or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 30, 2008

Wet Earth

A few years ago--a mind-boggling notion!--I wrote briefly about the word "humid", so you can think of this as kind of a recap, or a lazy retread (appropriate for a hot summer's evening).

I was thinking about this because it is, in fact, summer, and though it's been cool and wet so far, today turned sunny and warmed up considerably after two days of rain. As we were out running some errands--on foot, because we do not own a car--my mind turned to the word "humid", which the air was. "Humid", comes from "humere", Latin for "to be wet", which is a clear link to "humid" and also of "humour", a bodily fluid. ("Humour" in the sense of "something comic" or one of its related meanings is a refinement of the old idea that each of the four temperaments was controlled by a different bodily fluid; you can read all about it in that link above.) "Humere" in turn gave rise to "humidus", the adjectival form meaning "wet" or "damp".

Though I said that "humid" and "humus" are unrelated, and they are, the spelling of "humidus" and "humere" was influenced by "humus", because they started out as "umidus" and "umere" respectively.

As I was thinking about humidity, the other word that popped into my head was "humerus", an arm-bone (the one which connects the elbow to the shoulder), again obviously Latin but clearly not related to either of the words in question. This one is a misapprehension of the Latin word "umerus", "shoulder", which comes from an Indo-European words, "omesos", with the same meaning.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


You really need to check out this website, Grand Illusions, which doesn't boast much in the way of site design but which is nevertheless a treasure trove of cool stuff. The Grand Illusions Toy Shop has all kinds of seriously wonderful things you can buy; gizmos and gadgets, stuff that instantly make you more interesting.

Here's the teaser opening for the page about a toy called the Magnetic Torpedoes:

An unusual item this. Basically a pair of super magnets, covered with a deep dark green glaze. We think that they probably contain a sinter of neodymium, iron and boron.

Now, you are probably looking at the word "sinter" and thinking, "Center? Or possible centre?"

"Sinter", though, is in fact a word. How about that! It's related to "cinder", and means "a solid mass of metal formed from particles or powder and fused without being melted." How extraordinarily specific!

One of the dictionary definitions I looked up to find that out used the word "agglomeration", and it occurred to me that the verb "glom" might come from that same source; after all, an agglomeration is scattered things gathered together into a single mass, and to glom onto something is to grab or seize it, which doesn't seem like a big conceptual leap. And yet the words are not related.

"Agglomerate" is, predictably, from Latin "glomus", "a ball of yarn" (really!), and this is also the source of a word that I've known since the beginning of time, for no immediately discoverable reason; "glomerulus", which is the part of the body, located within the kidney, which extracts waste products from the blood and helps turn them into urine. ("Glomerulus" is the diminutive of "glomer-", "a ball-shaped mass".)

"Glom", on the other hand, evidently emerged from a Scottish word, "glaum", "to grab, to snatch", from Gaelic "glam", "to grab, to devour". "Glam" looks as if it ought to be related to "glamour", in sight if not in sense, but there is not relationship; "glamour" is instead derived from "grammar", and has undergone a most intriguing transformation over the centuries. "Grammar" and subsequently "glamour" had the sense of "learning, particularly occult learning", and within a century had come to mean "a magic spell". Not too long afterwards, the word came to mean "spellbinding beauty", which is more or less where it remains today, except maybe with more silicone and hair extensions.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Check It Out

Kilts are seriously cool garments, and even though my people aren't Scottish (they're from England on both sides quite a few generations back), I'm Scottish by marriage, so I could wear one if I wanted to. But they're expensive! Also, I would feel strange wearing a skirt, though I bet I could get used to it. (I would knit my own kilt hose. I am going through a serious and uncontrollable sock-knitting phase, for no discernible reason.)

Anyway, if you wanted to save a few bucks by making your own kilt instead of buying one, here are the instructions, and an interesting read they make, too.

However, you'd think, wouldn't you, that the BBC would take just a little more care with the proofreading. The instructions seem okay, but, well, just look at the last sentence in this paragraph:

Now consider for a moment the nature of a pleat. Fold a piece of paper or a scrap of material if it helps. There are two parts of a pleat. The part that is exposed on the outside- that is seen - and the part that is folded under - is hidden. The hidden part is called the under pleat width. The exposed part is called the pleat spacing. On a professional kilt, the under pleat width can be many times the width of pleat spacing. For the sake of simplicity we're going to make the under pleat width exactly double the pleat spacing. This means that to pleat your kilt you just have to take every sett and divide it into three parts. The first two get folded in half, facing each other. The third section will automatically then be facing outward. Viola - a pleat.

