or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


After gnawing off a hangnail last night at work, I was tossing about a few words in my head, thinking, "Okay, at least two of these words have to be related to one another in some way, right?"


Maybe you're thinking, "What could 'hangnail' have to do with those other words?" As you may or may not know, the "hang" part of "hangnail" ("a small partly detached piece of dead skin at the side of the fingernail") has nothing to do with hanging, although it was clearly influenced by that word (think "hanging chad"): it's actually from Old English "ang", "painful".

And that is why I was wondering about such words as "angina", which causes chest pain, and "anguish", which is the result of pain. You'd think that, because of their semantic similarities, they'd all be one big thicket of interrelated etymology, wouldn't you?

And they are. The "ang" in "hangnail" (also "angnail" and "agnail", because "-ngn-" is not that easy to pronounce) is clearly descended from the Latin "angere", "to torment", which also gives us "anxious" and "anguish". These are all in turn descendants of the Indo-European "angh-", "tight; painful", which also gave us the Greek "ankhone", "strangling", from which we get "angina", with its suffocating chest pain. "Anger" is from Old Norse "angr", "sorrow", which also naturally enough descends from "angh-". And finally we have German "angst" (which in that language means simply "fear" but in English denotes a collision of apprehension, fear, depression, and nervousness): it too is descended, predictably enough, from "angh-".

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Drawing a Blank

Yes, I'm still alive, and no, I just haven't had anything to write about in days. I don't know what's wrong with me. I've been spending way too much time over the last couple of days playing iSketch, a really fun, well-implemented online game of Pictionary: maybe that has something to do with it. Also, watching more television than I usually do, for some reason, including lots of movies. (Tonight was not only The Amazing Race, the only reality show worth watching, but also Heroes, the usual Monday night episode, which was shown 24 hours early in Canada for some reason. Spoilers, anyone?)

I did notice (well, re-notice) the label on a storage container at work: the company name is Sterilite. "Well, so what?", you're saying. Well, if you add an accent to the final "e", you get "stérilité", which is the French word for "sterility". Isn't that sort of cool? A word (a brand name, a sort-of word) in one language that's a completely different word in another language? Oulipo a French consortium of writers and mathematicians that plays with the language, has a list of words that mean one thing in French and another in English, and do you think I can find that list online? Not a chance. It's got to be out there somewhere. I'm too busy playing iSketch to look for it properly, or something.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Beat Crazy

Well, here's just a terrific word I'd never heard before tonight. It's in this Snopes.com page about crybaby American fundamentalists who, ever flailing about trying to find something to whine about, are up in arms that the inscription "In God We Trust" is supposedly going to be removed from the new coinage:

Actually, the Presidential $1 coins incorporate a few new design features not found on other current U.S. coinage, one of which is that elements typically displayed on either the obverse or reverse of U.S. coins--the year of minting, the mint mark, the motto from the Great Seal of the United States("E Pluribus Unum"), and the current national motto of the United States ("In God We Trust") --will instead be included as edge-incused inscriptions.

My first thought when I saw the word "incused" was, "Gee, never seen that one before!" My second thought was, "Gee, I wonder if they meant to say 'incised'?" And my third thought was, "Nah, it's Snopes, so clearly it's a word I've never seen before."

And so it turns out to be. To incuse something--specifically, a coin or medallion--is to impress a design on it by stamping or hammering. This word comes from Latin "incudere", "to forge with a hammer", logically enough, and this in turn is compounded from "in-" and "cudere", "to beat". An incus, by the way, is an anvil--something which gets hammered--and "incus" is another name for the tiny bone in the ear which I'd always known as the anvil. (I knew that the other two were called the malleus--that means "hammer"--and the stapes--"stirrup"--so how is it that I'd never heard the word "incus" before, as far as I know?)

