or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Option

A couple of days ago I mentioned a blog called Cake Wrecks. Yesterday, Jim told me about FAIL Blog, which consists of pictures and videos illustrating the concept of "fail" as it's used these days in LOLcattery and other exemplars of popular culture; here's the sort of thing I'm talking about

and here's another

and, more relevantly to the general tenor of this blog, there's this one

and this

oh, and this one

so I assume you get the idea.

And here, finally, is something that combines Cake Wrecks and Fails in one spectacular image

and really, what more can be said?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Picture This

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, an American politician tried to position himself as a Christian, anti-gay, law-and-order type through a dreadfully written and worse-illustrated comic book. It's heartening to read today that he came third in a three-way race. Perhaps it was because voters got one glimpse of that typo-laden graphic atrocity and saw him for the dimwit he clearly must be, or perhaps it's because he's also scheduled for a court hearing tomorrow on charges of campaign corruption. Either way, the electorate wins!


Sometimes you see a particular kind of spelling mistake and you can't tell if it's a typo or if the writer honestly doesn't know the correct word. Here's a sentence from an article in the surprisingly interesting journal Cosmetic/Personal Care Packaging (all kinds of information you probably didn't know about the manufacturing of bottles and boxes and sprayers and such):

The image is first printed on special printing paper and then transferred to the label using a die sublimation press.

I can't quite convince myself it's a typographical error. The "i" and the "y" are pretty far apart on the keyboard. I think it's much more likely, unfortunately, that the writer had never seen the term "dye sublimation" in print, and hadn't thought about the possible meaning of the phrase, and actually thought it was "die sublimation".

It isn't, though. Dye sublimation is a printing process often used for photographs in which solid dyes--deposited initially on a sort of broad typewriter ribbon--are quickly raised to a high temperature, causing them to convert instantly from a solid to a gas without the intermediate liquid stage (that's the sublimation) in transferring them to the surface to be printed. You can buy dye-sublimation printers for home use, too, mostly as small-scale photo printers. Since they actually do use dye and not ink, they're often used to print colour images on washable fabric.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Peep Show

Just look at this headline in the Brattleboro (Vermont) Reformer:

Woodstock revisisted

No proofreaders in Brattleboro, apparently.

It was a long, tough day and I don't even have it in me to be properly sarcastic. What's the world coming to?

Here's something to cheer me up, though: a very amusing blog called Cake Wrecks, the kind of thing I wish I could write. It is, as the name suggests, a blog containing pictures of badly decorated cakes, such as this entry, which depicts and discusses an architecturally fascinating wedding cake based on a plane wreck (and there's a clause that has probably never occurred before in human history), containing, alas, this sentence:

Check out the details, folks: from the crashed plane and face-down henchman (my favorite) to the bad guy scaling the back and the bullet holes peppering the second tier, this is one detailed Bond diarama.

Oh, that last word.

One might think it ought to be "diarama", since "dia-", meaning "through", "thoroughly", or "apart", is very common in Greek borrowings into English and compounded words such as "diathermy" and "diagnosis". "Diorama" does indeed contain this prefix: it's a French word modeled on "panorama" and compounded of "dia-", "through", and Greek "orama", "view", from the verb "horan", "to look, to see". Since "diaorama" is not really possible in English, it had to lose one vowel or the other, and as it happens, it lost the "-a-".

The original dioramas, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, were theatres whose scenery consisted of paintings on fabric, with transparent areas: other scenic elements would be projected onto these transparencies (that's the "through" sense of "dia-"), giving the illusion of a changing and very realistic scene from life. The current sense of the word, that of a three-dimensional reproduction of a scene, came eighty years later.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Compounding The Error

English is full of traps big and small for the unwary writer, and one of them is the compound noun.

A compound noun is one which is made of two (or more) words; they can be practically any part of speech, but once they're joined, they become a noun. They can be fused together ("hairbrush", two nouns) or connected by a hyphen ("thank-you", a verb and a pronoun), or left as two separate pieces ("night light", two nouns).

It is this last instance that causes so much trouble. If you've constructed a sentence so that you have two words in succession that look as if they can be a compound noun, but aren't, then you've introduced needless ambiguity and therefore confusion into your writing.

