or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, March 31, 2006

Rock Hard

The replacement, apparently

As I wrote a while back, the problem with misplaced modifiers isn't necessarily that they're confusing; most people can easily sort out the intended meaning. No, the real problem with them is that they're unintentionally hilarious, as in this bit from Salon.com's Broadsheet:

The New York Times Home & Garden section today offers an astonishingly credulous little profile of antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, in which Schlafly sort of comes off like everybody's eccentric grandmother. We hear about her happy family ("I've never told my children what to do"), her work shooting machine guns during World War II, her multiple graduate degrees and the home where she lived with her husband (huge, limestone) and the brick colonial she bought after he died.

There's no doubt as to what was really meant, of course, but the way the second sentence is written, it appears that Phyllis Schlafly had a huge limestone husband (with the suggestion that after his death, she replaced him with a brick colonial husband).

I'm sorry if you're sick of hearing me say this, but why doesn't Salon employ a copy-editor or two?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Clean Sweep

Last week I wrote about the word "apricot" and its roots in Arabic. The posting was recently commented on by the owner of a blog called Arabic Gems, which is devoted to the Arabic language. It's fascinating: you should check it out.


Today in my other blog I was writing about a scent which has a laundry-detergent-like note, and I used the word "detersive" to describe it (after setting the stage by using the phrase "laundry detergent": "detersive" isn't a word in everyone's vocabulary). Then I started thinking about the word "detergent" itself.

Because all you have to do is look at it to realize that "detergent" ought to be an adjective. It sure looks like one: it ends in "-ent", which is one of the suffixes we use to transform a verb into an adjective, such as "emerge"/"emergent" and "insist"/"insistent". A moment's thought will suggest that there ought to be a verb, "deterge", which was turned into an adjective, "detergent", "having cleaning properties", which was then transformed into "a detergent", a noun. And this is, unsurprisingly, exactly what happened. Why not? We did it with "deterrent", too. We love to make words in English do double duty; it just so happens that in the case of "detergent", the adjectival form was almost completely lost, leaving us with the noun.

And so "deterge" is a word, meaning "to clean: to wipe off", from the Latin "de-", "off, away from", and "tergere", "to wipe", a word which didn't leave many other traces in English. ("Detersive" was made in the same way that "detergent" was: "-ive" is another suffix we use to turn verbs into adjectives, often with a change in the terminal consonant, as in "abrade"/"abrasive" or "conclude"/"conclusive".)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Time and a Half

My iPod, my nearly-constant companion, is currently feeding me a helping of Manhattan Transfer. Their "Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone" got me, naturally enough, to wondering about the word "twilight". My first thought--which I quickly discarded--was that "twi-" was somehow related to "twixt", because twilight is the light between--that is, betwixt--darkness and daylight.

Well, that's how folk etymology arises, I suppose. The truth is simultaneously simpler and more complicated: the "twi-" of "twilight" is related to the word "twelve" (which I wrote about here) and also "two". The German for "two" is "zwei", and the similarity between "zwei" and "two"/"twelve"/"twi-" is obvious.

And what does two of anything have to do with twilight? That's where it gets interesting. Prefixes of twoness in English usually serve two purposes: they can signify either "two" or "one half": "bisect" means, depending on how you look at it, "divide into two" or "divide into halves". Likewise with "biannual", which may mean either "every two years" or "twice every year", which is to say "every half-year". Some say that "biannual" ought properly to be reserved for "twice a year", with "biennial" referring to "every other year". The trouble is "biannual" has meant both things for a very long time, and it's too late to put that cat back in the bag. This is of course terribly confusing, but it has plenty of company in the language. (Some, and I count myself among their number, think it's usually best to avoid the word altogether and use "twice yearly" or "every other year", as the case may be. This solution isn't elegant, and it's a shame to lose a word, but clear expression is paramount.)

Anyway, "twilight". It doesn't mean "two lights"; it means "half-light". How unexpectedly poetic!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Long and Short of It

From The Consumerist:

Coca-Cola has a new adult beverage that’s a blend of “unique Coke refreshment with the true essence of coffee and has a rich smooth texture and has a coffee-like froth when poured.” Coca-Cola Blāk will launched in France, because if you consume cold snails, you will consume anything.

The macron over Blāk was specially designed by Coca-Cola scientists to help onomatopoeize the sound you’ll make after drinking the concoction.

Well, a macron it is, as you can see from the image above. The trouble is, of course, that a macron--from the Greek "makros", "large" or "long", as seen in the English prefix "macro-", as in "macrobiology"--is a mark used in English to denote a long vowel sound, meaning that "Blāk" isn't pronounced "black", but "blake". (Long and short vowels in English aren't necessarily distinguished by their length: the long vowels in "mate", "mete", "might", "moat", and "mute" needn't be any greater in duration than those in "pat", "pet", "pit", "pot", and "put". The real difference between long and short vowels in English is that long vowels are, for lack of a better term, higher-energy vowels: they take more muscle power to say.)

