or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Why do you suppose Felix is such a stereotypically cat name and Fido likewise for dogs?

Fido's the easy one to answer: it's from the Latin "fides", meaning "faith". What's more faithful than a dog? "Fides" has plenty of offshoots in English. Direct from Latin we have "bona fide", "in good faith", and by extension "genuine". (If I never see "bonified" again it won't be too soon.) We have "fidelity", meaning "faithfulness" in several senses such as the sexual fidelity of monogamy and the accuracy of high-fidelity stereo sound. There's "fiduciary", "holding in trust" in a financial sense, and "confide", to trust with a secret. We have "infidel", someone who isn't of the speaker's chosen faith, and "perfidious", "treacherous", literally "destructive of faith".

Felix is trickier, and my best guess is that it's a sort of joke based on the Latin word for cat, "felinus". They must be related--they start with the same four letters! They aren't, though. "Felix" is the Latin word for "happy", and this is the sense it which in appears in English--once again, though, sometimes modified through analogy (as in "a felicitous coincidence"). Perhaps "felix" didn't get nearly as many words into English as "fides" did because we absorbed a huge number of happy-words from other languages: joyful (from French), lusty (from German), thrilling (spontaneously generated within Old English), and on and on.

Not that cats aren't happy creatures generally, mind you. But if I were picking a descriptive name for a cat, Felix mightn't be my first choice. What's the Latin for "self-reliant"?

Monday, May 30, 2005

Dash It All

So I'm in the washroom of some place or other this weekend and there's a sign on the wall with the usual "If anything's wrong in here, please let us know", and the sign ends with the word "Thank-you".

You know I'm going to say this is wrong, right? You know I'm going to use this as an illustration of some principle of the English language, right? Good; it means I'm not wasting my time.

English, as I've said before, has a fondness for using one word for various parts of speech without any visible change. (Sometimes there's a change in pronunciation: ruh-CORD is a verb, REC-ord is a noun. But this doesn't show up in print.) However, there's one large class of words that does visibly change, and that's noun or verb phrases. They can become adjectives or adverbs, nouns or verbs, but the rule is that the words must be stapled together; sometimes they're jammed into a single word, but more often they're attached to one another with hyphens.

Here are some examples. There are countless others.

1) "Thank you" is a verb phrase--an entire sentence, really--which is turned into an adjective when hyphenated: "She mailed out her thank-you notes." The easiest way to remember to do this is to assume that anything that modifies a noun and consists of more than one word must be hyphenated. (There are a few exceptions, but they are very few.) Another example: "what the hell", which is unhyphenated as a sentence but hyphenated when it's an adjective ("He went through life with a what-the-hell attitude").

2) "Pick me up" is a verb phrase (again, a sentence) that, hyphenated, becomes a noun: "That drink was a real pick-me-up." ("Thank you" also has this quality if it isn't followed by another noun: "She said her thank-yous".)

3) The noun phrase "teddy bear", hyphenated, becomes an adjective: "He has a teddy-bear quality about him." Among the countless others: "heavy metal", "sugar and spice", "dark horse", "son of a bitch".

4) The phrasal noun "fast track" can be hyphenated into a verb: "We're going to fast-track that proposal." So can phrases such as "strip search" and "buzz cut".

5) Perversely, there are phrasal nouns that look like something else: "straight and narrow" is one such--it's composed of adjectives, but it's a noun. Since it's a noun, it would have to be hyphenated into a single word if it were to be used as an adjective: "He finally got onto the straight and narrow", but "The straight-and-narrow world wasn't for him."

6) And while we're on the subject, adjectival phrases take hyphens in certain contexts but not in others. "Over the top" is a phrasal adjective that has no hyphens when used after the noun it's describing, but when placed before the noun, it must take hyphens: "That movie was completely over the top," but "That's the most over-the-top movie I ever saw." Other examples: "drunk as a skunk", "hot to trot".

These rules are so finely tuned and yet so variable that it takes a practiced eye to make sense of them. What is a learner to make of the fact that "strange but true" takes hyphens or not depending on placement, but "cruel and unusual" never does, no matter where it lies in the sentence?

(P.S. About that title: Yeah, I know a dash isn't the same as a hyphen. I used to be a typesetter: I ought to know. But sometimes thinking up these titles just seems like more trouble than it's worth. I hit my apogee with "Torte Reform" back in March and it's been a long, slow downhill slide from there.)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Future Tension

One of the most baffling contentions I've ever read about English is that it has no future tense. The argument is that there is no separate and identifiable verb form which denotes the future, and therefore there's no future tense. There are, of course, a number of future forms: English has as much sense of the future as any other language. But an actual, literal tense? Apparently not.

I love nit-picking as much as the next person, but that's beyond the pale--picking the nits and then shaving them razor-thin. Does English have strictly inflected forms that denote the future, as the Romance languages do? No. Does it have a future tense? Obviously. It's just a future tense that instead of inflecting its verbs happens to use two words. (Or more: there are a number of ways of expressing the future in English. "I will" and "I shall" both use modals, as do the more finely nuanced "I should" and "I must". "I am going to" sets something in the indefinite future: "I am about to" sets it in the immediate future. Then we have such structures as the superficially progressive "I'm leaving", which generally requires a time-stamp to send it into the future, as in "I'm leaving in three weeks", and likewise the apparently simple-present "I go", which is projected into the future by such phrases as "in seven days".)

So I would argue (though I am not a linguist) that yes, English has a future tense. But the form isn't marked, some might argue, to which I would say, yes it is: it's marked by yoking it to a modal or a time-based phrase. But the form of the word itself isn't altered, the exasperated reply might be, and I would have to reply in turn that the form of the word is altered, by having that modal or phrase attached to it--it's altered by being turned from a simple verb into a compound or phrasal verb. I would like to think I could argue in this manner for quite a while, until my interrogator gave up in exasperation, because the one thing I inherited from both parents is a mulish, ineradicable stubbornness.

For learners of the language, the basic future tense is wonderfully easy: convert the verb or its preceding auxiliary into the bare infinitive, slap the word "will" in front of it, and you're in the future. She goes: she will go. He has been saying: he will have been saying. They are expecting: they will be expecting. No conjugation, no inflection, no hassle. It's a thing of beauty.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Irrational Numbers

Walking home from the gym today, I saw a poster that started me thinking about the French system of numeration (I'll spare you the details), and that started me thinking about the English system of numeration. Specifically, how on earth did the plainly anomalous "eleven" and "twelve" come about?

Short answer: our entire system of number-names has its roots in German, and the words in question came from the predecessors to the modern German "elf" and "zwolf".

Long answer: "eleven" started life as the old German "ainlif". The first half of this word mutated into "ein", which is still the German word for "one", and which led to the English "one" (with, no doubt, a nudge from the French "un"). The second half is a suffix related to our word "leave", as in "left over". Thus, the whole word originally meant "one left over (from the decimal base)". "Zwolf" has a similar origin: the modern German word for "two" is "zwei".

"Twenty" follows a parallel path: the modern German version is "zwanzig." The zeds turned into tees (as happened with "zwei" and "zwolf"); the "-zig" suffix was thus transformed into "-tig" in Old English and then into "-ty" in Middle English times. This transformation of zeds into tees is also clear in such words as "thirteen", modern German "dreizehn", "three-ten".

