or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Case In Point

It's the last day of the year, and here's my list of the Top Ten grammatical errors of....

I hope nobody expected me to finish that sentence. I don't do Top Ten lists. What we have today is a common, irritating grammatical mistake from, once again, The Consumerist, which is fun to read but desperately in need of an editor:

As we approach the New Year, let we consumers take a moment of quiet reflection to acknowledge that often we are as dumb as dirt.

I'm well aware, being in the retail field, that consumers are often as dumb as dirt, and I'm sure I'm as guilty of dirt-dumbness as the next consumer. I'm also well aware that the second pronoun in that sentence is wrong wrong wrong.

I could go into a long, instructive, schoolmarmish discussion about appositives and nominative versus objective pronouns, but it's the last day of the year, people have parties to get ready for, and who wants to read about that? So let me just say something I've said before: when in doubt, dismantle the sentence. Tear it apart like a racing bike. Strip it down to its bare essentials. The first half of the sentence is as follows: "As we approach, let us take...", and it's clear that the second pronoun has to be "us", not "we".

It doesn't matter that "consumers" follows the second pronoun: it doesn't matter one tiny bit. (For clarification, you could put the word in commas: "As we approach the new year, let us, [the] consumers, take....") What does matter is that the two clauses have different grammatical constructions and take different pronoun cases. If the sentence had been recast, the pronoun "we" could have been correct: "As we approach the new year, we consumers should take...." But putting that verb before the pronoun changes everything.

You don't have to be a professional grammarian to know how this; you just have to be able to get inside a sentence and feel if it's right or wrong. If you can't do this, why are you a writer? It's like being an auto mechanic and not being able to tell if the carburetor is installed upside down.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Get Back

Back-formation is the process in which new words are created out of existing ones by the process of analogy. For example, many nouns in English that mean "one who does something" end in "-er" or "-or", such as "test/tester" or "imposture/impostor", and it's easy to create new nouns by adding these suffixes to words: you don't need to ever have heard "clarifier" or "disinfector" to use them with complete confidence that people will understand what you mean.

Because of this, it's easy, on hearing a word like "burglar", to imagine that the corresponding verb, "burgle", exists, even though "burglar" predates it by several hundred years. "Burgle" is a back-formation, and English teems with them: some have achieved complete respectability (it's hard to imagine that "donate" was once sneered at as a parvenu), while others have a sense of trying too hard, or feel like business jargon (I hope the gross "liaise" never becomes acceptable).

Here's the first paragraph from a story in The Consumerist about washing machines:

We recall hearing that a couple of you folks bought the Maytag Neptune front-loading washer and were less than enthused about the product. Well, we’ve got some good and bad news for you.

"Enthuse" is reasonably old: the Oxford English Dictionary dates its first appearance in written English from 1827. (It's older than "diagnose", which is unimpeachably acceptable English.) And yet "enthuse" still strikes me and many others as having a breathless, gum-snapping vulgarity; the OED says it's "an ignorant back-formation from 'enthusiasm'". ("Ignorant"! When was the last time you read a dictionary definition so haughtily opinionated?) I hate the word and I'd never use it, but it does get used and, most importantly, everyone understands what it means.

Three unassailable facts: 1) new words will continue to be concocted; 2) prescriptive grammarians will continue to judge such words and find some of them wanting; and 3) the words will nonetheless enter the language or not as its users, ignoring fact 2, see fit.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Busted Flush

It will be no surprise to all but the most casual readers that unnecessary spelling errors piss me off, but sometimes I stumble across one that I just plain like.

Here's one from Apple's Widget collection, a widget being a small program that runs in a Macintosh program called Dashboard:

This is a widget that simulates the counter in New York City: as you see the national deficit increase you can see the Social Security fund as it fluxuates against the national debt.

Honestly: isn't "fluxuate" nice? It's wrong, but it's still nice. The correct spelling is "fluctuate"; we get it from Latin "fluctus", which comes from "fluere", "to flow"--clearly the source of such words as "fluid" and "fluent", not to mention "flush" (so similar to the German word for river, "Fluß" or "Fluss"), "superfluous" (that is, "overflowing") and "influence" (something which flows into someone and causes them to act). It's tempting to speculate that other such movement-oriented "fl-" words such as "float", "flee", "flight", and "flow" are also descended from "fluere", but, amazingly, they aren't.

