or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, February 29, 2008


So we got home from a wedding, and there was this cobweb hanging from the ceiling. No spider: it wasn't a fresh spiderweb, it was an oldish one, which is what I think of as a cobweb, though the first definition on Dictionary.com is "a web spun by a spider to entrap its prey"--no mention of age. I always think a proper cobweb ought to have a little dust on it.

Where does "cobweb" come from, anyway? It obviously can't be any relation to a cob of corn, or the cob that is a male swan (yes, really), or even a cobblestone. So what is it?

You'll love this: the "cob-" in "cobweb" comes from Old English "coppe", which means "spider", and which in turn is related to Middle Dutch "koppe", with the same meaning. It's that simple. ("Web", by the way, is related to "weave".)

Well, what about the cob of corn? And the swan? And, for all that, the short, stocky horse?

Good question. No good answer. There are a number of versions of "cob" in English, and like quite a few short and simple words, they mostly seem to have just appeared out of nowhere. None of them has much of anything, if anything at all, to do with any of the others.

"Cobblestone", though, comes from an old sense of "cob" unrelated to any of those already mentioned, one meaning "a small lump of something", probably from Old English "copp", meaning "head", which in turn is related to German "Kopf", also meaning "head".

A female swan--you did want to know this, didn't you?--is a called a pen. A cob and a pen. And the young are called cygnets (from Greek "kyknos", "swan", plus the French diminutive "-ette"). Who thinks this stuff up?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Try To Keep Up

Wouldn't you think The Telegraph in London would be one of those high-end newspapers with a stylebook and copy editors and things like that?

Here's a headline from today:

'Bridget Jones's' do the most unpaid overtime

What that's supposed to mean is that single women without children end up taking up the slack at work from people who leave early or on time to take care of their children. But "Jones's" is wrong.

I was willing to give The Telegraph the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe, just maybe, the standards for plurals of words ending in "-s" are different in Britain than they are in North America. But no:

Mr and Mrs Jones = The Joneses

The house of Mr Jones = Mr Jones’(s) house

The house of Mr and Mrs Jones = The Joneses’ house

‘Keeping up’ with the practices or possessions of Mr and Mrs Jones = Keeping up with the Joneses

I could have written that, but I didn't (though I've written about it); it was from a letter written to the British Journal of Anaesthesia about an incorrect headline of theirs.

So now we know two things: first, the standards for pluralizing a word ending in "-s" is the same in Britain as it is in North America, and even respectable, or at least theoretically edited, publications still, somehow, get this wrong from time to time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cut and Paste

We interrupt whatever I was doing for the last couple of days to bring you this burning question:

How can it be that the word "cleave" has two completely different, and in fact precisely opposite, meanings?

It is a bafflement, isn't it? To cleave is to stick together. To cleave is to split apart. Cleavage means the division between things (such as breasts or mica), but cleaving means sticking together, unless it means cutting into pieces. It is all so strange.

Well, you didn't think I was going to leave you dangling, did you? The reason "cleave" means two things is that there are actually two entirely different words, from entirely different Indo-European roots, that just happened to come to look exactly alike.

The splitting cleave comes from IE "gleubh-", "to cut", which is also the source of "clove", the segment of garlic which can be split off from the bulb. (The spike-shaped spice known as the clove is unrelated; it's from French "clou", "nail", for obvious reasons.) "Cleft" is also from this root, and so are the "glyph" words in English, including "hieroglyphic" and "anaglyph", from Greek "glyphein", "to carve", because a glyph was a symbol carved into rock.

The joining cleave, on the other hand, comes from IE "gloi-", "to stick", which gave English a bunch of words: you will certainly have guessed that one of those words is "glue"; another is "gluten", the gluey protein in some grains, and therefore also "glutinous". (The Latin source of these is "gluten", meaning "glue".) Yet another is "clay".

Did "gloi-" also give Greek "kolla", "glue", in turn giving English "collagen", the protein which binds tissues such as skin and bones together (and also French "colle", "glue")? It came to mind, but I can't find a single source for it, so it might not be true, and I don't know enough Greek to be sure. But I suspect it did. If anyone has more information, let me know.