What the marketers surely wanted for their product name was a breve, which, as the name clearly suggests (it's the second syllable in "abbreviate" or the first in "brevity", your choice), denotes a short sound: "Blăk", which is to say "black". (Neither diacritical mark produces the sound that The Consumerist seems to be alluding to, "blech".)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Common Sense

Today there was an oddball coinage in this Slate article about billionaires. First, the setup:

On the Web site, there are convenient links to sermonettes in Forbes over the years about how the population explosion at the tippy-top of the wealth scale demonstrates the power of human gumption and the glory of the capitalist system.

And now, the oddball coinage:

While there are only a few outright crooks or sociopaths on the list, there are many whose accumulation of vast wealth, however gumptuous in method, does not fit the Adam Smith model of individual drive and greed being channeled into activities that benefit all.

I have no problem, of course, with Michael Kinsley's wanting to invent an adjectival form of "gumption". With its wealth of affixes, the English language positively encourages us to do so. What I can't understand is why he chose "gumptuous" over "gumptious", which I would have thought would be the more natural spelling.

The OED thinks so, too: it lists "gumptious" but not "gumptuous", which means that Kinsley, instead of checking to see whether a word he thought up actually existed--or, rather, that an existing word that met his need was available--just went ahead and used the made-up word, which is not usually the best tack to take.

I don't know why I felt that "gumptious" would be the better spelling: it was just a feeling. I'd certainly never seen the word before. There aren't many words that end in either "-ptious" (Morewords, not guaranteed to be complete, lists only "bumptious", "captious", and "scrumptious") or "-ptuous" (only "contemptuous", "presumptuous", "sumptuous", and "voluptuous"). The OED suggests that "gumptious" was formed as a parallel to "bumptious", but Answers.com thinks that "bumptious" is a sort of hybrid of "bump" and "presumptuous", in which case why didn't we get "bumptuous" instead? Because "-ious" is by far the more common English suffix. We got "voluptuous", "sumptuous", and "presumptuous" from the French (but not "contemptuous", which came from the Latin), and all of this in aggregate suggests that the adjectival form of "gumption"--which is Scots, by the way--ought not to end in "-uous".

Which, in fact, it doesn't.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


I know I'm an insanely picky person but dammit, that's what a proofreader has to be, right?

Look at this paragraph from this New York Times piece about airline reward programs:

But I, Mr. Gold Elite, did not fare much better on the same itinerary. I could get only middle-row seats on both trips. And I would rather take a brick up side the head than sit in a middle row seat on a long flight.

"Up side"? I spent a whole day trying to decide if this was worth getting pissed off about, which is to say that I was pissed off about it and I spent the day trying to justify this pissed-offness. (Well, I was at work. But it was in my thoughts from time to time.) Eventually--just now, actually--I decided that yes, I have every right to be pissed off about it.

Would the New York Times have let a journalist get away with "The down side to this is..."? I think not. The word is "downside", all one word, and so it is with "upside", one word, not two, one, even if the expression is "upside the head". Which it is.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Pop Quiz

Okay. Two of these seven words are related to two other of the seven words etymologically; the other three are stand-alones. Can you pick out the pairs?

pop [the sound, or the soda]
poppy [the flower]

I ask because I was watching a show and the word "poplar" came up (it's used in the manufacture of harps), and naturally I wondered where it came from. Not from "popular", obviously, because what could trees have to do with people?

As it turns out, much to my surprise, "poplar" and "popular" are in fact intimately related: they both derive from Latin "populus", "the people" (obviously also the root of "populace", as well as "populate", "vox populi", and on and on). I have no idea why "poplar" got its name: the OED is not very forthcoming on the matter. Perhaps the large, dense stands of trees reminded someone of a crowd of people.

The other pair of words in the list is "poplin" and "pope", again much to my surprise. Poplin, a cotton fabric, is so named because it was first made in the papal town of Avignon.

"Poppy" comes from its Latin name, papaver somniferum. "Popinjay" is evidently from Spanish "papagayo", "parrot"; a popinjay is a chattering, preening person. (The Spanish word may sound familiar if you know the Mozart opera Die Zauberflöte: the befeathered birdcatcher is named Papageno.) And "pop", as can easily be imagined, is onomatopoeic.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Every now and then--well, a lot, really--I'll be reading and I'll look at a word and think, "Interesting; where does that come from?" It happened this evening; the word that ignited a little spark was "lurid". We all know what it means: nearly always "sensationalistic", with undertones of "revolting" and "horrifying". But where does it come from?

The key to "lurid" lies in one of its subsidiary, little-used meanings: "pale: pallid: sallow". "Luror" is the Latin word for "paleness", and so something that's lurid is something that will cause a person to become pale with shock and disgust. (In this way it's reminiscent of "livid", which means "pale with anger"; that is, so furious that, instead of being red, you're white, because all the blood drains from your face.)

"Lurid" is, I need hardly even say, unrelated to "lure".

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Pits

Mmmm. Unfortunately, I'm allergic to birch pollen, so no dice.

