or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, May 31, 2008


Here's the first paragraph from a recent Slate.com piece about oral sex:

Two days ago, I wrote that oral sex was becoming destigmatized and normalized, thwarting parents who had hoped they could "stick to the basics" in talking to their kids about sex. Many of you wrote back, dismissing my assumptions as prude, antiquated, and out of touch. You argued that oral sex has always been more basic and common than vaginal sex and that the idea of recent stigma against it is a myth.

Does Saletan think that "prude" is an adjective?

I mean, I suppose it could be, if you didn't have any choice. English has a charming propensity for putting one word into service as various parts of speech. But we already have two workable adjectival forms of "prude": the usual "prudish" and the less common "prudelike" (which Dictionary.com, bafflingly, says is the only adjective, even though it isn't even in my computer's spelling dictionary and I've never heard it before). But the example in question strikes me as like using "dogma" instead of "dogmatic". Wouldn't any editor have changed "prude" to "prudish"? I know I would have.

I guess "prude" in that context isn't completely indefensible. It's not wrong, exactly. It's just not right, either.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Here on The Consumerist is a story that evokes no sympathy in me, because apparently I'm a heartless bastard. One of the comments:

Oh Christ dogs are fungible just get another Mandy and keep feeding her more pet meds!

I find that hilarious, because, as I said, heartless bastard, and also the word "fungible" intrigues me. It looks so much like "fungi"! And yet it cannot have anything to do with it!

"Fungible" is from the Latin "fungi vice", "to perform in the place of"; a fungible thing is one that is completely replaceable by another. It seems to have left no other offspring in English. "Fungi", on the other hand, is the plural of "fungus", a word too well-known to require me to try to define it; that word is apparently descended from Greek "spongos" or "sphongos", "sponge", from the spongy massed quality of many fungi such as yeasts and molds.

"Fungous", by the way, is the adjectival form of "fungus", another of those adjective/noun pairs like "mucous/mucus" and "callous/callus", one more thing to confuse people.

There doesn't seem to be a list of such words anywhere; there probably is, because people will make lists of anything, but since I can't find one and there mightn't be one, I decided to compile one myself. Here, and I make no promises as to its absolute completeness (though I tried), is (scroll down)

A list of word pairs in which the noun ends in "-us"
and the adjective in "-ous"
acinus acinous a berry
calculus calculous a stone
callus callous a thickened patch of skin
cumulus cumulous a pile: a piled-up cloud
cirrus cirrous a tendril: a wispy cloud
citrus citrous a fruit
coccus coccous a spherical bacterium
estrus estrous heat: female sexual receptivity
fucus fucous seaweed
fungus fungous mushrooms and other such organisms
hamulus hamulous a hook at the end of a bone
lupus lupous an inflammatory disease
mucus mucous a viscous secretion
pappus pappous a bristly projection of a plant
phosphorus phosphorous a flammable element
pileus pileous a botanical or zoological cap-shaped part
pilus pilous a hair
ramus ramous a branch
scirrhus scirrhous a hardened tumour
stratus stratous a layered cloud
torus torous a doughnut-shaped object
typhus typhous an infectious disease
villus villous a hair
vomitus vomitous ejecta of the stomach

and, for the sake of completion, though I was going to leave them out:

anestrus anestrous
diestrus diestrous
microvillus microvillous
oestrus oestrous
organophosphorus organophosphorous

(If anybody knows how to get rid of that big wad of empty space up there above the table, please let me know. My HTML is not great, and I don't know why it's there.)

Sometimes there isn't a word where you'd expect there to be one. Why do we have "tarsus" but not "tarsous", and "sulcus" but not "sulcous"? You'd think the medical world could find a use for those. Often English just takes its usual route and makes one word serve for both purposes: "sinus" is both a noun and an adjective without resorting to "sinous".

Here's a pair that isn't: "populus" and "populous". Both words exist, but "populus", though it be a noun, doesn't refer to people but to trees, specifically the poplar (which is related in a way to "populous", but not enough to make this one of our word pairs.)

There is another set of word pairs in which the adjectival form is "-ose" rather than "-ous": "thrombus" and "thrombose", for instance. (Sometimes all three exist: "torous" and "torose" are both adjectives for "torus".) I'm not compiling those. At least not today.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Good Luck

First, you really ought to watch this.

(If that didn't work, you can watch it here.)

"It" is an eleven-minute video in which a very patient programmer exploits the formal properties of the Super Mario World universe--the physics, the sounds that every object and event makes--to turn a huge Super Mario level into the percussion section for a chirpy mix of music from anime cartoons. Every bonk of a turtle's shell, every sproingy bounce-block sound, every power-up and power-down is employed in the service of punctuating the song, and what's more, it gets more and more fanciful and elaborate as it goes on; the designer tops himself, and then tops himself again, over and over in ways you can hardly imagine.

There's nobody controlling it, by the way. It's a Rube Goldberg device, a huge array of dominoes standing on end, the biggest-ever game of The Incredible Machine. All the pieces are set up just so, the first element is set in motion, and everything that ensues is a consequence of the game's physics. (It reportedly took the creator six months, and I can believe it; the timing is breathtakingly precise.)

I can't even tell you how much happiness this silly thing has brought me. I've watched it four times since I discovered it yesterday (via Boingboing, of course), and I'll probably watch it again before the day is out.


On thinking about this, it occurred to me that I don't have the faintest idea where the word "happiness" might have come from. Not French: they use "bonheur", and "happy" is "heureux". The Germans use "Glück" and "glücklich". Italian "happy" is "felice", related to English "felicitations" ("congratulations"), and Spanish "feliz". I was out of ideas.

Rather than thinking that "happy" was a natural-born English word, I should have guessed that it's from Old Norse, I suppose. I didn't, but it is. Their "happ" meant not "happiness" but "luck" or "chance", and once you know that, a number of other words fall into place, don't they?

