or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, December 31, 2006


It's New Year's Eve, and what are we doing when we're not posting on the Internet? We're sitting around watching movies. And why not? Year-end parties hold no allure for either of us (don't drink, don't smoke, aren't hugely social people), and it's nice to have some time off to relax together (since I've been working nearly non-stop during the Christmas season).

One of the movies we watched was Pedro Almodóvar's La Mala Educación, which we probably should have seen ages ago but when you live in a damp little cow-pat of a town like Moncton, opportunities pass you by. Better late than never: the movie's tremendous.

In one scene a choirboy is singing a song, and here, proving that you can find anything on the Internet, are the lyrics:

Gardener, gardener,
night and day among our flowers,
setting fire to their colors
with the flame of our love.
And you place in every calyx
the smile of your yearning,
with your eyes turned up to heaven
where all your hopes reside.
And your flowers, gardener,
with their corollas burning brightly
join together in gratitude
and embalm you with their scent.
Continue with your labor,
cultivating all the flowers
entrusted to your love
by the Lord.

I guess I didn't need to quote the whole thing, but I thought it was pretty.

Anyway. When the boy sang the word "calyx", which in Spanish is "cáliz", a little bell went off in my head, accompanied by a thought: I tucked the thought away in my head for after the movie, and that thought was, "'Cáliz' sounds a lot like 'calice', which is the French word for 'chalice', isn't it?"

It is!

A calyx is a cuplike botanical or anatomical structure; the calyx of a flower is the structure formed by the sepals, which are the abbreviated leaflike parts that sit at the bottom of the petals. A chalice, of course, is a cup. And both words come from Latin "calix" or "calyx", which means, as you will have guessed, "cup". Isn't that great?

Have a happy new year and don't make any resolutions you can't keep.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Spiral Bound

English doesn't have a genitive case, with its endings, although it used to. We still, however, need to indicate such useful concepts as possession and composition, so we use either the preposition "of" ("a ball of wool") or apostrophe-ess ("the bee's knees"), plus a batch of possessive pronouns ("my name").

A problem arises for less-than-careful writers, though: if the would-be genitive doesn't agree in number with the subject of the sentence, it's apparently easy to use the wrong verb number. I say "apparently" because I've never done it, but it crops up all the time.

Here's a recipe--just in time for your New Year's Eve party!--which starts with the following description:

The eye appeal of these delicious spirals are sure to make a statement on your buffet table.

See? "Eye appeal" is singular, while "spirals" is plural, and since the verb immediately follows "spirals", it's apparently (there's that word again) natural to use a plural verb. Unfortunately, "eye appeal" is in fact the subject, and since it's singular, a singular verb is called for--demanded, in fact.

How to fix this problem? Use the right verb, of course: "The eye appeal of these delicious spirals is...." If you can't bear to do that (because you think your readers will think it's wrong), then recast the sentence: "These delicious spirals have an eye appeal that is sure to...."

I don't know about you, but I would hesitate to make a recipe that hasn't seen the eye of a copy editor.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

If That Don't Take The Biscuit

The nice thing about soups and stews is that it's easy to make enough for two days, and they almost always taste better after they've had an overnight in the fridge. Today is Day Two of the Christmas-dinner beef stew, and instead of stuffing, we're making biscuits. From scratch! None of this Bisquick for us*!

Unfortunately, we don't have any baking powder, but we do have the ingredients to make baking powder, for some reason, and the formula is as follows:

One tablespoonful of baking powder = 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar.

Naturally, I began to wonder why we call cream of tartar cream of tartar, and how it relates to tartar sauce and steak tartare, not to mention the tartar that forms on your teeth.

The third one I already knew: steak tartare is seasoned, finely minced or scraped beef, served raw, usually with a raw egg on top, and it got its name from the Tartar method of tenderizing meat, which was to slip a raw slab of it under the saddle so that by the time they'd finished riding to wherever they meant to go, the meat would be tenderized. It would also probably taste like an unwashed horse, but these were tough people, I take it. Steak tartare is, in fact, named after the Tartars.

