or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, July 31, 2006

Little Stinkers

The other day I was writing about animal family words such as "mimid" and "hominid", which called to mind my favourite such word: "mustelid". The family Mustelidae contains such animals as ferrets, polecats, weasels, minks, and otters, and one of the things that connects them is the fact that they all have active anal scent glands which they use for marking territory or whatnot. (For this reason, the skunk was thought to be a mustelid, too, but as I noted last time, they're different enough from Mustelidae that they've been placed into another family, Mephitidae, of which they're the only member.)

Now, "mephitid" is related to Latin "mephitis", "stench", which is pretty obviously why skunks got their family name. And based on that, I so wanted "mustelid" to be related to "musty". After all, the mustelids are a fairly stinky bunch, as anyone who's ever been around a ferret cage knows.

But alas, it isn't so. "Mustelid" simply comes from "mustela", the Latin word for "weasel". "Musty", on the other hand, is etymologically related to "moist", from the dampness that leads to that distinctive odour.

Skunks, by the way, may have a bad reputation, but I've been informed that (once you have the scent glands surgically removed) they make very nice pets, if you can live with their nocturnal habits, as anyone who's ever had a cat probably can. And they're just as pretty as all get-out. We had 'em living around a place in Saint John and you can take it from me that they don't particularly want to spray anything or anyone: they just want to eat your garbage in peace. Fine by me.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Do You Copy?

Spellcheckers are fairly wonderful: despite their flaws , they've certainly reduced the number of horrible typographical errors in many people's writing. But sometimes they go one step further and, purely by accident, teach you a word you didn't know.

Yesterday I used the word "mild" and, in a moment of carelessness, typed "mimid" instead. (Don't ask how: I don't even know myself.) I have spellchecking turned on all the time, so when I make an obvious typo it's underlined in red, even though I generally notice it right away, because I hate to let a mistake slip past me. But "mimid" wasn't underlined.

That means the Mac thinks "mimid" is a word! Is it, and if so, what could it mean?

As it turns out, a mimid, from the family Mimidae, is a kind of bird: a mimicking kind of bird, naturally enough, such as a mockingbird. So that's my thing learned for the day! (A mimid isn't a specific species of bird: "mimid" is used to refer to that particular batch of related species of vocalizing birds, in the same way that "mephitid" refers to a skunk, from the family Mephitidae, or "hominid", from Hominidae, refers to a human. More here, and even more here.)

You should definitely go and read this essay about birdsong and mimicking birds, which is fascinating. Then you should go and watch this video clip, which nearly defies belief: a bird called the superb lyrebird (its tail, upright, resembles a lyre) which, as part of its extravagant mating call, can evidently remember and reproduce any sound it hears, including a motor-drive camera and a chainsaw.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Go Fish

Yesterday on BoingBoing, a piece about a kid's-show host who got fired because she made a couple of short films about....well, just read it contained the following sentence:

What did they think would happen - our 4-year-old might find the films while trolling the Internet?!?

Perfectly unexceptionable, you might think. I certainly did. But then a reader chimed in with this:

You quoted some text using the word "trolling" in a piece on BB today. "our 4-year-old might find the films while trolling the Internet?!?"

I know it was not your text, but really I am very tired of seeing this nonsensical usage and would welcome its regular correction before it gets out of hand.

A troll is ... well a troll. So 'trolling' makes no real sense. I am 100% convinced that this usage began when someone correctly used the word 'trawling' in a proper context and some under-educated (not even enough to think to check) thought it sounded like trolling and ... well that's how s**t happens. I have yet to see a usage of the word 'trolling' where 'trawling' would not have fitted perfectly (and more to the point, correctly, I believe).

Even before reading the next two readers' excoriations I was thinking, "What the hell? Clearly this is someone who knows nothing about fishing." The verb "troll", unrelated to the noun that lives under a bridge and eats children, simply means "to fish", and its original usage was entirely correct, as ten seconds' worth of research would have demonstrated: type "troll" into Answers.com, and there it is: verb, intransitive, to fish by trailing a line. (In a very mild defense of the grammar defender, "troll" as in "Internet troll" is a very common word, and since nouns are often turned into verbs in English, it's not hard to see how the reader might have thought it was an invented usage. I suppose.)