"Perhaps" means "by chance". (The archaic "mayhap" has the same meaning: its a contraction of "it may hap", which is to say "it may chance to be".) "To happen" means "to come about", originally by luck and now by any contrivance whatever. "Happenstance" preserves this original meaning of happening by luck or chance: the "-stance" at the end is abstracted from "circumstance". "Haphazard" means "occurring at random". ("Hazard" meaning "a danger" was preceded by the sense of "some random thing"--evidently the feeling was that a random occurrence was likely to be bad--and this in turn came from the Middle English "hasard", a dice game.)

And "happy" originally meant "lucky", and now means the emotional state that the lucky person is most likely to be in.


The story is told of French president Charles de Gaulle and his wife at a retirement dinner in America: when asked what she was most looking forward to, Madame de Gaulle said, "A penis." A long uncomfortable silence ensued before Monsieur le Président said, "My dear, I believe that word is pronounced 'appiness'."

It is, of course, too good to be true: Snopes gives it a mild but insistent debunking. It is, however, the perfect illustration of the centrality of stress patterns to the English language, and of the difficulty many foreign speakers have in mastering this difficult and seemingly random element of the tongue.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Against All Odds

One of the problems with going to the gym these days--well, the only problem, I guess, once you get past the general boredom of the experience--is that they play horrible horrible popular music that gets stuck in your head no matter how hard you try to ignore it, even if you're wearing headphones and listening to other music that's of necessity raised to a level almost certainly injurious to the hearing over time.

Or maybe that's just me. All I know is, three unspeakably bad songs have been ricocheting through my head for days now (I hesitate to name them for fear that they'll get stuck in your head, too, but they're "Clumsy" by Fergie, "No One" by Alicia Keys, and "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis, each somehow worse than the other two), and the only way to dislodge them is to force another song to replay over and over in my head until that's stuck there instead.

So, for no apparent reason, the song that's been in my brain for the last half hour is "Baby On Board" from an old Simpsons episode. Hey, it beats Fergie. The word "windowpane" appears in the song, and that naturally forces me to wonder about the word "counterpane", which not only couldn't really be related, but, for all I know, is from the Italian "contro pane", "against bread", as if a duvet could somehow protect you from marauding loaves in your sleep.

But surprise surprise: the "pane" of "windowpane" is in fact related to the "pane" of "counterpane". I didn't expect it.

A pane, of course, is a sheet of glass. But it's also a sheet of other things as well: of stamps before they've been torn apart, or of wood in a door. This last is also called a panel, and in fact a moment's consideration will reveal that "pane" and "panel" are pretty much the same word. They both come from Latin for "cloth", "pannus", which also exists in English as a medical term for an excess of tissue, usually a thickened cornea or the apronlike flap that hangs over the abdomen when a formerly obese person loses a lot of weight. (This last is also called a "panniculus", attaching the usual Latin diminutive suffix to the word.)

So the "pane" of a counterpane is a sheet of fabric, sensibly enough, and the "pane" of a windowpane is by grammatical extension a sheet of something else.

But what's that "counter-" doing there? Nothing, as it turns out: it doesn't mean what it looks as if it ought to, which is "against". "Counterpane" is formed from a two-word phrase, "culcita punctus", the first word meaning "pillow, quilt, mattress" (in fact, it's the source of "quilt") and the second "pierced" or "stitched". This turned into "coultepointe" in Old French, and then gradually into "contrepoint". That's when it entered English as "countrepoint", and by long slow degrees of evolution became "counterpane"; the "pane" replaced the "point" because by that time, "pane", with its sense of "a sheet of cloth", also meant "a bedspread", and so "counterpoint" and "pane" got mashed together into a perfect illustration of a portmanteau word.

One more pleasant etymology: "pannus" became "fana" in Old English, meaning "flag", a sheet of fabric flapping in the breeze, and "fana" gradually turned into "vane".

Monday, May 26, 2008


I decided not to resubscribe to Salon Premium, even though I've been paying them (to be able to read it without seeing any ads) since I think 2000. They keep e-mailing me to warn me that my membership is about to expire, and at the end of each e-mail is this plaintive request:

P.S. If you don't plan to renew your membership, please let us know why: premiumfeedback@salon.com

I don't have the heart to tell them that their apparent lack of any kind of editorial oversight has finally driven me away. Sure, they've provided me with lots of blogfodder over the last few years, but it's time to cut the cord.

Slate isn't much better, but at least they don't ask me to pay for the privilege of reading their typos. Just look at this, from the "Also in Slate" sidebar today:

My first thought was, "Xenophonia? I don't think so!" This was followed closely by, "Well, come to think of it, 'xenophonia' is a plausible English word. I wonder if they meant it?"

They didn't. I went to the page in question, and "xenophobia" appears 7 times, "xenophonia" not once.

As usual, I can see how this happened: "b" and "n" are side by side on the keyboard, and if there isn't a second pair of eyes to review everything, which clearly there isn't, then such mistakes can slip in. I doubt that "xenophonia" is in the computer's dictionary (it isn't in my Mac's), which indicates that nobody at Slate even bothered to use a spellchecker, but they might have. Still, it's a mistake, something which doesn't have any place in a professionally run news website, not even something so trivial as a sidebar. If they don't care that what appears there is correct, how do I know they have any more interest in the correctness of anything really important, such as the facts they publish?

"Xeno-" is Greek, of course, and means "strange" or "stranger". "Xenophobia" is the unreasoning fear of strangers, or of anyone or anything unfamiliar to you. The much less common word "xenophonia" is, as you can probably winkle out, from the Greek for "strange sound" or "strange voice"; it's a medical term meaning not that you hear voices in your head, but that your voice has taken on a strange quality or accent that wasn't there before.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Principle of the Thing

Here's a sentence from Pajiba's otherwise mostly enjoyable review of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull":

I can’t believe this is the script that convinced the principles to make another film.

Is it really that hard to distinguish "principal" from "principle"? Lots of people seem to mix them up.