Yes, that does in fact say "viola", not "voila". I can never tell if people are doing that as a joke (I always think of Walt Kelly's "Viola Voila, Girl Insect") or if they honestly don't know the difference between the two words.

At least they didn't spell it "wah-lah" or some equally abominable way.

"Viola" looks as if it should be Italian, but it's French, specifically from Old Provençal "viola", which comes from "violar", "to play the viola". Seriously!

"Voila" doesn't have a literal meaning in English, but it's a way of saying, "Hey, check this out!", or "Look what I did!" It's also French: a collapsing of "voir la", "see there". "Voir" is the verb "to see", and it comes from Latin "videre", with the same meaning. "Videre" gave English such words as "video" and "viz", which is a contraction of "videlicet", which is in turn a contraction of "videre licet", "it is permitted to see": "viz" means "that is to say". I don't make this stuff up, I just report on it.

"Videre" in turn came from Indo-European "weid-", and I've already done that. (I've already done videlicet, too. Am I running out of things?


Thursday, June 26, 2008


Here's a paragraph from a Slate.com article by the terrific Emily Yoffe about being a daycare worker:

A recent science column in the Wall Street Journal described a study that found that you don't even have to like kids to have your brain's fusiform gyrus produce instantaneous good feelings when you see a baby's face. Standing in the darkened Robins' room, listening to their deep breathing, their sighs, their occasional snurtles, I felt a profound sense of peace. I'm sure some gyrus in my brain was telling me there is no better sound than a roomful of sleeping babies.

In knew there was more than one gyrus in the brain, because I'd read about the angular gyrus (which, among other things, is intimately involved with making words comprehensible). I did not, however, have any idea of what a gyrus might actually be.

If I had bothered to think about it, it would have occurred to me that the word is related to "gyrate" and even "gyre", not a very common English word but still one which exists; I'd read recently (in "The World Without Us") about the Northern Pacific Gyre, which is basically a floating oceanic garbage dump bigger than the state of Texas.

"Gyrus" and its relatives are from Greek "gyros", "ring, circle". To gyrate, then, is to move in a circle, and Northern Pacific Gyre is a sort of flat whirlpool which draws all that bobbing nautical garbage into itself and traps it there. The Greek meat sandwich called a gyro also comes from this word; it's named for the rotations of the spit on which the lamb is cooked.

A gyrus in the brain is a convolution, a swirl of grey matter with a specific function. The angular gyrus, as I said, is tied primarily to language; its name comes from its shape, which is rather rhomboidal. The fusiform gyrus contributes to the recognition of colours, words, numbers, and, as the Yoffe quote suggests, faces. "Fusiform" means "spindle-shaped", from Latin "fusus", "spindle. This is, predictably, where the English word "fuse" comes from as well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Last week I wrote about typesetting a poster for a band I mistakenly thought was called Hot Shit, and now here's a Salon article about a band called Fucked Up, or rather the difficulties mainstream news organizations have in reporting a band called Fucked Up.


Are hyphens really that hard to get right? I know they have a lot of different uses, but all of them amount to the same thing: to join or separate words, as the case may be, to make reading and comprehension easier.

Here's the second half of a paragraph from a Salon.com story about noise pollution. Pay attention to the last sentence.

In 1972, Congress passed the Noise Control Act. The Environmental Protection Agency had its own Office of Noise Abatement and Control, which still exists today, but as an unfunded skeleton. What happened? "A man got elected president named Ronald Reagan and everything stopped," says Bronzaft. The Gipper decided that noise was best regulated by cities and states, but federal funding to help them evaporated. Attempts to refund the office have failed.

I had to read that damned sentence three times to figure out what was being said, whereas one judiciously placed hyphen would have made it all so easy.

"Refund" means "to repay; to return money to". "Re-fund", on the other hand, means "to restore funding to". Similar, but different.

Never take hyphens for granted!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Halfway House

There's a recent piece in Slate called Has Modern Life Killed The Semicolon? I don't think so, at least not yet. It won't be dead while I'm around.

I don't understand this semicolon-hatred. It's a splendid punctuation mark; functional, efficient, even aesthetically pleasing. It splits sentences into two separate yet connected parts or divides the elements of a list where commas would be confusing. It's less abrupt than a colon, more determined than a comma. It solves a lot of problems. And it's not a johnny-come-lately; it's only about fifty years younger than the colon which it supplements.

People who denigrate it are misguided. Wrong, even. They don't have to use it if they don't want; they're not going to keep me from doing so.

Summer Sun

Yesterday morning was bright and sunny when we went to the supermarket for groceries. There are a bunch of cats who live on the way to the store, so I was hoping I'd see one or two: we both really like cats (but are sadly barren--no-pet apartment building). None in sight; I said to Jim, "They're probably around back basking in the sunlight." And then, of course, I wondered where the word "bask" might have come from.

