or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Why Not A Zillion?

Innumeracy is to numbers and math what illiteracy is to words and reading, and hardly anything seems more likely to spark a flare-up of innumeracy than the big numbers one million, one billion, and one trillion.

Here's the headline and the first two paragraphs from an AP wire story in the local birdcage liner, the Moncton Times & Transcript:

Oxford database hits one million words

LONDON(AP)--A massive language research database responsible for bringing words such as "podcast" and "celebutante" to the pages of the Oxford dictionaries has officially hit one billion words, say researchers at Oxford University Press.

Oxford University Press lexicographer Catherine Soanes said the database was not a collection of a billion different words, but of sentences and other examples of the usage and spelling.

Got that? The OED database is the contents of the dictionary; all the words defined, plus their definitions and etymologies, discussions of the words, and sentences showing their use through time. (This brief editorial piece has a little more information on the story, including the statement that "[T]he Oxford etymologists...note, 'The humble word "the", the commonest in the written language, accounts for 50 million of all the words in the corpus.'") The database doesn't define a million words, as the headline plainly implies, because there aren't even a million words in English, but contains, in toto, a billion words. Billion with a "b".

I know how this happened, because I've worked in the newspaper biz: someone had to write a headline at two in the morning. That's a sad sort of excuse, though. The word "million" doesn't even appear anywhere in the story, which means that whoever had to write the headline either 1) didn't even read the story or 2) doesn't know the difference between a million and a billion. Or, of course, both of the above.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Fear and Loathing

So what's in the news? High gas prices, war in Iraq, and some guy named Calvin Broadus got himself banned from British Airways for life for being a violent asshole.

Here's a sentence from the news story:

The six men were arrested on charges of "violent disorder and affray" - or creating a brawl or disturbance - and spent the night at London police stations.

Now: doesn't "affray" look like a couple of other words you know?

My first thought was that "affray" and "fray" were obviously related, and possibly even that "affray" had become "a fray" through something called junctural metanalysis. Don't know about the second half of this, but the first half is undoubtedly true: both words stem from Old French "esfraier", "to disturb", which became in French "effrei" (it lost its ess, something which has happened a lot in French words, as I wrote about a year ago) and the Middle English "affrai".

My second thought was that "affray" looks and sounds an awful lot like "afraid", since if we were to turn "affray" into a verb, sooner or later we'd get "affrayed". And what do you know? "Afraid" is also from the same root; Middle English had the verb "affraien" (which has a Germanic verb ending but is otherwise the same as French "effrei") which led to the past participle "affraied", which led to the Modern English adjective "afraid". And while we're at it, "effrayer", which is obviously from "esfraier"/"effrei", is the modern French word for "to frighten".

Friday, April 28, 2006

Splitting the Difference

I think they meant one of these. Or two of these. Hard to tell.

There's a twisted, irresistibly delightful site that you definitely ought to visit called Pimp My Snack, in which a batch of Brits make enormous versions of ordinarily tiny snack food such as Cadbury's creme eggs and Kellogg's Nutri-Grain cereal bars.

On the second page of their three-page attempt to gigantify a Peak Frean's Bourbon cookie appears the following paragraph:

Step 3 &4 - the lettering was then printed with the centre marked on it. Then it was placed on the slab and a pair of compasses used to accurately mark the positions of the letters:

"Pair of compasses"? Why, you may be asking yourself, as I briefly did, would they need two of them, when one compass ought to do the trick nicely (and a divider would probably work even better)? And then I remembered that Britons say "pair of compasses" where we North Americans just say "compass". We've lost the plural-ness of that compass, even though we've retained it for such things as tweezers, [eye]glasses, and pliers. (We also don't say "a pair of dividers", but, once again, the Britons do.)

Conversely, Americans sometimes call a pair of scissors "a scissors", which I've never ever heard in Canada and don't ever expect to. As a further example of random perversity, the fashion industry has a jarring insistence on dropping the "pair of" from certain articles of clothing; it's strange to hear Stacy London describe something as "a pant".

All we can glean from this information is that 1) objects which are bifurcated--which have two "legs"--are, or were, referred to as a pair of something, 2) sometimes we just drop the twoness, and 3) there's no rhyme nor reason to any of it, which is just to say it's a microcosm of the language as a whole.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Well, Good For You

Even if you read a lot and think you have a pretty broad knowledge base, you become aware from time to time that there are still millions of things out there about which you have no idea.

BoingBoing, as usual, had a link to something fascinating yesterday: a piece about knife-sharpening. I would never have guessed how detailed it would be or how much you have to know to put a proper edge on a knife, but now I know (and if you read it, you will, too).

The piece contains this sentence, which gave me pause:

If you want your knife too look as good as it performs, progress through the coarse, medium and fine stones at each angle setting while you’re raising your burr.

We have a little problem with parallel structure here. The writer is using one adverb to modify two different verbs, which ought to be fine, except that "good" is generally an adjective, not an adverb: "well" is its adverbial form. We don't say something performs good, because "perform" requires an adverb; we can only say it performs well. (The use of "good" to modify these verbs is heard, but it's a colloquialism that sounds uneducated to many ears: "You sure type good!")

