or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, March 31, 2008

Ones and Twos

Here's the opening paragraph from a reprinted Slate.com story about April Fool's pranks:

You don't look gullible, but you are. Year after year, the media take advantage of your naiveté and humiliates you with an April Fools' Day prank.

Well, which is it to be? Is the word "media" plural, taking the plural verb "take", or is it singular, taking the singular verb "humiliates"?

I think it's plural, of course, but more and more people are treating "media" as if it were a singular noun, as they have already done with "data" (despite the fact that we already have singular forms of both those words, "medium" and "datum", respectively).

Fine. Whatever. I don't run the world. I can't stop the English language from changing in that way, though I can grouse about it. But a writer needs to make a decision one way or the other, and a copy editor of some sort--there is an copy editor of some sort, isn't there?--needs to make sure that the usage is at least consistent. Otherwise you end up with sentences like that.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trust Me

Alexander Pope famously said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing", but sometimes I find that a little learning can push you in the right direction, if you're learned the right things.

The other day I was reading about Sylvia Browne, a would-be psychic whose livelihood consists of cynically peddling cruel lies to gullible and desperate people for shockingly large sums of money. On this page of the website Stop Sylvia Browne was the word "affidavit", and, well, where might such a strange word come from?

When you say it out loud--"aff-uh-DAY-vit"--you can't possibly make any sense of it. It's just a bunch of syllables with no evident connection to any other word you could think of. So I stared at it for a few seconds, and then figured as follows:

1) It's probably Latin. It looks kind of Latinate, and I can't imagine what else it might be, so let's go with that.

2) If it's Latin, then "af-" is almost certainly the same as Latin "ad-", only with the consonant changed to an eff before another eff, as in "affliction" or "affiance".

3) If that's the case, then even though we break up the word strangely into syllables that don't correspond with the etymology, the root of the word is actually "-fid-". And if that's true, then I already know a bunch of words with "-fid-" or something like that in them, such as "fidelity" and "perfidy".

4) Those words come from Latin "fides", meaning "trust" or "faith", and therefore an affidavit is a document which you can trust--which you can put your faith in--because it was made under oath.

And all of this turned out the be the case. I really don't know any Latin worth talking about, but just knowing a little bit of it and being able to make some logical connections enabled me to decipher what is really a very strange English word. ("Affidavit" comes unaltered from Middle Latin, a conjugated form of the verb "affidare". Not that I knew that beforehand.)

I mentioned "affiance" up there, and that word--get this!--is from exactly the same root as "affidavit" (though through French, obviously); it started with the verb "affidare", "to pledge", because when you become affianced to someone, you pledge to marry them.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Set In Stone

A co-worker tonight used the word "recalcitrant", and of course I immediately began to wonder where it might have come from, and more or less at the same moment she began to wonder the same thing, knowing that I was pretty much obliged at that point to write about it. And here it is!

My first conjecture was that it pretty much had to be related to "calculus" somehow, though I wasn't quite sure how. (I thought I had discussed "calculus" before, but as it turns out, I'd only made a passing reference to it, here.) It seemed likely, if not certain, that all the "-calc-" words in English were related somehow, and therefore "recalcitrant" had to be part of the extended family.

"Calculus" means "stone", or, more specifically in this instance, "pebble", because originally pebbles were used as markers in calculation (another "-calc-" word!). And why "pebble" and not "stone"? Because, yet again, we have that omnipresent "-ule" ending, this time in the Latin formation "-ulus", and, as you might recall, "-ule" and "-ula" are diminutives. A "calc", therefore, ought to be a stone, and a calculus is a little one.

But there isn't any such word as "calc" in English. There is, however, such a word as "calx", and it means...not quite what you might have thought: it's the detritus left after stones (and metals) have been burned as thoroughly as they can be. It's mineral oxide.

Okay, let's take another tack. "Calcium" obviously starts with "calc-" and, being a stone or the component of one, must have the same root, and so it does. Limestone is a mineral which consists largely of calcium carbonate, and another word for "limestone" is..."calx".

"Calx" comes from Greek "khalix", "pebble" (there's that word again). Now, calcium carbonate is the principal component of chalk, and where do you suppose the word "chalk" came from? Yeah, "calx" again.

So what are we to make of "recalcitrant"? My first thought was that it had something to do with being as immovable as a stone, because "recalcitrant" means "resisting control", or, more broadly, "stubborn". But the truth is even more interesting (and confusing), because Latin had a verb, "calcitrare", "to kick, to strike with the heels", and from that the verb "recalcitrare", "to be disobedient", meaning that "recalcitrant" actually translates as "kicking back (against authority)".

But why does "calcitrare" mean "to strike with the heels"? Because in Latin, "calx" also meant "heel". And why does that one bone of the body--a bone which, like all the others in the human body, is also made up largely of calcium, by the way--get the same name as limestone and, by extension, a rock or a pebble, while none of the others did?

