or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Telling Time

I work in a frame shop. I like what I do, and I'm good at it. It takes a certain degree of skill: you learn techniques and you also learn to make stuff up on the fly, because you never know what someone's going to want to preserve and display. But it's not open-heart surgery: I don't have to use a hundred per cent of my focus a hundred per cent of the time.

So today I was doing something or other (sewing a small antique rug to a backing board, I think) and a question popped into my head: "Where does the word 'metronome' come from?"

It was completely unbidden. There weren't any pictures of metronomes nearby, I hadn't been using a metronome recently, I didn't read something about metronomes earlier in the day. It just kind of showed up. Metronome: what's the deal, brain?

I am a little bit ashamed to say that my first thought was, "Metronome. Metropolis. Hmmm. Nope, don't see the connection.*" My first thought ought to have been, "'Metr-' is clearly related to 'meter', because a metronome is a sort of measuring device." But that thought (which, by the way, is correct) took about a minute to percolate through my brain and into my consciousness.

And then I couldn't figure out the second part. What could "-nome" mean? I discarded "gnome" immediately, of course, though it was an amusing thought, given the general shape and size of a metronome. Then it occurred to me that "nomen" is the Latin word for "name", as in "nominal", which is to say "in name only". This, unfortunately, didn't make any sense; I torqued it around in my head, thinking that, well, a metronome lets you follow a time signature accurately and your signature is your name.... But I knew it was futile.

The "-nome" in "metronome", as it turns out, comes originally from an Indo-European root, "nem-", which gave English quite a few words, because it has quite a few meanings, most having to do with divisions and arrangements (as in various fields of human endeavour such as astronomy, the arrangement of the stars). And this is the key to "metronome": it's a meter--a measuring device--which divides time up for us.

*The "metr-" in "metropolis", and I did not know this until I just now looked it up, is from "mater", "mother", because a metropolis is originally a mother-city, the most important one, the one that generates the others. The "-polis" part I already knew, because it is led to such words as "politics" and "policy" and "police", without which you can't have a city, or, really, any kind of society beyond, say, a few hundred people.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Have you heard of James Howard Kunstler? He writes a gloomy but fascinating blog called Clusterfuck Nation, the general premise of which is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. He's also written a book called "The Long Emergency": you can get a pretty good sense of the book and of his style from this excerpt.

Here's a sentence from his most recent blog posting:

The eco-advocate community is still hooked into the Faustian bargain of technology with little consciousness of its diminishing returns, and to some extent have made themselves unwitting tools of the truly clueless and wicked who run business and politics in our land.

No errors in it: I just fastened upon the word "wicked" and wondered where it might have come from, with its slight but delicious air of antiquity. To my shame, I couldn't place the word at all: have a go at it and see if you can before reading on.

I don't make any secret of the fact that I find religion rather silly, and I don't consider any one religion any more ludicrous than any other; they all fall apart under any kind of rational scrutiny. (If religion gives your grandmother strength or peace or hope, then fine, and more power to her for it. I'm not in the habit of going around bad-mouthing people's beliefs, however daft they are. But believing something to be true doesn't make it true.)* There is a religion known as Wicca, about which you may read more here and which may reasonably be called "witchcraft".

And there we have it. "Wicked", "Wicca", and "witch" all have the same root, and it's Indo-European. The root "weik-" gave birth to, through Germanic languages, Old English "wicce"/"wicca" (the first is feminine, the second masculine), which eventually became Middle English "wicche", and that gave us "witch". "Wicche" also led to ME "wikked"--that is to say "witched"--as a synonym for "evil".

Various permutations of consonantal sounds also led "weik-" to generate "guile", as in "beguile". There's also a possibility that the root led to English "victim" through Latin "victima", "sacrificial animal".

