or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, July 31, 2005


Regarding Thursday's post, Tony Pius says:

This reminds me of another transposition that I see far more often than I ought: "dias" for "dais." My writers who perpetrate this atrocity do indeed pronounce it "die-ass."

I have to assume that they first saw the word while reading a fantasy novel as a kid, heard it incorrectly in their heads, and have used the wrong pronunciation for so long that it's become set in concrete. It's not as if someone's going to correct them on their pronunciation. Because, save for the Interior Decorator to Her Majesty, who uses "dais" in conversation these days?

"Dias", though it is wrong and annoying, doesn't get too deeply under my skin, because 1) it's one of the more understandable errors, based as it is on the much commoner "bias", and 2) the word, as you note, just isn't that often seen.

But it does show up (correctly). In one of those amusing coincidences that some people attribute to mysterious forces at work in the universe (but I attribute to the fact that a lot of things happen and humans are pattern-matching animals), I saw it just yesterday, on a map for Halifax's Natal Day Parade.

Jim and I both have time off from work simultaneously--Monday is a civic holiday in most of Canada--and we're heading to Halifax for a couple of days. Jim was wondering what there might be to do, and so looked up the Natal Day schedule; there's a map for the parade (it's here, but it's a PDF, so don't feel you have to look at it or anything), and right there on the map is the word DAIS. And it's spelled correctly!

I'm not attributing this to any moral superiority, but Canada isn't quite as corporately bought-and-sold as America is, so I'm mildly horrified that Natal Day is no longer just Natal Day; now it's Alexander Keith's Natal Day, Alexander Keith's being a brand of beer. And the parade has similarly been purchased by corporate money: it's the Pepsi Natal Day Parade. And I don't even drink either product: no wonder I'm skipping the parade altogether. I'll hang around for the fireworks, though.


Yesterday I wrote tangentially about "neologic/neological", and that reminded me of something I've always found fascinating: In English, if there's an adjective ending in "-ical", there's almost certainly a matching and perfectly synonymous adjective simply ending in "-ic", and vice versa.

We've lost some of them along the way, of course: "tragical" has fallen by the wayside, having a rather Victorian flavour, with "tragic" almost completely supplanting it. Others, typically, have changed from one part of speech into another. "Magic" isn't commonly used as an adjective any more because "magical" has more or less taken over the role, leaving "magic" as a noun (or sometimes a verb, though that's usually spelled "magick").

But still. If you can think of an adjective that ends in "-ic", you can tack an "-al" onto it and it will still be a word, even if that word is now obsolete or archaic, and likewise you can extract the "-al" from an "-ical" adjective and that will still be (or have been) a word. There are a few rare exceptions: there doesn't seem to ever have been a "surgic" in English (more's the pity). But the rule virtually always holds. "Rhythmic/rhythmical", "terrific/terrifical", "spheric/spherical", "quixotic/quixotical", "carbonic/carbonical", and on and on. No wonder English is said to have the largest vocabulary of any language on Earth.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

A La Mode

Here's the perfect example of why grammar and etymology are not for the amateur.

From the not-safe-for-work Gay Porn Blog:

In his latest film Arabesque (ahh, the joys of living language: the title refers not to the classic ballet position but a neologic attempt at "Arab-ish"), Ward revisits the 1920s Hollywood of Rudy Valentino.

The problem isn't "neologic": it's a word with the same meaning as "neological", which is to say "having the qualities of a neologism". (A neologism is a newly coined word, or a new use for an existing word.) "Neological" would have been the better choice between those two, and I would have preferred "neologistic", though they didn't ask my opinion: but "neologic" is fine.

What isn't fine is that this use of "Arabesque" is far from a neologism: it is, in fact, the literal and original meaning of the word. "-Esque" is a suffix meaning "in the manner of" or "resembling", so "Arabesque" in fact means "Arab-like", or, as the writer would have it, "Arab-ish", which thirty seconds' research would have shown him. (The arabesque of ballet is therefore a move in the Arab manner, or some European interpretation of a move in Arabian dance.)

Just because one meaning of a word has come to dominate the language doesn't mean that any other meanings are automatically nullified.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Free Association 5

I was whingeing earlier this month about having found a typo in high-end commercial software, and guess what? I've found another. How vexing.

The screensaver for the Mac (OS 10.2.8, anyway) has a module called Flurry which is very beautiful--long filaments of colour emerging from one or more points and waving around the screen. You can choose from a long list of colours, and unfortunately, one of those colours is magneta. If you think I'm going to make some horrible pun about its being an attractive colour you are very much mistaken.


The Mac's spellchecker accepts "whinging" but flags "whingeing". (Answers.com agrees.) Surely "whingeing" is the better spelling, as it underscores that fact that we're looking at a soft rather than a hard "-g-". Isn't that, after all, the rule? "Singing", hard "-g-"; "singeing", soft "-g-". And "bingeing" with the "-e-" so that we know it doesn't rhyme with "ringing". Isn't that simple and logical?

No, I suppose not. After all, we have "barging", and that has the soft "-g-". There doesn't seem to be any consistent rule, predictably enough. But I'm still tucking that "-e-" into "whingeing", dammit.


I'm also spelling "dammit" "dammit". I can't bring myself to spell it "damnit", because that looks as if I'm forcing the pronunciation of the "-n-". "Dam-nit". Not a chance. I'm also spelling "crummy" "crummy", for the same reason, except with a "-b-". "Crum-bee", rhymes with Gumby. I'll take my illogical doubled "-m-", thank you.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Kitchen Symphony

I wrote briefly a while back on words that end in "-ery", and as I was washing the dishes today, I began thinking of the word "cutlery". Is there such a thing as a cutler that gave its name to those implements, just as there is such a thing as a baker that gave birth to the word "bakery"? I figured there must be, and there is: a cutler is a knife-maker. Perfectly logical.

(By the way: if you Google "cultery", you will get almost ten thousand hits. Now, a number of people, I am sure, have made a simple transposition error: it happens all the time. But I wonder just how many people honestly think it is spelled, and therefore pronounced, "cultery".)

Naturally, once I had begun considering "cutlery", another "-ery" word popped into my head, a nearly disused one, as far as I know: "buttery". No, not the adjective; that will be with us as long as we have popcorn. I mean the noun. Yes, "buttery" is also a noun: it means "a pantry in which wines and spirits are stored"--that is to say, a "bottle-ery". Its source is (as is true of virtually all our "-ery" words) French, whence the word "bottle"--from "bouteille"-- and the combining form "-ery" ("-erie" in French) come. But not, as it happens, "bakery"; that one's German (currently "Bäckerei", and you can clearly see the influence).

