or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Rock

I know I bring up BoingBoing all the time, but the site's a gold mine, people. I check it out at least twice a day, because it's updated a lot and that's the only way to keep up. A recent posting is for a new product called (I know not why) "Lullabubs", which is a set of devices that look like elephant's feet made to be positioned under the legs of a crib; synchronized through (I assume) infra-red, they automatically rock the crib, soothing the baby. Pretty clever, I think.

The managing director of the company, though? Not so clever. Here's what he wrote on the Company Details page of their website:

We are a company dedicated to introduce innovative new products to assist parents and carers, in daily routine activities of caring for babies and young children.

Our first of many product’s is the “Lullabub” Cot Rocker. It’s an Automatic, Remote Controlled Cot Rocking device. It simply fits under most new & existing cot’s, to sooth and settle a restless baby to sleep. Which also assist’s you at the same time.

Christopher R M Mitchell
Managing Director

Oh, Mr. Mitchell. I don't know if you're the product of a lousy school system or if you're just not a very good writer, but you really need some help. And here it is.

1) "We are a company dedicated to introduce..."? No. You can't use in the infinitive in that context--you need the present progressive "dedicated to introducing". (You can use the infinitive after a modal auxiliary if you like; "a company that wants to introduce....") "Dedicated to" is a phrase comprised of an adjective plus a preposition, so you can't use an infinitive after it because the preposition doesn't belong to the infinitive--it's already used up by the adjective. If that doesn't make any sense to you, don't worry about it; just use "introducing" and you'll be fine.

2) An apostrophe is not a warning sign; it does not indicate that an ess is about to attack. And if you're going to use it incorrectly, why not at least be consistent about it? Why should the noun "cot" take the apostrophe when the noun "product" doesn't? Why should the verb "assist" take it when the verb "fit" doesn't? At least "it's" is spelled correctly.

3) A sentence fragment. Is a chunk of a sentence. Which is not a sentence all by itself. Like "Which also assists you at the same time". Here's a hint; a sentence--that is to say, a string of words ending in a period, a colon, or a semi-colon--has to have a subject and a verb. (The string of words in question doesn't have a subject.) If you find you have a sentence fragment, you have to rewrite; either add the missing element to the fragment, or add a comma somewhere--in this instance, replace the period before "which" with a comma. Good writers get to break the rule from time to time because they know what they're doing; people who don't know what they're doing look like boobs, and are not, de facto, good writers.


While I'm on the subject of dumb mistakes: a few days ago I wrote about a really stupid error in Esquire magazine. I happened to see that issue on the stands today, and here's the thing I can't quite get; on the cover, "Whose Bald Spot Is It?" On the article itself, "Whose Bald Spot Is It?" And on the answers page, "Who's Bald Spot Is It?" I don't know what's worse; to have made the same mistake three times, which at least suggests a sort of foolish consistency (the hobgoblin of little minds), or to have gotten it right twice and wrong once, which means someone's really not paying attention. I suppose in retrospect the three mistakes would have been worse, because for a major magazine to put a typo on its cover--well, that's really humiliating.


Speaking of magazine covers, this isn't a mistake but it really threw me for a loop. The cover story of The New Republic a couple of weeks ago was about the Hurricane Katrina debacle, and the text on the cover read "Disaster and Disgrace". (See?) I don't expect everyone to know every minute aspect of pop culture, and I know perfectly well that whoever came up with the cover line was being literal, but I was mildly astonished at the inappropriate image that brought to mind, since it's the first line of the chorus of an Abba song called "The King Has Lost His Crown", about a cheated-on womanizer. There's no reason any writer should Google every phrase they coin just to see if someone's already thought of it, but was nobody on the staff of TNR even a closet Abba fan in the seventies?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Shining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Hunger

Here's a paragraph from an AP wire story:

After seeing a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes around his storm-battered home in Vidor, Harry Smith and his family decided to leave. They hitchhiked 10 miles to an emergency staging area and got on a bus to San Antonio.

No, there's nothing wrong with it, no point of grammar to illustrate or non-existent copy editor to assail. I just wanted to show where this stuff comes from. I don't pace the room and think, "Damn; I've got to write something for that miserable blog! Let's just open the dictionary." Instead, I'll be reading, something will grab my attention, and I'll think, "Hmmm." And so it was with this article and the word "ravenous". Specifically, 1) where does it come from?, 2) why does it mean "famished"?, and 3) is it related to "raven" the bird and/or "ravine" the gully? And then, for good measure, 4) where does "famished" come from? Is it from "famine"?

"Ravenous" finds its roots in Latin "rapina", "plunder", which also gave English the straightforward "rapine" (which has the same meaning) as well as "rape", which once meant something similar--literally, "to seize", which is the actual meaning of the word in the name of the famous painting The Rape of the Sabine Women; said women are being seized and carried off, with the modern meaning of the word, "to forcibly sexually assault", presumably to happen afterwards. ("Ravish", by the way, is also predictably from the same source; originally meaning exactly the same as "rape" in the sense of "to carry away forcibly", it later took on the sexual sense of "to rape". Possibly because popular culture has perversely entwined rape with love and/or sexual pleasure for a very long time--just look at "Rigoletto"--"ravish" later came to mean, in a logical enough progression but nevertheless bizarrely, "to enrapture, to overwhelm the senses".)

"Ravenous" finds its way into English through French, which softened the hard-edged "-p-" into "-v-", giving "raviner", "to take by force". An earlier meaning of "ravenous" in English was "predatory", which is obviously related to French/Latin sense: eventually its meaning spread to "greedy" and then logically enough to "voraciously hungry". Nowadays when we use the word "ravenous" in terms of food, we have little if any sense of deliberate gluttony; the word has taken on strong overtones of "desperately hungry".