An old past participle of the "split" version of "cleave" was "clofen", which eventually became the uncommon but still extant past participle "cloven", now most usually seen in the word "cloven-footed". "Clover", despite being split into three leaves, is not from this same source; it appears instead to always have been that word in English, more or less--it was "claver" until the 1600s, prior to which it was Old English "clafre", which in turn was from Proto-Germanic "klaibron".

Sunday, February 24, 2008

One Way

Yesterday I casually mentioned that Indo-European "wegh-" has "a great many offspring". I wasn't kidding. There are more than fifty, and if you count compounds, there are several hundred at least. You don't think I'm going to talk about every single one of them, do you?

Well, maybe I am, but not all at once.

Let's start with the simplest, most obvious ones that we get just by tinkering with the vowel. Modern German "Weg" equals English "way", and, unsurprisingly, they're both from "wegh-"; in fact, the Old English word for "way" was also "weg". An early meaning was "road", which sense it still sometimes takes; more generalized and often metaphorical senses came later. All "way" words are therefore from this source, including "always" ("by all roads") and "anyway" ("by any road"). "Away" is also of course a "way" word, being a condensation of Old English "onweg", literally "on (one's) way" or "on the road". There are a couple hundred compound words in English using "way", such as "wayfarer", "getaway", "runway", and you don't expect me to list them all for you, do you? Boring. And pointless.

"Wig" is short for "periwig", which is derived from Greek "peri-", "around" or "about", and the "carry" sense of "wegh-"; it's hair that you carry around with you on your head instead of having it firmly attached there.

No, it isn't! That was something I just made up!

"Periwig" is actually a corruption of French "perruque", which also made it into English as "peruke", and nobody knows where it came from, except that the French got it from Italian "perrucca", and prior to that the trail is cold. It may be related to Latin "pilus", "hair" (which I mentioned just a couple of days ago), but that's dubious at best. I actually like my confabulated etymology a lot better.

"Earwig", on the other hand, most definitely is from "wegh-", which led to Old English "wigca", "insect", because of the way insects skitter about. The "ear-" part of "earwig" is just as you might think: it comes from the notion that earwigs enter the ear while you're sleeping. And then they lay eggs in your brain!

No, they don't.

This sense of movement was also seen in Old English "wegan", "to move", and "weg", "motion", which led to the words "wag" and the frequentatives "waggle" and "wiggle".

Tomorrow: messing with the consonants.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Shipping News

At work today, one of the things I was framing was a (I'm guessing) 1940s reproduction of an old Currier and Ives engraving entitled "Clipper Ship 'Nightingale'". Here it is. Nice, isn't it?

Just below the title of the print, there's a subtitle (which you can read if you click on the image to enlarge it):

Getting Under Weigh Off The Battery, New York

and I thought, "Under weigh? That can't be right!"

And then I had second thoughts, because, of course, the nautical term "weigh anchor" (which we'll get to in a minute) comes to mind in that context. Nonetheless, I was quite sure that "under weigh" was simply wrong, and that "underway" was what was meant.

And so it is. Quite a few people have written "under weigh", particularly in a nautical context, and every one of them has been wrong, because the phrase really was and still is "under way" or "underway". (Why "under" instead of, say, "on", as in "on our way"? It appears to be the case that we simply took the word "underway" entire from the Dutch, who use "onderweg" for the same purpose, and reworked it to sound more like English.) Of course, "under weigh" has been used so often that descriptivists would say it's as good as right, but that doesn't make it so, because the sense of "way" as a trip or voyage is still present in "underway", but absent in "under weigh", which is meaningless when you know the etymology of the word.

Now, what about the weight of that anchor? As it turns out, there are two different weighs in English, one older than the other, and the older, less specific sense is the one we apply to anchors. Both major senses of "weigh" come from Indo-European "wegh-", "to go" or "to transport, to move, to carry". The anchor sense comes from the "move" meaning of "wegh-"; to weigh anchor is to move it from the water up into the ship, nothing more. To weigh anything else--to put it on a literal or metaphorical scale and judge it in some way--is a later refinement of the "carry" sense; you carry something in a scale.

