or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


A friend of mine used to tell a joke the gist of which was someone's explaining to someone else how to kiss: "On you first date, you kiss as if you were saying the word 'peaches'. On the second date, as if you were saying 'pears'. On the third, 'plums'. And on the fourth, 'ALFALFA.'" (At the risk of stating the obvious, something I'm perpetually guilty of: if you're going to tell the joke, you have to say the first three of the words softly and seductively, and stick your tongue out a lot on the fourth.)



So there I was washing the dishes reading a box of cling wrap on the shelf over the sink, and there I saw this sentence:

Pour empêcher la pellicule de fondre, éviter tout contact entre la pellicule plastique et les aliments à forte teneur en gras (comme la bacon) ou en sucre (comme la pâte à tarte).

The word that grabbed me was "empêcher", which I instantly understood--despite its current meaning in French as "prevent"--must be the source of "impeach". So how did we get it? And does it have anything to do with peaches?

First things first. To impede literally means to un-foot; less literally, it means to shackle or hobble the feet, and metaphorically it means to get in the way of. An impediment is something which impedes or hinders; "impeachment" is the endpoint of a long line of alterations and variations of "impediment". So an impeachment is not, as many seem to think, a legal charge akin to an indictment; it's really something meant to hobble someone by discrediting them--an accusation of misconduct which can, but need not, lead to trial and conviction. (You can see that the French version went off in an entirely different direction: to hobble, and thence to keep from happening altogether.)

As for peaches, no. Their name has a fascinating origin: originally called the Persian apple, "Persicum malum" in Latin, their name was shortened to "persicum", then collapsed in Italian into "pesca"; turned into "pesche" in French, it soon enough lost its ess and, as we know, substituted for it a circumflexed vowel, becoming "pêche". evolving into English "peach".


Since everything for sale in Canada must be labelled in both English and French, we get the benefit of simultaneous translation all the time. Sometimes, though, it goes off the rails, particularly when a product is labelled in some other country for sale here.

What is now called "plumeria" used to be called "frangipani": it's an intensely scented flower still used in perfumery. I saw a product the other day that had the scent listed in English as "plumeria", as one would expect, and in French as "pruneria", which one wouldn't, because it's as wrong as can be.

Plumeria gets its name from a botanist, as is generally true with plants: in this case, a man named Plumier. (Frangipani was named after a different man, an Italian marquis.) The first four letters have nothing to do with plums, but whatever enterprising translator tackled the product in question must have thought it did, because "prune" is the French word for "plum". (And he can't have been the only person to have been led astray by those deceitful four letters, because I have heard "plumeria" mispronounced "plum-AIR-ee-ah": in accordance with its French origin, it's actually "ploo-MARE-ee-ah".)

If I'm not mistaken, the French word for "plumeria" is "pluméria"; no plums, no prunes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Raising the Bar

Oh, Globe and Mail. I can always count on you to piss me off.

Why did I buy it yesterday? I was waiting for the bus on my way to work and it seduced me with its siren song of death and destruction; above the fold, the entire thing was Katrina, Katrina, Katrina. (Which at least wasn't as bad as the weather-porn people were saying it would be; it was still bad, but the would-be Category 5 was downgraded to a Category 3. A couple of years ago I endured Halifax's Category 2 hurricane, Juan, and that was a hell of thing; it sounded like the underside of a big waterfall, it went on for hours and hours, and it really trashed the city, destroying, among other things, a large percentage of the zillions of trees. A Category 5 just beggars the imagination.)

Anyway. I was reading the story, and of course I can't get through a G&M story without finding some sort of mistake, because they're just shockingly careless. Here's the culprit:

Hurricane experts have been warning for years of the dangers of a direct hit by a monster hurricane because much of New Orleans is as much as three metres below sea level and only keeps out the water because of a complex system of levies, dams and pumps.

Levies? You mean taxes?

Oh--you mean levees.

The words, it is true, come from the same root: French "lever", "to raise" (which comes from Latin "levis", "light", leading to such words as "levity" and "levitate"). But there's still no excuse for an error of that sort, which even the most cursory proofreading would have caught. (The same mistake is made two paragraphs later, suggesting that the writer honestly didn't know how to spell the word properly.)

As I have mentioned before, headlines aren't generally written by the people who write the stories, and that's also true of captions, cutlines, pull quotes, and such. Consequently, the captions adorning the illustration of New Orleans' vulnerability managed to spell "levees" correctly, so we know that at least one person at the newspaper can spell the word. Globe and Mail honchos: Promote him or her to head copy editor pronto! Create a position if you have to! (P.S. You have to.)

Monday, August 29, 2005


So I was reading...it doesn't much matter what, but the word "cannula" was in the text. (Actually, it was misspelled "canula", which is the only reason I noticed it.) And my first impression was that it was almost certainly related to "canal", which it is, and then some.

First, in case you didn't know, a cannula is a flexible tube used in medicine to transport some fluid--to move liquids out of the body or to administer oxygen. Its source is Latin "canna", reed; the suffix "-ula" is a diminutive, the source of our "-ule" as in "ampoule", "amphora" plus "-ule"--a tiny container for water. So a cannula, obviously enough, is a small hollow pipe of some sort. All very clear and aboveboard.

And, as you can see, a channel is something that fluids run through, and so is a canal (which is also French for "channel", both the kind that carries water and the kind that carries broadcast signals), and naturally enough they have the same origin. And then it starts to spread out; "canister", another sort of container, is also an offspring of "canna". "Cane" obviously has the same source, since it's a sort of reed. An unexpected relative is "canyon", a channel, now empty, cut into the face of the earth by running water. So, too, is "cannon"--another sort of tube. "Cannoli" is probably too obvious to mention; again, tubes.

The one word missing from the list, one I would have expected to be there, is "can". Doesn't it seem as if it should be, at the very least, a shortened form of "canister"? According to the OED, not so: "Latin canna, 'reed, pipe' does not suit the sense". Well, if they say so.

Oh, and one last thing: Although "canal" is French for "channel", they don't call the English Channel "Le Canal Anglais", or even "Le Canal Français"; they call it "La Manche", which means "the sleeve", due to its shape. ("Manche" is derived from "main", the French word for "hand"; it still exists in English in such words as "maintain", literally "to hold in the hand".) "Manche" is not much used in English--though it used to be--but it does have one close relative which is now a full-fledged English word: the sleeve-shaped pasta called manicotti.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Wrap Artist

Sometimes something wrong hangs around in the language for so long that you just figure it's easier to accept it than to fight it, because everyone does it and you won't win in the long run anyway.

The irreplaceable boingboing.com linked to a set of oddball cartoons from 1905 amd 1906 called "The Outbursts of Everett True", which is exactly what the cartoons were. This one demonstrates that people have been using the manifestly illogical term "straightjacket" for quite a while now, at least a hundred years. I think the careful writer would never use it, but can we keep calling it wrong after all this time? Is it still worth fighting for the correct term? Should we just move on to other things, more winnable battles like subject-verb agreement?

As you've been conditioned to expect by now, "straight" comes from Latin...no, it doesn't. That's a total lie. It's actually a purely English word, evolved from a Middle English word meaning "to stretch", because something straight is something that's stretched to its full length, no kinks or bends. "Strait", on the other hand, really is from Latin; in this case, from "stringere", "to draw tight", obviously the source of "stringent" and "astringent", and more distantly related to "string" and (even more estranged from the family) "strangle". A strait is a narrow channel of water; straitened circumstances are those which are stressful and trying because one's options are so narrow.

Now; how could "straightjacket" possibly make any sense? It clearly couldn't. "Straitjacket", on the other hand, is so sensible it brings tears to your eyes. But the two words sound identical, and "straight" is the commoner word, and so it's the one that got compounded in many, perhaps most, people's spelling. It's so usual nowadays that dictionaries don't even give it a second thought, and spell-checkers routinely list both versions. And, in fact, back in the days when spelling was a free-for-all and you could encounter multiple spellings of a word, sometimes in the same document, "straight" did evolve as an alternate spelling of "strait", alongside "streight", "streyt", and "stryte", among many others. This spelling is now considered not an alternate spelling but entirely obsolete, just as those others are. And yet, according to the dictionaries and to popular usage, "straightjacket" is unquestionably part of the language.