What about tartar sauce? The Tartars don't sound like they were big fish eaters, and I can't really see them coming up with mayonnaise and then adding chopped pickles and capers to it. No, the use of mayonnaise makes me think that the French invented it, and, in fact, this is the case: they not only created tartar sauce, they used to serve it with, and you may have seen this coming, steak tartare, which, sensibly enough, is where the sauce got its name.

Now, the Persian word for a Tartar was Tatar; the Mediaeval Latin word, which was Tartarus and from which we (obviously) got our word, was influenced by the unrelated Tartarus, which was itself taken from the Greek "Tartaros", which was the lowest level of Hell. This gives us a pretty good idea of how European monks in the MIddle Ages viewed the Tatars.

I hope you're still following all this. It was a real slog for me, too.

One of the byproducts of the manufacture of wine is something called argol, which gets its name from Latin "argilla", "clay". Argol is a substance which forms on the sides of wine casks during fermentation: it can be scraped off and purified into potassium bitartrate, which is a form of tartaric acid. The Mediaeval Latin name for argol was "tartarum", which gave tartaric acid its name, and as gratifying as it would be to link all these words together, this one evidently comes from a different source, one not actually identified: "perhaps of Semitic origin", says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and the OED is no more certain. Oh, well: we can't win 'em all.

The tartar that forms on your teeth--also known as "calculus", which is to say "stone"--got its name from the tartar in wine casks, because it too forms spontaneously on a solid surface from a liquid and can likewise be scraped off.

*We're using the Cooking for Engineers recipe, and have you been to that website before? It's terrific: each recipe is sketched out in a mechanical diagram which shows you exactly what to use and exactly what to do with it. Enormously clever.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Break

Last Christmas, I see, Jim and I had the usual traditional Christmas dinner. This year we said the hell with it. There are only the two of us, and it doesn't seem worth making an entire turkey, plus all the accompanying dishes, so we're having beef stew. Non-traditional, yes, but it works for us (plus it has the usual root vegetables, so it's not as if we're having, say, sushi.) Also, we're making stuffing to go alongside it.

While the beef was stewing away in the slow-cooker, we watched "A Christmas Story", which I had seen bits and pieces of over the years but had never seen in its entirety. (It's moderately funny, but not that good: I don't know how it became such a Christmastime staple.) One of the jokes concerned a hideous lamp in the shape of a woman's fishnet-stockinged leg: the box in which it was packed was marked "FRAGILE", which the dad misread as the must-be-Italian "frah-JEE-lay".

As it turns out, he was right, more or less. "Fragile" in English is also "fragile" in Italian, but it's pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

Knowing that, it's a sure bet that "fragile" is from Latin, and that, as it turns out, is a pretty good bet to take: it's from "fragilis", which is itself from "frangere", "to break".

The root "frag-" is also, as a few seconds' thought will disclose, the basis of "fragment", a broken piece of something. "Fragrance", however, is predictably unrelated: it's from Latin "fragrare", "to emit a scent".

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ho Ho Hold It

The holiday season is at its frenzied peak--ask anyone who works in retail--and editors everywhere simply don't have the time to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb, what with the shopping and the parties and everything. Sad, really.


From a Slate.com article about hibernation:

So, we're approaching the midnight of the year—the time of minimum sunlight and maximum night—when most of us feel a little dormant, a bit groundhogish.

"Groundhogish"? If you're going to make up a word (and English offers you the tools and the opportunity to do so), you have to do it properly, so let's make it "groundhoggish", please. Words that end with a "-g" invariably double that letter when they have a suffix tacked on: look at "piggish", or "ragged", or "shaggy", or, well, anything else. To not do so changes the vowel from short to long. It's a pretty basic rule.


Here's a capsule book review in Entertainment Weekly of a book called Kockroach:

In Tyler Knoc's debut novel Kockroach, Kockroach awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant human. Since he's a former cockroach, his first thought is that he has had one hell of a molt; his second, which drives the plot of Knox's adventurous twist on Kafka's dude-turns-into-a-roach ditty, is that he wants sex, money, and power. Sadly, before Knox can explore Kockroach in metamorphosis, he must first explain Arthropod Psych 101; the resulting distance between impulse and action makes Kockroach a very difficult character in whom to invest. Still, if you had any doubts that roaches will win in the end, this should clear them up.

