or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, October 31, 2005


After all these years, I suppose it's time I finally gave up on Hallowe'en. Not the holiday; the spelling.

That's how they used to spell it when I was a sprat. That spelling was insisted upon, in fact; any other way--the other way, I suppose--was red-penciled.

The reason it's "Hallowe'en" and not "Halloween", we were told, is that the word is a contraction, and contractions contain apostrophes. Why? They just do. Sit up straight, put down that protractor, and pay attention.

"Hallowe'en" is a contraction of "All Hallows' Evening". Nowadays we know "hallow" only as a verb meaning "to revere" or "to make holy" and as its adjectival form "hallowed", so "hallows'" looks strange, but the word began life as a noun meaning "holy man" and later "saint", from an Indo-European root that also gave us, eventually, "whole" and then "wholesome" and also "hale" (both meaning "healthy" in slightly different ways), as well as "holy". (Didn't you always suspect that "holy" and "wholly" were related somehow?)

All Hallows' Evening, then, was the night before All Hallows' Day, or All Saint's Day. In Celtic times, the last day of October--which is to say the last day of fall and also the last day of the Celtic new year--was when the spirits of the dead could walk the earth, getting rather ineffectual vengeance by playing tricks; the living made offerings of food to the spirits as a bribe or dressed like the dead to fool them into leaving the living alone. Christianity, as it did with Christmas, Easter, and a few other holidays, appropriated these traditions as a way of convincing the heathens to convert--"See? We're just like you!"

So: All Hallows' Evening becomes All Hallows' Even--a Middle English abbreviated form which is unrelated to the other "even", meaning "tied" or "level"--which becomes Hallows' E'en and finally Hallowe'en. The apostrophe-less spelling, I admit, is pretty old, too, and there's lots of precedent--Robert Burns used it; but the word is a contraction, that apostrophe has every right to be there, and I think it looks nicer. Plus, "Hallowe'en" is indisputably correct, which is always nice.

Do schools still do any of what they did when I was a child? Red-penciling, insistence upon correct spelling, and explanations of why the correct is correct and any other way isn't? If they don't, then I can't help but think that they're shirking their duties. I know life has become a little more complicated in the last few decades, what with having to scan the tots for guns and teach them about condoms and such, but there still ought to be enough time left over to teach children the elements of the language they speak.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Because English words are derived from such an amazing array of sources, we can easily be led astray by words that look like one thing but have their genesis in another.

"Mis-" is a prefix that nearly always means something bad or wrong: "misogyny", for example, "a hatred of women", or "misdeed", "a wrong act". So it's natural that some people in the past have assumed that "miscegenation", which is to say interracial marriage, has a name that brands it as inherently wrong. But in fact there is a small cluster of words in English that look as if they ought to begin with "mis-" but in fact begin with something else entirely, and that is "misc-".

The prefix "misc-" comes from Latin "miscere", "to mix". From it we get such words as "miscellaneous" and "miscellany" (mixtures of things), "miscible" (just another way of spelling "mixable"), and "miscegenation", which, being from Latin "miscere" plus "genus", "race", means "race-mixing".

If you see a word beginning with "misc-", it belongs to one of these two families. If the "mis-" comes off and leaves an intact word ("miscue", "miscarriage"), it belongs to the "mis-" family; otherwise, it's a descendent of "miscere". (Of course, English being English, there has to be an exception: "miscreant", which is from "mis-" plus "credere", "to believe"; a miscreant originally was a heretic, and the word now has the once-removed meaning "evildoer".)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Paper Trail

I'm not in the habit of reading the National Post, but then I'm not in the habit of reading any daily newspaper; they're too depressingly bad. But I was waiting for the bus to work (no car for me!) and eyeballing through the window of the newspaper-box the front page of the Post, specifically a story about Harriet Miers' decision to withdraw from the nomination for Supreme Court justice, and there, above the fold, was the second paragraph of the story:

The withdrawl, which comes as the Bush administration is mired in controversy over Iraq....

That's all I jotted down. That's all I needed to. "Withdrawl"? And right there in the third paragraph is the same word, correctly spelled ("withdrawal")?

What's any newspaper saying when it allows such mistakes? "We couldn't be bothered to ensure good spelling and grammar because we don't give a shit about our readers."

And what should any sensible reader take away from such a mistake? "Any newspaper that can't even trouble itself to use a spell-checker is probably not going to employ a fact-checker, either, and it stands to reason that its facts are as suspect as its spelling."

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I got a new computer today and I can say without a trace of hyperbole that it is the most beautiful machine ever manufactured. Just look at it! It looks like a big iPod! The entire computer fits inside the monitor case! It has a four-button scroll mouse with only one button (and that the size of a freshwater pearl)! It's sleek and elegant and perfectly quiet (no cooling fan) and I'm in love.

But anyway.

Words come to me and usually I find myself wondering where they're from or what other words they're related to--how they came into the language and what other traces they've left. But a couple of days ago at work, a word popped into my head--where, of course, I had no chance to look it up--and the problem wasn't that I didn't know where it came from; the problem was that I had no idea at all what it meant. (Which is to say that, yes, words simply appear in my head at any time for no reason, and yes, I do learn words and then forget their meanings. Sometimes.) So I was stuck at work for hours and hours, playing this word over in my head and trying not to.

The word was "velleity". It hardly even looks like an English word, let alone one that's related to any other English words. What could it be related to? "Vellum"? "Well"? "Valley"? "Villain"? I was completely at a loss. After mulling it over, I wasn't even sure it was a word any more.

It is, and the meaning, as it turns out, is "mere will", which is to say "the desire to do something without any effort towards doing it". (Remember it whenever you read one of those lists of amazingly specific words from other languages.) It's from Latin "velle", "to wish". And it has cousins in English, of course; you can usually play with "v" and "w" and you can always play with vowels, and so "velle"/"velleity" is in fact related to English "will", sensibly enough. I don't suppose it's a word you or I will use much, but it's a word.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Everybody's Wrong

Sometimes I feel like that kid in The Sixth Sense, only where he sees dead people and they scare him, I see millions and millions of typos and grammatical errors, and they piss me off.


I love Salon.com. I really do. But it's getting to the point that I figure I should start every posting by saying, "There were a bunch of mistakes on Salon today." Here's one from an article by Andrew Leonard called Rubber Match, about a lawsuit in the condom industry:

Or to put it more bluntly: Condoms, historically speaking, suck.

This is an opinion that men have likely always shared, whether binding themselves with linen sheaves, sheep gut or the latest in latex.