"Wegh-" has a great many offspring, some of them rather surprising. Let's have a go at that tomorrow.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Animal Farm

Last night, as we were cleaning up the store, I noticed some chenille yarn and idly thought that that was the French word for "caterpillar", and then I thought, "Yeah, but where does 'caterpillar' come from?" I realized that I had written about the word chenille, among other things (like its namesake, it's a fuzzy, caterpillary kind of yarn, or a pipe-cleaner, which looks even more like a caterpillar than the yarn does), but hadn't actually ever checked out the word "caterpillar".

So here we are!

Any guesses? Anyone? I never would have guessed, because the twists that have brought it to the present day have rendered it dreadfully confusing if not downright unrecognizable.

The second half of the word is unrelated to English "pillar" (which is instead related to "pile" and comes from Latin "pila"); that confusion exists because what I would have thought to be the more logical ending, "-piller", was vetoed by Samuel Johnson, who set the word down as "caterpillar" in his dictionary and thereby cemented it into the language. The "-pillar" of "caterpillar" comes from Latin pilus, "hair", or rather its adjectival version "pilosus", "hairy". This is only right, because a caterpillar is covered with short, bristly hairs.

The first half looks like "cat", and by god that's exactly what it is, too. (The archaic word "cater", as seen in "caterwaul", "to howl like a rutting cat", once meant "tomcat".) The whole construction evidently comes from Old French "catepelose", "hairy little cat".

This, of course, is ludicrous, and yet there's a long, long history of things being named after other things which they may resemble, though in the most superficial way imaginable. A hippopotamus, after all, is literally a "river horse", and how something so resolutely unhorsey got that name is genuinely baffling; the name was enough to throw Herodotus, who, clearly never having seen the beast, nevertheless wrote (on hearsay from Hecataeus of Miletus, who also clearly never saw one) that it

has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse's mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse's neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox. Its hide is so thick and tough that when dried it can be made into spear-shafts.

So wrong!

Oh, and one more thing: although in English "chenille" refers to something caterpillary, and therefore etymologically cattish, French "chenille" actually is related to "chien", which means..."dog". (It's from Latin "canicula", "little dog", from "canis", "dog".)

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Mere days ago, I name-checked Mrs. Malaprop, a character from the Sheridan play "The Rivals. (Her name comes from French mal à propos, "inappropriate", and she's given her name to a usage error in which a word is replaced by a similar-sounding one: "She stuck to him like a leash", for example.) And now, look--here's one in the wild!

Let's see if you can spot the malapropism. When I first read this link from Boingboing, I just stared at it, because I couldn't figure out if the writer was seriously wrong, or was making some kind of joke, or something I didn't even have a name for.
Designer Wong makes engagement rings that can kill you. The razor-sharp diamond point is set into the ring so it can’t get knocked out when you smash someone’s face in, and the edges of the ring are really soft so it won’t cut into your skin during the pounding. It’s romantic because it means, “Will you marry me” but it also means, “I can’t always be there to protect you so if some jerk won’t stop bothering you, puncture him with this.” The diamond sharp edge will also cut skin down to the bone (with a minimum 1 karat stone - but the larger the better). Or it may simply be used to tag hard surfaces, like cars and windows for S.O.S. messages or that last will and estimate when pen or paper (or lawyers) aren’t conveniently around.

The ring is a good joke. The phrase "last will and estimate"? Not so much. I mean, it might be a joke and I just don't get it, but it's a very plausible malapropism for "last will and testament".

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sooner or Later

Sometimes you learn by making mistakes.

Today I was writing an e-mail and instead of typing "rather", I accidently typed "rathe". It wasn't flagged by the auto-spellcheck, which means it's a word.

Really? "Rathe"?

I shouldn't be surprised, I guess. English is full of offbeat words, and "rathe" isn't really that unusual at all.

