively, without thinking them through.

Ess, cee?

Seen a few days ago on The New Republic website:

"God on the Quad offers a bold prophesy but little reason to believe it."

Oops. Apparently someone never learned the simple rule that when there is a noun-verb pair of words identically spelled except that one takes a "c" where the other takes an "s", the noun is invariably the one with "c". Practise? Verb. Practice? Noun. It's not that difficult. There aren't even that many of them:


I'll concede that the licence/license pair has vanished from North American English: "license" now serves us for all purposes, noun and verb alike. There are also signs that "practice" is headed in the same direction, and it's easy to see why: "practise" and "practice" have identical pronunciations, making the distinction almost academic.

But "prophesy" is not a noun. It isn't even pronounced the same as "prophecy"; like the first two pairs, the terminal vowel sound changes, making it a distinctly different word. It's beyond me how an error like this can creep into a professional publication.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


What is it about the word "nonplus" that seems to throw so many people?

A story in The Nashua Telegraph tells of a girl with the gender identity of a boy who's being allowed to dress and act male in school. The story makes it clear that everyone involved is trying to do the right thing, but then comes this sentence:

"[O]verall, the parents have been supportive and the students are for the most part nonplussed."

From the context it's obvious that the writer thinks "nonplussed" means something like "nonchalant". It doesn't, and it never did. From the Latin for "no more", it means that one has no more to say on the subject--that one is literally speechless, or by extension baffled or perplexed.

Some people may have moral or medical objections to the idea of a little girl who wants to be a little boy, and no doubt there'll be discussion on the subject for a long time to come. But believing that "He's nonplussed" means "He's okay with that" is beyond debate: it's just wrong.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Torte Reform

One of the most delightful aspects of English is its unhesitating willingness to mix and match parts of speech. If we'd like a word that means "trail someone as if you were their shadow", well, why not just use the word "shadow"? It's already there; we don't need to borrow a word from another language when we've already got a serviceable one waiting for us. Unlike so many other languages, we don't need to mark it in any way to indicate that it now has a new function; we just jam the usual verb endings onto it and we're in business.

However, there are, or should be, limits. I don't know who'd pass judgement on such matters, but I'm offering my services after discovering that "torte" has been turned into a verb. Who would do such a thing? And what could it possibly mean?

It would take a dedicated pastry hound to verbify an innocent torte, and so we look to the fine folks at Wilton. Some people--Martha Stewart comes to mind--like to slice an existing cake into thinner layers, the better to shovel more frosting into it, and therefore Wilton makes an admittedly clever device for doing this. But how to convince even more people to buy this thing? By telling them that they can make ordinary cakes into elegant tortes--or rather that they can make a cake from a mix and then "torte" it.

Well, they can't. A torte isn't just a cake with thinner layers; it's a specific kind of cake, a particularly rich one, made with an abundance of eggs and little or no flour. Wilton might as well say people can "cake" a wheel of cheese by putting frosting on it.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Principal Valiant

Today on Wired.com there's a story about a particular kind of online fraud, and in discussing one case, the writer says that a company lost a lawsuit by default because "[i]ts principles never showed up in court".

And I'll bet its principals didn't, either.

There's no excuse for a published writer and a paid editor not to know that "principle" and "principal" aren't the same thing; the words may share a pronunciation and a distant past, but they have no meanings in common. It's like wanting to say "scents" and writing "sense". And then not noticing that you made a big fat mistake, or worse, thinking you spelled it correctly. And having your editor think the same thing.

I don't know how many times I've said it; being able to use a spell-checker doesn't mean you don't have to know how to spell.

Report Card

I've been thinking about verbs a lot lately, for three reasons: 1) I think about grammar a lot anyway, 2) I'm reading "A Linguistic Study of the English Verb" by F. R. Palmer, and 3) I'm studying French, and the verbs will be the death of me.

And now I'm thinking about reported speech.

Tuesday night after French class, I was going over some written exercises with the instructor. I had written a paragraph which contained a sentence that in English would read "She's pleased because her gynecologist just told her she isn't pregnant." We were meant to cast the entire piece in passé composée, so the instructor rightly altered the first verb, but then he baffled me by going on to alter the third one as well. I protested that that verb had to be in the present tense, because she isn't pregnant now, and the past tense would indicate that she hadn't been pregnant at some undefined point in the past.

