or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bad Blood

As I was heading to work this morning, I caught a glimpse of the front page of a local newspaper, the Times & Transcript. The lead story was about a Mason-Dixon situation in Salisbury, a town just west of Moncton: you can read the news story here, though I can't imagine why you would want to. It wasn't the story that grabbed me: it was the headline, in big fat 80-point type (I measured). I knew that nobody could possibly believe me if I didn't provide proof, so here it is:

"Fued". They actually put that on the front page.

A newspaper with no copy-editor, no proof-reader, no editor of any sort, not even a spellchecker to its name. That is a sad, sad thing. I wrote about such headlines before; they're probably not especially rare. They still shock me, though, because they ought never to happen. Ever.

And just so you don't think this is an isolated incident, here's a sub-head from the front page of the People & Places section of the very same edition of the very same newspaper.

"Moutain". Boy, they were on a roll last night.

Friday, September 28, 2007


Well, I'm back from the UK, and more or less completely de-jetlagged (it takes longer than I would have thought).

Frank wrote about my last posting, after a disappointing stay in Cardiff:

So, no flirtatious pansexual time-travelers in WWII coats running around Cardiff chasing aliens then? What a shame.

There certainly might have been one or two hanging about, solving crimes and avoiding certain death, or whatever pansexual time-travelers do these days, but we didn't see them. However, we did see this item, which, Jim tells me, is used in the show "Torchwood" as an emergency exit or some such:
Water runs down the other, curved side of it, in waves. It's really very pretty.

In the tiny, charming town of Chepstow, to which we took the train to get the bus to Tintern Abbey (astonishing and moving, and well worth the visit), we saw this sign:
It excited me tremendously, because just look at one of the words on the topmost, leftmost sign: "Eglwys".

Well, so what, you're saying. But "-w-" in Welsh is pronounced "-oo-", so the word, phonetically, is something close to "egg-loo-iss". And the French word for "church" is "eglise"! It stands to reason, but it was an interesting way to discover that the Norman invasion of the British Isles didn't affect only English. ("Eglwys" and "eglise" are related to English "ecclesiastical" and also "Ecclesiastes", which are from Greek "ekklesia", "assembly".)

English got the word "church" from the same language: Greek "kuriakon", "of the Lord". Other Germanic and Norse languages took the same word: "Kirche" is German for "church", and you may have seen something resembling that in the Scots word for church, "kirk", as in the Wee Kirk O' the Heather.

Friday, September 21, 2007


From Bath we went to Cardiff, and it was not a pleasure. It wasn't horrible; it was merely uninteresting. We did everything we wanted to do in the space of five hours, and since we were to be there for two days, we took a side trip the next day to see Tintern Abbey. It was a splendid day: more about that when I get back to Canada.

In Cardiff I saw a truck which bore the following legend:

Anthony's...for that delicious, tasty flavour!

Cardiff: home of redundancy.

On Wednesday we took the train from Cardiff to Glasgow, and if Cardiff was ininspiring, then Glasgow was without a doubt the most depressing city I've ever been in--and I lived in Saint John for six years. The hotel was no help, poorly run and inadequately furnished, particularly for the ungodly price we were paying (though the poor staff were doing their best, I think); it was all so bleak that we resolved to go to Edinburgh on Thursday, and it was a huge improvement, let me tell you.

One good thing came of the train trip from Cardiff to Glasgow, though. One of the stops was a place called Weston-super-Mare. The second and third words of the name, I knew, were Latin for "on the sea", and I had always assumed that the last word would be pronounced in the Latin manner, "mah-ray", even though I didn't know for sure. The train conductor cleared it up for me: he pronounced it "mare", exactly the same as a lady horse, and that is in fact the correct pronunciation. Another tiny, insignificant mystery solved!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Show of Force

So, let's see. Bath was entirely outstanding; a lovely little town, though infested with tourists (of which, yes, I know, we were two). I could see living there.

We stayed in a couple of B&Bs in Bath, and in the bathroom of one was an electrical fan which demanded that the electrical main be disconnected before servicing. I had no intention of servicing the fan, but I did get to wondering about the word "main". How was it related, if it were related, to the other various uses of "main" in English, particularly the ocean (the bounding main) and the "main" which means "primary", not to mention the phrase "by main force"?

