or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In and Out

Here's a sentence from a New Yorker movie review:

Yet the couple persists in looking, and the movie turns into a convoluted and, to my mind, largely improbable detective story, with Patrick developing into a supersleuth who steps into claustral, threatening places and takes enormous chances.

"Claustral". Lovely word!

Of course it immediately suggests "claustrophobia", the unreasoning fear of small spaces. Both these words are derived from Latin "claustrum", which originally meant merely a barrier, but in Late Latin came to mean an enclosure around which the barrier is placed through the process of synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole or vice versa--in this case, the barrier representing the entire space within itself as well.

"Claustrum" gave rise to French "cloison", a partition, which gave its name to a kind of enamel-work called "cloisonné" because the piece to be enameled is made of tiny raised barriers which separate the various colours of the melted enamel. Both of these senses in turn gave Middle English the word "cloistre", which we now spell "cloister", which is specifically a religious retreat but more generally any secluded place.

It's worth noting, too, that "claustrum" still survives in English, as, predictably, an anatomical/medical term referring to some sort of barrier.

"Claustrum" has nothing to do with the word "cluster", although you'd think--if you strained your brain a little--that it could. "Cluster" is an Old English word which was also spelled "clyster" (because people spelled the way they pronounced); this came from a Germanic word, "kluster", and is probably related in some way to the word "clot".

But there was another English word "clyster", also spelled "klyster", which is completely unrelated to the "cluster" form of "clyster". This one came direct from Greek "klyster", which is derived from the verb "klyzein", "to wash out, to rinse out", and a clyster or klyster is in fact an enema.

"Clyster/klyster" is related, amusingly, to "cataclysm", which combines the preposition "kata-", "back" or "against", with the "-clys-" root of "klyzein" to produce a word that means literally "a massive flood: a deluge", but nowadays is used more generally to mean "a violent upheaval" or "a natural disaster on an enormous scale".

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

After A Fashion

I don't know if I'm just difficult (I probably am), or if I want to arrogate to myself the right to approve or disapprove all non-standard usages (I probably do), or what, but sometimes I'll be innocently reading and suddenly some English will just rub me the wrong way. I don't understand it. I'll see some coinage or novel use of words and think, "Hey, nice!", whereas other times I'll see one and think, "Why would you write something like that?" I get frowny and disapproving, like a put-upon dad.

Here's a sentence from a Salon.com article about men's makeup (which, for the record, is fine if that's your thing, but not for me, because I am not going to walk around worrying if my eyeliner is smudged or my concealer is actually concealing--I don't know how women put up with the stress):

Roman men used chalk-based foundation to brighten their complexions, and, in the 18th century, Louis XV and his court made it vogue for men to put on gobs of toxic lead-based makeup and rouge.

See, here's the thing: I don't think "vogue" is an adjective (except in the extremely limited realm of the expression "vogue word"). I think it's a noun.

I've said more than once that English is happy to use one word for various parts of speech without any outward changes ("bully" is at once a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an interjection, and isn't that great?), and that I am happy that this is the case; it's yet another testament to the thrilling flexibility of the language. But I also think that you shouldn't just randomly do this--that there should be some point to it. English already has words and expressions that would have been at home in that sentence: "in vogue", or "en vogue", for that Continental feel (since we are, after all, talking about a French court), or even "voguish", or "modish", or any of a dozen other words. Forcing "vogue" into service as an adjective feels clumsy to me.

I guess what it boils down to is that, for whatever reason, I just plain don't like the usage in question, so don't do it again. Why? Because I said so.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sticking Out

James Howard Kunstler over at Clusterfuck Nation is busy being a bitter pill, which is why I read him, but this is a truly baffling sentence:

One of the stupidest assumptions made by the educated salient of adults these days is that we are guaranteed a smooth transition between the cancerous hypertrophy of our current economic environment and the harsher conditions that we are barreling toward.

The "educated salient of adults"?

"Salient" is usually an adjective, but it also serves as a noun from time to time: it's not usual, but, just as "salient" the adjective means "prominent: projecting outwards", "salient" the noun means "something which projects outwards"--usually a physical object such as the outcropping of a mountain.

