or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, August 31, 2007


I'm not much for relativism in spelling, as you may have noticed: usually, something's either right or it's wrong, and that's that. But variations do crop up, and sometimes British English will adopt one and North American English will adopt another (with Canada usually somewhere in the middle), and that leads to the question: is a spelling really incorrect if it occasionally shows up in your version of English, even if it's not the most usual way to spell it?

I'm not talking about things like British "tyre" and "kerb", which are never seen in North America unless you're British, you're talking about those spellings, or you are hopelessly pretentious. We just don't ever use them. I'm talking about something quite a bit simpler, and more complicated.

The other day on The Friendly Atheist criticizing something that blogger had read, I read the following sentences:

Wrong about atheists being evil.

Wrong about all believers in God being humane to animals.

Oh. And wrong on the spelling of “judgment.”

A trifecta of ignorance topped with a heap of idiocy.

As soon as I see someone being criticized for making a spelling or grammatical error (particularly a contentious one) in the same breath as for being willfully ignorant, an alarm bell goes off in my head. If you believe that all Muslims should be rounded up and shipped out the country, that's just stupid, and you should be ashamed of yourself, but if in the same screed you, say, end a sentence with a preposition, then you made either a stylistic choice or a tiny error, but they're not the same thing as being stupid. (And if it's a letter to the editor, then you probably didn't even have the benefit of having an actual editor, since they're loath to change anything about the letters they receive--which will prompt even more angry letters.)

Is "judgement" wrong? No, it isn't.

It's true that "judgment" is much more often seen in North America than is "judgement", but neither spelling is wrong. Noah Webster decided that if a word ends in "-dgement", as in "acknowledgement", "lodgement" and "abridgement", the "-e-" sound was implied by the "-dg-" and therefore the vowel was superfluous and ought to be deleted. (If the word ends in "-gement", it is obvious that the "-e-" should be preserved, as in such words as "management", "arrangement", "engagement", and "infringement", so as not to end up with such possible pronunciations as "en-gag-ment" or "a-rang-ment".)

He had only the best intentions, but we ended up with yet another needless spelling rule. I have to say that, whatever his opinion, "judgement" is more logical, since it preserves the entire word "judge" and then adds the suffix of action. Does it contain a superfluous letter? Perhaps it does, but what of it? English is laden with them, testaments to the vast and varied history of the provenance of its words: Webster didn't, to the best of my knowledge, propose respelling "phlegm" as "flem", although no doubt spelling reformers have over the years.

When it comes to those "-dgement" words, I say spell them however you like and don't apologize.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Science Fiction

I need to start a "What The Hell?" file.

A couple of days ago, Boingboing posted a piece about this device:

Isn't it lovely? It shows the motions of the planets around the sun (which is not to scale and in any case which has been removed from the device in this photo, the better to show off the workings).

WTH? number one: Why is the device called a "Planetarium-Tellurium"? First of all, it's not a planetarium, which is a theatre, not a machine. Second, there's no such object as a tellurium, any more than there's an object called a boron or a neptunium, because tellurium is an element of the periodic table, used in semiconductors and such. There doesn't appear to be any tellurium in the Planetarium-Tellurium, either, at least not in any significant amounts (it's mostly titanium). So was someone mistaken, or is someone extremely pretentious, or what?

WTH? number two: how could people write articles on this watch-fanatic website or on this one and not once use the word "orrery"?

Because an orrery is just what the device pictured is: a mechanical device that shows the positions and motions of the planets. The maker can call it a planetarium, or a Planetarium-Tellurium, if he wants, but it's still an orrery.

I just...I really don't get it. It's like writing about trees without once using the word "tree".

(The word "orrery", by the way, is suggestive of a compounded word; it looks sort of like "orbit", truncated, plus the common word ending "-ery", as in "bakery" and "rookery". Amazingly, it isn't; the device was named after the Earl of Orrery, who received one from instrument-maker John Rowley, who got the idea, and possibly the design, and possibly the original model, from its maker, George Graham.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Yes You Can

Here's a Slate.com story about quinceanera, the gaudy coming-of-age ceremony which is evidently the Spanish-speaking version of the gaudy sweet-sixteen party. And here's the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph:

How dizzying is it to be caught between conventional old-world expectations and typical American license?

Isn't "license" an interesting word when you really look at it? First of all, even though I had never thought of it as anything but a unit, on closer inspection it reveals itself to be a root with a very common suffice, "-ence", which turns adjectives ending in "-ent" into nouns, as in, say, "concupiscence" or "arrogance" (which ends in "-ance", granted, but it's exactly the same as "-ence", a mere vagary of the history of English spelling).

