or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Edge of Reason

And now, an object lesson in how easily a smarty-pants can be led astray in other languages, cleverly disguised as a story about our trip. Won't that be nice?

While we were staying in Ottawa, our friend Trish (who, being intelligent, funny, generous, good, and attractive, somehow managed to acquire or attain all the attributes of a really top-notch human being) invited us out to dinner at a little place she'd heard about but never eaten at. It was a bit of a hike, being outside of Hull, Quebec (across the river from Ottawa), but we managed to find the place, no thanks to me, whose skills as a driver are only marginally better than his skills as a navigator: Trish drove (standard!) and Jim navigated using two maps, one hand-drawn (not by him).

The name of the restaurant was L'Orée du Bois, and as we were waiting to be seated, we naturally speculated on the meaning of the first word, which none of us, though we were all at least conversant in French, had ever heard. Since the restaurant's motif was a wind-whipped tree with golden leaves, and since the French word for "gold" is "or", we decided that "orée" must somehow mean "golden", since "-ée" is a suffix that can denote an adjective.

We also knew that the usual French word for "golden" or "gilded" is "dorée", so "orée"-equals-"gold" makes a degree of sense. What doesn't make sense is the rest of the name: "du bois" means "of the woods". But it was the best we could come up with, and it seemed not unreasonable. We meant to ask the young woman who seated us, but didn't get the chance; the joint was pretty busy.

Naturally, I had to know, because I have to know everything, so the next morning I logged onto the Internet using the hotel's terminal--$10 an hour!--and discovered that, in fact, we had been completely wrong, and "orée" is a noun (as it ought to be, coming before the phrasal adjective "du bois"), the whole phrase meaning "the edge of the woods", a perfect description of the place. (The place is nestled in the woods, just off a road, and even the view from the bathroom window is gloriously sylvan.)

"Dorée" is an adjective because "d'or" is also an adjective, meaning "of gold". "Or" means "gold" because the Latin word for gold is "aurum", which is why the chemical symbol for gold is "Au". (You probably already know all of this, but, you know, just in case.) English "gold", on the other hand, is from a constellation of words in various languages, mostly Germanic, meaning "yellow" or "gold".

If you're ever in the neighbourhood, you really have to check out this lovely restaurant. (They didn't pay me to say that--as if!) The food was very good (I'd never eaten either deer or quail before, and now I have, and thoroughly enjoyed them), the service attentive without being obtrusive, the waiter extremely cute. Here's their website, golden leaves and all. Make reservations.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Guessing Game

Well, I just don't know what to make of this usage in a Slate.com piece about a famous lesbian pulp-fiction novel:

In those days, when one was not busy excoriating the patriarchy, pining after straight women, or cultivating one's body odor, it was permissible—even among the hard core—to indulge in light reading of a politically acceptable sort. Recommended works of the era included Patience and Sarah, an uplifting Sapphic romance about two 19th-century pioneer ladies who lived in a log cabin, raised livestock, and snuggled up at night together in their own little quilt-covered bed (sigh); Adrienne Rich's recently published Diving Into the Wreck (poetical gleanings from the Great Lesbian Sibyl); and the various maunderings of the terminally otiose May Sarton. Along with Off Our Backs, the SCUM Manifesto, and other incendiary fare, all were to be found at Amazon Books, our local women's bookstore. (In the postfeminist 1990s, the few remaining members of the Amazon collective—obese, purple-clad, and now as demented as the survivors of the Donner Party—would get embroiled in a domain-name dispute with Jeff Bezos. Guess who won.)

I quoted the whole paragraph, even though I didn't need to, because it's pretty funny and mostly true. But what is up with "otiose"?

The trouble with using a word that has more than one meaning--especially a relatively obscure word that has more than one meaning--is that readers might not know which meaning you intend. I sure don't. According to Answers.com, "otiose" has three meanings:

1) Lazy,
2) Useless,
3) Ineffective.

They overlap, but they're not synonyms. So which meaning does Terry Castle intend? I have no idea. Despite having taken a couple of women's-literature courses in university, having read quite a lot of feminist writing, fiction and otherwise, and in fact having managed a lefty sort of bookstore not unlike the one described in the above paragraph, I've never read May Sarton, so I don't know what aspect of her authorial personality is being described. Is she lazy? I'm not sure how that would apply to a writer, unless it's someone who hires a ghost-writer or copies paragraphs from foreign websites and lets Google Translate do all their work for them (and even that, frankly, take some effort). Is she useless? Again, I'm not sure how this might apply to May Sarton, though I can think of a few useless authors without even trying. Ineffective? Perhaps this is as close as we're going to come: perhaps Castle thinks Sarton doesn't do her job as a writer, doesn't make her think and feel what she expects to. There is, later on on the Answers.com page, another set of definitions that includes "sterile", and perhaps this is what Castle means: a dry, barren landscape of words.