And so I have absolutely no idea, none whatever, what Kunstler could mean by "educated salient of adults". It sort of sounds as if he means part of a graph--a bell curve of the population, say, from completely unlettered to highly educated--but the whole point of a bell curve is that there wouldn't be any salients, that it would be smooth.

It seems to me that he means to say "...made by educated adults..." or perhaps even "made by the intelligentsia". I wish I knew what that word "salient" was doing in there.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Get Used To It

Today's entry in my other blog uses a word that you really couldn't ever guess the source of, I think. I know I couldn't.

The word is "inure", which means "to acclimate to hardship or misery", or, less drastically, "to habituate": to become inured to cold is to learn to put up with it, whereas to become inured to your surroundings (the sense in which I used the word) is simply to become so accustomed to them that you fail to notice them.

"Inure" is the collapsed form of the phrase "in ure". (English has lots of these collapsed words: every "some-" compound such as "someone" started off as two words.) The "-ure" part of the word or phrase evolved from the Latin "opus", "work" (which is where the English word "opera" comes from: it simply means "works", and an opera is a collection of arias, choruses, and recitatives, each a little work on its own). So "inure" originally meant "at work" or "in use"; its meaning broadened to "customary" (a bit of a stretch, but you can see how it could have come about over the years), and from there it was a short step to "accustom".

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


On the bus home from work tonight, I was gazing dreamily at the fallen autumn leaves, which I love, and then I thought of them as "detritus", even though they aren't, really, and then I couldn't moon over the leaves any more because I found myself wondering where exactly the word "detritus" might have come from, even though, in fact, it was the wrong word. I tried prying it apart; the prefix "de-" probably means "away from", as it often does in Latin, and the suffix "-tus" is common enough in Latin words, usually denoting a verb, but what of the middle? It was all a great mystery.

I could never have guessed that the root of "detritus" is the verb "terere", "to rub", probably because I didn't know that word. But there it is. "Deterere" is a verb meaning "to rub away, to wear down", and so detritus is something that's been worn away to particles, or, by extension, any debris. (That's the wrong word, too, for what I was looking at. "Detritus" and "debris" both refer to the rubble of things that were once whole and have been fragmented into pieces, such as stones or buildings. Leaves don't count. They're "refuse", I suppose.)

That root of "terere", "-trit-", also gave English such words as "attrition" (what you have when something has simply been worn away), "contrition" (when you're worn down with apologizing), "detrimental" (that which wears away your health or your morals), and "trite" (which is what we call an idea or phrase that's been worn down from overuse).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bubble, Bubble

I have today, as I had yesterday, a sentence from Salon.com, this time a little piece about olfaction (something which always interests me) and sex.

We've all heard about the pheromonic convergence of women in their menstrual cycles. Now there's more evidence that we're a steaming caldron of hormones that drive us to behave in all sorts of unconscious ways.

"Caldron". Isn't that nice? "Cauldron" is by far the commoner spelling of the word, but "caldron" is still a living part of English, and that makes me happy. I think it's nice to have two historically justified spellings of the same word. It gives writers more choice, and therefore it enriches the language.

A cauldron, of course, is a vast pot in which we boil things: often--particularly at Hallowe'en--things that don't want to be boiled, such as nutritious waifs.

One of the ways in which we define the nutrimental quality of food (waifs or otherwise) is by its calorie content. It may be tempting to assume, as Dave Barry does, that a calorie is a measure of how delicious a food is*, but in fact a calorie is a measure of heat; it's the energy provided by something as it's oxidized, by a flame or by a living organism. (It's defined as the amount of energy or heat required to raise one gram of water by one degree celsius at one atmosphere of pressure.)