"Linen sheaves"? Sheaves of linen? Entire bundles of the stuff?

Honestly. One quick perusal by anyone other than the original author would have provided the correct word, "sheathes". It's easy for the writer to make this error, but difficult for a proofreader to miss it. There is no excuse for a mistake like this. None.


In Slate.com, in an article by Fred Kaplan called "Now They Tell Us", is the following:

During the question-and-answer period at the New America Foundation, he was asked where someone in his position should draw the line between loyalty and disclosure. He replied, "I feel like, as a citizen and as a person very concerned with the military … I need to speak out. … I think when you feel like what you might say has even a remote opportunity to affect some change for the good."

Sorry, colonel. You had far more than a merely "remote opportunity" to "affect some change" last November.

What the colonel actually had was an opportunity to "effect some change": the verb "affect" means "to cause to change", whereas the verb "effect" means "to cause to happen". People use them interchangeably all the time, though they are not interchangeable.

But wait a second: The colonel was speaking, and the two words do sound pretty similar in speech, unless your diction is unusually precise. The real problem here is the transcript of the exchange (it's here), which does in fact use the word "affect". Whoever made the transcript might well have spelled the word wrong; the original speech might have used "effect" correctly.

I doubt it, though, because the full sentence--which Slate abbreviates--reads as follows:

A less-than-glib answer is I think when you feel like what you might say has even a remote opportunity to affect some change for the good, that’s sort of my personal criteria.

As we know, "criteria" is a plural noun, and the preceding clause is clearly singular--the speaker himself marks it so by using the singular pronoun "that"--and therefore singular "criterion" is what he wants. Either the speechwriter or the speaker (perhaps they're the same person, though that seems to be rare these days) made a mistake.

To recap: Slate probably should have used "[sic]" to mark the erroneous use of "affect", the speechwriter ought to have written "effect" (assuming the transcriber used the printed speech as an aid to transcription), the speaker ought to have practised his speech and known to use "criterion", and the transcriber should have spelled "effect" correctly, however it was used in the original speech (since it was a transcription of the entire event including questions and not merely a photocopy). So let's just say that everybody's wrong. Except me.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Today in Salon.com, a bafflingly wrong construction in a review by Debra Dickerson of a war memoir called "Love My Rifle More Than You" by Kayla Williams:

As good as Williams gets comes early on when she's describing the "Queen for a Year" phenomenon; the farther men are from home, and the fewer women there are, plain Jane soldiers begin to morph into supermodels.

The last clause ought to have been "the more plain Jane soldiers begin to morph into supermodels". (I would have hyphenated "plain-Jane", too; it's a compound adjective.) The first two words are missing, the ones required to make the whole thing complete.

You've seen the correct version of this a thousand times, and so has the writer. "The less I drink, the better I feel"; "the closer they get, the worse they look"; "the later it is at the bar, the better people look." So how did this sentence go so awry? The only thing I can think of is that the second clause ("and the fewer women there are") threw the writer off; she thought she'd already completed the sentence correctly because hey, there's that balancing clause, right? (The irony is that the sentence appears in a book review devoted more or less entirely to explaining how badly written the book is.)

The more I see such errors, the gloomier I get. Where are the copy editors when you need them?

Sunday, October 23, 2005


So it's a rainy, nasty old Sunday, and we have to stock up on Diet Coke (breakfast of champions), and so we're in a big-ass Shoppers Drug Mart, which is not your grandfather's drug store, unless he was a visionary; it's a drugstore, a perfumery, a grocery store, and a health-food store all rolled up into one. We're kind of poking around the aisles, like you do, and I notice a jar of pomade and instantly (of course) wonder where the word "pomade" comes from. Jim is of the impression that it must be related to "pomander" somehow, and I agree that they're related, however distantly.

"Pomander", as you might guess if you know anything of the Romance languages, is related to French "pomme", "apple". In fact, it's a corruption of "pomme d'ambre", "apple of amber", because the original pomander was a ball (roughly apple-shaped) of spices and perfume ingredients, including ambergris, used to scent the air--this in a time when the air, the ground, and the citizenry were not particularly sweet-smelling. (Nowadays when pomanders are hand-made, they're usually oranges studded with cloves and cassia, hung in a closet to scent it.)

How, then, is "pomade" related to apples? It originally was a skin cream or ointment, of which apple pulp was an ingredient; by the mid to late nineteenth century it had come to mean a hair cream. (No apples.)

The Diet Coke was all for Jim. I don't drink it any more; if you've read enough of me you can just imagine how much I can talk when my motor really gets running, and caffeine revs me up to an almost unimaginable degree. (It also keeps me jarringly, insomniacally awake.) So no caffeine. And no theobromine, either, which means no chocolate. I can live without it.

"Caffeine" is so self-evidently derived from "coffee" that no further comment is required. "Theobromine" (a chemical relative of caffeine), however; that's interesting. The "theo-" part is exactly the same as that in "theology"; that is, "god". The "bromine" part might appear to be from the element of the same name, but that's where etymology fools you; "bromine" comes from "bromos", the Greek word for "stench", because bromine stinks up a storm, but the "-bromine" in "theobromine" is actually from another Greek word, "broma", meaning "food"; "theobroma" is a genus of trees (one of which is the cacao tree, whose beans are used to make chocolate) whose name literally means "food of the gods". Whoever named that really must have liked chocolate.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Sic Semper Typos

I'm sure James Wolcott is a dreadfully busy man--it has to take some time to think up such wonderful sentences as "In the calm, autumnal reflection of Sunday morn, it is impossible to shoo away the sad conclusion that Bill Keller and Pinch Sulzberger have fucked the dog"--but can he not find the time to re-read his blog entries before he posts them? Not even once?

Here's the first line from his most recent:

I couldn't agree more with Pat Lang's post at Sic Temper Tyrannis:

Now, I understand that this is a very easy mistake to make; we've all done it. You've got a hot idea percolating in your brain, your fingers are flying across the keyboard, your mind is at least three words ahead of your hands, and you start two words with the same letter; I could easily have written "lame letter" just then. Your spellchecker won't catch it, but you might, if you re-read.

What Wolcott meant was "Sic semper tyrannis!", Latin for "Thus always to tyrants!", which is what you're supposed to scream just before you insert a knife or a bullet into said tyrant. It's what John Wilkes Booth said just before he plugged President Lincoln. I am fairly sure Booth got the "semper" part right.