Really, though; it's still wrong.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Smear Campaign

Comptoir Sud Pacifique makes really terrific scents: I have a bunch of them and would probably have more if they sold them in Moncton and also if I didn't already own more fragrances than I can use up in the next hundred years or so (at least forty, plus a gazillion samples), and there are new ones all the time and I'm only human, I try to show some self-restraint but it's a losing battle, it's like some people and shoes, which I don't care a lick for, I just wear the ones I have until they're battered into shreds and then I buy more.

Ahem. Anyway. I was just reading about a CSP scent (one I don't own) called Aqua Motu that contains, among its other notes, helichrysum. Well: a single glance tells you it's Greek; anything that contains the letters "-chr-" is. But more on that in a second. If you pry "helichrysum" apart you can see that the first half is "heli", clearly related to "helix" and "helicopter"; it means "spiral". The second half (I've been on about it before) is familiar from "chrysanthemum"; from "khruso" or "chryso", "golden". So helichrysum is a flower that's a golden spiral, which seems like a pretty good description of this picture.

Now, if any English word containing "-chr-" is Greek in origin, how about the word "christ"? It sure is. It's from "khristos", "anointed", and so "christ" literally means "the anointed one". If you are very, very particular, you will not say "Jesus Christ", since the second half of it is an adjective and not a surname; you will say "Jesus, the Christ". But hardly anybody does this any more, in the same way that hardly anybody uses "The Reverend" as a form of address, or what used to be called the style; they say "Reverend Smith", even though it properly ought to be "The Reverend Mister Smith", since "Mister" is the title and "The Reverend" the style. But who makes that distinction any more? (Well, I do, predictably enough.)

I always find a way of getting off track, don't I? One last fascinating byway; English "christ" is also related to "chrism", which refers to an oil used for anointing. French, as I have noted before, contains a number of words that use the circumflex to denote a once-present, now-vanished ess. French once had a variant of "chrism", "chresme", which eventually altered its spelling into "crême", the source of our "cream". English "anoint" and also "ointment" come to us (via a tangled series of changes) from Latin "unguere", "to smear", also the source of "unguent". How wonderful that the superficially unrelated "ointment", "unguent", and "cream" turn out to be so intricately intertwined.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Cat House

Hey, look--it's a cat! That can only mean it's time for Friday Cat Blogging!

When not engaged in the relentless search for food and/or something to bite, Mister Picklesworth wants to know: which of these words is not like the others?


Mr. P. may have a brain the size of a walnut, but he has figured out that all four of these words are completely unrelated, as the apparent "cata-" prefix comes from a different source in each case.

"Catamount" is the only actual cat word in the group. It's a shortened version of "cat of the mountain", which is to say a mountain lion. (The Latin name for the mountain lion, by the way, is "felis concolor", and this second word means exactly what you might expect it to mean: "all of one colour", rather than being spotted, blotched or tabby the way many wild cats are.)

"Catamite" means, according to Answers.com, either "a boy who has a sexual relationship with a man" (keeping the definition judgement-free) or "a boy kept for purposes of sexual perversion". It's from an Etruscan corruption of the Latinized version of the Greek name Ganymede, Zeus' cup-bearer and, it would seem, boyfriend.

"Catafalque" looks as if it ought to be Greek as filtered through French, but in fact the apparent prefix is a mere accident of history; the word (which means "a framework on which a coffin rests") is a rather elaborately evolved relative of "scaffolding".

"Catastrophe" is a good example of by far the most common example of the "cata-" prefix in English. It's Greek, of course; a glance will tell you that. "Cata-" generally means "down" or "reversed", and "-strophe" means "a turning" (as in boustrophedonic), so a catastrophe looks as if it should really just be a downturn; in fact, it means "an overturning"--that is, ruination.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Calvin Klein's marketing people have got a real touch for picking fragrance names that speak to the tenor of the times, either what people are feeling or what they want to be feeling. There was Obsession back in 1985, then Eternity in 1988, Escape in 1991, Contradiction in 1997, Truth in 2000, and the newest one, being launched next month, Euphoria (which is an utterly brilliant name for a scent).

So: "euphoria", "a sense of delight and/or well-being". The "eu-" part I knew from such words as "euthanasia" and "Euterpe"; it's Greek for "good". The "-phor-" part didn't come as quickly, though if I had been racking my brains just a little harder I would have realized it's the same root as "-fer-" as in "lucifer", "light-bearer"; "-phor-" in an English word such as "phosphorus" means "carrying, bearing" (and in fact "lucifer" and "phosphorus" have exactly the same meaning, one Latin, one Greek).

And then another "-phor-" word popped into my head; "amphora". Since an amphora is a vessel, the "-phor-" part was clear enough, but what about the "am-"? That turns out to be a contraction of Greek "amphi-", "both"; an amphora is so named because, unlike a ewer, an amphora has handles on both sides.

And "amphi-" made me think, of course, of "amphibian"; both...what? The stem "-bian" is from the Greek "bios", "life" (also seen in such words as "antibiotic", "against life"); an amphibian creature is one that has two lives, one in the water and one on land. And, since you may well have been wondering, Latin "ambi-" as in "ambivalent" is exactly the same as "amphi-".

Latin and Greek so heavily saturate English that in modern times we think nothing of combining roots from both languages into one word, so it's easy to forget that when the words "automobile" and "television" were coined, they were roundly reviled by prescriptive grammarians as bastard constructions. "Auto-" and "tele-" are Greek for "self" and "far", respectively, while "-mobile" and "-vision" are Latin. For some reason, we were informed that we couldn't do that--but why ever not? In English, we can patch and plaster all we like. In fact, we do it enough that there's actually a word for such etymological pastiches; they're called "macaronics".

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


I swear the two words I'm writing about today came up in conversation in the last twenty-four hours. I don't just comb the dictionary looking for stuff to write about--honest. I mean, how sad and geeky would that be? Although I suppose having words pop up in everyday speech and then rushing to the dictionary to look them up is also geeky in its own way; it's just not as deliberately geeky.

As soon as I had uttered the phrase "take umbrage" I began to wonder how it was related to the paint known as "burnt umber". I tucked the thought away and continued the conversation, and only later looked up the two words: I can now report to you that it's all a bit of a tangle, but as I had suspected, they're both descended from French "ombre" and/or Italian "ombra", both of which mean "shadow", from the Latin "umbra". (Yes, this is also the source of our "umbrella".) The Latin may have its source in "Umbria", a region in Italy; but "umber" itself apparently takes its name from shadows because burnt umber was a pigment used to paint shadows, being a dark brown but not black (which scarcely exists in nature and which tends to make a painting look as if it has a hole in it; painters have very little use for pure black, and use or mix other colours to make dark-but-not-black shadows). "Umbra" also exists in English; it's darkest part of the shadow created by a planet during an eclipse. As for "umbrage", its current meaning represents a slow evolution: first it meant "shadowing" (that is, "umbra" plus the suffix "-age" meaning "state or condition", as in "moorage"), and then "a suspicion; a shadow of a doubt", and eventually "offense" (presumably due to that same suspicion).

actual unretouched photo!

