or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, April 30, 2007

Inside Job

A recent Slate.com article about the stimulation of the brain to produce religious experiences--I just got around to reading it--contains the following sentence:

Psychedelic (or entheogenic, literally God-containing) compounds such as LSD and psilocybin represent by far the most mature mystical technology available.

"Literally"? Might want to watch that. The suffix "-genic" has several meanings, which I covered in my first-ever blog entry. It can mean "producing", "produced by", or "pertaining to", but it doesn't mean "containing".

I think a better translation of "entheogenic" would come about as follows: "en-" means "in", "theo" means "god", and "genic" means "producing or causing", so an entheogenic drug or procedure would be one which produces a sense of divinity within oneself--or, more specifically, within one's brain.

And, as it turns out, Wikipedia--which, I swear, I didn't look at until I had written that last paragraph--agrees with me.

"God-containing", my ass.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mental Operation

The copy-editing centre of my brain: it never shuts off.

Yesterday, as I said, we were at the opera, which was in Italian. It had subtitles, which was a blessing, as I don't speak any Italian. (I bet at least some of the purists hate them, but subtitles or Surtitles™ make opera accessible and enjoyable to a much wider range of people.) The second opera, "Suor Angelica", contains the lyric

Suor Angelica ha sempre una ricetta buona fatta coi fiori

which means "Sister Angelica always has a good recipe made from flowers": it's ironic foreshadowing, see, because first she picks some plants to make a healing potion for a nun who's been stung by a wasp, and then later she coaxes poison from the bosoms of the flowers so she can kill herself. Yes, a suicidal nun: par for the course in world of opera.

Okay. So there's that. Then in the third opera, "Gianni Schicci", a map of Florence is prominently displayed, with a river (the River Arno, I guess) running through it and also prominently labeled FIUME.

This is where my brain, despite myself, kicked into gear. "Fiume" must, I figured, mean "river", and why should that be so? I pondered it for a second and realized that "fiume" looks a lot like the English word "flume", at which point I recalled that the English name for Firenze on the map is Florence, and then a second later realized that "fiori" means "flowers", and then I forced myself to attend to the opera, promising my brain that I'd get back to it.

And here I am. Isn't it fascinating that all three of those words should appear in such close proximity to one another? And if those three exist, what other words might evidence themselves as "fl-" words in English and "fi-" words in Italian? The only one I could bring to mind was "fiamma", which is "flame". (As I said, I don't speak any Italian: my only real exposure is through opera, which gives the occasional word or expression--and I could sing you most of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor", not that you'd ever want to hear such a thing--but not any actual facility in the language.)

But here are some others. "Flamingo" is "fiammingo", unsurprising because it's from the same source as "fiamma". "Flank" is "fianco" (just as "blank" is "bianco"). And "flask" is, wonderfully, "fiasco". (Nobody is quite sure why "fiasco" means "massive failure" in English: here are some etymologies, most of them folk.)

But "florid", even though it's related to "flower", turns out to be "florido". So changing "-l-" to "-i-" isn't some sort of rule: unless there's an underlying logic to the process, it seems to be a thing that just kind of randomly happened. It has nothing to do with Latin, which uses "-l-" in all the source words: "flamma" for "flame", for example, and "fluere", "to flow", for "flume". ("Flank" is an exception: Italian got "fianco" not from Latin but from one of the Gemanic languages. It still changed that consonant to a vowel, though: I can only assume that the words in which this happened were changed because they sounded nicer to the Italian ear.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

On Your Feet

We went to the opera again today! It was Puccini's "Il Trittico", which means "triptych", as it consists of three short operas: a potboiler, a tragedy, and a comedy. I had a great time. Jim kind of fell asleep for the potboiler, but he enjoyed the other two operas.

The dugong sitting next to me was wearing Crocs. Fuck, those things are ugly. And they're everywhere. I know people who wear them, and every one says the same thing: sure, they're ugly, but they're comfortable. Yeah, but so what? Bathrobes are comfy, but if you wear one of those to the movies, people think you're crazy.

Comfort is overrated. I don't care how comfortable Crocs are: they're the ugliest footwear that has ever existed--and I'm old enough to remember Earth Shoes, which were hideous but which compared to Crocs are Jimmy Choos. So many people in this town wear them, too: they even wear them in winter, and we get bad, sloppy, freezy winters. Men wear them, as if the popular socks-with-sandals look weren't degrading enough. There is something very wrong with the world if something so hideous can become so popular.