After some poking around and a few false starts ("rath" is not just a word in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky": it's an Irish word meaning "a hill or mound"), I discovered that "rathe" is an obsolete adjective meaning "coming early in the season": it's used to refer to flowers or fruit. It's pronounced just as you would imagine it, to rhyme with "lathe" or "bathe".

And then the light went on: if "rathe" is an adjective, then "rather" pretty much certainly has to be the comparative version of it. And that's exactly the case, too. One of the senses of "rather" (it has more than you might think) is, in fact, "sooner": "I'd rather die" literally means "Before, which is to say sooner than, I would do that thing, I would choose death".

"Rathe" comes from Old English "hræth", back when words still started with "hr-", and that of course means that we got them from a Norse tongue (in this case Old Norse "hrathr").

Monday, February 18, 2008

Best Guess

Here on the Onion AV Club is a comparison of the movie and book versions of Into the Wild. The comments section contains the proposition that "paragon and paradigm are synonyms", at which point I thought, "What? No they aren't!" But then just two comments later, someone else deals with this, so you can read it yourself. (Oh, very well: a paradigm is a model or example of something, while a paragon is a model of excellence. Related, but not the same, certainly not synonymous.)

What I found amusing was that in the intervening comment, someone playfully used the word "polygon" instead of "paragon", a very Mrs. Malaprop sort of thing to do, and I began to wonder where "paragon" came from, anyway.

Let's start with "polygon". It's self-evidently from the Greek, and although you'd think it ought to mean "many-sided", it actually means "many-angled": "poly-" means "many", and the "-gon" part comes from "gonia", "angle", which is descended from "gony", "knee", which gave English such words as (via Latin) "genuflect", "to bend at the knee", and in fact "knee" itself (both from Latin "genu", "knee", which in Old English became "cneo").

So "paragon" must mean something like...well, what could it mean?

It has nothing to do with knees, or angles, or anything else of the sort: it's just one of those accidents. "Paragon" starts with "para-", "alongside", all right, but the second half is not from "gony" but evidently from "akone", "whetstone". A paragon, therefore, it something that has been tested for sharpness alongside something else on a whetstone and found to be superior.

It's also interesting to note that, as in the Greek original, "paragon" in English has been used as a transitive verb, something I've never seen done and never would have guessed. It means "to rival" or "to compare". It sounds sort of wrong to me, I have to say.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Taking The Fifth

As a pretty good general rule, English has a name for everything you'd care to name. (As a pretty good general rule, every language does, in fact. A language is going to invent or adopt words for everything it needs to talk about, or else what's the point?)

Sometimes, of course, we have to resort to workarounds. English still doesn't have a universally accepted term for "the person I love and live with and will probably spend the rest of my life with but am not married to". (It also doesn't have a genderless word for "he or she", although "they" is making great if nervous inroads.)

And sometimes, the word that we end up using just doesn't seem to make any sense at all, and even when we know what the point of it is, it still doesn't seem to make any sense.

I was reading some medical encyclopedia or other and came across a term I'd never seen before: "fifth disease", which is a minor childhood infection by something called a parvovirus resulting mostly in a fever, a rash, and red blotches on the cheeks.

"Fifth disease"? Well, if that isn't the most baffling name for a disease I'd ever heard. Was it named after some doctor by the name of Gerald Fifth? (No, because "fifth" isn't capitalized.) Was it...well, what was it?

I looked through my usual sources. Wikipedia was no help (perhaps I'll go in and edit it). The online dictionaries: nothing. Finally, I stumbled across a proper explanation, which is this: there was a list of the most common rash-producing childhood diseases, and the parvovirus infection simply happened to fall fifth on the list. The others were measles, scarlet fever, rubella, and some unknown illness in fourth place which was called, yes, "fourth disease".