As I've mentioned before, lots of English words that start with "al-" are from the Arabic: the prefix means "the", as in "alcohol", from "al-kuhol", "the kohl", "the antimony powder". (It's a long story: check it out here.) Other "al-" words such as "alkali" and "alfalfa" are from Arabic, not to mention such unexpected ones as "antimony" itself ("al-ithmid") and "elixir" ("al-iksir", "the philosopher's stone").

Today while showering I noticed something written on a little shower-gel bottle I had refilled with something else: the text was in three languages, and it said "apricot", "abricot" (the French version), and finally the Spanish "albaricoque". Aha, I said to myself; that's got to be from the Arabic. And, as it turns out, it is. The Arabic word is "al-burquq", "the plum"; apricots are, in fact, related to plums, both being drupes (that is, single-stoned fruits), and the two are easily hybridized into plumcots and other variant fruits.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bang Bang

As long as you understand its limitations--alongside the fact that it casts a very wide and undiscriminating net--Google can be your best friend.

On Friday, the local newsrag the Mocton Times and Transcript had a front-page article about, I don't know, gun control or something. The story was continued onto the second page, and the page-two headline began with the word "Hangun".

Is "hangun" really a word? What it is is either a clumsy typo or a dreadful misspelling based on an equally dreadful pronunciation. Either way, it doesn't belong in a respectable newspaper, which is what it was doing in the T&T, I guess.

However, after having written my sort-of defence of prescriptivism on Saturday, I began wondering if what we had on our hands was an actual, explicable change in the language or just a stupid mistake, so I put Google through its paces.

Googling "handgun" just now, I got 3,210,000 hits (subject to change). Googling "hangun" got me 18,100 hits, keeping in mind that some of these sites are Turkish and Hungarian (languages in which "hangun" must be a legitimate word). As I said, Google casts a wide net, but we can narrow down the search to English-only pages. Doing so gives us figures of 2,960,000 hits for "handgun" and 12,600 for "hangun".

Now, a search for "hangun -handgun", which is to say English sites that use "hangun" without also employing the correct spelling, nets us 742 hits, a 94 per cent drop from "hangun" alone. If "hangun" were actually entering the language as a variant based on pronunciation, I'd expect to see more sites in which "hangun" was employed without "handgun", which is to say a much smaller drop in the English-only "hangun -handgun" pages. The numbers are at least a little encouraging; they suggest that many people who use the spelling "hangun" have simply made a typo they didn't catch, and that it isn't entering the language in any significant way. And that the Times & Transcript could really use a decent proofreader.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Prescription for Trouble

I was reading this very interesting article on Languagehat's website when I was stopped cold by this assertion:

"Prescriptivism" is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it's used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that's why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.

Nothing personal, but I just don't get this attitude. There are those who use grammar as a weapon against the defenceless, and it's a nasty thing to do. But what about people who feel that there ought to be, and are, standards?

Saying that prescriptivism is wrong and, in fact, despicable is a strange sort of attitude to take, given that prescriptivists are, for the most part, outlining, refining, and defending the rules that make the clear expression of language possible. I like these descriptions of descriptivists and prescriptivists from Wikipedia: ...a descriptive linguist (descriptivist) working in English would describe the word "ain't" in terms of usage, distribution, and history rather than correctness; while acknowledging it a nonstandard form, the descriptivist would accept the broad principle that as a language evolves it often incorporates such items and thus would not didactically reject the term as never appropriate. A prescriptivist, on the other hand, would rule on whether "ain't" met some criterion of rationality, historical grammatical usage, or conformity to a contemporary standard dialect. "Ain't" has certainly been contentious for a while, but I think prescriptivists might well say that the word, while non-standard and unfortunately suggestive of a substandard education, is also logical, historically established, and well-understood, and could perhaps even make a comeback. That's how I feel about it, at any rate.

It's folly to insist that language be unchanging and rigid. But we need a certain measure of prescriptivism, for the simple reason that language consists of rules without which we can't make ourselves clearly understood. I'm fairly flexible; I don't grumble about the casual use of "hopefully" to mean "I hope", I allow that sometimes "less" works better than "fewer" even where it's grammatically indefensible, I don't insist that adjectives and adverbs always take separate buses. As long as the meaning is clear, I'm willing to accept some shifting of boundaries.

However, some things are simply wrong. "Amount" and "number" are not the same thing; "predominate" is not an adjective but a verb (we already have an adjective, "predominant"); possessive pronouns do not take an apostrophe. By pointing out these things, am I wielding a club with which to batter the uninformed? I don't think so. By ignoring obvious errors, by playing descriptivist and blandly noting that these are common usages, I'd be ignoring the fact that, like it or not, there's right and wrong in grammar and spelling, and what's more, there's better and worse. Correct usage, sanctioned by history, custom, etymology and sense, still exists; if I'm an elitist to insist on that, then I'll wear the mantle proudly.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Potty Mouth

Slate.com has an occasional column called "Human Guinea Pig", in which Emily Yoffe, who's much braver than I am, does things just to see what it would be like: enters a beauty pageant and an eating competition (not at the same time, obviously), learns how to fool a lie detector, becomes a nude artists' model. It's all here, and all well worth your time; she's a terrific writer.