As I was pondering the dugong's wretched footwear--they were powder blue, as if to flaunt the fact that they were as far from being a natural product as it was humanly possible to manufacture--I naturally began to wonder about the word "crocodile". I instantly speculated that it had to be Greek in origin: those "k-" sounds just had Greek written all over them. The original word, I decided, was probably "krokodilios" or something along those lines.

I love being right. The source is actually Greek "krokodilos", but you can't be a hundred per cent right a hundred per cent of the time; it looks bad, like you're hiding insecurities or a drinking problem.

"Krokodilos", you will be thrilled to learn, is a compound of two words: "kroke", "pebble" (from the pebbly texture of their skin) and "drilos", which means variously "worm" or (get this!) "circumcised man"!

Clearly it should have been "krokodrile", and we ought to have ended up with "crocodrile". Where did the "-r-" disappear to? Well, that's a story in itself: it appeared and vanished a couple of times over the centuries.

The Greeks themselves chucked it when the word became "krokodilos". When Latin borrowed it, it took the older version as "crocodrillus", converting each "k" to a "c", as was their way. But "crocodrillus" contained one "-r-" too many for the Latin mouth, evidently, because it was eventually altered to "cocodrillus" (matching the existing Greek variant), which is how it entered Middle English as "cocodril". In the 16th and 17th centuries, the corrected form, modeled after the original Latin and Greek, was installed in English. (French and German reformed it, too, to respectively "crocodile" and "Krokodil". Not Italian or Spanish, though: they've still got "coccodrillo" and "cocodrilo".)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Neither One Nor The Other

After reading this Slate.com piece about Limbo and how the Catholic church has done a volte-face on the subject (wee innocent babies, it is now declared, don't go to that neither-nor in-between place any more: they get to go to Heaven!), I wrote a rant, and then rewrote it, and then thought the hell with it. The whole belief system is so ludicrous that it makes fun of itself. It doesn't need any help from me.

For what it's worth, I'm not anti-Catholic, any more than I'm anti-Sikh, anti-Scientology, or anti-Pastafarian. I think they're all equally nonsensical. If at gunpoint I had to choose a religion, I guess I'd choose the Unitarian Universalists, since they really don't give a fuck what you believe as long as you're nice, and you've gotta admire that sort of ecumenism stretched as far as it will go.

Now. Where did the word "Limbo" come from? (The place, not the dance. Nobody's quite sure where the name of the dance came from, though it's probably African.)

It derives from a Latin word, "limbus". If you're anything like me, that will immediately call three words to mind: "limb", "limbic", and "limn". The last one's a long shot, I know: the last consonant is wrong. (But it sounds just like "limb"!) The other two, though: I knew there had to be a connection there.

And here it is. "Limbus" means "border", because, according to now apparently obsolete Catholic theology, Limbo was on the border of Hell.

"Limb" meaning something like "arm" or "leg" doesn't derive directly from "limbo", apparently, but it was influenced by it. There are two different uses of "limb" in English. The less common one means "edge", and refers, usually, to the curved edge an astronomical body. If you've ever read a news story about an eclipse that mention the moon's limb, that's what they were talking about. It has nothing to do with arms.

"Limb" meaning "extended part", as on a tree or a mammal, popped up independently in English, but its spelling was altered by the existence of the other "limb".

"Limbic", as in "limbic system", which is to say the part of the brain that deals with emotions, is related to the Latin as well: it forms the border between the brain stem and the more advanced brain lobes.

I thought "limn" might be related because it means "to depict", and you make a drawing, and a drawing has edges...okay, that wasn't going to happen. As it turns out, I've done "limn" already, and I should have remembered, but didn't, that it's actually related to "illuminate", as in an illuminated manuscript.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


If you don't watch The Amazing Race...well, why don't you? It's only the best reality show ever, or at least it was before it started to go a little downhill and Project Runway came along. But anyway, we still watch it, and then about a week later I read the recap on Television Without Pity, which is always hilarious.

You know how you're reading something and the same word crops up over and over again and eventually you begin to doubt that it actually is a word? Something like that happened with this week's recap, except that instead of thinking it wasn't a word, I began thinking it was hilarious. And then I had to know where it came from, though I could guess.

Here's the (first half of the) paragraph:

Kuala Lumpur! Those two big towers! We've been here before! The supply of countries is running short! Soon, we will have to try other planets! Phil provides the Founding Trivia Of The Week, which is that this particular city was founded by tin miners. It's too bad we don't have much tin anymore. You basically only hear "piece of tin" in relation to cars that fall apart easily, which, in fairness, are rarely even made of tin. Tin needs better PR.

