or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


A friend of mine says "pacific" when she means to say "specific". (It's not just her, either; I knew someone else who did exactly the same thing.) She doesn't have a speech impediment or anything; she just appears to think that's how the word is pronounced.

What I can't for the life of me figure out is, how did she come to think this? She must have heard other people using the word "specific". Does she think they're all wrong? Does she think there are two ways to pronounce it? Or does she just not register that she's doing it?

If you need further proof that it's at least a relatively common error, you could look here, which is the "oh, and another thing" page for the exceedingly useful Common Errors in English site.


I couldn't help but notice that one of the errors listed on the supplemental page is the use of "abolishment" where "abolition" is presumably meant. The problem is, "abolishment" is an entirely correct word, unimpeachably English; in fact, it's just about exactly as old as "abolition", as both date from the early 16th century. (The same is true of "admonition" and "admonishment"; both correct English, both very old, both about the same age--and even older than "abolishment", with "admonishment" dating from 1300.)

Saying something is wrong in English can be a judgement call. It's the opinion of the page's author that "howsomever" is flat-out wrong, though it's dialectical and well-established; he's welcome to his opinion, with which I disagree. But to say that "abolishment" is wrong is, well, wrong.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Not Suitable

Here in Canada, the Comedy Network shows, well, comedy. Stand-up, animated shows such as "The Simpsons", home-grown stuff like "You Bet Your Ass" (a game show), that sort of thing. It's a real actual channel, not some local cable-access thing, and that makes this warning, which shows before such hit-or-miss offensiveness as "Drawn Together", even more mysterious:

This program contains coarse language and mature themes that is not suitable for younger audiences.

It's not just words on a screen: they paid some woman to read them out loud. Someone wrote the text, someone else processed it into a screen graphic, someone else read it aloud, a bunch of people must have seen or heard it before it ever made it onto the air, and not one single person realized that it contains a grammatical error that a third-grader could pick out? The thing has two plural flags--"and" and "themes"--and obviously requires the plural verb "are".

It's pretty likely that, at some point, the thing read "...and is not suitable...", which would of course be correct. But someone screwed up, and it's been airing for weeks, maybe longer (I don't watch that much television). Duh.

I'll give them credit for one thing, though. They said "not suitable for younger audiences". Most such warnings say that a show is "not suitable for all audiences", which, when you think about it, is true of every single TV show ever.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


As I have said before, I like looking at new products in stores. There's just something fascinating about the amount of labour that goes into thinking up new things (most of which nobody could possibly need) and making them, through the alchemy of product and packaging design, seem irresistible and essential.

A new product which has been receiving an ungodly quantity of advertising is a razor--no, a "shaving system"--called Fusion, which, preposterously, has five blades. (Can the six-bladed razor be far behind? and where does it stop?) The sheer ridiculousness of this interests me, but what really grabbed me was the name that they saw fit to give to the shaving gel that's being sold alongside the razor: Fusion HydraGel. It grabbed me, of course, because it's wrong.

I know; it's a made-up name and they can call their product anything they like. But the root words from which it's composed are real enough, and there are rules governing their use.

Every word in English that begins with "hydra-" actually begins with "hydr-", abbreviated down from "hydro-", from the Greek word for "water"; the following root word is what donates that "-a-". "Hydrate", for example: it's "hydr-" plus "-ate", a suffix which in English denotes an action. Or "hydrangea": "hydr-" plus Greek "angeion", "vessel" (that's the same "angeion" that gives "angioplasty" its name--the word literally means "[blood] vessel reshaping"). Or "hydraulic": "hydr-" plus "aulos", "pipe".

So HydraGel ought to be HydroGel. Even if you're clabbering word roots together to make product names, there are still rules you have to follow. To do otherwise makes people like me think not of a shave cream but of a hundred-headed monster. (If it had to shave, maybe it'd need a five-bladed razor to get through all those acres of stubble: I'm pretty sure I don't.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

After All

Last night after idly browsing channels for a while we settled on a documentary about Tommy Sexton and Codco, and at one point Sexton's very Newfoundland mother said, in part, "...and I thought, 'Something's after happening'."

Now, I grew up with this expression and others like it and had scarcely ever given it a second thought, but it suddenly occurred to me that it's very non-standard English, to say the least. In fact, I could hardly imagine where it might have come from: how could "She's after running off" possibly mean "She has run off"?

So naturally my research assist (that would be Jim, who has a computer in the living room) got on the case, and this is what he discovered.