It may interest you to know that both the adjective and the noun "buttery" are the same age: their citations in the OED are only nine years apart, the noun ("boteri", still showing a strong French influence) from 1389 and the adjective ("buttry") from 1398.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Go Down, Moses

One of those words that pops into my head popped into my head today: this time, it was "rush". I don't know what triggered it (Rush Limbaugh? Matthew Rush? Speed? "Subdivisions"?), but I immediately thought, "Rush the plant versus rush the hurry: any relation?" I was quite sure there wasn't, but I had to look it up anyway, and sure enough, there isn't.

The plant comes from the Old English word "rysc", which gave birth to an astonishing array of variants. (The OED says, "The remarkable variations in the vowel of this word make its history far from clear." See? Even the OED can be surprised by language's marked propensity to shove vowels around.)

The hurry, on the other hand, has been around in more or less the same form since Anglo-Saxon times, and it eventually finds its source in the old French "ruser", which in turn comes from Latin "recusare", "to reject".

And look! Isn't that the English word "recuse"? It is! So in a sense, to recuse oneself is to reject oneself.

But that's not really what it means. "Recusare" actually means "to give a reason as a reply", so to recuse oneself is to supply a reason as to why one cannot perform an act. The "-cus-" part is related to our "cause", which to say "reason".

And while I'm at it, "reason" the verb and "reason" the noun are related to one another, which is really to say that they're the same word; you reason something out, and that process supplies you with the reason that you should or shouldn't do that thing. Sometimes the obvious is correct. But for all I knew, those two rushes could have been related, too. Stranger things have happened in the language.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


I've been thinking about Sunday's posting and would like to note that "mongerer" isn't an impossible construction: there are quite a few words in English that end in "-erer". These words fall into one of four categories:

1) a form of a word that ends in "-ery" (or "-ry", which amounts to the same thing), such as "laundry/launder/launderer" or "adultery/adulterer":
2) the comparative form of a word that ends in "-er", such as "bitterer" and "tenderer", or "-ere", such as "serer" and "austerer";
3) a form of a word that just happens to already end in "-er" when that ending is not the verb-into-noun "one who" suffix, such as "murder/murderer" or "cater/caterer";
4) a form of a word that ends in "-eer", such as comparative adjective "queerer" or verb-into-noun "sneerer".

"Mongerer", however, fits into none of these categories and is still wrong.


One of the words in the third category is "philanderer", which is extremely interesting because the literal meaning is, or ought to be, the opposite of its meaning in English. A philanderer is a man who cheats on a woman; the usual synonym is "womanizer" (although the OED lists as one meaning "a male flirt", which is adorable). "Philanderer" is an example of the third case above: we tacked "-er" meaning "one who" onto an existing word that just happened to end in "-er"--Philander, a classical reference to any (male) lover. But "philander" literally means "a lover of men", originally in a platonic sense (as it is in "philanthropist", which has an identical root); it seems to have taken on its historical meaning due to the strange mistranslation as "a (non-platonically) loving man". "Philander" in a sexual sense ought to refer to a woman (or a gay man) who's a little too into the gents, but instead it means a man who's a little too into the ladies.

Monday, July 25, 2005


Okay, I'm in a mood this morning. There will be ranting.


Goddammit, words have meanings. Sometimes those meanings are flexible, and sometimes they're rigidly circumscribed. Sometimes any of a number of words will do: other times, only one word properly fits a given situation. Why can't writers and editors consistently figure out which is which? Isn't that their job?

Here's a paragraph from a Slate.com article about two new tattoo-themed reality shows:

Miami Ink has this gem to offer: Before inscribing a sentiment on your flesh in perpetuity, be sure to give it a quick proofread. One Italian-American client asks for the Italian words "per sempre" (forever), only to submit a misspelled version reading "pre sempre," which the head tattoo artist, Ami, promptly inks onto his forearm. To me, this was a perfect tattoo joke: to be stuck forever with a tattoo representing your own flawed idea of "forever"! But Ami takes the screw-up very seriously indeed, and with some serious darkening and widening of the two inverted letters, "forever" is salvaged from the ash heap of history.

In the last sentence, "inverted" is not, in the most technical sense, wrong, because one meaning of it is "reversed the order of"; nevertheless, it's a very poor choice, because its primary meaning--the one virtually everyone thinks of first--is "turned upside down". The word she was surely searching for, the one her editor should have supplied even if her brain couldn't, is "transposed", the primary meaning of which is "reversed or otherwise altered the order of".


What exactly does "pray" mean, anyway? I know the literal meanings of the word, and I know its provenance (it's from Latin, of course, little changed). What I don't understand, at all, is the point of it.

If someone believes in a deity, and prays to that deity to help them be a better person--"Please help me not lose my temper with that useless jackass in accounting--oops"--then I can't see any real problem with that. This Associated Press wire story, however, is the sort of thing I have a problem with:

Pope prays for God to stop terrorists
By Nicole Winfield, Associated Press Writer  |  July 24, 2005

LES COMBES, Italy -- Pope Benedict XVI prayed Sunday for God to stop the "murderous hand" of terrorists, stepping up his condemnation of the recent attacks in Europe and the Middle East blamed on Islamic extremists.


"While we grant to divine goodness the dead, the wounded and their dear ones -- victims of such acts that offend God and man -- we invoke the Almighty to stop the murderous hand of those who, driven by fanaticism and hatred, commit such acts and ask him to convert their hearts and minds to reconciliation and peace," Benedict said.

Now; would someone please explain to me exactly what the hell that is supposed to mean?

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, professes to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity. The creed of the Catholic church to which he belongs states that as Pope, he is that deity's chosen representative on Earth. Therefore, in that belief system, this is unquestionably the man with the most direct pipeline to God.

So what is this very public prayer meant to accomplish? What could the point of it possibly be? To tell God something he already knows? To ask God to do something he hasn't done yet and perhaps has decided not to do? To placate a frightened populace by assuring them that God's right-hand man is on the job?

The mere existence of the prayer suggests that Mr. Ratzinger's deity is at least one of three things: 1) not omnipotent, as he requires the spiritual energy generated by the prayers of a number of his subjects before he can or will do anything; 2) not omniscient, because he doesn't seem to have noticed that terrorists are afoot and requires prayers to bring this to his attention; or 3) not omnibenevolent, since he either wants the terrorists to continue doing what they're doing or won't stop them unless enough people beg, plead, and pule about it.

I think Ambrose Bierce got it right when he defined "pray" as "To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy."


Okay, I'm over that for the time being. Now: "pule". Great word. As soon as I wrote it another word popped into my head, and I thought, "Hey--'pulex irritans' is the Latin name for the human-flea (as opposed to the cat-flea, 'Ctenocephalides felis'). There can't be any relation, obviously." And obviously there isn't. "Pulex" is straight-out Latin for "flea", whereas "pule" comes to us from the French and is almost certainly an imitative word, as is its synonym "whine".

