or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Hot Stuff

I always watch TV with the closed captioning on. I'm just a natural reader, and if I don't quite hear what someone's said, a quick glance at the bottom of the screen will fill me in.

Those TV captions and subtitles are a reliable source for misspellings. Sometimes they're done live, and then you often get a hash of words as the poor typist tries to keep up with the newscasters and the live sporting events. Pre-recorded shows are a little more reliable, but all too often you find typos that emerge from the hands of someone who just isn't familiar with a particular word, and so substitutes what they thought they heard for what was said.

I was idly watching a cooking show on PBS this afternoon before work, and the host sprinkled cayenne pepper into a saucepan. The transcriber, though, heard something else entirely, and the subtitle read, instead, "cyan". I feel a little sorry for deaf people who have to rely on something like that when they go shopping.

"Cyan" is entirely straightforward: it comes from the Greek "kyanos", "dark blue".

"Cayenne", as in the pepper, is something else altogether. You'd think it comes from Cayenne Island, the capital of French Guiana, wouldn't you? But you would be wrong. I know I was. The word "cayenne" comes from the Brazilian indigenous people the Tupi: their word for the pepper is "quiinia". It sort of sounds like English "cayenne", and we got our spelling from Cayenne Island--but not the word itself, nor the pepper. We just thought the one sounded like the other, and so applied what looked like the appropriate spelling. All a mistake, really, but an enduring one.

While I'm at it: the word "cyan" appears as part of another common English word, "cyanide", so named because it was used in the manufacture of a bright blue dye. (Another word, slightly less common, is "cyanosis", the bluish tinge the skin takes on when it's starved of oxygen. By an interesting coincidence, cyanide poisoning causes cyanosis--but the one didn't take its name from the other.)

Friday, September 29, 2006


As I said recently, I've become enamoured of the TV reality show Project Runway, which continues to surprise and delight. One of the things that makes it even more delightful is the blog Project Rungay, in which two decidedly pink gentlemen have fun alternately lionizing the contestants and tearing them and their creations to shreds. (The blog's motto: "They sew. We rip.")

One word that appears a lot on the blog is "gorgeous", and I had to wonder where on Earth that word could have come from. "Gorge" is the French word for "throat", and "-ous" is a suffix that turns a noun into an adjective, but could there possibly be any connection--could a word that means "beautiful" have anything to do with the throat--or was it just another one of those coincidences?

It turns out, to my complete amazement, that every instance of a word containing "gorge" in English has the same source: they all, somehow, include the sense of "throat".

A gorge, for starters, is a narrow ravine, and a moment's reflection will suggest that a word meaning "throat" is a predictable name for such a geographic feature. (A similar geographic word, "gut", is often used in Newfoundland, for similar reasons: just look at these pictures, with such captions as "View of the village looking towards the gut".) "Gorge" as a verb is also throat-related: it means "to shove food down your throat", as does "engorge", which later came to mean simply "to fill to excess", as in "a blood-engorged tick", and "disgorge", literally "to eject through the throat".

And finally we come to "gorgeous", which, suggests Answers.com, comes from Old French "gorgias", "jewellery-loving, elegant", and what better place to display jewellery than a smooth swan-like throat?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Art For Art's Sake

I mostly ignore all the new shows on television, because most of them are going to be really bad, and if they're not, I'll end up watching them, and who has the time? But for no apparent reason, I watched "Ugly Betty" this evening, and it wasn't great--Jim thought it was essentially a slow-paced "The Devil Wears Prada"--but it wasn't bad, either, because I just love a plucky heroine.

Midway through the episode there was some lame joke about an old guy feeding the pigeons, only he's a rich old guy, so he's feeding them artisanal bread. Did not one single person on the set--the director, the actors, the cameraman, anybody--know that "artesian" and "artisanal" are not the same word? Because the actor called upon to say the line said "ar-TEE-zhun-ul", which is to say "artesianal", which doesn't exist.

"Artesian", as in "artesian well", comes from an old French spelling of the town of Artois, which is the proper noun that gave the beer Stella Artois--"the star of [brewmaster Sebastian] Artois"--its name. (Artois was formerly Arteis, and the adjectival version was "artesien", "of Arteis".)

"Artisanal", on the other hand, is the adjectival form of "artisan", and it's obviously related to "art". "Artisanal" in the context of foodstuffs means "made in small quantities by hand"; it's the very opposite of "mass-produced". It's pronounced either "AR-tuh-zan-ul" or "AR-tuh-ZAN-ul", depending on your preferences (I prefer the latter).

