or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, December 31, 2007

Rocky Road

In response to my posting a couple of days ago about, among other things, the word "jet", Frank wrote:

I was curious if "jet," as in the color/popular Victorian jewelry component came from "jacere" somehow, too. Not entirely unexpectedly, it does not (how "to throw" would turn into "a bit of coal," I had no idea, but stranger things have happened in language over the millenia). It actually derives from the name of an ancient town in Lycia (now part of Turkey) called Gagai, where it was presumably mined.

Good catch! The mineral "jet" hadn't even occurred to me at the time.

Everyone else may be idly wondering, as I was, just how "Gagai" turned into "jet", and according to Dictionary.com, it ran more or less as follows: "Jet" was rendered in Greek as "lithos Gagates", literally "stone from Gagai", what in English we would call "Gagatic stone". "Gagates" entered Latin in the same form without the qualifier, in exactly the same way as "the Greek language" can simply be called "Greek". "Gagates" eventually made its way into French as "jaiet", and this gave Middle English "jet".

That "gagates" looks so much like "agate" that I naturally wondered, very briefly, if there might be a connection, but of course there isn't, because as I noted quite some time ago, "agate" comes from Greek "agathe", "good", which also gave English the name Agatha.

Jim tells the story of how a new alumna, named Agatha but called Aggie, at his alma mater, Dalhousie, was reduced to loud public tears when she discovered that her diploma, inscribed of course in Latin, rendered her name as Hagnetha. At some point after that, the use of Latin in diplomas was discontinued. The story was told to Jim in the early eighties by the "hundred-year-old man" who, in the fifties and sixties, hand-lettered the names on all the diplomas, back when there were few enough students that such a thing would be possible. It strikes me as odd that the woman in question, who in those days certainly must have studied Latin in school, would have been unaware of the Latin transliteration of her name--isn't that one of the first things people do when testing out a new language?--but it's possible, I suppose, and no doubt she had been called "Hagatha" or something like it from childhood days, so it would have stung to see it in writing.

When I saw "lithos Gagates", I instantly thought of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. I didn't think there could be a connection, but you never know. "Glagolitic" is actually the Latinized form of the Serbo-Croatian "glagoljica", which ultimately derives from "glagolu", meaning "speech" or "word"; "glagolitic" is a word referring to a kind of alphabet, like "cuneiform" or "runic".


Regarding yesterday's post on various throwing words, Clare went to another language and wrote:

This post reminds me of one of my favorite etymologies from ancient Greek class from two-plus decades back (I was horrifically bad at the grammar, but the vocabulary has stuck with me): our word "hyperbole," which when deconstructed to its root words, creates a very visual (one of my favorite attributes of the language) image that can be either literal or metaphorical.

1529, from L. hyperbole, from Gk. hyperbole "exaggeration, extravagance," from hyperballein "to throw over or beyond," from hyper- "beyond" + bol-, nom. stem of ballein "to throw." (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hyperbole

Yeah, that's a good one, isn't it? (I mentioned it a couple of years ago, but there's no reason you would have read that far back unless you're unusually dedicated.) Greek isn't one of the most important influences on English (French, German, and Latin have had much more sway), but it did give us a good supply of words nonetheless, some of which have the most fascinatingly twisted routes into our language. I'm going to talk about my favourite tomorrow, something to carry us into the new year.

As for recommendations for books or sites on Indo-European that Clare subsequently asked for, I have a few, but I rely on two of them almost exclusively. The book I use--not many days go by that I don't dip into it--is "The Roots of English: A Reader's Guide to Word Origins" by Robert Claiborne. It's out of print, but you can still have it, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Structured like a thesaurus, it consists of a list of word roots--nearly all Indo-European--followed by an alphabetical list of thousands of English words and their roots. Look up your word in the second half of the book, find the root, look that up, and Claiborne will give you a brief, often witty tour through the words that have sprung from or been influenced by the original IE word.

The website I use all the time is the Indo-European Root Index of the American Heritage Dictionary on Bartleby.com. Unless you're just browsing for fun or you have a really good memory, the site on its own isn't of much use; it's just an alphabetical list of clickable links for the roots. But when you know the root you're looking for, a single click will give you a marvelous array of words that descended from it. The easiest way to find the root is to use either Dictionary.com or the Online Etymology Dictionary, both of which are usually pretty forthcoming about IE roots; then Bartleby will give you much, more information on the subject.

Of course, now that you know my secrets, you don't have much use for me any more, but I live to give.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


If you read back far enough in this blog, you will eventually get the sense that I must have some sort of photographic memory, because I refer back to various things that I've written about. My memory isn't supernaturally good; I just keep the entire blog, updated once a month, in a word-processing file, and then when I think I've mentioned something before, I search for the term or terms that will lead me to the earlier posting(s).

It doesn't always work, though. Yesterday I wrote about the Latin word "jacere", "to throw". I was certain I had written about this before, because the word "adjective", which I didn't mention yesterday but which is nonetheless related, had come up in the discussion. But searching for "jacere" or "iacere" (because Latin used the two letters interchangeably) gave me nothing, and searching for "adjective" was of course hopeless; I've used it hundreds of times. (Why didn't I think to search the term "to throw"? That would have led me right to it.) Anyway, I didn't find it yesterday, but today, even without the benefit of very much sleep, it occurred to me to search for "ejaculate", and here's the earlier posting.

Because of course "ejaculate" is obviously related to "jacere". The reason I didn't find that Latin word in any earlier posting is because I had written that it's from "jaculari", which is also true: verbs in Latin come in a most bewildering array of forms, taking all sorts of endings depending on gender, tense, and case. I should have said in that earlier blog entry that it was from "jacere", because that's the root form of the verb; I don't know which dictionary led me (slightly) astray, but no matter.

But how can "adjective" be related? As I mentioned earlier, it's because "jacere" doesn't just refer to things thrown up into the air; it can also take on a related sense of things thrown down, at which point they just lie there, and an adjective is a word that's thrown down next to a noun. Another word with this sense is "adjacent", from "ad-", "by", plus "jacere", "to lie [having been thrown]".

