or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Here's an interesting article about word coinages by Erin McKean in the Boston Globe. (I got there from, as so often is the case, Boingboing). Here's the opening paragraph:

Funner. Impactful. Blowiest. Territorialism. Multifunctionality. Dialoguey. Dancey. Thrifting. Chillaxing. Anonymized. Interestinger. Wackaloon. Updatelette. Noirish. Huger. Domainless. Delegator. Photocentric. Relationshippy. Bestest. Zoomable.

(I don't necessarily agree that some of those word choices are even debatable (who could possibly have a problem with "multifunctionality" or "delegator"?), and others are mere slang, to be forgotten in a couple of years ("chillaxing", the progressive form of "chillax", a portmanteau of "chill [out]" and "relax"). But the rest, whether ugly ("thrifting", verbified from the noun "thrift", is a most unappealing word, to my ears) or charming ("relationshippy", an adjective coined to fill an obvious need), are sensible, natural extensions of the way the language works.)

Go ahead and read it. I'll still be here when you get back.

I'm not sure McKean hates the "I-know-this-isn't-a-word" tactic as much as I do, because I'm not sure that anybody could, but the article makes an important point, one that I've been making for years myself: that part of our birthright as English speakers is that we get to play with the language, that the language, in fact, has evolved in such a way that we are encouraged to do so.

As I said last year,

English is as much as anything a toolkit from which to build language.

And it is, too. It supplies us with a huge assortment of basic parts (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and another massive selection of adjuncts (prefixes, suffixes, prepositions), and, as long as we observe some basic rules, permits us--urges us--to construct whatever words we need. This is the very soul of a living language.

Look at this perfect example, also from Boingboing:

"Enqueue", a rather elegant-looking word, isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary (though it is in some other dictionaries--my spellchecker recognizes it). That doesn't matter. Anybody can see at a glance, even if they've never run across the word before, that it is an assembly of "en-" plus "queue", and that it means "to put into a list of similar items". You can add "en-" (or, where appropriate, "em-" or "in-") to all kinds of nouns and verbs, and it will always mean the same thing: "to put into". To use an example that I just whipped up, "empanic" isn't in any dictionary, but it obviously means "to throw into a state of panic", and I'd use it without hesitation if I thought "panic" wouldn't quite do the trick.

And look up there: I used the word/nonword "verbified", the preterite of "verbify", which isn't in the dictionaries either, but did you even slow down when you ran across it (or when McKean used "verbed" in the same way)? Probably not; you knew exactly what was meant, and that's a perfect example of the inventiveness inherent in the English language and the minds of the people that use it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A few years ago I said I'd never found a typo in Harper's Magazine. I looked at it as some sort of holy beacon of incorruptible copy-editing.

I never got around to reading most of the July issue, for one reason or another: I did the cryptic crossword, which is always the first thing I turn to, but then the magazine fell by the wayside, because there are always so many things to read. So when Boingboing blogged about an article that was online, I clicked the link and read it in that format. I could have dug out the magazine, or read it on the Harper's website, but I was already there, so I took the path of least resistance.

It seems kind of ridiculous to say how profoundly sad I was to see these sentences:

That there's a big fat typo; "ot" instead of "at". I couldn't understand how it could have happened, because Harper's doesn't let that kind of thing slip through.

Then I thought, "Well, is that what actually got published?" So I did dig out my copy of the July issue, and skimmed the article very quickly, and I couldn't find the typo. I was confident that I could, because (as I have said before, and I apologize for boring you), typos stand out for me as if they'd been overlaid with yellow highlighter, but it just didn't seem to be there. I went to their website and opened up the page in question, and what do you know? The typo wasn't there!

And now that I knew where the putative mistake was, I went to that section of the printed article, and it wasn't there, either.

And finally it dawned on me that what the author had posted to that L.A. Weekly website wasn't the actual article, it was the galley proofs, which can easily contain typos and other errors, because they're used by copy-editors to proof-read and make corrections to before the final publication.