Now, here's something truly fascinating. "Raven" the thieving, carrion-eating bird seems like it ought to be related, and "ravine" the gorge seems as if it couldn't possibly be, and yet the opposite is true. "Raven" comes from an old, old Gothic word, "hrafn"; completely unrelated. "Ravine", on the other hand, is a narrow, deep valley created by a violent river, and it is this sense of violence that gives it its name; the ground underneath the river is literally carried away ("raped") by the force of the water.

And finally, yes, "famish" and "famine" are related; they're both offshoots of Latin "fames", "hunger".

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ad Infinitum

So as I said yesterday, I tried the crankier thing and it didn't really work for me. I'm just cranky enough, I guess. Not that I have any particularly strong aversion to the word "fuck"; I swear way too much as it is. (Speaking of the f-word: check out this website, which importunes people to print out that word in various sizes on sticker paper and then attach them to commercial signage; "No Parking" becomes "No Fucking", movie posters become magnificently obscene, and so on. If stickers with the word "fuck" on them start appearing in inappropriate but hilariously fitting places around Moncton, it won't be me who did it--I'm too big a chicken--but it'll be me laughing a lot.)

Today we have two things that I've kvetched about before, but by god, they keep showing up, and I'm going to keep kvetching about them until people smarten the hell up. First, take a look at this from Gawker.com. "Who's Bald Spot Is That?", asks the increasingly irrelevant Esquire Magazine. Aargh! How can there be a copy editor anywhere on the face of the Earth who doesn't know that in English, apostrophe-ess denotes possessives in nouns but not in pronouns? For (I hope) the last time: apostrophe-ess affixed to a pronoun invariably denotes a contraction with the word "is" (which is why "she's" is a valid word and "her's" isn't). It's just not that hard to learn.

Second, a billboard advertising the services of the New Brunswick dental profession featuring dentures in a glass of water next to some approximation of the legend "If you don't see your dentist regularly, you'll need a ninth glass of water everyday". Aargh again! It's a full-sized billboard; it must have passed under the eyes of at least twenty people on its journey from low-rent ad-agency concept to sub-par execution, and did not one of them, not one, know that "every day" is a noun clause which, when jammed into a single word, becomes an adjective and therefore the wrong part of speech in that context?

So; still pretty cranky.

Monday, September 26, 2005


I'm back. Someone must have missed me, right?

So it was fall and time for a change, and so I decided to become either 10% crankier or 10% less cranky. I tried the more-cranky option first and it just wasn't me; I wrote an intemperate piece filled with cuss words, mostly the f-bomb a half-dozen times, and I just couldn't bring myself to post it. Clearly I'm not the curmudgeon I thought I was.

However, I have been cussing quite a bit about insects. It's nearly the end of September; aren't the little bastards supposed to have died off by now? And yet we're still plagued by flies, and mosquitoes and fleas are still much in evidence. And naturally this started me thinking about buggy words.

"Insect" should have been obvious to me, yet it wasn't, because I wasn't thinking like an entomologist (or an etymologist); it's so unitary a word that I couldn't dissect it, but dissect it we will. It's made from two parts: the simple intensifier in- and "-sect", from the Latin "secare", "to cut". And what it is that's cut up? The insect's body itself, which is segmented into head, thorax, and abdomen--think of an ant, or a wasp with its tiny waist. (I have a source that says "insect" is from "not cut", and "in-" is indeed a prefix meaning "not"; however, the intensifier clearly serves the meaning better, since the insectile body is divided into obvious segments.) "Secare" is the root of a great many other English words, such as two words I've already used, "dissect" ("to cut apart") and "segment", as well as "sector" (originally "cutter", now the thing the cutter has cut) and the cutting implements "sickle" and "scythe". "Sect" looks for all the world as if it ought to belong to the family, and why shouldn't it? A sect is surely something that has cut itself off from a mainstream religion. It isn't, though; it's from Latin "sequi", "to follow", and therefore a sect is a band of followers--once followers of a particular school of thought, but nowadays a religion with no political power.

Guess which language "bug" is from? If you said Latin, you're wrong. Or right. Nobody knows where it comes from. I suppose it's another of those words that just gets spontaneously generated within a language, one that doesn't necessarily fill a desperate need--we already have plenty of words for what my grandmother called "crawlers"--but that happens anyway.

You just know from looking at it that "vermin" is Latin. It feels Latin. It's from "vermis", "worm", which also shows up in "vermicelli", the pasta shaped like little worms. "Vermin" is also the source of a distorted but still recognizably related "varmint".

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

So to Speak

I was working all day and just got home and am--you have my honest apologies for this--too tired to write anything of any particular interest except to note that after reading the following sentence

Televangelist Jim Bakker's PTL Christian Theme Park has gone to wrack and ruin -- an illicit photog has crept through the ruins of this soi-dissant Jesusland and shot roll after roll of rotting Christian "amusements"

I am astonished that someone who knows how to spell "wrack and ruin" correctly doesn't know how to spell "soi-disant" correctly. Perhaps I'm being mean, or perhaps I'm just tired. But I am grateful for someone who knows how to spell "wrack and ruin" correctly, so I guess that's something.

(P.S. "Soi-disant" is French for, literally, "oneself-saying", which is to say "speaking of or for oneself", and properly means "self-styled", though nowadays it's also used to mean "so-called". I'm guessing it's the second meaning that's the intended one in the sentence above. I wouldn't use it in that sense myself, but it's not wrong.)

(P.P.S. Thursday's the first day of fall--my favourite season!--and I'm taking a few days off. Check back in a week or so. Maybe less. Probably less, knowing me.)

Monday, September 19, 2005

Over There

This bit of jetsam washed up on the fourth page of the slide show illustrating a Slate.com article about Fashion Week:

The editors were another absorbing piece of window dressing. You can always spot the Europeans, and you'll usually find more of them at a Londoner's show. They possess a certain je ne sais quoi and a slightly mussed aesthetic: They favor dark, slouchy sweaters that fit just so and don't smile as much (though I observed the occasional tossing back of the head and laughing). They're sexier than the clean-as-a-pin and pressed Americans, who look a little, well, uncool, by comparison.