"Jacere" stems from Indo-European "ye-", with the same meaning. The words I mentioned yesterday are all fairly obvious (I forgot a few, including "jettison", "jetsam", and "jetty"), but there's also another small group of words from a Greek derivative of "ye-", "hienai", meaning variously "to throw" and "to send": the most common of these are "enema" and "catheter" (the preposition "kata-", "down" or "back", plus "hienai").

Saturday, December 29, 2007

On The Fly

Today it snowed, so the bus routes were kind of messed up, and I was obliged to transfer from one bus to another at some point in the trip. (Usually it's a direct route: just outside the store at which I work to the bottom of the street on which I live. Very nice.) The transfer, which of course is in English and French, bore the following words:


Now, "trajet" is obviously related to "trajectory", but I suppose I was too work-weary to think where it might have come from. The "tra-" part threw me off so much that I couldn't imagine where the "-ject-" part did, even though I certainly ought to have known, or at least made an intelligent guess. So I filed it all away for later, which is to say now.

"Trajet" is an odd translation for "route", I think, because "trajectory" in English means the path of something that is thrown or fired or otherwise sent through space. It has a sense of something being launched, which doesn't really seem to apply to a bus. However, there is an archaic English verb, "traject", which means "to transport or transmit", so I guess that's clear enough a relationship.

Anyway, the "tra-" in "trajectory" is in fact an abbreviation of "trans-", "across", and if I had known that, I might have been able to make more sense of the word. The "-ject-" part is common enough in English that I'm amazed I couldn't make any sense of it; it's in such words as "interject", "reject", "subject", and over a dozen others. It comes from Latin "jacere", "to throw". It doesn't necessarily have this exact meaning in all its English derivatives, of course: when a doctor injects something into a patient, she doesn't literally throw it into him. (However, when we inject a comment into a conversation, we do throw it into the arena.) To reject is to throw back; to project can be to throw forward, whether it's a movie on a screen or a sense of importance.

Since the "-jet" in the French word "trajet" is equivalent to the "-ject" in the English version, does that mean that English "jet" comes ultimately from Latin "jacere"? It certainly does; a jet is something sent up into the air. And a "jeté" in ballet is a kind of leap--a way of throwing yourself into the air.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The One

Today, a fascinating word with an absolutely riveting set of derivations.

This week's edition of Swift, James Randi's weekly blog, starts with a discussion of the Biblical notion of monotheism, which doesn't appear to be there, actually. One of the Ten Commandments, after all, isn't "There aren't any other gods, so knock it off", it's "Thou shalt have no other gods before me", which seems to suggest, and, let's face it, flat-out says, that there are a bunch of gods, but you're allowed to worship only one of them.

Polytheism is the worship of a bunch of gods. Monotheism is the worship of only one god--and in fact the belief that there is only one god. There's something in between, though, and this is the word I'd never seen before: "henotheism", the belief that, as that commandment says, you have to choose one particular god and worship it, and to hell with the others.

"Henotheism" comes from the Greek words "hen-", "one", and "theos", "god". It's the "hen-" part that's such a marvel, because it made its way into English in so many forms--not a surprise, really, since the concept of oneness is so critical to thought. It's the starting point of the counting sequence, and it's the root of pairings ("two become one") and matchings ("this one thing is like that other thing"), as well as the opposite concept, uniqueness.

Greek "hen-" gave English not "hen", obviously, but some words that contain "hen", and one of them is "hyphen". Would you ever have thought it? The word comes from "hypo-", "under", and "one", because the hyphen originated as a mark that joined syllables or words in a musical score which were to be sung together--under one note. "Hen-" is also the source of hecatomb, which in turn starts from "hekaton", "one hundred": "hen-" plus "katon", which is a cousin to "centum", as in "century", "one hundred years".

"Hen-" derives from Indo-European "sem-", with the same meaning, "one". This parent of "hen-" appears very often in English, usually with a vowel change. and a little thought will probably provide a few of them. If not, well, I will.

"Sem-" itself gave English "assemble", "to form into one thing", and "resemble", "to appear to be like something else".

The most obvious derivative of "sem-" is "sim-", and many "sim-" words in English carry the idea of oneness, though sometimes in a disguised or metaphorical way. "Simple" is a good example; we actually got the word from French (which got it from Latin "simplus" or "simplex"), where to this day it means "single" as the opposite of "double" or "multiple". "Single" itself is from the compounded IE "sem-golo-".

"Similar" is another example: from Latin "similis", "like", two things are similar when one is like another one, and likewise, "simulate" means "to make one thing appear to be like another". Latin "simul" meant "at the same time", and "simultaneous" refers to two things happening at one time; it's a portmanteau of "similar" and "instantaneous".

Doubling the vowel gives "seem", which is exactly as it seems, "to appear to be (one with)" and "seemly", "fitting", because something that fits something else is also one with it.

"Sam-" is tied to English "same", and we have a couple of Russian words, "samovar" and "samizdat", which come from Russian "sam", "self"; a samizdat is self-published and a samovar is a self-contained heating vessel used for making tea.

"Sum-" gives us "sum" itself, the act of making two numbers into one, and also "some", both by itself and as a suffix meaning literally "like" but more generally making something an adjective which may be at some remove from the actual word being modified: "bothersome" is clear enough, but "toothsome" is a bit of an oddity.

And that's enough for now, don't you think?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sure Thing

Yesterday, The Consumerist's Meg Marco posted this story about a typo on the Apple.com website. Here's the image.
"Shure" rather than "sure". How could that have happened? (Shure is a brand of headphones, but it doesn't seem likely that Apple is subliminally advertising them. It's possible that "Shure" is in the spellchecker, and whoever wrote it made a simple typo, or was an idiot, and the spellchecker was of no help.)