In the most recent installment, she uses the word "commode" twice:

...if you were a defense industry lobbyist, you'd give a congressman a $7,200 Louis-Philippe commode and the Pentagon contract would be yours.

But what if you want to be a lobbyist and you've never played a round of golf, the only season tickets you have are to a children's puppet theater, and your commodes are all American Standard and bolted to your bathroom floor?

Nothing wrong with it, of course, but I naturally wondered how "commode" could have come to mean "toilet". It's related to the words "commodious" ("roomy, spacious") and "incommodate/incommode", ("disturb, inconvenience"), neither of which seems to have much if anything to do with a toilet.

But it all makes perfect sense once you realize that "commode" comes from Latin "commodus", "convenient", and what could be more convenient than not having to go outside to do your business? (And finally, to tie it all together, I remembered that in England, "convenience" is yet another euphemism for "toilet" or "lavatory", which is itself a euphemism, being a pretty exact translation of "washroom", a standard North American euphemism for the same thing.)

"Commode", since you have to have been wondering by now, is from the usual Latin prefix "com-", "together, with" plus "-modus", "measure", which is also the source of "commodity", something which has been judged to be useful. And "convenience", since we're there anyway, is also from Latin "com-" plus "-venire", "to come"; its source, "convenire", meant "to be suitable for", which is to say "something in which everything has come together", which certainly applies to something convenient. (It's intimately related to "convene", which also means "come together", in a somewhat different manner.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More or Less

Here are two unrelated things that I'm relating nonetheless.

In a comment on yesterday's post, Tony Pius noted that he'd always thought "proboscis" had a hard "-c-", based on its Greek ancestry (if I'm not mistaken, English "proboscis" has a soft "-c-" because we inherited it not directly from Greek but through Latin), and then wondered, "...what else have I been pronouncing wrong all this time?" If it makes you feel any better, Tony and the rest of the world, we all do it; I thought "pasty" as in "Cornish pasty" was pronounced as you would expect, "PASTE-ee", when it's really "PASS-tea". Didn't I feel stupid! I wager that even Williams Safire and F. Buckley Jr. have a word or two that they pronounce incorrectly.

Last night, apropos of I have no idea what, Jim asked me, "How many words does the average person know, anyway?" I rattled off the standard response; the average person-on-the-street knows maybe 10,000, an educated person who's read a lot and also has the augmented, specialized vocabulary of a profession knows about 25,000. And then, of course, I started thinking that that probably was a low-ball figure, because, for starters, how exactly do we define a word? If I know the word "start" and I also know the rules of English, even the fairly basic rules, I probably know quite a few more words: definitely "restart", "starter", "starting", "started", and "starts", and probably also the compounds "jump-start" (and its verb forms), "kick-start" (ditto), and "upstart" (and its plural). Do those all count as separate words? Of course they do. Someone with even a grade-school education can at least form all the usual offshoots of words: pluralized nouns, various verb forms, adjectives formed by adding suffixes to nouns and verbs ("startable"!), and so forth.

If the average person uses five thousand words on a regular basis, clearly a low estimate for most people, then their working vocabulary is going to be at least five times that when you add in the other forms of words. And that's just words they use: most people know words they don't use on a regular basis, so we don't even have a good definition of what a working vocabulary is.

What this all boils down to is that 1) we all know many more words than we think we do, and 2) we may not know as much about all those words as we'd like to think we do.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Nose on Your Face

First, you owe it to yourself to watch this video, which is a demo of Will Wright's new game, Spore. (The page says it "looks like it could possibly be the best video game ever". Could? Possibly? It obviously is the best video game ever.) Wright invented SimCity and The Sims, and on the strength of those two games alone has earned his place in the pantheon, but this...well, I'm just flabbergasted. Watch the video and see if you aren't, too.

Okay. Done? At around 1:05 in the 35:47 video, Wright is talking about the various body parts for the evolving creatures, and unfortunately, he uses the word "probiscus". It's unfortunate that he used the word, because it doesn't actually exist--at least, not in the world of correct words. (He shouldn't feel too bad: professional smarty-pants Anne Robinson made the same mistake on "The Weakest Link" once. The contestant asked her to repeat the question, which she did, once again mispronouncing the word, and understandably he got the answer wrong.)

The word, in fact, is "proboscis", pronounced "pro-BOSS-iss". (It's now casually used to refer to the nose, but more correctly applies to an organ such as an elephant's trunk or a mosquito's stylet, something used to secure food. It's from the Greek "pro-", "in front", plus "-boskein", "to feed".)

I suppose I can understand how such a mistake might have arisen: we have a few words in English that end in "-iscus", such as "discus", "hibiscus", and "meniscus", but no others that end in "-oscis", so it might seem natural to apply a familiar-sounding ending to the word. Still: wrong.