But again, I have no idea. You know what would have helped? A little context. That would have been nice.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Forbidden Fruit

Today I have a little mystery.

First, though, something amusing. As I noted last month, the French word for "pomegranate" is "grenade". After we returned from our week-long trip to Montréal and Ottawa this afternoon (trust me, you'll be hearing a lot more about that), we had to get some groceries, so, carless, we moseyed on over to the local Superstore, where I was completely arrested by this product:

President's Choice brand Diet Pomegranate soda. I wasn't going to buy it because they didn't have it in two-litre bottles, only twelve-packs of cans, and I just don't, at least not usually. But then, because New Brunswick is officially bilingual and you often see both the French and English sides of packages displayed on the shelf, I saw the French side of the box, which clearly reads Grenades Diète, and I understood that I have to have this product, because I am going to have Diet Grenades in my house come hell or high water. (Luckily, I do like the taste of pomegranates, and the pop is pretty tasty, though it does have that vaguely medicinal flavour it shares with black-cherry pop.)

I totally stole the above picture from a blog called JB's Warehouse and Curio Emporium*: he, or she, didn't like the product as much as I did.


Now, then. That mystery. At the same supermarket, we were picking up some fresh fruit (pineapples for me, bananas and Asian pears for Jim) when I noticed the persimmons, something I wouldn't ordinarily notice except that, again, I saw the French signage, which read


and a previous mystery was suddenly solved. "Kaki" is indeed the French word for "persimmon", and at the frame shop we have a mat--there are almost 450 different mat colours, each named--called "Khaki" which is clearly an oddball shade of orange and not the blackened yellow-green** we all think of as "khaki". We'd all noticed this oddity in the shop, but I'd never pursued it: some of the other mat colours have weird names, too, so I just figured it was another weirdness. But it isn't! "Diospyros khaki" is the scientific name for the Japanese persimmon!

However, this presents another mystery. The brownish-greenish colour we all know as khaki comes from Persian "khak", "dust"; the original khaki was more dust- or earth-coloured. So what can persimmons and dust have to do with one another? Wikipedia and the Word Mavens are entirely tight-lipped on the subject.

So we reverse-engineer the search and look for the various names for persimmons, and what do you know? "Kaki" is the Japanese word for "persimmon"! Mystery solved! Except for that mat: "khaki" and "kaki" are clearly not at all the same word: different languages of derivation, different meanings, different colours, different everything.

Two little mysteries remain (and I'm too travel-weary to do the work): first, why did the French decide to take the Japanese word for the fruit (we got "persimmon" from Algonquian), and second, why did the ArtCare folks name their persimmon-coloured mat "Khaki" and not "Kaki"?

*If you're JB and you want me to give it back and/or take my own picture, let me know and I will. But yours is perfect!

**Yeah, I know: it's really greenish-brown, right? But when you add black to yellow, it turns greenish and then, as you add more black, brownish, and in the colour-theory world of the frame shop, there isn't any such thing as "brown", because any colour can be turned into brown by adding its opposite or, judiciously, black. So I look at the standard not-persimmon colour of khaki and it's not brown, it's yellow-green. With black added. Just so you know.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

So Red The Raise

Jim watches "Doctor Who" every week, and along with it a sort of making-of show called "Doctor Who Confidential". Just now he turned to me and asked, "What dialect of British would pronounce 'Rose' like 'raise'? Because the actress who plays Rose just pronounced the name of her own character like that, and I had to listen to it twice before I knew what she was talking about."

As it turns out, I had encountered that pronunciation once before: in a savage satirical cartoon called "Maggie's Farm", devoted to trashing the political rule of Margaret Thatcher and the various excesses of Britain from 1979 onward. I can never predict what's going to stick in my head--who can?--but I vividly remember a panel showing Queen Elizabeth ordering "ferret orff the bane", with "bone' being pronounced "bane'--exactly the vowel change Jim was talking about. What I couldn't figure out, though, was whether it was an honestly upper-class pronunciation (doubtful, given the pronunciation of "off" as "orff") or cartoonist Steve Bell putting a deliberately lower-class locution into the Queen's mouth.

Turns out it's the latter. That vowel, as nearly as I can tell, came from northern Scotland and migrated into some British dialects. Billie Piper, the actress who plays Rose*, comes from the county of Wiltshire, which does have a regional accent different from standard, or Received, British English pronunciation.