So as usual a word popped into my head while I was doing the dishes, and this time it was "exaggerate". The "ex-" part, I was pretty sure, was a standard intensifier denoting outwardness, as in "express" (literally "to squeeze out"), but the rest had me stymied. Finally it dawned on me that the root was so similar to the verb "aggregate", or "gather up", that they must be related; to exaggerate was therefore to literally and figuratively gather it up and pile it on.

And nnnnnnnnnnnnnnope. But so close! "Exaggerate" does, in fact, literally mean "pile on"; it comes from the Latin "ex-" plus "aggerere", "to bring to", which itself led to the noun "agger", "pile". "Aggregate", on the other hand, is from "aggregare", "to collect", which in turn is from "greg-", "flock"; this is also the source of "gregarious", a word describing someone who loves to be in a crowd. It is also, marvellously, the root of "egregious" (starting with that "ex-" again, abbreviated thanks to the following consonant), which means "flagrantly offensive", literally "out of the flock"; someone who acts egregiously is someone who is about to be ejected from the herd.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Wrapped Up

In English, we'll often use the same word for different parts of speech, or even the same part of speech used in different ways. Sometimes we pronounce them differently (in "desert" we have "DEH-zert" the noun versus "duh-ZERT" the verb: "read" can be pronounced as past-tense "red" or present-tense "reed"). These come naturally to people who grow up in the language--most of them, anyway--but have to be learned by people studying the language, and I don't envy them that.

Every schoolchild learns early on that tacking the letter "-e" on to the end of a short word will change its pronunciation in a predictable way; it makes a short vowel into a long one. "Cub" is "kub", but "cube" becomes "kyoob"; "rat" is just "rat", but "rate" is "rayt". You can make words up and the rule will still hold; any halfways decent English speaker would instinctively know how to pronounce the vowels in "sil" and "sile".

So given these two qualities of English, wouldn't you think that someone might have noticed the problem with this sentence from a piece in Wednesday's Slate.com?

The rich envelope themselves in their own loneliness, which they then try to pierce in the strangest of ways.

See, "envelope" is a noun, and we might correctly guess that its last vowel is long based on that terminal "-e". On the other hand, the verb form, "envelop", doesn't have an "-e", so it ought to, and does, have a short vowel: "EN-ve-lope" versus "en-VEL-up". And since what's called for in the sentence in question is a verb, well, someone goofed, and no spellchecker in the world is going to catch it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


So I was reading an article in the online New Yorker yesterday (this one, if you must know) and a word grabbed my eye. No, it wasn't wrong; this is the New Yorker we're talking about. It just grabbed my eye, that's all.

The word was "supplied", and I immediately thought of the word "supply" and simultaneously of the word "supple", because that is the way my brain works. Could there be any relationship between them, and if there was, what was it? They didn't seem related in any way, but stranger things have happened in English.

They aren't, in fact, related, though they do share the Latin prefix "sub-", "under". "Supple", unsurprisingly, comes to us directly from French, which uses "souple" to express the same idea. The French, in turn, got it from Latin "supplex", "one who supplicates", and to supplicate is to humbly beseech while bowing before; the knees are bent under the body, and this is literally what "supple" means: "sub-" plus "-plex", "under-folded". The root "-plex" has a host of offshoots in English: the folded strands of a "plait", the bendable "Plexiglass", the convolutions of "complexity" and "perplexity", and, through the related Latin "plicare", "pliable", "complicate", the multiple layers known as "plies", and "implicate" ("to fold within").

"Supply", on the other hand, comes from "sub-" plus "plere", "to fill". "Plere" also makes it presence known in a galaxy of words such as "plenty", "replenish", the "implement" we use to fulfill some physical goal, "compliance" and "compliment" which are used to fulfill duties or social goals, and the "completion" of those goals.

Of course, "supply" is also the adverbial form of "supple", but that's just an accident of spelling (although the less aesthetically pleasing "supplely" would also do).


Also in The New Yorker--here--was the following pair of sentences:

“The West Wing” ’s midlife crisis may also have provided an early lesson for ABC’s show. Two years ago, “The West Wing” ’s prodigious creator, Aaron Sorkin, who wrote virtually every episode and strained the show’s budget—and NBC’s patience—with delays, left under a cloud.

Now we know that one entry in the New Yorker's stylebook reads, "When a phrase in quotation marks is possessive, leave a space between the closing quotation marks and the apostrophe," or some such. It's clear that they do it to leave absolutely no doubt that the apostrophe is there, but it looks strange and, frankly, wrong. (Mind you, my first instinct is to rewrite the sentence, but that isn't really an option in this case: the show's name really needs to be in the possessive. If the show's name had an apostrophe-ess at the end, though, we'd have to rewrite it; ""Eat At Joe's"'s" is a nightmare thicket of punctuation.) It's too bad their stylebook doesn't allow them to put the names of television shows in italics rather than quotes, which would solve the problem nicely.

It isn't wrong, I suppose; it's a matter of house style. But I don't like it. There aren't any other cases in English in which the possessive apostrophe-ess is bodily separated from the word it modifies, and I don't see why we should make an exception for close-quotes. Me, I just jam the apostrophe up against those quotation marks. If people can't trust me, if they have to get close and count the squiggles to make sure I haven't left something out, so be it.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Curse of the Hyphen

Yesterday I mentioned the bitter irony of an error-laced artwork at a public library in Livermore, California, and here's another. At the local Chapters, which is a large Canadian bookstore chain, there's a display unit near the entrance containing bookplates and other accoutrements for a home library. (The display features a kit that I can't make up my mind about; it contains a stamp pad and a date stamp and a bunch of old-fashioned cards that slip into pockets you place in the front or back of the book, so that when you lend out books to friends, they know when they're due back. On the one hand, it's charming and retro, but on the other hand, it's a little grim, because it suggests you don't trust your friends, even though we've all lent out books and never gotten them back; the rule is, if you can't live without it, you don't ever lend it.) Above this collection of buyables is the following sign:

Set-up your library

They aren't teaching hyphenation in schools any more, are they? Nobody seems to know what they are; nobody seems to know how to use them. Nobody seems to know that when you hyphenate a verb and a preposition, you turn them into something that is no longer a verb.

On the way home from the depressing bookstore, I saw a professionally made sign at a small independent used-car dealership that read, "Trade in's welcomed!" Two punctuation errors in the same word: a very impressive accomplishment. I wish someone at the signmaker's shop had alerted the dealer of the mistake before the sign was committed to plastic, but it's no crime (irritating and wrong though it is). To see such a sign at a bookstore. a temple of literacy, though; that's absolutely inexcusable.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Dizzy Spell

Goddammit, Salon, what is wrong with you? You're turning into the Globe and Mail of websites--hardly a page goes by without an error of some sort. It's ruining your credibility!