This drives me up the wall. As I have said before, a ditty is a little song. It's just a song. That's all it is. It's not a short novel. Where did the writer get the idea that it was, and where the hell are the editors? Perhaps you are a nice person, Whitney Pastorek, and I am trying to be nice in the spirit of the season and all, but right now I am hatin' you. It'll pass. Maybe.


Here's the first paragraph from a Slate.com article entitled How to Cure a Sex Addict:

A recent article on Hillary Clinton's political engine-revving mentioned that her husband, Bill, has received "counseling for a sex addiction." How do you cure a nymphomaniac?

Well, you start by making sure she's a woman, I guess.

Nymphomania is the popular name for what's now called in therapeutic circles "hypersexuality". But, and this is an important point, it refers specifically and only to women. Nymphomania is what women have when they can't stop themselves from having sex: satyriasis is the name for what men have. Women are nymphomaniacs: men are satyriatics.

I know: it sounds like "sciatica" or something. But "satyriasis" is the noun form of the illness, if it is an illness, and to turn a word ending in "-iasis" into an adjective, we change that suffix to "-iatic": "psoriasis"/"psoriatic". And then we turn that into a noun by not changing its form at all. "Satyr" might be a better name than "satyriatic", but "satyr" probably just ought to mean "dirty old man" or "horndog": putting the ending on the word makes it clear that it's a medical condition of some sort.


Also in Slate.com--they must have let all the editors go away for the week, that's all I can say--is this sentence from a review of Jimmy Stewart's lesser-known Christmastime movie "The Shop Around The Corner":

Capra's principle flaw was his distrust of his audience's intelligence (Pauline Kael called It's a Wonderful Life "patronizing").

Pratically the first thing I ever wrote about when I started this blog was the difference between "principle" and "principal". It hasn't changed in the intervening twenty months. They're still different. "Principle" is never under any circumstances an adjective. How hard is that to memorize?


And a merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Prickly Parings

It's Christmas and I've been working like an Israelite slave to get everyone's jobs done before the 24th (and succeeding, too). So, as you can imagine, I haven't had much time to read, or even to think about stuff to write. Plus, I cut a little piece out of one of the important typing fingers yesterday--a run-in with a device called a trim knife (rightmost column, second from the top)--so typing is kind of a chore. You can probably expect postings to be spotty for the next week or so, what with the holiday season and all.

I was reading a Salon.com article about the foul, weaselly Newt Gingrich when I came across the word "compunction" and tried to sort it out. It seems fairly straightforward: "com-" means "together", usually, and sometimes has the effect of intensifying a root word, and since "Punkt" is German for "point" (and we also have "puncture" in English), "-punct-" seemed to refer to something pointed. But I guess my brain wasn't functioning fully, because I couldn't figure out how this related to "compunction", which is to say "remorse".

I should have gone a little deeper, as it turns out, because it's really pretty obvious. "Compunction" is from Latin "pungere", "to prick", and "compunction" is the pricking of your conscience.

Lots of other words come from "pungere", and they all, naturally enough, carry some sense of pricking or pointing, including "punctuation" (adding points and other little marks to writing), "pungent" (pricking the nose), and "poignant" (pricking the heart), not to mention "expunge" (literally, to mark for deletion) and "punctual" (right on the dot--of the clock's face).

Monday, December 18, 2006


As reported on BoingBoing, here's a very interesting blog entry about Morse Code and its theoretical obsolescence:

For all appearances, Morse Code is the dead language of the digital age (it was in fact the first digital language) done in by computers, satellites and the Internet.

There are various other sentences sort of like that: I won't quote them all (because you can read the article yourself). What bothers me is that Morse is continually referred to as a "language".

Now, I suppose that in the most rigorous possible definition of "language", you could probably argue that it is, if you were ornery enough: Answer.com's definition of "language" starts with "Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols", and while Morse isn't any of those things, it does seem to fall into the same general category (if we substitute "a batch of clicks" for "voice sounds").

However. Morse Code sent in English isn't a language separate from English: it uses English words, spelling, and grammar. It just encodes the letters of each individual word in a binary (two-symbol) format. (Technically, therefore, it's not a code: it's a cipher, because codes indicate words or phrases while ciphers work on the level of the individual letters of words. This distinction is usually made only by specialists: to the layman, they're all just codes.)

