or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


If you drink enough lovely Diet Coke, you can enter a code printed on the underside of the bottle cap (on their website, www.icoke.ca) to get points which you can then redeem for merchandise. They used to have some good stuff--you could get a Nintendo DS portable video-game system for 200,000 points, which would cost you between 200 and 400 bottles of Diet Brown--but that's mostly all run out as the promotion winds down, so all that's left of any value is...coupons for more bottles of Diet Brown (5000 points per),

Occasionally you can enter these little contests for a nominal number of points, but since it's illegal in Canada to charge you to enter a contest, they have to let you enter it by doing something non-purchasey instead, so you can answer some questions: twenty, in a recent contest, and here are some of them:

(You will probably need to click on that to make it bigger and more readable, unless you have a monitor with more real estate than I do.)

There's nothing wrong with this: I just thought it was hilarious, a little blurt of randomly-generated Dadaism.

Something wrong here, though.

Pharyngula has a link to a video game called Heaven: The Game. It seems pretty dreadful, with a very bad website and what PZ Myers describes as looking

a lot like an even more opulent version of the Vatican, populated with flexible, dewy porn stars.

And typos. Just look at this:

They're all over the site, too. If God exists, he must not care a fig for correct spelling and punctuation.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Both "team" and "teem", as I mentioned yesterday, emerged, eventually, from Indo-European "deuk-", which means "to lead". In English, this verb has several related meanings, and so naturally there are a number of different threads of meaning from this root as well.

You may well wonder how "teem" came from "deuk-", since they don't have any phonemes in common. It ran something like this: the combining form "deuk-mo-" became in Germanic "tauhmjan", with the "d-" becoming "t-", as in "dental" and "tooth", the "-k-" becoming "-h-", as in "cornucopia" and "horn", and the vowels kind of sliding around, as vowels will do over time. "Tauhmjan" became Old English "tieman" (more slippery vowels), and from there it's a short bus ride to "teem" once the Germanic verbal ending has vanished.

"Deuk-" gave Latin "ducere", "to lead", which bred a large, or largeish, family of English words. Human leadership is expressed in such words as "duke" and "duchess", the related "ducal", "ducat', and "duchy", and the foreign imports "doge" and "duce". Physical transmission of a substance, led by way of some conduit, shows up in "aqueduct", "conduct", "transducer", and of course "conduit" itself. "Educate" comes from this root prefixed by "ex-", "out"; to educate is to literally lead out of ignorance.

Various other words expressing direction of movement also emerged from "deuk-"; "tug" and "tow", the more abstract "taut" ("dragged tight") and "tie", and such "-duct" and "-duce" words as "deduce", "produce", "seduce" ("lead away from rightness"), "introduction", and "ductwork".

Finally, and most amusingly, "wanton" is compounded from Old English "wan-", "not", and "-ton", "brought up, reared, disciplined"; the headstrong and usually promiscuous wanton is someone who was brought up badly, or not at all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


As I can't seem to keep from mentioning, I got an iPod Touch, and when I said there were more than a thousand applications for it, I was severely underestimating the popularity of the platform, because there are over a thousand games for it, and something like six thousand applications in all. Makes me very glad I got the 32-gigabyte version: storage space for the foreseeable future!

I downloaded a demo of a stripped-down version of Spore, and look what I found on the game's website (and also inside the game itself):

Maybe it isn't common knowledge that there are two words in English, "teem" and "team", and that they don't have the same meaning. I don't know. But it doesn't seem to me that "teem" is a particularly rare or difficult word, and you'd think, wouldn't you, that a professional operation like EA could get it right?

The words are actually related, as you might guess from their meanings (to teem is to abound with; a team is a group of people or animals). But they parted company a very long time ago, and they haven't been playing the same game ever since.

