or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 30, 2006

In Case

Today I discovered that a 1980s band called The Fibonaccis had an album called "Civilization and its Discotheques", which is not only the greatest name for an album in the entire history of humanity but also the greatest possible title for anything ever.

Now: where does the word "discotheque" come from, anyway?

We start with the French, because we might as well. Many young people learning French assume that "librarie" means "library", because just look at it. But it doesn't: "librarie" is "bookstore", while "bibliothèque" means "library". This is why so many people think French makes no sense. Take it from one who knows.

"Bibliothèque" comes from Greek "biblion", "book" (the source of "bible", as I should imagine is self-evident) and "theke", "case", so a bibliothèque is a bookcase, and later any place to store books--in other words, a library. ("Biblion" comes from the city of Byblos, which was integral to the trade in papyrus, from which books were made.) "Library" is from the French "librarie", which is from Latin "librarium", which means, and you may have expected this, "bookcase", since "liber" means "book".

And a disc is a record and so by extension from "bibliothèque", a discotheque is a place where a whole lot of records are stored. And played.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Flouting Convention

The Onion is pretty hit-or-miss, and in my estimation, their best days are behind them, but they can still come up with a winner on a regular basis. A recent story entitled Kansas Outlaws Practice of Evolution is hilarious and very much to the point.

Here's a paragraph that grabbed my attention for all the wrong reasons:

Barn swallows that develop lighter, more streamlined builds to enable faster migration, for example, could live out the rest of their brief lives in prison," said Indiana University chemist and pro-intelligent-design author Robert Hellenbaum, who helped compose the language of the law. "And butterflies who mimic the wing patterns and colors of other butterflies for an adaptive advantage, well, their days of flaunting God's will are over."

"To flaunt" means "to brazenly exhibit". Its origin is unknown. "To flout" means "to express contempt towards": its origin is also unknown (although it might be related to "flute" somehow). The two words, as you can see, don't mean the same thing and are not interchangeable. Therefore, people who mix them up--who use "flaunt" as if it meant "flout", which it doesn't--look as if they don't know what they're talking about to people who know the difference.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


"Statuere", right? Well, there's plenty of time for that some other day. Tomorrow, maybe.

Jeffrey Steingarten is a food writer, and a really good one, too. He used to write for Vogue magazine, and he's got a couple of compilations of essays, "The Man Who Ate Everything" and "It Must Have Been Something I Ate", both of which you definitely ought to read: the first book taught me everything I know about granita. I'm only a chapter and a half into the second book, but I stumbled across this sentence:

And then there's Pica's disease, in which patients display a 'morbid craving for unusual or unsuitable food, such as the ingestion of ice, clay, laundry starch, lettuce, or cigarette ashes'.

I don't see that lettuce is such an unusual or unsuitable food, unless it's iceberg lettuce, which hardly qualifies as food at all, and, unless you eat nothing but, ice is very refreshing. But that's neither here nor there, and, since it's quoted from another source, isn't Steingarten's fault anyway.

But "Pica's disease" makes it clear that the writer thinks that the disease is named after someone, as are "Hansen's disease" (aka leprosy) or "Parkinson's disease". However, as I've written about before, the disease is in fact named pica, and its name comes from the Latin word for "magpie", because magpies will eat anything. It certainly doesn't derive its name from a person.

What I don't get is that the essay was first printed in Vogue, and they definitely have editors, copy-editors, and fact-checkers, and then the piece was reprinted in a book, and you know Random House has all sorts of fact-checkers, copy-editors, and editors, and not one of those people caught this?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Left Behind

There's a church nearby with a large signboard on which it posts the usual smarmy bromides like "Faith is a journey, not a destination" or "When life is at its worst, God is at his best". Where do they get this crap from? Is there a mailing?

Today we were walking home and the signboard read, and this is a direct quote,

Sincerity is no subsitute for truth.

Ignoring the fact that the irony ought to have been dense enough to compact the sign into a tiny black hole, Jim noted that the sign-writer had somehow misspelled "substitute". I noted further that the other side of the signboard--it's built with two panels at ninety-degree angles, so as to get the drivers from both streets--bore the same maxim, with the same misspelling.

Which means that the sign-maker didn't make a mistake: he or she honestly thinks that "substitute" is spelled, and almost certainly pronounced, "subsitute".

The word "substitute" does not appear in the King James version of the Christian bible, which leads me to think that someone ought to be doing a little more outside reading.