My sense of relief was ludicrously outsized and wonderful to behold.


This also appeared in the galley proofs

and it was not corrected for publication. "He has long hair, a pharaonic beard, and makes his living..." is not a huge mistake, but it's still a mistake, because it violates parallel structure, which dictates that every clause has to have its own verb, whether explicit or implicit, and if you want to change verbs in midstream, you have to account for that. You can say, "He has long hair and a pharaonic beard, and makes his living...", because the first "and" applies the verb to both noun phrases and permits you to keep going with a new verb. You can say, "He has long hair, a pharaonic beard, and a gentle demeanour. He makes his living...", because the period stops the first verb altogether and lets you introduce a second in the new sentence. You can do any number of things. The one thing you can't do is what Harper's did.

At least I can say I've still never found a Harper's typo.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


From the Onion AV Club's occasional review of comics, this sentence:

The packaging alone is fantastic—between issues and arcs, McCloud offers revealing peaks into what was going on in his life when he wrote it, and what he was getting at with his heroes and villains.

It's one of those (to me) incomprehensible mistakes that crops up again and again and, more recently and in the other direction, yet again. How is this any different from mixing up "leek" and "leak", or "week" and "weak"? Do people, and not just any old people in this case but professional writers, actually think that "peak" means "to look quickly and furtively"? Aren't paid writers being paid to write correctly? Is there not one single person at The Onion--or, let's face it, anywhere else these days--whose job it is to vet text before it's published to make sure these mistakes get fixed before they see the light of day?

I just don't understand it.

Friday, August 22, 2008


A couple of nights ago I was on the phone with a journalist friend of mine; she'd called me to wish me a (belated) Happy Birthday, and in the course of the conversation, we ended up bemoaning, as I so often do on this blog, the complete lack of copy-editing in every manifestation of the media. "The writer just runs it through the spellchecker and it gets printed!" I said, and she replied, speaking from experience, "Most of them don't even use the spellchecker!"

Well, at Slate they seem to spellcheck, but that's apparently as far as it ever goes. Just look at this sentence from a recent piece about the 1904 Olympics:

The parade is more than a quadrennial check-in on sociopolitical changes (welcome, Montenegro! Serbia and Montenegro, we hardly new ye) and fashion changes (nice to have you back, newsboy cap!), it is perhaps the most powerful symbol of actual progress the Olympics has to offer.

"New" instead of "knew". Even the most slovenly copy editor (a people not known for their sloppiness) would have caught and corrected that, because a writer is supposed to make readers think, "That's interesting!", and a copy editor is supposed to keep people from thinking, "That's not right!"

Seriously. How much would it cost to hire someone whose sole job is to make sure that such things don't happen? Wouldn't it be worth it?

Thursday, August 21, 2008


It it something in the water? The drooping economy? The Olympics? Yet another piece about the death of the semicolon, this time in the Boston Globe. (The last one, which I've already talked about, wasn't even two months ago.)

This time around, the argument is that the semicolon is not manly enough, as Kurt Vonnegut alluded to when he cretinously termed it a "transvestite hermaphrodite".

Well, really, when you get right down to it, is even the comma man enough? That little swishy curve, that coy insistence that you pause before getting back to the sentence! How disgracefully womany can you get? And question marks are even worse. They force you to stop altogether and to doubt yourself, which no real man would ever consider doing. Real men don't ask; they assert. And they don't stop and ponder; they just do, and damn the consequences.

Men clearly ought to make do with periods and exclamations marks and perhaps the em-dash. Those ought to be all the punctuation a really masculine writer ever needs. Blunt ram-it-home subject-verb-object sentences with no pauses and no second thoughts. That's how a real man writes. None of this pansified Henry James semicolon-strewn compound-complex multi-clause bullshit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Advertising has thrown some hideous neologisms at us over the years, but for me, this one takes the cake.