"Tin". Comedy gold! I looked at it and thought, well, that pretty much has to be very old, probably from Old English and maybe even a native-born word. A lot of really short, utilitarian words are. And it is from Old English, but we didn't invent it ourselves, because the German word for tin is Zinn, which in German is pronounced "tsin", with the "t-" being pronounced--the first half is like the last half of "guts"--and which may look familiar to you from the name of the American historian Howard Zinn and also from the flower called the zinnia, which got its name from the botanist Johann Zinn.

I'm not saying we got "tin" from one of the Germanic languages, necessarily, but there's definitely some common ancestor there. According to Answers.com, almost all the Germanic languages use the same basic word for "tin", but none of the other Indo-European languages (such as Albanian, Celtic, and the Romance languages) have it.

Tinfoil, by the way, is no longer made of tin because it was alloyed with lead for pliability, and we all know how bad lead is for general health and well-being. (Some people think aluminum is just as bad--that it causes Alzheimer's disease--but the jury's still out. It's not something I worry about.)

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Twisty Faster is clearly an awesome human being, but in a recent blog entry of hers there's this footnote, and I am forced to take exception. The footnote reads as follows:

*Actually, she did not say “purulent.” She said “pus-y,” but that word does not, for some reason, exist in written English.

Oh, sure it does. It's spelled "pussy". It rhymes with "hussy", unless you are one of those people who pronounces "hussy" as if it were spelled with zeds instead of esses, in which case it rhymes with "fussy", or half of "tussie-mussie" (which is a Victorian bouquet).

Yes, I know. It looks like "pussy", the one that means "cat" or whatever. And? We have lots of words in English that are pronounced two different ways with the same spelling. "Polish" and "polish", for instance. Sure, it's a little confusing, but that's English for you. It's just something we have to get used to.

You don't have to like "pussy" pronounced to rhyme with "hussy" and meaning "purulent", and you certainly don't have to use it in the written or spoken language, but there's no point in pretending that it doesn't exist in written English, because it does.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Burning Desire

For the last few days I've been obsessively playing with ColourLovers.com, which lets you make palettes of up to five colours, store them, and share them. You get to name colours that nobody else has used yet: since there are a lot of possible colours using the RGB system (256 cubed, which is to say 16,777,216), the chances that you'll pick some unnamed colours are pretty good.

It's the best Internet sandbox toy ever.

One of the colours I named was a bright, hot green that I called "Muriatic Acid", just for fun. (You can look it up.) And then I wondered where that particular acid got its name.

Muriatic acid is the old name for hydrochloric acid. I knew that much. The rest was a mystery. As you might expect, the answer to every question is over at Wikipedia, and this one is no exception. As it turns out, "muriatic" comes from Latin "muria", which means "brine". Salt? Well, the acid was originally known as "spirit of salt", because it was produced as an accidental by-product of the manufacture of sodium sulfate from sodium chloride--that's "salt" to us non-scientists--and sulfuric acid. Doesn't that make perfect sense? It does.

I naturally wondered if "muria" might have left any other offspring in the language. The only word I could think of was "immure", but that obviously has nothing to do with brine: it's from the Latin "murus", which means "wall" and also gave us "mural", a wall-painting, and "immure" means "imprison within walls".

Some other potential candidates that didn't pan out: "murine", which means "of or relating to mice", from Latin "mus", which is where "mouse" comes from; "murex", a type of spiny-shelled sea life; "murre", a species of auk whose name is of unknown origin; and "muraenid", which is a moray eel.

Not one of them has ever been within throwing distance of "muria". If we have any traces of it left in English save for the archaic (but prettily named) muriatic acid, I couldn't find them.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Future Imperfect

From, as usual, Boingboing.net comes this list of predictions about the year 2000 from the year 1900, courtesy of the Ladies Home Journal.

I'm not going to poke fun at them. Predicting the future is hard. It's nearly impossible, in fact. Some of them are reasonably accurate: the very first prediction is, "There will probably 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in American and its possessions...." Some are prescient: Prediction #18 foresees the universal installation of operator-less telephone connections. (He also predicts accurate colour photography and the television.) Some of them are just wishful thinking: "There Will Be No Street Cars In Our Large Cities", reads the start to Prediction #4, capital letters and all. In your dreams, pal.

And at least one of them just flat-out doesn't make any sense. "There will be no wild animals except in menageries," reads the start of Prediction #28, which is just stupid (he thinks we can get rid of beavers and starlings?), but then the author goes on to say that "Food animals will be bred to expend practically all of their life energy in producing meat, milk, wool and other by-products. Horns, bones, muscles and lungs will have been neglected."