Here's the very first sentence from the Salon.com review of the new X-Files movie:

July 25, 2008 | It's hard to say if "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" is exactly the movie fans of the revered series -- which aired from 1993 to 2002 -- are hoping for.

To make it worse, the words "movie fans" are linked to another Salon article, just as you see them here, which means they're grouped by underlining and by being a different colour, so it looks exactly as if they're intended to form a compound noun. But they clearly don't; if you mentally insert the word "that" between "movie" and "fans", you get the real meaning of the sentence.

And that's the key to resolving the problem when you have an illusory two-noun compound. Short of rewriting the sentence, which is sometimes the best solution, the conjunction "that" (or, less commonly, "which") will nearly always fix it.

Back in my university days when I worked with the student newspaper, the Canadian University Press stylebook decreed that the word "that" ought to be deleted wherever possible, such as in this very sentence (after the word "decreed"). I hated this and resisted it as much as possible, because I thought it often sounded clumsy and sometimes made sentences less clear than they ought to be. I still think so. There are many instances in which the word can be deleted; but there are as many in which it refines and clarifies a sentence. The Salon lead is one of them.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Over on my other blog, I titled a post "Hell-Bent For Leather". (It's about, of course, leather scents.) When I thought of that title, it occurred to me that "hell-bent for leather" doesn't make a molecule of sense.

Not that it has to, of course. There are plenty of idioms that on the face of them don't. But "hell-bent" means "bent on going to (which is to say determined to go to) hell". Where does leather enter into the picture?

As it turns out, the phrase is a mashing-together of two expressions; "hell-bent" and "hell for leather", which means "really fast", the leather referring to the saddle on a horse. Even that is an odd expression, but at least you can see that it makes a kind of sense.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

It Doesn't Add Up

From the New York Times, a disturbing story about the state of consumer indebtedness in the U.S.

And on page 4, this sentence:

Toting up her financial obligations, Ms. McLeod said she owed $237,000 on her home mortgage.

"Tote" is a verb, an Americanism of unknown origin, meaning "to carry". Since it ends with an "-e", it has a long "-o-", and so when we tack the suffix "-ing" onto it, we lose the "-e-", by convention, and the single consonant ensures that the vowel stays long.

"Tot" is a verb, a Britishism of Latin origin (it's short from "total", from Latin "totalis", "the whole thing"), meaning "to add up; to tally". Since it doesn't end with an "-e", it has a short "-o-", and so when we tack the suffix "-ing" onto it, we double the terminal letter, by convention, and the doubled consonant ensures that the vowel stays short.

How can it be that the New York Times doesn't know this?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


There isn't really much to be said about this screenshot of a Fox News chyron, is there? Just read it and marvel.

Seriously. Of all the words you don't ever want to misspell, "education" must be very high on the list.

It comes as no surprise that Fox wouldn't have much use for proofreaders.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

To Whit

Today at work I was framing a poster, a photograph of a beautiful place called Whitsunday Isle in Australia, and at some point or another it occurred to me that I didn't know where the "whit-" in "Whitsunday" came from.

I thought about it on and off throughout the afternoon, mostly off, because I was very busy, but I couldn't make any sense out of it. I bet you can, though! The correct answer did eventually occur to me, and I (figuratively) smacked myself on the forehead, because it's so obvious. But more on that in a minute.

You may have heard the term "Whitsunday" before, or possibly "Whitsuntide", which is interesting in itself for another reason. The "-tide" part of the word is etymologically related to the tide which is the rise and fall of the oceans, but it doesn't mean the same thing; instead, it means a period of time, just about any period of time, really, from a night ("eventide") to a whole season ("wintertide"). "Whitsuntide" is either the week or the three-day period which begins with Whitsunday (I told you it was vague) , and Whitsunday is the seventh Sunday after Easter. I know; how specific!

The "whit-" of Whitsunday is in fact, as you probably have guessed if you didn't already know, a contraction of the word "white", and this is probably because of the white robes that the freshly baptized would wear on that day.

(I got that lovely picture above from somebody's Picasa album; it's Whitsunday Beach, and if the owner recognizes it and wants me to take it down, I will of course comply.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Whole Truth

It happens from time to time; pretty often, in fact. There I am, innocently reading something or other, when all of a sudden a word just comes along and bludgeons me on the back of the head. "Notice me!" it screams. "You never have before!" And what choice do I have but to obey?