So maybe the bread was from Artois: I don't know. But though it might have been artisanal, it definitely wasn't "artesianal".

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Shape of Sleep

I was doing a crossword puzzle and one of the words in it was "chloroform", which got me thinking: "chlor-" is obviously from the element "chlorine", but "-form" means "shape", and how on Earth did that into the word?

How easily we're led astray by our own ignorance! If I'd ever had any training in chemistry, I might have known that the "-form" in "chloroform" is an abbreviation of "formyl", which has something--I am really not entirely sure what, but it's certainly chemistry--to do with formic acid. (A little bit more about formic acid, plus a bunch of other ramblings, here.) A chloroform molecule is composed of three chlorine atoms plus, I guess, a formyl group, which, and this is the part I don't quite get, has the chemical formula HCO, but chloroform's formula is CHCl³, and where did that oxygen molecule go?

"Formyl" looks kind of like "formula", doesn't it? If you know that the emperor Caligula's childhood nickname means "little boots", you might guess, and correctly, that "-ula" is here a Latin diminutive, as in "uvula", "little grape". (This "-ula" is not to be confused with the "-ula" that naturally occurs as a plural of words ending in "-ulum", as in "speculum/specula" and "reticulum/reticula", or with words that simply happen to end in "-ula" such as "macula" and "nebula".) "Formula" is indeed originally a little form--a single method for doing something, specifically the words to a religious ceremony.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Show and Tell

When you're famous, and therefore your every utterance is widely reported, it's not a bad idea to consider words and their meanings before you say them.

Pop singer Madonna has had some problems with a controversial element in her show, the performance of a song while she's attached to a giant cross covered with mirror tiles, like a cruciform disco ball, while wearing a crown of thorns. Blasphemy, as her critics charge, or an artistic statement about whatever she thinks it's a statement about? Don't know, don't particularly care, but here's her response to complaints from religious leaders, from this news story:

"It is no different than a person wearing a cross or 'taking up the cross' as it says in the Bible. My performance is neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole."

She added, "I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing."

I know: she's probably saying that Jesus would be encouraging peace, love, and understanding. But it sure looks as if she's saying that Jesus would be communicating this message by suspending himself from a giant disco-ball crucifix, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't. As well, I'd have to say that charging people up to $350 to watch oneself being mock-crucified is not quite the same as wearing a gold cross around one's neck, but, as she herself has proven for the last twenty-plus years, there's no such thing as bad publicity.


From this mildly amusing piece about skimpily dressed superheroes, or "underwear perverts", as Boing Boing has taken to calling them:

But what the Manhunter lacks in garments, he makes up for in accessories—a bilious blue cape, a red harness, and blue pirate boots round out his outfit.

Now, here's the complete definition of "bilious" from Answers.com:

1. Of, relating to, or containing bile; biliary.
1. Characterized by an excess secretion of bile.
2. Relating to, characterized by, or experiencing gastric distress caused by a disorder of the liver or gallbladder.
3. Appearing as if affected by such a disorder; sickly.
2. Resembling bile, especially in color:
a bilious green.
3. Having a peevish disposition; ill-humored.

That cape: related to bile? Nope. Greenish? Nope. Ill-tempered? Nope. So it's official: this writer has somehow decided that "bilious" means "billowing".

Monday, September 25, 2006

Near-Sighted, Far-Fetched

After missing more than one day of posting, I start to feel antsy and maybe a little guilty: it doesn't matter to more than a dozen people, tops, but it seems to me that I signed on for something and I have to honour my commitment. But I was working really long hours, and it was just crazy-busy, and I can't just write any old junk, it has to be on-topic and inspired, to boot, and that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

But at least I'm not posting about how my life is so messed up that I'm going to kill a bunch of people, and then actually go out and do it, like these folks.


The Gilded Moose is a hilariously biting website which makes fun of celebrities, celebrity media, and gossip blogs simultaneously. "BREAKING: Jake Gyllenhaal Not Involved in Anna Nicole Smith's Son's Death", reads one typically breathless headline, as an excuse to show a nearly shirtless picture of popular obsession target Gyllenhaal.

I can't hold the website responsible for mistakes in the comments section, of course, and I hold regular folks to a lower standard than published authors (though I really do wish people would pay a little more attention to what they write), but I was surprised to read this in the comments section of this posting:

She's afraid of faces.. near-sided? Um needs an eye exam?

"Near-sided"? Hoo boy.