Oh, I don't know. I can't know everything. (It may be the case that Latin simply had two different versions of "calx", completely unrelated to one another. It's common enough in English, and other languages besides--even Indo-European had multiples of some words.)

But here's something interesting: the verb "inculcate" is also from "calx", meaning "heel": it's from Latin "in" plus "calcare", "to tread (with the heel)", therefore "to stamp in: to make an impression on", which is just what you do when you inculcate your beliefs in someone.

And one more: though there isn't a "calc" in English, there is a "calque", derived from, obviously, French. "Calque" means "tracing paper" in French (which is to say something that takes an impression), but in English, it's a metaphorical tracing: it means the borrowing of a word or phrase by translating it exactly from the other language, as in "masterpiece", taken whole from German "Meisterstück".

Thursday, March 27, 2008


I was reading some history of the Middle Ages, and the word "mendicant" came up in regards to some religious orders (you can get the gist of it here). Well, naturally the first word that came to mind when I thought of "mendicant" was "mendacious", even though they don't have anything to do with one another. I would have looked up their meanings even if I weren't sure that there had to be some relationship between the two, though I did think just that.

"Mendicant" simply means "begging": in the case of those mediaeval friars, it referred to the ones who owned no property (and therefore had no labours to perform) but subsisted on the charity of others. It's from Latin "mendicare", "to beg". "Mendacious", on the other hand, means "lying: untruthful", and it's also from Latin, but from "mendacium", "a falsehood".

Well, that's no help, is it? But just look at them! Obviously there's some deeper relationship, right?

There is. The source of both, though distantly, is Indo-European "mend-", "physical defect". A mendicant was originally someone so physically afflicted that he couldn't work but had to beg for a living: someone mendacious was originally someone who writes or speaks faultily, and later one who exhibits the flaw (not physical, but spiritual) of untruthfulness.

IE "mend-" is also, as you might have gathered, the root of "amend", which is to say the righting or repairing of some fault, and likewise "mend", which, after over three weeks of various winter colds, I am finally on.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Just Swell

I am on my third consecutive cold.

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I had a cold, which, I would imagine, I caught from Jim, who was under the weather a few days before I was. (I foolishly thought I wouldn't catch his germs.) That one started to fade after about a week; by then, Jim had caught another one from someone at work, and since my immune system had probably taken a hit, I caught it, too. (It had different symptoms from the first one.) And then, just as that one began to dwindle, I caught yet another one from Jim. And all this after a whole winter of having managed to avoid any kind of illness altogether! (Ordinarily I am enviably, disgustingly healthy.)

One of the manifestations of the third cold was that my uvula swelled up. Uvulitis, it's called, and I've had it before, and it's maddening. That little dangle of flesh expands to the size of the first joint-and-a-half of your pinky finger, and suddenly it's there all the time, tickling the back of your throat every time you move. And that's just when you're standing. When you try to lie down to sleep--well, forget about trying to sleep. You can feel the obscene, gravity-bound thing flopping against your various mucous membranes, and it's horrible. You can't concentrate on anything else: you certainly can't sleep. The only way I managed to get any sleep the last two night was to drug myself insensible. (Oh, nothing illegal: I am too wussy for that. It was Robax Platinum, which contains a muscle relaxant that does the job with enviable efficiency.)

The swelling is finally receding, which means I can focus on the important things, such as: where does the word "uvula" come from, anyway?

Well, the "-ula" suffix is a hint that it's of Latin origin. It, and its French offshoot "-ule", are diminutive suffixes: they're applied to something to make it little, as in "molecule" and "formula".

As you will have noticed if you checked out that last link, I already mentioned "uvula": the first part of it is from Latin "uva", "grape", so a uvula is a little grape. "Uva" is also "grape" in Italian and Spanish.

But in French, "grape" is "raisin" (a word English adopted as the name of a dried grape, just as we adopted the French word for "plum", which is "prune", to mean a dried plum). Now, where on Earth did the French get that from?

Latin, surprisingly. "Raisin" went through a number of changes to get where it is, but it started out as Latin "raceme", which is also an English word--not much used except by botanists--referring to flowers which have many florets springing from a single stalk, as seen in lily-of-the-valley

and bleeding-heart

plants. In Latin, a raceme was merely a cluster of something, as grapes or berries.

And while we're at it, where did English get "grape" from? My first guess was that we had stolen it from the Italians, who have the word "grappa" to mean a kind of raw brandy made from pomace, the fruit-pulp leftovers from the juicing process (in this case, the remains of crushed wine grapes).

As it turns out, splendidly, Italian took "grappa" from the Germanic tongues, from the same word that gave us "grape". And just as splendidly, "grape" is from the same source as "grapnel", a kind of hooked anchor. ("Grapple" is from a different source, but has been affected by "grapnel" in the sense of "grappling iron".) A grape is a grape because a grapnel of sorts was originally used in harvesting, a hooked implement which pulled the bunches of fruit from their vines.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Rock Out

I was reading an article today in the new issue of Harper's, and the word "dilapidated" showed up, a word which, as often happens, caused me to seize up short, because I realized that I had never really considered it before and didn't know where it might have come from.

