or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Numbers can be a lot like words: they carry meaning and they contain traps for the inattentive and weasel room for the sneaky.

There's a sign in the door of the local magazine store advertising phone cards, which (in case you don't know) you can buy and then use to make long-distance calls rather than relying on land-line long-distance service--a boon for students, foreigners, travellers, and others who don't have steady access to a phone. (You can use the cards with a borrowed cell phone, a pay phone, or just about any other kind.) The sign, however, offers cards that will let you make phone calls for, and I quote, as little as 0.005 cents per minute.

It's a hand-made sign, and I honestly doubt that anyone's trying to rip anyone else off, but the case could be made that this store is advertising, say, $10 phone cards which will give you 20,000 minutes of connect time, or nearly two solid weeks of 24/7 conversation.

The store probably intended to say 5 cents per minute, or even .5 cents per minute: I don't know, and I didn't bother to ask. I doubt it's the latter, since 30 cents an hour doesn't sound doable. But I'm pretty sure the didn't mean what it perhaps inadvertently said: 0.005 dollars is not the same as 0.005 cents, and I don't think anyone could afford to sell what amounts to limitless long-distance calling.

In other number news, the delightful Mouseprint.org has a piece about a typically devious marketing ploy for an established brand: decrease the size of the package while keeping the price the same. In this case, it's quart jars of mayonnaise which have been reduced to 30 ounces, a quart being 32 ounces. Companies do this all the time, but what's noteworthy about this is the language the company used to defend itself: "Recently, inflationary pressures have brought about by the increased costs of raw materials. Rather than raise our prices, we chose to slightly reduce the size of the 32 oz quart and 16 oz pint."

"32-ounce quart" is redundant: a quart is thirty-two ounces. By choosing this wording, they're playing with reality, making it seem as if a quart is whatever they deem it to be, and that therefore you're still getting a quart--even though it's only 30 ounces. The next time inflationary pressures force their hand, I suppose they'll invent the 28- or 26-ounce quart, and the language will again be the victim alongside the consumer. I know this seems like nit-picking, but compare the wording "32-ounce quart" with "32-ounce jar" and you'll see the difference. It's just sneaky, almost Orwellian.

Is it just me, or does a quart of mayonnaise seem like a whole lot? Could you even use it up? After reading the Mouseprint piece, I happened to be in the supermarket and took a look at mayonnaise and salad-dressing jars, and most of them are half-litre, or 500-mL, jars, although it turns out that, though I'd never noticed it before, those products do in fact come in 950-mL jars, which is a little more than an American quart (which is about 908 mL). I wonder if those jars used to be 1-litre jars which were similarly downsized....

Mayonnaise, I noticed, also comes in gigantic 4-litre tubs--about an American gallon--which I have to assume is for restaurants, really big families, and people who like to eat mayonnaise with a serving spoon, which you wouldn't think was preposterous if you got a gander at some of the pie-wagons lumbering about this town.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rough Stuff

I've read that Arabic is a rather flowery language (especially, I guess, compared to the comparatively businesslike and straightforward English), but if you want to read something really florid, you don't have to go any further than French fragrance advertising. Here's a typically swoony bit from the ad copy for L'Artisan Parfumeur's Piment Brûlant, a luscious concoction of red pepper and chocolate:

Le Philtre Rouge, un piment mexicain tout feu tout flammes, met le feu au chocolat! Un trace narcotique de pavot pour endormir les défenses eventuelles...et le fièvre et dans le sang!

which means, loosely translated, "The red philtre: a burning-hot Mexican pepper sets chocolate on fire! A narcotic touch of poppy quells any defenses, and the fever is in the blood!"

Hoo boy. In all fairness, the scent is hot stuff, but still. Anyway, there is a point to this, because that same bit of advertising copy ends as follows:

Le Philtre Rouge exaspère les passions

which means "the red philtre inflames the passions". But the French word the writer chose was "exaspère", which is clearly the progenitor or at least the intimate relative of English "exasperate", "to infuriate". You could never use the English word in that French context, which is what I found fascinating: the senses are similar, but the actual usages have clearly grown apart.

"Exasperate" is from the Latin "ex-", a standard intensifier, plus--and this is where it gets interesting--"asperare", "to roughen". (This is also the source of such English words as "asperity", "harshness", and "aspersion", "slander", not to mention the rarely heard "asperate", "to roughen", rarely heard because it sounds exactly like "aspirate", "to inhale".) The original sense of roughness is at an extreme metaphorical distance from both the English and the French descendants of the word.

I thought that perhaps "rasp" was related to "asperare", possibly through some oddball misdivision, but it turns out that, even though a rasp is rough, there isn't any point of contact, which is a bit of a disappointment. It was more of a surprise than a disappointment to learn that "raspberry" and "rasp" are similarly unrelated; an old word for "raspberry" was "raspis", which in turn came from a kind of wine (though not raspberry wine).

Speaking of raspberries, if I had to define the sound known as a Bronx cheer or raspberry without actually making one, I couldn't do better than Answers.com:

A derisive or contemptuous sound made by vibrating the extended tongue and the lips while exhaling.

Isn't that perfect? Their etymology is "possibly short for raspberry tart, rhyming slant for fart", to which I can only add, possibly?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Pull No Punches

"Pull quote" is a publishing term which means a small piece of text--usually a sentence or a short paragraph, sometimes just a few words--placed into an article in large type. It acts as an element of graphic design--it makes the page look more interesting--and it draws attention to the content of the article.

Sometimes, perhaps usually, the pull quote is reworded slightly. Perhaps it needs a little more punch, or perhaps it's pertinent but too long for the space allotted to it. In this case, someone--rarely if ever the original writer--will have to rework it.