If you want to argue that Morse code is a language, then so are semaphore, that diagrammatic cipher that schoolchildren use, and even ROT13.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


This UK Times Online article is about a set of fragrances which correspond to scenes in the book and movie Perfume, a set which I want very much to own but am trying very hard not to buy, especially considering that it costs $700. American dollars, at that.

Anyway. Here's a sentence from the article.

The story is larded with olfactory epiphanies: the stench of Parisian alleys, a tannery heaving with carcasses, the powdered refinement of nobility, and seductive silage of a virgin pitting plums.

Golly. Another one of those pervasive, vexing errors that no spellchecker will ever catch, that require the attentions of a talented copy editor and/or proofreader.

"Silage", the word used, means "fodder stored in a silo": that is, "silo-age". The word they were looking for is "sillage", which looks like it has something to do with windowsills ("sill-age"), but is actually pronounced in the French manner, "see-azh", and means literally "wake"--the noun, not the verb, and at that, the noun that means "the trail left by something". In perfumery, "sillage" means the overall effect of a scent (that is to say, the impression left by the middle and, more so, the base notes), or, more literally, the trail of a fragrance left behind by someone. "Seductive sillage" makes perfect sense: "seductive silage of a virgin" is merely hilarious.

It's not a particularly common word, I concede, but the writer of the article clearly knows it, and, I'm guessing, had it incorrectly corrected by an editor who noticed that the spellchecker had never seen it before: the Mac spellchecker flags it as incorrect, as does the Microsoft spellchecker.

But it's a word!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Tuber Lessons

I was reading an amusing blog called Mondo Fruitcake (because I am one of those apparently few people who thinks fruitcake is delicious) and ran across a reference to turnips as tubers. (This reference exists because some fruitcake manufacturers, in the interests of economy, replace citron with dyed, flavoured turnip, or, for all I know, rutabaga, which is often mistaken for the turnip in North America.)

Are turnips tubers? I knew that potatoes and sweet potatoes reproduce themselves by budding (that's what the eyes are for), which makes them tubers, but I didn't know whether or not that was true of turnips as well. It seems to be that it is (and also rutabagas), so there's another blow struck for accuracy in blogland.

A tuber is a big lump of vegetable flesh, usually in the form of a swollen root, and its name comes from Latin "tuber", "lump". Pretty obvious, that.

"Tuber" of course made me think first of "tuberculosis" and then of "tuberose", and both of these words are very interesting. "Tuberose", which I have always pronounced "too-ber-oze" but which many people apparently pronounce as if it were the words "tube rose", has nothing to do with roses, though the tuberose is a headily scented flower. It's "tuber-" plus the suffix "-ose", "having the characteristics of", as in "grandiose" or "otiose". Its name comes from its bulbous root system.

"Tuberculosis" comes from "tubercle" plus "-osis", "condition". A tubercle is, not unexpectedly, a small lump ("-cle" is one of numerous Latinate diminutives, as in "caruncle"), and tuberculosis is a lung condition characterized by, yes, tubercles in the lungs (among other places).

Doesn't "tuber" sound like "tumor" if you're saying it with a head cold? That's just, I hope, a coincidence, but the two words are in fact related, both arising from Latin "tumere", "to swell", which also gave us "tumescent" and "thumb" (a swollen finger, as it were)--and "thumb" gave us "thimble".

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sure Thing

Here's a sentence from The New Yorker's David Denby's review of "The Good German":

The last of those incomparable movies was shot in Berlin, with its cracked and carious buildings, but where Soderbergh is in search of a look, controlling every nuance of a reconstructed style, Rossellini is, more simply, in search of the truth.

The sentence is fine: I'm just in love with the word "carious", and I wanted you to see the context.

I was very briefly puzzled by the word--i'd never seen it before--and then I divined that it must be the adjectival form of the word "caries", meaning "decay", which, in the context of the sentence, makes perfect sense. And in fact, that's exactly what "carious" means. Score one for common sense!

And then I realized that it sounds so much like "precarious", with the prefix "pre-", "before", affixed to it, that "precarious" must mean "teetering on the edge of decay and collapse". It makes perfect sense!