Second, the American spelling is different, on first glance, from the British spelling. This is because a few British words take "-ce" for the noun and "-se" for the verb, such as practice and practise. Americans, though, have done away with this distinction, and use "practice" and "license" for both noun and verb. (As you can see, they didn't try to make it uniform: they evidently just grabbed whichever came to hand and discarded the other. Canadians, typically, kept some British usages--we still make the distinction between "practice" and "practise"--but discarded others as the Americans did.)

And finally, the root in question is tremendously interesting: it's from Latin "licere", "to be permitted", and if you rack your brains you will discover that every single meaning of "licence" or "license" in English means, in some way, "permission to do a thing". Sometimes you're granted this permission, as with a marriage or driver's license: sometimes you grant it yourself, as in poetic or sexual license. But it's always permission.

And finally, that root, "licere", gave us some other words: both "licit" and "illicit", of course, but also, marvelously and unexpectedly, "viz.", a Latin term meaning "that is to say" or "namely", which is an abbreviation of "videlicet", literally "to see it is permitted".

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Yesterday I wrote about Latin "battuere", and afterwards it occurred to me that I had forgotten to mention a strange thing: though "battuere" means "to beat", the word "beat" itself, somewhat surprisingly, came from a different place.

"Beat", in all its senses in English, comes from Indo-European "bhau-", "to beat or strike". From this source through the Germanic languages we get "buttress" and the verb "butt", "to strike with one's head". (The other sense of "butt", the one which is related to "buttock", is from a different source, which also gave us "abut".) Also from "bhau-": "rebut", to strike back at someone in a debate.

Something else I forgot to mention: the prefix "a-" in "abate" acts as a sort of intensifier (a role often taken in English by "re-" or "e-". Apparently it's something called a "point-action prefix" (see the third definition on that page), but I couldn't find any more about such a thing, so I guess we will have to take Dictionary.com's word for it. Just calling it an intensifier works for me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

We Got The Beat

The Onion's Nathan Rabin has a regular feature called "My Year of Flops", in which he watches and assesses movies generally agreed to have been bad. This week he's talking about the critically and popularly reviled Larry Sanders flick "What Planet Are You From?". Here's the first paragraph:

I’m a big fan of the Larry Sanders Show, but I was little wary of the way the DVD set Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show was put together and marketed. Doesn’t a show as seminal as Sanders merit being released in full-season sets? If a benevolent deity watches over mankind, then why have all eight seasons of Full House been released on DVD while fans wait with baited breath for the tardy DVD release of Sanders’ second season?

Why did the cat eat cheese and sit by the mousehole? He was waiting with baited breath.

The breath that Larry Sanders fans are waiting for is not "baited" but "bated", which, you probably may have guessed if you didn't know, is an abbreviated form of "abated". To abate is to reduce or eliminate altogether: bated breath is that which is held back in anticipation.

"Wait with baited breath" is a very common mistake: Googling it reveals well over 300,000 hits. But it's still wrong.

"Abate" is from French "battre", "to beat", which in turn is from Latin "battuere", with, obviously, the same meaning. This useful root has given English quite an array of words: a battery of them, you might say, since "battery" is one of those words--originally a severe assault, then a collection of guns (which can beat down the enemy), and finally a grouping of cells which together generate electricity. (The second meaning is also found in the Brazilian word "bateria", a collection of drums used for rat-tat-tatting out samba music.) The loosest sense of "battery", but one which can still be seen to be related to the second sense, is "a collection of like things", as in the relatively common phrase "battery of specialists" or "battery of doctors".

Also from "battuere": "batter", "bat" and "battle", the "debate" in which one battles one's opponent. and, rather bafflingly, "rebate". (The "bat" in question is either the wooden club or the action, as in "to bat one's eyelashes": the animal is from a different source, a similar Scandinavian word.)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Dumbing Down

Recently in Slate.com there was a Jack Shafer story (which I only now got around to reading) about the number of mistakes in daily newspapers, and the New York Times is not immune, to say the least. Why, you'd almost think they didn't have any copy editors, or at least not any good ones.

Here's a link to an online NYT story about R. Kelly's mesmerizingly terrible "Trapped in the Closet", a serialized soap opera (gay preacher husbands! dwarves! infidelity!) set to the most maddeningly unchanging music ever. The first two sentences of the article:

The story began simply enough: the love triangle of Sylvester, Kathy and Rufus. But after 12 chapters the triangle was more like a lopsided octagon, with a dozen characters and as many cliffhangers.

