or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Total Recall

Even native-born speakers of English have the damnedest old time trying to spell it, and who can blame them, really? So many words that are spelled completely differently have exactly the same pronunciation. More sensible languages at least give you fighting chance; different spelling, different pronunciation.

I never have that problem, because I have this brain abnormality (or something) that lets me instantly memorize the spelling of a word as soon as I've seen it--it just happens automatically--which is why I always notice typos and mistaken-identity problems, such as the one in this Consumerist piece about Vista, the new Windows operating system:

In celebration of the imminent Vista launch, they set up a special billboard in Manhattan...then circus performers encased in colorful scuba diving suits repelled down the surface, hailed cabs and left.

"Rappelled" is the word Meghann Marco was looking for.

To rappel, as anyone who's ever watched "The Amazing Race" knows, means to descend a vertical surface on a secured rope. It comes, incomprehensibly*, from the French "re-" plus "appeler", "to summon, to call", from which comes English "appeal". (They both come from Latin "appelare", "to entreat".)

"Repel", on the other hand, is also through French, from Latin "re-" plus "pellere", "to drive", which also give us such words as "pulse", "compel", and "propeller". Completely, as you can see, unrelated.

*It's not entirely incomprehensible, I suppose, just odd. You can use a rappelling line to return whence you came--"re-call" yourself to your original location.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Born to be Wilde

As regular reader Tony Pius wrote about yesterday's posting,

Nothing brightens one's day like a short burst of Oscar Wilde.

That's for sure!

An anonymous review of "The Importance of Being Earnest" contained the following observations:

I have no doubt in my mind that the chief reason why the St. James piece proves so amusing is because it is so completely dominated by its author. That is to say, there is no attempt in it at characterization, but all the dramatis personae from the heroes down to the butlers, talk pure and undiluted Wildese. Whether we ought to be amused by this is quite another question; and whether we shall long continue to be amused by it is exceedingly doubtful; but, for the present, all London will flock to the St. James's; and Oscar will reap his reward. He would be wise, in my opinion, to make his hay while the sun shines. The public taste of 'Oscarisms' is not likely to be a lasting one.

I'm surprised that the author questioned whether people ought to be amused by "pure and undiluted Wildese": couldn't he simply have trusted his taste and laughed along with the rest of the audience? But the last observation is true enough, at least from a practical point of view: how exhausting it would be to try to trade quips as finely honed as Wilde's!


101 Dumbest Moments in Business from 2006. The list is hell to slog through, because, unsurprisingly, every element of the list is on a separate web page--that way they can force you to look at a lot more ads. (That horrible trend ought to have been on another list, "101 Most Unpleasant New Business Trends". Slate.com does the same thing: where every story once fit onto a single page, even short articles are now routinely chopped into two or more pages, the better to shove more advertising at you. Fortunately, I've got software installed that keeps virtually all ads out of my browser. Without it, I'd hardly be able to stand the Web--all that flashing and flickering and intrusiveness.)

Back to the Business 2.0 article. Item 63 concerns a company called TextTrust, which bills itself as "The Web Site Spell Checker". Unfortunately, they didn't submit their own promotional materials to the process:

TextTrust, a company that uses a combination of software and human editors to scour the Web for spelling errors, issues a press release on the most commonly misspelled words it has found "on the 16 million we pages it has spell-checked over the past year."

No, a spell-checker won't catch "we pages". A properly attuned human might. Might.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Three-Wrong Circus

As I feel compelled to point out every now and then, I don't go looking for mistakes to carp about; that would be pathetic. But there are so many of them!

On HBO.com's website for Rome, the caption for a picture of a soldier's clothing reads "Centurian uniform". It isn't, because "centurian" isn't a proper word: the correct word is "centurion", from the Latin for "one hundred" (as in "century"), because the soldiers were grouped by the hundred. People seem to have a lot of trouble with "-ion" and "-ian"; "Dalmatian" gives a lot of people grief, too.

It seems clear that the online version of Time Magazine doesn't have any editors. From a story on the clothing retail The Gap:

Retailing is full of 360° turnarounds.

I've been over this before. It's 180°, not 360°. 360° brings you right back where you started. This should never have made it into professionally published writing.

And from an article about a new operating system:

Vista is secure, or at least it's securer. If that's a word.

That's a cheap, jokey rhetorical tactic: the writer should be embarrassed to be using it, and any editor worth his salt would have red-penciled it in a heartbeat. Of course "securer" is a word: a few second's research would have led the writer to Answers.com, where the comparative and superlative forms of "secure" are laid out: "securer, securest".