By way of illustration, here are a couple of sentences from this Slate.com article about the public's obsession with knowing how much money movies make:

There was a time when understanding what was going on in the movies required you to study the methods of certain French directors. These days, it feels like you need to study the marketing plans.

And here's the pull quote from the splash page of Salon.com, headed "Line of the Day":

"There was a time when in order to understand the movies you felt like you had to understand the ticks of certain French directors. Now, it feels like you need to understand the finances."

Is it an improvement? Not really. It isn't even significantly shorter, and I think "...when understanding what was going on in the movies required you to..." is better than "in order to understand the movies you had to understand...", which is why the author, Bryan Curtis, wrote it that way in the first place. But what caught my eye, and pissed me off, is the use of the word "tick" when "tic" was called for. That's just stupid. If you're going to rewrite someone else's prose for a pull quote, then you ought to improve it or at least not worsen it, but you had damned well better make sure that any changes you've made are spelled correctly, or else it's the author who looks at first glance like a boob.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Here is an amusing look at the evolution of the speech balloon, from angels emitting long ribbons of words as they tell the Virgin Mary she's up the stump to those rounded, pointy-bottomed bubbles as Cathy says "Ack!"

About three quarters of the way down the page is a word I'd never seen before--or more accurately a spelling I'd never seen before, pre-dictionary, before spelling was standardized: "cungerer".

A few seconds' worth of tossing it about in my brain revealed it to be "conjurer", which is fascinating even when spelled in the modern fashion. It's self-evidently Latin, and the first syllable is the familiar "con-", "with, together". But what about the rest? The whole is from "coniurare", "to swear together", and that's the key: the second part, "iurare", "to swear", and if you know that "i" and "j" in Latin were the same thing, you can quickly tease out that that's the source of the English word "jury", a group of people who swear an oath, not to mention "abjure" ("to recant", literally "to swear away") and"adjure" ("to entreat"). Longer words are also compounded straight from Latin from the root of "iurare", which is "iur-", "law": "juridical" and "jurisdiction, for instance, from "iur-" and "dicere", "to say" (the root of such English words as "diction"), and "jurisprudence", "ius-" plus "prudentia", "knowledge".

Yes, "prudence" actually means "knowing", though its meaning has been specialized over the centuries into "circumspect wisdom or carefulness". And "prudence" is, again, fascinating: it's from Latin "prudens", which is from "providens", a participle of "providere", "to provide for", so a prudent person is someone who's planning for the future. (As I noted before, however, "prudence" and "prude" are unrelated.)

Friday, August 25, 2006


Today at work a question plagued me:

How can "chauffeur" possibly mean "driver"?

I was wondering this because on the iPod on the way to work was the strange and beguiling Duran Duran song "The Chauffeur". Yes, I know: they're a soulless eighties band and their lead singer sounded like he was in the process of being turned into a castrato. But that song! It's entirely amazing. It starts off as a skeleton of a song, just spiky synthesized percussion, and when the singing starts it just doesn't match the music at all--you can imagine its being sung to a really romantic overproduced pop song. And then more and more instruments invade the austere aural space, and it's like hearing a song being assembled inside your brain. You should really listen to it here, and you might as well watch the arty, cheesy German-softcore video while you're at it.

"Chauffer" is the French word for "to heat", so a chauffeur must be a heater, right? And, in fact, that is one of its meanings in French. It's also, at one remove, one of its meanings in English: a chafing dish is something used to heat or reheat food, and "chafe", in all its senses (including the chafing which happens to your skin), comes from "chauffer", which in turn comes from Latin "calefacere", "to heat up": "calere", "to be hot" (as in "calorie" and also "cauldron"), plus "facere", "to make" (as in "manufacture").

So how can a chauffeur be a driver? Because a chauffeur was once someone who stoked a hot, smoky engine, that's how. You can't tell me you're not a better person for knowing such things.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


No, they're not about to go Jell-o wrestling, nothing so fun as that.

Yesterday was my day off and Jim's on vacation so naturally we were watching Logan's Run--yes, we own it on DVD, and yes, I know it's a bad movie, so that'll be quite enough about that, thank you--and there's this event in the movie called Carousel, which would take much longer to explain than it's worth, and naturally I began to wonder if "carousel" and "carouse" were related, since I wonder that about any two words that share more than a couple of letters in common, don't I?

Amazingly, no relationship at all, none: they're even from different languages. You might guess that "carousel" is from French, and if you did that, you'd be right: they stole it from Italian "carosello", a jousting match, and renamed it "carrousel", which is a spelling that is still occasionally seen in English, though "carousel" is much more common. And what's a carousel? A bunch of horses! They may be made of painted wood (or, nowadays, fibreglass), but moving horses they still are.

"Carouse", on the other hand, is, stunningly, from German "gar aus". "Gar" means "all" (it's also seen in a phrase I remember from university German classes, "gar nicht", "not at all"), and "aus" means "out", as in "Ausländer", "foreigner", literally "outlander" (and compare this with "outlandish"). "Gar aus", therefore, means "all out", which is what you go when you're out carousing.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Today in Salon.com is an interview with Michael Shermer, who's just written a book called "Why Darwin Matters". Here's a letter to the editor from the article's letters section:

I'll let others discuss the real stuff, but...
"We chatted around the dining room table, stacked with issues of the latest Skeptic magazine"
You mean COPIES of the latest ISSUE.
Fuck, that bugs me every time.

You know what bugs me every time? Prescriptivists who make lofty pronouncements without even bothering to look up the word in question.

"Issue" does in fact mean "edition", as the writer says. However, another definition of "issue", as common sense and a quick trip to the dictionary would have demonstrated, is, as Answers.com puts it,

A single copy of a periodical: the May issue of the magazine.