It was obvious, in a surface way, that the core of the word had to be related to "lapis" and "lapidary", which is to say a stone of some sort. But try as I might, I couldn't make any sense of it: how does a word meaning "having fallen into ruin" have anything to do with stones? Was it because untended stone buildings fell into heaps? But wasn't that true of every other kind of building, and really everything else, too?

Very well, then. If not stones, then...what?

Stones, of course. The word, simply enough, comes from Latin "dilapidatio", "disrepair", just as in English: and that word comes from Latin "lapidatus", which gave English a little-used word, "lapidate", with the same meaning: "to pelt with stones".

Aha! Something dilapidated wasn't, originally, merely something that had fallen apart: it was something that had been deliberately and perhaps maliciously brought to a state of decay by a rain of stones, and isn't that a vivid thing to think about?

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Here's an awful sentence from a Salon.com article about how China is manifestly unready to host the Olympics coming up in less than six months:

When a world champion long-distance runner like Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie bows out of the Olympic marathon -- citing fears that Beijing's polluted air will aggravate his asthma, the message sent to the rest of the world isn't one of Chinese success, but failure -- a failure to balance economic growth with the maintenance of a basic quality of life.

Dashes (represented here by doubled hyphens) act more or less like parentheses or commas; they trap something inside, something which is meant as a commentary or modifier to the main flow of the sentence. But to perform this function, they have to come in pairs: a bear-trap with only one jaw isn't going to do a thing. (Sometimes, the second dash can be replaced, but only at the end of a sentence, and only by a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark.)

The sentence in question has two parenthetical clauses, but only two dashes (and one period). This makes for an extremely confusing sentence, to say the least, because it looks as if everything inside the existing dashes is a single clause. Put the missing dash after the word "asthma" and the whole thing suddenly makes perfect sense.

Some people think you shouldn't use dashes at all, that they're a clumsy replacement for more established punctuation such as the colon and the semicolon, that they encourage sloppy sentence construction. I kind of like them--I think they're a little breezier and less formal--but in a case like this, I can see the point. I'd never write a sentence with two pairs of dashes, anyway: the second pair in the quoted sentence (well, dash-plus-period, which amounts to the same thing) ought to have been replaced by a colon and a period.

Where are the copy editors when you need them? Not at Salon, that's for sure.

Monday, March 17, 2008


A couple of days ago I was talking about the names of colours on paint labels, and today I'm talking about the names of colours on yarn labels. (We're doing inventory at the store, and, not being desperately needed in the frame shop for the most part, I had to do what's called a detail recovery of the yarn, making sure everything was where it ought to be.)

A number of yarns have a colour called "Winter White", which doesn't really differ from white-white in any significant way, in my opinion. (These lines of yarn also have a White. Go figure.) The French term for "winter white" is "blanc hibernal". Now, "hibernal", as it happens, is an English word as well, meaning, of course, "wintry". French "hibernal" is related to French "hiver", which means "winter", and is also obviously related to English "hibernate", which means "to undergo dormancy in the winter". All these words are from Latin "hibernus", "wintry", which comes from "hiems", the Latin word for "winter", which also gave English a word you've probably never heard before, "hiemal", with the same meaning. (You may already know that the opposite of hibernation is estivation, which is summer dormancy: this comes from Latin "aestivare", "to reside during the summer", and this word gave French its word for summer, "été".)

All well and good, but what about "Hibernia"? That's an old word for Ireland, which is not dramatically wintry, and yet the word clearly has a whiff of winter-ness about it. The old Celtic name for Ireland was "Iveriu", and the Romans adopted this name, mucked around with it a bit, altered it as if it were related to "hiems/hibernus", and dubbed it "Hibernia". "Iveriu" is where the name "Eire", yet another name for Ireland, comes from, and also the "Erin" in "Erin Go Bragh", and finally is where the first syllable of "Ireland" comes from.

It is completely and truthfully coincidental that I ended up writing about this on St. Patrick's Day. I don't celebrate it, I didn't even really think of it today, and yet somehow it cropped up. From a ball of yarn!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Watching Paint Dry

As I've mentioned before, one of the great things about multilingual packaging, of the sort we get here in Canada (with its two official languages) or the European kind with eight or a dozen versions of the same words, is that you get to see things you might not ordinarily have seen: how different languages treat the same idea, or where words in English unexpectedly come from, or even, if you're lucky, an amusing typo.

Yesterday at work, since we're gearing up for inventory, I was tasked with counting the overstock paint, the stuff up overhead that the inventory company isn't going to be counting (because they only tackle the stuff that's actually on the shelves). It wasn't pleasant work: up and down a ladder with many small but heavy boxes, taking a hundred or more little bottles out of the box, scanning them, counting them, reversing the procedure.... But I made up for it with a great typo and an etymology I hadn't known before, so it's all for the better.