I had always thought that that last one was related to French "main", "hand". It isn't. All the various uses of "main" in English have exactly the same root, to my considerable amazement.

The source is Indo-European "magh-", which means "might", as in "power". I'm not going to completely dissect it right now, because I have a bunch of books back home to which I'd like to refer, but I will get back to it next week. It is, though, pretty clear how all of the uses of "main" could be connected to the sense of "might", isn't it? So easy once you know how.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Rock Me

Today, still in Bath, we took a side trip to Stonehenge. Yes, I know: a touristy cliche. Nevertheless, it was pretty wonderful; almost unbelievably old, and, despite the gift shop and the roadways, very moving, like something that has travelled through time to be in our midst.

There's a disconcerting mysticism about the whole deal: the British as a whole tend not to be particularly religious, so it can be easy to forget how gullible and/or superstitious they can be (like most any other people on the face of the Earth, I hasten to add).

The site itself is roped off, and there's an asphalt path around the structure. Just outside the rope barrier, a number of people were lying around on the grass: most of them seemed to just be soaking up the sun and the atmosphere (it was a bright, cool day, and there really is an atmosphere of specialness about the place), but one woman was sitting in a half-lotus position with a rather beatific smile her face when we arrived; communing with the spirits, I suppose, or just absorbing the mystical energy. Perhaps she found some sort of enlightenment, but I expect the only energy she was absorbing was that of the sun, and I think she probably left with nothing more than a beatific sunburn.

The people on the bus over were talking about all the crop circles that have been seen in a nearby area called Warminster. The bus driver didn't seem too impressed: without deliberately stamping on anyone's beliefs, he said (I wrote this down), "A lot of UFO sightings in the area. It could be down to the military base nearby, or it could be down to the strong beer they serve in the pubs."

He also mentioned the crop circles", and, again without trampling anyone's beliefs (he wouldn't call them silly, but I do), said they could have something to do with ley lines, or they could just be made by some clever art students. The "ley" in "ley lines", by the way, it etymologically related to "lea", which is to say a meadow.

We drove past an Avon River, and the bus driver said that there were seven of them in England. What's so special about the name Avon? As it turns out, it's the Welsh word for River: "afon", with the "-f-" being pronounced as "-v-" in that language. The Avon river, then, is literally the river river. That's okay; English is no stranger to tautology (just look at "tuna fish").

Friday, September 14, 2007


In England, the unit of currency is the pound. Where do you suppose that came from, and how might it be related to the unit of weight by the same name, if it is?

Turns out it's from "poound of silver". Too easy.

All right, then. The first day we were in London, we ate at a place called PrĂȘt a Manger, "Ready To Eat"; it's mostly sandwiches, very fresh and delicious but also very expensive (which is not a surprise, because everything in London is). So: is "prĂȘt" related to Italian "presto", "quickly"?

Yeah, it is. Again, too easy.

Okay. One last try. Yesterday we were on the Thames and went past Sir Francis Drake's ship, the Golden Hind (or perhaps a replica thereof). Why exactly does "hind" mean "female deer"?

Finally, something not completely obvious! It's from Proto-Germanic "khindo", which became "hind" in the Norse tongues and "Hinde" in German, from whom we got it. It may stem from Indo-European "kemti", "hornless", because, obviously, a female deer has no horns.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Stool Sample

Last Sunday on CBC Television was a two-hour quiz called Test The Nation: Watch Your Language. We took it, and I can't speak for Jim's score (I'm sure he did very well, but he wouldn't tell me his after I told him mine), but I got 66 out of 70 questions right, a smug little 94%. One of the ones I got wrong was based on a nursery rhyme: Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet...what's a tuffet?

I thought it must be a sort of cushion. Isn't that what the presumably pampered and fearful little princess would be sitting on?

It turns out it's a padded stool. Fine. Whatever. (It's a variant of the word "tuft".)

But a tuffet also has another meaning, one you would never, ever guess. It's an Imperial unit of measure!