Granted, in casual English, "sighted" and "sided" do sound very similar, but still. This is clearly someone who's never even thought about what the word actually means--who's probably never written it down before and had no reason to guess that "near-sighted" is actually about sight, which is a little mind-boggling.

It turns out that "near-sided" is an actual word, mind you, used in...well, I don't know what it is, exactly--geology, I guess--but you can see its use here if you're so inclined.

But then you get someone who talks like a doctor and may actually be a doctor using "near-sided" instead of "near-sighted", and you fear for the medical profession as a whole.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Carnal Flower

Here are two sentences from a review of a new fragrance called Carnation on Osmoz, a French website:

Carnation refers not to the flower, but to a French word for skin tone.

A sun-drenched, floral-Oriental scent opening with the sweetness of gillyflower and Bourbon geranium.

Sure enough, there are no carnations listed anywhere in the notes, and sure enough, the name "carnation" does in fact come from a French word meaning "flesh-coloured" (referring to the pinky hue of one strain of the flower), from the same source as Spanish "carne", "meat", and of course English "carnivorous", "meat-eating".

However, there's that matter of the gillyflower.

"Gillyflower" comes to English from an old French word, "gilofre", and was obviously influenced by "flower". "Gilofre" eventually became "girofle", where it remains today, and it's their word for the spice known as the clove in English. The gillyflower smells strongly of cloves (both contain an aroma-chemical called eugenol), and it's otherwise known as...

...wait for it...

...the carnation.

Seems kind of obtuse to say that a perfume called Carnation isn't named after carnations when, in fact, the carnation is a principal component of its scent.

If, by the way, you happen to be looking for a really spectacular carnation scent, you owe it to yourself to hunt down Carnation by Comme des Garçons. (I'd go here, myself.) It's magic.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Personal Affront

Here's a mesmerizing graphic depiction of the U.S. budget that you could lose yourself in for quite a while, among all the insanely large, incomprehensible quantities of money (and the horrifying U.S. national debt, in the neighbourhood of nine trillion dollars). But what's that just over there, to the left, above the Department of Defense logo?

Personelle 42.6 Billion

Now, if you didn't know how to spell "personnel", "personelle" is probably how you'd try it. (They're pronounced the same.) But you'd be wrong. "Personel" is the masculine adjective that's the French equivalent of English "personal", and "personelle" is the feminine equivalent of it. But French is French and English is English.

"Personnel" is originally from French, and it means "employees" or "staff", but it isn't spelled like either French word, neither of which is used in English, and--you've heard this before--this is the reason spellcheckers were invented.

What makes the misspelling worse is that over to the left of it and elsewhere on the page as well, "personnel" is spelled correctly. That's not supposed to happen in edited copy, particularly when someone spent quite a lot of money having it made into large, attractive educational posters. Educational materials shouldn't contain typos. (There's at least one other, too: "Chinnook" for "Chinook" at the top. But I didn't go into it looking for typos.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In Here

Yesterday I used a word, "inherently", which immediately grabbed my attention, because I knew that it was descended from a now-uncommon word, "inhere".

It calls to mind, does it not, "adhere"? To adhere is to stick to something; "ad-" is Latin for "toward" or simply "to", and "-here" is from the verb "haerere", "to cling or stick", so "adhere" is "to stick to"; simplicity itself.

"Inhere" means literally "to stick inside", and what it means in English is "to be an intrinsic part of: to be innate".

That's all interesting enough, but what's entirely fascinating is that a form of the verb "haerere" is "haesitare", and a form of that is "haesitat-", and doesn't that look familiar? It ought to: it's essentially "hesitate". And why does "hesitate" come from a word meaning "to cling"? Because when you're hesitating over a decision, you're clinging to the old way of doing things.

And this is almost as good: wouldn't you think that "inherit" somehow had descended from "inhere"? I did, briefly. (Your inheritance is something that...stuck to you...after your parents died?) Not even close. The "-her-" in "inherit" is the same as the word "heir", from Latin "hereditare", "to inherit", which also gave us "heredity".

Monday, September 18, 2006

Say What?

Remember what I said yesterday about borrowings from foreign languages? "When we borrow entire phrases...we generally keep them intact: 'hoi polloi', for instance, or 'auf Wiedersehen'."

It was true yesterday, and it's still true today. From a letter to the endlessly wonderful Miss Manners:

I would rather not have a "co-best man" if I could avoid it, would hate her to have to share the limelight per say and I think she would absolutely love being able to do this for me.