"Teem" originally meant "to produce offspring", and it's the (slightly) younger member of the family. "Team" meant, among other things, "offspring" and "child-bearing", and it originates from Indo-European "deuk-", which is tremendously interesting but which I am going to have to leave until tomorrow, because I have some errands to run before I go off to work.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chew On This

Sometimes the source of a word is right there in front of your eyes, and you just can't see it; then when you find out the answer, you don't really have any choice but to whack yourself on the forehead with the heel of your hand.

The word "corrosion" popped into my head, although I can't think why--I think it was on the bus to the airport in Toronto the other day--and while I was very sure that the first part was a variation of the usual intensifying prefix "com-" ("thoroughly; completely"), I couldn't make any sense of what was pretty obviously the root of the word, "-rode". Other than its being Latin, I couldn't get any further. As it turns out, it's so obvious that I'm a little ashamed I didn't think of it. Care to have a go at it?

Well, as it turns out, the root comes from the verb "rodere", which means "to gnaw". And what gnaws and has a name that looks like "rodere"? A rodent. Obviously.

"Rodere" comes from the Indo-European root "red-", which led to a little batch of other words in English which all carry the sense of gnawing, scratching, or scraping. "Razor" is one of them, and also the intimately related "erase" (originally to scrape from the surface of a parchment) and "raze" (to scrape down level with the earth). The cheese dish called raclette is melted on a sort of flat pan and scraped onto bread. A rostrum is a speaker's platform or ship's prow: it projects out from a surface like the beak of a bird, which is what "rostrum" originally meant in Latin, and a beak is used for gnawing and biting.

"Rake", surprisingly, is not one of the offspring of "red-": it comes instead from Latin "recti-", "straight", because it was originally made of little straight pieces of wood.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I have a couple of rants. I might sneak in something on topic, but mostly it's just the ranting. Proceed accordingly.


We just got back from Ontario, where we went to see Margaret Cho perform in Hamilton, spent a day in Niagara Falls, and then visited with friends in Toronto. (Niagara Falls, despite the horrible commercialism and Oscar Wilde's famous description of it as "the second biggest disappointment of a honeymoon," was stunning, and Toronto's always worth a visit, but after having been to Hamilton, I'm not sure why anyone would go there. They could advertise themselves with the line "Hamilton: Half Way Between Niagara Falls and Toronto!")

This new piece from The Atlantic Monthly (I hate their cover redesign, but the magazine is still worth reading) is called "The Things He Carried", and it's about what a complete joke airport security is. I've already snarled about this, so I don't have much more to say on the subject; just read the piece.

The flight was gross, even ignoring the security theatre. (I didn't have to explain or display anything, even though I had a bunch of liquids--fragrance samples and miniatures--that weren't in the approved one-litre zippered plastic bag but scattered throughout my carry-on, plus some extremely sharp knitting needles that I had bought, one-and-a-quarter-millimetre lace needles that could almost certainly be fashioned into a weapon if one had the inclination, which I do not, and the ingenuity, which I do.) Diagonally behind us were two women who spent the entire flight nattering away at one another at very nearly the top of their voices: even the racket of the airplane, my iPod turned up as loud as I dared without damaging my hearing, and my noise-cancellation headphones weren't enough to drown them out. I don't believe either of them stopped to draw breath except when the other was talking.

The seats seemed even narrower than usual, like some sort of psychological experiment designed to see just how tightly people can be crammed in before they go insane. I tried to knit, which at least you're allowed to do once more--smart move on the airlines' part, judging from the understandable sentiment on this tote bag--but it was impossible to do with my arms pinned by my sides, so I gave up and read a dreadful gossip magazine, with the result that the glove I was working on isn't anywhere near finished, but I know all about some missing kid named Caylee Anthony.

The overhead panel above the seats ahead of us had a damaged clip or whatever it is that keeps it in place, so it had been taped in place with silver electrical tape: this failed a few times during the two-hour flight, allowing the panel to crash down and expose its electrical innards, which did not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the overall state of the plane (were the wheels likewise taped on?), but we did arrive in one piece.