It's not far from the truth to say that cows, pigs and chickens expend pretty much all their life energy into becoming foodstuffs for humans, but that last sentence has me thrown completely for a loop. The animals will be bred to produce meat for us, but in the course of doing so they won't have muscles?

What exactly does the author think meat is made of?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Needle Tip

I knit. A lot. I also teach knitting. I subscribe to one of those Page-A-Day calendars, called "Stitch & Bitch: The Knitter's Calendar". If you don't knit, you can skim the next paragraph, which is a recent calendar page. If you do knit, you might as well commit it to heart, because it contains a very useful tip (it's something I do all the time).

If you’re anything like most knitters, you despise the finishing process. All that sewing, tacking thread, working away ends—bo-ring! Well, here’s one way to make the chore a bit less ominous. You probably already know that most sweaters require you to sew two shoulder seams, sew a sleeve into an armhole, and sew up the side and sleeve seams. With some planning when you cast on and bind off a section, you can leave tails that are long enough to use for sewing the seams together. To keep these long tails out of your way while you’re working, just tie them into a little figure 8 or wind them around a yarn bobbin.

You know I wouldn't quote this if there weren't some sort of point to it, and the problem here--I'm sure you caught it--is that "ominous" in the third sentence is mildly amusing and completely wrong. I am not a betting man, but I would bet you money that the word they were stabbing for with their three-millimetre needles (and somehow missing, despite the theoretical existence of an editor of some sort) is "onerous".

"Ominous" means "threatening" and is obviously related to "omen", which is direct from Latin. "Onerous", on the other hand, means "burdensome", is obviously related to "onus", and is again direct from Latin.

Check out these puddle-of-blood pillows from Make magazine via Boingboing.
Aren't they great? Aren't they awful? You lay your head on them and it looks as if you've bled to death! I may have to knit a couple from red chenille.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Presto Change-o

This morning I was reading something or other before getting ready to go to work, and the phrase "sleight of hand" came up (or popped into my head). "Now where," I thought, "could 'sleight' have come from?" And I could have just looked it up, which is what I do when I'm sitting in front of the computer, but instead I thought, "Can't be Latin, can't be French, sure can't be Greek. Probably Nordic. I bet that the root of it is 'sly', and the '-t' suffix is the same sort of thing as the one in 'height', the thing that turns an adjective into a noun."

And to my amazement, that's what it turned out to be. "Sly" is the source of "sleight" (which does, more or less, mean "slyness"), both of them filtered through Middle English by way of Norse.

And then, satisfied, I put my computer to sleep and went to shove my contact lenses in, and while I was doing that I thought, "Well, then, where did 'slight' come from?" Because, you know, homophones. And even though I didn't really have a lot of time, I knew I had to sit down and fire up the Mac and look it up.

Waste of time, really. The etymology of "slight" isn't known for certain; there's a small possibility that it's related to a family of Germanic words including "slick", "slimy", and "slippery", which doesn't, on the face of it, make a whole lot of sense, but it's all I got. (Wouldn't you think "sleight" would be a better candidate for membership in that group of words?)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Seek And Ye Shall Find

I was at the gym this morning and...did I read it, or did it show up on the subtitles of the television screen in front of me, or did I imagine it, or what? I think it must have been a word in the book I've been reading on the elliptical machine for the last couple of weeks (Collapse by Jared Diamond) that made me think of the word "exquisite", and as usual I was drawn out of the book and into my brain, where I tried to figure out the word's provenance and wished I had a portable wireless Internet connection with me twenty-four-seven.

"Exquisite", as a few moments' thought will tell you (as it told me), must be related to "inquisitive" somehow: the same root, Latin "-quis-", plus a suffix--"ex", or "out" versus "in-" or "in". What stumped me was that "quis" by itself means "who", and I knew that it's also the root of "question", but after that I was just at a loss. So it had to wait until I got home. I may not always remember which way is left and which way is right, but I never forget questions of etymology and usage.

The root of "exquisite" is "quaerere", "to seek". That doesn't make a whole lot of sense by itself (although it explains "inquisition", "question", and some other words we'll get to in a minute). But of course: something exquisite is something you seek out, isn't it? It's as literal as it gets.

"Quaerere", being the root of "question", is also the root of "quest", obviously, and therefore "conquest" and "conquer" (seek something out, and take control of it); "-"quire" words such as "inquire", "require", and "acquire"; and "query", which looks and sounds just like its source. ("Esquire" is, you will have guessed, unrelated: it derives from Latin "scutum", "shield", because an esquire, which is to say a squire, is a knight's shield-bearer.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007


If you've never seen The Kids In The Hall, a Canadian comedy troupe, then you ought to watch this. Either you'll think it's hilarious (which is is) or you won't get it. Either way, you'll note that one of the lines in the song is "Songwriting's not my forte", and, as everyone knows, "forte" means "strong point" and is pronounced with two syllables, "for-tay".

