or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, November 30, 2007

Title Match

Here's a quoted sentence from a recent posting in Broadsheet, Salon.com's women's blog thing:

Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life, in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?

"Titrated"! A lovely and unexpected use of this word.

The literal meaning of "titrate", according to Dictionary.com*, is

to ascertain the quantity of a given constituent by adding a liquid reagent of known strength and measuring the volume necessary to convert the constituent to another form.

Whew! But that isn't the whole story, because there's something a definition can't really portray. In a laboratory, a titration is performed using a device like this:
The stopcock on the right-hand side delivers the reagent to the solution one drop at a time, and this is the sense that Hochschild is getting at: the paid intimacy of a spa or a salon is doled out in small, measured amounts rather than being given freely.

"Titration" has a very interesting etymology, because it's the result of a string of metaphors, and even though it's very close etymologically to its source, in sense it's extraordinarily far away. I usually start from the ground floor--the root language--and work my way up to the word in question, but this time, it's better to go in reverse.

To titrate is to test the quantity or quality of something. This is an extended sense derived from the French word "titre", which once referred to the purity of precious metals; the relationship in senses is obvious. This stems from an earlier French meaning of "titre", "qualification", and this in turn stems from yet another sense of the word, "title", which is to say "that which distinguishes one thing from another"; it's not hard to follow this chain of changes. The whole thing derives from Latin "titulus", originally meaning "superscription" and then "title". "Titre" is in fact the modern French word for "title", and is, predictably enough, the source of that English word. So a titration is literally an entitlement: the bestowal of a classification or categorization onto something.

*I used to use Answers.com all the time, but then they added an unknown something, probably a form of advertising, to their pages and suddenly my browser, Safari, would crash every time I went to their site. I stopped using them. It may be the case that they fixed the problem, or that the newest version of Safari did. Don't care. They're dead to me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


As Strunk and White famously said, "Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs." That's not to say you can't ever use those two latter parts of speech: writing and speech are impossible without them. It means only that overreliance on them makes for bad writing. (The second part of that advice: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." If you write something drab and uninteresting, then piling on the modifiers to try to give it some sense of life is going to have the opposite effect.)

My problem with adjectives is that if they're carelessly used to modify, or intensify, something which is self-evident, they inevitably suggest (to me, at least) the "as opposed to?", because I am so contrary. This sort of thing occurs to me all the time, such as here and here, and I've already gone on about it at some length here, so I won't bore you.

The sub-head to a recent Salon.com King Kaufman piece read as follows:

Sean Taylor killing: A grief counselor talks about how teammates and fans can gain "control" after a senseless tragedy.

"Senseless tragedy". You know, as opposed to all those sensible tragedies we see unfolding around us every day.

Most any noun can take most any adjective. Sometimes they form standard two-word units, little molecules of meaning, useful to the point of becoming cliché ("almighty dollar"). Out of all of them, "senseless tragedy" might well be the worst, the most pointless. A tragedy is, almost by definition, senseless, in that we can't make any sense of it. Encumbering it with an adjective doesn't make it any worse or any more tragic than it already is.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sweets to the Sweet

At the supermarket the other day, we bought a bottle of dulce de leche, which is a sort of caramel made by cooking down whole milk and sugar. I thought it was okay (I had some on a toasted English muffin and thought it wasn't salty as good caramel ought to be): Jim, who loves caramel in all its manifestations, ate some with a spoon and then said, "I would walk over my own grandmother to get this."

Then, naturally, he called it "dulce de lecherous", and then, naturally, I began to wonder exactly where the word "lecherous" might have come from. It can't be related to "leche": that means "milk" in Spanish, and is from the collection of "galakt-" words in Greek that also led to "lact-" words in Latin. (I've already done them, so you can read about them in the previous posting instead of my having to bore everyone with them a second time around.)

No, "lecher", being from the French, is unrelated to Spanish "leche": it would be, because the French word for milk is "lait". Instead, "lecher" comes from Old French "lechier", "to lick", because a lecher is someone who licks his lips at the sight of a potential conquest.

There is a related word that you don't really hear much, partly perhaps because it's too confusing: "lickerish". It means "lustful" or "lascivious" in exactly the same way that "lecherous" does, and well it might, since as its name suggests, it's also descended from "lechier" and "lick". Unfortunately, it is aurally indistinguishable from "licorice", unless you're one of those people who pronounces the last part of that word as "-iss" rather than "-ish".

"Licorice", by the way, is from the Latin "liquiritia", which is pronounced just like "licorice" with a schwa on the end. "Liquiritia", in turn, comes from Greek "glykyrriza", "sweet root", because of the delicious sweetness of the licorice root.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Today I got an e-mail which read, in its entirety,

Did you ever reveal the answer to the hair dye clue?

Luckily, I knew what it meant. In an early posting in which I was talking about cryptic crossword puzzles, I mentioned what I thought was the best crossword clue I ever read:

Age without a hair dye is hell (7)

to which the solution (it's in the comments, which someone just browsing wouldn't have seen) is as follows: "age" without "a" gives you "ge-"; "henna" is a hair dye; and, put together, they form "Gehenna", which is a Greek word derived from Hebrew "ge ben Hinnom", the valley of the son of Hinnom, and used figuratively to mean "Hell".


If you're the kind of person who reads this blog on anything like a regular basis, then trust me, you'll enjoy FreeRice.com, which is a vocabulary quiz. You can read about it at Snopes.com, which you probably should be reading at least once a week anyway.

The words in the quiz start out pretty easy, but within a few minutes, you're looking at things like "leveret"* (which I knew), "lyddite"** (which I guessed correctly based on the evidence), and "cenote"*** (which I had no idea about and guessed wrong). It's fun! For a certain kind of person, anyway. (My kind of person.) The vocabulary is ranked in levels which go up to 50, and I am a stubborn cuss, so I slogged away at it until finally I hit level 50 (without cheating) through a combination of knowledge, analysis, good guessing (a "felucca" is a sailing-ship!), and dumb luck, a quartet which will get you through most of life's problems. The word that got me there, as it happens, was velleity.

And I donated 1150 grains of rice to someone! And there's more to come! Eat well, anonymous stranger.


English and German used to have more or less the same tiny problem, and they each solved it in a different way.

In Old English, the word for "morning", as it is in German, was "morgen". The dative case form of "morgen"--if you don't know what "dative" means, don't worry, it isn't important--was "morne", which eventually turned into "morn"; then, later still, it took the "-ing" ending so common in English (also so common in German as "-ung", which is where we got it from in the first place) and became "morning".