The Toronto Sun has always been a rag, but nowadays most newspapers are rags so there's not much to distinguish them one from another. Here's a few sentences from a columnist, Joe Warmington, writing hysterically about Fidel Castro in yesterday's Sun:

There are some who believe [Fidel] is dead and frozen while brother, Raul, tried to find the right time to announce it. But not many.

It's Fidel's writings, or perhaps rantings, in the Communist Party's Granma newspaper and on Cuban web sites that has helped quell those rumours.

One column this week shocking said it is a "pure miracle" U.S. presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama has not yet been assassinated. It said "millions of whites cannot reconcile in their minds with the idea that a black man with his wife and children would move into the White House, which is called just like that--white".

I don't know of another columnist who could, or would, write that. Cubans recognize the style.

I'll just ignore the fact that Warmington doesn't know how to punctuate an appositive (it's "his brother, Raul", but "brother Raul", never "brother, Raul"), and also the fact that he has problems with subject-verb agreement ("writings, or perhaps rantings...has helped"). But he thinks that no other columnist could have written that? Can it really be the case that he's never considered the fact that there are millions of Americans who cannot countenance the idea of a black president, and that some of those people are going to try to kill Obama if he should be elected? I guess he missed this news story, in which some twisted old fucker named Wade Williams in Louisiana was arrested for threatening to empty his shotgun into the offices of the voting registrar unless he got his voters' registration card pronto. His hurry? He needed to make sure he could vote so that he could, and I quote, "keep the nigger out of office".

I'm not much of a prognosticator, but I think it's pretty likely that in two weeks, Obama is going to be elected president, particularly if enough people read things like this Rolling Stone piece about what a toxic, mendacious person John McCain is. (As Margaret Cho said on Friday night, "They keep telling us that McCain was a good soldier. He got himself captured. So, not a very good soldier.") I don't know anybody who doesn't think that President Obama had better have a damned good security detail, because the fact is that someone, somewhere in the U.S. is going to try to kill him. Possibly Mr. Williams.

Monday, October 20, 2008


So, yeah. I bought an iPod Touch. I read one review that said, more or less, "It's not a personal digital assistant, obviously," but the thing is that it is a PDA. It may be a music player on the surface, but it's got an operating system, a web browser (with wireless connectivity), a calendar, an address book, and a notepad, plus the ability to run outside applications, of which there are currently over a thousand available with more appearing every day. (It's even got a built-in application called Maps which triangulates your position based on where you're getting your wireless signal from, draws a Google Map around that point, and then allows you to set other points and draw the shortest route between them.) The Touch is a PDA, all right, basically the newest generation of the PalmPilot (which I owned one of, because I do love my technology), and I'm madly in love with it.


You wouldn't want to use the Touch's keyboard to write an entire blog posting, or at least not a long one, but I did use the notepad to take down some notes about things that it occurred to me to look up, and one of them was the word "mushroom". (I don't know what brought it to mind.) I mean, the word doesn't make any sense on the face of it, because it's not mushy, and it doesn't apparently have anything to do with rooms.

It appears instead that the word is a variant of Old French "mousseron", which is derived from Latin "musario", with the added fillip that the "mousse-" part of the word is influenced by French "mousse", which means "moss", and the word (again apparently) originally referred to mushrooms which grew on moss. "Mousseron" in Old French made its way into English as "moscheron", then "musherum" (and probably dozens of other spellings as well), and eventually into the word we know.

The appearance of the word "mousse" in a word which doesn't seem to contain it calls to mind the non-appearance of the word in one which does: "pamplemousse", which is French for "grapefruit".

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I am writing and uploading this posting on an iPod Touch, which is why it's so short. Yeah, I bought one. I don't know what I was thinking. But it's so amazing. Some guy, I think it was Arthur C. Clarke, said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well, this is the most sophisticated little computer I've ever used. It's magic, all right.

An actual post tomorrow, promise.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


There are a couple of recent articles in Slate that you'll enjoy.