"Substitute", in case you were wondering, comes, obviously Latin, from the prefix "sub-", "in place of", plus "statuere", "to cause to stand", which is the root of many, many words in English, not only such obviousnesses as "statue" but also...well, let's leave that for tomorrow, shall we?

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Some days I have no problem writing. It just pours out of me. Some other days, though, I can't think of a blessed thing to write. Yesterday was just such a day, and today is little better.

Today I was at work and they've been playing the Christmas music for almost a month now, which is slightly better than that usual godawful muzak they usually play, but only just. A lot of it is lite-jazz renditions of Christmas carols, with gobs of saxophone ladled over it like so much sticky sauce over a plum pudding, and easily the worst of the tunes is what is hands-down the worst rendition of "Angels We Have Heard On High" ever; it's just wretched. And then I thought, "Gee, I wonder how the saxophone got its name?" And I figured I'd go home and look it up and that would give me something to write about. About three minutes later I realized that that saxophone was obviously named after some dude named Sax, which in fact turns out to be the case, so that's that out the window.

All I have today is a couple of amusing links from Boingboing to Flickr pages: the first one consists of signs that contain unnecessary apostrophes and the second is signs that contain incorrectly placed quotation marks. Of course, if you already read Boingboing as I seem to keep exhorting you to do, then you will already have seen these, and you're on your own; otherwise, enjoy.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Today I was framing a whole bunch of a doctor's diplomas and medical certificates--like, ten. One of them contained this phrase or a close approximation of it:

We declare to these presents that XXX has attained the title of Doctor of Medicine.

"These presents"!

My first thought was, "A typo! On a doctor's certificate!" But as I kept framing them, I noticed that some of them were in both English and French (as is the way in Canada) and it finally dawned on me that what I had been looking at wasn't a typo, exactly, but a mistranslation.

In French, certain adjectives can attain the status of nouns meaning "those who are" or "one who is" when preceded by an article. (English allows a lot of liberty with the various parts of speech, but not that.) The title of Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables in English becomes not "The Miserables", which sounds like a family name, but "The Wretches" or some such. In French, the phrase "les présents" means "those present" or "those who are present", but if you're translating directly, without a strong sense of English, you might well come up with "those presents", or, if the original phrase was "ces présents" ("these people who are present"), "these presents". It's perfectly good French, but English? Not so much.

I still can't quite believe that nobody caught it.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Say It

From a Slate.com music review:

The 25-year-old neo-folk harpist with the beautifully eccentric voice has wowed critics with her second album, the almost-unpronounceable Ys.

Almost unpronounceable? It's "fleece" without the "fl-", "east" without the "-t". What's so hard about that?

Admittedly, an English speaker probably wouldn't get the pronounciation right simply by looking it, because English has a different set of rules than does French: we'd be more likely to pronounce it "whys", or perhaps "is". But that doesn't make it unpronounceable, not by a long shot, because once you know the rule for pronouncing that simple syllable, you'll never get it wrong again. It's not some hideous mouth-filling tongue-twister.

Answers.com's definition of "unpronounceable" is "Difficult or impossible to pronounce correctly". Fair enough, but by that measure, pretty much every language is unpronounceable by most non-natives. The entirety of English certainly is, because unless you're thoroughly inducted into its mysteries, you can't, say, look at "though", "through", thought", "bough", and "cough" and tell how to pronounce them.

If you know the rules of French, or if you've heard the word before, then pronouncing "Ys" is a snap. If the word "unpronouceable" means anything, because practically any string of letters is pronounceable by someone somewhere, it ought to mean "having a correct pronunciation, and difficult to pronounce correctly, even if you theoretically know how". Closer to unpronounceability would be one of those majestic German compound words such as "Betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung", which really is a real word (I found it here) and not something someone made up just to show off the German propensity to make insanely long compounds.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Consider This

In USA Today's review of "For Your Consideration", the following bizarre sentence:

Hollywood is rife for satire, but it's been done before.

"Rife" is an adjective meaning "widespread" or "abundant". Saying something is "rife for" something else doesn't make any sense: when "rife" takes any preposition, it nearly always takes "with", as, say "rife with disease". "Ripe", on the other hand, is another adjective meaning (among other things) "ready to undergo something", and often takes the preposition "for" as a way of saying, "It's been waiting to happen".

"Ripe for satire", Claudia Puig and your editors, assuming there are any. "Ripe".