Today I was reading the comments section to a frankly rather fatuous interview with an author who, though he claims not to believe in any particular god--he has, after all, written a book called "The Religious Case Against Belief"--nevertheless holds atheists in very low esteem, averring, among other things, that "To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe," which is nonsense.

In one of the comments is the following sentence:

There is nothing in the synoptic gospels of Jesus, however, to suggest a fundamental break with Judaism.

"Synoptic". How can it be that, although I've seen that word a hundred times, I've never really thought about it before?

If you break it apart into its constituents, you can hazard a guess as to its meaning. It must be Greek, of course. "Syn-" occurs in quite a few English words, and it means "together", as in "synchronize", "to cause to occur together in time", or "synthetic", "put together". "Optic" means, well, "optic"; it has to do with vision. A synoptic gospel, therefore, might likely mean a number of individual writings or sources that are similar or related--that is, to be viewed together.

And that is just what it means. However, just so you know I'm not pretending to be smarter than I am, I would like to point out that, although it should be blindingly obvious, it did not occur to me that "synoptic" is also the adjectival form of "synopsis". A synopsis is an overview, many things compressed together so that they can be seen in a smaller compass.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ringing the Changes

There I was, innocently reading a Salon.com article by Heather Havrilesky about dog-based television shows, when I was stopped in my tracks by the following sentence:

If they're going to put these dogs through the ringer, why not test their practical, real-world skills?

No! Bad Heather! Bad!

It's "wringer". You put someone through the wringer. A wringer is a device for extracting the water from freshly washed clothing. A ringer is something or someone that rings, or it's an impostor, and you can't put someone or something through one. Heather Havrilesky should know this, and even if she doesn't, or didn't, or if she just made an honest typo of the sort that a spellchecker can't detect, then there should have been another person to vet her copy and make corrections to it before it went live. There is no excuse for such mistakes in published text.

This is why I stopped paying for Salon.


"Wring", by the way, ultimately derives from Indo-European "wer-", "to turn, to bend"; which evolved into "wergh-", "to turn", which then became "wrengh-" with the same meaning, and then on to "wringen" "to wring, to press out" in Old English. "Wrung" is still the past participle of the verb in English, but it used to, a long time ago, have the preterite "wrang", because it was a strong verb, which is to say it changes tense by changing, in a usually predictable pattern, the vowel (called the ablaut, German for "off-sound"). Sing, sang, sung; ring, rang, rung; drink, drank, drunk; shrink, shrank, shrunk: strong verbs, all.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Few and Far Between

Today on Towleroad there's an article about an Oklahoma politician named Brent Rinehart who's going to mail to voters a "comic book...about how gays and Satan are out to get him"(gay website, totally safe for work).

I thought, "Well, he won't be the first to use comic books as anti-gay propaganda, will he?"* But I overestimated him, because his publication is a comic book in the same way that a fart is a symphony. Boingboing published a couple of pages of the book, and they're unimaginably crude: they look and read as if they were created by a mildly mentally retarded person. (Two, as it turns out; the art is credited to a friend of Rinehart's named Shane Suiter.)

You don't believe me? Have a look:

I chose those two sections because they're pretty representative, and also because I'm wondering why I wasn't issued a toga, but mostly because of the pitiable attempts at the word "pedophile". I wonder whose fault those are, the writer's or the artist's, and I also wonder why it's spelled two different ways.

But no matter. If Mr. Rinehart thinks his electorate is stupid enough to be impressed by such sad trash (and maybe they are), then let him spell things as he likes. I'd rather spell it correctly, and then dissect it.

The second half of the word is reasonably common in English, as in "Anglophile", someone who likes all things English, or "audiophile", someone who spends way too much money on stereo equipment. It's from Greek "philos", "beloved", which in turn is from the verb "philein", "to love".

The first half is also Greek, from "pais", "child"; its combining form is "paido-" or "paedo", and it shows up in other words such as "pediatrician", a doctor specializing in children.

"Pais" is the offspring of Indo-European "pau-", which has a whole whack of descendants, some of which have undergone such changes that you wouldn't even recognize them. "Pau-" doesn't mean "child"; it means "few" or "little", and all the descendants have that sense in some way, however distantly removed.

