or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


My Internet service provider checks incoming mail for virus-laden attachments and alerts me of the fact; if it's something I'm expecting to receive, I have the option of contacting the sender and asking them to scrub the attachment so they can resend it to me. It's invariably spam, of course. Here's one I received this morning, the sort of thing which, I suppose, might be expected to scare the unwitting into opening the attachment had it not been filtered out:

From: "ICS Monitoring Team"
Date: September 30, 2008 5:24:53 AM ADT
To: "client"
Subject: Your internet access is going to get suspended

Your internet access is going to get suspended

The Internet Service Provider Consorcium was made to protect the rights of software authors, artists.
We conduct regular wiretapping on our networks, to monitor criminal acts.

We are aware of your illegal activities on the internet wich were originating from

You can check the report of your activities in the past 6 month that we have attached. We strongly advise you to stop your activities regarding the illegal downloading of copyrighted material of your internet access will be suspended.

ICS Monitoring Team


I might have been momentarily worried if I:

1) were in fact guilty of illegal activities on the Internet,
2) didn't know how to spell "consortium", and
3) hadn't noticed that "which" has been misspelled as "wich", and that the second "of" in the last sentence should be "or".

Oh, and the point of origin in the third sentence wasn't automatically filled in, either. And I'd have trouble taking seriously any document that used the casual "Your internet access is going to get suspended". Officials don't talk like that: your bratty sibling talks like that.

All of this immediately tells me that this is the work of not a professional consortium but an amateurish operation, which is proof that it pays to be able to spell and read properly. I bet it works on some people, though. (But not on me, even I had gotten the attachment intact; I have a Mac.)


A better example of writing is a very good e-book (you can purchase it as a .pdf document) called Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours by Joe Clark, who (occasionally, at least) reads my blog and has sent me a copy. The subject of the book is Canadian English, and I had to ponder the title for a bit--it doesn't seem to make a huge amount of sense--before I realized that it was an encapsulation of the conundrum that is its subject: Canadian English is neither American nor British, but a hybrid which further confuses things by adding its own very special, very quiet flair. We spell "organize" like the Americans (and not the British "organise"), "marvellous" like the British (but some of us spell it "marvelous" like the Americans instead), and "neighbours" like the British (and this is drummed into our heads in school and is invariant, at least among my generation).

The subtitle of the book is "How To Feel Good About Canadian English", and it's nice to be able to feel good about it; if you're a Canadian of a certain age, you've experienced the sense that your tongue is sort of a neither-nor, not British, not American--so what is it? (You can read the book to find out.) We had dictionaries of Canadian English in school in the sixties and seventies, but even so, it was a huge, news-making deal when the Oxford University Press issued the Oxford Canadian Dictionary in 1998, all part of the omnipresent Canadian inferiority complex (coupled with a psychologically complex attraction-repulsion regarding Americans: we aren't them, we don't want to be them, we certainly don't want to be mistaken for them, but we kind of envy them, a little, even as we're used to being ignored by them).

Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours has an entire chapter subtitled "Why Your Spellchecker Won't Help You", and it's true: any Canadian writer has to either put up with all the red underlining the auto-checker does (this document as I write it, in TextEdit on the Mac, is riddled with them) or teach the spellchecker word after laborious word: yes, "centre" is correct; yes, there is such a word as "practise". One of the subsections of the chapter is called "No spellchecker gets Canadian spelling right", and that's for damned sure.

And what about our pronunciation? As Mr. Clark says,

If the Loyalists had not emigrated here, we might not exactly sound British today, but we might have ended up using the mid-Atlantic Canadian dainty accent spoken by the upper classes in the early 20th century, like former governor-general Vincent Massey. (The accent sounds like a twee old man--an ascot-wearing codger who really likes opera and lacy place-mats--straining to talk like a Brit.)

As it stands, the Canadian accent isn't dainty or broad or anything else. It's pleasingly neutral, at least to Americans, which explains why so many Canadian broadcast journalists and actors have sought, and secured, gainful employment in the U.S. (
That's why we sound like U.S. newscasters--lots of them are Canadian.)

"Canadian dainty"! I like that.


Another sort of writing altogether is this essay by Matt Taibbi, a political writer for, among other venues, the Rolling Stone. It's stunning, a volcano of fury meant to incinerate the Republican party in the U.S. and the people who buy what they're selling. A couple of snippets:

Palin's charge that "government is too big" and that Obama "wants to grow it" was similarly preposterous. Not only did her party just preside over the largest government expansion since LBJ, but Palin herself has been a typical Bush-era Republican, borrowing and spending beyond her means. Her great legacy as mayor of Wasilla was the construction of a $14.7 million hockey arena in a city with an annual budget of $20 million; Palin OK'd a bond issue for the project before the land had been secured, leading to a protracted legal mess that ultimately forced taxpayers to pay more than six times the original market price for property the city ended up having to seize from a private citizen using eminent domain. Better yet, Palin ended up paying for the fucking thing with a 25 percent increase in the city sales tax. But in her speech, of course, Palin presented herself as the enemy of tax increases, righteously bemoaning that "taxes are too high," and Obama "wants to raise them."