So why can we say "looks good" in English but not "performs good"? We just can, that's all. Due to longstanding usage (really longstanding--this usage is centuries old), "good" may be used to modify some verbs of appearance and sensation just as if it were an adverb: "look good", "feel good", "seem good", "smell good". (Never, though, "hear good", among others.) All other verbs have to use "well": "handles well", "performs well", "dances well". There's no point in looking for any sense in this: it's just what is.

It's also worth noting that we're also allowed to use "well" for those same verbs of sensation, but it gives them an entirely different meaning: generally "healthy" or "healthily", but also "better than average" in describing the senses. If someone looks good, they're attractive, but if they look well, they're in the pink of health. Likewise, someone who smells good has an appealing odour, while someone who smells well has a particularly finely-tuned nose.

So: that sentence? It needs to be rewritten: "...a good-looking knife that performs well..." would do the trick nicely.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Two Much

The word that popped into my head today was "diplomat". I couldn't guess where it might come from: it plainly couldn't be related to "dip" or "dipsomania", and it clearly meant "someone with a diploma", but...why?

We've got a lovely tangle of words here, and I'm in a talkative mood, so get comfortable.

A diplomat is indeed someone with a diploma, but not the sort you're thinking of. (Anyone with an education-conferred diploma is instead a diplomate, with the long terminal vowel that the "-e" donates to it; "diplomat" has, of course, a short terminal vowel.) "Diploma" didn't originally mean "proof someone has earned a degree"; it meant first an official document of any sort, and then in Latin a letter of introduction--which, it could be argued, a university diploma sort of is.

Once upon a time, there weren't any envelopes: a letter or other document meant to be kept (casually) from prying eyes was folded and sealed with wax impressed with a signet. If the seal was broken, the letter had been read and the messenger was in trouble. (There are ways of getting around this: you can take a cast of the seal in putty or other malleable material, make a plaster duplicate, open the letter, reseal it with wax, and reproduce the insignia with the plaster.) And so a document, or a letter of introduction, was a folded piece of paper, and therefore a diploma, from the Greek word "diplous", "double", describing the state of the document. Isn't that great?

"Diplous" exists still in English as the prefix "diplo-", where it always denotes doubleness: "diplococcus" (a bacterium in the form of two joined spheres), for instance, or "diplodocus" ("double-raftered", referring to the beam-like shape of its tail), not to mention "diploid". Obviously in the case of "diplomat", "diplomacy" and the like, that doubleness is at a distant metaphorical remove: but it's still there. And, of course, "di-" also often indicated a doubling as well, since it's also from the Greek; many English scientific words beginning in "di-" mean or imply twoness, such as "dichroic", "dihedral", and "dipolar". (English also contains a lot of words that look as if they might begin with "di-" but don't, such as "diurnal", which stems from "dies", "day", or "diameter", which actually starts with "dia-", which means "across", as in "diameter", or "divide", which starts with "dis-", "apart". These words all come from Latin. At the risk of making a too-broad generalization: "di" + Greek = two: "di-" + Latin = something else.)

"Dip" appears to be unrelated to Greek "dipsomania", "uncontrollable thirst (for alcoholic beverages)", which surprises me a little; I had guessed they might be related, since you can take a dip of water from a container, and "dipso-" means "thirst" in Greek--it seems like a natural enough derivation. But no. "Dip" evidently stems instead from a batch of Germanic words related to water: "deep" and "depth", and also "dive", which all stem from a common Indo-European root ("dheub-", meaning "hollow", in case you were wondering).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

To Eaches Own

I can't believe I never noticed this before at the store at which I work: a word, completely invented, ridiculous on the surface, and yet, on reflection, surprisingly useful within its own little universe.

I was unpacking some boxes of various sorts of merchandise when I noticed, written on a package of packages of something-or-other, the legend


and I thought, "Eaches? What the hell?" I figured it had to be a mistake, or something that company had simply made up. And then I saw it on another package of something else from another company (6 EACHES), and then another.

Well, what can it mean? One box held 12 variety packs of embroidery floss (25 skeins to the pack); a plastic bag held six cellophane packets of about a dozen feathers each. And after a few minutes, because I can be awfully slow sometimes, it dawned on me that "eaches" likely signifies "this package is not meant for direct sale to the customer, but it contains packages of things which are meant for sale to the customer--and don't break those packages down any further"--or, in short, "12 single items (each containing multiple items)".

I kind of like it. It's a pretty good neologism: it's decipherable and it tells you what you need to know with admirable economy.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Making the Grade

I was reading some article (I can't remember which one) on Slate.com the other day and at the bottom of the page was a link to this article aboutsome guy who spent two weeks without a car, bicycling everywhere instead. Big deal, says I; I've never owned a car in my life. Maybe it's different in America.

Anyway, here's a paragraph from the piece:

As I approached the Kmart cash registers in this early visit, metal cleats clicking on the linoleum tile, the cashier girls stopped comparing their incarcerated boyfriends and stared. Then they looked away. One studied her nails, while the other concentrated on scanning the plunger and counting change. This, I'd come to recognize, was The Silence, the awkward, get-this-over-with tension that often accompanied transactions where one party is clad head-to-toe in stretch synthetics that might not smell so great. I paid, grabbed the plunger, and click-clacked out the automatic sliding doors, to everyone's relief. And as I pedaled away, I realized that bike clothes aren't merely ugly, to normal people: They're transgressive.