Friday, May 27, 2005

Absolute Zero

If you ask an old-school grammarian what an absolute adjective is, he'll tell you that it's an adjective that acts as a noun--that stands alone, with the noun implied--such as "wealthy": "The wealthy [i.e. wealthy people] have their problems, too". (There are other absolutes, too: an absolute verb is a transitive verb that, shunning a subject, pretends to be an intransitive verb, as in the sentence "She just does that to shock [you]".) But "absolute adjective" came to have a second meaning: it replaced the charming (and, in this case, self-referential) word "incomparable", and now means an adjective which cannot take the comparative or superlative form.

An illustration: "unique". As an old prescriptivist English teacher of mine would have said, "unique" means "one of a kind", and therefore something can't be "more unique" than than something else: it's either one of a kind or it isn't. It's like pulling the trigger on a gun: either the bullet fires or it doesn't, and there's no in-between. (This teacher, I wager, had never heard of Schrödinger's cat.)

And yet, of course, we see such constructions all the time. The American constitution begins with one: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...." And here's an ad for "the world's most perfect putter". But how can that be? Either it's perfect or it isn't, right? Once something has attained a state of perfection, nothing can be more so. The same problem attaches to a host of other words: "circular", "ideal", "favourite", and "complete", to name a few.

But does it really? As I've said before, language isn't mathematics: expressions don't have to make literal, algebraic sense to be understood as meaningful utterances. The abhorred double negative ("I don't want none") may be looked down upon as substandard, but its meaning is crystal-clear, and in fact can carry an intensity that is absent from the blandly correct "I don't want any". This is precisely the case with absolute adjectives: their literal meaning may not seem grammatically correct, but their underlying meaning is clear, and it invariably includes the unspoken word "nearly". Something can't be more square than something else--either it's square or it isn't--but something can be more nearly square, a closer approximation to Platonic perfection. A more perfect union? No, but a more nearly perfect union suggests a striving towards a goal.

Their heart is in the right place, bless 'em, but sometimes prescriptivists just have too much time on their hands.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The New Republic strikes again, again

If there's one thing I can count on from The New Republic Online--apart from wishy-washy fence-straddling and good movie reviews, I mean--it's grammatical errors that a spell-checker would never catch.

The newest crime: this review, which contains the sentence, "Instead of giving Andrew a deeper glimpse into her troubled life, Sam passes off her lying ticks as cute."

She has ticks? And they tell lies (or they just lie there)? And they're cute? And she's not being rushed to a hospital to be checked for Lyme disease or tularemia?

I tried to be charitable: it's a mistake that might creep into someone's writing. And then later on in the piece is the following sentence: "(Evidently, in Garden State, epilepsy is just another eccentricity--like blue hair or a verbal tick.)"

So it's official: the writer thinks that "tick" means a habit or an idiosyncrasy, and there's no editor to correct this strange delusion. And, goddammit, it's wrong. John August may think that "prescriptivists are assholes", but he's the asshole: there's still a right and a wrong.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


First, let's have a story.

Jim and I used to watch a show called "Rocko's Modern Life". It's animated--what would twenty years ago have been called a children's cartoon, but very hip, very funny, one of those shows that is made with an eye towards the grownups. (Why isn't it out on DVD yet?) In the fourth season the main character--who is a wallaby and whose best friend is a young, very stupid bull named Heffer--becomes a model for Wedgie Boy underwear whose catchphrase is "Don't hate me because I'm Wedgie Boy". (This is a takeoff of a much-parodied shampoo ad from the eighties in which pillow-lipped model Kelly Le Brock said, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful".) We found Rocko's phrase hilarious, and it immediately entered our catalogue of things to be trotted out at random moments, where it remains to this day.

Now, some well-known phrases.

Gild the lily
Blood, sweat, and tears
A rose is a rose is a rose
Head over heels in love

So what does my pointless story have to do with these phrases? They're all wrong, that's what.

We managed to see a couple of episodes of "Rocko's Modern Life" recently and discovered, ten years after the original viewing, that what Rocko actually was said was the far less amusing, "Don't hate me because I wear Wedgie Boy". The form in which the phrases are best-known is not that in which their authors wrote or intended them:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily...
blood, toil, tears, and sweat
Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose
heels over head in love

Stories change in the telling, or in the remembering. So do words and phrases. It's a signal fact of any living language: the original expression (a word, an idiom, a pronunciation that links it to the past) slips and wavers, and people substitute what they think they heard--what sounds better to them. And so the new phrase enters the language, stubbornly wrong, alongside the old, locked in a battle for supremacy: only one survives, and if it is the wrong one, eventually it has to be seen, for better or for worse, as right. (Saying "paint the lily" would probably result in one's being corrected, leading to one of those pedantic, unsatisfying arguments, and it's hard to imagine anyone's saying "heels over head" in the interests of linguistic precision.)

I am a demon for accuracy, but our new and improved version of Rocko's phrase is still the one we use, and accuracy be damned. If we need to quote Gertrude Stein, though, we both, having read her, get her right. Even if most people would think we're wrong.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Triple Threat

All in all, irregular verbs notwithstanding, English has a pretty simple rule for forming the past tense: tack "-ed" onto the end of the bare infinitive. There are sub-rules for spelling; if the verb ends in (or is) consonant-vowel-consonant, double the last letter, and if it ends with an "-e", drop that letter before adding the suffix. But otherwise, it's not too hard to form the past tense of most verbs.

Some verbs, however, are harder to handle. Those ending in "-ead" are remarkably irregular; there are three patterns for forming the past tense, and as usual there's no way of telling which is which--you just have to learn them. (Luckily, there aren't too many of these verbs.) One pattern is the usual one, suffixing "-ed" ("bead", "thread"). Another is to drop the "-a" ("lead"--the one that rhymes with "bead"). The third is to leave the verb alone entirely: sometimes this changes the pronunciation ("read"), and sometimes it doesn't ("spread"). "Read" is an especially mean and ironic trick for the language to play on people who are reading aloud; the sentence in which it appears as a past participle might contain no indication of being in the past tense ("I read to my daughter every night"), leaving the reader to flounder around elsewhere in the paragraph for clues.

There's one verb in English that has three past-tense forms, and it uses all three of these patterns: "plead", which lays claim to "pleaded", "pled", and "plead" (short "-e-", just like past-tense "read").

Monday, May 23, 2005


I love the English language's omnivorous taste for other tongues' words. If we don't have a word for "the mutual relaxation of political tension towards another nation" and such a word presents itself from French as "détente" at a time when we might find such a word useful, then we snap it up. Perhaps, as in the case of that word and others such as "Gesundheit", we keep its pronunciation (and even sometimes any accent marks, as in "passé"); perhaps we alter it to conform to a likely English pronunciation, as was generally done with "apartheid" (often heard as "uh-PAR-thide", correctly pronounced "uh-PART-hate"). But whatever we do with the words once their in our sweaty grasp, we unquestioningly make them our own. What's particularly fascinating is that sometimes cross-pollination occurs: one language borrows a word from another language which, finding it useful in turn, borrows it right back.