* I don't think religions are completely wrong, you understand. Any body of belief that accretes enough premises is bound to get at least a few of them right. The Golden Rule, which is a part of most religions, seems like a pretty good way to run your life: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". The Wiccan version is even better: "So long as it harm no one, do what you will". It sounds like a destructive prescription for unbridled hedonism, but in fact it forces you to think about your every action; I would argue that it's more deeply moral than the simplistic Golden Rule, while still allowing a considerable degree of desirable freedom.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Cut and Colour

Have you tried Colourlovers.com yet? It's so much fun, practically addictive. I was making up yet another palette today and I used the word "aftermath", at which point I naturally enough wondered, "What's the 'math' in 'aftermath'?"

I mean, the "after" part is pretty obvious; an aftermath is what results after something has happened, usually something bad. But what's the "math"? It can't be the same as in "mathematics", surely.

Luckily, it isn't. That would be just too much for me to wrap my head around. The "math" in "aftermath" is actually something along the lines of "moweth", believe it or not. The original source is an Indo-European root, "me-", which means "to mow": the German version is "mähen", which Old English adopted as "mawan" and, after a quick change in vowels, "mowen", which also gave English the word "meadow", in case you were wondering.

"Aftermath", then, means what results after a field is mowed down, and also, by way of metaphor, what results after a bunch of people are mowed down, for that matter. (In the case of a field, though, it literally means not the harvest but the new growth that springs up after the mowing.)

Friday, May 25, 2007


I am making an attempt at studying German: I'm hindered by not having anyone to speak it with and also by being extremely intermittent in my studies. Today I was reading my German grammar textbook and came across this pair of sentences:

Silvester ist am einunddreissigsten Dezember.

New Year's Eve is on December 31st.

And I thought, "I...dude...wait...what? Silvester? Really?"

Really. Let's have a quick look at that, shall we?

The African wildcat, probably the progenitor of the common house cat, has as its Latin name felis silvestris lybica, a fine mouthful of words. The "silvestris" part is from Latin "silva", which means "forest" and has given English such words as "sylvan", which is an adjective meaning "wooded" or "forested" and has a decided connotation of peace and beauty, and also the name "Sylvester", which, you will have guessed already, is where the cartoon cat got his name. The various branches of felis silvestris, of which there are a few, live in forests (among other places--they have a very broad habitat), hence their name. The "felis" part comes from "felinus", which is the Latin word for "cat", obviously. The "lybica" part is from Libya, which is one of the places the African wildcat lives.

Sylvester used to be a fairly common boys' name. It isn't so much any more, because of the indelible association with that cartoon cat, but there was a Pope Sylvester (I guess anybody brought up Catholic, which I wasn't, would know that already), and the Germans took their name for New Year's Eve from him. It's kind of a long story, and I could boil it down for you, but wouldn't you rather read this? It's got recipes and everything!

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Last month I mentioned a usage error in a page-a-day calendar which I get by e-mail, and dang if they haven't gone and done it again on yesterday's page.

The KnitList is a Yahoo e-mail list that boasts a worldwide membership of over 7,000! It’s easy to subscribe, and the strictly enforced “stick to your knitting” rule ensures that all the content really is useful and knitting related. The site also has a great many valuable “Tips” and other links to super-practical information (such as the “Useful Knitting Tools” section, which will give you pointers on how everything from dental floss to insulation board can make your knitting life a little simpler). Best of all is the link to the archived KnitList Gift Exchange patterns of the past ten years, which is the motherload of great holiday gift ideas—along with the free patterns to make ’em.

I know all about the KnitList: I used to belong to it (and even contributed a pattern or two to the Gift Exchange). Here's something I don't know: why the writer(s) of the calendar used the word "motherload", which I can't say doesn't exist--it gets 625,000 Google hits, and people use it all the time--but which I can say is wrong.

The original term is "mother lode". A lode is a vein of ore, and a mother lode is a particularly rich one, specifically the large vein from which the other smaller veins seem to feed. Sometimes the term is expressed as a single word, "motherlode". However, it is not, correctly, "motherload", or even "mother load".