The government, bless its good intentions, is trying to protect consumers from the depredations of advertisers, so it puts stern restrictions on how a word can be used in food packaging. You can't say that something is vanilla if it doesn't contain any true vanilla; if it's entirely artificially flavoured, which is pretty likely these days, you have to note that fact on the label. Chocolate is trickier; if, say, ice cream or pudding, something completely suffused with the flavour, is not real but artificial, you can just footnote that with an asterisk, but if it contains pieces of putative chocolate, what to do?

"Chocolatey" is a valid adjective in English. It ought to mean "having the qualities of chocolate", but in the hands of advertisers, it's come to mean something else: "not really chocolate, but with at least some of the superficial characteristics of chocolate, and we're hoping you can't tell the difference."

The feds have decreed that chocolate has to be chocolate, which is to say that it has to have cocoa butter in it. If the cocoa butter has been removed and replaced with some other kind of fat, rendering it inferior and a little disgusting, it can't be called chocolate any more, so the manufacturers instead use their ugly little dodge, as you can see here:

and here:

"Milk Chocolatey Flake".

Here's what the ingredient list for that product tells us about the chocolatey flake:


In all fairness, you can't put chunks of chocolate into ice cream (or into cereal that will be doused with cold milk), because the cold chocolate would be hard, brittle, and almost flavourless. You need something that quickly makes the transition from icy to creamy-smooth at body temperature, and that something is coconut oil. But the result is slick and mouth-coating and fairly unpleasant: it certainly isn't chocolate. I would say that the proper thing to do would be to not put pieces of chocolate into ice cream, but apparently the public has spoken, and they'll settle for an icky mouthfeel as long as they can get triple chocolate chocolate chunk ice cream.

And--the point of this ranting--"creme" isn't cream. We used to know what "cream" meant, and it had more than one meaning, too. It didn't have to be cream per se; it could be something with a smooth, creamy texture, as in buttercream icing or pastry cream, neither of which contains any actual cream. But at some point the government said, "It will mislead consumers if you put the word 'cream' on the label when there isn't any cream in the product," and the manufacturers said, "Fine. All right. We'll call it something else." And that something was "creme", which looks simultaneously pretentious and slumming, a neat trick for a word to pull.

And now, predictably, "creamy" has been adulterated and bastardized into "cremey", as hideous a word as I've seen in some time.


That last package up there is from The Onion AV Club's review of a couple of banana-flavoured snack foods. If you're wondering where "banana" comes from, it shouldn't take more than, oh, two seconds' thought to decide (based mostly on the general flow of the word) that it must be from an African language, and that turns out to be the case. However, nobody knows which one: there are a lot of them!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I was sitting in the doctor's office today, waiting to be attended to (more on that here, if you like), and, as I had neglected to bring my iPod (very stupid) and was trying and failing to ignore the little chatterbox playing with the toys* and her equally blabbery mother sitting next to me, I started leafing through the little book I keep with me to write down interesting words that bear further research and dreadful errors that beg to be smirked about in print.

One of the interesting words was "troubadour", which struck me because even though I was pretty sure it had to be French in origin, the ending looked much like the modern Spanish noun ending "-dor", as in "matador" or "salvador" ("saviour").

And "-dor-" it is, but not from Spanish: from Old Provençal. The original is "trobador", descended from the verb "trobar" (even the verb looks Spanish), which is related to modern French "trouver", "to find"; "trobar" did mean "to find", but it also meant "to compose", perhaps because the idea of composing a song was just finding it lying around somewhere. (It also meant "to invent", which is another point on the continuum of actively creating something or merely noticing it.)

I suppose I could go into lots more detail and do all kinds of research about the relationship between modern Spanish and Old Provençal, but I'm afraid that, uncharacteristically, I just don't care. No, what grabs my attention is that "trouver" has left a couple of unexpected descendants in English. I had no idea.

It never occurred to me to wonder where "contrive" came from, but it's from "trouver", all right. To contrive means to invent, in one way or another, and "invent" is of course one of the senses of "trobar".