"Troll", however, is not related to "trawl": I had thought, or at least hoped, that it might be, even though the meaning is quite different, because while trolling is fishing with a line, trawling is fishing with a drag-net. The verb "troll", Answers.com tells us, comes from Middle English "trollen", "to wander about". Now, doesn't that call to mind "stroll", which also more or less means "to wander about"? I thought it did, but you are probably way ahead of me in guessing that there isn't any connection between "troll" and "stroll". Instead, "stroll" seems to be related, remarkably, to "astrologer" (although there are two perhapses in Answers.com's definition). What does strolling have to do with astrologers? Nothing about being born under a wandering star: astrologers and other fortunetellers were vagabonds who strolled around from town to town making their seedy living.

So what have we learned from this? Don't be an amateur etymologist, unless you're willing to put in the time to do at least a little research.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rites and Wrongs

English spelling has been through so many tortuous changes throughout its history that its finer points are almost punishment to the learner and the inattentive.

The correct spelling of "sacrilegious" is difficult for--in fact, unknown to--many, perhaps most, people because the the last three syllables sound exactly like another word known to all, "religious". (Googling "sacreligious", I got 127,000 hits: the correct "sacrilegious" netted 862,000, which suggests that people have about a one in seven chance of getting it right and that spellcheckers can be a boon to society. A few of these 127,000, of course, are people like me telling everyone that "sacreligious" is wrong, but most of the uses are just plain wrong.)

But "sacrilegious", while it does have a connection to religion, is entirely unrelated to the word "religion". The first half sounds like "sacred" and that, not surprisingly, is exactly where it comes from: Latin "sacer", "sacred" (seen in English "sacerdotal", "of or relating to priests"). The second half is from "legere", "to gather", which I discussed a little here already. To commit sacrilege, therefore, is to gather up sacred objects and...do what? Sell them, defile them, redecorate with them? That's up to the sacrilegious, I guess.

"Religious", by the way, might as well come from (nobody is entirely sure about this) the Latin intensifier "re-" plus "ligare", "to tie", the source of English "ligament" and "ligature", giving us "to bind firmly". ("Re-" plus "ligare" also gives us "reliable". Whether religion is or makes you reliable depends on your point of view.) "Ligare" also gives us such words as "league" (the association: the measure of distance is unrelated), "oblige" (to bind to do something), "alloy" (two metals bound together), and "ally" (someone bound to you).

And finally, except in an extended metaphorical sense, "sacrilege" and "blasphemy" are not the same thing. Sacrilege is something you do to holy objects: blasphemy, from the Greek for "to injure reputation", is something you say about holy people or things.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Group Specs

You thought this was a school of herring, didn't you? It isn't. It's an army.

I'm the last person to say that English has too many words: in fact, we don't have enough words, because, as I have noted before, there are some conspicuous gaps in the vocabulary.

Sometimes, however, you run across a word list that makes you think, "Okay, that's just ridiculous." We'll get to that in a bit. But first things first.

From today's "I Like to Watch" column at Salon.com, the following sentence:

The problem is, every time I register for the tour and plan to go, I start picturing terrible little hotel conference rooms with flocked, mauve and purple carpeting, filled with rows of uncomfortable chairs, staffed by overly enthusiastic publicists armed with stacks of xeroxed press releases about their crappy new shows for the fall season.

