or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Joy Forever

If you've seen the movie Donnie Darko, you'll remember the assertion that "cellar door" is the most beautiful word in the English language (possibly out of Mencken), which works only if you hyphenate it, as otherwise it's in contention for the most beautiful phrase in English, a competition which may or may not exist. A former English teacher of mine discussed this topic once, and said that novelist Arnold Bennett declared that "pavement" was the most beautiful word: the way she pronounced it, it almost was. James Joyce apparently awarded the laurel to "cuspidor", and any number of people have weighed in on the subject over the years.

I'm not entirely sure what the criteria are for such judgements, but I've always been partial to long, fluid words. I don't know if it's on anybody's most-beautiful list, but I have always loved the metre and pace of the word "irremediably". And when I was a mere tad of maybe 11--a mere tad with strange and varied reading tastes--I ran across "salpingoöophorectomy" and instantly fell in love with it. (It's not a word with an especially lovely meaning, mind you: it's the surgical operation in which the Fallopian tubes and the ovaries are removed. But the word itself is a wonder, liquid and sinuous. Also: three "-o-"s in a row!)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Nuclear Options

Yes, I'm overly sensitive to the uses and abuses of English, but it bugs the hell out of me when people pronounce things incorrectly, even when those mispronunciations have some basis in logic (or as much logic as English can muster, which is precious little).

I was listening to Air America's "The Majority Report" and was once again struck by two mispronunciations, one committed by each host. (I think I've already groused about how they consistently use "media" as a singular noun, so I'll just leave that one lying there. Anyway, this grouse is about pronunciation, not grammar)

Sam Seder has mostly gotten rid of his dreadful habit--though it still pokes its head out from time to time--of pronouncing "nuclear" as "nucular". And I sort of understand that, sort of: "-cular" is a relatively common ending in English, particularly in such scientific words as "vascular", "circular", "specular", and "molecular", not to mention "spectacular". In comparison, the two-syllable "-clear" is much rarer, and people tend to try to make sense of what they hear when they're pronouncing unfamiliar words. But there's no getting around the fact that "nucular" sounds subliterate at best; someone who makes at least part of his living trashing George W. Bush (who is notorious for that very pronunciation) ought to be a little more careful.

Janeane Garofalo has a few regional pronunciations such as "fo'ward", which I find charming. What I do not find charming is her oddball pronunciation of "negligent"; the softens the second "-g-" so that the whole thing sounds like "negligee" with a couple of extra consonants tacked on. The only standard pronunciation for "negligent" gives the second "-g-" a hard "-j-" sound.

In case you were wondering--which is to say I was wondering, and so I'm going to share it with you, even if you weren't wondering--"negligent" is pretty obviously related to "neglect". Nothing interesting there. But "neglect"; now that's got a story. It's from the Latin "neg-", "not", plus "legere", "to choose/to pick/to pick up/to gather"; when you neglect your appearance or a child, you choose not to do what you ought to. ("Legere" has a number of other descendants in English, including "elect", "to choose [out of]", "collect", "to gather together", and "select", "to choose [apart from others]".)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

French Letters

I have recently tried to learn French with a signal lack of success. Part of it, possibly, is mere laziness, but more of it, I think, is that I just don't think in Romance. I studied German over twenty years ago without seriously pursuing it since, and yet I can remember more of it than I can of the French I studied not four months ago. German just seems more...logical to me. A large part of that, of course, is that English is a Germanic language, and the structures of the two languages are very similar.

Nevertheless, French vocabulary is still a major component of English, thanks in part to the Normans and their conquest of England, and I still take careful note of French in conjunction with English, because it's so interesting. I'm helped by the fact that in Canada, commercial packaging has to bear both languages, so we Canadians live in a world of simultaneous translation.


A tube of sunscreen in my bathroom says "Broad Spectrum" and, just below it, "À Large Spectre". Aside from the fact that this is French phrase is an English phrase (if you ignore the accent mark over the first "A") with an entirely different meaning, how fascinating that "spectrum" in English is "spectre" in French. It made me wonder just how "spectre" means "shadow" or "ghost" in English. As we might have guessed, its root is the Latin "specere", "to look at" (giving us such other words as "spectacle" and "specimen", both things we look at). And here is how the words are related: "spectrum" in Latin literally means "appearance", and came in English to mean "apparition" (something which has made an appearance), which is to say "ghost", after which it was gradually replaced by the French word while retaining its meaning. "Spectrum", having lost this sense, was free to concentrate on other areas, specifically those referring to a visual range of something (such as the colours fractionated out by a prism) and, later, to any range of anything, such a "a spectrum of political opinion".


A bag of frozen raspberries in my freezer sports a recipe which tells me that where in English we say "yolk", the French say "jaune". Perfectly sensible, that; the white of an egg, the yellow of an egg. So why is it that we say "yolk"? Because "yolk" in fact means "yellow". "Yellow", as I have noted before, is related to the German "gelb", with the same meaning. A simple change in sound from "g-" to "y-" speeds this change on its way: they're remarkably close to one another, as you will see if you pronounce a hard "ge-" and then push it out of your mouth with your tongue rather than stopping it. "Gelb" is also related to an Old English word, "geolca", which stems from "geolu", meaning, yes, "yellow". Using that same transition of "ge-" to "y-", we see that it's a very short route from "geolca" to "yolk", and so the yolk of an egg is, quite literally, its yellow.