Friday, November 17, 2006

Now Look Here

This really happened.

I was looking up a few things in preparation to write on my other blog about a scent called "Envy for Men", which I was wearing at the time, because I can never write about scents without being able to smell them. Some time passed. I was doing some other stuff and reading some other unrelated web pages and thinking about getting ready to go to work and a word popped into my head, "invidious", and I began thinking about what it might mean as I headed off to work. I continued pondering it throughout the day: it was obvious that it was Latin and it seemed possible that it was a compound of "in-" (though whether that meant "not" or "in/on" or was acting as an intensifier I couldn't yet tell) and "videre", "to see", although I couldn't quite understand why, since "invidious" means "generating animosity", more or less, and I couldn't imagine how it might have come from a verb meaning "to see".

So when I got home, I looked it up, and it was the damnedest thing: "invidious" actually comes from the word "envy"! Did I accidentally see the word "invidious" when I was looking up "Envy for Men", or did I know in the back of my head that "invidious" also means "envious", or what?

I still don't know. But it gets even better: "envy" comes, as you might guess, from the French "envie", with the same meaning, and "envie" comes from Latin "invidus", "envious", and "invidus" comes from..."in" plus "videre"! It really does!

The compound "invidere" in Latin meant "to look upon with envy", and, as the original components would indicate, its original components simply meant "to look at". I'm not sure how this fascinating semantic leap might have happened: perhaps if you look at something long enough, you begin to covet it, and envy the person who has it while you don't.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Deep Thinking

The evolution of a certain kind of folk etymology:

Stage one: an idiom arises from a commonly understood word.

Stage two: due to a quirk in the pronunciation of English, one of the words in that idiom sounds like another word, and people become unsure as to which spelling is the intended one.

Stage three: because more and more people get their information through their ears instead of their eyes, people come to believe that the second, wrong, word is in fact the correct one, and invent some spurious etymology to bolster their point.

It happened with "rein". The expression "free rein" means that you can go anywhere and do anything because your reins--that is to say, the lines that control a horse's movements--have been relaxed. Those unaccustomed to the spelling thought that the expression must be "free reign", and decided that it means you have sovereignty over your actions, which, though wrong, is at least mildly plausible, an essential ingredient in the folk etymology. (This in turn led to the expression "reign in", correctly "rein in", which makes perfect sense, unlike the folk version, which is indefensible no matter how hard you try.)

All this came to mind because in the letters section of a Salon.com article today, a letter-writer used the expression "deep-seeded", which is not only wrong but strange: "deep-seated" is correct.

And yet if you Google "'deep-seated' 'deep-seeded'" (put quotes around each expression so the search engine forces the use of the hyphens), you will find that a great many people think the opposite. "I always thought it was 'deep-seeded', but I saw 'deep-seated' in print!"

Nope. It's the verb "to seat" that's throwing people off, I think. To be seated on something means to be sitting there, true enough; but another sense of the word, exemplified in the phrasal verb "seated in", means "to be situated inside", as demonstrated by this randomly discovered passage:

Blood vessels are located on the surface of the brain and deeply seated in its tissues.

"Deep-seeded" emerged as a spelling because when we're speaking quickly, a "-t-" turns into a "-d-" before the suffix "-ed"--the perfect illustration of sandhi, which I discussed yesterday. The folk etymology for "deep-seeded" is, of course, that something has been buried, there to germinate. But it's wrong. The expression always was "deep-seated", and it still is, if you want to write correctly.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sandhi Clause

Yesterday, my Finnish co-worker lent me a CD of the music of Sibelius, which, unaccountably, I've never heard before. (I suppose I must have heard "Finlandia" on some classical-music radio station without knowing that that's what it was: I mean I've never knowingly listened to Sibelius.) As I was reading over the list of works on the recording, I thought, "Didn't he write the Turangalila symphony? That sounds pretty Finnish!"

No and no. The Turangalila symphony was written by Olivier Messiaen, who's French, and the name isn't Finnish at all: it's Sanskrit.

You know what else is Sanskrit? The word "sandhi". I didn't even know it was an English word, but it is, more or less: it's used by linguists, and if you don't know it either, you will now, and you'll wonder why you never heard of it before.