I just don't think "flocked" is the right word for carpeting. Flocking is what puts the fuzz on a cheap plastic cat figurine, the pattern on some kinds of textured wallpaper, or the hair and beard on a G.I. Joe: it's the spraying of very short lengths of fibre onto a glue-coated surface to give it a nappy texture. Putting flocking on carpeting seems like a bad idea, because it would come off in short order; it's not as durable as you might hope. I'm not sure what Heather Havrilesky is getting at when she describes the carpet as flocked: did it have a three-dimensional nap like flocked wallpaper? Because if it is (it's the only thing I can think of), that's not flocked, it's sculpted, with different lengths of pile forming the pattern. (Answers.com says that "flock" can also mean "a tuft, as of fiber or hair": is this what she means? A tufted carpet?)

Anyway. I naturally looked up "flocking" on Answers.com because I was curious about the word's history, and was immediately sidestruck by a list of names for groups of animals, which I'm reproducing here in its entirety (until someone tells me to remove it), because it's just mind-bending.

The following related terms are used as indicated: bevy, a company of roe deer, larks, or quail; cast, the number of hawks or falcons cast off at one time, usually a pair; cete, a company of badgers; covert, a flock of coots; covey, a family of grouse, partridges, or other game birds; drift, a drove or herd, especially of hogs; exaltation, a flight of larks; fall, a family of woodcock in flight; flight, a flock of birds in flight; gaggle, a flock of geese; gam, a school of whales, or a social congregation of whalers, especially at sea; kennel, a number of hounds or dogs housed in one place or under the same ownership; kindle, a brood or litter, especially of kittens; litter, the total number of offspring produced at a single birth by a multiparous mammal; murder, a flock of crows; muster, a flock of peacocks; nide, a brood of pheasants; pod, a small herd of seals or whales; pride, a company of lions; rout, a company of people or animals in movement, especially knights or wolves; school, a congregation of fish, or aquatic mammals such as dolphins or porpoises; shrewdness, a company of apes; skein, a flight of wildfowl, especially geese; skulk, a congregation of vermin, especially foxes, or of thieves; sloth, a company of bears; sord, a flight of mallards; sounder, a herd of wild boar; stable, a number of horses housed in one place or under the same ownership; swarm, a colony of insects, such as ants, bees, or wasps, especially when migrating to a new nest or hive; troop, a number of animals, birds, or people, especially when on the move; warren, the inhabitants, such as rabbits, of a warren; watch, a flock of nightingales; and wisp, a flock of birds, especially of snipe.

And hey--there are lots more here! A husk of jackrabbits! A congregation of plovers! A spring of teal! A filth of starlings!

I understand that we like to have different words to refer to different things: grapes, for instance, occur in bunches, and if, as in an old Peanuts cartoon, we refer to it as "a group of grapes", people will look at us funny, because it's wrong--it's unidiomatic. But do we really and truly need a special word for "a flight of mallards"--"sord", from the Latin "surgere", "to rise"--as opposed to flights of any other kind of bird? Why should a flock of crows be a "murder" while a flock of peacocks is a "muster"?

It's not just animals, either. I had an old old cookbook once that supplied a list of the correct terms, at least a dozen of them, for cutting up a piece of meat at the table: you carved a roast of beef, but disjointed a turkey and dismembered a pheasant, or something along those lines. I can't remember the specifics because (even to me!) it seemed so pointless and nitpicky, a way of distinguishing the people in the know, and with too much time on their hands, from the rabble. And that's how I feel about all those animal terms: if I say "a bunch of cats" instead of the approved "clutter" (an accurate enough term, I concede), what's the problem? I'm all for idiomatic phrases like "school of fish" and "bevy of quail", but there are limits, and when I'm expected to know that a batch of turtledoves is called a "pitying", I've reached those limits.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Field Studies

It was one of those "duh" moments. I was flipping through a Slate.com slideshow about the history of summer camps and there on page five was the following sentence:

Maine's Camp Wigwam, shown here in a site plan from the 1930 camp brochure, transformed its old parade ground into a "campus"—basically a large expanse of lawn—surrounded by an amphitheater, nature museum, arts and crafts studio, manual arts shop, and lodge nestled in the woods.

Gee, I thought: I wonder if "campus" is related to "camp"?

Well, duh!