I have a Finnish co-worker who thinks that the Imperial measures we still use in Canada are ridiculous: we mostly use metric, but all kinds of Imperial and other non-metric measures still creep in--pounds and ounces, degrees Fahrenheit, feet and inches. She should be thrilled that we got rid of most of them: who nowadays knows that there are four quarters (each of 28 pounds) to the hundredweight? Or four roods to the acre?

It's completely daft, so random and British and made-up sounding, but a tuffet is one half of a bushel, or two pecks.

When we learned this, Jim and I started making up measures of our own. Twelve humplings to the quarterstaff! Six frigates to one hoopla! Fourteen overlords to the plectrum!

And really, you know, any of those sounds entirely plausible.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rule Brittannia

I'm in London and it is fucking awesome. Now I understand Samuel Johnson's famous saying: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." It's like every city I've ever been in, all added up together. If money were no object, I would move here in a heartbeat. (In addition to its awesomeness, it's expensive.)

But more of that later, maybe. Yesterday we were in Hyde Park, and there was a sign commemorating the milestones of the park, one of which was as follows (yes, of course I wrote it down):

1705: 100 acres of Hyde Park was enclosed to extend the palace gardens and create deer paddocks.

I have a problem with "100 acres...was enclosed". "100 acres" seems like a plural noun, and therefore ought to take a plural verb. Don't you think?

Well, maybe not. The English seem to treat group nouns differently from the way North Americans treat them. As I noted once before (but don't have the resources to look up right now), nouns that represent collections of things are treated as if they're plural: "the team are coming over tonight," they might say, which just isn't correct in North American English. Perhaps there are similar rules, in the opposite direction, about which I don't know.

Secondly, I can think of situations in which measures of distance are treated as singular rather than plural. "100 miles is a long way to go" is entirely correct in NA English: in fact, the plural verb would seem very strange to our ears. On the other hand, there are situations in which we would indicate plurality for those same 100 miles: when we wanted to specify their individuality rather then their unitary nature, as in "He felt every one of those 100 miles." If it were a group, an object, we'd have to say "that" rather than "those".

I imagine the reason the sign seems wrong to me is that it's the sort of mistake people make all the time: they start with a plural noun ("100 acres"), follow it with a singular noun ("Hyde Park"), and then get the verb wrong because they forgot to follow the basic rules of subject-verb agreement. I thought about it a lot, and I still think the sign sounds wrong. Maybe it sounds right to British ears. I'll have to find out. When I get back, maybe.

Oh, and the computer keyboards have the @ symbol where the " symbol ought to be, and vice versa. It's dreadfully confusing. If there are mistakes in this posting, that's part of it. I also don't have access to a spell-checker, at least not one that I trust. Any mistakes get fixed after I return.

Monday, September 10, 2007


How about a nice batch of really icky words today?

I was getting ready for work the other day and a word just popped into my head, as words will do; this one was "suppurating". Nice! I immediately decided that the root of it must be "-pur-", and then I wondered if the word might be related to "purulent", since they both have more or less the same meaning: "teeming with pus".

I do not think it will come as a surprise to anyone that the two words are one and the same. They descend originally from Indo-European "pu-", "to rot", which also led to, of course, "pus", and, just a little more unexpectedly, "putrid". The same root also led to a bevy of English words derived from Germanic languages with closely related meanings: "defile", "foul", and "filth". "Defile" is particularly interesting because of the sequence of vowel changes due to regional pronunciation: starting off as French "defouler", it emerged in Middle English as "defoilen" (with the typically Germanic verb ending), then "defilen", and finally its modern English version.

One more offspring of "pu-" in which the "p-" changed to "f-"; the Germanic "fuzzy", because rotting food grows a furry coat of mold.


Speaking of filth, here's a spelling I hate, from a Now Smell This posting about a new fragrance from Benetton:

Benetton B.United Jeans Woman includes notes of vine peach, lazer aldehydes, mandarin, jasmine, cyclamen, hyacinth, musk, sandalwood and grey amber.