Twenty-one minutes prior to that, she posted this story about how Christmas sales were a disappointment to retailers this year, which started with these two sentences:

It's official now, Christmas was "lackluster" for retailers, despite the predicted "last minute" serge of shopping activity. From USAToday:

Should have been three sentences, mind you: the first three words are a sentence all to themselves and should have been followed by a period, not a comma. but the problem is in what follows. "Serge"? Serge is a kind of a fabric. "Surge" is obviously the word that was shot at and missed.

I'll give her credit, though; Meg Marco can poke fun at herself. In the Apple item, she closed by saying, "At least Walmart and I are not alone out there."

Still. If you're going to criticize spelling and grammar and such, you need to have a really firm grasp on such matters. If it's just you, then you have a little leeway, because it's tricky to catch mistakes in your own writing. (It can be done, but it requires perseverance and luck.) But if it's more than a couple of people, if you have a big old website like The Consumerist, you have to have a copy editor, someone to re-read and fix. You have to!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Possibly another tiny, incremental addition to the ongoing project that is the English language. Or possibly just a little typo of omission. I prefer to think it's the former.

From Boingboing:

In this youtube, a young man sits down and a table and begins singing backwards (I won't spoiler the video for you by naming the song), while undertaking a variety of time-bound activities -- popping balloons, knocking over a Jenga tower, pouring liquid, etc.

Unless the writer left out the word "video" in the fourth position, "YouTube" (it should probably be rendered in upper case, at least for now) has now become a noun that means "a video posted on the website YouTube", in exactly the same way as "Google" has become a verb meaning "to perform an Internet search using the Google website" (however much the lawyers might hate it). It's a form of metonymy, with the whole ("YouTube") standing in for a small part of itself ("one of many videos on YouTube"), and I like it.

You may also note in the sentence quoted that "spoiler" has in recent years become a verb--I use it all the time--meaning something similar to "spoil", but with a refinement of sense; it doesn't mean "ruin" as much as it very specifically means "ruin someone's enjoyment of a publication (book, movie, TV show, or the like) by revealing the ending", and by extension simply "to give away the ending to something". I really like this verb: it arose from an existing word ("spoiler", a noun meaning "the ending/punch line/plot twist to a publication, intended to be kept a secret from people who have not watched/read it") as a response to a perceived gap in the language, and that's exactly the way English is supposed to work.

Have I mentioned The Movie Spoiler and its cousin The Book Spoiler before? If you want to know how movies and books come out without actually having to experience them, you need this website. They're great.

There are two kinds of spoilers: those you want, and those you don't. Some douchey so-called friend wrecking the ending of "The Mist" when you intended to go see it this weekend? That, you don't want. A friend telling you how it comes out when you've read the novella and heard that the movie ends differently and want to know how but would never in a million years see the movie? Yes! The Movie Spoiler and The Book Spoiler are the second kind of friend.

Also, there are two kinds of spoilers: abbreviated ones, which just give you the ending ("He's dead and doesn't know it!"), and longer ones that recount the entire plot so as to set up the ending. The second one is the path I took when I spoilered the book version of "The Ruins" for you, so now you don't have to read it. I saw the trailer for the movie version this past weekend when I went to see "Sweeney Todd" (spoilered!), and they really seem to have changed a lot. Plus, it looks extremely unpleasant. It's bad enough to read these awful things, but to watch them? No thanks. I'll wait for the spoiler.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

December 25th

I'm fairly certain that it was my fifth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Feltham, who told us that we must never say "Xmas" instead of "Christmas", because "X" in algebra stood for "the unknown" and it was insulting to Jesus.

Yeah, really. Really and truly.

I know I don't need to tell any of you how foolish that is, right? Even if there was a historical Jesus, and even if he were still around somehow to care about having his name taken in vain (in which case I suppose I'm in a lot of trouble), he wouldn't mind "Xmas" instead of "Christmas", not even a tiny bit. Why? Because in this instance, "X-" represents the word "Christ". No algebra in sight at all!

"X" in Greek isn't the same as "x" in English. In the Greek alphabet, what looks like our "x" is in fact called "chi", and represents the sound "ch-" or "kh-". ("Kh-" is pretty rare in English: as a pair of letters, it occurs mostly as accidental conjunctions of letters in compounds, such as "steakhouse" and "jackhammer", and as a sound, a somewhat guttural "k-" sound with a breath after it, in borrowed words such as "astrakhan" and "ankh".) The Greek version of "Christ" is Χριστος, which we may transliterate as "christos". (If you don't know any Greek, as I really don't, you may examine the word "Χριστος" and say, "Hey! There are two different symbols that are supposed to represent the letter 's'! You're putting us on!" The truth is that there are in fact two slightly different written versions of the same letter, the sort of difference that used to exist in English in the form of the two different esses: the long ess, which looks very like a lower-case "f" to modern eyes, used at the beginning and in the middle of words, and the short ess, identical to the modern ess, which was used at the end of a word.)

So "Xmas" is just a standard abbreviation for "Christmas", and there isn't any disrespect intended. Anybody tries to give you grief for it, you just read them to filth and walk away with your head held high.

The "-mas" in "Xmas" is just as interesting, you know. Obviously--everybody knows this part--it means "mass", meaning "sacrament", but where does the word "mass" in that sense come from itself? It clearly can't have any relationship to the usual sense of "mass"--a quantity, bulk, or collection of something.

And it doesn't. It stems instead from Vulgar Latin "messa" (French "messe"), which comes from Latin "missa", which is part of the phrase "Ite, missa est", which was once used to terminate a Catholic church service. It's the priest's way of saying, "You are dismissed", or "Go on now while we clean the censers", or whatever. "Missa" in turn is derived from the verb "mittere", "to send away", and in fact "dismiss" comes from this same source.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Exception Log

The folks at The Consumerist--no strangers, it must be said, to the typo themselves--had some fun with this picture:

Yes, the folks at Wal-Mart tried to say that their debit machines were down by making a sign that says "No Debit Accepted", and then whoever was making the sign didn't know the difference between "accepted" and "excepted" (in this context, they're almost perfect antonyms), and then the error was compounded when "excepted" was spelled wrong.