Newfoundland English owes a great debt to Irish English, since a great many settlers from Ireland landed there and figured it couldn't be any worse than what they'd left. Now, in Irish Gaelic, there is no such verb as "to have". I would scarcely have believed it, but they make do nicely without it, as it turns out. Possession--"They have a house"--is indicated by affixes which match up to English prepositions such as "at", "on", and "after" (in this case, some approximation of "The house is at them"), and these also serve to indicate the past tense--"They have gone"--alongside the past participle ("They are after going").

So there you have it. It's not just because of the segregated (Catholic/Protestant) school systems that people call Newfoundland "Little Ireland".

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Left Field

I love reading about scents and the sense of smell almost as I love actually smelling things, and the Givaudan website is a fascinating read, particularly if, like me, you don't know a whole lot about modern fragrance chemistry. (The clever folk at Givaudan have created a molecule, called Givescone, and just guess where that name comes from, which has, and I quote, "a complex odour picture, with floral, spicy, fruity, woody and even herbaceous nuances." And that, you understand, is not a perfume, not something composed of a number of essential oils and synthetics to create a scent, but a single molecule. How on Earth do they do that?)

Another molecule they've whipped up is called Freskomenthe--once again, a pretty obvious derivation, a scent which can only be fresh and minty. The scent of this molecule is described as "Fresh, Cool Mint, Agrestic, Woody Aspect".

Agrestic? Really?

Yes, really. It's a word, and it's related--as a little intensive cogitation might suggest, or quick peek at the dictionary will confirm--to "agriculture", from the Latin "ager", "field" (also the source of the name of the Roman general Agricola, who tamed Britain--the name means "farmer"). "Agrestic" means "of fields or the country", which is to say "rural", and so logically an agrestic scent is one which smells of leaves and growing things and hay and perhaps fresh clean earth. Sounds good to me.

Monday, January 23, 2006

What Rot

I was writing something earlier and used the Yiddish word "tsimmes", which I knew full well meant "a fuss: a to-do", and then I started wondering if it meant something else, too; Yiddish has a particularly vivid vocabulary of words for emotional states, quite a few of which seem to be slangy adaptations of other words, and I figured that might be the case with this one, too. And it is--boy howdy, is it. A tsimmes (or tzimmes) originally meant a slow-cooked stew of some sort; maybe a meat stew, maybe one of vegetables, maybe one with a lot of fruit in it. (Here's a recipe that's heavy on the fruit: here's another that's essentially a beef brisket cooked with prunes and vegetables.)

It seems a little odd (but only a little, really) that a word for stew came to mean a word to a hubbub: they're both, after all, collections of random things cheek by jowl. Thinking about this, naturally, got me to thinking about other such words for stews and mixtures. Their history suggests that a stew was once a rather questionable culinary endeavour: presumably a stew was what was made of the near-decomposed leftovers of other meals.

"Slumgullion" sounds nasty, doesn't it? It's just a thin stew, but Answers.com suggests it comes from a pair of Gaelic words that combined means, essentially, "pit of mud and filth", which does not speak well for the cook and her ingredients.

"Olla podrida" is one of my favourites. In English, it means merely "a spicy stew" or, metaphorically, "miscellany": a thoroughly harmless word. Its original Spanish is "olla", a sort of cooking pot, and "podrida", which is derived from the Latin "putridus", which means exactly what it looks like; "olla podrida" is, in other words, "rot-pot", not something you'd put in your mouth unless you had no choice.

"Potpourri" is another innocuous, even pleasant word; in English, it's a mixture of dried flowers and aromatics used to perfume the air, or, again metaphorically, a collection of (usually unlike) things. But guess what? It's a literal French translation of "olla podrida".

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Not Really

It's been a few days, I know, but I've been busy. I haven't been able to work up much of a dudgeon ("origin unknown", says Answers.com) about the typos I see around me, such as "it's" for "its" in a recent BoingBoing posting, something which usually pisses me off, or the stupid headline misspelling "dim-wiited" (no spell-checker for those folks!) in a recent edition of our local litter-box liner, the Moncton Times & Transcript.

Hey, maybe I'm mellowing out!

Nah. I've just been busy. Here, to tide you over, is an amusing blog about the use, or misuse, of the word "literally" when "figuratively" is meant, and a Slate.com article defending the usage. (Me? I hate the usage--I think it sounds ill-informed, even subliterate, and I'd never use it. But it doesn't make me lose sleep at night.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


What is it with The Consumerist? Is there just one writer who makes a whole lot of common grammatical errors, or do they have a stable of them? There certainly isn't a copy editor.

