or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, June 30, 2007


At the charmingly laid-back blog Friendly Atheist, there was a recent posting about a restaurant that gives discounts to people who bring church bulletins on Sunday. I'd have a hard time getting too upset about that, to be honest: I would imagine that if you honestly said, "I didn't bring a bulletin with me: can I still get the discount?", they'd comply. (I wouldn't say "I forgot my bulletin", because that would be lying. If they want to assume that, then that's their business.) If they won't give the discount without the bulletin, well, you don't have to eat there. I don't think it's that they're trying to discriminate against non-Christians: I just think they're trying to tap into the lucrative relief-soaked post-church lunchtime market.

One of the commenters unversed in etymology had the following to say:

Is it just me or has no one ever noticed that dias for day is the feminine form of dios = god? Day is therefore a goddess, which makes sense if your ancestors were sun worshippers or alike. If one knows the Spanish language it would seem they would notice this.

They didn't notice it because it isn't true. The words "day" and "deity" don't come from the same source; any apparent similarity is a mere coincidence. Since they're cognate to "dias" and "dios" respectively, we can discuss the English words and still have something to say about the Spanish versions.

"Day" probably comes to us from the Indo-European "agh-". (How did the "d-" get shoved onto the beginning? Hard to say: some think that the actual source is instead "dheighw-", "to warm".) It's tempting to assume that Latin "dies" (about which more below) comes into play somehow, but the OED is adamant on this point: there is absolutely no etymological relationship whatever between the two. At any rate, from the IE source, whichever it be, we get not only "day" but "dawn", and also, enchantingly, "daisy", a contraction of "day's eye".

"Deity", on the other hand, is definitively from IE "deiw-", "to shine". This also leads, sensibly enough, to "divinity", French "adieu", and Latin "dies", which means "day" and shows up in such occasionally seen phrases as "carpe diem", "seize the day", and "dies irae", "the day of wrath".

The French version of "day" is "jour", as in "soupe du jour", "soup of the day". From the Latin and French versions, we get, among other things, the paired words "diary" and "journal" in which you record the day's events; "dial", which denotes the hours of the day; "journey", originally a day's ride; and, marvelously, from "dies malus", "evil day", the word "dismal".

Friday, June 29, 2007


Not that I actually follow wrestling or anything--it's so overblown that I actually get embarrassed and have to leave the room if it should happen to be on television--but it's sort of awful how a Canadian wrestler named Christ\ Benoit killed his wife and then his son and them himself during what must have been a really, really bad weekend.

I vaguely remembered that the word "mayhem" had a legal meaning somewhat disconnected from its usual one ("extreme bloody carnage"). Did it have something to do with killing a bunch of people and then yourself?

Not quite. It actually means "the willful infliction of physical injury so as to make the victim less able to defend himself", or just "the crippling or mutilation of the victim".

All very interesting. What was more so was the etymology: "Middle English 'maheym, maim'". "Maim"! Of course! Because what's "maim" but "mayhem" with the middle vowel sound elided, as the British do with such words as "medicine" and "ordinary" (which are generally pronounced "med-sin" and "or-din-ruh", respectively)? And "mayhem" and "maim" are, in fact, just two variations of the same word, which began as Indo-European "mai-", meaning "to cut", and also gave us the word "mangle", through the Germanic tongues via Old French.

There are lots more of those interesting pronunciation differences here. I thought the difference in stress patterns was particularly fascinating, as I'm currently listening to an audiobook, "The God Delusion"*, written by British author Richard Dawkins and read by him and Lalla Ward: with their British accents, they frequently pronounce words in ways that I find a little odd. Canadian English, I suppose I should point out, is a sort of mishmash of the stress patterns of the two tongues: we pronounce many words in the American fashion, such as "caffeine" and "paprika" (we stress the second syllable, Britons the first), but others as the British do, as in "parmesan" (first syllable stressed as opposed to the Americans' third) and "advertisement" (second versus third).

