or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Long and Short of It

Okay. First you have to go to this web page, Universcale (brought to you by the friendly folks at Nikon), which is a display of the relative sizes of everything in the universe. It's reminiscent of the book (one of my favourite of all time) and short film "Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames, who also, among many many other things, designed the famous Eames chair.

How much time did you spend with Universcale? I must have wasted a good solid half hour just poking around. It's mesmerizing.* Go check it out for a while longer if you want. I can wait.

If you go to the 100-metre scale (that's the 2 under the "m" listing), you'll find the sequoia tree, the tallest living thing on Earth, and in the description of the sequoia you'll find the following sentence:

There are two types on the west coast of North America, and they are extremely longevous living for over 3000 years.

"Longevous"! Isn't that a great word? I had never heard it before. At first I didn't quite believe my eyes, but then I realized it must be the source of the noun "longevity", which isn't quite true: "longevity" dates from 1615, according to the OED, while "longevous" is from 1680. But they have the same root: Latin "longus", "long", plus "aevum", "age", which is also the source of "mediaeval", "coeval", and "primeval".

*Particularly hypnotic is what may be a coding error, or perhaps is an abstract way of forcing us to consider the infinity of sizes and scales in the universe, but almost certainly is a coding error: if you go to 100 billion light years, the very largest, rightmost measure, and click on the water-molecule-shaped wad that isn't part of the universe, you'll see something very interesting. Until, I guess, they fix it.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Get Back

I was doing a sort of crossword puzzle and one of the clues was "Meet with fellow alumni", and the answer--which I refused to believe at first, and could hardly bring myself to pencil in afterwards--was "reune".

"Tell me that's not a word!", I thought.

The Random House dictionaries don't recognize it, bless 'em, and neither does Answers.com. The OED does, but grudgingly, holding the word between thumb and forefinger at arm's length by calling it "U.S. colloq."

Harvard Magazine has gone on record as being in a tizzy about this issue. They want "reune". They feel the language is inadequate to their needs without it. Have their English professors taught them nothing?

We don't need to have a single specific word to describe every thing that can be described. Sometimes a two- or three-word phrase is just fine, and this, it seems to me, is one of those times. What's wrong with "hold a reunion" or "attend a reunion"? Do we honestly need yet another hideous back-formation to pollute the language?

The answer, in case the people at Harvard Magazine were wondering, is "No."

Speaking of august institutions, the Smithsonian Institution has put its name on a series of science kits, a couple of which we sell at the store at which I work. The Giant Volcano kit looks kind of lame, even for an eight-year-old's science-fair project--you make a plaster volcano and then get it to "erupt" with dyed baking soda and vinegar--but at least the Smithsonian Institution has every child's well-being in mind: the kit comes with a set of plastic safety goggles.

Or so you'd think. According to the box, they're actually "saftey goggles", which I hope are the same thing.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Today in the letters section to a Salon.com article, someone used the term "daring-do", and I thought, "Nope." And then I thought, "Well, where does 'derring-do'" come from, anyway?" Because after all, "derring-do" and "daring" are pretty much synonymous.

To my extreme surprise, it turns out that the "derring" part is, in fact, the remnant of a variant spelling of "daring", to wit "derrynge". "Derrynge do" meant "daring to do", and "derring" became solidified as the correct spelling in that phrase, which "daring" became the correct form of the verb "to dare". (I will point out yet again that before spelling became codified by dictionaries, people spelled more or less at will, and several, sometimes many, spellings of the same word were common: if you stumbled upon an unfamiliar spelling, you could just sound it out, and since the spellings were approximately phonetic, you could get the gist of the writing. As lexicographers became more influential, the idea that there was one correct spelling--sometimes based on etymology but often through strong-willed insistence--became entrenched, there was suddenly a right and a wrong way to spell nearly everything, and spelling became yet another perceived indicator of intelligence, for better or worse.)

So "daring-do" is a natural enough spelling if you've never seen the term in print, but, perversely, "derring-do" is, although arguably a misspelling, the correct way to spell the phrase. And that, I suppose, is English spelling in a nutshell.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


When the hell are websites going to hire some goddamned copy-editors?


