or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, June 30, 2006

Listen Up

There's an interesting article in Slate today about the "al-" prefix in Arabic words and names. I've talked about this a couple of times before. The Slate article, of course, goes into quite a bit more detail than I did, because their writer talked with actual experts, whereas I just looked stuff up.


Today at work I was doing some mildly boring and repetitive task, and naturally my mind began wandering the general direction of etymology. I remembered that during my last French course, near the end when the teacher was encouraging if not actually forcing us to speak nothing but French, I was trying to tell a story that involved the use of the word "advertisement". Now, the French do have a very similar word, "avertissement", but this is what's called in the language business a false friend: it looks like an exact match for a word in the target language but in fact has a very different meaning. In this case, "avertissement" means "warning"; the word I was looking for was "publicité". I kept saying "avertissement", she kept correcting me with "publicité", and eventually, I think, I got it right.

So; how does a word meaning "warning" in one language evolve into a word meaning "public notice of goods for sale" in another? Since I was at work, I couldn't look it up, so I listlessly ran it around in my mind. (I was listless because the air conditioning's broken and it's getting to be hot-humid-rainy season in these parts, hooray.) Stripping off the "-ise-", which turns a word into a verb, and "-ment", which turns it into a noun, leaves us with the Latin "advert". So great was my listlessness that I couldn't even decide what "-vert-" meant ("To steer? No...."), so I was reduced, while trying to keep at least part of my mind on the task at hand, to think of other words that had the same stem. "Convert", I thought. "Pervert". "Extrovert". Finally I remembered that "-vert-" and its various variants means "to turn", and that was the key to it.

"Advert" is a verb--though it isn't much used in English any more--which means "to turn attention [towards]". It is indeed from the Latin "ad-", "towards", and "vertere", "to turn" (which I've written about before). In the French version of the word, we warn someone about something by turning their attention to it; in the English version, we indicate that something is for sale by doing the same thing.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Going, Going, Gone

This sentence from Salon.com's Video Dog video-clip collection reminded me of something I had written a couple of days ago:

On Tuesday's, "The View," Star Jones sprung the news on a startled audience that she was leaving the show after nine years.

I had been jawing on about preterites and such and complaining about how everyone seems to say "My sweater shrunk" rather than the correct "shrank", and I completely forgot about another little clutch of irregular verbs: some non-progressive verbs ending in "-ing". "Spring" is the perfect example ("sprang" is the preterite, but everyone seems to use the past participle "sprung" instead, as in the sentence above), and "ring" and "sing" are formed in the same way. Only "sing" seems to have a strong grip on its preterite: you might hear "I rung up the sale" (it seems to me about fifty-fifty with the correct "rang"), but hardly ever "I sung him a song".

Like "slink" among the "-ink" verbs, however, most non-progressive "-ing" verbs do take only "-u-" for both the preterite and past participle: "cling", "fling", "sting", "sling", "swing", and "wring". Some of them used to take "-a-" in the preterite: "stang" and "swang" are occasionally heard, but mostly obsolete. And like "think", "bring" turns into "brought" for both past-tense forms.

It's easy for a native speaker to forget just how irregular English verbs can be until he starts poking around in their guts.


While I'm at it, what exactly does "preterite" mean, anyway? It's (so so obviously) from Latin: "pre-", meaning "before", and the verb "ire", "to go". (The future tense of the wildly irregular verb "to go" in French seems to bear traces of its ancestor: the verb stem is "ir-", and the third-person singular is "ira".) The preterite, therefore, is the verb form that has gone before the present tense; the simple past.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dishing It Out

Tonight in an e-mail to a friend I used the word "bursar", which means "treasurer", more or less, and then I looked at it and wondered if it might be related to "bursitis". It didn't seem entirely likely, but the family resemblance was striking. And what did I find? A wonderful clutch of etymologies is what.

"Bursitis" is clearly "burs-" plus "-itis"; an inflammation of the...bursa, probably. And this is just what it is; a bursa is a fluid-filled bodily cavity which acts to lubricate a joint or other moving part. "Bursa" is a Late Latin word meaning "purse" or "pouch". Hey--"bursa"? "Purse"? Practically the same word!

Now, "bursa" led to "bursar", the one who holds the purse, and also "disburse", to distribute money from that same purse. "Disburse" is often misspelled "disperse", which is a valid word with a different, though slightly related, meaning ("to scatter" or "to disseminate"); it's not unimaginable that one might "disperse" money. (It's still wrong, though.) Is "disperse" related to "purse" and "bursa"? Not at all; it's from "dis-", "apart", plus "-spargere", "to scatter".