I may not be able to speak French, but by god, I can spell it. (Well, I'm not so completely accurate with the accent marks, which we sensibly did away with in English a long time ago. I think I would have to hear French more accurately than I do in order to be able to reproduce the accent marks correctly.) There's a sign in the store in which I work that reads, in part, "Facilitatrice française disponsible", or "French(-speaking) facilitator available [for birthday parties]." Or that's what it would mean if it didn't have a typo in it, obviously made by someone who's used to such English words as "responsible". The correct word in question is "disponible", and I've complained about it but it's still up there, taunting any French-speaking person who should happen to see it. Most people don't care, I know, but typos piss me off and there has to be at least one Francophone who's irritated that we can't even spell their language correctly in a simple three-word phrase.

French does have words that end in "-sible", such as "sensible" (which means not what in means in English, but rather "sensitive"). However, "disponible" is not one of those words.

Monday, June 27, 2005

On the Move

As I was writing yesterday's posting, I had to brush aside a tumble of words in my head that started with "viridian" and ended with "vegetable". When I got back to them a little later, I had one of those flashes of insight that turned out to be correct. But more on that anon.

"Vegetable" is a particularly interesting word because it currently exists in English almost exclusively as a noun, yet a cursory inspection suggests that it ought to be, or at least once was, an adjective, with that "-able" suffix that we slap on to verbs we want to adjectify ("wearable", "doable"). And in fact it emerged into English simultaneously as an adjective meaning "referring to plants" and a noun meaning "a plant". (The sense of "an edible plant" emerged later.) The adjective "vegetable", or "vegetate-able", meant literally "growing as a plant does"; something which was vegetable was something alive and growing.

Now, of course, "vegetable" as a noun has another meaning, that being someone who is in a coma or who is mentally stultified. This has been helped along by the medical sense of "vegetative", which is to say, in common terms, "technically alive, but without having a life in any meaningful sense". So we move from the sense of "alive and growing [however slowly]" to a sense of "physically alive, but mentally dead".

Here's that insight. Since vowels shift slowly but determinedly over the decades and centuries, it seemed to me that "veg-" must be allied to either "vag-" or "vig-" in the past. And it is! "Vag-" is unrelated, but "vig-" gives us "vigour", which is from the Latin "vigere", "to be lively", and this word is also the stem of "vegetable".

And that is a wonderful irony: in "vigorous" and "vegetative" we have a pair of intimately related words that mean "vividly, thoroughly alive" and "alive, but only just".

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Ill Wind

As I was idly reading over Tuesday's posting, it occurred to me that speaking of "nightingale", I had teasingly brought up "galingale" as if it might somehow be related, and then it occurred to me that I had neglected to mention two other "-gale" words (the only other two, as far as I know). And fascinatingly, no two of them are related in any way: "-gale" appeared in the language four times from four entirely different sources, which I guess is the linguistic equivalent of the evolutionary commonplace that the eye evolved at least three different times.

The "-gale" from "nightingale", as I mentioned, is related to "gala", and that of "galingale" is from the corruption of a Chinese word. The third word in our quartet is "farthingale"--it's a skirt-hoop--and that has a most convoluted extraction: Middle English "verdingale" or "verdynggale" from French "verdugale" from Spanish "verdugado", an offshoot of their "verdugo", a stick, which derives from the sense of "verde", "green", as in a tree's green shoot, and that in turn is from Latin "viridis", "green", from which English retains "viridian". (If I'd been paying attention, I could have tied all that in to Monday's discussion of "gram-"/"green".)

Our fourth "-gale" word is "martingale", which is originally a rein but now is best known as a way of losing large sums of money at gambling. "Martingale" is a French word derived from another Spanish word, "almartaga", "rein", and that "al-" suffix might suggest an Arabic word, which in this case would almost certainly be correct; quite a few English words beginning with "al-" are from Arabic (most of them with scientific roots), such as "algebra", "alcohol", "alkali", and "almagest".

Saturday, June 25, 2005


An interesting error in punctuation from a recent story on Slate.com:

"Today, the closest thing Randi has to successors are the magician-debunkers Penn & Teller (whose half-hour TV show, Bullshit , tries to avoid legal liability by calling con-men "assholes" instead of "fakes")."

The writer has confused one punctuation mark, the hyphen, with another, the solidus, otherwise known as the virgule or the slash. (I prefer "solidus" because it's the typographic name for the mark and because "virgule" is, confusingly, the French word for "comma". I use "slash" when I'm speaking a Web address, though; that's the convention.)

Because the hyphen joins words into a compound, "magician-debunkers" ought to mean those who debunk magicians. The solidus is used to connect words and yet keep them separate, to relate them without altering their meanings; it's become such a commonplace that we actually say it out loud, as in "writer slash director". What was clearly meant in this case was "magician/debunkers".

You want to know how "solidus" could mean an insubstantial little diagonal line, don't you, as the word is plainly related to "solid"? It orginally denoted a gold Roman coin: eventually in England it came to mean "a shilling", and then, in pre-decimalisation England, to refer to that little line that separates shillings from pence in prices such as 4/6 ("four-and-sixpence" or "four-and-six").