First, a piece on some new books about the English language; it makes me want to go out and buy them (or at least order them from Amazon).

Second, an amusing piece on the word "fail" and its encroachment into the vocabulary as a noun meaning "failure", often used in a very idiosyncratic way, as in "You are full of fail!" or "Epic fail!" when someone has done something particularly stupid or egregious. (The opposite of "fail" in this context is not "success" but "win".)

However, the piece ends with the prediction that "fail" is going to hang around for a while because it's useful and already exists in everyone's vocabulary. The final sentence of the piece:

In other words, "fail" will win.

Now, really. Has the author not been paying attention? I'd have written "Fail has a win", or "Fail FTW!" (which means "for the win"), or "Fail is full of win"--something, anything, in the hyper-modern, text-messagey style in which "fail" is currently used.

Here are a couple of bits from Failblog, both relevant to my usual line of attack, that I was trying to figure out how to incorporate into a posting; this is as good a time as any.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Do Over

Remember what I was saying yesterday about shoving words together and thereby changing their meanings? Well, have a look at this:

I was in the supermarket yesterday and I picked up this product, Lysol Dual Action Cubes (because I like to throw something in the toilet tank that does at least some of the cleaning work for me), and then I read the back of the package, and naturally, being me, the first thing I saw was the typo, and so as a result, even though I didn't need this product at this very moment, I bought it. If it's a marketing strategy, it's a very obscure one, but it worked.

"Over time" is an adverbial phrase that means "across the course of an indeterminate amount of time". "Overtime", on the other hand, is a noun that means "work beyond one's usual or scheduled duration". "Protective wrap dissolves overtime" means, well, nothing, actually.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

No Way

Oh, look--it's the apocalypse, heralded in the form of individually wrapped slices of some peanut-butter-like substance.

They're not even new: the Onion AV Club's Tolerability Index mentioned them this week, but apparently they've been around for a couple of years. I guess the apocalypse is taking longer than I thought.

Part of the home page for the product looks like this:

I have a strong suspicion that some advertising type wanted to use as a tagline the idiomatic "Fun any way you slice it!" and some dunderhead at the company rewrote it to read "Fun any way you eat it!", which is stupid. But that's not what I'm complaining about. It's this, which appears on every page except the home page:

That thing I said Tuesday about how when you hyphenate words together it has a way of changing their function? Also true when you bypass the hyphen and jam two words into one. You see this sort of thing all the time with the phrase "every day" versus the adjective "everyday", with people using the latter when they ought to be writing the former.

Dictionary.com has this to say about "anyway":

The adverb anyway is spelled as one word: It was snowing hard, but we drove to the play anyway. The two-word phrase any way means “in any manner”: Finish the job any way you choose. If the words “in the” can be substituted for “any,” the two-word phrase is called for: Finish the job in the way you choose. If the substitution cannot be made, the spelling is "anyway".

Pretty good rule.

(I would like to point out that what's true in English isn't true of all languages. English has many compound nouns (and other multi-word units), and many of them turn into other parts of speech, generally adjectives and adverbs, when they're shoved together, by whatever means, to make a single word. But German and Finnish, to name just two that I know of for sure, don't follow this rule, and their compound nouns are single words, however long they be. In English, for example, "chocolate cake" is a compound noun, and hyphenating it makes it an adjective: "I couldn't get enough of that chocolate-cake yumminess." In German, the compound is mashed into a single noun: "schocoladenkuche". I would also like to point out that the mere fact of compounding words into one doesn't necessarily change their part of speech in English: "lighthouse", for example, or "suntan". Finally, I would like to point out that the second I wrote the word "lighthouse", the song "One Fine Morning" by the '70s Canadian band Lighthouse began playing in my head, and, though you can't tell, it's half an hour later--I just cut my hair and then had a shower to wash off all those tiny hair bits-- and that song is still banging around in there.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I got up around 2:45 to have a slash (as the Brits say) or void my bladder (as the prim say), which is more or less invariable with me, since I can count on one hand the number of times I've slept through the night in living memory, and after I'd gotten back into bed I thought how nice it was to be horizontal, which of course made me think about the word "horizontal", obviously descended from "horizon", which is probably Latin through Greek, and its opposite, "vertical", which is just as obviously derived from "vertex" and which must be Latin, and by that time I was wide awake, so I decided to get up and do the research (and also check on the word "diagonal", which was I was guessing was Greek), after which, I hoped, I'd be able to get some sleep.