Now, "dis-" plus "-spargere" looks an awful lot like "disparage". Anything to that? Again, no; "disparage"--which means "to treat disrespectfully"--comes from "dis-" plus "-parage", "high birth", so to disparage someone is to literally demean or disrespect their breeding.

Hey--"-parage" looks like "peerage"! Is there any relationship there? This time, it's a yes; "-parage" is from Latin "par", which has the same meaning as it does in English: "equal". It also has lots of relations in English, such as "compare" and "pair" ("two equal things"). "Peer" in the sense of "equal" or "nobleman" is unrelated to "peer" as in "look intently": that one is instead related to "appear", which is from Latin "parere", "to show" , which has cousins in English such as "apparition" and "apparent". (Is "apparent" related to "parent"? Why, yes, believe it or not. "Parere" means not just "to show" but also "to give birth"; the connection ought to be obvious. I said last September that I didn't know if the two meanings were related, and I've since found out that yes, in fact, they are. I like to clear these things up, even if it takes most of a year.)

All right. I'm done. For now.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

That Sinking Feeling

In today's Broadsheet from Salon.com:

But in riffing on some recent criticism on how we festishize celebrity babies, Smith momentarily sunk her teeth into speculation about Jennifer Aniston's purported pregnancy, all of which has been based on a supposed "bump" in her taut belly.

I wish I knew how this happened, because it bugs the hell out of me. When did the past participle of some irregular verbs become the preterite?

First things first, I suppose, for those not in the know. The preterite is otherwise known as the simple past tense: the past participle is the verb form used (among other things) with "have" to indicate the past perfect. "Talk, talked, [have] talked" are the present, preterite and past participle of a regular verb; the irregular verbs must simply be learned so that we can get things like "to run" (run, ran, run) or "fight" (fight, fought, fought) correct. All very straightforward. Most people instinctively grasp, or least learn from experience, that there are three forms, even if two of them usually look the same, and that in English they can be irregular.

But for some reason which escapes me entirely, the preterite of most irregular verbs ending in "-ink" has replaced the past participle. Remember the movie "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids"? The perfect case in point: "shrank" is the past tense of the irregular verb "shrink", and "shrunk" is the past participle, correctly used only when we have a helper verb such as "have". I shrink: I shrank: I have shrunk. Pretty clear-cut, one would think, and yet it's misused all the time, as in the quoted sentence above, which should have used "sank", not "sunk".

I concede that some of the "-ink" verbs are very very irregular. A small set--"drink", shrink", "sink", and "stink"--is conjugated with the vowel's changing to "-a-" in the preterite and "-u-" in the past participle. Another, "slink", perversely uses "-u-" in both past forms. Yet another, "think", goes entirely off the rails with "thought" as both past forms, in line with another batch of irregular verbs such as "buy" ("bought") and "teach ("taught"). (All the rest--"wink", "link", and so on--are regular, taking "-ed" in both past forms.)

But there are only four verbs that run "-ink"/"-a-"/"-u", and I wouldn't have thought it so difficult to get them right. It shouldn't bother me, I suppose: "You sunk my battleship!" is so common now as to be beneath notice, and could probably be defended as correct, but it still sticks in my craw. Even if I'm the last holdout on Earth, you'll never hear me say it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sneezing Fit

I went to see "An Inconvenient Truth" today and thought it was very good: it certainly made me wish that Al Gore had been elected in 2000.

I can't remember the context, but Gore used the word "sound" in the sense of "healthy" or "secure", and ordinarily that would have gotten me to thinking, but I needed to attend to the movie, so I filed it away for later perusal. Thank goodness for short-term memory.

What I was wondering, naturally enough, was whether "sound" as in healthy was related to "sound" as in noise, though I couldn't imagine how it might be. The noisy one, I knew, was related to French "son", which came to us from the Latin "sonus", from which we get a great many words including "resonant", "sonogram", "consonant", "sonata", and "sonorous". I had no idea, though, where the healthy one might have come from.