You want to know what 4/6 means, don't you? The old monetary system ran as follows: four farthings to the penny, twelve pence (the plural of penny) to the shilling, five shillings to the crown, four crowns to the pound, twenty-one pounds to the guinea. 4/6 was, therefore, 54 pence. It took a bit of mental agility to manage such a system, particularly when making change, but this is, after all, the country that devised such measures as the stone (14 pounds) and the foolscap page (13 x 17 inches). No doubt it all made perfect sense at the time.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Clamping Down

This is how you know you are in Atlantic Canada and not, say, Nome or Addis Ababa or Montevideo: a local cell-phone company is having a promotion in which, when you sign up for their plan, you get two phones, the cool kind with cameras in them (this will be relevant shortly), and four free lobster.

I have nothing against that. I'm a sort-of kinda mostly vegetarian, but no power on Earth could keep me from eating lobster if it were offered to me, because it is so good. What I object to is their advertising slogan: "Get snap'n!"

Why do they do this? Is it just to vex me? Do they want to piss me off and vow never to use their services? That doesn't seem like good business sense.

The cheap pun? I can live with that. Cameras snap! And so do lobster! Get it? Get it? But we all know that apostrophes are used to denote a missing letter from a contracted word, and the nonexistent "snap'n" has two sets of missing letters; if they were to use it--if I were to allow them to use it, which I certainly would not--it would have to be "snap'n'". No, what they were after is "snappin'". And I want to smack them briskly across the face and tell them to smarten the hell up.

I think I've used up my quota of italics for the time being.

Interesting that the plural of "lobster" is either "lobster" or "lobsters", depending on...well, depending. But they're both correct. Sort of like "fish" or "fishes", I would imagine.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Two Down, Five to Go

Yesterday I talked about the word "sloth", and then I came across this posting about extending the Gay Pride parade to the other six deadly sins. Serendipity! (The end of June is when all the Gay Pride parades seem to happen; Moncton had its last weekend, and for all I know it was a smashing success, but with a population of maybe 120,000 in the Moncton/Dieppe/Riverview area, how big could the parade have been?)

"Pride" itself is, obviously, the noun form of "proud", and it has a very straightforward provenance: it's a simple shift in vowels, something that happens all the time in all languages as they evolve. In this case, it's long-"u" "prud", meaning "proud", into Middle English "pryde" and then into the modern spelling.

But wait a second. Long-"u" "prud"? Doesn't that look and sound like our modern word "prude"? Indeed it does, and that's precisely what it is. As far as anyone knows, the origin of "prude" is the word old French "prudhomme", which, yes, is a surname still in common currency, as in the chef Paul Prudhomme. "Prudfemme", the female equivalent, followed, and as we know, once a word is applied to a woman, it's going to be turned into something nasty. (As Miss Manners notes, look what happened to the once-respectable terms of address "Mistress" and "Madam": you will need to register to read the Washington Post, but it's worth it to read Miss Manners twice a week.) The "prude" in these words indicated a number of good things, wisdom and integrity among them, things one might well be proud of demonstrating, but "prudfemme" came to be disparaging--a woman who was a little too proud of being virtuous--and this is what the word now ineluctably means in English, despite the attempts of the ever more tedious Mary Daly to reclaim it.

In one of those flashes of insight that later turns out to be entirely wrong, I guessed that "prude" and "prudent" had a common root. No such luck. "Prudent" is a contraction of "provident", from the Latin "providere", "to provide for".

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


First, may I just say that although I immoderately love the movie Seven, because I love all of David Fincher's movies, I think that the spelling on the poster--Se7en--is ridiculous in the extreme?

Second, may I just say that the mnemonic for remembering the seven deadly sins is PWELGAS?

All right. A couple of days ago a reader asked if my recent absence was due to sloth (which it was), and the word "sloth" struck me as amusing. The English, as you may know, generally pronounce it "slowth", with a long "-o-", and well they might, since this is the origin of the word: "slow-" plus the "-th" suffix which denotes a state or quality and is used to turn verbs or adjectives into nouns ("growth", "width"). In North America, we've shortened the "-o-" sound, for no particularly good reason that I can see, since "-oth" takes a long sound ("both") or a short ("moth") seemingly at random. (And "-oth-" has another trick up its sleeve, since it can be a short "-o-" as in "bother", a long one as in "clothing", or a short "-u-" sound as in "mother".)

Now, that acronym. PWELGAS gives us pride, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, avarice, and sloth. If you prefer the "A" to stand for anger (aka wrath), or the "G" to represent greed (aka avarice), or you prefer a "V" for vanity (aka pride), then you will have to make up your own acronym.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


So I'm walking to the post office this morning, iPod funneling Edita Gruberova's radiant voice into my ears and the scent of freshly-cut grass wafting through the air, and of course this made me think of words.

First, the soprano. She's singing Alabieff's "Die Nachtigall", and if you don't know what that means, can you guess? "Nacht" is the German word for "night"; think about that for a minute while we talk about grasses.

As usual, English, which will never make do with one source for words when a handful will serve, has two entirely different batches of words for grass. There's "grass" itself and all its affixed cousins such as "grassy" and "lemongrass", and then there's the "gram-" cluster which contains such words as "graminaceous", "graminivorous", and "gramineous". Can you guess which root comes from Latin? Think about that for a minute while we get back to Miss Gruberova and her tune.