"Transgressive", I thought. "Hmmm." "Trans-" means "across", but where on earth does "-gressive" come from? "Progress", "ingress", "congress": what could they all have in common?

All "-gress" words (with the obvious exceptions of the feminine-ending "ogress" and "tigress"), it turns out, come from Latin "gradi", "to go", which led to "gradus", "walking". To transgress means to walk across the line separating decent behaviour from indecent; to make progress means to go forward; and so on and so on.

"Gradi" also looks like "grade", and sure enough, it's also the source of "-grade" words such as "retrograde" ("going backwards"), as well as "gradient", and "grade" in all its senses: a class, a slope, a rank, a level.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Oh, My Stars

I haven't snarled about The Consumerist recently. High time, don't you think?

This article is about a new blog, Mouseprint.org, which is something I so wish I'd thought of myself: the brazen discrepancy between what a commercial offer promises and what the fine print--the mouse print--actually says. It's wonderful.

The Consumerist thinks so, too. Unfortunately, their little review of the website contains the following sentence:

Also note their section on laws governing the use of asterixes in advertising.

Yes, it really does say "asterixes", despite the fact that on the page they're directing you to, the word is spelled correctly: the page is entitled "Use of Asterisks".

First things first, I suppose. "Asterisk" is related to "aster", "asteroid", and "astronomy": they all descend from the Greek "aster", "star", and in fact "asterisk" is directly from Greek "asteriskos", "little star". Couldn't be much clearer.

Now, some words have over the centuries become mutated due to a process called "metathesis", which is the transposition of elements--letters or sounds, usually. "Wasp", for instance", was once "waeps", and the plural still is "wopses" in some British dialects. However, to the careful speaker, many metatheses sound vulgar or subliterate: "nucular" for "nuclear", for instance, is a particularly risible example. "Aks" or "ax" for "ask" also sounds uneducated, despite the fact that "ask" actually began its life as "acsian" in Old English, soon mutating into "ascian"; the two co-existed for hundreds of years, and "ax" is still heard in parts of English and the United States; but to Canadian ears, at least, and I wager to speakers of Standard English almost everywhere, it sounds coarse.

There's no escaping the fact that, metatheses and "acsian" notwithstanding, "asterisks" is correct English and "asterixes" is not. The prescriptivists have spoken.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spare No Expense

While walking home yesterday afternoon with the groceries in the pounding rain, I saw a sign in a church parking lot--why had I never noticed it before? Was it installed just this week?--warning interlopers that "Unauthorized Vehicles WIll Be Towed At Owners Expence".

Okay, there's no apostrophe after "Owners". Typical. What grabbed me was the word "expence", which looks for all the world as if it ought to be correct, or at least plausible, but isn't.

It used to be, back before spelling was cemented in place by custom and dictionary-writers. (The OED doesn't list it separately, though it does show it as an older variant under "expense".) Before dictionaries, pretty much any way you could think of to spell a word was a way that word could and would be spelled, and as long as people could understand you, possibly by sounding it out, you were doing fine. But these days, like it or not, we've got a little thing called orthography, and "expence" doesn't make the cut.

It looks plausible because "pence" is an old, old plural for "penny"*, and "expense" has to do with money, so why shouldn't "expence" logically exist? Because, in fact, "expense"--the noun form of "expend"--has nothing to do with money, at least not that literally. It's from Latin "ex-", "out", and "pendere", "to weigh"; "expendere" came to mean "to pay out", from the sense of putting something of known value, such as gold, on a scale. From "to pay out" come all the current meanings of "expend" (even "expend calories" or "expend effort"), "expense", and "expenditure" (and "spend", which I suppose is pretty obvious, but I've never shied away from stating the obvious).

"-Pendere" is also the source of "dispense", "compensate", and "recompense", not to mention "pound" (the weight, not the enclosure or the beating) and "ponder", to weigh an idea. If we move off in another direction--the sense of "hanging in the balance" from which "to weigh" comes--we also get another batch of words: "pendant" and "suspend", among others.

I love the way clusters of words erupt from a single source, encouraged by a battalion of affixes and a few tiny changes in spelling and pronunciation: it's one of the wonders of the language.

* After reading about "-pendere"/"pound" you might be tempted to postulate a connection: pendere/penny, pendere/pound. It isn't there. "Penny" comes from a fount of Germanic and Nordic words which mean the same thing as "penny": modern German "Pfennig" is an obvious ancestor, and in fact "penny" was once "penning", a linguistic structure that also held for the obsolete "farthing" and "shilling" (modern Austrian German "Schilling").

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Out of Sorts

Every now and then you see a word you've never seen before, and you think, "Oh, come on! They're just making them up now!" And so it was when I checked the Canada Post website yesterday to locate a package I'm expecting in the next day or two, and read that the status was "Item accepted and entered into sortation plant".