In retail, this sort of thing happens all the time. There's no proof-reading of signs whipped up on the fly by someone sitting at a computer using WordPad (unless I'm around). The sign gets made, it's wrong, it gets posted, someone notices, but nobody changes it because there's no time. So I can't really even criticize it.

It is funny, though.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


When you're blessed with a manly overabundance of testosterone, as Jim and I evidently are, then you're going to start losing your hair sooner or later, as Jim and I definitely have. (My hairline started its slow march back towards the occipital lobe when I was 21.) So why pay for a haircut when they're just going to buzz the whole thing down to a quarter of an inch anyway? No combovers for us! We got one of those home-haircut devices we call a dog trimmer--one of these things--and every six or eight weeks we just buzz it all off, standing in the tub to catch the clippings. Yeah, a real high-class operation, but it saves a few hundred bucks a year, and nobody can tell the difference anyway.

So after I cut my hair, I call in Jim to do the stuff I can't see (the back of the neck and around the ears, mostly), and as usual, one or the other of us has to make a joke about being maimed (perhaps the person wielding the trimmer will say, in a Monty Python accent, "Oh, that's your ear off, sir--terribly sorry"). This time, I yelled, "Ow, my jugular!", and as soon as I'd said it, I naturally needed to know where "jugular" came from. As it turns out, I already knew, but apparently I was too dazed from the trauma of cutting my hair to remember.

Jim proposed (entirely jokingly--he's not an idiot) that it was related to "jug" because it carries a large quantity of blood from the brain. Well, no, but points for creativity. Dictionary.com tells us that it comes from Latin "jugulum", which means "throat" and is pretty useless, because obviously "jugulum" itself has to come from somewhere, right? Still, it's a start, because the jugular vein is, in fact, in the throat, or at least the neck.

"See jugulate", I'm advised, and so I do, and that's where the treasure lies, even though "jugulate" is not a word you are ever likely to have any use for: it means literally "to cut the throat of", or, by metaphor, "to suppress disease through extreme measures". Like cutting the throats of all the infected, one would have to assume. And it means this because "jugulum" comes from "jugum", which means "yoke".

Aha! That's where I'd seen it before! "Subjugation" literally means "under the yoke", because animals which are tethered to a machine for farm work are yoked by their necks.

Of course, if you're going to ask about the jugular, you have to ask about the carotid, too. (The jugular is a vein, which means it carries blood to the heart for oxygenation: the carotid is an artery, so it carries oxygenated blood from the heart to a body part, in this case the head.) "Carotid" comes from a place you probably would not expect, or rather a place you would expect but in a direction you wouldn't.

The Indo-European root of "carotid" is "ker-", which refers to the head (it gave us "cranium") or to horns, which grow out of the head ("unicorn" means "single horn"). But "carotid" is not called that because it supplies blood to the head, exactly: the name doesn't stem directly from the head. Instead, it comes from the Greek "karoun", "stupefied", literally "heavy-headed", because when you compress the carotid, you cause someone to become dazed and soon unconscious from lack of oxygen.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Like Christmas, some things come around on a regular basis; maybe not so regular that you could set your watches or your calendars by them, but dependably repetitive nonetheless.

Here's a sentence from a blog written by creationist chucklehead Ray Comfort* as quoted in The Friendly Atheist:

It’s as solid as a rock (solider, if there’s such a word).

Yes, there's such a word. Twelve seconds with a browser will tell you that there's such a word.

I've said before that this is called aporia, which is a figure of speech in which one expresses doubt about that which someone knows, could know, or should know. (You can see many more figures of speech on this fantastic page.) But now I have my own doubts. Aporia, or any other figuring of speech, has to be, or ought to be, deliberate, and this sort of thing is not really a figure of speech but mere sloth--the artifact of someone who was so busy making a point that he couldn't be bothered to look something up, and so resorted to a cheap, shoddy rhetorical tactic to cover his indolence. I was briefly tempted to call it "dim-witted", but I suppose we ought to be generous and never attribute to stupidity what is equally well explained by laziness.

* He made a video with Kirk Cameron in which he proved the existence of his god by explaining that only an intelligent designer could have produced a piece of food which was clearly meant for human consumption: individually wrapped for your hygienic protection, shaped to fit the mouth, ridged in a way that seems to mimic the human grip, and so forth. A couple of problems with that. First, the banana in the wild looks nothing at all like the modern yellow banana, which is the product of quite a bit of human engineering, crafted by generations of growers and botanists to be visually and gustatorily appealing. (Most wild bananas are small and dark, and rather than being soft and pulpy and delicious under the skin, they're filled with inedible seed pods.) And second, does he really, truly want to be arguing that something longer than it is wide and perfectly sized for grasping by the human hand was supernaturally designed to be inserted into the human mouth?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Reader D.J. wrote regarding my recent musing about the word "pudicity":

Without peeking, I'd bet a hat that "impudent" is going to be in the mix: "im-" to negate, plus the shameful "-pudent". Sound right?

Sounds right, and is right. Originally much stronger than it is today, "impudent" originally meant "shameless", but now generally means nothing worse than "impertinent". I didn't mention it because I didn't think of it and didn't do any in-depth research that would have led me to it. Usually I try to cover all the bases, but sometimes life gets in the way of completeness.

Something I did mean to mention, but forgot, is the name of this plant:

It's called the sensitive plant, a member of the mimosa family, and its chief charm lies not in those pretty pompom flowers but in the ferny leaves behind them. When you touch them, they simply collapse; they droop and sag and hang limply until, some time later, they reinflate. (They may be pretty, but they're an invasive weed in Australia.) The leaves also fold up at nighttime. It's fluid pressure that holds them erect, and a release of this pressure that allows them to droop, not unlike the penis in male animals, and like the penis, the leaves have a refractory period; once they've gone soft, they won't respond again to touch for a while.

The Latin name of the sensitive plant is mimosa pudica.


