or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Yesterday I listed a bunch of nouns that end with "-ery" and refer to a place of some sort, and if you think about it, one of the first words that probably comes to mind is "gallery". Now, why do you suppose I didn't mention it?

Because it doesn't fit the pattern, that's why. Outward appearances are very deceiving.

It would be easy to make up a superficially convincing sham etymology for it. Like so: there are a number of words from the French that begin with "g-" but which in their English incarnations begin with "w-"; the name William is a good example, as the French version is "Guillaume", and also the word pair "warranty", an Anglicization of French "guarantie", which also became English "guarantee". The same thing happened with English "wall". So French "gallerie", which became English "gallery", is so named because it was originally a small porch or garden enclosed by walls rather than being open-air.

That last two sentences are false, of course. Well, almost. A gallery actually was originally a small porch, and we did get the word from Old French "galerie". But the word never had anything to do with walls. Instead, it comes from a most unlikely place; Galilee.

Not the city, though. A galilee, lower-case, was a porch or vestible leading to a church. In mediaeval Latin, it was "galilaea", which eventually became "galeria" (which it still is in Spanish, and in Italian "galleria"), from which French and subsequently English derived their words.

The sense of "gallery" as "building for exhibiting art" entered English in the late sixteenth century. It didn't just happen: "gallery" had already represented various sorts of rooms or parts of buildings, and still does; it can refer to, among other things, a narrow corridor or the cheapest seats in a theatre.

"Galley", in case you were wondering, seems to be unrelated, and simply sprang unbidden into Greek (as "galea") and then, predictably, through Latin and then French.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


It's all bits and bobs today. Better than nothing, right?


I find myself unable to post comments to my own blogs (or any other Blogspot blogs, either) and I guess I could do something about it, like e-mailing them to complain, but whatever. I'll just post my comments here instead.

Reader D.J. had this to say about my poor excuse for not posting, having been lost in a new book:

Have you ever read _The Emperor Of Scent_? It's about Luca Turin and his vibrationary theory of scent, and his conflict with the current tenured folks who champion a shape-based theory. Completely fascinating.

I bought it the day it came out in paperback, and it's a good read, but I have to say that Turin comes across as arrogant and kind of a jerk, an impression that the new book does nothing to dispel. Smart as hell, though, clearly. Just not somebody I'd want to get into a drunken discussion with.

And Clare had this request regarding the selfsame book:

I hope you will review The Guide, either here or on your other site. Please?

Oh, you know it.


This showed up in The Onion a few days ago, but I discovered it just this morning:

Commas, Turning Up, Everywhere

WASHINGTON—In the midst of a crisis that may have reached a breaking, point Tuesday afternoon, linguists, and grammarians, everywhere say they are baffled, by the sudden and seemingly random, appearance of commas, in our nation's sentences. The epidemic of errant punctuation has spread, like wildfire, since signs of the epidemic first, appeared in a Washington Post article, on Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben, Bernanke. "This, is an unsettling trend," columnist William Sa,fire, told reporters. "We're seeing a collapse of the grammatical rules that have, held, the English language, together for, centuries." Experts warn, that if this same, phenomenon, should occur with ellipses…

My grandmother, god rest her zombie bones, used to write like that: a comma jammed in every three or four words, entirely at random. No idea why.


Here's an interesting blog post from Pharyngula, one of my must-reads you can read it yourself, but I mention it here because of a word I'd never heard before.

An orchid was found with a nectary that was only accessible by way of a long, narrow tube, and Darwin predicted the existence of an insect pollinator with an almost equivalently long tongue. However, an Owen or a Cuvier, scientists of that century who did not accept evolution, could have easily made the very same prediction, on the basis of created functionality: a god would not have made the flower that way unless he also, in his infallible foresight, also made a complementary pollinator.

"Nectary". Isn't it lovely? If it had been devised this year, it would mean "nectar-ish", but it's from an older clutch of words ending in "-ery" or "-ary" that are formed from a noun and refer to a place: "butlery", for instance, the butler's station, or "cattery", a place where cats are bred. (There are lots of them: perfumery, confectionary, grocery, ovulary, farriery, library, creamery, apiary, colliery....) A nectary, therefore, is the part of a plant that secretes nectar. I won't ever have a chance to use such a specialized word, I would imagine, but it makes me happy to know that it exists.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


I would have gotten around to this earlier but I was wrapped up in a book, "Perfumes" by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. It arrived in the mail on Thursday, and since I had a lot of work to do, I manfully put off opening the package until Friday after work (a forbearance that does not come naturally to me). But ever since then, I haven't gotten much at all done. A book like that is heroin to a perfume lover. Well, not heroin; only actual fragrances are. But catnip.

Anyway, I promised you Indo-European "deik-", and "deik-" you shall have.

It originally meant "to show" or "to pronounce solemnly", and it branched out into an exhausting and mostly idiomatic mass of words in English. The words with the most obvious and direct connection are "teach", to show someone how to do something, and "digit", from Latin "digitus", "finger"; what better way to show something than to point to it? Through "digit" we also have "indicate" and "index".