I'd do a lot more research on this but I'm in kind of a rush. I'm taking a week off for some R&R and I've got things to do, but I'll be back next Sunday. In the meantime, I just learned (after looking up "bone", among other things), that "bonfire" has nothing to with French "bon", "good"; it's actually derived, it seems, from "bone-fire", from the Celtic ritual of burning piles of animal bones to ward off evil spirits. Who knew?

* By an interesting coincidence, today's posting to my other blog is also about roses.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Not Quite

Today we have a couple of perfectly usual adjectives in slightly unusual contexts.

From a tongue-in-cheek Slate article about a recent movie on DVD:

Within the space of a few generations, this sad state of affairs will ineluctably result in the replacement of men by a race of pale, limpid eunuchs.

Now, I can't be sure that "limpid" is completely wrong, not at all what the writer meant to say, but in this context it's an unusual choice. "Limpid" means "clear: transparent", either in a literal sense--the adjective's usual target is a brook or other small body of water--or the metaphorical sense of a piece of writing. The prefacing adjective "pale" suggests that "limpid" might have been intended, but it seems pretty obvious, in the context of the sentence, that a much better choice would have been "limp", which is an appropriate word for a eunuch (although, yes, I know that some eunuchs could actually have erections--see "Myths" on this page.)

Somewhat more defensible is this sentence from a Consumerist article:

What is this fell odor wafting out our Garnier shampoo bottle?

Now, "foul" is by far the more common adjective for an unpleasant odour. I had to really stare at the sentence to convince myself that "fell" might well have been what the writer intended, and I'm not sure I succeeded. "Fell" is a pretty strong word: it means "monstrously cruel" when referring to people and "lethal" or "sinister" when describing things or events. I'm not saying "fell" is impossible, or even wrong, in that sentence: it just seems a bit much. But what writer hasn't been known to dabble in comic exaggeration for effect?

The adjective "fell", by the way, is related to "felon", originally "an evil person", now merely "a criminal".

The word "fell" invariably makes me think of the following story:

Tradition has it that Brown, while a student at Christ Church, got into some sort of trouble and was taken to the dean, Dr John Fell. Brown was set to be sent down from Oxford, but Dr. Fell decided to waive the expulsion if Brown could translate, extempore, a Martial epigram:

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum posso dicere, non amo te.

Legend has it that Brown spontaneously delivered the following translation:

I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.

English majors just love anecdotes like this, about, or related by, writers. One of these days I'll tell you about Queen Elizabeth and the farting courtier, courtesy of John Aubrey and his "Brief Lives".

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Another Country

"The Amazing Race" ended last night with a finale I can live with: Tyler and BJ, the not-quite-as-objectionable-as-Eric-and-Jeremy and not-as-likely-to-get-lost-as-Ray-and-Yolanda team, won. I don't know why the show has such a pull on me: it's not really as good as it used to be, with pointless new rules added from time to time and stupid experiments like the four-player family teams of the previous season (I didn't even bother with it). But if you have to watch a reality show, it's still the one to watch.

This story, or storyette, contains the following sentence:

Other far-off locales the contestants visited included the Persian Gulf state of Oman, Moscow and Munich.

Yes, I would have put a comma after "Moscow"; I happen to like lists that are completely separated by commas, but that's not my complaint here. This is an extremely fine point of style, I know, but I think that if you have a list that contains one modifier, in this case the adjectival phrase "the Persian Gulf state of", you should put that modified list element at the end. If you don't, the reader can easily get the impression that the modifier applies to all the elements of the list.

I know: nobody thinks that there's a Persian Gulf state called "Oman, Moscow and Munich". Probably. But there are countries with "and" in their names, such as "Sao Tome and Principe", and so that strange little list forces you stop for a moment and say, "Wha?"

One of the principles of clear writing is that you do what you can to avoid confusing the reader. How hard would it have been to reconstruct the sentence as the clearer, unobjectionable "Moscow, Munich, and the Persian Gulf state of Oman"? Not hard at all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Data Re-Entry

In this extract from a Slate.com article on gaming the SAT, I was heartened to read the first sentence, and then cruelly let down by the second.

These data aren't readily available from the College Board, which publishes only statewide figures on the numbers of "accommodated" SAT takers. But Abrams noticed that in the District of Columbia—the only city whose data is separately released by the board, since D.C. is a separate jurisdiction—7 to 9 percent of all SAT-takers typically get extra time on the test.

As we no doubt know, I prefer "data" as a plural noun, but have resigned myself to the fact that it's becoming singular. Fine; the language changes. That's its nature.