The rhetorical ploy, mind you, does have its uses; the above example just isn't a very good one. It's called "aporia", from the Greek for "impassable", and it's a figure of speech in which the writer (or his mouthpiece) pretends to be in doubt about something, often to comic effect. Here's a perfect example, from Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest":

Algernon: I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.
Lady Bracknell: It certainly has changed its colour. From what cause I, of course, cannot say.

"Aporia", by the way, might seem familiar, and it is: its root, "poros", is the same as English "pore" and "porous", because it means "passage".

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Two errors today. Casual, unsurprising ones.

The first is in this sentence from the dependably amusing SupersizedMeals.com:

This deep-fried monstrocity is literally heart stopping!

"Heart-stopping" ought to have been hyphenated, but that's not my problem here.

You can easily see how "monstro-city" came about if you want to write about a city, and a number of writers have deliberately used it; there's even a game by that name. It's still wrong in the above context, though.

The rule is pretty simple: if the adjective ends in "-se", "-ous" or "-ose", the noun ends in "-sity": adverse/adversity, meticulous/meticulosity, grandiose/grandiosity. If it ends in "-ic" or "-ious", the noun ends in "-city": periodic/periodicity, mendacious/mendacity. Since "monstrous" ends in "-ous" (but not "-ious"), its adjectival form is "monstrosity". (There are other words ending with "-sity" or "-city" that are formed in other ways--"extensity" is one--but the rule still holds.)

The second error of the day is in a letter to the editor for a Salon.com column, and I usually give comment-posters lots of leeway because there's usually no spellchecker in the software and once you've posted you can't un-post, but this was obviously not a mere passing typo but a full-fledged mistake:

Brad and Jen for eg were together forever in human years, which in movie star years was, like, 5.

"For eg"? I don't think so. "E.g." must be punctuated because it's an abbreviation. It's not a word, and you don't precede it with "for"--it stands on its own, because the word "for" is subsumed into it.

"E.g." represents Latin "exempli gratia", "the favour of an example", and in English means "for example". That's all.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

As linked from BoingBoing, here's a page from a photography blog which talks about a photographer who makes uncommonly lovely pictures of smoke, as you can see above.

Here's a paragraph from the Photocritic piece:

With the smaller aperture needed to capture the plumes of smoke properly, you obviously lose quite a bit of light. This is a problem, because in order to freeze the motion of the constantly-moving smoke, you need quite a fast shutter time. In practical terms, this means 1/250 or faster. Simultaneously, you can’t reduce the ISO value on your camera either, because the purile plumes of smokes would be ruined by significant amounts of noise. Needless to say, a coinciding need of low ISO, small apertures and high apertures means that you need a vast amount of light.

I don't know what an ISO value is*, but I do know this: "purile" isn't an English word, so I have absolutely no idea what the author's talking about. Googling "purile" gives a depressing 63,000 hits, but that doesn't make it a word; it makes it a really common mistake. Any spell-checker will red-flag "purile" and lead the conscientious writer to a dictionary, where the mistake can be discovered.

"Puerile", on the other hand, is a word, and if that's what's meant, then it's used incorrectly. I just don't know what's going on that sentence. Not a clue. I've written about "puerile" before: it means "childish", from the Latin. So obviously this isn't what the author meant to say: "childish plumes of smoke". "Pure" isn't what's meant, either, I'm sure; it doesn't make any sense in context. ("Pure", since you must be wondering, is from the Latin "purus". Same meaning.)

The context suggests something like "delicate" or "ethereal". So why didn't the author say that?


Naturally, the word "smoke" made me think of the phrase "smoke and mirrors", and I realized that I had no idea where the word "mirror" comes from, except to note that it suggests "miraculous". Will you be as delighted and amazed as I was to learn that they're essentially the same word?

The entire etymology, from Answers.com:

Middle English mirour, from Old French mireor, from mirer, to look at, from Latin mīrārī, to wonder at, from mīrus, wonderful.

"Wonderful" is exactly the word I had in mind.

*Well, I didn't before I started writing this, anyway. Then I looked it up. I still don't know precisely what an ISO value is, but at least I know that "ISO values tell you how fast your camera reacts to light", and "The lowest ISO value gives images with the least noise", which is a start.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Taking Off

As I might have mentioned before, packaging in Canada by law has to bear everything in both English and French. (The occasional package of something imported might stand as an exception--it happens--but it's pretty rare.)

I was doing so cleaning today, and, on a tube of recently expired sunscreen in the linen closet, saw the following:


I suppose my brain wasn't in full operating condition: is it ever when you're cleaning? I recognized that the "-fuge" must be related to "refuge" somehow, but I honestly couldn't figure out how.

You probably can. Go ahead, give it a minute or two.