From there it's all over the map. A big cluster of words referring to speech and saying evolved from "deik-", including "dictation", "dictator" (who tells his people what to do), and "diction", "dictum" and "ditto" ("what he said", in essence), and also "ditty", a song with words to it.

There are many "-dict-" words, some of which have no remaining sense of talking or showing: "benediction" and "malediction" do (more or less "good talk" and "bad talk", respectively), and "contradict" ("to say against"), but "addict" is entirely divorced from the family through a chain of changes. It started as Latin "addicere", "to declare towards", and came to mean "to allot"; then the sense came to be "to devote to something; to yield the self to something", and by the early 17th century, it had begun to acquire its modern meaning, but very slowly; it referred to practices and people (you could addict yourself to someone), but not to drugs until the late eighteenth century.

"Token" is a sign or mark of some sort: so is French "tache", a spot or stain. "Paradigm" comes through Greek "deigma", "pattern". An abstraction, "to show" becoming "to direct" becoming "to throw" ("to direct through space"), turned "deik-" into "disc" and "discus". Latin "dicare", "to proclaim" (a refinement of "to speak"), gave English "abdicate" ("to renounce", literally "to proclaim away from") and "dedicate" ("to speak out", later "to consecrate"), "predicament" and "predicate", and "preach".

A clutch of legal words also stem from "deik-": "judge" and "judicial", from Latin "iudex", "one who pronounced the law". (From this sense also comes "prejudice".) "Juridical" and "jurisdiction" as well as "indict" come from "dicere", as does "verdict" ("to speak the truth") and "edict".

There are others, too, but haven't we had enough? Oh, all right, just two more. "Dish" is related, for probably obvious reasons, to "discus", and, for much less obvious reasons, so is "desk". (It was in the middle ages a round refectory table.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Well, that thing happened again. One word led to another word which led to a big, broad clutch of words that I just flat-out don't have time to go into right now, so I'll deal with the easy bits first and the hard bits later.

To start: there is a most interesting article in the New Yorker (no surprise, as they run many interesting articles) by Jared Diamond (no surprise, as he's an interesting writer) about vengeance, and doesn't "vengeance" look like some other word? I thought it looked a bit like "vanquish", but that's ridiculous after a moment's thought, and naturally there is no connection. Then it occurred to me that "vengeance" seemed a fair bit like "vindictive", in both sense and sound, and...bingo!

"Vengeance" means "the infliction of retributive injury", and, as you can tell from the suffix, we got it from French: from "vengier", "to avenge", to be precise. Old French "vengier" came from, and seems very similar to, Latin "vindicare", "to vindicate", and this word is also, self-evidently, the source of "vindictive" (which may be viewed as "bitterly or vengefully vindicating").

Now, "vindicare" itself stems from "vindex", and no German window-cleaner jokes come to mind, but I'm sure they're out there. A vindex was a protector or avenger, and when you know that, it all falls into place.

The only missing piece is, as it so often is, the Indo-European root, "deik-", and you're either going to have to hunt it down yourself or wait until tomorrow when I pick it all apart for you. But trust me: you've never seen anything quite like it before. It's all over the map, this one.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Getting In

I never get "stentorian" and "stertorous" mixed up, though I do always seem to think of "stertorous" as "stertorious" (though I would never actually say it, but that's how it always seems to be in my head, despite the fact that it's wrong and it makes the two words seem even more alike than they actually are).

I bring this up only because I had to deal with a certain amount of stertorousness at work today, and boy that's annoying.

"Stertorous" means "characterized by stertor". That's helpful, no? "Stertor" is just another name for "snoring", though it also refers to that heavy, wheezy, laboured breathing that really fat people and those with lung ailments sometimes have. "Stertorous", therefore, means "breathing in a heavy or snoring manner".

You'll never guess where it comes from. Latin! "Stertere" means "to snore", and that's about all there is to that: the word didn't come from anywhere interesting and didn't give English any other words. English "snore" didn't come from there: instead it came from...well, who do you want to believe? Dictionary.com says it comes from Old English "fnora", which comes from Indo-European "pneu-", which will look familiar since it exists intact in "pneumonia" and "pneumatic", and is also the French word for "tire" (they pronounce the "p-" at the beginning; for us, it's silent, of course.) Robert Claiborne, on the other hand, says "snore" comes from IE "sner-", which also gave English "sneer", "snarl", "snort", and the related "snorkel". Bartleby doesn't even list "sner-", and the OED, which must always be considered the final authority, doesn't mention it either, nor, "pneu-", but merely says that "snore" is related to "snort" and "snork".

All of this means that I have no idea. I don't like being up in the air, but when nobody seems to agree (and they really don't, for some reason), then where else am I to be?

"Stentorian", on the other hand, is pretty well settled. It means "loud or powerful in sound", and you will hardly believe this, but it doesn't come from Latin. Instead, it comes from Greek, and it's not from a word, but a name: it's an eponym for Stentor, a character in the Iliad, "a herald with a loud voice", according to Dictionary.com. Lower-case "stentor", not much seen, also means "a person with a loud or powerful voice", and it also refers to--and this is really very cute--a trumpet-shaped protozoon.