Then last night, Mister Picklesworth was in a dark hallway lit from the front and his eyes were glowing that unearthly yellow; no wonder cats were considered in league with the devil! And it vaguely came back to me that the reason they glowed in this way (as do many other hunting animals' eyes, such as those of dogs and owls) is because of a layer of cells called the tapetum something, so I looked up that word and got the answer; it's called the tapetum lucidum. And don't both halves look at least vaguely familiar? "Tapetum" resembles "tapestry", because both are coverings; to this day, "tapis" is the French word for "carpet". "Lucidum" doesn't, in this instance, directly relate to our "lucid", "clear", but it has the same source; the Latin "lucere", "to shine", as I noted a couple of weeks ago. So the tapetum lucidum is a shining tapestry of cells; and it makes Mr. P. look vaguely scary but also rather fetching. (Why do some animals have it? Because it reflects light and returns it to the retina, increasing the animal's vision in low light conditions--a useful attribute for a nocturnal hunter.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Clap

I wrote the word "plausible" in an e-mail just now and then it occurred to me; the word clearly has to be related to "applause", but how?

It turns out that it isn't. No, just kidding; they're from the same root. The original meaning of "plausible" was "deserving of applause"--applause-ible--which over time came instead to mean "deserving of being believed". (In fact, every instance of the letters "-plau-" in an English word comes from the same root: Latin "plaudere", "to applaud".)

Well, that's the good news. The bad news is that I can't turn around without banging into another typo and it's driving me around the bend. I'm not kidding. They're everywhere, and it's maddening. It's like, I don't know, seeing people burning flags on every street corner. Don't people know better? Can't they spell? Are they completely clueless?

Just look at this clause from a review in The Onion of a new book about the Harlem Globetrotters:

...and Meadowlark Lemon, a rote performer who personified the creative draught that drove the team to ruin in the '70s and '80s.

I mean, honestly. I had to re-read the sentence three times before I figured out what was meant. (It's "drought", not "draught", in case that's not absolutely clear.) And look at this abomination from The New Republic about the miserable de-evolution of Sports Illustrated magazine:

In that piece, George Plimpton played an April Fool's Day joke on readers with a profile of an apocryphal New York Mets pitching prospect who's fastball topped out at 168-mile-per-hour.

Three mistakes in one sentence--three mistakes in a single nine-word clause! ("Whose", not "who's": no hyphens, because it's not an adjectival phrase; and "miles", not "mile".) And this from a professional writer, someone who gets paid for it!

I'm pissed off. One doesn't necessarily expect a high level of sophistication from the average scribbler (though it would be nice), but there's absolutely no excuse for mistakes like these, none at all. Professional websites with paid writers and advertising have to adhere to a higher standard than your everyday blogger.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Slip of the Tongue

Somewhere on the Web--home to every conceivable typographic error--I ran across the name of a Pink Floyd album rendered as "A Momentary Laps of Reason". If you care to Google that phrase, you'll find it repeated quite a few times, too many for my taste.

So are "laps" as in "laps of a racetrack" and "lapse" related? You'd think they might be, if you twist them around in your head enough; I did. But they're not. A lap of a racetrack is related to the "-lap" of "overlap"; that is to say, something that extends past and overlays something else. This sense of "lap" comes from the word "lappet", which is a decorative flap of some sort, whether on clothing or on an animal. (And "flap" isn't related to "lap" or "lappet"; "flap", originally "flappe", is an onomatopoeia that means "slap", which is itself onomatopoeic.) The "-lap" of "lapse" (and also "elapse") is from the Latin "labi", "to slip", "to lapse"; when something lapses, it slips, possibly in a moral sense (Middle English "lapsen" meant "to deviate from the norm"), and when something elapses, it slips away.


I wrote a while back about the glottal stop in double-"-t-" words such as "mutton" and "spittle", and made a passing mention of its polar opposite, replacing that "-t-" sound with a "-d-", relatively common in North America. I don't care for it, but it's a logical enough progression from a physical point of view: the tongue position for both sounds is nearly identical (as I wrote about here; they're both dental sounds), and the "-d" sound takes a little less energy to produce, so it makes sense that it would gradually come to supersede the more difficult sound.

But here's a headline that demonstrates what happens when people trust their ears and not their eyes, and when there are no editors and not even anybody who takes the time to use a spell-checker:

Grampa needs talking to about studdering

See, the problem here is threefold. First, in a newspaper, the person who writes the headlines is hardly ever the person who wrote the original story; in the piece itself--it's a medical advice column in the Sunday, August 21st, edition of the Halifax Daily News--the word "stuttering" is spelled correctly. Second, whoever wrote the headline pronounces the word with that "-d-" and obviously doesn't have any idea how "stutter" is meant to be spelled. ("Studder" is not a variant; it's just wrong.) And third, no damned editors and nobody who uses a spell-checker.

In fairness to that third bit, editors don't usually look at headlines. But there used to be proofreaders if not copy-editors who did look over the entire page, headlines and all; at least, there were when I worked at that selfsame Daily News. Nobody seems to employ them any more, and the world is the poorer for it.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Food Fight

"To thine own self be true," said Shakespeare by way of Hamlet: but what if in doing so, other people don't know what you're talking about?

Bruschetta has been a wildly popular appetizer for the last few years: it's essentially salsa on toast, but you see it the menu of nearly every popular restaurant. Unfortunately, you also see the misspelling "brushetta". That's because virtually everyone pronounces the word that way.

They're wrong. It's a word of Italian origin, and in Italian, "-sch-" is pronounced "-sk-". It ought to be pronounced "broo-SKET-ta", not "brush-ETT-a", and yet that second pronunciation is how it's invariably heard in North America--in the parts of it I've been to in the last few years, anyway.

It's true that words of German origin that have made their way into English such as "klatsch" and "kitsch" pronounce "-sch-" as "-sh-"; that's how the combination of letters is pronounced in German. It's also true that when and where I was growing up, "maraschino" was pronounced with that same "-sh-" sound, "mar-a-SHEE-no". That's why I honestly don't know what to do. I want to pronounce "bruschetta" properly (since it seems to me that as a new import into English it ought to be pronounced in the Italian manner, at least until it's been around long enough to be naturalized and attain an English pronunciation), but I also want to be understood and not seem prim and schoolmarmish.

Are the people who pronounce the first syllable of "bruschetta" as "brush" actually wrong? Is it already a naturalized English word and therefore subject to the whims of English? (When Terri Schiavo was much in the news, we discovered that, counterintuitively, her last name was pronounced not "skee-AH-vo" but "SHY-vo".) There is, after all, no standardized pronunciation of the sound in English: everyone pronounces "school" with the "sk-" sound, but some people pronounce "schedule" in the British manner, "shed-yool".

Do I remain faithful to what I believe is right and pronounce it "broo-SKET-ta"? Do I ensure that I'm understood by pronouncing it the popular fashion? My solution is to avoid the problem altogether by never ordering the dish.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Here in Canada, the smallest paper money in circulation is the five-dollar bill. In 1987 the government replaced the one-dollar bill with a bronze-coloured coin that by a happy accident had a picture of a loon on it, and the coin was almost immediately dubbed a loonie. There were some complaints about pocketfuls of change, but for the most part Canadians take whatever's thrown at them (it's one of our defining national traits), and the coin was accepted into everyday life. Since that experiment was a success, and since coins are so much more cost-effective than paper money, the government proposed replacing the two-dollar bill with another coin nine years later, and that, too, went into circulation--a lovely bimetallic thing with a picture of a polar bear on it. A little more grumbling this time (because that coin made it easy to walk around with truly burdensome loads of metal), but it too made its way into the Canadian purse and psyche, and likewise was given a nickname. If you had a one-dollar coin called a loonie, what would you call a two-dollar coin? We named it--and I find this clever and charming--the toonie. (I suspect, though, that we'd turf out any government that tried to circulate a five-dollar coin. What, after all, are we supposed to call it?)

I understand that some people just aren't good spellers. We all have our strengths and weaknesses: I can't read people at all and I have the worst sense of direction imaginable--I could get lost in a backyard--but since early childhood I've been a crackerjack speller (and also pretty good with math in my head). I don't quite understand how some people can be such bad spellers, though; it's almost as if they simply have no mental picture of how the English language works at all. I recently saw a hand-written sign at a store, and I can't remember all the words on it because I was so transfixed by the attempted spelling of the word "loonie" as "lunny".

