or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


David Rakoff is a better writer than I can ever hope to be, but what's this in a new Salon.com article?

Still, without benefit of a mirror I can easily reel off all of the things I might change, given the opportunity. Starting at the top, they include a permanent red spot on the left side of my forehead; a brow pleated by worry: a furrow between my eyebrows so deep that at times it could be a coin slot; purple hollows underneath my eyes that I've had since infancy, and, also since childhood, lines like surveyors marks on my cheeks -- placeholders for the inevitable eye bags I will have; a nose more fleshy and wide than prototypically Semitic, graced with a bouquet of tiny gin blossoms resulting from years of using neither sunscreen nor moisturizer; a set of those Fred Flintstone nasal creases down to the corners of my mouth; a permanent acne scar on my right cheek; a plank-like expanse of filtrum between the bottom of my nose and the top of my too-thin upper lip; and, in profile, a double chin.

The word that threw me was "filtrum". Upon reading it, I thought it was wrong, and to be honest, I'm still not sure it isn't wrong on some fundamental level, even though there's support for his usage.

"Filter" has a straightforward enough etymology--from Latin through French--and, fascinatingly, it's related to "felt", from which the original filters were made before porous paper was invented. "Philtre", on the other hand, is from the Greek "philos", "loving" (as in "oenophile", "wine-lover", or "philosophy", "the love of wisdom"): a philtre is a love-potion. "Philtrum" is derived from "philtre" and is the little vertical groove that connects the nose to the centre of the upper lip, its enchanting name obviously bestowed by someone intoxicated by his or her beloved.

Because of the endless vagaries of English spelling, though, "filter" was once upon a time occasionally spelled "philter" (and also "filtre", because we got it from the French). If I'm reading this correctly, dentists appear to use "filtrum" to refer to the indentation itself and "philtrum" to refer to the entire area, although that could be the doing of the dictionary's authors rather than the dentists' hair-splitting. (It doesn't seem like a useful or necessary distinction to me, but I'm not a dentist.)

In any event, the two words seem to me different enough to be kept properly separate. "Filtrum" plainly owes a debt to "filter": even if the spelling isn't technically wrong, even if there's precedent for its usage, I'd be a lot happier retaining the unimpeachably correct spelling "philtrum" for that little dab of skin.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

That Sucks

Slate.com's newest "Explainer" column asks the interesting question How Does Activated Carbon Work? and then answers it thusly:

Through adsorption. Carbon has a natural affinity for organic pollutants like benzene, which bind to its surface. If you "activate" carbon—by steaming it at 1,800 degrees, for example—it forms little pores and pockets that increase its surface area. (It's said that a teaspoon of activated carbon has the area of a football field.) Pesticides, chloroform, and other contaminants slide into the holes of this honeycomb and hold fast.

That's all well and good, but what exactly is "adsorption", and how does it differ from regular absorption?

In order to answer this question, we're going to have head back to that old mainstay of English, Latin. The root of both words is "sorbere", Latin for "to suck". (If you think that word looks like "sorbet", you're right, it does. But if you think they have anything to do with one another, you're wrong; "sorbet" is the French version of "sherbet", a word extracted entire from Turkish with no link to Latin.) "Adsorb" and "absorb" have different prefixes: "ad-" is Latin for "towards", while "ab-" means "away from", which doesn't clear up the matter as much as we might hope; doesn't every instance of suction pull something away from something and towards something else?

In this case, unfortunately, we can't go by mere appearances. What it boils down to is that by common usage, "adsorb" means "to pull (a liquid, gas or substance in solution) to the surface of" while "absorb" means "to pull (a liquid or gas) into the centre of": absorption is a quality of something which is, well, absorbent, like a sponge, while adsorption isn't, which has a certain unsatisfying "because I said so, that's why" feel to it, but that's English for you.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Typos happen in published text. They shouldn't, because it's just not that hard to run a spellchecker, but they happen. Maybe you're in a big hurry to meet a deadline and you spellcheck and then you make a last-minute revision and you type "teh" instead of "the" and just don't notice it. Fine; we're all human, we all make mistakes--that's the reason pencils have erasers, as my stepfather would say.

