or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

True Love

Last Hallowe'en I wrote this and now's as good a time as any to read it again, if you've a mind to. The fight's lost, anyway: Googling "hallowe'en" gives 1.72 million hits, and "halloween -hallowe'en" (which is to say pages that contain the first spelling but not the second) 281 million. I can see which way the wind blows. But I'm still going to insert that apostrophe until the day I die.


In Part Two of our continuing series on comic-strip typos (one a year, it seems), we have the following exhibit:

(It's from Carol Lay's Salon.com comic WayLay.)

"Aphrodisiac" is the correct spelling: it's from the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, who no doubt was glad to give her name to a potion which sparks sexual arousal.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Fear Itself

One of the things that really irritates me--a persistent theme in these pages--is the use of "phobia", or some word compounded out of it, to refer to a mere fear. That's not a phobia. If I'm afraid of burning to death and take steps to make sure that doesn't happen--by, say, keeping an extinguisher in the kitchen and not falling into campfires--that's not a phobia, that's just common sense, even if death by burning is the worst thing I can think of. If I'm terrified of open flames and things that could theoretically burst into flame: if I can't walk into a store that sells candles, even though they be unlit: if I begin to panic upon spying a chandelier with those light bulbs that resemble flickering flames...well, that would probably qualify as full-blown pyrophobia. A proper phobia is consuming, irrational, and debilitating (which is why I'm not happy with the term "homophobia", either: some compound with "miso-", "hate", would be more to the point).

And so of course there are endless lists of would-be phobias, as here: agyrophobia, the fear of crossing streets! Theophobia, the fear of gods! Spectrophobia, the fear of looking into a mirror! What rot. Silly, made-up names for things people say they're afraid of. A phobia is a disabling fear, not just a distaste for something. (This moderately famous video of a talk-show guest being terrified by a plate of pickles is more in the ballpark: Jim thinks she's faking it, and she probably is, to get her fifteen minutes of fame, but a phobia is by its very definition irrational, and I expect that's what a proper phobia would look like.) This Wikipedia page expresses it well:

In many cases people have coined these words as neologisms, and only a few of them occur in the medical literature. In many cases, the naming of phobias has become a word game.

But I didn't mind such words being used in this New Yorker article about some clever Hallowe'en haunted houses that were developed by asking New Yorkers what they were most afraid of, and then building rooms that reflected these fears. It's not the strictest or most clinical sense of the words to say that someone's fear of tuna fish qualifies as sitophobia, the fear of eating, but it seems to me that, having interviewed a number of people, the houses' designers may have hit on a sort of collective phobia.

A word that, for no particular reason, delighted me was "harpaxophobia", the fear of being robbed. (That's one that I can easily imagine being a crippling fear; such a thing could certainly lead to someone's becoming an urban hermit.) Where on Earth could it have come from? From the Greek, obviously--the very look of "harpax" tells us that. And it turns out that "harpax" is the Greek word for "rapacious".

In tracking that down, I got a lot of Google hits for something called "pachycondyla harpax", which is a sort of ant. "Pachy-", familiar from "pachyderm", "elephant", means "thick"--"pachydermatous" means "thick-skinned"--and the condyles are literally the knuckles but refer to any prominences at the ends of the bones, giving them their characteristic shapes. The pachycondyla harpax, therefore, is a thick-knuckled predator, which makes it sounds rather like a high-school bully.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hard Facts

For the last couple of days I've made mention of the fact that Greek words which contained the letter "k" found that letter transformed into "c" as they moved through Latin. Reader Frank posted the following comment:

What I find funny about the Latin habit of changing a Greek "k" to a "c" is that there is no soft "c" sound in Latin. Classical Latin pronounced "c" like we do "k." One wonders why they bothered!

High time I addressed it, then.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, English once had a single symbol, "v", which represented the sounds of both modern "u" and "v", depending on the context. The same is true of "i" and "j", which is why you will see the Roman god Jupiter's name depicted as "IVPITER". This sort of thing is pretty common in languages as they evolve: symbols appear ("w", forged from a doubled "v"), change shape (the letter "G" was once a boxy, squared-off object), vanish ("Þ", the thorn, now represented as "th").

The opposite of that divergence also happens--two similar sounds come to be represented by the same symbol--and this is the explanation for the "c"/"k" anomaly in Latin. Classical Latin did have a slightly softened "c"/"k" sound (nothing like our soft, hissed "s"-like "c" as in "herbicide": it was still a hard consonant, similar to the sound of English "g" as in "go"*) which appeared before a few vowels and diphthongs, and the letter "c" was used to represent this sound. "K", identical in sound to ours, was used before all other vowels and consonants. Because the difference between these sounds was very slight--because they nearly converge--it eventually became the practice to represent both sounds with a single symbol, "c", letting the reader decide which sound is meant, just as we do in English with...well, just about every letter of the alphabet. (A vestigial "k" remained at the beginning of certain Latin words, such as kalends.)

That doesn't answer the question of why they chose "c" instead of "k", though. Perhaps "c" was easier to write: perhaps it looked less like Greek. I don't know.

* Yes, the Latin alphabet does have the letter "G", which represents the hard-"g"/softened-"k" sound. Before that symbol appeared in about the 3rd century BC, when Classical Latin was still Old Latin, "c" represented that sound.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Twisty Faster does conjure up the most wonderful words and phrases, and one of my favourites, used again in today's blog posting, is "obstreperal lobe". How I wish I had one!

"Obstreperous" is an odd-looking word, isn't it? It doesn't seem to be connected to any other English word, at least not one that I can think of.* The first part is cake: "ob-" means "towards" or "against", and it has the function of directing an action, as in "obnoxious" ("injurious towards"), "object" ("to throw against"), and "obfuscate" ("to throw darkness over").