It rendered me speechless. How could anyone with even the gauziest understanding of the language think that "lunn-" somehow represented the first syllable in the word "loonie"? It's true that "-un" sometimes has a long-"o" sound, as in "tune"; but that doubled consonant after a vowel has only one meaning in English, and that meaning is "short vowel alert!" Had they never seen the word "bunny" before?

Maybe the writer's first language was French, in which a doubled consonant after a vowel can mean a long vowel. Maybe the writer honestly pronounced the word with a short "-u-" (which is a dubious proposition--everyone pronounces it exactly like standard-issue "loony"). Or maybe we should issue everyone his or her own personal proofreader for such situations. I'm willing to give it a shot if the pay is right.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Moncton probably has some positive qualities, but it was pretty much built on a bog, and that means mosquitoes. I'm scratching at a couple of bites on my legs right now; the little demons here will actually attack you through your clothing. Now, "musca" is the Latin word for "fly" (the Latin name for the common housefly is, rather charmingly, "musca domestica"), so "mosquito" pretty much has to be Spanish for "little fly", using the standard suffix that's parallel to the French "-ette". One of those things I had always idly wondered about but never looked up, for some reason, was whether there was a connection between "mosquito" and "musketeer" (and their respective French versions "moustique"--don't know how those consonants got swapped--and "mousquetaire"). I mean, just look at them!

As it turns out, yes, they are related, and splendidly so. A musketeer fires missiles that fly and sting; in Italian, "moschetti", the source of "musket", once meant both small artillery and its ammunition.


What else is a pest? Mr. Picklesworth. And, in the return of Friday Cat Blogging, here he is; a sweet little pest.


I ran across another annoying plural usage in a Salon.com wire story today. (I've spoken of these things here and here and for all I know some other places as well.) Here's the culprit:

There is two or three feet of breathable air above the water in that next chamber, which could hold about eight people, he said.

In order for this sentence to work, we have to assume that "two or three feet" is a singular noun phrase, and I don't think it is. If we replace it with, say, "a yard", then it's clearly singular, but when you throw those numbers in, doesn't it become plural? And therefore take a plural verb--"There are two or three feet of breathable air"?

Maybe not. Some people would argue that "two or three feet" can be treated as singular because it's not the individual feet that are significant but the height as a whole. I'm less than convinced; a good solution would have been to detach the verb from the noun phrase, rewriting the sentence as "The next chamber has two or three feet of breathable air and could hold about eight people, he said."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Fire and Music

From an interesting Salon.com article about a new Nike ad campaign:

But the most memorable -- and funny -- thing about the Nike ads isn't even the images, but the voice of the campaign, those little ditties that veer all over the map and often end up in crazy-land, beginning with those butt-as-border-collie and space-heater metaphors.

Do most people even know what "ditty" means any more? Judging from the dozens, maybe hundreds of misuses I've seen over the years, no. They think it means "a bon mot" or "a little poem" or "any little piece of writing", such as a piece headlined "Little Ditty About Writing"; it would be nice if someone writing about writing knew what she was writing about.

A ditty is a little song. It has to have music to it. It's just barely possible, I suppose, that a short poem that could theoretically be set to music might metaphorically be called a ditty, but that's a stretch. Those chunks of free verse in the Nike ads? Not ditties. That piece about writing? Not a ditty by any possible definition of the word. Ditty? Gotta have words: gotta have music. Period.

A ditty bag--since I have to get my quota of the word "ditty" into this piece--has nothing to do with the song: nobody knows where it got its name. It originally meant "a bag used by soldiers and sailors to carry small personal items" and has expanded in popular meaning to mean any small bag of that sort, usable by anyone.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Over and Over

Sometimes there's a fine line between style and a tin ear. Proving that a thesaurus is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, only a hack writer would use what Fowler called the elegant variation, in which, for fear of repeating himself, said hack replaces "elephant" with "pachyderm" and then "grey-skinned beast". On the other hand, if you unnecessarily use the same word more than once in too short a span--particularly if that word is an adjective or an adverb--it looks like you don't have a large enough vocabulary.

Here are four bits from this week's installment of The Onion's AV Club, the first from a review of The Untold Story Of Emmett Louis Till:

Examining one of the most wrenching periods in America's tortured racial history, the film looks into the infamous lynching of Emmett Till, a mischievous Chicago 14-year-old who, while on vacation in Mississippi, was brutally tortured and killed for the transgression of having allegedly wolf-whistled at a white woman.

Using "tortured" twice in one sentence, once as an adjective and once as a verb, might be a deliberate stylistic choice, but I wouldn't have done it, since it honestly sounds as if the writer couldn't come up with another adjective.

There's just no reason to use the adjective "fumbling" twice in two consecutive sentences in this review of The 40-Year-Old Virgin:

One's a raunchy, cartoonish Anchorman -like stoner comedy about a goofy-but-kind 40-year-old virgin (Carell) and his slacker buddies' fumbling attempts to get him laid. The other is a refreshingly adult but decidedly unfunny middle-aged romance about the fumbling courtship between a naïve hero with too little experience and a frustrated single mother/entrepreneur (Catherine Keener) struggling to raise a rebellious teenage daughter in a permissive society.

Following "sneaky", "sneak" seems like a bad echo in this review of Reel Paradise:

James' Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and Reel Paradise also share a sneaky sub-theme. In each, well-meaning people grapple with what they owe to the people they help. The theme plays strongest in Stevie, where James films his own attempts to renew a relationship with one of his old charity cases, but it sneaks into Reel Paradise as well, and eventually takes over a movie that initially seems to be more of a lark.

Obviously, it's possible to re-use words in close proximity: sometimes it's unavoidable, particularly when those words are nouns. But there are a number of rhetorical flourishes which deliberately repeat words (or even entire clauses) for effect, as in this parallel series of phrases from a review of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance:

Korean writer-director Park Chan-wook is a man of extremes: extreme camera angles, extreme lighting contrast, extreme long shots, extreme color schemes, extreme bursts of sound or lack of sound, and—particularly in the "Vengeance Trilogy" that comprises three of his four solo feature films to date—extreme violence.

Now that's how it's done. (In case you were wondering--you were wondering, weren't you?--this figure of speech is called "anaphora", the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive clauses. Much, much more of this sort of thing here, if you're interested.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Open Letter

Dear Janeane:

May I call you Janeane? I know we haven't met but we're the same age and Ms. Garofalo seems awfully formal. Your call.

It's good to have you back on the radio. I adore you on The Majority Report, with your smart mouth and your take-no-prisoners attitude and your frequent use of the word "douchebag", which makes me laugh every single time--some people think it's sexist and you shouldn't use it, but pay no attention to these spoilsports, it's comedy, it kills--but you might want to fix these few little problems, okay? Okay. (I'm usually a little behind in my listening, because I download episodes from Air America Place and listen to them when I can, but I finally caught up while you were taping episodes of "The West Wing". Maybe while you were out in Hollywood you cleaned these things up, in which case you have my apologies.)

Clearly you're very intelligent but for some reason you absolutely cannot pronounce the word "Manichaean" properly, and you use it on such a regular basis that I'd have thought someone would have clued you into the correct pronunciation by now, but no luck. It isn't "muh-NEE-chee-un": it's "man-uh-KEE-un". (And you use it correctly--as you know, it means "dualistic"--so you might as well pronounce it correctly, too.) You have a few pronunciations (regionalisms, I assume) that are very cute--"forward" sounds like "fo'ward" and "since" comes out sounding like "sense"--but this not one of them: it's just wrong.

A new usage (you've started using it only recently) is the phrase "the thing is is", as if "thing is" were a single word or phrase that meant "point" and therefore, being a noun, required a verb. I know where you got it from, mind you. You didn't invent it: it's called the "double is" and it stems from the phrase "what that is, is...", which is superficially similar but actually very different from a grammatical point of view. "The thing is is" is wrong (whereas "what that is, is" is correct), and you shouldn't say it, because there's no point in giving detractors free ammunition. (Your co-host Sam Seder has recently been doing it, too. Did you give it to him, or did he give it to you? You both started doing it very recently, because believe me, I would have noticed it earlier.) The correct phrase is "the thing is..." (or "the problem is..." or "the fact is" or whatever).