Now, I understand why someone might spell that Latin phrase "per say". That's exactly how it's pronounced. However, someone who writes it that way is someone who definitely doesn't know where it comes from, has probably never seen it in print, and possibly doesn't know what it means. The writer clearly doesn't: he's used it incorrectly, even if he spelled it right and the misspelling is the work of a misguided editor.

The expression is "per se", which is Latin for "by itself", and it means "inherently": "Cannabis, per se, is not evil (though it makes you act like a doofus)." What he appears to want to say is "the limelight, if that's the right word" or perhaps "the limelight, such as it is".

This useful site, Common Errors in English, has this to say:

This legal term (meaning “in, of, or by itself”) is a bit pretentious, but you gain little respect if you misspell “per se” as a single word. Worse is the mistaken “per say.”

Couldn't have put it better myself.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Here's a sentence from a recent Onion.com review of a movie called Confetti:

The three couples include a brittle, hyper-competitive duo planning a tennis-themed ceremony; a sweet but stressed couple trying to keep the bride's vain dancer sister and the groom's insufferable rocker buddy from taking over their musicals-themed wedding; and a mellow nudist pair fighting to keep their wedding au naturale in spite of the magazine's distaste.

When we borrow words from foreign languages, we generally do whatever we want to them--change their meaning (slightly), their spelling (a bit), or their pronunciation (usually a lot)--with flair and abandon. We might leave them alone--"soigné", for instances, with accent mark and pronunciation intact--or we might mess around with them (we often drop the first accent mark from "résumé", and alter the pronunciation to match--"REZ-oo-may"). When we borrow entire phrases, however, we generally keep them intact: "hoi polloi", for instance, or "auf Wiedersehen". Why, then, is "au naturel" so repeatedly bullied about?

"Au naturel" is the French for "in its natural state: as it is", and is often used in English to mean "nude", but can also mean "in a natural fashion", particularly when applied to food. It's not entirely surprising to see it rendered "au natural", because "natural" is the correct English spelling and in fact that's how the phrase is sometimes pronounced in English (though with the stress moved to the last syllable). But "au naturale"? Where did that come from? It's not English and it's not French--it isn't even Spanish. It's made up-word, some English speaker's idea of what a French word ought to look like, and for a professional writer, that's just careless.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I Love Saturday

Saturday, like Thursday, is pretty self-evident, I think: Saturn, right? Right. It's the only day in the English week not to have gotten its name from the Roman rather than the Norse pantheon. (I mean, not counting Sunday.) The Germans had the same idea as the French for Saturday, though: Samstag in German, samedi in French, and both words come eventually from "Sabbath". (In parts of Germany, Saturday is called Sonnabend: the first half you can figure out, and the second means "evening", so, like "Mittwoch", it's named for its position in the calendar.)


From an interesting article about bees in BoingBoing:

1. A well-trained honey bee scientist wouldn't spell the name "honeybee", even though you'll find it mistakenly spelled this way in a number of dictionaries (as well as on the MS spell checker), and even in Wikipedia. The biological convention is that the name of an insect is separated into two words when the insect is what the name implies. So "honey bee" is separated into two words, since its a bee that collects honey, whereas "butterfly" is one word since it isn't a fly that produces butter.

I could get really snippy and say that a bee doesn't collect honey--it collects flower-nectar which it then converts into honey by partially digesting it. I won't, though (even though it happens to be true).

However, I will say that the words scientists use and the words regular people use are not necessarily the same words. "Centimetre" is a good example. Normal people pronounce it "SEN-tuh-mee-ter", because, well, that's how it's pronounced in everyday English; even if you'd never seen it before, you could look at it and guess that that's a likely way to pronounce it. Doctors, however, I am told, do not pronounce it this way: they use an oddball hybrid of the French pronunciation and the English, and pronounce it "SON-tuh-mee-ter". (The French manner is "son-tuh-me-truh", with no real stress anywhere in the word--but of course in English there must be a stress somewhere in a four-syllabled word.)

Words adopted into the sciences from other languages tend to retain their original pronunciation, because there's very little evolutionary pressure to force them to conform to regular old English. But the mass of us who aren't scientists, when we encounter such words, may reconfigure them to suit ourselves. Look at "margarine". Originally it was pronounced with a hard "-g-", because it was named after margaric acid, which has that same "-g-". But widespread usage softened the consonant, partly, I expect, because the name "Marge" already exists, partly because "margarine" in some places is shortened to "marge", and no doubt for numerous other reasons as well. Or take the artificial sweetener aspartame: that's named after aspartic acid, with the accent on the second syllable, and so the sweetener's name was originally conceived to be pronounced "ass-PAR-tame". But that's not what people did with it: it's more or less universally pronounced "ASP-ur-tame" in English, and I couldn't say why: we have "aspirin" and "aspirate" with their stress on the first syllable, but also "aspersion" and "aspiring" with their stress on the second. And yet there it is. Nobody told us to do it: it just happened.

