or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Carrying On

I saw the legal term "escheat" the other day, and my first thought was, "That can't possibly be related to 'cheat', can it?", and then hard on its heels was my second thought: "Well, obviously it has to be, somehow, but how?"

It's a classic example of semantic change, in which a word that's been in the language for a while finds its meaning changed by popular usage. Let's take "tremendous" as an example; it's related to "tremor", from Latin "tremere", "to shake", and once upon a time literally meant "to be trembled at"; in less than 200 years, its meaning had shifted to "enormous", and nowadays, while it still has this meaning, it's experienced a devaluation (also seen in such words as "awesome" and "terrible") to a meaning something along the lines of "really good", which is to say, as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary notes blandly, that it's "often used as a generalized term of approval <had a tremendous time>".

"Escheat" stems from Latin "ex-" and the verb "cadere", "to fall", by way of French "eschete". Escheatment is what happens when someone dies without a will and their possessions become the property of the state. It's easy to see how the word "cheat" evolved from this; someone who thought they were legally entitled to a relative's estate would feel that they'd been deprived of something, even swindled out of it, by (at the time of the word's origin, the mid-fourteenth century) a feudal landlord, and they might well have been, too.

That's nice to know, but you know what's even more interesting? The word "semantic" itself. Its root is the Greek word "sema", meaning "sign", and as soon as I saw that, I realized that "semantic" was related not only to "semiotic", which is obvious, but also "semaphore", which is not, at least not to me.

The second half of "semaphore" is from Greek "pherein", "to carry, to bear", and also shows up in such words as "amphora", "pheromone" ("the bearer of excitement"!), and of course "metaphor".

"Pherein", finally, is yet another member of what I once called "the most dizzying array of words" stemming from the Indo-European "bher-", "to carry".

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Dirt

Here's a word I think it's safe to say you've never heard before, and a folk etymology I was once told, and then the proper etymology (because I hate to leave loose ends untied).

"Streel". Don't you just love the sound of it? Can't you well imagine that it must be Irish? It certainly is; I can't say it's still used in Newfoundland (home of many Irish imports), where I was born and bred, but it was when I lived there, and I bet it still is, because it's just so damned colourful. (You know how you say "really hungry" in Newfoundland? "Gut-foundered". Tell me that's not colourful!)

"Streel" acts as a noun or a verb, and as a verb--its origin--it means "to drag along the ground". Perhaps because things dragged behind one get muddy and tattered, the noun "streel" means "a sloven; a lazy, dirty person".

Now, that folk etymology. I was informed once--by someone who, in retrospect, ought to have known better--that it was created by the blurring of word boundaries known as junctural metanalysis: a phrase such as "You comes trailing in at all hours!"* became "You come streeling in at all hours!" Plausible, sort of, but entirely wrong.

The truth is that "streel" comes from an ordinary Irish word, "straoille", "untidy person", which in turn comes from the verb "straoillim", "I trail, I dangle". Very simple and straightforward.

*"You comes" is correct in some dialects of Newfoundland English. As the Wikipedia entry notes, "The dialect also includes nonstandard or innovative features in verb conjugation. In many varieties, the third-person singular inflection is generalized to a present tense marker; for example, the verb "to like" is conjugated I likes, you likes, he/she/it likes, we likes, you likes, and they likes." I never used this particular conjugation, but I certainly heard it on a regular, if not a daily, basis.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Law of Statistics

Slow day in Typoland, but I have got this.

Jim and I got married last August, as you may recall. We ordered from the government a couple of wallet-sized copies of the marriage certificate, just in case. Last week, Jim noticed that they never had arrived, so a couple of phone calls later, I discovered that 1) my credit card had been charged for them and 2) the government person to whom I needed to speak wasn't in but would call me back within twenty-four hours (but did not).

That very day, by one of those strange coincidences, an envelope from the government arrived in the mail. There was a form that needed to be signed! And we hadn't signed it! Because it had gotten lost somehow! I won't bore you with the details (except to say that the judge who married us was very nice about the form, and very irritated by the Vital Statistics people, who had apparently known in November that the form was incomplete but waited until January to do anything about it), but we finally got every signature we needed and put the thing in the envelope.

Ah, the envelope. The addressee on the English side reads:

Registrar General of Vital Statistics

and on the French side reads

Registraire Général des Statitiques de L'État Civil

and yes, that's "statitiques" instead of "statistiques". It's a sad thing when even the government can't be troubled to have a proofreader on hand.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Obviously I don't expect people making up hand-lettered signs for protest marches and the like to hire a proof-reader, but wouldn't it be a good idea for them to check the signs carefully before hitting the street?

Here's an actual television broadcast capture of some people with their signs on Martin Luther King Day in Corpus Christi, Texas:

Oh, dear.

I'm sure most if not all of the other signs were spelled correctly. Maybe the people in the rally were in a hurry and didn't notice the mistakes, both of which are simple transpositions and very easy to commit (and the larger the letters, the easier it is to make such a mistake, it seems). Maybe they noticed the problem, but had run out of poster-board (I guess they'd already used the other side of those two sheets) and figured the misspelled signs would just blend into the background.

But still. An iconic quotation, probably one of the most famous out of the twentieth century? Two misspelled signs side by side? Nobody noticed this before it was too late?

This is what happens when you publish (in the most literal sense of "make public") errors: you leave yourself open to ridicule.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Up, Up and Away

As much as I hate to be picky....

Ha! Just kidding. I live for it.

Anyway, this morning I was reading Boingboing, as usual, and there was this headline:

Human-sized Wacky WallWalker scales Japanese skyscraper

and I thought, "How did they make a WallWalker climb a building?"

Do you remember Wacky WallWalkers? They were made of that sorta-sticky rubbery plastic, and were originally octopus-shaped; you'd throw them against the wall, they'd sorta stick, then parts of them would detach from the wall and flop down, only to stick against the wall again, and in this way they'd gradually make their way to the floor. Then you'd pick them up and throw them again (until eventually they became so encrudulated that you had to wash them, and they never did work as well afterwards, but they were cheap, so you didn't care). This was considered fun in the 1980s.

The Japanese WallWalker in the linked story is the size and shape of a person: they put in on the side of a building and let it scare people as it staggered downwards, until finally it just lost its grip and fell the rest of the way down, no doubt scaring more people.

The problem here is that a WallWalker can only go down. There's nothing in it to fight gravity. But "scale" means "to ascend".

The verb "to scale", in this context (not the "removing scales from a fish" sense), derives from Latin "scalae", "ladder", which led to such words as French "escalier", "staircase", and English "scalar", "graduated in size". Despite the fact that there's no direction inherent in these words--you can descend a ladder as well as ascend one--the fact is that the verb "scale" means "to climb up or over; to ascend; to rise in stages." It always has: an earlier source of "scalae", "scandere", meant "to climb". There's nothing in the word's history that would allow it to mean "to descend".

So. Headline? Wrong.

Latin "scalae" and therefore "scandere", by the way, come from Indo-European "skand-" or "skend-", which meant either "to leap" or "to climb". From these roots come an interesting and unexpected array of English words. The "-scend" words, for starters: "ascend", "descend", "transcend" ("climb beyond"), and "condescend" ("climb down to be with someone below"). Not, however, "crescendo".

As well, there's a small group of words with stairstep meanings: "scale", obviously, in a number of its senses (though not the "fish-scale" nor the "balance scale" sense, which are actually related and which come from Norse languages), and "escalade" (the scaling of fortifications in battle by means of ladders), and also "echelon".

The most interesting derivatives, the most unexpected ones, come from the "leap" sense of "skand-". It's a short move from jumping to tripping over something, and so in Greek, "skandalon" came to mean a stumbling block, and later a sort of snare. From this, English received two related words: "scandal", the public furor caused by the stumbling block of sinfulness, and "slander", the evil-intentioned gossip that stems from someone else falling into the snare of sin.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


After writing this, I realized I'd used the word "literally" a lot. Here's an amusing blog I just discovered that catalogues uses of the word "literally" in various media and categorizes each according to whether it's been used correctly or not. Truly, a blogger after my own heart.


You've probably seen that picture of the person on Mars, right?