A variant of "morgen" in Old English was "morwen"; one of those things that crop up in a dialect, perfectly usual. This became "morwe", then "morowe", and then "morrow", and in Shakespeare's time still meant "morning", as in Much Ado About Nothing. The trouble is that it had come to take on another meaning: if you're talking one day about something you'll do the next day, you need a word for that next day, and a logical candidate among words that already exist is "morning", because that's the start of the next day in question.

So "morrow" was one widespread version of a word that meant "[this] morning", and it also meant "the day after this one", and it would be nice to have a way to distinguish them. What to do? In English, the solution was, I think, elegant; collapse the phrase which sprang up, "to morrow", into a single word--first "to-morrow", and then "tomorrow". At about the same time, the use of "morrow" to mean "morning" was drying up and disappearing, which means that, in essence, two words vanished from the language. As a result, we can say "tomorrow morning" without any problem, or even any realization that the words are essentially the same thing.

German also has an elegant solution to the problem; they kept both words the same, but added a twist. "Morgen" means both "morning" (as in "Morgenstern", "morning star", a poetic name for the planet Venus) and "tomorrow" ("morgen Abend" means "tomorrow evening"). It's clear in context which meaning is intended: if you add an article or other modifier to it, then it means "this morning" or "the morning" or "yesterday morning" or whatever; otherwise it means "tomorrow". If you want to say "tomorrow morning", you could in theory say "morgen Morgen", but that sounds odd, if not actually stupid, and it won't do. What German does instead, when it wants to say "tomorrow morning", is to say "Morgen fruh", which means "early tomorrow". (If it wants to say "early [in the] morning", then it reverses the order, adjective-noun: "frühen Morgen".)

*A leveret is a young hare: "levere", the Middle English word for a hare, and the French "-ette" ending, abbreviated. "Levere" comes from Latin "lepus", which means, of course, "hare". You didn't think rabbits and hares were the same thing, did you? I sort of did, but a hare is larger and stronger than a rabbit, and its young are born fully furred and seeing, whereas rabbit kits are born naked and blind. It's good to know such things.

**It's a kind of explosive. It's named after the English town where it was first tested, Lydd, and has the "-ite" suffix we give to various chemical compounds such as "pyrite" and "cavorite"****, not the "-ite" ending that means a person, such as "Israelite", or the "-ite" ending used to transform a word into another part of speech, such as "composite" from "compose".

***According to Dictionary.com, it's a "water-filled limestone sinkhole of the Yucatan". Not really the sort of word I carry around with me. I've already forgotten it.

****Cavorite doesn't really exist. H.G. Wells invented it for his novel "The First Men In The Moon": it's an antigravity substance which enables the astronauts of the title to make it to the Moon, and it's named after its inventor, Dr. Cavor.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Down There

Here's me being picky again, and, worse, picking on another poor innocent cartoonist whose only desire is to make nice drawings. But a mistake is a mistake.

Here's a panel from Carol Lay's Salon.com comic strip, "Story Minute":

"Veil of tears" is wrong. It's a suggestive image, of course, and you can see where the misunderstanding came from: life as a perpetual misery, seen through a film of tears over the eyes. But that isn't the original sense, spelling, or meaning of the phrase.

It's actually "vale of tears". A vale is a valley (etymologically, they're the same word, as you might have gathered), and the vale of tears is life, a dark and wretched gully through which we all have to trudge before we reach the other side--death, and presumably heaven.

Need I tell you that I don't subscribe to this view of the world? Life has its miseries, but also its compensating joys, and someone who thinks life is nothing but (as I put it to someone at work the other day, jokingly, of course) "endless toil and then the grave" probably needs to get out more, meet some new people, stop moping around.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Times

Calendars are nothing but trouble. Look at how long it took humanity to square away all the fractions of days and make a 365.2425-day year come out right. (I once read an entire book about it, but I don't remember the title: it might have been this one.) Heck, just look how hard it is to design a simple, readable large-print calendar on a business-card-sized surface.

The calendrical problem of reducing the day, month and year to numerals is one that continues to bedevil North Americans. My Finnish co-worker insists that day-month-year is the only logical way to do it--that's how Europeans uniformly do it--and I can't really disagree with her: if everyone agrees that the numbers run from the smallest unit of time to the largest, then we'll always get it right. The trouble is that in English, when speaking the date, we generally put the month first: "October 4th, 2007", which would reduce to "10/4/07", which of course means April 10th to many other people. The English-language method makes sense: it's not stupid or illogical, but an artifact of how we speak. (Some canonical dates are spoken small-to-large: "The Fourth of July", for instance, or "Cinco de Mayo". Those are the exception. Canada Day is "July 1st", not "The First of July".)

"Forward" and "back", when applied to a calendar, can cause no end of confusion. If you have an event planned for November 25th and then say, "We're moving the date forward"...well, which direction does that mean? Does "forward" mean "closer to me"? It certainly could: when you're standing on November 25th and looking down the road at a week or two hence, "forward" could easily look like "taking a couple of steps towards me". Or does it mean "further along the timeline which a calendar represents", and therefore "further away from me"? Either interpretation is logical, and yet they mean opposite things.

"Previous" and "next", when applied to time, seem to create the same difficulty. Blogs always arrange their entries in chronological order, with the newest entry on top. This only makes sense: when you go to the blog, you don't want to scroll all the way to the bottom of what could be an enormous list of postings just to read what's new. (I've done 724 postings in 32 months: would you want to work your way to the bottom of that?)

On The Consumerist. when you reach the bottom of the page, you get to the next entries--the older ones, the ones that naturally follow if the blog were one long list instead of being divided into pages--by clicking the button that reads "next". When you reach the bottom of that page, you can return to the entries you've previously read by clicking the "prev" button, or get to the next page of things you haven't read yet by clicking "next". Perfectly logical.

On Pharyngula, when you get to the bottom of the page, you can see the previous--which is to say older, or previously posted--entries by clicking the "previous" button. When you get to the bottom of that page, you can see even older entries by clicking "previous" again, which takes you to entries previous to the ones you've just been reading, or you can go to calendrically later entries by clicking the "next" button, the ones that are next along the timeline. Perfectly logical.

And so we have two perfectly logical ways of doing something, and they're absolutely opposite to one another, and I can never remember which blog uses which method, so if I haven't read a particular blog in a while, I always seem to guess wrong and end up going where I've already been.* It's a small thing, but it's annoying.

You want to know why we can't solve the big problems like global warming and war? Because we can't even solve the little problems like what two words mean.