Here are a couple of easy rules to remember:

1) If it's a person, it's a principal.
2) If it's a rule or a law, it's a principle.

Generally speaking, if the word carries a connotation of "first" or "main", then "principal" is the correct choice, whether it acts as a noun (the principal, or main participant, in a duel) or an adjective (the principal characters in a movie). The most important person in the school: the principal. The main part of the money you owe, as opposed to the interest: the principal. (There are other meanings, too, but they're a little more specialized: one of the stops on an organ, for instance. You just have to know those.)

Both words, by the way, are derived from Latin "principalis", "first, foremost", and from this word "prince" is also descended, as well as "prime".

Saturday, May 24, 2008


A couple of days ago I pointed the way to Not Always Right, as in "The Customer Is...", a website filled with stories of awful, awful customers. (I have plenty of stories of my own but I won't burden you with them; mine tend to be merely miserable rather than hilarious.) Some of the stories smack too much of writerly invention--they seem like jokes complete with punchlines, or they end with an invisible but implied "And that's the brilliantly witty extempore thing I said to put the moron in his place, and everyone within earshot cheered while the moronic customer slunk away in shame."

Many of them, though, are all too plausible, such as this one:

Customer: “Hi. I need a threesis.”

Clerk: “A…pardon?

Customer: “You know–a threesis. It has other words that mean the same as the word you look up.”

Clerk: “Oh…do you mean a thesaurus?”

Customer: “Duh! That’s a dinosaur! I need a threesis!”

"Duh" is the right word, but in the wrong direction. "Threesis", indeed!

But "thesaurus" does sound like a dinosaur. It couldn't possibly be, of course, and yet it sounds so much like one. Where does "thesaurus" come from, anyway?

From a couple of unexpected places. To go backwards in time, "thesaur" is an extinct Middle English word meaning, and sounding a bit like, "treasure", which is wonderful. "Treasure" is descended from French "tresor", with the same meaning: the French word came from the Latin "thesaurus", the word in question, which meant "treasure" or "treasury", and that came, expectedly, from Greek "thesauros", with the same meanings.

And "thesauros" came from "tithenai", "to put", which also spawned in English "parenthesis" (literally "to put alongside"), and "theme" (something put down in words), and also, with the same essential meaning, "thesis". But not "threesis".

Friday, May 23, 2008

Boyish Charm

So I was listening to Haydn yesterday afternoon (the symphonies)--I like a lot of different kinds of music, bits of most everything except country and hip-hop, which can go straight to hell as far as I'm concerned except for respectively "Jolene" by Dolly Parton and "Yes Pants" by the Marginal Prophets, both of which are fantastic--and naturally, when you think of the name Haydn, you're going to eventually think of the word "hoyden" and wonder where it might have come from. At least you are if you're me, which I am.

A hoyden is a tomboy. Who says there are no exact synonyms in English?

"Hoyden" apparently came from Dutch "heiden", meaning, and strongly resembling, "heathen", which resembles "heath", as well it might, because "heath" means, or meant, "uncultivated land", and "heathen" originally meant "one who inhabits this land". (The plant "heather" is not related, though it is something which grows on a heath, but its spelling was influenced by "heath"; it began in English as "haeddre".)

"Heath", "heathen", and "hoyden" come from Indo-European "kaito-", "forest, uncultivated land". They are, to the best of my knowledge, the only English words which come from this source.

Some people might rightly wonder how a word beginning with "k-" can spawn words that begin with an "h-", and the answer is pretty simple: the tongue positions for pronouncing the two consonants are virtually identical, except that the tongue is touching the roof of the mouth in one, but not in the other. Even a tiny space will alter the sound. Say "key" and pay attention to what happens to your tongue; it touches the palate for the consonant, and then drops away a little to form the vowel. Now leave your tongue in that dropped position, and say "key" again without moving your tongue: you've just articulated "he", and that is how such a sound change can come about.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Off Topic

Last month there was a dreadful train accident here in Moncton: as I understand it, a man and his girlfriend--whom I know--were walking his dog, the dog ran onto a train trestle, the man ran to get it, and unfortunately, as Jim (whose father worked for CN Rail all his life) frequently says, "Any time is train time."

The body was thrown by the force of the train into a tributary of the Petitcodiac River, which, being part of the Bay of Fundy, has enormously powerful tides, and as a result, it was found only a couple of days ago. (I'm a little surprised that the body was ever found at all.)

What has this to do with my usual line? Only this: the news story was headlined

Body found in Moncton-area stream that off man who was hit by train

and I stared at the damned thing for some seconds, trying to make some sense of it. "That off man?" "Off man?" "What?"

Finally Jim said, "Of."


"It's not off, it's of."

Of course it is! Makes perfect sense. "[The] body [was] that of [the] man who was hit by the train".

Shame on whatever editor okayed this story. News headlines are not supposed to force you to reexamine everything you thought you knew about English grammar in a miserable attempt to understand them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Better Late Than Never

Well, I've been trying to post this for days, but you know how it is.


Slate is running a series of articles about procrastination, and here is a piece about the word itself and why we even have one. (Short form: Latin "pro-", "forward, outward" plus "crastinus", genitive of "cras", "tomorrow", plus verbal ending "-are", making "procrastinare", "to push forward into tomorrow". Long form: the article.)


Here is a sentence from another recent Slate.com article by the wonderful Emily Yoffe about procrastination:

I didn't blame Dr. Fiore; maybe I had worn too deep a dilatory groove in my brain to ever spackle it in and become efficient.

"Dilatory". Don't you love it?

"Dilatory" is from Latin "dilatorius", which is hardly recognizable as a form of the verb "differe", "to postpone", but there it is: "dilatory" means "tending to delay: tardy".

"Differe" looks just like a progenitor of "differ", and that's just what it is. The meanings have diverged drastically, but that happened long before English. "Differre" is composed of "dif-", a variant of "dis", "apart", that precedes the letter "-f-", plus "ferre", "to bear", and therefore "differre" originally meant "to carry apart", which is a pretty good definition of "differ". "Dilatory", however, comes at one metaphorical remove: to carry two things apart in time means to delay the second thing.