It's standard usage, it's well-attested, and it appears in the dictionary. "...[T]able, stacked with issues of the latest Skeptic magazine" is unimpeachably correct. So there, Anonymous. And watch that potty mouth.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Meat of the Matter

As I wrote the other night, we'd been watching a show on the history of the English language, the first part of an eight-part series called "The Adventure of English, 500 AD to 2000". It's utterly fascinating--thrilling, even--though if you read the show's critics you'll discover that the show's presenter doesn't necessarily have all his facts straight. (One of the perils of being an amateur, that.) One of his crimes, evidently, is that he believes the folk etymology of the word "tip", though it is definitely not an acronym for "To Insure Promptness". (The OED suspects that it's a rogues' cant word literally meaning "to touch", in the sense of passing something along; but, as is usually the case with cant, it was simply invented to confuse outsiders and so is not likely to have a clear etymology.)

The second episode of the show was about the Norman invasion of England and how it drove English underground, the third and least among the languages spoken in England, the first two being French and Latin. This, of course, is the source of the enormous influx of French words into English, and the show finally explained something that many people notice but not as many--including me, until last night--know the root of.

The words for the various sorts of meat in English are not at all the same as the names of the animals from which they come. Beef is from cows; mutton from sheep; venison from deer; poultry from chicken; veal from calves; pork from pigs. Some people decide--I've heard this explanation myself--that this stems from delicacy, that we don't like to think of a dead cow when we're eating beef. But the truth is much more interesting.

After the Norman invasion, the English were more likely to be in the serving class and the French to be the middle and upper classes. As servants, the English were the ones raising and slaughtering the animals, and so naturally they would use their own words for these animals. The French, on the other hand, were the ones cooking and consuming these meats, and so they would just as naturally use their words for the meat. Because the two classes perforce had some interaction, the words would have filtered back and forth to an extent; but because French was the dominant language, their words lodged in English and stayed there, along with so many thousands of others.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Gap

There's a song in the musical Avenue Q called "The Internet Is For Porn" (here's a hilarious World of Warcraft machinima* featuring that very song), and while that's not altogether wrong, isn't it nice to know that we also have it around to look up interesting things like alveolar consonants late in the evening?

Last night, Jim and I were watching the first part of a documentary about the history of the English language, and, since he has a computer at the end of the couch, decided to look up information about runes once the show was over, which led him to various topics in articulatory phonetics, the study of how the mouth and other parts of the vocal tract work to produce speech. (A while ago I wrote about my favourite topic in phonetics, the fascinating interdental fricative.) Jim was reading about alveolar consonants, and before i could even wonder about the etymology of the word "alveolus", I wondered how there could possibly be any such thing as an alveolar consonant, since the alveoli are structures in the lungs which transfer precious oxygen into the bloodstream.

It turns out that that isn't just what alveoli are.** There are also alveoli in your mouth, because the word doesn't mean "sack" or "structure for transferring precious et cetera"; it means "socket", and refers anatomically to not only the contents of the lungs, but also to the sockets in which sit the teeth.

And there we have it! An alveolar consonant is one which presses the flat, but not necessarily the tip, of the tongue against or near the palate behind the upper teeth. That's incredibly unclear, so just think of sounds such as "-n-", "-d-", and "-t-".

"Alveolus" is from, naturally, Latin: it's "alveus", "a hollow: a channel", plus the diminutive "-olus" (which you've also seen in the flower "gladiolus", "little sword": the first half, "gladius", means "sword", which also ought to be familiar from "gladiator", "sword-wielder"). "Alveolus" also has another meaning, not anatomical but apiarian: an alveolus is one of the hexagonal cells in a beehive--again, a hollow, leading to the not altogether useful but still fascinating adjective "alveolate", "honeycombed".

*A machinima is a movie made from a videogame; after writing the script, possibly basing it on existing sound recordings, you direct characters in the videogame to act out scenes and then edit them together into a movie which generally has nothing to do with the game itself. The word is evidently condensed from "machine animation".

**I only just recently learned that the lungs aren't big empty sacks lined with alveoli--they're actually densely spongy and packed full of alveoli. How can I have gone through my entire life not having known this? Still, better late than never.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


The above cartoon is by B. Kliban. Isn't it great? It will eventually become sort of relevant, I promise. Well, not relevant, exactly, but...well, you'll see. Maybe.

Jim and I have always been Laurie Anderson fans. We went to Montreal in 1989 (I think--could have been 1990) to see her Strange Angels tour, and our only regret is that we didn't buy tickets for the next night's show as well: total genius. Here's a bit from her massive "United States I-IV":

Lately, I've been doing a lot of concerts in French. Unfortunately, I don't speak French: I memorize it. I mean, my mouth is moving but I don't understand what I’'m saying. It's like sitting at the breakfast table and it's early in the morning and you're not quite awake, and you're just sitting there eating cereal and sort of staring at the writing on the box--not reading it exactly, just more or less looking at the words. And suddenly, for some reason, you snap to attention, and you realize that what you're reading is what you're eating ... but by then it's much too late.

I often think about this when I'm reading the packaging for what I'm eating, which is pretty often, for some reason, that reason being that I'll read anything to hand whenever I get the chance: I've just been a lifelong inveterate reader, and if there isn't a book or a magazine around, then a tissue box or an advertising flyer will have to do.

Last night for supper I had some frozen thing at work, and while I was eating it I was, of course, reading the box: how much sodium is in here? does the description on the front match the food on the plate? how do the French instructions differ from the English? On reading the French instructions for heating the stuff, I discovered that "fente" is the French word for "slit", as in "cut a slit in the plastic to allow steam to escape." (It also occasionally means "slot", depending on the context, but the sense of "long, narrow opening" is still there.)