Don't blame Now Smell This: the list of notes is straight from the website. Calling a fragrance note "laser aldehydes" is stupid enough, though it fits into the trend of stupid perfumery names ("hydroponic guava", "neon amber": where will it end?), but misspelling "laser" as "lazer" just pisses me off.

The word "laser" originated as an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation; it's a full-fledged word in English now and doesn't need to be capitalized. But that doesn't mean people can spell it with a "-z-", either because they're wrong or because they think it looks more modern. Lasers are already plenty modern; they don't need any help from bad spellers, so knock it off already. Jeez.


And on that splenetic note, I'm off to England for a couple of weeks. Updates will probably be sporadic, but we have a little gizmo called an iPaq that will, in theory, let me compose and post blog entries wirelessly. We shall see.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Not Their Strong Suit

On the bus home from work yesterday, I caught the merest glimpse of one of those Coroplast signs that always seem to be attached to telephone poles everywhere. Since I have an interesting brain anomaly that latches onto typographical errors, the only word that I remember from the sign, because it stood out as if it were neon, was "AFFORTABLE".

Spelling is not a game for amateurs, I tell you.

Where does "afford" come from, anyway? It seems pretty obvious that it must be compounded out of "ford" plus a prefix, but...what?

Not "ford", as it turns out, but "forth", duly transformed. The Indo-European root is "per-", which gave birth in Greek and Latin to a clutch of words meaning "through" or "forward". "Forth" is one of them, and "afford" means "to set forth"--to be able to set forth money to pay for something, which is what it is to be able to afford something. "Afford" later came to have a number of other meanings by metaphor: "to furnish" or "to bestow upon", for example ("it afforded him no small delight"), and also "to be able to spare", in some way other than monetarily ("she can't afford the time").

Did the person who wrote the sign really think it was spelled "affortable"? Does anyone actually pronounce it that way?

"Fort", while we're at it, it an abbreviation of "fortress" or "fortification", both of which stem from Latin "fortis", "strong". I trust I don't need to elaborate on that point. It certainly has no place in an innocent word like "affordable".

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Animal Crackers

My friend Ralph, knowing I'm going to England in a few days, sent me a link to a slideshow for something called Open House 2007, in which people can visit buildings and structures not usually open to the general public. The timing, unfortunately, is mostly all wrong (how thoughtless of London to be holding their open house on the very days we'll be in Cardiff!), but maybe something will work itself out.

Here's one of the pages; a Masonic temple with a beautiful inlaid mosaic floor depicting the signs of the zodiac (which word, unaccountably to me, the website capitalizes).

Wait a minute. Where did the word "mosaic" come from? The word "Mosaic", capitalized, means "of or pertaining to Moses". Surely the tilework version can't be related etymologically!

To my great relief, it isn't. Lower-case "mosaic", rather wonderfully, is related, though a tangled mess of alterations and dubious interrelationships, to "museum". More here, if you're interested.

"Zodiac", while we're at it, has as its stem Greek "zoon" or "zoion", "living thing", which has also given English such words as "zoology" (which is correctly pronounced "zo-ology" and not "zoo-ology"), "protozoan" (literally "first life"), and, of course, "zoo", which is actually an abbreviated form of "zoological garden".

Friday, September 07, 2007

Love/Hate Relationship

Today I was listening to some Handel arias, and there's Cecilia Bartoli singing some insanely rapid, difficult piece I'd never heard before. I checked the title, which was "Un pensiero nemico di pace", which I tried to translate, despite the fact that I really don't know any Italian: it seemed straightforward enough. "Un pensiero" means "a thought", I knew, because of the Verdi choral piece "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate", which means "Fly, thought, on golden wings". "Di pace" clearly means "of peace", which I knew from any number of arias, including another Verdi composition, "Pace, pace, mio Dio", from "La Forza del Destino".

So. "Nemico"? First I thought, "Enemy, surely." And then I thought, "Well, it needs to be an adjective, not a noun, so it must be 'inimical': 'A thought inimical to peace'." And that's when it hit me: "enemy" and "inimical" are from the same source!

I don't know why it never occurred to me before, but it never did. And yet there it is. But it gets even better!