A stent, you will not be surprised to hear, is not related to Stentor, but it is, remarkably enough, named after a person: Dr. Charles R. Stent, the dentist who invented it. "It", in this case, is a tiny tube used to prop open a blocked artery or other biological tubule.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gut Reaction

So. "Gut".

It comes from Indo-European "gheu-", "to pour", which led to two main streams of words (no pun intended, as if I would ever commit a pun), one through Latin and the other through Germanic and Norse, plus one completely unexpected offspring (also through Latin, but you won't see it coming).

The northern words look reasonably like "gheu-"; they all begin with "g-", and they all have the sense of pouring or flowing; "gush", "gust" (the pouring done by wind instead of by a liquid), and "geyser". "Gut" seems like an odd inclusion in the family; it seems to stem from the way intestines pour out of a butchered animal, and comes from Old English "guttas". (This naturally made me think of "gutta-percha", which is a kind of rubber, and it would be so tempting to think the name comes from the way the sap flows from the rubber tree, but alas, it isn't so: "gutta-percha" is from Malay, "getah", "tree sap".)

The Latin family transmuted the "g-" into an "f-", and I wish I could tell you how this happened but I can't; all I know is that it did happen, and the Latin version of "gheu-" was "fundere", "to melt, to pour out".

If you know any French, or if you cook, "fundere" will probably look at least a little familiar: it's the source of French "fondant" and "fondue", both from "fondre", "to melt". ("Fondant" is the masculine present participle of the verb: "fondue" is the feminine past participle.)

Various senses of "fuse" are also from this Latin root, because when two things fuse, they melt and flow into one, and because an electrical fuse is not only made from melted and poured metal, it melts again if its temperature gets too high. "Fuse" words such as "infuse", "perfuse", "diffuse", and "suffuse" (there are others, too) have the same source, as does, of course, "fusion".

"Confuse" and "confound"--synonyms!--also come from "fundere", prefixed with "con-", "together", because when you confuse two things, their meanings are muddled together in your mind.

Since "fundere" means "to pour", "refundere" means, logically, "to pour back", and when you get a refund, the money is poured back into your wallet. It seems very abstract, but "refuse" must also come from this Latin word; when you refuse something, you "pour it back" to the person offering it to you, and the noun "refuse" is garbage--the remnants of something taken, poured back into the environment.

A couple more "fundere" words which are so logical in retrospect but which you might not have expected: "font", a collection of type made from melted and cast lead (the baptismal sense of "font" is unrelated), and "funnel", through which something is poured.

The real surprise in the family, for me, was "futile". Really? Really! Latin "futilis" meant "leaky; easily emptied", so a futile endeavour is as pointless as trying to fill a sieve.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Adject Misery

I said I was gonna do "gut" today but I got a couple adjectives to whine about. Tomorrow, probably.


The front page of today's local paper has this news story with the following headline:

Mayor race heats up

and I am not pleased.

I know I go on about how versatile English is, how we use one word for various parts of speech without batting an eyelash, but that is not a good headline. "Mayor" is a noun, an adjective is called for before the noun "race", and we have a perfectly good adjectival form of "mayor"; it's "mayoral". What's wrong with using that, headline writers? It's hardly any longer than "mayor", and it's correct.


Two reviews of another new movie I'll never see, this one called Forgetting Sarah Marshall with, again, the involvement of the very busy Judd Apatow.

Here's a sentence from the Slate review:

Segel's character, Peter Bretter, is the most emotionally naked Apatovian hero yet.

And here's one from the Salon review:

But "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is less Apatow than it is Apatowistic.

Proper nouns ending in "-w" take the adjectival ending "-vian", as I have noted before. Making up your own adjective as a lark: not always a good idea, particularly when it's clumsy and ugly.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Good As It Gets

The word "good" has a tiny etymology, but it's still very interesting because of how misleading it is, if you just glance at it.

It's pretty obvious, if you know any German, that "good" is related to "gut"--not our short-u "gut", meaning "intestinal tract", which I'll get to in a bit, but a long-u that more or less (a bit less) rhymes with English "boot". And sure enough, "good" is intermixed with some Germanic and Nordic words that mean the same thing and have a visible relationship to it: Dutch "goed", and Old Norse "gothr", which should ring a bell, and, plainly enough, Gothic "goths".

The Goths called themselves "the good [people]"!

Except they didn't. It wouldn't be a surprise if they had: there's a long history of tribes naming themselves "the people", while everyone else was "the heathens" or worse: Romans called the Barbarians that because of their inability to speak proper Latin, instead babbling away in their gross language that sounded like "bar-bar-bar".

"Good", and "goth", come from Indo-European "ghedh-", which sounds so much like "good" it's a bit unsettling; one of those words that just didn't change much in a couple thousand years. "Ghedh-" didn't originally mean "good" in the modern sense; it meant "to unite" or "to fit". The Goths, then, weren't good people in the modern sense; they were a tribe, a united band of people, and that's what their name actually meant.