If someone's going to write an article about sleep, it's a pretty sure bet that they're going to drag Shakespeare into it, and it's a pretty sure bet that they're going to get the quotation wrong. Slate doesn't disappoint:

They can secrete hormones, repair cells, or shore up their immune systems. Humans, for one, may engage in various kinds of emotional processing; sleep may "knit up the raveled sleeve of care," as Shakespeare put it.

If Shakespeare put it that way, then less the writer he. What he wrote, in fact, was sleave, not sleeve. They aren't the same word at all, with entirely different provenances, spellings, and meanings. "Sleeve" is something you slip your arm into, and in fact is related to slippery words such as "slip", "slop", and "sloop" (which slides through the ocean). "Sleave", on the other hand, is a fine thread, easily tangled--this is what Shakespeare was referring to--and is related to "sliver", which still exists in the sense of "fine thread" as well as "fragment" or "shard": sliver (usually pronounced "sly-ver") is a length of wool, cotton or flax that hasn't been spun into thread yet..


In the most recent installment of Heather Havrilesky's TV column, "I Like To Watch":

But now that the little monkey in the trash can has whet your appetite for lighter, more humorous fare, we'd better move on to "The L Word," which had its worst season yet -- and that's saying a lot.

A past tense of "wet" is, it is true, "wet" (another one is "wetted", depending on the context). However, "whet" is not the same word, and the past tense of "whet" is always and only "whetted".


From a game review in The Onion:

What's the best way to simulate the mysterious creative process that leads to a hit song? A rhythm game? A metaphorical "fighting your demons" mini-game? Rising Star takes an even further-out tact: you have to play a tile-matching game, like that old card game Memory, and the more tiles you match, the better the song. Because nothing rocks harder than good short-term memory.

Somebody actually thinks that "tact" is the correct word, rather than "tack"?

Yes, as it turns out. Shoving an inappropriate "-t" onto the end of a word that ends in a hard "-c" sound is relatively common. Wrong and horrible, but common. Here in Canada, there's a ubiquitous in-store debit system called Interac (as the Wiki page says, "In Canada, the word Interac is often used as a synonym for debit card"), but I'd wager that I've heard it pronounced "Interact" more often than I've heard the correct pronunciation. (I vaguely remember an ad campaign attempting to get people to pronounce it properly. If such a thing existed, I'm sure it was a miserable failure.)

Monday, March 26, 2007


On Saturday, we went to the opera!

If you live in a dinky little cityette like Moncton (population 61K), that can be a big deal. The Metropolitan Opera has started broadcasting live performances on big movie-theatre screens, the way wrestling has been broadcast for a few years now. The theatre was packed, and although the average age was probably in the sixties, maybe even the seventies (and Jim figured some of these people hadn't been in a cinema since talkies were introduced), there were some younger people there, too: us, for starters (we're both in our forties) and an early-twentyish couple who decided to dress for the occasion, she in a black cocktail dress and he in a getup that looked as if a Gilbert and Sullivan pirate had stolen some wardrobe from "The Matrix". They get points for trying, though. (We dress for real opera, but when we're seeing what's essentially a movie, we just wear whatever we wear.)

The opera was The Barber of Seville, and it was delightful, if you're able to ignore the fact that Moncton audiences are simply the worst I've ever been among: they mostly seem to think that if nothing interesting is going on up there on the screen, they have license to talk as much and as loudly as they want. (Movies, live performances--it's all the same to them.) In the manner of the Saturday afternoon Texaco broadcasts, there were some interviews and featurettes before the show and during the intermission.

The staging included something I'd never seen before: a platform that extended from the stage and wrapped around the orchestra pit, allowing the performers to exit the action on stage and address the audience directly and intimately--a nice touch, especially when, at the curtain call, the Figaro handed out business cards. During one of the featurettes, this platform was commented on and named, and I tucked the name away in my head so I could look it up later. (I also found that I was determining how it must be spelled, based on its syllabification and possible provenance. It had never really occurred to me before at the time it was happening that this is what English speakers do all the time, unconsciously. I'm sure all halfways intelligent speakers of any language do something similar whenever they hear a new word. Speakers of French, say, file away other information: any stress pattern isn't particularly important to them, but the gender of a noun is, so their brains automatically make that part of the word.)

After the show, Jim said, "What was the name of that thing around the orchestra pit?", and I discovered that I couldn't quite remember. "Passerine" sounded like a possible candidate, but I was pretty sure that that wasn't a noun at all, but an adjective. "Passerette"? That sounded probable, so I said it out loud, and after thinking for a second, Jim said, "No, passerelle". And that's exactly what it was. It's the French word for "ramp".