You spotted that, right? The mistake that every elementary-school grammar teacher taught you to avoid? "They favour dark, slouchy sweaters that fit just so and don't smile as much...."

Yes, it's the classic misplaced modifier. Now, the reason your stricter grammar teachers taught you to avoid it is that it will confuse people, who won't know if the phrase "don't smile as much" refers to "they" or to "sweaters". This, of course, is nonsense; any cretin would know that "they" is the referent. And yet your grammar teacher was right about the general rule; it's not a very well-written sentence, the modifier is misplaced, and the sentence should have been rewritten. (The addition of the word "they" before "don't smile as much" would have cleaned it up perfectly, as would flipping the clauses: "They don't smile as much and favour dark, slouchy sweaters....")

My attitude is always that in writing, it's just as easy to do it correctly as it is to do it incorrectly, so why not do it right in the first place? Or, failing that--since as we all know you cannot edit your own writing--why not let an editor clean it up?

Sunday, September 18, 2005


First of all, you have to go read the latest entry on "Go Fug Yourself", which is right here in a permalink. It's spectacularly cruel, which means it's hilarious. A fashion advice column written by Courtney Love, containing a letter by Britney Spears? I'm there.

You should be reading "Go Fug Yourself" all the time, at least once a week, which is why it's there to the left. All the links over there are for blogs and websites I rely on; they're not just for blogrolling, which wouldn't work for me anyway because I know who they are but who knows who I am? (I'm speaking to an audience of--what, ten? Fifteen? But it keeps me off the streets.)

So; do you know what blogrolling is? My spell-checker doesn't, but I do. It's like the blog version of logrolling. Do you know what logrolling is? The original modern sense of it is political, referring to the swapping of votes to enact one-sided legislation: Congressman A will vote for Congressman B's bill opening a few new military bases in his home state if Congressman B votes for Congressman A's bill raising farm subsidies in his home state. (And that name came from the practice of neighbours' helping clear one another's land by removing logs; like an Amish barn-raising in reverse.) Over time it came to mean certain kinds of quid-pro-quo favour, particularly the exchange of gushing praise as practised by authors--"I'll crank out a fawning quote for the front cover of your book if you'll crank out et cetera." (The late, lamented late-eighties/early-nineties "Spy" magazine had a regular feature called "Logrolling In Our Time" which consisted of nothing but pairs of such mutually back-scratching quotes.) Blogrolling, therefore--clever coinage--refers to the practice of similarly listing other people's blogs on your blog in the hopes that they'll return the favour.

Which I don't do. Yet, anyway. Check back in a year and see if I still have any integrity.

Update: And then there's the opposite of blogrolling: piggybacking on other people's blogs by inserting ads into their comments, presumably in the hope that these ads will be cached by Google. Today's initial posting was made at 7:11 p.m. local time, and by 7:14 I had two of these irritants. Not that it will change anything, but anyone who puts a link to a money-making site in my comments is going to have that comment deleted immediately. There have to be better ways to make money than to feign interest--"I love your blog!", they all say--and then parasitically insert your URL into the comment box. Douchebags.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


The English language is a minefield, is it not? And even people who know what they're doing can step on a fragmentation mine if they're not careful, and ka-blam.

Here's a paragraph from Salon's gossip column "The Fix":

Don't mess with the celebrities: If today's celebrity news cycle shows one thing, it's that crime doesn't pay. Things that especially don't pay: breaking into Jennifer Aniston's house (gets you a three-year restraining order, with more serious first-degree burglary and petty theft charges still pending); punching Dr. Dre in the face (gets you a year in jail and a three-year restraining order); and, most serious of all, overcharging David Letterman for painting his house (gets you 10 years in the big house, though some of that has to do with also plotting to kidnap Letterman's son and nanny and holding them for ransom).

The problem here lies in the last clause. The writer was aiming for parallel structure, bless his heart, but his aim was off. Here's what we have: "10 years in the big house [for]...plotting to kidnap...and holding them for ransom". Because these are parallel structures, the sentence means that the plot succeeded and that the people in question were, in fact, held for ransom; in other words, the jail time was for plotting and for holding hostage. But that, as it turns out, isn't the case at all. What the writer intended was, "...plotting to kidnap...and hold them for ransom". Because the verbs "kidnap" and "hold" are parallel, they're modified by "plotting", which means that the plot didn't succeed in either case--that the ten-year sentence was for the plotting and nothing else.

It's a fine point, I know. But these things matter. In spoken English we permit a lot more leeway because people are making things up on the fly, but writers have the time to be clearer and more precise, so the standards are necessarily higher.

Mine are, anyway.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Not that anyone would ever think I know everything, but just to set the record straight: sometimes I come across a word that I've never seen before, a perfectly ordinary word, and looking into it opens up a whole new set of doors.

From an interesting piece in The New Republic comes this sentence:

The central drama of our time is the collapse of formalism, of the belief that emotion is lodged in the very facture of the work.

After reading that, I thought, "Facture? That can't be right! It's the French word for 'invoice'!" So of course I had to look it up, and guess what? It's a word! In English!

In retrospect, I should have known. It is, after all, the second half of "manufacture", and so clearly has to be Latin in origin, from "facere", "to make". ("Manufacture" literally means "to make by hand".) And that's just what it is: in English, "facture" means "the manner in which an artwork is made"--it's actually pretty clear from the context, but I was thrown by the Frenchness of it.

So why is a French invoice called a facture? Because in French, a maker of something is a facteur (in another demonstration of French's influence on English, "-eur" is the same as English "-er", "one who...": "juggler", "one who juggles"; "jongleur", "un qui jongle") and the "-ure" ending is another way of turning a verb into a noun. In this case, the verb is "faire", "to make or do", which is very irregular, leading to that stem "fact-". (By the way, "factory" comes from "facere", as does "factor", obviously, and, less obviously, "feature"--that one comes from French as well, from "faiture", "a making", another "-ure" form of "faire". Very irregular, that verb, although the really basic verbs such as "to be" and "to do" tend in that direction, at least in the languages I know about.)