You'll never guess if you don't already know! Never! Go on, give it a try.

My assumption, on walking to the store, was that it was probably Old Norse: the hard consonantal sound of it suggested as much. Beyond that, I was stuck. Lucky for me, Old Norse it turned out to be.

It started out nice, and then took a turn for the awful before nicing up again. It originated as ON "batha", "to bathe"; the reflexive form of the verb--"to bathe oneself"--is "bathask". After a few modifications, it ended up in Middle English as "basken", which meant "to wallow, as in blood", which is rather horrible. It eventually lost that Germanic verb ending and became "bask", and the sense of bathing in sunshine or some other sort of warming glow seems to come from Shakespeare's "As You Like It", Act 2, Scene 7:

As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spare Change

I promised you something for Saturday on Friday and now it's Sunday and something else has come up, so you can wait, right?

A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to make something called limoncello. I'm not much of a drinker, but it sounded nice and summery; soak lemon peels in 160-proof alcohol for a few weeks until it's extracted all the colour and flavour, then dilute it with sugar-and-water syrup into something drinkable and serve it straight from the freezer.

Trouble is, you can't get 160-proof alcohol in Canada, at least not this part of Canada. You can't get anything stronger than 98 proof, which is to say 49 per cent alcohol; anything stronger than that is, according to the government, for medicinal purposes only. (This was all told to me by an acquaintance who's the manager of a liquor store, so I believe him.)

The same day, Jim, bless him, went hunting for the stuff and discovered that, while you can't get it, you can buy limoncello already made, so he bought me a bottle. The brand name is L'Alambicco, and here are my thoughts on seeing the word, in rapid succession:

1) "Alambicco." That's a strange word.
2) Wait a minute. That's "alembic"!
3) Only they spelled it wrong.
4) Wait a minute. It must be Arabic, so
we spelled it wrong!

It clearly must be Arabic, from something like "al ambic". I don't know much about Arabic and would hesitate to say that "al embic" is impossible, but the former seemed a lot likelier than the latter.

And I managed to get it more or less right, as it turns out. "Al" is the Arabic definite article, which shows up in a fair passel of English words, such as "alcohol" and "algebra". The actual Arabic term is "al anbiq", which means "still", and that's just what an alembic is in English; a vessel used to purify or concentrate a liquid.

"Anbiq" comes from Greek "ambix", which means "cup", and does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any other relatives in English.

While I'm on the subject of Arabic articles, it's worth noting that the alembic was a piece of equipment used in alchemy, the precursor to chemistry concerned with the transmutation of materials, particularly base metals into gold, and "alchemy" is another of those Arabic borrowings using the definite article "al"; in this case, it's from "al kimiya", "the transformation, the transmutation".

Friday, June 20, 2008


On Wednesday, we had to tear apart the frame shop and rebuild it from the ground up, so there were a whole bunch of us in the shop, all the framers (five of us) and our boss and his boss, and of course if I'm in the room there will be some sort of contention about something sooner or later, and so we had an argument about when summer started this year.

"Summer's on the 20th this year." (That would be me saying that.)
"No, it's the 21st."
"No, it's the 20th. I looked it up."
"No, my calendar says it's the 21st."
"Well, your calendar is wrong. It's the twentieth."
"I'm pretty sure it's the 21st."
"Well, look it up. I did, and it's the 20th this year. It's usually the 21st, but not this year."

It probably went on for a while after that, because I am unfortunately famous for not being able to let things go, but what it boils down to is that they were wrong and I was right because I had looked it up and it is on the 20th this year, which would be today.

I looked it up partly because I like to know things, but mostly because I needed to know for my other blog, on which I wrote about a scent called Terracotta Voile D'Ete, which means "summer veil", and although I bought it a while ago, I wanted to save it for summer, which, as it happens, starts today. ( It starts today only in the most technical sense, which is to say one minute before tomorrow: the solstice, with the earth's axis pointed directly towards the sun, occurs at 11:59 tonight.)

Where does the word "solstice" come from, anyway? You could guess that "sol-" means "sun", from the Latin, but what about the rest?

It's from the verb "sistere", "to stand still", because a the solstice, the sun is at the very top or bottom of its analemma--that distorted figure-eight which you sometimes see printed on globes--and is no longer moving up or down in the sky.

"Sistere" has a bunch of relatives, some of which you can easily divine just by looking at the first syllable, and their meanings are clearer if you know that the verb had or has a few extended meanings: after "to stand still", it naturally came to mean "to come to a stop", and then a bunch of other "stand" senses including "to take a stand" and "to stand forth".