And while you're at it, check out this posting--not "NEG-luh-zhunt", "NEG-luh-jent", hard "g" in the third syllable, it's a standard pronunciation--and also this one--the word "media" is plural, not singular, and takes a plural noun: "the media are...." Otherwise, really, you're golden, I could listen to you all day, I love The Matchmaker and The Truth About Cats and Dogs and Romy and Michelle and have them all on DVD, I'm even trying to figure out a way to download or otherwise see Nadine in Dateland. Keep up the good work, and deal with those little verbal tics, okay? Thanks so much.


Your ardent fan,


(P.S. I'm serious about "douchebag", particularly when you pause for effect and split it venomously into "douche...bag". If you decided to just call all the bad guys that for an entire episode--"Bill Frist may have flip-flopped on stem-cell research, but he's still a douchebag", "that Machiavellian douchebag Karl Rove"--well, that would suit me just fine, because it's hilarious.)

Monday, August 15, 2005

Ladies of the Night

The Word That Just Popped Into My Head For No Reason yesterday was "noctilucent". Isn't that pretty? It means "glowing at night", from Latin "nox-", "night" (also seen in such words as "nocturnal" and "nocturne", because "noct-" is the combining form), and "-lucere", "to shine", which is also the root of "Lucifer", literally "light-bearing", and "lucid", "transparent", because light can shine through.

Once I had "nox" in my head I had to wonder if it were somehow related to the "nox-" of "noxious". I couldn't see how, but that resemblance was so strong.... In fact, there's no family history at all; "noxious" stems from Latin "noxa", "damage", because anything noxious is harmful or damaging to something.

And then the word "doxy" suggested itself--not that there should be or could be any relationship, but the sound of the word was irresistible. Nobody seems to know where "doxy" comes from. Answers.com thinks it's a corruption of an obsolete Dutch word, "docke", "doll", which is not impossible, because the Dutch were a great sailing people in the seventeenth century and a number of their words made it into English, particularly sailing- or water-related words (no surprise there) such as "keelhaul", "sloop", "yacht", and "dock" (originally "doc", currently "dok" in Dutch), which is related to "duck", "to go under water", "to dive". (And, fascinatingly, the word "duck" referring to fabric, usually "cotton duck", is also Dutch, but from a different root, the word "doek", meaning "cloth".) The OED, on the other hand, thinks "doxy" is just a made-up word from rogues' cant, stemming from the word "dock" because, presumably, a dock is where a loose woman is going to hang out. So whoever's right--my money's on the OED--doxies everywhere have the Dutch to thank.

The "-doxy" of such words as "orthodoxy" is (obviously!) unrelated. We got it from the French, who got it from Latin, which took it from Greek "doxa", "opinion".

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Nicholas Murray Butler was...well, it doesn't matter, at least not to me, at least not right now. All you need to know is that 1) he was a polymath who 2) earned the sometimes smirking nickname "Nicholas Miraculous" because he was 3) so clever (he attained a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a Ph.D. within three years) and also 4) so completely full of himself, which also led to 5) his being pilloried in a famous poetry magazine (you can read all about it here) by having the phrase "Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse's ass" acrosticked into a poem: the magazine, which had unknowingly printed the insult, later called the hidden phrase "puerile and uninteresting".

I was thinking about hiding an acrostic in this posting, because I totally could, but then I starting thinking of how I'd have to calculate the average line length and insert hard returns so all the lines broke in the right place because different browsers or monitor sizes would screw up the scheme, and that would clearly be more trouble than it was worth to me, so I figured I'd look at the word "puerile" instead.

It means "childish", as you probably know, and it comes from Latin "puer", meaning "boy", "child". (Actually, all the words I'm going to talk about are from Latin, so I'll just stop saying it and you can assume it until I tell you otherwise. We may have lost the structure of that language, thank heavens, but in terms of vocabulary we owe an incalculable debt to Latin.) It still is that word in Italian: "pueri" is "boy". However, due to changes in the pronunciation of vowels, they pronounce it more or less "PWEH-dee" (it has a rolled "r" which resembles an English "-d-"), while "puerile" in English sounds like "pure isle" (or, if you prefer, "pure ull").

Some languages use affixes to denote tiny shades of meaning. In English, however, when we need a new but slightly different meaning we usually just borrow someone else's word or make one up, and naturally that's also the case with words meaning "childish". "Jejune" originally meant "dry and boring", then "uninteresting", and eventually expanded to mean "childish"; it's from "ieiunus", which is to say "jejunus", "meagre". (Another meaning of the word was "fasting", and so a non-nutritious diet can be described as jejune--which diet, to bring it full circle, would certainly be boring and possibly dry as well.)

One last word that comes to mind--there are others, but I'm not a thesaurus and the reader's patience is finite--is "infantile", which, fascinatingly, comes from "infans", "unable to speak"; the most notable characteristic about a baby, apparently, wasn't that it head was as big as the rest of its body or that it needed to be mopped up after for at least a year, but that it couldn't speak.

Well, after all that Latin we may as well sneak some Greek in here: "polymath", which I used in the first paragraph, means, more or less, "Renaissance man", someone learnéd in both breadth and depth. "Poly-" means "many" (and though it's tempting to guess that "polygraph", aka "lie detector", means "something that writes many squiggly lines", "-graph" meaning "to write", it's actually "something that writes many different things"--that is, that tracks heartbeat, respiration, and blood pressure simultaneously). "-Math", and this is something I did not know until just now and am delighted to discover, is from "mathanein", "to learn"; "mathematikos" originally meant simply "learning", aka "science", demonstrating that mathematics is in fact the foundation of all science.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


As I've mentioned before, I never read the Globe and Mail because it's so maddening to find a typo or a grammatical error on pretty much every single page. I read it yesterday over lunch, though, because Jim bought it and it was there and, well, you have to read something while you're eating.

The back page of the first section consists of a commentary on some subject or other and a bunch of what are usually called "factoids". Yesterday's commentary was a delightful piece by one Peggy Lampotang on the differences between French and English, Canada's two official languages; not just on the physical differences between the languages, but on how they make the writer feel when she's speaking them. You can (probably) find the article here, but in case it isn't a permalink, here are few of her observations:

During a French conversation, I can elaborate at leisure my descriptions; the more words, the better. However, in English, I use clear, exact words, with the least repetition possible.
The economy of movement in delivering words in English, whether it's from the mouth or the rest of the body, gives a feeling of preciseness but also of control. The French language however, with its constant shifting of the mouth opening, from the jaw breaking "Ah" to the pouting "Oh," while the hands point, close, open, spread, or jiggle in all directions, expresses unbound passion. An Anglophone could see this openness as too dramatic, vulnerable and exposed, but a Francophone could interpret the lack of movements of the Anglophone as rigid and cold.
I feel in charge, efficient, and love the flow of English sounds rolling and swishing from my mouth.

When I speak French, I feel sensual, demonstrative, perhaps a bit excitable, but I relish its intensity.

I don't speak enough French to really get that sense of its openness, but her attitude is something I try to keep in mind; that every language has its felicities, its beauties, its own character which means something to its speakers.

English can be sinuous, elaborate, and baroque (just read Henry James), but I agree with Ms. Lampotang that one of the signal qualities of English is its crisp, efficient manner, and I love that about it. It can seem cold to someone whose native tongue is fluid and caressing; a Romanian native I knew called it "an ice-language". But ice has its place, too.


Having finished that piece, I tried to read the rest of the paper, and was stopped in my tracks by this line from a review of the new movie The Skeleton Key:

The only person Caroline can turn to with her suspicions that Violet has tricked Ben into believing he is under a hoodoo spell is Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), the handsome young lawyer whom we suspect is in on, well, whatever the heck is going on.