But the writer for this article used "data" as a plural noun in the first sentence, and then used it as a singular noun in the second (and then used it again as a plural noun a couple of paragraphs later--"But the D.C. data suggest that ETS has a way to go"). You can't have it both ways. If you're going to use the word in exactly the same context in two consecutive sentences, then you have to pick which way you're going to use it and stick with that.

First Things First

Yesterday I used the word "console" as an illustration of something, and as I was typing it I realized that, of course, we have two different "console"s in English, a verb and a noun--and as is usually the case, the verb has the stress on the second syllable ("con-SOLE") while the noun has the stress on the first ("CON-sole"). (In case you were wondering whether this really is usually the case, here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a nice long list of words that match this pattern. Record! Desert! Abstract!)

"Console" and "console" can't possibly be related, can they?

They can not. "Console" the noun is evidently related to "consolidate", which is to say "to unite into a whole", from Latin "com-", "together", plus "solidare", "to make firm"; the primary meaning of "console" is "a housing for elements of a system", such as a stereo or a computer. "Console" the verb, on the other hand, is also from Latin "com-" plus "solari", "to comfort", "to put into a good mood", which ought to look familiar from the related word "solace".

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

All By Myself

Sometimes the most obvious connections are just staring you in the face and you can't even see them.

Before shaving my face today, I used Clinique for Men Face Scrub, which is a terrific product, and happened to read on the tube the following Italian:

Privo di profumo al 100%

Now, it pretty obviously means "100% Fragrance Free". What got my attention was the word "privo", since, instead of the "free" that English-language advertisers so adore, it was saying, in essence, "deprived of"; "privo" and "deprivation" clearly share a common ancestor. And then it occurred to me that "private" does, too, and I couldn't believe I had missed such a connection, and I also naturally wondered just how they were connected. (It's easy enough to miss the relationship between "private" and "deprivation", because the first and third syllables are stressed in "deprivation", neatly obscuring the "privat-" root: but how had I missed "private" and "deprive"?)

The link isn't quite as straightforward as I had guessed. My assumption was that if you're deprived of company--that is, you've had it taken away--then you're in private. As it turns out, this was more or less completely backwards.

"Privus" is the Latin word for "alone", which is obviously where "private" comes from, particularly since "-ate" is such a common adjectival ending in English ("console/disconsolate", for example). We didn't just make up the "-ate" ending, though; it too comes to us from Latin, in this case in the form of "privatus".

"Deprive" is, as I should have guessed, an after-formation, because it's from "privus' plus the prefix "de-", "away from". "Privus" in this case is at one remove from the original meaning, because "privare" came in Latin to mean "to rob".

It should be obvious that "privy" comes from "private", since that's where you most want to be alone, but "privilege" also comes from that root, since a privilege is something that you alone have--literally, "private law", as "privilege" descends from "privus" and "lex".

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Me Two

In Friday's posting I wrote about English plurals and how, in some newly borrowed words such as "mafioso", we still used the pluralization system of the originating language. Reader Bright Beak wrote:

The thing is, media is the plural already of medium therefore, by MY calculations, medias is a dual-plural, and not allowed by any rules of grammar! I still cannot cope with anything but formula/formulae, and was as intolerant before I took Latin!

Oh, you don't have to tell me. I know that "media" is plural, and so is "data", and "bacteria", but they're all increasingly being treated in English as if they were singular, with the plural's being formed, if it's formed at all--it usually isn't, in the case of "data"--in the usual English manner, by adding an "-s" onto the end. It's horrible, yes, but there's no escaping it. This is what happens when Latin is no longer taught in the schools, I suppose. (On the other hand, they do have plenty of company; "agenda" is really not seen as a plural any more at all, though it is the plural of the obsolete "agend" or of "agendum", and likewise with "candelabra"/"candelabrum". "Agenda" has been singular, with the plural "agendas", for about a hundred years now, and singular "candelabra" with plural "candelabras" has been with us for almost two hundred. This is not a new phenomenon.)

Getting back to "mafioso" for a second, I wouldn't have had any real problem if Walcott had written "mafioso" and then used "mafiosos" as a plural (he wrongly used "mafiosi" as a singular noun); I might not have liked it, but frankly, that's what we usually do when we import words nowadays--we pluralize them as if they were native. "Mafioso"/"mafiosi" is an unusual example: we don't generally treat Italian words, particularly food words (by far the largest category of Italian imports into English), as if they were still Italian--we don't pluralize "cappuccino" as "cappuccini", "bruschetta" as "bruschette", or "gelato" as "gelati" (but, oddly, we do generally, though not always, pluralize "antipasto" into the correct-for-Italian "antipasti"). Odder still, and directly to the point regarding "media", we didn't for some reason inherit "panino" as the correct singular for a popular grilled sandwich but instead the plural "panini", which we then pluralized in the natural fashion as "paninis".