I'm a little baffled by the writer's scientific etymology, too. A butterfly sort of is a fly, or flying thing, that produces butter: its name apparently comes from the Dutch "boterschitje", "butter-shit", because its droppings are not the flyspecky browns and blacks of houseflies, but yellow.

In the final analysis, "honeybee" is a perfectly good English word; it isn't misspelled in any dictionaries. It might not be the word the scientists use, any more than "bumblebee" is (or is it?), but it works just fine for the rest of us.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Friday gets its name from Frige, a.k.a. Freya, a.k.a. Mrs. Fricka Wotan (see also Wednesday). The German is, naturally, almost identical: Freitag. The French version, "vendredi", gets its name from the Latin version of Frige, Venus, the goddess of love.


If you want to know how big a geek I am, this ought to be the defining fact: I'm having a bet with a co-worker as to who can memorize the periodic table of elements first. I can rattle off the first ten, but after that I'm lost, so it's anybody's game.

Many of the more recently discovered elements were named after people, and not always their discoverers (einsteinium, for instance), but most of the naturally occurring elements got their names from, well, all over the place. One of the elements that interested me was thallium, only because I couldn't even guess where it had come from. (It popped out at me as I was scanning the table of elements because it played a large part in the film The Young Poisoner's Handbook.)

Thallium, as it turns out, was discovered in 1861 by Sir William Crookes (he had a hand in the discovery of helium, too), and got its name from the Greek word "thallos", "green branch", because--and I love this--its line in the spectrum is a bright green. Isn't that charming? So much more interesting than "nitrogen" ("acid-forming"), "lithium" ("rock"), or "chromium" ("colourful", because it's involved in various brightly-coloured compounds).

Actually, in retrospect, those names are pretty interesting, too.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


If you don't know where the word "Thursday" comes from, just read the previous four blog entries and have a guess. Nordic god? Big guy with lightning bolts? Yes, Thursday is Thor's Day.

Thor was known in Old English as Thunor, and of course that's where the word "thunder" comes from as well. The German word is "Donnerstag"--you can see the similarity, particularly when you know that German doesn't have an interdental fricative.

And the French word is "jeudi", because Thursday is Jupiter's day: Jupiter is the Roman equivalent of Thor, thunderbolts and all.


I have almost no interest in clothing, as you'd immediately figure out if you ever saw me (jeans and untucked shirts, that's me). But the reality TV series "Project Runway" is mesmerizing: it takes a group of fashion designers and presents them with difficult clothes-making challenges (make a dress using only what you're wearing right now! create a garden-party dress out of flowers and leaves!) while whittling the group down, one contestant a week, until three are left, and then those remaining three get to mount a full-out fashion show. You get to watch the creative process--and lots of bitchery--unfold before your eyes. There's nothing else like it on television.

On the most recent episode, one contestant, told to make a couture gown (in two days!), was undone by a lot of misguided ruching. That's all well and good, but it was the word "ruche" that caught my eye, and brain. It looks so much like "ruck", and as we know, words that end in "-ch" are often related to similar words ending in "-k", usually with a vowel change.

A ruche is a a ruffle or a pleat of fabric, and it's obviously from the French. A ruck, on the other hand, is a wrinkle or a crease (if a piece of fabric or clothing is "rucked up", it's bunched up and wrinkled), and the meanings of the two words, while not identical, share enough overlap that I figured that one had to be the root of the other. Amazingly, they're unrelated; no family history at all. "Ruck" is from Old Norse "hrukka", "wrinkle", so we have either parallel evolution or a terrific coincidence.

"Ruck-" as in "rucksack" is, of course, unrelated to either of these: it's from German "rück", "back".

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hump Day

Wednesday is named after Woden, otherwise known as the top dog in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Wotan, also otherwise known as Odin. Wotan was in charge of, among other things, poetic inspiration, as was the Roman equivalent, Mercury, and thus French "mercredi" is "Mercury's day". The Germans, though, didn't name their mid-week day after a god; for some reason, they named it after the mid-week, and so German "Wednesday" is "Mittwoch". There are in fact a number of languages that number or position their days of the week, and German simply took one of these; it did this a millennium ago, prior to which the day was, in fact, called "Wodanstag". (Finnish has a similar name: after the Tuesday-like "tiistai", they called their Wednesday "keskiviikko", the second half of which is self-explanatory.)