So, sure, Barack Obama might be every bit as much a slick piece of imageering as Sarah Palin. The difference is in what the image represents. The Obama image represents tolerance, intelligence, education, patience with the notion of compromise and negotiation, and a willingness to stare ugly facts right in the face, all qualities we're actually going to need in government if we're going to get out of this huge mess we're in.

Here's what Sarah Palin represents: being a fat fucking pig who pins "Country First" buttons on his man titties and chants "U-S-A! U-S-A!" at the top of his lungs while his kids live off credit cards and Saudis buy up all the mortgages in Kansas.

Well, he's angry. I'm not sure how you could not be at the current state of the U.S.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I've already written about "enervate" or some variation of it three times in the last week: first savaging a pretentious misuse, then taking Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to task for what appeared to be a similar error, and finally apologizing to Rowling (I was misinformed!) and poking around in the word's innards.

How about one more? The last time, I promise. Honest! It's quick, anyway, just a few short paragraphs.

It came to me as I was lying in bed last night--and I'm shocked that it didn't occur to me earlier--that one reason the verb "ennervate" does not exist in English is that we already have that verb, in a slightly different form: "innervate". It doesn't have the same meaning that Rowling applied to it: it actually means "to supply with nerves" or "to supply energy to through the nerves", as in "The human hand is heavily innervated".

"In-" and "en-" often serve the same purpose in English, and often both occur as prefixes to one word: both "enflame" and "inflame" are valid words, for instance, and while both have the same meaning, their usage has split somewhat over time; although you can be inflamed or enflamed with passion, you can say that a wound is inflamed but not enflamed, and so "enflammation" doesn't exist where "inflammation" does.

Similar stories can be told about numerous other such pairs of words. Sometimes the "in-" version eclipses the "en-" version, as in "inveigle" ("to entice"); "enveigle" is valid but not seen nearly as often. More usually, "en-" beats out "in-", as in "enfold", "entrap", "entrust", or "entwine"; the "in-" version of each word, though extant, is not much used. Most often, though, English simply settles on one form of the word and allows the other to atrophy and die: "envolve", for instance, is now quite gone from the language. If you want to revive it, though, be my guest.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


An anonymous reader wrote in reference to my raking J.K. Rowling over the coals:

It should be noted that the spell in the Harry Potter books is actually "Ennervate"- by chance does the geminated N create a non-sensical etymology, or something substantially more interesting?

Last things first: I had, believe it or not, never seen the word "geminated" before, or at least I can't recall having seen it. Without even really trying to figure out what it means (not like me, but hey, I just got up), I looked it up and saw that it meant "doubled". "Oh, of course," I said to myself. "Like the constellation Gemini, or French 'jumelle'," both of which mean "twins". And that's just what it is.

Thanks for the lovely word!

Now, on to the question. Since Rowling called her spell "Ennervate" and not "Enervate", then she's right and she knew what she was doing (and the Wiki link has the name wrong). "Enervate" wouldn't have done what she intended, but "Ennervate" certainly could.

There are hardly any words in English that begin with "enn-", and even if I didn't know what "geminate" meant, I'm delighted that I could call to mind the three most important without even trying: "ennoble", "ennead", and "ennui". (There are of course the tenses of "ennoble", plus the nine-sided "enneagon", some variant spellings of "ennui", and a few other extreme obscurities with which we need not concern ourselves.) Two of those words are borrowed directly from other languages: "ennead" means "a group of nine" and comes intact from Greek, and "ennui" is pure French and means "wearied boredom"; it's related to "annoy".

That leaves "ennoble", which is of course "noble" prefixed by "en-", much used in English to create verbs which general mean "to cause to be in a particular state". ("En-" turns to "em-" in front of labial consonants, making the class of "en-" words even bigger.)

"Enervate" doesn't begin with "en-" (this would have demanded Rowling's duple "-n-") but with "ex-", which generally means "out of" or "away from"; the "-x-" is always dropped before most consonants (all except c, f, p, q, s, and t). Doubling--geminating!--the consonant creates a word which is etymologically possible: "en-" plus "nerve", used in an existing sense which means either "brazenness" ("You've got some nerve!") or "strength, whether physical or emotional" ("He got up his nerve to ask her out"). The word "ennervate" happens never to occurred in English, or, more accurately, it never got used enough to stick around and make it into the vocabulary proper: it might have been coined in the past, but if so, it didn't get much use, for the obvious reason that it sounds exactly like its antonym.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


What is it about poorly educated religious dickwads and fabric?

(First image from Pharyngula: second from here via a web search.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In response to my considerable annoyance at the misuse of the word "enervate", an anonymous reader had this to say:

Not that I'm excusing the use of the word "enervate", but I can think of one very famous source that uses the word in precisely the way it is meant in the excerpt.

