or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Come Together

When learning another language, trying to establish a pattern to make your life easier is all well and good, but it goes only so far.

On a tube of liquid soap in the shower this morning I saw the legend


and I thought, "Isn't that interesting." Because the French word for "oatmeal" is "gruau".

Well, it is interesting, isn't it? "Oatmeal", which is to say "gruel", is "gruau", and the combining form of "cruel" is "cruau-" (the adjective itself is "cruel" if it's masculine, "cruelle" if feminine). Can there be a pattern? Did we borrow "-uel" words from French in the form of "-uau"?

Nah. It's just a coincidence, unfortunately. There aren't even that many "-uel" words in English, particularly if you don't count "sequel" and its amusing daughter "prequel" (stemming as they do from Latin "sequi", "to follow", which also gave rise to "sequence", "pursuit", "consecutive" and numerous other words). "Duel" bypasses French altogether: it arises from Latin "duellum", a variant of "bellum" which of course means "war". And "fuel" comes from Old French "feuaile", which itself originates in Latin "focalis", "of the hearth", which looks like "focus" because it is--"focus" is Latin for "hearth", which is to say something around which people gather, and one modern meaning of "focus" is "the centre of interest".

Two of a Kind

Two of the websites I was reading this morning used the same word, or meant to: one of them made the correct choice and one didn't, because the word is actually two words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, with slightly related but ultimately different meanings. So: which is right and which is wrong?

First, from BoingBoing, this excerpt from an excerpt from a new novel, "City of Saints and Madmen":

The trickle of red from the scalp that winds its way down the cheek, to puddle next to the clenched hand, is as harmless now, leached of threat, as if it were colored water.

Second, from Salon.com's Broadsheet blog, here's the first sentence from a piece about feminism and religion:

For those of you looking to leech the patriarchy out of your Bible studies, Broadsheet presents Phyllis Trible, a feminist theologian profiled this weekend in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Two metaphors, one leach, one leech, one error, and it belongs to Rebecca Traister of Broadsheet. The verb "leech" means "to drain the essence out of", and is obviously derived from the bloodsucking creature of the same name. The verb "leach", on the other hand, means "to empty or drain", a metaphorical extension of an earlier (and still existing) sense, "to remove through the action of percolating liquid", as when nutrients are leached from soil. As I said, slightly related meanings: they sound like they ought to be interchangeable, but they aren't. "Leach" is neutral: it simply means "extract". "Leech", on the other hand, has a strongly negative connotation; it inevitably suggests a parasitic attachment to someone or something, as when a useless relative leeches off you.

It is, I suppose, an easy mistake to make, but it shouldn't wind up in published, professional writing, which is what editors are for.

Monday, February 27, 2006


I was watching Drawn Together on the Comedy Channel last night--yeah, it's coarse and vulgar and very hit-or-miss, but it's also pretty funny--and noticed that they've fixed their little problem, which is to say the warning screens that say the equivalent of "This show shouldn't be watched by anyone who doesn't like this sort of show." (They originally said "This program contains coarse language and mature themes that is not suitable for younger audiences": the "that" has been replaced by "and", which makes it grammatically correct.)


When I was thinking of a title, the word "reparation" came to mind, but then I didn't know if it actually meant "repair". I knew if probably does, but it doesn't have to: there are three "-pair" roots in English with different sources and drastically different meanings. ("Despair" doesn't count, because its root isn't "-pair" but "-spair", from Latin "sperare", "to hope": it's related to French "espoir", "hope", so to be in despair is to be de-hoped.) "Reparation", and I was very relieved to learn this, is in fact related to "repair": it's from the Latin "parare", "to prepare", "to put in order", and so to repair something is to "re-prepare" it for further use, and to make reparations is to compensate for something which was literally or, more often, metaphorically broken.

The other two roots are exemplified by "impair", which is from Latin "peiorare", "to make worse", which also manifests itself in "pejorative", and "pair", which is also (of course!) from Latin, this time "par", "equal", which has many offspring including "peer" and "compare".