But when you mix up two unrelated, soundalike words, like writing "to" for "two" or "meat" for "meet"; well, that's something else altogether, because the inevitable assumption--for the finicky types who notice such things--is that you don't know what you're doing.

Today we have a paragraph from a Salon.com review of the 1979 movie "The Warriors", newly released on DVD alongside a videogame:

Ryan's near-hysteria wasn't entirely based on urban legend. There were numerous reports of violence around the country where the film was showing, though the most publicized incident was the murder of a 16-year-old boy in Dorchester, Mass.; the accused killer, a gang member, was later proved to have been drunk and asleep while the movie was showing. Paramount, perhaps in reaction to the negative publicity, quickly yanked the original posters, which featured a hoard of gang members from the movie with the legend, "These are the armies of the night" -- take that, Norman Mailer. "They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City." Some theater owners refused to display the poster; the fantasy hit too close to home.

"Hoard" has its origins in Old English "hord", "treasure" or "hiding place", and before that the Scandinavian languages. "Horde" is from an old Turkish word, "orda", that came to us through Polish "horda"; the OED lists the first English usage from 1555, and since most terminal vowels were still being pronounced in English at the time, meaning "horda" would have been pronounced the same as "horde", the new and improved spelling is understandable.

But the words don't mean the same thing, and clearly don't intersect in any way. (Saying, "Well, 'horde' means a mass of people, and 'hoard' means a mass of treasure, so they kinda-sorta have similar meanings" won't cut it.) If you use "hoard" when you mean to use "horde", you look sloppy. Or worse.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

One, Two

Jim and I are sitting in the multimedia room (it's the spare bedroom of our two-bedroom apartment: we both have our computers there); I'm writing this and he's playing around with the OED, because it's fun (and probably because he's a little bored), typing in random words, one of which, a few minutes ago, was "buckle". It had occasionally occurred to me that "buccal" ("of the oral cavity, specifically the cheeks") is pronounced in exactly the same way, but I'd never bothered to look it up--I'm a busy guy, I have a long list of words I want to look up and sometimes I forget.

So: "buckle" and "buccal"; related? Or a mere coincidence? As it turns out, related--and how! The noun "buckle" got to us from (no surprise) French, in this case "boucle", which in turn came from Latin "buccula", meaning "the cheek-strap of a helmet", derived from "bucca", "cheek". So a few twists and turns on the way to Modern English have given us two words with identical pronunciations and--apparently--nothing else in common, which goes to show...something or other.


The French "boucle", with the same meaning as our "buckle", also exists in French (and therefore English) as the adjectival form "bouclé", "buckled"; it refers to a type of yarn with a raised, loopy surface. Its name comes from its method of spinning; two strands of yarn are plied together, but at different rates, so that the more slowly-moving yarn twists and loops and bunches against the other; in other words, it buckles.


But why do collapsing things buckle? What does that have to do with buckles (or cheeks)? Why do we say that a playing card buckles, or a strand of yarn, or your knees? I have no idea. Anyone?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Life is Life

Yesterday on the way to work I was listening to, on the trusty iPod, "America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction". It's maybe not as funny as the book, because there aren't any pictures, but still; pretty funny. (Hearing Jon Stewart say In many ways, lobbyists are the cheerleaders of Capitol Hill--sad, soulless, clandestine, unfuckable cheerleaders is worth the price of admission.)

How do you pronounce "short-lived"? At one point in the audiobook, Stewart uses the word, and pronounces it with a long "-i-", to rhyme with "hived". This threw me a little, because all my life I have heard it with a short vowel sound, to rhyme with, well, "lived". Or "sieved". Or "shivved".