Monday, March 13, 2006


What we have is here is not such much bad English as bad journalism. Well, bad journalism is bad English, isn't it? They often go hand in hand, it seems. Whatever this is, it's very bad.

A dogged six-month search had a happy ending as a Calgary woman was reunited with her missing pooch.

Lori Pichurski of Erin Woods had just left for Spain last September as a coach for the Canadian agility dog team at the world championships when she got the news her 14-kg blonde Mudi, Swerve, had escaped her dogsitter by leaping a fence. "We feel he left the dogsitter's to try and find out where I was," Pichurski said.

Friends tried to find Swerve, but to no avail. Upon returning, Pichurski consulted five "dog communicators" who did intuitive readings to track down the prodigal pooch.

One gleaned Swerve was alive and being fed by an elderly couple. The prediction was true.

The couple was Glenn and Pat Haase, who live near the Calgary Zoo. They saw the dog in December and began leaving out food.

Last week, Glenn spotted a poster for the missing Swerve and contacted Pichurski. The next day, Pichurski found her missing dog.

Swerve was in good shape and Pichurski credits the Haases with helping her dog survive.

This story appeared in our local birdcage liner, the Moncton Times and Transcript, as a wire story under the headline "Canine psychic helps find lost dog", which will provide the gullible and the stupid with further confirmation that there are people who can mystically communicate with their mutts. (I can tell you what your dog is thinking, too: it's thinking, "Give me some hamburger.")

We shouldn't expect much from a journalist, or an editor, who uses the dreadful pun "dogged" in the lead, I suppose. And "glean" is a bad word to use in this context--it means in its metaphorical sense "to gather [information] incrementally". (It looks like the writer used a thesaurus.) "Guessed", of course, would have been the most appropriate word, but even the neutral journalistic "said" would have been better than "gleaned".

And if, as the next sentence says, "the prediction was true", what about all the other predictions made by the same person? Were they also true? Were there specifics--an address, for example? (Evidently not, since the would-be psychic didn't find the dog; the couple who'd taken the dog in saw a missing-pet poster.) And what about the other four soi-disant animal communicators? Did none of them make the obvious guess that 1) the customer wanted to hear her dog was alive and 2) the dog might well have been taken in by another person? And why didn't they all come to the same conclusion?

Bad journalism! No snack for you!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Thrown for a Loop

Some folk etymologies, which is to say made-up ones (particularly "spelling etymologies" for words such as "posh" and "fuck"), are, for lack of a better word, stupid. Some, on the other hand, are entirely reasonable. Wrong, but reasonable.

Jim had long been under the impression that the expression "the die is cast" (which is to say "that which is to come is unalterable and momentous") referred to a stamping die which, having been made of metal and allowed to set, was thereafter unchangeable. I don't know if he read it somewhere or if he just tried to make sense out of it, but for someone who's guessing at it, it isn't really an unreasonable interpretation. However, anyone who knows the original Latin, along with some etymology, is going to figure it out differently.

"Alea jacta est" (occasionally rendered "jacta alea est"--Latin lets you jumble the word order and keep the sense) is what Julius Caesar is said to have said when he crossed the Rubicon (another English-language expression for a consequential action which can't be undone) to invade Italy.

Now, "alea" is still seen in the English word "aleatory", which means "dependent on chance or luck": writers and musicians have used to it to add an element of randomness to their work. Knowing this--even if we don't know that it's from Latin "alea", "a die", "a dicing game"--suggests to us that the die referred to in the English translation of the phrase isn't a stamping die, but a gambling die.

"Jacta" is seen, in part, in the English word "ejaculate", which of course means "to involuntarily and forcefully expel fluid during orgasm" but also used to mean "to exclaim suddenly". (Perhaps it's just me, but the first meaning of the word has so eclipsed the second that the usage, still in common currency a hundred years ago but now more or less defunct, still strikes me as jarring, as in this sentence from the first chapter of Anne of Green Gables: "'Well, of all things that ever were or will be!' ejaculated Mrs. Rachel when she was safely out in the lane.") Knowing the "jacta"/"ejaculate" link, even without knowing that it's from Latin "jaculari", "to throw", we can guess that the "cast" of the expression has nothing to do with metal-casting but instead means that something was tossed or thrown, and not "cast" in the sense of "formed from molten metal". ("Jacta" is also seen, in altered form, in all English words that contain "-ject-": it always signifies something that was either thrown--"reject", "project"--or something that, having been thrown, is lying there--"adjective", which lies next to a noun.)


Looking up "fuck" on Answers.com, which is useful but isn't definitive or complete, was a disappointment; they barely scratch the surface of the idiomatic uses of this word. They don't even mention the past-tense "fucked", meaning variously "in a fix" ("Now we're fucked") or "ruined" ("The engine's fucked"). Their list of phrasal verbs is so woefully lacking: where's "fuck around", meaning "goof off"?