Here's the malignancy in question:

But the best joke this season has to be the introduction of Scott Baio as the Bluths' new lawyer. His name? Bob Loblaw. His television commercial, a parody of those cheesy "Been in an accident?" lawyer ads, is what can only be described as an instant classic. "Why should you go to jail for a crime someone else noticed?" Baio asks. "You don't need double-talk, you need Bob Loblaw!" A voice-over finishes, "Bob Loblaw. No hablo espagñol."

That's a great joke--an ambulance-chaser whose name sounds like "blah blah blah"--but there is no such word as "espagñol". If you're spelling in Spanish, it's "español". If you're writing French, it's "espagnol", without the tilde, because French doesn't use the tilde: the "-gn-" makes that "-ñ-" sound, which sounds like "-ny-", just as it does in Italian ("lasagne").

(By the by, I know that Wikipedia is compiled by just-folks and that anyone can edit it, but there's a bizarre assertion in the entry on diacritical marks, to wit: "Note that diacritic is a noun and diacritical is the corresponding adjective." That simply isn't true: as I have noted before, words ending in "-ic" and words ending in "-ical" are almost always interchangeable as adjectives, and that's just as true of "diacritic" and "diacritical"; they're both adjectives, although "diacritic" is also a noun.)


Not that there's any doubt that spelling matters, but here's a little story from today's News of the Weird:

Florida artist Maria Alquilar returned to Livermore, Calif., in August to fix the large mosaic she created at the city library a year ago when the city paid her $40,000 but failed to spellcheck her names "(Albert) Eistein," "(William) Shakespere," "(Paul) Gaugan," "(Vincent) Van Gough" and seven others. She had initially refused to make the corrections, dismissing the errors as merely "words" and angry at being ridiculed, but she relented after the city offered her $6,000 more.

So it cost the Livermore city council $6000 because 1) some dolt never learned to spell or even use a dictionary and 2) some other pinhead never bothered to check. "Merely words"? I beg to differ. She was making artwork for the city library; can she really believe that words are irrelevant? If so, she was most definitely the wrong artist for the job. (I should note that, while "Shakespeare" is the currently accepted spelling, "Shakespere" was one of the numerous variants that cropped up before spelling was codified by dictionary; the author himself always spelled it "Shakspere". Anything except "Shakespeare" is still wrong nowadays, though.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005


This is sort of gross, so you don't have to look if you don't want to; a cat with two tongues. It sounds like a joke, but there's the picture to prove it. (Not that pictures prove anything any more: my mom could probably Photoshop a second tongue into a picture of her cat.)

The article also mentions that this mutated moggy has five toes on each foot. You might well be thinking, "So?", but cats ordinarily have only four toes on their hind feet, so that is kind of strange. Except that it isn't strange at all: multi-toed cats are surprisingly common in some parts of the world, most of them port cities such as Halifax, where I used to live. At least four per cent of all cats in Halifax have a bunch of toes; I've seen twenty-two-toed cats (six on each front paw, five on each back), and the world record is twenty-seven.

The condition is common enough that there's a word for it: "polydactyly", which is Greek, as you may have guessed; "poly-", "many", as in "polygamy", and "-dactyl", meaning "digit" (that is, "finger" or "toe"), plus the "-y" suffix that turns an adjective into a noun. (That suffix is very versatile: it also turns a noun into an adjective, as in "cheeky", a verb into an adjective, as in "slinky", or a noun into another noun, as in "burglary". It's probably at its most useful, though, in the creation of an adjective, because that's how it's popularly used; you can tack it onto a huge number of words to get adjectives--"lizardy", say, or "touchy-feely".)

If you had heard the word "dactylography" but didn't know what it meant--which describes me about ten minutes ago--what would you think it meant? The Greek words for "finger" and "writing"; shouldn't they, assembled into a word, mean "typing", and a typewriter therefore be a "dactylograph"? Makes sense to me, but unfortunately, that's not what it means at all; dactylography is the study of fingerprinting. I'm very disappointed.

A dactyl is also a metrical foot composed of one stressed and two unstressed syllables, as in "paramount". Naming a metrical foot after a toe seems like some kind of poets' inside joke; I guessed that, in fact, it got its name from a finger because both have three joined segments, and the OED confirms this, so I'm batting .500 in guesses today (and it isn't even 4 a.m.).

The word "devilish" is a dactyl, and the Morse code for the letter "d" is also a dactyl--that is, DIT-dah-dah--which is a useful piece of information if you're trying to learn the Morse code on bus trips to and from work. If you happen to be on a bus in Moncton and you see someone holding a small piece of paper, muttering under his breath, "a-LERT, BAS-tard-iz-ing, COP-a-CET-ic, DEV-il-ish, edge, fran-gi-PAN-i", that'll be me.

Friday, October 14, 2005

On My Radar

I like Salon.com, and I like their new site design, but I do not like the fact that they clearly do not have one single copy editor on staff.

I also like Patrick Smith, who writes the weekly Ask the Pilot column, but he really, really needs that nonexistent copy editor. (Or perhaps I'm wrong, and there is a copy editor, in which case Salon needs someone a little more on the ball.)

Example 1: Smith mentions a dressing-down he received from a reader about a fine point in physics, and then says, "The above scold (I cleaned and paraphrased it slightly), comes from...". Two problems: that comma after the closing parenthesis doesn't belong there, and "scold" doesn't mean what Smith thinks it does. As a noun, "scold" means only one thing: the person delivering the scolding, which is the noun Smith was looking for.

Example 2: Excusing himself for the tiny physics error, Smith says, "Besides, what do you expect from a math and physics flunky?" I expect a writer to use the word "flunky", if he uses it at all, correctly. A flunky isn't a person who flunked something; it's a person who's subservient and menial. (It likely comes from "flanker", an attendant off to the side--literally, at your flank.)

Example 3: Speaking of math and physics skills, Smith says that their employment is "a vestige, maybe, from the days when airmen carried slide rules and practiced celestial navigation." Two extremely fine points here: first, "vestige of" is better, certainly far more usual, than "vestige from", and "practiced" ought to be "practised", since "practice" is the noun and "practise" is the verb. (I'll concede, though, that Americans generally use only the first spelling for both noun and verb, and perhaps the Salon style guide--I'm assuming there is one--reflects this.)

Example 4: The sentence "And hang on, fumbling over the physics of deceleration wasn't my only mistake:" is what we call a run-on sentence, a.k.a. a comma splice, because it is in fact two separate sentences (or clauses) latched together with a comma, which ought to be a semicolon.