Knowing this, "defer" would seem to be an obvious relative of "differre" and therefore "differ", and it is, too.

Even though "dilatory" looks for all the world as if it were the adjectival form of "dilate", the two are unrelated. "Dilate" is instead from Latin "dilatare", "to spread out", from "latus", "broad". When a pupil or a blood vessel dilates, it becomes wider, and when you dilate upon a subject--a rather archaic usage of the word, more's the pity--you expand on it at some length. "Latus" also gave English "latitude" and the back muscle known as the latissimus dorsi, literally "the widest [muscle] of the back", because the Latin names of many muscles tell you where they are, how they're shaped, or what they do. ("Biceps": two heads. "Gastrocnemius": belly-leg, the big calf muscle that's fat and rounded like a belly. "Deltoid": triangle-shaped. "Flexor hallucis brevis": short flexor of the hallux, which is to say a muscle that curls the big toe under. It goes on and on, and it is fascinating.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


One of my favourite lines ever from South Park is, "There are no stupid questions, just stupid people." Anyone who's ever worked in retail knows all about the stupid people, who sometimes seem to outnumber the normal, brain-equipped ones.

In this recent Consumerist gripe session about bad customers, someone tells the following story:

She...asked me to write "Congratulations Steve, Class of 2000" on it.

I wrote this down on the work order, but she started getting pissed off.

CUSTOMER: "No, no, no, you spelled it wrong. It's C-O-N-G-R-A-D-L-U-A-T-I-O-N-S"
ME: "Ma'am, excuse me, but it has two ts. There is no D in congratulations."

There was a line behind her, so I figured she didn't want to look stupid. Still....

CUSTOMER: "Listen, I'm not taking spelling lessons from some high school drop out."
ME: "Ma'am, I assure you I have a high school diploma and an associates--"
CUSTOMER: "I don't care if you went to Harvard, I know how to spell congratulations, and there's a D in it."
ME: "Ma'am, I cannot take a return on a custom engraving, so I'm going to verify in the dictionary the correct spelling."
CUSTOMER: "You'll only see that you're wrong."

Without saying anything, I simply pointed to the word in the dictionary.

CUSTOMER: "Well, your dictionary is wrong!"

Now, there's no guarantee that if the customer would have absorbed any Latin if it had been taught to her, but if she had, she'd have been able to reason as follows:

1) The "-grat-" in "congratulations" is like the "grat-" in "grateful" or "gratifying", so "congratulations" probably means something like "being happy together".

2) The "grad-" in "graduate" is like the "grad-" in "gradual" and "gradation", and probably therefore has something to do with a stepwise progression, so when you graduate, you make the final step out of your education and into a new life.

3) Therefore, there is no "grad" in "congratulation".

And if she had thought along those lines, she would have been right. "Congratulation" is at its root from Latin "gratus", "happy". "Graduation" is from "gradus", a step or a small degree of change, from the verb "gradi", "to go, to step, to walk".

If you like to read stories of stupid customers, you will have lots of fun with Not Always Right and with Customers Suck. (They don't all suck. I deal with a fair number of very nice people on a daily basis. It's the awful ones who make for good stories.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hic, Hæc, Hoc

We don't watch a lot of television, but tonight, after watching Video On Trial (which is hilarious), we were kind of flipping around, seeing what was on (nothing), trying to guess the titles of movies we've probably never seen based on six-second glimpses ("Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd." "Isn't it that movie where she was framed for killing her husband?" "Double Jeopardy."), and generally just kind of wasting time. On one of the French channels there was a French opera (turned out to be Meyerbeer's "Dinorah"), and since we always have the captioning on, I could see that one of the sound-descriptive comments in square brackets was "Il hoquet."

"Hoquet!" I thought. "That's the same as 'hocket' in English!"

And so it is.

"Hoquet" means "hiccup" in French. A hocket is a musical technique, originally for voice but available for most instruments, in which two or three voices or musical lines alternate notes rapidly, making a sound of (illusory) rapidity and (genuine) complexity and excitement.

None of this is likely to help you in your day-to-day life, but isn't it good to know these things?

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Outer Limits

There's a series of articles right now on Slate.com about procrastination. I was going to post something about it yesterday, but what with one thing and another, I never got around to it. Maybe tomorrow.


Here's the starting point for a wonderfully well-made and educational subsection of the Smithsonian Institution's website. It's all about mammalian evolution; this section in particular, about how evolution happened, is wonderfully well made, a lesson in how to cram a large amount of information into a tiny space. Most hypnotic: drag the time slider from 270 million years ago to the present day (more or less) and watch the Earth's land masses skate around the surface of the planet and rearrange themselves into our familiar continents.

I suppose it would be churlish of me to point out a typo, but there it is.

It's not something you could catch with a spell-checker, because it's embedded in a graphic. Part of me wonders how this could even happen--is it because "inner" has a matched pair of consonants and people like symmetry?--but it's not a rare mistake; Googling "outter" gives a shocking 614,000 hits.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Product Placement

If you have seasonal allergies, you know what hell they can be. I used to be blithely unaware of them until ten or twelve years ago, when suddenly every spring my eyes would itch and swell, my nose would drip like a faucet, and my skin...well, you know that scene in "Poltergeist" where the guy rips his face off in pieces? That seemed like a pretty good idea. Thank goodness for Reactine. (I used Claritin for the first couple of years, but then it just stopped working. These drugs have a way of doing that, it seems.)

It's allergy season once again, and the birch pollen count (for birch pollen was my body's allergen of choice) is at 200 today, which is very very high, and...nothing. Not the slightest sign of an allergic reaction. I suppose if an allergy can just launch itself at you after a lifelong history of nothing of the sort, it can depart as suddenly. I'm very grateful to my clever clever immune system for figuring out a way around this yearly misery.