German, it turns out, via Anglo-Saxon, and what a surprise that was, though I should have known: in English, when someone sneezes, we're liable to say "gesundheit", which means "health" (the "-heit" on the end is the same as English "-hood", which we attach to a noun to give it the sense of "having the quality of"). Gesund = sound = healthy. So simple when you know the trick!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Matters of Taste

I've only just gotten around to reading David Rakoff's book "Fraud", five years after its publication. Hey, I've been busy. I'd read some of his essays before--see?--but never a whole collection. I like his writing style, which is reminiscent of David Sedaris', but every now and then, once or twice per essay, I come across a construction that I think a copy editor should have discussed with him. And then, in the second-last essay in the book, was the following sentence about a hotel in Tokyo, which I had to read three times before I understood (and understood to be wrong):

The Seiyo's quiet elegance, its second-floor lobby, subdued golden beige palate, is anodyne after the thrum outside.

I, in love with hyphens, would have hyphenated "golden-beige", but that's a stylistic preference. I'm talking about "palate". That's not just a matter of style to be discussed with one's editor: that's just wrong.

There are three identically pronounced words in English, "palate", "palette", and "pallet", and a writer, certainly an editor, is expected to know when to use each correctly. They're all from the French, and two of them are even from the same source, but they're not interchangeable.

Okay, buckle your seatbelts. The palate is the roof of the mouth, and, by metaphorical extension, the sense of taste; we get the word, through French, from Latin "palatum", with the same meaning. A palette is the flat panel on which an artist holds and mixes his colours, and again by metaphor any array of colours. A pallet is almost any flat broad object: the word's commonest referent in English is a large wooden platform used to transport freight, but it also refers to various tools and mechanisms with that general shape, including a paintbrush--and, rarely, a painter's palette. (These last two are related to the word "pale", as in fence picket. "Pallet" is from a word that meant "tongue depressor", which is delightful, and "palette" from a word meaning "small shovel or spade"; you can easily see how all these words are interconnected. "Pale", by the way, is unrelated to "pail", which is related to French "poêle", "saucepan", which may have stemmed from Latin "patella", which is the name we give to the cupped, frying-pan-shaped bone otherwise known as the kneecap. "Patella" comes from "patina", a plate or pan, and "patina" entered English as a word referring to the appearance of age that builds up on metallic objects, usually copper but really almost any metal; we borrowed the word from Italian--it's sometimes seen as its French version, "patine"--because of the surface corrosion seen on ancient unearthed metal dishes.)

To sum up: Rakoff said "palate" but meant "palette"; someone, possibly he, messed up; nobody caught it before printing; and there's really no excuse.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Slice and Dice

The front page of the local paper bore the following headline today, which I don't know how to feel about:

Saint John pays less for energy than us

(Saint John is another New Brunswick city about an hour and a half from here.)

On the one hand, the pronoun is wrong. It ought to be "we", subject versus object pronouns, implicit verb "do", blah blah blah.

On the other hand, though, the headline sounds more natural to the modern ear, which allows us a little leeway with pronouns, but only a little. Do we, after all, say "it's I?" Some of us probably do, but more people are going to say "it's me", which is well-established and idiomatic. Even I do this, and I know better.

On the other hand, newspapers ought to write a little better than the average person speaks: they ought to hold themselves to a higher standard and act as exemplars for the language. They ought not to strive to be the lowest common denominator.

So, as I said, I don't know how to feel. It's wrong, but everyone does it!


Regular reader Tony Pius wrote in a comment to yesterday's post regarding the French word "tranche" and its offspring in English:

As well as the ineffable "tranche" -- rhymes with "launch" -- which is used in high finance.

You see, people buy up a whole bunch of mortgages, bundle them together into half-billion dollar chunks, and then slice up the interest and principal being repaid on those mortgages and sell off to investors pieces of each slice. Each such slice is a "tranche."

You can Google on "collateralized mortgage obligations" if you burn to know more, but it's pretty brain-hurty. Or you can go read Michael Lewis's excellent book Liar's Poker, which covers it in passing.

Actually, I think that what you just said is all I will ever need to know on the subject. (I don't have much of a head for finance; it is indeed brain-hurty stuff for me.) But seriously, thanks: I like to know everything, and this actually is pretty interesting. I do wonder how the word made it, intact, into English. Did we borrow it from French financiers, or did someone think it sounded classy?