Since "incuse" exists, and comes from "to beat", wouldn't it be glorious if "excuse" somehow had the same root? You don't need me to tell you that it doesn't: it comes from Latin "causa", "accusation", instead.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Editor's Dilemma

I used to devour books. I was one of those kids whose mom kicked him outdoors on a bright summer's day because she thought he ought to be out getting some sun and exercise and he thought he ought to be reading every book that was ever written.

What happened? I still read a lot, but most of it is on the Internet. I hardly ever read fiction any more; mostly when I dive into a book it's natural history or science, so I figured I had a chance of making it through "The Omnivore's Dilemma". I really wanted to read it: I waited for it for almost a month from the library (it's a hot read these days). And it's due back on Friday and I won't get a chance to finish it by then. I've only made it to page 39!

One of the reasons I stopped there is because it contains a thoroughly wrong sentence, and I just can't comprehend how it happened.

Even in May the only green you see are the moats of lawn surrounding the houses, the narrow strips of grass dividing one farm from another, and the roadside ditches.

"Green" is a singular noun, albeit a collective one (imagine "greenery" in its place). "Moats" is a plural noun. There's a verb between them. What shall it be: singular or plural?

The writer, or the editor, chose the plural noun, which could in theory be defensible but nevertheless sounds entirely wrong. That sentence just sets my teeth on edge. The singular verb sounds much better: "The only green you see is the moats of lawn...." Why was the plural verb used instead? I can't wrap my brain around it. It's horrible. If you can't stomach the singular verb, then recast the sentence, which in this case is a piece of cake ("...you see nothing green but the moats of lawn...", maybe).

I'm sure someone thought that the collective noun has to take a plural verb, but didn't anyone notice how dreadful the sentence is? Didn't anyone actually say it out loud? It was so bad that it froze me in my tracks and I left my bookmark there, and now I have to return it and I'll never get to finish it. Thanks a bunch, Michael Pollan and/or editor!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Or Else

I have avoided Kentucky Fried Chicken for just about fifteen years, ever since I got food poisoning there (as far as I know, anyway--I couldn't pin it on anything else I'd eaten). Today, though, we were out (click here to see what else I did at the mall) and there wasn't anything else that I felt like eating, and I figured, well, hey, what are the chances of getting food poisoning again from the same chain in a different city fifteen years later? If I do get sick tonight, though, I'll know the universe is trying to tell me something.

Anyway. As I was waiting for the food, I was reading the menu board, since I will read anything and everything, and here are the exact words under one item (I know because I wrote them down):

A tender boneless chicken fillet, coated in KFC's secret blend or 11 herbs and spices.

I was flabbergasted.

I know: "of" and "or" get mixed up all the time in our day-to-day life--the relevant letters are one atop the other on the keyboard, and the spellchecker won't catch it. But there's no excuse for this. It's a corporately-produced lightboard sign. It's commercial advertising. It must have gone through a dozen hands, and surely at least one proofreader, and yet somehow they let a typo slip through? They might as well have posted a sign that read KENUTCKY FRIED CHICKEN.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Poultry in Motion

Tonight on the way home from work I saw a sign (one of those white plastic backlit jobs that you slide letters into) advertising "CHICKEN NUGETS", which I thought was sort of adorable, to be honest. Did they run out of the letter "g"? Did someone just screw up a little bit? Did the sign drone honestly not know how to spell "nugget"? Whatever: I don't eat them--they're more heavily processed than Beyonce's hair--but I'm probably going to have to call them "nugets" from now on. Chicken nougats!

A more interesting, and completely inexcusable, mistake which I also saw tonight was in a recipe book at work. It had about a hundred different kinds of cupcakes, with instructions on how to frost them all to make them look like people or Easter eggs or, in this case, a Thanksgiving turkey. I mean a live one, not a cooked one, though that would be at least as interesting. The instructions tell you how to make the turkey's feathers, its comb, and its "waddle".

Oh, really?