"Refuge" is from Latin: the usual intensifier "re-" plus "fugere", "to flee". Refuge isn't something you flee; it's something you flee towards. That's what threw me off. "Fugitive" is also related, for obvious reasons, and so is the musical composition known as a fugue, because it takes a fixed structure (a relatively short and simple theme, repeated over and over again in various parts of the scale and in counterpoint--here's one) and then encourages the composer to run with it; it's a musical flight of fancy. Oh, and "centrifuge", a device which whirls substances so that, in their containers, they flee the middle for the circumference.

So: "Hydrofuge" doesn't mean "waterproof", exactly; it means "water runs away from this!"

Monday, January 22, 2007


This mildly horrifying Slate.com story about those parents who've surgically altered their mentally defective daughter so she'll never grow up provides a link to this somewhat less horrifying New York Times story about women who have various unpleasant surgeries so that they can wear, or as a consequence of years of wearing, high-heeled shoes. The NYT story contains the following sentence:

Dr. Levine has medium-length blond hair, a striking resemblance to the singer Deborah Harry, and often wears fashionable high heels.

What the fuck is wrong with the editors at the New York Times? If they're not even bothering to ensure the most basic of parallel structure, then why should anyone else? The NYT is supposed to be some sort of standard-bearer of good writing, second in reputation only to the New Yorker, and they let a stupid, obvious error like this creep in?

For the millionth time, here's the rule: if a list of clauses is preceded by a verb, then either each element has its own verb, or you use one verb for all the clauses. No in-betweens, ever. Ever! You can use the implicit verb "has" for the third clause ("...and a propensity for wearing fashionable high heels") to match the implicit verb in the second, or you can give each clause a new verb ("...bears a striking resemblance..."), or, hell, you can even put "and" between the first two items and make them a list by themselves, which gives you free rein to chuck a new verb into the third clause.

The one thing you can't do is the thing they did.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


So today we were out and it was very, very cold, and it was lunchtime and we were kind of hungry, so we ducked into Quizno's, which makes just about the most delicious subs imaginable. They have like twenty-seven varieties but I always end up getting the same one, the Chicken Carbonara, because it's so tasty.

And you will probably have guessed that I wondered how anything carbonara got its name, and so of course I came home and looked it up.

The answer's really disappointing. Answers.com says,

Carbonara comes from carbone, which is Italian for coal, and many believe the dish derives its name because it was popular among charcoal makers. Others believe, however, that the dish is called carbonara simply because of all the black, freshly milled pepper that is used.

Both of these possibilities are extremely unsatisfying, to say the least. They're all we've got, though.

The Chicken Carbonara sub, of course, isn't really. It has more of an alfredo sauce with bacon in it. Still pretty damned tasty, though. (Fettuccine all'Alfredo is named for restaurant owner Alfredo di Lello, and consists of a sauce of butter, cream, parmesan cheese, and black pepper on fettuccine noodles.)

Now, if you Google recipes for fettuccine all'Alfredo, you will be barraged with all kinds of nonsense about melting the butter and the cream and the Parmigiana together, and I'm here to tell you that that's all wrong; the cheese will be overmelted and the whole thing will be too greasy. I'm going to tell you the correct way--the only way--to make proper fettuccine all'Alfredo, and you will thank me for it, though I can't say I'd advise you to make this too often, or you'll probably be making an unscheduled trip to the cardiologist. (Those well-meaning spoilsports at CSPI called it "a heart attack on a plate", and seriously, what a bunch of wusses! Better fifty years with the occasional dose of glorious fettuccine than seventy years without.)


1 pound fettuccine noodles
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup whipping cream (32%)
1 cup shredded or grated parmesan cheese

Cream the butter. Stir 1/3 of cheese into butter. Stir in 1/3 of cream until cream is absorbed. Repeat until all cheese and cream are incorporated. Grate in lots of black pepper. Boil fettuccine al dente. Drain pasta and return to pan over heat. Top with sauce and stir until butter and cheese are melted. Serve immediately on heated plates with more cheese grated on top. Serves four, in theory.


If you use that Kraft stuff in the green plastic canister, a curse will be on your head and your taste buds will rot off. Use good parmesan, dammit! Make this a dish worth the eating!

Friday, January 19, 2007


Apparently "fascia" has yet another meaning, as evidenced by this paragraph from a posting on The Consumerist:

A Sherwin-Willams' store incompetence totally messed up Fred's car. Look at that hood front quarter and nose fascia.

Car people sure love the word "fascia"!

Also, Ben Popkin should have written "A Sherwin-Williams store's incompetence...", but whatever.


I was reading something or other and the word "brothel" showed up, and I realized that I had no idea where it might have come from. It is an odd word, isn't it?