This is from one of yesterday's postings:

The site itself is a horrible mess of links, lacking a predominate logo and scattering links around the main body text like so much chicken feed.

There's the word "predominate", which has a long vowel in its last syllable--it sounds exactly like "ate", or "eight"--and is a verb meaning "to prevail" or "to be of greater importance". Then there's the word "predominant", which is an adjective meaning, if it were placed in the context above, "most conspicuous". There really isn't any such word as "predominate" that has a short terminal vowel (which is to say a schwa) and acts as an adjective.

This particular mistake just makes a writer look ignernt. Or at least poorly schooled, insufficiently well-read, and editorless.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


We're planning a trip to Québec City in the next few months--mid-May, probably--and so we're reading travel guides and such. Jim discovered in one of these guides that the French word "restauration" means "catering".

"If we took 'restaurant' and all those related words from French, then where did 'cater' come from?" asked Jim. Well, look it up, I said, and he did: "From obsolete 'cater', a buyer of provisions," says Answers.com, and I instantly realized, to my considerable delight, that obviously the word was related to "cate", which is an unfortunately obsolete word meaning "a delicacy; a dainty morsel of food". A caterer was once a cate-er (and has been a caterer, not a "cater", for over three hundred years). Jim had never heard of the word "cate", but I said, "If you're an English major, you're going to run across it." In Samuel Johnson, for one, and Shakespeare, for another: "My super-dainty Kate/For dainties are all cates...."

But it gets more interesting than that, even. "Cate" and "cater" both are originally from the old French verb "acater", "to buy", which is the source of the modern French "acheter", with the same meaning. (Upon learning all this, I immediately guessed that in English, the foods you bought, prepared, were the dainties and the foods you grew and prepared yourself were just everyday food; the OED, thank goodness, backs me up on this.)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Me Talk Stressful

I have, once again, decided to try to learn French. In fact, I have a class in half an hour.

In an essay called "Make Mine a Double" in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris wrote, about the grammatical gender in that language:

Because it is female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. "Vagina" is masculine as well, while the word "masculinity" is feminine....[I]t bothers me to make the same mistakes over and over again. I wind up exhausting the listener before I even get to the verb. My confidence hit a new low when my friend Adeline told me that French children often make mistakes, but never with the sex of their nouns. "It's just something we grow up with," she said. "We hear the gender once, and then think of it as part of the word. There's nothing to it." It's a pretty grim world when I can't even feel superior to a toddler.

I was discussing this with my new French instructor last week and eventually realized that we have exactly the same sort of thing in English, but in a different direction. In French, the gender is simply part of the word; in English, the stress pattern is likewise: something built in, something which we get automatically but which learners must laboriously memorize, or guess about based on rules which are usually but not always correct, or simply get wrong.

French doesn't really have stress patterns, which is one of the reasons stereotypical French-accented English invariably includes such pronunciations as "in-TER-es-ting" and "par-ti-CIP-le". There are stresses in French, but they usually denote the end of a clause or sentence; they don't appear within the words themselves. French, like English, can stress a particular word within a sentence--"I didn't tell HER (but I told someone else!)" versus "I DIDN'T tell her (I really really didn't!)"--but usually doesn't, preferring to add a word to express this kind of stress, as with the first word in "Me, I just like it".

So Mr. Sedaris needn't feel too inferior to the toddlers of France. He may not know whether that dictionary is masculine or feminine (it's a boy), but at least he doesn't say "dic-shun-uh-REE".

Friday, January 13, 2006

Picky, Picky

I still enjoy reading The Onion's AV Club, but let's bash this week's issue for a bit.

From a review of the clearly dreadful movie Bloodrayne:

With minimal flare and maximal gore, Boll simply delivers the turgid drama and incompetently staged action sequences that have made him the unstoppable Big Boss of the gaming community.

A I wrote nearly a year ago, it's flair, not flare, in this context. It seems like a small point, I know, but I'm still amazed that professional writers make this dumb mistake, no different from writing "she wiles away the time" or "they rode on a slay".

And from an article called How To Make A January Flop:

Experimental surgery leads a blind masseuse (Val Kilmer) to see again in 1999's At First Sight, but the dialogue regularly suggests that he can't see with his eyes if his heart is blind.

As I noted a while back, a masseuse is invariably a woman: despite Val Kilmer's possession of an ambiguous name, he's definitely male, and therefore must have portrayed a masseur.

But it's not all bad news. One of the things The Onion does best is to take an ordinary word or phrase, consider all its implications, and really run with that.