"Desist" means "to stand off" or "to stand away from". "Persist" means "to continue" in the sense of "to stand firm". "Assist": "to stand by (and be ready to help)". "Consist": "to stand together". "Insist": "to stand firmly upon". "Resist": "to stand against". "Exist" is also from this source: it means "to stand forth", or, I should say, "to just kind of stand around".

A couple of other, less familiar terms from the same place. The Latin phrase "stare decisis" means "to stand by things already decided", which refers to legal precedent. "Stet", a copy-editor's term, is what you write on a change you made that you want to change back to the way it was: it means, literally, "let it stand".

Where "sistere" comes from is a mystery that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


There's a product called Model Magic Fusion by Crayola; it's a kind of modeling clay which comes in a number of colours, one of which is called Silver Crystal. Here's a picture of the American version.

The Canadian version, of course, has to have all the text in both English and French, and the name of the Silver Crystal version is, or clearly ought to be, Argent Cristalle. What do you suppose happens when you're an American company that doesn't bother to pay French proofreaders? I've given up trying to find a picture of the Canadian packaging, but you can take my word for it that what you get is a product mislabelled Agent Cristalle.

"Argent" is the French word for silver because the Latin word for it was "argentum", and this is why, in case you always wondered but didn't know, the chemical symbol for silver is "Ag". (The symbol for gold is "Au", from Latin "aurum", and the French word for gold is "or".)


The Consumerist has a link to an article about the pricing of movie popcorn, and both articles contained this very confusing sentence about why a medium bag of popcorn might get you more food than a large tub would:

The prospects of getting more popcorn in the medium than the large is higher here, since the medium is a bag with flexible sides and the tub has rigged sides.

I had to read it about three times. Rigged sides? The sides are rigged to...what? Explode?

Eventually I realized that the word that had been lunged at yet somehow missed was "rigid".

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Environ Mental

In 1982, actress Diana Rigg wrote a wonderful book called No Turn Unstoned (a great play on words, a parody of the expression "no stone unturned"), which is a collection of negative reviews of stage productions and performances. Naturally, it's out of print (I have a hardcover copy that I've read I don't know how many times), but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, you can buy a used copy, and probably should.

Her second chapter is called "A Critic's Device", and is devoted to the proposition that when a particular work is so bad that the you're speechless, opening and closing your mouth fishlike in exasperation, your only resort is to employ the critic's device: recount the plot as straightforwardly as possible and let the thing destroy itself with sheer preposterousness.

Christopher Orr has taken that tack in his New Republic review of "The Happening", the new and obviously dreadful M. Night Shyamalan environmental-horror movie. (Ridiculous title. It seems intended to be ominous, but it sounds more like "A Bunch of Bad Shit That, Y'Know, Happened". It's also the name of a late-sixties movie, one of those wretched counterculture comedies greenlighted by studio executives who knew that something was happening, but didn't know what it was.) The review is essentially one long spoiler, and it's hilarious. It does spoil every single plot element, so don't read it if you're planning to go see the movie, but otherwise, have at it.


"Environment". Where might that come from?

You can easily pick it apart into at least some of its components. "En-", the French-derived prefix with a number of meanings, here probably means "in" or "around". The suffix "-ment" is also French, and turns a part of speech, usually a verb, into a noun. That just leaves the core, "-viron-", which we can most likely reduce to "-vir-". As I mentioned once, there are two version of "-vir-" in English, the one meaning "man" ("virile") and the one meaning "turn" ("veer"), and it's the second one that's at play here. "Viron" is an Old French word meaning "circle" (the modern term is "cercle"), and so the environment is a thing that completely encircles or encompasses us.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Just look at this, from Photoshop Disasters:

The website is rightly appalled at what appears to be a clumsy composite photograph which appeared in the subway-handout edition of the Washington Post yesterday. If Phil Mickelson had been in that position, Tiger Woods' raised golf club would have whacked him on the back of the head before ending up where it is. And just look: Mickelson's elbow is in front of Woods, Woods' club is behind his own head, and yet the club is in front of Mickelson's head. It's positively Escher.

However, a number of the commenters on the page are convinced that the photo is real, that it was taken with a telephoto lens, which compresses space in visually confusing ways. I don't know enough about photography to have an opinion, except to say kudos to the newspaper for running a terrible photograph which gives the precise illusion of having been sloppily manipulated by digital means.

But my brief isn't cruddy Photoshop work (or cruddy photography), it's cloddish typographical errors, and just look at that caption:

Phil Mickelson, left, watches Tiger Woods' shot during the second round of the 2006 PGA Championship. The two will be pair together again at the U.S. Open.