One package of small containers of metallic paints had a bronze-coloured paint, and the label on the back read


which is the same word in English, French, and Spanish, except that, obviously, they've misspelled the English version. Here's the thing, though: a spellchecker, assuming they bothered to use one (not a safe assumption these days), wouldn't have caught it, because "bonze" is a word in English. I know you'd never think it to look at it, because it really doesn't seem like an English word, but it actually is. It means "a Buddhist monk". Seriously! We got it from the French, who got it from Portuguese (they spelled it "bonzo"), who, once being a great seafaring people (they colonized Brazil, among other places), had much earlier contact with Japan than the English did, landing there in 1543. "Bonso" was the Japanese version, meaning "ordinary priest", and "bonze" entered English not fifty years later, which, I think, is a remarkably rapid transmission of a word you wouldn't think would be that crucial to any of the tongues involved except the language of origination.

Another multilingual label I saw yesterday was for a bottle of paint called, in English, "Thicket". (It's a dark mossy green.) I didn't bother recording the Spanish translation, but the French version was "Bosquet", which grabbed me because it is clearly the origin, or at least the relative, of another little-used but still active English word, "bosky". (I think the British get more use out of "bosky" than North Americans do, or at least I've only ever seen the word in British texts, most memorably in a cartoon by Posy Simmonds.) "Bosquet" is a noun in French: "bosky", from "bosk-" (more on that in a second) plus the adjectival suffix "-y", means "covered with shrubs and small trees: thicketed".

In fact, "bosquet" also appears in English; it's pronounced "bosket", which also is an English word, a testament to the late sixteenth century, when people spelled things as they pronounced them and also grabbed words willy-nilly from whatever source came to hand. "Bosquet" comes from Italian "boschetto", "little bush", from Latin "boscus", meaning, of course, "bush".

"Boscus" also entered other Germanic languages as "bosk" or "busk"; one of the variants of this is Dutch "bosch", and this is why in English we say "bush" and not "busk" or something else.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I Swear

Every time I so much as mention the Globe and Mail, it's to complain about it. Well, who am I to break a winning streak? The headline for this bloodless piece about a television miniseries on U.S. president John Adams has the following headline:

The unkown American

See? Right there in a headline. A mistake even the most cursory spell-check or copy-edit would have caught. They're not even fucking trying any more.


Yesterday when I was talking about the word "damn", I said the word just popped into my head, but it turns out that's not quite true. I was doing the dishes, and lying on the kitchen table--yeah, I read when I eat--was the latest issue of Harper's magazine, open to a piece called "Mississippi Drift". As soon as I saw that, I quite naturally thought of the Nina Simone song "Mississippi Goddam", and after that was off and running.


If I ever had a thought to run for public office--and that would be about the worst idea anyone ever had, by the way--then this next assertion would be unearthed and used to prove that I hate French people, or something. And I don't, but I have to tell you: French-Canadian swearing is hilarious.

Canadian French has a few of the usual bodily-function swear words, such as "merde" ("shit") and "foutre" ("fuck"), but most of the really big guns are religious in nature. I thought it was a joke, but Jim, who works closely with quite a few Francophones, assures me that "tabernac", which is a phonetic form of "tabernacle", with the same meaning in English, is a huge, offensive oath, the kind of thing you only say when you really mean it. And there are others: "calice", which means "chalice"; "ostie", again phonetic "hostie", which means "host"; "sacrement", with the obvious meaning; and others besides. (More here.) Basically, if it's a word that can be said with reverence, it's a word that can be turned around and said with malice or fury. And it strikes me as, if not actually ludicrous, then at least funny.

Without a doubt, someone somewhere thinks that English-language swearing is ludicrous, and of course they're right. (And of course English has its religious swear words, too: "Jesus Christ" and "God-damned", among a very few others.) I guess when you're steeped in a particular culture, its ways and traditions come to seem like the way things are, rather than a way things might be. But still: "calice" as a big-deal, ladies-fainting cuss word? Too funny!

I would like to append that religious swearing doesn't have to be amusing. There is a Catalan curse that Maledicta editor Reinhold Aman (I think it was he who wrote the article in which I read this) rightly calls "a hair-raising blasphemy": I believe it's written as "mecagum les cinc llagues de Crist", and it means “I shit on the five wounds of Christ.” Absolutely guaranteed to make any pious Catholic within earshot cross himself fervently.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


So after lunch I was washing up the dishes and my mind was just kind of wandering, and the word "damn" came into my mind, not as an expletive but just as a word, and I began fishing around to see if I could imagine where it might have come from. Eventually--it was only about thirty seconds, but a lot of words can flicker through your synapses in thirty seconds--it occurred to me that the second half of "condemn" looks quite a lot like "damn". Quite a lot indeed! I was so certain that the two must be siblings that I dropped what I was doing (I shut off the running water first) and trotted over to the computer to look it up.