Anyway. "Fluxuate" is an honest enough error, since another form of "fluere" also gave rise to "flux", which is to say "something which flows", and many people pronounce "fluctuate", imprecisely, to sound like "fluxuate". ("Flux" is also the Victorian euphemism for diarrhea, logically enough.) Yes, I know I gripe about spell-checking all the time, and yes, the author should have run a spell-checker, but I can forgive such a charming error.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Root of the Matter

In Newfoundland, a hard, cold climate and a rocky soil mean that in the winter you once had to depend on foods that were preserved or that kept well: a traditional Christmas dinner still consists of things that you could harvest on the spot (which is to say the turkey, goose, or other beast) and things that would keep for a long time in the root cellar (which is to say root vegetables), plus, occasionally, canned foods. Those are the only things allowed. You can't serve, say, a nice leafy salad, or string beans or Brussels sprouts. My mother and stepfather generally go to Florida every winter; one year she invited a friend over to Christmas dinner, and this friend offered to bring a dish. Reporting this to me, my mother said in some mixture of horror and astonishment, "She brought broccoli!"

Yesterday, while Jim and I were preparing Christmas dinner (turkey, potatoes, carrots, turnip, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce), I idly wondered whether the "-nip" in "turnip" was the same as that in "parsnip". It seemed likely--no, obvious--that they were related at least tangentially, and they are. Sort of.

The "tur-" in "turnip" remains a mystery, but the "-nip" is, in fact, a variant of the old word for "turnip", "nepe". (In Scotland, if I am not much mistaken, turnips are still called "neeps".) The second syllable of "parsnip" was influenced by the word "nepe" or "nep", and the word itself comes from French "pasnaie", which itself is derived from a Latin word, "pastinum", which is, according to Answers.com, "a kind of two-pronged dibble".

What the hell? "Dibble"? If ever a word looked made-up, that's it.

But, in fact, a dibble is a gardening tool use to make conical holes in the ground in which to drop bulbs and corms, and damned if it doesn't sort of look like a parsnip. Or vice versa.

While we're at it, "rutabaga", a rather mysterious-looking word which we use interchangeably with "turnip" (though they aren't exactly the same thing, and a rutabaga is thought to be a cross between a turnip and a cabbage), is in fact Swedish for, of all things, "root" plus "bag". Rutabaga = rootbag!

Wait a minute: how could you cross a turnip and a cabbage? Just look at them--they aren't even related! Wouldn't that be like crossing a daisy and a lemon-tree? Well, you can cross a turnip and a cabbage because, in fact, they are related: they're both members of the family Cruciferae. Now, those first two syllables look like "crucifix", and they should, because they're from the same word--the Latin word for "cross", which is "crux" (also the source of "crucial" and "crucify"). Cruciferous vegetables have four-petaled flowers in the shape of a cross; you can't tell by looking at the vegetables, though. (Mustard is also a member of the family Cruciferae, as are kohlrabi, kale, and delicious, though un-Christmasy, broccoli.)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Mouthing Off

Yesterday I was fulminating about what I think is the misuse of the word "munch". Just now after having gotten up to use the can, I was lying in bed trying to get back to sleep, which is nearly always a futile endeavour, and I started thinking about the word again, because it occurred to me that it might be related to the French word "manger", which is the verb "to eat"; it's pronounced "mon-zhay", not "manger" as in "Away In A Manger" (although, as it turns out, those are, predictably enough, the same word).

But surely "munch" is onomatopoeic, I then thought. (This sort of thing is why I can never get back to sleep.) Well, can't they both be right? They sure can; the OED thinks that "munch" is a formation based on, as I also had thought, "crunch", influenced by French "manger".

And what about the skin disease called mange: is that also an offshoot of "manger"? Sure is, and why shouldn't it be? It eats the skin, after all (though it's not to be confused with flesh-eating bacteria, obviously).

I was on a roll at this point, so I remembered a much earlier posting in which I had speculated on such pairs of words as "bank/bench" and "drink/drench", so I figured, okay, what about "munch/monk"? Naturally, they're completely unrelated: "monk" comes from Late Greek "monakhos", from "monos", "single". You never know until you actually look them up, right?