It does look like a person. In fact, my first thought was that it looked disconcertingly like that famous picture of Sasquatch:

The person on Mars isn't--and I would have thought this would be obvious--a person. It's a figment, an accident of rock formation and light, the perfect example of a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia.

"Para-" is a Greek prefix that acts like a preposition with a host of meanings. Probably the most common in English is "alongside" or "beside", as in "parallel", "beside one another", and "paragraph", literally "to write beside", because paragraphing originally meant the marking of passages in a common dialogue to show which speaker was to read which part. Another, clearly related meaning is "past" or "beyond", as in "paradox", literally "beyond belief"; from this sense of "para-" sprang another, more distantly related meaning, "beyond what is usual", which is to say "abnormal", as in "paranoia", a form of madness, literally "disordered mind" (from Greek "noos", "mind").

"Eidolon" is the Greek word for "image" or "icon", something to which you'd pray; if you say it aloud you can hear the word "idol" in it, because that's where English "idol" comes from.

Pareidolia, therefore, is the seeing of an abnormal image--one that isn't actually there.

It doesn't take much thought to realize two things. First, examples of pareidolia are all around us, all the time: we see shapes in the clouds, we fearfully assume the presence of a person from a pile of clothing in a nighttime room, the religiously inclined see the Virgin Mary in a water stain on a window of the woodgrain pattern of a door. Second, pareidolia is a useful evolutionary trait, a survival skill: better to guess there's a sabre-tooth tiger where there's only a bush than to assume it's a bush and get eaten by a tiger. Furthermore, we're genetically programmed to recognize faces, to the point that we see them everywhere--we impose human faces on every kind of natural phenomenon, from clouds

to mountains

to Mars.

If this, nothing more than two dots and a curve, looks like a face to us

then practically anything can.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nothing But The Tooth

So there's this sub joint near where I work, Capt. Sub. It's a chain but it still makes really good sandwiches. Better than Quizno's? Not really, but a very close second.

They used to have a sort of affinity program where you'd get a point for a half sub or two points for a full sub, and after ten points you could get a free half and twenty you'd get a free full sub. Buy ten, get one free, in other words. Then they changed the program; you get, I dunno, 5 points for every dollar you spend, 700 points nets you a free half-sub, and 1300 points a full sub. Seems like kind of a ripoff; it used to be like a coffee card, but now you have to spend a whoooole lot of money to get anything free. (Still, Quizno's doesn't give you anything free, so I guess you're still ahead of the game with the other place.)

I don't eat there that often, maybe once a month, if that, so it's going to be a while before I can get free food. I have 562 points, to be exact, and I know this, because I hung onto my last receipt, which says, and I quote,

This is your 562th Capt's Club Po

Five hundred and sixty-tooth?

Now, I used to write software, and I can understand that there's only so much room on a line (33 characters, to be exact). But it isn't that hard to add a couple of lines of code so that things like "562th" don't happen. I can see how it did, I suppose: if you're playing the odds, "-th" is the commonest ordinal suffix, occurring in 73 of the 100 possible numbers from first up to hundredth. (The suffix "-st" is used 9 times: 1st, and then every ten numbers from 21st through 91st. The same is true of "-nd" and "-rd". That's 27. All the rest are "-th".)

And even that's unnecessary. How easy it would have been to code

You have 562 Capt's Club Points

and circumvent the problem altogether. It would even leave room for that 4th digit once it passes 1000. They could even shove a comma into the post-999 number; there's still room.

Isn't thinking about such things what they pay programmers to do?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


If there's a word that most people get wrong, and if everyone understands what you mean, and if the difference is really negligible anyway, does it matter?

Well, I'd say it does, but that figures, because it's just about the whole point of this blog. But in this instance, you be the judge.

Here's a Slate.com slide show about Spencer Tunick, the artist who takes pictures of throngs of naked people in public settings--you know the guy.

The very first page displays this early photo, "Wavy Line", a zig-zagging line of naked folks lying face up along a New York street.

The picture is described in the slide show thus:

Two years later, he was photographing small groups of nude figures on the streets of New York, as in this image of prone bodies snaking down the center of Manhattan's First Avenue.

Do you see the problem?

English has, fascinatingly, three words that mean "lying down flat"*: "prone", "supine", and "prostrate", all derived, predictably, from Latin, and each with a different refinement of meaning. "Prone", from "pronus", "leaning forward", means "lying face down". So does "prostrate", from Latin "pro-", "forward", and "sternere", "to stretch out", except that prostration has another wrinkle: you can have your knees folded under you (because you're kneeling in supplication, and then you go even further and touch your head to the floor). "Supine", on the other hand, means "lying face up", from "supinus".

So the people in the photo are supine, not prone.

Does it matter? Really?

I think so. I can't convince myself that most normal people would care, though.

* It has other adjectives for "lying down", though: you don't really think English would content itself with only three? "Reclining", for starters, from Latin "clinare", "to lean", which also led to "clinic", a place where you lie down and get treated for something. "Recumbent" means "lying down", but in any position: although on the back is usual, you can be recumbent on your side, too. The less-heard "decumbent" means exactly the same thing. The even rarer "procumbent" is an exact synonym for "prone". There's also the fascinating noun "decubitus", meaning "any position assumed while lying in bed". All these words come from Latin "cubare", "to lie down". They may also make you think of the word "incumbent", literally "one who lies upon", presumably because a political incumbent is lounging around on the position, waiting to be re-elected. Or because he lies. (That was a joke.) "Incumbent" might call to mind "incubus", a demon that comes to you when you're lying in bed, or perhaps "incubate", to recline upon a clutch of eggs to hatch them. All these words are self-evidently from "cubare".

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Fate Worse Than Death

A regular old typo? Not a big deal, usually. Happens all the time.

Misspelling someone's name in print? People tend to take that a little more personally. Make sure it doesn't happen.

Misspelling someone's name in an obituary on national television?

Unforgivable. Seriously.

It's "Renfro", E! News.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Yesterday was the big finale of The Amazing Race, so I'm going to be gassing on about television (and, tangentially, religion) for a bit. I promise I won't make a habit of this, and you can skip to the next bit (after the plus sign, as usual) if you want. I sure don't blame you.

Something happened on the show that has only ever happened once before: my favourite team won! The sweet-natured Rachel and TK pulled in to the finish line about 20 minutes before the second-place team; a combination of luck, hard work, and breathtaking calm secured them the victory. Unlike every other team on the show--and nearly every other team in the history of the series--they never argued; they had a few tense moments at times(understandable, given the pressure and the lack of sleep), but they never screamed at each other or said anything belittling. It was lovely. (Some people found them boring, but I'd rather watch a hundred laid-back teams like them than one more Victoria and Jonathan, shrieking, insulting, shoving, and weeping. What a misery that was.)

The final challenge, the one what cinched it for Rachel and TK, was a sort of puzzle that the show has used before: one member of each team had to choose from a batch of items ten things that represented the ten countries they'd been to, with a bewildering set of limitations. (Three of the items had be animal-related; another had to be a form of transportation shaped like a stick, which meant either a vaulting pole or a pair of stilts; and so forth.)

By all appearances, Rachel, second to the challenge, simply set about recalling which order they'd visited the countries in and which items might fill the categories required. (It helped that her team had kept a journal of the trip, and, presumably intuiting that such a challenge might come up as it had before, spent the flight to Alaska re-reading and memorizing.) Christina, whose team had gotten there first, also went about the process logically, and didn't get it right the first time, so she began trying other combinations, and quickly got bogged down, because the puzzle had been designed so that there was only one right answer and a whole lot of possible wrong ones. At some point, possibly jet-lagged, she simply panicked and began repeating variations on, "God, please help me." She wasn't just saying any old thing out of desperation: without a doubt, she was praying.

I'm not criticizing Christina for resorting to prayer. You're in an awful situation, you do whatever you think it takes. I just really, honestly don't understand what theists think prayer is supposed to accomplish.

If we postulate that the Christian god exists, then he's supposed to be omniscient, which means he knows if you have a problem. He's also omnipotent, which means that no act is beyond him. These two things together mean that he knows what's troubling you and he can fix it if he feels like it.