And whaddaya know? They're the same word! And there's something even better hidden in them both, but I'll get to that in a minute.

"Condemn" starts with Latin "con-" (a variant of "com-" with the consonant changed before the letter "d"), which usually means "together", but in this case, as in so many other cases, is a simple intensifier. The "-demn" part, which is obviously (in hindsight) related to "damn", is from Latin "damnum", "penalty" or "fine", but also "harm" or "damage".


Yeah, that's related to both "condemn" and "damn", too. The suffix "-age" is much used in English to turn various parts of speech into nouns: "herbage", for instance, or "shrinkage". "Damage" is "damn-" plus "-age", making a noun out of something that already was a noun in Latin ("damnum") in order to make it different from the "damn" which was becoming a verb (and, eventually, an oath).

Looking at "condemn", and knowing that a minor change in vowels made it the different-seeming but really identical "damn", wouldn't you think that the word "contemn", even if you've never seen or heard it before, is just "condemn" with a slight change in consonants? You might think that, but you'd be wrong. (Consonants are a lot sturdier than vowels.)

"Contemn" doesn't mean "condemn" or anything like it: instead it means "to disdain: to scorn". In fact, it is intimately related to, and (if you ignore the differing parts of speech) in exactly the same vein as, "contempt". Both words are from "con-", here again an intensifier, plus "temnere", "to slight", "to despise".

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rhyme Scheme

A few years ago--I guess it was a few, but it could have been thirty or forty, for all I know--all the fast-food joints began to use more or less the same line in their advertising: "Two can dine for $9.99!" I mean, the price could differ, depending on what was being sold, and the number of people likewise, but the format remained the same: "N can dine for $X.99". And why not? It was pretty catchy, and it rhymed, and everybody likes a rhyme, right?

It's not just in North America, either. Here's a coupon from the reverse side of a bus ticket we got in Wales when we were there last September:

An advertising flyer for Burger King, at which I don't eat for various reasons but mostly because that plastic-headed king mascot of theirs is just plain creepy, appeared in our mailbox yesterday, and here are a couple of the coupons featured on it:

Now, honestly. I ask you. What kind of pinhead thought that was a good idea? Is their business really so price-sensitive that not dropping the price of the product by a single penny would have meant the loss of sales?

I am completely convinced that someone somewhere along the production line (but before the printing stage) noticed this and pointed it out to his or her immediate supervisor, and was brushed away. And now the company looks like one big tin-eared idiot.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Scientific Method

Observation: The medical word for a drooping eyelid (or, in fact, a drooping anything) is "ptosis".

Hypothesis: All English words that begin with "pt-" are from Greek.

Counterexample: Oh, yeah? What about "ptarmigan"?

Supplementary hypothesis: Although "pt-" words are Greek in origin, clearly someone made up or altered "ptarmigan" to look Greek, though it self-evidently isn't.

Conclusion: What, the English language isn't hard enough to spell already without people making it harder?

I was reading this posting about Paris Hilton's wonky eye on a really interesting website called Celebrity Cosmetic Surgery, and the blogger (a plastic surgeon himself, and not some uncredentialed hack like me) used the expression "eyelid ptosis" to refer to her condition.

"Ptosis" is obviously (to me) Greek: it comes from the verb "piptein", "to fall", which in turn is from the Indo-European "pet-", "to fly". This Greek word gave English most of its "pt-" words, including of course "pterodactyl" ("wing-fingers"), but also "achaeopteryx" ("ancient winged thing"), "helicopter" ("spiral wing"), and even "symptom", which we naturally think of as "symp-tom" but which breaks down to "sym-ptom", "something which falls together with something else"--that is, one of a collection of phenomena which, occurring all together, describe a disease or other event.

As soon as I had decided that "pt-" words must be Greek, my brain supplied me with "ptarmigan", which could not possibly be Greek. What to make of that?

The answer is that the word was originally (and unsurprisingly) the Scots Gaelic "tarmachan". When the word began to gain currency in English, someone decided that it would look better with a Greek-style "pt-" at the beginning, calling to mind the wingedness of "pteron", "wing", from which "helicopter" gets its second element (again, we want to break it into "heli-copter", but it's actually "helico-pter").

The other "pt-" words in English are reliably Greek and all from "piptein", even "ptomaine", which is a much newer word than you might think, having been coined near the end of the nineteenth century in Italian (as "ptomaina") from Greek "ptoma", "corpse", something that's fallen. This came from the belief that ptomaine poisoning was caused by the ingestion of the kind of putrefying matter (caused by the action on protein of bacteria which create such rank substances as "putrescine" and "cadaverine") that corrupts dead things, when in fact most food poisoning--more properly called "foodborne illness"--is caused by the ingestion of bacteria or other organisms themselves, which multiply in the body and cause illness.