English also has a legal word that there's no reason I would ever have come across, "trover", which is a noun (pronounced exactly as it ought to be if you knew English but no French) referring to a kind of legal action you take if someone has illegally appropriated your goods for his or her own use. I'm not sure how this use differs from mere theft, but then I am not a lawyer, obviously.

* No, I don't hate kids. I just wasn't in the mood for her unceasing, astoundingly high-pitched six-year-old's babble. I'm unwell, dammit!

Monday, August 18, 2008


Well. Let's have some Latin, shall we?

"Medial" is from "medius", "middle", which also gave English "medium" (in the middle, neither small nor large) and "median", the midpoint of something. In anatomical terms, "medial" refers to something that's in the middle as opposed to the outside.

"Collateral" is from "com-", "together", with the terminal consonant changed to "-l-" for euphony, and "lateral", derived from "latus", which means variously "the side", "the breadth", or "wide" and also gave English "latitude", which refers to breadth either geographic or metaphoric. In anatomical terms, "collateral" refers to something that is, predictably, off to the side rather than in the centre.

"Ligament" is from "ligamentum", "bandage", which in turn is derived from the verb "ligare", "to tie", which gave English "ligature" (something that ties things together). In anatomical terms, "ligament" refers to a strap of tissue that connects things together.

The medial collateral ligament is one of the things that holds the primate knee together. It's medial, which means it's in the middle of the body, at the inside edge of the knee rather than at the outside edge. It's collateral, which means it's at the side of the knee rather than the front. And it's a ligament, which means it's a band of fibrous stuff that connects, in this case, the tibia to the femur and keeps the knee moving as it should.

And I have fucked mine up.

It was so much fun! The cleaners were in the store Saturday night preparing to polish the floors. They'd coated a section with either wax stripper or wax, I don't know which, and they should have either put up signs warning of wet floors or refrained from dousing the floors with the stuff while we were still there. They didn't do either of these things, and so as a consequence I stepped onto the glop, at which point my left leg went all over the place while my right leg didn't and I went down, hard and heavy, on the left leg.

It was just staggeringly painful. I didn't pass out from the pain, although I came very very close; I was merely incoherent, gasping for breath, and trying hard not to throw up. The actual passing-out part came around 2:30 Sunday morning, when I got up to pee and awoke to find Jim standing over me, my hand in the toilet, my face pressed against the top of the cistern.

I'll spare you the details of the injury. Just trust me that this is something you never, ever want to have happen to you.

It seems I'll survive. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


In this recent Slate.com piece about Soviet Georgia, which does sound rather nice, "something like the Italy of the former Soviet Union," as author Ilan Greenberg calls it, is this sentence:

As Lincoln Mitchell, an assistant professor of politics at Columbia University who lived in the country for nearly a decade, is quick to point out, Georgia's light burnishes bright in a dark neighborhood.

"Burnish" is self-evidently supposed to be "burn" here, because "burnish" (which means "to make glossy by polishing") is a transitive verb, one which requires an object, which "bright", being an adjective, is not. What exactly did Greenberg think he was accomplishing by using the wrong word?

I mean, assuming, since he's a paid writer, that he did know it was the wrong word. And if he didn't, someone else should have, and that someone should have clapped eyes on the piece before I did. (And if that someone does exist--unlikely given the overall evidence at Slate--and they changed it from "burns" to "burnishes" because they thought it sounded classier somehow...but no, that doesn't even bear thinking about.)

Friday, August 15, 2008


Last week I was fixing up the store for the next day's opening--it's called "recovery" and it can take quite a while because people are pigs, tearing open packages, leaving anything anywhere, letting their infants chew on rubber stamps while in the store and then leaving the evidence--and I noticed that a particular colour of yarn was called "Whispy White". It's a mistake I've seen before, and it's not completely incomprehensible: "wisp" sounds like the first syllable of "whisper", and if you tried to, you might even be able to convince yourself that the two words were related; a whisper is a little wisp (or "whisp") of a sound, of a voice....