"Horizon" comes from Greek "horizein", "to limit or bound", and thence to the noun "horizon", "a circle which bounds"; though we think of the horizon as a line, it can also be seen as a circle which encompasses all we can see. We say "horizontal" rather than the plausible "horizonal" because "horizont-" is the Latin combining form.

"Vertical" is straight from Latin "verticalis", which does in fact come from "vertex", "the crown of the head" (which it still means in anatomy), from the verb "vertere", "to turn", also seen in such words as "vertigo" (the world whirling around you), "vertebra" (the spine as the central axis of the body), and "versus" ("turned against").

"Diagonal" (which irresistibly calls to mind J.K. Rowling's clever Diagon Alley), describes the edge of a right triangle which is neither horizontal nor vertical, and is composed of "dia-", "across", plus "-gon", "angle", therefore literally "from angle to angle".

And now can I get back to bed? Not likely.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Well, I'm sure all the Apple fanboys were just moist with anticipation about today's new MacBooks. There was rumoured to be a sub-$800 laptop from the company, which turned out to be false: the lowest-priced model now in the line is $999 US, $1149 Cdn, which is still pretty good, though I won't be buying one.

Here's a clipping from the front page of Apple's website today

and the thing I want to know is, "State-of-the-art what?"

When "state of the art" is a noun phrase, which is clearly is in "The new state of the art", there are no hyphens. When it's hyphenated into a single unit, it magically becomes an adjective, as in "a state-of-the-art computer", and like most adjectives in English is therefore followed by the noun it modifies.

Hear that, Apple? It needs a noun after it. Either supply one, or get rid of those hyphens.

Monday, October 13, 2008


As it is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, Jim and I decided to do up a proper big breakfast after going to the gym, and so we cooked up our version of the Full English Breakfast, which we first experienced during a trip to the UK last year and in our case today consisted of bacon, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes, toast, and baked beans.

Now, Jim and I will speak to one another in German or French every now and then (sentences and exchanges, not whole discussions), not because we are pretentious but because we've both studied those languages intermittently and because we like to keep our conversation interesting. (After twenty-one years, we still haven't run out of things to talk about.) Since there were beans on the menu, I said something in French about them, and then it hit me suddenly and hard that the French word for "navy beans", "fèves", is so similar to the first word of the phrase "fava beans" that "fève" and "fava" must be etymologically related (with "fava" almost certainly being Italian), and therefore, that "fava bean" is a tautology. I can't believe I never noticed all this before, but there it is.

The Latin word for "bean" is "faba", which self-evidently gave birth to both the French and the Italian words. (Spanish for beans, or at least certain kinds including kidney beans, is "frijoles", which you would not expect to be related, and isn't; it's eventually from Latin "phaseolus", which in turn is from Greek "phaselos", "cow-pea".

You may also know that French has another word for beans; "haricots", which generally means green beans and the like. "Haricot" in Louisiana French gave birth to the music form called zydeco, because the phrase "les haricots"--which derives from a song title--is pronounced, approximately, "lay-zah-dee-coh", with the "-d-" representing a rolled "r".

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good Intentions

As a (very) general rule, short words can have multiple meanings, sometimes a little galaxy of them quite unrelated to one another, while longer words tend to have one very specific and immutable meaning. This suggests that if you want to be clearly understood and you like to use long words, you must be very sure that you know what these words mean, because there isn't any room for slippage. If you call someone "thin", you could be praising or criticizing them, because the word can be construed either way ("anorexically skinny" or "admirably slender"), and so you have the option of saying, if need be, that your words were misconstrued; but if you call them "skeletal" or "cadaverous", you can only be criticizing.