You may find it interesting to know that French also has the word "impair", but it's nothing like the English version; it's completely unrelated, in every sense. Descending from the same root as our "par/pair" with the negating affix "im-" at the front, it means "odd" as in "an odd number"--it's the opposite of "pair", which means "even" in French. And of course our even numbers are even because they can be divided into two halves--equal piles, if you like--with nothing left over, and French numbers are "pair"--that is, "equal"--for exactly the same reason.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Taco Hell

Goddammit, why don't I just start every day's posting with, "Another typo or ten at The Consumerist", and be done with it?

Just look at this article entitled Taco Bell Cashiers Replaced By Soulless Robots:

As if fast-food weren’t synthetic enough already, here’s an automated Taco-Bell ordering machine snapped in Morisville, NC.

“You go to the machines and you’re presented by an animated Colonel and talking taco,” writes the photographer, Abir Majumdar.

Will completely robotified Fast Food restaurants become the norm? Doubtful. Just like the supermarket there will be a mix of touch-screen and real cashiers. You also always will need an employee around in case someone can’t figue out how to work the machines or the machines mess up.

So, no completely android fast-food eateries.

At least, for this generation.

What I want to know is, have The Consumerist's writers been replaced by soulless robots? Is there a machine that, like an automatic translator, writes things but doesn't really do a very good job of it? Or are the staff writers just throwing darts at a dictionary?

Paragraph one: "fast-food", an adjective, used where a noun is required. Paragraph three: "Fast Food", a noun clause, used where an adjective is needed (and, into the bargain, capitalized for no reason whatever). Paragraph four: "fast-food", used, to my astonishment, correctly. What is going on here? (And paragraph three also contains the correctly hyphenated "touch-screen" but the misspelled "figue", while paragraph one contains the wrongly hyphenated "Taco-Bell" and the misspelled "Morisville". What a mess!)

The Consumerist is an enjoyable website: I don't read it just to complain about it. However, if it's written by machines, then they're very impressive but they have a long way to go, and if it's written by people, then they need a spell-checker, an editor, and a course in remedial English, post-haste.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

I Go Pogo

I looked out the window this morning and the city was shrouded in a blue-grey haze. Fog is nothing unusual, certainly not in Atlantic Canada, but you don't expect to see it in mid-winter, and you don't usually see it so pale and uniform. "Fog?" I asked Jim, baffled. "Ice fog," he replied.

I've lived in this region for my entire life and somehow I had managed never to experience or even hear of ice fog. And yet there it was, out the window, looking for all the world as if we had been embedded in aerogel.

I'm still not clear how ice fog can even exist: how can ice crystals remain suspended in mid-air? Why don't they fall to the ground, as snow would? Whatever keeps them up there, that's where they were this morning. (Answers.com says that the condition "requires temperatures well below the freezing point", and it was -13 C this morning, so I guess that qualifies.)

The American word for this phenomenon is the rather amusing "pogonip". It appears to be the only English-language word adopted from the Shoshone language--or, rather, freely adapted, since their word for it is more like "pakenappeh".


I don't know if this is bragging or what, but let's pretend it's just a peek into the way my brain works. This evening, Jim was using his computer while I was preparing dinner, and I looked over his shoulder from across the room and saw what was clearly a subway-map schematic topped with the words "Hiker Detector". I went back into the kitchen, mulling over those words, and then a few seconds later, boom! I darted back into the computer room and said, "That's a subway map of Toronto with everything anagrammed, right?" Jim confirmed that it was.

And how did I know this? Because "Hiker Detector" is an anagram of "Ride the Rocket", which is the Toronto Transit Commission's double-entendre slogan, and because a couple of days before, BoingBoing had posted a link to a similar map of London. I don't necessarily love anagrams of this sort, as most of them are laboured, but I do love mashing words around in my head and turning them into other words, and I have to admit that these maps are addictively clever.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Prithee, Why So Pale And Wrong?

There's a very strange usage in Slate.com today and I just don't know what to make of it.

Here's the sentence, from a slide show, amusingly titled "TV's Aryan Sisterhood", about artificially-blonde TV newscasters. (Click on the slide-show link and then head over to page 4 of 9.)

We associate blond with youth, she writes, because the hair of babies and that of young children tends to become wan and darken with age.