Tranchette, you may also be interested to know, is the name of a French-Canadian dish, according to The Bad For You Cookbook, which I very much recommend: ignore the snippy, pretentious review from Publishers Weekly and just buy it. Tranchette is made by frying white bread in butter, pouring maple syrup over it, and then pouring warm cream--a half-cup per serving!--over that. Not something most of us would eat every day (and I think I can hear nutritionists all over the continent passing out), but Quebecois cuisine does tend towards the hearty and high-fat. (Only they could have invented poutine.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The First Cut

Once again, I'm doing the dishes and idly reading the various boxes of things on the shelf above the sink, and I notice that the French words for "cutting edge"--on a box of cling-wrap, not a box of modern art or computer components--are "bord tranchant".

"Bord" is pretty obviously related to "border". No further explanation needed there, I trust. And doesn't "tranchant" look like an English word?

The suffix "-ant" in French has exactly the same effect as "-ing" has in English: it turns a verb into an adjective. "Tell", for instance, becomes the adjective "telling" (as well as the progressive verb as in present-progressive "he's telling a story"); "dire", "to say", becomes, with a consonant change, "disant", "saying", as in the naturalized English expression "soi-disant", "self-styled" (literally "saying [of] oneself").

"Trancher" is a French verb meaning "to cut" or "to slice"; "tranche" is a noun meaning "a slice". We have a few English offspring from this: "trench", a channel or ditch that's cut out of the earth, and "trencher", a plank of wood upon which meat is carved, and "trencherman", a hearty eater, as manual labourers such as ditch-diggers are known to be.

And, of course, we have "trenchant", a direct descendant of "tranchant"; a trenchant remark is one that is strong, sharp, and, above all, cutting.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Bad Boy

In the newest installment of the sex-advice column Savage Love, Dan Savage wrote the following sentence:

Oh, you may have raised some false hopes in the folks you were chatting with, or helped circulate pictures that the original owners may not have wanted passed around, but those are venal sins.

My first thought after reading this was, "Well, he's not Catholic." But he is! Or was! He even met the pope!

So how on Earth could he mistake "venal" for "venial"? There can hardly be two words which, despite their remarkable similarity, are so different in meaning, and while the average joe on the street might mix them up, you'd hardly think someone with a Catholic education could.

"Venal" means, in its most literal sense, "to be had for a price", as it's from Latin "venum", "sale", the source of French "vendre", "to sell", and thence into English as "vend". It's usually used to refer to people who can be bribed---who sell themselves to the highest bidder--and in an extended sense to anyone corrupt.

"Venial", on the very other hand, means "forgivable", from the Latin "venia", "forgiveness" (as far as I know, it has no other offspring in English). A bad person is venal; a minor sin is venial. (Let's not mistake either of these words for "venery", either. That word, meaning "sexual activity", comes from "Venus", the Roman goddess of love, and is also seen in the disappearing term "venereal disease")

The opposite of venial, by the way, is "mortal"; that is to say, a sin that is not only not forgivable without outside help, but which will lead to the death of the soul if not confessed and purged. According to this page, if you are involved in surrogate motherhood, "excessive" gambling (bingo good, Vegas bad, I suppose), or nipple-piercing, you're headed straight to hell. Have fun. See you there. "Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company," as Mark Twain used to say.

Monday, June 19, 2006


There's a puzzle making its Internet rounds--I ran across it yesterday, though I can't remember where--which is asked and answered on, of course, Snopes.com:

There is a common English word that is nine letters long. Each time you remove a letter from it, it still remains an English word — from nine letters right down to a single letter. What is the original word, and what are the words that it becomes after removing one letter at a time?

The good folks at Snopes have received some mail about some of the possible solutions, and end with the following note:

Finally, scrapping and strapping both work as solutions if "pi" is used as the penultimate reduced word, solutions contested by many readers who claimed that "pi" is not technically an English word but merely a Greek letter used to represent a common mathematical value.

Well. What kind of a stupid assertion is that?

Of course "pi" is an English word. It's a pronounceable string of letters with a well-defined meaning ("the transcendental number produced by dividing the circumference of a circle by its diameter"); what else could it be but a word? The next thing you know, such people will be telling us that "alpha" isn't a word, either, or "sigma"--or, for that matter, "ess" and "aitch".


A letter in the newest issue of Harper's Magazine--I'd have a lifetime subscription if they sold them--contains the unfortunate word "rearmament". I think it's unfortunate because when I first read it, my brain tried to divide it into the word "rear-" and then something else which didn't make any sense. This is why we have the lovely dieresis: a word such as "coöperate" is accented to tell us that it isn't pronounced "COOP-er-ate", that the second, marked syllable is pronounced separately from the one preceding it.