I invented a word yesterday!

In the framing biz, you have to be fairly precise in your measurements. The human eye is very sensitive to even small discrepancies between the two sides of a thing, and when you're centering a print in a mat window and there's white space surrounding the print on all four sides, you have to certain that the space is equal all around, or the thing just looks wrong. Within reasonable tolerances, I mean.

So I was doing just such a thing and measuring carefully and the space I was measuring--using a ruler graduated to 32nds of an inch--was being uncooperative, and so I ended up with an imprecise measure, something that didn't sit on any of the ruler's dividing lines. "Two and a half inches," I thought, "plus an eighth, and another" (brief pause while my brain scrambled for a word which didn't exist) "squigment".

"Squigment". Isn't it good? It's apparently a portmanteau of "squiggle" and "segment" and may be defined as "an indeterminate unit of measure somewhere between a sixteenth and a thirty-second of an inch".

I didn't invent it, exactly, in the sense that the word existed in print already. But it was a mistake. Googling it (prior to this publication) gives two hits, both of which are obviously erroneous OCR renderings of "equipment". So it's mine! And you may use it if you feel the occasion merits it. You're welcome.


I'm not always so forgiving when it comes to new words (which can be new coinages, adoptions from other languages, or just new uses for old words). Sometimes I just flat-out hate them (as irrational as I concede this may sometimes be), as is the case with the pretentiously businessy "impact" as a verb. Sometimes I put up with them because they seem inevitable, as with the widespread pronunciation of the French adoptee "forte". And sometimes they win me over.

Twice yesterday I ran into the same charming word in casual use (the comments section for two different blogs). It's new, and it's not absolutely defensible, but it's a delight nonetheless.

This first is from Now Smell This:

I would have taken another dozen of the cheapie solids (what they're now calling "Crazy Sticks", and wish they'd done a woodsy/spice collection) but these new Batons are too spendy for me.

And this one is from Salon's techie blog, Machinist:

I mean, it looks sorta fun, but it's kinda spendy for something that's basically a gimmick. Maybe when I win the lottery.

We make adjectives out of nouns by adding "-y" to them all the time. "Spendy" is different because it makes an adjective out of a verb using the same tactic. Lots of "-y" adjectives seem to have been made from verbs: "sleepy", for instance, or "spongy", or "creepy". As far as I can tell, these almost always turn out to be from words that function both as nouns and verbs (and usually started out as nouns), a large category of words in English: "boxy" is an obvious example, as are "icy", "pillowy", "juicy"--you can probably think up a dozen more yourself. And there are exceptions: "runny" certainly came from the verb, not the noun. But as a general rule, it's a noun-into-adjective formation: "wintry", "mousy", "hairy", and on and on.

"Spendy", it will be admitted, sounds a little odd, and emerging from a word that is only a verb and never a noun, it is not, as I said, entirely defensible. But I love it. I don't think I'll be using it, but I look forward to other people doing so.


Here's a word you may never have heard before (or at least a word you may have heard, but used in a way you haven't), from a Slate piece about the theoretical resurgence of Latin:

(At the Oxford college I attended as an undergraduate, the motto was "effortless superiority": You should never seem too hard-working or too interested in your studies, unless you want to seem like a "swat," a "wanker," or a "girl.")

You may never have heard "swat" in this context because, in fact, it is wrong.

Okay, maybe I shouldn't say it's wrong. The writer, after all, has gone to Oxford, and maybe that's how they spelled the word there. But it's actually "swot", and I've never seen it spelled any other way.

It's unrelated to "swat"; it actually descends from the word "sweat", because to swot is to work hard, usually at one's studies, and so a swot is a grind--someone who focuses on their studies above all else. You'd think someone who studied at Oxford would know this.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

O Yes!

Okay, this is going to take a bit of setting up.

A few months ago I wrote about a device called an orrery, a little mechanical model of the solar system.

Lolcats are captioned pictures of cats (usually--sometimes they're other animals), and I've talked about them before and won't bore you; you can read all about them on the admirably concise yet thorough Wikipedia lolcat page, and then you can see thousands of examples of the form, surprisingly many of the hilarious and/or adorable, on the premier lolcat site, I Can Has Cheezburger?

One of the most famous non-cat lolcat pictures is this owl:

She's saying--in case you can't read the particular oddball lolcat patois*--"Oh, really?" I can't tell if she's shocked or sardonic or dubious, which is part of the genius of the thing.

There are, of course, this being the Internet, all sorts of offshoots of lolcats, most of them short-lived: lolzillas, lolgays, and the like. Someone has recently come up with lolscience, which you can check out here, if you have a mind to. You probably should, just for completeness.

I was flipping through it the other day. Most of the images aren't especially hilarious, which is the usual way of such things: to employ a common paraphrase of Sturgeon's Law, ninety per cent of everything is crap. But one of them had me laughing for a good thirty seconds, because of the sheer brilliance of it.

I could never have come up with that--my mind just doesn't work that way--but I know extreme cleverness when I see it. Would one person in a thousand have found that funny? One in a hundred thousand? I don't know, but I did, as did Jim, and I hope you do, too, because it's delightful.

*Some of it, such as "o rly" itself, stems from text messaging, whose users delight in cramming as much information into as small a space as possible, since the fewer characters you use, the less button-mashing you have to do. I briefly skimmed a rant the other day by someone who thought that texting was ruining the minds of the young, but I don't think it is, or at least not without a whole lot of help. I'm sure that back in the day, people who loved the massive compound-complex sentences of Henry James had the same feelings about the telegraph, which also encouraged people to write tersely. Of course, that had a profound impact on literature: would Hemingway, for one, have come up with his brief, crisp sentences without the effect of the telegraph? I don't think texting will have quite the same seismic effect, but you never know; maybe it'll lead to a really clipped, herky-jerky kind of prose of the sort that James Ellroy filled an entire book with in "The Cold Six Thousand", which I found nastily unreadable, just an unending string of teeny, subject-verb-object sentences. Here's an example, not even the worst:

Oswald stepped out. Oswald wore handcuffs. Two cops flanked him. They walked through the basement. They faced some reporters. They cleared a path fast.