A turkey may have a waddle, but that's how it walks. The part of its body being described is actually the "wattle", which is the dangly flap of skin hanging from its throat. Yes, I know that in casual speech the sound "-tt-" (whether a glottal stop or a hard-edged consonant) is frequently rounded into a "-dd-" instead. There's still no excuse for mistakes like that in professionally produced publications. When I see one in a cookbook, it's really the worst of all, because the recipes therein automatically seem suspect. Are they going to ask me to use a tablespoonful of baking soda instead of a teaspoonful?

"Waddle", by the way, is a verb form called a frequentative, which isn't a living part of English any more: there are quite a few frequentatives in the language, but they're all artifacts--we don't make them any more. A frequentative is a word that expresses continued or repetitive action, and in English is denoted by the suffix "-le" or "-er". "Sparkle", for instance, is the frequentative of "spark", and likewise "suckle" derives from "suck" and "flicker" from "flick": "waddle" is the frequentative of "wade", and both are what ducks do. Isn't that a wonderful thing to know?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Doing Nothing

If I can't find anything interesting to write about, then you know I'm really dragging, because practically everything interests me to some extent. (I've been posting to my other blog, but I just haven't been really jazzed about any words, and I haven't been reading enough to find any top-notch typos or grammatical screw-ups.)

But I did run across the word "reneged" on James Randi's indispensable weekly blog last week, and it's been sitting in a tab in my browser ever since, and I kept meaning to write about it and just couldn't work up the energy, but I finally did.

"Renege" looks a lot like "renegade", doesn't it? They don't seem to have a lot in common at first glance. To renege is to deliberately or accidently fail to do something: the usual sense means to deliberately go back on a promise, but in trick-taking card games, to renege is to fail to follow suit when able, which is where the "accidentally" part comes in. A renegade, on the other hand, isn't someone who fails to do something, but someone who deliberately rejects social mores or a belief system.

It would have been so much fun to have discovered that they come from different words, but they both do stem from the same root: the Latin "re-", an intensifier, plus "negare", "to deny". "Negare" is self-evidently the source of "negate" and "negative" (not to mention "negatory"), plus a few more surprisingly family members. As I superficially mentioned a couple of years ago, "neglect" comes from "negare" plus "legere", "to choose" (the root of "elect"): to neglect something is to elect not to deal with it. The negligée, a woman's lightweight bedroom wear, is what she wears when she's neglected to put on anything more substantial. And, because "otium" is the Latin word for "leisure", "negare" plus "otium" equals "not at leisure": when you're not at leisure, you're at work, which means the transaction of business, which is the very definition of "negotiation".

Friday, February 09, 2007

Eminence Grise

Have I mentioned that when watching television, we keep the closed captioning on at all times? It makes it easy to catch things that you didn't quite hear properly, and when you're used to it, it's completely unobtrusive--you just grab a peek at the words when you need them.

We watch movies with the subtitles on, too, even English-language movies. I find myself wishing they had them in movie theatres.

Tonight we were watching How Clean Is Your House?, an intermittently hilarious show featuring two campy British ladies upbraiding filthy housekeepers and then teaching them how to clean. The show outdoes itself in descriptive terms for the hovels it invades, and today one of the words was "grisly". Unfortunately, the caption said "grizzly".

Not interchangeable. Two different words!

"Grisly" comes from German "grausen", "to shudder with fear": a grisly sight isn't necessarily one that's bloody (the dominant usage today, I think), but rather one that horrifies you.

"Grizzled" is a word meaning "partly grey-haired", a salt-and-pepper look; it comes from the French "gris", "grey", and "grizzly" is another form of "grizzled", with the same meaning. How's that for straightforward? (It's also related to "grisaille", a painting technique using shades of grey to represent or imitate bas-relief.)

The grizzly bear isn't grey-streaked; it's brown or fulvous. (Isn't that a great word? It's from the Latin and means "brownish yellow".) The grizzly bear's name has nothing directly to do with "grizzled", but instead comes from the carnage it wreaks. However, "grizzly" has, it must be admitted, shown up on occasion in the past as an alternative spelling of "grisly". They're still not interchangeable. Not while I'm around. Someone has to keep up standards.