I know: the dieresis is hardly used any more. (You don't even usually see it in "naïve", which used to have it all the time and could still use it.) So we can usually employ the modern version, the hyphen, instead: "re-armament" is superior to "rearmament" and "co-operate" to "cooperate" because they aren't subject to any confusion whatever.

You can't entirely clean up the language in this manner, of course: there's nothing to be done with, say, "arsenal". But I do think that where words are compounded from roots and prefixes, and where confusion might arise, it's better to mark the words and remove any doubt. I like to give readers a sporting chance.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Ever a Dull Moment

As Heather Havrilesky, Salon.com's TV critic, said today,

the doldrums of summer have hit me prematurely. I'm restless yet sluggish, crabby yet uninspired.

Yep, those sound like the doldrums, all right. (Not here, not yet, thank goodness; it's still nice and cool in the mornings. If she's talking about television doldrums, I wouldn't know.) But what exactly are doldrums, anyway? When I first started thinking about the word, I thought, "Hey, that sounds kind of Dutch! 'Doldrums' is a seagoing kind of word, we got a lot of our seagoing words from the Dutch...could be!"

It isn't, though. It would have been great if it had been (because then I would have been right, and that's always great), but it isn't.

The first half of "doldrums" comes from "dold", an old past tense of "dullen", "to make dull". (This shows simultaneously the influence of German, in that "-en" verb suffix, and the rather haphazard way English dealt with vowels before spelling began to be codified. You may take it from me that in Newfoundland, where I hail from, the "-u-" in "dull" is in some regions regularly pronounced as a sort of way-station between a short "u" and a short "o", and closer to the "o" at that; "dulled" sounds a fair bit like "dold"--to rhyme with "called", not "cold".)

As for the rest of "doldrums", Answers.com tells us that the whole thing is from the archaic "doldrum", "dullard", influenced by "tantrum", so there's the second half. And where does "tantrum" come from? That, they don't know. It evidently just appeared out of nowhere.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that if you're going to use in writing a word that is likely to be unfamiliar to most of your readers, and furthermore is entirely indecipherable, it's only fair to define the word in the text.

In this New Yorker article about the estate of James Joyce and its control by Joyce's only living relative we find the following two sentences:

Stephen is a handsome man of seventy-four, with a gray beard, sloping forehead, and deep-blue eyes—he looks the way Joyce might have looked if he had not smoked and drunk himself to death, at fifty-eight, in 1941. Stephen sometimes walks with an ashplant, just as his grandfather did.

A what? An ashplant? Is it a kind of a plant, or is it...well, what is it? Perhaps the article was written for people who've read Joyce or at least have read enough about Joyce to have come across this word before, but I hadn't, and it threw me.

Answers.com, my usual source for a quick look-up (that is, when I don't want to get up from my chair and consult the OED), doesn't list it. Googling it gives a welter of links, and fortunately, one of them is fruitful, although it wasn't where I might have expected to find the answer. This page, with what amounts to guitar tablatures only for fiddlers, contains this helpful note:

An ashplant was the name for a common implement among farmers and drovers of cattle in Ireland, made from a sapling of an ash tree. The root ball would be trimmed to a knob which fit easily in the hand, and the length trimmed into a switch. It would be applied to the hide of the buttocks of an animal as a means of motivating and steering them. The implement has been known to be employed in brawls on fair days, grasped at the opposite end with the knob then the business end!

Clear, (fairly) concise, and vivid; all we could ask for in a definition. Why, it's positively Johnsonian.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Fired Up

So there we were watching, for lack of anything better to do (a shameful admission, I know), a show on the Discovery Channel called "Krakatoa: Volcano of Destruction". (As opposed to all those other non-destructive volcanoes of creation, I suppose.) Naturally, the term "pyroclastic flow" was used, and I began to wonder where the word came from. "Pyro-" is obvious enough; it's found in "pyrotechnics" and "pyre" and is from the Greek for "fire". But "-clastic"?

I wondered aloud what other words might use some variation of "-clastic"; I was, as usual, shortening it, changing the vowels, adding bits onto it, all in my head, all in an attempt to unpick it, and then Jim said, "Well, it's the same as in 'iconoclastic'." So it is! Smart as a whip, that one. I think I'll keep him.

An iconoclast is literally an icon-smasher; "-clastic", as it turns out, is from the Greek for "to break". A pyroclastic flow, which results from the collapse of a volcano's output, is composed of chunks of volcanic rock: "pyroclastic" means not "a breaker of fire" but "broken (up) by fire", which describes the rock content of the cloud of hot gas and solids.

