or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Shining

I've never found a typo in Harper's Magazine. The occasional missing clue in the cryptic crossword, and once an entire story by Steven Glass that turned out to be sheer invention (as was his wont), but never a typo. And I still haven't; the latest issue turned up in my mailbox on Tuesday and, reading it yesterday, my eyes snagged on a usage that seems wrong but isn't, technically.

Here's the sentence in question, from "Debbie Does Salad", an article comparing regular old pornographic porn with the food porn abundantly displayed on the Food Network and elsewhere in modern life:

[Camera] two zoomed in on the onion-gilted sirloin beef, now topless and glistening tumescent, the better to penetrate the mind's eye.

"Gilted?" I thought. "'Gilt' is already in the past tense! It's like saying 'silvereded'!"

Or is it? "Gilt", it is true, is one of the two past-tense forms of "gild", "to cover with gold"; the other form is "gilded", as in "gilded age". But over time, "gilt" has mutated into a noun; it's the actual gold layer itself (or a gold substitute), as in the adjective "gilt-edged". And as we like to do in English, we transformed "gilt" the noun" into "gilt" the present-tense verb whose past tense is "gilted".

So the usage in the Harper's article isn't wrong, but I find it strange. I would have written "onion-gilt" or "onion-gilded", if such a phrase had ever occurred to me, but then I'm not a professional writer.

("Gild" is obviously related to "gold", which got its name from its colour: the Indo-European root "ghel-", which gave rise to the English word "yellow" as well as its German equivalent "gelb" and also the German word "geld", meaning "money"; since "-d" in German is pronounced "-t", "geld" in Yiddish became "gelt", which still means "money" in that language as it does, slangily, in English.)


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