* I hope it wouldn't be in bad taste to note that Benoit placed bibles next to the bodies of his wife and son, suggesting that whatever supernatural powers the Christian god might have, they weren't sufficient to keep this from happening, bibles or no.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Love To Hate You

Sometimes it is difficult to work in retail and still keep any semblance of respect for your fellow human beings. I mean, after the fact, not to their faces.* Last night after closing we were cleaning up their revolting messes--coffee cups left on shelves, packaging torn open, things shoplifted, food fragments and used tissues on the floors--and it was all too much, and I snarled to a co-worker, "I'm glad the human race is going to be extinct some day."

Overreaction, yes, but I had been having a not-so-great day, and grumbling to myself about the stupidity, and the greed, and the venality of the human animal. And then I thought of the word "cupidity", which rhymes with "stupidity" and was appropriate to my frame of mind, and then I began to wonder what the adjectival form of "cupidity" is. "Cupiditous"? "Cupidaceous"?

The word "cupidity" is not much heard any more, which is too bad. The only relative of that word group that's really in common usage is "Cupid", which is the Roman god of love, the one with the tiny angel wings and the bow-and-arrow, shooting love darts into the unanticipating. "Cupidity" is from the same source, as is another less-than-common word, "concupiscence". "Cupidity" means "greed; an unseemly lust to possess something", and "concupiscence" means "lust; sexual avidity". They're all from Latin "cupere", "to desire".

"Stupid", of course, is a relative of "stupor", which comes from Latin "stupere", "to be numb or stunned": "stupid" comes from the form "stupidus". But though "stupid" is the adjectival form of "stupidity", "cupid" and "cupidity" don't have the same relationship; we can't say that someone who displays cupidity is cupid. Unfortunately.

The adjectival form of "cupidity" is the unmelodious "cupidinous" (stress on the second syllable). I never would have guessed.

*My own personal customers, for the most part, I get along with well; I take their needs very, very seriously and I do my utmost to make sure they're happy and getting their money's worth. It's customers as an abstract whole I complain about. Individuals can be nice, but en masse they're pigs. Or vultures. Or cockroaches. You get the picture. If you've ever worked in retail, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I've mentioned Colourlovers before, right? Yes, I have. And I've mentioned how words pop into my head at random times, too, right? Yes, too many times to count. The two coincided a few days ago when I was making up some palettes: I remembered having heard the word "asphodel" before, and I remembered that it was a sort of flower, but that's all I knew.

After I looked it up, this is the palette I came up with.

Now, as for "asphodel" itself. The flower, to the ancient Greeks, was a member of the narcissus family, which name is that of the self-absorbed boy of Greek legend who fell in love with his own reflection: he was later changed into the flower of the same name, which derives from the Greek word "narkissos", which gave us the word "narcotic", "sleep-inducing", from the reputed narcotic powers of the flower. (I know this doesn't make any sense--why was the boy named for sleepiness or for a somnifacient agent?--but it's mythology, so it isn't supposed to.)

In modern times, however, the asphodel is otherwise known as the daffodil. In fact, the daffodil apparently gets it name from the Dutch version of it, preceded by the definite article: "de affodel".

Another version of the daffodil/narcissus is the flower known, mostly in the southern U.S., as the jonquil, and in fact "jonquille" is the French name for the daffodil.

Daffodils may be pretty, but they smell disgusting, and since pretty much the entire point of a flower, for me, is to bear a beautiful scent, I won't have anything to do with them.


Yesterday I was going on about the word "hypocrite" and I couldn't remember where I had come across it, so I guessed, and I guessed wrong, not that it matters hugely. The anecdote about Fred Thompson and the Cuban cigars was in an Entertainment Weekly cover story about Michael Moore, and Thompson wasn't called a hypocrite (though clearly he is): instead, Moore was quoted as having said, "I thought, 'There's a bit of hypocrisy in making a film about health care and not taking the best care of yourself.'" So I managed to conflate two different stories and get the source wrong, all at the same time. But at least I got to talk about an interesting word.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Separate Lives

I think it was in the letters section for Salon's review of "Sicko", the new Michael Moore movie. I don't remember the exact context and I'm not going back through almost twenty pages of letters, but if I recall correctly, someone took the American senator Fred Thompson to task for criticizing Moore for a trip to Cuba*, though Thompson himself is known to smoke (illegal) Cuban cigars. The word they used was "hypocrite".