It just seemed unnecessary and made-up: wouldn't "sorting" have done just as well? I think it probably would have, but I can't blame Canada Post for the neologism, because it isn't one: the OED says it's been around since 1844, and it actually does have a meaning that isn't quite the same as (or, at least, a little more specific than) "sorting". "Sortation", according to Answers.com, has become specialized to mean "sorting, especially when mechanized or automated". It's not a word I can imagine using, and I don't think it's essential to the language, but, well, there it is.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Buzz

Today, I was talking with a co-worker in the frame shop about language and phonology and interdental fricatives (which as it happens I wrote about almost a year ago to the day) and such--isn't that what everyone talks about at work?--and she said, "Okay, Mister Etymology, tell me this: why is it called a beeline? I mean, have you ever seen how a bee flies?", mimicking with her hands the dizzy, bumbling flight that gives the bee its popular name.

"Not a clue," I said, and promised I'd look it up.

The beeline question unresolved, we continued talking about similar matters, and also the number of vertebrae in a giraffe's neck--seven, same as in a human neck--and the like. "God, we're such geeks", she said, laughing, and we sure are.

As for bees, I did look it up, and it turns out that they may wander all over the place when they're hunting for pollen, but apparently when they want to get home, they take the shortest, fastest possible route to the hive; the beeline. So simple.

Monday, April 17, 2006


An eponym is a noun or noun phrase to which some person, real or fictional, has generously donated his or her name: the unit of measurement known as the angstrom, for example, or the gardenia. There are rules which govern the formation of such words: in the spirit of the English language's make-it-up-as-you-go-along nature, they aren't necessarily hard-and-fast rules--someone could probably find an exception to each of them--but they're pretty good guidelines.

1) A last name which becomes possessive as part of a phrase is left capitalized: "Hansen's disease", "Pascal's wager", "Hobson's choice".

2) A last name which stands on its own, or which becomes part of a compound noun, loses the capitalization: , "volt", "ampere", "mason jar", "bloomers", "quisling". ("Triple Axel" is rendered either way: the smart money is on its losing the capital "A" over time.)

3) Any name which receives a suffix to become a botanical or scientific term loses its capitalization: "fuchsia", "einsteinium".

4) A first name within a compound noun retains its capitalization: "lazy Susan", "lucky Pierre".

5) A common noun created from the full name of a person retains all its capitalization: "Mae West", "John Hancock".

It's this fifth rule, if it is a rule, that was called to mind when I read the generally impeccable Twisty Faster's I Blame The Patriarchy this morning:

Look, I get that this is all supposed to be ironic riffing on vintage iconographic kitsch (for example, there’s a trailer trash team called the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers led by one Loosetooth Lulu; their uniform is daisy dukes). I get that a “bout” is really a Bakelite armature from which loosely dangles the vaguely scripted melodrama of a fantasy Bad Girl rumble. I get that it’s comical when fake bad girls sock each other.

She's a terrific writer, but I am forced to take exception to "daisy dukes". I had to read the damned sentence three times before I understood that she had meant to say "Daisy Dukes". The trouble is that "daisy" and "dukes" are both common, and therefore lower-case, nouns, and I assumed that they were being used in this sense, somehow, even though I couldn't extract any meaning from them. Then I realized that the whole thing, capitalized, was a (singular) noun that meant "extremely short cut-off denim shorts".

And this is why we have rules.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Throwing Up My Hands

I bet Heather Havrilesky is a total doll. She seems like she'd be a whole lot of fun to sit down in front of the television with: you could eat ruffled chips with crab dip and drink way too much cola and snark about the programming, which is what makes her perfect to be Salon's television critic.

But then I run across something like this and I just shake my head in sorrow:

The trouble with "The Apprentice" is that even if you had a bunch of smart, cool people on the show, they'd still be limited to inventing ways to promote Sam's Club or dreaming up jingles for Arby's new chicken sandwich. Jesus, how about last week's product, the P'EatZZa, a name so asinine even that whoring slutmonkey Donald Trump couldn't say it without choking on his own tongue? Basically, since only three of you know what I'm talking about, it was a sandwich that consisted of -- brace yourself -- two slices of cold pizza with lunchmeat in between. Just watching the yuppie ass-kissers on the show trying to choke back these awful congealed-looking things and then proclaiming them delicious was enough to make you wretch.

No, Heather! No! Bad Heather! And bad nonexistent Salon editors, too! You're watching too much television and not reading enough!

"Wretch" is a native English word which means "someone in a state of misery or degradation"; it's intimately related to "wreck", which makes perfect sense when you learn that an earlier definition--it's originally from Old English--of "wretch" was "exile". "Retch", on the other hand, has nothing to do with exiles or flotsam or degradation: it simply means "to vomit", or "to almost vomit", or "to attempt to vomit". It's entirely unrelated to "wretch", though it, too, comes to us from Old English (from "hraecan", "to clear the throat", "hock up phlegm"); in this case, though, it might well be onomatopoetic, but it's also related to "reach".

Why isn't there someone at Salon to tell Heather Havrilesky this?

Friday, April 14, 2006


If you poke around you can find lists and entire books of words in other languages that express concepts which have no real counterpart in English: one of the more famous, because of a really terrific movie, is Koyaanisqatsi.