It's used as a spell in a Harry Potter book, to resuscitate someone who has been Stunned.

I read the first Harry Potter book and thought it was good enough to read the second, got through that and thought it was a lot like the first, started the third and decided it was pretty much just like the first and second, and threw in the towel. So, not a fan, then.

I'm going to defend J.K. Rowling a little, though, and note that the names of many of her magic spells have Latin, or Latin-ish, names: "Liberacorpus", for instance, or "Impervius", or "Incarcerous" (all drawn from this Wiki page). Therefore, I'm going to assume that the spell "Enervate" isn't meant to be pronounced in the English manner, but rather as a sort of Latin, which would give "enervate" four syllables rather than three (one per vowel), and therefore might not be expected to have exactly the same meaning as its English analogue.

It's not much of an excuse, though, because the etymology still doesn't work: the root of "enervate" is still "ex-" plus "nervus", literally "to take the sinews out of", which would obviously weaken someone, and "enervate" has never, ever meant anything except what it self-evidently does mean. I couldn't say what Rowling was thinking when she named that particular spell, but it's not as if it's the only mistake in the series.


Speaking of possible mistakes, here's a headline from a recent posting in the cruelly amusing gossip website Dlisted:

Dita Von Teese Would Like To Sell You A Brasserie

and here's the first sentence:

Dita Von Teese launched her new line of brasseries (I bet she totally calls them that) and other lingerie items for Wonderbra in London today.

I can't tell if the writer meant what he said or if it's a mistake, or what, which means that, for me, at least, the joke, if it was one, fell flat. (Did he actually mean to say "brassiere" and is saying that Von Teese calls them that because it's longer and more pretentious than "bra", or is he saying that she calls them "brasseries" because she's too dumb to know the difference between the two words?)

What Dita Von Teese (a modern-day burlesque dancer) is trying to sell is a line of Wonderbra brassieres. (Maybe I'm pretentious, but I usually call one, when I have to refer to one, a "brassiere", too; I think it sounds prettier than "bra".) "Brassiere" is from the French "bras", "arm", a word which is related to English "brachial", "of the arm", the name of an artery in the upper arm, and also to "brace". A brassiere was originally French "braciere" and was, as the name suggests, a sort of armour for the upper arms.

A brasserie, on the other hand, is a small tavern/restaurant; the name comes from Middle French "brasser", "to brew", which means the word is more or less analogous to "brewery".

Monday, September 22, 2008


There are three levels of published errors in advertising or other forms of public notice, and even if there aren't, I'm going to say there are, because I happen to have three illustrative examples, ranked in order of excusability.

First is the sort of error that you might as well just laugh at, because there's hardly any chance it's ever going to be avoided; that error crops up when English is being rendered by someone whose first language isn't English and who doesn't have reliable access to a proofreader. The cruelly hilarious website Engrish Funny is jam-packed with such things, and here's a representative example

which, it is clear, came about because someone with a smattering of English looked up the words in a dictionary and didn't understand that the words that preceded them (probably in italics in the original) denoted the parts of speech and weren't part of the words themselves.

The second level is the kind that occurs when something is written by native English speakers who might be pressed for time or money and don't have (or don't feel they have) the time or the staff to do a proper spellcheck and edit, as in this poster for a drag show:

"Ukele" is not "ukulele".

The third level of error is the unforgivable one; large blocks of elaborate copy are produced, by English speakers, and not spellchecked or proofread or vetted in any way, for no conceivable reason.

A new line of British niche scents named after the Celtic warrior Boadicea (the name was presumably selected because it begins with the name of the designer, Michael Boadi, and not because women want to smell like a Celtic warrior of the first century C.E.) has arrived in the usual rush of publicity, but that publicity doesn't appear to have a copy editor attached to it. Here's a snippet from their website

and here's another from the same brochure

and damned if they didn't spell the word "its" twice and get it wrong (in different ways) both times.

There are other errors, too; grammatical mistakes, punctuation errors, typos. The whole thing seems as it it got tossed off in a long night and immediately typeset; nobody seems to have to combed it for the purpose of correcting it.

It doesn't appear to be on the fragrance's website (nor anywhere else on the Web), but here's a description of one of the scents, courtesy of Now Smell This:

Explorer ~ "As bright and sharp as freshly squeezed juice - Explorer is an enervating citrus scent containing acidic aromas of Sicilian lemon ripened under the Mediterranean sun. Subtle notes of citron and cypress lend it a full bodied, succulent potency."

"Enervating"? Does whoever wrote this even know what the word means? Rhetorical question: they clearly don't, but think it means "invigorating" or something along those lines. "Enervating" actually means "sapping the strength of: weakening." In other words, the writer chose exactly the wrong word for the text, the word that means more or less precisely the opposite of what was intended.

Would someone over in the UK like to give Michael Boadi a slap with an editor's glove? Please?