And why is an English invoice called an invoice, and what does it have to do with voices? Nothing at all; it's from the (yes!) French word "envoi", the noun form of the verb "envoyer", "to send" (also, to again state the obvious, the root of our "envoy", "messenger"). We took "envoi" and turned it into "invoy", plural "invoyes", which eventually turned into the modern English word.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pants on Fire

I really do love Salon.com; I've been a subscriber ever since they offered subscriptions and I read it every day without fail. But honest to god if they don't get a copy-editor soon I am going to snap.

Here's the latest crime against meaning and good writing, in a piece by Andrew Leonard about a book called End of the Line:

So while business magazines and Wall Street investors praise the Wal-Marts, Dells, Ciscos and General Electrics that bestride the land, Lynn comes to bury them. The very things that make these companies great -- their mastery of logistics, nimble outsourcing and offshore operations, relentless quest to bring costs down and profits up -- are destined to doom us all.

Who is to blame? For Lynn, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the former editor of Global Business, a monthly publication aimed at executives of multinational corporations, Bill Clinton gets the lion's share of calumny.

Not only is "calumny" the wrong word, it's just about the wrongest possible word in its context.

Perhaps the writer meant to say "contumely" (which wouldn't have been quite the right word either, as "contumely" means "rudeness or contempt arising from arrogance"), or maybe he just thought that "calumny" means something like "vitriol" or "vituperation". But "calumny" has only one meaning: "a maliciously false statement meant to destroy the reputation of another". In using this word, the writer is inadvertently suggesting that the author of the book he's reviewing is deliberately lying for the purposes of character assassination. That can't be what's meant, and isn't: the review makes clear that the book's author does hold Clinton accountable, so he doesn't think Clinton is being calumnied by anybody, and the article's writer doesn't think that the book's author is doing any character assassination either.

But that's what happens when a writer doesn't pay close attention, when he doesn't pick up the dictionary now and then, and when there's no-one looking over his shoulder.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Fuzz

Every now and then I run across a misspelling which is charming and even understandable. Still wrong, but still delightful.

This one showed up on a really marvellous website called knitty.com: it's a free online knitting magazine with patterns, articles, and attitude. If you knit--which I do, being a Newfoundlander--you pretty much have to check it out. The misspelling is on this page in this sentence:

I worked up this version in 'authentic' colors -- dark brown and a print of purpley cochenille reds.

That second-last word threw me for a loop. It looks so much like "chenille", a word familiar to any knitter (it's a fuzzy, woven-not-spun yarn), but it clearly isn't. It took a few seconds and a few repetitions in my head before I realized that the writer meant "cochineal".

Now, "cochinille", as it happens, in the French spelling for "cochineal", and the writer has a French-sounding name (Marie-Christine Mahe), so we have to give her the benefit of the doubt. But in English, "cochenille" is still wrong.

We did, of course, get the word from the French. They got it from the Spanish "cochinilla", and they got it from Latin "coccinella", which means "little scarlet one".

After all this, you probably want to know what cochineal is. It's a red dye made from crushed insects--little scarlet ones.

I would love to be able to report that "cochineal" is related to "cockroach", which in Spanish is "cucaracha". Unfortunately, that isn't the case. However, and this is perfectly wonderful, "cucaracha" comes from "cuca", "caterpillar", and what do you suppose the French word for "caterpillar" is? Why, it's "chenille"!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

In a Flap

You've probably noticed that a striking, almost astonishing, number of words suggesting delicacy and airiness begin with the letter "f-", and particularly "fl-": feather, float, flutter, flit, flurry, frill, fluff, fly, flow, and on and on. Some of them share a meaning, or at least a feeling, because they're etymologically related: "flow" and "flutter" are derived from Indo-European "pleu-" (which is also the source of "pulmonary").

"Feather", though, is what got me started, and it's the word that most interests me of the bunch. We got it from the Germanic side of the family: the modern German word is "Feder". "Feather" is also traceable back to Indo-European: the root in this instance is "peth-", "to rush", "to fly". The number of words that stem from this root is in itself astonishing. First and foremost after "feather" is "pen", which was once made from feathers; this derives from the Latin version of "peth-", "pinna". From "pinna" we also get "pinnacle", meaning "little feather"--originally a little turret on a roof, and later the highest point of anything, from a mountain to an achievement. "Pin", predictably, is from the same root (making "pinfeather" something of a tautology), as is the flipper-footed "pinniped" and the hanging "pennant".

Then if we take off in another direction, an early extended sense of "peth-" that manifested in Latin as "petere" meaning "to seek" (that is, "to rush at"), we run into such words as "compete" (literally "to seek with", which is to say "to seek to win something alongside someone"), "repeat" ("to seek again"), "appetite" ("a striving after something"), and "perpetual" ("ever-seeking").

One more word from this fecund womb: the sense of "rush" gave the Greeks the word "potamos", a river which rushes, and that in turn gave them the word for the river-horse we know as a hippopotamus.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Razor Sharp

I miss Pauline Kael. Even when she was wrong (not that she ever would have admitted it), she had a way of getting into the pulp of a movie, of making you feel something visceral about how she loved movies and about how you do, too. The New Yorker has a couple of movie reviewers, both terrific and readable but not, frankly, Kaelian. They're undeniably opposites; David Denby, in my opinion the better writer, can be a bit stodgy, while Anthony Lane has a way of writing towards the joke rather than the point. (What fun it would be to see them arguing!)

In this week's Lane offering, we find the following sentence:

It’s almost a definition of highbrow modern theatre: middle-class people pay to sit for three hours and have their lives exposed and scarified.