Here are a couple of sentences from a recent letter to advice columnist Cary Tennis in Salon:

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

I am not absolutely sure of what the writer is trying to say when she says "dissimilation".

Oh, it's a word. It's just not the word that was intended, and worse, I don't think the word that was intended is the right word, either.

It seems to me that the writer means her therapist is not coming out and saying something but instead trying to guide her to an understanding of the situation. The trouble is that "dissimilation" doesn't mean anything like this. To dissimilate is to cause to become different (the verb form of "dissimilar"); it's a term in linguistics (in which the sound of a word changes from its source over time) or biology (in which a complex compound becomes simpler through metabolic breakdown), but is rarely heard outside these contexts.

I expect the writer was aiming for "dissimulation". But that doesn't quite mean what the writer intended. To dissimulate is to feign; to disguise one's true feelings behind a mask. It carries a strong overtone of hypocrisy and untruthfulness, which I don't think is fair to the therapist, who I expect was only trying to help her client.

I'm not sure there is a single word for what the writer was trying to convey. "Indirection" came to mind, but it also has an overtone of evasiveness or shadiness. I think I might have just said something like "roundabout manner" or "lack of directness".

Let this be a warning to you. If you want to speak and write clearly, you must be quite sure that the words in your employ mean what you think they mean.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Oh, joy. This again, "this" being someone who thinks he can count the number of words in the English language, and says that we're hovering close to the one-million mark. (The commenters on the Boingboing piece are, for the most part, having none of it, mind you.)

The website referred to is the Global Language Monitor, and I direct you to a piece called Why Webster’s inclusion of the phrase ‘dark energy’ demonstrates the obsolence of old-style dictionaries.

Oops. Yes, that's "obsolence" in the headline, which has been there since (as this picture shows) July 8th and still hasn't been fixed. Maybe the Global Language Monitor is trying to introduce another new word into English to speed up the race to the goal!

Nah, it's just a regular old typo which a spellchecker would immediately have spotlighted and which an organization calling itself the Global Language Monitor ought never to have let make it into print. (The intended word is "obsolescence", which is related to "obsolete" and is thought to be an assemblage of "ob-", "against", plus "solere", "to be accustomed to", plus the suffix "-esce", placing a verb in the indefinite future: it refers, in other words, to something that has been in the process of falling out of custom.)

The writer, Paul Payack, is no better at punctuation: the sentence beginning "You see dark matter" requires a comma after the first two words. Apparently it migrated down the page into the sentence beginning "Perhaps, it is time to realize...", although if you read GLM's website for any length of time you'll discover that Payack has no real idea of how to use a comma correctly. He also thinks that the expression "okay", or "OK", derives from American president Martin Van Buren's nickname, "Old Kinderhook", when the use of the word predates Van Buren's presidential run by half a century, and someone who uncritically repeats folk etymologies makes me nervous, particularly when we're asked to entrust him with performing a census of the entire tongue.

So we're on track to have exactly a million words in English early next year. Well, what about cleave, which has two separate and opposite meanings with two different and unrelated etymologies? Is that one word, or two? (Payack has already said that, for instance, "water" is counted only once, despite its use as both a noun and a verb, but surely "cleave" counts twice, right?) And more to the point, what of all the words that have cropped up in the countless dialects, creoles, and pidgins of English? Do they all count, too, and if not, why not? How about "capse"? It's not in the OED (except as a thoroughly obsolete word meaning "chest or coffer"), but in Newfoundland it's a variant of "capsize" and refers not specifically to a boat, but to any container that can be tipped over, such as a cooking pot. Is that in the list of every single word in the English language? In fact, is every single word in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English in the list, and if not, why not? Is there some sort of threshold of speakers below which a word doesn't count? Who gets to decide? (Payack has said, badly, “To enter the English language, a word has to meet certain criteria, including: frequency of appearance in the written and spoken language, in the media, have a large geographic footprint, and to stand the test of time." Says who? If fifty thousand people on a small Atlantic island used a word fifty years ago, and wrote it down into the bargain, shouldn't that count?)