The word "lady" is popularly used to be synonymous with "woman", but of course it also has a host of overtones encapsulated in the word "ladylike". (If a co-worker says, "There's a lady at the counter", I may not say it, but I'm sure to be thinking, "How do you know she's a lady? Maybe she's a harlot.") Here's a paragraph from an Onion article entitled "Annika Sorenstam Has Another Remarkable Year For A Lady":

Miss Sorenstam, who took up the sport of ladies' golf when she was just a little lady at 12 years old, has been a feminine golfing inspiration to a whole new generation of ladies, including young lady Michelle Wie and ladies' tour rookie Paula Creamer, whose play proves her a lady despite her brief, unladylike tiff with Miss Sorenstam over an 18th-hole drop in the ladies' first round of the ADT Championship.

Read the whole thing. Seriously. It's delicious.


While I'm criticizing online writing, I may as well have another go at The Consumerist, which is still rife with irritating mistakes.

Cuffs are borderline passe anyway, but when coupled with pop culture brand references, they very nearly cause our irony gland to liquify.

That's "liquefy", not liquify", thank you very much.

We’d reach down deep within our mucous-engorged rage cavity to slop some bile at the Coca-Cola Company for their stupendously midguided attempt to promote new ‘Coke Zero’ through The Zero Movement, but we’re still careening around our porcelain work tub like so much congealed ham from manifest force of psychic disconnect upon the realization that there was a company out there still attempting to appear cool by using a blog.

"Mucus" is a noun, "mucous" an adjective, and therefore the disgusting phrase in question ought to be "mucus-engorged rage cavity".

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Get Out

Yesterday on one of my favourite blogs, Now Smell This, was a review of a men's scent called Imperial Jade Emperor by a clothing and fragrance maker called Agatha Brown. A link to that website eventually leads to this page, where one can read about and buy the fragrance in question. One can also read, at the top of the page, the following legend:

"The most exclusive and prestigious fragrances in the world"
Worn by Royalty


Advertising does stretch the boundaries of language, and it isn't unheard of for fragrance manufacturers to make extravagant claims for their products. "Exclusive" is a useful word for advertisers because it makes people think a product is rare and hard to get, and therefore if they get some, they must be special. (Some of the numerous definitions of the word are "excluding some or most", "not shared with others" and "expensive".) But it's nonsensical and, frankly, a corruption of the language--which is the main reason language-lovers hate advertising--to call an easily available and not prohibitively expensive scent "the most exclusive and prestigious in the world". (A better candidate for such a title would be the scents of Clive Christian, such as this perfume for men, which at $2150 U.S. has to set some kind of record.)

I think it's safe to say that if something can be bought by anybody with a computer and a hundred American dollars, it isn't very exclusive, let alone the most exclusive anything in the world. In fact, I'll go one further and postulate a useful rule of thumb: if I can buy it, it isn't exclusive.

In the mid-1940s the couturier Marcel Rochas, with the help of the famed perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, made for his bride-to-be a scent called Femme, which was a wedding present, hers alone for a year before he made it available to the general public, and even then it was hard to come by because of war rationing (and because Rochas deliberately limited quantities--making something hard to get of course increases its perceived value). For that little while, Femme had a pretty good claim to the name "exclusive".

About ten years ago I made myself a scent out of notes I love such as carnation, tarragon, frankincense, and benzoin. (It wasn't a classically constructed scent; it didn't really have any top notes, only middle and base notes. But I liked it.) I made only a small amount and then used it up over the course of a couple of years, and not only is it gone, I lost the formula for it when I moved, so I can't have any more, and nobody else ever can, either. Now that's exclusive.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Name Game

From a story today on BoingBoing:

Sam Bulte is the Canadian Liberal Member of Parliament who takes big campaign contributions from the entertainment cartel and then proposes Draconian, US-style copyright laws.

What arrested me was "Draconian", because one doesn't usually see it capitalized (except, obviously, at the beginning of a sentence), and with good reason; it isn't supposed to be.

An eponym is a word made out of a name: "bloomers", for example, named after their inventor, Amelia Bloomer, or "sandwich", named after an earl who supposedly invented that dish. In English, eponyms generally aren't capitalized; we don't write "Quixotic", though that word comes from "Don Quixote". (One exception is when the eponym spells out the name in full: a Sam Brown belt, for example, or Queen Anne's lace. Eponyms that employ a first name, such as "lazy susan" or "sneaky pete", may or may not be capitalized.)