Except that it isn't supposed to be. Two-syllabled "forte" certainly exists in English: we borrowed it from Italian, and it's used solely in musical contexts, in which it means "loud" or "forceful". (The musical instrument known as the piano was originally called the pianoforte because, unlike the harpsichord, it has dynamics and can play both loud and soft notes--"piano" means "quiet" in Italian.)

But the word that means "strength" isn't from Italian: it's from French, and there isn't an accent mark on the last vowel, which means the vowel isn't pronounced as a separate syllable. It ought to be the case that "forte" meaning "specialty" sounds exactly like "fort". (The English noun "fort", of course, got its name from the French word, because a fortress is a stronghold.)

But as you can well imagine, "for-tay" is so ingrained into English that if you were to say, "Well, dancing really isn't my fort", everybody (with exceedingly few exceptions) would think you were wrong, and that English usage wasn't your for-tay, either. You would be right, and they would be wrong, but that doesn't change the fact that the great majority of people would think the opposite, and you would probably be misunderstood. I agonized about this problem a while ago when I wondered how I ought to pronounce "bruschetta", in the Italian manner (which is to say correctly) or as most North Americans pronounce it. And I reluctantly have to admit that, in the greater interest of being understood, I am probably going to say "for-tay" if I have to use the word at all. I can't win every fight, and I think this one is lost.

The fact is that even something wrong can become de facto right if it's repeated often enough, and this, I think, is what's happened with "forte": more people will understand the mispronunciation than the correct one, and therefore the wrong one is now correct. If someone wants to say it as one syllable, I'll understand what they mean and I'll silently give a cheer that someone knows how to use it correctly, but even I, stubborn as I am, can see when the writing's on the wall.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bad Friday Redux

I got rid of that Twitter thing. You probably didn't even notice. It was a passing fancy. I might reinstate it later if I can think of some actual use for it.


Last Friday I wrote about The Very Bad Word and during the writing of it I noticed it was getting too long, so I cut it short, and then later I realized that there was still lots more to be said on the subject, so if you'll allow me, I'm devoting another posting to it. But just one more.

I realized a couple of days after posting that Hugh Rawson, correct though he was in his assessment of the word "cunt" as the most taboo of all words in the language, was speaking from a specifically North American viewpoint. In British English, as you can see from this research document, "cunt" is likewise seen as the worst of all the swear words, beating out "fuck" by a whole twelve percentage points. But it's also the case that British English uses the word casually in way that isn't possible in North American English. Try Googling the phrase "cheeky cunt" and you'll get nearly ten thousand hits: seemingly no stronger than "bastard" (which in N.A. English can be used without any real hostility), the term is, fascinatingly, used almost exclusively to refer to men. (I gather from the various contexts that "cheeky cunt" can also be used in a somewhat hostile or aggressive manner: it seems to depend on the delivery. It's clear that the adjective generally takes away some or all of the sting: the word by itself or with another adjective, such as "right", seems to be a full-bore insult.)

There are, naturally, regional variations, a few of which are mentioned here.


Just because English is rather squeamish about the word doesn't mean that all languages are. French in particular has made "con", its version of the word, as casual as can be: it means, more or less, "idiot", although it still has its literal meaning as well (much as "asshole" has in English), depending on context. It's so casually used, in fact, that there was a French movie in 1998 called "Le dîner des cons", in which a group of friends have weekly dinner parties to which, in a game of one-upmanship, they invite the stupidest people they can find.


It's worth noting that the word is amazingly old, in the close neighbourhood of a millennium. The OED lists the first written occurrence of the modern spelling "cunt" in 1260 (though it also occurred in variants almost two hundred years earlier) as the street name Gropecuntelane, which will give you a good idea of how un-taboo the word was in those earthier times. English surnames used to come from occupations, family lines, or physical characteristics: Miller, for instance, or Johnson, or Black[haired]. Surnames disappear from a society for a number of reasons: a particular family has only daughters who take their husbands names should they marry, or an only son never has children to pass on the family name.

These three facts, I think, explain the existence, and subsequent vanishing, of a particular surname noted in James McDonald's A Dictionary of Obscenity, Taboo, & Euphemism: Wydecunthe.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Before and After

I was writing Friday's blog posting yesterday (I like to plan ahead) and intending to use the word "redux" in the title and as usual I got side-tracked by the fact that I don't even know where "redux" comes from, and so I looked it up on Answers.com and discovered a very nice word that I won't get to use often, though I'm glad it exists: "postpositively".