"Nachtigall" is "nightingale" in German. And you might well wonder where the "-gale" in "nightingale" comes from. We didn't just steal it directly from the Germans: we assembled it with our very own Anglo-Saxon hands from "night" and "galan", "to sing, to make merry". If this word looks familiar, it ought to: it shows up in such English words as "regale" and "gala". What about "galingale"? Can it be...?

Now, the grasses. It should be pretty self-evident based on those suffixes that the "gram-" group comes from Latin "gramen", meaning, yes, "grass". (The words above mean "grasslike", "grass-eating", and "belonging to the grass family", respectively.) "Grass" itself stems from the Indo-European root "ghre-", meaning "to grow, to become green", and in fact that root is also the source of both those words in English.

As for "galingale", no, unfortunately there's nothing revelrous about it. It's a gingery seasoning much beloved in the Middle Ages, and we took its name from the French "galingal"; they had previously pilfered it from the Mandarin name for the plant, "gaoliang-jiang".

Monday, June 20, 2005


After a week's respite, I'm back. Anyone miss me?

You really do learn something new every day. At least I do. I caught what I thought must surely be a typo in, of all places, The New Yorker, from this online piece:

"During the twenty-minute frenzy titled “The Grid”—crowds swirling, traffic churning, televisions flickering, hot dogs and Hostess Twinkies being exgurgitated from production lines—Glass and his musicians become manic machines, firing off notes like so many 0s and 1s."

"Exgurgitated"? I had only ever heard the word "egurgitated", and I thought, aha! So much for their vaunted style book, their fact-checkers and editors! But not so fast: it turns out, according to the OED, that "exgurgitate" is in fact a variant form of "egurgitate" (which means, in case the context wasn't clear, "to vomit forth".) "E-" and "ex-" are both prefixes from the Latin and mean, in this context, "out of": the opposite of "egurgitate" is, logically enough, "ingurgitate", "to eat", though the only context in which we ordinarily encounter the root of these words (from the Latin "gurgitare", "to flood") is "regurgitate", which ought to mean "to eat again" but which we may interpret as "to eat and then bring the food back". (That literal sense of "regurgitate" does have an application: it's what birds do when they bring up previously eaten and pre-digested food for their young.)

Monday, June 13, 2005

A Wonderful Thing

One of my oldest friends and his wife (whom I've known for almost as long) were visiting last night from Toronto and as usual the conversation ranged all over the place. (Travel, smoking, mosquitoes, the uselessness of language for transmitting messages into the far future, politics, tea, King Leopold, economics, and food were just a few of the topics.) Talking about my unsuccessful attempt to finally learn some decent conversational French, I complained that unlike English, spoken French has almost no stress patterns, and I just can't figure out where the words begin and end.

And then it hit me; how on Earth do I know where the words begin and end in spoken English?

It isn't just the stresses. In ordinary everyday English, even though words have a natural ebb and flow, we run them together; I expect this is true of every language. We don't pause between words; they flow from our mouths in a smooth stream. And yet somehow we, listening, know where to divide them, and this strikes me as a great mystery. How is that in day-to-day life we can tell the difference between, say, "abominable" and "a bomb in a bull", to use a fanciful example? How can we divide up the words in any ordinary sentence? Try reading aloud the first sentence in this piece: there are no punctuation marks (except for a pair of parentheses you can elide) and therefore no pauses, and so the thing is a jet of sound; you don't even need to pause for breath, let alone the demarcations between words, but any English speaker can understand you easily, supplying the internal divisions effortlessly.

I don't know how I do this, or how anyone else does. It's built into our brains, and yet it's practically a miracle.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

This or That

See, here's the sort of thing that makes people hate prescriptive grammarians. I was snippily told once that if you're trying to decide between two things, you can't say "I have two choices" because "choice" means "the act of choosing", and therefore you have one choice between two things.

As if every word in English had only one meaning! "Choice" means quite a few things--it even serves as an adjective meaning "of the highest quality"--and one of those meanings is (and has been for a long time) "option", which means "having two choices" is a legitimate expression.

I thought of this because, as usual, I was poking around in dictionaries looking up words that interest me, and I wondered if "knife", "spoon", and "fork" all came from the same language. They don't: "knife", as I had guessed, is Nordic--it just feels Norse, somehow--which "spoon" is pure English. And "fork": well, that's from the Latin "furca", with the same meaning, and that was when a tiny light bulb went off and I realized that that was the root of the word "bifurcate". And then the "two-choices-is-wrong" bell went off (clearly there are a lot of electrical devices in my head), and I thought, "A fork is already two things, so isn't 'bifurcate' redundant? Shouldn't it just be 'furcate'?"

Sort of. But sort of not. If you're thinking as literally as possible, the adjective "bifurcate" ought to mean "having two forks, and therefore at least four branches". But we don't operate that literally in English, thank goodness, or we wouldn't be able to say anything as simple as "How are you?" without getting a half-hour discourse on medical and emotional problems. The "furca" in "bifurcate" doesn't mean a literal multi-pronged fork: it means "a forking", and "bifurcate" is saved from redundancy by meaning simply "forking off in two directions".