The trouble with the assumption of joint omniscience and omnipotence is that the only logical conclusion available is that everything in the universe is exactly as this god wants it to be. If it weren't just to his liking, then he'd know about it, and he'd either change it, because he can, or he wouldn't, because he doesn't care one way or the other, but you still wouldn't be able to say that he wants it to be any different than it is. Prayer, therefore, is nothing short of an insult, and a huge, blasphemous insult at that, because its very nature implies that the deity being prayed to is incompetent.

And then there's the notion--the spectacle--of millions and millions of people, begging for something to be changed in their favour, and often the most trivial of things. God, please let me pass the geometry exam. God, please let me lose twenty pounds before the wedding. God, please give me the answer to this puzzle so I can reach the finish line and win a million dollars. What about all those other people whose prayers obviously aren't being answered, those other things that aren't being changed for the better? What about all those other awful things that are happening, the rapes and murders, all the people starving or dying in terrible ways? Why isn't the god tending to those people's needs if he loves all of humanity? It's not a trivial problem, and religious apologists stumble all over themselves trying to give their god an out. Here's what it boils down to, though, as expressed by playwright Christopher Durang:

Are all our prayers answered? Yes, they are; what people who ask that question often don't realize is that sometimes the answer to our prayer is "no." Dear God, please make my mother not be crazy. God's answer : no. Dear God, please let me recover from cancer. God's answer: no. Dear God, please take away this toothache. God's answer: alright, but you're going to be run over by a car. But every bad thing that happens to us, God has a special reason for.

I know that different people have different experiences of prayer. Some simply use it to communicate with their deity, with no expectation of the granting of favours. The central question remains, though: if this deity already knows everything, then why, exactly, do you have to tell it anything at all?

Ambrose Bierce defined the verb "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy", and who could do better?


The word "despondent" came up somehow this weekend; I might have heard it on television, or perhaps I read it somewhere, or maybe it just popped into my mind unannounced, as words are wont to do from time to time. The first thing that came into my head immediately afterwards was, "Well, that has to be related to "respond" somehow...but how?"

How, indeed.

"Despondent", first off, means "without hope: utterly discouraged". "Respond", of course, means "to answer". There just doesn't seem to be any point of connection between the two. But language has a way of veering away in strange new directions, doesn't it?

Both words descend from Latin "spondere", "to pledge, to promise". This, in turn, comes from Indo-European "spend-", "to make an offering" or "to perform a ritual". It isn't hard to see how the one became the other. "Respond", in turn, literally means "to pledge back", which is to say to make a promise in return for another promise, or, more generally, simply to reply. It would be tempting to say that "despondent" is what you feel when your promises have not been answered, or when the rituals you performed and the offerings you made to propitiate the gods have not had any result, but that isn't the etymology: the word comes from the Latin phrase "animam despondere", "to give up one's soul", because the root of "despond" is "promise away". You're despondent because, having given away something of great value, you no longer have any hope.

There aren't many "-spond-" words in English.* There's "despondent", and "respond" plus "correspond. Then there's "transponder", which is a portmanteau of "transmitter" and "responder". And finally, we have "spondee", which is a metrical foot consisting of two equally stressed beats: when Michelle Pfeiffer says "Get bent!" in that episode of The Simpsons, that's a spondee.

But what can this have to do with "spondere", "to promise"? It's a little convoluted, but, as it turns out, there really is a logical reason for it. A spondee was the meter used when making a particular sort of offering to the gods--one of drink, for which the Greeks had a word, "spendein", "to make a libation offering", obviously derived exactly from the IE. They later came up with "sponde", "a solemn libation", which led, eventually, to "spondee" in English. (It took a while: the word dates from the late fourteenth century.)

There are a few other words descended from "spend-" and "spondere". "Sponsor" is one; that's someone who makes a pledge of some sort to you, and "responsible" describes what that person is to you, in some way or another. And finally, "spouse" is someone whom you've pledged to spend your entire life with.

* "Spondylitis", an inflammation of the spine, doesn't count: it has a different source, Greek "spondulos", "vertebra". If "spondulos" and "spondere" are in any way related, I can't find any evidence of it. You may be amused to know that the slangy old word "spondulicks", meaning "money", apparently comes from "spondulos", for the fanciful way a stack of coins looks like a stack of vertebrae.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Near And Far

Jim figured he needed to bone up on his French, because we're planning another trip in a few years and this time we're definitely going to Paris and Grasse, so he hauled out a book of French vocabulary this afternoon and was flipping through it. It's not in alphabetical order or anything like that: it's arranged by subject matter, so you can learn a bunch of words and phrases appropriate to, say, going through customs, or shopping for clothing, or checking into the hotel. Chapter 18 was called "At The Optician's", and Jim noticed that the phrase "I am farsighted" was translated as "Je suis presbyte".

I knew that another name for farsightedness in English was "presbyopia", so that didn't come as a surprise, and I said so. But then Jim said, "Well, what about 'Presbyterian'?" and I had to admit that I had no idea how the two ideas could be connected, though obviously they had to be in some way.

The answer is so simple. The "-opia" part (it's also the ending of "myopia", or "nearsightedness") is related to "optic" and "optician"; it's from Greek "ops", "eye". The "presby-" part of all these words comes from Greek "presbys", "old man". Is it clear now? A presbytery, the source of "Presbyterian", is an ecclesiastical body of elders, and presbyopia, which is due to the loss or lack of elasticity in the lens of the eye, often comes with age.

"Myopia", since we're at it, is from Greek "myein", "to shut", presumably because in the days before corrective lenses were discovered, myopes squinted to see things a little more clearly.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Sometimes, what we think of as essential features of a language turn out to be mere grammatical redundancy, something for which context would do just as well. It's obvious that we need tense, isn't it? We have to clearly indicate whether something takes place in the past, present, or future. But English is laden with adverbs that tell us when something is happening, and we could dispense with verb tense altogether, set everything in the present, and let the adverbs do all the work: "I go to Monaco in three weeks," "I drive to the store yesterday." (In the first instance, we do, in fact, construct sentences like that sometimes.) Chinese works this way, and it seems to get along just fine.

We think of the pronouns "he" and "she" as indispensable, but some languages don't use them at all: Finnish uses one pronoun for them both, and lets context take care of the rest. Turkish goes one step further: it has one pronoun for "he", "she", and "it".

Most of the time, we don't speak as coherently as we think we do: it's always a shock to hear ourselves in a casual recording, because we assume that we speak the way we write, in complete sentences, whereas our everyday speech is larded through with ellipses, omissions, pauses, and circumlocutions. Yet somehow our message usually gets across and the conversation continues, because the listener's brain takes care of the rest.

One of the hardest things for context to supply is the noun; sometimes you can just point, or use one of the language's amusing batch of filler nouns such as "thingie" or "whatchamacallit", but for the most part you need a large supply of nouns to make yourself understood, which is why there are more nouns in English than any other part of speech. But if you know someone really well, you can even dispense with those sometimes.

Last night Jim and I were doing laundry, and the machines are in the basement of our building (only three floors down, so it's not too much of a trial). I was putting on some shoes to head down and get the first batch from the dryer, and the following conversation ensued (all dialogue guaranteed verbatim):

"Oh, could you go get me the...[pause while I try to think of the word for the thing]."

It's not mind-reading, it's simple context. As I continued to put my shoes on, Jim returned with the large mesh bag we use to bring the laundry up in.

After the second load of laundry was brought upstairs, we were putting things away and hanging up shirts and pants while chatting about something or other, and this conversation took place:

"Could you hand me three...[pause while Jim tries to think of the word for the thing]."
"Right here" [as I passed him three hangers].

See? Context is everything.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Red Light

There is a Paco Rabanne scent called Ultraviolet Man, which I wrote about on my other blog. I like it a lot. Now, if you were the Paco Rabanne people (Rabanne himself probably has nothing to do with the fragrance line except collect royalties for his name) and you were going to launch a follow-up scent, what would you call it?

No-brainer, really. You'd called it Infrared, or, since some people would pronounced that as two syllables, "in-frayred", you'd spell it InfraRed. You'd make the bottle a dark, spacy red, and maybe you'd make it sort of red-smelling with blood orange and cinnamon, and it would be really cool.