An old French phrasal verb, "conter fleurette", meant "to whisper sweet nothings to" or "to attempt to seduce". This is a marvellous thing to have a word for, and so we snapped it up and transformed it into the verb "flirt". The French phrase gradually vanished from the language, but later they decided they might have a use for it after all, and so they simply took it right back from us in the form of the verb "flirter", using a standard French suffix, and also the noun form "un flirt", meaning "flirtation". (Then Italian borrowed those words from French, changing only the verb's suffix from "-er" to "-are".) I would like to note that the OED makes no mention of this etymology and www.answers.com merely says "Origin unknown", so there's a chance that it's a folk etymology; but I would also like to note that my French teacher confirmed the story a couple of months ago, so if it's untrue, it's untrue in both languages.

French also gave us the name of the game "tennis", through Middle English "tenyes" from the original French "tenez". (That word comes from the Latin "tenere", "to hold", frequently heard in English in such words as "tenacious" and "maintain".) Rather than try to translate the name of the game, the French simply took it back from us, and "le tennis" it is where French is spoken.

The common Japanese word "karaoke" means, as is relatively well known, "empty orchestra". What is less well-known is that the "-oke" half of the word is an abbreviated form of "okesutora", the Japanese phonetic rendering of the word "orchestra"; once they were done playing with it, we took it back, mysteriously transformed and newly useful.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Out of Control

I know English has a lot of homophones, but a writer is expected to know enough not to put down "I saw him last knight" or "My mother used to reed to me". And yet some homophonous errors crop up with metronomic regularity.

Once again, The New Republic Online thinks that "reign in" is a phrasal verb (I snarked about this back in March, too).

What do you suppose is going on? I have some theories:

1) TNR Online has a very bad copy editor.
2) TNR Online has no copy editor plus some sloppy writers.
2.5) Someone has manually removed the word "rein" from the office computers' spellcheckers.
3) "Reign in" is actually correct and I am wrong and/or a moron.

I'm banking on theory 2, myself.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


As I was leaving work yesterday I glanced through the window of one of those payday-loan places that extract vigorish when there's too much month at the end of the paycheck, and a large sign inside read:

What Is The Payday Now Criteria?

It's no surprise to any alert English speaker that Latinate plurals are dying out. Some of them, such as "aquaria" and "gymnasia", are vanishing from the language, replaced through the standard English method of pluralizing by "aquariums" and "gymnasiums". I wish it were otherwise, but I can't really complain about this simplification, which is natural. Other Latin words have the singular and plural conflated, so that "media" and "data", among others, are being treated as singular nouns. (I'm sick of "The media is..." and "The data tells us...", but they're here to stay. I don't have to like them, though. I hear singular "media" all the time on The Majority Report and it's maddening; Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder are smart people, and they ought to know better.) Even innocent "bacteria" is being increasingly treated as a singular noun. ("What about 'cafeteria'?" someone asked me once, and the answer is that there never was a "cafeterium" for which "cafeteria" might be plural--the word's from Spanish, not Latin, and in Spanish, "-eria" serves the same purpose as the French "-erie" as in "confiserie" and English "-ery" as in "bakery".)

The odd thing about the sign is that "criteria" is, in fact, clearly meant to be plural; there's more than one rule you have to follow if you want to get a loan from these people. It's the verb that's at fault here, not the noun: the sign-writers obviously meant to say "What Are The Payday Now Criteria?"

However, the larger issue remains: "criteria" is increasingly being used singularly, but "criterion" still exists as a singular noun in English, and it's not as if it's an uncommon word or anything, so everyone who uses "criteria" as a singular noun: I want you to knock it off right now. Thank you.

Friday, May 20, 2005


Perhaps this happens to other people, too: sometimes a word will catch my eye, and I'll begin to wonder how it might be related to other words, and then a whole swarm of words will suggest themselves to me. Or maybe it's just me.

Anyway. I was looking at "bench", and since it rhymes with "stench", I wondered what the connection between the two might be, if there were any. I didn't think there was a direct connection, mind you; it just occurred to me that since they have the same ending, perhaps there was something to it. And indeed, there is.

What led me to the supposition of relatedness was that I immediately thought of a pair of related words, "bank" and "stank". Surely, I thought, since "stench" and "stank" clearly seem to be cousins, "bench" might be related to "bank". And it is! ("Banca" is the Italian word for "bench".)

Since those relationships were established, I began to rack my brains for other such pairs or groupings of words. What about "rank" and "ranch"? Yes, indeed: both are related to the word "arrange". "Mark" and "march"? Oh yes: marching means marking time with your feet. "Punk" and "punch"? Don't know about that one: the origin of "punk" isn't established. But I'm still willing to bet that there's a connection somehow. (I had hoped that "pink", in the sense of "pinking shears", and "pinch" were related, but no dice. Ditto with "block" and "blotch". But "lurk" and "lurch" seem to be cousins: "snack" and "snatch" definitely are, and also "drink" and "drench".)

So there you go. If in idle moments you see a word ending in "-nk", "-rk", "-nch", or "-rch", you might want to tack on its matching ending, perhaps play with the vowels, and see if another word presents itself. If it does, chances are at least fifty-fifty that they're related.

It's my idea of fun.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Where There's a Will, There's a Won't

It's hard to imagine English without contractions. They're such an integral part of the language that speech sounds stilted without them; having a character speak without using them is a writer's stock method of establishing foreignness. Yet once upon a time, they were considered vulgarisms, and some of the stricter grammarians embarked on a campaign to stamp them out.

The structure is simplicity itself: a pronoun plus one of the basic verbs (do, be, have) or modals (will, shall, must, can), or one of the basic verbs or modals plus its negation "not", smushed together with the missing letters marked by apostrophes.

English, of course, is so full of exceptions to its many rules that a couple of puzzles have arisen; the question of "won't" and the question of "shan't". So let's have a look at them.

"Won't" is plainly illogical. "Will" is the modal: the contraction of its negation obviously ought to be "willn't", which is a little hard to say but which would fit comfortably in our mouths if we'd been saying it for centuries. And yet its negation is "won't", which suggests that once upon a time, there was such a word as "woll". And, in fact, there once was.

It's important to keep in mind that people once wrote English exactly as they pronounced it, since writing is primarily a way of representing speech. Before dictionaries and the codification of spelling, if you pronounced "naught" as "nowt", then that's how you would spell it. Consonants have a way of remaining the same over the years, but vowels are highly flexible, and "will" was once variously pronounced "woll" and "wull" (the name "Willie" is still pronounced "Wullie", which is to say "woolly", in Scotland), so those spellings are also seen in writings all the way up to the 19th century. All of these forms of "will" would have been contracted, but over time, the contraction for "woll" was what remained with us, and so we ended up with "won't" instead of "win't" or "willn't".

The mystery of "shan't" is that there aren't two apostrophes in it. There clearly ought to be, since letters are dropped in two places, so the logical outcome would be "sha'n't". And, indeed, people often used to write that. It died out, and the reason isn't hard to see: it looks very odd indeed. (The sharp-eyed will have noticed that the same ought to be true of "won't"; two letters or letter pairs dropped equals two apostrophes, leading to "wo'n't". And once again, this form once had some currency: Lewis Carroll used to use it, as he did in the Lobster Quadrille. And it too expired from sheer awkwardness.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Shall Game

"Will" and "shall" are currently interchangeable in North American English: "shall" has been losing ground for some time and continues to lose it. It's generally heard only in historical, formal or mock-formal speech: "We shall overcome!" "Shall we dance"? "I shall never, ever forget this insult!"