Now, Cuba, Thompson and Moore are neither here nor there (though I likely will go see "Sicko" when it plays here), but "hypocrite" is a tremendously interesting word.

The centrepiece of it is the Indo-European root "krei-", which means "to sift", and it's a long way from sifting to hypocrisy, believe me.

"Krei-" went through both Latin and Greek, accumulated quite a few variants and meanings, and eventually threw most of them into English. To start with, the pure "sift" sense of the stem gave us through Latin such words as "discriminate" (sift the good from the bad). When its sense changed in Latin to the verb "cernere", "to separate out, to decide", we ended up with such words as "discern", "certain" (that is, "decided"), and also "discreet", and "secret"** (both adjectives meaning "separated from public view").

Then, "krei-" in Latin mutated into "crimen", "judgement", later "offense", which gave us, obviously, "crime" and "criminal" (through French). In Greek, "krei-" led to "krinein", "to separate out, to judge", giving English "critic" (a judge, of sorts), "crisis" (originally, the turning point, the point at which some momentous thing is decided), and, metaphorically and idiomatically, "hypocrite".

Originally, a hypocrite was a dramatic actor, someone who pretends at things that aren't true; eventually, the meaning evolved into "someone whose inner beliefs and outer behaviour are at odds with one another".

Hell of a journey, that.

* It is illegal for Americans to go to Cuba without explicit permission from the U.S. government, which has been having a continuous hissy fit over Cuba for the better part of half a century--they're communists!--and so when American tourists want to vacation there, which they do a lot, the come to Canada for a vacation instead. And then, of course, upon landing here, they immediately fly to Cuba.

** "Secrete" also belongs in this list, but it's split in two, both verbs, with two very different routes of provenance. The one which means "to discharge, to release, as a fluid" is a back-formation from "secretion", which is descended from "secern", an English word you've probably never heard before which means "to discriminate or distinguish between". This is baffling until you learn that a secretion isn't just some random ooze: it's an ooze which has been purposefully manufactured by an organism, and in the process of manufacture has been separated out from other fluids, and this separation is of course from the "cernere" root. The second version of "secrete" is also a back-formation, but this one came directly from "secret", logically enough, since you secrete something which is meant to be kept a secret.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Thinking Back

So I was in the shower today and mulling over yesterday's blog post and it occurred to me with considerable surprise that in discussing "hysteresis", I had forgotten to mention "hysteron proteron".


If you've ever studied rhetoric, you will have come across this term, because it's a figure of speech. If not, we can still figure it out logically. We know (from yesterday) that "hyster-" in this context means "to lag", and even if we don't know what "proteron" means, we can guess that the "pro-" prefix means "first" or "before" (either temporally or physically), which is what it so often means in English, and the rest of it is a duplicate of the first word. So "hysteron proteron", we would logically guess, means something like "behind before", and this, you will surely be pleased to learn, is more or less exactly what it means.

Hysteron proteron is a figuration of speech which uses a reversal of time to emphasize the a particular event or object in the timeline: an event which ought to follow another is instead placed before it. You might say, for example, "He put on his shoes and socks". A more elegant example appears in Virgil's Aeneid: "Let us die, and rush into the heart of the fight." (I don't suppose I have to explain that this reversal stresses the fact that the Trojan warriors are expecting to die in battle.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


If you've ever wondered why razors seem to have more and more blades, I can sum it up in one word: hysteresis.

Hysteresis is the razor-blade engineers' theory about what happens to hair after a blade has been dragged over it. The word means "the lag in response exhibited by a body in reacting to a change in forces acting on it", which means, in lay terms, that if you pull on something and let go, it might not snap back as quickly as you'd expect. The engineers thought that this is what happens to a freshly razored hair: the blade pulls it out of the skin a little bit, and it doesn't snap back instantly, so a second, closely placed blade will cut off a bit more of the hair. Then when it does snap back, it's actually been cut to below the level of the skin. Result: closer shave.

And then eventually some marketing genius figured that if two blades are good, three are better, and five, of course, are the ne plus ultra of shaving. Until someone figures out a way to pack eight or ten into a single blade-holder.

Now, "hysteresis" looks very much like "hysteria" and "hysterical", doesn't it? And yet, bafflingly, there appears to be no etymological connection between the words. None at all.