The words "lode" and "load", mind you, are related. You could say they're the same word: they certainly used to be, both stemming from the Old English word "lade", which also exists in English (most usually as the adjective "laden", or in the shipping term "bill of lading"). A lode is a heavily laden vein of metal ore. The senses of "lode" and "load", however, diverged and have not reconverged. At least not while I have anything to say about the matter.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Money For Nothing

Here's a cautionary little fable about what happens where there are two words in English that look very much alike, and one of them seems to mean what you think it means but actually means something very different.

From an earlier version of a Boingboing story about how they got to name a Virgin Airlines airplane:

BTW, we did not receive money or any other form of renumeration for this, nor did they receive any cash or promises of manually administered happy endings from us.

It's been emended. Now it reads:

BTW, we did not receive money or any other form of compensation for this, nor did they receive any cash or promises of manually administered happy endings from us.

Did you spot the difference?

They could have simply changed the word in question to "remuneration", which is entirely correct. I don't know why they thought "compensation" might be better. Embarrassment, I guess.

"Renumeration" is a word. To numerate is to count, so to renumerate is to re-count. But "remunerate" is something else entirely: it means "to pay" or "to give a reward". The "re-" at the beginning is confusing, because it looks as if ought to be the same "re-" at the beginning of "renumerate" (which would make "remunerate" mean "to give money back"), but it isn't: it's a simple intensifier, one which is used in a great many Latin-derived words such as "refine", which doesn't mean "to make fine again" but "to make finer".

A great many people use "renumerate" where they mean "remunerate", both in speech and in writing. It's always wrong.

"Remunerate" comes from Latin "munus", which derived from the Indo-European root "mei-" and had a cluster of meanings, because the root was a very general one that created a vast number of words related to change and motion. "Munus" meant "duty" (its original meaning) and then "gift" and, at a slight metaphorical distance, "exchange". This is why it led to such a big batch of words in English. The "duty" sense led to such words as "municipal" and "immune" (not subject to the duties of public office). The "gift" sense gave us "remuneration" and "munificent", which is to say generous. The "exchange" sense, bolstered by the prefix "com-", "with", gives us such words as "commune", "community", and "communicate".

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bad Counsel

From a Slate.com article about the upcoming ABC television season:

Six Feet Under's Peter Krause plays the consigliore to a clan of horny plutocrats.

"Consigliore"? Oh, I don't think so.

The correct Italian word is "consigliere", which is akin to English "counsellor" and even sounds kind of like it, which is no surprise, because the words are from the same source, which we'll get to in a minute.

It seems we can blame Mario Puzo's careless proofreaders for the proliferation of the misspelling "consigliore", which gets over 31,000 Google hits. According to the Wikipedia page for "consigliere" (yes, the word has its own page),

In the first printing of The Godfather the spelling was "consigliori", changed in later print runs to "consiglieri".

("Consiglieri" is the plural of "consigliere".)

"Consigliere" and "counsellor" both descend from Latin "con-", "with", plus "clamare", "to call out". ("Clamare" also gave us, rather self-evidently, "clamour"--which Americans spell "clamor"--and "claim" plus its relatives "reclaim", "exclaim", and "acclaim".) In case you were wondering, "counsel" and "council" (and therefore obviously "counsellor" and "councillor") have the same derivation: their spellings went in different directions as their meanings diverged. Also extracted from this same set of roots are "conciliate", "consult", and "consul".

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't have a listing for either the correct or the incorrect spelling of "consigliere", which isn't surprising, because England doesn't have the history of Italian immigration that introduced the word into North American English. Online dictionaries list the correct (but not the incorrect) spelling and the Macintosh spellchecker red-flags the incorrect spelling but knows the correct one, which leaves us with only one question: How did Slate screw it up? Do they not even spell-check over there?

I'll concede, for lack of other information, that the Microsoft spellchecker might include the misspelling. I don't have access to a newer version of Microsoft Word than Word 97, whose spellchecker doesn't even include "consigliere", but perhaps in the last ten years someone added both it and "consigliore" to the list. Could have happened. But it seems to me that a reasonably well-read person would know the difference. I mean, I did.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Time Out

Time Magazine used to have a reputation, alongside the New Yorker and the New York Times, for precision in writing. You may not have liked the Times house style, but it was consistent and it was strictly edited. None of them are really worth a damn any more. It's all falling apart. There isn't any journalistic paragon of the written word any more. We've gotten rid of the human element and put our faith in machinery, and it's not working.