I had to puzzle over it for a few seconds, but the I realized what the word was telling me. We have a class of words in English called "prepositions", which is placed after a verb but before another word to link the two (usually the subject of the sentence): in the phrase "go after someone", "after" is a preposition. (This is the reason for the supposed rule that you may never end a sentence with a preposition: the "pre-" prefix means it has to go before something, and if you put it at the end, there's nothing for it to go before. I don't think I even need to tell you that this is nonsense, and if the sound and the sense are preserved or improved, you may put a preposition at the end of the sentence, or wherever else you like.)

There are also words known as "postpositions", which go after the subject, and "redux" is just such a word: the elongated 2001 director's cut of "Apocalypse Now" was called "Apocalypse Now Redux", which is exactly how the word is used. So "redux", we learn, is "used postpositively", and that word means "used in the manner of a postposition". Isn't that great?

"Redux", by the way, has a most interesting etymology, one which it might be hard to guess. (I know I couldn't put my finger on it.) The "re-" prefix in this case means "again", unsurprisingly: it's the "-dux" that can lead you astray. You'd almost think it had to be related to one of the "-duce" or "-duct" words such as "deduce" or "abduct", but that, of course, doesn't make any sense.

Except that it does: both those words are related, and "redux" is related to both of them. Funny how English etymology leads you around in circles sometimes.

The source of "deduce" is Latin "ducere", "to lead", because a deduction leads to a solution. Once you know this, you can immediately guess that "abduct" has the same root, because it means "to lead away". And "redux", which means "brought back", literally means "led (in) again".

"Redux" actually comes to us at one remove, because it's not immediately descended from "ducere" but from its offspring "dux", which means "leader", and therefore is also the source of the English word "duke".

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Little Learning

Tonight for supper we made jambalaya. Probably not altogether authentic, as if we care; we used maple sausage (for that Canadian touch) and big ol' tiger shrimp, and it was delicious.

And then naturally enough I began to wonder where the word "shrimp" came from, and also where "prawn" might have come from into the bargain, and if they are in fact just two words for the same thing. And now you need to know, and of course I'm going to tell you.

"Shrimp" appears to be related to two English words that derived from Germanic; "scrimp" and "shrink". And doesn't that make perfect sense? "Shrimp" is practically a portmanteau of the other two words, and all three carry connotations of tininess.

"Prawn", on the other hand, simply emerged in the 1400s. It has no antecedents (except for the alternate spellings "prayne" and "prane") and no relatives in any other language; it just came into being all by itself. I know words have to come from somewhere, but it always strikes me as fascinating and mysterious when a word just poofs into the language.

Prawns and shrimp aren't exactly the same thing, although the two words are often used interchangeably, or as special cases of one another (the word "prawn" is sometimes used in place of the putatively oxymoronic "jumbo shrimp"). The difference is in their gills: prawns have branched gills, while shrimp have lamellar, or plate-like, gills. Otherwise, pretty much the same thing, and all delicious.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sunday Morning

This is the third Easter I've been writing this blog, and I still haven't actually done Easter? I'm surprised at myself.

The name comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility, who naturally enough was celebrated in the springtime; her name has a dozen or so spellings, but it's generally rendered as Eostre or something like it (variants include Ostare, Austron, and Ostern, which, as it turns out, is the modern German name for the holiday). It would appear that the Babylonian goddess Ishtar is unrelated to Eostre: the similarity of spelling and pronunciation is just an accidental convergence.

Other languages take a different tack for naming Easter: most of them use some variant of "Passover", which in Hebrew is "Pesach". The French word is "Pâques", which is strongly reminiscent of the English word "paschal" ("of or referring to Easter"): the name Pascal is descended from this French word. (Remember that the circumflex over the vowel in French often means that an ess was once present but has vanished, making "pasques" the progenitor of "Paqûes".) Likewise in Italian the word is "Pasqua", which leads to the name Pasquale, and in Spanish it's "Pascua" and Pascual.

Since Eostre is the goddess of not only fertility but of the dawn, it makes perfect sense that she gave her name to the East, the direction in which the sun rises, so, yes, Easter and Eastern are related. They didn't have to be, etymology being what it is, but they are.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Killer Wheels

This morning I was walking to work through a car lot and couldn't help but notice big signs that read

See the all-new 2008 Dodge Avenger!

("Avenger", if you were wondering--I know I was--is from French "vengier", "to vindicate", which in turn is from Latin "vindicare", which is also clearly the source of English "vindictive".)