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I should apologize for Friday's dashed-off, virtually content-free posting, but I'm off work for a few days with a wrecked back, so I'm really not in top form. Anyway, it turns out that the word "empyrean" came to me because I was updating my iPod and there's a song in there by a group called Empyre 1. Stupid name, hey?


I have only just discovered this Canadian cartoonist named Kate Beaton, and honestly, you have to go to her site. You can lose an hour there, easy. A lot of her cartoons are on historical themes, and many of them are hilarious, including a two-parter about Napoleon eating cookies (the sort of thing where you can't really say why it's so funny--you just know it is), and this charming bit about the settlement of Newfoundland by the Vikings at about 1000 C.E.

(You can click on that cartoon to view it at a bigger, more readable size, or you can just read it in its natural habitat, a little more than two thirds of the way down the page, or just search for the word "complex" and you'll be taken there. I totally cribbed it from Beaton's site, of course, and Kate, if you should happen to be reading this, just say the word and I'll remove it, but I wanted to post it because I think you're a genius.)

I hate to criticize (in this case, I really do), but "summat" as a replacement for "something" doesn't seem right to me.

I don't want to say for sure that "summat" isn't used in Newfoundland; it's part of some British dialects, derived from "somewhat", and it certainly could have made its way to Newfoundland. But I've never heard it there, and it isn't in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, either.

Newfoundlanders are much more likely to say "sump'n" for "something". I know I have.

Friday, September 19, 2008


I don't think I actually saw the word "empyrean" today, but something brought it to mind nonetheless. The first three quarters of it look kind of like "empire", no, in the same way that "vampyre" is sometimes used as an alternate spelling for "vampire"? And you could even convince yourself if you tried that "empyrean", which looks like an adjective (and can be) but is also a noun meaning "the firmament of the heavens", could be etymologically related to "empire", if you figure that the sky, or Heaven, is a sort of empire ruled over by a god or a bunch of gods.

Yeah, you could do that. But you'd be wrong.

What else does "empyrean" look like? Maybe the prefix "em-" plus "pyre", as in "funeral pyre", as in "fire"?

It makes perfect sense when you know that in Greek cosmology, the highest of the heavens was the realm of pure fire (it's where the sun and the stars are), and "pyros" is indeed the (or at least a) Greek word for fire.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I can't even get too annoyed about this typo that appeared in the movie listings of a local free newspaper called "Here", because it's good for a cheap laugh if nothing else:

Honestly, doesn't a sin-along sound like at least as much fun as a regular old sing-along?


Just to prove that I don't always read as closely as I'd like (or at least that I don't always remember as clearly as I'd like), I mentioned the other day some candy I'd bought in Newfoundland, and reported it as humbugs, when in fact it was bull's eyes (as it clearly says on the package), so the pepperminty nature of humbugs is not compromised (although it confuses the issue to point out that there are mint-flavoured bull's eyes in the UK). Someone doesn't like Purity Bull's Eyes, but that's okay; I'll have their share.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


If you were going to write a fake news story, wouldn't you try to write it so that it sounded like an actual news story?

Just look at this:

I could enumerate the errors, but it would take too long, so let's just flick over the really egregious ones:

1) The headline is not written in a style any native English writer would use; it would read "Actress Miley Cyrus dead in car crash" or something much like that.
2) "Rueters", which appears one line below the news organization's correctly-spelled logo.
3) "...appears to have died," a phrase which no news story would ever employ.
4) "Witnesses estimate that the colliding vehicle was travelling at 'At least 55mph' and had 'Run a stop sign.'" I don't even know where to begin with that.

Anybody who's had even the most cursory experience of reading a newspaper ought to see immediately that this couldn't be a legitimate story. It seems more than a few people fell for it, though, so I guess the point is proven that a fake doesn't need to be a very good one to do its job.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


As I mentioned, we went to Newfoundland last weekend, and while there, we went on a little shopping expedition to get some Purity products, which every Newfoundlander knows, because they were in every kitchen and probably still are. Among the things we bought was a half-pound tub of delicious Partridgeberry and Apple Jam. (Partridgeberries, better known to some as lingonberries, are exceedingly tart and are not generally eaten by themselves. I guess partridges like them as is, but we humans cook them into jam or something with a lot of sugar.)

We didn't bother with checked baggage, because we each had a knapsack and a small piece of luggage that could be stowed into the overhead compartment in a bigger plane, or put onto the skycheck cart on a smaller one. (There were smaller ones, too; the airplane that took us from Halifax to Moncton was a Beechcraft with twenty seats in it, ten on each side.) So I packed the foods into our various luggages and didn't give it a second thought.

You can see where this is heading, can't you?