As I noted a couple of days ago, Time Magazine (the online version, granted) used "leary" when they meant "leery", and now this:

After formal studies, they being apprenticeships.

"Being" instead of "begin". It's the easiest of mistakes to make, but a spellchecker can never catch this. Nothing can except the trained eye of a dedicated copy-editor. It's depressingly clear: Time Magazine just doesn't give a damn about accuracy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Grave Stone

Yesterday I bought "The Fountain" on DVD--of course I was going to buy it the day it came out--and today I was watching the making-of features. Part of the movie is set in Central America, so they went to Guatemala on a research trip. The camera passed a sign which read


and I thought, "There is no way that 'cement' and 'cemetery' are related!" I had to stop the movie and look the two words up, and I am delighted to report that no, there's no connection between them: I'm guessing that the introduction of the "-n-" into "cemetery" in Spanish was a mere accident of history, certainly not of etymology.

"Cemetery" comes from the Greek word "koiman", "to put to sleep", plus the suffix "-terion", which indicates place: a cemetery is a place where we put the dead for their eternal rest. (This suffix is cognate to Latinate "-ary" and its off spring "-ery", so common in such English words as "library", a place with books in it, and "battery", in the military sense a place for beating down the foe--"batter" and "battle" are descended from French "battre", "to beat, to strike".)

"Cement", on the other hand, comes from Latin "caedere", "to cut". The does not on the surface of it make any sense, but it actually does: cement was originally made from the chips and pebbles left over from cutting larger pieces of stone. The word devolves into "cut-ment", with that suffix turning a verb into a noun denoting something as being a product of something else ("derangement", say, or "commandment").

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Looking Askance

Paul Brians' "Common Errors in English" is a useful website, even if I don't always agree with what he thinks. Here's something with which I do agree, except for the last bit, which is an optimistic opinion I don't share.

People sometimes write “weary” (tired) when they mean “wary” (cautious) which is a close synonym with “leery” which in the psychedelic era was often misspelled “leary”; but since Timothy Leary faded from public consciousness, the correct spelling has prevailed.

Oh, how I wish I could believe that!

Just a couple of days ago I saw in a TV news headline the word "leary" when "leery" was what they were looking for. It seems to be a very common misuse: Googling "leary of" gives 304,000 hits, and even if half of them are sentences such as "Inhofe falsely accused Hazel O'Leary of leaking classified information...", that still leaves a depressingly large number of incorrect usages: "was leary of" gives over fifteen thousand hits, all of which must perforce be wrong. Even Time Magazine once made the mistake, for which there's really no excuse.

You may suspect that "leery" is a descendant of "leer" (it was my first guess, because it's so obvious), and you'd be right. An earlier meaning of "leer", somewhat more innocent than today's lascivious grimace, was merely "a sideways glance", which is to say a rather suspicious look. So if you're leery of something, you're looking at it with suspicion.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Read the Label

At the gym there's a spray bottle of disinfectant and a bunch of towels. You know the drill: after you've finished sweating all over the exercise equipment, you sterilize it for the next masochist.

On the side of the bottle is this legend:


which doesn't seem nearly enough. What about "Do not inject into veins" or "Do not mist into eyes" or "Do not employ as a feminine hygiene spray"? I mean, just to cover as many bases as possible.

"Do not drink". Jeez. Could we be any more mollycoddled?

Anyway. The Spanish version of "to drink" is "beber", which I immediately recognized as being related to English "bibulous" and "imbibe". As it should be: they're all from the Latin "bibere", "to drink". (So, predictably, is the French "boire", even though it clearly took a few twists and turns to get to its present state.)

But wait just a minute. "Bibulous", which means "inclined to drink", sounds so much like various English words such as "bibliography" and "bible". How can this possibly be?