And we will not have any cheap jokes about mispronunciations of the word "forking", thank you.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Nothing in Common

Sometimes you look at a word and it triggers something, and you think of another word and feel sure they must be related. Sometimes you're right: sometimes you're wrong.

"Committee" has to be related to "comity", obviously. The meanings, while not the same, are tangentially or metaphorically related to one another: "a delegation of people in charge of something" and "social harmony". How disappointing it is to discover that they're complete strangers to one another, "committee" emerging from the Latin for "to commit" and "comity" from Latin "comis", "friendly".

Well surely, then, "comity" is related somehow to "comedy" or "comic". It just makes sense. Once again, nope. "Comic" as an adjective is from the Latin "comicus", with the same meaning. (And that, in turn, is from Greek "komikos", from "komos", "a revel".) "Comedy" has the same Greek root, "komos", plus "aoidos", "singer", turning into "komoidos", "comic actor", and then into Latin as "comedia".

On closer inspection, anyway, "committee" is the odd one out of this trio of words, since it's assembled out of a word plus a prefix--"com-", meaning "with", plus Latin "mittere", "to send". We still have a number of English words that use this verb, including "admit", "to send towards", "remit", "to send back", and "transmit", "to send across".

Friday, June 10, 2005


A movie review in today's Salon.com contains the following sentence:

"Regardless, it's important to note that "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is one of an increasingly small number of big mainstream pictures made from an original script, as opposed to being a reworking of an old movie or TV show."

The sentiment is doubtless correct, but the usage is unexpected: "increasingly small". It's not wrong, exactly, but it sure is strange. "Increase" metaphorically means "to become more so" (as in, say, "increasingly rare"), but its literal sense is "to become larger or greater". Saying "increasingly small" is almost like saying "more less". The metaphorical sense of "increasingly" works with many adjectives, but not with adjectives of size: "ever-smaller" would have been a better choice.

Increase, by the way, comes from the Latin "crescere", "to grow", which gives English such words as "crescendo" and "excrescence", as well as the crescent moon--growing, that is, from a new, or invisible, moon. We think of "crescent" as a noun, but its origin is as an adjective; "cresc-" plus the verb-to-adjective suffix "-ent" so common in such words as "fluorescent" and "indolent".

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Colour My World

Dammit. Now that song's gonna be stuck in my head all day.


As I was walking home from work last night, I was greeted by a gorgeous, overwhelming scent: the lilacs are out in full flower and their perfume is intoxicating. There are hundreds of lilac bushes within a five-minute radius of my apartment and I can't walk down the street without burying my nose in a cluster of the florets. It's irresistible. The word "lilac" has an unexpected provenance: I figured it was French (doesn't it look as if it might once have been "lilaque" or some such?), and it does have its distant roots in an obsolete French word, but its true origin is an old, old Arabic word, "nilak", meaning "dark blue". I suppose this is a case of what I talked about yesterday: one person's pale violet is another's dark blue.


I once had an argument with someone as to the definition of the colour "chartreuse". She was unaccountably convinced that it was a hot pink, when I insisted it was a bright yellowish green. A quick trip to the dictionary proved me right, and I won the bet (but I don't remember ever having collected on it). I'm rather glad that Answers.com wasn't around at the time, because their definition would still have settled the bet in my favour, but with the most bizarrely written dictionary definition I've ever seen:

"A strong to brilliant greenish yellow to moderate or strong yellow green."

What, they couldn't replace the word "or" with "to" to make the thing even less comprehensible?


The folk etymology for "lavender" is that it come from the Latin "lavanda", meaning "washing" (whence French "laver", "to wash", and our cluster of words such as "lavage" and "lavatory"), on the grounds that the plant's perfume was added to wash-water to give clothing a clean, fresh scent. The OED calls bullshit on this, and suggests that although the origin is murky, a better guess is that it's related to "lividus", "bluish".


A constant theme in English is that many of our commonest words come to us from French or German, thanks to waves of invasion. Of the seven colours in the rainbow, only one doesn't come to us directly from either of these languages. Go ahead, guess which:

Is is red? Orange? Yellow? Green? Blue? Indigo? Or violet?

Red, yellow, and green all come to us from German ("rot", gelb", and "grün", respectively). Orange and violet are from French ("orange" and "violette"). Blue was influenced by both languages ("Blau" in German, "bleu" in French). Indigo is the odd man out: it looks and is Spanish, from the Latin "indicum", eventually leading us to such things as the Hindu religion, the Indus river, and Greek "Indikos", meaning "of India".

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

In the Shade

English has approximately one million words for different colours (I may be exaggerating a little, though only a little), and it's hard to tell what a clothing catalogue means when it tells you that a particular sweater is available in Fungus or Gasoline, but everyone knows the seven colours that are in the rainbow. I'm not even sure why we have any mnemonics for that list--it's so short and you can just memorize it--but "Richard of York gave battle in vain" and Roy G. Biv are the two I grew up with: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

We're so used to this that it seems natural, inevitable; obviously there are seven colours in the rainbow. And yet there aren't. There's no particular reason that we have a word for "green" and another for "blue" as if the two were mutually exclusive categories, as if there were a sharp dividing line between them. Head over here and do a search for "#0099AB"; what's that, blue or green? Both? Neither? Maybe it's teal, or turquoise, but if the colours of the rainbow have a literal meaning, then where does this colour fit? How about "#F54029"? Red? Orange? Scarlet, vermilion, russet? Where does it go?