And it's completely wrong!

"Precarious" actually comes from Latin "precari", "to entreat". This, of course, makes no sense whatever, until you follow the thread of its evolution. "Precari" is the ancestor of our "pray", which is to say "entreat". Just praying for something doesn't mean you're going to get it--so capricious, gods--and so the Latin word "precarius" means "uncertain", which is what led to our "precarious", "uncertain, insecure, unstable".

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Picture Imperfect

Despite the fact that I was recently reduced to hot tears by a mere movie, I discovered tonight that I am a cold, heartless, unfeeling monster.

I was working tonight and one of the pieces I was framing was a photograph signed by someone (we'll call her Susan) to someone else. (The someone who signed the picture is the person who placed the order.) And how exactly was the picture signed?

Lot's of love, Susan

The first thing I thought was, "Goddammit, does nobody know how to punctuate any more?" And without even switching gears--without even the barest notion that it's the thought that counts, blah blah blah--I thought, "I could never have that picture in my house, because every time I saw it, I'd be thinking how stupid that mistake was."

Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Maybe the recipient doesn't know the difference, either! Or maybe he or she doesn't care! Maybe there are more important things in life than accurate spelling and punctuation! (Though there aren't.) Maybe the mere possession of a lovingly hand-signed photograph will bring the recipient untold happiness!

But I don't care. I couldn't have it in my house, because I really wouldn't ever be able to look at it without getting severely annoyed. Let this stand as a warning to anyone who might ever want to send me a signed photo.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Think It Over

I had nothing to write about for the last few days, and then this morning in the comments section for Salon.com's review of the last episode of the fourth season of The Wire (great show, by the way, but the article is one big spoiler, so don't read it if you haven't seen the episode), someone used the word "putative", and I was off.

"Putative" means "supposed", which is to say "supposéd", the adjective, not the verb: it looks like "computer", "impute", "reputation", and a bunch of other words, but I couldn't quite see how it was related. At first. Then I realized that "supposéd" means "thought to be", and there it was: "-put-" means "think", somehow.

It took a while to get there, though. The original root of the word is, unexpectedly and amazingly, "pavere", "to beat", which looks like "pave" because that's where "pave" comes from: paving is done on a foundation of beaten, crushed, cut, or otherwise demolished stone.

Since paving-stones can be cut, another word, "putare", evolved from "pavere". "Putare" means "to prune", what we do with trees and shrubs, and from this came "amputate", what we do with a limb, whether it's on a tree or a person. Eventually, a figurative sense evolved, possibly from pruning one's ideas to come up with the best one, and we wound up with such words as the ones mentioned above as well as "dispute" and, unexpectedly, "count" (and "counter", a surface on which one counted money).

Friday, December 08, 2006


Take a look at this ad, courtesy an article on The Consumerist. (It's hard to read at this size: click on it to see a bigger version.)

Typos and grammatical cock-ups anywhere are bad, but in news stories and advertisements they're particularly bad, because they cause people to doubt the veracity of what they're reading. I know what I always think is, "If they don't even have people to check the spelling, then they probably don't have people to check the facts, either." Never let anyone tell you that spelling isn't important: accurate spelling and accepted grammar convey the sense that the writer is paying attention to details and therefore can be trusted.

So: "margerine". Tsk. As we know, it's "margarine", because it's named after margaric acid.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Still reading Jeffrey Steingarten's book, and it's still very enjoyable. Here are a few sentences from an essay called "Lining Up":

This is the only line I will wait on with a jolly sense of humor. (p. 170)

There will be approximately 15 people on line. (ibid.)

Why are all these people wasting their time standing on line? (p. 171)

I find this usage baffling, to say the least. When you're queued up for something, there's a line, and it's made of people, and clearly, you're in it, just as you're in a traffic jam or a mob. English phrasal verbs don't have to make literal sense, but "standing on line" sounds perversely, deliberately wrong.

Steingarten acknowledges this, too, on page 172:

I am reminded that while New Yorkers say "standing on line", the rest of the English-speaking world says "standing in line".

So it's not just me who finds it strange, then. Whew!