"Scarify" is an odd, odd word, because it's two unrelated words, one with a tiny constellation of meanings, and it's not always immediately clear which one is intended.

Let's start with the newer one. "Scarify" means "to scare"; it's a coinage almost certainly derived from "terrify", with which it rhymes, and it looks very modern and made-up, so it's a shock to discover that it dates from at least 1794. The older version (from the mid-1400s!) is pronounced "scar-ify" (sometimes it's spelled "scarrify" to make that pronunciation obvious--but sometimes the other one is also spelled that way to make it visually match "terrify" better). The older word sure looks as if it ought to mean "to scar", which it can; but that meaning is incidental to its real meaning. The original sense of the word is is "to scratch" or "to make shallow cuts", from the Greek word for "stylus": scarification is, despite its alarming name, how allergy testing used to be (and perhaps still is?) done, with tiny amounts of allergens placed in scratches in the skin. The meaning broadened in two directions; first, it came to mean "to lacerate" or "to wound", both in a literal and in a figurative, emotional sense, and later to mean "to scar"--doubtless because of the look of it as well as the fact that scratches can leave scars.

"Scar", however, is unrelated to any sense of "scarify"; it comes from the Indo-European root "sker-", meaning "to cut", which gives rise to a large number of English words such as "shirt" and "skirt" (both cut-off versions of full-length robes), "score" (a tally cut into a stick), "shear", "short", and "ploughshare" (which cuts the soil).

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Okay. I was preparing a sandwich with melted cheese and the word "molten" occurred to me; "molten cheese" has a nice ring to it, and I suddenly wondered if the word "moult" was related to "molten". I was pretty sure it wasn't, but you never do know, do you? So I started looking up various words, and then I came across a most curious assertion under "molten" in Answers.com: "v. Archaic".

I agree that "molten" is old, and that it forms the past participle in an archaic way (though that's nothing odd--we have lots of irregular past-tense forms in English, such as "bring/brought" and "sling/slung"); but the word itself it anything but archaic (assuming we use Answer.com's very own definition of the word, and I'm compressing here a little: "1) Of a much earlier, often more primitive period: 2) No longer current or applicable: antiquated: 3) Of words and language that were once in regular use and are now relatively rare").

"Molten" rare? Primitive? No longer applicable? In fact, it shows up all the time. A popular dessert in restaurants is known as the molten chocolate cake, which is a little cake, served hot, with a liquid chocolate centre. The term "molten lava", redundant though it seems to be (lava must be molten, or else it's rock), is widely known; a Google search reveals over a quarter million hits. The word is old, yes, but it's in no possible sense archaic; it's as modern as any other.

And what's more, "molten" is irreplaceable, because "melted" has a different connotation. "Molten" carries with it the idea of the application of extraordinary heat: "molten rock" sounds right where "molten snow", although it is usable, just feels strange. (We use "molten" for food items because we're used to encountering those in their solid, room-temperature form, and because we're accustomed to using poetical or extravagant words for the things we eat; look at a menu some time.) What's more, a molten chocolate cake is clearly not the same thing as a melted chocolate cake, which would be either a cake made from melted chocolate or a chocolate cake which has somehow melted. In this way, "molten lava" is not, as it first appears, redundant, because the adjective "molten" doesn't mean it's lava which has melted, but lava which is liquid and flowing, as opposed to solidified lava.

So: "moult" and "molten/melt"? Any relation? The same basic word with a mere change of vowels? Nope; just a coincidence. "Moult" is from Latin "mutare", "to change", obviously the root of "mutate". "Melt", on the other hand, comes to us more or less intact from Old English, which got it from Gothic "maltjan", "to dissolve": "melt", carrying a sense of softness and softening, is also related, through various languages, to soft-fleeced "mutton" and the squishy-bodied "mollusc".

Saturday, September 10, 2005



Just read this sentence from this story:

But so is building a reputation—Browarnik ultimately hopes to join the rarified ranks of celebrity photographers David LaChapelle and Patrick McMullan.

Haven't we been over this? Didn't I say a week ago that "liquify", though a common spelling, is wrong? And in the same way, "rarify", though a common spelling, is wrong. To some they may be alternate spellings, but that's just another way of saying they're wrong.

As I said before, there are four common "-efy" words in English: "stupefy", "rarefy", putrefy", and "liquefy". (That's not counting words for which "-efy" is not a suffix--words like "defy" and "beefy".) There are four other less common but decipherable words: "tepefy" ("to make tepid"), "torrefy" ("to make torrid"), "tumefy" ("to make tumescent"), and "casefy" ("to make into cheese", from "casein", the milk protein involved in curdling). They're so rare that most people have never even heard of them; they don't show up in daily, or even yearly, discourse, and so we can safely ignore them. Therefore, all anyone has to do is memorize the spelling of four words: is that so hard?

I suppose it is, and that's why the "-ify" spelling of those four common words is going to supplant the current--correct--spelling. But not while I'm around.

(It is, however, interesting to note that of the seven verbs that start as adjectives--only "casefy" doesn't--all but "rare" end in "-id": "stupid", "liquid", "putrid", "tepid", "tumid", and "torrid". This, clearly, is where the misspellings stem from. Not that that's any excuse.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Too Much

I am a huge fan of Apple Computers and their products. I'm on my fourth Macintosh and (as far as I know) they're all still running; they're workhorses. I've got two iPods, and they're both still running, too (though the first one, three and a half years old, is showing its age). But now I want (but won't buy--even I have limits) a third one--the new model, the iPod nano. I mean, just look at it! It's three-quarters the size of a little stack of credit cards, and it has a colour screen!

I wrote a friend on Wednesday--the day it was launched--and said, and I quote, "It looks like a joke, a mock-up, a fantasy idea of what an iPod should be. I'm completely flabbergasted. I just wouldn't have thought it possible. They're going to sell a zillion of these."