"Hysteresis" is self-evidently Greek, and comes from "hysterein", "to lag behind". "Hysteria" and its relatives come from Greek "hystera", "womb". The nonexistent medical condition known as hysteria was thought to afflict women exclusively, and was attributed to, of all things, a wandering uterus, which, refusing to be nailed down where it belonged by the restorative power of a husband's dick (nuns and virgins were thought to be particularly prone), wandered around the body, causing trouble wherever it went. The usual cure for hysteria was, predictably enough, a good fuck, or, failing the presence of a husband (the only person who could provide such a thing, apparently), some stimulation. But not by the owner of the uterus! That would be indecent! Instead, a medical practitioner would provide "pelvic massage" to "hysterical paroxysm", otherwise known as masturbation to orgasm. Eventually, they started using vibrators. And then a little more eventually, women took matters (and vibrators) into their own hands.

Friday, June 15, 2007


So as I was cleaning up in the store tonight after we closed, I saw in the floral department what's known as a frog, a device used for holding flowers in an arrangement. You can pretty much look at it and see how it would work, I think, and if you can't, well, that's what the Internet is for. I can't do everything for you.

Since everything is labelled in English and French here in Canada, the package also bore the French word for "frog", which is not what you might think it is ("grenouille"): instead, it's "porc-épic". Isn't that a delight?

Even if you don't know what "porc-épic" means on first sight, you can figure it out. Look at the picture of the frogs and say the French word a few times. That's right: "porcupine".

This makes a great deal more sense than the English name for it. Nobody is quite sure why exactly we call those devices "frogs", except, I suppose, that they live in water. Dictionary.com is of the opinion that the word is of an entirely different derivation from the aquatic-amphibian version (which is from originally from the Norse and later the Germans, who currently use the word "Frosch").

Where do "porcupine" and "porc-épic" come from? You will be unsurprised, I think, to learn that they're from the same source. We did in fact get "porcupine" from Middle French, which called the animal "porc d'espine", "spiny pig". English adopted this as "porke despyne", which was then slurred into "porcapyne", which is pretty close to the pronunciation still heard in the South, where "porkypine" is not uncommon.

I am not sure how "porc d'espine" became "porc-épic", though, but if "porke despyne" can become "porcupine", then anything is possible.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I have really got to get a BlackBerry or something.

Yesterday I had just headed out the door to work when the word "superstition", or possible the Stevie Wonder song by that name, popped into my head*, and I instantly found myself wondering where the word might have come from, and with no access to any thing Internettish until I got home, I was stuck with my own brain.

Okay. The word is clearly Latin. "Super-" means "above", that much is clear. It's the "-stit-" that I can't get. A moment's reflection presents me with the word "interstitial", which, it is clear, must be related somehow. "Interstitial" means "lying between things", as in the interstitial fluid which surrounds the cells in your body.

This, as it turned out, was no help in deciphering that fragment "-stit-", so I had to wait until I got home to look it up. Even that wasn't much help, to be honest.

The germ of "interstitial" is the Latin verb "stare", "to stand", which, as we know, has given English a preposterously large share of words. An interstice is something which stands between two other things, and interstitial fluid stands between cells.

All very well and good, but what about "superstition"? What's standing above what else?

God knows. Dictionary.com says its origin means "standing beyond, outliving", and that's all they say, which tells me nothing useful. The OED suggests that the etymology is "perhaps 'standing over a thing in amazement or awe'", which is an improvement but still sounds a bit like a folk etymology, or at least random guesswork. They make a couple of other suggestions which they then dismiss as "foreign to Roman thought", so I guess the amazement-or-awe theory is all we have.

* Did a black cat cross my path? Was there a ladder for me to not walk under? I don't even remember. I'm not at all superstitious, so it probably wasn't anything but a few random neurons firing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I saw a homemade sign for an upcoming yard sale yesterday, and apparently the street on which it's being held is called Chandler Crecent.

If you don't know how to spell "crescent" properly, then you're probably not going to get it right by taking a stab at it (you don't really have a better than one-in-three chance), and that stab, I think, is equally likely to produce the incorrect "crecent" or "cresent". After all, the word ends in the sound made by the homophones "cent" and "sent". (What it actually ends in, alas for all the bad spellers out there, is the equal homophone "scent".)