A man jumped out. Dark suit / fedora. Right arm outstretched. He stepped up. He shot near point-blank.

Wayne blinked. Wayne saw it -- oh fuck.

Oswald doubled up. Oswald went "Oooh."

The cops blinked. They saw it -- oh fuck.

Commotion. Dogpile. The gunman's down. He's prone. He's disarmed. He's pinned flat.

The whole book is like that. The whole thing!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Number Cruncher

You know how I'm always jawing on about the importance of the copy-editing process? Here's a piece from the Sunday, December 16th, edition of News of the Weird (updated every Sunday and worth reading on a regular basis, for laughs if nothing else) which will suggest why:

The Texas Board of Education announced in November that it had made its selections of approved math textbooks for the next school year, even though the group of chosen books contained a total of 109,263 errors. Books of the industry giant Houghton Mifflin accounted for about 86,000. All publishers have guaranteed to correct the errors by the time the books are shipped.

Here's an article about the situation, which avers that one of the mistakes, in a second-grade textbook, is the equation "4+7=10".

I ask you.

The textbook people claim that the mistakes happened during the translation from English into Spanish, because as everyone knows, the numerals are completely different. Obvious, really.

Here's a little graph I made up to illustrate the whole mess. It applies to most unedited writing.

(You can make your own graphs here. Fun!)

Sunday, December 16, 2007


It's so easy to imagine that the letters we see on the page are actual representations of sounds and not just symbolic stand-ins, isn't it? Of course you make the sound that looks like "f-" by resting your top teeth on your bottom lip and blowing air through them! It's obvious!

Except, obviously, that it isn't. All spelling is merely a convention, something we more or less agree on in our particular dialect of a language. There are consonantal sounds in English that have been the same since Roman times and before, but that doesn't change the fact that they're essentially symbolic.

I was reading "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman, a non-fiction book about what would be left in our wake in the years to come if the human race simply disappeared. (Plastics and industrial chemicals, mostly; some of them are going to be around for a long time.) Near the end of the book there's a scene set in the Pacific nation of Kiribati, and I vaguely remembered having read that in the language of that island nation (actually a series of atolls), "-ti" is pronounced "-ss", so the island's name is pronounced "kih-rih-bass", more or less. (It seems strange, but not that strange; after all, in English, "-ti-" is often pronounced as "-sh-", in such words as "pronunciation", and "-si-" may be pronounced "-zh-", as in "persuasion".)

A few pages later, the author is discussing one of the islands, which is called Kiritimati, and naturally any English speaker is going to pronounce that in five short syllables. But then I recalled again that "-ti-" is "-ss-", so I sounded it out; "kih-riss-mass". Oh, hey, I thought; that's Christmas!

It is indeed Christmas Island. It would have been fantastic if the Gilbertese name for their island just happened to sound like "Christmas" to English ears, but if course it's the other way around; Captain Cook landed there on December 24th, 1777, and naturally enough called it Christmas Island, which the locals transliterated as "Kiritimati".

Saturday, December 15, 2007

At First Blush

As I wrote a couple of days ago, I just finished reading Simon Winchester's mesmerizing "The Meaning of Everything", which, despite its occasional tendency to ramble on through long and boring lists, is a must-read. It's the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the pre-eminent book of its kind in all the world, and it is just fascinating.

Here are a few lines that grabbed me:

All the words used in the definition must appear elsewhere in the dictionary so that any reader's puzzlement can be rectified by his simply looking those up as well. To repeat, the rule of thumb has it that no word in the definition should be more complicated than the word that's being defined. Samuel Johnson broke this rule on numerous occasions: in his definition of the word "elephant", for example, he writes of the animal's "pudicity". Few know at first blush that this word means "shyness", making the definition, and by extension Johnson's dictionary, less than ideal.

If you looked at "pudicity" and didn't know what it meant, might you be able to guess? It depends on how many other words you know.

I could hazard a guess at the meaning of the word because of the word "pudendum". It means the genitalia, usually but not specifically a woman's, and means "the parts of which one ought to be ashamed", from Latin "pudere", "to be ashamed". If you know that, then "pudicity" (and its adjectival form "pudic") ought to be a pretty easy guess. It's not an exact match: "pudicity" is more usually defined as "modesty" or "chastity" than "shyness", but the words are related.

If you looked at "pudicity" and thought of "pud", you'd be a little farther afield, and not necessarily for the reason you might think, because here we have an interesting case of divergent evolution: although "pud" is slang for "penis", "pud" and "pudendum" are entirely unrelated.

In North American English, "pudding" generally means one of two things: most usually a soft dessert made with milk and thickened with eggs or cornstarch, but also a sort of sausage such as blood pudding. (It can also be a savoury dish with a soft, thick constitution, such as "pease pudding", otherwise known as the nursery-rhyme "pease porridge", which my grandmother used to make and which was very delicious.) In British English, the second, sausagy meaning is used in the same way as in North America, but "pudding" means, much less specifically, any dessert, often abbreviated to "pud", pronounced to rhyme with "good".

The "sausage" sense, though, naturally came to join those other rather self-aggrandizing terms that men apply to their genitalia, and in time, the abbreviation "pud", pronounced, at least in North America, to rhyme with "mud", came to mean "penis".

"Pudding", by the way, is (apparently) an Anglicization of French "boudin", most commonly known in English in the form of "boudin noir", a blood-sausage, and "boudin blanc", which is that same pork sausage without the pork blood.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Out Loud

One of the most basic facts about English for learners is that we have two indefinite articles, one for use in front of consonant sounds and another for use before vowel sounds. The "sound" part is important, because we'll say "a one-sided argument" but "an only child".* You can't choose the correct article based on how a word looks: you have to know how it's pronounced.