"Ctenocephalides", by the way, means "comb-headed". Since you were probably wondering and all. Does the cat-flea have a comb like a rooster? Couldn't tell you, but it's amusing to think about.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bottom of the Deck

I think it's fair to say I'm a liberal. Reproductive rights, gay marriage, separation of church and state? All good things. War, unrestrained corporatism, social Darwinism? Not so good.

Therefore, it's also fair to say I'm not a fan of Michelle Malkin, a right-wing commentator who aspires to be Ann Coulter some day (a scary thought). But I'm not interested in talking about her politics, at least not here and now: I'm more interested in a clumsy if not downright dim-witted error on her blog:

The bombing suspect images .Metro Police transcript and images.
Josh Trevino on the Muslim Council of Britain's grievance-mongerers."


A monger (the word comes from Latin "mango", "slave-dealer") is someone who either deals in a commodity ("fishmonger") or promotes or indulges in something unsavoury ("scandalmonger", "whoremonger"). It doesn't mean "one who mongs" (although "mong" arose as a back-formation), and even if it did, "mongerer" would be self-evidently wrong, just as "dealerer" would be. You see anyone use "mongerer", you go ahead and smirk at them for me.

(Latin "mango", "slave-dealer", and English "mango", "fruit of the mango tree", are, predictably enough, absolutely unrelated. The name for the fruit comes into English from Tamil through Portuguese.)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Spice Up Your Life

The huge majority of words ending in "-ly" in English are adverbs. When a word isn't, people often don't know what to do with it.

A rather delicious word that is unfortunately falling out of use is "contumely". It looks like an adverb, doesn't it? But it's a noun, from the Latin "contumelia" (through the French "contumelie"), related to a word meaning "insolent"; it means, logically enough, "insolence, arrogance, rude disdain". The adverbial form is the even more wonderful "contumeliously".

What made me think of this was an extremely odd and, in fact, wildly incorrect usage in The New Republic:

"Santorum's ginger administrations to his readers also include omitting endnotes altogether."

"Ginger"? The word has a few meanings, but not one of them is an adjective. The word the writer was looking for is "gingerly", which looks for all the word like an adverb (and it sometimes is), but is also an adjective meaning "cautious". It leads to some odd-looking constructions: "The cat walked gingerly across the mantelpiece" seems (and is) correct, while "The puppy made a gingerly advance on the cat" looks wrong (but isn't). Knowing this, some people want to add the standard adverbial ending to the adjective, and come up with either "gingerlily" (which ought to be a flower) or "gingerlyly" (which looks Middle English and strange). They're both, of course, wrong.

A quick Googling of "gingerlyly" reveals that Languagehat, of course, got there before I did.

By the way--you didn't think I'd leave out this part, did you?--"ginger" the spice is unrelated to the "ginger" in "gingerly". "Ginger" as in "gingerbread" is from the Latin; the botanical name for the root is "zingiber officinale". (You can find a stunningly detailed exploration of the various names for ginger here.) The "ginger-" in "gingerly", however, is thought to be related to the "gent-" in "gentle" and "genteel".

Friday, July 22, 2005

More or Less

I just ran across what I think is an exception to an otherwise iron-clad rule and a favourite grammar snark.

Any serious grammar nit-picker has been severely irritated by the apparently inevitable sign at the local supermarket that reads "12 ITEMS OR LESS". "Fewer, dammit! It's fewer, not less!", we seethe. And this is true because "fewer" refers to number and "less" refers to volume. Fewer rocks, but less sand. It's a hard-and-fast rule: it's universally true.


Here's the relevant part of a sentence from Slate.com:

"Roberts has been the nominee for less than 24 hours..."

Now, didn't I just say that "fewer" invariably referred to something that was enumerable? And doesn't that sentence use "less" in that exact context? And isn't that therefore wrong?

Yes and no. The reason I think this is an exception to the rule is that "24 hours" is just another way of saying "a day". "Fewer than 24 hours" makes it sound as if every single hour were somehow relevant, which isn't the case: in replacing "a day" with "24 hours", the writer is merely trying to play up the fact that it's hardly any time at all by stressing a small number rather than a uniform chunk of time. If I had been editing that piece, I would have left it exactly as it is.

Besides, "fewer than 24 hours" in this case sounds more than a little fussy and pedantic. God knows I have a strong strain of the fussy pedant, but even I have my limits.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


First you need to read tony pius' comment in today's earlier posting. (It's unrelated to the posting itself, but I'm fine with that: there's all kinds of room for grammar snarking in these parts.)

Okay. Now that we're all on the same page:

That problem with parentheses drives me up the wall, too. And it isn't just parentheses: people do it with commas in exactly the same way. (It still amounts to what you call "parenthetical text", if by "parenthetical" we mean "qualifying".) To give a randomly discovered example, here's a quotation from this otherwise irrelevant story:

"In our wild aspirations, we think PayPal has the potential to be as big, if not bigger than, eBay," says Jeff Jordan, the eBay executive in charge of the PayPal subsidiary.

"In our wild aspirations"? Where did this guy learn to talk, anyway? But that's not at issue here; what's at issue is that he's missing a conjunction. (Perhaps he was actually speaking and not writing, so I should cut him a little slack; but this sort of thing happens all the time in writing, too, so the principle is the same.) And there were at least two correct sentences just waiting to be uttered: "...as big as, if not bigger than, eBay" or "as big as eBay, if not bigger." If Jeff Jordan had in fact said those words, and I were the story's writer or editor, I would have corrected it, using a little justifiable journalistic license to prevent Jeff Jordan from seeming like a boob.

It's not really a problem with parentheses or commas: it's a problem with parallel sentence structure. But your solution is exactly right: deconstruct the sentence and analyze it carefully. (This is also a solution for any other potential writing problems. It is, in fact, the only solution.)

The trouble is that people are no longer being taught how to dismantle their sentences and examine them for structure and clarity. First the schools got rid of sentence diagramming (abstract and tricky, yes, but a stellar way to really peer inside the guts of the language). Then they got rid of any kind of analytical grammar whatsoever. And now most people seem to think that if they can at least be understood, more or less, most of the time, then their writing is acceptable. Those people are wrong.

How to Handle a Woman

"Malva" is not a particularly common name, and yet I have known two women called that. Pretty, isn't it? I hadn't ever thought about what it might mean until I saw on a container of some European skin product yesterday the following three words in English, French, and Spanish respectively: mallow/mauve/malva. And there's that light bulb! We start with the Latin "malva" (which it still is in Spanish and also Italian), which came into French as "malve" (where it remains in German), where it eventually evolved into "mauve", for the colour of the flowers of the mallow plant, and got softened into Middle English as "malwe" and then "mallowe".