But in poking into "munch/manger/mange", I also discovered something that I did not know; French "manger" comes from Latin "mandere", and doesn't the first half of that word look familiar, particularly when yoked to its meaning, "to chew"? Sure enough, it's the source of the word "mandible", or "jaw", the thing you chew with. Isn't that lovely? And here's something even more wonderful: apparently from an old Doric precursor meaning "upper lip" or "mouth" that also eventually led to English "mandible", Greek took the word "mustax", which we inherited as "mustache".

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Spell this incorrectly and some men will want to have a word with you.

I have a few passionate, if completely insupportable, beliefs about words--such as my undying contention that there is only one way to properly pronounce "kilometre"--and here's an example of another one, this time from the sub-head (which is to say the headline under the main headline) to a Cintra Wilson article, "Christmas with the Wilsons", in Salon:

For one day each year, my mixed-up family of Jews, Muslims, Christians and New Agers gathers to sing karaoke carols, munch on jello mold and get wasted at church

It drives me insane. It's self-evident to me that "munch" means--or properly ought to mean--"audibly, crunchily eat"; that is, you can munch on potato chips or carrot sticks, but you clearly cannot munch on oatmeal or pudding or, duh, Jell-O mold, which is probably the single quietest food in the entire world. Why would a writer, even a sub-head writer, pick what may be the most inappropriate possible verb when he or she had dozens of others to choose from?

I expect the nice lawyers at General Foods will be bitch-slapping Salon any minute now, not for this horrible misusage (that's my job) but for the misspelling of a trademarked product name; it's "Jell-O", not "jello", and they expect professional writers to get it right. Corporations are very tetchy about such things; if you use "Xerox" as an uncapitalized verb or "Kitty Litter" as an uncapitalized generic name for cat gravel, you will be roundly castigated by other, equally passionate lawyers, too.

Friday, December 23, 2005


I was reading something today which contained the word "depraved", and I thought, "Now, where on Earth can that have come from?" It seemed pretty likely to be Latin, but beyond that, I was stuck. The reason is that the Latin root doesn't seem to have left many traces in English: the only one I could find isn't completely confirmed, though the etymology seems pretty likely.

"Deprave" means "to debase or corrupt", from Latin "depravere", which is to say "de-" plus "pravus", "crooked". (The prefix, which so often in English denotes downwardness, as in "decline", or away-fromness, as in "devolve", seems here to be a simple intensifier; I can't make out what other function the prefix would have, to be honest.)

The only word I could find that seemed to be descended from "pravere" is, remarkably, "brave". This hardly seems possible, since bravery and depravity seem to lie on opposite ends of the behavioural spectrum, but "brave" originally meant something very different: first the Middle Latin noun "bravus", "cutthroat", and then Italian adjective "bravo", "savage", through which it mutated into the sense "brave or bold," which is the meaning we took in English when we adopted the word. This etymology is by no means fixed, and it's worth keeping in mind that it could be a folk etymology; the OED says "ulterior derivation uncertain".

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


From an article today in Slate.com about the impossibility of making computer chips any smaller using current technology:

Another technique, spearheaded by a Duke University chemist, involves placing nanotubes in a solution and basically gluing them to the microchip. A third, practiced by engineers from Cambridge University and Samsung, uses lithography to seed silicon wafers and create "nanoelectromechanical system switches." Finally, Nantero, a Massachusetts-based startup, has created a prototype consisting of carbon cylinders that lay on ridges "like planks on sawhorses."

Is it even possible that they no longer teach 1) that "lay" and "lie" are not synonymous, 2) that "lay" is the past tense of "lie", and 3) that mixing them up makes you sound like a boob? Is it even possible that a professional writer doesn't know this? (Yes, I considered the possibility that that clause was intended to be in the past tense, and I rejected this, because the entirety of the paragraph is in the present tense: it wouldn't make any sense to suddenly switch to the past tense. It's clearly a mistake.)

And from Salon.com's woman-oriented Broadsheet column/blog:

Of course, the trouble that Morris' lexicon skips over is the near impossibility of building concensus on when the transition from zygote to fetus occurs. Morris doesn't set a date, but implies that it's during or shortly after the first trimester. And he doesn't tackle situations in which the mother's health may be compromised by carrying her pregnancy to term.

Salon may not have any copy editors, but the writers should at least spellcheck, goddammit! Spellcheck!