There's still a tiny trace of the original meaning of "ghedh-" left in "good"; nowadays, something that's good is something that's fitting or appropriate, although it's such a basic word that it has expanded to a staggering collection of meanings, literal, metaphorical, and idiomatic: Dictionary.com lists almost sixty.

Knowing what "ghedh-" means, you will easily be able to make sense of the two other English words that stem from it, "together" and "gather".

As for English "gut", I'll leave that for tomorrow. It's big and messy and complicated. And fun.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Dye Is Cast

Here, thanks, as usual, to Boingboing, is something interesting: a link to a series of six web-only stories (or "stories") from Penguin Books, told in unique ways. The most recent, "Hard Times", is a sort of graphical representation of the modern world in statistics and quotations and aphorisms.

Here's part of one of the pages.

Now you would think, or at least if you were me you would think, that Penguin Books would have a copy-editor on staff, and that that copy-editor would cast a glance at online books as well as the dead-tree kind. Apparently not, though.

"Dyeing". Not "dying". That's a whole different animal.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Reading the comments sections of someone's blog, I ran across the misspelling "paruse", and while I don't criticize people's spelling in casual contexts, I thought it was interesting, because the correct spelling, "peruse", is very suggestive. It's just hard to say of what, exactly. It seems clear that it ought to be broken into two equal halves, but it's nearly impossible to make any sense of those halves.

As we know, the Latin prefix "per-" means both "thorough" and "through", which are the same word (think of "thorough" as "through and through"), and so words beginning with "per-" often carry a sense of "completely" or "very"; "perfect", for example, is "per-" plus Latin "facere", "to do" (compare the Latin with French "faire", "to make, to do", and "perfect" with French "parfait"), so something that's perfect is done as much as it can be, brought to the point of unbetterable completion.

So "peruse" must surely be "per-" plus "-use", and that's what it is, although you'd never know it from its modern sense, "to read with great care: to examine closely". The earliest sense of peruse--and it's old, dating from the late fifteenth century--is, logically enough, "to use up: to go through". This expanded to its current meaning some fifty years later; the idea of completing one's reading or analysis of something. (Marvellously, the phrasal verb "to go through" carries two meanings in modern English, "to use up", the old sense of "peruse"--"We go through a bottle of Diet Coke a day"--and "to read closely", the new sense--"I go through the paperwork every evening".)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stick Around

The word "stigma" showed up yesterday, and I didn't want to get into its Indo-European source because that's so interesting and varied that it seemed like a discussion all its own.

"Stigma" comes from IE "steig-", "to stick", "to pierce", and it generated a number of English words, some of which are pretty clearly related and some...not so much. "Stick" is the most obvious relative, both the piece of wood (with which we can poke and pierce things) and the piercing itself (to stick someone with a needle, for example). "Stake" is an offshoot of "stick", of course. Closely related to "stick" is "stitch", which needs no explanation, I trust, and "stickleback", a kind of northern fish with spines along its back. (Sticklebacks have no scales! Some of them have a sort of armour plating, though, which isn't anatomically the same as scales, but still, cool--an armour--plated fish!)

Getting a little further afield, we have "etiquette" and its offshoot "ticket". "Etiquette" is the French word for "ticket" or "label", and it's tempting to say that that's because they can be stuck into or onto something, and for once you should yield to temptation, because that's the source. (We often think of "stick", in the sense of "attach one thing to another", as something you do with glue, but you can also do it with a pin or a thumbtack.) Originally middle French "estiquette", a ticket, the word came to mean a list or memorandum, and that's what etiquette is: a list, whether written or tacit, of the ways one is to behave in polite society.

If you see "stigmata" and think "astigmatic", and then wonder how the one could have any relationship to the other, you're not alone, but knowing that "steig-" means "to stick", you could make a guess based on a couple of metaphorical leaps, right? If something is going to stick or prick you and cause you to bleed, it needs to have a pointed end, so "stigmatic" could mean, or lead to the sense of, "coming to a point". When light rays focus on your retina, they come to a point, and if they don't, then you have imperfect retinal images and therefore imperfect vision. So "astigmatic" can mean "not coming to a point", which is what the light rays do because of a malformed cornea.

The path is even more tortured to "distinguish" and "extinguish", but those words, too, are relatives. ("Extinguish" lost its ess because the "-x-" sound rendered it unnecessary.) Latin "stinguere" meant "to quench", bafflingly enough, but "extinguere" meant "to obliterate" or "to wipe out", which is what you could do with your pointed weapons. "Distinguere" meant, and still does mean, "to separate out", for reasons that are even more obscure: all we know is that it is (self-evidently, I would think) related, for some reason.