I naturally looked to Wikipedia for more information on the (theoretical) phenomenon of vanishing allergies, and though there wasn't anything, this is the first sentence of the entry:

Allergy is a disorder of the immune system often also referred to as atopy.

It is? Atopy? Really? Why was I not informed earlier? 'Cause that's a heck of a word.

"A-" is a very common prefix in English, and it means "not", as in "amoral" ("possessing no morals") or "ahistorical". The second part, "-topy", should be familiar from such words as "topography" and "ectopic" (literally "out of place", describing, among other things, a pregnancy that settles in the fallopian tube rather than the uterus).

So "-topy" and its other manifestations, from Greek "topos", means "place". But it also has another related but very different meaning: "commonplace". "Atopy", therefore, means "something unusual or extraordinary". I think, though I don't know for sure, that this applies to allergens because they cause an extreme reaction in some people whereas in most of the population they cause little or no problem at all--in fact, aren't even noticeable. (If you aren't allergic to mulberry pollen, would you even know it was in the air?)

Another "topos" word that might look familiar is "utopia", from the title of the novel by Thomas More. Isn't it tempting to think that the "u-" prefix is an abbreviation of "eu-", "good" (as in "eulogy", "good words", originally a benediction, or "euphoria", "well-being"), since a utopia is a perfect sort of place? That isn't the derivation, though: the prefix "u-", originally "ou-", is a Greek negation, and so "utopia" literally means "no place"--somewhere imaginary, and imaginarily nice.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Glove, No Love

I knit. A lot. I always have at least two projects on the go: usually a big one that I work on mostly at home (in this case, a christening gown which was commissioned by a friend for her incipient grandchild) and a smaller, travelling project which I can noodle away at on the bus or at work (currently a teeny baby sweater for the same pending infant). I also plan my upcoming projects: I never like to work on the same kind of thing twice in a row, so since I just finished a massive cabled sweater and am now working on two different lace projects, I figured it was high time for some colourwork, probably a big circular-yoke Fair Isle sweater, and maybe a pair of gloves for my on-the-go project, because even though it isn't even summer yet, winter is never far away in this part of the world. I've never made gloves before, at least not the full-bore kind with individual and complete fingers.

Gloves. "Glove". Where did that word come from, anyhow?

It wasn't a huge surprise to learn that it was from Old Norse, from the word "glofi", which entered Old English as "glof" and then through the typical batch of changes: "glofe", "gluif", "glowe", "gloofe", and on and on, spelled phonetically as pronunciation changed through the years and centuries.

Here's what is a bit of a surprise, though: hardly anybody else inherited the word. The Scandinavian languages don't use it, or anything like it; Icelandic, the language closest to Old Norse, has "hanski", and Danish and Norwegian have "hanske", with Swedish adding a letter to make it "handske" and Finnish adding a whole new syllable for "hansikas". German, another of the relatives of Old Norse, uses "Handschuh", literally "hand-shoe", and Dutch has the similar "handschoen". The big Romance languages use some variant of French "gant" (the source of English "gauntlet"): Spanish has "guante", Italian "guanto".

However, and this is very interesting, Portuguese uses "luva", which sounds quite a lot like "glove" with the first syllable lopped off, and this is not as random as it might seem, because Old Norse "glofi" comes from Proto-Germanic "galofo", which is two words jammed together, "ga-" plus "lofo", "hand". And "luva" looks much like "lofo", doesn't it?

Something else I find interesting: that the difference between a glove and a mitten is that a glove has individuated fingers, unless it's a boxing glove, which is actually a gigantic mitten. How is it that they're called gloves when they're clearly not? Who started that? Did someone think that "boxing mitten" was just too silly, or did boxing gloves originally have fingers which in later stages of evolution become vestigial? Wikipedia is not a lot of help.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Thyme And Again

As soon as you look at the word "thyme" and start to try to figure out its origin, you are probably, as I did, going to guess that it somehow has something to do with the self-evidently Greek "thymus", because "thyme" looks like the French version of "thymus".

It isn't (the two words in French are "thym" and "thymus", respectively), but regardless, the words are related, which is a huge relief, because it's hard to imagine how they could have come about independently. "Thyme" is from Greek "thumon" through Latin "thymon", and is apparently from the Greek verb "thuein", "to burn as sacrifice", suggesting that thyme was burned at altars as incense. (The Latin botanical name for the herb is "thymus vulgaris".) "Thymus" (a gland in the throat which in young animals, humans included, is part of the immune system but which in adults dwindles to insignificance), according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is so named because of an imagined resemblance to a bunch of thyme, which is pretty hard to see, because the thymus looks like nothing so much as a bunched-up wad of indeterminate flesh.

Animal thymus is one of the organ meats, known as "sweetbreads" (along with the pancreas). For all I know, it's delicious, but if someone offers me some, I'm going to politely decline.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Thine Own Self

As I said yesterday, the Indo-European reflexive pronoun "s(w)e-" has, through a larger-than-usual array of languages (all the usual suspects except French, and then some), given English a massive clutch of words which relate to the sense of the self, or, a slightly abstracted remove, the sense of the possession of something ("one's own"). (I find that I oversold the case a little yesterday: I said that "every single one of the words has a clear link to the original meaning", but that's not exactly true; a couple of the words have changed in meaning enough that that the sense of reflexivity is diluted or absent. But for the most part, what you see is what you get.)

Through the Germanic languages, we have "sibling", one's own flesh and blood, and "gossip", which originally meant "godparent", later "friend", and now the sort of things that so-called friends do to you when you're not in the room. We also have "swain" and "boatswain", from a word meaning "one's own man".

Old Norse contributed "bustle", starting us off with "buask", "to make oneself ready", to which we added the frequentative suffix "-le" (which indicates frequent or quick repetition of a small action), so to bustle is to busily do various tasks in preparation for something.