I couldn't convince myself of it, though. I mused about it for a while and I decided that, even though I didn't know the provenance of either word, "wisp" and "whisper" were most definitely not related. Then I promptly forgot about it until I read these words on this blog:

This is what I had hoped L'Artisan's Songes might be like - a whispy, soft, almost cotton-like aroma.

So there it is again. I'm sure a lot of people think "whispy" is the correct spelling. It isn't. Never has been in the entire history of the language, either.

"Wisp" is related, unexpectedly, to "wipe", and I'll get to the actual mechanics of that in a second. "Wipe" may be a descendant of Latin "vibrare", "to move back and forth"; the senses are similar, even if the etymology is far from certain.

With a long "-i-", "wip" is the same as modern "wipe". Though wispiness and wiping have nothing in common, there was a small collection of words from Germanic languages that illustrate the cloud of meanings that led to the modern sense; Old High German "wifan", "to wind around", and Gothic "weipan", "to crown" (think "to twine laurels around the head"), clearly relate to the sense of "wisp" as "thin tufts or strands".

"Wisp" was originally "wips", which you can clearly see is derived from "wip"; the change in letter order is called metathesis. This same sort of change turned "waeps", a singular noun, into "wasp".

"Whisper", on the other hand, is from Old English "hwisprian", which is related to and possibly descended from Old Norse "hviskra", with the same meaning. This illustrates something rather interesting about English: that most of our "wh-" words came from Norse/Germanic sources that started with "hw-" or "hv-", and in fact are still pronounced as if the "h-" came first. You can pronounce "where" to rhyme with "wear", if you like, and most people do in casual conversation, but if you want to stress the word, or if you're speaking very formally, you're more likely to pronounce the "-h-", and you're going to have to pronounce it as if the word were spelled "hwere". Likewise, "which" was originally "hwilc", "what" was "hwaet", "whicker" was "hwicung", and so on and so on.

"Whisper" is related to "whistle" and "whine", and I'm guessing the relationship is obvious.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


See, this is what I have to put up with. On my birthday, no less.

(Click the picture to embiggen it.)

Well, yeah, the weather. It's been atrocious this summer, just rain rain rain rain overcast fog rain rain rain (sun) rain. As you can see, the upcoming week is no different.

But what really frosts me isn't the rain and the overcastness; I can handle that. It's the typo!

"Peek time", indeed. Time to peek at those Perseids, kids!

Sunday, August 10, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, I said that of all the things you never, ever want to misspell (for fear of holding yourself up to ridicule), "education" is near the top of the list. I want to show you something that's even higher on the list; right at the very top, in fact.

That's the relevant part of an ad, the bit with all the text in it, for a company called Carmichael Training. Their URL is


which, as you can see, is "Train Right". Makes perfect sense. Now check out the lower right-hand corner of the ad (you may want to click on the picture to enlarge it).

No, you certainly do not want to misspell your URL in a full-colour glossy magazine advertisement.

If you do, then someone else will bootstrap on your stupid error by registering the URL so they can make fun of you, and other people will also make fun of you for not bothering with something so trivial as a proofreader, and one of those people will be me.

Friday, August 08, 2008


A few days ago, The Consumerist has a piece with the more or less self-explanatory title Extreme Makeover Home Edition Leaves Homeowners In Perdition* (the article links to this article).

"Perdition"; a great word, not used as much nowadays as it used to be. Where can it have come from?

It's got to be Latin; just looking at it is all the evidence you need, since it starts with that extremely common prefix "per-", which is an intensifier meaning "thoroughly", and ends with the suffix "-tion" or "-ion", marking it as a noun, so all we have to do is figure out the root, "-di-" or "-dit-".

That, as it turns out, is confusingly from the verb "dare", "to give". What has perdition to do with giving? "Dare" gave rise to the verb "perdere", "to lose", because the intensified/completed sense of "per-" conveyed the meaning "to give completely; to give up to the point of ruination." ("Perdere" also spread out to mean, in an active sense, "to do in; to ruin [someone]".) "Perdition", therefore, meant "destruction", which is what it means in the title of the Consumerist article: the state of utter ruin.