The meanings of "blue" and "green" are nearly arbitrary. We stake out a chunk of the rainbow and say, "That's blue", but is it? Where does blue end and indigo begin? (And is indigo so different from blue, only darker?) We think of them as discrete categories--everyone knows that the leaves are green and the sky is blue--but it's easy to imagine a language in which colour isn't that important, in which there's only one word to cover the entire range of blues through greens, another that conflates red with orange and halfway through yellow. If this sounds preposterous, imagine a language in which there are even finer divisions between colours of the rainbow: perhaps this language has eleven strict colour names for what they see in the rainbow (they'd definitely need a mnemonic). Wouldn't they consider our language impoverished in that area? Wouldn't they claim that there are obviously eleven divisions, and that if we can't see them, there must be something wrong with our eyes?

There's an entire book on the subject (of course there is; there's an entire book on any subject you'd care to name), and you can read more about it here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Free Association 4

It's all just bits and pieces these days. Jim just got a new computer, so I just got The Sims 2 (he has a fast new Windows machine, the Mac version hasn't been released yet, and even if it had been it wouldn't play on my four-year-old Mac), and who can focus when you have all these little dependents?

But who am I kidding? This is the way my brain works all the time. One thing triggers another in a rush of connections and ideas. Hardly any depth, but considerable breadth. That's how I've always been: if I were a ten-year-old today I expect I'd be diagnosed with a medical problem and ladled full of Ritalin or Strattera or whatever the dose du jour is.


From a recent Wired.com piece, a very strange usage indeed:

"The company now dresses its PCs in glossy cases with a shark's fin Wi-Fi antenna and glowering LED indicators."

They did mean "glowing", didn't they?

I can't be entirely sure. "Glower" means "to stare sullenly" (it's etymologically unrelated to "glow"--they even have different pronunciations). I haven't seen the glossy cases and can't say whether the LED indicators are actually glowering, but perhaps they are: perhaps they're arranged on the case to resemble a pair of beetle-browed eyes. I think it's a fair bet that it's a typo, though. I hope.


Unsurprisingly, on close inspection, the "beetle" of "beetle-browed" isn't the same as the insect. I mean, they have the same root, but the meanings diverged, and the visage has nothing to do with beetles per se. The word "beetle" comes from an Old English word "bitel", "sharp, biting"; it's not hard to see how this would apply to bugs, but to sullen people? "Bitel-brouwed" meant "grim-browed", a very short metaphoric leap from "sharp-featured".


J.B.S. Haldane famously said once, upon being asked what nature could tell us about God, that it demonstrated "an inordinate fondness for beetles". (This is doubtless accurate, since a fifth of all known species are beetles.) Isn't "inordinate" a strange word to express too-muchness? It's another small metaphoric leap. The original meaning of the word, as might be divined from its parts, is "disorderly"; this leads to the meaning "unregulated", and then to "out of control" and "immoderate", which is its current meaning.


The flow of thoughts in my brain, then, went something like this: "Glowering? That's not right! Better write a bit about that. Beetle-browed! How strange! What do insects have to do with facial expressions? Beetles--didn't Haldane say something about that? Better look it up." There were a bunch of other things in there ("I should get something to drink/Why do people pronounce 'Pinochet' incorrectly?/I wonder if there are any movies opening this weekend"), but since they have nothing to do with English, you've been spared from having to hear about them.

Oh, very well: I decided not to, they think it should rhyme with "ricochet" even though that word is French and "Pinochet" is Spanish and therefore pronounced differently, and predictably no (though the only movie I'm remotely looking forward to this summer, Dark Water, opens July 8th).

Monday, June 06, 2005

Free Association 3

So I'm reading Wonkette and there's a piece about the semi-literate George Bush's complete miscomprehension of the word "disassemble". "That means not tell the truth", he says. Well, kind of no, for a couple of reasons.

"Disassemble" is (self-evidently, I would think) composed of the Latin prefix "dis-", "apart", and "assemble", which itself is constructed from the Latin "ad-", "to", and "simul", "together": to assemble something is to bring it to a state of togetherness, and to disassemble is to take that assemblage apart.

The word Bush was flailing around for, "dissemble", has a slightly more roundabout provenance. The prefix is the same, but it has another, related meaning: "the opposite of". The root comes from Old French "sembler", "to appear to be" (in English, we have other traces of it in such words as "semblance"). This word comes from the Latin "simulare", "to simulate", and this in turn comes from the adjective "similis", "like". To dissemble, then, is to appear to be something, and yet not be that thing. Sort of like appearing to be a world leader.


A little later on in the same website is a picture of the twins Lauren and Barbara Bush, and they look amazingly unlike one another--you'd scarcely think they were related. Fraternal twins, I thought, and then, of course, I realized that they really should be called sororal twins. Why, I wonder, is that term never used? Unidentical twins who are sisters, after all, must be just about as common as unidentical twins who are brothers.