"Concensus" is wrong. The word is "consensus", which is not related in any way etymologically to "census". "Census" comes from Latin "censere", "to assess", which is also the root of "censor", someone who assesses and finds to be objectionable, and from there "censure", to criticize or rebuke. "Consensus", on the other hand, is also Latin, but is composed of the prefix "con-", meaning "with", and "sentire", "to feel"; to reach consensus is to feel in the same way about something. (This is also an older meaning of the obviously related "consent", which later evolved into its current, related-but-different meaning. "Consent" now means "to assent to", and "assent" and "consent" have that same root, "sentire": the only difference is the prefix, which in the first word is "ad-", "towards", altered over time to make it more euphonious--exactly as Latin "com-" was altered to the "con-" in "consensus".)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I Got Nothin'

Retail plus Christmas equal lots of pure hell and not much time to oneself, but I feel guilty going for more than two days without posting something, so here's a picture of a cat

and here's a picture of some guys having a fun run in Santa hats and Speedos (not my type, but at least Christmasy)

and here's a link to yet another page that uses "vagina" instead of "vulva", which as you probably know bugs the hell out of me, with a link to a picture of Eliza Dushku's shaven snatch, if that's the kind of thing you like to look at.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Recently, Boingboing.net posted a link to something fascinating: a 1949 candy-salesman's catalogue. I'm not a candy freak--I could probably do without the stuff altogether--but I've loved advertising ephemera since I was very, very young, and this sort of thing is its own kind of candy to me.

On several of the pages in that catalogue (here's one) is the unusual spelling "cocoanut". It's well-established in the past; the Marx Brothers, after all, had a movie called The Cocoanuts in 1929. But you hardly ever see it any more: it's been almost entirely supplanted by the spelling "coconut" (which appears on at least one page of the catalogue). So where did the spelling come from in the first place, and why did it get shortened?

Let's start with the perhaps obvious fact that "coconut", "cocoa", and "coca" are three different, absolutely unrelated words. "Coca" is a Spanish word derived from the Peruvian "cuca"; it refers to the plant which is the source for cocaine (using the standard scientific "-ine" suffix which in this case indicates that the substance in question is a base as opposed to an acid). "Cocoa", on the other hand, is a now firmly established misspelling of Spanish, later French, "cacao", used to designate the seed-pod of the cacao tree which provides the raw material for chocolate. And "coconut", the seed-pod of the coco palm, is a combination of the Portuguese word "coco"--their name for the seed-pod--and "nut", which we added to make clear the distinction between spoken "coco(nut)" and "cocoa".

So "cocoanut" is really a misspelling based upon another misspelling. Perhaps that's why we scrapped it in favour of "coconut"; because it's wrong.

Friday, December 16, 2005


A recent typo in Boingboing led to a very interesting batch of words.

The article, about evil bait-and-switch camera-store douchebags in New York, contains this sentence:

Don Wiss (a photographer in Brooklyn who has posted galleries of the mailing addresses that are listed as the store locations of Brooklyn's fraud-stores) went and took some pictures of the storefront for PriceRitePhoto (another company that previously threatened to have a blogger who posted about his negative experiences with the company arrested), a graffiti-scrawled, semi-derilict building in Brooklyn with no evidence of any kind of legitimate retail operation.

I like the big, sprawling sentence, but I don't like the spelling "derilict", which is wrong. It's "derelict", which is obvious (to someone like me, anyway) because it contains the word "relic", to which it is related.

Well, how are they related? Through, unsurprisingly, Latin. Both words derive from "relinquare", which itself is the suffix "re-" plus "linquare", "to leave". This word is also, obviously, the source of "relinquish", "to let go". "Relinquare" also carried the sense of "to leave behind", which is the meaning of both "relic", something left to us from an earlier time, and "derelict", something abandoned.

Now, here's what's really remarkable (to me). The Indo-European root for this word also led to the Greek word "lepein", also meaning "to leave". The prefix "ek-" is akin to the Latin prefix "ex-", meaning "out", so Greek "eklepein" means "something left out". And does "eklepein" resemble any English word you might know? It's the source of "eclipse"! Its root means "to be left out", which eventually led to a metaphorically related sense, "to fail to appear", which is a little strange to me--something eclipsed didn't fail to appear, but instead appeared and was later obscured or overshadowed by something bigger. Language is full of such mysteries.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Two Bits

Now this is something really nice, courtesy of (of course!) Boingboing.net: an animated history of the Roman alphabet (which is to say the one that we use).