Now, "wan" means "pale". Specifically, it means "unnaturally pale: sickly", so what is this sentence telling us--or, more precisely, what exactly does it think it's telling us?

I wish I knew. I'd like to interpret it as meaning "the hair of the young is wan (that is, pale) and becomes darker with age", but that's clearly a stretch, not to mention a misuse of the word, because "wan" implies an unhealthy pallor. The writer evidently thinks that "wan" means "less attractive" or "less delicate" or something along those lines. I think. I honestly can't quite figure it out. But whatever it is, it's wrong.

If I were being really, really picky, which is pretty much my raison d'etre, I would also have to say that, like it or not, "blonde" still refers to women and "blond" to men, as these words were originally French and therefore take gender markers, and both words have entered the English language and might as well be used correctly. "Careful writers still distinguish between masculine blond and feminine blonde", Answers.com tells us rightly (although it then notes that "the tendency [is] for North Americans to use the masculine in either case, and other English-speakers to use the feminine in either case"). The slide show uses "blond" uniformly, which accords with Answers.com's contention and, I suppose, is better than using both words and mixing them up randomly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


In response to Sunday's posting, regular reader Frank asked the following question:

Slight tangent, but do you really think English has more exceptions than other languages? Most people say things like "Oh, English is so difficult to learn because of all the exceptions, while French/Spanish/whatever is so easy: once you know the rule, you just apply it." But I'm really beginning to look askance at this assertion.

Now, English might (and I emphasize the might) have more exceptions than the "average bear," particularly with regards to orthography, but French, for example, seems to have quite a number of its own quirks and inconsistences.

So, has anyone ever actually sat down and proven that English is "all exceptions and no rules," while other languages are paragons of simplicity, or do people just say it because that's what they've always been told?

First off, anybody who says French is easy is delusional. Even French people will agree that French verbs are insanely complicated. (This page says English has 283 irregular verbs while French has only 81, but I find that hard to believe; during last week's French class, I asked the instructor in despair, "Are there any regular verbs in French?")

I think every language has its own particular battalion of quirks and exceptions, its own simplicities and difficulties, because languages are not mathematical formulae--they change and evolve over time, and even with the best of intentions they're living things that escape their makers' grasp. German, for example, is wonderfully easy to spell, because every letter or letter grouping has one and only one pronunciation. It makes up for this, however, by, among other things, really screwing with a lot of verb-preposition combinations: the prepositions are actually prefixes attached to the verbs, and they can snap off and move to the end of the sentence (and when there isn't a prefix, the verb sometimes, but not always, moves to the end of the sentence instead). There's a story told about Oscar Wilde attending a German play he disliked more and more, and when a friend asked why he didn't simply leave, he said, "I'm waiting for the verb." Almost certainly apocryphal, but a good joke nevertheless.

English verbs, on the other hand, are simplicity itself, for the most part: it's impossible to imagine an easier way of expressing the simple future tense, just "will + bare infinitive" for every possible situation, and the present progressive is nearly as easy--just conjugate "to be" and tack on the bare infinitive verb plus "-ing". (You can even use this to express the future, if you want: "I am swimming tomorrow," "I am leaving next week", and how lovely is that?) But it makes up for that with its tangled spelling and stubbornly unstandardized pronunciation, its convoluted rules for articles (read this if you think they're simple), and its charming but confusing encouragement of its speakers to use one word for multiple parts of speech with no outward change.

I've been told by people for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) tongue that learning the language is not at all difficult, but most of them will concede that learning the fine points can be exceptionally hard, just because there are so many of them. I think that this really might the case with any language you care to name, though. Basque, for example, has the reputation of being the most difficult language on Earth; if you're not born into it, they say, you'll never master it. But at least one person says that that isn't so: In fact, Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular verbs. He makes it sound appealing--no irregular verbs! no gender!--but then he posts a sample of Basque ("Eusko Jaurlaritzako Hezkuntza Sailak aste honetan aurkeztuko duen eskola mapari buruz hainbat kezka zabaldu da."), which rather takes the lustre off it.

