or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


In a recent Letters section on Salon.com, a truly odd usage caught my eye:

"My mother was quite young when she had me, and nary three years later had my twin brothers."

"Nary three years later"? The writer is apparently under the impression that it means "not" in the sense of "not even" or "not quite". It doesn't and never has, though; as a compression of "ne'er a", it means "not one". It's no longer seen in English by itself (except in narrowly regional speech): it's part of the idiomatic expression "nary a", in which it simply means "not" ("nary a sound was heard"), and invariably precedes a singular noun. Well, "nary any" is sometimes, rarely, heard, and I suppose it is possible that this construction could precede a plural noun: "nary any sounds were heard". But even this is highly non-standard; "nary" is virtually always singular, and "nary three" is just wrong.


A couple of weeks ago I spotted a common error on someone's web page: I dropped him a polite line, he wrote back, and he changed the page, all very civil. He'd assumed, as many people do, that "puce" is a greenish colour, when in fact it's a dark purpled red. "Puce" is the French word for "flea", and anyone who's ever seen one of the little bastards close-up, as I have, will know that a flea that's just snacked from your leg is a dark reddish colour, as it's full of your blood. (An old Tide laundry detergent commercial from the seventies featured as a punch line the words "Pomegranate and puce!?", which were Mom's high-school colours. Evidently the writer didn't know that pomegranate pretty much is puce.)

Here's another frequent mistake along similar lines; what colour is associated with the word "livid"?

Most people, it seems, think it means "red". If someone's livid, they're furious, and if they're furious, they're red-faced. Q.E.D. But in fact, "livid" means "bluish". That's "blue-ish", not "blush". It comes from the Latin "lividus", "having a bluish colour", and it has three meanings in English. One, as we've noted, is "furious". But the oldest meaning is "blue-black" or "black-and-blue", as a bruise is, and the second-oldest is "ashen" or "ashy-faced". (The "furious" sense of "livid" comes from this meaning: someone so enraged that all the blood drains from his or her face.) You may never need to know what "livid" literally means, but hey--now you do. Just in case.


I just wrote "his or her", didn't I? I'm a big fan of the use of "they" as a genderless singular noun, because we desperately need one in English. I frequently use it in speech: it's so colloquial as to be beneath comment nowadays, except perhaps in the most exacting of circles. But I find I can't bring myself to write it. I still believe that the written word is held to a higher standard than the spoken word, that since we have more time to consider what we're saying when we're writing it out, we should be more precise. We should demand more of ourselves when we have the luxury of doing so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pomegranate and puce are the colors of the local high school in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, fictional home of Rocky and Bullwinkle. There, despite a population of only 48, two local newspapers were on sale: the Far-Flung Flyer and the Picayune Intelligence. Most of the local folks there did their banking at the Farmers' and Swineherds' National Bank. So, I'm figuring that the 'writers' of the Tide commercial knew very well what they were doing when using those colors, it was homage to some much-loved comedy, seems to me. In other words, a popular culture reference.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Clearly that's exactly what it was, and thanks for the info. My knowledge of Rocky and Bullwinkle, while not nonexistent, is shamefully lacking.

Although I would have sworn that it was Bullwinkle who said "And in contusion...", but the Internet tells me nothing.

Friday, December 12, 2008 8:47:00 AM  

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