Let's start way back in May of 2005, when I wrote about related pairs of words that end in "-ch" and "-k", often with a change of vowel, such as "bank" and "bench".

Okay. "Brothel" has nothing to do with "broth", or "brother", or pretty much anything else you might think of, because it's gone through a whole bunch of changes in its life. "Brothel", which now means "whorehouse", originally actually meant "prostitute" (the noun, not the verb), which I guess is a case of synecdoche, the whole substituting for the part, in action. (It's really just a case of abbreviation: a whorehouse was also called a brothel-house, a house full of brothels, and the name was later abbreviated.)

"Brothel"-the-prostitute, in turn, came from the past tense of "brethen", "to fall to ruin", from Old English "breothan", "to decay". "Breothan", in its turn, came from "breutenan", "to break", and that was the clue. "Breutenan" calls to mind--to my mind, anyway--"breach", and "breach" and "break" are clearly related by their endings. Both words stem from Indo-European "bhong-", "to break" or "to beat". (Even the vowels are the same: I think it was the wildly differing vowel sounds that kept me from ever seeing the connection.)

And there we have it: breaking, decomposition, ruination, a ruined woman, and finally the house that employs her. Isn't that a hell of a thing?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Holly Would

A while back--a year ago, just about--I wrote about the word "abolishment" versus the much more common "abolition", and just now, in reading an article on Slate.com about Conservative Judaism, I found another, similar word:

The great game of Jewish evolvement has a clear pattern.

"Evolvement". How about that? I'd never heard it before, but of course I knew what it meant: it means "evolution", which is considerably commoner, and older, too, by about 200 years. ("Evolvement" dates from 1845, says the OED.) I like that there are the both of them, though. Enriches the language. (I had hoped to find a page that contains perhaps a complete list of such word pairs, but I don't think anyone has made one up: Googling "abolishment abolition evolvement evolution" mostly gives all kinds of junk listings. But at least that establishes that both "evolvement" and "abolishment" are valid English words.)


A co-worker named Holly left the company yesterday, so, as I said a few days ago, I made her a cake, and decorated it with royal-icing confections. And what do you suppose I made them to look like? Go on. Guess.

Holly leaves! Get it? Holly? Leaves?

Okay, so it's not the most sophisticated pun in the world, but still, a cake with a pun on it is a fun kind of cake. (Also, it was chocolate, with chocolate pudding in the middle and a nearly offensive quantity of very good chocolate buttercream frosting. And it was covered with bright green leaves and red holly berries, and was very attractive, before Holly ate--and this is not a lie--a quarter of it.)

I love the fact that a compound noun can also, in another context, be a complete subject-verb sentence in English. This is some language we got ourselves here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Group Dynamics

In the letters section for Salon.com's review of the Golden Globe Awards, someone employs a common misspelling of the word "fascist" (it's on page 2 if you sort the letters oldest first, rendering it as "facist". I'm not going to take some letter-writer to task for that, of course, but it did get me wondering about where the word came from.

As usual, I thought it had to be related to another word--in this case, "fascia"--but, again as usual, i couldn't figure out how, if in fact it was.

It is. A fascia is a sheet or bundle of connective tissue, such as the thick band of tissue along the bottom of the foot known as the plantar fascia. ("Plantar" means "the bottom of the foot", as in "plantar wart", which is so often miscalled a "planter's wart". And I just now learned that in England, a plantar wart is called a verruca. "Verruca" is the Latin word for "wart"! As in "Veruca Salt"!)

Oh, I do go off on tangents. The word "fascia" comes from the Latin "fascis", "bundle" or "band", and this is where "fascism" comes from--more precisely, from Italian, "fascismo", which itself is from "fascio", "group"--a band of people. The original symbol of the Italian Fascists was the fasces, which Answers.com defines as "a bundle of rods bound together around an ax with the blade projecting, carried before ancient Roman magistrates as an emblem of authority". Just so you know.

"Fascia", by the way, looks as if it ought to be plural, with the singular being "fascium"--which doesn't really exist in English, not even, as one might expect, in a medical context-- as in such pairs as "bacterium/bacteria" or "gymnasium/gymnasia", but it's actually singular, with the plural being "fasciae".

Oh, and one more divagation: "fascia" is usually, in North American English, pronounced "FASH-ee-uh", but in British English is pronounced "FAY-shuh", and refers not only to connective tissue but to the dashboard of a car. Huh!

Monday, January 15, 2007


Here's an awful sentence from an awful Newsweek Online story, about the double-murderer O.J. Simpson and his theoretically theoretical confessional book:

Galanter, Simpson's attorney, said last week that the rights to the book have already or will soon revert to the former football great (a spokesman for HarperCollins, of which ReganBooks was a part, declined to comment on any aspect of this story).