I know for a fact that some people would tell me this is mere hair-splitting, but hair-splitting is exactly what a copy editor does. A piece of writing, no matter how stylish or illuminating, is not complete if any reader has to stop and wonder if an element of the writing is punctuated or spelled correctly, if something is factually accurate, if the piece shouldn't flow better than it does. A copy editor sands off the rough edges, hides the seams, and polishes the whole. Publications ignore this at their peril.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Whiter Shade of Black

I was reading one of my favourite blogs, Now Smell This (the link is over there to the left) this evening, and today's posting is about a scent called Vanille Eau Noire du Mexique. It sounds wonderful, but what grabbed me was the word "noire", which is French for "black". Where, I wondered, did "black" come from? It is clearly unrelated to the Romance languages with their variations of the French word ("negro" in Spanish, for example, or "nero" in Italian) and also to the Germanic languages, which have "schwartz" or some variation thereof. (We have a trace of that in the word "swarthy", meaning "dark-complected".) So where did our word come from?

I won't go into great detail, because, as the OED says, it is "a word of difficult history", and no kidding. But the word is descended from the Old English word "blaec", with the same meaning.

"Bleach" means "to whiten: to remove the colour from". If I were to tell you that it apparently evolved from that same root, "blaec", would you believe me? And yet that seems to be the case. How can the word "black" and a word meaning "white(n)" have the same source? It has something to do with that tangled history alluded to above (with a similar-sounding but unrelated word, "blac", meaning "shining" or "white", making an appearance and confusing the situation), but it also has something to do with the fact that neither white nor black are truly colours, and something that's colourless can be either white or black. The two polar opposites have much more in common that we generally think. ("White", by the way, is Germanic; the modern German is "weiss". The French word for "white", "blanc", gives us both "blanch" and "blank".)

It may also interest you to learn that "bleak" ("pale, wan") is also a relative of "bleach". I should have known; as I've said before, words ending with "-k" and similar words ending with "-ch" are often related, and these two continue the chain.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Some people are opposed to cheating in computer and video games. "That takes all the fun out of it!", they carp. Well, phooey on them, I say. I don't have a couple hundred hours to devote to getting really, really good at games, and believe me, I'm going to have a lot more fun with "Warcraft III" by cheating than I am by getting killed repeatedly and endlessly. Cheats don't take all the fun out of a game; they put a lot of fun into it. If I can have my Sims look at a magic painting instead of sleeping and eating, doesn't that give me a lot more time to have them live their little artificial lives? And isn't that more rewarding for me?

Even if I'm not going to cheat, I'm probably going to buy those game guides that spell it all out for you, so you know where to go and what to do. You can follow them slavishly, or you can just use them to get you out of a jam, but they're invaluable to people like me--people who aren't eighteen and have lives.

So I'm playing "Fable", and it's clear that I'm not going to get far without a game guide, so I go out and buy one (this one, which is pretty good). And you don't suppose I'd be telling you about this if there weren't typos in it, do you? You probably know better than that by now.

There are typos; I ran across one that, if I remember correctly (I didn't take notes), misspelled "opportunity" as "opportuniy", which means they didn't even bother with a spellchecker. Tsk. But what's actually more annoying than that is the repeated use of the would-be idiomatic phrase "wail on".

It's wrong. For some unknown reason, "whale on" came to mean "thrash mercilessly"; it's an odd expression and it evidently came out of nowhere. But it is "whale on", not "wail on". Using it--and using it over and over again--just makes the writer look dumb.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


I am surrounded by wrongness. It is my own personal hell.


I suppose it was yesterday morning we were just kind of hanging around flipping through the channels--it was Thanksgiving Day here in Canada--and of course there was some news story about some murdered woman, because the news cycle just isn't complete if there isn't a story (but only one) about some (attractive, Caucasian, preferably blonde, preferably young) woman who's been murdered or, even better, is missing and presumed murdered. I would have ignored the thing altogether if I hadn't been so shocked at the caption under at the bottom of the screen:


Co-ed? Does anyone on the face of the Earth still use that noun?

It was already demeaning when it was invented about a hundred years ago. Logically it ought to have referred to both men and women being educated together, rather than in separate schools; but for some reason it meant only the women, which gave it an air of sneering condescension. (Young men were students, even scholars; young women were merely co-eds.) It never did shake this sense; "co-ed" has long, perhaps always, had a sense of a silly girl playing at being a student until she lands a husband. By the seventies it was feeling very dated, and I'm astonished that it's still used at all.


This from the utterly wonderful Mocoloco.com, a website about modern design:

Inspired by nature and the luminous effects of light filtering through the leaves of the plants, the chandelier is made of a single bended aluminium sheet that, when assembled in diverse directions, reflects the light differently.

Oh, dear. Remember last Thursday and again on Friday when I was going on about irregular past participles? "Bent" is one of them, and it's virtually always the correct choice. It's true that "bended" exists in English, but it does so in the most limited possible manner; as part of one single idiomatic and poetical phrase, "on bended knee", which is how someone prays or proposes marriage. That aluminum chandelier? "Bent", not "bended".


I was reading the CBS website about the show "Threshold", which I've never watched but keep meaning to, because the premise is mildly interesting through completely unbelievable, because Carla Gugino is an intriguing actress, and also because Peter Dinklage in a goatee? Hot. And right there on the site's show description is the following sentence:

Together, they decipher the intention of the craft, the fate of the ship's crew and begin preparations for the possibility of a crisis situation--an alien invasion.

No. No, no, no, no, no. Parallel structure isn't that hard to accomplish--it's well within the grasp of your average writer, and whoever wrote the text for the website is certainly being paid for it and therefore is a professional, and shame on them. Either chuck a verb in at the beginning of the second clause ("determine the fate of the ship's crew") so that each of the three clauses has its own verb, or structure the whole thing so that "decipher" works as the verb for all three clauses. You don't get to use the same verb for two of them and suddenly switch gears. It's all or nothing.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Set in Stone

I know I do go on about hyphens, and I'm sorry about that, I really am. But people just keep using them incorrectly, which drives me up the wall because they're relatively easy to use and they make writing clearer and more comprehensible. Isn't that really the goal of any writer?

I was reading the October/November 2005 issue of the inimitable Readymade over supper the other night and was flummoxed by this initially indecipherable sentence (it's in the editor's message on page 10):

Previous concoctions included milkshakes made from mortar and pestled M&Ms and toast cooked three ways.