I don't think English necessarily has more exceptions than other languages, but I'm no linguist; I know English inside and out, French somewhat, German somewhat less, and nothing in any depth of any other languages, so I'm not the best person to ask. It's difficult to deny, though, that despite the fact that "English is all exceptions and no rules" is a witticism, English does have an exception to the great majority of its so-called rules. "I before E except after C, or when sounding like A as in neighbour or weigh", "English is an adjective-before-noun language", "compound nouns must be formed by pluralizing the noun part of the phrase": you can find examples to counter all of these ("weird", "Rancho Deluxe" and "teaspoonfuls") if you look hard enough, and many more besides.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Insignificant Digits

When using numbers as a part of their lexicon, people can screw them up in just the same ways that they can screw up words. Sometimes they're mistaken, but too much of the time they're aiming for a precision that isn't there or they're deliberately trying to mislead people: whatever the reason, it may look like math, but it's really an abuse of the language.

Exhibit A is a sign at the store in which I work. Canada officially uses the metric system, although most people I know still cook in the Imperial system (because logical or not, "a cup of flour" is just a whole lot easier to manage than "250 mL of flour, or "240 mL", or "225 mL", depending on your source). Every now and then the store, in a bid to sell more yarn, invites people to bring in knit or crocheted squares which will be put together into blankets for, I don't know, underprivileged children or something. Since it's an American company, the sign wants people to make eight-inch squares, but since it's going up in Canada, the measurement has been changed to centimetres. Now, 8 inches is pretty much exactly 20 centimetres, or as near as makes no nevermind, but some overzealous dolt with a calculator translated the sign, and customers are now asked to make "20.32 cm x 20.32 cm squares". I hope they have a micrometer to achieve that sort of precision.
The Canadian version is like this, only less so

Exhibit B is something I saw in the supermarket this morning: a Swanson's Hungry Man Dinner. (I didn't buy it! I just saw it in the freezer case!) They also make breakfasts, in case you were wondering. Over 1 pound of food!, the packaging trumpets--see? we do still use imperial measures in Canada--but if you look below, you'll see, in much smaller print, "455 grams". Now, a pound is almost exactly 454 grams--453.59, if you want to get fanatically precise. This means that the Hungry Man Dinner contains 1.4 grams more than a pound of food, and that's less than the weight of a dime, so in the most technical, nit-picking sense possible, there is more than a pound of food in the box. But the amount by which the meal exceeds a pound is actually less than the amount of sodium that's in most of these meals. (Just look at this: a Hungry Man XXL dinner, one and a half pounds of food, 5410 milligrams of sodium, two and a quarter days' worth of salt!) If you ever doubted that hornswoggling the gullible is the entire point of advertising, there's your proof.


Speaking of food that'll kill you, I had some mortadella yesterday and am still alive to tell the tale. I have a feeling it wasn't imported from bell'Italia, because the texture suggested it was actually regular old ham that had been shredded and then compressed back into a round loaf, with little cubes of unshredded ham scattered throughout to break up the monotony. It was sliced paper-thin, as mortadella is evidently supposed to be, but unfortunately the texture meant that it mostly fell apart into scraps and tatters when I tried to peel the slices apart. This is what I get for buying supermarket food.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Consumer Complaint

Okay, quick: if "flork" and "glanch" are nouns, what are their plurals?

You know and I know the answer is "florks" and "glanches", because we all learned the rule by osmosis if not explicitly that to form the plural in English, we add an "-s" to all words except those that end with a sibilant such as "-s", "-ch", or "-x", in which case we add "-es" ("glasses", "benches", "lynxes"). There are some irregular plurals and a fair number of exceptions (because English is all about exceptions), but for the most part, we add either "-s" or "-es" to a word to pluralize it.

But we do not ever add apostrophe-ess to a noun to make it plural. I wish someone would tell that the to the benighted scribbler at The Consumerist, who knows the word "kvetch" but doesn't know enough to keep from pluralizing it into "kvetch's". Honestly, how hard would it have been to spell it correctly as "kvetches"? Isn't that how he'd spell the verb form of the word? Or would he write "He kvetch's to me constantly"?