So the editors at Newsweek no longer know anything about subject-verb agreement when changing tenses? The clause in question ought to have read "...the rights to the book have already reverted, or will soon revert, to...." (The commas are optional. I like them.)

But let's put this ugliness behind us. Here's a great word I'd never heard before, in this sentence from a Slate.com story about tampon advertising:

Elkinton can talk for hours about "tapered applicator barrels" and "a finger grip with flared grooves" and a "unique, double-layer, folded pledget."

"Pledget". How about that! It means a small flat pad of cotton used to dress a wound. Like the inside of a Band-Aid! Dictionary.com doesn't know where it came from: neither does the OED, though that source is willing to make a few inconclusive guesses: the "-et" ending suggests a Romance language, and there's a chance it may be related to the word "plug" somehow. But for once, I don't even care, because it's just a terrific word.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Laurie Anderson--in this house we worship her--once said,

In Buddhist thought, there's the thing, and there's the name for the thing, and that's one thing too many.

I don't necessarily agree with that, because I love the way that English has a name for pretty much anything you'd care to name.

I have to make a cake for a co-worker's going-away on Wednesday ("Chocolate cake, with tons of chocolate frosting," she specified), and I'm going to decorate it with somethings-or-others made of royal icing, and since I'm out of meringue powder, I decided to make the royal icing with actual egg whites, at which point I remembered that I'd have to remove those long squiggly things, basically shock absorbers, that connect the yolk to the inside ends of the eggshell, and then I remembered that those things have a name, but I couldn't remember what it was.

Chorizo? No, that's Spanish sausage. I racked my brain for a few more seconds, and then I remembered that those squiggles are called "chalazae", which is the plural for "chalaza" (pronounced "kuh-LAH-zuh"), which comes from the Greek word for hailstone. Seriously.

Isn't it great that those gross little squiggle things have a name?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Once Upon A Time

Today in a review of an Austin, Texas, restaurant called the Blue Star Cafeteria, the redoubtable Twisty Faster, in her indispensible blog "I Blame The Patriarchy", uses the word "harbinges", and then, in an asterisked aside, commands us to investigate:

No, it's really a word. Look it up.

So I did. And it's really not a word--not a word-word, but a demi-word, a ghost-word, which is to say it kind of is a word, but of a special, rarefied sort.

First things first, though. "Harbinger" means "that which foretells or presages", a sort of embodiment of an omen. It's from Middle English "herbengar", "someone sent ahead of a travelling party to arrange lodgings", descended from "herberge", "lodging", and therefore related to modern French "auberge", "inn".

Now. I have written before about the hapax legomenon, which is a word or usage that has appeared once and once only in a language, usually as the result of a misapprehension. On occasion, someone in need of a word which doesn't exist will deliberately invent one, often by modifying an existing word with an affix, but sometimes simply creating it out of whole cloth. Usually it will live and die with the originator: perhaps it will be used by a few, or be re-invented on another occasion by someone else, or perhaps (rare occasion!) it will enter the language. This variant of the hapax legomenon is called a nonce word, for which the Wikipedia page has a concise definition:

A nonce word is a word used only "for the nonce"--to meet a need that is not expected to recur.

It is, in other words, something deliberately constructed to be a hapax legomenon.

"Harbinge", the OED tells us, is a nonce word--and they ought to know, since the term was evidently invented by James Murray, the editor of the OED. There are two listed examples of the word's use, and it's easy to get the sense that OED mentions them grudgingly: they had to put the grim back-formation in there, because they had a couple of citations for it.

In the most technical possible sense, therefore, "harbinge" is a word; it's in the dictionary. (In a dictionary, anyway, though if you were going to be in only one, the OED would be the one to be in.) However, that dictionary also tells us that "harbinge" is a made-up word which only barely qualifies for inclusion.

So "harbinge" isn't really a word, exactly. Though it sort of is. I suppose. If you insist.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


I enjoy reading James Howard Kunstler's blog, Clusterfuck Nation. I suspect he's generally right about the direction the world is headed: we've burnt up most of the oil we're ever going to have and as a consequence have doomed ourselves to a long, slow unraveling of society as we know it, due to the lack of cheap energy and the environmental changes this burning has wrought. I hope he's wrong, of course, and he does get things wrong, but let's say it doesn't look good for modern civilization.

Here's a sentence from his January prognostication:

The luck part of the story came partly from the weather -- there was barely any hurricane activity in US territory last year and global warming was so advanced that the northern states set records for warm winter temperatures -- which redounded into the fossil fuel part of the 2006 story.