But once upon a time, the two had very different usages. There were quite a few rules governing the use of the two words, which no doubt I'll get into at a later date, but the first-person singular presents the most interesting case (as well as the easiest to grasp). "Will" has a number of meanings in English, one of which is "purposefulness" or "intention". The modal auxiliary "will", as this meaning suggests, involves volition or necessity, whereas "shall" involves simple futurity. "I will go" means that I am going because I want to (or must): "I shall go" says nothing more than that I'm going to go. "Shall", therefore, is, or used to be, the form to use when you're simply presenting information about plans: "I shall be at home this evening."

If you'd like to use the two words as they once were used, you might try to remember what my grade 5 English teacher taught me: the drowning man says, "I shall die! No one will save me!", and the suicide says, "I will die! No one shall save me!"

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


If you live in an officially bilingual province, you will find typographical errors in two official languages.

I saw a do-it-yourself sign yesterday that read, on one side, CONGRATULATION TO ALL GRADUATES: not perfect, since we'd say "congratulations", but passable. The other side read, "FELICITATIONS A TOUS FINNISANTS". If your French is rusty, that last word is the noun form of the verb "finir", "to finish or complete", and ought to be spelled "finissants".

But there are similar errors to be found in English, too. A restaurant attached to a motel here in town has a sign that's clearly been in place for some years which reads, "LICENSED DINNING ROOM". I wonder how many customers have mentioned that it ought to be "dining": there must have been at least a few over the years.

"Dinning", of course, would have to be pronounced with a short "-i-", a direct consequence of one of the few truly reliable rules in English--that a consonant-vowel-consonant word always has a short vowel, and if you can add an "-e" to the end, it always makes that vowel long. Din? Short. Dine? Long. When we alter the tense of a verb by adding "-ed" or "-ing", we retain the vowel sound by doubling the final consonant to indicate a short vowel or leaving it single for a long vowel. Ratting? Short vowel. Rating? Long vowel. Very simple (thank goodness).

The interesting thing about that French misspelling is that in English, you'd instantly know (if you sounded it out) that it was wrong, but that isn't true of French. English places stresses within words, and some doubled letters act as signals for that stress. If those were viable English words, we would expect to pronounce the first as "FIN-uh-sants" and the second as "fuh-NISS-uhnts". French, however, doesn't place stresses within individual words as a consequence of their spelling; both of those words--if they were both words--would be pronounced the same.

Monday, May 16, 2005


I am oddly clumsy. Not so much with my hands or my brain, but with the rest of me: I regularly bang into doorways and trip over things. It's a rare day that I don't have a bruise or two somewhere. Shall we look at some uncoordinated words?

Clumsy itself comes from an obsolete Middle English word meaning "numb with cold".

The delightful lummox is one of those words that just spring up out of nowhere. Ditto for lunk, an abbreviated form of "lunkhead". ("Lummox" may be related to "flummox" somehow: that word also has no known derivation.)

Clod, on examination, resembles "clot", and the two are essentially the same word: a lump of something, extended to humans to mean a big lump of a person.

Oaf is my very favourite of this entire group of words, for two reasons. First, I like the way it feels in the mouth: it has an air of age but not archaism to me. And second, its derivation is charming: it's from an old Norse word, "alfr", meaning "elf". Elf! The path into our current usage seems to be "sprightly" through "silly" into "stupid and therefore clumsy"; I'm amused by the concurrent path from quicksilver tininess to lumbering size.

All these words carry a sense of clumsiness about them, but they also carry a sense of stupidity, which I hope is something people will never accuse me of. Clumsy? Sure. Oafish? I don't think so.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Losing a Game of Ghost


The nominative personal pronoun and the most-often used word in speech ("the" wins in print), "I" clearly has to be related to either the Germanic side of English-- German currently uses "Ich", and Dutch has "ik"--or the Romance side, with Italian "io" as a representative. Which was it? Both, as it happens. It started as Latin "ego", "I", and eventually mutated into "ec", which after one of those inevitable vowel shifts became Old English "ic".


Most people likely know that the id is, in Freudian theory, the part of the mind that's responsible for demanding the instant gratification of impulses (kept in check, luckily, by the ego and the superego). But what does it actually mean? Piece of cake: it's the Latin word for "it". And it isn't what Freud called it: he used German words for his three divisions of the psyche. "Es" is the German for "it", and "das Es" means "the 'it'", which is how he expressed it. (The other two words were "das Ich", "the 'I'", and "das über-Ich", "the super-'I'".) In English, we use the Latin translations of his words.


This combining form is seen in all manner of chemical compounds: sodium chloride, for example, which is table salt. "-Ide" has a truly oddball genesis. The word "oxygen" comes from the Greek "oxus", "sharp, acidic", and the French combining form "-gen", which is related to our "generate", from the Latin "generare", "to produce, to give birth to": "oxygen" literally means "acid-producer". The French word "acide" is clearly the root of our "acid", and they mean the same thing. The suffix "-ide" comes from "oxide", which is to say the French words "oxygene" plus "acide" portmanteaued together: that is, "acid" plus "acid".


"Beware the ides of March!" is so much a part of the language that most people don't know that every month had an ides. It simply refers to the eighth day following the nones; that is, the fifteenth day of March, May, July, or October, and the 13th day of the other months in the Roman calendar. The ancient Roman calendar was a very flexible thing (think of how Easter floats around our calendar, and imagine the whole year's working like that): the only invariant days were the kalends, the first day of the month, and if you think that's where the word "calendar" came from, you're right.

So: happy ides of May.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


German, it is a commonplace, sounds rather hard-edged and spitty to English natives, but be that as it may, its pronunciation is a marvel of simplicity. Once you've learned the alphabet, you can read aloud with ease, confident that there are no traps lying in wait. This is not remotely true of English.

There are two standard pronunciations for a doubled "c". Sometimes it's pronounced "-k-", as in "accompany" and "staccato", and sometimes it's pronounced "-ks-", as in "accidental" and "eccentric". (In a few words borrowed from Italian, it's "-ch-", as in "bocce" and "capriccio".) If you don't know which is which, you're out of luck; but the pronunciations can be learned, and the learner can be sure that those are the only possibilities. (There are guidelines: "-cce-" is almost without exception "-ks-" and "-cco-" is always "-k-", for instance.)

So what the hell happened to "flaccid" and "succinct"? Somewhere along the way, in the popular mind, their doubled "c" came to be pronounced as if it were an "s". If you are a descriptivist grammarian, then you may blandly note that this is simply how the words have come to be pronounced. But if you're me, if you have some standards, you'll snarlingly note that there are still only those three pronunciations for "-cc-", that "-s-" is not one of them, that "flaccid" and "succinct" are correctly pronounced in the "-ks-" mode, and that careful speakers would not dream of having it any other way. Period.

Friday, May 13, 2005


I'm sure this is true of other proofreaders: typos just leap off the page at me. I don't even have to be looking for them; I'll just be reading, or even just running my eyes over a page of text, and bang, there they are, as if they were blazing yellow with highlighter ink. It's almost distracting. Yesterday I was reading a web page and the first thing I saw was the typo "prodcut". (Of course, it's easy to make such a mistake; I regularly type "Tornoto". The difference is that I spot the mistake and fix it.)