Naturally, since English has so many exceptions, there's one tiny exception to the never-apostrophize-a-plural rule, and it's this: sometimes, with abbreviations or single letters, we find it necessary to shove that apostrophe in there when it clarifies the situation--when merely appending the ess would make the meaning unclear (because clarity of expression transcends mere rules). The saying "Mind your p's and q's" is usually spelled with those apostrophes because there are two alternatives and neither of them is as good as the apostrophized version: "Mind your Ps and Qs" is sort of clear but odd-looking, and "Mind your ps and qs" is just impossible. (Those of us who believe that the expression arose as an admonition to children learning to write and spell will have to discard the first of these two alternatives because it doesn't make any sense in the context, but there are a lot of folk etymologies for the expression, some stupid, some compelling: check out these and make up your own mind.) So sometimes we have to grit our teeth and clarify an abbreviation by pluralizing with an apostrophe.

But "kvetch" is not an abbreviation.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Colour Correction

A couple of days ago, James Wolcott--his blog is linked over there on the left--quoted Bugs Bunny: "What a maroon!"

And that, of course, started me to wondering just how "maroon" the verb and "maroon" the adjective could be related. I couldn't think of anything, unless you count this children's joke:

"What happened to the sailors when the red boat and the blue boat collided?"
"They were marooned!"

(We'll ignore the fact that maroon isn't purple, but a dark brownish/purplish red.)

Anyway. "To maroon" is to strand, and "maroon" is a colour, and how did one word come to mean two such apparently unconnected things? The answer is that, perhaps surprisingly, it didn't: the two words--identical spellings, identical pronunciations--sprang up independently, from different sources.

The colour "maroon" comes from the French word for chestnut, "marron", which came to them from the Italian "marrone". It entered English unaltered in the late 16th century and evolved into its current spelling about a hundred years later, though it still meant "a chestnut" and didn't attain its colour sense until another hundred years after that. The verb "maroon", on the other hand, seems to have come to us from Spanish "cimarron", "untamed", through French, again, and at about the same time, as it happens. (More details here, if you like.) It's certainly possible that the pronunciation of one word in English affected that of the other, but there's no reason that that must have happened, since the words have no etymological or definitional connection.

Answers.com, by the way, oddly neglects to mention that maroon-the-colour can be an adjective, describing it only as a noun, which seems to me an odd way to classify a colour, since most of us most of the time use colours as adjectives and not as nouns.


Talking about the colour maroon and what exactly it is puts me in mind of various framing customers who talk about "mauve" or "taupe" or "cream". What, exactly, are those supposed to be, anyway? Every single customer I've ever had who used the word "taupe" has a different idea of what it is: some think it's light, some dark: some think it's closer to beige, others to brown.

I don't think of colours in those terms for exactly that reason; everyone has his or her own idea of what such colours are. The colour theory in which I was trained divides the universe of colour into 15 unequal parts: the primaries (red, yellow, and blue), the secondaries (pairs of primaries giving orange, green, and violet), the tertiaries (mixtures of a primary and a secondary giving yellow-green, yellow-orange, blue-violet, blue-green, red-violet, and red-orange), and finally white, grey, and black, non-colours but indispensable for creating the infinity of shades we see every day. So when a customer points to something and says, "There--taupe!", I think, and usually say, "Well, that's yellow-orange with some black thrown in," or whatever the hell it actually is. And then we can begin working.

So: maroon? Red. Blackened red, but still red.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

They Done Me Wrong

A very strange spelling on BoingBoing today:

BoingBoing reader polymorf says, "Job-search website Dice.com appears to be in cahoots with the Business Software Alliance (BSA). They're offering potential employees a big reward if they narq out their next potential employer for software piracy."

No, not "polymorf": it's someone's user name, and he can spell it however he likes. The word in question is "narq", which is just weird.

Oh, I know where it came from: it's based on the abbreviated spelling for "tranquilizer", which is "tranq". The trouble, of course, is that the correct word, "narc", is short for "narcotics officer", and there's not a "-q-" to be had anywhere in it, so "narq" is just plain wrong.


The writer or writers at The Consumerist has or have a rather shaky relationship to the finer points of the English language, alas. Just look at this sentence:

Why the letters may not resolve your issue, it may certainly be gratifying to befuddle your target into guilt and contrition.