"Will be pair together again." First off, the verb tense is wrong, and second, "pair[ed] together", while not an absolutely indefensible redundancy, is ugly and unnecessary, not the sort of thing one would expect to find in a reputable paper. Given the constraints of the caption, two short lines, why not just "will meet again"?

The Washington Post wasn't always the sort of shoddy, cheapjack operation that would have let something like this happen. Kay Graham would never have let that photo run, and she'd have fired whatever editor let the caption go through. She's probably rolling over in her grave right now.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


An anonymous reader posted this comment to my recent rambling rumination on "reg-" words:

It's probably not news to you, but some people attribute the change of f-initial words to h in Spanish to contact with Euskera, which has no F sound. Though some disputing scholars mention that f->h sound changes are a fairly phenomenon across languages.

More salient F->H examples are hacer (to make or do, Catalan fer), hablar (to talk, Eng. fable), hijo (son, Port. filho), horno (oven, but Sp. infierno, hell), harina (flour, Catalan farina), hongo (mushroom, fungus), and hoja (leaf, Eng. (port)folio and Fr. feuille). One of the odd topics of my linguistics class that I remember vividly.

Actually, that was news to me (there's lots I don't know, believe me), because I didn't know that Basque--otherwise known as Euskara or Euskera--didn't have an "f" sound.

I know absolutely nothing about Spanish, but now that you've pointed out this category of words, I can easily see the relationship between them and the corresponding French, Italian, and Latin words. "Horno", for instance, is cognate to Italian "forno" and French "four". Today at work I saw the word "hilo", and I could instantly tell that it was related to French "fil", "thread" (a cousin to English "filament").

Looking through a Spanish-English lexicon, I see that "halconero" means "falcon", "hambre" is "hunger" (related to "famine" and "famish", from Latin "fames"), "hedor" is "stench" (English "fetor", from Latin "fetere", "to stink"), "hierro" is "iron" (French "fer", English "ferric") and on and on. And I had no idea!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Long Shot

Once upon a time, I was a typesetter, back when there were such things. In the days before desktop publishing and spellcheckers and a computer in every home, newspapers and printers had these massive and costly pieces of equipment that trained professionals would use to produce the text for posters, newspapers, books, and the like. (You didn't even know what it was going to look like until you actually generated the copy: none of this WYSIWIG stuff in those days.)

I had to do up a poster for a band that was playing on campus. I was given a hand-written copy of the text for the poster, and I dutifully designed and typed up the text for it. The band was called Hot Shit, which I thought was kind of a strange name for a band, but not strange enough that I thought to question it. When the proofreader came to check on the copy, she said, "Oh, it's not Hot Shit, it's Hot Shot!"

But that was an honest mistake brought about by bad handwriting. The "i" and the "o" are side by side on the keyboard, leading to all kinds of awful mistakes, such as the following, from a newspaper clipping posted on Lady Bunny's blog last month:

See? Everybody needs a proofreader.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Here's a bit from Salon.com's review of that new Adam Sandler movie:

Sandler's performance here is both ridiculous and winning: Instead of coasting, as he usually does, on his aw-shucks boyishness, he clearly has a good time amping it up as an English-mangling sex god. (He gets a great malapropism with the line, "Stick a fork in the fat lady; it's done! She's eaten.")

Well, you tell me; where's the malapropism?

A malapropism is a very specific turn of speech: whether deliberately (for comedic purposes) or accidentally committed, it relies on the misuse of one word, usually a long or slightly esoteric one, in place of the correct one; "apprehensive" instead of "comprehensive", for instance.

The line in question is just a garden-variety mistake of the sort that a non-native speaker might make. It sure isn't a malapropism.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Burning Bright

If you were to see me on the street, furtively sniffing the back of my hand and looking blissfully happy, you might not know what to make of it, but it's all very innocuous; I have found a wonderful, wonderful new scent and I can't get enough of it. It's Incense by a company called Demeter, and you can read my review of it over on my other blog, if you've a mind to. Then you should order some. It's so great.

The words "censor" and "censer" are pronounced identically, and they get swapped in print a lot. Would it solve the problem if I unilaterally said that censors are people and censers are things? No? All right, then.

"Censor" comes from Latin "censere", "to assess, appraise, judge"; the original Roman censors not only took censuses (another related word) but also acted as inspectors of public morals. "Censere" is from the Indo-European root "kens-", "to proclaim": "censor", "censure", and "census" (along with their various derivations) are the only common English offshoots of this root. (There is one other, "recension", "the editorial revision of a text". Had you ever heard it before? I hadn't.)