From Irish Gaelic, we have the name of a political organization, Sinn Fein, which means "we ourselves".

From Sanskrit, we have "swami", "one's own master".

Greek, predictably, gave us a batch of words. "Idios", "private", gave rise to "idiom" (one's own way of speaking) the similar "idiosyncrasy" (one's own way of doing something) as well as "idiot", which started out as "idiotes", meaning "private citizen", literally "one's own person", but eventually came to mean an average person with no particular skill, and eventually someone with no skill, or sense, whatever. The most unexpected of the Greek contributions is probably "ethnic", which is to say "of one's own kind of people". It arose from Greek "ethnos", which came from IE "swedh-no", a clear descendant of "s(w)e-". If you've always suspected that "ethnic" and "ethic" were related, well, you're right: just as "ethnic" comes from "ethnos", "ethic" comes from "ethos", another "s(w)e-" relative meaning "one's own character or habit".

Latin, predictably, gave us a larger batch of words. "Suicide" and "sui generis" start with "sui-", the genitive form of "oneself". "Sed" and "se" gave a collection of words meaning in some sense "by oneself", among them "secede", "seclude", "segregate", "separate", secret", and "sever". "Solo" gave us another set, including "solo" itself, plus "sole", "solitary", and "desolation" and "sullen" (broodingly inward-turned), not to mention "soliloquy" and "solipsistic". Yesterday's "desuetude" comes from "suescere", "to accustom oneself"; other words from this root are "consuetude" and "custom", which are exact synonyms, as well as, believe it or not, "mastiff", which is an unexpected relation of "mansuetude", "mildness".

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Grease Is The Word

A couple of days ago I was writing about language families and I said that Turkish was a European language. On Friday, I was reading this fantastic blog about Volume 1 of the Left Behind series and came across this:

"Almost every end-times writer I respect believes the Antichrist will come out of Western Europe, maybe Greece or Italy or Turkey."

Turkey, traditionally, is not regarded as part of Western Europe, what with it's being in Asia, but if we're going to have any hope of reconciling all of the things in our Antichrist check list then we can't allow ourselves to be constrained by such tired geographic conventions.

Turkey? Asia?

Well, yes and no. It sort of sits on the borderline. Classically, it was considered part of Asia, but nowadays it considers itself more European: following World War I, Kemal Ataturk began a series of reforms to bring the country more in line with modern Europe, and it's applied for membership in the European Union.

None of this affects what I was writing about the other day: I just didn't want anyone to think I hadn't done my homework.

You really ought to read that blog, by the way. (It's not a blog by itself, actually, but a subsection of a blog called Slacktivist.) Just go here, scroll to the bottom, and get ready to lose a few days of your life. The author starts at the very beginning and analyzes the first "Left Behind" book in chunks of a few pages each. He's merciless. You'll quickly get the sense that the "Left Behind" series is the worst kind of hackwork imaginable, and no subsequent post will do anything to dispel this. And the blogger isn't even a godless heathen like me; he's a Christian who hates what Jenkins and LaHaye have wrought in the name of their demented brand of Christianity. Seriously. Read this. You won't regret it.


Every time I think of or run across the word "desuetude"--which is not that often, though it did pop unannounced into my head yesterday evening--I think its root is the word "suet", which is ridiculous and nonsensical, but there you have it: that's what I always think.

"Suet" is, revoltingly, related to "sebum", the usefully greasy ick that your hair follicles pump out to lubricate the hair shaft so that your hair doesn't hurt when it grows (really) and that can lead to sebaceous acne if the glands get blocked. "Sebum" is the Latin word for "tallow" or "grease".

"Desuetude", on the other hand, has nothing to do with grease. It means "a state of inactivity or disuse", so when something falls into desuetude, it is no longer used or practiced, as a law or as social mores.

I only tell you this because its original root, Indo-European "s(w)e-", is stunningly fecund, and yet, as rarely happens with these ancient word stems, every single word has a clear link to the original meaning. It's just breathtaking.

"S(w)e-" is a reflexive pronoun: it refers back to the self, as do "myself" and "themselves". In fact, "self" is one of the offspring of "s(w)e-", through Germanic ("selbst" is the equivalent in modern German).

As for the rest...well, you can wait 'til tomorrow, right?

Friday, May 09, 2008


Yesterday I got an e-mail from Salon.com warning me that unless I renewed by May 29th, my Premium membership would end.

My reason for paying for another year is the same as my reason for wanting to let the subscription lapse: Salon is pretty much my number-one source for irritating typos. If I don't give them money, I won't have to read all those stupid and avoidable errors, but then I won't have stupid and avoidable errors to complain about!

Decisions, decisions.

Today's error is in this review of the movie "What Happens In Vegas":

Early in the film, Jack is canned from his carpentry job by his own dad (Treat Williams) and Joy is dumped by her fiancé (Jason Sudeikis) in front of all their friends, prompting both to beeline to Sin City for some healing Cirque du Soliel and Big Gulp-size libations.

There's no shame in not knowing French, but "Soliel" is the kind of mistake that could only happen in print if the writer took a stab at a word they didn't know and couldn't be bothered to look up, and if there were no intermediary between the author and the "Publish" button, no copy editor or proofreader or in fact any sort of useful editorship at all.

It's "Soleil". (It means "sun" and is from Latin "sol", the source of "solar" in English.)


The same review starts with this sentence:

Ah, Vegas -- the geographic manifestation of the collective id. It's the turpitude-soaked, neon-lit supporting star of countless films, from "Swingers" to "Ocean's 11" to "Showgirls."

Don't you love the word "turpitude"? So harsh and Victorian and judgemental! (Even better is the adjectival form, "turpitudinous".)