It is enormously irritating that someone would take it upon himself to insist that English, that most amoeboid and betentacled of all languages, has a specific and enumerable number of words. It's like declaring yourself the pope of Wordland. And if the pope can't even spell "obsolescence" correctly, or can't even trouble himself to use a spellchecker or an editor, well, what are we to make of his other pronouncements?

Monday, October 06, 2008


I have a lesson for you and that lesson is that if you can make people laugh, they will forgive you almost anything.

Here is the new Kate Beaton cartoon (click it to make it bigger if need be) and all I can say about it is that if it doesn't make you laugh, then you and I are made of very different material.

Here's her previous Fat Pony cartoon:

and although it is wonderful and a delight to all who gaze upon it (I hope), I would take issue with the use of the verb "demand". Your country demands you...to do what? You can't string it together with the sentence in the next panel because the verbs don't fit together in that way; you can say "Your country demands of you that you defeat the wizard", or you can change the verb and say "Your country needs you", or you can write it in any number of other ways, but you can't actually just say "Your country demands you".

But you know what? Doesn't matter. I will gladly overlook it because Beaton is so wonderful. She makes me laugh. Therefore, all is well.

Here are a few sentences from a book called The Urban Knitter by knitwear designer Lily Chin (p. 10):

The variegated bulky yarn is soft enough for little ones. More importantly, it's washable. This is a tantamount concern when designing for children.

"Tantamount" does not mean what Chin seems to think it means; it is an adjective meaning "equal", as in "The mission was tantamount to suicide." She appears to have been trying to say, "This is of paramount importance when designing for children."

This sort of mistake makes me very grouchy, because it should never have happened. The writer really ought to have known the difference between "tantamount" and "paramount", and there should have been at least two levels of editorial oversight to prevent this sort of error from making it into a professionally published book. (Chin thanks her husband and "sometimes-editor" Clifford Pearson in the acknowledgements: I'm thinking he should have been an editor a little more often.) Also, Chin does not make me laugh, so there's no excuse.

Friday, October 03, 2008


I suppose I ought to feel bad for the teachers that had me in their classes in elementary school. I must have been the most dreadful pain in the ass, because though I was thrilled to be learning, I rarely wanted to study what they wanted to teach, and when I was paying attention, I had no compunction about correcting them if they were wrong. (I've since learned to control this anti-social impulse.)

So naturally I ended up studying things on my own, often in class. We had these textbooks full of fascinating subjects, and the teachers would cover only a fraction of it; I made it my mission to investigate all those other fractions. In math, we barely covered interesting things like different bases, so I learned how to count in all the important ones up to 16. In English, I had very little interest in hearing another student laboriously attempt (and, usually, fail) to explain a poem, so I pondered the fascinating mysteries of sentence diagramming.

I don't know why they don't still teach it. It's engrossing. Diagramming lets you peer into the innards of sentences; it's like taking apart a clock to see how it works. (Here's a website that explains the basics of sentence diagramming, but unfortunately doesn't list any examples on any of its pages, making the exercise considerably more difficult than it ought to be.)