(Parenthetically I will note that a great many people--try Googling the term and see how appallingly many hits you get--think there is a candy called a "marshmellow". There isn't, of course; the correct word is "marshmallow", because the roots of mallow which grows in a marsh--"marrysh mallowe"--were used to make the confection and also in medicines. "Mallow" and "mellow" have no etymological connection at all. I'd have thought "mellow" was somehow related to Latin "mel", "honey", as in "mellifluous", but the OED says it's actually related to "meal", as in ground grain. I suppose they'd know.)


Another light bulb: A few days ago I stumbled across the Spanish word "agata", meaning agate-stone, and I thought, "Hey! Doesn't that look like 'Agatha'?" And so it is. The root of both is the Greek "agathe", "good". I am, however, unsure about what makes agate so good.


I was looking for a way to tie all this up and I swear I just now realized this, right this second: Agatha Christie's second husband's last name was Mallowan. Related to "mallow"? Don't know, but it's close enough for me.

(Postscript: it's 9:20 p.m. local time and I just stumbled on a BoingBoing post about--guess what?--marshmallows! Some kind of weird synchonicity is going on here. Or it's just an interesting coincidence. It's all good.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


In the comments to today's posting, Frank says, "I've never heard the word 'humidex.' I like it!"

I do, too. The language needed a quick way of saying "The temperature is X, but it's so damned humid that it really feels like Y, and if I don't find some air conditioning soon I'm going to kill someone", and now we have one. It's a Canadian thing, as far as I know. Wikipedia seems to think so, anyway: "In Canada the term humidex is used for the heat index developed by Environment Canada", which is responsible for meteorological forecasts, among other things.

Now we need them to come up with a snappy one-word term for "wind chill", although that's not really such a bad term; short, descriptive, not exactly poetic but serviceable. (The French term is, as one might expect, much more syllabic and rather elegant: "réfroidissiment aeolien".)

Burning Up

It's been horribly hot for the last few days here; yesterday was 30 with a humidex of 40. A revolting, soggy 40: As I left my (climate-controlled) workplace last night, it was like wading through a backyard full of clotheslines hung with damp blankets. I could feel the moisture collecting on my skin and building up in my clothes with every step.

I know some people would smirk and say, "Hot? You don't know what hot is!" (The weather forecasts for such places as Nevada and Somalia often seem to show temperatures of 50 or thereabouts.) But I'm from Newfoundland, and it just doesn't ever get that hot there. I'm still not used to it, even after having been away from there for over 15 years. (The other cities I've lived in don't get that hot, either. Moncton is a very strange case.) All I can say is, thank goodness for air conditioning, even if it's just a little wheeled one-room unit and we have to decide which room is going to be liveable. (The bedroom or the computer room? No contest: the bedroom. I can hole up in there with a book if I have to.)

All of this may or may not be related to the fact that yesterday morning on waking up, the word "inferno" just appeared in my brain, and as I lay pondering it, I realized that the second syllable sounded just like the first syllable of "furnace". Aha! They sound alike, they practically mean the same thing, and the only difference in the crucial syllable is that changed vowel (without an attendant change in pronunciation), so how are they related?

It turns out, astonishingly, that they're not. Absolutely no connection whatever.

"Inferno" looks very Italian, and so it is, from the Latin "infernus", "underground, the underworld"; it's been an English word since at least the early 1800s (though we've had "infernal" since Chaucer's time). "Furnace", on the other hand, comes from the Latin "fornax", "oven", and in English it's even older: the OED's first citation is from 1225. A couple of thousand years' percolation through various languages, and we end up with two unrelated words that can trick people--well, me--into believing that they're first cousins.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


From the New Yorker review of War of the Worlds:

"Tom Cruise, as Ray, a Jersey dockworker and lousy father, will either succeed in protecting his two kids as they all scurry across the countryside or get pulverized into white powder along with everyone else."

David Denby is a very good movie writer, and I do wish he hadn't written that. "Pulverized into powder" is exactly akin to saying "liquefied into liquid". "Powder" and "pulverize" come from the same Latin root: in fact, "Pulver" is the German word for "powder". You can't pulverize something into anything except powder, and adding the adjective "white" doesn't take the taint off a redundant construction.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Me Myself I

After reading yesterday's posting, Jim has informed me that in French, "suicide" is a verb: a reflexive verb, in fact. "Se suicider" means "to commit suicide": the "se" is the reflexive part in French verbs, and changes in just the way that English reflexive pronouns do: "je me lave", "I wash myself"; "il se lave", "he washes himself"; "nous nous lavons", "we wash ourselves"; and so forth. The difference with "suicide", as I noted, is that in Latin and in English, the "-self" is built into the word itself, so we never felt the need to add reflexivity to it, instead coupling the noun with a verb ("to commit").

Since the whole point of a reflexive verb is that its subject and its object are the same, it would seem logical that a language might use the subject and object forms of a pronoun in reflexive verbs, and this is just what German does: "sich rasieren", for example, means "to shave oneself", and "ich rasiere mich" means, literally, "I shave me". But we do the same thing in English, in a slangy, non-standard way: "I think I'll get myself a drink" can be turned into a casual "I think I'll get me a drink".

Another tactic that we occasionally use in English to form reflexive verbs is to tack a prefix onto the verb in question: some languages form their reflexive verbs in the way that we will use, for example, "self-destruct". It's true that we mostly use this method for nouns such as "self-awareness" or adjectives such as "self-interested"; but English never was one to limit itself unnecessarily. It's one of the things that must make the learning of the language maddening but which I love; the fact that we have such a large set of linguistic toys with which to play.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Self Service

I bumped into the appalling "suicided" yesterday and in an uncharacteristic display of generosity, I'm going to provisionally allow it into the language, with severe restrictions.

First, "suicide" is Latin for "killing of oneself": no surprise there, and it's broken down into a nicely literal "sui-", "of the self", and "-cide", "to kill". ("Sui-" is also seen in the phrase "sui generis", meaning "unique"--literally, "of its own kind"). So "suicided" can't possibly exist as a past-tense verb. You can't suicide yourself, since the "yourself" is built into the word, you can't suicide someone else, and someone else can't suicide you. "Suicide", in short, oughtn't to be a verb at all; it's a noun.