When there isn't a word for something we want to express, we either make it up or snatch it from someone else, which I think is a lovely way to run a language, though it does make consistent spelling an impossibility. But there's a real deficit in our language that we can't seem to address in any reasonable or systematic way (probably because we don't have a governing body, thank goodness), and that's in the area of social and sexual relations.

We still don't have a universally accepted word for "spouse to whom I am not, in fact, married"--or even "spouse of the same sex to whom I am, in fact, married". "Husband" and "wife" don't work, for a number of reasons: "partner" still has business overtones, while "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are just insulting.

We also don't have a nonspecific, genderless pronoun for a person, and in a language with no grammatical gender, that seems like a real gap."He or she" is clumsy, and I would gladly argue, contrary to the spirit of English. "They" is making serious inroads, and I applaud it, but not without some mild queasiness (it's plural!).

And then we have unfortunate usages such as this one, from Salon's gossip column The Fix:

The trend of celebrities adopting babies from third-world countries -- if it's actually a trend -- continues now with Ewan McGregor: He and his wife, Eve Mavrakis, have apparently adopted a baby girl from Mongolia. A spokesperson told People: "I can confirm Ewan McGregor and his wife Eve Mavrakis have adopted the girl but cannot comment further." McGregor, 35, and Mavrakis, 39, have been married since 1995 and have two biological daughters.

They have two biological daughters...and one made of minerals?

There's no question as to what's meant, but it's still a fairly horrible term. The inescapable suggestion is that the "biological" daughters are the proper family members, and that any adoptees are not quite real. It's even worse than "birth mother", which has a similar ickiness about it. I think there's a certain neck-craning voyeurism going on: the piece, after all, is from a gossip column reporting information from a gossip magazine, and people want all the details.

I think that, eventually, the language will evolve to the point at which modifiers are no longer necessary or even tasteful: "...and this is Mike's son," we can say, and if they don't look at all alike and adoption or surrogacy is involved, well, what's it to you?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pamplemousse and Circumstance

A week ago I wrote about a word which was essentially the same in German and French, and not forty-eight hours later, I found another. (And then I immediately wrote this and promptly forgot about it and wrote something else for Sunday, even though this was right there on my desktop labelled "Sunday".) I bet there are thousands of such words! If there are, I'll have to stop getting so excited about them.

We were at the supermarket Saturday afternoon after my French class and in the produce section I started thinking about the word "grapefruit". I couldn't imagine where the word might have come from--more on that in a moment--but then I also started wondering where the French word could have come from. It's "le pamplemousse", and the second half looks like "mousse", or "foam", but how could that be part of a compound word for a big bitter-sweet yellow fruit? Not a clue.

Answers.com inadvertantly led me in the right direction. First, their page for grapefruit also listed another name for the fruit, "pomelo", which looks very like the French word, doesn't it? No, it doesn't, but it does sound very much like it. So heading over to pomelo told me that the word is an "alteration of 'pompelmous'", and there in the flesh is the French word, mashed around a little. Pompelmous, we are told, is from the Tamil "pampalimasu", influenced through the Dutch by "pompoen", "gourd", and Portuguese "limoes", "lemon". (Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, was a Dutch colony once upon a time, so it's no surprise that some Tamil words would have snuck into that language, and the seafaring Dutch also had a long history with the equally colonial Portuguese.)

So there's the French "pamplemousse" right there, via Dutch "pompelmous"; nothing to do with foam. And the German word? "Die Pampelmuse". (The French and German version of "grapefruit" have different genders: the French is masculine and the German is feminine. It isn't because, say, all fruit in German are feminine--their word for "apple" is masculine. The French word for apple, though, is feminine. There isn't any sense to this: there doesn't need to be, either, but it does make me glad that English dispensed with grammatical gender a long time ago.)

As for "grapefruit" in English, it's unquestionably a fruit, but it could hardly be less grape-like, in colour, size (of commonly-known fruits, only the watermelon is bigger), or taste. Answers.com suspects the name may have arisen because the grapefruit, like the grape, grows in clusters. It's as good an answer as any.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Full Slate

Slate.com certainly is being good to me these days!

A recent piece discusses why why "nuts" means "crazy":

Being nuts on something meant you really liked it, but so did being "crazy on something." It's possible that "nuts" became a synonym for "crazy" because of this similarity.

Just go ahead and read it: I don't have anything to add.


A delightful word showed up in another recent Slate piece:

From the antics Grogan describes, Marley sounds no worse than any other dog that I've ever met. He tears up cushions, sofas, and door jambs. He plotzes during thunderstorms.

I do love the word "plotz". It arrives, naturally, from Yiddish; with only a couple of oddball exceptions ("chintz", "ditz"), all words in English that end in "-tz" are from Yiddish ("blintz", "putz") or German "("quartz", "blitz"). "Plotz" is one of those words that, within its own little orbit, means almost anything you want it to mean. In the context of the quote above, it means "to go mad from fear", because "plotz" generally means "to explode": from overeating or out of anger, delight ("It's so good, you could plotz!"), fear, astonishment, or, really, any strong emotion. It also, however, means "to collapse" (originally "to faint", again from any strong emotion), so you can just plotz down on the sofa if you're feeling lazy, or plotz from exhaustion. Context is everything.