"Passerine", by the way, is an adjective, but, so typically for English, it also acts as a noun: it refers to the perching birds, occasionally if not always accurately known as the songbirds, which, you may be as fascinated to learn as I was, make up more than half of all bird species. The name comes from the Latin name for the house sparrow, passer domesticus. Much more here.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I don't quite know what happened. I used to read fiction all the time. I'd go through phases: I read practically everything Ray Bradbury ever wrote when I was a kid, I went through this nearly inexplicable H.P. Lovecraft phase in 1984, I couldn't get enough Robertson Davies the year after that....

Part of it, I know, is that there's only so much time in the day to read, and a lot of my reading time is taken up with the Internet. That's not a bad thing, not at all, but it is kind of a shame.

I've read exactly two novels in the last year, and one of them was "The Ruins" by Scott Smith.* I still don't know what to think about it. It's compulsively readable, that's for sure, and it kind of haunts you. But is it any good? Not really, I suppose. It's essentially Stephen King's "The Raft", expanded from a short story into 320 pages. And it's nasty. And bleak. (Bleak isn't necessarily a bad thing: the Sarah Polley remake of "Dawn of the Dead" was bleak as hell, and it was still really good.) I'm not going to bother telling you about "The Ruins": it's been out for months and months, and you can read as much about it as you like online--that's the sort of thing the Internet exists for. (Here's a spoilery review at Slate, or, if you prefer, this one at The Onion is spoiler-free.)

It doesn't help that on page 299 of the hardcover version is this sentence:

He was hungry, exhausted, cold, and found it hard to believe that any of this would ever change.

No matter how you slice it, that's a big fat parallel-structure violation.** Would it have been that hard for Smith or his editor to have reconstructed the sentence? Tucked in another "and" before the word "cold" to make it all come out right?

* The other one was "The Shipping News", and while I don't love Annie Proulx's writing style, it was still so much better than the movie. Poor Judi Dench and Julianne Moore, trying to wrap their mouths around a Newfoundland accent!

**You could, of course, argue that he might have legitimately written "hungry, exhausted, cold" without the "and" as a stylistic choice, and I certainly would have allowed that. The trouble is that it's not the end of the sentence: it's followed by "and found...", which makes it look like a list of four adjectives with the expected conjunction, and then you have to mentally reorient yourself when you realize that it's a verb. That's just not good writing. It shouldn't have made it into print.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Day for Night

Well, happy Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring and the sure sign that this miserable winter is going to be behind us sooner or later, probably sooner. (Right here, right now, it's bright, sunny, and minus 10 Celsius. Enough of this!)

You're not one of those people who thinks every year that the first day of spring is always March 21st, are you? Because it's not. It can be on the 20th (usually) or the 21st (more rarely). This year it happens to be the 21st, for reasons that I'm not going to go into because I have no idea what they are and I could do the research but I have to go to the gym in the next few minutes or I'm never going. For the next 7 years, it will be on the 20th.

"Vernal Equinox" is a very Latin phrase indeed. "Vernal" comes from "vernus", which in turn comes from "ver", "spring". (The other three are "aestas", "autumnus", and "hibernus". "Hibernus" gives us, self-evidently, "hibernate", to go into a dormant state in the winter, but you may not have known that that there's an opposite, "estivate", which means to go dormant in the summer.)

"Equinox" is a French abbreviation of the Latin "aequinoctium", which means "equal night": the night and the day are of exactly equal lengths. If you have a Mac, you can run a little piece of software--a widget--called SunClock that shows you where the sun is in any part of the world. Most of the time, the demarcation line between day and night is a sinuous curve, as you can see here:

On the Vernal Equinox, however, it's as close as it ever comes to being a couple of straight vertical lines. Until the Autumnal Equinox, I mean.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


So I'm walking home from work yesterday and there's a big old advertising sign in front of the local Arby's promoting some sandwich or other "with savoury au jus", and I know I've ranted about this before but that was because I saw it in American advertising and here it is in Canada, a country with two official languages one of which is French, in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province in the country, and they're forcing this hideous American misuse on us even though "au jus" is not a thing but a description of a thing, an adjective not a noun even though in context it's being used as a noun, which is exactly like saying "apple pie with a la mode", and I am choking on my own bile.