While I'm at it, "gristly" is unrelated to either of these words: it's from an old Germanic word meaning "cartilage".

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I've just started reading Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and while it's too early for me to say if it's any good (though I like what I've read so far), I have learned a luscious new word from it.

On page 4 is the following paragraph:

Being a generalist is, of course, a great boon as well as a challenge; it is what allowed humans to adapt to a great many different environments all over the planet and to survive in them even after favored foods were driven to extinction. Omnivory offers the pleasures of variety too. But the surfeit of choice brings a lot of stress with it and can lead to a kind of Manichaean view of food, a division of nature into the Good Things to Eat and the Bad.

See, I would have said "omnivorousness", but instead, Pollan has given me "omnivory", for which I am grateful. The parallel formations "herbivory" and "carnivory" also exist, so much more concise than "herbivorousness" and so forth. Don't you love them? Aren't you dying to use them? (The accent is on the second syllable in all three words. Just a heads-up.*)

The fraction "-vore" comes from Latin "vorare", "to devour", and is also the root of "devour", of course, as well as "voracious". Surprisingly, a variant of "vorare" gives us "gorge", which I have already written about at some length.

* The OED also makes note of a spectacular nonce word, "carnivoracity": in this case, the accent is on the first and fourth syllables, just as if it were composed of two separate chunks, and we know this because its inventor hyphenated it after the first five letters. I wouldn't recommend using this word a lot, but hey--it's in the dictionary.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I love and pity the hyphen, perhaps the most useful and yet the most abused punctuation mark in the language. (As I've said before, the hyphen is so critical to spelling and comprehensibility that it almost constitutes a twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet.) It isn't terribly difficult to use correctly: there isn't a rule, or even a comprehensive set of rules, to dictate its use, it's true, though there are some general rules (and other instances which, unfortunately, must be learned almost on a case-by-case basis). But the reward for mastering the hyphen is precision in and control over your writing, and what writer doesn't want that?

When a writer doesn't know how to employ hyphens properly, we end up with sentences like this one, from Salon.com's Broadsheet:

The Newsweek cover story is indefensible because, clearly, its authors know better -- the piece is three-part hysterical what-ifs, one-part counterevidence.

"Three-part" is an adjective (as in Bach's Three-Part Inventions), and so is "one-part". What the writer was trying to write was a pair of noun phrases (a noun modified by an adjective): "three parts" in the first case, "one part" in the second.

The odd thing is that the writer got "what-ifs" right. One of the hyphen's conjuring tricks is to transmute one part of speech into another: "what if" isn't a noun, but hyphenating it converts it into one, which can be pluralized into a word meaning "conjectures". If you can get that right, you ought to be able to handle "three-part" versus "three parts".

Sunday, February 04, 2007


In Saint John, where we used to live, there's a horse track called the Exhibition Park Raceway, which is irrelevant except that there's a small bar/restaurant attached to it called the Sulky Room, which Jim and I always found hilarious. We couldn't see the sign for it without one or the other of us exaggeratedly pouting (the stereotypically six-year-old face with the lower lip stuck out that Jim's always called "boo-boo face").

The two versions of "sulky" are, bizarrely and unexpectedly, related, as far as anyone knows. The ill-tempered one comes, apparently, from the obsolete "sulke", "sluggish", which doesn't really make a lot of sense, but what's really out there is the horse-drawn vehicle version; Answers.com says it's, and I quote, "From SULKY (from its having only one seat)". Wha? A one-seated vehicle is more sluggish than a two-seater? Or a carriage? I honestly don't get it.