Three last words from "steig", all of them unexpected and wonderful. "Tiger" is named for its sharp-ended stripes. "Steak" is so named for the pointed spit on which the larger cut of meat from which a steak was severed could be roasted. And "thistle" has little sharp spines.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Flower Power

Yesterday, the crocuses came up!*

They weren't there--at the south side of our apartment building--on Saturday, but on Sunday, there they were, the first flowers of the year, the heralds of spring. And that means it's really, truly spring! The crocuses don't show their heads until they're damned sure they won't be frozen into extinction, and crocuses always know. They don't lie!

Jim asked me where the word "crocus" comes from, and I said, "I don't know, but I'm sure it's Latin," which just goes to show that I can be wrong from time to time, like anyone else. A word that starts with a hard "c-" (and with another tucked inside, to boot) is more likely to be Greek in origin than Latin, and that in fact is the case, although it's worth noting that Latin took "crocus" from Greek "krokos", so I wasn't a hundred per cent wrong.

"Krokos", the Greeks' word for "saffron", is likely related to Arabic "kurkum", with the same meaning, and as soon as I saw that, I realized that I already knew something else. "Curcuma", obviously related to "kurkum", is the botanical grouping (the genus, as it turns out) that contains turmeric, a spice unrelated to saffron (it's related instead to ginger) but sometimes used as a most inexpensive replacement for it, not because they taste alike--they certainly don't--but because they both impart a vivid yellow-orange colour to foods.

"Saffron" itself comes from Arabic "za'faran". Saffron itself comes from a species of crocus, crocus sativus; it's made of the stigmas of the flowers.

You will have seen "sativus" before, in its feminine form, in the Latin name for marijuana, "cannabis sativa". The word comes from Latin "sativus", "sown" or "cultivated", and is found in the names of number of cultivated plants: among them "allium sativum", garlic, and "ananas sativus", a kind of pineapple. ("Ananas" is the French word for "pineapple", too.)

You will have seen "stigma" before, too, possibly as itself, possibly in the form of the word "stigmata". So what do parts of a plant have to do with marks of shame or supernatural bleeding wounds? You'd never guess. The Greek "stizein", "to prick", became in Latin "stigma", "tattoo". But not just any tattoo: a tattoo denoting a slave or a criminal. So that's the "mark of shame" sense right there. The "pricking" sense gave us the other two words: "stigmata" is pretty obvious, and botanical "stigma" refers not only to the stigmas of flowers (they're the bits that receive the pollen and carry it to the ovary) but to any opening or little scar on a plant.

*These aren't our crocuses. Jim took some pictures but I can't show them to you because the ground around the flowers is nastily littered with cigarette butts, because smokers are pigs. I mean, not necessarily all smokers--I don't want to tar them all with the same brush--but how many smokers just toss their butts on the ground when they're done? A lot of them. Most of them, probably. Is it too much to ask that they find a public ashtray--which are in short supply, I concede--or carry a tiny lidded one with them? Or toss the butt into their coffee cup or Diet Coke bottle and then throw that into the appropriate receptacle? We don't let people toss their cups and muffin wrappers and newspapers and other garbage on the ground: why should smokers have the right to do so with theirs?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Head Case

There are only two reality shows that I have ever thought were worth a damn, Project Runway and The Amazing Race, and while the latter isn't what it used to be, Project Runway is still great, assuming the much-discussed move from Bravo to Lifetime doesn't somehow wreck it and the sacking of one of the show's judges, Nina Garcia, from Elle Magazine doesn't get her tossed from the show as well.

One of the contestants in the most recent season, Chris March, was vying for one of the four final spots, and his collection used human hair, to the dismay of most of the judges. But why not? Women put human hair on their heads, in the form of wigs and weaves; why is it so horrible to attach it to clothing instead?

This picture doesn't really do it justice: the way it moved when the models walked down the catwalk was amazing.

Anyway, people have been using human hair for a long, long time for various purposes. (In Victorian times, mourning jewelry was made from the hair of the recently deceased; it's prettier than you might think.) Here's a most interesting article from Salon.com about a glut in the human hair market a century ago. And smack in the middle of Salon's transcription of the original New York Times story was this sentence:

A well-known theatrical wigmaker agreed that the increased supply of Korean hair may indirectly effect the false hair fashion in society circles.

And I thought, "Oh, come on!" But I went to the original story, and damned if that same mistake wasn't right there.
(You can see the original original here.)

A lot of people, it would seem, can't tell "affect" from "effect". This may be because they're pronounced almost identically, or it may be because each word can serve, in the correct context, as either a noun or a verb.

But "affect" is virtually always a verb; it acts as a noun only when it means "the visible display of an emotional state", and then it's pronounced differently, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Hardly anybody uses this word in this context except doctors and pretentious actors.

"Effect", on the other hand, is virtually always a noun: it can be used as a verb meaning "to cause to happen", but this is not especially common in English. Common enough (it's most often found, I think, in the expression "to effect change"), and legitimate, but not usual.