*<There are other ways around the problem. I Can Has Cheezburger?, the best lolcats site, simply numbers all the pages in reverse chronological order, and the bottom of each page lets you go to one of a few other pages, to the next page, or to the last page, so you can work your way back from the beginning. Boingboing, the "Directory of Wonderful Things", puts a number of the day's posts on one page, lets you click a button reading "Continue Reading Older Posts", which puts all of that day's posts on one page, and then finally gives you the options of reading "A Day Earlier" and "A Day Later", labelled with the actual dates. That seems perfect to me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mix It Up

Yesterday, you may recall, I was talking about "emaciate", which derives ultimately from Indo-European "mak-", "long, thin". It was going to be even longer, but two things intervened: first, I had some stuff to do before going to work, and second, I realized I could get a whole other posting out of it. When I got home from work last night, there was an e-mail from a reader named OmegaMom which read, in its entirety,


Simple, elegant, and to the point. And, as it happens, the very word that I was about to discuss.

"Macaroni", an elongated tubular pasta, must be derived from "mak-". It's obvious, and everything fits: macaroni is long pasta and its name looks like "macron", which (after an insignificant change in consonants) starts with the IE root.

Despite this complete obviousness, there's no direct connection. Etymology is a tricky and tangled thing, and it happily leads us astray whenever it can.

"Macaroni" is a giant tangle, too. I don't think I have the whole thing from start to finish: one article I found teasingly showed me the first page and then asked me to pay for the rest, and as devoted as I am to this blog, that's a step too far. (I'll spend time but not money.) But here's what I've been able to ferret out. If I've gotten anything wrong, well, it's not from lack of trying, that's for sure.

"Macerate" is an English word with a couple of meanings: the most usual one, a cooking term, is "to soften by steeping in liquid": one might macerate fruit for a pie, for example. Another meaning is "to waste away: to become emaciated", perhaps from a couple of metaphorical extensions related to the "steeping" sense: you macerate food, liquid is drawn from it, and the mixture becomes soft and watery, so it's thinned out, which is what "emaciate" means.

And yet these two words are from different IE roots. "Emaciate", as we know, comes from "mak-", but "macerate" comes from "mag-", "to knead, to make". They are extremely similar, but they are not the same word, and their etymological development went off in two different directions (which happened to overlap slightly in the senses of "macerate"). "Mak-" led to "emaciate", and "mag-" led to a whole crew of words. One of these was Greek "makaria", a mixture of broth and barley groats (coarsely crushed grain): the connection between this and the eventual "macerare" is obvious. It is evidently this Greek word which led, eventually, to Italian "maccarone", a dumpling, and from this came "macaroni", a kind of pasta which is similarly made of a flour paste. ("Macaroon", a kind of cookie which in Europe is made of almond paste but in North America is primarily made of coconut, also comes from "maccarone".)

"Mak-" meant "make", and sure enough, it's the source of that very word in English. "Match" is another descendent--"to make two things fit together"--and so is "mingle", a very specific sort of kneading together. This "kneading" sense gave rise to a pair of words I never would have connected, though they share a syllable: "among", which is to say "mixed in with", and "mongrel", a mixture of breeds. And finally, that big lump of kneaded dough led to Greek "maza", from which English derived "mass" and "massive".

I know of people who've tried to read my blog and found nothing but bafflement. That's fine: this sort of thing isn't for everyone, and I'd have the same response reading a blog about car engines or ancient Assyria or the streetlights of Europe (all of which I'm sure are interesting and involving in their own way). But I find etymology to be infinitely fascinating, and I can't help but think that people should naturally be interested in it: it's a window into how the mind works, and a connecting thread between the past and the present.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Skinny

In the letters section of this week's Salon.com television column, I Like To Watch, someone wrote the following sentence:

It looked like a rummage sale was when all the designers were grabbing fabric, unlike last season's first show where all the designers had to race back to their rooms and rip and destroy their own living quarters and then, have to return later exhausted and go to sleep in the emaciated rooms.

"Emaciated" isn't the word I would have chosen--"eviscerated" is better--but it's not professional writing so I'm not criticizing it. However, it did force me to ponder the extremely interesting word "emaciated".

It means, of course, "wasted away: made scrawny". The first letter is fairly obviously Latin "ex-", in this case probably an intensifier but possibly "out of", its most usual meaning. But what of the rest of it?

The actual root is pretty boring: "maciare", "to make thin". That's it. That's all we have. It didn't leave any other traces in English that I know of, and with good reason: it's extremely specific and not conducive to spreading itself out.

But its Indo-European root? Ah, now that's something.

The root of "emaciate" is "mak-", which means "long" or "thin" and so is an obvious source for "maciare". But it moved in other directions: it gave Greeks the word "makros", which in English led to the accent mark known as the macron, denoting a long vowel (as opposed to the breve, which denotes a short one). "Makros" means "long" or "large", a minor conceptual leap but an important one.

Another Greek derivative of "mak-", but one which was coined after the invention of the microscope, was "paramecium", because a paramecium is a little protozoan which is elongated: "paramekes" meant "oval" in Greek, because an oval is an elongated circle.

"Maciare" had a cousin in Latin "macer", "thin", and this led, eventually, to English "meagre", or "meager", as the Americans prefer to spell it after Noah Webster had his way with the language.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Quick Study

The movie "The Golden Compass" is hitting the movie theatres in a few weeks (I'm making sure I don't have to work on December 8th) and, though some preliminary reviews aren't good and a lot of it will have to be watered down to make it palatable to Americans, I'm severely psyched to see it. (Despite the fact that they don't look like their descriptions in the books, the casting director couldn't really have done better than Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Daniel Craig as Marisa Coulter, Serafina Pekkala, and Lord Asriel.) I read the first book in the trilogy a few years ago, and before I was even halfway through it I was at the bookstore to buy the second and third volumes. I've recommended the series to a great many people (once in a bookstore I practically forced a customer to buy the first volume: I hope she liked it) and lent my own set to more than one person: I'm re-reading them now before the movie opens. (I finished the first volume a couple of days ago and am halfway through the second.)

A couple of days ago, the word "fast" appeared in one of the books in the context of "tightly": "held fast" or "caught fast" or something like that. (I can't find the actual line, not that it matters.) It stuck in my head, for some reason, and today at work I was distantly mulling it over when I realized, with a start, that "fasten" comes from this sense of the word "fast".

It probably isn't any great revelation, but it had simply never occurred to me. I hadn't ever given it any thought: "fasten" just seemed to be a word, a unit, which meant "to fix in place"; it was only today that I understood that it was that "hold tight" sense of the word "fast", plus that "-en" suffix that is so common in Middle English adjective-to-verb creations such as "moisten", "dampen", and "lessen". I should have known this--it seems so obvious!--and yet I didn't, but now I do.