So a calorie is a measure of heat and a cauldron is something you use to heat something up in, and so of course they're related etymologically; the usual spelling "cauldron" disguises this fact a little, but "caldron" makes it plainer. The two words initially stem from the Indo-European root "kelh-", "to warm", which gave Latin "calor", "heat", and "calidus", "warm". From these, English received "cauldron" (related to French "chaudiere", a kind of cooking pot, from which we also received "chowder") and its obvious cousin "caldera", a volcanic basin; the self-evidently French "nonchalant" (literally "not warm", which is to say "cool"); and a few other words which you can read about here in my discussion of the also related "chauffeur".

*He wrote, "Calories are little units that measure how good a particular food tastes. Fudge, for example, has a great many calories, whereas celery, which is not really a food at all but a member of the plywood family provided by Mother Nature so that we would have a way to get onion dip into our mouths at parties, has none."

Saturday, October 20, 2007


I rag on Salon writers a fair bit, though I suppose I shouldn't blame them too much, because it's obvious--isn't it?--that there isn't a single copy editor or proofreader anywhere to be found in the entire enterprise.

Here's the newest Ask The Pilot column. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it: it's just fascinating. You really ought to read it. The Pilot answers some questions that you've almost certainly asked if you've ever traveled by air: why we aren't allowed to stand up until the plane has come to a complete and final stop (as they always seem to redundantly say), why there aren't parachutes in commercial airplanes, and more.

But after reading that, I came to Stephanie Zacharek's review of a new film, "Gone Baby Gone". Here's half a sentence:

Even Casey Affleck, an actor whom I don't think has much presence (and who needs enunciation lessons, badly), is reasonably believable here....

There is a thing called "hypercorrection", which is what happens when a person, afraid of making a grammatical or other linguistic error in an everyday usage, overanalyzes the situation, applies what sounds like the correct rule, and gets it wrong. One example that's particularly common among Americans is the pronunciation of "vichysoisse": having learned that French sometimes omits that final consonantal sound--look at "ballet", for example, or "escargot"--they will guess that that's a universal feature of French imports pronounce it "vishy-swah" (it's "vishy-swass", more or less). (The rule is actually that many consonants are silent at the end of words, unless there's an "-e" at the end, which forces their pronunciation: masculine "aimant", "lover", for example, has a nasalized "-n" as the terminal sound, whereas the feminine version, "aimante", pronounces the "-t".) A grammatical example is Winston Churchill's parody of the "rule" that one ought not to end a sentence with a preposition: "That is something up with which I shall not put."

A lot of people evidently don't know the very, very simple trick for choosing between subject and object pronouns when using "who" and "whom", and that is this: replace the pronoun in question with "he" or "him" (something which no born English speaker would get wrong), reversing the order of the sentence if need be, and if you would use "he", use "who", and if you would use "him", use "whom". If one ends in a vowel, so does the other: if one ends in an em, so does the other. It always works. You can usually do this quickly in your head when you're speaking, though in casual speech it's not desperately important. In writing, however, where you have the luxury of time, there really isn't any excuse for getting it wrong. The reversed sentence above would run, "I don't think he has much presence", requiring the pronoun "who", not "whom".

The odd thing is that there are two examples of the pronoun in the sentence, and she gets the first one wrong and the second one right. What happened here? Why didn't she say "...and whom needs enunciation lessons", since the structure of the clauses is identical? And why wasn't someone around to catch it before this was unleashed on the world?

Unfortunately, writing "who" when "whom" is intended sounds subliterate, and doing the reverse, hypercorrectly, sounds pretentious. That's just a fact.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Jim and I had supper at a restaurant tonight, and it was pretty good. We even had dessert! Unless a restaurant in North America is attached to a bakery or otherwise famous for its on-site baking, it's a pretty good bet that all the desserts--the stable ones like cakes and pastries, anyway--are purchased frozen and thawed before being served to you.

Knowing this, I nevertheless ordered some chocolate cake thing--very dense and rich, like a brownie--that had a ganache topping, ganache being a frosting or filling made from chocolate and cream melted together. Well, not according to the menu: that told me I was ordering something with chocolate grenache.

I don't think so, I thought to myself. But then I had doubts (I occasionally have doubts); what if "grenache" is actually some sort of alternate spelling, and I'm internally castigating the menu for no reason? So I looked it up when I got home, and sure enough, grenache is a wine grape. "Chocolate grenache" doesn't even bear thinking about.