"Crescent" means one thing in English: a curved, double-horned shape like this:

But "crescendo" is an Italian music term which has spread into the general language, and it doesn't mean anything like a crescent shape. You'd think it ought to mean "starting off small, getting bigger, and then tapering off again", which is what a crescent does, but instead it means "gradually becoming bigger or louder". What the hell?

The secret to "crescendo" is that "crescent", which is its descendent (through Middle English "cressaunt", from French "croissant"), doesn't actually have anything to do with the shape itself, at least not directly. "Crescent" is now a noun, but it used to be an adjective derived from the Latin "crescere", "to grow", which gave English "increase" and "decrease". "Increase" is what "crescent" is all about: from a new, i.e. invisible, moon, the moon is growing--crescent--and the shape it forms as it does so is what gives us that noun.

"Crescere" also gives us such words as "recruit"--to cause an army to grow again by getting new troops--and "concrete", which grows together as it hardens.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


I'm not a prankster or a practical joker; it's not really something that would normally occur to me, and I'm not very good at it, anyway. Occasionally if someone is careless enough to leave their keys lying around, I'll palm them and tuck them into a drawer, but the second they ask me if I've seen their keys, I crack, because I am pretty much the most hopeless liar in recorded history.

I like the idea of pranks, though, the theory of them, and I like reading about them, which is why this book has been a touchstone for the last--oh, my god, can I really have bought it twenty years ago? I just discovered that it was published in May of 1987!

Well, however old it is, it's worth buying, trust me. It was change your world, even if you don't emulate the pranksters within. It will show you just how easy it is to manipulate other people's reality.

There's a website called The Art of the Prank which is something similar, only online. Here's a sentence from a recent posting:

Last month, a friend telephoned and urged me to travel to Bard College to see “Wrestle,” the inaugural exhibition mounted to celebrate the opening of “CCS Bard Hessel Museum,” a 17,000-square-foot addition to the college art museum. It sounded, my friend said, spectacularly awful. She’d just had a call from her husband, a Bard alum, who had zipped through the exhibition while doing some work at the college. Huge images of body parts—yes, those body parts—floating on the walls of a darkened room, minatory videos of men doing things—yes, those things—to each other, or to themselves, all of it presented in the most pretentious fashion possible. It really was something … special.

When I read this, I thought, "'Minatory'? Really? Is that what they intended?"

I suppose it could be. It seems like kind of an odd word in that context, though.

"Minatory" means "threatening". It's not the first word that comes to mind when talking about pornographic videos, even if those videos involve bondage and suchlike (which, apparently, they do). But if the author finds such things threatening, then that's their say-so.

"Minatory" comes from Latin "minari", "to threaten". It sounds as if it should be related to "diminish" or "minimal" or another word from that fairly large family, but it isn't: those words come from Latin "minor", which means, reasonably enough, "small".

The offspring of "minari" are plentiful. Its source is the Indo-European root "men-", "to project", which led to such words as "menace" (such as a sword sticking out at you), "eminent" and "prominent" (words referring to someone who stands out from the crowd), "imminent" (projected to happen), and even "mountain" (which sticks up from the landscape). From the latter we even get the verb "mount" and the noun "amount", something which piles up.

So if those videos are minatory...is the writer making some sort of really abstruse triple pun on the word "project", with the videos projected on the walls and the presumed sticking-out erections and the threatening nature of the bondage displayed in the video? Because if they are, that's fairly sophisticated, even if it would take an etymologist to untangle it.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Indulge Me

I have mentioned Twisty Faster and her blog I Blame The Patriarchy on more than a couple of occasions and continue to think she's just the bee's knees but why why why does she have to keep doing things like this and driving me mental?

From a recent posting of hers:

As always, I appreciate your forbearance and indulgement* in my stunning lack of expertise in administering these webular enterprises, but let’s put the blame where it is due: it is entirely the fault of patriarchy that they don’t teach MySQL in spinster aunt college.

* Nope; not a word.