Well, they did make a fragrance for men, they did put it in a red bottle, and they did put blood orange in it (the rest of it smells like praline, tonka bean, patchouli and vanilla, which is sweet and not particularly red, but still nice-sounding and of a piece with the previous scent), but they did not call it InfraRed. No, they called it UltraRed.

I suppose I'm being very humourless and literal, but that is not much of a name. In the West, the visible spectrum begins with red and ends with violet. (I don't mean to imply that in other parts of the world, it begins with green and ends with orange or something; it's just that not everybody names colours in the same way that we do, and in some cultures and languages, red and orange and yellow or blue and violet are bunched together as pretty much the same thing. It's not that they can't tell them apart, necessarily; it's that they never saw the need to separate them all out into various different colours, as we do.) There are electromagnetic wavelengths before red and after violet, of course, but everything between red and violet is what we can see. Picture the spectrum running vertically, with red at the bottom: anything below that is infra--literally "below" in Latin--the visible red. At the top is violet; anything above that is ultra--literally "beyond"--violet. Ultra red, therefore, is orange, and not red at all. Were they so stuck with the notion of "ultra" and the established brand name Ultraviolet that they figured nobody would notice or care?

Probably most people wouldn't. "Ultra" is a relatively common prefix in English for "more than" or "to the extreme", and so you could say that Ultrared makes a tiny degree of sense; it's clearly what they were aiming for. But "ultraviolet" doesn't mean "extra, super-duper violet", and that's not what they meant when the applied the name to the original scent, either: they were looking for something high-tech and modern, as you can tell by looking at the packaging and by the general Rabanne sensibility over the decades.

The problem isn't that prefix, exactly. English has a massive toolkit of affixes, and if you know what they mean, you can apply them at will to get exactly the word you want. But since "infrared" and "ultraviolet" already exist and have clearly defined meanings, you can't just swap the prefixes. If you write "infraviolet", at least some people are going to stop and say, "Wait a minute...." If you've made up the word as a joke, or for a particular effect, then you might be able to get away with it. But if you're lazy, or if you haven't thought the word through, then you have a problem.

I know I'm probably not the average consumer, but the moment I saw the name of the product, I thought, "Ultrared? Don't they mean Infrared?", and when I realized that they didn't, I decided it was just about the most hopelessly stupid product name I'd ever heard, and that presumably isn't what the marketing team is looking for.

Doesn't mean I won't try it, though.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Package Deal

So Jim Kunstler got a bunch of hyphenations wrong. Par for the course. I still like to read him every Monday, but he could use an editor. I know it's only a blog, but still.

He also misspelled "passel":

A reader sent me a passle of recent clippings last week from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Now "passel" is an Americanism. It exists in some British dialects, alongside "passle", though it never really entered British English, but it's in all the American dictionaries. It's a word: it's passed into common currency. (It's in Canadian English, too, though probably only from contact with American television and such.) The spelling "passle", however, never did, so I don't think I'd be too far afield in calling it wrong. It's a common mistake, though: Googling it gives 17,500 hits. ("Passel" gets 350,000, which is more like it.)

"Passel" is an alteration of "parcel", in exactly the same way as "cuss" is an alteration of "curse", and it means just the same as one definition of "parcel": "a group or collection of like things". That is to say that "parcel" has a number of meanings, and "passel" has one and only one of those meanings.

"Parcel" is a very old word, from the French, who donated it to Middle English as "parcelle": they in turn got it from Late Latin "particella", which was a version of Latin "particula", which, it ought to be clear, is the source of English "particle". "Particle", in turn, is rather obviously "part" plus the diminutive "-cle", as in "cubicle" and "corpuscle", "little body". ("Icicle" doesn't have this suffix, despite all appearances. It's an Old English word formed of two parts: its first half is indeed "ice". The remainder, however, is from "gicel", descended from a Norse word meaning "a mass of ice": "gicel" actually meant "icicle" all by itself, so somehow, the word "ice" got tacked onto the front of it. You know, just to clarify things. This sort of thing does happens in language from time to time.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Was my face red!

Not really, no. But I was wrong, and had been wrong for years and years, and didn't even know it until last night.

After having said yesterday that I don't watch much television, I should amend that to add that we watch Futurama most nights, even though we have the entire series on DVD. I don't know why; it just seems kind of nice to settle down and watch something before going to bed (and yes, we generally hit the sheets by 10 or so: early to bed and all that). Sometimes we'll flip around the channels for a few minutes, and last night we did and briefly stopped at the next channel, which, as it turned out, had some sort of documentary about director Val Lewton. A minute or two in, the narrator said the word "uh-LEE-gee-ack". and the closed caption dutifully said "elegiac".

What the hell? "Elegiac"! That isn't right! It's "elegaic"!

And then I immediately thought, "No, wait. That doesn't make any sense, because the word 'elegy' ends in a '-y' and therefore the adjectival suffix would have to be '-iac' and not '-aic'".

And so of course it turns out that I had misunderstood the word for lo, these many years. In my defense, I had probably never heard "elegiac" spoken out loud, certainly never said it myself, and if I had heard it, it probably would have been pronounced "el-uh-JEE-ic", which sounds very much like "el-uh-JAY-ic", assuming whoever was saying it hadn't made the same mistake I had. In fact, it's entirely possible that I had heard it pronounced wrong and internalized that. I'm not the only one who's ever made that mistake, either: Googling "elegaic" gives 36,000 hits, so this is a common and easy-to-make mistake. (The correct "elegiac", fortunately, gives 575,000.)

"El-uh-JEE-ic" is the preferred pronunciation, with "uh-LEE-jee-ack" coming up second (and a distant second, I hope, because it's awful).

Monday, January 14, 2008


I'm just going to go on about television for a while, and not even in a way that has anything to do with my usual blog subjects. I mean, I could tie it in somehow--it's not as if I haven't done that before--but no, this is just about television. You can skip down to the real stuff if you like: just go to the plus sign.

When we got back from the UK last September, we immediately began planning our next trip. We knew we had to go back: alongside all the places we didn't get to go, we want to spend more time in glorious Bath, we need more of London as well, and one day isn't enough of Edinburgh, to say the least. We also figure since we're going all that way, we might as well go to France for a bit; I haven't been to Grasse in a long, long time, and I figure you haven't lived until you've been to Paris, so Jim has to see that. Well, that's going to cost money, so pretty much the day after we got back, I decided to just stop spending money, and I more or less have. There's still food and shelter and transportation and other essentials, but everything I don't need--ordinarily a very fluid category in Western society--I simply don't buy. It's really remarkable how much you can simply do without if you put your mind to it.

The same is true of TV. Since the writer's strike, when the shows I used to watch started going off the air, I realized that I can, for the most part, do very well without television. Heroes went completely off the rails in its abbreviated second season, so I won't be watching that any more. I realized that I don't really care a fig for the whimsical folks on Ugly Betty and Pushing Daisies, either, though I did enjoy those shows well enough. When and if they come back on the air, though, I'm pretty sure I won't be tuning in.

If you don't count Project Runway, which I enjoy but which I could live without if it came down to it, that leaves two things to which I am eternally devoted. I still watch E.R., despite its many detractors who haven't liked it much since Doug and Carol checked out back in the day (I didn't even start watching the show until about season 9, so their plotlines mean nearly nothing to me), and I love love love The Amazing Race, which is just about the only reality show that's ever been worth a damn.

The Amazing Race is modeled on every other reality show: throw a bunch of disparate people into a pressure cooker, turn on the heat, and see who explodes. But TAR has a patina of class; the contestants, in teams of two, have to travel around the world performing various tasks that are at least marginally connected to the country or region they find themselves in, and they have to deal with all kinds of people who are by definition unlike them, and these, as it turns out, are often a pretty good tests of just who a person is. You can badger and berate locals when you don't get your way, or you can treat people with respect and common courtesy. You can notice, as the confoundingly nice/nasty Jen did a few weeks ago, that Mumbai has a certain smell that isn't like anything you smell at home (which is no doubt true), or you can whine and complain that the whole country stinks and you can't wait to get out of it, as more than one contestant has done in the past. You can treat your travelling companion with respect, even when the going gets rough, or you can scream at them, insult them, and tell them that you never want to see them again once the race is over.