As is so often the case in English, there just aren't any hard-and-fast rules about pluralization. The most you can say is that historically, we absorbed a variety of pluralizations from a variety of languages, but nowadays we usually just slap an "-s" onto the end of everything to make it plural, which, though we don't always have to like it, is probably as it should be. After all, do we really want to worry about correctly pluralizing, say, Hungarian imports such as "paprika" and "goulash", or borrowings from Farsi such as "khaki" and "divan"? Better to just ess 'em all up and be done with it.

The wonderful Wikipedia has this useful page on the varieties of English pluralizations, and here's a link to an amusing CBC News article about just how confusing and open for debate pluralization is in Canadian English.

Friday, May 12, 2006

La Grammatica: La Cosa Mia

James Wolcott, in a recent piece about the National Review, wrote the following paragraph:

Derb has his own lavender laff-fest going on, prompted by notice of a play opening in New York about a gay mafiosi. He invites readers to send in examples of famous Mafia-movie dialogue being given the fey once-over, and, staggering across the transom, having risen out of the comedy graveyard where jokes go to die, come...

(He's right; the would-be jokes are painfully unfunny.)

There are three kinds of plurals in English: the standard kind in which we add an "-s" to the end of the word, the slightly archaic kind that take another, historical ending such as "-en" ("oxen"), and foreign words that maintain their own pluralizing endings (such as French "bureau"/"bureaux"). This last category is complicated by the fact that many foreign words also have genders, and these genders may or may not have different endings. Sometimes these words get naturalized at some point along their journey into English--"media" is rapidly becoming a singular word, with "medias" its plural--but sometimes they don't, and we're expected to keep track of them all. If someone's graduating, he's an alumnus, unless she's an alumna, and they're all alumni, unless they're all women, in case they're alumnae.

Such is the case with Italian "mafioso". It means "A [male] member of the Mafia", and its plural is "mafiosi". (A female member of the Mafia would be a "mafiosa", and its plural would be "mafiose".) If you're talking about one male Mafia member, it's "mafioso", not "mafiosi".

Now, would someone please tell James Wolcott this?

Thursday, May 11, 2006


In this Slate.com article, writer Sonia Smith notes that

[a]ccording to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin verb explodere means "to drive out by clapping, hiss (a player) off the stage."

That's all well and good, but I could never leave it at that: where does "explodere" come from? It's obvious that "ex-" means "out", as it generally does in Latin, but what about the "-plodere" part? I thought about it for a bit while I was doing the dishes (a great time to think), and then it hit me: "clapping" is "applause", "explodere" means "to drive out with clapping", and therefore "-plodere" must be a variant of "plaudere", "to applaud". And that's exactly the case: "explode" originally meant literally "to clap out", and through the usual series of mutations and imaginative leaps gradually came to mean any sort of loud disturbance or drastic change, whether emotional or physical, literal or metaphorical.

I would have thought that "laud" and the various "plaudere" words such as "plaudit" would be related, since they're so close in meaning and spelling, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The OED doesn't mention it; nor do any of my other sources. ("Laud" is from Latin "laudere", which, again, is practically identical to "plaudere".) It feels as if they ought to be related, but if they are, I don't have any proof of it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

10 P.M. Postscript


Well, I watched "The Amazing Race", the loathsome Monica and Joseph (a.k.a. "Mojo") are now out of the game, and I am in a much, much better mood. I don't greatly care who wins at this point, since the most egregiously annoying or appalling teams are gone, but it would be nice if it were Ray and Yolanda.

The Fury

Okay, now I'm just snarling uncontrollably. It's been one of those days.


David Blaine is either very brave or very stupid, and quite possibly both. He probably wasn't in any imminent peril of death from trying to hold his breath for more than nine minutes (although it was very difficult to watch), but he apparently messed himself up pretty badly staying underwater for a week, what with the liver damage and possible brain damage and really nastily pruned-up fingers. (When people ask me if I swim, I tell them that we spent millions of years of evolution trying to get out of the water, and I'm sure as hell not going back in, and that goes for you, too, Mr. Blaine.) He can do anything he wants with his liver, but did he really have to call his newest stunt "Drowned Alive"? It's stupid. I know it's supposed to evoke the dread that the phrase "buried alive" invariably elicits (and in fact one of his earlier stunts was entitled "Buried Alive"), but you can be buried alive or dead, whereas you can't be drowned if you're already dead--you can only be drowned alive, so what the hell was the point of the name if you stop and think about it for, oh, three seconds, and why couldn't they just have called it "Drowned", which is every bit as effective without being, you know, asinine?