But "suicided" has appeared in the language with a narrow, specific usage, and I'm not a huge fan of it, but I can see how it serves a purpose. If someone is thought to have committed suicide, but there is a suspicion that he or she didn't do it voluntarily but was killed so as to make it look like a suicide, it's sometimes said that they "were suicided", often with quotation marks around the latter word to make the writer's point perfectly clear. I think they're unnecessary: the strangeness of the word ought to demonstrate the irony without the help of any quotes, real or air. The word does have a place in the language. If I see anyone using "suicided himself", though, there'll be hell to pay.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

There's the Rub

Here's a sentence from the Salon.com review of Don Roos' new movie Happy Endings:

"A persistently bored-looking woman (Lisa Kudrow) is blackmailed by a young documentary filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who claims to have information about an abortion she allegedly had as a teenager; to appease him, she offers her masseuse-boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) as a subject for the kid's movie, claiming he's really a sex worker who pleasures bored housewives."

And if you Google 'kudrow "happy endings" masseuse' you will find quite a few more hits that contain the same basic information: Lisa Kudrow's character has a masseuse boyfriend.

When the hell did this happen? When did we decide that anyone who strokes someone for a living is a masseuse? "Masseuse" is French noun, and in French, nouns have specific genders, and this gender is specifically female. There's a male version, "masseur": English inherited both words, and we use them accordingly. The character is clearly a masseur: he can't be a masseuse any more than he can be an aviatrix or an ambassadress.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Short and Sweet

No Friday cat blogging today, as we have no cat of our own and I've already run out of pictures of Mr. P. You can always go back to the last two Fridays and look at those, though; he's very cute. Or just Google "friday cat blogging"; lots to see there.

On to other business. From today's Salon.com sports column:

"TV networks don't focus on banners showing nothing but a URL. What if it's a URL for a porn site, or a white-power site or a site about how much the TV network sucks?"

"A URL" still jars. I don't know about you, but I've been treating it as an acronym ever since I first saw it, and so as far as I'm concerned, it ought to be pronounced "an earl" and not "a you-are-ell".

An acronym, in case it isn't completely clear from the context, is a word formed from the initials of other words. It's different from an abbreviation, which uses the first few letters of a word and possibly some others to confuse matters, such as "abbr." for "abbreviation" or "Mrs." for "Mistress". It's also different from an initialism, which uses the first letters of words or syllables but makes no attempt to form them into a word, such as "DNA" for deoxyribonucleic acid or "TNT" for trinitrotoluene. An abbreviation is either pronounced as if it were the full word or given its own unique pronounciation; an initialism is invariably spelled out letter for letter. But an acronym is first and foremost a word: that means it can be pronounced as if it were a word, like "sonar", which is an acronym for "SOund Navigation And Ranging". (The rules for creating an acronym are pleasantly loose.) And "URL" is self-evidently an acronym to me. It looks like a word: it can be pronounced like a word. And therefore it is a word. "A URL" in print just seems wrong to me.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hale Storm

Slate.com has an article about someone on The Food Network, which I don't get and therefore have no opinion about. I just read it because it sounded interesting. The article contained a link to an online version of a slam book about this person, Rachael Ray, and that contained the following statement:

"I'm not looking for trouble here, but I need to say something in Rachael's defense. People like to ridicule her for saying food is healthful instead of healthy, but the way I see it, she's right. I mean, if a red bell pepper, for instance, is "healthy," then it's an exemplary specimen of the bell pepper plant. If it's good for you, it's "healthful." I always thought that, and was glad to hear someone say it the way I thought was right. Plus, there are SO many other good reasons to ridicule her. "

Well, this is what happens when you let amateurs into the grammar game, I suppose. Imagine what a dreadful state the language would be in if everything were algorithms and literal interpretations!

If we were to take the construction of "healthful" literally, it would mean "full of health", and therefore mean just what the writer (and Rachel Ray) think it doesn't mean. In fact, it has two meanings: "conducive to health" (which is their intended meaning) and "displaying health". "Healthy" itself also possesses these two meanings. In other words, the two terms--and this is amazingly rare in English--are entirely interchangeable. "Healthy food", to nearly every English speaker on earth, doesn't mean "food that is in good health"; it means "food that is healthy for people to eat" or "food that promotes good health".

It is true that "healthful" is generally used to mean only "conducive to health", and that's just fine: we corral words all the time in that manner. What isn't fine is the niggling, Jesuitical insistence that therefore the other word must mean only the other thing. It isn't the case. It's the sort of thing that contaminates the good name of prescriptive grammarians, who only want people to speak and write well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Altar Ego

Ask my mom: I started reading at the age of 3. Really actually reading. And since then, I've taken one of two tacks when bumping up against an unfamiliar word, depending on my mood at the time. Nowadays, most of the time, I head for the dictionary. If I want a quick-and-dirty answer and the computer's awake, I usually just check on Answers.com. If I want to flip through a book, I grab the Random House dictionary. If I want something in real depth, of course I head for the OED.

But sometimes, as I'm sure everyone does sometimes, I just gloss over it. Maybe I can get get a strong sense of it from the surrounding information, or maybe--and this is true occasionally--I just don't need to know right at the moment. I figure it will come back to me in the fullness of time. And that's what happened today.

I had seen the word "hecatomb" before, but I had never stopped to think what it literally meant. The look of it, of course, inevitably makes one think of "tomb", and it seems to mean "mass murder" or "obliteration" from its usual context. But when Christopher Hitchens used it in a Slate column, I finally got curious enough to look it up. (The sentence: "Ten years since the hecatomb of Srebrenica … surely a decade cannot have passed so quickly?")

It has nothing to do with tombs! Although both words come from Greek ("hecatomb" is so obviously Greek), they're unrelated; it's nothing more than an accident of spelling. ("Tomb" entered English almost unchanged from the Greek "tumbos".) "Hecatomb" comes from the words "hekaton", "one hundred", and "bous", meaning "ox" or "oxen" (my Greek is a little rusty). Originally it referred to the sacrifice of a hundred oxen to propitiate the gods, and later came to mean any mass slaughter. (Any lover of oddball or obscure words will recognize "bous" from "boustrophedonic", an adjective referring to a style of writing which moves across the page from left to right and then from right to left, alternating line by line, just as a team of yoked oxen plough a field.)


Answers.com (formerly Dictionary.com, with a wider ambit and therefore a new name), of course, has to make its money somehow, and so it puts ads on the page. They're fairly discreet, at least the ones I see; I block as many ads as I can, but text links still show up, which is fine, as long as I don't have to look at animated ones, which distract me so badly that I can't concentrate on the page itself.

Anyway. eBay.com buys ad space on Answers.com, but they have a hilariously indiscriminate text ad: just take whatever the potential customer is looking for and slap it into the ad. When I looked up "hecatomb" (before heading to the OED for more information), the ad on the right-hand side of the page read, "Great deals on Hecatomb. Shop on eBay and save!" Hey, just what I always wanted: a discount on a wide-scale and indiscriminate slaughter!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Get Out

Sometimes I feel forgiving and will allow the users of my beloved language their little peccadilloes and errors. Sometimes I will say, "Hey, if people want to use 'data' as a singular noun or pronounce 'February' as 'Febyooary', that's just fine by me". This, however, is not one of those times.