Jesus. Is there not one single copy editor in the entire enterprise? Any decent editor worth his or her salt would immediately have caught that careless, ungrammatical error: it has to be "who", not "whom", because in the second clause, the lawyer is the subject, and "who" is the relative subject pronoun while "whom" is the object pronoun. And if that's too technical for people nowadays, all they have to do is reconstruct the clause using the appropriate masculine singular personal pronoun, which is to say "he" or "him", instead (in this case, "...we suspect he is in on...") and then use "who" if the pronoun is "he" (because both words end in vowels) and "whom" if it's "him" (because both words end with "-m"). It's an old, easy trick and it never fails, unless you don't use it.


And then I made the mistake of reading an article about the brave Cindy Sheehan, who is holding a protest vigil against the unnecessary deaths of soldiers in the Iraqi occupation and the cowardly president who's taking a helicopter when he leaves the ranch rather than be driven past her. There in the middle of the story was this sentence:

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has studied Mr. Bush's rise, said: "For him, meeting this woman face to face would be blinking. His whole game is to be confident and to appear never to doubt and never to waiver. It's his idea of determination."

And that was when I threw the paper down. (Jim called me a quitter, but how can I read such junk?) "Waiver" and "waver" are not the same thing, as the first is a noun and the second is a verb and they have no point of etymological connection, nothing in common except their pronunciation, and a good writer or a decent editor will catch such a mistake but a spell-checker won't, and it pisses me off that a newspaper with pretensions of greatness--it wants to be Canada's New York Times or Washington Post--would consistently and continually make such stupid, avoidable mistakes.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Naughty, Naughty

One job of the copy-editor is to catch usages that, while not technically wrong, are inferior to more established or precise ones, and then try to convince the author that the original choice was not as good as the substitution. It can be an uphill battle.

From today's Salon.com review of the new movie The Skeleton Key:

This architectural ode to the old-time graciousness of the South is pretty enough from the outside, but inside, it's a warren of boarded-up doors just waiting for the right key, ominous rooms lit only by the meager shafts of light that manage to sneak through slatted windows, and crackled-cream doors and window frames that look as if they haven't seen the wet end of a paintbrush since 19-ought-two.

I love a long, comma-spackled compound-complex sentence as much as the next person, but I do not love the use of "ought" in this case. As I've said, it's not technically wrong, but it caught my attention and it could be better.

"Ought" is occasionally used as a substitute for "aught", which is what the writer ought to have used. In this context, "aught" means "zero", and it comes from what etymologists call a misdivision--of "a naught", because "naught" also means "zero" or "nothing". Since "a naught" and "an aught" sound identical in normally spoken English, both terms found a place in the language. ("Naughty" means "wicked" or "mischievous" because "naught" once meant not only "zero" but also "evil"; it was more or less interchangeable with "bad" in any sense, such as "naughty weather", but eventually came to refer only to behaviour.)

By the way, there's a reasonably common belief that the same sort of misdivision happened to "orange"--that "a norange" became "an orange". This turns out to be untrue: although "naranja" is Spanish for "[an] orange" and "norenge" was old French for the same word, it lost its leading "n-" before it ever entered English.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Small Latin and Less Greek

I heard a word today and made a point of noting it so I could look it up (because I am a word geek). Then when I sat down at the computer I trusted my memory and looked up an entirely different word.

The word I looked up was "inexorable", which means "relentless". It's from Latin (of course it's from Latin!) and literally means "cannot be argued with", so that's pretty interesting.

And then I looked up the word I had in fact meant to look up, "exacerbate" (fortunately, I had jotted it down). You can see how I'd get them mixed up. I'd never really looked at the word before, and I noticed that after the standard "ex-" suffix was the word "acerb", which like its first cousin "acerbic" means "bitter" or "harsh", so that's why "exacerbate" means "to make worse" ("ex-" not being the Latin "out of" or "without" but a standard intensifier). "Acerbic", by the way, is another one of those rare words that doesn't have a matching adjective ending in "-al".

And then "exacerbate" made me think of "execrable", because they sort of look alike. "Execrable" means "worthy of being execrated", and to execrate is to deem hateful or repellent. Again we have that "ex-", but this time it does mean "not" or "without", and the "-crate" part comes from Latin "sacer", "sacred", so to execrate something is to declare it to be unholy.

And then for some reason "exacerbate" or possibly "inexorable" made me think of "uxorious"--must be all those exes floating around--which, I knew, meant "wifely", from the Latin "uxor", "wife". (I really did know this.) Except that I got part of it wrong; "uxorial", in fact, is the word that means "wifely"; "uxorious" means "excessively submissive or devoted to one's wife". Which is an odd word, for a couple of reasons: 1) there isn't as far as I know a word meaning "excessively submissive to one's husband", presumably because a woman who is submissive is just doing what a woman is supposed to do while a man who is in any way not domineering is pathetic and a joke, and 2) I didn't think it would be possible to be too devoted to one's spouse, and I'm astonished that there's a word for it. (I'm also mildly baffled that "uxorious" and "uxorial" mean two different things, because "-ous" and "-al" have the same essential meaning: "characterized by". But such is English.)

And then I stopped. For now.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

His and Hers

The word "marquess" still throws me for a loop, because the "-ess" suffix is so inextricably bound to women that it's jarring to find it apparently part of a word that refers to a man. The word "marquess", of course, isn't suffixed with anything; it's an alteration of the French word "marquis" that originally came into English as "marques" and then took the second "-s" as its pronunciation changed.

The great majority of the time, though, "-ess" at the end of a word--particularly words that are clearly nouns if the suffix is removed--denotes a woman. I once got into a huge online argument about the word "actress". I was in favour of it; most of the other participants in the scrum were not. I'm not alone in finding it a useful word, I know, but gender-specific words (at least those with suffixes) appear to be falling out of favour, so I'd like to issue a defense of the word, if not the suffix itself.

Now, Henry Fowler's classic "Modern English Usage" maintains that such gender-suffixed words are valuable because they compact more information into a single word. (This view has very much fallen out of favour, since the modern point of view is that we don't generally need to know if, say, a sculptor is male or female, and so "sculptress" has a ghettoizing, demeaning effect.) I'm not going to follow Fowler's argument, because I have another: that actors and actresses are not interchangeable.

When a man plays the part of a woman or vice versa, it's invariably a stunt of some sort. It wasn't always the case; before women were permitted on the stage, boys and men played all parts, male and female, and this was considered just another example of the suspension of disbelief necessary to make theatre possible. But nowadays, as we have done for a few hundred years now, we consider the roles of actresses and actors to be different. When we go to see "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", we know that Brad Pitt will be playing the mister and Angelina Jolie will be the missus: if it were the other way around, it would be strange, shocking, and/or jokey. The acting roles of men and women, for better or for worse, are simply not the same, and so the separate words "actor" and "actress" are both useful to us.

Naturally, other words such as "Jewess" and "Negress" have rightly fallen out of favour; feminist commentators have noticed that we don't have the parallel words "Protestantess" and "Whitess". And most of the words do in fact make a distinction that isn't necessary; poets and authors do the same job regardless of their sex, so "poetess" or "authoress" has the stench of condescension about it. It's entirely possible that the same will be said about actresses and actors in the future, and that the Oscars won't bother to have "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" statuettes, but simply put men and women in the same category. I continue to hold, nevertheless, that "actress" denotes a useful distinction, and I'll keep using it until someone surgically excises it from my brain. (And sometimes, all too often, we see the horrible construction "female actor", which merely goes to prove my point--that we consider "actor" to mean "male performer" and therefore have a use for the gendered word "actress".)