Let's start with the least predictable offshoot: "paraffin". Seriously! The Latin form of "pau-" was "parus", and "paraffin" is a concoction of three parts: "parus", "barely"; "affinis", "connected"; and the suffix "-in", much used in naming chemical substances ("insulin" and "albumin", for starters). And what is paraffin barely connected to? Liquids, which simply roll off it, making it a great waterproofing agent.

"Paucity" is a fairly obvious Latinate descendant of "pau-", and so is "pauper", one who has or produces little; "poor", "poverty", and "impoverish" also come from "pau-" through Latin.

Word for little, not-adult humans stem from the root in the forms of "pediatric" and "puerile" ("childish"). Other animals also get their due: "foal" and "filly" come from Germanic languages, and "pony" from Latin. A clutch of chickeny words also derive from Latin: "poltroon" (a coward), "poult" and "poultry" as well as "pullet".

Finally, the fourth syllable of "encyclopedia" refers to children; Greek "paedeia" meant "education", and "encyclo-" means "circular", therefore "well-rounded", therefore "general", so an encyclopedia is literally a general education.

*The Jack Chick tract, naturally, trots out the story of Lot; two angels visited him at his little bungalow in Sodom, and a bunch of other townsmen, evidently bored on a Saturday night, demanded that he hand the angels over so that they could check them out. Lot said--and I'm paraphrasing a little--"No, you can't fuck my guests, but how about if I give my two virgin daughters, and you can do anything you like to them?" Modern scholars argue reasonably enough that the story isn't about homosexuality but about the sacred obligations of hospitality; it still astonishes me, though, that anybody would use this story as a proof of anything except how abominably women were treated in the Bronze Age.

Oh, and then later on, when Lot and his daughters had escaped the fire and brimstone and were living in a mountain, the daughters said, "Well, no men around--God killed them all--so we might as well fuck our father." So they got him drunk on two consecutive nights and did the deed and bore his children. Funny how Jack Chick leaves that bit out: homosexuality is bad, but incest is right in God's eyes, as long as it's father-daughter.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Together Forever

Yesterday at work, something made me think of the verb "combine", and my brain was so addled with no doubt toxic paint fumes--long story, not very interesting--that I couldn't think where it came from. Can you?

I mean, I could figure out the first half. Anybody could. "Com-" is an extremely important prefix in English, and it virtually always means the same thing: "together" (or, in an extended meaning, "completely", which is to say "together all the way"). There are Latin or Latinate words that start with that sequence of letters but aren't prefixed by "com-", but you can usually guess which ones they are on sight; "come", "comma", and "comic" are three that come to mind, and I suppose there are others, but they aren't many. Some words that feel as if they couldn't contain this prefix nevertheless do; French "comte", which is occasionally seen in English and means "count" (the title, not the sum), is derived from Latin "comes", an imperial title that itself is a compound of "com-" and the verb "ire", "to go", and "comedo", a blackhead, is composed of "com-" plus "edere", "to eat"; "comedo" is Latin for "glutton", and the skin blockage took that name because the thread of whitish muck that can be squeezed from a blackhead resembles a little worm which feeds on the body's secretions. (Seriously. Yuck!)

"Com-" is the form that appears before the labial consonants "-p-", "-m-", and "-b-"; before other sounds, it's "con-", and that's even more frequently seen in English. Morewords lists 936 matches for "com-", 1947 for "con-"; I bet they're missing at least a few. Not all of the "con- words have that prefix ("conch" and "condom" come to mind), but most of them, and virtually all of the multisyllabic ones, do.

So have you figured out the second half of "combine" yet? I kept thinking, "Bind? Bight? What?" The answer is much simpler: it's related to "binary", and means "two", because to combine is to put two things together. So simple!

The noun "combine", which as usual has its stress on the first syllable rather than the second (as in "record", "desert", and numerous other words), can mean an assembly of financial interests hoping to form a monopoly, or a combine harvester, which gets its name from the fact that it is a single machine which performs several steps of the harvesting process (cutting, threshing, and winnowing), rather like, at the other end of the process, a modern home breadmaker.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Brown Study

Yesterday I mentioned something I didn't know (and still don't, so don't ask), and here's something else I don't know, though this time I have the perfect excuse: nobody else does, either.