Generally speaking, if it's a verb you want, then the correct spelling is "affect", and if it's a noun, then you want "effect". You would think that someone at the New York Times would have known this, even back in 1910, when the rules were the same as they are now.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Across the Ages

There's no point--is there?--in pretending that going to the gym is anything but boring. It doesn't help when the gym to which you go (because it's so close that you have no excuse not to) plays awful, loud music, so of course you're going to need some sort of headphones. I find I can't listen to music when there's competing music, so usually I just have an audiobook on. Right now I'm reading/hearing something about the Late Middle Ages, which is reasonably interesting, but the emphasis on religion is sort of dull--all those popes and their dick-measuring contests with one another (yes, there were sometimes more than one at a go) and with various kings.

When you talk about popes, of course, the word "pontificate" is going to crop up, the noun, not the verb. The first time it did, I kind of lost the thread of the audiobook, because I had to wonder where it came from. Obvious it's related to, and probably the source of, "pontiff", and just as obviously it's Latin, but after that, what?

I remembered the word "pontifex", but I couldn't remember quite what one was, except that he was a head dude of some sort. As for "pontifex", I couldn't make much sense of that, either; I thought it must surely be descended from Latin "pons", "bridge" (ancestor of French "pont", with the same meaning), but even if that were correct, and I didn't see how it could be, that didn't carry me any further towards the meaning of "pontificate".

As it turned out, all my musings were correct; they just needed some filling in around the edges. A pontifex was a member of the high council of priests in ancient Rome, and this led to English "pontiff", nowadays a synonym for "pope", through French "pontif" and then "pontife".

"Pontifex" itself does in fact derive from "pons", "bridge", to my surprise. (Not a great surprise, since I just didn't see where else the word might have come from; I was surprised rather that I was right; I expected there was just some Latin word I'd never heard before that led to this one.) The first element we've established; the second, "-fex", is from "facere", "to make". A pontifex is a bridge-builder--metaphorical, surely, rather than literal, since I can't quite imagine all those priests with mason's trowels.

And what's more, Latin had a verb, "pontificare", which didn't mean the same as the English verb "pontificate", "to speak pompously", but instead meant "to be an ecclesiastic", which is nice.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Object Lesson

This is what I'm always talking about.

If you want to be taken seriously, you need to take your text seriously, too. You need to spellcheck it. You need to pay someone to read not only every word, but every letter.Then you need someone else to do that again. The person who writes the text is not going to be able to see his or her own mistakes. A spellchecker will catch the really egregious errors. A copy editor will catch most of the rest. A second reader will get anything that's left over.

If you don't do this, then you risk releasing a political ad that ends like this:

Yes, it says "Johm McCain."

The "m" and "n" keys are side by side on the keyboard. "Johm" is one of the easiest typing mistakes to make. It could happen to anyone. But even the most cursory spellcheck will catch such a mistake. A human paying some kind of attention certainly would.

Copy edit, copy edit, copy edit. The alternative is to let people know that you don't give a fuck about anything, certainly not getting your own name right, and what kind of a message is that for a politician to be sending?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fat Chance

Okay, we're going very deep inside a word, so buckle up.

My grandmother always pronounced "cholesterol" as if it were spelled "chloresterol". I don't think I ever corrected her (or at least I hope I didn't).

Now, "cholesterol" is a very interesting word. From the sound of it, you'd think that the core of it is "ester", which is a chemical compound, but that's a mere accident of pronunciation. (An ester is, according to Dictionary.com, an "inorganic salt...formed from an organic acid and an alcohol", which I'm sure makes sense to all sorts of chemists but leaves me at a bit of a loss, which is fine by me.) In fact, "cholesterol" is formed from two pieces, "chole-" and "-sterol".

The first half may look familiar to you if you've heard of cholecystitis, which is an inflammation of the gall bladder. Gallstones are also called "cholecysts". So "chole-" means "gall", somehow, obviously. It is in fact from the Greek word "chole", meaning "bile", which is produced by the gall bladder, and "bile" and "gall" are two words for the same thing--a substance used in the digestion of fats, produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder until it's needed.

A sterol is a fatty compound which serves various purposes in the human body: the two most famous sterols are cholesterol and steroids, which aid in muscle growth, as you probably already knew.

Enough chemistry. Let's get to the Indo-European.

"Sterol" comes from IE "ster-", "stiff" or "solid", because sterols are thick and waxy. (That's why cholesterol in excess is such a hazard to the health: because it packs up the arteries.) "Stern", as in "strict", is a relative ("the back part of a ship" is unrelated; it's a cousin of "steer"), and so is "stark" ("severe"), as well as "starch", for obvious reasons. Most unexpected: "starve", to die and become stiff, and also "torpid", to be afflicted with another kind of stiffness, that of bored immobility.

"Chole-" comes from IE "ghel-", a root with many, many offspring in English. Its original meaning is "to shine", but it naturally became associated with gold, the shiniest of the easily found metals, and so the root led to many words with shiny golden overtones, some of which you'd never guess. "Gall" itself should be obvious at this point, I guess, because gall is yellowish, as is "yellow" itself, not to mention "arsenic" (derived from an Iranian word, "zarna-", "golden"). "Fulvous" is a member of the family, too, Shiny words in this family include "gild" and "gold", "gleam", "glimmer", "glitter", "glint", "glisten", "glow", "glaze", "glass", "gloss", and "glare". "Glad" and "gleeful"--both "shining with joy", in a sense--are also offspring. So is "gloat"--to beam with smug satisfaction.