I think this word was in a Slate article, but I forgot to leave the tab open so I can't find it: but even if it wasn't, let's give them credit for "panoply".

Its usual meaning is "a glorious array", or, more casually, "a broad selection": "a panoply of consumer goods". Looking at it, you can tell it's from the Greek "pan-", "all", plus...what? It resembles "panopticon", but clearly isn't, so what is it?

It turns out the second half is from "hoplon", "armour", and if "hoplon" reminds you of "hoplite" then you may consider yourself well-read, or at least a player of Sid Meier's Civilization computer games. A hoplite is a heavily-armoured soldier of ancient Greece, and his name comes from the armour he wears. A panoply, then, was originally a warrior's full set of armour and weaponry, and isn't that a fascinating source for the modern sense of the word?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Without Number

About a month ago I wrote about the number of words the average person knows, and here's a link to a story in Slate about the number of words in the language. In a nutshell, an organization claims that we're nearing the million-word mark, with an oddly specific 988,968 words currently in existence. The article's author, Jesse Sheidlower, asks the sensible and obvious question: Well, what exactly is a word?

Does the infamous "set" count once, or four times (once each for intransitive verb, transitive verb, noun, and adjective), or fifty times (once for each definition on Answers.com), and who gets to decide, and either way, shouldn't "set" meaning "social group"--a definition Answers.com neglects, by the way--be counted as a different word from "set" meaning "to knit together, as a broken bone", since the definitions are so vastly different?

Is "scruncheons" a word? It isn't in the OED, but it assuredly is an English word: it means tiny cubes of salt pork fatback, fried until crisp, and they are so delicious. The word is also here, with a collection of different spellings, in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Is that one of the words already presumed to be in the English language, or have we just boosted the count to 988,969?

The Global Language Monitor folks do some interesting stuff, and I do enjoy reading their website. But anybody who thinks they can quantify the English language right down to the word is delusional.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


The quick recap: I wrote something tangentially about grenadine, a reader wrote to correct me at which time I had to correct her, and now she's written again with an addendum:

I don't get a chance to check your blog regularly. I notice you've already written three other postings since dedicating this one to correct me. Hope you'll still scroll down to read my comments.

You're right about grenadine juice being made from pomegranates. The fruit I mentioned as grenadine is actually called grenadille, passion fruit in English. My confusion comes from the fact that grenadille is sometimes called grenadine in some islands. That is why I assumed grenadine would be the juice from the grenadine fruit. You can find more details on the fruit if you do a search on grenadille. Hope that helps to clarify things.

It does indeed! A simple misunderstanding, that. "Grenadille" is indeed the French word for "passionfruit" (or "passion fruit"); I had never heard it before, though if I had it might have made all this much tidier. It's easy to see how "grenadille" could be turned into "grenadine"; they sound practically identical.

I read all my readers' comments; I have them e-mailed to me so I won't miss one. (There aren't that many: I'm not, say, Boingboing. But I get a few, and I always appreciate them.)


"Passion" is an interesting sort of word with an interesting cluster of meanings, most of which are divorced from the original sense of the word. The big meaning, like it or not, is "overwhelming sexual desire", which, I suspect, is why Mel Gibson's movie title was changed from its original "The Passion" to "The Passion of the Christ", to clarify another meaning, "the sufferings of Jesus" (also seen in such musical works as Bach's St. Matthew Passion). We also have the sense of "any strong enthusiasm"--"She has a passion for music"--which is related to the sexual sense.

"Passion" arises from the Latin "pati", "to suffer, to endure", which seems a bit of a hike from "lust" but really isn't, since people were thought to be suffering from any sin, even if they were enjoying it on the surface. "Passion" is also obviously the stem of "compassion", literally "to suffer alongside", but looking at the Latin root will suggest another word: "pati" is the first half of "patient", and sure enough, that's where the word, as both adjective and noun, comes from. (A patient is someone suffering from a malady, in the modern sense of "suffer". This puts me in mind of a usage I thought strange as a child, the word "suffer" used archaically in "Suffer the little children to come unto me": "suffer", in a slow mutation, meant "endure" and then "put up with" and then finally "allow".)

It would be so tempting to think that "pity" and "empathy" were related to "patient"/"compassion", wouldn't it? "Pity" is actually related to "piety", from the Latin "pius", "dutiful"--possibly because, as Robert Claiborne suggests, compassion was a Christian duty. Empathy, on the other hand, is from Greek "en-", "inside", plus "-pathy", "suffering" (also seen in English as "pathos" and the various illnesses known as pathologies), so to be empathic is to suffer inside at someone else's trouble. And where does "-pathy" come from? It's exactly the same as Latin "pati".

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Yesterday I used the word "salient", and then, in one of those lovely coincidences, I noticed it in a Slate story:

But are there incriminating facts to be gleaned from the more salient passages?.

"Salient" is sometimes used as if it means merely "pertinent" or "applicable". But it actually means "conspicuous" or "prominent", and its provenance came as a surprise to me: it's from the Latin "salire", "to jump", because a salient fact is one that jumps out at you.