Nobody knows where the word "flabbergast" comes from, which isn't surprising; it doesn't look like the sort of word that comes from somewhere, it looks like the kind of word that got made up and stuck around. (In more than one form; "Well, that just flabbers my gast," says Janeane Garofalo from time to time.) The OED notes that the third syllable is likely from "aghast", and they're surely right; it also notes that an old sense of the word is "to gasconade"--that is, to boast, from, as Answers.com blandly notes, "the traditional stereotypes of Gascons as braggarts". (Gascony is a region in France: the name comes from Latin "vascones", meaning "Basques", the original settlers of the region, and you can clearly see how all three names are related.)

The word "zillion" is a good example of hyperbole, which is to say rhetorical exaggeration. "Hyperbole" comes to us from Latin, but it's pretty obviously a Greek word; "huperbole". from "huper-", "beyond" (the invariable meaning of our "hyper-", both by itself and in such combining forms as "hypersonic" and "hyperactive", not to mention "hype") and "-ballein", "to throw" (seen in such words as "ballistic", though not, apparently, "ball").

Once the word "hyperbole" had popped into my head I realized that I had wondered before (but never looked up) how the rhetorical figure could possibly related to the geometrical figure known as the hyperbola. They had to be related, and yet they couldn't be related, could they? They could. Again from answers.com: "(from the relationship between the line joining the vertices of a conic and the line through its focus and parallel to its directrix)". I don't know what this means, and if you know, it's probably just as well you don't try to explain it to me.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

With a Capital T

Today on boingboing.com I ran across a past tense form that completely threw me:

The amazing thing: I installed and troubleshooted the installation of Mac OS X on Intel in 8 steps.

"Troubleshooted"? Really?

Everyone knows the past tense of "shoot" is "shot", and therefore logically the past tense of "troubleshoot" ought to be "troubleshot". (And, sure enough, that's what's listed in the dictionaries; my own spellchecker flags the first as incorrect but not the second, so "troubleshot" it is.)

And yet I don't like either of them, which is to say that neither of them seems really preferable to the other. I know, I know; "troubleshot" is the accepted form, and if I were editing someone's writing and they had the nerve to use "troubleshooted", I'd fix it. The thing is, though, that I would have a very hard time using "troubleshot", and I honestly don't think it sounds better or more natural than "troubleshooted"; I'd find it preferable to rewrite the sentence to avoid the past tense form altogether. ("I managed to install and troubleshoot the installation...", perhaps.)

But then, every editor has his own little peccadilloes. I have never been able to shake my belief that the plural of "mouse" as in "computer mouse" (as opposed to the plural of a mouse-mouse, which is clearly "mice") ought to be "mouses". I don't know why I think this, but I do. I don't really use it; I'd never amend anyone's correct usage to my blatantly incorrect one; but I still like it. So sue me.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Omens 2

On the bus today I passed a bus stop with a sign that read

Bus will not stop to pick-up or drop-off passengers at this location

and my second reaction was to think, "Well, why is there even a bus stop there, since all a bus does is to pick up and drop off passengers?" I'm sure there's some sort of logical reason: maybe it's going to be a proper stop in the very near future, but isn't yet. Perfectly plausible, really.

However, my first reaction was to scream (inside my head, of course), "Pick-up and drop-off are nouns, you stupid fucks!"

And they are. Nouns, I mean. I've been over this before and I concede that handling hyphens in English can be tricky, but this particular instance, as it turns out, isn't. Here's the rule: a verb phrase consisting of a verb followed by a preposition--"pick up", say, or "run over", or "jerk off"--is still a verb. But as soon as you jam those two words together into one word, hyphenated or not--"knock off" turning into "knockoff", "run in" becoming "run-in"--then, if they become anything, they become a noun.

It's not that fucking hard.


Another sign I passed was for some kind of charity fund-raising reading or other, featuring a number of (Canadian) celebrities including Peter Mansbridge: Canadians all know who he is. What gave me pause was a sentence beginning "An evening of fabulous entertainment".

When, I wonder, did "fabulous" come to mean merely "enjoyable"?

It used, of course, to mean "mythical", since it's the adjectival form of the noun "fable". In time it became part of gay slang; it's not a particularly large leap from "mythical" to some approximation of "so extraordinary as to befit something from a fairy tale". The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of anything resembling this meaning is from 1959. After a while, it fell into general use, as these things often do ("suck" in the sense of "be unpleasant"--"Well, that sucks!"--is another word that seeped into the language at large from gay argot).

And now it seems that "fabulous" has been downgraded to "very nice". (I'm not saying this usage of the word is in any way wrong; something similar happened to "awesome", and I think that usage is sweet.) I would rather that "fabulous" kept some of its intensity, and I'm not even sure why; perhaps it's that if this keeps up, we're going to run out of ways to express extreme wonderfulness. At least we've still got "spectacular".

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Coming Up

Heather Havrilesky is Salon.com's television writer (it's called "I Like To Watch", which I suppose is a reference to Being There) and she's generally likeable, amusing and well worth reading, but in yesterday's column she had this paragraph:

This is what many of us find extremely depressing about Hurricane Katrina: We all knew this was a possibility. Even Iknew that there was an eminent disaster looming last Saturday, because I saw it on TV. Remember? It was on this show called "Nova ScienceNow" that explained how a Category 5 hurricane had the potential to flood New Orleans with 25 feet of water.

An eminent disaster? As opposed to, you know, all those average, garden-variety disasters?

The next part of her piece begins,

Oh yeah, you don't really read this column all the way to the end, do you? Yet another entry for the Stuff Is Being Overlooked list, to go right after the popularity of handbag dogs and animated emoticons.

Perhaps she'll take comfort in knowing that at least one reader not only reads it right to the very end, but really reads it and notices these things. Or maybe she'll just hope that Salon hires a copy editor, like, yesterday.