The rest of it, though: isn't that a bafflement? It comes from Latin "strepere", "to make a noise", and so "obstreperous" literally means "raising one's voice against", which accords well with the standard definition of the word, "loudly defiant". It's nice to see that some things don't change at all over the millennia.

*(It isn't, alas, related to "streptococcus" in any way: that gets its first half from Greek "streptos", "twisted", from its shape. The second half is from Greek "kokkos", "berry"--remember what I said yesterday about "k" in Greek?--and so we might guess that the streptococcus bacterium looks like a string of spherules twisted into loops, and this is precisely what it does look like: see?)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Making the Move

I've been meaning to mention this for a month now, but you know how things are.

On Boing Boing there was a link to an animated film called Biovisions: The Inner Life of the Cell that shows processes inside living cells. If you're like me, you probably thought that everything in there just kind of floated around, but it turns out that the inner workings of your cells are incredibly organized and complex. The short film is riveting, and the music is rapturous--simultaneously minimalist and swoonily romantic, something I love. Go ahead and watch it: you won't be sorry.

One thing the Boing Boing article latched onto (and which is astounding) is a little doodad which drags a big bag of something or other along a pathway by taking little steps. It has two feet, or footlike appendages, and it really walks. It looks like something alive, but it's actually a molecule called kinesin.

"Kinesin" is just a great name for a molecule that moves under its own steam. The suffix "-in" refers to a chemical compound with no electrical charge: "insulin*", for example, or "chitin". The "kines-" is from Greek "kinein", "to move", which is also the root of such words as "kinetic" and "cinema" (an abbreviation of "cinematograph", once "kinematograph", which is to say "moving picture"). This conversion of "k" to "c" is very common in words that came to us from the Greek, partly because Latin had little use for the letter "k" and generally changed it, as in words such as "cemetery", originally Greek "koimeterion".

Therefore, it will not come as a surprise that Latin words using the same Indo-European root that led to "kinein" contain "c", emerging as they do from "ciere", "to set in motion": "incite", for example, and "resuscitate".

*The "insul-" of "insulin" is from Latin "insula", "island", because insulin is formed in the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. "Insula" also looks familiar, of course, from such words as "insular" and "insulate".

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Here in The Guardian Online is a most interesting story about a disorder that causes people to consume, quite literally, anything they can stuff into their mouths: toilet paper, cigarette butts, sand, what have you. This condition is called "pica", and of course I had to wonder where the name came from and if there could be any relationship between it and the unit of measure also known as the pica.*

The unit of measure (which is one sixth of an inch, by the way) is, according to Answers.com, from Mediaeval Latin "pica", 'list of church services". It then adds, "perhaps from the typeface used to print it", but the OED notes that "no edition of pica...in 'pica' type appears to be known".

The other pica, the illness, derives, amazingly, from the same source as "magpie", because such birds are great and indiscriminate eaters; the New Latin word for the bird is "pica".

Both words, since you were probably wondering, are pronounced the same, and since "magpie" is the source of one of them, it will not surprise you to learn that that pronunciation is "PIE-ka" and not "PEE-ka".** The similar-sounding "pike" has a number of meanings and correspondingly a number of derivations, none of which has anything to do with "pica" (most of them ultimately derive from French "piquer", "to prick").

* It turns out there's a third "pica", as well: it's an old spelling of "pika", a preposterously cute, hamsterish animal that's actually not a rodent but a lagomorph, the family of animals which also includes rabbits and hares--as well it might, because the word "lagomorph" is from the Greek for "hare-shaped".

** The obviously unrelated prefix "pico-", "one trillionth", is pronounced "PEE-ko". Or "PIE-ko": your choice, for a change.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Reader Tony Pius, in a comment to yesterday's post:

Another for Salon.com's "need for an editor" file, from Broadsheet ("The politics of veiling"):

That surprising experience is why I'm receptive, though limitedly, to Yvonne Ridley's Washington Post Op-Ed about her complete 360 on the veil.

360 degrees make a circle, folks. If you do a 360, you're still going in the same direction afterward.

I have a mathematical background. This may therefore loom larger on my peeve radar than on yours.

P.S. "Limitedly"?

Well, you sank my battleship. I noticed it early this morning and was extremely annoyed by it, and was going to write about it, and here you've gone and done it for me, so that worked out well. (The piece is here, for anyone else who wants to read it.)

I am peeved as much as you are by "complete 360": it's one of those expressions that with even a moment's analysis makes no sense, for exactly the reason you state: a 180 is what's meant. (A couple of people, I note, made the same remark in the comments section for that article.)

However. As I've said before, English is not algebra, and not everything has to make perfect sense. I don't like the 360 any more than you do, but we ought to acknowledge that it's in common usage and that when someone says it, everyone understands what's meant by it. It still grates on the nerves, but at this point I'd be hard pressed to call it wrong. (Wrong in a geometrical sense, yes, but not from an English-usage point of view.) You're right, though: the mythical Salon copy editor should have caught and corrected it--it's forgivable in speech and casual writing, but in published writing it should be banished.

"Limitedly" is a hideous word, but nevertheless a valid one: it's in the dictionaries and everything. Even the OED makes passing mention of it under "limited", but don't ever expect to find me using it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Show Me Love

As I have said before and will no doubt have cause to say again, I used to be a proofreader and I was really good at it because misspelled words just jump out at me, highlighted in neon yellow.

In the comments section to a recent Project Rungay posting, someone misspelled "diaphanous" as "diaphonous". No big deal: it's not a usual word and it's not a professional writer making the mistake. I noticed because, one, it's a typo which of course showed up on my internal radar screen, and two, the "-phon-" syllable is obviously wrong in the context--it's from Greek "phone", "sound", and if you know that you can instantly tell that "diaphonous" must be wrong.