There is a kind of drawing medium, kind of like pastel but also kind of like charcoal, called "Conté"; it's named after the chemist who devised it, Nicolas-Jacques Conté. It comes in a number of colours, most of them very dark because it's made of clay and natural pigments such as oxides of iron (which is to say rust) and carbon black (which is to say charcoal). One of the common colours of Conté is "bistre", a very dark brownish grey. Bistre was originally made of burnt beech-tree wood, boiled down and then thinned with water to make a yellow-brown drawing ink; by extension, the word now means any shade of this colour.

Nobody knows where the word "bistre" comes from; apart from the fact that it's obviously French, it's just...there. The OED has some speculations, but in the end they simply say that connections between it and other possible candidates are "wanting".

When you look at "bistre", don't you naturally and automatically think of "bistro"? I know I do. And yet not only are the words (unsurprisingly) not related, nobody knows where "bistro" comes from, either. It's a surprisingly new word, dating from the end of the nineteenth century in French and the first quarter of the twentieth in English. It started out life as "bistrot", with a silent terminal "-t" which got lost at some point. Otherwise, no real clue as to its origin. Dictionary.com has two proposed etymologies, both of them displaying more than a touch of the fanciful and almost certainly invented.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hard and Fast

The other day as Jim and I were walking to the supermarket, we had occasion to joke about giving someone an apoplexy, and, well, don't you want to know where "apoplexy" comes from? It is a tremendously interesting and vaguely Victorian-sounding word, after all.

It means "a stroke", the cerebral-hemorrhage kind. You can tell just by looking at it (can't you?) that it must be Greek. You can also guess--correctly, in this case--that it's formed of two parts, the prefix "apo-" and the root "-plex-".

Right. Now what do those bits mean?

"Apo-" has several meanings. It usually means "away from" or "apart from", just as Latin "ab-" (as in "abduct", "to lead away") does; you can sense the linkage between the prefixes. But "apo-" also acts as an intensifier, with the sense of "away" leading to the connotation "as far as you can go". That's the sense it has in "apoplexy".

I bet you can think of a half-dozen "apo-" words without even trying. I came up with apoplectic, apostate, apologize, apothegm, apocrine, apogee (really and truly, without looking them up), and there are lots more that didn't even occur to me: apocryphal, apostle, and apostrophe are the common ones, and Morewords lists 174 in all, most of them variant forms.

An apothegm is a pithy saying or aphorism: it's from the Greek for "to speak out". An apogee is the farthest point in a satellite's orbit; the "-gee" part is related to the "geo-" which means "Earth", so the apogee is literally the most away-from-Earth part of an orbit. "Apocrine" refers to the sweat glands under your arms and means literally "to set apart", because they're different from the eccrine glands which are used to regulate body temperature through sweat. If you want to know the meaning of the rest of the "apo-" words, well, dictionary's that way.

The second half of "apoplexy" is from "plessein", "to strike" (thus "stroke"). Unlike most other afflictions, an apoplexy attacks violently and suddenly.

"Plessein" is derived from the Indo-European root "plak-". If you play around with it long enough and consider its meaning, which is the same as its Greek offspring, you're sure to come up with at least one other word from this source. "Plaque" is too obvious, and wrong, to boot. "Plague", though, is from "plak-", eventually, though it's a tortuous journey. I didn't guess it, though it might be obvious; the only word I could come up with that I was sure was related (and it was) was "plectrum", the pick with which you pluck the strings of a guitar or mandolin.

There are others, though, most of them morphed out of easy recognition. "Complaint" is, as is its progenitor, "plaint", the relationship to "plek-" being that grieving or plaintive people beats their breasts in grief. "Plangent", "making a loud and plaintive sound", is also related. "Paraplegic" comes from "plek-" as well, though I confess I can't determine the function of the prefix "para-" in this case; it usually means "beyond" or "to the side of", and since "paraplegia" means "paralysis of the legs", well, what does "para-" mean in this context? Maybe I'm just too tired to work it out; it's been a long day.

One last unexpected word which really has been warped beyond recognition, because it comes to us from Old Norse: "fling", "to throw violently".

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

They Say

Sometimes I think Finnish got it right; gender doesn't enter the picture at all. I don't mean grammatical gender, which has nothing to do with actual gender, although Finnish doesn't have that, either; I mean gender gender. There is a third-person pronoun corresponding to English "it" (it's "se"), and another ("hän") which means either "she" or "he", depending on context. My Finnish co-worker speaks terrific English, but it's something she still gets wrong most of the time, referring to her husband as "she".