Another thing I was reading yesterday was a magazine at the gym, a back issue of Toronto Life. On one of the last pages, the ones covered with little ads, was one for some place that offers past-life regressions, channelling, aura cleansing--you know, the usual unsupported and unmitigated bullshit. And right there at the top of the ad, just under the logo for the company, were the words, in italics:

Connet with your divine!

Evidently they can't connect you with a divine proofreader, though.


Yesterday on the way to work I saw a discarded battery package reading "Camelion". At first I read it as "camel-lion", and then I realized it must surely be a phonetic or foreign spelling of "chameleon". I thought of "camel-lion" first because an old name for the giraffe was the camelopard, which is a portmanteau of "camel" and "leopard". Well, not really. But sort of. "Camelopard" is actually "camel" plus "pard", which is an old, now discarded name for a panther: the "leo-" prefix is, obviously, related to "lion", and "leopard" evolved because what we now call a leopard was thought to be a hybrid lion/pard. If you had seen what we now call a black panther, this would be an easy mistake to make, because a panther is covered with spots, just as a leopard is, though the leopard is lion-coloured so the spots are evident, and although we think of panthers as being pure black, in fact they have black fur and black spots, or rosettes, which are visible in bright sunlight.


What else did I see on the way to work yesterday? A sign reading WAR HOUSE POSITION APPLY WITHIN. I stared at it and stared at it: War house? Really? And then I realized that a letter must have fallen off the sign, but clearly I was having an off day because I couldn't quite figure out what the letter must have been. Warm house? Wart house? Finally I got it: Warehouse. Either the letter serendipitously fell off, or someone thought it would be funny to remove it, and it was.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Organ Solo

I try very hard to hide it beneath a veneer of civility and descriptivism, but what this blog is all about, deep down inside, is venting my spleen. I can't help it; I'm hypersensitive to English usage and spelling, and sometimes I hear someone say "equally as good" or see a house sign reading "The Smith's" and I just snap. Ask Jim some time how many times I've snarled "'Impact' is not a verb, goddammit!" or "You call yourself a meteorologist and yet you can't even pronounce 'kilometre' correctly?" to the television. When I write, I try to be even-tempered and amusing, and if I can educate people at the same time, that's great, because I like to teach; but I do get pissed off at egregious misuses of the English language, so that usually wrecks any attempt at being nice, and I don't have a whole host of readers, which means the educational opportunities are limited. So mostly it's just the spleen.

Why don't we take a look at the word "spleen"? I've been thinking about it on and off for a couple of days, and now it's your turn.

We need to go right back to the basics for this one. "Spleen", of course, means "irritable ill humour". The word "humour" is related to "humid", which means "moist", since that's exactly what its Latin root, "humere", meant. (It's not related to "humus" or "humble", which are from Latin "humus", "ground" or "earth".) In mediaeval times, a humour was a bodily fluid. (This sense of "humour" remains in medical terms such as "aqueous humour", the fluid inside the eye.) The four humours governed the personality in a complicated but comprehensible way: there were four elements (earth, air, fire, water), four states (hot, cold, wet, dry), and four humours (black bile, phlegm, blood, and yellow bile) produced by four organs (liver, spleen, lungs, gall bladder) which produced various body types and temperaments as follows:

The choleric personality was produced by yellow bile coming from the spleen; it was a product of elemental fire, which was hot and dry, leading to a thin, red-haired body characterized by a violent, ambitious personality.

The sanguine personality was produced by blood coming from the liver; it was a product of elemental air, which was hot and wet, leading to a red-faced, corpulent body characterized by a generous, happy personality.

The phlegmatic personality was produced by phlegm coming from the lungs; it was a product of elemental water, which was cold and wet, leading to a corpulent body characterized by a sluggish, fearful personality.

The melancholic personality was produced by black bile coming from the gall bladder; it was a product of elemental earth, which was cold and wet, leading to a thin, pale body characterized by a sentimental, introspective personality.

Makes just as much sense as reflexology or homeopathy or any other pseudo-scientific nonsense being touted these days, really. Anyway: the Greek word for "bile" was "khole", leading to the word "choleric". "Choler" is an antique word for "ill temper", and that's also a definition of both "spleen" and "bile". See how it all ties together? ("Sanguine" derives from Latin "sanguineus", "blood"; "phlegmatic" obviously comes from "phlegm"--more on the suffix in a moment: and "melancholic" comes from the Greek "melan-", meaning "black", as in "melanin", and "khole", "bile".)

One final note: "spleen", being both a medical word meaning a bodily organ and an everyday word meaning ire, has two different adjectival forms. "Splenetic" has the common medical adjectival suffix "-tic" ("anorectic", "epileptic"), and the more amusing "spleeny" has the usual "-y" ending. They can both be used to describe a pissed-off person.

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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Reader Writes

Commenting on my post of May 7th, TonyPius says:

"Your opening paragraph reminded me of the famous, and probably apocryphal, review of Sir Christoper Wren's rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral. The monarch reigning at the time is said to have called it "awful, artificial, and amusing" -- a rave review, because it meant "awe-inspiring, expressive of artifice, and pleasant to look at." "

I had heard that story, but I didn't know it was apocryphal, though that's plausible: perhaps someone was trying to make a point about the evolution of English.

Let's look at "evolution". It has only one common meaning nowadays: the gradual process of change. But I once found an earlier meaning, one which has entirely died, in a synopsis of the Offenbach's opera "The Tales of Hoffman", which described the dancing, singing wind-up doll Olympia's "evolutions around the floor". Evolutions? How could that be? As it turns out, "evolution" used to mean, in reference to dancing or gymnastics, "a movement". And this makes sense when the root of the word is uncovered: it's from the Latin "to unroll or unfold". It is a pair of very short metaphorical steps from a literal unrolling to an athletic opening-out movement to any such movement in athletic endeavours.

Perhaps my favourite batch of changed words is that cluster that means "odd". "Outlandish", if you look closely at it, literally means "from another land", and the original meaning was simply "foreign" or "not native"; from there, given the universal human tendency to look askance at unfamiliar things, it was not much of a leap to have the word mean "bizarre". "Bizarre" itself is an oddity: it evidently comes from a Basque word meaning "beard", through Spanish, where "bizarro" means "brave" or "gallant", and then into English from French. And I have absolutely no idea how "beard" became "gallant" became "weird".

"Weird" is a fascinating study in how words become different things in different languages. Its root is an Anglo-Saxon verb, "weorthan", which simply means "to become". The verb survives in German as "werden", with the same meaning (leading to much confusion among new students of German: "bekommen" means not "to become" but "to get"). Eventually it evolved into "wyrd", which meant "fate". This transformation occurred because the sense of the noun, from its root verb, came to mean "something that has become", and the word became infused with a mystical sense of "something that happened, and therefore had to happen": in other words, fate. The Fates* themselves, three women who controlled the destiny of all people, were known in various guises as the Weirds or the Weird Sisters (also the name given to the three witches in "Macbeth"); over time, it isn't hard to see how "weird" changed course from "fateful" or "controlling fate" to "strange".

The study of how words change over time could be a life's work, couldn't it?