It sure looks like the "-i-" should be short; the past tense of the verb "live" is, after all, "lived", short vowel and all. The short vowel sound for that word is so common in English, and the long-vowel version so rare, that it's natural enough, on seeing "short-lived" (or "long-lived"), to use the pronunciation one is used to.

Unfortunately, one would be sort of wrong, at least if one believed the prescriptivists. The "-lived" in those phrases isn't the same as the past participle: it's derived from "life", and originally began its existence as "short-lifed". The consonant changed, as these things will, and became "-lived" with that same vowel sound.

But is the short vowel sound wrong? Even the OED says the word is "often apprehended as p.ppl. 'lived' (cf. 'smooth-spoken')". It doesn't go so far as to say that this is an error, and it's probably safe to say that the short vowel sound is, if not dominant, at least neck and neck with the original version.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Now See Here

In the comments to yesterday's posting, Tony Pius asks this intriguing question:

Which, I think, raises the question: Why "-spec-" instead of "-vis-"? Sure, you could probably come up with a dozen or so "-vis-" words off the top of your head, but my hunch is that they're greatly outnumbered by "-spec-" words.

What he's talking about is that we have two massive groups of words from Latin which mean more or less the same thing: the first group is from the word "spectare", "to watch", and the second is from "videre", "to see". (The second group contains such wide-flung words as "video", "view", "voyeurism", and "envy".)

My first thought after reading the comment was, "That's my hunch, too." And so to check the hunch, I typed both roots into www.morewords.com, which lets you search for Scrabble words and the like, using an asterisk for unknown or unimportant letters. "*Spec*" produced 352 hits, virtually all of which are related in some way to "spectare". "*Vis*, on the other hand, produced more than 500 hits, which means Morewords won't show them to you--you have to narrow the search down, usually by adding another letter or two.

Does this mean we're wrong? I don't think so. "*Vise*" gives 78 matches, most of which are accidents of spelling, unrelated to "videre" in any way; "pavise", for example, or "vivisection". (Some of them are relatives, though such as "advise", which originated in "videre" and wound its way through Latin "visum", "seeming", and then French "avis", which still means "opinion" in that language.)

Likewise, "*visi*" gives 126 matches, some of which are offspring of "videre" (such as "revision", visit", and "visible") by many of which aren't (mostly words related to "division", which is from Latin "dividere"). "*Visa*" leads to 41 words, some "videre"'s children ("visa" and "visage", for example) but most not ("devisal" and "ovisac", for starters).

I think it's safe to say that although the sum of "-vis-" words may be greater than the "-spec-" family's head count, "spectare"'s descendants outnumber "videre"'s--or, at best, they're neck and neck.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Look Closer

If you're thinking about a word and you pay more attention to how it sounds than to how it looks, you can be led right down the garden path.

This morning the words "species" and "specie" popped into my head, followed in short order by "specious". The first two were obviously cousins, and it seemed pretty clear that the third was at least distantly related, though I had no idea how.

I definitely should have been looking at them rather than just thinking about them, because--as should probably have been obvious--they're all also related to the word "spectacle"; that is to say, they all reflect some aspect of looking.

"Species" originally meant "outward form or appearance"--that is to say, what something looks like. Its meaning eventually shifted to the modern one, "a category", which still retains a shadow of its earlier meaning: things that look alike to us are considered part of the same species, informally if not biologically. "Specie", which means "money" or, more specifically, "coin", first meant "in kind"--that is to say, "an exchange of something which is like something else".

"Specious", in retrospect, is the most obviously related to "spectacle" (from Latin "spectare", "to watch"): something specious is something which looks like the real deal, but isn't. (Jim just asked me about "spectacle", which is to say a thing worth looking at, and then he mentioned "speculum", which is a device used to look into something. I've already talked about "spectre", "specimen", and "spectrum", so you'd think I might have figured out "species" on my own.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fatal Error

Here's a fascinating piece about the invention of the coloured soap bubble. I bet you thought it would be as simple as putting food colouring into a soap-and-water solution, right? Turns out that since 1) the dye sticks to the water but not the soap, 2) the dye molecules are large and heavy compared to the water molecules, and 3) a soap bubble is a sheet of water between two sheets of soap, all the colour just slides right to the bottom of the bubble.