I bring this up because of the hoo-ha at Facebook about gendered pronouns. You now have to specify your gender, after which Facebook will refer to your various actions with the correct reflexive pronoun; "Jane Doe has tagged herself in your photo." What did the used to say? "Themself". And oh so many people were up in arms about it!

Here is most of a snippy Associated Press piece about the imbroglio:

The online hangout Facebook is getting more serious about grammar. No more should users see jarringly incorrect declarations such as "Debbie changed their profile picture."

Users who haven't specified gender in their Facebook profiles will be asked to do so soon. That way, Facebook won't have to default to "their" or the made-up word "themself," as it had been doing.

While not knowing someone's gender poses grammatical challenges in English, it has created even larger headaches as Facebook expands to other languages, where a gender-neutral option isn't available in plural form.

I never registered any of this before because I don't give a possum's bum about Facebook. It seems a lot of people have been grousing about it, though; Google "facebook grammar" and you'll find an awful lot of links such as this one:

As a new convert to Facebook, I've notices that its news and updates feature lack grammatical correctness.

For example, you might read that "John Smith has a picture to their profile."  (Emphasis mine).

That's because Facebook doesn't take into account one's gender.

But that's going to change.

As for what I think? For starters, "they" as a singular nominative pronoun (and the parallel "their" for the genitive pronoun) are inelegant, but they've been used for a very long time and are well established in the language. You don't have to use them, and never would in the most formal writing, but there's no point in pretending that they don't exist in this role; when you want a gender-free third-person pronoun, you can't use "it" when referring to a person, and so "they" has come to fill the need. Even if you don't like this usage, it's pointless to say it's wrong. It was once upon a time, but it isn't now. Thackeray used it in "Vanity Fair" a hundred and sixty years ago, so you get to use it now.

As for "themself", I think it's even more inelegant than singular "they" and "their", but I also think it's an inevitable outgrowth of them. If you're going to permit the plural pronouns to do double duty as singular ones, you can hardly carp when people naturally turn them into reflexive pronouns as well.

And it's not as if this is new, either. Calling "themself" a "made-up word" is a little short-sighted, because first, all words are made up at one point or another, and second, the word is very very old; William Caxton used it back in the fifteenth century (rendered in modern English, "Each of them should make themself ready").

I'd avoid "themself" wherever possible, and I'd encourage any author to write around it, but I wouldn't call it flat-out wrong. Ugly, yes, a little, but not wrong. Any word that's been around for over five hundred years has surely earned itself its little foothold in the language.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Away With You

Here a few scary sentences from a Slate.com book review:

She was diagnosed with chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy—a disease in which rogue antibodies present in one's blood plasma attack the myelin sheath, the protective and connective covering of one's nerves. For four years, Manguso suffered numerous episodes of escalating paralysis that could be reversed only through an arduous process called apherisis: Her veins were drained of the offending plasma and infused with new. (Left untreated, the disease progresses to the diaphragm, leading to suffocation and eventual death.)

Fast on the heels of the horror I felt at consider her medical condition was the realization that "apherisis" was a most interesting word that I had never heard before, but that I could decipher; more on that in a minute. And hard on the heels that realization was the strong suspicion that "apherisis" could not possibly be the correct spelling of the word.

It isn't, either. There are hardly any words in English that end in "-isis". "Crisis" is the only common one; "phthisis" is the only near competitor, and scarcely anyone has ever heard of that. More on that in a minute, too. The ending "-esis" is a lot more common, so the smart money is on the word in question being spelled "apheresis", which is just what it is. The writer should have caught this. A copy editor would have, but there don't seem to be any in the building.

Just looking at "apheresis", you can tell that it's Greek, and if you know a little etymology but not enough, you can incorrectly work out its origin, as I did. Since it means "to carry the blood away (and then return it)", it certainly seems as if it ought to come from the verb "pherein", "to bear" or "to carry", which shows up in quite a few English words including "amphora", "pheromone", and "metaphor". I got it wrong, though. It's actually from the prefix "ap-", the same as Latin "ab-", "away", plus the verb "hairein", "to snatch", "to take". Same basic idea, I guess, but the wrong verb.