It is, I suppose, possible that the writer did in fact mean to write "while" and accidentally wrote "why" and, since there clearly aren't any proofreaders at The Consumerist, the mistake slipped by; it could happen to anyone. But I think it's a lot more likely--based on the website's track record--that the writer really and truly does think that the correct word in that case is "why", and that's sad.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mala Educacion

So yesterday was Valentine's Day, and in lieu of real roses (unimpressive and hideously overpriced at this time of year), I made my sweetie a quantity of royal-icing roses, which means they set rock-hard and can be picked up and satisfyingly crunched between the teeth. (The secret is meringue powder.) I added a few drops of vanilla extract to the icing and of course upon reading the label I was distracted by the word "Madagascar", which is the source of what some consider the best vanilla in the world (and I'm not having anything but the best in my kitchen, certainly not that horrible artificial stuff that's a by-product of the paper-making industry).

There's nothing so very strange about the word itself: what threw me was that I suddenly remembered that the adjectival form of the word isn't the expected "Madagascarian" or "Madagascarese", but "Malagasy".

Isn't that a hell of a thing? And then as I was musing on that word--making roses is not particularly mindful work once you know how--and rolling it around in my head, it suddenly occurred to me that Hitchcock once made a WWII propaganda film called "Aventure Malagache", and it I thought that surely "Malagasy" and "Malagache" have to be related, and of course they are.

But how did an "-l-" turn into a "-d-"?

Try an experiment. Say the words "rate", "late", and "date" with some degree of animation; as you can see, the mouth does quite a bit of moving, and it's hard to imagine that the initial consonantal sounds have anything in common. Now round your mouth as if you're saying "Oooh!" and form the sounds "r", "l", and "d". As you can see, all three consonants are intimately related, practically the same thing (which is why Asians, whose languages usually have either "l" or "r" but not both, or some intermediate sound between the two, can have such trouble distinguishing between them in English). All three sounds are alveolar: they're made with the tongue pushed up towards the palate and the top teeth.

This explains a number of things, such as why a rolled "-r-" in some words can sound like a "-d-", as in the Italian pronunciation of "mozzarella". And that's the secret behind the strange metamorphosis of French "Malagache", derived from "Malagasy", into "Madagascar": an "-l-" turns into a "-d-" with ease, particularly if the listeners aren't listening very closely.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Balled Up

I suppose we all ought to know by now that when you're trying to puzzle out the origins of words and idioms, the first thing you think of is almost certain to be wrong, however plausible it may sound (which explains the overabundance of ludicrous folk etymologies).

A couple of days ago, Slate.com published an explanation of the expression "balls to the wall", which had been used by an American politician the day before. They swear that "it has nothing to do with hammers, nails, and a particularly gruesome way of treating an enemy", which is reassuring, I suppose, but it also never even occurred to me, and thanks for the image, Slate. I did, however, think the balls in question were human; why exactly they were pressed against the wall (was the man being frisked?) and what that would have to do with the expression's actual meaning, which is "unrestrained: full-throttle", I have no idea. But that's what I assumed.

Wrong! Depending on who you ask, it has something to do with very fast machines. I'm not going to go into all the details here, particularly since nobody can agree on exactly what balls we're talking about, but you can read Slate's version, and then a few explanations on Idiomsite.com, and then the explanation given by the Mavens, and try to work it out for yourself.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


As you can see here, an Australian performer is appearing in a one-man show called "Homme Fatale", and I'm of two minds about that title.

On the one hand, "fatale", as part of the French (and naturalized English) phrase "femme fatale", has a gender marker: the "-e" on the end means it's feminine. The masculine version is, logically enough, "fatal", and so "homme fatale" is clearly wrong.

On the other hand, if you coin the expression "homme fatal", just about every English speaker is naturally going to want to pronounce that second word in the English manner, with a strong stress on, and a long vowel in, the first syllable, and this is going to completely kill the meaning of the phrase.

What to do?

Even though I've complained more than once about the wanton misuse of "masseuse" when applied to a man, I have to go with "Homme Fatale". Making the thing grammatically correct is going to wreck the whole double-entendre point of the title, and the sense is more important than the literal correctness of the words in this case.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Well, this typo/misapprehension is a new one to me, from the generally irresistible Go Fug Yourself:

Lose the horrible midrift-level cardigan (an item which, for the record, works on approximately one person and she's working as a ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre somewhere)....