What was that adage about looking a gift horse in the mouth?

* In case that isn't self-explanatory, and you don't feel like reading the article or whatever: there's an American TV show called Extreme Makeover Home Edition; the original Extreme Makeover overhauls people with plastic surgery and such, the home version does the same with people's houses, and they're almost always sob stories, too, about some family with a disabled child or the like. The show sometimes tears down the original house altogether and rebuilds it, with the occasional result that the family can no longer afford the utility bills/property taxes for the new, larger, out-of-scale residence. Of course, a lot of these people were in financial hot water to begin with; what they needed wasn't a heart-tugging residential remake but a small-scale improvement and a budget they could live with. But that isn't good television.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Science blogger PZ Myers got himself a communion wafer and proceeded to do an awful thing to it: he put a nail through it and tossed it into the garbage. Oh, wait; that isn't awful at all, since, as he's been saying for some time, it's just a cracker. (Some people believe that it's the transsubstantiated flesh of Jesus, but be that as it may, they can't really forbid him from doing what he likes to a wafer he happens to have, any more than a Hindu can forbid me from eating beef, for the simple reason that in a civilized society, people don't get to impose their religious beliefs on non-believers.)

Here's a recent posting on the situation. The piece contains, naturally enough, the words "consecrate" and "desecrate" and "sacred", and waitaminute, if "desecrate" looks as if it should break down into "de-sacred-ize", and that's what it means, then what's the deal with the vowel?

It's very old, and it's very simple, as it turns out.

Latin "sacer" meant "sacred", and self-evidently, I would think, gave us that word. The Latin prefix "com-", which becomes "con-" before sibilants, was joined to "sacer" to make the verb "consecrare", " to declare to be sacred". This came into English to make "consecrate". The vowel changed from "-a-" to "-e-" (in Latin, long before English even existed) for what in retrospect is a fairly obvious reason; in compounds, "sacer" turns into "-secr-", because "consecrare" is slightly easier to pronounce than "consacrare", the vowel in question being slightly closer to an unstressed vowel, a schwa.

"Desecrate" wasn't a Latin word at all; it was an English coinage, showing up about three hundred years after "consecrate" entered the language, and modelled after it. If "consecrate" means "to make sacred", then "deconsecrate" would logically mean to reverse the process, to secularize something previously holy (and "deconsecrate" is in fact a word, applied to disused churches and such), and "desecrate" would be the opposite of "consecrate"; to defile, to make unholy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


A sentence from a not otherwise particularly interesting Slate.com article about the American presidential race:

And suggesting Obama was too media crazed to make time to visit wounded troops on his recent overseas trip, even though he visited woulded soldiers in Iraq, wasn't clean.

No, not "media crazed", though I would have hyphenated that. "Woulded".

Yeah, it's just a simple typo, but it's the sort of thing that even the most cursory second reading or spellcheck would have found. If you wanted to identify the exact moment at which Slate just said, "Fuck it, we're not even going to make the pretense of accuracy any more," then the story's dateline of Monday, Aug. 4, 2008, at 5:27 PM ET would be as good a time stamp as any.


I Googled "woulded" and it's a more common mistake than I would have guessed, since L and N are not that close on the keyboard; it's obvious that people mean to write "wounded", their fingers take over and write "would", and then they just keep going and tack on the suffix. I do that sort of thing all the time. But then I go back and correct it.

One of the first-page Google hits was for a verb-conjugation site called Allverbs. They are, or get their information from, Verbix, which I've used a lot in the past for help with French and German verbs, but no more, I think, because Verbix conjugates "would" all over the place, and if you weren't a native English speaker, you might take its conjugations as gospel if you didn't notice the warning at the top of the page; "Warning! The verb you entered does not exist in the Verbix database. The conjugations may not be accurate."

That doesn't stop them, though, from presenting such things as infinitive "to would"; present indicative "I would, you would, he woulds"; present conditional "we would would, you would would, they would would"; imperative "Let's would"; past conjunctive "I woulded"; and on and on.