Answers.com noted that "campus" is from the Latin for "field", and that's all I needed to know. The French "champs" means "fields", as in "Champs-Elysées", "Elysian Fields". Obviously "camp" and "campus" had to be from either the Latin or the French, and therefore obviously they were related. And why not? They both refer to expanses of green.

And then another thought occurred to me, at least partially mitigating my earlier feeling of stupidity: since "champs" is the French word for "fields", and since it looks like "champion", they must be related as well. And of course they are: a champion is an athlete who achieves his success out in the field.

The French word for "mushroom", "champignon", occasionally seen in English to denote a specific kind of mushroom, is also predictably from the same source. The verb "champ", though, as in "champing at the bit", isn't: it's almost surely onomatopoeic.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Get Out!

I've mentioned the fascinating Blogging the Bible project on Slate.com before, and here's an etymological excursus from a recent entry:

Biblical ignorance confession: I never knew the scapegoat was a real goat! (Did you?) It appears in an extremely odd, yet poignant, passage. After Aaron purges the tabernacle, he takes a goat, lays his hands upon its head, confesses all the Israelites' sins to it—thus "putting them on the head of the goat." Then he exiles the goat to the wilderness, ridding the Israelites of their iniquities. Poor goat. (I cheated and looked at some commentary on this: It turns out that "scapegoat"—a version of "escape goat"—appears in Tyndale's first English translation of the Bible in 1530.)

Yeah, I did know all that, except the bit about Tyndale. There's another "scape-" word in English, "scapegrace", the derivation of which is pretty obvious: it means "scoundrel".

Something I did not know, however, is the etymology of "escape" and its offspring. It comes from, and this is entirely delightful, "ex-" plus "-cappa", "cloak", literally "to get out of one's cape"; when an enemy has you by the clothing and you manage to slip out of the garment and get away, you've escaped.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

De Trop

I was reading Slate.com's Monday entries yesterday; I'm usually a day behind. (Unlike Salon.com, which generally posts everything just after midnight, Slate's postings show up in dribs and drabs.) There was an amusing article about the expression "need to" and how it's replacing such imperatives as "have to" and "must" in English. Near the end came the following sentences:

Need to shines, as well, in passive-aggressive combat. Wife to husband: "Why do you need to play poker with the boys every Thursday?" By the time the husband comes up with the apt riposte—"I don't need to; I want to and I like to"—it's usually too late for anything but l'esprit d'escalier.

If you don't know the French origin of this phrase, you're lost, because a direct translation won't be of any help at all. You can fish around in the sentence for its meaning, but the literal word-for-word translation--"the spirit of the staircase"--is baffling; what it actually refers to is that irritating tendency for the perfect, witty response to occur to you only after it's much too late to actually say it--the story of my life. ("Esprit" literally translates as "spirit", but it can also mean "wit".) It's a great term, no doubt. It should be in wider circulation.

Then I was reading Fraywatch, which is a summary of readers' responses to Slate articles, and there appeared--not in a reader's letter but in the editorial comment--this sentence:

More to the point, badtequila asks why sexism is somehow more palatable or excusable than homophobia tout court.

This one had me a little baffled, though with a bit of research I could figure out, more or less, the meaning of the French phrase. It seems to translate variously--there isn't a precise translation--as "per se", "simply", "just", or "plain old". (French adjectives generally go after the nouns, and the usage of this phrase in English follows that pattern.) I wasn't altogether sure why anyone would use this expression when one of the English phrases or words would have done just as well, but to each his own, I suppose.

And then I read an amusing article about the sombre covers of Gourmet magazine in recent months, and there in the second paragraph was this sentence:

Gourmet has always been a little more soigné and literary than other food magazines, so I was willing to give the brooding September 2005 cover the benefit of the doubt.

And that was when I snapped. Is there an editor in the house? Because the presence of three italicized French terms (two of them fairly uncommon) in one day seems, how shall we say, un petit peu prétentieux.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Not Too Bright

This medical article (less interesting than I thought it would be) from The New Yorker is about pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition which sometimes occurs in pregnant women. (If it develops into full-blown eclampsia, it can lead to seizures and coma.)