What the...?

If having three characters makes it a love triangle, then having twelve characters doesn't make it a "lopsided octagon": it makes it a dodecagon, lopsided or otherwise. Duh.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


So. First you can go here, if you want, and watch a video of models stumbling and falling on the catwalk.

Lots of people seem to think it's hilarious, but to me it's excruciating. Some of them really seem to twist their ankles badly, and it just looks painful and awful. And it's not even their fault! The shoes are dangerous, the runways are slippery or scattered with violet petals or something like that, the walk the women are ordered to effect is practically designed to make them unsteady on their feet. When noxious people say that gay men in general, or fashion designers in particular, hate women, this is the sort of thing they point at.

I do have a point, and it is this: at 2:38 the following title card appears:

and that is just wrong.

"Treachery" has a nice long history in English. It started out as a form of "trickery", borrowed from French "trichier/trechier", "to trick", from Latin "triccare". It was once spelled "trecherie". But that "-a-" crept in quite a while ago: by the late 1500s it was a regular part of the word, and has been so ever since. "Trecherous" is not only wrong by about four hundred years: it's also inexcusable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


The dependable Boingboing has a link to a camouflage bible for outdoorsy young Christians.

It's gross for many reasons, not least of which is that there's a boy version and a girl version, and the boy version is standard camouflage colours, the kind that would let you hide the book in your average forest, but the girl version is pink, because deities really hate it when you don't forcibly indoctrinate kids into sanctioned gender roles at every opportunity. And is camouflage really camouflage when it's pretty much the exact opposite of the colours one would expect to find in the forest, when it appears to be designed to be seen? It might work as camouflage in Barbie's Dream House, but it mostly looks as if Barbie threw up on it.

The girl version is "adorable", "perfect for fashionable girls", and "incredibly cute", whereas the boy version is...let's let them tell it, shall we?

A full text Bible in International Children's Bible® translation in traditional camo canvas cover and just the right size for young hands. Embroidered with a cross, this Bible is perfect for adventerous boys.

The cloth binding style offers kids a compact and cool look to carry their Bible to church, school, or on-the-go. It's durable, flexible, and incredibly adventerous for boys of all ages!

"Adventerous". Not once but twice. It's not a simple typo; it's a full-out mistake.

Bad spelling makes Baby Jesus cry.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Carelessness. It irritates me, especially when it's so easily headed off by the simple expedient of running a spellchecker.

This is a page from the Colgate website, so it's not just some hack job; they presumably have professional web developers and graphic designers and writers who know how to use computer tools, which, you would think, includes a spellchecker. They're trying to sell you fairly expensive tooth-whitening products, so you'd figure they'd pay a little attention to their site.

You'd figure that, but you'd be wrong. Here's a small sample from the page in question:

"Platnium". Very nice.

Yes, I know. I'm a nitpicker. There are more important things to worry about. Don't care. Things like this may be of minor importance in the grand scheme of things, but they matter, because attention to detail shows that a company cares about little things and will therefore in theory care about the details of its customers' wants and needs. Sloppiness suggests...sloppiness. Not good.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Old and Bitter

Salon's movie reviewer, Stephanie Zacharek, has written a very nice review of "Stardust" which has convinced me to see the movie (next weekend, when I'm not working). But in the last paragraph are these two sentences:

There are some wonderful, fanciful effects here, including a dirigible pirate ship that drifts through the air, and Pfeiffer's zillion-year-old witch, who ages and youthens before our eyes. (I know "youthen" isn't a word, but in the age of Botox, it ought to be.)

God. Why do writers do this? Can they not be bothered to take fifteen seconds to do a bit of research? Why do they put it all on my shoulders (broad and manly though they be)?

"Youthen" most assuredly is a word. It's at least a hundred and twenty-five years old (the OED lists its first appearance in print as 1882), and if that isn't enough to cement its pedigree, then I don't know what is. (It's even in the Scrabble dictionary. It's a word.) It means exactly what it appears to mean, and it was coined for exactly the reason that Zacharek coins it: because someone thought they needed a verb that meant the opposite of "age".

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Stringing Along

Short version. Watching "Dirty Jobs" last week, they kept referring to "guy wires" (which are used to steady objects such as tents), the captions kept using the phrase "guide wires" instead. Are the words related? Oh, yes. "Guy" comes from Old French "guier", "to guide", which eventually turned into "guider" in French, which led, bien sûr, to English "guide". (French didn't absorb it directly from Latin, but took it from a Germanic tongue instead.)