Now it was his turn to be baffled. He--a native French speaker--couldn't understand how this could make any sense. He asked me a reasonable question: what if you had written the first verb in the past? So I said, "She was pleased because her gynecologist told her she isn't pregnant," and said that that could still be correct in English. Same thing again: if we put the third verb in the past, it can indicate something prior to the event in question. And then he was even more baffled than before, because to him that seemed as wrong as could be. I swore up and down that that was perfectly correct English. Evidently, though, it's not perfectly correct French, and so the entire sentence ended up in the past tense.

Finally--which is to say yesterday, when it was too late--it dawned on me that it wasn't so much French versus English as the idea of reported speech. ESL resources seem to insist that reported speech be cast in the past tense when the reporting verb is also in the past:

She said, "I live in my own apartment."
She said she lived in her own apartment.

Mike said, "I'm taking a course in linguistics next year."
Mike said he was taking a course in linguistics next year.

And yet it seems to me that that isn't true. In everyday idiomatic English, we could, and probably would, say:

She said she lives in her own apartment.
Mike said he's taking a course in linguistics next year.

Using the past tense can introduce ambiguity. The second sentence is unambiguous because there's another time marker--"next year". But in the first sentence, did she say that she used to live in her own apartment or that she does now? Using the present tense eliminates that ambiguity.

And now I shall have to apologize to my French instructor for the confusion and explain to him that what he learned when studying proper, bolted-down English is not necessarily the case in the world of free-style English.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Distain is Bound for Glory

The trouble with spell-checkers is that they don’t know the difference between “they’re”, “there”, and “their”. (Grammar checkers aren’t much better, in my experience.)

This isn’t about typos. Any decent spell-checker can catch a typo. The trouble is that it’s not going to catch mistakes that look like words: it’ll get “teh”, but it won’t flag “that” where you meant to say “than” (a surprisingly common error).

I stumbled across “distain” on a website today. It looks like a misspelling or a variant of “disdain”, and my spell-checker (in Appleworks) doesn’t think it’s a real word. But it is! Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean “disdain” at all; it means “to stain or discolour” and, by extension, “to defile or besmirch”. The two words don’t even have the same root.

But if you Google “distain”, you’ll see it’s been used quite a few times--over 69,000--and almost always as if it meant “disdain” (which is how it was used on the website in question). Uh-oh. Does Microsoft’s spell-checker allow it? I can’t imagine why else it would be showing up so much.

It’s an easy mistake to make: “-sd-” isn’t a very common sound in English, and “disdain” is often pronounced identically with “distain”. (Likewise, “-sg-” is rare in English, and “disgusting” is often pronounced as if it were spelled “discusting”; it’s easier that way.) If I were to make a prediction, it would be that in twenty to fifty years, “distain” will simply be an alternate spelling for “disdain” and its current meaning will effectively vanish from the language, remaining only as a ghost. I don’t think losing “distain” will be a disaster for English.

Monday, March 07, 2005


I had the damnedest time trying to find a half-decent name that wasn't already taken. After trying a few times to register a name, I wised up and started typing "[whatever].blogspot.com" into the address bar. My FameTracker username, pyramus: gone. (And he doesn't even use it!) Every imaginable variation thereof: taken. Words that grabbed me from iTunes: no dice. ("Contrapunctus"--so lovely, so taken.) Appealing French, German, and Italian words that popped into my head: snapped up, except such dubiosities as "brennbar" (useful on canisters of oxygen, not so great for a username).

"Cephalogenic" is a made-up word meaning "produced by the head". Something I thought up, in other words; how meta. It strikes me as odd, though, that the suffix "-genic" has two rather different, almost opposite meanings, "causing" and "caused by". "Iatrogenic": caused by a doctor. "Carcinogenic": causing cancer. And then of course there's "photogenic", which perversely has three meanings--"creating light" (photogenic bacteria), "caused by light" (photogenic epilepsy), and, I suppose, "flattered by light", or "having a beauty created by light" (photogenic actors). Oh, how I love the English language.

This blog is meant to assuage my sense of loss; the Fametracker forum "English Language Usage" vanishes on or about March 15th, along with all the other forums, and if I don't have a place to talk about English grammar (and whatever else leaks out of my skull) I'll go nuts.