By the way, "icon"--don't tell me you weren't wondering about this, too--is from the Greek "eikon", "image", which is from another Greek word meaning "to resemble".

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pointing a Finger

In today's Salon.com there's a piece about an ongoing debate on whether the 2004 election was literally stolen from John Kerry by fraud and malfeasance. It's an interesting article and I'm convinced. It contains, unfortunately, this sentence:

In the book, we treat the exit poll discrepancy as, in the words of Rep. John Conyers, "but one indicia or warning that something may have gone wrong -- either with the polling or with the election."

Now, you don't have to be fluent in Latin to instantly know by looking that "indicia" must be a plural noun. After all, every noun in English you can think of that ends in "-ia" is plural: "gymnasia", "bacteria", "millennia", and so on and so on. (Yes, "media" is being used increasingly as a singular noun, but that's not the word's fault. It ought to be plural.)

"Indicia" is, in fact, a plural noun: it's the plural of "indicium", which is from "index", a very common English word with exactly the same meaning in English as it had in Latin: "indicator", whether it's a finger, a list in the back of a book, or a stock-market number. "Indicia" just means "marks of identification or indication".

So what Mr. Conyers meant to say wasn't "indicia", but, barring the uncommon "indicium", "index", which would have been not only direct, clear, and simple, but correct. "Indicia" is a mistake born of (surely unconscious) pretentiousness.

Friday, June 09, 2006


I don't have any particular point to make today: I'm just idly musing about something I couldn't possibly find the answer to. Muse along with me.

In a piece about Americans and soccer, Dave Eggers writes the following sentence:

Once the referees have decided either to issue a penalty or not to our Fakey McChumpland, he will jump up, suddenly and spectacularly uninjured—excelsior!—and will kick the ball over to his teammate and move on.

I've seen that fake-name structure so many times and never really thought much about it, and I suppose there's no way to find out, but I wish I knew: when did it start and how did it become more or less universal, that joke name built on the skeleton [to-the-point adjective]+(if necessary)y Mc+[insulting noun]?

I first noticed this in the short-lived TV series "Mission Hill", in which one character called his irritating younger brother "Surly McDouchebag". I found this hilarious because I still, unaccountably, think the word "douchebag" is hilarious.

You can Google "Mc+", with the noun of your choice, and be almost guaranteed of finding a name. Fruity McBastard. Twatsy McTwat. Smokey McAsshole.

Sometimes you'll just find "Mc-" plus the noun, and I think this likely has to do with the ubiquity of McDonald's; "McJob" has become a shorthand way of saying "low-paying, horrible retail work", and there are plenty of other such constructions ("McArchitecture", "McFood") signifying cheapness, badness, or other undesirability.

That's all I got.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Point

Yesterday I was ranting about "ogle" and something occurred to me: the German word for "eye", "Auge", looks quite a lot like both "auger", which is to say a piercing tool which makes holes not unlike eyelets, and "augur", which is to say to predict or foresee. But not everything is as it looks, so the question before us is, which one of these words is actually related to "eye" and which isn't?

Trick question! Neither of them, it turns out, has anything to do with "Auge"/"ogle". One of them, mind you, is of rather dicey provenance. The OED suspects, but can't confirm, that "augur" is related distantly to "garrulous", but cites a philologist whose opinion is that it's related to "augment". "Auger", it avers, is in part from Old English "gar", "something which bores or pierces", which would make it a relative of the fish known as the gar (otherwise garfish), which has a long, pointed snout.


This is Broken is a charming website devoted to things that don't work the way they're supposed to: its subhead is "A project to make businesses more aware of their customer experience, and how to fix it", and that may be what it started out as, but since people get to post whatever they think is broken, there are all sort of things such as a door with signs reading both "Emergency Exit Only" and "NOT an Emergency Exit!" And so someone who was, I would imagine, having a bad day while trying to write something posted the following:

Broken: English spelling

Do you know why there are no spelling bees in Spain? Because Spanish is spelled just like it sounds. It's English that is so hard to spell.

Are there spelling bees in other languages? I haven't heard of any.

(Of course, despite the difficulties of English, I think it's totally broken not to learn how to spell properly.)