Long version. "Guide" is a member of an enormous family of words in English that got their start with the Indo-European "weid-", which turned into Latin "videre", "to see, to look". Not only obviousnesses such as "view", "vista", "video", and "visual" came from this root, as we shall see.

Other Germanic offshoots of "weid-" are "guise", the way something looks, and "disguise", changing the way something looks so as to make it unrecognizable. Latin, as we have seen, changed the "w-" to a "v-" and gave English a massive quantity of words including "advise" (to tell what you've seen), "evidence" (that which you've seen), "provide" (first "to foresee", later "to look after" in the sense of seeing what will be necessary and supplying it, still seen in the phrase "to provide for") and therefore "proviso" (a contractual stipulation, from the phrase "proviso quod", "it being provided that"). Also from Latin: metaphorical "envy", "interview" (literally, sight passing between two people), and "supervise" (to oversee), among others too numerous to list here.

From French, we have "survey", with the same meaning as Latin "supervise". From Greek, we get "wit" (to see something in the metaphorical sense of understanding it) and therefore "unwitting" (not having seen something) and "witness", "wisdom" and therefore "wise". Also from Greek, from "idein", which is yet another offshoot of "weid-": "idea", "ideal", and "ideology" (writing about ideas).


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Strange But True

Colourlovers again. How much pleasure I get from it!

I have a fairly literal mind so most of my palettes are pretty straightforward, like this one.
Cookie Puss
Cookie colours. Pretty obvious.

But sometimes the randomness takes over and I end up with something like this

Peculiar Information

with colour names "Collateral Damage", "Accidental Triumph", "Distant Perspective", "Unavoidable Friction", and "Retrograde Motion". No, it doesn't mean anything. No, I don't know what I was thinking when I made up the names for it. But it's pretty, and sometimes you need a little chunk of Dada in your life.

And then I started wondering exactly how the word "peculiar" came to be. It sounds so much like "pecuniary", and yet their meanings are so entirely unrelated that it was obvious we had two different sources. Obvious, yes, and wrong; the words are brothers, amazingly enough.

"Peculiar" is older. Its source is Latin "pecu", "farm animals, a flock". This led to "peculium", "property", and then to "peculiaris", "one's own". (This is a very logical progression of meanings.) "Peculiar", then, came to mean "specific to a person or thing; distinctive", and then by extension "strange" (when something specific to another isn't something you're used to).

"Pecuniary", which means "relating to money", has obvious ties to "pecu", particularly in a time when everything you were worth might be tied up in your flock.

There are several more scions of "pecu", all perfectly logical and all most unexpected. French derived from this word "fie" (no relation to the expression of disgust), which English eventually (through Germanic languages) absorbed as "fee". This in turn led to "fief" and "fiefdom", lands subject to feudal obligations. "Feudal" itself is a member of the family, descended from "fee" (and unrelated to "feud" meaning "hostile contention").

And one more completely left-field scion of "pecu". The Norse spawn of "pecu", "fe" (parallel to French "fie"), led to "felagi", essentially "business partner", which was transformed in Old English into "feolaga" and eventually, after such false-start spellings such as "felowe" and "felawe", "fellow".

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Brushing Up

When I'm quoting something, I like to have the source, but my browser crashed this morning (I usually have between five and twenty tabs open, and one of them did something bad) and I can't find the page that led to today's search, so you're just going to have to trust that I actually did see what I say I saw, and even if you don't, we still have a very interesting etymology ahead of us.

I'm quite certain that in a very recent Slate.com article, one I read this morning, I saw the words "abhor" and "horror" in the same paragraph. My first thought was, "If those words are related, then the editor should have changed one of them, because they're too similar to be in such close juxtaposition." My second thought was, "Hey, wait a minute: are those two words related?"

Oh, yes. The root of both of them is Latin "horrere", originally "to bristle". Something horrifying is something that makes your hair stand on end in fear, and when you abhor something, it makes you bristle as an angry cat does.

Better yet: the word "horripilation", means "having your hair stand on end"; it's almost redundant, because we have two root words, "horrere" and then "-pil-", from Latin "pilus", "hair", as in the pile of a carpet or the depilatory which de-hairs you.

And even better than that: "horrere" originates from Indo-European "ghers-", "to bristle", which led through Latin to English "urchin", both the bristly sea creature and the irritating child.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Joined For Life

So. What did you do this holiday weekend¹? Me, I did the usual: rented a car on Friday, drove to Halifax on Saturday for the day, kind of hung out in the unexpectedly lovely warm-but-not-hot summer weather, got married.