Medical blogs, corpses, food poisoning--yeah, I'm still sick with this damned flu/cold/whatever the hell it is (the clogged sinuses have been joined by a cough, oh bliss). And although I am on the whole an enviably healthy person, I once had a cold for five weeks, so you can imagine that I just want this thing to go away. Thank goodness it's my day off.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Under the Influence

I am cruelly laid low with a cold. Or possibly the flu. How does one tell them apart, anyway? I've never known. All I know is that yesterday I had a nose that was running like a faucet, among other hideous viral/bacterial manifestations, and today my sinuses are jammed full of something probably unmentionable, which means I have no sense of smell (therefore no appetite) and my teeth hurt, and also I have a nasty cough-inducing tickle in my throat that's preventing me from sleeping, which is why I'm here writing this at 11 p.m. instead of getting some much-needed rest. I pride myself on my ability to slog through nearly anything, but I'm so sick that I didn't go to work today. The last time that happened was pretty much never. The last time I went home from work early was some years ago when my co-workers were so moved by sympathy at my obvious distress, or more likely so disgusted by my various cold/flu noises, that they insisted I get away from them and stop infecting them with whatever.

Anyway, that's why I've had nothing to say for the past few days. Or nothing more than this: "flu" is the short form of "influenza", which is Italian for "influence", because people thought that flu epidemics--the biggest of which, let's not forget, as recently as 1918 killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people globally--were caused by the baleful influence of astrological phenomena. (As medical science advanced, the name was enlarged to "influenza del freddo", "the influence of cold".)

Here's something else I don't know: why is a cold called a cold? Because it spreads most easily in cold weather? The Online Etymology Dictionary says it's "from symptoms resembling those of exposure to cold", though I find this unsatisfying. But what the hell do I know? I'm sick!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Inside Information

Reader Frank writes about a recent posting:

When I saw "elaphos," I thought, "that can't mean 'elephant' is somewhere in there, too!" But, no. "Elephant" does come from Greek, but from "elephās," not "elaphos," and might be ultimately Semitic in origin.

"Elephant"! That never even occurred to me. It should have; I guess I was distracted. Ordinarily I would have looked at it and thought, "Maybe it's related to 'elephant', only the vowels changed."

And the thing is that the vowels did change in the word: In English, one of the spellings for it was "olifaunt", based on the French "olifant" from which we got it. (This, obviously, is where the surname Olyphant comes from.)

I'm glad you checked it out, though. I like to be thorough; sometimes I just need a little help.


I was poking around the Internet looking for the Canadian daily recommended dosages for vitamins and minerals, and (under a list of suggestions for finding specific food items in a database) I ran across this alarming typo, by which I mean I saw it and thought, "What the hell?":

try using a pleural form (e.g. gravies, candies, crackers, strawberries, mushrooms) instead of singular (e.g. gravy, candy, cracker, strawberry, mushroom)

"Pleural", eh?

Obviously, what was meant was "plural", which is from Latin "pluralis", a form of the word "plus", which was in Latin as it is in English, only pronounced differently.

Dictionary.com contains as a usage note this little rumination about "plus":

Since plus as a preposition has long had the meanings “more by the addition of” and “with the addition of,” it was but a short step to a newer use, mainly in informal writing and speech, as a conjunction meaning “also, and, furthermore.” Although this use is increasing, many object to it, and it is rare in more formal writing. And plus is likewise objected to, especially for being redundant: The paper was delivered two hours late, and plus it was soaking wet.

I wouldn't allow this use of "plus" in formal writing, but I have to admit a sneaking appreciation for the redundant "and plus". It's got a slangy freshness to it. Besides, since "plus" means "more" (in Latin and in English), isn't "and plus" really just a stripped-down version of "and what is more"?

"Pleural" is the adjectival form of "pleura", which is the lining of the chest cavity, and is (self-evidently, I thought) from the identical Greek word, which in this case means "sides" or "ribs". When the pleural are inflamed, you have yourself a case of pleurisy.

An inflammation of some sort is usually characterized in English with the suffix "-itis", as in "appendicitis" or "meningitis" (an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord). "Pleurisy", you will be interested to know, also ends in "-itis", by proxy, evolving in a series of tiny steps: it started out as "pleuritis" in Latin and Greek; metamorphosed into "pleurisis" in Late Latin; entered Old French as "pleuresie"; and finally took form in Middle English as "pleuresy" before assuming its final shape.


Eventually I tired of looking for the Canadian recommended daily allotments of the various micronutrients--nobody wanted to tell me!--and went with Wikipedia, which sees all, knows all, tells all.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Squeeze Play

Typos. They hunt me down.

After I got home from work tonight (at 10:15 or so), I was in the bathroom taking out my contact lenses and wondering what, if anything, I was going to write about. I hadn't been particularly inspired today, so I just starting reading some websites, as I usually do, and here, in The Onion A.V. Club interview with Sam Rockwell, is this sentence:

Both characters are put through the ringer.