Wouldn't you think someone might have come up with proper names for those diseases? That's the natural order of things in the medical world, which dearly loves to name and classify everything. Since the fourth disease is a mystery, it doesn't have a name, but fifth disease was called by doctors "erythema infectiosum" ("infectious redness"). Unsurprisingly, it didn't catch on; it needed a less intimidating name, and so people began calling it "slapped cheek disease" because of those red blotches that appear about a week in. It still doesn't have a snappy name like "pneumonia" or "the dose", but not every disease can be the personification of brevity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Frames of Mind

Anybody who's ever studied a foreign language knows what a minefield translation is. Your teacher asks you to write a few paragraphs in the language you're studying. Like a fool, you write it out first in English, then set about translating it. And then you're fucked.

It's hard to do! It's hard enough to translate a straightforward sentence such as this one, but when you have to deal with idiomatic phrases such as "out in left field", you don't have a chance.

Machine translation's no better. Lots of English words have many meanings, some of them loosely allied in a cloud, others completely off by themselves. Take "frame", for instance. It has a collection of meanings related to support and structure: the skeleton of a house, your own physical build, the undercarriage of a car, the non-lens part of a pair of glasses. Then there are lots of one-offs, such as a tenth of a game of bowling or a single image from a movie, and these senses may or may not be related in some way to the main sense. And those are just the nouns!

So if you are an American company such as Structural Industries, and you make picture frames, and you're forced to put French on the products you want to sell in Canada, what do you do? Do you hire a translator? One would think so, but maybe you just don't think you have the time or the money, so you go to some free online translation service. And this is what you end up with on a 12x12 frame meant to hold a record-album cover or a scrapbook page:



"Armature". Very nice.

A picture-frame in French is "un cadre". An armature is, well, something else altogether. In both English and French, it's the reinforcing structure inside something such as a sculpture; it's inside, not outside, which is a pretty dramatic difference. An armature is still a framework, but it isn't a picture frame.

French "cadre", by the way, is of course the source of English "cadre", meaning "group of workers" or "group of military officers". It's a metaphorical extension of a frame as something enclosing a collection of things. The word comes from Latin "quadrum", "square".

Monday, February 11, 2008


Here on Salon is a review of a rather awful-sounding diet book called "Skinny Bitch".

And here is a sentence from that review.

But it was a photograph of pop star Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, holding a copy of the 2005 title "Skinny Bitch" that jettisoned the book sales to bestseller status.

Did you really need any proof that Salon employs no copy editors? If so, here it is.

It's a little hard to believe that someone wrote "jettisoned" as if it meant "jet-propelled", harder still to believe it got past a copy editor into publication. The only possible answer is that the article's author was sleep-deprived and that Salon employs nobody to vet copy before it hits the virtual newsstands. Big heaping spoonfuls of shame all around.

"Jettison" means not "jet" but "eject"; to jettison something is to throw it away, specifically to throw it overboard. It's just about the wrongest word to use in that sentence, breathtaking in its tin-eared clumsiness.

"Jettison" is related to "jet", unsurprisingly, through Latin "jacere", "to throw". But "jettison" isn't descended directly from "jet", nor is it a progenitor of it. It came into English quite independently, from Latin "jactatio", a word which also entered English as "jactation", meaning "tossing and turning" or, amusingly, "boasting" ("throwing your weight around", I suppose).

You can read the comments section of that review to marvel at the astounding quantities of contumely heaped upon the author and Salon in general. (There are other mistakes, too mundane to go into here; the commenters leave no stone unhurled.)


I would, however, like to mention that the review, using a quote from the book, manages to employ the portmanteau word "cankles", which I find delightful in its sheer cruelty. If you are one of those unfortunate women who does not have a well-turned ankle--if your calves are indistinguishable from your ankles, in other words--then cankles are what you have, and poor you, for no plastic surgery yet exists to correct this dreadful deformity.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Wrong and Wronger

I don't make fun of ordinary people who guess at etymologies and get them wrong. (I reserve my scorn for people who ought to know better and have no excuse.) I do think that if you're posting to the Internet, you can look up the etymology before you commit it, and your wrongness, to print, and there isn't much of an excuse, but I still don't judge too harshly.