"Redound" is such a great word, isn't it? Not quite archaic, but a bit musty for all that. (The OED dates it from 1382.) It means, in this context, "to have some consequence [towards]: to affect". I wouldn't have used "redounded into": "redounded to" is the usual formulation, which is why I noticed it.

I'm glad I did, too. You'll never guess where it comes from!

First, have a look at it. Play with the vowels--always a fun pastime. Does it look like any other word you might know? How about "redundant"? It turns out they're pretty much the same word.

Working backwards: "redundant" comes from Latin "redundare", "to overflow". This, in turn, comes from "re-", "again", plus "undare", "to surge", which is where such English words as "undulate" and "Undine" come from, not to mention French "onde", "wave". (A microwave oven in French is "un four à micro-ondes".) "Redound", on the other hand, is from Middle English "redounden", "to flow abundantly", from the same source. The two words have dramatically different meanings, but when you know where they come from you can get a sense of their relation to one another: the sense of motion or action that creates some effect, good or bad, in "redound", or that repeats itself until it becomes a nuisance, as "redundant".

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Native Son

In the letters section accompanying this Salon.com story by Neal Pollack about, among other things, circumcision, a (let's face it) minor matter that some people with too much time on their hands make a huge hullaballoo over, is the following letter:

Pollack says "I was Bar Mitzvahed..."
Bar Mitzvah isn't a verb, it's a descriptor for Jewish men who have been called to the Torah. One isn't Bar Mitzvahed, one becomes a Bar Mitzvah.

Well, not in Hebrew, maybe. Here in the English language, we do that sort of thing all the time. (I see I'm still overusing italics. I'll try to beat that habit in the next few days. Thank you for your patience.)

Here's the definition of "bar mitzvah" from Answers.com:

1. A 13-year-old Jewish boy, considered an adult and responsible for his moral and religious duties.
2. The ceremony that initiates and recognizes a boy as a bar mitzvah.

tr.v., -vahed, -vah·ing, -vahs.
To confirm in the ceremony of bar mitzvah.

And right here on Judaism 101, from people who sound as if they ought to know:

"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" is "son" in Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the Jewish people. "Mitzvah" is "commandment" in both Hebrew and Aramaic.... Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age, and it is strictly correct to refer to someone as "becoming a bar (or bat) mitzvah." However, the term is more commonly used to refer to the coming of age ceremony itself, and you are more likely to hear that someone is "having a bar mitzvah."

Indeed you are! "Bar mitzvah" has become a noun meaning the ceremony, and what's more, it's become a verb describing what's done at that ceremony. This is normal in English, where we happily make a word--even one borrowed intact from another language--serve as multiple parts of speech with no visible change (except the usual verb/adverb suffixes and, in this case, a loss of capitalization).

The letter-writer doesn't have to like it. I suppose if I were more prescriptivist than I am, I might not like it, either. But it's perfectly common, everyday English usage--in fact, the verb and the noun referring to the ceremony are far more common in English than is the stricter usage. There's no point in saying "Bar Mitzvah isn't a verb" when it demonstrably is, at least in our language.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Phone Sex

If you're a Mac geek, which I am, you've been waiting for something like this for ages: the iPhone. I couldn't have any less interest in actually owning one (I have a cell phone and an iPod already, thanks), but the technology behind it is just dazzling. If I had a lot of money and I needed a phone and an iPod, I would be all over this, because it is gorgeous.

You can't buy an iPhone as of this writing, but you can ask them to send you information when it becomes available, and the appropriate menu item reads "Sign-up". So I clicked on it: I didn't really intend to sign up for more information, but I was reading all the menu items and couldn't see any reason to skip that one.

"Sign-up", or "signup", is usually an adjective: "sign-up fees", for example, or "signup bonus". It can also be a noun, of course: "His sign-up went well." But on the page is the following text:

Sign-up here to receive more information about iPhone and related products from Apple.

To which I can only say no no no goddammit no! "Sign-up" is not a verb. Ever! "Sign up" is the phrasal verb. No hyphen, because phrasal verbs consisting of a verb and a preposition do not take hyphens. Ever!

This also means that the menu item is meant to be a verb as well, despite the fact that it's hyphenated and therefore wrong. But the title of the page itself is

Apple - iPhone - Sign up

which means that at least two different people worked on the page, and one of them knows what's right and one of them doesn't. (You could, I guess, argue that the page title should also be hyphenated because it's meant to be a noun, but my preference would be to treat all the instances on the page as imperative verbs. It reads better, in my opinion.) People stick hyphens into phrases all the time and it's ugly and horrible.