Anyway. In English we have three very similar words which can ensnare the less than absolutely careful writer--I'm sorry, but this means you, Heather! "Eminent" means "outstanding" or "noteworthy". "Imminent", which is the word you were fishing around for, means "impending" or "immediately about to occur". And, for bonus points, "immanent" means either "within" or "subjectively; in the mind only". They're all Latin, of course, the first two emerging from "minere", "to jut out", and the third from "manere", "to remain". ("Eminent" and "imminent" are different because of their prefixes: "e-", modified from "ex-", means "out of", and "im-", modified from "in-", means "into"; this second one is also the prefix that modifies "immanent".)

Getting these mixed up doesn't make one a bad or incompetent writer, but it does illustrate something I've been saying for a long time: you can't edit your own writing. I'm not one of those doomsayers who thinks the English language is falling apart--it's survived worse than anything we can throw at it nowadays--but the wholesale dissolution of the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of copy editors isn't improving the language, either.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Heather Havrilesky is Salon.com's television writer (it's called "I Like To Watch", which I suppose is a reference to Being There), and she's generally likeable, amusing and well worth reading, but in today's column she started with this paragraph:

Once, a long time ago, I had this really weird dream where I was walking down the street, and all of a sudden everything around me started to float up toward the sky, and there was this intense pressure in my ears. What the hell was going on? Using my immense powers of deduction, I quickly concluded that the world had actually stopped spinning and therefore there was no gravity and the atmosphere was floating away and life on Earth was over, done, kaput! Smell ya later, world!

Is this a common misunderstanding? Do most people think that the spinning of a planet is what somehow generates gravity?

Maybe they do. But they're wrong. Gravity is proportional to mass, and I could get into a big discussion about it but I won't, because it's irrelevant; all we need to know is that the reason we don't go flying off into space is that the Earth is big, not that it's spinning. If the planet suddenly became massless, then it could spin all it wanted but there'd be nothing to tether the atmosphere or anything else to its surface.

"Gravity" is from Latin "gravis", "heavy". This is also the source of "gravid", which means "pregnant", as well as "aggravate"--originally, "make heavier"--and "grief". It's also, of course, the source of "grave". But which one? There are two different kinds of "grave" in English, with two very different provenances.

"Grave" meaning "sombre" is related to "gravis"; a heavy heart leads to a downcast countenance. (This is also clearly related to the sense of "grieve" and "grief".) Other senses suggesting danger or darkness--"a grave situation", "a grave wound"--are from this source as well. But the grave in which we bury people, although one might sensibly enough think they'd be related, is from somewhere else altogether: Old English "graef", from "grafan", "to dig". It is this which gives us the word "grave" meaning "to carve", and its siblings "graven" and "engraved"--adjectives for things which have been dug--as well as "groove".

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Show and Tell

I like firm answers, absolutes, definitiveness. I like to know what's what. I have a million opinions and I'll share them at the drop of a hat. So you can imagine that it bothers me a little when I can't find out a conclusive answer to something.

I ran across the word "transparent" and it occurred to me that I'd always wondered if it was related in any way to "parent" but had never bothered to look it up. So I did, and I still don't know, not for one-hundred-per-cent sure.

The "parent" in "transparent" is from Latin "parere", "to show" (which is also the source of "apparent"). "Parent" itself is also from Latin "parere", but here's the catch: it's pronounced differently, and it has a different meaning, "to give birth to". Now, it's entirely possible that the two words, though pronounced differently, are related; we have many examples in English, such as "record" the noun and "record" the verb. It's also clear that if you squint hard enough, you can see a relationship between "to show" and "to give birth to". So I'm willing to hazard a guess that the two words are, in fact, related. But I don't know. And that bothers me.

However, here's something I do know; the "parent" of "parenteral" is entirely unrelated. It's actually Greek: "para-", meaning "beside", plus the "-enter-" of "gastroenterologist", meaning "intestine", plus the standard English suffix "-al", meaning "of" or "related to". Parenteral nutrition is that which is infused into the body and bypasses the stomach.

All right, then: "parenthesis"--"parent" or not? You probably guessed not, and you'd be right. It looks sort of Greek, and so it turns out to be: it's "para-" again plus "-en-", "in", plus "-tithenai", "to put". So parentheses are, as literally as possible, things you put something in that goes beside something else.

Doesn't "tithenai" make you think of "tithe"? And isn't it logical that the two words would be related, since a tithe is something you put into the collection basket? Alas, it's just another of those wonderful coincidences: "tithe" is unrelated to the Greek, and is actually a variation of "tenth", because a tithe is an offering of the tenth part of something. ("Tithe" is from a very old Germanic word, "tehun", that's the source of both our word "ten" and German "zehn", with the same meaning; it's readily obvious how both words could have evolved from it, particularly when you know that in German, "z" is pronounced "ts".)

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Does anyone even remember what a split infinitive is any more? Someone at Slate.com does, and doesn't like it:

The 9/11 attacks struck at the heart of the New Economy. But the businesses affected—newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, investment banks, stock traders, insurance companies, accountants, and the New York Stock Exchange—were able swiftly to reorganize and get back on track in short order.

The infinitive--you all know this, but just in case there's a reader who missed this particular grammar class--is the uninflected verb; that is, the one that has no indicators of number, person, or tense ("I go" versus "they went", for instance). In English, virtually every verb's infinitive is of the form "to + verb"; "to go", "to say", "to have", and so forth. (The exceptions such as the modals--are they really verbs?--will have to wait for another day, if ever.)

In Latin (and most other languages, not just Romance tongues), an infinitive is a single word; French "aller", "dire", "avoir", German "gehen", "sagen", "haben". Since they're all of a piece, they can't be split into two, as the English verb can. But prescriptive grammarians in the nineteenth century, trying vainly to perfect English and trying to model that perfection after Latin, decreed that infinitives must never be split. This rule gives us such awkward constructions as "swiftly to reorganize", when the more natural way of expressing the thought is "to swiftly reorganize" (or, if the thought of the split infinitive cannot be borne, even "to reorganize swiftly").