But although I am very fond of pointing readers in the direction of interesting news, I'm even more fond of spotting and dissecting mistakes, and here are a couple, from page 9 of the 11-page piece:

Ram Sabnis is a leader among a very small group of people who can point to a dye-chemistry Ph.D. on their wall. Only a handful of universities in the world offer one, and none are in the U.S. (Sabnis got his in Bombay). He holds dozens of patents from his work in semiconductors (dying silicon) and biotechnology (dying nucleic acids).

A very easy mistake to make, really. No spell-checker would catch it. But it's still a mistake, and it still has no place in a magazine such as Popular Science (vulgarly contracted into "PopSci", for no discernible reason).

The progressive form of the verb "to die" is "dying". The progressive form of the verb "to dye" is "dyeing". People mix them up at their peril.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

All Over The Place

I try to post every day, but having a cold just kind of sucks the energy out of you. When you get two colds in rapid succession--I tell you, my workplace is a Petri dish--it's even worse. You know what time I went to bed last night? Eight-fifteen. Eight-fifteen!

Anyway. There was a piece in, as usual, Boingboing.net, about a meteorite; all well and good, but what really caught my eye was a lovely word I'd never encountered before, in this paragraph:

Over the next three years, Peary’s expeditions managed to load the pieces of the metoerite onto ships despite severe weather, engineering problems, and having to build Greenland’s only railway specifically for the task. Upon arrival in New York City, the source of Greenland’s Iron Age was sold to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000. Several more large masses have since been found and recovered from the strewnfield, including, in the 1960s, the 15-ton Agpalilik, thought to be the legendary "Man" and fourth member of the Cape York family.

"Strewnfield". Isn't that nice? And you can figure out what it means just by looking at it! It's explained, if you need an explanation, here.

And thinking of "strew" and "strewn" made me think of "strow" and "strown": Answers.com has no sign of either, which made me wonder if I had imagined them. The OED, of course, came to the rescue, letting me know not only that "strow" was a real live word (if wonderfully archaic), but that the origin of both "strew" and "strow" is the Old English "streowian", which, I guess, explains both vowels. (In case you were wondering, they both mean "to scatter", they have matching past-tense forms, "strewed" and "strowed", and they also have matching irregular past participles, "strewn" and "strown".)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Lip Service

In case you may have deluded yourself into thinking that there may be a stray square millimetre of a woman's body that is not subject to aesthetic scrutiny and expensive reconstruction, this piece from Salon.com ought to set you straight. "Vaginal rejuvenation", which is to say "relatively painless and bloodless" laser surgery intended to make the pussy neater and tidier, is apparently an up-and-coming plastic surgery speciality. Rome fell for less.

While the aesthetic qualities of the female pudendum are really not in my brief, the proper use of the English language is, and while I'm going to valiantly resist sniping about the fact that the writer, Rebecca Traister, used "vagina" where she meant "vulva" (I've already complained about this, and I guess enough is enough), I sure am going to complain about these two paragraphs, straight from the press release quoted in the article:

Candidates for the Laser Vaginal Surgeries include women whose vaginal areas have stretched due to pregnancy or aging; women who want to increase their sexual pleasure; women who want their labial lips reduced, enhanced or re-shaped; women who want to reconstruct their hymen to its original form; women who have experienced vaginal trauma; women whose vaginal size is not totally compatible with their partner; and women who suffer from stress incontinence

Many women suffer silently because they are not pleased with their vaginal areas. Multiple pregnancies, aging and trauma often result in stretching which makes them physically and emotionally unhappy. This trademarked procedure enables Dr Jason to resculpt the vulvar structures, the labia lips to meet the aesthetics desires of the individual patient.