Other offspring of "salire" in English are "assault" and "assail", both of which mean literally "to jump on"; the French import "sauté", which describes what's going on in the frying pan; "saltation", which is a term used in genetics for a sudden dramatic change cue to mutation; and Italian "saltimbocca", a delicious veal-and-ham dish whose name literally means "jump in the mouth". (Whether this means the food literally jumps into your mouth or it jumps around in your mouth--which is to say it dances on your palate--I don't know enough Italian to tell you.)

Isn't "jump" an oddball sort of word? Nobody seems to know quite where it comes from. It looks a little as if it might be Germanic--one can easily imagine the verb "jumpen"--but it isn't: the German for "to jump" is "springen". My first guess was that it's probably descended from "bump" as an onomatopoeia, although not a very good one; as it happens, this is exactly what the OED thinks (without the editorial comment about the quality of the word).

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Sackful of Trouble

Here's an amusing article from Slate about the mild furor over a theoretically bad word in the New York Times crossword puzzle.

The word in question, defined as "Scoundrel", was "scumbag". (Answers.com defines it only as "A person regarded as despicable".) The word is well-known and inoffensive enough that a one-time character on "The Simpsons" was named Jimmy the Scumbag. The problem is that the original meaning of "scumbag" is "a condom", for reasons that should be obvious on reflection.

The article's author, Jesse Sheidlower, makes a number of good points, one of which is that there doesn't seem to be any good reason that "condom" should be considered a dirty word. However, he misses one I consider salient: there are a number of mildly fanciful words in common currency ending in "-bag" that are more or less synonymous with "scumbag", such as "dirtbag" and "sleazebag". ("Douchebag" doesn't quite count, because a douchebag is an actual object; it fits the pattern, though, and certainly contributes to the suffix's use.) "-Bag" has become a de facto suffix suggesting "bad person" when appended to a bad thing; predictably, "shitbag" also exists in English.

I think it's safe to say--as Sheidlower does--that the metaphorical meaning has so eclipsed the literal meaning that "scumbag" is safe for the public eye.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Open Source

There's always been lots of cross-pollination among the languages of Europe. It could hardly be otherwise, what with all the invading and trading over the centuries.

German and French are far, far apart--they don't belong to the same family, German being (natch) Germanic and French being Romance--but even as a sprat I thought it was fascinating that their words for "window" were practically identical: the Germans use "Fenster" and the French "fenêtre", with the little hat over the "e", called a circumflex, usually denoting a vowel that was once followed by an ess that was later lost. (I wrote about it here.) The word is even feminine in both tongues.*

Well, if we didn't get "window" from the French, and we didn't get it from the Germans, who did we get it from? From the Norse, who lent us a compound word which Answers.com accurately calls "a vivid metaphor. "Window" is from a pair of words which mean "wind" and "eye": a glassless window is a fanciful eye through which air streams.

* No, it isn't. My mistake. Read the comments for more on this.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Red Hot, Part 2

I am sorry to have to disagree with a reader, but I don't have any choice in this instance. This is nothing personal, but I very much like to get things right.

Peggy wrote, in response to yesterday's posting about the word "garnet":

However I have to make a correction on this posting. Pomegranate is called grenade in French. Grenadine juice or syrup is made from a different fruit: grenadine (spelled same way in English and French). Grenadine has a totally different taste than grenade and probably got its name because it's full of seeds inside also, but smaller.

"Pomegranate" is indeed "grenade" in French: the explosive device got its name from the French word because of a perceived similarity in shape. However, grenadine is, in fact, made from pomegranates. I can't even find any reference on the Internet to a fruit called a grenadine. The OED doesn't mention it: its listing under "grenadine" is "a syrup made from pomegranates (or other fruit)", a reference to the fact that grenadine syrup nowadays can be made of other fruit juices and coloured red, or even be made artificially with no fruit at all, but there's no listing for a fruit called a grenadine, which strongly suggests that, even if the word "grenadine" referring to a fruit exists in French, it doesn't in English. (I can't even find any French pages that list the fruit.)

Here's a dictionary definition of "grenadine", which says it's made of pomegranate juice concentrate and sugar. Here's a recipe for grenadine, made with pomegranates and honey. Here's another, made with sugar, but still pomegranates. (For good measure, here's a French page with a recipe for "sirop de grenadine", using, yes, grenades, and here's another that flat-out says "Le sirop de grenadine est tiré des pommes grenades", which is to say, "Grenadine syrup is made from [literally 'pulled from'] pomegranates", using the full name "pommes grenades" that led to the English "pomegranate".) Here's a page all about pomegranates and what to do with them, including the manufacture of grenadine. And here's a page about the Grenadine Islands and their relationship to pomegranates.

None of this is conclusive proof, I suppose, and for all I know there might well be a fruit called a grenadine: but the fact remains that grenadine syrup has been and still is made with pomegranates.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Red Hot

You can see where the name came from.