She's done this before, and it's incredibly vexing. Twisty! You're smart! You can write! You can use a computer! So why can't you do ten seconds' worth of research before you write a sentence like that?

Of course "indulgement" is a word. Lots of multisyllabic verbs become nouns when you chuck "-ment" at them. Here are the first three I picked at random, made up, just pulled straight out of my head: "eschewment", an actual verb in actual dictionaries; "deliverment", rare, but attested to in the OED; "wobblement", which doesn't seem to exist (though it does get a few Google hits). So that's two out of three right there, and let's face it: as long as you follow some general rules, there's nothing to stop you from making up words anyway, so if you want to use "wobblement", people will know what you mean as long as you use it sensibly. After all, Twisty makes up such words as "obstreperal" and, above, "webular" by shoving suffixes onto them, and they make perfect sense in context.

And "indulgement" isn't even new: it's really, really old, only three hundred years younger than its more frequently heard relative, "indulgence", which dates from 1382 (it's 1691 for "indulgement").

Don't say a word isn't a word when it it is. Don't even say it as a joke, unless the context makes it perfectly, patently, painfully obvious that it's a joke. Otherwise, you look, well, kind of less than smart, and that just won't do.

Friday, June 08, 2007


The phrase "caveat emptor" showed up on The Consumerist, unsurprisingly, since it is a website about consumers and the things of which they ought to be wary, and it occurred to me that I didn't really know where either word came from.

"Emptor", which means "buyer", I could guess at: it seemed pretty clear that it had to have something to do with English "emporium", a place at which one buys things. "Caveat", though, left me at a loss. (In typical English-language fashion, it's become a noun which means "warning".) I couldn't think of anything it might be related to. "Cave"? Obviously not. "Cavil"? Sounds close, or close-ish, but the sense is off ("cavil" means "to unnecessarily find fault with").

Astoundingly, "emporium" and "emptor" are entirely unrelated; absolutely nothing in common at all except a fascinating collision of senses. "Emptor" is from "emere", "to buy", which provided the stem "em-", and the suffix "-tor", "one who" (as in "actor), plus an inserted consonant labelled by phoneticians "intrusive" (also called "excrescent"), which serves to toughen up the sound; "emptor" is easier to say and sounds better than "emtor".

"Emporium", on the other hand, derives from the Greek "emporion", "market", and that in turn comes from "emporos", "merchant", which in turn comes from "poros", "passage, voyage", because of the trips merchants had to take to procure their wares for sale.

And I probably could have guessed where "caveat" comes from if I had remembered that once upon a time, "-u-" and "-v-" were the same letter. "Caveat" is related to "caution"; they both come from Latin "cavere", "to guard against".

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


The Project Rungay gents (they started a blog about the irresistible reality show Project Runway) eventually created another blog, which was meant to be about this and that and everything except Project Runway, but eventually turned into a blog mostly about Shear Genius, which I ended up watching (because they were deriving so much pleasure from it and making it sound like so much fun) and enjoying (because it was fun).

Two of the biggest personalities on Shear Genius, Tyson and Tabatha, didn't get along, to put it mildly (or, more accurately, she hated him with an irrational, spitting passion and he didn't really seem to care one way or the other), and now they're having a hairstyle-off. Can't say I care, but look at the sixth comment on that web page.

Instead of "darlings", someone wrote "dearlings", and I immediately thought, "Well, '-ling' is a pretty common Norse suffix denoting a creature of some sort ('Earthling' 'hireling', 'duckling', and so forth), so could 'darling' in fact be a variation on 'dearling'?"

Indeed it could! Imagine my delight when I discovered this.

The suffix "-ling" is often used as a diminutive, as in "fledgling", and "darling" is, in fact, a diminutive form of "dear". (I don't know why this never occurred to me before, but on reflection there are a lot of things that have never occurred to me that will, sooner or later, giving me a reason to blog and a reason to live.)

Both "dear" and "darling" have been a part of English for probably as long as English has been English: the OED dates them from before 900 A.D. How nice to know that some things never change. Except the spelling, that is: "dear" started off as "deore" and turned into "dere" in Middle English before eventually assuming is modern spelling, and "darling" was likewise "deorling" and then "derling".