Doesn't "fente" look like "vent"? It sure did to me, so I made a mental note to look it up when I got home. And what do you suppose? They're completely unrelated!

"Fente" is from French "fendre", the French verb meaning "to open" or "to separate; to split", so that derivation couldn't be clearer. "Fendre" comes from Latin "findere", which is the root of English "fissure" and "fission".

There are two different "vent"s in English. The one which means "the slit in the back of a dress jacket" derives from "fendre"/"findere". The other one, which can be a noun meaning "a means of escape" (as in "steam vent") or a verb meaning "to release" (as in "vent gases" or "vent your feelings"), is related to the identical French word meaning "wind" (the noun, not the verb), since a vent releases wind or other gas. The French word "évent", the direct precursor to our "vent", means "to let out air", because it's the same as "ex-", "out", plus "vent", but "évent" is unrelated to "event" meaning "something which happens"--it's just a coincidence"--because that English word is from Latin "ex"-, "out" again, plus "venire", "to come". (The French for "event" is "événement", in case you were wondering.)

"Fendre", by the way, has nothing to do with English "fender", which is an abbreviation of "defender", since a fender is something which blocks damage. And "fence", as you might have guessed, is also an abbreviation, of "defence" (which Americans usually spell "defense"). "Fent", however, does not exist. Except in that cartoon.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Yesterday in Salon.com's Broadsheet piece about American anti-abortion legislation, the following sentence:

Most criticisms of the bill are obvious: 1) the medical evidence at hand is sketchy, and 2) (even if it weren't) if these people really cared about "pain," they'd do more to alleviate that of, say, born children.

Also from yesterday's Salon.com, this time the cartoon strip The K Chronicles:

Walking thru a sketchy area way too late & seeing trouble coming...and they're afraid of you!!

The first example is one of the the usual usages of "sketchy": "incomplete". (It can also mean "superficial".) But the second example is something increasingly widespread and so new it isn't in the standard dictionaries yet.

Urban Dictionary is an online dictionary compiled by the hoi polloi, and it's generally to be taken with a grain of salt--there isn't peer editing as in Wikipedia, just the continual piling on of ever more definitions plus a peer-review system which doesn't actually remove or override bad definitions. However, if you approach it with the right spirit, it's a useful and amusing adjunct to standard dictionaries, because it can give you an idea of how people are using the language nowadays.

Here's the first-listed, which is to say most roundly approved, definition of "sketchy" from the Urban Dictionary:

1) someone or something that just isnt right. 
2) the feeling you get the morning after usuing a lot of drugs, most commonly associated with extacy.
3) something unsafe
4) someone or something that gives off a bad feeling

If we ignore the typos and the grammatical mess (the word's an adjective, but all the definitions are of nouns), we have what looks like a complete definition of this new usage. Another user adds this:

This expression was first coined in reference to hastily drawn out, or sketched, building/construction plans, which were uncertain at best and disastrous at worst. The overall thread of meaning is the same, but now applies to morality/legality. On the overall continuim of goodness, things progress, in order: safe, sketchy, shady, outright criminal.

Whatever the value of the rest of the paragraph, that first assertion, unfortunately, is wrong: the original "sketchy" was first used in print in the early 19th century to refer to sketches, in the sense of both drawing and writing, and simply meant "sketch-like", with no apparent sense of denigration (except inasmuch as a sketch is inferior to a complete drawing or painting). It soon took on such a sense, though: the OED has as one early quotation "Sketches of society--very sketchy indeed", which has a strong suggestion of the "superficial"/"incomplete" meanings. (It isn't always a demeaning word: the first Salon example up above uses it in a neutral sense, to literally say that the medical information is incomplete and needs to be filled in. Context is everything.)

The new sense doesn't seem like a word I'd be using much, but I like it. The language is always evolving, and this new word has a vivid charm about it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Let's Talk

Yesterday, Slate.com posted a story about Dell's battery recall, the largest in the history of consumer electronics. The home page contained this sub-head:

It's the biggest consumer-electronics recall in history, but don't lets make a fuss.

"Lets" should have been "let's", since it's originally a contraction of "let us": someone wasn't paying attention, and tsk tsk. What struck me was the idiomatic "don't let's", because it sounds odd to me: in my part of the world, the invariable way of expressing that idea is "let's not".

The invaluable Bartleby.com has this to say about the situation:

There are three negative idioms: Let’s not stay, Don’t let’s stay, and Let’s don’t stay. All are Standard, although Let’s don’t is more typically American than Don’t let’s, which is more typically British.

Is it the case that "let's not" is more typically Canadian? It's all I've ever heard. (Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says that "let's not" is "widely used", and thereafter agrees with Bartleby.)

It's tempting to say that the one we're most used to is the most logical, or sounds then best, and the others are weird; that's how I feel, a little bit. But "let's not" is probably the most grammatically defensible: "We will stay / we will not stay": "let us stay / let us not stay". (This is particularly true if you consider "let's" to be the rough structural equivalent to "shall we": "Let's go" = "Shall we go?", "Let's not go" = "Shall we not go?") "Don't let's" is also defensible on the face of it: "do not let us stay". In comparison, "let's don't" is very odd indeed when you break it down, and in fact Webster's notes that one grammarian has called it "an illiteracy". (Something the Bartleby article doesn't address is which form is used when the idiom is a complete sentence: what does someone say in response to "Let's jump off the roof!"? "Let's not!" sounds right to me--though I concede it what's I've used all my life--whereas "Don't let's!" and "Let's don't!" both sound strange.)