In their defense, though I'm not feeling defensive about this, you can type in any nonsense string of characters and Verbix will attempt to fully conjugate it; I fgskjdfg, you fgskjdfg, he fgskjdfgs.... That's not much of an excuse, though, because obviously "would" isn't just some random string of characters: the unword "woulded" showed up in a Google search, which means that the word "would" is in their database of verbs, even though they must know it won't come out correctly. If English isn't your first language and you're a little hazy on modal and auxiliary verbs, then a complete conjugation is capable of throwing you seriously off course, and a little disclaimer at the top isn't enough.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


So, let's see. I watched part of some YouTube video or other which turned out to be some Scottish guy talking about The Secret, and it reminded me that some Scotsmen (though not this one in particular) have a devilish sexy accent, as I discovered when we were in Edinburgh last year, though you'd think it would be the sort of thing I would have noticed earlier in my life, but I suppose it's different when you're face-to-face with them.

And I went to Wikipedia to check out the particularities of Scottish English, though I don't know why I bother with the linguistic pages because I can never quite imagine what the sounds being discussed sound like (I don't know what "Scottish English has no /ʊ/, instead transferring Scots /u/" means). And that is where I came across this interesting fact: Scottish English uses the word

doubt for "think the worst" (I doubt it will rain meaning "I fear that it will rain" instead of the standard English meaning "I think it unlikely that it will rain")

which is dreadfully confusing to North Americans. And that in turn reminded me of something even more interesting. Newfoundland English has, in common with some other Englishes, a word not found in Standard English, because it is very old and now obsolete: "dout". I heard it from time to time when I was growing up; it means "to extinguish", as in "dout the fire" (which gave the title of the movie "Mrs. Doubtfire" a meaning surely not intended by the writer).

It's a contraction of two words: "do out". Go ahead. Use it. Pretend you're a Newfoundlander. Baffle your friends and family.

Monday, August 04, 2008


Jim and I are planning a trip to St. John's, Newfoundland, next month. It's where I was born, and I'd like to show him around, give him an idea of where I came from.

We were talking about Newfoundland food, and naturally the talk came around to "fish and brewis", which is something that more or less defies description; you can read about it here, because it has its own Wikipedia page (hardly anything doesn't these days). Salt cod? Yes, please. Scruncheons? Yes please! Hardtack, soaked and boiled? No, not so much that.

Anyway, we don't have to eat it while we're there. (And won't.) But I was telling Jim about hardtack, or Hard Bread, and how the company that makes it for sale, Purity, also makes a similar product, Sweet Bread, in a nearly identical package. Sweet Bread is a kind-of-hard but still crumbly biscuit: you can snap it in half laterally with your hands, and spread it with butter or jam or what have you, and it's really good. If, on the other hand, you mean to buy Sweet Bread but accidentally buy Hard Bread, well, good luck to you, because Hard Bread is like a dun-coloured brick. It will break your teeth. You could lash a bunch of them together and use them as a boat anchor.

This website, NewfoundlandlerShop.com, has both kinds for sale, along with lots of other Purity products, most of which found their way into our home when I was young, and a fair number of which we'll probably be bringing back home from our trip. They make delicious candy, including sublime peanut-butter kisses the likes of which you have never tasted (assuming they're as good as they used to be; it's been a while). They also make hard candy. "Peppermint knobs," I said wistfully. Jim replied, "Sounds dirty!" I was scrolling through the hard candy, and I said, "Now, this really sounds dirty; Climax Mixture!"

Seriously. Climax Mixture. With a name like that, it's got to be good.

And then, of course, as you will have surmised already if you know me at all, I wondered where the word "climax" came from.

First guess: Greek by way of Latin. It looks Latin, but it sounds Greek, what with that long "-i-" and all.

Sure enough, it's Greek: "klimax", which literally means "ladder", from the verb "klinein", "to slope", "to lean". Latin turned it into a rhetorical term, the high point of an oration, and eventually (in 1918), British birth-control advocate Marie Stopes used it to mean the high point of the sexual experience.