Now, looking at the word, you'd think--okay, I'd have thought--that it's based on the word "clamp" somehow, and that this is a reference to those seizures. Doesn't that make sense? Isn't that a reasonable assumption?

Not a chance. I should have known: the best-laid folk etymologies of mice and men gang aft agley and so forth.

"Eclampsia", and this should have been my first clue, starts with "ec-", which is the Greek equivalent (Anglicized from "ek-") of Latin "ex-", "out of". And after "ec-" we have "lamp", of all things, and this in fact is the core of the word. English "lamp" is from Greek "lampein", "to shine". "Eklampein", therefore, is "to shine out" or "to shine forth".

And what does this have to do with a medical condition? In a lovely metaphorical leap, Greek "eklampsis"--"eclampsia" is the Latin form--is a noun which means not only "a shining out" but also "a sudden development", which is the perfect description for eclampsia, which attacks without warning.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Full Of It

Today, Salon.com's Video Dog points to this BBC news story about George Bush, in an unguarded moment, telling Tony Blair about how to handle those dreadful ragheads in the Middle East. There's nothing quite like hearing a British newscaster rat-a-tat out the words "stop doing this shit" as if he'd rather be saying or doing almost anything else.

He (the newscaster: it's doubtful Bush would recognize, let alone know how to pronounce, the word in question) also pronounced "expletive" as "ek-SPLEE-tive", which was counter to the pronunciation I'd heard all my life: "EX-pluh-tive". A quick visit to the OED and Answers.com confirmed my suspicions: the first pronunciation is preferred in the UK (though the second is also attested to), while the second is the one most used in North America--it's the only one Answers.com deigns to mention.

What is an expletive, anyway? Originally, it was a word used to fill out a sentence, a bit of linguistic padding such as "it's" in "it's snowing". There isn't anything snowing--the snow is falling all by itself-- but an English sentence generally has to have a subject and a verb, so we make up a subject: "it". This meaning makes perfect sense when you learn it's the literal translation of the Latin source, "ex-", "out", plus "plere", "to fill". ("Plere" is the source of such English words as "complete"; its Greek cousin, "plethein", gives us "plethora".)

Nowadays, to most people, "expletive" has one meaning only: a cuss word.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Hung Up

Why do you always have to saw everything?

Apropos of nothing whatever, Boingboing.net links to the National Film Board of Canada's website: they've just made available a whole bunch of short animated films which, let's face it, is what they're best known for, such films' having been nominated for, and also having won, quite a few Academy Awards as well as many other awards worldwide. Just trust me on this: go there and watch Cordell Barker's "The Cat Came Back" (featuring, bar none, the most delightful sound ever made by a cat or any other living creature), David Fine and Alison Snowden's "George and Rosemary" (the sound design alone--just listen to the dog's toenails on the sidewalk!--is brilliant), and Richard Condie's Oscar-winning "The Big Snit" (a miniature comedy about domestic strife and global thermonuclear war) and see if you aren't in a better mood.


However. Another Boingboing article depicts clothes-hangers with city skylines laser-cut into the bottom portion: charming, if fairly useless (since the interesting part will usually be covered by clothing), but the headline on the piece reads

Clothes hangars with cityscapes cut into the bottom bar

and that's just wrong.

"Hanger" is formed in the usual way, with the suffix "-er" tacked onto a verb to turn it into a noun meaning "one who" or "something which"; a hanger, therefore, is something on which we hang a thing. "Hangar", on the other hand, is unrelated; it would pretty much have to be, since "-ar" as a suffix means something else entirely, "of or related to"--"polar", "registrar", "cultivar". And, it turns out, "hangar" doesn't even have a suffix: it's intact from the French, who formed it from, it would seem, a pair of words that are cognate with English "home-guard", a shed or enclosure near a main building such as a house. I know there are lots of similar words in English, but the rules are the rules: a hanger is something you can hang things on, a hangar isn't.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Tucked into a Slate.com piece about Paris Hilton's mildly catchy new single and the upcoming flood of pop-diva albums is this sentence:

But she hasn't forgotten the kids: Tucked alongside the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" pastiches and saloon ballads is a thumping club track called "Still Dirrty."