It means "depravity" and is, predictably, from Latin: from "turpis", "shameful, ugly". And that's where it stops: nobody quite knows where the word originated from, although the best guess is that it's from Greek, later Latin, "strephein", "to turn", in the sense of "that which one ought to turn away from". ("Strephein" is the source of the "-strophe" words in English, primarily "apostrophe", literally "to turn away", because it marks the place in a word where letters have been refused entry, and "catastrophe", literally "an overturning".)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Ruins

Today I got an e-mail from my friend Ralph, who with his wife is traveling in, well, most of the known world. Right now they're in Turkey, and wouldn't you like to see some of their pictures? Of course you would. There's one above, and there are lots more here.

In his e-mail is the following sentence, referring to the local buildings (these travellers have an eye for architecture):

Those that aren't intact are preyed upon for spolia, and are incorporated in new buildings.

"Spolia". Maybe you've seen it before, but I hadn't. Isn't it great?

You can quickly and easily figure it out. Obviously Latin; no question about that. Plainly the source of the English word "spoils", as in "the spoils of war"; "spolium" is "booty" (the "treasure" sense, not the modern "derriere" sense, which is an alteration of "body"), and therefore "spolia" is plural, from the verb "spoliare", "to rob, to plunder".

A few seconds' thought will tell you that "spoil", meaning "to damage" (used transitively) or "to become damaged; to decay" (intransitively), is from exactly the same place. It is a very short leap from "to plunder" to "to sack: to destroy".


Reader Clare wrote,

General question: Do you know if a source language, analogous to IE, exists for Asian languages?

I was going to quote The Simpsons' Reverend Lovejoy ("Short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but"), but the answer is even simpler than that; there isn't one and can't be one, because "Asia" is an enormous entity with a great many peoples and languages from a great many sources. Wikipedia has a list of the top ten language families by number of speakers, and eight of those families contain Asiatic languages.

The question is a bit like asking, "Is there a single source language for all European languages?", and again there isn't, because Europe contains such languages as Dutch, Finnish, and Turkish, each of which belongs to a different language family--Germanic (born of Indo-European), Finno-Ugric, and Turkic, respectively--not to mention Basque, which is apparently unrelated to any other living language.

Asian languages come from many more source languages than European tongues: Japanese, Laotian, and Korean, to grab just three at random, all have different roots. There may well be similarities between any two languages: geographical proximity and the natural human propensity to borrow useful words makes sure of that. But there's no one underlying source for all the languages of the region.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Neat & Clean

I can't recall the context, as usual, but this morning I ran across or conjured up the word "cathartic", and then as usual vaguely wondered where it might have come from, and after poking at it for a few seconds I thought of the Cathars, a heretical sect that took root in France in the High Middle Ages (about which I'd been reading recently).


I've been speaking English for my entire life, so how is it that I only just today noticed this? (I shudder to think that when I'm 75, I'll suddenly think, "Oh, hey--I'll bet 'dynamite' and 'dynamo' are related!" And then I'll have to blog about it.)

At any rate, the Cathars have nothing particularly to do with catharsis, but the words do come from the same source, as you probably must have divined already. "Catharsis" is actually Greek "katharsis", "a cleansing", from "katharos", "pure", and it is not hard to see how this name would come to be applied to a religious sect. (The Cathars didn't call themselves that: the term arose in Germany, apparently. They were also known as Albigensians, and you may have heard in passing of the Albigensian Heresy, a Manichaean belief system which taught that there was not one supreme being but two, one good which created the spiritual world and one bad which created the material, and that since the spirit world was good and material evil, Jesus could never have come to Earth in fleshly form, for that would have made him evil, and this being the case, he could never have been crucified and resurrected. The Catholic church, it hardly needs saying, thought dimly of this.)

While we're here, "dynamo" and "dynamite" come from Greek "dynamos", "power". "Dynamic" is also obviously a member of the family, as is "dynasty", a powerful family, from "dynasthai", "to rule", which is to say "to have power over". There. That's one blog entry I won't have to make in thirty years.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

I Dunno

Reader Frank writes about yesterday's discussion of a lot of words:

I thought the "pagus" derivation of pagan had been declared dubious by recent scholarship.

Could be. I don't read all the journals. In fact, I don't read any of the journals.

Bartleby says that "pagan" comes from "pagus", for the reasons I noted yesterday; Robert Claiborne's "The Roots of English" concurs, and adds that

paganus, countryman, hence civilian, [gives us] pagan (a "civilian" not in the army of Christ).

The OED says:

The explanation of L. paganus in the sense "non-Christian, heathen" as arising out of that of "villager, rustic" (supposedly indicating the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire...) has been shown to be chronologically and historically untenable, for this use of the word goes back to Tertullian c 202, when paganism was still the public and dominant religion, and even appears, according to Lanciani, in an epitaph of the 2nd cent.

In a 1977 article, this author mentions three ideas about the meaning of the word:

1) "Paganus" meant, in classical Latin, "villager" and therefore "hick".
2) "Paganus" meant, as Claiborne says, "civilian" as opposed to "a member of the Army of Christ".
3) "Paganus" simply meant "outsider", with no pejorative connotations.

His own theory; that "paganus" was originally a sort of sophisticated pun, as in 2, but as time went by and the repression of paganism by the spread of Christianity increased, the word took on an increasingly hostile sense; someone who dared worship the false gods of the old religion.

But that was written in 1977. Am I missing something newer?


Just down the street from me there's a big building that's part Masonic lodge and part private club, as far as I know. Could be anything. A lot of people in evening dress go in from time to time through the side door, on which are stenciled the oddly capitalized words

   If          here for the
  Downstairs meeting,
        Please Ring
           the Bell

There's a gap between "If" and "here". It almost looks as if a word had been put there and later scraped away. I wonder what it could have been.

"Your", maybe?


After work this evening, I didn't feel like cooking, or doing much of anything, so we ate at the Dairy Queen nearby before catching the bus home. Here's what was written on the placemats:

® DQ and the ellipse shaped logo are trademarks of Am. D.Q. Corp.

"Ellipse shaped" should of course be "ellipse-shaped", but that's not what grabbed me and made me think, "Oh, no, you don't!" In case you're not quite as dissolute as we where fast food is concerned and have never seen the Dairy Queen logo, it looks like this:

On the left is the old logo. On the right is the new, improved version.