On the science-fiction website io9, there's this article about hideous shoes (they're still not as hideous as Crocs), and one of the pictures has the word "orthotics" in it. Someone in the comments section says,

Doesn't "orthotic" mean "correct ear", or something like that?

You can see where they might have gotten that idea: "ortho-" does in fact mean "to correct, to make straight", from Greek "orthoun", "to straighten", and "otic" is an adjective meaning "of or related to the ear". However, "-otic" is also a suffix, the adjectival form of the noun suffix "-osis", which denotes conditions or states: "hypnosis/hypnotic", say, or "tuberculosis/tuberculotic". ("Tubercular" is more usually heard as the adjective in that case, but both are correct.) "Orthotic", therefore, is the adjectival form of "orthosis", the correction of orthopedic problems, which is to say those that involve the skeleton and its associates, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. ("Orthotic" is also, in the usual way of English, now a noun as well, referring to the shoe inserts that do the correcting of postural problems.)

However, I am extremely grateful for that mistaken etymology, because it led me in the course of my research to the Dictionary.com page for "orthotic", which contains the most amazing statement:

adj. deriv. of ORTHOSIS (on the model of PSYCHOSIS: PLYCHOTIC).

Yes, it actually says "plychotic". No, there isn't any such word as "plychotic". Yes, they meant to say "psychotic". No, they didn't, despite being a dictionary and all, run it through a spell-checker or do any other kind of error-catching. Yes, they should be ashamed of themselves.

I even looked for "plychotic" in the OED, just to make absolutely sure it wasn't a word of any sort, and of course it isn't. However, there was a charming word nearby that you ought to know about: "plychon". Don't you love it already? A plychon was--the word is quite obsolete--a dental tool, used for pulling teeth, and seems to have gotten its name from its shape; the word is apparently a corruption of "pelican".

Friday, February 08, 2008


I was writing something else this morning and I used the word "evince" ("Didn't she evince any doubt at all?", or something like that), and then I had an unusual moment of doubt when I wondered if it was, in fact, the right word.

It was, happily.

Some people, apparently, confuse "evince" with "evoke". (Not me, but some people.) It's easy enough to do, I suppose. But if you know the etymologies, you'll never get them wrong.

"Evoke" suggests the word "vocal", and with good reason: they're brothers. "Evoke" is made of Latin "ex-", truncated to "e-" before the consonant "-v-", and "vocare", "to call". Therefore, it means "to call out" or "to call forth", and so "to evoke" means "to call to mind" or "to elicit".

"Evince", on the other hand, is from thats same "ex-" plus "vincere", "to defeat". This doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, because "evince" means "to make manifest" or "to demonstrate", and what has that to do with defeat?

A slight sideways leap, is all. Latin "evincere" meant literally "to conquer", but a later meaning was "to make a point", presumably in debate, where that point was used to defeat one's opponent. From there it's a short step to "to show something clearly".

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Not To The Swift

Here's the first paragraph from Anthony Lane's latest movie review in The New Yorker:

Where would movies be without expatriation? Nothing tests a hero like transplanting him to foreign soil, and there is no guarantee that he will become any more heroic when ripped from the reassurance of home turf. Two new movies, “In Bruges” and “The Band’s Visit,” so perplex their deracinated characters that what we end up with feels less like a narrative and more like a foundation course in floundering.

When you see the word "deracinated", is your first thought, as mine invariably is, that the root of the word is "race"? That it means "having one's racial identity obliterated"? That thought usually lasts about a second, before I remember that "deracinate" instead means literally "to uproot", and slightly more metaphorically means "to alienate from one's usual surroundings or culture".

This is all atangle with some other words: the French word for "root beer" is "racinette", from "racine", "root", derived from "radicina", the Latin diminutive for "radix", which means of course "root". These Latin words in turn gave English such words as "radical" and "radish".

But hang on a minute. Isn't it entirely possible--probable, actually--that the "race" of "deracinate", meaning "root", is in fact the same "race" as in "human race" or the various races of humanity, since those things are where we're rooted historically and biologically? As if when you're deracinated you're plucked from among your race and plunked down among another where you feel like an alien?