Imagine my surprise when I read the following sub-head in a Salon.com movie article:

"The Kite Runner": Harry Potter vs. the Taliban, with a ululating soundtrack

"A ululating soundtrack"? Wha?

A few seconds' pondering suggested that some people must pronounce "ululating" with a "y-" sound at the front, like "usage" or "urine". I'd always pronounced with the first syllable as in "Ulster", so I was expecting "an", not "a", but as it turns out, both pronunciations are used. Mine is the first one listed in all the dictionaries, so I suppose it's the more usual one, but the second one seems to be correct as well.

The word is a Latin onomatopoeia: "ululare" means "to howl, to shriek". This word, in turn comes from "ulula", which is, delightfully, the Latin word for a screech-owl. It still exists in the taxonomic name for various noisy owls, such as the Northern hawk owl, Surnia ulula, and the great grey owl, Ulula cinerea**.

* Many British speakers of English take this avoidance of the glottal stop one step further; whenever a pair of words would result in two abutting vowel sounds, they'll insert an "-r-" between them. In North America we'd say "Victoria Adams", with a brief pause if not a full-fledged glottal stop, but they'll pronounce it "Victorier Adams" with no pause whatever. It's always sounded odd to my Canadian ears, but it's the same principle as "a/an".

**"Cinerea" is from the Latin "cinereus", "ashy grey", from "cinis", "ashes". Does that not remind you of another English word? It led to French "cendre", "ash", which in turn led to English "cinder".

Thursday, December 13, 2007

White Knuckles

I've been busy these days; in the world of retail it is, of course, complete insanity, with Christmas less than two weeks away, and I've been reading a lot (The World Without Us, which is pretty good, and The Meaning of Everything, which is generally stupendous), and I just got this new game and have been playing it a lot. I've been writing plenty of pieces for both blogs; I just haven't been finishing them. Nothing, it seemed, could stir me from my winter torpor.

But this! This thing! This thing!

From a recent Slate.com article about gift-giving guides:

Consider this guide, then, perfect for folks who blanche at the mawkishness of those ubiquitous Kay Jewelers ads: Sometimes a miter saw says "I love you" more effectively than a sapphire-encrusted brooch.

I was going to let it go--see how laissez-faire I am these days?--and then I realized that I just couldn't.

Not only is "blanche" wrong, it isn't even an English word. If you capitalize it, then it is: it becomes a woman's name. Otherwise, no. "Blanch", on the other hand, is a word; it means "to whiten", and it is from Old French, where, in the guise of Modern French, it remains as "blanc" (the masculine form) or "blanche" (the feminine).

It shouldn't matter, I suppose. The point was still made; the piece was comprehensible, even with this mistake. But it is a mistake, and it ought to have been edited away, and it wasn't. Are there copy editors any more? Not at Slate, it would seem. And it's a mistake in exactly the same way as using "clothe" instead of "cloth", or "breathe" instead of "breath", would be a mistake. They're wrong. They're just wrong, and no two ways about it.

Mistakes slip into all writing. That's the way of it. But when you make a mistake that looks as if you honestly don't know one word from another, and there isn't anyone around to fix the problem...well, that looks very, very bad indeed.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Chain Letter

What I love most about etymology is the way it can pull you in directions you never would have dreamed of when you started out.

Yesterday I used the word "concatenate" and then of course immediately wondered where it came from. Latin, obviously: "con-" plus something else plus "-ate", an ending from Latin "-atus" which usually in English makes a word into both a verb and an adjective (as it does in this case).

The "-catena-" in this case is the identical Latin word which means "chain", so to concatenate things is to chain them together into a series or unit. Nothing extraordinary there: it's exactly what it looks like.

As soon as I saw that, though, I recognized a word I'd known for a long time but never known the derivation of: "catenary", which is the shape of a specific kind of geometric figure that looks like a parabola but isn't. I won't bore you with the details--you can read them here--except to say that a catenary is the shape formed by a flexible object such a rope or, duh, a chain, suspended at both ends and permitted to hang freely in the middle. In this picture, the parabola is red and the catenary is blue, so you can see how similar, but not identical, they are. (The purplish line is an arc of a circle.)

And...you probably don't care about that. But it does get more interesting. The word "chain" in English is derived, as you likely could have guessed, from the French: modern "chaîne", from Old French "chaeine", which, slightly improbably, is derived from the Latin "catena", which is turn is evolved from the Indo-European "kat-", "to twist, to twine".

But wait! There's more! "Kat-" took off in another direction as well, as far as anybody knows (because etymology swims in some mighty murky waters). A thatched roof is made of twisted and/or plaited materials, and so eventually "kat-" or some version thereof led to a word meaning the small building that was roofed with such materials; a shed, a hut, a cottage, a small house. The Latinate--Italian and Spanish--word for a house followed, and that word was, and still is, "casa".

And more: a small house needs a diminutive ending, and in Italian got one; the small house in the country, which eventually became a room or building for entertainment and gambling, was, and still is, "casino".

Friday, December 07, 2007

Editing Time

From a Slate.com review of portable DVD players:

And the player shorts you in every other sense, with just two-and-a-half hours of battery life and no WMA or MPEG compatibility. The on-panel controls are some of the least functional of the bunch. You can't fast-forward or reverse on the unit, and the volume controls are plus/minus buttons, making swift adjustments impossible.

The writer has at least some idea of how to use a hyphen. "On-panel" is correct, because it's a two-word phrase being concatenated into a one-word adjective. (It's really a three-word phrase: "on the panel". When we turn such things into adjectives, we usually delete the definite article, though not always: "on-the-run" as an adjective requires the article.) "Fast-forward" is dicier, because you don't, technically, need the hyphen, but since it clarifies the situation--it yokes the two words together into a single name for the button--I'd allow it if the writer wanted to defend it.

"Two-and-a-half hours", though. What the hell is that?

If you have an event that lasts for one hundred and fifty minutes, then you may express this in one of two ways: "The movie lasted for two and a half hours", or "It's a two-and-a-half-hour movie". The first is a noun phrase, and it doesn't take any hyphens at all. The second is an attributive adjective (which is to say that, as is almost invariable in English, it precedes the noun it's modifying), and it must be hyphenated in toto. It's all or nothing in English.