All senses of "fast" in English--and there are quite a few of them--are related. The "secured" sense is the oldest: it descends from a Norse word, "fastr", meaning "firm: fixed". After that, the other senses began to emerge: "fast friends" has a similar sense of fixity, and "fast asleep" means "soundly, completely asleep". Because two events, one immediately after the other, could be thought of as being attached to one another, they were "fast" as well, and this sense soon came to mean "quickly", which is the commonest sense of the word today. The sense of "abstention from food", which seems as if it ought to be unrelated, is in fact a cousin, because when you abstain, you hold firmly to your decision not to eat. (And "breakfast", the first meal of the day, is so called because you break your overnight fast.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cheek By Jowl

Two years ago--two years!--I wrote about the word "miscegenation" and how it begins not with "mis-", which would mean it's a bad thing, but with "misc-", which means it's a mixing thing, "miscere" being the Latin verb for "to mix".

Fast forward to this morning, as I was getting ready for work, and thought, out of nowhere (this happens a lot) of the word "promiscuous". As usual, I tossed it around it my head, and discovered that, to my amazement, it must also be an offshoot of "miscere". I couldn't believe I had never noticed it before.

"Pro-" in Latin words generally means "for" in some sense, including "forward". "Miscere" means "to mix" or "to mingle". And finally, "-ous" is a suffix which creates an adjective having the approximate meaning "full of" or "having the quality of", as in "venous" ("of or pertaining to a vein") or "nebulous" ("like a nebula").

So. "Promiscuous", a word it never occurred to me to write about in the original posting two years ago, means "in favour of mixing it up". In a sexual sense, usually.

This is why I wish etymology were taught in school alongside grammar and spelling. It's great training for the mind; it encourages flexibility of thought and the quest for knowledge. It is a wonderful thing to know where words come from, and to be able to make connections between them: that flash of insight--the one I felt this morning when I discovered I knew where a random word came from--is one of the most delightful feelings I know.

Just so I don't have to do another post in a couple of years about another word I just learned is related to "miscere": "miscellany", "a mixture of things", and "miscellaneous", "mixed", also come from this word, as does the Spanish import "mestizo", "of mixed race". Less obviously related--but related nonetheless--are "meddle", "medley", and the French borrowing "mélange", with or without the accent mark. "Mash", originally the mixture from which alcohol could be fermented, is also a relative. If that's not all of them, it's near enough for me.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Weak Links

In a comment to something I posted a few days ago, reader joe805 said:

I'm assuming you saw the results of that recent Harvard study on the half-life of regularization of English irregular verbs? This post reminded me of that and made me consider the idea that all newly-coined verbs (or words previously used only as nouns but which then morph through usage into verbs) would certainly be regular, correct?

I hadn't, in fact, read anything about this, though now I have, and thanks for the pointer. You (that's the plural you, which is to say "everyone who isn't joe805") can read it here, and interesting reading it is, too.

I did know about that general thesis, though, at least about the fact that it's the most commonly used irregular verbs that tend to remain that way, for the most part. Lots of strong verbs (they're the ones that have a vowel change) have become weak verbs (the ones that follow the invariant pattern "[verb]", "[verb]ed", "have [verb]ed") over time: "help" is a very common verb, now perfectly regular ("help", "helped", " have helped") and yet its Old English forms, based on German strong verbs, were "help", "holp", "holpen" (which lines up pretty well with modern German "helfen", "half", "geholfen"). This vowel change is typical of strong verbs. "Help" eventually became a weak verb, and all newly coined verbs, as joe805 noted, start out that way. Occasionally we'll make a joke preterite and past participle, such as "think", "thank", "thunk" (modeled after "drink", "drank", "drunk"), but that's just playing with language; when we bring a new verb into the language, it will be a weak verb--a regular one, with a regular ending.

There are, as the article notes, some irregular verbs that are perpetually battling for supremacy. The smart money, of course, is on the weak form winning, eventually, but it could take a long time. "Thrive", for example, has two preterites, "throve" and "thrived", and two past participles, "thriven" and "thrived". This pattern should sound familiar: "drive", "drove", "driven". Because "drive" is used much more often than is "thrive", it's likely that the weak form of "thrive" will win out, but that the irregular forms of "drive" will remain in the language for a long while yet.

The article also points out that the ten most common verbs in English (be, have, do, go, say, can, will, see, take, and get) are irregular. This is as we would expect; because the verbs are so frequently used, there isn't much of a chance for them to lie dormant, get revived and mistakenly regularized, and then eventually have the irregular forms lost so that the regular forms replace them.

Not all irregular verbs are strong verbs: sometimes the preterite shows no vowel change, which is the hallmark of the strong verb, and in therefore no change at all. Fascinatingly, all of them end in "-d" or "-t". Some have two preterites: the past tense of "knit" can be irregular "knit" or regular "knitted", depending on context and dialect, and the same is true of such verbs as "wet". Others have only the irregular form, such as "cut".

Plural nouns are similar to verbs as regards regularity: there are a fair number of irregular noun plurals in English, but when we're pluralizing a new noun, we invariably add an ess to the end of it. The only exception to this is when we're making a joke: patterned after "ox/oxen", an irregular plural which survives to this day, you will see the plural of VAX (a computer term which I'm not going to spell out for you) written as "VAXEN" rather than the expected "VAXES", or "box"--usually a computer housing, but possibly any kind of box--as "boxen".

We even make regular plurals out of foreign imports. The Italian plural of "cappuccino" is "cappuccini", but you will likely never see that word in English-speaking countries outside of an Italian restaurant menu, and possibly not even there. The correct English plural is, of course, "cappuccinos". (Sometimes, as I've noted before, we start off on the wrong foot: instead of adopting Italian "panino", we took its plural, "panini", as the singular, and then naturally pluralized it to "paninis".)

The Harvard study noted that the most-used verbs are the ones most likely to remain irregular, and that the half-life of an irregular verb is proportional to the square root of the frequency of its usage. This is why "to be" will remain wildly irregular until the end of time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


If you suspected that I wasn't actually particularly learned about English, but was just some guy who really loves the language and reads a lot, here's your proof.

A couple of years ago I was going on about the word "leg", and neglected to mention that Indo-European "kamp-", which evolved into Greek "kampe", "joint", and then to Italian "gamba", also led to two fascinating and unexpected leg-related words: "gambol", to leap about playfully, and "gambit", a tactic by which you hope to trip someone up.