There are so many expressions in English using this word that you could write an entire book about it, and, unsurprisingly, someone has.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Basenotes is a useful website for people in love with fragrance, as I am. I don't necessarily expect the highest standards of spelling and grammar from sites that don't purport to be all about professional writing (as I do from Salon.com and Slate.com, for example), but goddamn this pisses me off so much:

Apart from 2005, when Brut took the award, Old Spice has won this award every year. There's probably not a man alive, since its launch in the thirties, that hasn't tried Old Spice. Long may it rein!

"Rein" is ultimately from Latin "retinare", "to retain". "Reign" is from Latin "regnum" (still seen in English "interregnum", "the period of time between rulers"), which derives from "rex", "king". And for good measure, "rain" comes from Germanic "regen", "to rain" (which it still is in modern German). Three words, all pronounced exactly the same, with three different etymologies, meanings, and usages. Not interchangeable, dammit!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I Beg to Differ

Today we have a couple of non-standard usages, which is mostly a way of saying that actually, they're wrong. Expect to see lots more examples of these two in the future, as people are less and less acquainted with the subtleties and the roots of the English language--in today's examples, Greek.


From the necessary, hilarious Go Fug Yourself:

Please note, this has the exact same collar as the dress she wore above, which begs the question: are these dresses detachable?

"Beg the question" does not mean "pose the question". It's a term from rhetoric--specifically, a logical fallacy in which one assumes the truth of the proposition one is trying to prove, thereby leading to a circular argument.

However, since the ladies at GFY later printed this hilariously, monstrously cruel bit about Sharon Stone, all is forgiven.


And from Slate.com's discussion of the Oscars:

That was it for partisan statements, right? Rachel Weisz did use the word "unflinching" to describe The Constant Gardener's take on big bad Big Pharma, and those March of the Penguins Frenchmen looked mildly subversive without ties on, but no one else felt much of a need to lace this kudofest with politics.

The problem here is "kudofest". "Kudos" is the Greek word from "praise"; it ends with an "-s", and usually in English that signifies a plural, but not in this case, any more than the equally Greek "bathos" does. (There isn't such a thing as a batho. Or, for that matter, a patho.)

If we needed further indication that these words aren't standard English plurals, we might note that their pronunciation doesn't accord with English, either; rather than having that plural-marking voiced "-s" sound, which is a buzzed "-z", they end with an unvoiced "-s", which is a hiss, more commonly denoted at the end of English words by a doubled "-ss", as in "hardness".

So if we wanted to turn "kudos" into a compound, we'd need to keep it intact: "kudosfest", or, much more likely, "kudos-fest".

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I'd Like To Thank The Academy

To my astonishment, I've now been doing this for a whole year. 309 posts--that's practically a book! (Probably not a very good book, though.)


I wrote (in brief) a while back about the casual, obviously incorrect use of the word "literally", and I just found another example of why it's such an irritant. From Salon.com's gossip column, "The Fix":

Here are some other awards of our own: the best Oscar fashion photos, the best backstage report (including Philip Seymour Hoffman complaining, "I literally lost all control of my bowels up there" and a shellshocked Ang Lee) and, from good ole Salon, the best Oscar podcast and the single best Oscar highlight. There. Can we move on?

I can't. I know that speech isn't the same as writing, that speech is more casual and that people say things they mightn't if they had a little more time to consider them. (Despite the best intentions, "irregardless" can slip out--well, not out of my mouth, of course, because then I would have to bite my tongue completely off.) But this is what happens when substandard usage is defended and popularized. Did Philip Seymour Hoffman truly, actually, really soil himself up on stage during the Oscars? Almost certainly not--I hope not!--but since he went and used the word "literally", and since he may or may not have meant the word literally, we have no way of knowing. Not that I'd really want to know, of course, but if we dilute and therefore destroy the meaning of that useful word, then we've lost a valuable tool for discriminating between the actual and the metaphorical.


And while I'm at it, the "backstage report" mentioned in the Salon.com paragraph above is here, somewhere, and one of the photos in a slideshow on the same website contains the baffling caption "Jennifer Garner not only caught herself from tripping on her dress but geniously quipped, 'I do my own stunts.'"

"Geniously"? What the hell is that supposed to be? "Ingeniously"? "Ingenuously"?

No, I think they mean to say, "She thought up a clever comeback all by her own little self! Without a Hollywood screenwriter or anything!"

Monday, March 06, 2006

Well, Well, Well

Everyone gets things wrong from time to time in the language biz; I erred recently when I made an unnecessarily broad generalization about German, and a local language maven blew it when a reader complained about a usage that bothered him. It's worth quoting in full, from Norbert Cunningham's column in the Monday, March 6th edition of the Moncton Times & Transcript:

I recently heard from a reader asking what I think about a usage he has heard several times in the electronic media, a usage makes him cringe but seems to be increasing. It is irritating because it seems so wrong--and surely is wrong. The usage? Speakers referring to "a well-paying job."