But what about "diaphanous" itself? I didn't know where the "-phan-" syllable might come from, so of course I looked it up, and it turns out that the source is the Greek word "phainein", "to show".

Looking at "-phan-" again, it was obvious that it was also at the root of "cellophane", a former trade name that became a common noun: the "cell-" is from the cellulose which is used to make the product, and the "-phane" is from that Greek word. (What looks like "cello-" in "cellophane" isn't: the "-o-" is just there for purposes of euphony, as is the "-e" at the end. The musical instrument known as the cello is actually called a violoncello, and that name come from "violone", the Italian word for "violin", plus "-cello", a diminutive.) (I briefly thought that the "-phane" of "cellophane" make "pane" a relative of "phainein": after all, both cellophane and a pane of glass are transparent, the better to show you things. However, "pane" is actually related to "panel", which makes a lot more sense.)

Looking up "*phan*" on Morewords, I found, among a bunch of dead ends such as "orphan", the word "sycophant". Surely, I thought, that has to be an offshoot of "phainein". And it is, in a way I never could have guessed.

In Answers.com's memorable formulation, a sycophant is a servile self-seeker who attempts to win favor by flattering influential people. This comes from Greek "sycophanta", "informer, slanderer"; the second half is indeed from "phainein", but the first half is from "sukon", "fig"! Sycophancy is literally the showing of (stolen or illegally exported) figs: to be a sycophant is to be someone who shows you where the figs are by way of currying favour.

A perfume company called Diptyque has a scent called Philosykos: I had never really thought too hard about the name before, but know I know it means "the love of figs", a fitting name for a bone-dry, fig-scented fragrance.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Chamber of Secrets

I don't always immediately look up anything that interests me. Sometimes I don't get around to it: sometimes it has to percolate for a while. Sometimes that while is a few years, or more.

Here's the lead sentence is Michael Kinsley's latest editorial on Slate.com:

Here in Washington, we're all competing to see who can be more po-faced about Mark Foley and the congressional pages.

I've never heard the expression "po-faced" used in speech, though I've read it a number of times: it means "bearing an expression of frowning disapproval", and seems extremely British to me. I assumed it couldn't be a contraction of "poker-faced", since the meanings aren't particularly convergent, but I couldn't imagine where else it might have come from.

The so-useful World Wide Words tells us that the "po-" in "po-faced" comes from the French pronunciation of the second word in the expression "chamber pot", which make perfect sense and explains everything:

Po-faced was perhaps applied to such people because they react to insalubrious comments with a look of insufficiently disguised distaste, as if suddenly presented with a used chamber pot.

Doesn't that say it all?

Not quite:

The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests it might have been influenced by poker face, which is one of the senses it gives for the word; that is not quite how it is understood today, but it does imply somebody who is trying not to show a reaction to some happening of which they disapprove.

That's what I was looking for! Nevertheless, the meaning isn't the same: a poker face is generally one of complete inexpressiveness, and not ill-concealed revulsion. I don't think "po-faced" was influenced by "poker-faced" as much as it calls it to mind. It certainly did for me.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Cock of the Walk

Today I've got an expression I'm guessing you've never heard before. Maybe you have: maybe you get around. But it's such an oddity!

According to the Urban Dictionary (to which, you should keep in mind, anyone can contribute, like Wikipedia with looser quality control), the expression "cock for dolly" means "a perfect fit, or especially appropriate". I trust I don't have to explain why it would mean this.

But I first heard it in Newfoundland, where it has an even more specific and literal meaning (one which doesn't preclude its use as a metaphor, as far as I know). I used to play cards a lot with a group of friends, and often we'd go over to one particular friend's house, where her mother--a wonderfully cool old broad, a description I think she would have embraced--would join in. And whenever you played a queen to a trick which she could then take with a king, this cool mom would invariably say (and I wish I could duplicate her delivery of this line), "I've got just the cock for your dolly."

Well, how much more literal can you get?

She didn't appropriate it herself: my mother (born and bred in Newfoundland) also knew the expression when I used it during a game of euchre a few years back. "Cock for dolly", therefore, means "a king that beats a queen in a trick-taking card game". Don't tell me you can't find some sort of use for that, sooner or later.

Jim had never heard the phrase when I once used it, but he was so taken by it that he immediately dubbed our handcart the cockfordolly, all one word. (Yes, we have our own handcart--we used to move a lot, for job reasons--and yes, I know that a dolly and a handcart aren't the same thing. It's still hilarious.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Strung Up

I was reading Entertainment Weekly (I subscribe, and what's it to you?) and came across, in a review of Sting's new album of John Dowland covers, the unexpected word "lutenist".

My very first thought was, "Well, that can't be right!" My very second thought, hot on its heels, was, "Well, it probably can. But it still sounds weird." Because "lutenist" sounds too much like "lutein" ("a yellow pigment found in fats"), and "lutist" seemed like the more obvious choice of word for "lute player", analogous to "pianist", "oboist", and numerous others.

Turns out they're both correct: "lutenist" is the older word, by about a quarter-century, and was John Dowland's choice. (The OED says that another spelling is "lutanist": this spelling is the more logical, based as it is on Mediaeval Latin "lutana", "lute".) I think I still prefer "lutist", but it's nice to know I have a choice.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I expect that the sorts of mistakes non-native English speakers make in their daily forays into the language can tell us a lot of about English, and language in general, and how the mind works. That doesn't interest me as much as the fact that people who aren't one hundred per cent comfortable in the language can invent words of considerable novelty and charm.