On my way through security at the airport, I got an unusually thorough going-over by the staff (including the little makeup-remover pad on a stick that tests for traces of explosives), and the cause of it was the flat, broad plastic tub of jam in my knapsack. The woman behind the scanner was pleasant enough but unbending: I couldn't bring this onto the plane with me. If I had any way of getting it into the mail, or if there was someone on the other side of security who could take it, then it could still be transported to me; otherwise, she'd have to throw it away. I said there wasn't anybody, and would she like some jam? Understandably, she said she wasn't allowed to take it or anything like it, and after I voluntarily surrendered it, she tossed it into a waiting garbage can, and I was on my way.

Actually, I was on my way after I put a container of lip balm, Carmex it was, with a plastic jar and a metal screw lid, into the one-litre see-through plastic bag into which all liquids and gels, in containers of not more than three and a half ounces or one hundred millilitres, must be placed, because as everyone knows, this bag magically transforms dangerous fluids into harmless ones. Carmex out of the bag: incendiary. Carmex in the bag; lip balm. If I had troubled myself to go to a dollar store and buy three small plastic tubs, I could have portioned the jam into them and put it into the magical plastic bag and it would have sailed through the security checkpoint; but because it was all together in one container, it was automatically deemed hazardous.

This airport worker, and all her co-workers, know, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that what's in that tub is in no way dangerous; she may not know for sure that it's jam, but she proved she knows it's harmless. Why? Because she tossed it into a trash can, a trash can which was standing right next to her for the entire duration of her shift at the scanner. If she thought it was dangerous, she would rightly refuse to work beside it. If her supervisors thought it was dangerous, there would be a squad of highly trained people ready to take care of it, so as to pose no threat to the hundreds or thousands of people in the airport. If her union thought there was any possibility of danger, she wouldn't be allowed to work in proximity to such a hazard. Instead, she literally tossed it into a large container with the other putatively dangerous substances, any of which, if they truly were hazardous, could commingle in the can in unpredictable and possibly lethal ways. A half-pound of theoretical jam. A 360-mL bottle of putative contact lens solution. A 125-mL flaçon of alleged eau de cologne. Who knows what could happen?

Nothing, that's what, and everybody from the airport's janitors to the prime minister of the country knows it. These airport personnel--who are just doing their jobs, like airport personnel all over the civilized world--and their superiors who set up these policies know for a fact that the things they're taking from passengers are harmless, and they prove they know this by treating the things in a reckless and cavalier manner. And if they know this to be the case, why take them at all? Wouldn't the makeup-remover pad test tell them everything they need to know? As my friend Ralph said via e-mail,

the security screening is merely an appalling charade to scare the devil out of the public. It has little if any practical value as a security measure, other than perhaps as a police state effort to cow citizens into subservience and convince us that the "war on terror" is real.


So, no jam for us. But we did bring home some other things, including peanut butter kisses and some other kinds of kisses as well. (They're all gone, so don't bother asking. We still have some peppermint nobs and molasses-flavoured humbugs, but they'll soon be gone, too. According to Wikipedia, humbugs are peppermint, but in Newfoundland they're made of sugar and molasses and nothing else, and you can just imagine how tasty they are.) However, here's the back of the peanut-butter-kiss package:

and the only reason I show it to you is because it contains a typo. Every single candy bag that I looked at has exactly the same mistake: "Blackmarch Road". There's no such place. It's Blackmarsh Road. (We double-checked by actually driving past the Purity factory and wistfully imagining that they gave tours, which I think would be like Willy Wonka's factory only much, much better.)

Monday, September 15, 2008


As I've mentioned, I injured myself a while back, but I'm healing. One of the ways I know this is that I can feel a deep itch, not unpleasant but there, in my ankle. It's not a mosquito-bite itch, but just sort of a dull, insistent bristling, way under the skin and inside the joint. It's what it feels like to heal from a sprain, at least for me.

It could be worse. Have you read this New Yorker piece by Dr. Atul Gawande about uncontrollable itching, including the almost un-think-about-able story of a woman who had such a persistent scalp itch that she actually scratched through her skull into her brain?

Anyway, let's try to put that out of our heads. The medical term for "itch" is "pruritis", from the Latin "prurire", "to itch" (logically enough). Doesn't that remind you of another English word? Such as "prurient"? Sure it does. But "prurient" means "having or causing lustful or impure thoughts". What gives?

Nothing too strange. "To have an itch" idiomatically means "to have a desire for": the itch to travel, for instance. When you have a literal itch, you can't be comfortable, you twitch, you can think of nothing else. Same thing when you have that figurative itch. And when you can't help your lubricious thoughts, well, that's a kind of itch, too.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Here are a couple of sentences from this Salon piece about the newest season of Project Runway, an unguilty pleasure of mine:

Jerell jogs out first, giddy with excitement as he thanks his mother, sister, boyfriend and cousin. But nobody else seems all that giddy as his models strut down the runway festooned with the gawdiest dresses this side of Dollywood.

We've established that nobody who writes for Salon owns a computer with a spellchecker, which is kind of sad, since they've been standard issue since the mid-1980s. We've also established, I think, that there is no editorial oversight. This leaves only the question of why I'm still reading Salon. Maybe it's for the grim satisfaction of finding avoidable errors and then grousing about them in public. Yes, that must be it.