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says "wait on line" is becoming more common, but only, evidently, because so many magazines are published in New York, and the usage doesn't seem to be spreading much, though "...'on line' is better known nationally than it used to be." According to the Columbia Guide to Standard English, "For now, 'to stand' or 'wait in line' is Standard. New Yorkers used to be the only Americans who spoke of 'waiting' or 'standing on line', and then other Americans began to pick up the locution...".

Well, I hope they let it drop again. I don't much care for it.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chew On This

Here on Now Smell This they're talking about a new scent which contains notes of, among other things, mastic, and I looked it and instantly thought (and I'll bet you did, too), "'Mastic'. Now doesn't that look like 'masticate'?"

Mastic, according to Answers.com, is the "aromatic resin of the mastic tree, used especially in varnishes, lacquers, adhesives and condiments and as an astringent." This enviable versatility also extends to perfumery, where it adds an aroma similar to galbanum.

"Mastic" is unsurprisingly, related to "masticate": it, in fact, derives directly from it. "Masticate" means "to chew": it comes (filtered through Latin) from Greek "mastikhan", "to grind the teeth", which led to "mastikhe", "chewing gum", and since the ancient Greeks didn't have Chiclets or Dentyne, they chewed tree resin.

One of the commenters on Now Smell This asked, "Mastic? Isn't that a kind of glue?", to which the answer is, "Yeah, sorta." "Mastic" is synonymous with "caulking" and is used to describe modern, non-resinous caulking compounds: see?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Something To Talk About

Yesterday I used the word "ineffable" (and I meant it, too), and it suddenly struck me as being a very interesting word. I didn't know just how interesting until I looked into it.

"Ineffable" means "incapable of being expressed": so wonderful that words fail you. It's Latin: the "in-" means "not", predictably enough, the "-e-" is an abbreviation of "ex-", "out", and the rest comes from "fari", "to speak".

Well, as soon as I saw that, I thought of another word that I'd read the derivation of some time ago. As I noted a year and a half ago, "infantile" comes from Latin "infans", "unable to speak", and as soon as I discovered that "fari" means "to speak", I put two and two together and deduced that "infant" must also come from "fari", which it, of course, does: "fans" is the present participle of "fari".

"Fari" is a member of an enormous family of words. Latin "fari"/"fans" gives us "fable" (a spoken story) and therefore "fabulous", "affable" ("easy to speak to"), and "fate", something spoken by the gods, among others. (Answers.com's listing for "confabulate", another "fari" relative, contains the following definition: "To fill in gaps in one's memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts." One would almost think that "confabulate" and "fabrications" were cousins, but they're not: "fabricate" comes from Latin "fabricari", "to make", which also gives us "fabric", of course, and, less expectedly,"forge".)

With a quick change of vowels, "-fans" becomes Greek "phonein", "to speak", which has many offspring in English: "phonetic", "telephone", "symphony", and "prophet", among others. A consonantal change from "f" to "b" is, as I've noted before, common in words making their way from Latin to Germanic, and that change gave us such words as "ban" and "banish", which accompanied a change in meaning from "speak" to "speak officially".

Sunday, December 03, 2006


First off, I just want to say that you really ought to go see "The Fountain", which is visionary, desperately romantic, and ineffably beautiful. It's one of the best movies I've ever seen, and I think we should all give director Darren Aranofsky our money so he can keep making movies.

I suppose I ought to say that I really liked Aranofsky's two previous films, "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream", but that I'm not some sort of he-can-do-no-wrong fanboy; I read some reviews and was prepared to not like this, so it was a real shock to me that I loved it so passionately (and that I cried so much at the end--yes, I did). I should also say that my taste in movies isn't everyone's: a friend once punched me in the arm after I convinced her that she really had to go see Atom Egoyan's "Speaking Parts" (which is still one of my favourite movies of all time).

Maybe you'll go see it, and maybe you won't like it; fine. It's not to everyone's taste, that's for sure. But I will say that if, like Richard Roeper, you call it "the worst movie of the year"--and this in a year that contained such gems as "Snakes on a Plane", "The Grudge II", and "Employee of the Month"--then, and there is no nice way of putting this, you are an idiot. You're reading this, so you're not an idiot, of course, unless you're Richard Roeper. Goddamn, he's stupid.