If I ever wanted to believe in a benevolent god, I'd think I had some kind of evidence when, last night, the horrible Nate and Jen (they're only nice when they're not around each other, which is disturbing) were ousted in the semifinals, leaving for next week's big million-dollar finale three generally nice and equally deserving teams. For once, it doesn't matter to me which team wins, because there isn't a team in the final three that I'm desperate to have lose. Some people would say that that takes a lot of the drama out of the big finish, but I don't care: it means I don't have to watch some loathsome people like Freddy and his gross, racist model girlfriend Kendra from Season 6 or the smug, frattish Tyler and James from Season 10 win a million dollars.

As far as I'm concerned, the only reason for TV to exist is to make me happy, and last night, this show made me very happy, and next week, I'll be happy again. Who'll win? The spectacularly smart and capable Christina and her difficult but loving father Ron? The sweet, laid-back TK and Rachel? Tough 68-year-old Don and his adoring grandson Nick? Don't care. I'm happy.


I thought I was going to get to the topic at hand, but as it turns out, I'm just going to go on about cats for a while. You can just skip to the next bit (after the next plus sign) if cats don't interest you. This is barely, tangentially related to the usual subject at hand, but not really. There is something pertinent coming up, honest.

I'm up to lecture 32 in The Story of Human Language and it's still great. Have you bought it yet?

Here's an example of the sort of conversational tone of the lectures:

Pidgins...cannot distinguish, for example, "nibble" from "bite" from "munch" from "graze" from "gnash" from "fondue". There's no such thing as that. For them it's all just a matter of, you know, shoving it in your mouth. All pidgins have a word for "eat", and there you go; there's no "nibble". For them, it would be "eaty, eaty, eaty...small". Or something like that.

I love "eaty eaty eaty small".

But I am not so enamoured of his grasp of cat psychology. He has a cat, which he uses as a sort of metaphor for languages in parts of the course, and at one point he's relating how whenever he's packing to go somewhere, the cat will jump up on the bed and into the suitcase, and just settle there. This is perfectly normal cat behaviour, but if I understood correctly (I don't remember which lecture that bit was in, and I'm not going back over all of them to find it), McWhorter thinks that the cat was acting as if it had conquered this little piece of land.

But really, that's not it at all. (A single cat with a household all to itself is more likely to treat the entire place and everything in it as its own personal territory and fiefdom; it doesn't need to make a special claim to any part of it.) I hesitate to say "all cats", because I haven't met every cat on Earth, but pretty well every cat, certainly every cat I've ever known, and that's a lot of cats, loves two things: to be as high up as possible, and to be in small enclosed spaces. If there are cat acrophobics or claustrophobics, they're exceedingly rare. If a cat can get to the top of the fridge, or higher, it certainly will,

and if you put an empty box or stiff paper bag on the floor, a cat will climb inside it,

and you can take that to the bank.

The African wildcat from which the modern domesticated cat is descended is nocturnal-crepuscular: it hunts mostly at night (or during the dim hours of the early morning and late afternoon), when its prey is also most active, and during the heat of the day spends its time in trees and bushes, where it is well hidden from anything that might want to eat it.

And this is why cats love the high and the enclosed; because those things mean you're safe, or as safe as it gets. It's why some cats will even crawl under the covers with you and sleep down at the foot of the bed, despite the fact that you're afraid they'll suffocate themselves with carbon dioxide (they won't). Housecats might not be able to hide in a tree all day, but they can climb to the top of the bookshelf (even if it means they have to hook their way up the drapes to get there), or they can slither behind the couch and sleep contentedly.


And now....

I've mentioned Mouseprint before. It's a charming site that, once a week, talks about some fine print in an ad. Last Monday's posting contained the following sentence:

The consumer has a dilemna.

There is no doubt that "dilemna" seems as if it ought to be right. There are quite a few words in English that contain "-mn-"; lots of common words such as "damn", "hymn", and "column", in which "-mn" is at the end and pronounced as "-m", and words in which the letters are in the middle and therefore both pronounced, such as "gymnasium" and "indemnity", plus slightly more exotic specimens such as "somnolence", "limn", and "lemniscate".

But if you want to argue that spelling is important in English, a word like "dilemma"--for that is how it is properly spelled--is the perfect example. "Dilemna" might on the surface of it seem logical, or at least on an equal footing with "dilemma", neither better nor worse, but that incorrect spelling obscures the root of the word, and that isn't logical, or even purposeful.

"Dilemma" is, as you might have surmised, from Greek "di-", "two", and "lemma", which still exists in English today and still means what it meant in ancient Greece: "proposition" or "premise". Specifically, nowadays a lemma in logic is a proposition that is used to prove another, more important proposition. ("Lemma", for what it's worth, comes from the verb "lambanein", "to take", which doesn't have many relatives in English.) A dilemma, then, is what you have where there are two (presumably equally attractive, or unattractive) propositions in front of you, and you have to choose one and only one of them.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nose Job

This is the fourth (I think) in a very occasional series of misspellings in cartoons. Reaching deep into the past, this one is from the April 1980 issue of the National Lampoon.

It's tempting to spell the word as "aqualine", since that's how it sounds and since "aqua" is such a common word or word source ("aquatic", say, or, confoundingly, "aquifer"). But it's spelled "aquiline" and it has nothing to do with water. Instead, it's from Latin "aquilinus", "eagle-like". An aquiline nose is majestically hooked like an eagle's beak.

"Aquilinus" is from Latin "aquila", "eagle", and at the risk of stating the very obvious, "aquila" became, in French, "aigle", where it remains to this day and meant, and still means, "eagle", and "aigle" in turn became "egle" in Middle English, where it eventually gave rise to modern-day "eagle".

Why is is "aquatint" or "aquarium" but "aquifer" and "aquiculture", anyway? It just is, that's why. Latin had two different combining forms, "aqua-" and "aqui-", and we just happened to inherit both of them.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

True Confessions

I don't suppose I'm too much different from most writers in this one regard:

I make mistakes all the time. All the time.

I don't mean the big things. I'm sure the occasional insufficiently supported assertion or overly broad generalization creeps in, but generally speaking, I spend a lot of time on this and do as much research as I can to make sure everything's in order. But the small stuff?

I type really quickly, and sometimes the words flow even faster than the fingers can move, and so I make spelling mistakes of every description: transpositions, deletions, insertions--sometimes I put my fingers in the wrong spot on the keys and type "yjsy" instead of "that". I slap the wrong ending on something and type "something" instead of "sometimes", or even worse--I'm perfectly capable of having my brain switch thoughts in midstream and start out writing "keyboard" and have it end up as "keyboast". I leave bits out: in that first sentence up there, I wrote "I too much different" instead of "I'm too much different", or I just type the wrong word altogether, as in the next sentence, in which I originally wrote "I just around" instead of what I meant to say. I jump around (see?), moving this sentence here, editing that one, and sometimes that causes mistakes to creep in. I'm a titanium-chassised error machine.

But since I have the luxury of reading and re-reading what I've written before and after I post it, I manage to weed out most of these things. People posting comments in other people's blogs don't really have that opportunity: they can re-read, but since I still maintain, as I've said before, that you can't reliably edit your own writing, mistakes slip in and can't be corrected; a comment, for the most part, is set in stone. You can delete it, but you can't fix it. Therefore, as I said yesterday, such things are held to a much lower standard regarding grammar and spelling.

I suppose I'm trying to defend myself against a really stupid mistake I made posting to someone else's blog, namely yesterday's Ask the A.V. Club in The Onion. One of the questions was (obliquely) about spelling reform, and the person answering the question ended with this:

If your fixation on this short story inspires you to get rid of the horrible randomness of the suffixes -able and -ible, we'll be in your debt forever, Shawn.

"I know this one!" I thought, and so I posted a response, because "-able" versus "-ible" is not really as bad as it looks, not altogether random, not quite. Unfortunately, I appeared to say that the word "contemptible" is correctly spelled "contemptable", which I know it is not. A couple of people pointed this out, and rightly so, too. I didn't actually spell the word out (if I had, I would have noticed the mistake immediately), and I could take the weasel's way out by saying that I didn't actually say that that's how the word ought to spelled, if you parse what I wrote in the most nit-picking, Talmudic manner possible, but I'm not doing that. I did make a mistake, and my only defence is that I was writing quickly in a comment and didn't have the time to 1) thoroughly edit it before posting or 2) edit after the fact.