"Labial lips"? "The labia lips"? Jesus. Labia are lips, always and forever. Using the adjective "labial" to describe lips is like using "prognathous" to describe a jaw (a mistake I've also seen more than once) or, to be a little less abstruse, like saying "abdominal abdomen"; the noun being modified is already encapsulated within the adjective, so you can have a prognathous ("jut-jawed") face or even a prognathous person, but not a prognathous jaw. And you can't have labial lips, on your face or in your pants.


While poking around the word "labia", I thought of "labile", which means, depending on the context, "adaptable" or "unstable". Given the way language changes over time--is, in fact, labile--is it possible...? Could they be...?

Nah, they're unrelated, more's the pity. (So is "laboratory", which is, however, related to "labor"--a laboratory, originally Latin "laboratorium", was a place where work of any sort is performed, though now it's strictly a place where scientific work is performed.)

Sunday, November 13, 2005


It's 6:30 local time and I just awoke from a dream that I found a typo and was about to write about it. I had a dream about typos. How geeky is that?

And I can't even remember what the typo was!

But here's one I remember. As usual, washing the dishes with the earphones in and idly reading the French packaging on the shelf over the sink, I happened to notice this on a cut-rate, dollar-store package of zip-lock bags ("Nobility Wares" brand, a sure sign of quality):

Zipper Bags
Sacs à Fermenture

I didn't quite realize I was looking at a typo at first, because my French is not particularly good, but there was obviously something wrong with "fermenture", because if it was a word, it ought to be a word that had something to do with fermentation. Fermentation bags? Eventually--I was distracted by the music and the dishes--it dawned on me that the word intended was "fermeture", which means "closing", from the verb "fermer", "to close".


I can't think of a single English word that stems from or is related to that French word. Not one. On my search for such a word (after going through such lame possibilities as "fermata" and "deferment"), I gave "infer" a shot (knowing full well that it was unrelated), and answers.com gave this as the last definition, followed shortly thereafter by a usage note:

4. To hint; imply.
USAGE NOTE   Infer is sometimes confused with imply, but the distinction is a useful one.

"A useful one"? It's a crucial one, because "infer" does not mean "imply". You might as well say that "insolent" also means "insane" because they start with the first three letters. The words "infer" and "imply", it is true, are often confused, but so what? People confuse a lot of things.

I could get into the Latin roots of the two words, but I'm not going to bother, for a change, because they aren't particularly relevant in this case. Webster's English Usage has two and a half pages on the subject, dealing with the minutiae of personal versus impersonal ("he implies" versus "it implies") and suchlike, but here's what it really boils down to; use "infer" when you're taking information in, and "imply" when you're giving information out. You infer that someone loves you when you assess their behaviour, and imply that someone loves you when you're discussing the situation with another. Just like that.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This, from Languagehat.com, is the sort of thing that makes me, at least a little, not want to try to pronounce anything that isn't obviously an English word:

I just heard a radio news announcer say "In Beijing... uh, Beizhing..." My wife gets nervous when I swear at the radio, so I'll say it here: there is no /zh/ sound in Mandarin Chinese! Why on earth do people insist on looking at a pinyin j, which is pronounced pretty much exactly like an English j, and reading it as if it were French? Stop it, all of you, just stop it!

I don't think I ever did it, but if I did, I'll stop it, all right. But you know what? Most people in North America aren't fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Ten years or so ago, we're told that "Peking", which most of us grew up with, isn't the correct way to spell it--doesn't match the Chinese pronunciation--so we're instructed to replace it with the spelling "Beijing". (The same is true of other words, such as the former "tao", now increasingly often rendered and pronounced "dao".) Fine; done, although I note that we still have, immutably, the Pekingese dog and tasty Peking duck. But the more observant among us note that the actress Zhang Ziyi has the dreaded "zh-" in front of her name, and in English, how are we supposed to pronounce that except exactly as it looks? If there's no "zh-" in Mandarin, then what's that doing there? Should it be "Jang Ziyi"? Or isn't that near enough, either?