A typo in a cartoon! At least, I think it must be a typo, unless there is a place I've never heard of called Toldeo: otherwise, the cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, presumably labouring under a deadline, wrote out what she thought and meant to be Toledo. (I was always envious that her name was so agreeable to being anagrammed; some of the pseudo pseudonyms she's worked under, Edward Gorey style, are Chloe B. DeSnail and Delia Bloensch. My own name isn't nearly as forthcoming.)

Typo or no, you should be reading her cartoon, "Dykes To Watch Out For", which is tremendous. The twice-monthly strip is here, and when you're done with that, you can read the archives going way, way back by clicking on "Read the Strip" on the left-hand edge of that page. And then buy her books--I have the first seven--and maybe a T-shirt. Does she still have T-shirts?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Getting To The Bottom Of It

You never know when you're going to find a new use for a word you thought you knew.

In Newfoundland, where I grew up, "duff" has two meanings. The first is "a boiled pudding", sort of like a traditional Christmas pudding; this word is a corruption of "dough". The second is "a kick (in the arse)", which is clearly related to a standard North American usage of the word to mean "backside", as in "get off your duff and wash those dishes".

But there's a third meaning! Who knew?

I ran across it in this Slate.com slideshow about the disintegration of buildings. On page 9 of the 10-page display is the following sentence: Time-lapse photography could document the incremental collapse of structures over decades, until only shadows in the forest duff remain.

"Forest duff"? What the hell?

It turns out that "duff" also means "decaying leaves and branches covering a forest floor". According to the OED, the pudding sense first appeared in the written language in 1840, with the forest-floor sense close behind in 1844; the buttocks/swift-kick sense doesn't appear at all. (They have a bunch of other, I presume specifically British senses of the word, though, mostly as verbs and adjectives; you can look those up for yourself, right?)

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Breaking bones for your viewing pleasure.

The worst typos, probably, are the kind that you aren't initially sure are typos, that make a sort of sense in the context if you think about them really hard. Eventually you decide that, yes, they are typos, but by then you've wasted a bunch of time that could have been avoided if a writer or editor had done his job. (Like "glowering" here.)

If you like looking at strapping rugby players, then this DVD is probably right up your alley, and if you like typos, then the back of the box will also do nicely. Here's the suspect sentence:

And for those of you who are also looking to appreciate the physics of 12 handsome men...well there is plenty of that too.

They could have used a couple of commas, but we'll let that pass. The oddity is, of course, the word "physics". If you overthink it, you end up thinking, "Well, there is a certain amount of physics to rugby, so maybe that's what they're talking about...." But you know, deep down inside, that they really mean "physiques".

Now, it should be immediately evident that "physics" and "physiques" are related (along with "physical", "physician" and also "physic", which is "a medicine, particularly a cathartic"). But how are all these disparate words related to one another?

Through Greek, unsurprisingly. "Phusikos" is the Greek word for "of nature", and that's all we need to know to tie all these words together: I'm sure you can connect the dots yourself. ("Physique" is obviously French: it got the "-y-" from Latin and then generously gave us the whole thing. "Physics", though, we took directly from Latin.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Those inexhaustible folks at Gawker Media have done it again with their new blog, The Consumerist, which may not be as cleverly titled as their other blogs (Fleshbot and Gizmodo, to name but two) but which is shaping up to be a daily read.


Also, EFF’s Fred von Lohmann blogs about Real Networks’ new web-based Rhapsody music streaming service, which makes recording of streamed songs trivial. We won’t go so far as Fred to call it the “Beginning of the end for music DRM,” but being able to record versions of music you’ve payed for sounds fair usey to us.

"Fair usey" is cute and slangy, although I would definitely have hyphenated it (since it's a compound adjective, like, say, "ugly-ducklingish", which I just made up but which I, having just Googled it, see a few other people have also thought of). That's not the problem. The problem is "payed", which is an actual English word with an extremely limited usage: it's the past participle of "to pay" in the sense of "to pay out"--that is, "to gradually let out a length of rope". Every other sense has to use "paid". Since it's a word, the spell-checker won't catch it; the writers and editors have to be doing their jobs.


Speaking of writers and editors and blah blah blah, here's an unexpected mistake from Salon.com's Sidney Blumenthal that a copy editor would have caught:

For the European leaders, facing publics hostile to U.S. policy in Iraq and torture, Rice's visit was disquieting. In Italy, prosecutors have issued indictments of 22 current and former CIA operatives for their "extraordinary rendition" of an Egyptian suspect; among those indicted is the former Rome CIA station chief, whom an Italian judge has ruled has no immunity from prosecution.