The fact is that, generations of grammar teachers (including some of mine) notwithstanding, tucking the adverb inside the halves of the infinitive often seems right. There are times when the sentence reads better with the verb intact: "The dog began to pant loudly" is superior to "The dog began to loudly pant" (and I couldn't tell you why--it just is, in my opinion). But the famous Star Trek opening line "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is far better than any grammarian's fix would be (and there was controversy among grammar teachers back in the sixties on this very point).

I say, split that infinitive if you like, within reason. (Don't shove a half-dozen adverbs inside.) Listen to the flow of the sentence, to its rhythm; if it sounds better with the adverb interposed between the halves of the verb, then that's the way it should be written. "Swiftly to reorganize"? I think that's someone's inner prescriptive grammarian run amuck.

Friday, September 02, 2005

He's Got Legs

In yet another Friday Cat Blogging appearance, this is Mr. Picklesworth. Or at least part of him.

First he discovered that he could jump up on the kitchen table. From there it was a very short leap to the half-wall separating the kitchen from the living room. Then he realized that the fridge was nice and warm and also made him much taller than either of us--a consuming desire in any housecat's life. And then, unfortunately, he found that he could get up on top of the kitchen cabinets (which are about a foot from the ceiling); I was forever afraid that he would fall asleep up there and then fall off, but he never did. You'd never know it from this mildly alarming picture, though.

Seeing his furry little leg in the picture made me wonder about the word "leg", because it's nothing like the French word ("jambe") nor the German ("Bein"). I figured it might well be one of those short, pithy words that were spontaneously generated in Old English, but in fact it's Norse ("leggr"). Who knew?

The French word, though; now that's interesting. "Jambe" makes one inevitably think of "jambon", which means "ham", and of course the words would be related; a ham is the upper leg of a pig, smoked or otherwise cured. ("Hams" is also a word that means "buttocks"; the expression always makes me think of the unexpectedly charming Joe Jackson song "You're My Meat": "I love talkin' 'bout your gams/And your big fat hams/It excites me so/Because I know/You're my meat/Fat and forty/But Lordy, you're my meat.")

Now, Italian for "leg" is "gamba"--its relation to the French is obvious--and you might have heard the word in the name of the instrument "viola da gamba". What is it about this viola that earns it the name "viola of the leg"? Is it leg-shaped? No (although that would be wonderful and probably hilarious); unlike other members of the family, it's played resting on the thigh or, if it's big enough, placed between the legs as a cello is.

And of course "jambe" might remind you of the English word "jamb", and sure enough, it's the same word: door jambs are the vertical parts of the door's frame; the legs, if you like.

"Jam", though; surely unrelated, although nobody knows where the word even came from. Likewise "pyjamas", although you might be thinking "pyjamas, legs--pretty obvious". That word is borrowed from Hindi, which got it from Persian "pai", "leg", and "jamah", "garment". So the word "leg" is in fact in there; it's just not where we might have thought it would be.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


We're in the waning days of summer, we seem to have the ragbag scraps of Hurricane Katrina, and the weather's disgusting; it's raining on and off (mostly on), it's not hot-hot but it's hot enough to be uncomfortable (at 7 a.m. the humidex is 31 degrees Celsius, and that's not right), and the air is like a sodden sponge. Uck. People can make fun of Newfoundland weather all they like, but we never had days like this.


The lovely and vivacious Boingboing.com posted a link to a pageful of "Essentialist Explanations", descriptions of various languages and writing systems structured, as Boingboing say, as "Language X is essentially Language Y under conditions Z." Much of it isn't to my mind particularly funny--suffering from a case of Trying Too Hard--and some of it doesn't even have the barest ring of truth. ("English is essentially the language you speak without moving your mouth"? Try saying "What are you talking about, Marianne Cowan?" in a normal tone of voice and see how much moving around those vowels force the mouth to do.)

However, some of the quips are very funny ("English is essentially any other language spoken with a very hot potato in one's mouth", "Dutch is essentially English with all the vowels doubled", "Germänn ist eßëntiälly Ënglisch mit ein few Tschängen und das käpitäal Lëtteren und Lötten von Dötten."), and one of them in particular struck a chord:

English is essentially all exceptions and no rules.


English spelling--all exceptions, no rules--is, to steal a phrase from Henry James, a trap for the unwary. One big toothy trap. A spelling that seems logical--even necessary--can be invalidated by the forces of history and convention.

Here's a paragraph from the satirical newspaperThe Onion, from a piece entitled "Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index":

Google's robot army is rumored to include some 4 million cybernetic search-and-destroy units, each capable of capturing and scanning up to 100 humans per day. Said co-founder Sergey Brin: "The scanning will be relatively painless. Hey, it's Google. It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot. But in the event people resist, the robots are programmed to liquify the brain."

Well, what's wrong there? The word "liquify", that's what. "Liquid" is a correct spelling, it is true, and its root is Latin "liquidus". All well and good. But "liquidus" stems from the verb "liquere", "to be liquid"; "liquefy" comes from "liquefacere", which is to say "liquere-" plus "-facere", "to make" (the source of a clutch of words in English including "fact", "factory" and "factotum"), and at some point it was decided to keep the vowels as they were in Latin.

It's easy to see how "liquify" came to be considered, by some, an alternate spelling: the "-efy" suffix in English is far less common than "-ify", and the only other common words that use it are "putrefy", "rarefy" and "stupefy". It's a near-certainty that in the future it will be in all dictionaries, even the OED. But for now? Wrong.

(It's worth noting that, unless I am misunderstanding their point entirely, the OED seems to have given itself space for just this sort of change; there is of course no listing for "liquify", but the definition of "liquefy" says "also 6-9 liquify", though there are only five definitions of the word. It's reminiscent of the Monty Python line, "Rule 6: There is NO... rule 6!")