I just stared at it because I literally had no idea what the writer was talking about. They made milkshakes from mortar? Is that like making mud pies? And what did the mortar do to the blender? Didn't it set like concrete? And wasn't their mom mad?

Finally I realized that the milkshakes had been made from M&Ms that had been crushed using a mortar and pestle, and that what the author had in fact meant to say was "mortar-and-pestled M&Ms". Those hyphens are crucial; they make all the difference. They turn a noun phrase into an adjective, and without them, I was led drastically astray, because "mortar" has a number of meanings in English.

The hyphen is more than just another punctuation mark; it's practically the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, and writers need to learn how to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


So as I said yesterday, Jim and I were in Halifax on Friday. For lunch we were at some mall food court--don't ask--and I was seated facing a joint called Made In Japan Teriyaki Experience. One of the people working there was this good-looking thirtyish Japanese guy (I think he was Japanese-looking, but Margaret Cho has this comedy routine about how everyone assumes she can magically tell Vietnamese from Chinese from Tibetan just because she's Korean, and I'm no better at it than she is, so let's just say he was Asiatic), and so naturally as I was eyeballing him I started thinking about the epicanthic fold, or more accurately about its etymology.

The epicanthic fold, as you probably know and if you don't soon will, is the crease in the upper eyelid that Asian people generally don't have and everyone else generally does. (There are lots of exceptions that it's much too boring to detail, but this guy definitely didn't have epicanthic folds.) "Epi-", I knew, is the Greek prefix meaning, variously, "on", "over", "near", "around", and a few other things, depending on context, and I've always wondered how they managed to make do with so few prepositions, but then I'm not a linguist. It's the "-canthic" part that I couldn't figure out. The only words I knew that had a similar sound and feel were "cantharides", which is to say "Spanish fly", a toxic preparation made from a kind of beetle and used as a theoretical aphrodisiac, and "canthaxin", which is an orange dye taken orally to simulate a tan. I was pretty sure these words were unrelated to "-canthic", and I need hardly say they're not: the last two syllables of "epicanthic" comes from Greek "kanthos", which is, with remarkable specificity, the angle formed by the meeting of the eyelids. (They had a word for that, and not one for "over" that distinguished it from "near"?)

After I had sorted that out, a couple of other interesting anatomical terms popped into my head, and I naturally began to wonder about their etymologies, too, and if they had managed to leave any offspring in English.

The xiphoid process is something I had learned about back in CPR class, because I'd been told that it's something you don't want to snap off. "Xiphoid" comes from Greek "xiphos", a type of double-bladed one-handed sword. The "-oid" in "xiphoid" (or "humanoid", for that matter) is a Greek suffix that means "-shaped", and a process, anatomically, is an outgrowth, so the xiphoid process may be translated as "sword-shaped sticky-outy-thingie", which is just what it is; it projects downwards from the sternum, and if you try to perform CPR in the wrong anatomical location, you can break it off, at which point it is probably going to lodge in the liver and cause some unintended damage. But other than "xiphoid process", "xiphos" has left no other traces in English that I can find, with good reason; it's not the most flexible of words. I could be wrong about this, of course.

Finally, I needed to look up something called the zygomatic arch, which is to say the bony structure that runs along the underside of the eye socket and around the side of the face. (Why do I know such a term? I don't know. Things stick in my brain. It's a big pool of quicksand, and whatever falls in doesn't get out.)

My usual technique of mentally breaking apart words and playing with the syllables got me as far as the first syllable of "zygomatic", when I realized that it surely has to be related to "zeugma", a figure of speech that, as it happens, I used in yesterday's posting. (Bonus points, whatever they are, if you can find it.) And sure enough, the two words are related; they're from Greek "zugoun", "to join", because the zygoma connects the front of the face to the side and the zeugma joins two unrelated meanings of words into a single phrase.

God, I love etymology.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


If you ever doubted that every single piece of published writing anywhere needs a second pair of eyes, these examples ought to set your mind straight.

But first, to set the scene: Friday was my day off, so Jim took a day off and rented a car and we drove to Halifax. We just kind of bummed around, didn't do much of anything, but it was nice to visit the city where we met and where we'd spent so much time. And while there, I spotted the following professionally designed and executed signs:

1) one which gave information about what to do in case of fire, emergency, or "poisin";

2) one (in a parking garage) which forbade, among other things, brawling, vandalism, and "drunkeness";

3) one which indicated that the business in question was "independently-owned and operated".

(This third item is, I admit, not necessarily obvious, so here's why it's wrong. It's true that we connect the words of a phrase using hyphens to change their parts of speech, and logically therefore we'd use a hyphen to yoke the adverb "independently" to the adjective "owned" to form a compound adjective; but as it happens, that rule is nearly always suspended in the case of adverbs ending in "-ly". And even if it weren't, even if we allowed the hyphen, we'd need a second hyphen in front of "operated" to make it parallel with the first adjective, as in "short-haired and -tempered". Either way, it's wrong: two hyphens bad, no hyphens good, but one hyphen wrong.)

So; professional signmakers need proofreaders. No surprise there.

If all this weren't enough, Friday night I was trying something that's very much in the news in iPod-land; giving your machinery a like-new look with a can of Brasso and a microfibre cloth. (Here's how.) So naturally I set out some newspaper on the kitchen table and had at it. Polishing metal is not something that takes all of your concentration, so naturally my attention drifted to the newspaper, the October 1st edition of the Moncton Times & Transcript. And there on the back page of the Life & Times section (page H8), in the local announcements, was the following, and I swear that this really was in the paper and that I'm not making it up:

The Salivation Army is holding a support group for children ages six to 16 who are or have been affected because a loved one is incarcerated.

There. Right there in black and white. The most definitive possible argument for having a proofreader on the staff of every single newspaper.

(P.S. The Brasso/microfibre procedure worked like a charm on my first-generation iPod. It polished out many scratches and removed all manner of tarnish and schmutz, and while you wouldn't mistake it for new, it has a gleam it hasn't had in a couple of years.)

Friday, October 07, 2005


On re-reading yesterday's posting (which I always do to catch any unseemly typos) I thought about a couple of things I'd ignored, so let's have a look at those.

I quoted an AP wire story to talk about irregular past participles and somehow missed another one that appears in the same paragraph--the word "swelled". The usual--certainly the older--past participle of "swell" is "swollen". But the forces of history are gradually decreasing the number of irregular past participles in English; the most commonly used irregular verbs remain unchanged while the less-used ones are reimagined as regular verbs by people who haven't seen them before, and so gradually become regular. It's happening with "show" (the earlier form is "shown"), "dwell" ("dwelt"), "creep" ("crept"), "shine" ("shone"), "knit" ("knit"), "heave" ("hove"), "saw" ("sawn"), and any number of others, all of which are becoming standardized into verb-plus-"-ed".