"Censer" comes from "incense": you could think of it as "incenser". "Incense", in turn, is from Latin "incensus", the past participle of "incendere", "to set alight". "Incendere" also led to English "incendiary", as you probably guessed. (Would you have also guessed that "cinder" is from "incendere"? I would have, but it isn't. According to the OED, French "cendre" is not the source of "cinder", either, though back in December of 2007 I wrote that it was. I was cruelly deceived! But "cendre" did influence the spelling of "cinder", which was originally "synder". I shall have to fix the prior entry somehow.) "Incendere" in turn is from "candere", "to shine forth, to be hot".

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Out of Sorts

The TV channel Bravo, bless 'em, is showing Law & Order, the original series, in chronological order. Last Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, they showed "Seed", uncontestably the best episode from the excellent Season 5. A deranged woman walks into the bank in which her husband works, screaming that he killed her baby. She pulls out a gun, two shots are fired, and the mystery is off and running, with at least one completely unexpected (and yet organic) plot twist per act. It's amazingly well written.

When I was trying to describe this to Jim, I used the word "deranged", just as I did above, and then afterwards it occurred to me that "derange" is a pretty odd word. The prefix "de-" often denotes the removal or negation of something: to deprive, for instance, is to remove something from the (private) possession of someone. What is the range that an unbalanced and out-of-control person has lost or been deprived of?

Well, first things first: the "de-" in "derange" isn't really a "de-", but a "dis-", abbreviated to help the word flow better. "Dis-" isn't a negation, precisely, but instead generally means "apart" or "away". The range isn't taken away; it's just broken apart, thrown out of whack.

And the range, in this case, is actually related to the etymologically identical "rank", which gives the game away. If all your mental processes are in good order, you're sane; but if they're out of line, disarrayed, jumbled, then you're mad. Deranged. "Range" comes from Old French "renge", which itself comes from "renc", the source of "rank".

Another word which means more or less the same thing as, and is structured in the same way as, "deranged" is "demented". The thing that's run off the rails is literally the mind: the "-ment-" is the same as that of "mental", from Latin "mens", "mind". You may have heard the word in the legal term "mens rea", "guilty mind", one of the elements of a crime. You may even have heard it on Law & Order.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Less and Less

A couple of days ago I was writing about the word "reckless", and that brought to mind another word that seems like a negation of a word that no longer exists, if it ever did: "ruthless". What, if anything, is "ruth"?

Since "ruthless" means "cruel and unfeeling", "ruth" must be its opposite, and it is: it means "compassion; sorrow; remorse". And where might it have come from? Despite its extreme brevity, it's a compound word, constructed from "rue" ("to bitterly regret; to feel sorrow") and the suffix "-th" with which we can create abstract nouns from verbs ("growth") or adjectives ("warmth").

I did a very quick scan of the Morewords list for "*less" (all words in its dictionary, not guaranteed to be complete, which end in "-less"), and found one more word (there may be others) that seems to have lost its source: "feckless". Was there a "feck"? Of course there was. As soon as I typed the word, I remembered an old, probably British expression, "feck and fettle", for which there's only one Google match, but that one is enough; I didn't just make it up. (I don't quite know what it means, though, but no matter; it's not something I'm likely to use tomorrow.) "Feck" is a dialectical abbreviation of "effect", and it has three meanings: "effect", "effectiveness", or "amount", which I'm guessing is a sideways sense of "effects" (i.e. the stuff you own). "Feckless" means "incompetent" or "indifferent"; it is more or less exactly parallel to "ineffectual", which explains the "feck".

"Feck" is also, if you are the appalling, Tourettish, demented Father Jack Hackett, a convenient oath when you can't say "fuck". One of our all-time favourite quotes:

:Mrs Doyle (proffering a cup of tea): And what do you say to a cup?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Straight and Narrow

Yesterday I was talking about "reckless" and mentioned in passing some straight-and-narrow words such as "correct" and "direct". These all stem from Indo-European "reg-", "to move in a straight line", which has some reasonable derivations meaning "to lead; to rule". Some of them are predictable, and some of them are completely out of left field.

All the "-rect-" words and their relatives are from this source: "rectitude", "recto" ("right side" or "right-hand page", the opposite of "verso", "flip-side" or "left-hand page"), "rector", "rectify", and "rectilinear"; "regent" ("one who leads"), "regime", "regimen", "regiment", and "region". Have you ever in your life heard the word "porrect" before? Me neither, but it really exists: it's from the prefix "pro-", "forward", plus our stem, and it means "projecting horizontally". It's the counterpart to "erect". There: something to startle people with!