Gosh, that one has eluded my ears so far, but it is worthy of the Hall of Shame. The reader wanted to know what I think. The first line of my e-mail reply (and I will assume he got the serious point as well as the joke) was this: "I think you have a well ear for language!"

The wording obviously should be "a good paying job" and the use of "well" is not only jarring but also shows great ignorance and tone deafness for English. It doesn't even sound right. If one has a good paying job, you can say that the person is "well paid"; but "well-paying job" is...well...well beyond the pale. Look it up! You'll learn more that way than if I try to prattle on about submodifiers in combination, intensifiers and the like. And when you do look it up, make sure you learn the lesson good...er...well...eh!

I did look it up, and it's no surprise that there isn't any consensus on the topic. I found several sources that agree with Cunningham, but others that disagreed, as this one does (down towards the bottom of the page).

I don't think we need to be thinking about submodifiers or intensifiers: that's going to lead us down the wrong path, because "good" as in "good-paying job" is not an intensifier--"good" as an intensifier is used in such contexts as "a good deal of work to do" or "a good many people agree". What we need to ask ourselves is, "Is 'well' an adjective or an adverb? And what about 'good'?"

In standard English, "good" is an adjective, of course: we can never say "He bobsledded good in the Olympics", because "bobsledded" is a verb and requires an adverb. "Well" is another thing altogether; although it's obviously the adverbial form of "good", it's also served as an adjective for hundreds and hundreds of years, as in "I imagined it might be well to publish the articles", a direct quotation from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography.

Now, although "pay" is a verb, "paying" is an adjective in this context, modifying "job", in the same way that "speeding" is an adjective in the expression "speeding car". Adjectives take adverbs as modifiers, and since "good" only rarely functions as an adverb (and then only in certain contexts, and then almost only ever in spoken English, not written), we ought to use "well". Even if some think it sounds odd--and, really, it does, a little--to say "a well-paying job", it's grammatically unimpeachable.

However. We do, in fact, replace adverbs with adjectives in such phrases: just look at the expression "free-floating anxiety", which is idiomatic and never rendered as "freely floating anxiety". Or, for that matter, look at "high-paying job"; "high" is the adjective, "highly" the adverb, and you scarcely ever hear or read "highly paying job". We can, and fairly often do, turn adverb-adjective pairs into adjective-adjective pairs that form a single compound adjective: "quick-moving", for example, sounds as right to the ear as "quickly moving". But we can't always do this: a native speaker would be extremely unlikely to say something like "a rapid-swimming shark", which sounds wrong, preferring "a rapidly swimming shark". (I think it would take years of listening to English to get a feel for which form is appropriate and when.)

For what it's worth, "good" and "well" have been contentious in English for pretty nearly as long as there have been grammarians. Some have insisted that you can say "I feel good" but not "I feel well", because that latter necessarily means that your sense of touch is acute; others have rightly said that this is nonsense, that the use of "well" in such a case is idiomatic and correctly understood by everyone. As well, "good" functions as an adverb in such other idiomatic phrases as "but good"--"I fixed him but good!" It's probably grammatically indefensible, but then, so many idioms are.

What this all comes down to is that "well-paying job" is not wrong. If you Google the two phrases, you'll find plenty of examples of both; they're not quite neck-and-neck, with "well-paying" about 15% ahead. If I were editing someone's writing, I'd leave whichever form they chose; they're both acceptable, in my book. Neither one, to say the least, belongs in any Hall of Shame.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Fix This Book

I'm reading Morgan Spurlock's book "Don't Eat This Book", and while it's (mildly) amusing and (quite) informative, I was stopped cold on page 4 by this:

In 1998, without ever explicitly admitting to any wrongdoing, the big tobacco companies agreed to a massive $246 billion settlement, to be paid to forty-fix states and five territories over twenty-five years.

Yes, it does in fact say "forty-fix" in the book. Wouldn't you have thought that after a hardcover edition, such an error would have been noticed, by someone, anyone, and corrected? (At least three people had to have read the galleys in the first place.) I sure would have thought that, and I guess I would have been wrong.

But such things do happen. They shouldn't, but they do. And I really can't argue with the editing of the book as a whole, at least not up through Chapter 8; I would have taken a ruthless pen to some of Spurlock's more annoying rhetorical tics, but Spurlock, the editor, and the copy-editor have seen to it that "data" is used as a plural (I don't care if it's being displaced--I like it), that everything agrees in number--you know, the basic elements of grammar that seem to be falling by the wayside.


Someone else who takes such things very seriously, bless him, is Languagehat, who writes about a dim little error on a sports page:

In a story in today's NY Times sports section, "No Good-Conduct Medal for Ugly Americans" by Selena Roberts...a description of the Olympic ideal...is followed by the sentence "But how can anyone demand Diva Interruptis?"

....[I]nterruptus is a masculine form and diva is feminine; the phrase, if you insisted on using what seems to me a construction too silly even for the sports page, would be diva interrupta. But this is not about the illiteracy of sports reporters (though there is much to be said on that topic); it would be unfair and certainly unrealistic to expect the average American, even the average American reporter, to know Latin adjectival declension or the proper spelling of Latin borrowings. That's what editors are for, which is what this is about.