In what seems to me a marked deficit in the language, French has no genderless third-person plural pronoun. (No doubt the French consider English's lack of gendered third-person plural pronouns to be a deficit, and perhaps it is: but English dropped grammatical gender a long time ago, thank goodness.) In French, the pronoun for a group of males is "ils", and that for a group of females is "elles": if you add even one male to that latter group, the pronoun for the whole group becomes "ils". I don't know how French ladies feel about that, but I would think they might be mildly insulted to suddenly be referred to as "he-they" when a man wanders into their midst, just as, if the tables were turned, a group of men would find it insulting to suddenly become "she-they". (I expect they don't generally feel anything of the sort; it's built into the language, in approximately the same way that "son of a bitch", or "sonofabitch", doesn't actually refer to the target's mother unless the target is really determined to make something of it.)


I have long wondered at the fact that English is overloaded with derogatory words specifically aimed at women, and amazingly impoverished of similar words that refer only to men. You can call a woman a bastard, but we hardly ever do: it mostly belongs to the menfolk. Beyond that there are a few words for excretory organs that double as words for men, and that's about it. For women, though, the list is endless, colourful, and depressing: fishwife, termagant, virago, harlot, vixen, shrew, slut, bitch, skank, and on and on. It's no wonder women feel put upon; the language makes it pretty clear that they really are.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


I still haven't gotten my "G" pin, thank goodness, though it's only a matter of time: the "U" pins are coming soon, and someone above me is going to notice that I haven't been "G"ed. I'm damned if I'm going to treat customers as guests, whatever the pins might say. I'll treat them with all the respect they deserve, but they're not guests.

I mention this only because I'm also severely annoyed by the generic job title used in the store in which I work: "associate" (which you may have heard in Wal-Mart, which probably started the usage). The word has a number of meanings, not one of which is legitimately "clerk" or "employee" or "staff member". What's wrong with using "staff" as a singular noun? At least it's not impossibly pretentious. I'll be damned if I'm going to use "associate" in this manner, ever. (The store has also replaced the expected phrase "customer service" with the ghastly "customer care", as if shoppers were patients in a hospital; that's another usage that will never pass my lips.)

I mention this only because of a story in today's News of the Weird, which you ought to be reading every Sunday. The newest installment can always be found here, so you should bookmark it, and the perma-link for the story I'm referring to will be here after June 11th. Here's the story in full:

Among official job-title changes implemented by the Scottsdale, Ariz., school district this year, according to a February Arizona Republic report, were those for receptionist (now, "director of first impressions") and school bus driver (now, "transporter of learners"). Said Superintendent John Baracy, "This is to make a statement about what we value in the district. We value learning." Said the new first-impressions director, "I think it's classy. Everyone wants to be important."

Horrible. "Classy"? It's embarrassing, that's what it is. "Everyone wants to be important"? Everyone can't be important, and people who want to be important ought to do their jobs well and not rely on pompous, empty job titles to substitute for well-earned respect.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


You wouldn't think subject-verb agreement would be a particularly tricky thing to manage in English. It's usually pretty clear when a subject is singular and when it's plural, and it isn't any great challenge to craft a verb to match. But as usual, English has a way of making things difficult.

I ran across three problematic sentences on websites in the last day or so that gave me pause. One of them is completely wrong, but understandably so: another is technically correct and yet feels wrong; and the third is just sloppy.

Our first example comes from James Randi's invaluable website; here's today's commentary, where we find the following shovelful of crap:

The atomic structure of the outer shell of The Tesla Purple Energy Shield TM has been altered, allowing the atoms and electrons of the aluminum to resonate in tune with the basic energy that causes the particles of every atom and molecule to be in constant vibration. Once the structure of the atoms of the aluminum have [sic] been altered, they will remain in that condition — possibly indefinitely. The plates create a positive energy field around themselves that will penetrate any material substance by osmosis.

Mr. Randi has thoughtfully tagged the offending verb with a [sic]. The problem, of course, is that the subject of the sentence is "structure", which is singular, and yet the writer has used a plural verb. It shouldn't have happened, and any careful writer would never have made the mistake, but it's clear that the gravitational pull of the plural noun ("atoms of the aluminum") confused the writer into using that plural verb. I don't usually expect too much in the way of grammar from such woo-woo nonsense, though.

The second example comes from this this Slate.com article about the new movie Cinderella Man. Here's the sentence in question:

Schaap writes that, on the night of the Braddock fight, "Of the 30,000 people in the Bowl, virtually everyone except the Jews was cheering for Braddock."

Well. To my ear the sentence is undeniably jarring, with a plural noun ("Jews") immediately preceding a singular verb ("was"), and yet it's clear that the singular verb belongs to the self-evidently singular noun "everyone" (that is, "every one"); it's correct, and yet it feels wrong. The only way around this, in my humble opinion, is to have rewritten the sentence to skirt the awkwardness: "...only the Jews were not cheering for Braddock", perhaps, or "There were 30,000 people in the Bowl, and all except the Jews were cheering for Braddock". (If a construction pulls me out of the flow of the text, then I automatically assume there's something wrong with it; that's certainly the case with the quoted sentence.)

And my third example comes from Slate as well, from this article about military recruiting:

Both active-duty and reserve recruiting has suffered.

Now that should never have happened. The sentence has two clues in it--the plural markers "both" and "and"--which indicate that the subject must take a plural verb. How on earth did a singular verb creep into the sentence? There's just no excuse.

I want to note again that I really don't go hunting for these things. That would be pathetic. They lunge up at me as I read.