Well, it's not particularly awful to have left that out: I can't cover everything. But I also said that English "leg" was fro a Norse word, and then I said, "Who knew?" As it turns out, I would have known if I had more in-depth training in etymology, because, marvelously, a great many short hard-gee words in English are from the Norse tongues. (Lots of hard-kay words such as "crook" come from Norse, too. I'm thinking these people liked their beer cold, their horses fast, and their consonants hard.)

"Egg", for instance: it looks nothing like other European words for "egg", such as French "oeuf", German "Ei", or Italian "uovo". (A very old English word for "eggs", still used in the 15th century, was "ayren": obviously Germanic "ay-" plus a common plural ending in Middle English, "-en" or "-ren", as in "oxen" and "children". Old English had both "aeg" and "ey", each with various spellings, but eventually, "eggs" won out over "ayren".)

"Pig" is another of these Norse words, somewhat unlike Romance "porc/porco" but miles from Germanic "Schwein". (This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but I thought you'd like to know anyway: "porpoise" is a concatenation and then a Frenchification of Latin "porco" and "piscis", which is to say "pig-fish". Huh!)

"Frog" isn't such a direct descendant of Norse tongues, which did have "froskr" but which also donated "frosk" to Old High German, which turned it into modern "Frosch". Middle English had both forms: Norse "frogge" and Germanic "frosh". We all know which one won out.

Here are some others: "slug", "nag", "rag" and "rug" (almost the same word, actually), "bridge" (it used to have a hard "-g" when it was Middle English "brigge"), and "lug".

Not all words that end in a hard "-g" are Norse, though. "Dog" is apparently one of those words that simply appeared in the language, mysteriously. English had a perfectly serviceable word for that animal, "hund", which is pure Germanic (they still use the word "Hund" for "dog") and survives in English as "hound". It's theorized that "dog" was used to refer to a specific breed of the animal, much as we say "Peke" or "Corgi" today, but nobody knows what breed it might have been, or why only that one breed was important enough to deserve its own name.

Hound, by the way, is fascinating all by itself. The Latin word for "dog" is "canis"; obviously, if Old English took "hund", then there were two branches of words for "dog", and we picked the other one. But "canis" and "hund" are the same word.

Indo-European "kwon-" led to Greek "kuon", which in turn led to Latin "canis". That lineage, I think, is clear enough. From the Latin form we got "canine", referring not only to things doglike but also things dental, because the canine teeth, aka the cuspids (so called because they're pointed, which is to say cusped/cuspéd/cuspid), are longer and sharper than the others and look like a dog's teeth. We also got "kennel", where we keep dogs, and, unexpectedly, "cynic" (direct from Greek "kynikos"), because a cynic is a cur--someone motivated by selfishness and not altruism.

But there was a shifting of sound in Germanic languages from a hard "k-" to an aspirated "h-" (part of Grimm's Law), and so IE "kwon-" would be something closer to "huon-" or "hon-", and this is the source of the "hound" words in such languages as Dutch "hond", Icelandic "hunds", and Danish "hundur".

You would never, ever think, just by looking at them, that "canine" and "hound" could have anything in common, and yet all it takes is a very simple consonantal shift and a few hundreds of years of evolution.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Home Ownership

Here's a sentence from a Salon.com review of a book called "Them":

That Civic League meeting isn't the only bizarre echo of a supposedly distant past; someone sets fire to the Gilmore's mailbox, and the burning post looks disturbingly like a cross.

"The Gilmore's". What the fuck is that? What is a Gilmore, and why does it have a mailbox?

Laura Miller is a senior writer at Salon.com, and presumably therefore knows how to write. How can it possibly be that she doesn't know how to write the possessive of a plural proper noun? And how can it possibly be that there's nobody at Salon who casts a second pair of eyes at everything that's being published, to make sure that mistakes like this don't happen?

For the record: the Gilmores, a couple, have a house, and therefore that is the Gilmores' house. If you're one of those people who insists on ending every possessive with an apostrophe-ess, then it's the Gilmores's house. It is not, ever, under any circumstances "Gilmore's". That's the singular possessive, and in this context it's wrong. (It only works if you habitually call someone by his or her last name, in which case you may say, "That's Smith's house." Smith. Singular.)

It's the sort of mistake you see all the time on wooden house signs, the kind that I always want to fix with a can of plastic wood and a spatula and a sotto voce cuss word. It isn't the sort of mistake you'd expect to see in a piece of professionally written, edited and published writing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Master Piece

Last year I mentioned an extraordinary little animated film called Biovisions: The Inner Life of the Cell. Only today did I discover the same (somewhat longer) film, without the gorgeous music, but with a narration that explains exactly what's going on at each step of the process. If you watched the early one, you really should watch this one, too, and if you haven't watched the earlier one, then please do: it's magical.

It turns out that what we're watching isn't just a bunch of random cellular inner workings, but a specific chain of events: the transportation of a leukocyte--a white blood cell--from the bloodstream to the site of an infection or inflammation so it can do its job. I thought it was absorbing and well worth watching (though I had to keep a running commentary in my head trying to pick apart the unfamiliar, but analyzable, words), but I'm such a huge geek that when I saw the big ruffly lamellar object in one scene I thought, "That's the Golgi apparatus, isn't it?", from some dimly remembered childhood readings on the subject, and was thrilled when that's what it turned out to be.

So: I am the sort of person who, with a history of voracious reading but absolutely no training in biology, knows and cares what the Golgi apparatus is. This, I think, tells you a great deal about me.


On Friday past I was talking about made-up words and the great pliability of the English language when it comes to such inventions. As I had been composing the post in my head, the perfect example had come to mind and promptly been forgotten until Saturday, when it was too late to include it. So here it is.

A seventh-season episode of The Simpsons (back when it was one of the best things on television rather than a sorry waste of time) called Lisa the Iconoclast contains a scene with the children watching a cheap, badly written and historically biased classroom film about the founder of their town, Jebediah Springfield. At the climax of the film, the camera pulls in on the actor playing Jebediah--even the microphone hauls into view--and he says in a manner known to anyone who's ever seen a historical film of this sort, "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Two teachers, who've no doubt seen the film a dozen times before, have this conversation:

Mrs. Krabappel: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
Miss Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

"Embiggens" certainly is a perfectly something word. It isn't a word word, any more than "encrudulate" was, and yet it immediately opens itself up to analysis; once again, any speaker of English knows exactly what it means. It's a macaronic, which is no sin in English: it's assembled from French "en-", converted to "em-" before labial consonants such as "-b-" and "-p-"; "big", which is Middle English but probably derived from one of the Norse tongues, which contributed a great many hard-gee sounds to English; and Germanic "-en", an extremely common verb terminator (to this day, all German verbs, as far as I know, end in those two letters except for "tun", "to do", which is irregular in every language I know). "Embiggen" is a clever, plausible coinage.