Languages with alphabets have rules as to which letters can be combined with which other letters, in what order, and in what place in a word. An English word can never start with "ng-", because we need to precede that pairing with a vowel, but that doesn't mean that no language can start a word with that combination--there's a writer named Ngaio Marsh. (In fact, when English speakers pronounce her first name, which is that of a tree in her native New Zealand, they generally jam some sort of vowel sound in there, either at the beginning or in between the two consonants, so strong is our need to have one: "Ing-eye-oh", or "Nuh-guy-oh".)

One of the letter combinations that doesn't fit the English-speaker's mouth very well is "-np-". It does occur fairly frequently: it's easy to tack the prefixes "non-" or "un-" onto a word beginning with "p-", such as "nonproliferation" or "unpleasant". But when we pronounce such words, we have to take one of two tacks: either we deliberately enunciate the syllables so that the two consonants are clearly apparent, or we allow them to flow together--as is usual in fluent speech, since "flowing" is the meaning of "fluent". And when we do this second thing, the "-n-" changes: it turns into an "-m-", because "-m-" is so much closer than "-n-" to "-p-" on the palate. Try it: say "rainproof" or "davenport" slowly and carefully, and then try speeding it up more and more, and you'll see that the "-n-" invariably mutates into "-m-". Sometimes it happens so much in speech that it's codified in spelling: "symposium" started out as Greek "sunposion", which turned into "sumposion" as that "-np-" got blurred into the much more fluid "-mp-". (Clearly "-np-" didn't fit the Greek speaker's mouth all that well, either.)

And that is a sandhi: the transformation of one sound into another due to the effect of adjacent letters.

It happens all the time in ordinary speech. "Don't we?" sounds clear and accurate at any speed, but "Don't you?" is rapidly transformed into "Doan chew?" (or even "Doan cha?" if we're speaking really quickly). We can, of course, pronounce everything precisely if we want to--it's no great challenge to pronounce "nonpareil" with all the consonants in place--but in everyday speech, the rules are relaxed a little, our tongues take the easy way out, the morphemes slip and blur, and before we know it we've got new sounds, and maybe whole new words.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Today at work, a co-worker was framing a photograph of a bunch of men on a boat which was heeled over on one side and looking as if it were about to topple, and so the word "capsize" popped into my head, followed immediately by the question, "Where could a word like 'capsize' come from, anyway?"

It doesn't sound or seem like any other word I can think of. It's obviously not a compound word. It doesn't feel like Dutch, my go-to language for nautical terms. I racked my brains for quite some time and couldn't make a go of it.

And with good reason! Nobody knows where it comes from. "Origin unknown", says Answers.com. "I concur", says the OED. (More or less: they have a couple of theories, one of them involving Spanish "cabo", "head", but that's just guesswork.) So: yet another one of those mysteries: a word that simply is.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Falling Flat

I'm studying German, and I will try very hard not to bore you too much with the details, but I was reading the Wikipedia entry on German grammar and I came across the following information:

Flavoring particles (Abtönungspartikel) are a parts of speech common to several Germanic languages but absent from English. These words affect the tone of a sentence instead of conveying a specific literal meaning.

"Flavoring particles"! They sound very much like the highly manufactured food additive known as "flavor islands". I'm not one hundred per cent sure that I agree with the contention that they don't exist in English: it seems to me that one possible example is that stereotypically Canadian utterance, "eh?", which generally implies the assumption of agreement, as in "Some hot, eh?". (For what it's worth, I've met only one Canadian in my entire life who uses that as a regular part of her speech--but she uses it a lot.)

I think I understand what's meant in the Wikipedia article. I was taught that in German, you can say, "Das ist ja wahr", which means something along the lines of "That's true, don't you agree?": adding "ja" implies that the listener already knows and presumably agrees with what's being said. ("Das ist wahr" simply means "That's true.") But, unless I'm missing the point of these flavoring particles, I really think we have such grammatical elements in English as well: "y'know" is another, conveying a strong sense of imprecision or vagueness ("It was, y'know, weird....") without having a particularly well-defined meaning, alongside "like" (It was, like, weird...").

Or maybe those things are just filler, just verbal place-holders, not Abtönungspartikel at all, and I'm completely wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.


We were out on the road today, having, as I said, rented a car, and as we were driving past Pugwash, Nova Scotia, I naturally wondered out loud about the word "pug". Obviously "pug" meaning "boxer" is short for "pugilist": that couldn't have been clearer. (And "pugilist" is from the Latin, where its source has the same meaning.)What wasn't as clear was whether the dog or the nose known as pug came from the same source. It seemed that it ought to: a boxer who's been punched in the face often enough develops a flattened nose which could theoretically be called pug (although the boxer's nose usually turns down, not up, at the tip), and a pug dog has that same smashed-flat face. But this etymology doesn't seem to stand up: nobody knows where that particular pug came from. Just, like, one of those words that comes out of nowhere, y'know?