"Gawdiest" is the superlative form of the theoretical adjective "gawdy", which is not in my computer's spellchecker, is not in any reputable dictionary, and is not correct at all. Of course it exists in the distant history of English, when, before spellings became codified, people spelled words as they pronounced them; but "gawdy" is not etymologically supported and not used at all today, except by people who are wrong.

The correct spelling is "gaudy", from Latin "gaudere", "to rejoice". It had an older meaning, "luxurious", which was usually used to refer to feasts, and in fact "gaudy" is also an old noun meaning "a celebratory feast". Luxury, of course, can easily become ostentation, and that's the modern connotation of the word; "gaudy" now means "flashy, vulgar, show-offy, tasteless, and garish".

How can writers not perform the simplest, most basic error-correcting function in their writing by running a spellchecker? They don't even have to do anything! They can have their software perform the function automatically as they type with little red underlines! I just don't understand it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Jim and I were in Newfoundland on a pleasure trip for a few days, which is my excuse for not having posted. I suppose I could have: Jim has a little tiny computer, an Asus EEE (or possibly Eee, or eee)

and I could have written using that. But I didn't. It's hard to get a sense of proportion from this picture, but it's very small, not much larger than a trade paperback, and the keyboard is really teeny, and it would take some getting used to. Plus, not a Mac.


Growing up on an island shapes you. The world seems very small, encompassed by shores, and very big and unreachable. It seems to be both of these things at the same time.

When my father took us four children to Disney World in Florida in 1974, he bought a car down there (with the idea of reselling it back in Canada) and drove us all back home. Being driven from state to state, and finally into Canada itself, I was perpetually astounded to discover that you can simply go to other places with scarcely any trouble at all. (My grandmother, his mother, left the province only a few times in her entire life, as far as I know; she never got on a plane until she was in her sixties.) Even today, there's a small rockbound childhood part of me that can hardly believe such a thing is possible. When I get on a plane to Newfoundland, or take the train from Bath to Cardiff, or drive from Saint John to Calais, Maine, there's an eight-year-old that's saying, "No way!"


This is a picture of Cape Spear, the easternmost point of Newfoundland, and therefore of Canada. There is, as Wikipedia tells us, "currently a dispute as to whether Cape Spear is the most easterly point in North America." Fine. Whatever. It may not be the easternmost point of the continent, but on Saturday, as I was sitting on these very rocks, embedded in a profound quiet save for the surf growling and smacking the rocks below, the sun warming but not harsh, the green life clinging stubbornly to every surface that would have it, the horizon a distant haze, so broad you fancied you could see the planet's curvature, I knew beyond any doubt that I was sitting on the most beautiful place on the face of the Earth.


St. John's is very hilly. Very hilly. Here's a shot from Duckworth Street down to Water Street, next to the Courthouse. The stairs are a concession to people in judicial robes, I suppose; most of the time, it's just steep streets you're expected to traverse, somehow.

We had a car, but still I walked up and down and all around the town, and as a consequence, my injured knee and ankle, fairly close to being healed, I think, have suffered a bit of a relapse. I think they will heal, but not quite yet. Just so you know.


Among our perambulations was a walk around Quidi Vidi Lake. One of the various signboards around the lake speculates as to the origins of the name: there are some twenty possibilities, most of which seemed to me at the time--I didn't write them down, and I didn't get Jim to take a picture of the sign--improbable in the extreme, mostly a sort of folk etymology. The name looks pretty Latinate, but philologist E.R. Seary was of the opinion that it came from a French name, Quédville or Quetteville, and I guess he would know.

Quidi Vidi is usually pronounced "kiddie viddie" (my pronunciation) or "kitty vitty", sometimes "quiddy viddy", but I knew people who pronounced it, for real, "KWY-duh VY-duh". I honestly don't know how that schwa could have come from the terminal "-i" in each word, because in English, when you end a word with that sound, it's going to be long, but there you have it.

Here's a sign around Quidi Vidi that I did get Jim to take a picture of.

And here's a closer view.

And you can easily see why I got him to photograph it. The word "internment" is darkened, and what obviously happened is that the sign was typeset incorrectly; someone after my own heart applied a correction to it; and that correction eventually weathered and peeled away, not only exposing the original error but highlighting it. There's a lesson in this.

"Intern" as a verb means "to confine or restrict", and it is related to "internal", "within", from Latin "internus". "Inter", on the other hand, means "to bury", and it is formed from Latin "in-" plus "terra", "earth". The two words, despite their surface similarity, are unrelated.

Friday, September 05, 2008


The Onion has been very uneven for some time now, but you have to love this: a terrific meta-story about John McCain, or more accurately about itself reporting on John McCain. Beautifully written.