Because they're from two very different languages, that's how. The root of all the book-related "bib-" words in English is Greek, not Latin. Byblos was a port in Phoenecia where papyrus was made. The word came in Greek to mean a papyrus or a parchment, and eventually the books from which these substances were made. "Byblos" turned into "biblos", which became "biblion", "book", and that was the point at which Latin stole it and turned it into "biblia", from which Middle English derived "bible".

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Dry Run

On the second Wednesday of every month, Salon.com publishes a stream of self-promotional, free-associating bafflegab by Camille Paglia, which, one would assume, they also pay her for. I can't imagine why.

On the second page of the letters to the editor for this month's column, someone called her a "dessicated harridan", which is hilarious. It's also misspelled, unfortunately.

I would imagine that the great majority of people can't spell "desiccated" properly, and it's hard to blame them. It's pronounced as if it ought to be spelled "dessicated", after all, and it's unexpected: there is only a tiny handful of English words that end in "-ccate", all of them uncommon ("Saccate", anyone? "Toccate"?)

Googling "dessicated" gives 271,000 hits, while "desiccated" gives 1.1 million, and I would bet you money that the only reason the first number is smaller than the second is that spellcheckers exist.

"Desiccate" comes from Latin "de-", an intensifier in this case, plus "siccus", "dry", which also gave us the French import "sec", "dry", as in the liqueur Triple Sec, and also "sack", which is an old name for a dry white wine.

The "-ate" in "desiccate", by the way, is a direct descendant of the Latin verb stem "-atus"; it is, of course, extremely common in English in such verbs as "estimate" and "intoxicate". The "-ate" in "toccate" is something else: not even a suffix, it's a standard Italian plural form for feminine words ending in "-ata", in this case of the singular "toccata". (Naturally, we prefer in English to pluralize "toccata" as "toccatas", but the naturalized Italian word does exist: it's just a lot rarer, not that "toccata" is that common to begin with, and if it were, everyone would spell it "tocatta".) And finally, the "-ate" in "saccate" is something else again, in this case an adjectival suffix, as in "immaculate" or "literate": it means "sac-shaped".

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sit and Spin

The Consumerist is, for the most part, reliably amusing, but their writers have an on-again-off-again relationship with little things like spelling and grammar, unfortunately.

Here's a story about a gym in New York which subjected its paying customers to promotional videos for a movie, which sounds like a fairly unpleasant experience: it's not just being forced to watch commercials during a fitness class, it's the music, which in a spinning class (a high-powered stationary-bike workout), as in any other kind of group fitness class, has to match the mood and tempo of the exercises but in this case was just inappropriate movie music. A wit from The Consumerist made some calls to branches of the gym, and ended up saying things like this:

I like Venom, he's pretty scary. You got to watch out for him in the new one. My favorite Spiderman comic was the one where people went to the gym and they thought they were going to exercise and instead like they got subjected to a marketing campaign and then they went out to the movie like zombies.

That? Funny.

This? Not so much.

There's no head of incidious marketing campaign that-

Were they thinking of "incident" or "incite" when they came up with that spelling? And why didn't they have their spellchecker turned on? I'm a really good speller and I wouldn't think of not using it, because little errors have a way of creeping in when you type quickly. If you're not a good speller, it just doesn't make any sense to eschew it.

"Insidious" is the correct word, and based on the spelling, I found myself wondering if it might be a descendent of "inside". Because, I reasoned, an insidious idea is one that gets inside your head and won't go away....

Nah. "Insidious" is from, of course, Latin: "in-" which means what it says, plus "sedere", "to sit", which gives us such words as "sedate" and "supersede", which is another word that the spellchecker will flag if you spell it incorrectly, which, if you are like most people, you will. Dictionary.com's first definition for "insidious" is "intended to entrap or beguile", and the origin of "insidious" was "insidia", "an ambush", because you sit around and wait for your prey to come along and then you grab it.