If you're using a word that can be spelled in more than one way, the thing to do, see, is to pick one of those ways and stick with it. Mixing them up in the same piece of writing makes you look as if you just don't know what you're talking about. BoingBoing has a little piece about a trepanation kit, which is a fascinating piece of medical history, but they spell the word one way in the title ("trephanation", which is actually wrong), another way in the first sentence ("trephination", which is acceptable) and again in the second, and then a third way in third sentence ("trepanation", which is also correct). For god's sake, pick one! And pick a correctly spelled one while you're at it!


A local fast-food joint has a sign above the drive-through window that says


and is it really so very hard to use hyphens correctly? "Pick up" is a phrasal verb, "pick-up" is a noun, and they need an imperative verb, and if they'd left out the hyphen they'd have one, and goddammit why can't anybody ever seem to get it right?


Whew. I'm okay. I'm going to relax for a bit and then watch "The Amazing Race" and everything will be just fine.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


This would have been posted yesterday if I hadn't, like a complete idiot, reset the cache on my browser, which of course caused it to forget everything it ever knew about me and all my passwords, and do you suppose I could remember the password to get back into Blogger? I could not. And the auto-response thing didn't work and didn't work, and I tried six times and couldn't get an e-mail out of it, and thank goodness for real live human beings, one of whom sent me a link to the password reset page, without which I don't know what I would have done. (Thank you, Karl at Blogger.com.) You know how we're not supposed to write our passwords down. because someone else could find it and get access to our blah blah blah? Screw that. I'm recording everything from now on.


So I was walking home past a church the other day and saw the times for the various services listed, one of which was Eucharist. Now, we probably all know that "eu-" means "good", but what about the second half? It didn't take much thinking before I'd thoroughly convinced myself that it had to be related to "charisma", but then I couldn't quite see how.

The relationship, as it turns out, is there; I would have been completely poleaxed if it hadn't been, because the family likeness was too strong for it to be otherwise. The second part of "Eucharist"--which means "the Christian sacrament in imitation of the Last Supper", in case you weren't brought up all churchy-like--comes from Greek "kharis", "grace", which is kind of fitting, since grace is what observant Christians generally say over their meals. ("Grace" in all its meanings and variations in English comes from Latin "gratus", "pleasing".) "Charisma" also comes from "kharis"--in this case, "kharisma", "divine favour", presumably because that level of personal magnetism could only have been doled out by the gods.

I suspected that "charisma" and "charm" ought to be related--they look so alike! But no: "charm" is actually related (through, predictably, French) to Latin "carmen", "incantation", later "song", which word you might recognized from Orff's "Carmina Burana", literally "songs of Beuern". ("Carmina"/"carmen" is unrelated to the red colouring "carmine", which actually comes from French "kermes" through Arabic "qirmiz", otherwise known as cochineal.

And wouldn't you think that "Eucharist" and "Christian" might be related? Just look at "-charist" and "Christ"; only one letter apart! But that one is an illusion, too; "Christ", as I noted before, means "anointed", from Greek "khriein", "to anoint".

Saturday, May 06, 2006


I was doing a cryptic crossword yesterday and, apropos of nothing in the puzzle, it occurred to me (I must have seen this construction before in another puzzle) that if you tuck "-n-" into "orate" you get "ornate", and this of course led me to wonder if "ornate" could be related to "ornament'. I mean, it surely must be, but what I was really wondering was if that "-ate" ending which we regularly use to denote an adjective ("sedate", "abbreviate"--yes, "abbreviate" was once an adjective as well as a verb) had emerged from noun "ornament" to adjective "ornamentate" to adjective "ornate".

As it turns out, no; that never happened. Predictably, "ornamentate" has cropped up in English, but, unfortunately, never as an adjective, only as a verb by people who think that the more syllables a word has, the grander it must be, and love to employ horrible words like "orientate" when "orient" serves the purpose beautifully, and likewise with "ornamentate" versus "ornament".

They are related, though. They have to be; just look at them! They're both from Latin "ornare", "to adorn", which fairly obviously is also derived from "ornare", with the addition of the prefix "ad-", "onto".

In case you were wondering, by the way (I know I was, which is why I had to look it up), no, Latin "ornare" is not related to "ornery"; that's a contraction of "ordinary". I don't know how "ordinary" led to a word meaning "stubborn", but that's English for you.


Oh, hey; I used some semicolons up there! And another one just back there in the last sentence! Too bad Kurt Vonnegut doesn't approve!