They are? Through the ringer? The ringer is the thing they're put through? How about that.

I know technology has changed (and I have an amusing story about that in a minute), but wouldn't you think that young people might have heard of pre-1960s washing machines, the ones that didn't just whip the clothes around until centrifugal force dragged most of the water out of them but instead forced you to put the clothing through a pair of rollers to achieve this end? Mightn't they have seen such a thing in an old movie, or read about it in a book? Or anything?

Well, maybe not. But the idiom remains in the language, and when people (or wet clothes) are in a high-pressure situation, they're being put through the wringer.

Those things were dangerous, by the way, particularly the electrically powered ones; if you got your hand caught in one, you were in trouble. (This, presumably, is what led to the altogether too graphic expression get your tit in a wringer.)


The store in which I work is undergoing a corporate overhaul, and the place is being scoured from top to bottom. Naturally, things that have accumulated are being disposed of them, and at the front of the store tonight was a basket full of such detritus. I pulled out an old credit-card machine, the hand-operated kind that has you put in the card and then a little sheaf of pages which are imprinted when you run a set of rollers back and forth (clunk-CLUNK) over the platen. One of the workers tonight was a girl of 17, and not only had she never seen such a thing, she couldn't even conceive of how it worked. We explained it to her, and she said, "But what does it do?" I think she was baffled by the fact that it clearly didn't plug in anywhere. We had to describe how, in the olden days, you'd make a credit slip in triplicate, and give one to the customer, keep one for your records, and give the third one to the bank. No instantaneous online authentication in those days!


"Wring", in case you were wondering (I always am, so I figure other people must be, too), is from an enormous family of related Indo-European roots: this particular word is from the "wergh-" branch of the family. Its meaning is "to turn", and members of the family include not only "wring" (from Old English "wringan", "to twist") but also "wrong" (which we can think of as "crooked" or "twisted"), "wrangle" (related to a Germanic word meaning "to wrestle"), and "worry", which descends from an Old English word meaning "to strangle", because an old meaning of "worry" (still occasionally seen) is "to grab, especially by the throat, and shake". By the 17th century, "worry" had taken on a more metaphorical sense, "to bother or harass", and in the 19th century, the modern feeling of the word--"to cause or to feel anxiety"--was in ascendancy.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Light Reading

I keep notes on words that pop up that seem as if they're going to be interesting, but my notes aren't so thorough that I always know where those words came from, unfortunately. A word that cropped up today, at some point, from somewhere, was "lambent", which I noticed because...well, where the hell might it have come from? The suffix "-ent" is obvious enough; it appears in lots of English words denoting a state of being or an action. But "lamb-"? Couldn't have anything to do with the animal!

Luckily, no, because that would be ridiculous. ("Lambent" means "radiant", or "flickering", as a flame.) "Lambent" actually comes from Latin "lambere", "to lick", and this is descended from Indo-European "lab-" or "-leb", with the same meaning.

Hmmm. "Lab-". "Lick". You don't suppose "lab-" is also the source of such lippy words as "labial" and even "lip" itself, do you? Sure you do! Because it is!

"Lamb", by the way, has a preposterous origin; deriving unchanged from the Gothic word, it is related to Greek "elaphos", "deer", and "elaphos" in turn is a cousin to Proto-Germanic "elkh-", which means, yes, "elk".

An elk is not a deer is not a lamb!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Drink Up

You have to read this! A hilarious piece from The Onion called Idiom Shortage Leaves Nation All Sewed Up In Horse Pies.

Since beginning two weeks ago, the deficit in these vernacular phrases has affected nearly every English speaker on the continent, making it virtually impossible to communicate symbolic ideas through a series of words that do not individually share the same meaning as the group of words as a whole. In what many are calling a cast-iron piano tune unlike any on record, idiomatic expression has been devastated nationwide.

It had been a while since an Onion article made me laugh out loud, but this one did the trick.

The expression "oyster carnival" (it appears to mean "disaster") is one that deserves to make it into the language.


Here's a most interesting Slate article about mead, a drink made of fermented honey. (I've never had it, but I have had maple wine, which sounds similar: made of fermented maple syrup, it is very bright, sweet and maple-flavoured, with no acidity.)

Wouldn't you like to know where the word "mead" comes from? You'd never guess. Indo-European!

The IE word "medhu-" meant "honey", and also "mead". This evolved into Sanskrit "madhu", "honey", and Greek "methy", which actually meant "wine". We'll be getting back to that in just a minute. The Germanic languages made this into "medu", which became, in Old English, "meodu", and eventually "mede" and then "mead".

You can well imagine that honey was very important to Indo-European speakers, because they had two words for it; one was "medhu-" and the other was "melit-". This second word, through Greek "meli" and Latin "mel", also gave English a batch of offspring: "mellifluous", obviously, but also "molasses" and "marmalade", unsurprisingly. The surprising word from those sources is "mildew", because when it grows on plants, it's sticky, like honeydew, the substance that aphids secrete and ants devour.