From a Salon.com article about the forthcoming (and, I am thinking, rather ghastly-looking) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

"Wonka is fabulously unphased when, one after another, the kids break the rules and suffer ignominious fates."

What the writer is trying to use here is a word that means "blithely unconcerned". But that word is "unfazed". "Phase" means a few things, but "disconcert" is not one of them, despite popular opinion to the contrary. (Nor, while I am at it, is "fizz", which is much worse.)

"Faze" comes from the Middle English "fesen", "to drive away". As you would expect from 1) its Germanic look and 2) the propensity of vowels to change over time, it was then pronounced with a long "-e-", and eventually evolved into "feeze" and "feaze" before settling into the modern-day "faze". But "faze" it now is. It it absolutely and adamantly not "phase".

Monday, July 11, 2005


Yesterday I was snarling about the ignorant deployment of the unword "beedy", and I was so caught up in it that I forgot to talk about the word "bead" itself. So let's have a look at that.

As is so often the case, we can guess that the consonants are invariant and play with the vowels to see if there's a relationship with any other English word, and it turns out that there is: "bead" is related to "bid".

And what, you may be asking at this point, could these words possibly have to do with one another? There's a fascinating connection between the two words, hidden by accidents of history and orthography.

"Bid", in its oldest and still most literal sense, means "to ask" or "to command"; to bid someone to do something, to bid at an auction, to forbid someone to do something, to bid someone a good day. A prayer is what else but a request of a deity? And what do some people use when they are transmitting prayers to--asking favours of, respectfully commanding the attention and action of--their deity of choice? Rosary or prayer beads. A "bed" or "bede" was originally a prayer: then it came to mean the rosary or chain of prayer beads, and finally the bead itself.

"Rosary", by the way, also has a fascinating genesis. From the Latin "rosarium", "rose garden", it refers not only to the classical association between the Virgin Mary and roses (the scent of that flower is said to precede her appearance) but also to the fact that rosary beads were once made of rose petals, rolled tightly into little balls, dried, and strung. (Variants of this technique are still used to make rosaries.)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Where There's Smokes

It's true: the pun really is the lowest form of wit, at least if you can't spell.

One of the sections in this weekend's National Post--I didn't buy it! I was just flicking through it in a fast-food joint!--had this headline for a pointless style service piece:

Cast your beedy eyes on these beady beauties

I...what? What the hell? Did someone actually think that "beedy" was a word? That it was a word that had something to do with eyes but nothing to do with beads, and was therefore usable in a cute, punning headline (along the lines of Paul Fussell's properly loathed USA Today headline "Deer Nibbling At Once-Dear Image")?

For the record, "beady", when referring to eyes, means "small and shiny". Bead; a small, shiny thing: "beady"; the adjectival form of "bead", using a standard suffix. Nothing odd or arcane about it: beady eyes are beady because they look like beads. "Beedy", though, is simply a mistake. It's wrong: not infrequently used, but still wrong. (Not that anyone would be surprised to see mistakes creeping into the National Post.) I hesitate to say that it's not a word, since it exists and people use it, but it's as close to being a non-word as I can imagine, as it exists only because people make and perpetuate stupid mistakes. I hope that whoever saw that headline before publication and did nothing to stop it gets a good hard smack in the chops. They're writers and editors; they're supposed to know better.

There is no such (correct) word as "beedy", but there is such a word as "beedie", otherwise known as "bidi", or "biri" with a rolled "-r-". It's a little cigarette imported from India.

Since I like to think about numbers as well as words, I was a bit shocked to see this assertion on this web page:

More than 700 Trillion BEEDIES or BIRI are smoked annually, with the numbers increasing phenomenally every year.

Seven hundred trillion. My, that is impressive. Let's just deconstruct that number, shall we? A trillion is one thousand billions. There are about six billion people on the face of the Earth. A lot of those people don't smoke, because they're children or non-smokers or whatnot, but let's pretend half of the population of the planet smokes, and that every one of them smokes beedies and nothing but. (This will come as a shock to RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris.) Three billion people smoking one trillion beedies a year means each of them smokes 333 a year, or about one a day. Three billion people smoking seven hundred trillion beedies a year means they each smoke about 639 beedies a day, or one every minute and a half for the entirety of a sixteen-hour day. I haven't noticed huge hordes of chain-smoking beedie addicts where I live. And how do they afford them? How can they hold down a job when all their time is spent buying, lighting, smoking, and extinguishing? Where do they find the time to shower?

Innumeracy: just as bad as illiteracy.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Sometimes you're idly wondering about the provenance of a word and the look of it leads you astray.

I was listening to Pete Townshend on the iPod and my favourite song from Empty Glass, "And I Moved", was playing. The orchestration is wonderful, mostly drums and synthesizers backing a snowstorm of glittery piano arpeggios. And so of course I started wondering about the word "arpeggio" (which means the notes of a chord played in sequence rather than simultaneously). Obviously Italian, but I was sidetracked by the English language's propensity to sandwich the meat of a word between a prefix and a suffix, so I ignored the first two and last two letters and tried to find some meaning in the "-pegg" syllable, to no avail.

When I got home and looked it up, I realized how much I had been deceived (and how little I know of Italian): "arp-" is the key to the word, because it is from exactly the same (Germanic) word as our "harp". And knowing this, the whole thing became clear: an arpeggio is named after the harp ("arpeggio" comes from "arpeggiare", "to play the harp") because on that instrument, the strings are plucked one at a time, and so the notes of a chord must be played one after the other.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Deep Breath

Friday Cat Blogging!

So last Saturday, Jim went out to a movie with the owners of Mr. Picklesworth (sweetest of all sweet cats) while I was at work, and after work we went to their house. Mrs. Owner-Of-Mr.-P has a very green thumb, and as we were leaving she cut me a large sheaf of mock-orange (which had come into full bloom just the day before) and a few peonies the size of your head, all heavily scented: I don't know how she does it, since most everything I try to grow just gives up and dies.

We had been leafing through a plant catalogue earlier in the evening and she asked me about bee balm, because it is also known as bergamot, which is what gives its penetrating scent to Earl Grey tea, of which Jim had procured a pound for Mr. Owner-Of-Mr.-P a few weeks earlier (and also a pound for himself, all delivered by my good friends from Toronto, whose luggage, I expect, still stinks gloriously of bergamot). I was fairly certain that despite the names, the two plants were not the same, and so it proves to be: bee balm is known as bergamot because the leaves of bee balm have a smell resembling that of bergamot, which is a small citrus fruit not eaten but much used for perfumery and flavouring. (In addition to its being found in Earl Grey, it's used in traditional loukoum, aka Turkish Delight, and many commercial fragrances.)