The previous manager of the frame shop in which I work told me about a friend of hers whose mother was French, as in "from France", and coined a word about ten years ago that was entirely delightful: meaning to say "sensuous", or possibly "sexual", she came up with "sexuous", and what I want to know is, why doesn't the word exist in English? It's awesome! (Actually, it sort of does exist; it's in the Urban Dictionary. It isn't in very wide circulation, though it deserves to be.)

The current manager of the frame shop--yes, I could have applied for the position, and I probably would have gotten it, but I like my job just the way it is and I don't need the corporate bullshit and the probable ulcer--is Finnish. She speaks five languages, which I find very impressive, and her English is just fine, although she doesn't seem to think so (though, as I tell her, I understand her and she understands me and that's good enough).

When we're making up an order, we have to write a description of the artwork: "Garden of Earthly Delights", say, or "Family Portrait", to name two recent ones. This manager was taking an order and the artwork to be framed was a picture of a polar bear and two cubs, and her English temporarily failed her, so what she wrote was, "Icebear with cuddies".

First of all, "icebear". Isn't that just wonderful? It's much better than "polar bear"; it's so descriptive. (And, as it happens, "icebear" is the exact translation of how you say "polar bear" in Finnish, and in German, too--their version is "Eisbär". I don't know the actual Finnish word, but take it from me that it doesn't sound like "icebear" or "Eisbär" or probably any other word you might ever have heard. Finnish is really a thing unto itself.)

Second, "cuddies". What could be more delightful? It's such an expressive coinage, redolent of "cub" and "cuddly" together. I'm going to use it, privately. It's adorable.

However, "cuddy" is, as it turns out, already an English word: it more or less means "cubbyhole", which is to say a tiny room or cupboard. And speaking of which, wouldn't you think that "cubbyhole", also known as "cubby", is descended from "cupboard"? After all, the "-p-" is silent, and so the word sounds like "cubberd", from which "cubby" might logically be a shortened form. And yet it isn't at all. "Cupboard" is in fact a joining of the words "cup" and "board", whereas "cubby" and "cubbyhole" come from "cub", an obsolete word for a sort of hutch.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Off With Her Apostrophe

After reading Stephanie Zacharek's review, I really want to see the new movie "Marie Antoinette". However, there's the little matter of this sentence in the review:

It was filmed on location at Versailles (Coppola is the first filmmaker to have been granted that privilege), in a palette of cupcake-fondant colors and patina'ed gold.

Let's see what the Apostrophe Protection Society has to say about a word like "patina'ed". Nope, nothing there about shoving an apostrophe in between two vowels in a preterite or an adjective that takes the form of a preterite. And with good reason: it's wrong. The apostrophe has a number of jobs, none of which is to separate the past-tense/adjectival "-ed" ending from a word ending in a vowel that isn't "-e-". "Soloed", not "solo'ed". "Bikinied", not "bikini'ed". And so forth.

There are two ways to pronounce "patina": "puh-TEE-nuh" and "PAT-uh-nuh". I prefer the second, but they're both correct. There are also two ways to spell the past tense form of "patina": "patinaed" and "patinated". Again, I prefer the second, but again, they're both correct. You will, however, note that there isn't an apostrophe to be found in either of them, Stephanie.


Update: Constant reader Tony Pius wrote:

Maybe Stephanie prefers the four-syllable past-tense form, but replaces the second "t" with a glottal stop...?

Nice theory! The problem is that a glottal stop doesn't easily follow a long vowel, and I say this as one who is possessed of a rather ferocious stop himself. If she were going to throw a stop in there, she'd do it after the first vowel sound, and then, rather than stress the second "-t-", blunt it into a "-d-", with the last two syllables sounding like those in "cannonaded". (It's how I would pronounce it myself if I didn't force myself to pronounce the second "-t-", and, as it happens, I used the word "patinated" today, describing a frame to a customer.)

If you Google "patina'ed", you'll find some hits. Stephanie Zacharek isn't the only person on Earth who thinks you have to insert an apostrophe after a vowel but before "-ed", which is to say she isn't the only person who's wrong on this matter. I like Salon a lot, but damn, their copy-editing leaves a lot to be desired.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Well, Blow Me Down

It's just fun--to someone like me, and probably you, too, if you're reading this--when you discover that a word has the most unexpected, improbable, even ridiculous provenance. Here are two that I stumbled across in the last couple of days.


I was flipping through Robert Claiborne's "The Roots of English" for laughs when I noticed the following three words (well, two words and an abbreviation) in a discussion of words such as "boulder" and "balloon" (remind me to tell you about it sometime): "L follis, bellows".

Aha! "Follis" means "bellows"! And a bellows is a sort of bag, and "follis" is clearly the root of the word "follicle", which has the diminutive "-icle" suffix, and therefore, obviously, a follicle is a little bag!

And so it is. A follicle is a little bag that holds an ovum or a hair bulb or what have you.

It gets better: a bellows is a bag of wind, yes? And "follis" is bellows, also yes? And "follis" looks like English "folly" as well, yes? And so therefore, logically, "fool" ought to derive from "follis"--yes, it does!--and therefore a fool is is a fool because he is literally a windbag. Isn't that just about the greatest thing you ever heard?


I was reading James Wolcott's blog a few days ago, and today I was reading it again and I remembered that he'd used the word "meretricious", which all by itself is fascinating because it sounds like "meritorious" but in fact means almost the exact opposite: the latter means "having merit" and the former "insincere: specious". They're not spelled the same, of course: "merit-" versus "meret-". But the fact that they sound so alike and are yet so different was amusing.

The root of "meretricious", wonderfully, is "meretrix", the Latin word for "prostitute", and that comes from "merere", "to earn [money]": presumably the only way a woman could actually earn money in Rome was to rent herself out.