Why should I care so much about this? I don't know. Why am I using so many italics? Because I'm so pissed off!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Sign

Yesterday, a co-worker asked me about a word in a novel she was reading: she could sort of guess the meaning from the context (although she asked me about that, too), but mostly she didn't know how to pronounce it. "'Seagull' doesn't work, and I don't know what else to do with it," she said.

The word was "sigil". It means "sign" or "seal", as in "signet", to which it is related: it's Latin, of course, from "sigillum", the diminutive form of "signum", "sign". It's pronounced "SIDJ-ull", which is to say it rhymes with "vigil".

There are--to the best of my knowledge--only five words in English that end in "-gil". Four of them are directly from Latin, and the other is not. Try and guess which is which:

sigil, vigil, argil, ridgil, strigil

You already know "sigil" is from Latin. "Vigil" is a common enough word: you don't need me to tell you about it, do you? Very well: it's from the Latin "vigil", "awake", which led to "vigilia", "wakefulness", which eventually in English led to its secondary meaning, "religious devotional activities performed the evening before a holiday"--activities which required one to remain awake as a sort of penance.

If you're a regular reader, you've seen something like "argil" before: just last week, I wrote about cream of tartar (the biscuits came out very nicely, in case you were wondering), and one of the words that showed up was "argilla", Latin for "clay", which is just what "argil" means in English, reasonably enough.

A strigil is a device used by the Romans to remove dead skin cells after a bath: first, oil was applied to the skin, and then it was scraped off with the curved metal blade of the strigil. (You can duplicate this effect by rubbing moisturizer on your skin after a bath and then scraping it away with a old credit card, which is stiff enough to do the job but flexible enough to conform to the shape of your body and not damage the skin.)

"Ridgil" is the odd one out: it's a misspelling, I suppose, of "ridgel", which itself is a very strange contraction of "ridgeling", a male animal with undescended testicles.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Head Games

The word that interests me today is one that I can't find an etymology for: I have a minimally educated guess, but no real answer. The only reason I'm even mentioning it is because it's linked to a mind-bendingly dreadful thing which I naturally want to share with everyone.

There is a fungus called cordyceps which grows in the rainforests of Cameroon. It infects a particular species of ant, and that species only. When the ant is infected, its brain changes: the ant is compelled to skitter up the nearest tree or vine (something it has never done before in its life), grab on tightly with its mandibles, and await its doom. Its doom is that cordyceps, having invaded its brain, proceeds to grow into a spike which thrusts out of the ant's head, develops a fruiting body, and bursts, spraying more spores into the air, which shower down, there to infect even more ants.

How baroque! How perverse! How appalling!

And since you probably want to see this actually happening, here's the video, to which I was led by the ever-dependable Boingboing.net.

The mystery, of course, is the origin of "cordyceps". I can't find an etymology for the damned thing, and I really looked, too. Just not hard enough, I suppose.

The second half, "-ceps", must certainly be from Greek "kephale", "head", which gives us such words as "biceps", the two-headed muscle in the arm, and indeed "cephalogenic". (It can't be related to "forceps", which is unrelated to "kephale" and is taken from the Latin name for fireplace tongs.)

But the first half? The only thing I can find that makes even a particle of sense is "kordule" or "kordyle", which is the Greek word for "club". If that's correct--no guarantees!--then "cordyceps" means "club-headed", which, once you've seen the video, seems to fit.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Grinding Away

Here's a paragraph from "The press buries Gerald R. Ford in meaningless platitudes", a Slate.com article about, well, what the title's about:

The press has probably gone soft on Ford because he gave them very little material to work with. But he was more zero than cipher, somebody who made no enemies in politics because he rarely took meaningful political stands. Neither moderate nor conservative, he appears to have reached his political and personal zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he happily led the humiliated minority in the House of Representatives. He excelled at bowing—to Democrats, to the press, to foreign dictators, as my Slate colleague Christopher Hitchens documents in his serving of strong meat.

I quoted the whole paragraph to give some context in case you don't feel like reading the entire article. Aren't I good to you?

What interested me was the last bit, "strong meat". Isn't that a genuinely strange expression when you look at it? "Strong" has a lot of meanings, hardly any of which you'd think could apply to meat, so this clearly is a metaphor of some sort. The wording seems archaic, so that almost certainly means one thing: it's from either the Bible or Shakespeare.

The Bible, as it turns out. That wasn't so hard to discover. What was unexpectedly hard was finding out just what the phrase means. I could have guessed, because, in context, it makes a sort of sense (as much as anything in the Bible makes sense, I mean), but isn't it better to know?

I don't own a concordance, or even a Bible, so I Googled the damned thing until the word "strong" lost all meaning and became a mere collision of letters, and finally came upon this page, which contains a section from the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which clearly I need to get a copy of tout de suite. Here's the relevant paragraph:

milk for babies something easy and pleasant to learn; especially in allusion to 1 Corinthians 3:2 and Hebrews 5:12, contrasted with 'strong meat' (see > STRONG).