While we are on the subject, "bergamot" is pronounced not in some pseudo French manner to rhyme with "dough", but with the "-t" on the end, to rhyme with "Scot". We got it from the French, who spell it "bergamote", and that "-e" on the end makes all the difference, forcing the pronunciation of the "-t-"; the French got it from the Italians, who call it "bergamotta", and once again the "-tt-" is most definitely pronounced. Isn't is nice to know that despite our language differences, we can all agree on something?

I had, amazingly, never smelled mock-orange before, and yet I knew (from reading about perfumery for years) that mock-orange is also known as syringa. Does that look like anything familiar? Syringa is so named because its stems were once hollowed out and used to make the pipes of the pan-flute known as the syrinx, and nowadays the hollow tubes we use for injecting medicine are, of course, syringes.

The name "peony" isn't quite as interesting, to my mind. It comes to us in English (after a few alterations and dead ends) from Paion, in Greek mythology the physician to the gods, because the seeds of the peony once had medicinal uses. That's it? So straightforward? The French for "peony" is "pivoine", so I thought, okay, maybe something else is related to one of those words; "pavane"? "pivot"? "penis"? "peon"? Anything? Nope. Sometimes a peony is just a peony.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Snip Snip

It seems like only yesterday that I was talking about those oddball typographic errors in which the writer adds or deletes a pair of echoed letters, and look! Here's another one! Right here!

In the case the link is gone or someone corrects it (not likely), the offending bit:

"Kimberly Jones (who some of you might know as the slightly-clothed rapper Lil’ Kim) has just been sentenced to 12 months in prison for lying to a grand jury about her friends’ involvement in a 2001 shooting outside the Hot 97 radio station studio. No doubt Kim is devasted — going down for perjury completely lacks street cred. Even Martha Stewart’s insider trading tastes hardcore in comparison."

"Devasted". So easy to do, so hard to let stand if you use a spell-checker.

Also; prison would probably do the putative chanteuse in question some good, since it'll give her a year in which she can't get any more plastic surgery. She used to look like a fairly normal person, and in that picture she looks like one of the Spitting Image puppets. Girlfriend is a big fan of the needle and the knife.

See? I can talk about stuff besides the English language! I have range!

But I also have to note another error in the quoted passage: that third word ought to be "whom", not "who". Tsk. What are they teaching kids in school these days if not grammar?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Cut and Paste

One of the easiest mistakes to make when you're writing something out in longhand or typing is to double a pair of letters or drop one pair of such a set when that pair is echoed in some way. I've seen in print such typos as "millillion" for "million"; the second "-i-" seems to trigger a whole new round of ells.

What do you know about "The Sims 2"? It's an appallingly addictive computer game in which you manage the lives of little artificial people; build them houses, get them jobs, arrange dates, basically shepherd them through their little artificial lives. I get so attached to them that I can't bear to kill them off; in the normal course of things they get old and die, but there are ways around that (they can earn a life-extending "Elixir of Life", or you can just turn off the aging process altogether, which is a problem if they have kids, which will then never grow up). My Sims don't die.

Right. So I was playing this morning--it's my day off--and one particular Sim, who's in the field of medicine (there are ten career tracks, including Slacker and Criminal), had just graduated from Intern to General Practitioner. Or that's what I thought. Due to some incomprehensible slip-up in an otherwise highly polished and vetted game, his job title is actually General Practioner. Someone was typing just a little too fast, that second "-ti-" got lost (because his or her brain thought for a microsecond, "well, there's '-ti-', now on to the rest of the word"), someone else missed it in the editing process, and there it is, on the screen for all to see.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Rank Amateur

Looks like Jim is sleeping on the sofa tonight, because I am, as I have already noted, very clumsy. Very clumsy indeed. Long story short: bedroom, getting ready for work, small bottle of Omnia (which smells deliciously of black pepper, white chocolate and tea), butterfingers, and a carpet. Peroxide spot remover didn't do the trick. Air deodorizer likewise. Baking soda? Highly overrated. So Jim, with his exceedingly sensitive nose, has been stunk out of his own bedroom, and that's sad and I am saturated with guilt. My large and varied collection of scents is, to him, one great unremitting stench.

"Stench", you may have intuited, is related to "stink", which is a native English word evolved from "stincan", "to emit an odour". (I wrote before how "-k" or "-c" can become "-ch" as a word becomes naturalized into English or otherwise evolves, and of course vowels change on an almost regular basis.)

All well and good. But here's a connection that's slightly more abstract and therefore fascinating. "Perfume", of course, is from the Latin "per fumus", "through smoke", a reference to incense. Its opposite, "reek", "to emit a disgusting odour", is from a Middle English word, "reken", which means--get this--"to emit smoke".

So: one man's reek is another man's perfume, particularly if those men are etymologists.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Two For One

North American English and British English, it is no secret, differ in a number of ways, and not just in vocabulary. One interesting difference is the way they treat collective nouns.

A collective noun is one that looks singular but is composed of discrete elements and therefore could conceivably be seen as plural. "Government" is one such word, as are "family" and "committee". In North America, we nearly always treat collective nouns as singular, and therefore they take a singular verb: "My family is driving me crazy", "The government released its latest economic statistics today." In England, in contrast, such words are treated as plurals: "The committee have finally publicised their results." (Another aspect of this is that the names of musical groups are treated as plural in England: they would say "R.E.M. are touring next year," whereas we in North America would use the singular verb--unless, of course, the noun was clearly marked as plural, as in "The Rolling Stones are touring this year". This leads to the occasional problem, such as the name of the group Eurythmics, which, despite its apparently plural ending, is in fact a singular noun.)

Even when we think we know something should be singular or plural, we still run into problems with verb number. Here's a recent sentence from The New Yorker:

"“By the late eighteen-fifties, approximately four thousand spectators attended the graduation exercises at Philadelphia’s Central High School—and twice that number was turned away,' Reese writes."

Now: should the final verb ("was") in the quotation be singular or plural? The very precise New Yorker stylebook obviously says it ought to be singular, but make no mistake: this issue has been in contention for a long time, and it still isn't settled--it probably never will be. Their argument will be that "number" is a singular noun and therefore takes a singular verb: it certainly looks like a singular noun. The other side will argue that there is an implicit plural noun in that sentence--"twice that number of people"--and therefore "number" acts as a plural noun and ought to take a plural verb: "twice that number were turned away", exactly as it would be if the sentence had read "twice that many were turned away".