"Phthisis" is an old term for consumption, which in turn is an old turn for pulmonary tuberculosis; "phthisis" is from Greek "phthiein", "to decay". Whenever you see a word containing "-phth-", such as "naphtha" or "diphthong", you can be sure it's Greek in origin.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Fall Where They May

Here on The Consumerist is a piece about Pringles potato crisps and how the company that makes them is arguing that they're not really chips, so they shouldn't be subject to a rather large potato-chip tax in the UK. And it's true enough; they're not chips. They're made from a paste of potato starch and other ingredients, extruded into a saddle shape and baked. According to the company and to the product's Wikipedia page, this makes them cakes. Seriously. Like rice cakes, or potato cakes. I think they'd be more like biscuits, actually, what with the dough and the rolling and all.

So Jim and I were having a laugh about this, and then he described Pringles as "not chips, but chippy", and then of course we began wondering where the derogatory word "chippy" might have come from.

A chippy, or chippie, is a woman of loose morals, possibly a prostitute (or, as Twisty would say, a prostituted woman, and I trust you can see the difference). Slang and cant being what they are, there's no good reason that "chippy" should have any reason for being, but it's always worth a lookup, right?

Not really, in this case. "Chippy", if you believe Dictionary.com, is a shortened form of "chipping-bird", which is another name for a sparrow, from the noise it makes. And sparrows and other birds do make that noise; we have a clutch of chippers around here, and instead of or in addition to singing, they produce randomly spaced little "chip-chip-chip" sounds. In this context, "chip" in turn is derived from "cheep", which, alongside "tweet", is the sound we most associate with birds in North America, I think.

As for why a friendly and familiar sort of woman would get herself an insulting name based on a sparrow, well, your guess is as good as mine. That's cant for you.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Here's something I think you will enjoy: a website called Curious Taxonomy. Why shouldn't biologists and botanists have some fun with their Latin nomenclature? The site lists such oddities as taxa consisting of nothing but vowels (Aiouea, a species of laurel), puns such as the beetle Eurygenius, and rude-sounding names like the fungus Botryotinia fuckeliana (named after a German botanist named Fuckel). Lots of fun stuff in there. A great place to waste half an hour.


Typos are bad for a number of reasons. They suggest inattention to detail and they occasionally force one to wonder about the intelligence of the writer (which raises the question of whether the words at hand are worth reading), but worst of all, in my opinion, they forcibly drag the reader out of the text and maroon him or her in that mental space in which they are forced to speculate about the writer's intelligence and inattention to detail as they wonder what was really meant.

In a recent Slate.com article about those yogurts that supposedly help your digestive system is the following sentence:

There are two curious aspects to this clam.

There are many curious aspects to the clam, such as that they don't have blood vessels, but oxygenate and detoxify their various organs in a sort of broth of seawater and bodily fluids. That's pretty interesting!

The correct word in the passage in question is "claim", and I certainly do apologize for saying this over and over again, but

1) no mechanical spellchecker could have caught this error, and
2) it's the sort of mistake that any writer could commit, and
3) this is why all writing needs to be re-read by the writer, and
4) as long as the written word exists, copy editors will still be indispensable.

Here's the bottom-to-top hierarchy in online writing, as far as I'm concerned:

• Comments, the letters-to-the-editor section of any website, are going to have mistakes in them, because they're usually dashed off and can hardly ever be changed once they're posted.
• Blogs have an obligation to be readable, and that means reviewing writing both before and after it's posted, with changes made as necessary; but the standards are not as high as most other published writing, because there is not usually any outside editing.
• Paid writing on a website is held to the same standards as any other paid writing: the writer must make sure it's correct, re-reading as often as necessary to ensure this, and the website must also do its part to make sure that the writing is as error-free as possible. This means hiring copy editors.

But since many newspapers and magazines don't seem to use any kind of copy editors any more, why should I expect that web writing would?

Saturday, July 05, 2008


I expect a philologist....

Let's start with "philology". It's a term that isn't much used any more, but it used to mean "comparative linguistics"; it's from the Greek words for "love of learning". I first ran across the term in a Eugene Ionesco play, "The Lesson", about which you can read much more here. I do not think philology necessarily leads to murder, but you never know.