You'd think so. I certainly did. But no. The OED traces it back to Italian "razza" (with the same meaning) and then declares the trail cold and dead. I can't believe they're so sure about this, but they know more than I do, so I suppose I have to trust them.

The race that you run, as you can well imagine, is unrelated; it's from Old Norse "rasa", "to rush".

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Let The Music Play

Omegamom writes about the zombie-dance video I linked to yesterday:

That is a cool video! At least one woman was laughing behind her hand, though, so not everyone was being stiff & bourgeois.

My mom had an encounter where she came out of a subway in Vienna right into the middle of a huge chorus performing the Carmina Burana. She remembers that to this day as a piece of delightful serendipity.

There's something magical about unexpected live performance, isn't there?

Last September, Jim and I were in London, and naturally I had to go to Harrods to buy something odoriferous. Jim came to get me and he wanted to see that Princess Diana memorial on one of the lower floors, so we fought the crowds down to see it, and then on the way up we found what's called the Egyptian Escalator (lots of hieroglyphics and such) and made out way back up. And suddenly there was music: on a little balcony, a soprano was singing "Con Te Partiró" to a recorded backing track, and while that song might be hackneyed, the experience was thrilling; she was so good, and people were taking so much pleasure in it.

Some years ago, probably 1999 or 2000, Jim and I and a friend were visiting Halifax for the day in late April or early May of that year and walking down Spring Garden Road (one of the main downtown streets) when we heard....some kind of irresistible music, the kind you can't not move to. It was a group called Samba Nova, playing Brazilian samba music on International Dance Day (April 29th every year), and we must have listened for a good fifteen minutes, as did a huge crowd of mesmerized pedestrians and shoppers. The group was so much fun that when I moved back to Halifax a year or so later, one of the first things I did was join them, and I played with them (that big huge drum called the surdo. the heartbeat of samba music) until I moved away in 2004.


Speaking of music....

Here's a short animated comedy bit from a comedian named Scott Bateman from Salon.com's Video Dog.

In it, he uses the word "flutist", at which point the word "Flautist" pops up on the screen; Bateman corrects himself to "flautist", and the word "Thanks" appears below "Flautist".

Sounds like the sort of thing I would have written. Here's the thing, though: "flutist" is not only a correct English word, it's actually much older than "flautist"--the first dates from around 1600, the second only from the mid-nineteenth century.

It's sort of awful that a nice, normal, usual English word gets supplanted by a foreign coinage (from the Italian, in this case) for no other apparent reason than pretentiousness.

Friday, February 01, 2008

What Could Happen

Salvador Dali once said, "So little of what could happen does happen." He also said, along the same lines, "Why, then, when I order a lobster, does the waiter not bring me a flaming phone book?"

Have you seen this?

It's one of the things that could happen: a video of a half-dozen seemingly normal passengers on the London tube who all of a sudden perform a perfectly choreographed version of the zombie dance from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. And the passengers just sit there like a bunch of bourgeois Marcel Duchamp stiffs! And then they applaud as if they were at Covent Garden with kid gloves on!

I don't say "Whoo!" but I would so be saying "Whoo!" because how could you possibly just sit there and not be reacting to that little jolt of surrealist joy?


What could happen if you can't tell one part of speech from another?

We sell a lot of things in the store in which I work, including a bunch of metal signs, some vintage-looking, some just decorative. Some of them are just kind of cute, kitcheny things:

Some of them are things that I can't imagine anybody without some sort of mental defect wanting to own, but hey, it's a big world:

And then there's this.

Can you read the text? No? It says this:

friends: 'frendz: n 1: people who like each other and/or are helpful to one another. 2: Lucy & Ethel 3: supporters or sympathizers - friend li ness adj - friend ly adj - friend ship n.

Well. According to whichever dictionary it was that the production company got its definition from, "friendliness" is an adjective. And here I thought everything ending in "-ness" was a noun!

Grammar is not an idle pastime. It's work, dammit!