Finally, the prefix "chlor-", from Greek "khloros", "green-yellow", is a descendent of "ghel-" and therefore a relative of "chole-", which means that my grandmother, completely unbeknownst to her or to me, was actually in the right neighbourhood.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Up And Down

I've been meaning to do this pair of words for weeks now. It's one of things that falls through the cracks.

The science-fiction blog Io9 posted a thing about an art display in a Tokyo department store containing these sentences:

In Tokyo, retail stores are turning into enormous metal caves. Here's one, installed by artist Kimihiko Okada on the ground floor of the Diesel store in Aoyama. Okada took a giant sheet of metal just millimeters thin and molded it into stalagmite shapes.

The first thing I thought was, "A giant sheet of metal just millimetres thin? You mean tin foil?" The second thing I thought was, "Stalagmite? You mean stalactite, obviously, because, they're hanging down." And the third thing I thought was, "Well, where do 'stalagmite' and 'stalactite' come from, anyway?"

My first thought was, as it turns out, wrong, because aluminum foil (yes, I know there's no tin it it, but it was still being called "tin foil" when I was kid) is much less then millimetres thick: it's no more than a fifth of a millimetre, and it takes some actual work to shape metal sheeting more than a couple of millimetres in thickness. It's not just like crumpling foil with your hands.

But my second thought was, of course, right, and the page has been changed (though not through anything I did).

As for my third thought, well, here goes. "Stalactite" comes from Greek "stalaktos", "dripping", because stalactites are formed when drips of mineral-laden water from a horizontal surface leave behind small quantities of their minerals, which build up over time to form icicles of stone. "Stalaktos" comes from the verb "stalassein", "to drip".

"Stalagmite", on the other hand, comes from Greek "stalagma", "a drop", because stalagmites are built up from the residual minerals of those same drops that form stalactites. "Stalagma" comes from the verb "stalassein", "to drip".

In other words, they're pretty much exactly the same word. But you mix them up at your peril!

You can always remember which is which, unlike the Io9 people, because "stalactite" has a "c" in it and "c" stands for the ceiling from which it dangles, but "stalagmite" contains a "g", which stands for the ground to which it is connected. Piece o' cake.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


I had a completely psychotic weekend at work (if we consider "weekend" to be "Friday afternoon through Monday afternoon, with not nearly enough sleep"), and it pushed me right to the limit, but I finally get a day off, and I'm okay.

Here's something I'm not okay about, though; a hideous neologism which someone dreamed up for no reason whatever.

As should be obvious from what I said on Friday morning, before all the work insanity started, I have no problem with neologisms, if they're well-made and clever and serve a purpose. But this thing? Never.

It's in the headline to an article in The Times of London about people in their mid-thirties who are somehow only now discovering that life doesn't necessarily go exactly the way you planned it:

Mid-thirties crisis? You're having a thrisis

"Thrisis"? From "thirties crisis"? Oh fuck no.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Four years ago, Jim was alerted to the existence of a British comedy called "Black Books". A friend gave him a few episodes downloaded from the Internet. We needed to see them all, so managed to do so, and then we ordered all three six-episode series on DVD from the British Amazon.com (which there is Amazon.co.uk). And since British DVDs can't be played on North American DVD players (due to horrible region codes), we actually went out and bought a regionless DVD player specifically so we could watch anything we wanted to. When we went to London last year, we actually made a trip to the storefront that served as the bookstore in the series: we have pictures and everything.

The show, which obviously I can't recommend highly enough, centres on a dreadful, selfish bookstore proprietor, Bernard Black, whose best, perhaps only, friend, Fran Katzenjammer, owns the rubbishy gift shop next door. (As she herself says while gazing absently around the shop, "I do sell a lot of wank.") Her store, which you can barely see in this photo,

is called "Nifty Gifty". You can just make out the word "nifty" if you squint hard enough.

"Nifty" appears to be one of those American slang words that just materialized out of the vapour. Nobody knows where it came from; it just is. It's not new, either, not from the fifties or even the twenties: it's close on to 150 years old. That clearly gave it enough time to drift across the ocean and become, if not usual, then at least recognizable in British English as well.

All of this is a very roundabout way of telling you about an enchanting neologism I ran across yesterday on Boingboing:

The Middlesex University Teaching Resources shop sells all manner of awesome science toys for kids of all ages. Right now the front door is selling highly light-scattering nano-material, paper made from elephant poo, elasticated balls in mesh bags, a wide variety of science exploration kits, a hydrogel that expands to form artificial snow and many other bits of assorted nift.