Now then. I expect a philologist would have no problem looking at most words and figuring out where they might have come from, being a professional and all, but schlubs like me, with their lack of a Ph.D. and their day jobs and their blogs and whatnot, have to make (more or less) educated guesses.

I don't know why the word "atrocious" popped up, but I was determined to get as far as I could in figuring out without the use of a dictionary where it might have come from. I didn't get very far.

The whole thing suggested Latin, but then the first syllable might be a negation, as it so often is in Latinate English words, and I couldn't imagine what the rest of the word was that was being negated. I decided that it wasn't that, but after that point I was pretty much stuck.

And with good reason! It was from an Indo-European root which I'd never heard before and which left hardly any English relatives. There was nothing for me to compare the word to.

The root in question is "ater-", which means, unexpectedly, "fire". There are three common English words from this stem, and you will never guess any of them, except "atrocious", which I've already given you. It's from Latin (at least I got that part right) "atrox", "frightful"; that itself is compounded from two IE stems, "ater-", "fire" and "-okw-", "to look. The meaning of the "ater-" stem is debatable: the whole thing might mean "having a fiery (and therefore threatening) countenance", but the word "ater" in Latin meant "blackened by fire" and so the whole word could mean "having a black (fierce, forbidding) countenance".

The "blackened by fire" sense comes up in the second of the "ater-" words, "atrium". Nowadays it's a wide-open central court, but in Roman days, it was the forecourt, and the name seems to come from the hearth situated in it; a hole in the ceiling would allow smoke to escape.

The third "ater-" word in English is "zircon". Yeah, I know, you'd never think it to look at it. Old Persian "atar", "fire", became "adur" in Middle Persian, then "azar" in Persian. Then it was "azargun", "the colour of fire", and then Greek "surikon", Arabic "sirigun", and finally German "Zirkon".

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Happy Canada Day

A week or so ago, I saw the word "domain" somewhere and wondered briefly if it might be related somehow to "dominion" and "dominate" before deciding that, duh, it obviously is. Then I went and forgot about it until today.

It's July 1st, which is Canada Day. When I was a tad, it was called Dominion Day; this was changed in 1982. We celebrate it on July 1st not to get a three-day jump on the Americans but because Canada was officially formed (out of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Québec) on July 1st, 1867. No revolutionary war for us; just a bunch of guys sitting in a room discussing things. That, I think, tells you all you need to know about Canada versus the U.S.

So endeth the history lesson. What you want to know is if "dominion" is related to "domain", and, as I intuited and you surely did too, it is.

We may as well work backwards and stick a bunch of other words into the mix, I suppose. Indo-European "dem-" meant "house" or "household". Without even trying, you can probably generate a half-dozen words that might have come from this root, particularly if you change the vowel from "-e-" to "-o-". "Dominate", "dominion", "domicile", "domestic", and "domain" all have a sense of the home or someone who rules over it, don't they? Greek "despot" is from the same root, originally "lord and master" or something like it and later a tyrannical ruler. Both senses of "domino"--the rectangular playing tile and the black costume-party mask--are also from this root, although their exact path of transmission is obscure: it may be that the mask sense came from the black hoods that priests wear, and then the playing tile came from a fancied resemblance to the mask.

A few other "dem-" words: "dame", the lady of the house, is from Latin "domina", feminine of "dominum", through French, which also gave us "madame" ("ma dame", "my lady") and "mademoiselle" ("ma damoisele", "my young lady"); this last word also gave English "damsel". "Don" and "Donna", proper nouns in English, are Spanish for "lord" and Italian for "lady".

Two last most unexpected words from "dem-". Through a dizzying sequence of changes in consonants and vowels, Latin "dominarium", "power", evolved into Old French "dangier", originally "power", then "power to harm", then "vulnerability to harm", which is where we get "danger". And through another confounding sequence of changes, Greek "demein", "to build" became Gothic "timrjan" and then eventually Norse "timbr", which became in English "timber", the thing from which houses are built. (This Norse word, intriguingly, is related to German "Zimmer", "room".)

Fascinatingly, "democracy" does not come from "dem-", though you might be able to make up a convincing folk etymology for it. Instead, "democracy" is from Greek "demos", "the common people" (also the source of "demotic"). That comes form IE "da-", "to divide", possibly in the sense of "division into groups of people".