Every language makes compromises when dealing with other languages that present orthographic or pronunciational challenges; it isn't just true of us barbaric English speakers. It's true that we don't pronounce "Paris" as the French do, it's true that Germans don't call their country "Germany" as we do, but they don't pronounce or spell "New Brunswick" the way Canadians do, either.

I bow to no-one in my desire for accuracy and precision in language, and that does apply to words freshly imported from other languages. (I've already noted that most people get "Pinochet" wrong and should try a little harder.) But when people are making an effort, when they're trying to get something from a foreign language correct, when they're doing the best they can with the tools they have at hand, we cut them a little slack.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Cat Conclusion

Tomorrow I really am going to get back to doing what I usually do, and I really do have stuff to write about. But for now, cats. Specifically, Mr. P and Sable, his new....lunch? chew toy? what?

Best buddy, I'm pleased to say. You can't always tell what's going to happen when you introduce a new cat into a one-cat household, but Mr. P has taken a shine to her; sometimes an adult cat will adopt a nearby kitten, and that's just what happened.

Well, wouldn't you give a home to this sweet little furball?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

More Cats

You probably figure you have another few weeks before Christmas kicks into high gear, but we in the retail and customer-service sectors know different. We've been wallowing in it for months. We're drowning in customers. On the home front, there are Santa hats to be knit and Christmas stockings to be sewn and other giftworthy things to be made and possibly bought. These things don't make themselves, you know. And this means no amusing dissections of the latest heinous typo in the Globe and Mail (which I don't even have time to read!) and no exegeses on the origin of the word "enervate".

But at least I have the next photo in the Picklesworth saga.

(Objects in this photo are even more adorable than they appear)

Well, as you can see, the ball of fluff is in fact a kitten. Mr. P has a roommate! Her name is Sable, and she is, and I do not say this lightly, spectacularly cute. Her new owners chose her from a litter that was emitting near-lethal doses of cuteness rays; Jim and I were almost overwhelmed by the sheer radioactive power of their kitteniness (but not quite enough to adopt one of our own, at least not yet).

Still: cute!

He does sort of look like he's about to devour her, though, doesn't he? And will he? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Lazy Non-Friday Cat Blogging (Sorry)

I'm not really lazy, at least not exactly. I had to be at work today at 7 and yesterday was Jim's birthday and, well, what with one thing and another, like putting together ideas for another blog, I just didn't get around to writing anything for this one; I haven't read any amusingly dreadful typos in the last couple of days and while I'm still thinking about words, as always, I just haven't put down any scribbles about them.

Instead, here's a picture of Mr. Picklesworth (who, you may remember, first made an appearance in July and again in August and September, repeatedly).

(you may click on this picture to see a larger, more adorable version of it)

What is this little ball of fluff he's looking at? Does he intend to play with it, or eat it, or what?

Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I don't usually read the National Post, but I happened to be leafing through it yesterday over breakfast at some fast-food joint (we were on the road), and naturally, since it's engaged in an arms race with the Globe and Mail to become The National Newspaper With The Most Errors, one of the first things my eyes alighted upon was a mistake, at which point I put it down with a sigh. I don't know why I even bother.

I had picked up the Style section--not really sure why, since I have no especial interest in any style except writing style--and after skimming a ridiculous page 2 article about men who get Brazilian wax jobs (don't ask) I jumped to a piece on page 3 about media whores and professional vulgarians Rob and Amber, and one of the very first words in the piece was "whupass". I can live with that (though I'd prefer it be hyphenated into "whup-ass"), but what I can't live with is how it was hyphenated at the line break:


Here's an earlier piece I wrote about line breaks and incorrect hyphenation. Everything in it is still true; if you're going to employ full justification, you need a hyphenation dictionary or the software is going to start guess where the hyphens go, and it is going to get things wrong.