I'm stealing this from Answers.com; I was talking glancingly about the word "write", and upon looking it up discovered that English is the only western Indo-European language that still uses a word derived from the IE root "wried-" to refer to writing; all the rest of them use a derivative of the Latin word "scribere". French, "écrire". German, "schreiben". And so forth. But we're the only ones that use "write" or any reasonable facsimile thereof. Who knew? (We still got a pretty good package of words from "scribere", though: "scribe", "inscribe", "prescribe", "scribble", "scripture", "script", and a host of others.) We're also just about the only IE language which doesn't use Latin "legere" as the source of its word meaning "to read"; our version comes from an old Germanic word, "redan", "to advise", the source of "rede", a nearly-obsolete English word meaning "counsel", as well as "riddle". (Once again, though, we got a batch of words from "legere", including "legible", "legend", and "lecture".)

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Just so there isn't any confusion: today's example doesn't have a mistake in it, so don't bother looking for one. The paragraph is from an AP wire story about a python that got greedy and tried to swallow an entire alligator; the meal disagreed with the snake, in that the alligator, still alive at the time, evidently began clawing its way out of the python. Neither meal nor diner survived the experience, according to the rather revolting photograph; I wouldn't say, as the story does, that the snake "exploded" (what could cause an actual explosion in such an instance?), but it sure does seem to have ruptured.

Anyway; the paragraph.

The gators have had to share their territory with a python population that has swelled over the past 20 years after owners dropped off pythons they no longer wanted in the Everglades. The Asian snakes have thrived in the wet, hot climate.

"Thrived"? I'd rather not.

In English, the simple past generally uses the form of the past participle. (The past participle is used, among other things, to form the past perfect--something that's completed--whereas the simple past merely expresses something that happened: infinitive "to live", simple past "I lived", past perfect "I have lived".) Irregular verbs, of course, have to mess with this beautiful simplicity, and English, thanks to its multiple outside influences, has a fair number of irregular verbs.

One of these outside influences was German, from which English derived a great many verbs. German verbs generally end in "-en", and quite a few English verbs originally also had this ending in some form or another ("to come", related to modern German "kommen", was originally "cuman" and then "cumen", perhaps recognizable from the Middle English song "Sumer is icumen in"--that is, "summer is/has come in"). All of these verbs lost the ending in the infinitive, but some retained it in the past participle.

All monosyllabic English verbs that end in "-rive" matched the Germanic verb style by ending in "-riven" (for instance, the verb "to drive" was originally "driven", with a long "-i-"). There aren't that many: "drive", "rive", "shrive", "strive", and "thrive". (A few structurally similar verbs such as "write", "ride", and "stride" also have this same pattern, and everything about the "-rive" verbs is true of these as well.)

And what ties them together? The simple past form is always "-ro*e", with the asterisk representing the appropriate consonant, and the past participle is always "-ri*en". With, of course, one exception, because there always has to be an exception: "rive" never took on the form of "rove", but instead always had as its past tense "rived" or some variant of it. (Why? I don't know. Just because, I suppose.)

"Thrived", as used in the wire story, is not, of course, wrong; it's a well-established form. But isn't "thriven" nicer? I think it is. We still use "driven" as a past participle, "riven" is still much in existence as the name of a computer game, and I'd like to hang on to "shriven", "striven", and "thriven" for a while yet. ("Written" and "ridden" will be with us for the foreseeable future as well; I am not so sure about "stridden", which already has a decidedly antique air to it.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I have some fond memories of a first-year English textbook used back when I was in university, mostly because it had a chapter on bad poetry, which triggered in me a lifelong love of the art form. (I have an old, disintegrating paperback copy of The Stuffed Owl which I can't bring myself to replace, and a stumbled-across copy of The Joy of Bad Verse which is a treasure--if you ever find it, buy it!)

However, one unfond memory of that book is that it insisted on spelling the word "rhythm" as "rithm". I was shocked at this, but the instructor, who presumably had the teacher's edition with supplemental material, said people generally found it easier to spell.

Well, it didn't take. Deliberate spelling reform rarely does. You'd think journalists of all people would know that, but they're among the biggest culprits. (The Toronto Globe and Mail insisted on spelling "cigarette" as the horrible, jarring "cigaret" for the longest time, and the Boston Tribune tried for forty years to impose simplified, which is to say uglified, spelling on its readership.)

A recent piece in Slate.com by a journalism professor concerning plagiary contains the following sentence:

I still have to provide extensive line edits, suggestions to improve the lede and solidify the nut graf, and structural tips.

As someone who was at least nominally in the journalism field for a while, I've run across the terms "nut graf" and "lede" before, and may I just say that years later they're every bit as hideous as the first time I saw them? The fact that they're the jargon of the profession, in-house words that the general public doesn't usually see, doesn't make them any more palatable, either. (Another grotesque little journalists' word not mentioned in the article--thank god--is "brite", which is what journalists call a short, upbeat little filler story.)

This page contains an explanation of what a "lede" is and where the spelling came from; I find it unconvincing at best. We don't need to distinguish long-"e" "lead" from short-"e" "lead" by altering the spellings; we can determine that from the context. (Short-"e" "lead", or "leading", has a meaning in the newspaper field; it's the space between lines.) And saying that "lede" was an acceptable spelling of long-"e" "lead" is completely irrelevant, because it's long obsolete; the spelling was codified centuries ago. An identical argument could be made that we should spell long-"e" "read" as "rede", which is similarly obsolete but which also shares an etymological kinship with its short-"e", correctly spelled cousin.

"Graf" is even more inexcusable. What's wrong with just omitting the first half of the word and calling a paragraph a "graph"? We hack words up all the time in English; "phone" is a shortened form of "telephone" in exactly the same way.

Making up ugly, unnecessary words is not a good way of proving you know how to write.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Loud Noises

The English language is a perpetual source of astonishment to me; I keep finding things in it that I didn't know were there, and it's one of the great pleasures of my life.