It's not a big deal, except that I really hate to make mistakes. The uncharitable would probably say that I always have to be right, but that's not it, exactly; that suggests that I insist that everything I say or do is de facto correct, when the truth is that if I'm saying or doing something incorrectly, I want to know about it and fix it so that it won't be wrong any more. I think--I hope--there's a difference between the two.

Anyway, would you like to know about "-able" versus "-ible"? Lots of people have trouble remembering which suffix is correct in which instance, because they sound alike. Here are the general rules.

A lot of the time, "-able" is going to be the right choice, because there are at least six times as many "-able" words as "-ible" words in English, partly because we're still forming words with "-able" but no longer with "-ible". When we want to convert a noun or a verb into something to an adjective meaning "capable of" or "tending towards", we use "-able". Still, there are a couple hundred "-ible" words in English, so it's unwise to randomly grab a suffix, or even be entirely confident that one or the other is correct if you don't know for sure.

For the most part, if you remove the suffix and you're left with a freestanding word with the same meaning in a different part of speech (or something that would be such a word if you restored the "-e" or "-y" that was removed, such as "debatable" or "charitable"), then the suffix will be "-able", and you can remember this by noting that "-able" is also a word. This works almost all of the time. The converse is also true: if what's left after the suffix is removed isn't a word, then the suffix is probably "-ible", which also isn't a word. Unfortunately, this pair of rules will not work for all words, such as "capable" or "despicable" on the one hand, and "forcible", "invertible", and "deducible" on the other. As well, there are quirks and irregularities: words of more than two syllables that end in "-ate" lose that ending before taking "-able", such as "demonstrable" and "depreciable", even though by the looks of it they should take "-ible", and this rule isn't always true, either: we have the perfectly good word "demonstrable", but "demonstratable" also exists--it's attested to the in the OED.

The sad fact is that, like all other matters of English spelling, there are so many exceptions that you simply have to learn the words. You can use shortcuts and basic rules, but when it comes right down to it, you pretty much have to memorize everything.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Cut Above

As I feel the need to say from time to time, I don't pick on ordinary everyday people for making mistakes in writing; all my ire is directed at people who would be expected to know better--who, in fact, are paid to know better. If something is professionally written and published, then it ought to be edited, and the loftier the source, the more stringently it ought to be overseen: the letters section of a small-town newspaper is not the same as the front page of a big-city newspaper with a circulation of a million.

But sometimes I get material from something like the comments page of a blog, and even though it's just as wrong, it's not as bad, because I don't expect everyone to know how to spell everything. Just the professionals.

Yesterday I was reading the comments for a posting on The Friendly Atheist, and the commenter used the word "epitomy". Now, that's a pretty common misspelling, and it's easy to see where it comes from: that's how the word is pronounced. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, it's also wrong: the word is "epitome".

And that, as always, set me to wondering: where does "epitome" come from, anyway?

It sure looks Greek: anything beginning with "epi-" probably is, because that's a Greek preposition with a whole lot of meanings, depending on the context: "after", "at", "before", "into", "near", "on", "over", and "upon". (You can use this to figure out what a fair batch of medical words mean. What's "epinephrine"? Well, "epi-" refers to a location, and "-nephrine" looks like the Greek word for "kidney", "nephros", so obviously epinephrine exists or originates from somewhere near the kidney, and that's just what it is: it's a hormone also known as adrenaline, secreted by the adrenal gland, which sits atop the kidney.)

Now; that "-tome". If you watch the medical shows, you've probably heard the word "microtome", which is a device for cutting tissue-thin sections of, well, tissue. (Note that this word is pronounced in three syllables, "mike-roh-tome", not four, as "ee-pit-uh-mee" is.) So we can guess that a -tome is a blade of some sort, and it certainly is, because the word comes from Greek "temnein", "to cut". (You will have seen a variation of "-tome" in the suffix "-tomy", "a cutting": "lobotomy", for instance. This is why people spell "epitome" incorrectly; because, reasonably enough, they are thinking of such words as "tracheotomy" and "episiotomy".)

So "epitome" literally means something like "cutting into" or "cutting at", and that...makes not the slightest molecule of sense.

It does, though, if you understand and accept that words change meaning over time, and sometimes change so drastically out of shape that it's hard to find the original meaning in the new one. The earliest sense of "epitome" was indeed something cut down from something else: it was an abstract, a summary, a précis, an abridgement. This sense entered the language in the early sixteenth century. Less than a hundred years later, it had metaphorically been altered, but only very slightly, to mean someone or something which was the summation--the essence--of a particular type of thing, and so a painting could be said to be the very epitome of its style, or a man to be the epitome of a gentleman. Now that the earlier sense is more or less vanished, at least from everyday speech, we're left only with that abstracted sense of "pinnacle", and so we have trouble even guessing where the word might have come from.

Obviously the word "tome", all by itself and meaning "book", isn't related to the Greek "temnein", right? That's what I thought, but, marvelously, it is. One meaning of "tome" is "one volume of a multi-volume set", and therefore it can be thought of as having been cut from the larger work, and there's that "cutting" sense of "temnein" right there.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Latin Rights

There aren't a whole lot of Latin words and phrases in common usage these days: this page lists 273, but I think most of them strain the sense of the word "common", since the list contains such things as "ad eundem gradum" and "gaudeamus igitur", which, I think it is fair to say, most people are unlikely to encounter in a lifetime. This page seems a little more on the mark: not necessarily things people will use over the dinner table, but things they might encounter occasionally, such as "in extremis" and "quod erat demonstrandum".

The fact is that most of us--myself included--have no daily contact with unadulterated Latin. A century ago, many Latin phrases were in the vocabulary of every educated person; but since it's no longer taught in most schools, it's vanishing from everyday life. This isn't necessarily a tragedy (though I wish I had been taught it in school, when I was still capable of learning language easily), but it's a shame.

This appeared on the front page of Slate.com yesterday (though I saw it only today):

and this appeared on the page itself:

Now, one of them has to be wrong. They could both be wrong, but as it turns out, one of them is right, and it's the headline for the article itself: whoever does up the front page typed in a Latin phrase, one that's still in relatively common currency, and got it wrong.

"Ad nauseum" is probably the more common of the spellings, but it's a mistake. It's an understandable one: "-um" is a very common ending in Latin, and we see it all the time in the word "museum", which resembles the incorrect "nauseum" very strongly.

However, "ad nauseam" is correct, and wouldn't you like to know why? (You may skip the next four paragraphs if you know what grammatical case is.)

In grammar, "case" refers to the function of a noun (or a pronoun). English doesn't really have cases, for reasons that I'll get to in a minute, but our nouns and pronouns can still be expressed as being in one of three cases. The subjective case, as its name suggests, refers to the subject of the sentence; let's say "the dog". (This is what's also referred to as the nominative case, because it names something.) Then we have a verb (" is eating"), and then the object--the thing that the subject is acting on by way of the verb ("a salami")--which is in the objective case, logically enough (also known as the accusative case). The third case is the possessive (also known as the genitive); "Mrs. Braunstein's begonias".

English, in fact, is what's called an SVO language, for subject-verb-object. Unless we're deliberately constructing something in the passive voice ("A salami is being eaten by the dog"), our sentences are going to have the subject appearing before the object; this is how we tell them apart. Word order is therefore crucial in English, and since word order tells you the relationship of one word to another, we don't need cases--or, more accurately, we don't need any other way of exhibiting cases.

Many other languages, however, put endings on the words to show which case they're in, and this gives them a freedom that English doesn't have: you may mix up your word order (within reason) and still know which noun is the subject and which is the object, because the endings tell you so. To use the most obvious, famous example, in English "dog bites man" and "man bites dog" are dramatically different sentences, but in Latin, you could put either "dog" or "man" first and have the sentences mean the same thing, as long as the endings are correct, since it's the endings that tell you which is the actor and which is being acted upon. "Canem vir mordet": "man bites dog". "Canis virum mordet": "dog bites man". Even if you put the words in either sentence in some other order, and you can, you'll know what the sentence means, because those endings--which change according to case and gender--tell you who's who.