"Midrift"? Really?

The correct word, of course, is "midriff", which is from the obvious prefix "mid-", as in "middle", and--I did not know this, though now I do--"hrif", which is Old English (of course it is!) for "belly".

The second half of "midriff", by the way, is unrelated to other senses of "riff". But just because the word didn't leave any other survivors in its journey to the present doesn't mean people get to pretend it never existed.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Grease Monkey

I think it's fair to say that most people go through life never really wondering what the words they say mean. I'm not one of those people--that should be obvious--but even I can't consider every single word that comes out of my mouth or goes into my eyes, or I'd never get anything else done.

There's a persistent rumour that a lip balm called Carmex is literally addictive: that once you start using it, you have to keep using it, because it contains either some addicting drug (which is absorbed through the lips, I guess) or an irritant such as acid or glass fibres which damage the lips and force you to keep using the balm. This is obviously ridiculous and untrue, but I can attest to the fact that using a lip balm of some sort is more or less addictive; I slap the stuff on at least twenty times a day, I have tubes of it all over the place (three in my knapsack, for some reason, one in every coat pocket, one in every room in the house), and I get very uncomfortable if I'm accidentally without it. (I've been known to surreptitiously smudge on some butter in a restaurant.) The reason isn't that it contains some noxious chemical; the reason is that you quickly get used to the feel of moist, frictionless lips, until normal, unmoisturized lips feel dry and unnatural and disconcerting to you.

So tonight on the bus I was putting on quick swipe and I happened to look down at the tube (Blistex Spa Effects, with a sunscreen--very useful, even in our wan February sunlight--and the scent of vanilla and plums) and saw that this particular scent was described in English as "relaxing" (it'll take more than a balm to relax me) and in French as "détente".


I've even written about the word, and yet in all these years I had never thought to wonder what it literally meant. It was adopted from French into English, accent mark and all, in the early twentieth century but really picked up steam during the last days of the Cold War, and meant the lessening of tension between two governments--in this case, the U.S. and Russia. But it had such a specifically political meaning that it never occurred to me that it could have any other sense.

But it does. In French, obviously, it has that literal meaning: the release of tension. It's originally from Latin, of course, from "tendere", "to stretch": the "de-" prefix is a negation, just as it is in English, and so "détente" literally means to let go of a stretch, to release tension, to relax. Obvious, yes, but I didn't see it until it was spelled out for me on a tube of wax.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Here, in a nutshell, is why I am such a hard-ass about hyphens.

I wake up at 6:30 this morning (late, for me) and, naturally, sit down in front of my computer for a little browsing before I have to get ready for work. I'm not one hundred per cent awake, but I'm ambulatory. The first site I go to is the essential Boingboing.net, and this is the first thing I see.

And I stare at it and stare at it, and I can't make any sense of the picture. Because "set" is a verb, and "top" is an adjective, and "Set Top Cop" looks like the first part of a sentence, and how the hell am I supposed to parse this thing when there's a colon after the noun? "Set the top cop...to stun?" After woozily staring it at for another five or ten seconds, it finally--finally!--occurs to me that, in fact, the poster ought to have read "Set-Top Cop".

The hyphen makes all the difference in the world. It transforms words into other words, other parts of speech, and therefore it clarifies things. I shouldn't have to stop and stare at a piece of writing and wonder whether it's correct (or what the hell it means): that's the writer's job, not the reader's. If they had used that damned hyphen in the first place, I wouldn't have had my strange, disorienting early-morning experience, and the world would be a (slightly but measurably) better place.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Not Quite

Yesterday I saw a sign which said a business was hiring--no surprise in this town--and was looking for "fulltime/partime workers".

I'm hoping beyond hope that the ghastly neologism "partime" isn't actually making its way into the language, although Google gives over 300,000 hits, nearly all of which use it as if it were a proper word (and not a clumsy version of the indisputably correct "part-time"). It looks vaguely French, it looks sloppy (as if someone couldn't even be bothered to write out the whole word), it looks wrong. And horrible.