But French sandwich advertising gets stuff wrong, too.

In French, "ch-" is pronounced exactly like English "sh-": think "chauffeur" or "chemin-de-fer" (a card game whose name means "railway" but literally translates as "[road]way of iron", and isn't that great?). When French people borrow English words, they naturally impose a French pronunciation on them, as we in English generally do with French words and also every other word that makes its way into our ambit.

On the professionally-printed advertising sign for a local sub shop was an ad for some extra-value meal: two sandwiches, two bags of chips, two bottles of pop for some no doubt terrific price. The whole sign was in French, and unfortunately for them and their proofreader or lack thereof, one of the lines read as follows, and I am not making this up because I couldn't:

2 Sacs de Ships

Friday, March 16, 2007


This will be short and sweet.

Today on the way to work I saw a sign advertising some event or other at the Moncton Coliseum, which I think it is safe to say is not as grand as the original Roman Coliseum, and then it occurred to me that the spelling Colosseum makes sense (because it is clearly derived from "Colossus"), but "Coliseum" is just kind of strange, and so of course I found myself wondering, without recourse to reference materials, if they were actually two different words, and then the word "collision" popped into my head, which it always does when I see the word "Coliseum", and even though I knew perfectly well that it had to be a Latin construction of "con-" or "com-" (with the second consonant changed to make it fit better with the subsequent "-l-") and some other Latin word that probably means "to hit", I didn't actually know where it came from and whether or not it did in fact have anything to do with "Coliseum", though it probably didn't.

And it doesn't. "Colosseum" and "Coliseum" are just two versions of the same word that happened to co-exist in English. They are both of course unrelated to "collision", which comes from "com-" plus "laedere", "to strike", just as I had thought, and "laedere" is a word that also gave rise to such English words as "lesion" (a wound, such as that caused by being struck) and "elide" (to omit, which is to say to strike out).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Sometimes online dictionaries make you do all the work. Sometimes that's kind of fun, at least if you're me.

We went to see "300" last weekend, and it wasn't really all that good (we were mostly in it for the eye candy), but it did spur me to read more about Greek history, about which I knew shamefully little (my interest has always been in Roman history, for no particular reason that I can think of). If you haven't seen "300", this is more or less the movie in a nutshell:

except that the men had more obviously been to the gym and the hairstylist. Also, they were wearing leatherette hot pants. (Click on it for more detail, if you like.)

In case you've heard just enough about "300" to think that the Spartans were unstoppable except, eventually, by a horde of bloodthirsty Persians several thousand times their number, you might like to know that at the Battle of Tegyra, an army of somewhere between one thousand and eighteen hundred Spartans was routed by a little 300-strong Theban army that consisted of, in essence, a hundred and fifty charioteers and their boyfriends. That's a version of "300" that might be more interesting than what made it to the screen.

Anyway. The word "vanquish" naturally shows up in the history of the Battle of Tegyra, and I naturally needed to know where it came from, and since I couldn't pick it apart on my own (it doesn't break down into recognizable parts), I headed for Answers.com, which says that it comes from Latin "vincere" through French. And that's it! It doesn't even say what "vincere" means! Thanks a bunch, guys. Answers, my ass.

Well, "vincere" calls to mind "evince", so naturally that was my next stop. (Anyone who doesn't think "evince" is out of luck: they're at a dead end and will have to go to a better dictionary.) "Evince", once again through Answers.com, is from Latin "evincere", "to prevail, prove". That's a step in the right direction, but since "evincere" is clearly the prefix "e-", which can mean "out of" or act as a simple intensifier, plus "vincere", we still don't have an answer. But at least we now Answers.com gives us a link to "evict", which may give us a clue.

"Evict" comes directly from the Latin, and as we expected, it's from "e-" plus "vincere", which, finally, is Latin for "to defeat". ("Vincere" is also the source of "victor, and also "convince", to defeat, or later win over, through argument, and from that "convict".)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


I can turn anything into a demand for more proofreading. Just watch.