The only reason the usage even caught my eye is that I instinctively think of "number" as a collective noun, one which takes a plural verb. I think if I were Reese, I would have written around the problem by using "many" instead of "number". Sometimes it's just better to take the safe, uncontentious route.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Things Fall Apart

Friday, of course, was Canada Day: we had rented a car and were just driving around seeing the sights, and as usual, I was wondering aloud at practically everything that crossed my field of vision. Jim was helping: we passed a great many signs that consisted of a possessive noun and a common noun, and the response always had to be an echo of that Bugs Bunny cartoon in which he's aboard one of the three ships with Christopher Columbus on their way to discover America. Remember? The heaving seas make eating a bowl of soup a two-person affair, and finally Bugs walks away from the table and the bowl lands with a splat on the floor as he leaves the door marked CAPTAIN'S MESS. "If it's the captain's mess, let him clean it up," says the resourceful rabbit, and now whenever we see a sign reading JULIE'S KNITS, one of us is required to say, "If they're Julie's knits, let her clean them up." (We have to say it: it's in the marriage contract.)

So as I said, Jim was helping in my idle speculations. He knew that in Middle English, "mess", or "messe", meant "serve", as in the indispensable cookbook Pleyn Delit, which contains recipes directing the cook at last to "messe it forth", which is to say "serve it up". So he naturally asked, "are those two meanings related?" In other words, is the mess made by the soup on the floor the same as the captain's mess hall, which pretty obviously is related to "messe it forth"? And I said I'd have to look it up, and I did, and they are: all meanings of "mess" come from the same location. "Mess" originally stemmed from the Latin "mittere", "to place" (which I've already discussed here a bit): in terms of food, it clearly means "to set out" or "to serve", and from there it's no semantic distance at all to "the place where food is served" (the mess hall) and from there scarcely any further distance to "the state a mess hall is left in after a meal". All the modern meanings of "mess", including "idly spend time playing around with", are metaphorical extensions of this idea of messiness and waste, even as they get farther and farther from the source ("to mess around" meaning "to commit infidelity" is pretty far away from the idea of serving food).

Another question which popped into my mind after seeing the trillions of trees which are New Brunswick's natural bounty was, "where does 'deciduous' come from?" Where, indeed. It is, and this will come as no surprise, from the Latin, in this case from "decidere", "to fall off". Obviously, deciduous trees differ from conifers in that their leaves fall off every fall. All well and good, but what's more interesting is that the extraction of "decidere" is "de-", "from", plus "cadere", "to fall". Now: doesn't "de-cadere" look like something else to you? It immediately made me think of "decadent", and you bet that's related. To be decadent is to have fallen morally, and "decadent", naturally, is visually and semantically related to "decay", "to fall apart". So a deciduous tree is one which, unlike the evergreen, rots.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Reader Writes

Brownstudy had this to say about Thursday's post:

"I remember reading somewhere about a non-English speaking woman who wanted to name her daughter "Diahhrea" because she loved the sounds of the word. She was very unhappy when told what it meant."

It's a good story, but it almost certainly is just a story: there have been many such tales of ignorant parents wanting to give their children elegant-sounding but inappropriate names. (When I heard the story first, it was "Gonorrhea".) It's been widely used in the movies, such as the 1982 remake of Cat People, which had Ruby Dee playing a character named Female (that's "fuh-MAH-lee"), and in TV shows, such as "The Simpsons", which had the stock hick character Brandine about to name her newest daughter Rubella Scabies Spuckler. Naturally, you can read much more on the subject at Snopes.com, which you all should be reading at least a couple of times a week if you aren't already.

There are plenty of English words which sound beautiful and would make very appealing names if we could ignore their literal meanings. I have always thought that Caffeine and Theobromine (a chemical cousin found in chocolate) would make lovely names for girls, and I always liked the sound of Trench for a boy, if only it didn't mean what it does and suggest such horrible nicknames as Trench-Mouth. (Rubella would really be a very pretty name for a girl if it weren't German measles.)

I went to university with a young woman named Diana Rahman who, if I am remembering this story correctly, had a physicist father who named his first-born son Proton and would have named the other children after subatomic particles had the wife not put a stop to it. You don't think I'm making that up, do you? Here he is.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Cut It Out

Hey--Jim got a new camera last weekend and now I get to do Friday cat blogging!

Yesterday I was lauding the (to my ears) mellifluous "salpingoöophorectomy", and what slung the word into my head was a cat. Specifically, Mr. Picklesworth, a friend's daughter's cat that Jim and I were taking care of last weekend. Mr. P., who at seven months of age is the most winsome cat in the whole world (yes, he is), had unfortunately just been declawed and was not for a day or two the happiest cat in the whole world. (For the record, I'm against declawing, but he's not my cat.) So Mr. P. hadn't had a salpingoöophorectomy, obviously (he had undergone a bilateral orchidectomy, which I'm not against, at least for household pets), but he had had an onychectomy.

Anything look familiar about that word? Not the suffix, which I'll get to in a minute, but the first half, "onych-". It is, in fact, related to "onyx", a usually black, often veined or banded gemstone. And how are the two related? If I'm not mistaken--it's happened before--it's that the veins in the stone looked clawlike (or like claw-marks) to the Greeks, and "onych-" means "claw" or "fingernail".

Now, that suffix, "-ectomy". In a hilarious column, a reader asks Cecil Adams what "-ectomy", "-ostomy", and "-otomy" mean, saying his wife thought they mean "hack it off", "bite it off", and "pinch it 'til it drops off". Ha! We use that one all the time at our house.

In fact, "-ectomy" is from the Greek: the suffix can be divided into "-ec-", from "-ecto-", "out of" (as in "ectoplasm", of which more anon), and "-tomy", "a cutting", from "temnein", "to cut". An "-ectomy", then, is the cutting out of something, as opposed to an "-ostomy", which means a cutting of an opening into (from "-stomos", mouth, as in St. John Chrysostom, "golden-mouthed"), and an "-otomy" is merely the cutting of something, with no removal of flesh. (A friend was once having some minor surgery that I called a "rectumectomy", to which she sensibly replied that they weren't removing anything, but "rectumotomy" just doesn't sound that funny.)

Just two more things. "Chrysostom" comes from Greek "chryso-", "golden", plus "-stom", "mouth". Does that first half look familiar? It's the same as the first half of "chrysanthemum", "golden flower" (as the second half, "-anthemum", is from the Greek for "flower", which ought to look familiar from "anther", the pollen-bearing part of a flower). And finally, "ectoplasm" literally means "out of the flesh"--it's the corporeal form of ghosts putatively generated by mediums to allow them to do their cheap little tricks.

I could do this all day. You can imagine what a joy I am to live with.