"Inside", on the other hand, doesn't come from "sedere" at all (although honestly, wouldn't you think it might?). It comes instead, reasonably enough, from "in" and "side" (an incredibly old word, descending from Norse tongues and dating from the early days of the English language), because when you're on one side of a wall enclosing something, you're either on the in side or the out side.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Sad State of Affairs

Sometimes even the Oxford English Dictionary isn't any help, and then what do you do?

Here's the opening paragraph from this Slate.com article about Frost/Nixon, a stage play about David Frost's historic interview with Richard Nixon:

In 1983, Paul Berman called Richard Nixon "the richest, most promising character the American theater has ever seen." Recalling the scores of Nixons that had, even then, already appeared on stage and screen, Berman noted, "His personality descends to almost oceanic depth, plunging from bright intelligence through piety, vulgarity, maudlinity and paranoia to the murky floor of violent criminality. His quivering cheeks and humped back are an actor's dream."

"Maudlinity"? Really?

If I had to form a noun out of the adjective "maudlin"--it's something that's never come up before--I think I would have to choose "maudlinness". The suffix "-ity" is very frequently found in English, but it's generally reserved for adjectives which end in "-ine", which are many: "feminine", say, or "vespertine". Adjectives ending in "-in" are considerably rarer, since that suffix is generally applied to scientific words by way of turning them into nouns: its appearance at the end of "maudlin" is an accident of history and spelling. (It's not a suffix at all: "maudlin" is a corruption of "Magdalen", since Mary Magdalene was often shown weeping.)

But the OED, as I said, doesn't list either word, so we're left to fall back on our own resources. Google "maudlinity" and you get 249 hits, where "maudlinness" gets 1740, and, to boot, is in the (non-OED) dictionaries, including Answers.com and the Macintosh spellchecker. You know which one gets my vote.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Smear Campaign

An acronym is a word, or wordoid, formed from the initials of a phrase and then pronounced as a word. (If you can't or usually don't pronounce it as a word, but instead spell it out, as in "I.B.M.", it's called an initialism.) "Scuba" is one of the most famous examples of an acronym: it's a full-fledged word, but it was originally an abbreviation of Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. "Laser" is another: it's condensed out of Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Since they're words, they're often spelled in lower-case, though when they're proper nouns, they're often capitalized: "NATO", for example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But sometimes a word seems as if it might be an acronym when it isn't. Take a look at this flubbed sentence from this story in The Consumerist:

We're not sure which is weirder, American Airlines wanting to look at your PAP test or your lawyer writing a press release about it.

Capitalizing "Pap" makes it look like an acronym; maybe it stands for "Pelvic And Prenatal"!

Nope. It's not an acronym at all: it's a shortened version of a person's name, that person being Giorgios Papanikolaou, the doctor who invented the test. (With a name like that, you can see why it was shortened in the English language.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Fancy That

As I said a while ago, nearly all the words ending in "-tz" in English are either from Yiddish or German. On the other hand, to best of my knowledge, all but one of the words beginning in "schm-" in English are from Yiddish, not that there are that many of them: "schmear", "schmaltz", "schmoe", "schmuck", "schmutz", "schmatte", "schmendrick", and "schmooze". (The OED lists a couple of others, which are, I think, much less common in English: "schmegeggy" and "schmerz", which is actually German.)

However, "schm-" has another use, and the class of invented words that begin with this is very large, because you just apply it as you need it. It's used in Yiddish--and sometimes in English--to belittle something or reduce its significance, and the way it's used is to make a rhyming pair, joined with a hyphen or a comma, with the new prefix replacing the initial consonant of the original word: "fancy-schmancy", which means "pretentiously fancy", is the most usual formulation in English, but you can make up your own, such as "lawyer, schmawyer", which means, more or less, "He thinks he's a lawyer?"

"Fancy-schmancy" has taken on a life of its own in English; the conjoined twins have been separated, as in this pair of sentences from this Salon.com article about bottled water:

Bottled water is an industry, not a craft. (And even the schmancy European operations are industrial.)

See? It doesn't even need to be "fancy-schmancy" any more: the phrase is so much a part of the language that the second word has the full force and meaning of the entire construction. I like that.