Since part of the movie takes place in Central America, how about a fascinating etymology from that general part of the world?

This story from The Consumerist tells of a lawsuit launched against Kraft Foods for their "guacamole", which consists of 2 per cent avocado in a sea of, and I quote, "a whipped paste made from partially hydrogenated soybean and coconut oils, corn syrup, whey and food starch", with food colouring to make it green. That's disgusting, and it sure isn't guacamole, which is basically avocados and a bit of seasoning.

Where do you suppose the word "guacamole" came from? The story linked to by The Consumerist, here, lets it slip:

That's probably not what the Aztecs had in mind when they invented guacamole about 700 years ago. They made a sauce called ahuaca-mulli, which roughly translates to "avocado mixture," according to the avocado commission. The dip was prepared by mashing avocados, sometimes with tomatoes and onions in a molcajete, a Mexican mortar and pestle.

That's interesting, yes? What's more interesting is that second word, "mulli", "mixture". As soon as I saw it I guessed that it must be the source of "molé", which is a sort of complex gravy darkened with chocolate and used in Mexican cuisine. And that's just where it comes from! It's really gratifying to take a stab at something and be right. Yeah, I know: I probably could have looked at "guacamole" and guessed that the second half of it was related to "molé". But I never did, and so I'm making up for it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


I've written briefly before about Alison Bechdel, clearly a terrific human being, who has been invited to join the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, without whose usage guide I would be...well, maybe not bereft, but certainly less well-informed, and so of course I am very jealous.

However, I'm dubious about this sentence from the abovementioned blog posting of hers:

The American Heritage is my absolute favorite dictionary.

Adverbs which modify adjectives are a tricky thing, I know. There are certain instances in which, rather than using an adverb, we seem to use another adjective: "exact", for instance: we'd say "the exact same thing" and never "the exactly same thing", or "most attractive" rather than "mostly attractive" (which doesn't mean the same thing at all, and is in fact a kind of insult). "Absolute favorite" seems to fall into the same category: however, it seemed to me upon reading this that "absolutely favorite" would be at least preferable. But can "absolute favorite", despite its commonness, in fact be correct?

Maybe. I guess.

American Heritage's English Usage wasn't much help to me (you might want to look into that, Ms. Bechdel), but my old standby, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, eventually pointed me in the right direction.

There is a class of adverbs known as flat adverbs, which look exactly like their adjectival counterparts. Many, perhaps most, adjectives simply take "-ly" to convert them into adverbs: quick/quickly, stupid/stupidly, and so on. However, there are some which don't: "fast", for example. "She drove the car fast" is correct, where "fastly" wouldn't be (because it doesn't really exist in English: it used to, but is now dead and gone). Others are "sure", as in "they sure taught me a lesson", and "flat", as in "we got there in seven hours flat".

And I'm guessing, without any clear proof--Googling didn't help--that "absolute" is, if it wasn't always, one of these flat adjectives.

So: I might say "absolute favourite", but I wouldn't write it. (And just to back up that assertion, I checked back through my entire blog, and I never once used "absolute" as an adverb, in case you were wondering.) It strikes me as casual: fit for everyday speech, in which we drop the "-g" from progressive verbs and such, but not so great for writing and formal speech. (And having said that, I'll also concede that most blogs are really the written equivalent of casual speech, though I suppose mine isn't, and so there goes my last remaining objection to "absolute favorite".)

Friday, December 01, 2006

I Stand Corrected

Well, here's a mystery solved, as far as I know.

I wrote a couple of weeks back in this posting about a strange phraseology in a document I had been framing, words I couldn't make any sense of and thought must be a mistake of some sort (it seemed to use the noun "presents" instead of the adjective "present"). Today, as it happens, I was framing another diploma, and it contained these exact words (I jotted them down), in English and French:

To all to whom these presents shall come: GREETINGS!

A tous ceux que ces présents verront, SALUTATIONS!

I'm still not altogether convinced that the English isn't just a literal, and literally incorrect, translation of the French, but in fact those words are a standard opening for what's called a letter patent, which is to say a public declaration of something or other--in this case, a degree in accounting. You can read more about the letter patent here. Good old Wikipedia: is there anything it doesn't know?