Neither "ganache" nor "grenache" is a particularly commonplace word, but still: you'd think a menu could get it right.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Wrapped Up

Yesterday one of the words that cropped up in my posting was "hortatory", and afterwards I thought, "Gee, what about 'horticulture'?"

They aren't related, except in the most superficial way (more in a moment), but I did find something out: "horticulture" (the Dorothy Parker joke is too easy to make--you can look it up yourself) is part of an amazingly varied family of words. You won't believe it.

First of all, the word is descended from the Indo-European root "gher-", "to grasp". This word led to a larger sense, "to enclose", and this is the thing that, however distantly, relates all the words in the family. ("Hortatory" comes from a different "gher-", unrelated to this one, that means "to like, to want" and also gave us "yearn" and "greed": when you want something, you yearn for it, when you want it too much, you're greedy, and when you convince someone else to want something, you do it by exhorting them. Yes, it's tempting to think that "greedy"="grasping" and the two "gher-"s are cousins, but they really aren't.)

Let's start with the most unexpected set of that first "gher-"'s relatives: the "chor-" words which are all related to music. They come from the Greek derivative, "khoros", which meant a dancing ground, which is to say an enclosure for dancing. This gave English not only the muse of dancing, Terpsichore, but also such words as "carol", "choir", "choral", "chorale", "chorister", and "chorus". Oh, and the dance known as the "hora".

Another batch of "gher-" words refers to gardening (the "enclosure" sense is obvious here, I trust): "horticulture", as I have said, and also "garden" itself, plus the German import "kindergarten" (literally "child-garden"), and "yard" and "orchard".

A third clutch of words has to do with midriffs and the things that enclose them: "girdle", which is derived from "gird" and its adjectival form, "girt", plus "girth", the size of that midriff.

And finally, we have a group of words which sprang from the people inside an enclosure. "Cohort" began its life as a military term, a division of the Roman army, and it still broadly has this sense, among numerous others. In Middle French and then Middle English, it took on another sense: a farmyard. From this sense it evolved out into any sort of enclosed outdoor space and became "court", which was such a useful term that it spread broadly, as a noun ("place of justice", "sports field", "royal residence", "short street", and on and on) as well as a verb ("to woo a mate", "to appeal to or incite"). "Court" gave us "courteous", "courtesy" and then "curtsey", "courtier" and "courtesan", and a funeral procession, a "cortege".

One more lovely relative: again related to the gardening sense, from Latin "hortulanus", a diminutive of "hortus", "garden", comes the French (and occasionally English) word for the bobolink, "ortolan", emberiza hortulana.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Discouraging Word

I was reading this blog entry today about a company that charges a disgraceful 99.25 per cent annual interest rate--how can such a thing even be legal?--and noticed that one of the commenters used the relatively common misspelling "exhorbitant".

If you Google that mistake, you'll find (as of today) 279,000 hits. Some of them are going to be things like this posting, discussing the fact that it's in error, but most of them are in earnest: people do in fact think the word ought to be spelled that way.

Predictably, the spelling once had some currency, but it doesn't now and hasn't for a long, long time; the spelling "exhorbitant" really has been in error since the word entered the language (in 1534), because it stems from...

Well, why don't you take a guess?

The prefix is pretty obvious: Latin "ex-", "out of". The suffix is also very common: Latin again, and used to turn something into a noun meaning "that which" or "one who" ("litigant", "one who litigates"). The middle part, therefore, is "orbit", which means more or less just what you think it does.

"Orbit" now most usually means "the path which a planet or satellite follows in space", but it can also have, at a small metaphorical distance, the meaning of "sphere of influence", and a couple of other ones besides (such as "the eye socket"). "Orbit" was originally a Latin word which literally meant "wheel track", so it's easy to see how it got its modern meaning, and also easy to see what "exorbitant" means: "off-track", which is to say "outside from the usual bounds of propriety"; it's generally limited to matters of money, but the sense of disapproval is unmistakable.