Here's a Chris Rock joke from his HBO special "Never Scared":

If drugs were legalized, there would be a drug spot in every corner. It wouldn't be a Starbucks. It'd be Weedbucks. McDonald's? McCokeald's. Krispy Kreme? Kracky Kreme. Krispy Kreme Donuts are so good, if I told you it had crack in it, you would be like, "I knew it was something in there. These donuts are too good. Got me going there at 4 o'clock in the morning going, "Come on, man, open up. Let me have at least one donut. I'll do anything. I'll suck your dick!" That should be the new slogan. Krispy Kreme: So good, you'll suck a dick.

Naturally, someone had to make a graphical version of it, and if you do a Google Images search for "Krispy Kreme", here's the sixth hit:

Evidently some doofus at television station WAGT in Augusta, Georgia, did that same Google Images search and grabbed the first thing that seemed clear and appropriately sized without actually looking at it (although I suppose it could have been done on purpose, if he wanted to get fired), and this is what they ended up putting on the air:

(It's not Photoshopped. It's the real thing. Here's the video.)

And this is why all text everywhere always needs to be carefully proofed before it hits the public.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I don't wear a watch: the feeling of it bugs the hell out of me. (The only piece of jewelry I can stand to wear is my wedding ring, and that took a bit of getting used to.) But I always know what time it is, because my iPod and my cell phone both have time displays. Here's a Slate article about hard times in the wristwatch industry for just that reason: everyone always knows what time it is nowadays, even without a watch.

The article contains the word "canvass", and I immediately wondered where it might have come from, because obviously it can't be related to "canvas".

Surprise! It is! According to Answers.com, "canvass" comes from "obsolete 'canvass', to toss in a canvas sheet as punishment". English being what it is, it took me a few moments to parse the sentence, because I had originally interpreted it as "Toss a canvas sheet into...what?", possibly influenced by "toss in a dryer sheet"/"toss a fabric-softener sheet into the dryer": "toss in" can mean either "throw something into something else" ("Toss that shirt in the laundry hamper") or "agitate something inside something else" ("Toss the lettuce in the dressing"), but the second meaning is the intended one. Hard to imagine how they got from "punish by tossing about in a canvas sheet" (which actually sounds kind of fun, like what kids do with a blanket) to "scrutinize" or "survey", but of course that's English for you.

That was interesting enough, but what was even better was the origin of "canvas": Middle English "canevas" through Mediaeval Latin "canavasium", which derives from the Latin name for hemp, from which canvas was made: "cannabis"! Who knew?

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Yesterday I wrote about tiles, and only later did it occur to me to wonder where the word itself came from. (I wonder about etymology a lot, as you may have guessed, but I don't always follow up on it, because sometimes I'm out in the real world with no internet connection, plus if you thought about the provenance of every word that enters your brain or passes your lips, you'd never get anything else done.)

"Tile", unexpectedly, used to have a "-g-" in it, a long, long time ago. The Old English version was "tigele", which derived from Latin "tegula", which itself descended from the verb "tegere", "to cover". ("Tegere" also gave English "detect", literally "uncover", and, through the Germanic languages, "thatch", a covering for a house, and "deck", as a noun--the covering for the insides of a ship--and as a verb, the covering of something with ornaments. Oh, and "toga", too.)

As soon as I saw "tegere", I said, "Aha! That's the source of 'tegument', isn't it?" And sure enough, it is. A tegument, also known as an integument, is, in biology, a covering--your skin, for example. "Integument", in turn, is from Latin "integere" (which is just "tegere" with the usual prefix "in-"), and doesn't "integere" look like "integer"?

Sure does, but the two words have nothing to do with one another. "Integer" is actually from "in-" plus "tangere", "to touch" (and from that we also get "intangible", "untouchable"). An integer is not untouchable but untouched: it's a whole, intact number, as opposed to a fraction, which is a whole number cut into pieces.

"Intact" is also from "in-" plus "tangere", and so is "entire". "Tangere", in fact, has a whole lot of offshoots in English: I don't know what we'd do without it. Some of them (not all of them) are "tangent", the line that touches a circle; "tact" and "taste", both originally referring to the sense of touch and now metaphorically extended into other realms of feeling; "attain", to feel your way towards something and then get to it; and, unexpectedly, "tax" and "taxi", from another metaphorical sense of "to touch", "to assess".

Friday, March 09, 2007


I was reading something or other and I came across a word that I have probably seen before, but I couldn't remember what it meant, and it was out of context so that was no help, and to make it worse, it's one of those words that you absolutely cannot look at and dissect in order to tease out its meaning. If you don't know the Latin root, then you're out of luck.