Latin "inimicus" means "unfriendly"; it led to French "ennemi" and then Middle English "enemi", when modern English "enemy", as well as, obviously, "inimical". But "inimicus" itself is a compound: "in-", "not", plus, after a quick change of vowels, "amicus", "friend", which is the source of "amicable" and "amity", both friendly sorts of words.

"Amicus" stems from Indo-European "amma", which means "mother"; another of its descendants is "amare", "to love", for obvious reasons. "Amare" is itself a fertile word, giving English such words (all of them through French) as "amateur", someone who does something for love rather than money; "enamor", to cause to fall in love; and "paramour", a person one loves alongside their spouse.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Watch Like A Hawk

Oh, the irony! Computers inside Pfizer, the company that manufactures Viagra, have been infected with malware that makes them helplessly send out spam which is, predictably, peddling drugs!

You'd almost think Pfizer had done it on purpose, since some of the spam is selling black-market Viagra, and they want to sell lots of that, but the spam-bots are also sending e-mails peddling Cialis, Viagra's primary erection-drug competitor.

Unfortunately, the Wired story contains the following sentence:

Products hocked include penis-enlargement products with the names "Mandik" and "Manster," as well as pharmaceuticals like Viagra, the sleep drug Ambien and the sedative Valium.

Now, "hock" is a verb that means "to pawn", which is why pawnshops are also known as "hock shops"; the word comes from Dutch "hok", "prison, kennel", because when you put something in hock, it's penned away where you can't get it (unless you pay to get it back).

"Hawk", on the other hand, is a verb that means "to peddle: to offer for sale", and is related, amusingly, to "huckster", which itself derives from the predecessor to "haggle".

Therefore, the e-mails aren't hocking their wares; they're hawking them.

What do I have to keep saying over and over again though nothing will ever change?

1) Writing errors are bad because they haul the reader out of the flow of the text, which is jarring, and cause the reader to question the accuracy of the writing in general, which is counter-productive. 2) English contains a number of homophones that spellcheckers can never catch. 3) Good writers are expected to have a large enough vocabulary to recognize all the usual ones and at least a goodly number of the rest. 4) Good editors are supposed to catch the mistakes that will creep into the writing of even good writers.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

There's The Rub

It happened again yesterday. (It happens, as you can imagine, pretty often.) I used a word, and then I stopped to wonder exactly how it came to mean what it means. Luckily, I was at home, so the conversation wasn't irreparably damaged.

"Diatribe" is a strange-looking word, isn't it? Its first half is Greek "dia-", which usually means "through/thorough" in some way, and the other half...is a word all by itself. It doesn't make any sense.

But that's English for you. "Tribe", from Latin "tribus" (possibly related to "tri-", "three"), is unrelated to "diatribe", which is Greek through and through, stemming from "tribein", "to rub". How odd!

A diatribe was originally a lecture, of the educational sort, from the verb "diatribein", "to wear away"; the diatribe was a closely reasoned argument which had worn away many hours of study and writing (and would probably wear away a few more in the telling, and quite possibly wear away at the patience of the audience). Eventually, in English, it came to mean another sort of lecture, which is to say a harangue.

"Tribein" also gave English "tribulation", for obvious reasons, and "tribadism", which is an old and rather hilarious word meaning "lesbianism", because people figured that without any penises in sight, all a couple of ladies could manage to do was rub up against one another. I reckon the ladies in question figured out some other ways to enjoy themselves.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Knit Large

I knit, a lot, and this is what I'm knitting at the moment (I got the picture here):

As you can see, the model is about to get hit by a vehicle, but no fear: the colossal sweater will protect her. The car doesn't stand a chance.

The sweater is a Marc Jacobs/Perry Ellis pattern from the Fall 1989 issue of Vogue Knitting. It was recently republished in the 25th Anniversary issue as one of their top 10 sweaters ever, and after paging through it, I thought, "That was a whole lot of fun to knit, and I want to make it again" (I'd made two of them for friends when the pattern was first published), so I dug out my old pattern and had at it. You knit the body circularly up to the underarms, do likewise with the sleeves, and then join everything and knit upwards to the ribbed yoke and neck, which means no seams to sew, always a pleasurable bonus.