Now. Doesn't Greek "methy" look familiar from two English words? First, "methyl alcohol", which, being a vicious poison, isn't winelike at all; but it is an alcohol nonetheless (originally made from wood rather than anything edible to humans). Second, "amethyst", the gorgeous semi-precious stone with a winey purple colour. Two theories as to its name: either it was superstitiously thought to prevent drunkenness (due to its colour, in the same way that red stones like carnelian were thought to aid the blood), or goblets made of amethyst were filled with heavily watered wine--the wateriness disguised by the colour of the stone--to keep already inebriated party guests from becoming more so.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


I was just reading the comments section to some website or other--it doesn't matter which--when I ran across the word "distain", which I recalled having written about before: three years ago, as it turns out (it was only my second posting to this blog!). "Distain" is an actual word; however, it is pretty rare, and not the same as the far commoner "disdain", for which it's often mistaken.

Musing briefly on "disdain", I (correctly) guessed about its etymology, and then realized with a start that, despite having written about the word, I hadn't even bothered to investigate where it had come from. It's not the sort of mistake I'd make these days.

If you ignore the spelling, "disdain" sounds like "dis-deign", and that, in fact, is precisely what it is. "Deign" means "to condescend", and "disdain" means "to not even bother to condescend". In other words, to deign is to say, "Well, I suppose, if I must", and to disdain is to say, "Oh, I don't think so."

Both words come from Latin "dignari", "to judge worthy". The "-gn" of "deign" comes from Old French "deigner", a close successor to "dignari"; its disappearance in "disdain" comes from a newer, Middle English version of the word "deinen", and its offshoot, "disdainen" (when spelling was a lot freer than it is now).

"Dignari" is a verbal form of "dignus", "worthy", which, I don't suppose I have to tell you, gave English such words as "dignity", "dignitary", and "indignant" (which is how you feel when you don't think you've been treated in accordance with your worth).

"Dignus" is an offshoot of Indo-european "dek-", "to take, to accept", which gave Latin a couple of nice big branches of words. One of them is "to teach", giving English "doctor" and "doctrine", "docent" and "docile" ("teachable"), "disciple" and "discipline". The "worthy" sense appears in such words as "decor" and "decorate" (both from a related sense of "worthy" as "seemly"), and "dainty and"decorous", and of course "deign" and its ilk.

Greek took IE "dek-" in a somewhat different direction: rather than merely "take", the Greek version, "dokein", meant "to think" or "to appear to be", both having the sense of "to take the form of", whether in the mind or in the eye. From this sense came such words "dogma" and the "-dox" words such as "paradox" ("beyond thought"), "heterodox" ("thinking differently"), and "orthodox" ("straight thinking"). "Doxology" is from that abstracted sense of "dokein" that we saw a variant of in Latin; from "appearing" to "seeming" to "seemly", because "doxa" means in one sense "honour or glory". (Another sense is the "think" sense of "dokein"; "doxa" can mean "belief" or "opinion".)

"Doxy", of course, comes from somewhere else entirely.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Snow Wonder

When I woke up this morning, everything out the window seemed to be covered with a thin layer of brilliant white ice. A coating of ice isn't unusual in this climate, and it's really pretty.

When I got outside, I discovered that the truth was much more interesting than a miniature overnight ice storm. Somehow, some combination of moisture and temperature had conspired to cause snow crystals to form on every surface with available nucleation sites, and what's more, it had formed on the underside of surfaces: a chain-link fence had every diagonal stretch of wire covered with snow, but only underneath--the upper surfaces were bare. It wasn't ice: it was snow, delicate and fluffy--the touch of a finger or a mere breath would break it apart. It was as if the laws of physics had been upended for a night and the snow had been generated on the ground and fallen upwards, coating tree branches, street signs, and electrical wires with tiny flowerlike clusters of snowflakes. It was extraordinarily beautiful. (I'd never seen such a thing before because I've always lived in wet climates, and Moncton is often very dry in winter, which, I'm quite sure, was a major contributor to what I saw. Obviously there's a name for this phenomenon; it didn't happen for the first time in human history here in Moncton in 2008. But I couldn't find any reference to this sort of thing anywhere. Even Wikipedia was no help.)

The English word for snow is, well, "snow". The French word is "neige". If naturally had to wonder where the two words came from, being so different and all. (That's no surprise: the Romance languages and the Germanic languages often get their words from very different sources.) I knew that "snow" was part of the standard Germanic package of words, because the German word is "Schnee", and I also knew that the Italian word was "neve", so clearly there are just two different families at play. But where did the Romance version come from?

To my complete astonishment, the two branches of words come from the very same word, unalike though they seem. Naturally, they both spring from Indo-European; the IE word for snow was "sneigwh-", and doesn't that just look for all the world like "snow" and "neige" and "Schnee" mashed together?