But hey, they're all idioms. If, as Bartleby says, they're all standard (or Standard), then there's no point in analyzing them: we just use whichever we grew up with, which, in my case, means "Let's not argue about this".

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Search and Destroy

Just yesterday I used "Google" as a verb--at least I capitalized it!--and today I read on Boingboing.net that Google's battalion of lawyers is getting all pissy about just such a usage, now that the verb has shown up in a couple of dictionaries, in one instance in lower case. (Here's another article on the subject.)

Guess what, guys? That can of worms has been opened: the worms are all over the place and you're not going to shoehorn them back in.

The Straight Dope calls such words "brand eponyms": it's a useful coinage. An eponym is a common noun which is derived from a proper noun, specifically a person, such as "bloomers" (after Amelia Bloomer) and "cardigan" (after Lord Cardigan), and so a brand eponym is a common noun derived from a brand name, such as "cellophane" or "zipper", both of which were once copyrighted.

If you ever read a journalism magazine, you'll see dozens of ads featuring such products as Kitty Litter Brand Cat Box Filler, reminding writers that if they use the words "kitty litter" without capitalizing it, and without specifically referring to that brand, they will be punished; the company wants you to say something like "cat box filler" or "cat gravel". (It makes for clumsy writing, the sort that makes the word "legalese" a punch line: you can't say "The defendants played scrabble", though you might get away with "played Scrabble", but the lawyers would be happiest if you were to say "played Scrabble® Brand Word Game". It's what happened with the Band-Aid television jingle: "I am stuck on Band-Aid 'cause Band-Aid's stuck on me" had the word "brand" jammed into it after the first iteration of the brand name, because the lawyers are terrified that the word will become a generic word for "sticking-plaster", as if it hasn't already in the common parlance.)

The lawyers aren't just harassing the innocent, of course--not quite. Trademark protection is not trivial. One problem is what's called "trademark dilution", which is what happens when an insufficiently zealously guarded trademark is used by others in ways that lessen the value of the trademark--if, for example, I were to start marketing Coca-Cola brand toilet paper. (The lawyers would reasonably say that I was piggybacking on an established brand name to sell my product, that I was divorcing the meaning of "Coca-Cola" from that specific product, and I was cheapening the brand name in the eyes of the public.)

Still and all, you'd think the Google people would be happy that they created a word which universally means "do an Internet search for". They can moan about it all they want, but they're not going to stop people from using "Google" (or even "google") as a verb.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Early Modern Errors

Christopher Buckley is a smart writer, and he's written an amusing piece in the New Yorker called "Stations of the Mel"*, but wouldn't you think that he and/or the editors could get Early Modern English pronouns and verbs right?

I've written about EME pronouns and verb suffixes before, most recently here and in much more detail quite a while ago in this posting, and here we go again, I'm afraid.

Buckley blows it right from first paragraph:

MEL IS CONDEMNED BY THE PRESS. Mel is pulled over by a centurion for driving his chariot at great speed, and accused of having a blood-alcohol level exceeding that mandated by Tiberius. “Arrest me not,” he telleth the centurion, “for I owneth Malibu. And thou lookest a bit Jewish unto me.” Sayeth the centurion, “Tell it to the procurator.”

"I owneth" is wrong, because "-eth" is a suffix belonging to the second person singular: "he/she/it owneth". "I own" would have been correct.

Then we come to this trio of sentences in the second paragraph, or station:

His lawyers, agents, and crisis managers sayeth, “Yet we are Jews.” Mel sayeth, “Thou didst not look Jewish when I was besotted with drink. Even so, gettest me out of this place of desolation.”

The trouble is that he's speaking to more than one person, and the EME version of "you (plural)" isn't "thou", it's "ye". As well, the ending is dropped in the imperative, so "gettest" is wrong: it's simply "get" (as in "Get thee behind me, Satan").

And then the third station:

ABC announceth, “Whereupon we hath interest in this project, we thereupon now hath none,” and refereth all calls to its press agent, another Jew, for Hollywood is full of them.

"Announceth" is correct, but "we hath" isn't, because "hath" has the ending that belongs to the third person singular, which "we" isn't; it's third person plural. (I'd also have spelled "referreth" with two "-r-"s, but I can't say for sure that the one "-r-" is wrong. It sure looks wrong, though.)

The seventh station:

MEL FALLS THE SECOND TIME. Whilst being interviewed by the Jew Larry King, Mel’s breath reeketh of alcohol. He sayeth on live television that he doth not like Jews, even those who maketh him rich unto the seventy-seventh generation. Larry breaketh to a commercial, during which Mel’s handlers sayeth unto him, “Art thou trying to give us ulcers?” They calleth for duct tape to be applied to Mel’s mouth.

"Mel's handlers sayeth" is wrong: singular/plural again. Same problem with "they calleth".

There are unfortunately lots of others, but at the risk of trying your patience, here's just one more, the eleventh station:

Disney cryeth out, “Why did we bankroll thou to make a movie about Guatemalans dipped in flour? Who green-lighted this abomination? Let him be brought forth that he may be recircumcised without Novocain.”

"Why did we bankroll thou" is wrong, because "thou" is a subject, not an object, pronoun: "thee" is called for in this case. (He got "why did" right, which strikes me as odd; it seemed as if he was on a roll and would have said "why didst we".)

Why should I care about this, apart from the fact that I'm a fussbudget? Because all of this is an artefact of the evolution of English, and it has its own set of rules. If you're going to use it, you have an obligation to use it correctly, just as you have an obligation to use correct spelling and grammar in plain old Modern English if you want to write well and be understood. Jumbling EME pronouns and verb endings is not a matter of style, and it's not comedy: screwing up something which would be easy to get right doesn't make the piece funnier or more interesting. Either it's right or it's wrong, and in this case there's an awful lot of wrong.