The picture doesn't even do the garment justice (it's surely been styled to look just so). It's enormous. When you join the pieces, the sweater is over ten feet around. It has an eighty-inch chest, and the sleeves are thirty inches around at the upper part. You could probably fit a second person in there if you needed to. Or you could smuggle a turkey dinner into the movies. A whole turkey.

How am I going to tie this in to my usual theme? Well, the sweater is called The Bubble, which name called to mind a few words, and here we go.

"Bubble" itself is from German "bubbele" and/or Swedish "bubbla", which became, in Middle English, "boble" (with a short vowel sound). Surprisingly, "bobble" isn't from the same source: if it appeared in English, it died out and was reborn from the verb "bob" plus a suffix transforming it into a noun.

Both of these put me in mind of "bulb", which really, really looks as if it ought to be descended from French "bulbe", but isn't, because French hardly ever uses "bulbe". In a French course I took last year, scratching around for the word for "light bulb", the instructor supplied the correct word, and said that "bulbe" wasn't French at all. I probably misunderstood her, or she didn't know that "bulbe" is occasionally used, but in a very limited context; it has a few anatomical or medical applications, but otherwise doesn't get much play. ("Light bulb" is "ampoule", and the bulb that gardeners plant is "oignon", which is to say "onion".)

My next thought was that if "bulb" isn't originally French, then it's probably Greek, and so it is: "bolbos", "onion", "bulb", which was predictably absorbed into Latin as "bulbus" and then into English in the mid-sixteenth century.

Finally, "knit", if you were wondering, is inextricably related to "knot". They're practically the same word (a very old Germanic ancestor, "knoten", meant "to knit"), though their meanings, obviously, have diverged over the centuries.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Flight of Fancy

From a comment on yesterday's posting:

You just made me feel a lot better. I am never a good speller but this is one word that always confused me. It will be 'judgement' for me from now on.

I like making people feel a lot better!

This illustrates why people ought to have as thorough an education in spelling, grammar, and etymology as the school system can provide. (Some people will never be great spellers--for most of us who are, I think, it's simply an inborn trait, like absolute pitch or red hair--but I believe that most people can learn to be reasonably good at spelling with enough practice.) Once you know the rules, you can break them with impunity and call it licence; conversely, if you don't know the rules, you find yourself victimized by people who do know them and lord it over you, even if they're wrong. "You can't end a sentence with a preposition!", they say, or "'The hoi polloi' is wrong, because 'hoi' means 'the' in Greek." If you don't know that these statements are wrong, and why they're wrong, then you're left without any ammunition. How much nicer to be able to say, "Yes, I know that most American spell 'judgement' without the first '-e-', but there's historical precedent for spelling it this way, and I prefer it." That sort of thing shuts people up pretty quickly, let me tell you.


There was a kite festival here in town recently, and of course all the signs are in both English and French, and I was reminded that the French word for "kite" is "cerf-volant". How lovely it would be if French "cerf" were related to English "surf", and the phrase somehow meant "wind-surfer"!

But it isn't so. "Volant" means "flying", and "cerf" means, of all things, "stag". How did someone decide that a kite looked like, or in some way was reminiscent of, an airborne stag? As it turns out, the name might descend from the child's game of leashing winged insects--in this case, a stag beetle--to a thread and flying them about. Or maybe that's a folk etymology, which would not surprise me, but it has an air of plausibility if not necessarily the ring of truth. (In case you were wondering, the German word for "kite" is "Drachen", which suggests, as you will notice if you say it aloud a few times and futz with the vowels, "dragon": the German word for "dragon" is "Drache", and Chinese kites are often dragon-shaped. Maybe you weren't wondering, but I'm studying German and I was wondering, and I love to share.)

"Surf" is one of those words that of extremely uncertain provenance; it started out as "suff" and acquired its "-r-" rather later, and it's not hard to see how this came about if you pronounce both words in the British manner. (It seems likely that the word came from a language in India, but that's all we know.) Originally, of course, it was a noun referring to the crests of the ocean, and only much much later became a verb meaning to ride such crests on a plank.