Remember when the cars for the next year would come in September or so? Now it's April. For all I know, they were in the showrooms in March. What the hell?

Anyway. This afternoon I went to see "Grindhouse", which I enjoyed about two thirds of. The Robert Rodriguez half, "Planet Terror", is wonderful--a dizzyingly over-the-top zombie horror movie. The fake coming-attractions trailers are also inspired. About ten minutes of the Quentin Tarantino half, "Death Proof", is decent, but most of it is just incredibly tedious blah-blah-blah, people endlessly talking to show what a clever writer Tarantino is, and then an exciting car-chase sequence and an ending which is supposedly an homage to, but is actually a ripoff of, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"

So, not a fan of Tarantino.

Anyway again. "Death Proof" is more or less about a serial killer who kills with his car instead of a knife or a gun, and what I want to know is, why on Earth would Dodge name a car "Avenger"? Isn't that pretty much tempting someone to kill with it? Have they forgotten that words have meanings? I can see naming a car something fast (Impala, Mustang), something adventurous (Explorer, Land Rover), something exotic (Lumina, Infiniti). But "Avenger"? Jesus. That's crazy. That's just asking for a lawsuit.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bad Friday

Well, I suppose I have to write about The Very Bad Word today.

Have you ever seen Buñuel's film "Belle de Jour"? It's one of those films that always seems to make the top-100 lists (go ahead, Google "top 100 films" "belle de jour" and you'll see), and that, as a consequence, a lot of people hate. I saw it in the theatre when it was re-released in 1995 and I loved it instantly. In a nutshell, the heroine, Séverine, a bored bourgeois housewife, ends up working the day shift in a whorehouse. There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but it gives Catherine Deneuve the chance to look ravishing and ravished, which is always nice.

My favourite sequence in the entire movie is when Séverine, having just had an interview with the proprietress, Madame Anaïs, rushes from the brothel. She can't do it, of course: her middle-class values make it impossible. The address of the whorehouse is 11 (I can't, alas, remember the street name, the Internet is unaccountably no help, and I don't have a copy of the movie); after she leaves, she's suddenly surrounded by pairs of uprights suggesting the number 11: two girls playing jump-rope, the handles on a pair of doors--everything around her is that number, as if the universe is ordering her to go back to Number 11 and surrender herself.

A couple of days ago, we had to drive to Fredericton so I could get my passport (long boring story), and on the way back we drove past a place the name of which I don't remember but it made me think of Coney Island. That afternoon, I was reading BoingBoing and there was a piece about a book on Coney Island. Yesterday on Now Smell This there was an article about a new Bond No. 9 fragrance called, yes, Coney Island. And this morning in my in-box was a pattern for a knit bunny rabbit.

All right, universe! I get it! I'll write about The Very Bad Word!


"Coney", according to the Wikipedia page for Coney Island, is "an obsolete and dialectical English word for rabbit." Dialectical, sure, and archaic, too, but perhaps not yet one hundred per cent obsolete: it appears in at least one of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, so millions of people have heard it in the last few years.

"Coney" does in fact mean "rabbit": Coney Island got its name from the zillions of rabbits that infested it when the Dutch got there in the 17th century. The word "coney" exists, by most accounts, because a rabbit is small and furry: it derives from Latin "cunnus", which means, and is fairly obviously the source for, "cunt".* (The less-heard "cunny" appears to be a sort of way-station between "coney" and "cunt".)

Hugh Rawson, in his indispensible book "Wicked Words", calls "cunt" "the most heavily tabooed of all English words," and it really is, isn't it? You can hardly say it in mixed company, and if you feel compelled to utter it, you might have to apologize. George Carlin's list of the seven words you can't say on television has gradually been whittled down to four ("shit", "piss", and "tits" are all disreputable but not actionable), and I think if people had to place a bet on which word would be the last to appear on American television, "cunt" would be the winner (although "motherfucker" would probably be a close second).**

The etymology for "cunnus" is not certain. Some think it's related to a huge family of words containing the Latin "gen-", such as "genital" and "generate", with the sense of "create" or "give birth to". Others think it's more likely related to Greek "gyne", "woman", a word which gave us not only "gynecology" but also "queen" and "quean".

"Quaint" comes from French, which got it from Latin "cognoscere", "to learn" (it used to mean "clever" or "cunning"): but "queynte" is an old English spelling of not only "quaint" but also of "cunt". I remember vividly a class in Chaucer which I took in university: one student was puzzling over the punning lines

As clerkes ben ful subtil and ful queynte
And prively her caughte hir by the queynte

and said "What does 'queynte' mean in that context?" The professor said, simply and flatly, "Cunt." The class was silent for a few seconds, and then the lesson resumed. Could you do that nowadays? Would someone sue for sexual harassment?