Am I missing the point? I don't think so. I hope not. If there had been some rhyme or reason to it--if the mistakes had been "mistakes", with a structure or a discernable comedic purpose--then I wouldn't have minded, but they seem to be random. (He uses imperative "tell" correctly in the first station, but incorrectly uses "gettest" as an imperative in the second.) It's just a mess. And now I can no longer say that I've never found any grammatical errors in the New Yorker, even if those errors were in a different language.

*I can't include a hyperlink to it because the New Yorker doesn't perma-link anything: in a week's time, it will be gone, or at least findable only if you Google ("stations of the mel" "new yorker").

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Let's All Chant

At work today, doing a fairly mindless and repetitive task, I idly wondered why "descant" and "decant" were unrelated. (I don't know which of the words popped into my head, or why; something must have triggered one of them, but since I was mindlessly working, I don't know what that trigger could be.) I knew that the "-cant" in "descant" was related to "chant", which is to say "sing" (which also shows up in the French verb "chanter" and Italian "canto", among other places. as they all emerge from Latin "canere", "to sing"), but I couldn't place the same syllable in "decant"; all I knew is that it couldn't be related, because that would be ridiculous.

Instead, the syllable comes from a place I never would have expected. Remember last October when I wrote about the epicanthic fold, and was baffled by the fact that Greek had a word, "kanthos", meaning the angle at the meeting of the eyelids? Well, the Romans filched the word from the Greeks, naturally transmuting it into "canthus", which for them had the same meaning, but over time also came to mean, logically enough, a rim, as of a wheel or an urn, and so to decant something is to pour it over the rim into another container. Isn't that great?

"Enchant", by the way, and "incantation" are both related to "canere", because an incantation, or an enchantment, is a spoken, and possibly sung, magical spell.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Under the Knife

I got up at 2:41 (by the bedroom clock, which is 5 minutes fast but which it never occurs to me to reset) to use the can (rare is the night that allows me to sleep until sunrise) and take some ibuprofen (because sometimes I wake up with a small headache, and it's best to nip these things in the bud), and in the kitchen saw a pair of scissors on the counter, and naturally the thought that came into my head at that hour and in those circumstances was, "Hey, I wonder how 'scissors' is related to 'abscissa'?"

Because even at quarter to three in the morning, you know they have to be, what with that identical "-sciss-" element. It would just be too much of a coincidence if they were unrelated.

An abscissa, in case you didn't remember this from your school days, is the line parallel to the X axis in the Cartesian coördinate system.

"Abscissa" itself is straightforward Latin, the feminine form of "abscissus", "to cut away": "ab-" is the standard prefix meaning "away from", and the rest comes from "caedere", "to cut", which also gives English such words as "chisel", "excise" (the verb, that is, which means literally "cut away", ), and "concise" ("cut short for clarity"). Some people--Pliny the Elder was apparently the first to put this theory on paper--think that the name Caesar comes from the word "caedere", since the first of the line (but not Julius Caesar himself) was cut from his mother's body in the operation now known as the Caesarian section, which, if true, makes the name a little redundant, since "section" also means "to cut", as it's from the Latin "secare", "to cut", and why shouldn't Latin have two verbs with the same meaning?

"Scissors", remarkably, isn't a direct draw from "abscissa": it has a long and twisted history, and let's let Answers.com tell the story:

From alteration (influenced by Latin scissor, cutter) of Middle English sisours, scissors, from Old French cisoires, from Vulgar Latin *cīsōria, from Late Latin, pl. of cīsōrium, cutting instrument, from Latin caesus, -cīsus, past participle of caedere, to cut.

I can guess what happened to the spelling: the same people who put the "-b-" into "debt" decided that since "abscissa" exists, "sisours" should be spelled "scissors" instead, and made a big fuss until that spelling got into the dictionary. (The original English spelling of "debt" was "dette", taken directly from the French: but snippy spelling reformers, not the modern kind who want us to use words like "thru" and "cigaret", decided that since Latin was the most perfectly developed of languages, English spelling should conform to it as closely as possible, and the Latin root of "dette" was "debere", "to owe", from which we get "debit", a word which at least comes by its "-b-" honestly.)

The line perpendicular to the Y axis, by the way, is called the ordinate, and no, I don't know why one means "cut here" and the other means "put it in order".

And "excise" the noun, as in "excise tax", isn't the same "excise" as the "caedere" version, though its spelling was almost certainly influenced by it; it's actually a cobbled-together word from the Latin "census" and the French "assise", which became in English "assize", one meaning of which is "the regulation of weights and measures on things meant for consumption".

There. That's how my brain works at three in the morning.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Par For The Cores

Bad Astronomy is a really terrific website, but the newest blog posting has this sentence, and I just don't know what to make of it.

Finally, when people ask me if I think aliens are coming to Earth to experiment on people and our livestock, I give them the same answer: why should aliens travel trillions of miles to repeatedly excoriate cow anuses when they only have to do it once and then clone all the cow anuses they need at home?

(Phil Plait is referring to the fact that some people believe that aliens are responsible for the removal, with "surgical precision", of the eyes, genitals and anuses of cows, ignoring, among other things, the fact that carrion-eaters generally go for the soft, easily removed bits of dead animals first.)

It troubles me when a writer uses a word that sounds as if it might mean another word and therefore leaves me in doubt as to what exactly was meant, because the first rule of good writing, surely, is to be understandable. It troubles me even more when a smart writer seems to use a word incorrectly.

"Excoriate" literally means "to flay", "to remove the skin from": it's from the Latin "corium", "hide", which led to the modern French word "cuir", "leather". "Excoriate" also has a secondary metaphorical meaning which has more or less completely replaced the original: "to denounce", which has a fascinating echo in the matching idiomatic expression "to tear a strip off".