"Whupass", or "whoop-ass", is popularly used in the strange and recent expression "open a can of whoop-ass on", which is to say "beat the hell out of". The word is obviously constructed out of "whoop"/"whup", which is a variant of "whip", and "ass" (which is to say "I'm going to whip your ass, pal"), and therefore the hyphenation break has to occur between those halves. It cannot be hyphenated as the National Post hyphenated it. What happened, I think, is that the software thought, "Now, let's see; I'd hyphenate "trespass" as "tres-pass", and looky here! This one also ends in -pass! That's a word! Shove the hyphen in front of it!"


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Fluid Dynamics

Okay: today's Word That Just Popped Into My Head All Of A Sudden, No, Seriously, And What The Hell? is "inspissate". Does such a word even exist? And if so, where could I have heard it? And what does it mean? And what the hell?

It does exist. (Perhaps I ran across it as a young geek while leafing through Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary, if it's even obscure or strange enough to be in there.) It sure isn't a word you're going to hear every day, because it sounds mildly rude and has a limited range of use. It means "to thicken", and it comes from the Latin "spissus", "thick". As far as I know, it has no surviving relatives in English, but (and this is a nice thing to know, if you're me) it's the root of the French word for "thick", which is "épaisse".

Naturally, as I was poking around to see if we had any words that were related to it, I had to check the word "piss", which obviously couldn't be related--it's purely onomatopoetic--but you never know, do you? (A related onomatopoeia is "sissy", which must be a regionalism of some sort. I've never heard it except from a couple of TV shows, "The Oblongs" and "Dead Like Me", both of which you should go out and buy on DVD as soon as the stores are open: you can thank me later.)

"Piss" and "inspissate" are not related, of course: I would hope not. But the search put me in mind of a word once used by my good and literate friend Ralph English: "pismire", which does come from "piss" and which means the same as "pissant", which is to say, literally, an ant. Both words get their first syllable from the fact that quantities of ants smell strongly of formic acid, which apparently--I don't have any direct experience of this--smells urinaceous. (The second half of "pismire" is from a Scandianavian word meaning "ant", and the metaphorical use of "pissant" as an adjective or a noun denoting insignificance is a natural progression of the word.)

While I'm at it, I might as well mention what I always thought was a strangely delightful Newfoundlandism. Dandelions, as most every child knows, contain a milky sap in their stems; if you should get this sticky liquid on your hands, it is a scientifically proven fact that you will wet the bed that night. Dandelions, therefore, are in some locales called "pissabeds", but where I was growing up were called--and I greatly prefer this pronunciation--"piss-t'-beds".

Friday, November 04, 2005


Boingboing.net is an endless source of fun, and I hope everyone reads it at least a couple of times a day. From a Wednesday entry is a link to this news story that contains one of the most hilarious typos I've seen in a long time:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Quaker Maid Meats Inc. on Tuesday said it would voluntarily recall 94,400 pounds of frozen ground beef panties that may be contaminated with E. coli.

I may as well say it again; spellcheckers can't flag this sort of error, so this is what happens when newspapers don't use employ editors and proofreaders. Still, I suppose the world is a better place for that particular typo, so in this instance, how can I complain?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Bone Dry

Sometimes you can examine a word, mull it over, play with pronunciation and spelling, compare it to other words you know, and make a reasonably educated guess as to its meaning and derivation. Other times, you look at word and you absolutely cannot tell what it might mean; no clues whatsoever.

This page is from the irresistibly hilarious Gallery of Regrettable Food. Take a moment and read it--heck, take a half-hour and go through the entire site--and then come back.

"Costive inaction"? One could take a blind stab at it from the context, but it's such a strange word. What could "costive" possibly mean? Is it related to "cost"? "Caustic"? What?

As it turns out, it's a strange little corruption from an unexpected source: it's derived from the French word for "to constipate", and "costive" means either causing or suffering from constipation. (Latin had the verb "constipare", our word nearly letter for letter; the French turned it into "costever", and this is the source of "costive".)