"Nift"! A smart little back-formation from "nifty", and isn't it charming? Don't you want to run out and use it?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Carl Jung On Line One

The word that flew into my head unbidden yesterday was "ostentatious", and I wasn't reading anything, I was just innocently doing the housework or something, and no, I don't know where these words come from when they appear in my brain, they just do. As usual, I poked around in my storehouse of words to see if I could think of any related words that would lead me to an etymology, and all I could come up with was "ostensible", which was not a whole lot of help.

And then a few hours later i was reading this article about the David Lynch movie "Lost Highway" by footnote aficionado David Foster Wallace, and right there in the middle is this sentence:

But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that's ultimately definable only ostensively--i.e., we know it when we see it.

"Ostensively"! It just showed up!

Anyone can see at a glance that "ostentatious" must be related to "ostensible" (the first means "showy" and the second means "apparently"), and that they're both related to "ostensive" ("manifest: seeming to be so"), but that's no help in figuring out their etymology, is it? It's that "os-" at the beginning. It's really confusing! The core of both words is, at any rate, "-ten-" or "-tens-", and if that's not Latin, well, I don't know what is.

The root, as it turns out, is Latin "tendere", "to stretch", the root of a whole bunch of English words such as "tensile" ("capable of being stretched"), "tense" ("stretched tightly"), and "distended" ("stretched out").

What about that "os-" at the beginning, though? That's what kind of threw me. I should have known, I guess, that it didn't start out as "os-". As I mentioned a few days ago, the Latinate prefix "ad-", in front of words beginning with "f-", such as "fix", becomes "af-", because it's easier to say. The same is true of the prefix "ob-", "in front of". One variant of it was "obs-", and over generations of repetition, the "-b-" dropped away because it was easier to say "ostensivus" than "obstensivus".

So "ostentatious" means, literally, "stretched out in front of", which is exactly what you do when you're showing off your refined manners or your pricey belongings or whatnot: you spread them out in front of everyone so they can have a good look.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


In David Crystal's endlessly fascinating Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, there's a two-page section called "Restricted English" (pp. 390-391 in the Second Edition) in which the author discusses little specialized universes of the language, "tightly constrained uses of English" in which

...little or no linguistic variation is permitted. The rules, which often have to be consciously learned, control everything that can be said intelligibly or acceptably.

These restricted Englishes include heraldic language ("When a bordure is bezante, billette or has similar markings, the number of bezants or billets, unless otherwise mentioned, is always eight."), recipe writing ("Using your favorite pesto recipe, blanch the basil in boiling water for a few seconds, shock it in cold water and then squeeze out the liquid. Blanch about 1/2 cup of fresh baby spinach per 3 cups of basil in the same manner. Process them with the other ingredients, adding up to 2 tablespoons ice water."), and what Crystal calls "knitwrite", the rather elliptical and condensed language of knitting patterns ("5th row: Sl1. K1. psso. Knit to 2 sts before marked st. Sl1. K1. psso. K1. K2tog. Knit to last 3 sts. Sl1. K1. psso. K1. 20 (24) sts.").

Each of these restricted Englishes assumes that you understand all the terms (particularly if the terms are used in ways that they aren't in standard English) and the manner in which they're strung together; otherwise, you're at a loss, though oftentimes you'll be provided a glossary.

Since these Englishes are generally so compact and so specific, there isn't any room for error, because there isn't any redundancy to act as error correction, as it does in the larger standard English. If a recipe tells you to add a tablespoonful of salt instead of the intended teaspoonful, you don't really have any way of telling that this is wrong until you put the result in your mouth.

Even if you don't know anything about knitting, can you see a huge glaring mistake in this picture? (Sorry it's so small: it's the biggest clear image I could find, and I'm not about to buy the book to scan it.)

If you can't see the mistake, here it is, circled.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. I showed it to two other knitters and they couldn't believe it, either; it's an incredibly obvious error, like painting your house green but accidentally doing one side in hot pink. Putting the image on the front cover of the pattern book is like painting in hot pink and not noticing.

It could be a typo in the pattern that the person knitting the sample executed faithfully, though I doubt it. I think it's a transcription error; the knitter, copying the written pattern in a different medium, simply made the garment wrong, executing a cable crossing in the wrong direction (they did a front cross instead of the correct and symmetrical back cross, meaning that the cables, which are meant to looked entwined and interwoven, don't weave around one another as they ought to). This sort of thing happens all the time during the knitting of something: I'm making a heavily cabled sweater right now and I did the same sort of incorrect crossing, but I spotted the mistake about five rows later and fixed it.

I still can't believe the mistake exists. Even if the pattern had said to work the cable as shown, the knitter should have been able to see that it was wrong, and should have fixed it (and then notified someone that the pattern was wrong--that's why I don't believe it's a typo). And even if that person happened to not notice the problem, someone else--the model, the stylist, the photographer, the book editor, someone--should have seen it. It could have been fixed on the spot by any reasonably talented knitter in an hour or so, and, failing that, it could have been Photoshopped into the correct position by the graphics people. I just don't get it.

A mistake on the front cover of a knitting publication is the equivalent of a big glaring typo on the front-page headline of a large newspaper. These things aren't supposed to happen. There are people who get paid to make sure they don't.