A commoner word, but one you wouldn't expect to be from "reg-", is Greek "anorexia". Follow me: "reg-" refers to straight lines, and therefore to things stretched out in single file. Greek "oreg-" means "to reach for", which is to say "to stretch out one's arms towards". "Orexis" means "longing", an obvious extension of the word. "Anorexia", therefore, means "not longing for", because the original meaning was the loss of desire to eat. Nowadays it means the deliberate imposition of the will against the desire to eat: its full name is "anorexia nervosa", to distinguish it from the inability or disinclination to eat due to physical illness.

"Oreg-", by the way, suggests "oregano", which might lead you (or least me) to conjecture that oregano stems are tall and reach for the sun, or something like that, but there's no connection: the word comes from "origan", previously Latin "origanum", from Greek "origanon", and beyond that nothing is known. "Origan" also suggests French "ouragan", the sibling of English "hurricane", which derived from Spanish "huracan", but there certainly isn't a connection there (unless, say, Aristotle believed that oregano caused hurricanes, which is not much stranger than the things he did believe): the Spanish took the word from the West Indies "hurakan". Initial "h-" and "f-" were often interchangeable in Spanish of the period, which is why Hernando and Fernando are the same name: "hurricane" entered English in a number of different forms in the sixteenth century (depending on which Spaniard the user was quoting), including "forcane", "harrycain", and "hurleycane".

How easily one gets off the track!

Other "leader" words similar to "regent" above are "regal", "regulation", "regicide", "rex", "royal", "viceroy", "raj" and "maharajah" (those two from Sanskrit), and "reign". German "Reich" and the ending of "bishopric" both come from words meaning "realm", "richi" in Old High German and "rice" in Old English: this latter is related to French "riche", the source of English "rich".

Then we have a little clutch of straight-line words from Latin "regula", "straight piece of wood": "regular" and "regulate", and also "rail". The "-rog-" words come from Latin "rogare", "to ask" ("to stretch out the hands for"): "abrogate" and "arrogate" ("to take back" and "to take without warrant" respectively), "interrogate", "prerogative", and "rogation" (a sort of religious supplication).

There are others ("source"! "ergo"!), but honestly, that's plenty for one day.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Pay Attention

As linked to by Boingboing, here's a piece about a car-navigation system which isn't a little squarish box, but a teddy bear that points the direction the car has to turn and so forth. It's from Japan, naturally.

Here's an unfortunate paragraph:

The robot bear is also equipped with functions to improve auto safety, such as an alcohol detection sensor embedded in its neck. If it smells booze, the robot confronts the driver, saying, “You haven’t been drinking, have you?” Other sensors detect wreckless driving, so if the driver suddenly accelerates or slams on the brakes, the robot says, “Watch out!

Wouldn't wreckless driving be a good thing?

But I don't rag on bloggers who aren't professional authors (although I feel free to use their errors for blog fodder). They don't have editors; they can't be expected to get every letter and syllable correct.

Still, though. "Wreckless". It does make you wonder where "reckless" came from. WIthout knowing, I would guess that, pretty obviously, there must be or have been a word, "reck", which must mean something like "heed" or "caution", which perhaps is even related to "reckon", although that would be a stretch, because "reckon" means "calculate", but still, it's possible.

"Reck" does in fact exist, though it's not a word you hear every day, and if you know that it showed up in Old English as "reccan", then you can probably guess that it is related to an Old Norse word, "roekja", "to have care". And "reccan" looks as if it should sound exactly like "reckon", and even though it isn't related to it in meaning, both "reck" and "reckon" do come from the same place: the Indo-European root which gave us, among other things, the words containing "-rect-" (all of which carry a sense of a straight line, even metaphorical moral uprightness), including "rectify", "direct", and "correct". Tomorrow, okay?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

It Beggars The Imagination

I read Jim Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation every Monday, because it's nice to have a bracing dose of the-world-is-going-to-hell every once in a while, but here's a sentence from his most recent posting:

And of course, it begs the question: why was such a response even required?

This guy writes actual books which get published. I sincerely hope his publisher has a good editorial staff, because he makes so many mistakes. Spelling errors, grammatical errors, runaway hyphens, typos, the lot. Really, I do like to read his stuff, but he's an awfully sloppy writer.

"Beg the question" does not mean what Kunstler thinks it means, alongside far too many other people. It's a debater's term, a logical fallacy in which one assumes the point which one is supposed to be proving. How do we know the Bible is the true and inerrant word of God? Because it says so in the Bible. But in attempting to prove that the Bible is true, we are assuming the truth of the Bible.