Now, "pastiche" is an Anglicization--from, obviously, the French--of the Italian "pasticcio", which is work of art (a song, a painting, what have you) made of bits of other works of art. In English, the word has two meanings: this original one, in which those appropriated bits form the body of the work, and a second one, in which the original art is used to furnish the elements of an imitation of a style. Okay, that isn't as clear as I meant it to be, so let's try this: a pastiche can be either the literal assembly of parts of other artworks or a new artwork inspired by, and possibly parodying, parts of others. (Predictably, there's also a metaphorical use that is synonymous with "hodgepodge".)

However, a pastiche is not simply a parody. You can't have a pastiche of a single song.


The article also contains this sentence:

It's a veritable perfect storm of pop—never before has the public faced so concentrated an assault of melisma and décolletage—and it's bound to be bloody: In a market this glutted, someone's record is going to flop.

while another Slate.com article published a day earlier contains this one:

It's a perfect storm out there, each crisis feeding into the others yet at the same time laden with unique origins and features, demanding unique approaches and solutions.

It just might be time to retire that "perfect storm" metaphor.

Friday, July 14, 2006


I was writing over on my other blog about gardenias, and naturally this made me think of the fuchsia; not the flower itself, which has little interest for me as it's odourless (though arresting to look at), but the name.

The fuchsia is named after a German botanist, Leonhard Fuchs. This name is pronounced in German to rhyme with "kooks" in English, though the casual English reader would be forgiven for assuming it was pronounced exactly like "fucks". One might logically think that adding the "-ia" to the word would lead to the pronunciation "fook-see-ah", but it doesn't; "fuchsia" is universally pronounced in English as "fyoo-shah".

That's why I find this contention on Answers.com so baffling:

Pronunciation of "Fuchsia" is difficult for many English language speakers, as the correct pronunciation from the German origin of the name is "fook-sya" /ˈfʊksja/, readily confusable with the profanity "fuck". As a result, most English speakers tend to say "fyew'sha" /ˈfjuːʃə/. This tends to lead to misspellings like "fushcia" or "fuschia".

Most English speakers? Try all English speakers, except possibly botanists and the fanatically and misguidedly precise. The fact is that the German pronunciation is about the most irrelevant thing about the word, or any other. It's our word, and we can pronounce it as we damned well like. Indisputably, every language which borrows words adjusts the pronunciation to suit its own set of consonants and vowels; why should English be any different? Why should we pronounce "Handel" in the German manner, umlaut and all, to sound like "hendle", when we have a serviceable and in fact sensible English pronounciation, "handle"? Germans don't pronounce "Canada" exactly as we do, with that broad first "-a-" and schwas for the other two. (They pronounce each "-a-" the same, as "ah".) All this is natural; it's as it should be, in fact.

"Fuchsia" isn't difficult for English speakers to pronounce in the German manner: we can manage German pronunciations well when we need to, having no problem, for example, with "gesundheit", even though that second vowel, according to the usual rules of English, should be a short blunt one rather than the elongated "-oo-" it actually is in both languages. But for whatever reason, "fuchsia" has been pronounced "fyoo-shah" for so long that the original, correct-in-German pronunciation is gone. It no longer exists in English, and to aver otherwise is misguided. (A related word, "fuchsin", a purplish-red dye, is, however, pronounced in the authentic German manner, probably because it hasn't made it into the common parlance: borrowed words in specialized disciplines tend to hang onto their original pronunciations, at least in part because people in specialized disciplines tend to be precise about their language.)