Regarding a sentence quoted in yesterday's posting, reader D.J. had this to say:

Jeez, I hung up as soon as I hit "vicarious pleasure," figuring you'd take them to task for suggesting that there's another kind of pleasure on tap at the movies. (Excluding drive-ins and places like the Arclight where you can get a beer, of course.)

I don't have a problem with "vicarious" in this context, believe it or not. A vicarious experience is a sort of substitute or second-hand one, and while it's true that that's nearly the only kind of pleasure to be had at the movies nowadays, since the actual movie-going experience is more often a trial than an enjoyment, the usage is not quite a tautology. Or, I should say, if it is one, it's a minor one, since "vicarious" is often used in just such a way to underline the synthetic quality of the experience. All of the representational arts, after all, provide us with vicarious experiences, since they're depicting ideas or events through the eyes of the artist; I don't think it's wrong or tautological to say that Picasso's "Guernica" provides us with a vicarious experience of the horrors of war.

However, the word "vicarious" suddenly struck me as being very interesting, because upon inspection it forcibly calls to mind the word "vicar", as if such a gentleman could only experience pleasures at one remove rather than personally. And it comes as a little bit of a surprise that "vicar" and "vicarious" are, in fact, of the same origin.

Both words come from Latin "vicarius", "a substitute". This in turn is related to "vice"; not the evil kind, and not the mistaken-for-vise kind, either, but the third, as in the phrase "vice versa", which in this case means "instead of".

A vicar is so called because he acts in place of a priest. A vicarious experience is one that somebody else has in your stead. Just like that.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fourth and Down

Reader Frank had this to say about my recent blatherings about poetic meter:

I'm always slightly ashamed to admit this, but I've NEVER really gotten scansion. I just seem to have this block, despite having had it taught and explained several times. I'm a baaaaaaaad English major.

Scansion is awful, isn't it? It's like trying to figure out words from a string of Morse-code symbols, or to determine where the word breaks are in a spoken language you don't know very well. The nice thing about free verse is that it doesn't have to scan.

I'm done with poetic meter, anyway. Four-count feet, or tetrasyllables, are really boring, and they have awful names like "tertius paeon" and "second epitrite". The interested reader can learn more here and here. Ah, Wikipedia.


Here's a sentence from The (London) Times Online's review of Guy Ritchie's rather stupid-sounding new film:

The film hurtles propulsively on and if there is any vicarious pleasure to be had it's in the high-octane battery of car charses, punch-ups and bungled heists.

So what's a "charse"? It is a chase...with your arse? A sort of portmanteau word? No, it's just a garden-variety typo, par for the course in the world of get-it-out-there-and-damn-the-consequences online journalism. (It wasn't even spellchecked.) Would it have made it into the print version of the paper? Of course not. The paper would have made sure that the piece had undergone some sort of editorial scrutiny, or at least it would have done so back in the good old days, not so long ago, when it was understood that errors of style are as bad as errors of fact.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Now then. The trisyllabic metrical feet. As another moment's consideration will show, there must be eight: all short; two short plus one long in the first, second, or third position; two long plus one short in the first, second, or third position; and all long. They are, in order, the tribrach ("three short", like yesterday's dibrach), dactyl, amphibrach, anapest, bacchius, cretic, antibacchius, and molossus. This time I'm not etymologizing them all. Have at it, if you like.

Since most three-syllable words in English have one stressed and two unstressed syllables, and because the stressed syllable tends to fall at the beginning or the end (though there are plenty of exceptions, such as the amphibrachic "containment"), it stands to reason that the dactyl and the anapest are by some margin the most important trisyllabic metrical feet.

The anapest is what gives the limerick its characteristic canter:

There was an old woman from Sparta...

I just made that one up, and I'm not finishing it, because I have a suspicion the word "farter" would show up sooner or later.

"Dactyl", amusingly for a kind of foot, means "finger" in Greek; the dactyl is long-short-short, and the index finger, counting upwards from the knuckle, as one long and two short bones. A poem composed entirely of dactyls would have a waltz rhythm: One-two-three one-two-three one-two-three....

Just as the limerick is based on the anapest, there is a kind of light verse given over altogether to the dactyl, and it is called, rather unimaginatively, I'm afraid, the double dactyl. It's difficult to write, and appallingly difficult to write well, because it has a severely restrictive format: two verses, each consisting of three lines of two dactyls each followed by a line of a dactyl and a single stressed beat; the first line must be a pair of nonsense words, the second a person's name in double-dactyl meter (though this is open to a little flexibility), and one other line must consist of a single word also in double-dactyl meter. On top of all this, it must be amusing and, if possible, end with a bang. Here's what I consider the perfect example, the best ever written (by Joan Munkacsi):

Oedipus Tyrannos
murdered his father, used
mama for sex.
This mad debauch, not so
left poor Jocasta and
Oedipus Wrecks.