Yesterday I mentioned in passing the terseness of English numbers from one to ten, and so of course I wondered to myself why one of the words has to have two syllables when all the rest have one. I didn't have to wonder long, because I knew that all ten of the words come directly from German and are almost identical to them: the German equivalents are "eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn". So we can blame the Germans for the two-syllable "seven". (As for why theirs has two syllables, I have no idea.)

But, with typical English efficiency*, we did in fact find a way to bash it down to one syllable: not in the counting numbers, but in a compound word. The word "fortnight" has an antique air to it, and for that reason, I think most people probably don't know that it's a compression of "fourteen nights", which is to say "two weeks". (The word is actually Middle English: it began as "fourtene night", became joined into "fourtenight", and then was squeezed even further into "fortnight".) What even more people, I'm sure, don't know is that there was a corresponding term for a single week, "sennight", likewise a compression of the Old English equivalent of "seven nights".

Two qualities of English can turn "seven", in certain contexts, into a one-syllable word. First, unstressed syllables have a way of vanishing in very casual speech: the "-ing" suffix, for instance, can disappear in two-syllable words, converted into the sound "-n" which is run together with the preceding vowel, as in "going" (which can come out rhyming with "phone") and "saying" (which becomes "sane"). And second, because stress patterns are so crucial in English, the terminal sound of a word can merge with a succeeding vowel sound: "It was almost..." is pronounced "It wuh zalmost..."--again, in casual speech.

Therefore, when we're saying the counting numbers out loud, "seven" can have a single syllable: try it yourself and unless you're deliberately enunciating, you might well find yourself saying "...six sev nate nine...".

* Sorry, Tony Pius.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stormy Tuesday

Tuesday gets its name from Tyr, the Nordic god of war known as Mars in the Roman pantheon. Tyr was variously spelled Tiw or Tew in Old English, and so Tew's Day became Tuesday. The German word for "Tuesday" is the similar "Dienstag", and the French version of this is, of course, "Mars' Day", or "mardi".

One of my co-workers is Finnish, and on occasion we talk about her language and the various words in it. Many Finnish words seem very long to the English ear, accustomed the overall brevity and concision of its own language. (The counting numbers from one to ten are "yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi, kuus, seitsemän, kahdeksan, yhdeksän, kymmenen", which is wonderfully rhythmic but a real mouthful compared to English.) I was charmed to discover that the Finnish days of the week are not only relatively short but, on the whole, similar to English and other Germanic words: their word for Tuesday is "tiistai". (Doubling a vowel in Finnish elongates it: if I understand correctly, the single "-i-" would be pronounced like the vowel in English "fit", while "-ii-" is pronounced as in English "feet", and likewise a single "-e-" resembles the vowel in "pet" while "-ee-" sounds like our long "-a-" in "pate".)

I got the list of Finnish number-names from the indispensable Wikipedia. You could look at this page for hours.


On my other blog I've written about a strange and beguiling scent called Poivre Piquant, and naturally that got me to thinking about the word "pepper" in French and English. The English word self-evidently comes from the Latin name for black pepper, "piper nigrum", but I couldn't imagine where the French might have come from.

The Latin word which gave us ours is an offshoot of the Sanskrit "pippali", which filtered through another language to become "pippari" before making it into Latin. What surprised me is that, according to Wikipédia, the French version of Wikipedia, the French word comes from exactly the same root. I don't know nearly enough about French etymology to guess how "piper" evolved into "poivre"--how did the "-p-" turn into a "-v-"?--but it does seem odd.

The second half of the name, while I'm at it, was obviously absorbed whole into English as "piquant", "spicy" or, at a metaphorical remove, "intriguing". The French verb "piquer" means "to prick", and this also gave us English "pique", "to arouse interest" as a verb, "snit" as a noun. (An older English meaning of the verb "pique" was "to pride": "She piqued herself on her appearance". I think it's safe to say that this sense of the word is entirely gone from the language except as a historical curiosity.)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Blue Monday

Yesterday I was talking about the origins of the word "Sunday" and its French equivalent "dimanche", and I had meant to mention that other word for Sunday, "Sabbath". Doesn't it look Hebrew? It surely must be, and indeed it is; it's also the root of "sabbatical", which in its most limited sense is a leave from work taken every seventh year--and doesn't "sabbatical" look like a Latin borrowing from the Hebrew? It sure is.