This evening I was listening to the newest Cecilia Bartoli CD, "Opera Proibita"--literally "forbidden works", because they were banned in Italy by the Vatican. (I'm not really the world's biggest fan of the mezzo-soprano voice: I prefer the electricity of the coloratura soprano, but there are a few mezzos I love, including Judith Forst. Bartoli? Also pretty good.) The first piece on the disc is called "All'arme si accesi guerrieri", which is nominally a call to peace but is plainly a call to war, reminiscent in both style and irony of Arne's "The Soldier Tir'd of War's Alarms". And that was when I was astonished, because I had never noticed or thought of it before, but clearly, the phrase "all'arme", "to arms", must be the source of "alarm". And it is! An alarm is originally and literally a call to citizens or soldiers to pick up their weapons and defend against interlopers. Now it means any kind of warning, and its meaning has been a little diluted.

I know it's no big deal; if I'd looked up "alarm" in the dictionary, I would have found out the meaning and been interested at its provenance, but no more than that. What I love is when the light turns on in your head and you understand something--you see it in a way you wouldn't ordinarily have. It's one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.


This is nothing to do with the particularities of the English language, but the authoress of one of my favourite blogs, I Blame The Patriarchy, has just revealed that she has breast cancer and is writing about it in her usual snippy, marvellous, no-bullshit manner. You should maybe pop on over there and read some of her stuff, and if you like what you read, give her a little moral support in her comments. (She doesn't know me from Charlemagne; I just like her, that's all.)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Bits and Pieces

It seems like only yesterday that I was complaining about sentence fragments. Actually, it seems like, and was, three days ago.

Finding a sentence fragment in an average person's scribblings is probably par for the course, but finding one in a professional journalist's writing--well, that's just wrong.

Here's the culprit, from an AP wire story:

Other demographic changes not often associated with natural disasters are an aging population, the growth of assisted living communities and dependent-care facilities in warm-weather states and the increase in immigrant populations where English is not widely understood. All of which will make evacuations even more difficult, researchers say.

And here's the problem: as I said, a sentence requires a subject and a verb. "All of which" can't be a subject. It contains a pronoun, "which", and ordinarily that would be enough to act as a subject, as in "He cried." But "which" is a relative pronoun; it doesn't stand on its own, but instead acts as a referent to a noun--in this case, "changes" (or, more accurately, "other demographic changes"). Because it's a relative pronoun, it has two jobs; it refers to a previous noun or pronoun, and it introduces something else related to the first referent. (Under ordinary circumstances, which is to say in ninety-nine per cent of ordinary writing, you may use a relative pronoun only in a sentence with multiple clauses.) The way to turn that sentence fragment into a proper sentence is to replace the preceding period with a comma, or to replace the relative pronoun phrase ("all of which") with a noun phrase ("such changes") or a demonstrative pronoun ("this").

As I also said, some people get to break the rules. If Gertrude Stein wants to conclude the libretto of the Virgil Thompson opera "Four Saints in Three Acts" with the lines

Last act.
Which is a fact.

then she gets to do that. Joseph Verrengia has to write, "All of this will make evacuations even more difficult, researchers say," like the rest of us.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Constant readers may recall that back in July I wrote about a typo in The Sims 2, an addictive computer game which lets you run the lives of realistic little simulated people. I hadn't played it for a while, but the new expansion pack came out, and of course I bought it, and now I'm playing more than ever. (Days off: they provide far too many opportunities to spend money.) And wouldn't you know it: I found another typo!

The character I'm playing right now has the new Pleasure life aspiration (you choose one when you create the character--others include Family, Romance, and Wealth); his highest imaginable goal is to reach the top of the Slacker career track. Yes, I know "slacker" sounds like the opposite of a career track, but this one lets you work you way up from golf caddy to professional party guest. One of the many goals you have to strive for (no matter your career path) is a high Aspiration level, which gives you the wherewithal to buy cool things such as a counterfeiting money-press or a thinking cap that lets you learn skills more quickly. If your Aspiration level dips too low, you can't use these devices--they'll fail or backfire in some dramatic manner. (The thinking cap will overheat your brain until you pass out.) Each level of each life aspiration has a label, and I somehow let my current Sim's level drop well into the red zone, at which point I was informed that my pleasure-seeking slacker is, and I quote, a "Narcissisitic Knucklehead".

How did "narcissisitic" happen? Was someone just whaling away at the keyboard and let the rhythm of all those consonants and "-i-"s get the better of them? Were they thinking of the last half of "parasitic"? And why didn't someone at Maxis catch this?

Perhaps it's too much to ask that commercial software be thoroughly proof-read and free of errors; nobody seems to care much any more, so it's probably a waste of time. But these things take months if not years to produce, and many, many people see each element of the software before it hits the market. Wouldn't you think someone would have noticed?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Feather Boa

The final answer on Thursday night's episode of Jeopardy--I wasn't watching it, I was just waiting for "E.R." to come on--was something about an albatross.

Now, I didn't know what the second half meant, , if anything, but I was pretty sure that the first half had to do with whiteness. That, after all, is what "alb-" virtually always refers to in English (from Latin "albus", "white"). "Alb"? A priest's white garment. "Album"? Originally a blank--which is to say white--tablet. "Albumen"? The white of an egg. "Albedo"? Reflected white light (or the white part of an orange--yes, really). "Albino"? Having unpigmented, and therefore very white, skin and hair. "Albacore"? Well, okay, that one's different: it gets its "al-" from Arabic, as is often the case, and the "-b-" following it is just an accident. (It would have been nice, though, if albacore had been a particularly white tuna.)

"Albatross", as it turns out, is both; it's from Arabic, and it stems from, or at least was influenced by, "white". Its source is the Arabic "al-qadus", "the diver", which originally meant "pelican"; this became "alcatraz" in Spanish and was eventually applied to other sea-birds. (I know next to nothing about Spanish, and it had never even occurred to me that "Alcatraz", the name of one of the most famous prisons in the world, might be an actual word, let alone that it might, ironically, mean a bird.)

As I've mentioned before, sometimes existing words, or words in the process of being invented in English, are influenced by other words, and this appears to be just what happened here; "alcatraz", its first syllable modified by "albus", became "albatross" in English.


A couple of days ago I titled a post "The Shining", and in an amusing coincidence, yesterday Boingboing posted a link to one of the reasons the Internet exists: a fake movie trailer reinventing Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (the only of his movies worth a damn, in my obviously benighted opinion) as a romantic comedy/drama. It's wizardly. Here's the permalink, here's a New York Times story on the trailer, here's a permalink to two more fake trailers from the same production house ("West Side Story" reimagined as a zombie movie, "Titanic" as a horror flick), and finally, while I'm at it, here's a link to iFilm, which is a good source for this sort of thing, if you can ever find anything; you more or less have to know what you're looking for, or else hope you stumble across interesting things, but man, do they ever have a lot of video!