Latin "constipare", since I'm sure everyone wants to know, consists of the prefix "con-", "together", and "stipare", "to cram". (It originally simply meant, as it seems it should, "to force together"; its use as a name for the ailment came later. "Stipare" or its offshoots also gave us "stevedore", one who crams boats full of cargo, and "stiff", descriptive of something that has been compressed into rigidity.)


On the other hand, as I said, sometimes you can tell what an alien word means just by looking and making an informed guess. Sometimes you're wrong, but at least you tried.

In this fascinating Wired article about absinthe appears the word "phylloxera". At first glance I naturally enough thought it might be pronounced "fill-OX-er-uh"; a closer study revealed that it must be divided into "phyllo-" and "-xera", and therefore might be "fill-oh-ZEER-uh" or something close by. Perversely, though, it isn't; the letter "-x-" has the damnedest effect on the English mouth (look at "Quixote", "key-HO-tay", and the adjective "quixotic", "kwik-ZOT-ik"), and "fill-OX-er-uh" is in fact how "phylloxera" is pronounced.

And what does it mean? "Phyllo-" ought to be familiar from the Greek pastry of the same name and also from "chlorophyll"; it's clearly related to French "feuille" and such English words as "foil" and "folio" and therefore means "leaf". The other half, "-xera", shows up in some form in a few uncommon words (such as "xerography" and "xeroderma") and is also the source of the English word "sere", and that gives us its meaning: "dry". Phylloxera, therefore, means "dry leaf" and is, from the context of the article, a disease that affects plants--in this case, wine-grape vines.

"Xerography", by the way, means "dry writing"; it stands in opposition to the wet process known as photography, and is another word for photocopying--the transfer of a powdered pigment to an electrically charged plate and then the heat-sealing of that pigment onto paper. The word "xerography" gave birth to the trade name Xerox.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

O No

This is what happens when you trust your ears and not your eyes, assuming you've ever used your eyes in the first place.

A paragraph from Salon.com's gossip column The Fix:

Just as the royals have arrived here, we've exported our own variety of royalty, Scientologists (or as locals near the U.K. headquarters in Sussex call them, the "sinos"). All the church bigwigs were at a gala at the manor once purchased by L. Ron Hubbard as his world H.Q. to fete Tom Cruise. Cruise (with Katie in tow) was honored with the Diamond Meritorious Award for being the largest donor ever to the cause: He's so far given over $3.5 million to Scientology.

The problem here--you caught it, right?--is that "Sino-" is a prefix that means "Chinese"; it's from the Latin "sinae", probably derived from the Ch'in dynasty, which (obviously) is where we get the word "China".

British tabloid newspapers love to give people mildly demeaning little nicknames formed by taking part of the name and tacking "-o" onto it; Michael Jackson is more or less universally known in Britain as "Jacko" and thence logically "Wacko Jacko", journalists are slangily called "journos", and Scientologists are called "Scienos". Not "sinos". (Unless, I suppose, they're Chinese Scientologists, in which case they'd be Sino-Scienos.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Over and Out

Convergence? Coincidence? You tell me.

A couple of weeks ago there was a posting on Languagehat.com about an incorrect usage of the word "limn", a word I knew, which means "to describe" or "to depict". (The word "limn" originally referred to illumination, which is to say the illustration of manuscripts, and it's derived from the same Latin root--"illuminate" literally means "to fill with light".) It turns out that the original writer had intended the word "limen" (a word I didn't know), and he or an overzealous copy-editor had dropped the "-e-".

Now, what does "limen" even mean? It's the Latin word for "threshold", and you've seen it before, with a slightly altered spelling, in the word "subliminal"--literally "below the threshold (of conscious observation)".

So here's the coincidence part: I have, as usual, a list of words that it occurs to me I need to look up--I've done this most of my life--and today, one of the words I was curious about was "eliminate". And guess what? It's the same root! "E-" is the same as "ex-", which is to say "out of", and "-limin-" is the same as our "limen", so to eliminate something is to throw it outdoors--to literally chuck it over the threshold.