Monday is, as a moment's thought might suggest, named after the moon, as all the days of the week in English are named after astronomical bodies and/or the gods associated with them, usually from a Nordic perspective. German "Montag" is, self-evidently, I trust, the same word. The French word for "Monday", "lundi", as another moment's thought will will suggest, means the same thing, because it took its name from the Latin word "luna", which is where we get out adjective for the moon, "lunar", and also "lunatic", from the belief that the full moon makes people behave strangely.


I was reading about the atmosphere today because it caught my fancy, and since I didn't really know where some of the names of the various levels of our air supply came from, I had to look them up, starting with "atmosphere" itself, which--the word, not the atmosphere itself--is the sort of thing that flint-bottomed prescriptivists love to decry, a macaronic: a word made up of parts from two different languages. "Atmosphere" is from Greek "atmos", "vapour" plus Latin "sphere", which is just what it looks like, so the atmosphere is a hollow sphere of vapour wrapped around the Earth. (At least English can't be blamed for the macaronic nature of "atmosphere": we took it from New Latin.)

The bottommost layer of the atmosphere is the troposphere, and that one I could work out on my own: "tropos" is the Greek word for "to turn" or "to move", and the troposphere is the layer of the atmosphere which contains all the moving parts--the clouds and the precipitation. Next comes the stratosphere, and although "stratum" is clearly related to the first half, I didn't actually know where that word comes from; it turns out to be from the Latin "sternere", "to stretch out or extend", which you've seen before in "sternum", the breastbone, stretched out across the chest, and also, unexpectedly, in "prostrate", "stretched out flat". (If you are very, very particular, you will use "prostrate" only to mean "lying face down"; if you're lying face up, you're supine. In the real world, you needn't worry about such niceties: "prostrate" has come to mean simply "lying down", whether face up or face down.)

After the stratosphere we have the mesosphere, from "meso-", "middle", and beyond that is the thermosphere, so named because, paradoxically, it gets extremely hot as you rise through it due to heating from the Sun. After the thermosphere....space, the final frontier.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sunday Best

On Friday, a co-worker who reads my blog asked me about the days of the week--specifically, why in French, all the days end in "-di" except one, which begins with "di-". Is it related to the English word "day" in all cases, and if so, how did the "di-" end up at the beginning of the word?

Good question, that. The French days of the week, corresponding with English "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday", are "lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, samedi, dimanche", so you can see she was right about the meaning of that contentious syllable, but what about its positioning?

The "-di" at the end of each French weekday name is in fact exactly cognate to English "day", despite the fact that the French word for "day" is "jour". This is because "day" is from Latin "dies", with the same meaning, and the French weekday names are from Latin. "Jour" comes from a variation of the same word, "diurnus", "daily" or "of the day", and if you slur the "diur-" into a single syllable, you end up with "jour".

And the final piece in the puzzle is that all the weekdays in French, Monday through Friday, are named after a planetary body (just as in English, Sunday is "day of the sun"), but the weekend days are given religious significance, and Sunday comes from Latin "dies dominicus", "the day of the Lord", which over the centuries became "dimanche". So "di-" is the same as "-di"; it just ended up in a different position.

The German weekday names, in case you were wondering, are more or less exactly parallel to the English ones--Sunday is "Sonntag"--with one amusing exception, which I'll get to in a few days, because it's just occurred to me that I can spin this out over a week.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Leaving On A Jet Plane

Here's a sentence from a fascinating new Slate.com series about surviving various disasters:

A quick walk through your home will reveal countless objects that a moderate earthquake could transform into dangerous sorties.


This is just an odd, odd usage that I can't believe an editor didn't catch and dispatch, assuming there are any editors at hand.

A sortie isn't a missile. It's an armed assault by a single plane. I've been tossing the sentence around in my head and it just doesn't work: another verb-preposition pair might have done the trick, say "launch on" rather than "transform into", but if it had been me, I would have changed the noun: "missiles", probably, or perhaps (in an extended, not literal, but well-established sense) "shrapnel".

"Sortie", by the way, is from French "sortir", "to leave", since a military plane leaves the base on its solo mission.

Friday, September 08, 2006

For Shame

The usual story: I'm at work doing something that leaves my mind at least a little free to puzzle over things, a word pops in, and I try to deconstruct it. Sometimes I can't make any headway, as was the case yesterday when I pondered "embarrass".

It clearly must be from the French, and it sure resembles French "embrasser", "to embrace", but that just doesn't make any sense, so I tucked it away in my brain to be looked up later and went on to other things.