The link will take you to quite a number of comments, most of them interesting and well-informed. Is English spelling broken? Yes and no. It's certainly a slumgullion, borrowing as it does from pretty near every language on Earth; it's cruel and patternless and contains thousands upon thousands of traps for schoolchildren and non-native speakers alike. But it isn't broken, because there's nothing to fix (despite the attempts of generations of spelling reformers). It reflects its wide-ranging and storied history; it proudly bears the imprint of every immigrant, every borrowing, every coinage. It is what it is, and I love it.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

An Eyeful, An Earful

Oh, for god's sake. Here's a sentence from a recent posting on The Consumerist:

Given the fact that most children’s first experience oggling the fascinating mystery of the opposing gender’s genitalia comes from pulling down a Barbie or Ken doll’s genitalia and examining the amorphous mass of plastic at the crotch, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a lot of busy-body parental groups who are willing to launch consumerist campaigns any time Barbie exhibits a glimmer of sexuality.

You see? This is what happens when we let our guard down.

I'm not talking about the dreadful clause "pulling down...genitalia", which should have been "pulling down...clothing". I'm talking about "oggling".

The word is "ogling", and although some more permissive dictionaries list a secondary pronunciation which sounds like "oggle", they're wrong. (Even if they weren't, the spelling used in the quoted sentence is still wrong.) The word has a long "o-". It's derived from an old word meaning "eye" which is the ancestor of the modern German word "auge", "eye". I know; it looks as if it might be pronounced "OGG-uh", suggestive of the (incorrect) short-"o" pronunciation in English, but in fact it's pronounced "OW-guh", and this vowel (along with its umlauted predecessor), if not quite "OH-", is closer to it than is "OG-".

Some people, heaven help us, even pronounce the word "oogle", may they be struck down from above.

The word "ogle" entered English in the late 17th century and it was pronounced "ogle" with a long "o" then and that's how it's pronounced now. I would sooner ban "ogle" entirely than allow "oggle" into the language, in spelling or in pronunciation, and I will brook no dissension on this issue. None!

Monday, June 05, 2006

As The Crow Flies

Okay. So, as you know, we were in Montréal and Ottawa for a week, and as you also know, words tend to pop into my head and fester there until I can deal with them, so I often--usually--write them down or even make a voice recording into my cell phone, because cell phones can do such things nowadays and also because I am a huge geek, which you also also know.

One of the words that occurred to me in Montréal was "jaywalk", because everyone does it. You've never seen the like. The drivers and the pedestrians have a whole different set of rules from people in normal places like Halifax and wherever else you can think of, and it seems to work for them--there aren't any more traffic accidents than you'd expect from a population that size. But honestly.

So. Why does "jaywalk" mean "to walk recklessly across a street"? What does that have to do with jays?

Answers.com has a strange and, I suspect, mostly incorrect answer: "From JAY, an inexperienced person". That doesn't sound right at all!

The OED doesn't think it sounds right, either. Their reasoning, which works for me, runs more or less as follows. 1) A jay is a noisy, chattering bird. 2) A jay, by metaphor, is a noisy, chattering person. 3) Someone who's blabbing away is not paying much attention to his or her surroundings, and is therefore careless. 4) A jay, by further metaphor, is a careless person. 5) A jaywalker is someone who's not paying close attention to where she's walking, possibly because she's blabbing, possibly because she's careless.

I'm extrapolating a bit, of course. But it's all there, in between the lines. Unlike a jaywalker.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Mail Call

Whenever I see a suspect assertion about some aspect of grammar, usage, or spelling, my immediate, combative instinct is to think, "Oh, yeah? We'll just see about that!" Sometimes I am put in my place, with no-one the wiser--I can't always be right--but usually my suspicions are borne out.

I was poking around the Internet looking for chain-mail patterns, for no particular reason other than that it suddenly occurred to me that I would like to know, and I stumbled across this page which contains the following paragraph from a posting by someone named Alejandra:

Please, just "mail." Not "Chainmail". Mail means chain. Chainmail means "chainchain." Plate mail is a D&D-inspired silliness.

Alejandra? Everything in that paragraph is wrong. Just a little heads-up there.

"Mail" doesn't mean "chain" and never did. It does mean "armour"; it's derived from the French word "maile" (with the same meaning), and this came to French from the Latin "macula", which had (at least) two meanings in that language: a blemish or spot, and the mesh of a net--that is to say, the spots that aren't holes. ("Macula" exists in English with that first definition, and it may look familiar from the word "immaculate", which is to say "spotless".) "Mail" came to mean all sorts of related things; a fish's scales, armour, or a bird's plumage, depending on the writer's flight of fancy, but eventually we settled on "armour".