And then came the twist to the twist: "meretricious" and "meritorious" have the same root! "Merere" means "to earn", and you earn merit. The difference is spelling is pure Latin: "meritus" is the past participle of "merere".

"Merere", by the way, is also the root of "polymer", the "poly-" ("many") marking it as a Greek offering: "merere" not only means "to earn" but "to get a share [part] of something", and a polymer is a molecule with many parts.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Twist and Shout

I just love Twisty Faster's blog "I Blame The Patriarchy": see, I've listed it over there to the left under the heading "Great Blogs", so obviously it must be a great blog. I also love her most recent posting, about the interview with Richard Dawkins in Salon yesterday. But here are three sentences from her posting that I do not, cannot, love, because they are sadly flawed:

I identify with the dude, and not just because I’m the biggest athiest in South Austin.

Scientists involved in the debate on behalf of evolution are aware that fundie godbags are only too eager to equate Darwinism with screwy bedeviled athiests, so they (the scientists) wish, for the sake of the argument against intelligent design, that Dawkins would just put a sock in it.

("Fundie godbags". Heh.)

In fact, although it is a felony in the US not to pretend to worship some sort of superhuman male deity, and athiests in particular are required to ‘respect’ everybody else’s ‘faith’, Dawkins — a Brit who is not constrained by parochial American superstition — comes right out and says what we’re all thinking: that religion is ‘evil’.

She's smart and she cannot possibly think that "atheist" is spelled "athiest". She has to know how to use a spell-checker, and she surely has to spell-check her writing before she posts it, so how could she not have caught that?

In fairness, I did the same thing last Hallowe'en when I accidentally wrote "All Hallow's Eve" for "All Hallows' Eve" about five times, and the spellchecker flagged it just now so it must have done so then, too, but I posted anyway and then a reader corrected me and I fixed it. Did I think I was smarter than the spellchecker was? (Sometimes I am, you know.) Did I just ignore it? Was I writing in such a frenzy of speed that the red flags just didn't register? (Highly unlikely.) Was I just having one of those days?

Also in fairness, it is very very easy to write "-iest" instead of "-eist": there are only a couple dozen words in English that end in the latter, but thousands upon thousands that end in the former, being as it is the superlative suffix for any adjective that ends in "-y", giving us such words as "Twistiest".

So I'm cutting Twisty all kinds of slack. This time.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Blak to the Future

Jim said to me on Tuesday night, "Well, they have Coca-Cola Blake in Canada now." He was referring to a supermarket sighting of this product, which is called "Blak" but which has a symbol over the vowel which forces it to be pronounced long, as in "sate", rather than the expected short, as in "sat". So it may look like "Blak", and the nice folks at Coca-Cola might have expected people to pronounce it "black", which no doubt most of them do, but to look at it, it's "blake".

That's how it was in March, anyway, but it's October and times change. I was in the supermarket yesterday and saw the product in question, and the macron--that's the symbol which indicates the vowel's pronunciation--has been changed (compare the picture above to that in the March posting). Now it's a little swoosh which continues the style of the product's graphic design, but it resembles a mirror-imaged tilde, which doesn't even go over a vowel, mated with a breve (the symbol which indicates a short vowel), which at least is a step in the right direction.

Do they need a diacritical mark of any sort? Is it really necessary? We already know how to pronounce the word without any help from accent marks, real or imaginary. (At least a product such as No-Dōz honestly requires its diacritic.) Is the mark supposed to increase the coolness factor somehow, in a slightly modernized version of röck döts? Because it mostly looks kind of stupid, especially now that I note that the company's preferred spelling isn't even "Blak" but "BlaK". Also, calling your product a "carbonated fusion beverage" makes it sound as if it ought to be generating electricity.

But what the hell. I give them credit for at least getting rid of the macron, making a stab at the correct diacritic, making delicious Diet Coke, and making me think I'm going to have to try this preposterous new product (caffeine-jolted, coffee-flavoured cola!) one of these days.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Warm and Fuzzy 2

Maybe you've seen those photographs of the plus-size model that Jean-Paul Gaultier put in his show as a smirky fuck-you to Spain. Turns out her stage name--perhaps it's her given name, don't know, don't care--is Velvet, which is an interesting word indeed.

For the first few hundred years of English, there was only "v", used to represent what are in modern times "u" and "v". Eventually the "u" evolved, but not the way we use it today: "v" was generally used at the beginning of a word, and "u" within a word, leading to such oddities (to modern eyes) as "vnder" and "loue". (In keeping with the fast-and-loose spelling of the time, these were not absolute rules.) In the eighteenth century, in what we might call the dictionary era, the consonant "v" and the vowel "u" took on their modern forms once and for all.

"Velvet" started out its life as "veluet", but since "v" is "u" is "v", the modern spelling and pronunciation were eventually settled on. (The OED lists a quotation from 1694 as the time when the one became the other: there is one earlier quote, from the mid-1400s, using the spelling "velvet".) "Veluet" is clearly related to "velour"--more clearly than is "velvet", anyway. They're both from the same source, eventually: they both came from French words that descended from Latin "villosus", "hairy", which stems from "villus", "hair", because velvet has a short-haired nap.

You might suppose that "vellum" is descended from the same root: I rather hoped it was, since vellum, a form of parchment, is made from kidskin...which has the hair...scraped from it....

But no. "Vellum" is from the same root as "veal": Latin "vitulus", "calf".

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Warm and Fuzzy

I was reading a New Yorker article about Nigella Lawson when I was arrested by this sentence:

She was wearing a black suède jacket, a long black skirt, black suède boots, and a blue cashmere sweater.