Friday, June 03, 2005


I never tire of saying how much I love the English language, do I? What I'm particularly enamoured of most of the time is its flexibility, and one of the summits of that flexibility is the cryptic crossword puzzle, which is to a standard daily-newspaper crossword as the North Rose Window at the Chartres cathedral is to a dirty thumbprint.

There are two species of cryptics, the English style and the North American. I'm a fan of the North American style because the rules are far, far stricter, meaning more work for the person writing the clues but a better, fairer game for the solver. A cryptic clue may be divided into two parts: a literal definition of the answer word and an oblique clue based on wordplay. Part of the challenge is figuring out where this dividing line goes, since one of the rules of the game is that the clue has to be a grammatically correct sentence without any unnecessary words.

The cryptic crossword is made possible by various properties of the English language. We have an enormous vocabulary with uncountable synonyms and near-synonyms, and we use the same word for two or three parts of speech without any surface change. This makes it possible to construct clues like this:

Smoother raincoat (7)

the answer to which is "slicker", which has two meanings, as a comparative adjective and as a noun. (The number at the end is a convention of cryptic clues, telling the solver how many letters are in the solution.)

English also represents sounds in many different ways (look at all the different ways "-ough" can be pronounced in "cough", "tough", "though", "through", and so on), which makes it possible to have clues based on the sounds of words:

Sounds like John is confused (6)

which leads to the answer "thrown": "sounds like" means we're looking for a homophone, "john" is a synonym for "throne", which is to say "toilet", and "confused" gives us "thrown", the literal answer. (Another rule for the puzzle-maker is that capitalization and punctuation may be freely used to 1) make a sensible sentence and 2) throw off the solver.)

A third type of clue--there are eight or ten altogether, each exploiting some specific property of English, and they may be combined--is called the rebus, which is created by assembling the clue's answer from parts, as in this clue:

Might vacation for a spell (7)

which can be parsed as "[a word meaning] might [+ a word meaning] vacation for [a word meaning] a spell". "Might" is a synonym for "can", "vacation" is a synonym for "trip", and putting these together gives us "cantrip", which is a magic spell. (The fact that "spell" in the clue looks as if it means "short period of time" is typical of the misdirection clue-writers try to engage in.)

The ideal clue, in my view, is one which would not excite any attention if it were to appear in a piece of text. My all-time favourite is from an old Harper's Magazine cryptic by E.R. Galli and Richard Maltby. It's utterly perfect--a fair clue which is simultaneously a terse and amusing sentence:

Age without a hair dye is hell (7)

Answer to follow in a day or two, unless someone posts it to the comments first.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Who's An Idiot?

I've already mentioned how indispensible Boing Boing is; you probably need to visit it on a daily basis, because there's a lot of stuff there, added to frequently, and it's just fascinating. A recent piece about unsettling children's products had me steamed, but not for the reason Boing Boing expected.

If you go to the link they provided and scroll to the bottom of the page, you'll see a product called "Who's Shoes". The product itself I'm indifferent to, but the name is completely wrong and cretinously so.

"Who's" is not a possessive pronoun; it's a contraction of the phrase "who is". The stupid, stupid manufacturers were clearly aiming at the possessive pronoun phrase "Whose Shoes". Whose shoes are they? They're the shoes of whoever's wearing them. Obviously.

What's wrong with these people? Don't they do any research regarding product names? Are they all illiterate? I volunteer to kick everyone responsible in their collective asses until they smarten the hell up and correct the name of their product. Morons.

Hey, there's that spleen I was talking about.

I should probably make it clear that I don't think everyone who confuses "whose" with "who's" is an idiot. It's an easy mistake to make, since most possessives in English do, in fact, end in apostrophe-ess. (Possessives formed from pronouns don't, mind you.) But if you're going to market a product, then you have to make sure the name you want to market it under is appropriate. If you don't, it makes you look stupid, because you are.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Compound Interest

You all read Snopes, right? You pretty much have to if you don't want to get suckered; if there's an urban legend out there, Barbara and David Mikkelson will deconstruct it elegantly and amusingly. I once had a friend tell me the Choking Doberman story, and another one once told me the tale of the stolen Kit Kat bar: both were perfectly serious, convinced that it had happened to a friend of someone they knew. (This is so common that in urban-legend circles it's known as FOAF, or "friend of a friend".)

Despite Snopes' being invaluable and well-written, mistakes do creep in. Not factual mistakes--I'm sure they're right all the time--but grammatical errors, such as this one (two thirds of the way down this page):

"Both bagging and huffing can, and have, proved fatal."

It happens all the time, that one. We switch compound tenses in the middle of a sentence in order to express continuity between two time periods, and then we forget to check that the main verb in conjugated correctly for both auxiliaries. It's one of the simplest mistakes to make, particularly in speech, because we're in the habit of making sure that the most recently heard compound verb is correct; once we're past the first iteration of the verb, we tend to forget about it, leading to such sentences as "Since that day, she never has and never will go back there". What makes the error even easier to commit is that there are many compound verb forms in English, including almost the entirety of the future tense, and shifting between tenses in this manner is a common rhetorical tool. It's a wonder anyone ever gets this right, to be honest.

Still, a mistake is a mistake, and whatever changes the evolution of English brings, this one will always be wrong.