The point about the spelling is well taken, though. Hardly anybody can spell it correctly, because the spelling and the sound don't match. I can't count the number of times I've seen it at work on some label or package spelled "fushia", which, given its invariable pronunciation in English, does make some sense. (It's still wrong, though, and it still bugs me.) Part of being good at spelling in English is managing that frequent disconnect between the look and the sound of a word: for some people (like me) it comes naturally; others have to work at it, or not bother--the usual state of things, I would say.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Your Worship

Haven't been around much lately, have I? It's been an exhausting week at work and I haven't been reading enough to have spotted any particularly amusing typos or irritating usages.

This is an interesting etymology, though. Slate.com's David Plotz has been writing a regular column called "Blogging the Bible" which is delightful, even for a confirmed atheist such as myself. (It starts here, and you'll want to read the whole thing, I think.)

A few verses later, God lectures Aaron: "You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the impure and the pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the law which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses."

The phrase "the sacred and the profane" rang a bell, and then the word "profane" got stuck in my head: "pro-" means "for" or "before" in English, so "profane" likely meant in front of something, but in front of what?

The temple, that's what. "Fanum" is the Latin word for "temple", so to act profanely is to do something you're not supposed to do in front of the place you're not supposed to do it.

Except for the very rare "fane", a temple", the word left no other traces in English, as far as I know. The archaic but not obsolete "fain", as you may well imagine, is unrelated; it means "gladly" ("I would fain have some mead, good lady!"), and is appropriately from Old English. Fascinatingly, the OED conjectures that "fain" is related to the verb "fawn", "to grovelingly attempt to curry favour". This sense of "fawn" is predictably not in any way related to the animal "fawn", which is from the French, nor the mythological "faun'. which is also from French (they're both originally from Latin), and which is related to "fauna", "the animal inhabitants of a region".

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Shopping, Part 1

Jim and I had a car this weekend, so today we were just bombing around, occasionally doing some shopping--groceries, a new window fan, what have you--but mostly just bombing around. Somewhere along the way, Jim happened to notice a street sign that contained the word "virage", which is French for "turn" or "turning": the suffix "-age" appears in many French words which are nouns crafted from verbs or other nouns, and it therefore it appears in a number of words that English borrowed from French such as "corsage"--"corps", "body", plus "-age", originally the bodice of a dress, then a tiny bouquet attached to that bodice--and "forage", literally "fodder-age", to search for food.

What Jim wondered aloud was whether, given the striking similarity between "virage" and "virago", there might be any connection. I was pretty sure there couldn't possibly be, though I averred that "virage" was related to English "veer". Right on both counts!

"Veer" does in fact come from French "virer", "to turn"; it pretty much has to, given that it has almost exactly the same sound and meaning. "Virago", though, has nothing to do with turning; it's from the Latin "vir", "man" (as in "virility" and, unexpectedly, "virtue"). A virago is a woman who is either, depending on the context and your point of view, strong and unafraid or loud and dominating. Evidently, someone thought that those qualities were the sole province of men. (More likely the first sense, "strong", earned the name "virago", "mannish", and then the word became corrupted to mean anything perceived to be unfeminine--loud, shrewish, and nasty.)

Shopping, Part 2 is here.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

For Shame

In a recent Slate.com article there's a wonderful word I'd never heard before, but first, the article itself.

I'd heard about the to-do regarding the work of photographer Jill Greenberg, who has become just a little notorious for taking big, arty photographs of crying toddlers; hideous, vulgar pictures of over-lit, pearlized children screaming or weeping. The problem isn't the subject matter, but what the photographer does to get her pictures: she deliberately makes the children cry by tormenting them, giving them a toy or candy and then snatching it away, repeatedly if necessary (you can read more about it here, if you care to).

Jim Lewis, the Slate writer, makes the following delicious observation: "An asshole who makes great art is an asshole who makes great art; but an asshole who makes lousy art is just an asshole." And then he says this:

But an insight can be sifted out of Greenberg's peccancy and Hawk's cant.