The usage in question is not an adjective but a noun, and therefore is unhyphenated, and therefore is wrong.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Fringe Festival

Here's a word you've probably never seen before, will almost certainly never have a chance to use, and likely wouldn't be that interested in anyway, because it has no etymological connection to any other word in English--but it's so cool!

Of all the flowers, the one I love the scent of most is the carnation, with its fascinatingly divided personality--crisply floral on one hand, ferociously spicy on the other. I madly love two carnation scents, Comme Des Garçons Carnation and Caron Coup de Fouet, and was reading about a third that I'm thinking I must someday own, Floris Malmaison, when I read this description of the Malmaison carnation from which the scent gets its name:

...wonderfully opulent, with deeply fimbriated petals bursting from jade calyxes like bosoms of Edwardian beauties and as powerfully scented....

"Fimbriated"! What a word!

It comes from the Latin "fimbriatus", "fringed", which in turn is from "fimbria", a fringe. It's generally an anatomical word, or a botanical one: the Fallopian tubes are fimbriated (or fimbriate, as long as you pronounce that last vowel sound as a schwa and not a long "-a-"), as are some flower petals, including many carnations--see?
Except for the quite dead word "fimble", which is related not to "thimble" but to "fumble", there are no other words beginning with "fim-" in English at all, except for the various forms and contortions of "fimbriate". You may never use it--I can't see how you would, unless you were a botanist--but isn't it good to know it exists?

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Reader Frank writes, regarding yesterday's posting:

Does "kink" derive from this group of words? I ask just because it's so close to the IE "kenk-" they derive from.

Although the sound is similar, the sense isn't, and that's almost always the key in etymology. "Kink" is unrelated to "cinch" and the other "kenk-" words. Instead, it's straight from seventeenth-century Dutch, which is unsurprising, because it began its life as a nautical term, and the Dutch in that age were great seafarers: we get quite a few of our boaty words from them, such as "keelhaul" and "yacht".

A kink started out its life as a twist in a rope. The sense of another sort of twist or bend, the human kind, came somewhat later, in the early nineteenth century, but it had no sexual connotations: it simply meant a strange idea. The obvious adjectival form "kinky" meant merely "eccentric" in the late 19th century; the "sexually offbeat" or "perverted" sense came somewhat later, and is first attested to in print in 1959.

As to where it came from, the best guess is that it's from an Old Norse word, "kikna", which means "to bend at the knee"; the last two consonants clearly must have been transposed at some point in a process called metathesis. (Metathesis can also swap sounds rather than letters, which is why "iron" is pronounced as if it were spelled "iorn" and why some people pronounce "nuclear" as if it were spelled "nucular".)

Doesn't "kikna" remind you of anything? Doesn't it sound like English "kick", "to strike with the foot", which it's nearly impossible to do without bending the knee? It should be clear that "kick" is a direct descendent of "kikna", and yet that doesn't seem to be the case. The OED doesn't know where "kick" comes from and doesn't even speculate, so I'm not going to, either.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

That's a Wrap

Here's something clever you might like: a batch of clue-free crosswords. I won't even tell you how it works: just jump in and start clicking some buttons. Fun!


Here's a sentence from a recent Consumerist piece:

The Geek Squad "precincts" that had bench machines containing serious violations had their hard drives removed and shipped to the corporate office.

The word "precinct" struck me for three reasons. First, it was in quotation marks, so it caught my eye. Second, it seemed like an odd usage of the word. And third, where could it have come from?

It was pretty obviously Latin; the "pre-" prefix more or less assured that. The root of the word was clearly "-cinc-" or "-cinct", whatever that might be, and that seemed to suggest a relationship to the word "cinch", which, it occurred to me on further reflection, must be related to the French word "ceinture", which means "belt" and sounds sort of like "cinch-ture" if your French accent isn't very good.

Right on all counts. The Indo-European root "kenk-" means "to bind" or "to gird"; it led to Latin "cingere", with the same meanings. To cinch, of course, is to tighten: "cinch" is also a slangy noun meaning "something very easy or assured of success", but I couldn't tell you where that comes from, unless it's some elliptically metaphorized sense.

A precinct, therefore, is something surrounded (the "pre-" acts as an intensifier); originally by a wall, now most usually by an invisible line that separates one area from another, as in a police precinct or an electoral district.

"Cingere" also gave English "cincture", a belt (and the obvious offspring of "ceinture" above); "succinct", which is to say "all wrapped up", as an argument or a speech; and "shingles", the form of herpes which forms blisters that can wrap themselves entirely around the body. (It's a folk belief that if shingles do encircle the body, the sufferer is sure to die. This, fortunately, isn't true; they're usually localized on one side of the body, but even a severe case in which the midriff is ringed with vesicles isn't a death sentence.)

The French word "enceinte" has entered English twice, the two meanings seemingly unrelated to one another, for a very good reason: they arose individually from different sources. One meaning is "pregnant"*, and this stems from Latin "inciens", with the same meaning. Its derivation is big and messy and I'm going to save it for another day (there are surprises inside). The other "enceinte" means "a fortification which surrounds a castle or town", and the relationship to "cinch", and therefore the derivation from "cingere", is obvious.

*Back in the early fifties when Lucille Ball was a huge star and her "I Love Lucy" was one of the most popular shows on television, there was a minor uproar among the studio heads when she had the brazen gall to become pregnant. How dare she! And how could they deal with it? CBS actually insisted that there was no way a pregnant woman could be shown on the air, since that would imply that she had had sex; evidently they believed that babies were found in a cabbage patch. They ended up writing the pregnancy into the show because it would clearly make good press, but the suits felt they couldn't say the word "pregnant" on television, so they ended up using such genteel write-arounds as "expecting"; the episode in which the pregnancy was announced was entitled "Lucy is Enceinte".