Another word which is descended from "cunnus" is, fascinatingly, "cuneiform", which means, literally, "wedge-shaped". I trust the reason for this is obvious. Lots more here, if you like.

* Rabbits aren't the only animals for which ladyparts have been named or nicknamed, and English isn't the only language that does it, either. French uses "chatte", the female form of "chat", "cat", and German uses "muschi" to mean "pussy" in both senses of the word, exactly as English does. English also has, rather bizarrely, "beaver", which isn't small and furry but large and bristly, and also, less frequently, "squirrel", as memorably used in the 1995 movie "Copycat", in which white-trash serial killer Harry Connick Jr. demanded of criminologist Sigourney Weaver a pair of her "squirrel covers".

**I would like to note that in 1992, a TV movie based on the Canadian series "Degrassi High" contained the line "You were fucking Tessa Campanelli?" On prime-time television. In a show aimed at teenagers. In 1992. We all seem to have survived the experience. Suck on that, American censors!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Straw Poll

In a recent posting on Pharyngula we find the following paragraph:

Vacuous nonsense, air and fluff, excuses and evasions, nothing at all. Those seem to be our choices in this widely spread argument: the ridiculous anthropomorphic personal entity of the Rick Warren majority, or the etiolated and pointless vapor of the theological intellectuals. Common inanity vs. rarefied insipidity. The Lucky Charms leprechaun vs. invisible fairies in the garden.

He spells "rarefied" correctly, which of course I love (the ugly and wrong "rarified" is gaining ground every day, it seems), but he also uses the wonderful word "etiolated". Isn't that something? Not a word you hear every day, unless you hang around Bill Buckley, who probably manages to use it half a dozen times before breakfast.

"Etiolated" means--and this is a marvellously specific thing for a word to mean--"bleached, weakened, and/or withered from lack of exposure to sunlight". It refers specifically to plants (think white asparagus, which is regular old green asparagus that's been buried during growth so the chlorophyll can't develop), but as you can see from the metaphorical use above can also be used to refer to people and ideas.

Here's the entirety of Answers.com's etymology of "etiolate":

French étioler, from Norman French étieuler, to grow into haulm, from éteule, stalk, from Old French esteule, from Vulgar Latin *stupula, from Latin stipula.

("Haulm" is "the stems of peas, beans, potatoes, or grasses.")

"Stipula" is the Latin word for "straw", and it sure does call to mind the word "stipulate", doesn't it? (The verb "stipulate", that is, not the adjective meaning "having stipules".) But Dictionary.com has this to say about "stipulate":

Traditionally said to be from L. stipula "straw," in ref. to some obscure symbolic act; this is rejected by most authorities, who, however, have not come up with a better guess.

Likewise, the OED says "stipulate" is "of doubtful origin", and proposes a couple of distant possibilities. Sometimes an etymology can fool you, but honestly: how could "stipulate" possibly not have bumped heads with "stipula" at some point?

Either way, you may be pleased to learn that "stipula" is the source word for "stubble".

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


This Slate story by Dahlia Lithwick has the headline "Love thy enemy?", which is wrong, though not, I suppose, as wrong as mixing up "principle" and "principal", because as you can see here and also as I said two whole years ago, you use "thy" in front of a consonant sound and "thine" in front of a vowel sound, exactly as you do with "a" and "an", so even though I concede that the rule was not followed one hundred percent in, say, the time of the writing of the King James bible, it was well-established a couple of hundred years later and remains the standard to this day, and therefore when you incorrectly write a mild archaism such as "love thy enemy", you look ignorant, Slatefolk (I'm not blaming you, Dahlia--you're wonderful and I know you didn't write the headline).

Monday, April 02, 2007

Clean and Shiny

I was reading this Consumerist story about Geek Squad and one word that popped up a lot was "refurbish".

Not every English word that starts with "re-" carries within the meaning "again" ("retina", to name one), but nearly all of them do (especially those from Latin roots--though "retina" is actually from Latin: it's related, wonderfully, to "reticulum", which means "net"), and I assumed that "refurbish" was just such a word. But if it was, then "furbish" must surely also be a word, and when was the last time you heard anybody use that? Never, that's when.

But "furbish" is in fact a word, something I did not know before tonight. It means "to clean: to restore to a usable condition". To refurbish, then, is to do this again--to take something that was originally usable but fell into disuse, and return to its original state.

Now that you know it, will you use it? Me neither. But I love knowing it exists.