Anyone who knows even a little scrap of Latin--someone like me, say--can instantly see that "interrupta" would have to be the correct form. And it's certainly the case that it's "too silly even for the sports page", not to mention pretentious. But I've edited more than a few sports stories in my time, and you can take it from me that newspapers tend to think of their sports readers as borderline literate, not the sort of people who would concern themselves with whether a Latin adjective had the correct gender termination.

Obviously--to me--the writer was thinking of "coitus interruptus". Too bad he spelled even "interruptus" wrong.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Around and Around

Yes, you do get dinner in Hell, and this is how they cook it.

You may have seen an ad for a disgusting product called variously the Pasta Express or the Pasta Pronto (shown here among many other products that no normal person could ever need or want). If you haven't, lucky you! It's a tall plastic tube into which you insert a handful of doomed spaghetti; you then put a lid on it, leave it for (I assume) as long as spaghetti takes to cook, and then drain it. Voila! Horrible, improperly cooked pasta without the dreadful bother of putting a pot on the stove!

I wouldn't even care about such a thing except that I have in my hands an ad for it, one of those inserts that store credit-card companies and such thrust into the bill's envelope by the dozens. In small print by a photo of the product--a tall, narrow tube--are the words "Dimensions: 12.5" high x 12.5" diameter".

The hell it is! Even a schoolchild knows the difference between diameter and circumference, but then the ad is aimed at people who don't know the difference between properly cooked pasta and filth.

If Latin were still taught, nobody involved in the ad could have made such a mistake: "circum-" means "around", and "dia-" means "across". You don't even have to know what the words actually mean to know just by looking that "diameter" is wrong in the context.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

More Mistakes

Do we get MTV here in Canada? I think so, on some digital-TV networks, but if we do, it's not universal (and besides, we have our own version, MuchMusic). I've never seen MTV, but I still read a piece in Slate today by Troy Patterson about "The Real World" because, well, I read a lot of things. Here's the end of the article:

They leave us with only the usual, apocalypse-of-the-week kind of questions: Is there no decency? Will the younger generation demolish the grammatical distinction between "less" and "fewer"? Why haven't we taught our children how to hold their liquor?

Too late, Mr. Patterson. The distinction between "less" and "fewer" is already on the ropes. Here's a sentence from a brand-new article (so new it's dated March 13th, 2006) about perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena on Forbes.com:

And while First was a complex formula, with more than 160 ingredients, his latest creation--a men’s fragrance, Terre d’Hermès--has less than 30.

If a magazine like Forbes, which you'd think could afford copy-editors and such, can't even get the distinction between "less" and "fewer" correct, why would anyone think a bunch of booze-addled twenty-year-olds can?

The real problem is that "more" is the antonym of both words, and I'm sure that confuses some people. But still. Less: quantities of things such as perfume. Fewer: individual numbers of things such as perfume ingredients. As I seem to have to keep saying, it's not that hard.


I'm not usually one to jump on a bandwagon, and if blogs are banned by filtering software for coarse language then I'm already being screened out for having used the word "fuck" once or twice. But Boingboing--read it every day, folks--is encouraging a campaign to thwart a company called Secure Computing, whose SmartFilter which is so primitive that its software blocks all sites with nudity, even statue nudity; if everyone puts Michaelangelo's statue of David on his or her website, the logic goes, SmartFilter will have nothing left to show users and Secure Computing will have to change their brain-dead policy. I have my doubts--there are a lot of websites out there--but here goes, anyway.

I've seen the statue--I mean, in real life--and it really is a marvel. It's at the end of a long hallway (I or at least it used to be--maybe they've moved it or something) and you turn the corner and there it is, large as life--larger, in fact, because it's considerably taller that I had thought. Here's the hallway with a rear view of the statue, in case the penis isn't hostile enough for SmartFilter.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

True Lies

Satiric fake newspaper The Onion doesn't seem to be as funny as it used to be, though maybe I'm just becoming jaded: but it's still usually good for a laugh or two every week. My favourite thing this week:

Copy Editor's Revenge Takes Form Of Unhyphenated Word
BOSTON—Bruce Huntoon, a copy editor at Pilot magazine, intentionally did not correct the copy of columnist Justin Mann Monday. "I am tired of that insufferable asshole's mean-spirited jokes," Huntoon said. "So, when he described the carburetor warmer as a 'twentieth century' invention, I decided to leave the copy untouched and let him deal with the consequences of his actions. The fucker." Huntoon said the unhyphenated compound modifier is the most extreme step he has ever taken, adding that he drafted a resignation notice that he will hand in should his superiors notice the omission.

For what it's worth, yes, copy editors really do take such things this seriously (see?), and yes, they're pretty much all just as deluded about other people's opinions of the importance of correct spelling and punctuation. Unfortunately.