Well, that's that sorted, then! "Strong", in this context, clearly means "tough to chew", which in fact is one of the standard meanings, more or less: it's related to such commonplaces as "good strong teeth": something which is resistant to wear or damage. Strong meat, by this metaphor, is something difficult to learn, something which requires you to (another metaphor) chew on it for a while.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


It's a pretty basic quality of English: if you apply a descriptor--an adjective or an adverb--to a list of things, or to a noun or verb that encompasses a list of things, then that descriptor applies to every item in the list. "Everything about the place was unclean: the floors, the furniture, and especially the bathroom." "She was immaculately presented, from her hair and nails to her expensive dress." It's not an abstruse point of grammar; it's obvious.

So I was startled to read the following sentence in a Washington Post story about the pricey American Girl doll line:

Addy is an African American girl who escaped from slavery at the time of the Civil War but keeps $20 accessories, including a gourd, a cowrie shell necklace and a $70 desk.

A seventy-dollar desk is a not a twenty-dollar accessory. Jeez.

Here's a bit of advice to Washington Post editors, and editors in general: You can't edit something you haven't actually read. Pay attention!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


One of the framing jobs I had to do at work today was a pair of posters warning of the destructive qualities of various drugs. (Note to educators: these do not work.) One of the posters was in English and the other in French, and I noted that the French word for "heroin" is "héroïne".

Well, isn't that interesting.

The obvious question is, "Is 'heroin' actually related to the English word 'heroine'?" The answer to this question is, "Yeah, kinda, if you filter it through a couple of languages first."

Heroin, by all accounts, got its name from the German word "heroisch", "heroic", because it made people feel pretty damned terrific. The "-in" was, according to the eternally useful Wikipedia, "a common ending for drugs at the time": in fact, just eleven days before heroin was first created, the very same scientist, Felix Hoffman, invented aspirin (which at the time was a trade name--as, in fact, was heroin).

And the French word for "hero" is "héros" (the "-s" is silent), the feminine form is "héroïne" (with the dieresis indicating two separately pronounced vowels), and as I noted, the French word for "heroin" is, amazingly (to me), also "héroïne".

I think we can attribute this coincidence of words in French to two things. First, "-ine" is a fairly common feminine suffix in the language, used particularly for names (Paul/Pauline, Just/Justine) but also for nouns (figure/figurine), so "hero/heroine" makes perfect sense in English and in French. And second, if you're adopting German "heroin" into French, you can't just take it as it is and keep anything like the original pronunciation, because the terminal "-n" would be silent; to have it pronounced, you have to tack that "-e" onto the end--like the difference in French between "fin" (pronounced, more or less, as a nasalized "fah", like the first two thirds of "fat") and "fine" (pronounced, again more or less, like "Finn").

So, unless I'm much mistaken, the two French words, although they have the same essential root, came from two different places. In English, they aren't spelled alike, though they are pronounced the same, leading to many headaches for teaching assistants marking English papers.

Monday, January 01, 2007

All Heart

We went out for breakfast this morning, as is our way on New Year's Day, but it turned out that the place we had planned to go (Cora's, a Canadian breakfast-and-lunch restaurant chain) didn't open until 9. What the hell is that? Is everyone still in bed at 8 on January 1st? Wimps!

We ended up going to a nearby hotel restaurant instead: the prices are steeper than they ought to be (hotels restaurants being what they are), but the food is pretty good. And there on the menu I spotted some approximation of this:

A hardy breakfast to start your day right.

Now, "hardy" is extended from the word "hard"; it means, among other things, "tough: capable of surviving difficult conditions" or "in particularly good health". It has nothing to do with food, although you could probably apply it to some of the plants and animals that constitute food. "Hearty", on the other hand, derives from "heart", and means, when applied to food, "substantial and nourishing": that's the word that was shot at and missed on this particular menu, and in fact on any menu that dares to employ the word "hardy". There must be quite a few of them: Googling "hardy breakfast" gives an unfortunate ten thousand hits (give or take). "Hearty breakfast", on the other hand, gives us 544,000 hits, so it's not dead and gone yet.

I'm not completely insensible to the fact that "-t-" tends to turn into "-d-" in spoken English, particularly when preceded by an "-r-" and followed by a vowel: "party", "carted", "shorter", and many other words sound as if they have a "-d-" in them in casual North American English. (They certainly do when they're coming out of my mouth.) But is it too much to ask that people know that there are two different words here with different derivations, spellings, and meanings?

Yeah, I suppose it is.