Lots more here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Yesterday I threw around some words regarding metrical feet, and I thought maybe you'd want to know a little more about them. Obviously, if you have a degree in English literature (which I almost did), then you're going to have learned all this stuff already, and you can move along. But really, it's very interesting.

In English, vowel length more or less corresponds to stresses in multisyllabic words: a short vowel is probably going to fall in an unstressed syllable, a long vowel in a stressed syllable. This isn't absolutely true: there are lots of words with no long vowels, and so we just impose a stress pattern on them, sometimes multiple patterns on the same word, such as "desert", which can be "duh-ZERT" or "DEH-zurt", depending on whether it's a verb or a noun. Either way, two short vowels.

There are some words that have all syllables equally stressed: "mother", for instance, is generally pronounced (in my part of the world, anyway) as two unstressed, short-vowel syllables. There are also some words that reverse the usual order of things: words ending in a long "-e" sound, such as "money", "fantasy", "reverie", or "charcuterie", for instance, are generally stressed one or two syllables before the last, with that long terminal vowel being unstressed. I can think of only one word in the language ("grandee") that has its stress on the terminal long "-e", though I didn't do an exhaustive search and there may be others. This is English we're talking about, after all, and there are very few hard and fast rules.

But most usually, a word is going to be patterned so that the stresses occur in the long syllables: "deliberation", for instance, has four unstressed syllables and one stressed, and that stressed syllable is the fourth, which consists entirely of a long "-a-".

All clear? Okay. A moment's thought will demonstrate that there are four possible disyllablic or two-syllable metrical feet: short-short, short-long, long-short, and long-long. These are, in order, the dibrach, the iamb, the trochee, and the spondee. Another moment's thought will suggest that, since English loves to overlay stress patterns on its words, the iamb and the trochee are by far the most common two-syllable patterns, because there is generally some sort of stress in all words of more than one syllable. "Mother" would be a dibrach, unless you hammer on the first syllable in teenaged exasperation: "MUH-ther!" I can't think of a naturally occurring spondee in English, but the final thing you need to know about metrical feet is that they don't necessarily correspond to word divisions: it's possible to have one foot overlapping two words, or one long word consisting of two metrical feet (or one foot and part of another), as in "metaphysical", which consists of a trochee and a dactyl.

More on this tomorrow, if I feel like it, when I might talk about, heaven help us, the trisyllables. In the meantime, the etymologies of the disyllables, because that's the sort of thing I do.

"Dibrach" is pretty obviously from "di-", "two", and "-brach", which is...well, what is it? Here's a hint: the brachial artery is the one that feeds the upper arm. Clearer? No? Well, "brachus", Greek for "upper arm", also meant "short", because the upper arm-bone (the humerus) is shorter than the lower ones (the radius and ulna). So "-brach" means "short", and a dibrach is a two-short-vowel metrical foot.

"Iamb" is just "iamb". It doesn't mean anything except what it means. (It's short for "iambus".) It might be--probably is--related to Latin "jacere", "to throw", because this metrical foot was much used in satirical poetry, which threw its little barbed words at its targets.

"Trochee" is from Greek "trechein", "to run", because of the similarity to a loping gait: HARD-soft HARD-soft.

"Spondee" comes from Greek "sponde", "libation", because of its use in drinking songs.

"Trochee" is the only metrical foot, alas, that names its own stress pattern; all four of the disyllabic foot names, in fact, are trochees.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Pure Poetry

I have had this limerick running through my head for a couple of days now.

I don't have to tell you what a limerick is, right? Light verse form, five lines long, rhyme scheme AABBA, three anapests (or an iamb and two anapests, or three amphibrachs) in the A lines, two anapests (or an iamb and an anapest) in the B, known to every child through Edward Lear's "Book of Nonsense"? (Lear didn't invent the style, though many people thought he did, and his own take on it, which did not get much use in later years, generally led him to repeat the last word of the first line as the last word of the fifth rather than finding a third rhyming word.)

Here's an illustration, the famous "There once was a man from Nantucket". No, not that one. The original. The nice one.

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

G.K. Chesterton, in his essay "On Bad Poetry", wrote of the Brontë sisters' minister father whom it pleased to write limericks in which the last word did not rhyme, as in Chesterton's example:

Religion makes beauty enchanting;
And even where beauty is wanting
The temper and mind
Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre.

"If you can read much of it," Chesterton notes, "you will reach a state of mind in which, even though you know the jolt is coming, you can hardly forbear to scream."

W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, wrote a terrific parody of Lear:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
When they asked, "Does it hurt?"
He replied, "No, it doesn't,
But I thought all the while 't was a Hornet.

But the one that's been running through my head is what's sometimes billed as "the dirtiest limerick in the world, with the worst words censored", but which I consider the very apogee of the form, the purest possible distillation of modern limerickism:

Dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah
Dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah;
Dah dah dah dah dah,
Dah dah dah dah dah dah,
Dah dah dah dah dah dah dah fuck.

If you can hear that without giving in to an explosive burst of laughter, well, you're stronger than I.