I confess to never having seen that accent dangling over the word "suede" before in that context. It originally belonged there, to be sure: the word is French for "Sweden".

There isn't one overriding rule regarding the accents in foreign borrowings. At the risk of generalizing (a risk I've gladly taken before):

Accent marks are often left in place if they reduce confusion: "résumé", for instance, keeps its accents so we know it isn't the disyllablic "resume". Newer adoptions tend to keep them: "détente" usually has its accent mark, but that's slowly disappearing, I think. Uncommon words, words which we usually italicize to point up their foreignness, retain all accent marks, as in "Gemütlichkeit". Other words seem to be correct with or without: "aperçu" and "apercu" are more or less interchangeable, as long as you pronounce them both as if that cedilla were still there. And finally, words that have been in the language for a long time generally dispense with them altogether through custom: "première" used to be spelled with the accent, but now it hardly ever is (though you can see the mark in action here), and likewise "role", which is still occasionally--rarely, and usually only in British English--spelled "rôle".

This is clearly the case with "suede". Googling the word with its accent intact and searching through English-language pages only doesn't give any hits referring to the fabric within the first 150 listings (that's the point at which I got bored with the exercise), so I think it's fair to say that "suede" no longer carries an accent grave in English.

If nothing else, you have to admire the New Yorker's editors' devotion to their stylebook.

Monday, October 09, 2006


Why do people insist on firing off dubious pronouncements on correct English usage? That's my job.

No, wait. It's my job to fire off the pronouncements and fix the dubious assertions. Whew.

From the letters section for a Salon.com article about hack actor Stephen Baldwin's new line of work:

A minor quibble, but that would be the 12 Apostles, not the 12 Disciples.

Now, I'm the first to admit--announce, in fact--that English has lots of words but very few exact synonyms. "Apostle" and "disciple" aren't identical in meaning; hardly any two words in English are. However, their meanings overlap and blur, and when you put the adjective "twelve" in front of either word, it's instantly clear that what you're speaking about is the group of followers that Jesus chose to disseminate his beliefs. "Twelve apostles" is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as "twelve disciples". Admittedly, "apostles" has an edge, if you trust Google's count: 1.29 million hits for "twelve apostles OR 12 apostles" versus 375,000 for "twelve disciples OR 12 disciples". But they're the same thing in everyday usage. The letter-writer's distinction is not even a quibble; it's just nit-picking to a degree that even I wouldn't engage in.

"Apostle" comes from the Greek "apo-", "off, away" plus "stellein", "to send", which is also the root of the word "epistle". The etymology of "disciple", though. Whom to believe on that count? The only certainty is that it's from Latin, which you could guess from looking at it anyway.

Answers.com says it comes from "discipulus", pupil, which originates from "discere", "to learn". (If you guess, as I did, that "discern" also comes from "discere", you're wrong, just as I was: that word actually comes from "cernere", "to sift", which then gave us such words as "certain" and "secret").

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that "disciple" comes from "discipulus", too, but then it says that that comes from "discipere", "to grasp intellectually", which comes from "dis-", "apart", plus "capere", "to take", which is to say that "discipere" means "to take apart analytically".

Robert Claiborne's The Roots of English says that "disciple" comes from "docere", "to teach", a word which also gave us "doctor", "docile" ("teachable"), and "document", which was originally a lesson. This seems least likely, because "to learn" and "to teach" aren't the same thing at all, related though they are. Perhaps Claiborne is getting at the fact that "docere" and "discere" have the same Indo-European root, but if so, he does it in an uncharacteristically opaque way.

"Discere", "discipere", "docere". These Latin words all have overlapping meanings, but they aren't all the same, so clearly we'll have to let the Oxford English Dictionary, the best of all possible dictionaries, settle it, won't we? The OED says that "disciple" comes from --drumroll, please--"discere", "to learn", the most obvious of the three etymologies. (It's possible that "discere" is a descendent of "discipere", which would be what the Online Etymology Dictionary is getting at--it's what another source, here, says--but I wish they'd made that clear.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Slings and Arrows

Here's a comment by regular reader Tony Pius, which I am quoting in its entirety:

Had you simply declared Saturday a wash and held out until Sunday, you would have received this chunk of inspiration from Salon's "I Like To Watch" column (by Heather Havrilesky):

"...I'm still holding out hope for NBC's "Studio 60" (10 p.m. Mondays) (and no, I don't think that Amanda Peet's Jordan McDeere is colorful or believable enough to fit the bill of strong but complex female heroine, although she's head and shoulders above most of the other cupie dolls)."

I think she's decided that "kewpie" is an abbreviation of "cutie pie" and simply lopped off letters to make it fit. On the other hand, I haven't checked the etymology, and she might well be right.

Oh, come on now. You trust your own instincts better than that, don't you?

I did read Havrilesky's column this morning before work and did notice the spelling, and I actually decided not to comment on it: I figured, she's hugely pregnant and she has enough on her plate without looking up every possible spelling for every possible word, and god knows the copy editors at Salon--if there are any, though surely there aren't--won't do the work for her. But since you mentioned it, yeah, she screwed up.

"Kewpie" is originally a trademark, and it doesn't have anything to do with "cutie-pie", although it looks as if it ought to. It is, in fact, a baby-talk version of "Cupid". The word was devised--coined, I guess--by an illustrator named Rose O'Neill, who drew magazine illustrations of pudgy little flying babies, sort of like a very early version of the "Love Is" characters. Soon they were made into little celluloid likenesses, the famed "Kewpie Dolls".

And how long did it take me to look all this up? Three minutes, maybe. But then, I knew how to spell the word. I tell you, it's the good spellers who have the advantage when doing research, yet another reason to teach spelling more aggressively in schools.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Drawing a Blank

I got nothin' today. Nothin', I tells ya!