*In case you were wondering, their names in Greek are Clotho (CLO-tho, both long vowels), Lachesis (LACK-uh-sis), and Atropos (AT-ruh-pus). Clotho spins the thread of life for every person: her name means "spinner". Lachesis measures it out; her name means "to get by chance". Atropos, with her shears, cuts the thread: her name means "inexorable", the fate of everyone. The name Atropos may be somewhat familiar as the root of "atropine", a poison.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Free Association 2

I swear, the next time I see "pour over", as in "she poured over her biology notes", I'm going to throw something.

It's "pore over". It's been "pore over" since the fifteenth century, "pore", in this instance, being etymologically unrelated to both the pores in your skin and to the word "pour". To pore over means to examine closely. But the wrong form is so prevalent that people have concocted a folk etymology for it: "pour over", as in "pour oneself into one's task". It's wrong. It's also, as folk etymologies tend to be, kind of stupid.


Which of the words "skim" or "scan" is a near-synonym of "pore over"? Trick question, right? "Skim" and "scan" both mean the same thing--to quickly peruse a document. Right?

Wrong. Wrong wrongity wrong. They're opposites. To skim does, in fact, mean to quickly read something over. But to scan means to read closely. They're used as synonyms, but they aren't. Or perhaps I ought to say that they weren't, but are, unfortunately, becoming so.


I'm sure I'm not the only person who gets a little peeved at the expression "skim milk".

There's no reason for it, I know. I'm just being silly. We've lost the adjectival ending from such expressions as "ice cream" and "ice water", both of which should be--or at least used to be--an adjective-noun phrase using the adjective "iced". The same thing is happening with "iced tea", but I'm not giving that one up without a struggle. It just doesn't look right to me. Same with "skim milk". And don't get me started on the Americanism "whip cream". Yuck. Is, was, and forever shall be--must be--"whipped cream".


The Milky Way is so called because to the naked eye--that is, the naked eye unbeclouded by external light sources--it appears milky, a white river running through the sky. The Milky Way is, of course, a galaxy, which is any massive aggregation of stars. It may interest you to know that the Middle English name for the Milky Way was "galaxie". And where did that word come from? From "galakt", the Greek word for "milk". (We have a clutch of "galact-" words in English, all lesser-used except for the adjectival form of "galaxy", "galactic", including "galactose", a milk sugar, and "galactogogue", a substance which stimulates the production of milk in a female. The suffix "-gogue" is from the Greek "agogos", "leading". A demagogue was originally one who led the people; an emmenogogue is a substance which stimulates--leads--the process of menstruation; and a synagogue is an assembly of people, literally something which leads together, "syn-" being the same suffix as the one we use for "synthesize" and "syntax".)

Then the Latin language cribbed "galakt" and reduced it to "lact-", which is the root of "lactate", "lactose", and a handful of other milky words. "Milk" itself comes from the Old English word "milc", which is clearly related to the Germanic "milch". So, unsurprisingly, English has three different strands of words which all lead to the same idea. No wonder its vocabulary is an embarrassment of riches.

Sunday, May 08, 2005


I just read a wonderful, wonderful neologism on Gawker.com that I would like to share. But first, a couple of things.

First, just in case you don't know the word "neologism": it derives from three Greek roots, "neo-", "-logo-", and "-ism". The first means "new"; the second means "word"; and the third is a suffix denoting a noun (and generally denoting a state or a characteristic), so the whole means a new word. A neologism can be a wholly new invention (as "blurb" once was), a new word created from combining forms ("babeage"), or an old word given a new meaning (the popular "radical" of the nineties, so different from any usage of it that had come before).

Second, the suffix "-ery" is used to transform something into a noun; it may be a verb ("bakery"), it may be an adjective ("finery"), or it may be a noun that needs to be changed from the specific into the general ("jewellery").

With that out of the way: Gawker.com has presented me with the previously unheard but thoroughly useful noun "fuck-uppery". I may never get a chance to use it, but oh, how I love it.

Saturday, May 07, 2005


I don't have a big problem with organic changes in the English language: languages are going to evolve over time, and while I may resist some of the changes, I also accept that they're inevitable. "Awful" once meant "awe-inspiring", and now it has only a negative connotation; that's the way it goes. "Awesome" is rapidly changing from "awe-inspiring" to merely "enjoyable" or "really good", and I can't really quibble with that, either. I find it rather charming and vivid, even as the original meaning is lost.

But I have a big problem with the corruption of the language through the designs of corporations.

A few years ago, the fast-food chain Wendy's began referring to its customers as "guests". If they needed to open another cash register to handle an unexpected crowd, someone would say into a microphone, "Eight guests in line." From the beginning this riled me up, because it's a corruption of the sacred name of hospitality. A guest is someone you invite to share something with you. A guest is not someone who is paying you money for goods and services. A guest does not, in fact, pay anything, and it pisses me off to see the word bastardized in this way.

The company for which I work has adopted this horrible usage. It's made the usage worse, almost: Every month for the next five months, we have to earn a pin with one of the letters of the word GUEST in it, and when the program is over, we'll be bearing that label (which, nametag-style, would seem to make us the guests). Each letter is one of the steps in good customer service: as the first step, G stands for "Greet the customer", and as the last, T stands for "Thank the customer". All very good advice, no doubt, but some people will inquire as to the meaning of the letters when we're wearing "GU" or "GUE" on our clothing, and won't at least a few of them be secretly insulted that they're being treated not as people but as an algorithm, a series of steps that must be taken before we can dispose of them?

Our customers, we were told last week, are like guests, and what do we do with guests? We welcome them into our home! But the store is not my home, and when I welcome guests into my real home, I don't expect them to buy things from me. That would make them clients. I don't know which is worse: the mercenary devaluation of a precious word, or dissolution of the line between business life and personal life. I'm bitterly resisting the use of "guest" in this manner. It may be futile, but I'm doing what I can.

Friday, May 06, 2005


Sephora.com is a website that sells fragrances, makeup, that sort of thing. (I'm only there for the fragrances, because I've always had a keen sense of smell and I love things that smell complex and interesting.) It's a pretty good site, but lord, do they ever need a copy editor! Here's a typically overripe passage from this page:

"Bursting with notes that celebrate fresh, blooming blossoms, Folifloria is a whimsicle fragrance comprised of soft white petals warmed with apricot and amber notes."

Whimsicle! You couldn't make it up.


I have some sympathy for people putting up the letters in those big do-it-yourself signs. As anyone who's ever written on a chalkboard knows, it's difficult to get every one of the details right when you're up close and dealing with letters a foot high. There's a flower shop on the way to work that has such a sign, and in the space of six or seven letters manages two obvious misspellings ("ABSOLUTLY" and "BOUQET"). But spelling errors are one thing: gross grammatical errors something else altogether.

Some fast-food joint I pass on the way to work has just introduced a new line of some food or other, and the do-it-yourself sign announcing the fact reads, "THERE HERE!"

If I ran the world, and it's probably just as well that I don't, every schoolchild learning English would be forced to memorize and understand the sentence "They're putting their things there." I mean, how hard is that?


I write the entries for this blog in a Mac program called TextEdit, which has a spell-check dictionary. Bizarrely enough, it didn't balk at the spelling "BOUQET" when I put it in capital letters (though it did red-pencil "absolutly"), but it did reject "bouqet" in lower-case just now. How odd!