German has four cases: nominative, accusative, and genitive, as English sort of does, but also dative, which indicates the indirect object: in the sentence "I gave my love a chicken", "my love" would be in the dative case, since it's neither the subject ("I") nor the object ("a chicken"), but a third thing, the noun or pronoun that receives the direct object in some way. Again, in English, we indicate the indirect object by its relationship to the other words in the sentence rather than by using a visible case ending. (We could accomplish the same thing with a preposition: "I gave a chicken to my love".)

In German, different prepositions take different cases; there are historical reasons for this, but the real reason is, "They just do, that's all." For example, "durch", "through", always takes the accusative case, while "während", "during", always takes the genitive case. This sort of thing is also true in Latin. "Ad", meaning "to" (because "ad nauseam" means "to the point of nausea"), takes the accusative case, and the accusative form of the feminine noun "nausea" is "nauseam". Not "nauseum".

Having said that, I think "ad nauseum" is well on its way to becoming de facto correct. In a generation or two, when people are even further divorced from everyday Latin than they are now, "ad nauseum" will simply be the way the phrase is written, by nearly everybody who uses it, and only a few dusty old relics will even care that it used to be something other than what it is. (You could probably argue that that is where we are right now.) That's the way of language: it changes all the time. Old meanings eclipse new, mistakes supersede their originally correct forbears, and life, somehow, goes on.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sheer Poetry

It's not bragging to say that I'm a crackerjack speller. I always have been, even from a very early age, and since English is generally very difficult to spell, this ability is always considered a sign of intelligence, even though it really isn't; it's more of a particular brain configuration than anything else, as far as I'm concerned. Word gets around that I know how to spell, and people ask me to spell something they need to write down, and then when they get it on paper they almost always say, "You're so smart!"

But yesterday, when I was writing my blog post, I needed to use the word "onomatopoeic" and I just couldn't get it right. Although I usually have a photographic memory when it comes to spellings, I have a couple of blind spots, and that's one of them. (I couldn't remember what the fourth vowel was. I thought it should be "-e-", and then when that didn't work I tried "-a-", and that wasn't right, either, so I tried various combinations of them with "-a-" as the second vowel, and finally I just looked it up.)

I think there are two problems. First is that the word is (self-evidently) Greek, in which I have not the slightest training, and second, I didn't even know the etymology of the word; that's usually a help, because you can sort out the pieces of a complex word and figure out what they ought to be spelled like.

So. "Onomatopoeia" comes from "onomato-", which is the combining form of "onoma", which means "name", and "-poi-", which is a form of the verb "poiein", "to make", and the suffia "-ia", which turns it into a noun. Onomatopoeia, therefore, is the making of a name out of something else--specifically, the sound of something. ("Onomatopoeic" simply replaces the noun suffix with the adjectival suffix "-ic", and this is very usual in English: many nouns that end in vowel sounds take "-ic" to become an adjective, such as "lethargy/lethargic" and "anorexia/anorexic". You may also use "onomatopoetic", which is prettier, and this is fitting, because the verb "poiein" is also the source of the words "poetry" and "poetic".)

And now that I know, I will never, ever forget how to spell it again.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Book Learning

One of my New Year's resolutions was to post every day in 2008. We see how far I got with that. I'd hate to post just for the sake of posting: I like everything to mean something.


I've always been a heavy-duty reader, and once upon a time--the time when I managed a bookstore--I didn't get audiobooks. Disdained them, in fact. They seemed geared to people who were too lazy to actually pick up and read a book--to people who needed everything done for them.

Now I get audiobooks, now that iPods are not only ubiquitous but, it seems, essential. When you're reading, you pretty much can't do anything else. When you're listening to an audiobook, you can do nearly anything, as long as it doesn't sap too much of your brain power. You can do housework, you can commute, you can knit...you get to squeeze more reading time into your day, and who couldn't use more of that?

I've listened to a few of the lecture series from The Teaching Company, and they sure are a mixed bag. Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is a great introduction to and explanation of the basics of music--concise, informative, detailed--but the instructor, Robert Greenberg, is so tiresome: he makes lame jokes and uses the expression "my friends" six or eight times per half-hour lecture (and that is much more tedious than it sounds, by which I mean that no matter how tedious it sounds, it's more so). He's like a really smart, pretentious uncle you'd call for help with your homework but never, ever want to have dinner with. His material is great; if only someone had helped him work on his presentation.

I couldn't even finish Seth Lerer's History of the English Language. There are plenty of interesting tidbits of information, but the overall effect is of leafing through an intermittently engaging textbook while a stranger is droning in your ear. By the time I got to Part 3, I had had enough: I staggered through lecture 25 or 26 and realized there was just no way I was going to make it through to the end.

But John McWhorter's Story of Human Language is tremendous. You ought to go buy it right now. It's on sale, for the moment, for $49.95 (regularly $199.95) and it is totally worth every cent (fifty bucks for eighteen hours, thirty-six half-hour lectures, is just over $2.75 an hour, which makes it cheaper than a movie and, with the general state of cinema these days, more entertaining). I am going to be borrowing so much stuff from it in the coming weeks! I want to invite Dr. McWhorter out for a coffee or a beer or something and just listen to him talk about things (he has to pay his own airfare, though). His lectures are casual and conversational, but informative and authoritative. (The schwa is a vowel sound that can be represented equally by any vowel and which sounds like none of them--like a little grunt in place of a proper vowel. The schwa sounds like the "a" in "along", the "e" in "bitten", the "i" in "expensive", the "o" in "ballot", the "u" in "hiccup", and the "y" in "beryl". It's just a short, completely unstressed "uh" sound--as you can see, it can only appear in an unstressed syllable--and it's actually the commonest vowel sound in the English language. In lecture 6, McWhorter describes it as a "muddy, crummy little sound", which is delightful.)

Seriously. It's so great. Just buy it.


I carry around little books to jot down notes and lists and such in, and as I was listening to the Story of Human Language on the bus this morning, I made a note: "Cackle -> Cack? Frequentative?"

In an early lecture, Professor McWhorter was talking about frequentatives, although for some reason he didn't call them by name. A frequentative is the difference between, as he mentions, "drip" and "dribble" or "nip" and "nibble"; the first in each of these pairs is a single action or a slowly paced series of actions, while the second is a quicker, more (yes) frequent version of the same action; it suggests not only repetition but rapid repetition. Most frequentatives in English end in "-le", but, as McWhorter and I both noted, we're not making them any more, at least not with that suffix; the ones we have are the only ones we're going to have in the foreseeable future.

So: is "cackle" the frequentative of "cack"? Well, not really, but as usual, it's a little more complicated than yes-or-no.

"Cack" has existed in English, but in a most limited usage; it's related to "caca", which sounds like baby talk but is actually related to Latin "cacare", "to defecate". It has nothing to do with cackling. That word is from one or another of the Germanic languages: possibly an old German word, "kakeln", with the same meaning, a word which is rather self-evidently onomatopoeic. However, there's also an old Dutch word, "kake", which meant "jaw", and there is a possibility (a slight one) that "cackle" is actually the frequentative of this word. More likely, though, we simply took "kakeln" from German, though it might have been influenced at one point or another by the Dutch word.

I've been looking for an excuse to use this last morsel, and I guess now's the time. The word "poppycock", which means "nonsense", is actually from a Dutch word, with the vowels, unsurprisingly, changed in English: the Dutch original is "pappekak", which means, literally, "pappy (pap-like, or soft and smeary) cack"; "soft shit", in other words. Do the manufacturers of the popcorn snack by that name know about this?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Taking Your Lumps

From Boingboing, as usual, there's a link to this amazing poster which shows just what high-heeled shoes can do to the feet. I believe it, too. The mother of a friend of mine had worn heels all her life, from World War II onward (this friend was a late baby), and by 1980 her tendons had shortened so much as a result that she could no longer stand with her feet flat on the floor; she walked around on tiptoes.

And there's a picture of a bunion, and of course--of course!--I had to know where the word "bunion" comes from, and you'll never believe it: it's related to "bun"!

Okay, it isn't, really. But it's amazingly close.