I'm also a fan of such Victoriana as "aviatrix" and "murderess". (Would Edward Gorey's "Neglected Murderesses of History" be nearly as amusing without the suffix?) I don't use them in any serious way, but I love the sound of them.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

I don't think it does much for anyone

The reliably amusing BoingBoing has this, complete with photograph:

A McDonald's near LAX has a big poster outside showing hamburgers, and a neighboring gas station mini-mart ad displays its snacks and beverages. And now a nearby strip club and adult shop on Los Angeles' Century Boulevard is advertising exactly what it has to offer -- in very plain language. Passersby on the busy thoroughfare were greeted Tuesday with a freshly posted sign outside the Century Lounge proclaiming "Vaginas R' Us." (...)

Ha! But that reminds me of something that really ticks me off, from a picky, fanatically accurate point of view, and I hate to pick on the lovely and hilarious Go Fug Yourself girls but this is not the first time they've done this:

Paris looks so...sweet. Wholesome. Cute. Well-coiffed. Nicely shod. I can't even see her vagina.

Well, no, of course you can't. That's because you don't have a speculum.

"Vagina" is the Latin word for "sheath" (and, for good measure, it's also the root of the word "vanilla", because of the shape of the vanilla-bean). It's the inside part. "Vulva", on the other hand, is the outside part, the part you can see if the lady in question is a careless dresser: it too is Latin (duh). The two words are not the same thing, and they're not interchangeable.

And I don't want to hear anyone saying that we use "stomach" or "throat" for both an inside and an outside part of the body: that's clearly something else altogether. For the record, and for all time: "vagina" and "vulva" are different, in exactly the same way that "mouth" and "esophagus" are different. Can I make it any clearer?

So get it right, world. I want the English language cleaned up and I'm not going to be around forever.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Stretched Out

I try to ignore the irrelevant in the news--I don't care about Britney Spears' impending offspring!--but I was really glad to see that those Russian submariners were freed alive from their underwater tomb yesterday. They were down there for a long time, and being trapped like that and awaiting death is just about the worst thing I can imagine.

The Associated Press wire story contains the following paragraph:

British Royal Navy Commander Ian Riches said the most nerve-racking point in the operation was when the Russian submarine broke free from the cables and disappeared from the camera's sight before surfacing about 4:26 p.m.

Now, I had always thought that "nerve-wracking" was correct and that "nerve-racking" was some sort of corruption of the phrase, but guess what? It's the other way around.

"Rack" and "wrack" have no etymological connection, the former apparently emerging from Dutch "rec", "framework", and the latter being a variant of "wreck". (And they're about the same age, too; they both showed up in English in the second half of the sixteenth century.) Since a rack is a torture device and a wreck is the destruction of something, grammarians have tried to enforce a wall between the two words: something that is torturous, say "nerve-racking", uses "rack", and something that is destroyed, as in the phrase "wrack and ruin", uses "wrack".

Naturally, everyday users of the language beg to differ, and the two words have been used more or less randomly in this idiomatic sense ever since. "Nerve-racking", "she racked her brains", and "wrack and ruin" are still considered the correct forms of these phrases, but after four hundred years of near-interchangeability, it would be hard to say that their alternates are wrong.

While I'm on the subject, though: "torturous" means "cruelly painful", from "torture", and the word it is often confused with, "tortuous", means "twisty", as it's related to the word "torque", from the Latin "torquere", "to twist". These words are not interchangeable and never will be if I have anything to say about it.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


What is it about short soundalike words and the propensity of some people to confuse one for the other? People don't write "shore" when they mean "sure", do they? Or do they?

I've already kvetched about "phase" versus "faze", and now I run into this sentence in the otherwise respectable Wonkette:

Roberts' private practice work did not always jive with conservative agenda, yet "some activists on both sides remain secure in their conviction that he is an emphatic conservative who will move the high court to the right."

"Jive"? "Jive"? Oh, I don't think so. "Jive" has a few meanings: the music, the bullshit, the fakeness. But you will note that "be in accordance" or "agree" is not one of those meanings. On the other hand, "jibe" means exactly those two things, so Wonkette, alert to politics though she is, ought to have written "jibe" instead of "jive" and is therefore wrong.

But, bless her little cotton socks, she wrote "Roberts'", a construction dear to my heart, and so she is forgiven.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Yesterday I wrote about a published mistake (which has been corrected, if you care to check), but I make mistakes, too--I just catch them before I write about them (I hope). And then I write about them anyway.

Today I saw in print the word "lithesome", and I immediately had dark thoughts about the skills of the writer or editor. Everyone knows that "-some" is attached to nouns or verbs to turn them into adjectives!

Well, generally, yes, but not in this case. "Lithesome" is, in fact, a word, and there are other adjective-plus-"-some" words in English, too, such as "gladsome".

There is a sense of the suffix ("comprising a number of members") that allows it to follow an adjective and turns that adjective into a noun, but that adjective has to be a number: "threesome", for example. That's a very restricted case; otherwise "-some" turns something into an adjective, and nearly every other instance of the suffix in English sees it yoked to a noun ("adventuresome", "toothsome") or a verb ("tiresome", "cuddlesome"). Even "gruesome" attaches the suffix to a verb: in this case, an obsolete one which once meant "to shudder with fear".

The suffix came into Old English from Germanic languages, and, as it turns out, was originally attached to both nouns and adjectives: slapping it onto verbs was a later refinement. So I was wrong.

However, there was some good to come of it; when I was checking out the word "lithesome", I found in the definition of the word "lissome", and the light bulb lit up again--always an enjoyable feeling--as I realized that they must be the same word. "Lissom", or "lissome" (I prefer the first spelling), is in fact a variant of "lithesome".

While I'm on the subject, there's a third use of "-some" as a suffix, a scientific or medical one that stems from the Greek word "soma", meaning "body", in such words as "chromosome". I suppose I don't even need to say that this is completely unrelated to the other two.

Friday, August 05, 2005

It's All Greek To Someone

In today's "Ask the Pilot", a weekly feature on Salon.com, we have the perfect example of how etymology (and a scrap of carelessness) can lead someone astray.

Next, reader Jason Langlois chimes in with a semi-plausible theory to explain the curiously named Air Atlanta, the Icelandic operator with a fleet of Boeing 747s.

"In Greek myth," he tells us, "Atlanta was an incredibly fast woman who won every race she ran. She refused to marry anyone unless he could beat her in a foot race. Milanion courted Atlanta and appealed to Aphrodite for help. He was given three golden apples. During the race, he dropped the apples to distract Atlanta. When she stopped to pick them up, he was able to win the race and marry her.

Well, maybe, but why an Icelandic airline would dip that far into Hellenic fable is difficult to fathom. (Though I suppose you could say the same for the founders of the capital of Georgia.) If it's any lesson, the Greek flag carrier avoids this messy game altogether, going with the more purely historical Olympic Airlines. Meanwhile, purposely or not, Air Atlanta allows this debate to fester by refusing to return calls or e-mails.

Oops. The name of the huntress who was bested in athletics and love by Hippomenes (also known as Milanion) wasn't Atlanta, but Atalanta. The word "Atlanta" (as well as the obviously related "Atlantic", the adjectival form) comes from the Atlas mountains in what is now Libya, on which the heavens were believed to rest by the Greeks. This also gave birth to the legend of Atlas, the Titan who bore the vault of the heavens on his shoulders. "Atalanta", on the other hand, is from a Greek word which means "balanced" or "equal in weight": the two names are etymologically unrelated.

Atlas, by the way, is often depicted as holding the world on his shoulders, the better to explain how his name was given to a book of maps. But in Greek legend, it wasn't the Earth he held there, but the sky. Otherwise, how could Hercules (in the course of his twelve labours) have taken the burden while Atlas ran off to find the three golden apples?

Thursday, August 04, 2005


This sounds like a standard brag but really is the truth: I watch hardly any television. Sometimes I'll channel-surf for a bit, and I watch a few shows regularly, but mostly television is horribly boring and I'd rather do anything else. Plus, if I were really pretending to be virtuous I'd say I was using all the time I was saving by not watching television to end world hunger or write the great Canadian novel or something, and that's not true. I waste as much time as anyone else; I just don't do it in front of the television.