In the car on the way to work today--we rented a car for the long weekend, only to find that I'm working both Saturday and Sunday--the word "ceramic" came up, and I made a mental note to look it up on the premise that it might be interesting, but it isn't. Look it up yourself if you don't believe me.

At work itself, I was just too busy to even think about whatever it is I usually think about that leads to a blog entry, and then we went out for supper and there weren't even any typos in the menu. Heading home, no hilariously misspelled signs along the way. As I said, nothin'.

There's this, though. From "Joe My God", a blog that Jim reads but I don't (I have nothing against it, but the day has only so many hours in it and I already spend three, maybe four hours a day in front of the computer and a man has to draw the line somewhere), two appalling typos from a photo display at the Masonic Temple in Manhattan. "Sky scrappers" and "eletric streetcars", indeed.

There's a lesson in this, Masonic Temple photo-caption writer(s), and the lesson is:

If you do not hire a proofreader to comb through and correct your very public utterances, you will be deservedly humiliated in a very public way.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Now That You Bring It Up...

So yesterday on Salon.com there was this article about foie gras and about how food police are trying to ban it and other foodstuffs. In the hostile and polarized letters section (I, being a repository of strange and useful information about such things as the age-old English predilection for odd and diverting foods called "sotilties", or "subtleties", had one published) was, eventually, a letter about the vomitorium.

Everyone knows what a vomitorium is, right? The room in the house to which those decadent Romans would retire during a feast so that they could egurgitate their meal and then return to eat even more? Everyone knows that.

And of course everyone is wrong. (I was, too. Once.) A vomitorium is, in fact, a passageway in an amphitheatre, so named because it can quickly move large quantities of patrons into and out of the theatre.

The word "vomitorium", or at least "vomit", calls to mind a part of the mammalian respiratory system called the vomeronasal organ: it's used the processing of certain kinds of scents, and if you've ever owned a cat, you've seen one in action. When a cat is avidly sniffing an especially interesting scent, it's pulling the fumes into its vomeronasal organ, and it does so by drawing air in through its mouth rather than its nose: the cat then generally sits there with its mouth open and its eyes glazed over, making it look stoned or blissed out or stupefied--your choice--so whatever it's doing with that organ that it isn't doing with its finely tuned nose, you know it's gotta be really great.

Since "vomere" is the Latin for "to vomit", and the vomeronasal organ is located in the nose, in proximity to the mouth where vomiting takes place, obviously the two words are somehow related. Except that they're not, at all. Fascinatingly, "vomer" is the Latin word for "ploughshare", and the vomeronasal organ--remember what I said yesterday about the names of body parts?--is so called because it's located in the nose (the "-nasal" part), and because it's a flat plate shaped like part of a plough (the "vomer-" part). There is, in fact, a part of the mammalian nasal apparatus called the vomer: it's part of the septum, the wall of cartilage that divides the nostrils.

The septum, by the way, gets its name from Latin "saepes", "fence", and that is quite enough for one day, I think.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Cry Me A River

My poor Jim has a minor eye infection, and as he was looking into the mirror this morning checking out the damage, he asked, "What's the name of that little thing in the corner of the eye?"

"Lacrimal caruncle," I promptly replied, to which he said, "Well, mine is about three times its normal size." Yikes!

"Lacrimal caruncle" is such an interesting term--no wonder it stuck in my head. (Lots of the body parts have fascinating names, such as the xiphoid process.) Most parts of the body have Latin, or Latinate, names that tell us where they are, what they're shaped like, or what they do, and this one is no exception.

The first half is from Latin "lacrima", "tear"; Answers.com gives as an alternate spelling "lachrymal". The OED says that "lacrimal" is the etymologically correct spelling and the usual one in medical contexts: mediaeval Latin writers took up the habit of replacing "-c-" before "-r-" with "-ch" in words such as "anchor" (Greek "ankura" became Latin "ancora" and then mediaeval Latin "anchora") and it stuck. Even if you don't know the word "lacrimal" (or "lachrymal"), you might have heard the related "lachrymose", "weepy, tearful".

"Caruncle" is straightforward Latin: "caruncula", diminutive of "caro", "flesh", otherwise familiar from such English words as "carnal", "carnivorous" ("flesh-eating"), and "carnation".

So the lacrimal caruncle ought to be "the little fleshy thing in proximity to the tear ducts", and by gum, that's exactly what it is.

Jim later asked me jokingly, "What did you call that thing? Lacrimal curmudgeon?" And this of course got me to wondering where "curmudgeon" came from. I was fairly sure it would be of unknown origin, and unfortunately that is the case. (The OED summarily dismisses a couple of folk etymologies: origin unknown, they say, and who would know better?) I have to say, though, that the word fits its subject perfectly: rather like Mark Twain's Eve naming the dodo a dodo because it looks like one, someone must have simply said to some old grump one day, "Well, you're just a curmudgeon", and that was that.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Faith No More

Here in the latest New Yorker is a grimly riveting article about childbirth and the many ways in which it can go wrong, by a terrific medical writer, Atul Gawande, whose book Complications is worth reading for many reasons, not least a horrific piece on necrotizing fasciitis. (In the article, Gawande makes note of the myth that the Caesarian section was named after Julius Caesar himself: "The name “Cesarean” section may have arisen from the tale that Caesar was born of his mother, Aurelia, by an abdominal delivery, but historians regard the story as a myth, since Aurelia lived long after his birth." However, as I've noted in the past, it's not Caesar himself who was said to have been born this way, but an ancestor of his.)