And this gave me an idea for a particularly mean prank one could play on a spelling-impaired colleague. You can teach any spell-checker new words, so it wouldn't be much work to make up a long list of deliberately misspelled words and feed it into the spell-checker on your co-worker's computer, clicking the "Learn this spelling" button for each one. Presto: a spell-checker that no longer checks the spelling. I mean, if you wanted to make someone look like an absolute boob to his or her co-workers and superiors.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


I use the Webster's Dictionary of English Usage all the time: it's a gold mine of descriptivist analyses of the language, from "a/an" ("an historic occasion" is fine if that's your usual way of saying it) to "zoom" (it originated as an aeronautical term meaning "to fly straight upwards", but in popular usage it merely means "to move quickly", and that's acceptable). So naturally I was amazed to see a typographical oddity of the sort that any proofreader would instantly have objected to: the breaking of Havelock Ellis' name across two lines as

ock Ellis

(unless I have been cruelly misled and the pronunciation of his name is not the standard "have-lock" but the oddball "have-a-lock", which is not unheard of--it's the pronunciation of the name of a town in Nebraska).

Now, any proofreader can tell you that the most basic rule of line-break hyphenation is that you break at the syllables. (This is to say that spelling is less a factor in correct hyphenation than is pronunciation, leading to some disagreements when two people pronounce a word differently.) Many casual dictionary readers will not have noticed that the dictionary is happy to give you instruction in how to hyphenate: it lists words broken up into their component syllables, and you're free to use a hyphen at any of these breaking points as needed. Nowadays, of course, most spell-checkers come with a hyphenation dictionary, and so if you're permitting hyphenation (not needed in left-justified copy, essential in fully-justified margins), it will automatically know how to hyphenate each word. (If you're a fussbudget and disagree with the computer's choice, you can insert what's called a hard hyphen to override the computer.)

There are a couple of factors in the Dictionary's defence. Proper nouns, of course, are not listed in most dictionaries, and so are often a judgement call. (Is "Drusilla" hyphenated after the "-u-" or after the "-s-"? Should "Montevideo" be broken up as "Mon-te-vi-de-o" or "Mont-e-vid-e-o", or something in between?) And second, it's generally accepted that a word shouldn't be broken across two lines in such a way that its halves will form unintended words ("arse-nal" is a bad idea: "ar-senal" is the standard) or will due to vagaries in pronunciation mislead readers before they get to the next line ("know-ledge" is best avoided where possible). Perhaps the intention was to avoid "Have-lock". But it's better than "Havel-ock", which is unnatural and jarring. To me, anyway.


I suppose I ought to explain the terms "left-justified" and "fully-justified". "Justification" is merely a fancy typesetters' word for "lining up". What you're reading right now is left-justified: that is, the left-hand margin is lined up, but the right-hand margin is free to meander. Fully-justified text has both margins marching lockstep down the page; this is achieved by varying the width of the space between words in the line and by hyphenating the last word where necessary so as to avoid leaving too much or too little space between words. When using single justification, hyphenation is mostly unnecessary, because instead of breaking a word, the software will simply move the overly long word to the next line. But that isn't an option in full justification, so hyphens are the perfect solution.

There are other rules for hyphens, by the way. If at all possible, you aren't supposed to hyphenate a word that's continued on the next page, and you aren't allowed to have too many hyphens in a row on the rightmost margin (two is usually the limit, no more than three, after which you have to have a full word, regardless of the other consequences). Typesetting has a lot of rules; it's a little world unto itself.


I suppose I also ought to go on the record as saying that I despise "an historic occasion". It's an artifact of an older pronunciation, one that dropped the leading "h-". If you pronounce "herb" without the "h-", as I do, then of course you use "an" in front of it; but "an historic" or "an hotel" is just plain silly if you're pronouncing the "h-". The overriding rule still holds; "a" before a consonantal sound, "an" before a vowel sound. The spelling is irrelevant; the sound is what matters. (If you are a Cockney or a Newfoundlander and you say "an 'istoric occasion", that's just fine, of course.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Let It Be

The unfailingly fascinating Languagehat.com talks about a word I'd heard before, but in a slightly different form: "dight", which means "to adorn, array, or dress".

I instantly recognized it because I had run across another form of it, "bedight", before. This led me to wonder if it was related to "bedizen", "to dress in fine clothing" or sometimes "to dress garishly". Well, it isn't, alas. "Dight" ultimately comes from the Latin "dictare", which led to an Old English word meaning "to arrange" or "to put into order", whereas "dizen" comes from a very old German word meaning "a bunch of flax". (And we have yet another "be-" word, "bedeck", which means more or less the same thing and which comes from still another source; a Dutch word meaning "covering". I never cease to marvel at just how many words the English language makes use of.) Although I failed to find a common thread, those words led me to think about the prefix they share, "be-".

Sometimes, "be-" acts to turn another part of speech into a transitive verb: the noun "troth", for example, becomes the verb "betroth". However, in the three verbs above, and quite a few others besides, "be-" acts as a simple intensifier; it was in use in Old English, and persists in such words as "berate" and "befit". (They mean the same with or without the prefix; but it undeniably adds something to them, the impressiveness of an extra syllable.) Other "be-"-intensified words feel a little archaic, though they're still in common currency: "beseech" and "besmirch", for example. The adventurous speaker or writer can use the prefix to add an antique feel to verbs that don't ordinarily take it: "beflail", say.

Here's a story told of Abraham Lincoln:

"He once visited McClellan's headquarters with an aide, and found it empty. He heard hammering in the woods nearby and went to see what it was. "It's a new privy for the General," was the answer. "Is it a one-holer or a two holer?" Lincoln asked. "A one-holer, sir," the soldier answered. When he was out of earshot of the soldiers, Lincoln said to his aide, "Thank God it's a one-holer, for if it were a two-holer, before General McClellan could make up his mind which one to use he would beshit himself." "


The article mentioned above contains a word I hadn't heard before: "hapax". As it turns out, it's an abbreviated form of the expression hapax legomenon, which is Greek for "say once" ("hapax" means "once"): it refers to a word, word variant, or usage that appears only once in the recorded history of a language. Languagehat uses the opportunity to mildly castigate the OED for listing an erroneous usage of the word "dight" by Edmund Spenser, and this immediately brought to mind the humiliating mistake made by Robert Browning. I'll let Hugh Rawson tell the story, as he does in his invaluable book Wicked Words:

"The T-word occupies a special niche in literary history, however, thanks to a horrible mistake by Robert Browning, who included it in 'Pippa Passes' (1841) without knowing its true meaning. 'The owls and bats,/Cowls and twats,/Monks and nuns,/In a cloister's moods.' Poor Robert! He had been misled into thinking the word meant 'hat' by its appearance in 'Vanity of Vanities,' a poem of 1660, containing the treacherous lines: 'They'd talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat,/They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.' (There is a lesson here about not using words unless one is very sure of their meaning.)"