Saturday, November 11, 2006


So we rented a car this weekend and I was working the closing shift and Jim came to pick me up and on the way home we passed Church Street (yes, there are lots of churches on it) and naturally one of us said "Crotch Street!" because we are eight years old and then I got to wondering where the word "crotch" even came from and why it's so funny.

I can't answer the second question (and it is funny, as evidenced by Chloe Webb as Mona Ramsay in "Tales of the City" screaming "Crotch, crotch, crotch, crotch, crotch, crotch, CROTCH!"), but I had a feeling that it must be related to "crochet" somehow, and, in fact, it is.

An old French word, "croc", meant "hook". (You'd think "croc" would have led to "crook", as in "shepherd's crook", and from there to "crooked", meaning bent, and finally to "crook", the criminal who's deviated from the straight and narrow: but it isn't so. The various bendings of "crook" come from Norse "krokr". "Crooked", by the way, has a marvellously off-kilter meaning in Newfoundland English: it means "ill-tempered" or "peevish", as in, "You're some crooked today!") The feminine form of "croc" was "croche", and that's where we get, variously, "crochet", needlework made with a hooked implement: "crotchet", a quarter-note in music (or an offbeat whim, for some reason): and of course "crotch", which, while not precisely hook-shaped, nevertheless consists of two limbs bent off at angles from a trunk, whether said crotch is on a tree or a human.

I think it was Chloe Webb. It might have been her replacement, Nina Siemaszko, in the sequel, "More Tales of the City". Whatever. Hilarious.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Accidental Death

I have a very simple rule about typos, grammatical errors, and the like: the more time there is between conception and publication of a piece of writing, and the more hands that touch that piece of writing, the less excuse there is for mistakes to creep in. A letter to your mom, or a Usenet posting? Mistakes will be made, and they don't matter. A website? You've got time to make corrections (and they're transparent--the new publication replaces the old, erasing the mistake forever). A magazine or a book? No excuse at all, really, and a mistake that's published stays published forever.

Here's a joke, and its explanation, from Entertainment Weekly:

"It says, 'Ingredients: Cancer'!"
Andy Dick, reading a food-coloring bottle after dying his tongue black, on

Okay. There are two kinds of verbs in English, transitive and intransitive. A transitive verb has both a subject and an object: "I reset the VCR." An intransitive verb has only a subject: "I fell." (Some verbs can be either, depending on the context: "I hurled the ball" versus "I hurled".) "To die" is only ever an intransitive verb: you can't die something. "To dye" is rarely ever anything but a transitive verb: something can't dye itself, but needs someone or something to dye it. The progressive form of "to die" is "dying": the progressive form of "to dye" is "dyeing". A spellchecker won't catch this: the writer and/or editor has to know what's what.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Entertainment Weekly is wrong.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Carried Away

On Monday I wrote about having found out that there's a relationship, through Indo-European roots, between certain Latin and Germanic words, the only difference being that the one contains an "-f-" where the other has a "-b-". The example I used was the IE "bher-". And wouldn't you know it? There's another "bher-" in that language which spawned the most dizzying array of words.

This "bher-" means, amusingly, exactly what you'd think it should mean if you say it loud: "bear", which is to say "carry". "Bear" itself is one of the offspring of that word, through Germanic languages, of course--it has the "-b-". What else? "Birth", of all things, which is what happens after a woman's carried a child for a while, and also "bairn", the Gaelic word for a child. "Bring" emerges from the Germanic side of "bher-", as well as "barrow"--something you use to tote your "burden"--and the "bier" which carries a corpse.

When we switch in the "-f-", we get Latin "ferre", which of course also means "to bear or carry". This side of the family is even more prolific: it gives us "fertile" ("able to carry a child") and a whole host of compounds with "-fer", including but not limited to "transfer" (to carry something across), "confer" (to carry on a conversation with someone else), "infer" (to carry an idea into your head), and even "differ" (to carry apart--in this case, opinions).