I haven't ripped on The Consumerist in a while because they've been very good, but here's a usage I just can't let pass:

It's a shame to see Comcast stoop to such blatant perfidies, especially when there's real reasons to not use Vonage, like ass-hat customer service and near-inability to cancel your account.

In this context, it's obvious that the writer, in common with (I think) quite a few people, think that "perfidy" means "lying". But a perfidy isn't a fib: it's treachery, the deliberate violation of trust.

I know: this is hair-splitting. But writing is all about choosing the right words, and "perfidies" is wrong here. For something to be perfidy, there has to be a relationship with mutual trust which can be violated, and there isn't in the incident in question: it's a telemarketer, with whom there isn't an expectation of trust. (Just the opposite, in fact: anyone who trusts a telemarketer is an idiot, because their sole job is to part you from your money.)

"Perfidy", by the way, is from Latin "fides", "trust": a perfidious act is one that has gone past the boundaries of an established, trusting relationship, destroying it. "Fides" occurs all the time in English, in such words as "fidelity", and of course the clichéd name of man's best friend, Fido.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Catching Fish

A couple of days ago I wrote about an error in television captioning, and I saw a doozy over the weekend. The voiceover said "Attila the Hun" not once but twice, clear as day. Whoever was transcribing, though, either had particularly bad hearing or had (how is this possible?) simply never heard of Attila, and so the transcription in the captions said, both times, "a tail of the hunt", which would be almost clever if it weren't so obviously a dreadful mistake.


Why, on the bus to work this morning, did the word "carp" pop into my head? Is it because I heard someone complaining in a seat behind me? Probably. And why did I wonder if the verb "carp" was related to the noun "carp"? Well, the answer to that one's obvious; it's because that's what I do.

"Carp" the fish is from Latin "carpa", with the same meaning. "Carp" the complaining, on the other hand, is from an old Norse word that originally meant "to boast". Is the complaining carp related to the "carpe" in "carpe diem", "seize the day" (from the Latin verb "carpere", "to pluck")? You wouldn't think so, but it might be the case; the OED speculates that though it originated in Norse, it gradually took on its current meaning through the "seize/pluck" sense of "carpe", in that one grabs onto a topic and worries it to death: evidently an extended meaning of "carpere" was "to slander". Sounds plausible enough to me: such wholesale alterations over time aren't unheard of in English, or in most any other language, I would imagine, except perhaps Esperanto.

However, "carpa" the fish and "carpe" the seizing are, as far as I know, unrelated.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Battle Stations

Remember what I said a month ago about people who write pull quotes and screw them up? The same thing can happen to people who write sub-heads and don't pay attention to the article itself.

Case in point: yesterday's television column, I Like To Watch, in Salon. The first page of the article is about the TV series "Battlestar Galactica", but whoever wrote the subhead has clearly never seen the show, nor read the article, because the subhead reads

Oh, how beautifully "Battleship Galactica" wallows in the hopelessness of the human plight. And let us praise "The Amazing Race" for all of its quarrelsome, enraged glory.


Well, we can blame momentary carelessness for that; it's not as if "battlestar" is an actual English word, whereas "battleship" is, so it's an easy enough mistake to make, I suppose. (The first comment on the article was someone taking note of this error, and sure enough, come evening it had been corrected.)

But on page two of the article, Heather Havrilesky writes the following sentence:

Instead of relying on rumors and third-hand reports, ABC could thrust all of those camera-hungry has-beens back into the spotlight, interviewing them about what went wrong or, better yet, who's fault it was that things didn't work out.

And no, goddammit, no no no! "Whose" and "who's" are two completely different words, as one is a possessive pronoun and the other is a contraction, and they don't mean the same thing and therefore they're not interchangeable, and I've seen this mistake again and again and again and actual writers keep making the same shameful mistake and there's no excuse.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Skirting the Issue

I don't know what it is about bad clothing that launches people to such heights of inspired bitchery, but two of my favourite blogs are about clothes: Go Fug Yourself and Project Rungay. And the proprietors of the latter wrote a comment on my blog! It's like getting a personal bull from the Pope, if he were funny and witty and gay and not a fist-faced old bulldog. Guys, if you're listening: when this season of Project Runway is over, do us all a favour and start blogging about Season Two. I know it's out on DVD and you won't have the element of surprise, but it'll still be wonderful and it will give all us addicts a regular fix of your very own brand of sharp, never-quite-cynical humour. (Also, I want to hear you make fun of Santino Rice.)


I was reading about Greek clothing for no other reason that I wondered what the name of the muse* of fashion designers would be if there were such a thing (I've decided she should be named Charmeuse, which works on so many levels), and this page informed me that "women would sometimes wear a shorter decorated tunic, a peplos, over their chiton [which is to say tunic]". "Peplos"! I know that word!

Sort of. I know the word "peplum", which, if you are a knitter (as I am), shows up from time to time. The peplos was a short tunic: the peplum--the name is as obviously Latin as "peplos" is obviously Greek--is a short skirt which, in its modern incarnation, is so short as to be merely a frippery, a little ruffle added to the bottom of a woman's blouse or jacket.

It's the Latin version that gave its name to an entire genre of movies. Known in English as the gladiator movie or the sword-and-sandal epic (the fighters always seem to wear those little skirts), the peplum is the Colosseum version of the spaghetti western: cheap, tacky, and Italian.

* The Muses, as you might know, gave their name to the building that houses the works of art they've inspired--the museum. However, the verb "to muse" didn't derive from them, though it was almost certainly influenced by the word over the centuries: originally it meant "to sniff about" because it is, in fact, derived from the word that also gave us "muzzle". Only much later did it come to mean "to be lost in thought", possibly as if waiting for a Muse to arrive on a Pegasus, bearing inspiration.