Some people, I'm sure, don't just spell "exorbitant" wrong but also pronounce it with that "-h-" inside it (also wrong), and you can sort of see where they might have gotten that from: there's another not-uncommon English word, "exhort" (and also "exhortation"), which does have that "-h-". But it comes by it honestly enough, because it's related to "hortatory", "encouraging, inciting", from Latin "horiri", with exactly the same meaning.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bottled Up

I like to smell good, as you will know if you've ever read my other blog. Jim, on the other hand, feels he would probably be better off with no sense of smell whatever. This morning, we were getting ready to head out to our various days: him to the gymnasium, me to work (an hour from now). Here's a true-life conversation which happened mere minutes ago:

Jim: I'm off, so you can smear yourself with whatever unguents you like.

Me: Well, I'd do that anyway. If you're still home, I just put on something after I leave. That's why I keep two or three fragrances in vials in my knapsack. They call them vials because they're full of vile things.

Jim: Why
do they call them "vials", anyway?

Me: Well, the word started out as "phial". Before that...I got nothing.

Jim: Better look it up.

So I did.

"Vial" did indeed have an earlier life as "phial". As I was looking this up, Jim came into the computer room and asked the question I'd been asking myself: since "philtre" means "potion", is there any possibility that "phial" is related. since that's what a philtre would be packaged in? I didn't think so, and, as it turns out, no.

"Phial", interestingly, started off as Greek "phiale" and Latin "phiala", both of which mean a saucer or other shallow vessel. It turned into "fiola" in Late Latin and then to "fiole" in French; Middle English took it in just this form, and then, bafflingly, converted the "f-" right back to the "ph-" with which it started, giving us "phiole". And then, when the pronunciation and the spelling became unified, the vowel was switched to an "-a-". making the word "phiale", which, you will note, is exactly the form in which it started its life in Greek.

And then we dropped the terminal "-e" to get "phial". And then we switched the "ph-" to the closely related "v-". And here we are.

"Vial" therefore has nothing to do with "philtre", which, as I've written about before, simply means "love potion". "Vial" is also, obviously, unrelated to "vile" (from Latin "vilis", "cheap, base", also the source of "vilify"), except in weak puns made by people getting ready to go to work.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Here's an article about the six commonest online-shopping scams and how not to fall victim to them. Lots of good information there, but also this sentence:

"Legalise is put out there with the expectation that no one is going to read it," says Wouters.

Hoo boy. "Legalise" is a word, in some parts of the world: it's the British spelling for "legalize", because they use the suffix "-ise" instead of "-ize" (as North Americans do) to turn a noun or adjective into a verb. Both versions are straight from Latin, which stole it from Greek "-izein".

The word the writer was looking for, however, was "legalese", which uses the suffix "-ese" to turn a word into another word referring to a language subset which ordinary people find incomprehensible: "medicalese" is another popular example. This usage comes, obviously, from the suffix English often uses to denote people and their languages: "Japan/Japanese", "Vienna/Viennese", and so forth. This suffix comes from Latin "-ensis", "originating in", as seen in many Latin botanical and zoological names such as Homo floresiensis, the skeleton recently discovered on the island of Flores (hence the name) in Indonesia.

As for "legalise"/"legalese", a spell-checker might have caught the error. An editor of some sort definitely would have.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Sometimes your brain selects a word and your fingers start to type it, but they have a mind of their own, you know, and so they start the word out correctly but by the end are typing something rather different, which happens to all of us, but a spellchecker won't catch it because it's a legitimate word, and if you don't have a proofreader or a copy editor, you're kind of boned.

Here's a couple sentences from this soft-news story about designer Alexander McQueen and some line of makeup he has:

Options for armchair fashion followers? Eye shadow in Nile, a royal blue; Pagan, a yellow lime green; and Haunting, a seafood green.

"Seafood green". Yeah, right. The writer meant to say "seafoam green", obviously. (It's a light pastel green, slightly blue-greyed, not unlike celadon or moss green.)