It's harder to know what to make of "cromulent", which, of course, is exactly the point. It seems to mean "common" or "legitimate" in this context, but its derivation is a mystery. That suffix "-ent" (or its brother "-ant") is often used in English as a way of turning words into adjectives: it can be tacked onto verbs intact, as in "expect/expectant", "absorb/absorbent", and it serves as an adapter for nouns that end in "-ence" or "-ance", such as "variance/variant", "magnificence/magnificent". It's the stem that is, deliberately, the puzzle: there's nothing in English quite like "cromul-", though the nonce-word is so well constructed if you came across "cromulent" in a dictionary, you wouldn't be at all surprised. (If you're me, though, you'd demand an etymology.)

Later in the episode, after Homer has tried out for the job of town crier, the joke is reiterated and made even funnier:

Police Chief Wiggum: Good God he is fabulous!
Principal Skinner: Yes, he's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance.

Since we've only heard school employees use these two words, it seems as if they've been learned from badly made school-use films. "Embiggened" is used here in a rather dubious sense, given its obvious meaning, but at least it's a little bit plausible: "cromulent" in this context is a complete impossibility, as its use is nothing like Miss Hoover's. Does Skinner even know what the word means? Does Miss Hoover? Does anyone? Are (theoretically) educated people in the educational system using it deliberately to confuse other citizens and appear smart? It all calls to mind a passage from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"; Humpty Dumpty has just made what he considers to be a compelling point and caps it by saying:

"There's glory for you!"

"I don't know what you mean by `glory,' " Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"

"But `glory' doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Foam on the Range

I have in my shower a bottle of Chanel's Allure Homme shower gel. One of the things I love about lots of European products is that they're labelled in multiple languages; in this case, eleven. It makes for riveting bathtime reading, let me tell you.

The French term for "shower gel" (on this bottle, anyway) is "gel moussant". "Mousse", as we know, is French for "foam".

The German word for "foam" is "Schaum". You've probably seen this word before: if not on a bottle of European shower gel, then as part of the word "Meerschaum". It's a kind of pipe, but the word literally means "seafoam", "Meer" being the German word for sea and being cognate to French "mer" and Latin "mare". The word "Schaum" doesn't actually appear on the bottle (they use "Bade- und Duschgel", which is to say "bath and shower gel"), but it is the word for "foam" anyway. (Meerschaum is a form a white clay--actually magnesium silicate--used for carving little sculptures and also pipe bowls.)

The Norwegian translation of "foaming bath gel" is "skummende badegele", which strikes the English ear as slightly hilarious and slightly gross, because it inevitably calls to mind the word "scum", which is unfortunate.

But, as will almost certainly have occurred to you by now, "scum" is directly related to "Schaum". Scum that's floating in a pot of boiling potatoes is nothing more than air bubbles bound together by starch molecules; it's potato foam. But the word, alas, has come to mean something rather nastier than that, since it now generally refers to a floating layer of something filthy, decomposing, or otherwise noxious.

And what do we do with cooking scum? We skim it, of course, and do you suppose that "scum" and "skim" are related? Oh, you had better bet they are. Middle English "scume", which we borrowed from the Dutch (their word was "schume"), led not only to "scum", but also to the verb "scumen", which meant, yes, "to skim".

Friday, November 09, 2007

All Together

I was washing the dishes yesterday before work and a word (describing a spoon) came into my head, full-blown and ready to use: "encrudulated".

It's not a word word: it isn't in any dictionary. I just did a quick Google check and the word exists in only one place, so I'm not the first person to ever have thought it up (though I suppose I could be the second). But its meaning is instantly ascertainable: any English speaker knows, without ever having heard it before, that it means "coated with muck". We can easily disassemble it in our heads: Latin "en-", used to transform a noun into verb; "crud", a Middle English word related to "curd" (really*) meaning "filth" or "muck"; "-ulate", which occurs in a fair number of Latin-derived verbs such as "populate" or "inoculate" and which is also one of the go-to suffixes for invented words such as "discombobulate" (and which is also seen in its adjectival form "-ular" in such inventions as "blogular"); and finally "-ed", the standard past-tense ending.

It is a constant wonder to me that English is as much as anything a toolkit from which to build language. We can take the great majority of its pieces and parts and tinker with them to get the word or meaning we want. We can slap on various affixes; we can thread words together like beads to make compound words and phrasal verbs; we can simply use them as another part of speech, willy-nilly. It is endless, and it is wonderful.

*Really! Starting out as Indo-European "greut-", it became Old English "crudan", "to press", which gave not only "curd", what's left when they whey is pressed out of coagulated cheese, and "crud", but also "crowd", a lot of people pressed together.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Red Whine

Here's a Slate.com article on wine tasting, and here's a couple of sentences from it:

Blind tastings are wonderfully democratic, but there is a tendency to overlook the fact that wines and palates are fickle and to read more into the results than is justified. This was certainly true of history's most famous blind tasting, the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when a panel of French experts rated several unheralded American wines superior to a handful of top Bordeauxs and white Burgundies.

Generally speaking, when we borrow a word from another language, we don't borrow that language's plural form, but instead pluralize it in the manner of the English language; we just slap an ess on the end and we're done with it. Do we care that the German plural of "hausfrau" is actually "hausfrauen"? No, of course not: when we want to pluralize the naturalized English word, we just say "hausfraus".


There are some standardized plurals that we did borrow from other languages, and one of them is from French. It's becoming more and more common to pluralize borrowings from French which end in "-eau" in the standard English manner; the usual plural of "bureau" is "bureaus", and likewise "beau" and "beaus". But there's still a residue of the French "-eaux" plural ending, including "eaux" itself; you might see "eau de toilette" pluralized into "eaux de toilette" rather than the now-usual "eau de toilettes", and you might see "beaux" or "bureaux" (both of which pass the spellchecker test and which, though they have a certain nineteenth-century flavour to them, are still correct). French words in English that already end in "-eaux" are pluralized in the same way, with no visible change from singular to plural (in the same way that English "fish" is both singular and plural). They don't need an ess tacked onto the end.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that "Bordeauxs" is wrong.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Full Disclosure

I've never read Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi", though it certainly did get a lot of accolades, didn't it? I just haven't read much fiction in the last few years, for no apparent reason. Here's an interview with Martel from The Onion AV Club which gives me some insight into why I might not want to read the book, either. First, he's very long-winded, and second, he said the following:

Hindus who will step into churches and make an offering to a statue of Mary or Joseph, figuring that this might be another avatar of Vishnu. It's not necessarily thought-out, but their instinct is not to disclude, but rather to include.