I was leafing through the QPB catalogue today, and there, on the page advertising Vonnegut's new book, "A Man Without A Country", was this assertion regarding the semicolon:

They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.

Well, first off, the use of the semicolon is pretty well defined--here, for example--so clearly it has to represent something.

Second, "transvestite hermaphrodite" is a blindingly stupid way of describing anything, because a hermaphrodite is by definition someone with both male and female sexual characteristics, and so it's impossible by any definition for a hermaphrodite to be a transvestite--literally from Latin "[a]cross-dressing"--because there's no line for them to dress across; their bodies have erased any line that might exist between male and female.

And thirdly, what could anyone possibly have against the meekly subservient semicolon, which wants nothing more than for us to punctuate our sentences correctly and comprehensibly?

Vonnegut has one thing right, though; the semicolon is a hermaphrodite, neither one thing nor the other, straddling two worlds. It boldly announces itself as neither period nor comma, but a hybrid of the two, and this tells you how to use it; where a full stop is too abrupt--where you have more to say on the subject--and yet where a comma is insufficient or incorrect, the semicolon finds its home.

(Here's a snarling entry from a blog called Weasel Manor taking Vonnegut to task for this and other offenses.)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Side By Side

Today we have two examples from Salon.com of the complete and utter lack of parallel structure, and I can't get too mad about them, I suppose--it's such an easy mistake to make--but they sure are jarring if your brain is attuned to them.

First up, from a letter to an advice columnist:

Our son is old enough that he will not be severely affected by separation. What has, continues and will continue to affect him is seeing a very confusing dysfunctional relationship between his parents.

Can't really blame the letter-writer too much, but it would have been nice if someone had cleaned it up. It should have read something like "What has affected him--what continues and will continue to affect him--is...." The verbs aren't all the same for the past, present and future forms, and if you're going to imply some verbs rather than spelling them out, you can't compose the sentence as if they were all the same.

In an introduction to a video, someone who should have known better wrote:

This charmer marks the return here of Chocolate Cake City, who you'll remember from having created one of the first -- and surely the finest -- "Brokeback Mountain" parody of all.

Here the problem in parallelism isn't the verb, as is so often the case, but the noun: the adjectival phrase "one of the first" requires a plural noun, while "the finest" calls for a singular noun, which was used: "parody". The sentence ought to have been written as something like "...having created one of the first "Brokeback Mountain" parodies, and surely the finest of all." Even though the second adjective requires a singular noun, we can get away with leaving it out because the addition of "of all" implies "of all parodies", and the plural parallel structure is preserved. (This also points up another problem with the sentence: pasting "of all" at the end implies the clause "one of the first parodies of all", which is bad; if we absolutely had to use that qualifier, we'd write "one of the first of all parodies".)

Parallel structure isn't that hard to master, but I have a feeling it's not being taught much in schools nowadays--someone prove me wrong!--and as a result we have legions of people who either don't know any better or have the feeling that their writing isn't quite correct but just plain don't know why.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I'll Be Quirky

A while back--a month and a half ago--I wrote about my little revelation regarding the word "apricot". Yesterday, a reader wondered

if it is part of the root for albuquerque.

Well, you don't have to believe me--I'm not sure I would myself--but I had already had the same thought, last Saturday at the gym, the site of my previous wonderings about "apricot". I looked at the shower-gel bottle, thought, "albaricoque--that's 'al-burquq'", and then suddenly realized, "al-burquq is Albuquerque!" (And then was going to write about it but forgot.) I felt remarkably stupid that that hadn't occurred to me earlier, but a delayed insight is better than none at all, I suppose.

However, not everyone thinks Albuquerque and al-burquq are related, believe it or not. One theory proposes that Albuquerque comes from "Abu al-Qurq", which is either a reference to the cork tree or a term meaning "town of Christians and Jews". Another theory is that it's from Latin "alba quercus", "white oak". (The word "cork" does in fact come from Arabic "al-qurq": but that, in turn, comes from Latin "quercus", so they're both plausible enough. The whole Jews-and-Christians thing, though: where does that come from?)

I find the "al-burquq" link the most compelling. It sounds much more like "Albuquerque" than does "Abu al-Qurq", and "alba quercus" is wrong in that the botanical, Latin name for "white oak" is actually "quercus alba", which makes "alba quercus" sound like someone's trying to fit the facts to the theory rather than the other way around. (I could be wrong about this, and Latin is impressively flexible in terms of word order.) "Albuquerque" was once "Alburquerque", with that extra "-r-", which strengthens the case even further. And plums and apricots were grown in Albuquerque early on, so the name is plausible enough: it's not as if they fancifully named the settlement after, say, the plantain or the coconut.