In that last clause, it's "who", not "whom", and we know this because if we recast and simplify the sentence--admittedly a rather complex one--we end up with "...the chief (an Italian judge has ruled he has no immunity...)", and since it's "he", it must be "who". If the original sentence correctly took "him", as in, say, "...an Italian judge has declared him to have no standing...", then "whom" would be correct. We don't even need to get into the sticky details of nominative pronouns and indirect objects: just recast the sentence using "he" or "him" as the personal pronoun, and if it's "he", use "who", and if it's "him", use "whom". Piece of cake.

(In the same article, Blumenthal also used "surface" as an intransitive verb in a way I find very strange and probably wrong: Rice's visit was supposed to smooth over the conflicts of the past, but instead it surfaced new ones that indicated that the divisions between Germany -- and Europe -- and the U.S. are rooted in the Bush administration's fundamental policies. As far as I know, "surface" used intransitively means "to apply a surface to", but Blumenthal appears to be using it to mean "to bring to the surface: to cause to appear", which doesn't feel right at all.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Grammarians And Gynaecologists Agree

A while ago, I and a bunch of other people were ragging on Go Fug Yourself because the writers--obviously smart, with-it women--kept using "vagina" when they meant "vulva", and they've finally wised up and seen the light, and "Hallelujah!" is all I can say.

From a recent posting:

Rock Star: INXS is over, and everybody's mostly forgotten who was in the competition in the first place because all they remember are the valiant attempts Brooke Burke made to flash her vulva at the audience every week.

So it's official: Go Fug Yourself is now the perfect blog. You're reading it every day, aren't you? The link's on your left! Go and read it!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Yes, language changes and that's natural, but sometimes the older ways are better.

From, as usual, boingboing is a lumberjack that transforms into a werewolf. Very amusing. But here's the website's description of the product:

From the "Here be Monsters" line, an incredible 12-inch plush that metamorphosizes from a lumberjack into a werewolf. Just open the back and invert the plush to make the change. Amaze friends with your intimate knowledge of the lycanthropic change!

"Metamorphosizes"? Was that really necessary, when English has a serviceable and in fact lovely word at its disposal already, "metamorphoses"?

"Metamorphosize" isn't new; the OED dates it from 1908. ("Metamorphose" entered the written language in 1576.) But the extra syllable is unnecessary, pure padding, and the word is another ugly example of the modern tendency to turn decent words into bloated hulks that clog up the language (cf. "impactfulness").

Monday, December 05, 2005

It Won't Be Happy Until I'm A Nintendo Zombie

Don't buy one of these if you want to have a life. I'm not kidding.

Jim and I do celebrate Christmas, after a fashion, though neither of us is a Christian. (We think of it, as I'm sure a lot of people do, as a secular holiday with religious overtones: I like the decorations, the food, and particularly the music, everything else is irrelevant to me.) We occasionally exchange presents, but it's not a prerequisite for the holiday. On Saturday we made the gigantic mistake of buying a GameCube for ourselves for Christmas with the intention of putting it away until Christmas morning; this resolution lasted until approximately ten minutes after we got it home, which is why I didn't get around to posting at all over the weekend. It's going to take a massive display of willpower just to get me out of the house today. (Yes, I know that the GameCube is three years old. I know they're coming out with a bigger-better-faster Revolution next year. Don't care. This one has a zillion games and the price was right.)

But my brain still works, at least the part that hasn't been pureed by Nintendo, and so as I was lying in bed last night waiting for sleep and writing a story in my head, as I always do, one of the words that cropped up was "implacable", which suddenly interested me because I couldn't decide whether or not it was related to "placid". It seemed possible, as the two words have so much in common. What suggested a rift between the words was the "-c-" sound, hard in the first word and soft in the second; I knew it might be a side effect of the different vowels, but something told me that the words had differing roots.

And this did turn out to be the case. In a striking example of parallel development, we have two Latin words, "placere" and "placare", that mean two vaguely similar but also somewhat different different things and so launched two different strains of words. "Placere" means "to please", while "placare" means "to appease". "Placid" means (says the OED) "mild, gentle, calm, peaceful", and the positive form of "implacable", "placable", means (to quote the OED in full) "capable of being, or easy to be, appeased or pacified; mild, gentle, forgiving." See? They both say "mild"!