Isn't "peccancy" a great word? I immediately knew what it meant, for reasons I'll get to in a minute, but in case you don't, it simply means "sinful nature", from the Latin "peccare", "to sin". You will have seen a variation of it in the word "peccadillo", which originally meant "a little sin", but nowadays mostly means "a minor fault or misdeed".

But "peccancy" was clear to me because I had heard a Latin variation of the word before, "peccavi". The word literally means "I have sinned" in Latin, and it also exists as an English noun meaning "an admission of guilt"; it serves the same purpose as the phrase "mea culpa", which is also naturalized into English and often seen in the plural form: this Columbia Journalism Review article headline, "Mea Culpas All Over The Place", is typical of the usage. But I first heard the word "peccavi" as part of a story which I'll let this writer tell:

Not only is this word's meaning unique, and its sound very interesting, but it gave rise to the most witty multilingual pun of all time. In 1843, when Sir Charles Napier sent a preliminary dispatch of a single word: "peccavi". The reason: his military victory and conquest of the province of Sind (now in Pakistan). His message: "I have Sind".

In case you were wondering, no, the piggy little animal known as the peccary, as seen above, does not derive its name from its innate sinfulness: it's from a Carib Indian word, "pakira".

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Standing on Ceremony

Today I was wearing a scent called L'Instant du Guerlain pour Homme, and what do you think? I wondered about where the word "instant" came from.

The quick answer is that it comes from Latin (of course it comes from Latin), from "in-", which in this case means "on", and "-stare", "to stand". To stand on? Really?

Really. The various senses of the word except the obvious one ("a brief moment of time") mean some variation of "at hand", which is where the "stand on" sense comes in: something at hand is something standing at the ready. Anything that's instant--coffee, access, gratification--is right there when you need it. (An old and mostly disused form, "inst.", an abbreviation of "instant", means "of the current month"; "I sent you the cheque on the 18th inst.") It's not much of a leap for this adjective to turn into a noun which means not the at-handness but the amount of time it takes for the thing to be ready for you.

"-Stare" gave birth to an enormous family of words in English. There are, of course, the "-stant" words such as "distant" ("standing away from"), "constant" ("standing with"), and "substantive" (it "stands under" the outward appearance). Other "-sta-" words such as "statue" and "establish" come from another sense of "-stare", "to set up" (and leave standing); another family of cousins with the original meaning includes "stay" and "stable". Yet another group of words containing "-ist-" is from the same source, including "insist" ("stand on"), "resist" ("stand against"), and "persist". And then there's the group that came from a Greek variation of "-stare", including such words as "stasis" and "static", both denoting things that just stand there. And yet more: there are bucketloads of "-st-" words which filtered into English such as "prostitute", "armistice", "stool", "system", and "cost". How amazingly prolific!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hanging Around

When a word that you know in one language happens to have made its way into another language, with a somewhat different meaning...well, you can imagine how confusing that can be.

Here's a sentence from a New Yorker review of a biography of Disraeli:

Partly, it was the natural high spirits of a true flâneur; partly, it involved an astute reading of the English character.

And I thought, "Flâneur? They can't possibly have gotten that right." Not that the New Yorker is known for its mistakes, mind. But in Montréal, you will see signs reading "Defense de flâner": the verb "flâner" actually means "to stroll", but in the context of a public sign it means "no loitering" or "no dawdling". Disraeli? A dawdler?

However, in English, "flâneur" has a specialized meaning that I had never heard before: it doesn't mean "loiterer", exactly, or even "stroller", but "idler", and it specifically refers to a kind of well-to-do, aimless man-about-town; not some bum hanging around outside the mall begging for change, but a dandy with not much to do and lots of time to publicly do it in.

Google Translate knows, a little too well, that French "-eur" generally becomes "-or" in English ("acteur" becomes "actor", for instance): if you type "flâneur" into the Translate Text box and translate it from French into English, you get "flanor", which, you will probably not be surprised to hear, does not exist in English. (Translate "stroll" from English into French, however, and you will get "flâner". One of the mysteries of Google Translate.)