This is from The Onion, which, if not quite as consistently brilliant as it was a few years ago, is still always worth a read.

Comic-Book Superrman Impervious To Copyediting
NEWARK—Executives at DCC Comics have announced the debut of comic-book character Superrman, whose invulnerability to copyediting protects him from nefarious outside forces and intellectual-property lawsuits. "Thrill to the exploits of Superrman, the only child of a doomed plant! Gasp in awe at his Superr-Strength, X-Roy Vision, and his ability to leap mall buildings in a single bounce!" read a press release issued by DCC. "Superrman's only weakness? His vulnerability to Cryptonight… and his star-crossed love for sassy, sexy, trouble-prone reporter Louis Lane!"  The editors of Superrman say the comic book will be released alongside those of other popular DCC characters such as Wander Woman, the Flush, and Batdan.

I think a comic in which a superhero had a mad pash for a reporter named Louis Lane might do well in some markets.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bad Medicine

From NBC.com's Scrubs page:

J.D. (Zach Braff), Turk (Donald Faison), Elliot (Sarah Chalke) and Carla (Judy Reyes) are asked to recount the past weeks events during and interrogation surrounding the mysterious death of a patient. But Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins) will find it hard to pin point neglect when he learns that J.D. and Turk were away tracking down a patient (guest star Jason Bateman, "Arrested Development") to illicit a thank you, Elliot was traumatized over finding out that her make-out buddy was married and Carla was busy recruiting hospital personal for a group lottery purchase.

I am ignoring the lack of an apostrophe in "week's" and "and" instead of "an" in the first sentence, because those are the sort of mistakes that can happen. Shouldn't, on a professionally designed corporate website, but do. However, "pin point"? That's a noun. "Pinpoint" is the verb someone is looking for. (They hyphenated "make-out" correctly: why couldn't they have latched "pin" and "point" together as well?)

Worse, "personal"? "Personnel" isn't even pronounced in the same way; how could anyone make that mistake, unless a really, really bad speller ran their text through a spellchecker and just accepted whatever it threw their way?

But even that's not my biggest beef. "Illicit"? "Illicit"? It's not even a verb, for god's sake. It's not pronounced the same as the intended word, "elicit", or even remotely related to it; the only thing they have in common is that they're both from Latin. "Illicit" comes from "in-", "not" (the "-n-" changed to an "-l-" for the sake of euphony) and "licitus", "lawful". "Elicit", on the other hand, comes from "ex-", "out" (with the "-x-" dropped, again for euphony) and "lacere", "to entice", which is not, as it might appear from the looks of it, related to "lacerate", but which is related to "lace", through a convoluted change in meanings from "entice" to "ensnare" to "snare" to "noose" (thereby also giving us "lasso") to "string", from which lace is made.

"Scrubs" has some pretty good writers. Maybe NBC should lend one of them every now and then to whichever department writes the TV listings.

Monday, May 01, 2006

He Tryeth My Patience

I like reading James Walcott: he's sharp and witty and he has a way with a phrase. But sometimes he really bugs the hell out of me.

I read his blog every week or two, and always go into the archives to make sure I don't miss anything, which is why I didn't catch this, dated April 16th, until today. His whole blog post for that day is an extract from an article he (and I) liked, which he closes by writing this:

I say unto you: Go readeth the whole thingeth.

Honestly: there's just no excuse for this sort of thing. He knows better, and if he doesn't, he damned well ought to. Adding "-eth" to the end of a noun--it's an obsolete verb suffix--is just silly, but he might have been able to get away with it if he had used the suffix correctly with the previous verb. But he didn't.

I wrote about this in some detail a year ago and I'm not going to go over the whole thing again, but in a nutshell, Early Modern English "-eth" is exactly like the modern "-s" in third-person singular English verbs: "he goes", "he goeth"; "he runs", "he runneth". But Walcott is using the second person singular, which takes a different suffix ("-est") in the indicative, and what's more, he's not using the indicative at all, but the imperative, which is to say a command ("Take out the trash!"), which takes no suffix in the singular, either in Early Modern or plain old Modern English.

If he were using the second-person singular indicative and was determined to give his pronouncement that biblical flair, he would write "Thou goest and readest the whole thing." Since he's using the imperative (which doesn't even exist in the third person singular), he has to write, "Go read the whole thing," or, since he seems intent on making a biblical proclamation, "Go thou and read the whole thing" (and then he would have had to use "thee" in the first part of the sentence, which he should have anyway). "Go readeth" is sloppy and pseudo literate and frankly inexcusable, and I'm shocked. I expect better.