Little gay boys of my generation, as soon as they realized they were little gay boys, understood that marriage² was not for them, if they even could have conceived of getting married to another boy. Marriage was what girls fantasized about; it was for them, really. If any little gay boys harboured gauzy daydreams of wedded bliss, they kept it to themselves. I didn't have such fantasies; I never even really gave the issue any thought through the years, not even after I met Jim, except to worry every now and then about what might happen if he became incapacitated (would his family bar me from the hospital room?) or I were hit by a bus (would my father sweep in and take everything?). We were living in Nova Scotia in June of 2001, when the province made domestic partnerships available to everyone; it wasn't marriage, but it was the next best thing. We got ourselves one, with the understanding that it provided all the rights and obligations of marriage without actually being called such, and that, we figured, was that.


I suppose it's a matter of opinion, but I'm going to state it as fact, because, as far as I'm concerned, it is a fact: there isn't a single rational argument against same-sex marriage⁴. (There are plenty of arguments against it, of course, but I did specify "rational".) Rather than try to enumerate them, I urge you to read these two Slate.com articles by Dahlia Lithwick, who is smart, Canadian, and a lawyer: Slippery Slop: The maddening "slippery slope" argument against gay marriage and especially Holy Matrimony: What's really undermining the sanctity of marriage?.


Twenty years ago, when Jim and I met, I couldn't have imagined this: though same-sex marriage was being discussed, and eventually litigated, I don't think many people thought it ever had a chance of success. Even two years ago, when Canada became the fourth country to legalize marriage, we discussed getting married and decided against it: it wouldn't change anything, we thought, so why go through the trouble?⁵ And yet here I am, a married person. Barring some revocation of the right to marry--which I honestly cannot see happening, given the practical, live-and-let-live nature of Canadians in general--I'll be a married person, and married to the same person, until death do us part. Although I mostly think that marriage oughtn't to be anybody's business but the two people in question and that public, civil marriage is the best card out of a bad hand, that makes me very happy. There are some people who shouldn't ever get married, but there are also some people for whom marriage might have been tailor-made, and I'm one of them. We've always considered ourselves married, and now we are!

¹ In most, perhaps all, provinces in Canada, the first Monday of August is a provincial holiday. Here, it's called New Brunswick Day; in Nova Scotia, I think it's called Natal Day. In Newfoundland, where I grew up and where everything has to be done differently, it was the first Wednesday of August; it was called Regatta Day, with boat races and a carnival atmosphere, and so the tradition of the oldest annual sporting event in North America was continued.

² ObEtymology³: "marriage", as is the case with virtually all English words ending in "-age", is of French descent, in this case the verb "marier", "to marry", which led to "mariage", which has the same meaning as, and is the source of, English "marriage". The French word is direct from Latin "maritare", "to marry", which appears to descend from Indo-European "meri-", "young woman, wife" and "meryo-", "young man". "Wed", since you were probably also wondering, stems from the Norse word "vethja", meaning "to pledge".

³ Back in the old days of Usenet--they may still do this--it was customary, if you intended to write something in a newsgroup which was not strictly relevant to the topic at hand, to insert a little parenthetical at the bottom which was meant to allay complaints that you were off-topic. These were flagged with Ob- plus the subject name, the "ob-" standing for "obligatory".

Particularly if you discount religious arguments. I had someone, not in a hostile way but as a Christian, tell me that same-sex marriage was wrong because it said so in the Bible. I'm not an expert, but whatever the Bible says about other things I'm fairly sure it doesn't ever mention same-sex marriage, mostly because such a thing could scarcely have been imagined back in the Bronze Age when the book was being written. Besides, apologetics for Christianity hold no power over me, because I'm not a Christian. Once we dispose of religious arguments, we aren't left with much besides social arguments that generally boil down to "What about the children?!" and "If we let them marry, we'll have to let anyone marry anything", and Lithwick gets rid of those handily as well. As I said: no rational arguments.

What changed our minds? In a nutshell: a form I had to sign required my marital status, and nothing really applied to me, but since I felt as married as I figured I ever was going to, that's the box I checked. The official in charge, after asking me a couple of questions, crossed out "Married" and wrote in "Common law", which pissed me off, though he was polite and only, I think, trying to be thorough and correct. What gives him the right to define my relationship? I went home and explained all this to Jim, and after we discussed it for a while, I said, "So. You want to get married?", to which he replied, "Yeah, sure, I guess." Not the most romantic proposal of marriage ever, but after twenty years, practicality trumps a romantic proposal. I hope.