However, Phil Plait seems to have used the word "excoriate" as if it means "core", which is to say "to remove the core or centre from": you could remove a cow's anus as if it were the core of an apple using a cylindrical cutter, like a biopsy instrument. I honestly don't know what else he could mean, because the usual--in fact, only--senses of "excoriate" don't work in the context: I suppose it's possible that he literally does mean "flay", but that isn't what's been happening to said cows--their anuses have actually been removed. So I have to assume that he's simply mistaken about the meaning of the word: "excoriate" sounds as if it should be synonymous with the verb "core", but it isn't.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Shiny Shiny

I was laminating something this evening at work, and as I was applying the lustre finish it naturally occurred to me to wonder whether "lustre" is related to "lustrum". It seemed pretty likely, but then there's the fact that "lustre" and "lust" are completely unrelated, so who knows?

It turns out that "lustrum" and "lustre" are, in fact, father and son. A lustrum is a purification ceremony which took place in ancient Rome every five years, after the census, and by extension a five-year period, just as a decade is a ten-year period. (If you didn't know English had a word for a half a decade, you're not alone, but isn't it a nice word to have?) "Lustre" (or, to use the American spelling, "luster") is derived from this: Latin derived a verb from "lustrum", that verb being "lustrare", "to make bright", which is a fairly logical step from the notion of purification. Italian "lustro" emerged from "lustrare", the French turned "lustro" into "lustre", and here we are.

It should be obvious upon looking at the word that "illustrate" is related to "lustre" as well. To illustrate, after all, means to clarify or illuminate--a very short trip on the metaphor bus from the original sense of "lustrum".

"Lust", you may or may not know, is from the Germanic: German still has the noun "Lust" (all nouns in German are capitalized), meaning "pleasure" or "desire", much milder than the seven-deadly-sins English version.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Yeah, you can spell "goldfish", but can you spell the dog?

In a recent Slate.com article, Jill Hunter Pellettieri writes about what's wrong with the current crop of talking-animal animated movies, and I couldn't agree more. What I don't agree with, though, is one of the words in this paragraph:

Other basic elements: a villain, who's typically human—Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmations; the diabolical niece, Darla, in Finding Nemo. And, of course, a happy ending: Call it the triumph of the inhuman spirit.

I hesitate to say that there's no such word as "Dalmation", because if you Google it you'll find very nearly a million hits. But the fact is that it's wrong.

The correct spelling is "Dalmatian". The suffix "-ian" means "of or relating to", and it's often used to describe residents of countries and regions, such as "Canadian" and "Bohemian". And Dalmatia is indeed a place: formerly an Austrian province, now part of Croatia, identified as the original breeding place of the dog.

The suffix "-tion", on the other hand, is what we use to convert a word (it can be a noun, verb, or adjective) into a noun, as in "abstract/abstraction", "populace/population", or "demolish/demolition".

It's pretty easy to see how the mistake can be made, of course: when pronounced, "Dalmation" and "Dalmatian" sound exactly the same, and the "-tion" ending appears in thousands of English words, so we're used to it. But any reputable spell-checker would have caught the error, and despite its Google-demonstrated popularity, "Dalmation" is still wrong. In a hundred years? Who knows? But for now, entirely wrong.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Dirty Words

You probably ought to watch this movie, which is a hilarious mid-sixties propaganda film against pornography (and which, typically, makes even the tame porno of the time seem irresistibly thrilling and desirable).

If you don't want to watch the whole thing (but you should!), then scroll to about 8:50 to hear the narrator, outstanding news reporter George Putnam, intone these words:

...he had been stimulated to this heinous crime by reading a nudist magazine....

The baffling thing is his bizarre pronunciation of the word "heinous", which he mangles into "hee-uh-nuss", almost rhyming with "pianist"*. I'm surprised I even recognized it.

"Heinous", meaning "reprehensible in the extreme", is derived from the French word "haine", which means "hatred". The vowels in the French word are pronounced just like those in its English offspring: "hane", with a long "-a-", and therefore "heinous" is and always has been "hay-nuss".

The only way I can figure Putnam thought to pronounce the word in his strange manner is that he'd never seen it before he read the script, didn't own a dictionary, and simply sounded it out. "Heinous...looks like 'he', and 'in'....that must be it!" Either nobody else on the film shoot knew the word either, or nobody dared contradict such an outstanding news reporter.

*Yes, I know: some people pronounce "pianist" with the accent on the second syllable: "pee-AN-ist". Others, including me, put the stress on the first syllable: "PEE-un-ist". Both are well-established pronunciations and I, believe it or not, am not passing judgement this time. Whatever you grew up with is fine in this case.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Pearls of Wisdom

Isn't that lovely? It's called a nacreous cloud. The full-sized picture's here, and there are even more pictures of them here. They're formed by clouds of ice crystals combined with dust particles and are therefore rare.

"Nacre" (from the French) means "mother-of-pearl" (the German version is the surname Perlmutter), and "nacreous" therefore means "pearly"; nacreous clouds have that opalescent rainbow effect within them, as does mother-of-pearl.

The etymology of "nacre" as offered by Answers.com is baffling: the French got it from the Italian "naccaro", which means "drum", and they in turn got it from the Arabic "naqqara", with the same meaning, and their etymology derives it from a word meaning "to bore or pierce", and frankly I'm lost.

But still, I think the word "nacre" is particularly lovely, even though it doesn't sound like much: it rhymes with "baker", for heaven's sake. (All English words that end in "-cre" are pronounced as if they end with "-ker", with one exception, "fiacre", which ends with the more or less authentically French "-cruh". It's odd that "fiacre" retained its French pronunciation while the back half of "chancre" didn't, even though its first half did. Such are the peculiarities of English pronunciation.)