I'm aware of the word "parboil", which seems to suggest that we can take the first chunk of "part" or "partial" and affix it to words, but in fact "parboil"--which means "to boil partially"--is an anomaly, an accident of the language. The original French version of the word, "parboillir", mean "to boil thoroughly"; the prefix "par-" is from Latin "per-", "through" (as in "through and through"). The current meaning of "parboil" was influenced by "part", it's true, but it's a one-off: "par-" isn't an affix and we don't just slap it in front of words we want to turn into partial versions of themselves. Especially not "-time".

Thursday, February 02, 2006

We Just Disagree

I dropped Paul Brians a line yesterday regarding Tuesday's post about "abolition" versus "abolishment". Here's what I wrote:

When I was searching your handy site--specifically, the "More Errors" page--one of the first things I saw was that "abolishment" is listed as an erroneous form of "abolition". This surprised me greatly, because "abolishment" is a valid, current English word: the OED says so, Answers.com agrees, and the online dictionary that you yourself suggest to readers, the Merriam-Webster Online, also lists it under "abolish" (which means it's not just valid in British English, but also in American). I agree that "abolition" is probably preferable to "abolishment", but there's no reason we can't have two identical synonyms in English. It's hard enough to get people to speak and write correctly: I'd rather not confuse them further by attempting to ban perfectly good words.

And here's what he wrote in reply:

The OED doesn't call it obsolete, but it does have this usage note: "It scarcely differs from ABOLISHING n. on the one hand, or ABOLITION on the other: the latter is now generally used instead."

It's one thing if someone deliberately chooses the somewhat archaic form, but if a writer just can't think of "abolition" and re-invents "abolishment" as a substitute, few readers are likely to be impressed.

I can see his point, sort of: "abolition" is, after all, the standard, and "abolishment" isn't used nearly as much, although I think it's a fair distance from being archaic; Googling both terms suggests that "abolition" is about fifteen times as popular, but "abolishment" still gets over 650,000 hits, so obviously it's still a living word. The only problem with the latter term is that some readers or listeners are going to stop in their tracks and say, "Abolishment? Is that even a word?" (I'm not sure how readers are expected to tell the difference between a writer's deliberately choosing a word versus reinventing it, though; one of the glories of English is that we have a huge store of affixes that we can use to modify words at will, with the expectation that we'll be understood, even if we're inventing or reinventing a word.)

What it boils down to is that I don't think "abolishment" can be called an error, and so doesn't belong on a web page devoted to errors in English. "Abolishment" may not be the standard way of expressing the idea, but it's not an error, either. I think it's nice to have a whole raft of different ways to say the same thing: it enriches and vivifies the language. Even though I'd generally use "abolition", "abolishment" is clearly neither dead nor archaic, not even close, and I'd rather keep it in circulation than call it wrong.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

To Die For

So I was in the supermarket today and among the things that my eyes fell upon was mortadella, which is a kind of Italian sausage resembling bologna. I had more than once said, "They call it that because it'll kill you" (laced as it is with quantities of pork fat), but, contrary to my nature, it had never actually occurred to me to ask what the name really meant, though it seems like a pretty obvious question. I mean, it couldn't be related to French "mourir", "to die", and English "mortician" and "mortal", could it?

Fortunately, it couldn't. "Mortadella", despite its deadly-looking name, is actually from the Latin "myrtus", which is to say "myrtle"; the sausage got its name because it was originally flavoured with myrtle berries.

I didn't buy any mortadella, but now that I know what the name means, maybe I will.


Something else I saw in the supermarket was a product in the ridiculous line of Fusion shaving products which I've already complained about. This time the product I'm snarking about isn't the preposterous razor but the after-shave balm, which says on the label it's to be used "after you shave everyday".

No! Bad, bad Gillette! "Everyday" is an adjective, "every day" is an adverbial phrase, you need an adverb to modify the verb "shave", and after having put this on your product label you look stupid to any educated person!

Here's a funny blog entry about the whole Fusion phenomenon, with this smart observation:

Seriously. If you can’t get a close enough shave with 2 or 3 blades, maybe God is telling you to grow a beard.