Anyway. Today we were idly watching the design ambush show "While You Were Out" on television before heading out to run some errands, and the room being stealthily remade was an enormous but nearly empty bathroom which was being converted into a combination bath/dressing room. The host of the show kept referring to it as a boudoir, which just didn't seem right to me, and sort of isn't: the term "boudoir" is nearly always used in North America to refer to a private bedroom. It can, however, refer to a dressing room or a sitting room, so he wasn't altogether wrong--but I'm still not convinced that a room with a bathtub in it is a boudoir, as opposed to...well, something else, anyway.

(As an aside, I would like to point out that the "-oir" suffix in French can be used to turn a verb into a noun meaning "a place where" or "something in which", as in "abbatoir", "slaughterhouse", from "abbatre", "to strike down", or "peignoir", "dressing-gown", from "peigner", "to comb the hair".)

In the course of looking it up to see whether I was right or wrong, I discovered that the root of "boudoir" was "bouder", which is the French verb meaning "to sulk", which is to say that a boudoir is, or was, a place where a lady goes to mope and pout, and therefore is a Sulky Room for real.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


This morning we were out running some errands, and it occurred to me that "errand" and "errant" seemed like more or less exactly the same word, and I couldn't quite make out how the words had any connection to one another--if there were any connection to be found.

There is, though. Latin "errare" means "to wander", and there's the link right there, or so you'd think. It's all very tangled.

We'll start with "err", "to make a mistake", which seems like it ought to be connected at least to "errant". "Err" is definitely from "errare" (so's "erratic"), so that's that sorted, anyway.

"Errant" has two meanings; "roving", as in "knight errant", or "wrong", as in wandering away from what's right. That seems clearly enough related to "errare", and so it is. Answers.com says that "errant" is also influenced by Latin "iterare", from "iter", "journey". ("Iter" is obviously the source of "iteration" and "reiterate", isn't it? Well, actually, it isn't. Those two words come from Latin "iterum", "again". On the other hand, "itinerary" and "itinerant" are related to "iter".)

An errand, on the other hand, is something you have to travel a short distance to perform, so you'd think there's the wandering right there. However, the OED says that "errand" is of dubious etymology and possibly related to an old Teutonic word meaning "messenger", and it seems to stem from an Old English word that means "mission". So: after all that confusion, no link at all. How disappointing!

While we're at it, how do you pronounce "err"? The older--the original--pronunciation, based on the Latin, is "ur", but because of the common derivatives "error" and "errant", "air" has become a very common, perhaps the more common, pronunciation. Answers.com's usage note says, "The Usage Panel was split on the matter: 56 percent preferred 'ur', 34 percent preferred 'air', and 10 percent accepted both pronunciations." So a die-hard prescriptivist would say "air" is wrong (and I myself prefer "ur"), but in this case, I say whatever gets you understood is just fine and dandy.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Asked and Answered

Here's the opening paragraph from a Salon.com article on the ever-increasing illegitimacy of the Bush II regime:

Washington was treated to a curious American spectacle on Monday. A president repudiated by virtually every sector of the political system has responded by arrogating more power to himself.

And the first thing that popped into my head was, "Hmmm. Is 'arrogate' related to 'arrogant'?" And the second thing that popped into my head was, "Of course it is, you dimwit!"

"Arrogate" means "to take without right". "Arrogant" lies at one metaphorical remove: it means "having an unwarranted sense of self-worth", which is to say that you've taken qualities that you haven't earned--including the right to take whatever you want. They both derive from Latin "arrogare", which itself is a compound of "ad-", "towards", and "rogare", "to ask, to propose", which shows up in a number of English words such as "surrogate" ("proposed in the place of"), "rogation" ("supplication"), and "derogatory" ("detracting from", which is to say "proposing a move away from").

Verbs ending in "-ate" often form the adjective by replacing it with "-ant": "gesticulate"/"gesticulant", "insulate"/"insulant". Often the adjective will do double duty as a noun, as in "supplicate"/"supplicant", "celebrate"/"celebrant", or "fumigate"/"fumigant", which goes even further with the process, since the noun has supplanted the adjective, which has vanished from the language.