And even if "chain-mail" were redundant, so what? The English language has plenty of redundancies ("tuna fish"!), and they don't impoverish or worsen the language in any way. But "chain-mail" is not one of those redundancies: it's entirely correct, because it distinguishes a kind of armour from other kinds of armour, such as, yes, plate-mail (that is, metal plates held together with leather straps or metal rings), and ring-mail (in which metal rings aren't interlinked into chains but attached to a garment to provide lightweight protection).

"Mail", it is true, once meant armour made of interlinked rings, but its meaning eventually was synechdochized to mean any kind of armour at all. The distaste for this meaning seems to be a fancy of the modern let's-pretend-we're-knights-and-ladies types. "Chain-mail" has been around for some three hundred years; it's not a neologism, and there's no shame in using it.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

To and Fro

Today we have an interesting word from a Slate.com article about disaster reportage. I find it interesting for two reasons: it isn't used all that much nowadays (it's in a quotation from a 1973 magazine article), and because it's not often seen in the form in which it's used.

Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in "remote Eastern Turkey" or in the "arid center of Iran." But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then "for six seconds the earth shook." Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.

"Animadvert" is the word that caught my eye. It's not obsolete--it isn't even obscure--but it doesn't seem to be used much any more, and when it is used it's hardly ever in the form of a verb; we generally (or rather I generally) see it as its noun, "animadversion".

Now, "animadvert" mostly means "to criticize"; more broadly, it means "to report or remark upon", but from its very appearance in English has carried a sense of "...with not much good to say about the matter at hand". (Perhaps it helps that the last half of the noun sounds like "aversion".)

The first half is obviously "anima-", which, in Latin, means variously "soul" or "mind', for the simple reason that they considered the two the same. The second half is obviously composed of "-ad-" plus "-version". This last bit is from the Latin root meaning "to turn", so we would logically think that "animadvert" literally means "to turn one's mind against something", since we're criticizing it. But in fact it means just the opposite: "ad-" means "towards", and so "animadvert" literally means "to turn one's mind to something". All the better, presumably, to rip it to shreds.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Punt's A Pound

Yes, this is exactly what it looks like.

Two words today, both used correctly (amazingly enough), one unusual (with a brief excursus), one more usual but used in a slightly uncommon way (a way, in fact, that I had forgotten about).

From an article on bizarre Japanese ice cream flavours such as octopus and, as seen above, curry:

But the dubious choice to add soy sauce to milk and sugar and pack it in a punnet has made the condiment a standout pick to headline the Wackiest World of Japanese Ice Cream and possibly soy, er, soiled the reputation of ice cream as we know it forever.

It's obvious from the context what a punnet is, isn't it? It must be some sort of container. And of course it is: originally a felt basket used for collecting fruit and flowers, it came to mean, in the UK, any kind of small container. The odd thing is that nobody really knows where the word came from, even though it's strongly suggestive of at least three things: "pound" (the OED thinks it's from "pound" plus diminutive "-et" ending, but isn't sure), "punt", and "pint". I wanted it to be from "pint", as in "pint basket of strawberries", but apparently it isn't.

And now, that excursus. "Punt" is a really interesting word, because it has four meanings in standard English (not counting the Irish unit of currency, which is related to "pound"), and each of them came from a different source, which is to say that the word entered the language four times from completely different roots. Isn't that something? A punt is a little flat-bottomed boat, which evolved from Latin "pons", "bridge". A punt is also the deep concavity at the bottom of a bottle of champagne, from French "point", the name for a piece of glass-blowing equipment. To punt is also to kick, probably derived from "bunt". And to punt is also to bet (hence the British "punter", meaning "gambler"), from an old French word meaning "to put", as in "to lay a bet" (it originally meant, in Latin, "to lay an egg").

And on to our other word, as seen in this sentence from a Slate.com article on Douglas Coupland:

Now the techniques he helped popularize have been advanced by others: David Foster Wallace dilates more obsessively on pop culture, while Jonathan Safran Foer plays with the text of the book for greater emotional effect.

"Dilates"! I had honestly forgotten that that meaning even existed, as if the usual meaning had eclipsed it altogether. And yet the two meanings are practically identical, aren't they? "Dilate" means "to expand, to become larger", and when you dilate on a subject, you write or talk about it at length--you literally expand on it.