Perhaps it's just time to give up on it. Perhaps "beg the question" is a lost cause, and we should all just engage in an act of collective amnesia and pretend it never meant what it used to mean, and just means "pose the question" or "ask the question", and we can all say "circular reasoning" where we used to say "begging the question" and be happy in our ignorance.

Monday, June 02, 2008

One-Track Mind

Here is a very silly list of Gadgets That Go Inside You (artificial heart valves, sex toys, that sort of thing), one of which is the IUD. Here's part of the little write-up on that device:

Strangely, though, the intra-uterine device is FDA approved to swim around in the human vagina for five to ten years. The alternative is worse, of course: a blind mucousy parasite that claws its way out of your genitals in an explosion of blood and gore, then demands a college fund. It's for this very reason that women have been stuffing the scariest looking foreign objects they can find up their uterine tracks since 1902.

There are more than a couple of things to complain about in this demi-paragraph, but I'm ignoring most of them in favour of a usage that's always irritated me greatly; confusing "track" and "tract".

I mean, they don't even sound alike! You could almost forgive someone for using "they're" instead of "their" (almost), because there's no way to tell them apart aurally, but "track" doesn't sound like "tract" unless you're a lazy speaker who just drops the last consonant off the latter word. (I suppose if you've once, or always, heard "tract" as "track", then you could come to think of it as being spelled and pronounced that way: I know people who pronounce "specific" as "pacific", which baffles me a little--do their brains just lop off the "s-" whenever they hear the word properly pronounced, or do they think that we are pronouncing it wrong?)

And "tract" and "tract" are not even related etymologically! And they don't even have the same meaning!

As a pretty good general rule, a tract is something that's wide and encompassing, while a track is narrow and restricted; think "tract of land" versus "racing track". Naturally, you will say, "But the urinary tract is narrow and restricted! And so's the digestive tract!" You seemingly have a point. In biological terms, a tract appears to mean something linear, something that channels things in a specific direction towards a specific end, almost like...a track. But in fact, a tract is a region of the body that encompasses a number of parts; the urinary tract isn't just the urethra, through which urine flows, as most people think, but a large system incorporating the kidneys, the ureters (which empty urine from the kidney to the bladder), and the urethra. Likewise, the digestive tract isn't a simple tube, not just a straight line from the mouth to the disposal unit; it involves a number of organs, including the pharynx and the stomach as well as the esophagus and the intestines.

Enough of the anatomy lesson. "Tract" is from Latin "trahere", "to pull, to draw", and is therefore predictably related to "tractor" (which pulls a plough) and "traction". (The "tract" which is a little pamphlet, nowadays usually religious, is also from this root, but with a radically altered meaning: it began as "tractare", the frequentative of "trahere", "to draw", with the repetition giving it the sense of "to handle", and so a "tractatus" was the handling, in print, of a particular subject. "Tractatus" became "tractate" in English; "tractate" is, contrary to appearance, a noun which means "treatise", and, through a sort of parallel evolution, "treatise" also grew from "tractatus" through Anglo-Norman "treteiz".) The usual senses of "tract", therefore, of an expanse of land or of a region of a body, come from this sense of being stretched out and spread; drawn to cover an area or fill a volume.

"Track", on the other hand, isn't from Latin at all. It seems to be from Old Norse, from a word "trathk", that means just about what "track" means in English; a path or a place walked upon.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

All Set

Indo-European roots have played a huge part in the development of English. No surprise there. Most IE words have a number of offshoots: some have dozens upon dozens, filtered through a number of languages. "Dhe-", "to set, to put" has well over a hundred, through Germanic, Norse, Russian, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, and even Persian (though, unexpectedly, not French). We have graced "set" in English with a fantastic breadth and flexibility: it is a multifarious word, having well over a hundred established meanings, if you count idiomatic uses and phrasal verbs.

But there are some Indo-European roots that have had a much more limited role in English. A few of them, poor things, the ones that didn't die out altogether, left only a single child to carry on the family name: my favourite is the root "ais-", "to wish, to desire", which left behind a single scion, but a vital one: the verb "to ask".


By the way, one of the reasons "set" is so broad and diverse is that it's actually two words that happen to be spelled the same. The verb (and therefore the adjective, which is the past participle of the verb) is related to "sit", with the sense of "sitting; fixed; firmly in place". The noun, on the other hand, is related to "sect", and generally carries the sense of "a group of something".

On the other hand, there's plenty of blurring and intermixing. For example, the noun "set" meaning "bearing", as in "the set of your shoulders", is obviously derived from the verb, while some senses of the verb are purely idiomatic, with no obvious correlation with either the noun or the verb, as in the setting of the sun (as opposed to the setting of a diamond, which carries the verb's sense of fixity).