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Let ME Try

Okay, it's hyphens again. It's always hyphens sooner or later.

I had to laminate a store poster for some sort of kids' craft club thing, and the text read as follows:

It's a FREE in-store, hands-on, hey let-me-try it kind of activity day!

So close! They got the first two hyphenated phrases correct, and then they completely dropped the ball. And the rule is incredibly simple, too: when you're hyphenating a multi-word phrase into an adjective, no matter how many words there are, you have to link all of the words together with hyphens. It's like a string of beads, and if you miss one connection, the whole thing falls apart.

And now there's a handout (it's called a "bag-stuffer", because cashiers are supposed to tuck one into each shopping bag), and that reads:

It's a FREE in-store, hands-on, hey-let-me try it kind of activity day!

So the phrase has been hyphenated in a different way, and they still got it wrong!

Makes you fear for the future of humanity.

Monday, June 04, 2007


Dear Salon:

Oh, why do you treat me so badly? I champion you. I give you my money when subscribers are, apparently, deserting you in droves. I read you every day and post (I hope) insightful comments to your more interesting or controversial articles. And this is how you treat me?

A picture's worth a thousand controversies -- especially if it's a photograph of Dick and Lynn Cheney with their new grandson, Samuel David Cheney. According to the Bay Area Reporter, this official White House photo was identical in treatment to those commemorating the birth of the Cheneys' other two grandchildren, but that hasn't immunized it against symbolitus.

"Symbolitus"? How could you do this, Salon?

There is a small handful of words in English that end in "-itus", but that in itself isn't a suffix. Words such as "vomitus", "tinnitus", and "coitus" have taken a suffix, it's true, but that suffix is "-tus", and the words come to us directly from Latin.

If instead we want to denote a symptom, a condition, an abnormal tendency, or (very slangily) an uncontrollable urge, then we use the suffix "-itis", which is in fact a full-blown suffix (it's from Latin by way of Greek and refers to an inflammation) that we may attach to almost any word we like: medical terms such as "gastritis" or "phlebitis" are of course commonplace and literal, and we can make joking figurative compounds such as "movieitis" or "chocolatitis", which you will find already exist if you Google them.

That's "-itis", Salon. Not "-itus". They aren't even pronounced the same: "-itis" is pronounced all by itself, two syllables, "EYE-tuss", whereas words ending in "-itus" are blended into the rest of the word with no stress on the syllables themselves: "TINN-it-uss", "CO-it-uss", "VOM-it-uss".

Please pay attention to this sort of thing in the future. You know what would be swell? If you could find a couple of affordable copy editors.

Yr humble servant,


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Lost and Found

Today we decided to have lunch out after getting the groceries, and it was about a twenty-five-minute walk to where we were going to eat. (No, I'm not telling you where, because it's embarrassing*). On the way there, we were both pretty hungry (I'd had nothing all morning except a cup of tea, which won't get you very far), and one or the other of us--probably me, but possibly Jim, who has heard me say it many times--said, "I am gutfoundered!"

Isn't that a great expression? It's heard all the time in Newfoundland, which, you may be aware, is where I'm from, and which has a sizable vocabulary all its own. "Gutfoundered" didn't originate in Newfoundland, mind you; it's listed in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, so it's been around for a couple hundred years for sure. But it's exactly the sort of word a horse-raising, seafaring people would use.

"To founder" has a couple of pertinent meanings here, and I confess I don't know which one is the relevant one: no search reveals anything of any use to me, and even the Dictionary of Newfoundland English declines an etymology. First, it means, of a boat, "to take on water and sink", so perhaps it means your stomach has sunk to the bottom of your being and has to be dragged back up again. Second, it means, of a horse, "to fall prey to laminitis (an illness afflicting the foot) and hence become lame", so maybe if your gut has foundered, it's crippled and needs to be nursed back to health with a proper meal.

Don't know which of these is correct. I expect one of them is, and since the horse meaning seems to be a metaphorical extension of the boat meaning, perhaps they both are. I do know that it's a vivid way of saying, "Damn, I'm hungry!"