Unexpectedly, "ferry" doesn't seem to have come from this root: the OED relates it instead to a Norse word from which also comes "fare". (Could that word have come from IE "bher-"? Nobody's saying. Maybe nobody knows.) But Robert Claiborne's "The Roots of English" suggests another pair of amusing offshoots of "ferre": "furtive", how you act when you're about to carry something off, and "ferret", the little weasel that carries off your poults.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I like wordplay, sort of: I'm very fond of cryptic crosswords, which depend on it, and I sure do like banging words around to see what happens. But I hate puns (the lowest form of wit, indeed), and palindromes are not too far behind. So laboured, so tortured, so senseless!

There are, though, some good ones, and they're usually the shorter ones. The only palindromes I can really love are the ones that, like good cryptic-crossword clues, can masquerade as real sentences--that don't excite any suspicion that they're what they are. Stealth palindromes!

Today on BoingBoing there's a link to a "Giant List of Palindromes", and they're not kidding, either: there are hundreds of the suckers. (Also some anagrams.) Most of the palindromes aren't very good, in my opinion ("No cab, no tuna nut on bacon"--ugh), but there are some genuine treasures on the list: "Mr. Owl ate my metal worm" is sublime, as is "So many dynamos".

They don't all have to be stealthy to win my approval, though, not if they're really good. There's a local catering company that has a big, obvious, thoroughly delightful palindrome on its truck(s):

Y Not Tony

Y not, indeed?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The Onion has a weekly column called "Ask the A.V. Club": people write in with pop-culture questions--mostly, questions about movies and such that they half-remember--and the staff try to answer them. In the most recent column, a query about an obscure movie (which turns out to be one called Motorama) contains the following sentence:

As you recall, its pint-sized hero (Jordan Christopher Michael, who may possess the whitest name in all of show business) sets out on a Sisyphusian quest to win a contest he learns too late was designed to be unwinnable, a twist that can be discerned as an oblique commentary on capitalism.

"Sisyphusian"? Oh, honestly.

Just Google "sisyphus adjective" and the third and fourth hits show the adjectival form of the name right there on the Google page. You don't even have to go anywhere else to learn that "From the story of Sisyphus we get the adjective Sisyphean".

And that's what it is. Sisyphean. Not "Sisyphusian". Ugh.

The lesson here, I hope, is that there are established non-standard adjectival forms for quite a few proper nouns: you can't just jam on an ending and hope it's right. Either you know, or you look it up. Names such as Shaw and Waugh, for instance, become "Shavian" and "Wavian". Jupiter isn't the obvious "Jupiterian": it's "Jovian" (which of course is the source of the word "jovial").

Venus used to be either "Venereal", "Venerean", or "Cytherian", though admittedly none of these is much in use any more (particularly the first), having been supplanted by "Venusian". So that one did in fact have "-ian" jammed onto it, but that doesn't mean you get to do it all the time.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Penetrating Insight

I'm perpetually fascinated by the fact that English has such a huge quantity of related words from various sources, and one of the things I recently discovered is even more fascinating: we have quantities of near-overlapping words from Latin and Germanic sources that are essentially the same except for the letters "-f-" and "-b-" respectively.

One example derives from the Indo-European root "bher-", which means "to pierce". German kept the "b-" and gave us "bore", but when the root reached Latin it was transformed into "forare", which gives us "perforate" ("to pierce completely through") and also "foramen", a medical term for a hole or opening of some sort.

There are a bunch of bores in English (yes, I'm setting you up for an easy joke), and they all seem to be unrelated. In addition to the "drill/pierce" sense, there's the "stultify" sense, which apparently sprang out of nowhere, the "tidal wall of water" sense, which likewise, and the archaic "past tense of 'bear'" sense, which is merely an artifact of pronunciation: it used to be "bare", as in "she bare him a child", but as pronunciation changed, so did the spelling, until it was codified. (The OED notes that "bore" appeared in the 1400s: "bare" is the only spelling that appears in the King James Bible in 1611, but Shakespeare used both spellings indiscriminately in the 1623 folio, so clearly that's more or less the point at which "bore" began to supersede "bare".)

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Today at work I had a couple of customers who I surmised were German: she spoke very good English (though she didn't know the word "mat", using instead the French word "passe-partout"), but he didn't say anything. Eventually it turned out that yes, they were German, and the German word for "mat" (in a framing sense) is a borrowing from the French, and he didn't speak any English at all. I don't remember nearly as much German as I would like, but I mentioned that I had studied it in university, and then said, "Ich spreche nur ein wenig", and he looked as if he'd seen a magic trick: I'm thinking he hasn't heard anyone but her speak his language since they got here, and that must be very alienating. I wished I remembered more so I could have had a little chat with them.