"Draconian" comes from an ancient Greek lawmaker, Draco, whose code of laws was relatively impartial but unforgiving; the word means "extremely, often unfairly, severe", and like most other adjectives in English, it gets along just fine in lower case.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Au Contraire

From today's Slate.com review of the new Woody Allen movie:

Johansson brings the spirit of Hollywood with her wherever she goes these days, and Match Point is no exception. She has grown up so fast (too fast?), from the little anomic mallrat from Ghost World to self-conscious Hollywood royalty, with a permanent magic-hour glow now ladled over her like au jus.

Why do Americans seem to think that "au jus" is a noun? I blame Arby's, which regularly shows horrible TV ads for "roast beef sandwiches with hot au jus".

"Au jus" is not a noun, but an adjectival phrase; it's French for "with juice". (If "au jus" were a noun, it ought to be the pan juices from the roasted beef, a sort of un-gravied gravy, but it's a pretty good bet that, as Arby's presents the stuff, it's flavoured water. I wouldn't know; I'm not going to order a ramekin of something called "au jus", any more than I'm going to order a sandwich with a pile of something called "mit Sauerkraut".)

I'm not quite doctrinaire enough to demand that every word we import from another language retain every vestige of its original sense, but this one is just too new to be fully naturalized, and it sounds pretentious, to say the least. (Here's a page that features some people defending this revolting usage. They're wrong; it's indefensible. Answers.com agrees with me, calling the usage "nonsensical".)

If I had been Steven Metcalf's editor, I would have at least suggested "demi-glace".

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Heavy Metal

Life is so much easier when I can steal my subject matter from someone else's blog.

If you're not reading I Blame The Patriarchy, well, you should be. It's hilarious, and as you can see in today's posting, she hates the misuse of the word "enormity" as much as I do, and that's reason enough to love her. (For those not in the know, it has nothing to do with the size of anything, and everything to do with the monstrous or inordinately evil nature of something. Yes, it's derived from the same word, but by centuries of use it's taken on this meaning, and misusing it can lead to serious misunderstanding.)

One of the words in this same posting was "farrier", and though I knew what it meant--someone who shoes horses--I couldn't figure out its provenance. Nothing I could think of led me to "someone who shoes horses". The clue turns out, of course, to be the most obvious thing, the thing I didn't, inexplicably, consider; the vowel. "Farrier" is from Latin "ferrum", "iron", from which horseshoes are made.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Not everything that shows up my radar screen qualifies as a mistake, exactly. Sometimes it's just something that 1) uses the English language badly and therefore 2) pisses me off. Here's the headline and the first paragraph from a story on the front page of the local paper, the Moncton Times & Transcript:

A trim off the side from out-of-control car
A Champlain Street barbershop had a close shave yesterday when a vehicle slammed into the front of the small building.

The writer and the headline writer--probably two different people--felt they had to use some weak barbershop-related pun, which is a terrible idea in itself, but then they both proceeded to get it wrong. The headline suggests that the car hit the side of the building, when it hit the front: the first clause in the first paragraph suggests that the car didn't hit the building at all, because "a close shave" means "a narrow escape", which is to say "something bad that almost happened, but then didn't", when in fact there wasn't anything of the sort--the bad thing did happen, because the car hit and damaged the building.

Is this what they're teaching in J-school these days?

Monday, January 02, 2006


One unfortunately pretentious misuse of English is displayed in this sentence from BoingBoing:

Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has an hilarious editorial in this week's TV Guide about the future of television:

There aren't many absolute rules in English, but one of them is, "Use 'a' before a consonant sound and 'an' before a vowel sound." It doesn't have to be an actual vowel, just the sound of one: if you pronounce "herb" without the aspirate, as is commonly done in North America, then you would have to say "an herb".

So why do so many people say "an hilarious"? "Hilarious" is never pronounced in standard English with an unaspirated "h-" (well, it is if you're Cockney, but that's hardly standard English). Do these same people say "an hot dog", "an high-wire act", "an hostile takeover"?

The reason they say "an hilarious editorial" is that 1) they think it's correct or 2) they think it sounds posh. They're wrong on both counts. It is true that once upon a time, the aspirated "h-" sound wasn't pronounced in a great many words (look at "herb"); for this we can thank the French, from whom we borrowed so many words and in whose language the leading "h-" sound is not in fact pronounced, as in "histoire" ("story/history"), for example, or "heure" ("hour"). These two examples neatly demonstrate that some English words derived from French still begin with the silent "h-", as in "hour", and that others don't, as in "history". (Still others vary according to where they're spoken; in England, "herbal" is usually aspirated.)

In English, with precious few exceptions, we do pronounce that leading "h-" sound, and we therefore announce its arrival with "a". Not "an".