There's an old, old French word, "beigne", which meant "lump", "swelling", or "bruise". This led to a couple of English words with the same meaning, "buyne" and "buigne". The first is obviously a spelling of the way the word was pronounced: the second was a misspelling of the word. Either way, as pronunciations changed over the years and decades, the word came to be pronounced "bunny" or "bony" (much as "cunny" and "coney" existed side by side), and was spelled accordingly. From "bunny", it would seem, came "bunion", a lumpy, swelling outgrowth of bone on the side of the foot.

But what about that bun? Well, that old French word, "beigne", still exists in French, but rather than meaning merely a lump of something or other, it specifically means a lump of dough--or, more exactly, a doughnut. The word still exists in Louisiana French as "beignet", a small fritter or doughnut covered in sugar.

"Bun", surprisingly, doesn't seem to have emerged from "beigne". "Bun" looks like a native English word, and as far as anyone knows, it is. It started out life, or at least had an earlier life, as "bunne", which looks even more authentically Middle English, as Dave Barry uses to great effect in his fake Chaucer:

In a somer sesun whon softe was the sunne
I kylled a younge birde ande I ate it on a bunne.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

I Thought Not

As I asked yesterday, is it possible that Latin "imputus", "grafted shoot", derived from Greek "emphytos", "implanted, grafted", the adjectival form of the verb "emphyein", "to implant", is related somehow to English "impute"?


I noted a year ago that "impute" is related to "compute" ("think about"), "repute" (what others think of you), "putative" ("thought to be"), and other thinky words, through a series of linguistic metamorphoses that started with Indo-European "peu-", "to cut, to prune", which led to Latin "putare", originally "to cut, to strike", which led to such words as "amputate", to cut off, and "pit", a hole cut out of the ground.

That was easy!

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Devil You Say

I was listening to an audiobook today on the bus to work (The History of Classical Music--it's really good) and the reader used the word "impious", which grabbed me for two reasons. Well, the same reason, really, but in two different ways.

He pronounced the word "IMP-ee-us", which struck me as a little odd, since the word is obviously constructed out of "pious" plus the prefix "im-", "not". (I'd always pronounced it "im-PIE-us"; it just seems to make more sense.) When I got home, I discovered that not only are both pronunciations correct, but the reader's is the preferred one, so you do learn something new every day. I won't be changing my pronunciation any time soon, though.

As soon as the thought had left my head, though, I realized that "IMP-ee-us" sounded odd to me because it called to mind not impiety but imps. Obviously there wasn't any connection between impiety and imps...was there?

Nah. "Impious" is a pretty simple word, but "imp" is unexpected, a ludicrously convoluted thing, and really, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe any of this, but I'm not making it up.

First we have Greek "emphyein", "to implant", which itself comes from "em-", exactly like Latin "im-", "in, into", and "phyein", "to bring forth", because the starting sense of the word is "an offshoot" and then, with the prefix added, "to graft onto", as a tree, or, later, feathers, because "imp" used to be a verb meaning "to graft feathers onto the wing of a falcon". This was done to hunting birds to improve their flight if they'd lost any feathers or had them torn out.

Latin took "emphyein" and turned it into "imputus", "a grafted or implanted shoot". ("Imputus"..."impute"? I'll get to that tomorrow because it's late.) In Old English, this word was compacted down into "impe" or "impa", meaning a grafted shoot or just a shoot, and from that point, the word was off and running. A shoot was the offspring of a plant, and so the word came by the 1300s to mean an offspring--specifically the scion of a great house. The word eventually came to mean any son at all, and later, as the phrase "imp of the devil", literally one of Satan's sons, a malicious little creature, which sort of wrecked the "son" sense for any other usage, which is why the term is now entirely obsolete in that sense. Eventually it was softened; nowadays, if you hear "imp" at all, it usually means a mischievous child or some minor, relatively harmless devilkin.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Can Do

A sign on a church that I pass on the way to work was advertising a Christmas "contata".

I don't expect everyone to know that "cantata" is Italian and comes from Latin "cantare", "to sing", from which English gets such words as "incantation", "chant", "chanticleer", and even "recant". If you know those things, then you could never misspell "cantata" in the way the signmaker did, because you know that the vowel is wrong, and in fact impossible.

However, I'm genuinely baffled that anyone could spell the word "contata". If you pronounce the first syllable "con-", don't you pronounce the second syllable with the same vowel sound? Wouldn't you get "contota" or "contotta"? Did the person charged with putting up the sign sort of know that the word ended with "-tata" but just didn't know what to do about that first vowel sound?

Sometimes people tell me I over-analyze things, and sometimes I think they're right.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Yesterday morning, Jim and I had breakfast out--a New Year's tradition we happily continue, since we don't engage in drunken revels the night before and so aren't hung over and miserable. (I'm not smug about this; it's just that we're not especially social people, and probably boring into the bargain, and were in bed by 10:30.) The restaurant was one of those places that has newspapers to read while you're waiting for your food to arrive, so I picked up a copy of the Globe and Mail--always a mistake--and looked over the front page. At the bottom was a sad, awful story about a woman who fell asleep at the wheel on Highway 401 in Toronto and killed two people, one of whom was her father.

The Globe and Mail had the following sentence in the second paragraph:

Ms. Chen's father was on of the victims, and she now faces twin charges of dangerous driving causing death.

Not "one of the victims". "On of the victims". And that is shameful.

Sometimes I feel as if I have no sense of proportion about such errors. It's only a tiny typo! These things happen, especially when people are putting out a paper on New Year's Eve! It doesn't matter in the greater scheme of things!

But then I realize that I don't care how disproportionate my anger is; I feel it anyway, and the more so because the Globe and Mail has pretensions to be Canada's National Newspaper and yet slaps a typo on the front page (and, I have no doubt, has others inside; I never seem to be able to pick it up without finding some). It's infuriating because it's symptomatic of something bigger. A newspaper which doesn't employ proofreaders--as this one clearly doesn't, because the mistake would have made it through a spellchecker intact--doesn't care about its readers. It has no interest in making sure that its product is readable and accurate. It cares only about making sure that its advertisers are satisfied.

And what's a reader to think? That this is a newspaper that can't even get right a little thing such as the spelling of the word "one". How on earth is the reader to have any confidence that the bigger things, the ones that indisputably do matter, are also right?

It is a small problem, yes, but indicative of greater ones, and it is a disgrace.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

(B)Ring In The New

Welcome to 2008.

Yesterday I wrote something that, instead of simply erasing, I want to clarify a little before someone else does. I wrote that

Greek isn't one of the most important influences on English (French, German, and Latin have had much more sway)

by which I meant only that those three parenthesized languages could be said to have dominated the development of English. French contributed massively to the vocabulary of English following the Norman invasion; German contributed relatively few words, but gave English its structure and grammar; and without Latin, there wouldn't be any English at all, because English is larded through with Latin ideas, words, and affixes. But Greek affected Latin in almost the same way: back in the day, all educated Romans spoke Greek and naturally borrowed their ideas and words, and in this way many Greek words entered Latin, became Latinized, and eventually made their way into English. Then in the 1500s, educated English people, who already would have studied Latin, began taking up Greek as well (Ben Jonson noted in 1616 that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek", so we know that by then both languages were considered indispensable to an educated mind), and so a fair number of Greek words entered English directly (or were coined based on Greek principles): many of these are scientific words for which there was no exact match in English, such as "aphasia" and "mnemonic", but others were or have become commonplace words, among them "alphabet" (1567), "choreography" (1789), "phobia" (1786), and "dinosaur" (1841).

When I wrote yesterday that

I'm going to talk about my favourite [Greek import] tomorrow, something to carry us into the new year

I was alluding to the word "metaphor", which is something both literal and metaphorical--how fittingly meta! (A metaphor--you know this, but in case you don't--is a figure of speech that directly relates one thing to another. A simile is a metaphor using the word "like" or "as". "You are like a pink rose, Cousin Cecily", which Algernon says to his young cousin in Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest", is a simile, while a line spoken by Miss Prism only a few minutes before is a metaphor: "Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.")

See that? The top line on that moving van reads "Metaphores", which is the Greek word for "movers". "Metaphor" comes from "meta-", meaning "over" or "across", and "pherein", "to carry" or "to bear". "Metaphora" means "a transfer", and this is the sense that "metaphor" has in English; the transfer of meaning from one word to another.