"Embarrass", you will not be surprised to learn, has nothing to do with embraces. Before I get to the etymology, I would like to note that the most usual sense of the word--"to cause to feel uncomfortably self-conscious"--isn't the oldest sense. The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" points us in that direction: the original meaning of "embarrass" is "to encumber" or "to interfere with".

So "embarrass" comes from the Latin "in-", used as an intensifier, plus "barrare", "to block or impede" which, obviously, is the root of our "bar" in the verbal sense of "to block". The French took "embarrasser", "to hamper", from the Spanish, who got it from the Italians, who reasonably enough inherited it straight from the Latin, and here it is, in English, a couple of millennia later. One short metaphorical hop later (we're hampered socially by feelings of shame or ill-ease), and we have "embarrassment".

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


In this news story about the dreadful but predictable death of Steve Irwin by untamed beast is the following sentence:

"The strongly serrated barb is capable of tearing and rendering flesh," said Dr Bryan Fry, deputy director of the Australian Venom Research Unit.


"Render" has at least two possible meanings in reference to flesh, and not one of them is what the doctor ordered. It means "to depict" or "to represent" in artistic terms, and it also means "to melt down for its fat" in culinary terms. All meanings of "render" come from the French "rendre", "to give back", and a moment's thought will suggest how either of these meanings descended from the original word.

What the doctor was looking for was "rend", which shares no point of contact with "render"; it's Anglo-Saxon and it means "to tear" or "to split apart".

Amusingly, "rent" exists twice in English, and one derives from "rend" while the other is from "render". One is the irregular past tense of "rend", meaning "torn asunder", and the other is the sense of "regular payment for use of another's property", which is from Middle English "rente", taken whole from the French.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Chop Chop

A Reuters news story on CNN.com about hidden messages during the Second World War--I'm not sure why exactly this qualifies as news--contains the following paragraph:

Codes were hidden in sheet music, descriptions of chess moves and shorthand symbols disguised as normal handwriting. Postcards were spliced in half, stuffed with wafer-thin notes and resealed.

"Splice" doesn't mean "to split in two". It means "to join two things at the ends". You can't splice something in half.

Now, the OED, I will note in all fairness, says that "splice" comes from Dutch "splissen" (this, I expect, would be the nautical sense of splicing two pieces of rope by intertwining their unravelled ends: we took a lot of seafaring words from the Dutch) and that this just might have come from the word which gave "split" to English. But the OED also makes it clear that, whatever connection might have existed between "split" and "splice", the usage of "splice" to mean "split" was rare when it was used, and obsolete now: their only citation is from 1664.

So: "spliced in half"? Wrong. "Split down the middle, stuffed with wafer-thin notes, and spliced back together"? Maybe.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Here's an illustration, from the latest issue of the New Yorker online, of a usage so new it hasn't made it into the dictionaries yet--one I find strangely delightful.

The show’s cinéma vérité scrupulousness makes us glean for ourselves how long Wexler has been in Congress (ten years); his political leanings (very liberal); or why he seems to be in disfavor with Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders (perhaps because he’s a maverick and a TV whore; the Los Angeles Times once called him “the human advertisement for the mute button”).

Now, a whore, as we all know, is someone who sells his or her body for cash, in a sexual sense. The term has long been used in an extended sense to refer to someone who sells his or her principles for cash, and therefore is an unprincipled person. (The OED lists such a usage from 1633.)

This new sense, though: it's entirely different. You can see how it emerged from the extended metaphorical use, but the sense of loss of principle is entirely gone: it simply refers to someone who will go to great lengths to be famous. There's no implication in the New Yorker quote that Wexler is devious or that he's sold himself politically to the highest bidder: "TV whore" simply means that he will do anything to get himself in the public eye. "Fame whore" and "media whore" are two other versions of the same idea; nothing illicit is implied, just an unconquerable lust for fame or notoriety. (If you Google "paris hilton" alongside "media whore" you'll get over 15,000 hits.)

And if you Google the term "TV whore", you'll find yet another sense even farther removed from that one: it simply means someone who can't get enough television, as in this blog entry. It's not just television: "whore" can be attached to almost any concrete noun you care to name to denote someone who's indiscriminate in their love of something. (The sense isn't as distant from the original as it might seem to the picky: it carries an overtone of willingness to do anything, including sell oneself, in order to have access to the love-object in question.) I had a friend whose consuming desire to own a particular very expensive vehicle led to the nickname "truck whore", and I've been called a "cologne whore" by people who know of my large collection of scents.

I suppose there are people harrumphing over this usage, but I like it.