But they're not the same. "Placere" gave us, through (bien sur) French, "pleasure", "please", "pleasant", "plea", and "plead" (along with, direct from Latin, "complacent"), while "placare" gave us "placate" and "implacable".

Friday, December 02, 2005

Everything in the World

We don't watch a lot of television, Jim and I, but we do sometimes watch a show called "How It's Made", because everyone likes to know how things are made, right? A typical show will have six-minute segments on paper, computer chips, jeans, and apple cider, showing the complete manufacturing process from raw materials to finished product.

One show we saw recently demonstrated coinage; first a very large model of the coin is carved, and then it's successively reduced until it's coin-sized, and then the die is made from this. This reduction is done with a device called...well, if you believe the show, it's called a "pentograph". When the narrator said it, I turned to Jim and said, "She did just say 'pentograph', didn't she?" She did.

The correct word is "pantograph": here's how it works (except this one goes from small to large).

I knew the word (I used to own a little pantograph) but I didn't know the derivation, and so I reasonably thought, "Hey, pantomime means copying something and that's a what a pantograph does, so 'panto-' must be Greek for 'to copy'."

Not quite. In fact, not at all. The "pan-" in "pantomime" actually means "all", as in "Pan-American Airlines": "pantomime" means "all mime", and that bonus syllable "-to-" exists because in Greek, "pan-" became "pant-" before a vowel and you need a vowel sound between "pan-" and "-mime". And such is also the case with "pantograph"; "pan-" plus "-graph", "writing", plus that extra syllable that yokes the halves together. That the two have an at least vaguely similar meaning is a happy coincidence.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Left and Right

As I have said before and will say again, the pronunciation of words changes in English (and in every other living language). The vowels slide around fairly rapidly while the consonants take longer, but sounds mutate based mostly on simple physiology (it's not a big jump from the voiceless "f-" of "fox" to the voiced "v-" of "vixen"); the Great Vowel Shift is the best-known of these changes, but they're still happening today. Here are a couple of very old, very interesting changes.


From an infuriating Salon.com article about the bloodthirsty George Bush and his desire to bomb a cable news station in Qatar:

Despite the smokescreens that politicians and diplomats are attempting to throw up by suggesting that Bush was just joking, there is every reason to suspect that he was deadly serious and that Blair barely managed to argue him out of this parlous course of action.

"Parlous" is an odd-looking word, isn't it? Doesn't it suggest "parlour", or, if you know any French, "parler", which means "to speak" (and which shows up in English in "pourparler" and "parley", which both refer to kinds of discussion)?

It isn't, though. It's a wonderful alteration of the word "perilous", and if you roll both words around in your mouth, you can easily imagine how, over time, the one became the other. (Although "parlous" comes from Middle English, it helps to imagine yourself a Dickens character, possibly Joe Gargery.)


A recent Slate.com column from the invariably fascinating William Saletan discusses the Catholic church's new bigot-in-chief Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, and starts with this paragraph:

The Vatican's new policy on gay priests has been leaked. Officially, it proposes the incorrigibility of deeply rooted gay tendencies. Unofficially, it exposes the deeply rooted, incorrigible antigay tendencies of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI.

We could talk about this all day (the Catholic church thinks it has a priest shortage now? Imagine what would happen if it actually could and did get rid of all the gay ones!), but that's not what this blog is all about. What interests me is the word "incorrigible".

It's obviously related the word "correct": "incorrigible" literally means "un-correctable". But what's the deal with "-rig-" and "-rect-"? It looks like something that would have evolved over the centuries in relatively modern times, but in fact Latin had both forms, because the source of "correct" and "incorrigible" is a word that branched out in a number of related directions.

The "-rig" of "incorrigible" comes from "regere", "to lead, to rule", with a sense of straightness or straightforwardness--to lead forward, to rule properly. Eventually this word opened up into "rectus", "straight", which gave Latin "correct-", with the same meaning it has today. Both of these words have led to an amazing panoply of English words: "regere" gives us "reign", "royal", "regal", "regulate", and "regular", among others, while "rectus" leads to such words as "rectitude", "right", "rectum" (the straight part of the otherwise curved bowel), "rectangle", "direct", "erect", and, finally, "correct".