After reading these two sentences, my first thought was, "'Disclude'? That can't possibly be right. The opposite of 'include' is 'exclude', and the 'dis-' prefix isn't used in the same way as 'ex-', though they share some senses." My second thought was, "Yeah, but English has done some stranger things to words, so I'd better look it up."

The '-clude' root of all three words is from Latin "claudere", "to close; to shut". "Include" therefore means literally "to close in", or to contain. "Exclude" means its opposite: literally, "to shut out". The "dis-" prefix of "disclude"--which is, or at least once was, a valid English word, by the way--doesn't mean what Martel seems to think it means: it means not "out", (though it can mean "apart" or "away from", as in "distend", literally "to stretch away from [the body]"), but in this context "the opposite of", as in "disincline" or "disbelieve".

"Disclude", in fact, is an exceedingly rare word (the OED has but a single citation for it, from 1420, and says it's obsolete) with one meaning in English: it is a precise synonym for "disclose", which does not mean the opposite of "include" but instead means "to reveal; to uncover; to allow to be seen". When you close something in, you hide it from view. When you disclose it, you do the opposite of that: you remove whatever is hiding it, so that it may be seen. The etymology of "disclude" makes this a logical meaning.

The judicious use of an uncommon word can add sparkle to your writing or speech. But to use an uncommon, not to say obsolete, word, and use it incorrectly--well, that's just pretentious.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Walking Papers

What is it about verbs ending in vowels that strike such fear into people?

Here's a sentence from Dana Stevens' review of the almost certainly dreadful "Bee Movie" (I won't be going to see it):

But Barry, in the grand tradition of freshly diploma'd movie heroes, just can't get motivated for a lifetime of corporate droning.

"But...but 'diploma' has a vowel on the end of it! How can I tack '-ed' onto it? That'll be two vowels in a row! You can't do that in English! Aaaaaaaah!"

"Diploma" is a verb as well as a noun--it means "to bestow a diploma upon"--and its preterite/participle is "diplomaed". It may look a little odd, but it's correct, unlike the wretched, jury-rigged "diploma'd". (The progressive form of the verb is "diplomaing", which also has two vowels in a row. What would Stevens write for that one--"diploma'ng"? "diploma'ing"?)

There's no getting around it: "-ed" and "-ing" are how we create new verb forms in English, and if the verb is so uncooperative as to have a vowel at the end, you just have to attach the suffixes and soldier on. If you can't stand to do that, then rewrite the sentence so that you don't have to use affixes.* None of this shoving apostrophes where they don't belong.

*I think if I had had to write that sentence, I would have used "diplomated" in preference to "diplomaed", which, I concede, is not an entirely attractive word, impeccably correct though it be. "Diplomate" is a noun meaning "someone who has received a diploma": it's a small step to turn it into a verb, and "diplomated" would very obviously mean "having been turned into a diplomate [by way of having been given a diploma]". That's how we do things in this language.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Saving Time

In the UK, the word "cheap" shows up a lot, but not as you might expect it to.

It has a few meanings in modern English: in a positive sense, it means "very inexpensive", but alongside this is a close parallel, "shoddy; badly made" when referring to a thing or "miserly" when referring to a person.

Its distant root is also related to money. It originates in Latin "caupo", a tradesman or innkeeper; this was borrowed into various Germanic tongues and eventually became Old English "ceapan", "to buy". (It survives as well in the English word "capitalism" as well as the modern German verb "kaufen", "to buy".) "Ceapan" also became the noun "ceap", "trade; marketing; buying and selling", which led to Middle English "cheep" or "cheap", most usually seen in the phrase "good cheap", "a bargain", which then began its slow crawl to the modern use of the word.

Because "cheap" refers to marketing, you have the district in London called Cheapside, which sounds mildly hilarious to North American ears. In Bath, there's a Cheap Street--see?

(There's also a Quiet Street, which probably means what it sounds like, and a Gay Street, which probably doesn't.)

As Jim and I were bruiting about the word "cheap" yesterday morning on the way to the supermarket (we really were), he wondered if maybe it also lent itself to the name of the town Chepstow, which is on the border between Wales and England and which had been the train stop on our day trip to Tintern Abbey.

He's a clever one, is my Jim. Chepstow gets its English name (in Welsh it's Cas-gwent) from the phrase "chepe stowe", which means "marketplace", because it was once an important marketing town: sitting on the confluence of two rivers, it was at one time the largest port in Wales.

A couple more words from "buying-and-selling" sense of "ceap"/"cheap": the English name Chapman and the German name Kaufman both mean "pedlar" or "merchant", for obvious reasons, and a chapbook is a small book, usually of poetry, named after the person who sold it to you--a chap[man's]book.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Usual Suspects

When Jim and I were over in England, we were delighted--thrilled, really--to discover that when you had completed a transaction with a Barclays Bank ATM, the screen would read, "Thank You For Your Custom". How polite! How British! They even print it on the ATM receipts!

We'd heard it on some British TV shows (you know, half-hour comedies), but it's a word you don't hear in that context in North America, although, of course, the general meaning survives in the word "customer".

People like me who derive a perverse pleasure from seeing signs misspelled treasure the occasional occurrence of the word "costumer" where "customer" was meant. "Costumer Parking Only", the sign might read, and my day may consider itself made. It's such an easy mistake to make: transpose a couple of vowels and you probably won't even notice, and if you're using a spellchecker for electronic writing, that won't notice, either. Why, just look at this web page:

"Costumer service", bold as you please. (Click on the picture to make it large as life.) And not far below it, the correct version, too. Someone very likely did use a spellchecker on the page, for all the good it did them.

Anyway, imagine my astonishment when I discovered that "costume" and "custom" are not only derived from the same source: they're pretty much exactly the same word. I never would have guessed, but there it is.

The words began their lives as the unpromising Indo-European root "s(w)e-", which is the reflexive pronoun*: it's also the root of "suicide", the killing of the self. It branched off in diverse ways, and one of these branches, with the meaning "things that are one's own", led to a little cluster of words which have the sense of "distinctive" or "in-group". A custom, therefore, is something that is the distinctive way that a particular group behaves--one of things that binds it together and differentiates it from other groups.

From that IE root blossomed the Latin word "suescere", "to become accustomed to"; with the intensifier "com-" latched onto it, it became "consuescere", "to accustom", and then eventually French "costume". Middle English transformed this word into "custume", and eventually "custom".

At the same time, it maintained French "costume" for words referring to clothing. A costume nowadays usually means something you put on to disguise yourself or otherwise be something or someone you aren't, but another, older meaning is simply the clothing which a group of people wear, their general style of dress: it's what they're accustomed to wearing.