Even better is "nacreous", and while you might logically think we'd pronounce it "nay-ker-us" or even "nay-kruss", given the noun's pronunciation, we don't: that "-e-" pops right back up and the whole thing becomes "nay-kree-us" (as in, say, "aqueous" or "vitreous", but not "righteous" or "curvaceous").

It seemed obvious that "nacre" should be a French word, but the surprise is that all "-cre" words aren't French. "Acre", for example, hasn't ever been anywhere near that language (it's from Old English, originally from a Nordic language, though it used to have a "-k-" instead of a "-c-"), and "lucre", which again looks French, is actually straight from Latin "lucrum". English is just full of surprises.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Very British, That

Of all the things to love about the Internet, one of the most lovable is the extraordinary profusion of video that you wouldn't ordinarily ever see, or even hear of. Yesterday we stumbled on a British TV program called Brainiac: Science Abuse, which is rather like Mythbusters cross-pollinated with Viz magazine. (We saw Episode 3 of Season 4: a lot of things were blown up, including a car which had a rocket launched at it by a rather obvious Sharon Stone impersonator.)

One of the many fast-paced segments was a bit called "I Can Do Science, Me", in which some viewer asks a science question and the show gives them the equipment they need to conduct the experiment (and a snarky Brainiac staffer who makes fun of them the whole time). I love the title of the segment: I've always been charmed by this unexpected use of the pronoun as an intensifier.

We do use pronouns as intensifiers in English, after the French model, which will use the pronoun at the beginning of the clause. Ordinarily, we simply stress the pronoun: "He doesn't know anything." But sometimes, as in French, we'll double up on the pronouns, the first in the objective case and the second in the subjective. French, which doesn't place much stress on words and syllables as English does, tends to use this technique: "Moi, je l'aime" means, and is exactly the same as, "Me, I like it". (We're in the habit of stressing something, and it's hard to break the habit, so, even when we're using two pronouns, we usually put a little spin on the first pronoun; a double intensifier.)

I should note that there are a couple of sentence-ending intensive pronouns in standard North American English. We can use a reflexive pronoun that ends in "-self" or "-selves", as in "I did it myself", or we can use the demonstrative pronoun "that", as in "Pretty good, that." However, a North American could say "Me, I like it" but never "I like it, me". Putting the objective personal pronoun at the end as an intensifier seems to me very British, and delightful.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hack Job

Today we have a fairly dreadful (for two reasons) sentence from Salon.com's Broadsheet column. Let's see if we can't fix it.

Los Angeles Times: The strange, unsettling relationship between convicted serial killer Wayne Adam Ford (who cut off at least one of his victim's breasts and stored it in a Ziploc bag) and British-born actress Victoria Redstall (who formerly worked as a spokesmodel for breast-enhancement supplements).

First, since we're going to be looking at that horrible image ("who cut off at least one of his victim's breasts and stored it in a Ziploc bag") for a bit and I don't really want to, let's silly it up: "known cat-toy-taker Wayne Adam Ford (who took at least one of his cat's toys and stored it in a Ziploc bag)".

Now. What's wrong with it? Two things. First, the apostrophe is in the wrong place, confusing singular and plural. If you read the article, you discover that the cat-owner has four cats, and that he took, as far as we know, one toy from one of the cats (each of whom has two) and put it in a plastic bag: no mention of any more toys than that. But the way to punctuate that fact is "who took at least one of his cats' toys...", since "cat's toys" means there's only one cat.

The second problem, the biggie, is the misplaced modifier "at least one". There's no way to tell if it refers to the cats or the toys. (Often, usage manuals will warn against the misplaced modifier, even though any sensible person can figure out what's really meant, as in Groucho Marx' "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." In this case, however, it is truly impossible to tell which noun the modifier is modifying.)

Since "at least one" can refer either to the cats or the toys, we need to rewrite the clause so that we can tell exactly what it's referring to. If one of the cats had at least one toy taken, we need to say that: "who took toys from at least one of his cats." If more than one cat each had at least one toy taken, we need to say that: "who took at least one toy from his cats" or "who took at least one toy from each of his cats", as the case may be. The best solution, though, would be to drop that "at least" entirely and switch the whole thing to "who was found to have the toy of one of his cats in a Ziploc bag." (Yeah, I know: passive voice. Sometimes it can be your friend, though. There are other ways to write that sentence: I'm just suggesting an example.)

As I've said so many times before and will presumably have to say again, this is why you can't replace editors with a spellchecker and a faint hope.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Series of Tubes

The trouble with new words is that even though people sort of understand what they mean, they might miss some of the finer points, and in so doing misuse them. It's no particular tragedy, but for those of us who like precision (i.e. nitpickers such as I), it's kind of an annoyance.

Here's a paragraph from Dahlia Lithwick's latest Slate.com column:

Changes in technology and the explosion of the mass media make the resolution of this question about the contours of a right to privacy even more urgent. Because if Brandeis was horrified by the paparazzi at a society wedding, what would he make of men who can snap photographs up unsuspecting women's skirts and download them on the Internet for all to see?

Maybe what threw her was that she'd already used the word "up" just before the fateful word, but what she was reaching for was "upload", not "download". You upload things to the Internet, and download them from the Internet. More broadly, you upload data to a central location so that many people have access to it, and download from that central storehouse to your own individual computer so that you personally have access.

I don't think it's particularly hard to remember, but I suppose one could think of data transfer as a water tower. What goes up is for everyone to share: what comes down is your own individual share of it.