I know these things happen to writers: I make that kind of mistake myself all the time. And then I correct it. I don't understand how such things make their way into professionally published writing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Weighting Game

I was in the shower getting ready for work this morning and the word that came into my head was "molecule". (Long story.) I knew that "-cule" was a Latin diminutive derived from "-culus": we still see both forms in English, rarely, in "animalcule" and "homunculus". It was the "mole" part I couldn't figure out.

I knew that "mole" was a term used in chemistry for a particular quantity of something--specifically, the weight of a substance if there are 6.022x10²³ molecules of it. (I had to look that number up, but I really did know that that's what it meant. It's called Avogadro's Number.) A mole of water, six point oh two two bajillion molecules of it, weighs 18.016 grams. (I had to look that number up, too. I'm not a chemistry whiz.)

But clearly "mole" was derived from "molecule" and not vicey-versey. That didn't help at all.

It turns out to be exceedingly simple. "Molus" is the Latin word for "mass", as in a batch of something, so a molecule is a tiny amount. ("Mole", the unit of mass, is actually borrowed from German "Mol", which is short for "Molekül".)

"Molus", interestingly enough, derives from Latin "mola", "millstone". A millstone is used for grinding things, and so are your teeth, and that's why some of them are called molars. Etymologically, some of your teeth are tiny millstones! Isn't that great?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Gone With The Wind

It's Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and I am thankful for lots of things, and while I'm sorry anyone has to work on a statutory holiday, I can't just sit around the apartment all day, so Jim and I went to the local hyperdrugstore to pick up a couple of things.

On the way, as we walked along the bank of the Petitcodiac River (we live just a few minutes' walk from it), Jim mentioned that the other day he had seen a partridge and her brood of young in the rushes by the river. "Did I ever tell you where the word 'partridge' comes from?" I asked. I hadn't. I haven't told you, either.

The Middle French word "pertris", which mutated into our modern "partridge" from Middle English "pertrich" and which also turned into modern French "perdrix", is pronounced identically to English "pear tree" with a French accent, which makes the first and last lines of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas", "a partridge in a pear tree", a sort of pun, or at least a history of mistaken etymology.

"Perdrix", and therefore "partridge", have nothing at all to do with pear trees. The word is instead descended from Indo-European "perd-", "to fart", because the sharp snapping noise of the bird's wings as it takes off are supposedly reminiscent of a series of farts. We might well call the bird a fartridge.

"Perd-" has left another trace in English. "Péter", pronounced "pay-tay", is the French verb "to fart", led to the noun "petard", a firecracker or other explosive device. To be "hoist by one's own petard", therefore, means literally to be thrown in the air by the explosive device that one has set oneself, or, figuratively, to be accidentally done in by a plot or a trap that one has set in motion.

Since "péter" means "to fart" and "pet" is the French noun for a fart, what do you suppose "pétomane" means? Employing the French "-mane" suffix you may have seen in such English imports as "balletomane", and meaning "maniac", a pétomane would logically be a fartin' maniac, and such was the stage name of a man who could control his musculature so that he could fart at will, so precisely that he could perform the Marseillaise, which rather puts armpit-farters to shame.

In his book "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women", Ricky Jay, if memory serves, devotes an entire chapter to Le Pétomane. You may read a sober, straightforward account of this performer nonpareil here, or a hilarious version here, from, of course, Cecil Adams. A sample of the latter:

...he would proceed with a program of fart impressions, as it were: the timid fart of the young girl, the hearty fart of the miller, the fart of the bride on her wedding night (almost inaudible), the fart of the bride a week later (a lusty raspberry), and a majestic 10-second fart which he likened to a couturier cutting six feet of calico cloth.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Mixed Doubles

Here's a sentence from this week's Salon.com Ask The Pilot column by Patrick Smith:

There are a few places where airborne flow enhancements can, and have, paid dividends.

Inexcusable. If you are going to use two tenses in the same clause and apply the same verb to both of them, then you absolutely must ensure that both tenses can use the same verb form; otherwise, you have to repeat the verb, using the correct form in each case. If the sentence had read, "...can, and must, pay dividends," then clearly that would be correct, but it didn't, and so it's wrong. It ought to have read "...can pay, and have paid, dividends." The writer should have caught this. An editor, if there is one, most definitely should have caught it.