Anyway, I was sort of mulling over whatever German I did know (and deciding that, French having been a complete failure, I'm going to start studying German again), and one of the words that popped into my head was "schmerz", which means "pain". And then I had one of those lightbulb moments, followed by a "duh" moment, when I realized that "schmerz" is so very obviously at the root of the English word "smart", as in pain, as in "That smarts!" How can I never have noticed this in all these years?

When I got home to look it up, I discovered something even more astounding: there's only one "smart" in English. All of the senses of the word, and there are a few, come from that one word.

The one that seems farthest removed from the original sense, "intelligent", evidently took the following path or one like it: a smart blow is one which is stinging or painful. Eventually, a smart remark, at one metaphorical remove, had the same effect. Since a smart remark came to mean one that, in delivering its sting, could be clever and cutting, that quality transferred from the comment to the person delivering it. It can still have just this meaning ("Watch your smart mouth, mister!"), but mostly in English it just means the cleverness: nasty wit or impertinence are not necessarily implied. (Once this little swirl of possible meanings is established, other senses of the word are easily decipherable: "a smart pace" is one which is fast and emphatic, and "the smart set" is at the cutting edge of fashion. There's always the sense of some rapid-fire event or action: the stinging slap, the quicksilver mind.)

Saturday, November 04, 2006


I've been working a bunch of late nights--I just got home! and this is early!--and it's been tough to find interesting things to write about, let alone find the time to write about them.

I walked to work yesterday and today--it's about an hour and a quarter, but very pleasant at this time of year--and along the way I pass a couple of sex shops. One of them had to alter its neon sign, which used to read MARITAL AIDS, to read MARITAL AID, which doesn't seem quite the same thing, but unfortunately the advent of the acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome has put the kibosh on that. The other one has a partial list of its wares (lotions, videos, the usual) hand-painted on its display window (in purple tempera, to match the purple neon tubes outlining the window frames): such paintings are done on the inside, the better to withstand the ravages of Moncton weather, but unfortunately when you're painting in reverse, it's difficult to tell that you've actually written the word LNIGERIE.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Yellow Fever

All products for sale in Canada are required by law to have both English and French wording on the packaging. Some of the products for sale in the store in which I work are labelled in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. They're obviously meant for sale in both Canada and the U.S., and since there isn't a law requiring bilingual packaging in the U.S., I'm guessing that the manufacturers are just trying to cover as many bases as possible and produce a single package that will be salable everywhere on the continent.

A bottle of paint I saw yesterday bore the words Yellow/Jaune/Amarillo. Now, I've covered yellow before, and jaune is obviously related to English "jaundice", but whence "amarillo"? The second part I could guess--it's a diminutive, as seen in "armadillo" ("little armoured one") and "cigarillo" (self-explanatory)--but the first half had me stumped.

I never would have guessed it, because I would have been guessing in the wrong direction. Spanish was greatly influenced by Arabic, and "amarillo" comes from "anbar", the Arabic word for amber. (Lots more Arabic-to-Spanish words here.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

One Or The Other

At the top of Slate.com's home page sits a collection of new stories with little illustrations and headlines, which are not usually the same as the actual titles for the stories: they're just meant to make you want to read the stories themselves, so they're pithy (five to ten words) and enticing.

It will vanish in a day or two, but here's the home-page headline for this story about newsworthy bacteria-laden spinach:

Is Evil Bacteria Sneaking Into Our Plants?

Oh, for the love of Pete.

I know that the word "bacteria" is often used as it's singular. I don't have to like it, but that's the way the language goes. However, that headline is just wrong, no matter which way you slice it.

If "bacteria" is meant to be plural in that context, then obviously you have to use a plural verb: "Are Evil Bacteria Sneaking Into Our Plants?" If, on the other hand, it's being used as if it were singular, then you, under the rules of standard English, have to use an article: "Is An Evil Bacteria Sneaking Into Our Plants?" (It's true that the rules of headline-writing are not necessarily those of normal English, but just try replacing "bacteria" with "cat"/"cats" and see what happens.)

We do have words in English that show no change from singular to plural--"fish" and "moose", for instance. But the rules that denote each number still apply: "Our car almost hit a moose", "Moose don't make good pets." You're required to indicate which is which. You can't split the difference.