Neither of these is an ellipse.

An ellipse is a conic section: it's a curve. It doesn't have any pointy bits. The DQ logo does. If it isn't an ellipse, then what is it? It's not an ellipsoid, not a hyperboloid, not even a prolate spheroid: I checked. There's probably a name for the actual shape of the DQ logo, though I don't know what it is, but every imaginable geometric shape seems to have a name; I can't imagine why this wouldn't, either.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Stick With It

But first, this complaint about a recent article from Slate.com.

Having dinner the other night at an Italian restaurant, I noticed two couples ardently extolling the praises of the bottle of two-buck-chuck they had brought.

"Extol" means "praise". You can't "extol the praises" of something. You can sing its praises, or you can extol its virtues, or you can just extol it, but that's all. I can't tell if it's a simple mistake committed at three in the morning (we all make mistakes, especially when sleep-deprived) or if the writer honestly doesn't know how that particular word is meant to be used, but either way, it's wrong.

You're probably sick of hearing me complain about the lack of copy-editing in practically everything that's published nowadays. I'm sick of hearing me complain about it. But it's everywhere, and it's just enraging. If publications really cared about what they were putting out into the world, they'd make damned sure that they ran everything under the eyes of at least one other person besides the writer, who, I feel compelled to say yet again, is not capable of editing his or her own writing.


"Extol", by the way, is from Latin "ex-", "up from", and "tollere", "to raise", which is related to Greek "tolman", "to carry, to bear", which also gave Latin "tolerare", "to bear", from which we get "tolerate".


Where was I?


Oh, right. English has two words "pale", one meaning "fence post" and one meaning "light in colour", and they come from two different Latin words which come from two different Indo-European roots, one simple and one complicated.

The bleachy version of "pale"--the simple one--is from IE "pel-", and actually there were a number of different "pel-" roots, which seems confusing until you realize that English has two different versions of "pale". The one we're interested in has to do with colours, and some of them are not at all what you'd expect. "Pale" and "pallid", of course, since this "pel-" meant "pale". "Appall" means "to make pale with horror", believe it or not; isn't that nice? "Falcon" and "palomino" both come from this root as well, because falcons and doves--the source of "palomino", unexpectedly--are both grey, and this was another meaning that "pel-" took on. Another grey "pel-" word is "polio", short for "poliomyelitis", a viral inflammation of of the spinal cord and brain stem; I have to assume that the "grey" part refers to the brain. ("Myelitis" is any inflammation of the spinal cord: it's from Greek "muelos", "marrow", since the spinal cord is like the marrow of the spine.)

The complicated, fence version is from IE "pag-" or "-pak", "to fasten", and there's a big clutch of words with more or less that meaning, although sometimes it's kind of a strain. "Pale" isn't too hard to fathom, though: it's basically a stick that's fixed firmly into the ground. Derived from "pale" is, of course, "impale"--to fix upon a stick. A set of pales can be used to improvise a boundary, and Latin "pagus", a village or district, gave us "pagan" and "peasant". "Pale" is also related to "palette", "peel" (the kind used to remove things from an oven), and "pole", all of which are long and narrow.

"Pangere", the source of "pale", also gave English "compact", "impact", and "impinge", all with senses implying, if not fixity, then compression, which is a related idea.

An extended sense of "fasten", "to bind together by treaty", gave us "peace" and "appease", "pacific" and "pacify", and, interestingly, "pay"--to appease someone by giving them money.

The biggest surprise from "pag-"? "Newfangled". You don't say! Try to follow the logic: to fasten; to hold tight; to capture; to be captivated by; to be captivated by the new; something arrestingly novel. "Newfangled"; just like that! "Fang" is a dialectical British verb meaning "to seize", and the usual meaning of "fang", "a tooth", also comes from this sense, believe it or not.

The second biggest surprise? "Travel". Yes, really. It began as Latin "trepalium", "three stakes", a method of torture, which eventually became English "travail", "painful or burdensome labour", which in turn became "travel", "laborious journey".

One last interesting "pag-" word: from Greek "pegnunai", "to fasten", by extension "to coagulate", we have "pectin", a coagulant for jelly.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

It Just Won't Stop

On Tuesday I talked about a word ("nectary") which brought up another word ("gallery") which led me to tangentially mention the word "wall", about which I was going to add an extra sentence or two, because I figured, "Oh, it's probably just one of those words that cropped up in Old English." Wrong! And also more complicated than I would have guessed. So we're on day three of the Chain Of Words That Will Not End.

"Wall" is definitely not from French: their word is "mur", from Latin "murus", which of course gave English "mural", a painting on a wall, through "muralis". "Wall", far from being some random OE invention, is actually derived from Latin "vallum", a palisade, which is to say a wall made of pales, or fenceposts. (You can see how "palisade" and "pale" are related, with the addition of the French action suffix "-ade", as in "fusillade" and "renegade".)

"Vallum", in turn, comes from "vallus", a stake, post, or paling. "Vallus" also gave English another word for something which is tall and narrow: "wale", which is a ridge of some sort, such as the wound caused by a whip (also known as a "wheal", same word, or a "welt", which is unrelated, amazingly enough), or the textured nubby stripe of the fabric known as wide-wale corduroy. ("Wheal" is also spelled "weal", which is obviously unrelated to the "weal" of "commonweal"; that is related instead to "well", as in "well-being".)

"Pale" and "paling" in the sense of "stakes", by the way, come from Latin "palus", which also means "stake". (The other sense of "pale" comes from Latin "pallidus", which obviously gave birth to English "pallid"; "pallidus" is from "pallere", "to be pale".) "Palus" comes from an Indo-European root that is way too complicated to get into at this hour, and, while we're at it, the same is true of "pallere", which has, of course, a completely different IE root, so...you can wait until tomorrow, right?