Anyway. I was flicking through the online TV listings earlier this evening and ran across the listing for a show called "The Most Outrageous Live TV Moments 2", which gave me pause for a couple of reasons.

First, I really have no trouble with the evolution of the meanings of words in English. "Outrageous!" used to be and possibly still is an idiomatic term meaning roughly what "far out!" meant in the Sixties and "radical!" meant in the Eighties--that is, "wow!" I think that usage is rather charming. But the TV show's name seems like a more literal employment of the word, and that's where the problem lies; the live TV moments certainly aren't outrageous. They're titillating, mildly shocking, amusing, or distasteful, but they aren't anything that's going to make people rise up and demand that action be taken, which is the natural result of a true outrage. I don't like that sort of watering-down of the language. If anyone thinks I'm splitting hairs, they're probably right, but any real grammar fan is also a hair-splitter; it comes with the territory. (I should also note that I didn't watch the show, and for all I know it had footage of that guy who blew his brains out on camera and maybe some newscaster being attacked and savaged by monkeys while reporting from a safari park. But I've seen shows like that before, and the outrages usually consist of a piece of scenery falling on someone, a reporter muffing a line and then swearing, or a dog sticking its nose in someone's crotch on morning television; nothing, in short, that will prompt the downfall of human civilization.)

Second, "outrage" is one of those words that looks like it has one source when in fact it has another altogether--something you never would have guessed. (It's kind of like "sacrilegious" in this regard.) "Outrage" is clearly related to "rage", and the "out-" prefix comes from...you're so filled with rage that it comes...spilling out, and...well, it's a lot of rage, anyway.

Except that it isn't. "Outrage" has never been near the word "rage", but is in fact a corruption of "outré", the French word that currently means "bizarre or eccentric", and that in turn is a corruption of Latin "ultra", "beyond", as in "beyond the pale". An outrage is something that is so far beyond the pale--one meaning is "an act of unusual viciousness"--that it is revolting to any decent person.

"Rage", by the way--I hope by now I've conditioned any regular readers to want to know this--is from the Latin "rabere", "to be mad", and hey, doesn't that kind of look like "rabies"? You bet it does.

And while I'm at it, the "pale" in "beyond the pale" is exactly the same as the one in "paling", which is to say a fence-post: something that's beyond the pale is outside the boundaries of decent society.

There. I'm done.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Reader ana writes in response to Monday's posting:

The mistakes you rant about are exactly the types of things that bother me when I read books and articles. I don't care if people make mistakes in e-mails or other personal correspondence, but professional writers and editors should use and spell words correctly. Sometimes the mistakes are so obvious that running the spell-check on the computer would pick them up. Other times they aren't so obvious, but a good editor should be able to find and correct them.

But there are so very many bad editors out there. Or non-existent ones: I almost never read the Globe and Mail, "Canada's National Newspaper", because I can be assured of finding spelling and grammatical errors on almost every page. I don't believe they even copy-edit; I think they just instruct their writers to run everything through a spell-checker and then publish it. It's just too dispiriting, almost maddening. (Although it does give me something to carp about, and for that I suppose I ought to be grateful.)

You're so right that professionals should use words properly. I would go farther and say that that is a job requirement, in the same way that being able to shoot accurately is a job requirement for a police officer. In fact, I'll go even farther, as far as I can, and say that being able to use English precisely and correctly is the job description of writers and editors. Period. It is the entirely of their work; it's what they're paid to do, and if they can't do it, they should be fired and replaced with people who can.

Okay, I got a little intemperate there, so let me backtrack just a little. Writers ought to be thoroughly conversant with the English language, but they do make mistakes, and they're the creative ones, so we allow them a little leeway. (James Joyce.) It's the editors who have to be rigorous, demanding, finicky, precise, and thoroughly familiar with the oddities and byways of English. Every writer needs editing; every professional publication needs editors. Personal communication--which includes blogs--is more or less free from this constraint; everything else needs a second, knowledgeable pair of eyes. Everything.

Even blogs have editors in the form of other alert readers. I read James Wolcott regularly; he's an interesting, well-informed writer, and if the occasional typo slips in, well, so be it. But in this blog posting he wrote the following sentence:

Craig Nettles, former 3rd baseman for the NY Yankees, once wiseguyed there was an upside to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's peripatetic meddling.

Well, as everyone knows, the former 3rd baseman for the New York Yankees was actually named Graig Nettles, so of course I e-mailed him so he could fix it. Did he? He did not. Tsk. I'm sure he gets lots of e-mails, but if someone wrote me about a mistake I'd made, I would 1) argue the point if I thought I had one, and/or 2) make the correction immediately. But then, I am not a famous writer, so I probably have more time on my hands than Mr. Wolcott.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Many Happy Returns

Jim and I just got back from a couple of days in Halifax, where we met: today's our 18th anniversary. Eighteen years! It's a miracle that anyone could put up with me for that long.

The first syllable of "anniversary" is pretty obviously related to "per annum" or "anno domini"; it's Latin for "year", right? Right. So an anniversary is (no surprise) something that happens yearly. The other half, though; what does that mean?

"-Vers-" shows up in quite a number of English words, and it nearly always means the same thing: "to turn", from the Latin "vertere". "Reverse": "to turn back". "Vice versa": literally "positions turned". "Vertex": originally "a point (around which something turns)". "Versatile": "changeable", which is to say "turning". "Traverse" is a bastardized version of "transverse", "to turn across". Even "verse" gets its name from the turning of furrows in the earth to which the lines of poetry bear a resemblance.

And the "-vers-" is "anniversary" is from the same source: it means "(re)turning", for an anniversary is something that takes a turn every year, that returns year after year. Eighteen times, in my case.


As we were driving back from Halifax this afternoon, we passed a sign for a place called Oxford. Jim, not particularly interested in etymology but smart as a whip, said, "Ox ford: a place where you ford your oxen," which is in fact where the name comes from. But then he said, "Why do you ford a stream or a river but nothing else?" Good question!

It turns out--I didn't know it myself until a few minutes ago--that "ford" is also a noun, meaning "a shallow place in a body of water such as a river that can be crossed on foot or by vehicle". Bingo! "Ford" the noun turned into "ford" the verb in a way familiar to anyone who's ever poked into the innards of English, in the same way that, say, "stretch" the verb turned into "stretch" the noun, meaning "a distance" or "a length" ("we walked for a stretch", "a stretch of open road"). We do it all the time, converting one part of speech into another by analogy or metaphor with no external change, and isn't it lovely?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Little or Nothing

I can't get away from the word, or wordoid, "miniscule".

It shows up in The New Republic, as usual, not to mention the Quality Paperback Book Club's monthly catalogue, which features a book on calligraphy that, they claim, includes Caroline Miniscule.

This online article makes the argument that "miniscule" is an acceptable variant of the unassailably correct "minuscule" (which is obviously Latinate--it comes from "minusculus", "rather small").

Even if I were to concede that "miniscule" is acceptable, which I don't, what's to be gained by using it? It's no easier to spell it in that fashion, and it makes more than a few people (granted, nit-pickers like me, but we're people too) snarl about the loss of standards and the decline of public education. The fact is that using the non-standard form opens one up to free-lance correction or even harsh judgement. It costs nothing to do it correctly the first time, gives no-one pause, excites no acidic debate. Why on earth wouldn't any writer prefer that?

And while I'm on the subject, if the egregious misspelling "miniscule" is just another variant, then why mightn't we say that "peak" is just another variant of "peek"? I've growled about this before, and damned if the same mistake hasn't battered my eyes again, this time in Slate.com:

In Over There, the insurgent gets blown in two just above his jeans, and there's no sign of an intact spinal cord peaking out above the waistline.

It's wrong. It's worse than wrong: it's a borderline-illiterate mistake, no different from mistaking "where" for "wear" or "piece" for "peace". "Peak" and "peek" are not the same word; they are not synonyms; they have no etymological common ground. (Ditto for "pique".) And goddammit, we have a right to expect that professional writers and editors know the difference.