If you're going to say it, you might as well pronounce it as a Newfoundlander would, and that means at the very least getting that first vowel correct. It's not "gut" to rhyme with "but" or "nut", with your lips stretched wise; the "-u-" sound is in fact halfway between a "-u-" and an "-o-", so try rounding your lips into a more or less perfect circle before essaying the word. And then you have to abbreviate the "-t-" so it's very quick and blunt--Newfoundland speech in general is very quick and blunt--and then swerve the diphthong "-ou-" so it sounds as if it were composed of the sounds "eh-ow", but run together very quickly....

On second thought, perhaps it's better to just leave it to the experts.**

"Founder" as a verb, by the way, comes from Latin "fundus", "bottom", because foundering sends a ship to the bottom of the ocean. (The noun "founder", "one who founds something", comes instead from Gothic "finthan", "to find".)

*Oh, very well. It was Taco Bell. Are you happy now?

**If Dame Judi Dench and Julianne Moore couldn't do a damned thing towards obtaining convincing Newfoundland accents in the lamentable movie version of "The Shipping News", then you probably won't be able to manage it, either, unless you are already from there, which, statistically speaking, you probably are not.

Friday, June 01, 2007


I think I've mentioned Cockeyed.com before. It's a pretty funny website, lots of imaginative pseudo-science experiments and Hallowe'en costumes and the like. The guy who runs it seems to know a lot of people, so sometimes one of these people will ask for his help in some project or other. Someone wants to collect people's stories of "shopdropping", which, the opposite of shoplifting, means leaving stuff in commercial locations as a way of making a political statement.

I don't necessarily endorse it, but I can see the point of it. However, the collector of stories on Cockeyed.com doesn't, apparently:

<-Pet shopdropping - a pragmatic issue:
Someone who had a pet (think: parents whose kids (callously) have lost interest in the family's pet mouse, snake, lizard for instance)  but had a difficult time finding a new home for it. So, they took it to a pet store where they were confident it would be well cared for and they left it there surreptitiously. Anyone have stories of this sort?

-Guerilla recycling:
Someone who had some item that is not supposed to be thrown away. Maybe it is best recycled because it has things in it that are not good for landfill (think: window air conditioner unit, refrigerator, a car). So they found a shop-dropping type method of getting rid of it. Maybe they dropped it off at a repair shop for an "estimate" and never picked it up. Perhaps it was the guy with the old desktop in his garage that he stopped using ten years ago but knows that he should not put in the trash can. Maybe - with a car - they left it on street for it to be towed. Looking for stories on this.

-Targeting book stores:
Someone writes a book. Their local bookstore isn't carrying it. The author calls the bookstore pretending to be a professor or whatever and asks for the bookstore to order a bunch of copies that they will pick up and pay for once the copies arrive. Then they never pick them up in hopes that bookstore will just put the books out on shelf. Anyone ever done that? Small-time photographers or poets looking to get noticed slip copies of their work into books as they peruse local bookstore. Anyone done that? Someone who doesn't want to throw away their used books but they cant find someone willing to buy them so they discretely leave a box of them in the corner of the nearby used bookstore. Anyone? Other tales welcome.

We are looking for any other examples that constitute shop-dropping but that are motivated by everyday pragmatics rather than by art/politics.

For the most part, that's not "everyday pragmatics": that's just flat-out douchebaggery. Leaving your garbage in a public place so someone else will cart it off? Dropping off a (possibly diseased) unwanted pet in a pet store? Bringing in something for repairs and never picking it up, saddling the repair shop with not only the cost of repairing it but the task of disposing of it? That's nasty behaviour in any decent person's book.

But this rant is not why I quoted it; I quoted it because of the misuse of the word "discretely", which drives me up the wall.

There are two very similar words in English, "discreet" and "discrete". They come from the same source, but then their meanings and usages diverged over time, something which happens all the time in English. Both words come from Latin "discretus", "separated", which, interestingly, is also the source of "discern". Both words emerged at around 1350.

But "discrete" means "apart" or "separate", whereas "discreet" means "judicious" or "prudent". Their meanings don't overlap in any way any more. They went their separate ways hundreds of years ago, and if you use one when you mean the other, then you look careless, or worse. If you use the wrong one when suggesting that people do cheap and unpleasant things and call them "pragmatic", well, then you also look like a douchebag.