"Klinein" comes from Indo-European "klei-", "to lean", and it broadened to give English a fair batch of words, most of which are pretty obvious but some of which will surprise you, maybe, a little.

First, all the "cline" words and their offshoots; "decline", "incline", and "recline", plus the noun forms "proclivity" and the less common "declivity" and "acclivity". An incline is a slope on a hill, and the Greek word for "little hill" turned out to be "clitoris".

"Climate" turns out to be related to "climax"; imagine! "Climate" comes from Greek "klimat-", "slope", and by extension "surface or region of the Earth".

"Clinic", meaning "medical establishment", is also related, even though it's hard to imagine how; as it turns out, the Greek word for "bed" was "kline", and the genitive form of the word was "klinikos". As to how a word meaning "to slope; to lean" could have been transformed into "bed", well, it's a short step from "to lean" to "to lie down".

Now for the seeming oddities. Several English words starting with "l-" come from "klei-", because "kl-" easily becomes "hl-" over time, and eventually the "h-" can drop away altogether. So we have "ladder", which of course was the original meaning of "klimax", plus "lean", which was the original meaning of "klinein" and "klei-"; both words came from Germanic words beginning with "hl-". And finally, a word that also came from such a source; "lid", because it leans over, and finally falls atop, the cooking pot.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Never Forget

Tomorrow is our first anniversary*, and since I have to work all day, Jim and I decided to have dinner out tonight. During some lull in the conversation--or maybe when he'd gone to the can--I noticed the word "remember"** written somewhere and was trying to work out where it might have come from.

"Member" is obvious: it's from Latin "membrum", which meant, as it does in English, "limb" or "part, especially of the body"; its various other meanings in English are extensions of this idea. (A member of a committee is a part of that organization, as an arm is part of a body.) "Dismember" means to cut or tear limb from limb; "dis-", "apart", plus "-member". It was hard to make out how "remember" might be related, but maybe, through a process of semantic change, it could have had a meaning such as "to put (ideas) back together in your mind". It isn't completely out of the question.

It is, however, completely wrong. The "-member" of "remember" has nothing to do with the word "member" itself. Knowing that, can you play around with the word and hazard a guess as to its origin?

While you mull that over, I'll just point out that "member" is from Indo-European "mems", "meat", because a limb is indisputably made of meat. Other than "member" and its prefixed offshoots, "mems" left no trace in English.

"Remember", as it turns out, and I can't quite believe that this didn't at some point occur to me, is related to "memory". Duh! It comes from Latin "rememorari", which is "re-", "again", plus "memor", "mindful", plus the infinitive suffix "-ari". This made it into French as the verb "remembrer" (where it nowadays sensibly means "to regroup", the sense of "to remember" having been taken up by the verb "souvenir") and thence into English.

"Memor", of course, has a few other offspring in English: not just "memory" and "remember" but also "memorial", "memorable", "commemorate", and "memoranda", a list of things we need to remind ourselves of.

* It's sort of complicated. Back in the early part of this decade, when we were living in Halifax, two guys couldn't get married, but they could get what was called a domestic partnership. So we got one; I don't even remember the year, but it was on August 2nd. Last year, when marriage became an option, we decided to go for it, and since marriages were performed at City Hall only on the first and third Fridays of every month, we shot for the closest we could come to August 2nd, which turned out to be, felicitously enough, August 3rd. So that's our official real actual anniversary.

** Want to see a completely insane product? It's called the Remember Ring, and you can check out the site if you like, or you can just accept that on the day before the date that can be programmed into it, this wedding ring heats up once an hour to remind a man--of course it's aimed at men--that the next day is his wedding anniversary, and if he should chance to forget, he will pay the price as his wife confronts him with stereotypical fury, invective, and storms of unappeasable tears, because he just doesn't care. Fortunately it doesn't actually exist--it's a "concept product", which I assume means that if enough people show interest in buying the $760 ring, the company will figure out a way to produce them and market them.