"Custom" does mean "habit" or "the usual manner of acting", but its meaning blossomed out in various directions: another meaning is "a toll or duty", because it was customary (read: obligatory, but in a polite sense) to pay it. And another sense is that of habitual patronage at a particular shop or vendor: it becomes your custom to shop there, and the merchant thanks you for your custom.

It would be tempting to think that this is the source of "customer", but in fact that word had a much, much older meaning: originally, a customer was the person whose job it was to collect those tolls and duties known as custom.

*This is to say--there's no shame in not knowing, if you don't know--the pronoun that refers back to the self, and, in fact, in English does end with the word "-self" or its plural: "Know thyself", for instance, or "They should be ashamed of themselves".

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tea Break

I don't have much to say today, and I'm leaving for work in about fifteen minutes, and there's a storm coming our way, but I did want to point you to this story from The Onion, Fancy Man Enjoys Tea, which has the most perfect control of tone. It's the sort of thing they used to do all the time (as in AMELIA EARHART MISSING: Probably Just Shopping), and while think their main section has slipped in recent years, having been at least partially eclipsed by the Onion AV Club, it's nice to see that they can still hit a homer from time to time. Do read it: it's hilarous.

"Tea", by the way, is the same or similar in the big European languages--French "thé", German "Tee", Italian and Spanish "tè"--beacuse it comes from the same source: a Chinese word, which seems surprising until you reflect that that's where most of the world's tea historically came from. The Chinese word was "t'e", and a related word, "cha", is also out there as the word for "tea"--in Portuguese, for starters.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Machinery

Translation is a difficult art to master. You can't just know what all the words are: you have to understand how they fit together, and you have to have a strong grasp of idiom, too.

Machine translation, or MT, has come a long way since the 1950s, but it still has a long, long way to go. Human language is just too variable, too hit-or-miss, too flexible to easily yield its secrets to a set of algorithms, however complex.

Here's a case in point. An online fragrance shop called Beautycafe sells a line of scents called Comptoir Sud Pacifique, of which I own ten or so (you can read various reviews such as this one over on my other blog if you have a mind to). French fragrance advertising is just dementedly expressive: it employs the loftiest turns of phrase to make each new scent seem miraculously different and desirable. Maybe it reads better in French, but in accurate English translation it just sounds silly, as I noted here. (They seem to use the word "vibrating" a lot.)

But when you take the French and just throw it into a machine like Google Translate or Babelfish, you get something completely insane, and not in a good way.

Here's a direct machine translation as found on Beautycafe's page for a scent called Mage d'Orient:

Of this travel by East, Comptoir Sud Pacifique captured rare and warm grades, unexpected impressions, agreements astonishing and surprising, to the accents a not very wooded, delicious spiced ones with chili, all in plumpness … Terribly enchanting as the east earths…
Un perfume racé, boisé aux multiples facettes.
An unpublished agreement of exotic fruity grades on a flower heart to the sunny accents.  The more masculine facets are given by the Sandalwood, the Vétyver and the Foams Oak, enveloped of a soft agreement crème and voluptuous, punctuated of a key enchanting Broad Beans Tonka, Vanilla and an amber breath and of Musc. 
Top Notes : Bergamote orange, Limette, Green Lemon, Pineapple, Lychee, Apple, Coconut Walnut Fresh.   
Middle Notes : Sea spray, Geranium, Jasmine, Lavender, Muguet, orange-tree Flower
Base Notes : Sandalwood, Vétyver, Cedar, Foam Oak, Pine Resin, Milk and Coconut Walnut, Broad Beans Tonka, Amber, Musc, Vanilla.

Ridiculous! Shameful!

"Coconut walnut fresh" happens because "noix" in French refers to the walnut (it also means any nut), but "noix de coco" means "coconut", which evidently the algorithm doesn't know, and because French generally puts its adjectives after its nouns: "noix de coco frais" actually means "fresh coconut", but the machine looked at it, thought "walnut of coconut fresh", and then reconstructed the genitive, as we often do in English, perhaps turning "shards of metal" into "metal shards".

"The foams oak" is equally risible: "mousse de chêne" doesn't mean "foam of oak", but "oakmoss", "mousse" serving both purposes in French. Oakmoss is a lichen widely used in perfumery to create scents called chypres, which have a honey-earthy-woody scent.

The whole thing is nonsense. Online machine translators have their place, but only as a starting point: you then have to go over the resulting text and turn it from MT-English into English English. You can't just shove the text into them and then publish the results. You'll only end up embarrassing yourself.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Here, in a recent Slate.com article about a Henry James novel, is a delicious word that you will probably never use:

In James' late and longiloquent novel, our protagonist is Lewis Lambert Strether, the middle-aged amanuensis and aspiring fiance of Mrs. Newsome, a wealthy widow who presides over the fictional manufacturing town of Woollett.

No, not "amanuensis", nice though it is: "longiloquent". How lovely! And how fitting!

You have certainly heard the word "grandiloquent", which, while perhaps not an everyday sort of word, is still something that crops up from time to time: it means, in a word, "bombastic", or, in a bunch of words, "speaking in a particularly pompous style". Its extraction is pretty obvious: Latin "grandis", "great", plus "loqui-", "to speak", as in "ventriloquism", the art of seeming to speak without using your speaking apparatus, literally "speaking from the belly" ("ventri-" being also the source of "ventral", as in the ventral fin of a fish, the one running along its underside, as opposed to the dorsal fin, the one running along its back).

So "longiloquence" is not, as it might be tempting to guess, the use of long words, but merely the act of speaking at great length. It's not even in the OED, though its adjectival form, "longiloquent", is, and that's labelled "rare". Go ahead and use these if they seem appropriate--that's what the language is there for--but be prepared for people to not know what you're talking about.

An "amanuensis", in case you didn't know, is someone who takes dictation, and is from Latin "manus", "hand", which shows up all over the place in such words as "manuscript" and "manufacture".

And finally, "bombastic", which I used up there, is tremendously interesting. It started life as Greek "bombux", a silkworm, which Latin naturally stole and transformed into "bombyx", with the same meaning. The word was shortly transformed into "bombax", which could refer to both silk and cotton: this (after a few more transformations and a trip through French) led to English "bombazine", a kind of (originally silk, then silk-and-wool, then cotton-and-wool or just cotton) fabric. Another use for cotton, for stuffing or padding things, took its name from "bombax" to become French "bombace", and this is the word that led to "bombast", which is to say that the language in question is as heavily padded as an armchair.