The word is "imbricate". If you don't know it, could you hazard a guess as to what it might mean? I can wait.

It actually means, as an adjective, "regularly overlapping", as roof-tiles do. (As a verb, it means, naturally enough, "to overlap regularly".) How could you possibly guess that? You'd want to divide it up into the prefix "im-" and the root "bric-", and that's not going to get you anywhere, because in fact there isn't any prefix. The word comes from Latin "imber", "rain", which then led to "imbrex", "roof-tile", presumably because the tiles are what shield you from the rain.

You may well be thinking, "Well, roof-tile, imbric-, brick, right?" It briefly, wishfully occurred to me, but it's wrong. Tiles and bricks never got within spitting distance of one another etymologically. "Brick" is actually related to "broken" by way of such Northern European languages as German and Dutch.

You will never guess where else "imber" shows up in English. It requires a vowel change (and, in one case, the loss of nearly half the word), but it's the second half of the months September, October, November, and December, which, it seems clear, constituted the rainy season in Rome. (The first half of each word comes--you don't really need me to tell you this, do you?--from the fact that the Roman calendar had ten months, and those were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months, respectively.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Damn it is cold out there!

It's been horribly sub-arctic for days now here in eastern Canada. Yes, I know some non-Canadians think, "Well, isn't all of Canada cold all year round?", to which the answer is, "No, you lump." Moncton, it is true, is pretty cold in the winter (minus-forty days that suck all the air out of your lungs the second you step outside), but it's also pretty hot in the summer (and humid, too, which is worse) At any rate, this is just aberrant: it's been in the neighbourhood of thirty below for days now, and the wind isn't helping.

There are a lot of words in English for "cold", and most of them fall into one of three families. "Cold" itself is from the Indo-European root "gel-", which of course ought to look familiar since it's also an English word ("to freeze up", in essence, though not through the action of cold, as it turns out). "Gel-" also gave use "gelid" (cold), "congealed" (literally, "frozen together"), "gelatin", "jelly", and, with the change of a consonant, "cold" and "cool" and "chilly" as well.

The second family is from Latin "frigidus", which means, of course, "cold", and gave us "frigid" and "refrigerate" (though not, alas "frigate"). "Frigidus" did not give us "freeze", though you'd sure think it had. That's the third family of words: Indo-European "preus-", "to burn".

"To burn?" Yes, that's right. Haven't you ever heard of freezer burn? Or frostbite? Haven't you ever come in from an icy day and felt your exposed skin tight and burning? Haven't you ever heard of that nasty trick in which, in a roomful of smokers, you touch a piece of ice to the back of someone's neck, giving them the momentary sensation that they've been burnt?

"Preus-" gives us such burning words as "pruritis", which is a burning itch, and from there "prurience", which is a burning interest in something one ought not to be interested in. The cold sense is manifested in the Germanic "freeze" and "frozen", as well as "frost".

As I said, there are a lot of words for coldness in English, and some one-offs include "icy" (from German "eis"), "wintry" (from the German, again), and "glacial" (from French "glace", "ice", which in turn comes from Latin "glacia", all of which also gave us "glaze").

And that is quite enough talk about frigidity for one cold winter's day.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


This week, Carol Lay's WayLay cartoon in Salon.com is an extended riff on the word "scrotum".

The word, she tells us, "was derived from the Latin term for a container of arrows, or 'quiver'." Later, she says that "''scrotum' was also related to 'purse'."

What I want to know is, where did she find this out? I'm entirely willing to believe her, but I can't find a single source for either of those etymologies. The OED is uncharacteristically purse-lipped about it: they just tell us that it's from the Latin, with no further explanation. Answers.com says the same thing. Robert Claiborne's Roots of English doesn't even list the word "scrotum". Reversing the process and searching for "purse" or "quiver" doesn't get me any further ahead. I'm just stumped.

However, I do have a very nice little etymology by way of compensation. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that "scrotum" led to Old English "scrud", and this word in turn gave us the modern English word "shroud". Huh!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Bits and Pieces

On a package of mosaic tiles at work today I read the following description, which appalled and delighted me in equal measure:

Beautiful, hand painted glass tiles that emit a sense of wonder.