Yesterday at work I was working with some yarn--Patons Allure, if you must know--and I noticed that one of the colours, all named after gemstones and rare things, was Garnet, which in French is Grenat. It's interesting to find a word in one language that's an anagram of the same word in another language, but what really grabbed me was the shape of the French word: "Aha", I said to myself, "that has got to be from the same root as 'grenadine' and 'pomegranate', and therefore 'garnet' must be related to them also."

And so it is.

"Pomegranate" is from Old French "pome", meaning "apple" (the modern French word is "pomme", and has left traces in English as "pomade" and "pomander"), and "grenate", "multi-seeded", akin to "grain" and "granular"; a pomegranate was considered a sort of apple with many seeds inside. (I have never heard "pomegranate" pronounced any way but "POM-uh-gran-ut" in North America, but it's generally, maybe always, "POM-gran-ut" in England. Answers.com lists this English pronunciation first, which generally means it's the most common or at least the preferred pronunciation: but is it really pronounced that way in this country, or on this continent? Ever? Maybe it is, but as I say, I've never heard it.)

"Grenadine"--the family resemblance is obvious--is a flavouring syrup made of pomegranates. "Grenat" came in French to mean "pomegranate-red", a good description of the colour of a garnet. And an alternate spelling of "grenat" in Old French, "gernat", is what was alchemized into the English word "garnet".

Monday, April 03, 2006


Some specimens from this brand-new New Yorker article about Muzak:

In the forties, Muzak introduced a trademarked concept, called Stimulus Progression, which held that most workers would be more productive if they were exposed to music of gradually increasing intensity, in fifteenminute cycles.


He is fifty-three, tall, and extremely thin, and he wears a nearly unvarying uniform: nice black T-shirt, unfaded jeans, high-top sneakers, coollooking wristwatch, designer glasses.


The voice division also creates in-store promotional announcements, which can be patched seamlessly into the company’s backgroundmusic programs.


It’s the Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation, which contributes money to musiceducation programs around the country and conducts an annual summer camp called Noise!, whose purpose is to introduce musically inclined teen-agers to the less visible parts of the music business.

Someone needs to tell the New Yorker that some Germans have stolen a bunch of their hyphens.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Dizzy Spell

From the Dear Abby column in yesterday's local paper:

Dear Abby: I have a sister-in-law, "Mary". We have known each other for years. Mary lives in California, but she often sends us e-mail, and each time she does she always misspells my name as "Ritha". (My name is Rita!) I have tried pointing this out, but she continues to do it. How can I make it clear my name is spelt Rita without appearing too rude?

Dear Rita: Because you have already spoken to your sister-in-law about it, you might be able to get your message across if you start spelling her name "Marye" or "Marey". Or, you can decide that what's in the message is more important than how your name is "spelt". I recommend the latter.

Dear Abby, or some typesetter somewhere along the way, assuming anyone still employs a typesetter, which they probably don't, thinks that "spelt" is a misspelling, when a few seconds' Internet research would have shown them differently. I don't know which is worse: putting quotations around the word to signal to the world that you think the writer made a spelling mistake in a letter about spelling, thereby theoretically humiliating them, or being wrong about that and being too lazy to do the research. Either way, it's shameful.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Two Wrongs

As quoted by fragrance blog Now Smell This, a rather thoughtless usage reported in Women's Wear Daily:

John Varvatos will launch Vintage, a seasonal variation on his first scent, in late summer. It is...

...described as having a "darker and [more] gentlemanly-like" feel than the first...

"Gentlemanly-like"? Oh, brother. That's one adjectival suffix too many, because "-ly" means "like"--that's where it came from. "Gentlemanly" would have been fine, and even "gentleman-like" would have passed muster. But stacking them? They might as well have said "gentleman-esque-ish".


Look at this sentence from an article in Slate.com:

He did so this week at the trial of the two former NYPD detectives accused of selling secrets to—and committing murders for—Lucchese family underboss, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso.

Oh, mischievous little comma! What are you doing in that sentence?

An appositive is a descriptive noun or noun clause which immediately precedes or follows the subject. When the appositive precedes the subject and is limited by an article ("the" or "a") or some stand-in for an article ("those", "one", "my"), you separate the subject out with pair of commas (replacing the second comma with a period if the subject falls at the end of the sentence), if and only if the appositive refers to a unique subject. "My pet goldfish Sparky has fin rot" means I could have more fish; "My pet goldfish, Sparky, has blue lips" means I have only one (and apparently will soon have none).

"The Luccese family underboss, Anthony 'Gaspipe' Cazzo, had sushi for lunch" is correct if there's only one underboss; the commas make the appositive restrictive. "The Luccese family underboss Anthony 'Gaspipe' Cazzo is out walking his cat" means that there may be more than one underboss; it's non-restrictive.

"Luccese family underboss Anthony 'Gaspipe' Cazzo is taking a computer literacy course" is correct because we don't know if there's more than one--we have no article or other specifier, so the appositive is automatically non-restrictive. In this third case, we can't use commas, no matter what. No article, no commas, ever; they always walk hand in hand. It's the rule.

The "positive" in "appositive", by the way, doesn't really mean what it looks as if it might mean. It's more akin to "position"; an appositive is positioned next to the noun. (They're both from Latin "ponere", "to place", though.)