Twisty Faster has been absent from her marvelous blog, I Blame The Patriarchy, for a few weeks, and I can relate. Blogging is work, unless you're one of those people who just scribbles any old thing, and she is not one of those people, and neither am I. I don't suppose I have a lot of readers, but I do have a focus; I can't just idly blog without there being some meaning to the posting. Nobody wants to know about a trip to the supermarket unless there's a point to it. (There's even a book about blogging called "No One Cares What You Had For Lunch".)

Twisty's put up this picture

which I have, obviously, cribbed from her and will remove if she objects (you can see the actual posting here). Interesting sign, yes? Not the mispunctuated "father's", but the word "sharpist".

Now, technically, "sharpist" is not a word, but I'm going to allow it.

We have, in English, words that originally meant a person and now mean a thing. "Computer" is one: it used to be a person who did math, often with the help of a mechanical device such as an abacus or, later, an adding machine. "Recorder" is another: once a person who did the recording, it's now the machine that does that job, and the person who manages the machine is called a recordist, as you can see from this quote from this Slate.com story about Bluetooth earpieces:

A technology-intolerant older gentleman (my father), an impatient former roommate, and a professional movie-sound recordist assisted in the testing.

And so it is with "sharpener". If the sign said "knife sharpener", it would clearly be referring to an object of some sort, and the sign would therefore be confusing and mostly worthless. Applying to "sharp" the "-ist" suffix which we apply to words to turn them into other words meaning "the person who does this thing", as in "artist", seems to me a very sensible solution to the problem: the sign isn't saying "We have a knife-sharpening device here" (So?), but "A person who sharpens knives is on the premises". Nice. I'm not usually a fan of neologisms, particularly if a valid word already exists, but this is a useful and even pleasant coinage.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Dutch

A couple of days ago I quoted the use of the word "waffle" (in passing) in an odd and amusing context--the verb used as a noun meaning "nonsense" or "bafflegab". Today I stumbled across a knitting pattern for a pair of socks using a stitch pattern the creator has called "diamond waffle". Well, I know when the universe is pointing me in a particular direction.

Perhaps expectedly, the noun ("a griddle cake with an indented lattice pattern") and the verb ("to equivocate") are entirely unrelated. Hard to imagine how they could have any relationship, really, though of course English is spackled with stranger things.

The noun comes from the Dutch "wafel", which is still the Dutch word for a waffle, as attributed by the delicious stroopwafel, which is made of two small, thin, chewy waffles cemented together with caramel. Once you've seen the word "wafel", you can't help but think it must somehow have engendered, or at least be related to, "wafer", and in fact it is.

The verb, on the other hand, appears to have sprung from an obsolete Scottish onomatopeic verb, "to waff", which means "to yelp". The meaning of "waff" eventually mutated to mean "to talk nonsense" and then "to vacillate", which is where it remains.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Taking the Shine Off

Here's a sentence from a Slate.com article by food writer Sara Dickerman about the wonder of pretzels:

According to Harold McGee's essential reference On Food and Cooking, a short dip or shower in a dilute solution of lye before baking converts some of the pretzel's outer starches into an alkaline gel, which browns especially quickly and creates the pretzel's distinctive sheeny surface.

"Sheeny" isn't wrong: it's a valid word in the English language, an adjective formed of a noun by the usual method of adding a "-y" to the end of "sheen" (which is related to "shine", which is related to German "schön", "beautiful"). The trouble is that "sheeny" is also a word, origin completely unknown, that has long been a nasty epithet for "Jew".