The OED, by the way, mentions Browning's ignorance in a bland little note under the listing for "twat": "Erroneously used by Browning...under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun's attire." That's a hapax legomenon if ever there were one.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Euro a go go

I am the sort of person who likes to discuss words. Duh. I am also the sort of person who gets really, really involved in discussing things. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I had a big messy argument with someone once over the validity of the word "restauranteur". His position: that the word originated as "restaurateur", and that the newer version is a vulgarism. I countered that the huge majority of people would reasonably think that a restaurateur is someone who restores houses and that "restauranteur" is so well established that trying to force the older word on people would be wilful perversity. I believe I said that we routinely add "-er" or "-or" to words to signify "one who", and that "-eur" was merely the French version of this, and I expect he countered by saying that we attach those suffixes to verbs, not nouns, which is a pretty good point. But as I have said before, English is not tightly logical; it makes up the rules as it goes along, and if it wants to slap "-eur" to the end of a French noun, then by god that's what it's going to do. He was not buying my arguments, but I stand firm that not only is "restauranteur" a valid word, it's superior to the original French because it's more readily understandable to the majority of people.

We did, however, agree that "restauranter" is an abomination.

Answers.com rather snootily says that "[a] popular misconception is that the word is pronounced the same as restaurant, whereas in actuality, there is no n in restaurateur." This is undeniably true, and it's also true that there's also no "n" in "waterfalls" or "paralytic"; perhaps they should announce such things to people more often just to avoid confusion. There is an "n" in "restauranteur", though. "Restaurateur" is the older word in English: "restaurant" came later, and then "restauranteur" evolved. "Restauranteur" in the written language is nearly a hundred years old; I think we can forgive its existence, even if some of us will never use it.


Speaking of "-eur", I swear that I once saw embroidered on the back of a cheesy jacket the words "AMATURE GOLDEN GLOVES". A quick Googling of "amature" reveals that it has been used nearly a million times, and the number is sure to increase as porn sites featuring "amature beastiality" and "free amature masterbation video" become ever more popular. It's things like this that make one fear for the future of humanity. The spelling, I mean: bestiality and self-abuse have been around for a long time.

Monday, May 02, 2005


Once upon a time, not all that long ago, maybe twenty-five years ago, someone published a reverse spelling dictionary. The idea was genius: not needing definitions and pronunciations and other frippery, the dictionary merely listed words according to the way they were spelled backwards. And what use is such a thing? Well, just say you're thinking about the words "catastrophe" and "apostrophe", as I was when washing the dishes the other day, and you suddenly want to know all the words that ended in "-trophe". With a regular dictionary, there's no way to find out, but with a reverse spelling dictionary, you simply look up "ehport", and there they are. (Pre-Internet, this was a very big deal for word geeks such as myself.)

Of course, such a thing is possible using Boolean searching in some regular online dictionaries: simply type "*trophe" into the search field. (That first character is an asterisk, and it denotes "any number of any characters".) I was hoping for a very simple, literal reverse spelling dictionary; someone takes an uncopyrighted word-hoard, writes a simple macro to reverse all the words, and then alphabetizes the resulting list. I'm surprised it hasn't been done.

However, after a solid half-hour of Googling, I did find a reasonable substitute for a proper reverse spelling dictionary. It's not as thorough as I would like it to be: "*trophe" gave a list of only eight words, missing one I know of for certain, "diastrophe", and probably a few others besides. But for those who can accept its limitations (and those are few, considering that it's free), it's called MoreWords.com: check it out. (A particular word's listing will also give plenty of information you didn't know you needed: definitions, all anagrams of the word, words you can make by adding one letter and anagramming, and anagrams that can be made from subsets of letters in the word, for starters.)

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Okay. Last night I'm seized with the desire to watch the striking Kylie Minogue video for "Come Into My World": it's an awe-inspiring bit of technological wizardry in which the camera glides in a tight racetrack-shaped oval through a small part of a street in a business district as the songbird leaves a shop and walks around the street singing her song. All around her are people going about their daily business: pedestrians, shopkeepers, drivers, shoppers. But after she makes a complete loop, another copy of herself pops out of the same shop, and we realize (if we're paying attention) that now, along with two of her, we can see two of every other kind of person, too: two jilted girls throwing their boyfriends' belongings from apartment windows, two cyclists, two poster-hangers. After the second circuit of the two copies of the singer strolling and singing (and interacting with one another), a third Kylie leaves the shop, and there are suddenly three of everyone; three boys on scooters, three pairs of meter maids. Another trip round, another singer, and the streets are getting crowded with duplicates, four (or eight) of everyone. As a fifth Kylie leaves the shop and the song fades, it's clear that this can go on forever (and what are we going to do with all those Kylie Minogues?).

This has nothing to do with anything. I just like the video. On the same DVD--it's the music videos of Michel Gondry--is the (very cool) video for The White Stripes' "The Hardest Button to Button", and listening to it I was struck by the sheer severity of the lead singer's glottal stops on the word "button".

A glottal stop is not quite a sound; it's the temporary absence of sound, followed by its forceful return, caused by the brief slamming-shut of the glottis, the opening to the vocal cords. If the glottal stop isn't ordinarily part of your speech, you might not instinctively know how to make it; it's the sound at the end of the first syllable of "uh-oh!"

When I was a mere tad, an unnecessarily unkind (or perhaps just unthinking) aunt made considerable fun of me for the way I pronounced "bottle"; with the full-bore glottal stop. Perhaps it sounded provincial to her: she lived in Nova Scotia, whereas I grew up in Newfoundland. I still retain the stop, but tamed: it's made with a nearly closed mouth, unlike Jack White's big, flinty, open-mouthed stops. (Of course, he has the excuse that he's singing, which changes some sounds. But still: he's got a heck of a stop.)

I don't plan to make fun of anyone else's speech patterns, but I have to say that I prefer the sound of the glottal stop to the relatively prevalent "-dd-" sound which stands in for "-tt-" in such words as "button" and "bottle": "buddon", "boddul". The "-dd-" just sounds a little sloppy or lazy to me; but then, the glottal stop probably sounds odd to people who didn't grow up with it.


"Arrêt" is the French word for "stop". The little roof over the "-ê-" is called a circumflex, and interestingly, it generally denotes a place where the letter "-s-" used to be but was dropped. "Arrêt", therefore, is exactly parallel with our "arrest"; the French language lost the "-s-" and acquired the circumflex after we'd taken the word from them. Even if you don't know any French, perhaps you can still figure out what these words mean based on their relationship to English, Latin and/or Italian (they get harder as they go):


The first one is a snap: "hospital", obviously. The second one is, in fact, "paste": it's the French for "pasta", which is the Italian word for "paste", since pasta is made out of a paste of flour and eggs. (In French, "pâte" is also used in the expression "pâte à modeler", "modelling clay"; the meat-paste "pâté" has that extra accent over the "-e", meaning the vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable.) The third word may be familiar from the expression "bête noire"; it's not "best" but "beast", since there was a change in the vowel sound from long to short in about the twelfth century. "Tête" may likewise be familiar from the expression "tête-à-tête", which means "conversation", literally "head to head", as "tête" means "head", from the Latin "testum"; it didn't survive in English, but it remains in Italian as "testa". (There are still traces of "testum" in English, though: "testy" means "irritable", but its earliest meaning was "headstrong".) And finally, "naître" may be recognizable, with the "-s-" reinserted and the verb's ending stripped away, as the root of "renaissance": it means "to be born", and "renaissance" means "rebirth".