The copy-editor in me would have turned that comma into a hyphen and jammed it between the second and third words, but that's neither here nor there. What is both here and there is that "emit" is just about the wrongest word they could have used, unless, of course, those mosaic tiles have little radio-frequency chips inside them, which, at that price, I'm fairly sure they don't.

The word the copywriter was looking for, and magnificently failed to find, was "evoke".


A blog I read occasionally called Pharyngula (it's an actual word, sort of, and you can read about it here: I'm not going to try to explain it in less than a hundred words) has been making fun of a Wikipedia copycat called Conservapedia, which, as the name suggests, is all about conservative politics and ideas. If you'd like to know why Pharyngula is making such sport of it, this will give you the general flavour:

The Great Purge was conducted by Joseph Stalin from 1934 to 1939 in which he executed all his opponents. He established youth groups to brainwash other youths in how great Stalin was and how great communism was. He persecuted all religions and destroyed houses of worship. He controled the press.

That's the entire entry for "Great Purge". If a grade-five student had submitted those pitiable little sentences in a term paper, his teacher would have given him a D+, tops.

I didn't go looking for the worst, okay? There's a "Random Page" link on the left, and I clicked it, and I swear that's the very first page that came up. The rest is little better (or worse).


The comments section for the latest installment of Project Rungay contained the misspelling "cantelever", which, as I have said before, is relatively excusable because most commenting software doesn't have a built-in spellchecker, and neither do most people. The correct spelling is "cantilever", and as soon as I thought of it, I wondered where it came from. The "-lever" part is obviously "lever", but that "canti-" part: could that be "cant" (which is to say "tilt") plus a vowel to fit the two words smoothly together?

It could.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

I Get Around

Scrapbooking is, as you might guess, the making of scrapbooks, but not like kids do: it's expensive and insanely detailed and I suppose I don't really get it, because I don't even own a camera, and it seems like these scrapbookers spend a lot more time making their scrapbook pages than they do actually experiencing the events they're immortalizing, but whatever, it keeps them off the streets.

Scrapbooking is all about cutting things out and so there's a device called the Cricut, pronounced "cricket", which is actually sort of cool even though it has a pretty awful name (the company has another, similar, lower-end device called the Cuttlebug, which is a much, much worse name).

The name "Cricut" came to mind because I was reading the comments to a Consumerist posting and someone misspelled "circuit" as "circut", which, given the accepted pronunciation of "circuit", is a perfectly understandable mistake, and comment boxes don't contain built-in spellcheckers so if you're not a naturally good speller you're not going to catch it.

"Circuit" struck me as an interesting word in its own right, because even though it starts with "circ-", and every single word in English that contains those four letters in that order comes from Latin "circum-", "around", including such useful oddities as "circinate", "ring-shaped", it's not immediately obvious where the rest of the word comes from, which turns out to be the Latin verb "ire", "to go", so "circuit" is pretty much exactly the same as "circumference" ("circum-" plus "-ferre", "to carry"), and simply and literally means "to go around".

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Happy Together

So I'm heading to work on the bus with my iPod running, as usual, and I'm listening to "Sorry" by Madonna (I'm not her biggest fan, to say the least, but that is a really terrific song), which starts with her apologizing in various languages, one of which is French: "Je suis désolée", she says.

The next song is "Killer 2000" by ATB, a Seal song remade with a kick-ass beat, and the chorus contains the word "solitary", and as soon as I hear that, I start thinking as follows: "'Désolée' must be related to 'desolate', which resembles 'solace', and surely they all have to have some connection to 'solitary'. Right?" But since I'm on a bus, I can't check it, so it haunts me for the rest of the day.

Here's how it stands, now that I'm home from work: "désolée" and "desolate" are pretty much identical, from the Latin "de-" plus "solus", "alone", forming the verb "desolare", "to abandon". "Solitary" is also, obviously, from this same root word, as are "sole" and "solo", "soliloquy" (what you say when you're alone), and, amusingly, "sullen".

"Solace", however, is entirely unrelated to "desolate", which is really a shame, but that's etymology for you. It comes from Latin "solari", which also gave us the verb "console", which has more or less the same meaning as the verb "solace". A related Greek word, "hilaros" (they both stem from the same Indo-European root), gave us, self-evidently, "hilarious" and "hilarity" and "exhilarate" too--and also, delightfully, the name Hilary.