There are, of course, words in English that look like, sound like, or are indistinguishable from other words that are generally tabooed in polite society. There was that awful incident at the University of Wisconsin a few years back after a professor used the word "niggardly"; the only black student in the class, who had never heard the word before, perhaps understandably took exception. (It's unrelated to "nigger", which is a corruption of Spanish "negro", "black": "niggardly", which means "cheap", is related to "niggle", a four-hundred-year-old word meaning "to carp about minor details". "Niggard", the noun form of the adjective "niggardly", is close on to seven hundred years old, much older than "nigger".) "Spic and span" has nothing to do with the word "spic", an insulting term (old, and of disputed origin) for a Hispanic person. The "spic" in "spic and span" is related to the ancient "spike" (it dates from the early 1300s), which is to say "nail": the span is a piece of wood, and a house that's spic and span has everything nailed down and in its proper place.

Intelligent people can sort these things out and not take offense where offense, or even the suggestion of it, was not intended. But I still wouldn't have used the word "sheeny", nitpicker though that surely makes me. It seems foolish to use a borderline word so easily replaced. Since the writer used "sheen" in the previous sentence and in the subsequent paragraph, I can't see that the word "sheeny", or any variation of it, was necessary, anyway; something ought to have been changed, and you know which word I would have elected to that post. I would have substituted "glossy", maybe, or--why not?--"lustrous". I can't say that "sheeny" is wrong: I can say that I think it would have been better avoided.

Here's something else from Slate that is entirely wrong, though: a sentence from a piece about the new video game Halo 3 by Chris Suellentrop.

The recently released and justly raved game BioShock is a masterpiece of narrative gaming, with an absorbing story that transports the gamer into a compelling fictional universe.

"Justly raved"? No. "Rave" takes a preposition, and it is virtually always "about", though occasionally "over". The word Suellentrop was looking for, and the copy-editor ought to have supplied, is "raved-about", hyphen and all.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Bitter Pill

I'm not the one to be giving medical advice, god knows, but did you know that if you have muscle cramps, you might be able to treat them with plain old tonic water?

You can't just rub it on your muscles: you have to drink it, which, I understand, would be a problem for some people. The thing that gives tonic water its delicious/ghastly taste (depending on your point of view) is quinine, which is, to say the very least, a bitter substance. My friend Ansuya, who grew up in South Africa, had to take quinine as a preventative against malaria, so she's experienced its full-force bitterness in a way I can only imagine. Once when we were out on the town she asked me how I could enjoy a gin and tonic (the answer is "on ice"): I believe her exact words were, "How the hell can you drink that?"

Simple. Tonic water does contain quinine, but it's very dilute, and sugared up a fair bit: it has as much sugar as any other carbonated pop. Tonic is bitter, but it's a controlled sort of bitter, ameliorated with sugar, flavoured with lemon and lime, and usually buffered with gin (although, being an extremely infrequent drinker, I prefer tonic by itself, and in fact had a nice big glass of it while I was writing this). All people naturally love sugar and salt: it's genetically engineered into us. To develop a taste for sour and bitter things requires some palatal sophistication. I can't drink beer, and I don't really get wine (as Bernard Black, his tastebuds ruined by a lifetime of cigarettes and cheap booze, said, "It's all waffle! Nobody is prepared to admit that wine actually doesn't have a taste!"), but I sure do love a gin and tonic on a hot day.

If you mean to use tonic water as a treatment for cramp, be prepared to pee a lot. A litre of tonic water has about 80 milligrams of quinine, while the standard dose to treat muscle cramps is 325 milligrams, so you're going to need about a gallon of tonic. (That gallon of tonic will also give you about 650 calories, so you'd better eat lightly during the day.) Perhaps this is a better solution:

I treat my leg pains as follows: 6 ounces of tonic water and 2 ounces of gin over ice. Repeat twice. After that, the leg pains are still there, but who cares?

If you take too much quinine, you can develop a medical condition called "cinchonism", which is characterized by nausea, vomiting, deafness, and severe headache. The name "cinchonism" comes from the word "cinchona", the name of the tree from which quinine is extracted. The word "quinine" comes from Spanish "quina", from a Quechua word, "kina", meaning "tree bark".

In North America, tonic water is usually served out of a can, or, in a bar, out of the same soda gun they use to serve everything else carbonated. In England, you get a little tiny six-ounce glass bottle, and it's nice. Civilized.