Unfortunately, I've forgotten all the fine points--it has been a while--so I was pleased to read this Slate article by Kitty Burns Florey, the author of a book called "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, which I intend to put on my next order to Amazon. The article analyzes possible vice-president Sarah Palin's dreadful, tortured grammar--worse, almost, than George W. Bush's--as seen through the lens of the sentence diagram. Just look:

That's Florey's version of this sentence,

I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people,

for which there can be no excuses. Palin's a politician. She ought to be able to express herself extempore, and she comes up with babble? That's the output of a woman who was never taught to diagram sentences, or, really, to think.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Reader Elspeth writes, regarding a long-ago bit I wrote about the sort-of-word "harbinge":

You don't quote the two examples of 'harbinge' that you mention. Many years ago as a child I heard a poem about the cuckoo on the radio that went '... Harbinger of Spring, they said/ .../ So up I got at half past five/ To hear the bird harbinge/...' and I've been trying to find the rest of it ever since. Is it by chance one of your two examples?

Alas, no, and I'm sorry about that. The OED's two examples are Walt Whitman ("The future of the States I harbinge", from "Starting from Paumanok") and, to quote the citation in full, Mem. O.F. Morris, "Harbinging the return", which I guess has "mem." meaning "memoir" and the quotation being the title of a chapter or something.

Your poem may be lost to the ages, and I know very well what it's like to be desperately searching for a literary source and running into a brick wall. English-lit types--at least the ones I knew--adore anecdotes, and I once read one which I'm going to try to reconstruct for you, as long as you understand that I'll likely get some of it wrong (and also that I'm not really making any serious attempt to write as if I were living in the eighteenth century).

A certain impoverished writer made entreaties to a well-known and high-priced courtesan, who decided, for her own amusement, to indulge him. After transacting their business, the poor man handed her twenty pounds, whereupon she said disdainfully, "Damn your twenty-pound note, what does that signify?", and so saying, she clapped it between two pieces of bread and et it.

That quotation at the end and the subsequent punch line, with its three snappy syllables, constitute one of the best jokes I ever heard; the built-in timing is flawless. Jim and I use those last twenty-some words all the time, changing the various nouns and verbs as need be: "Damn your [whatever], what does that signify?" is a marvellously useful phrase (particularly when issued in a Masterpice Theatre kind of Georgian-era British accent).

But it bothers me immensely that I can't find the source of the original anecdote. Internet searches: useless. Pawing through old books; worse. I know I have the general flavour of it, particularly that last bit, but I'm very finicky about these things and I like to be completely correct, so it drives me a little crazy that in this instance--with this great anecdote!--I can't be.

(P.S. In case you were wondering, yes, "et" is intended in that anecdote. At one time, in British English, "eat" served as both past and present tense for that verb, but with different pronunciations, not unlike modern-day "read" serving as past and present. Eventually the spellings "ate" and "et" came to represent the past tense, depending on your customary pronunciation of the word: even more eventually, "et" died out, except as a vulgarism. At one time, though, it was perfectly respectable.)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Transcription Errors

I don't have much respect for newspapers these days, and I guess I should cut small-scale papers a little slack, because they don't have the resources that their big-city brethren have, but just look at this.

Someone brought a copy of the local paper, the Moncton Times and Transcript, in to work this afternoon, and I was poking through it while on my break. Here's a cutting from page one, which is to say the front page:

At least it was below the fold. "It's", indeed.

Here's a clipping from page three:

"Accelerates" instead of "accelerants". Tsk.

And this is from the obituaries-classifieds-etceteras page:

No, the Blessed Virgin hasn't miraculously appeared in a crossword puzzle: that's just the thin paper. But look! "O Mary conceived with sin...."

Someone at the Times and Transcript is going to hell!

The error isn't quite on the scale of the famous 1631 version of the King James Bible, popularly known as the "Wicked Bible" for its omission of the word "not" in the seventh commandment, which is more usually printed as "Thou shalt not commit adultery". It's pretty bad, though. The Catholic dogma of the immaculate conception holds that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was, unlike any other human born before or since, conceived without the stain ("macula") of original sin, thus making her a worthy vessel for the saviour of all mankind. "O Mary conceived with sin" is a blasphemy and a heresy into the bargain. I hope some clumsy typesetter is saying a whole host of Hail Marys.

Hmmm. Never known to fail? There are none that can resist your power? Whatever you asked will be given to you? I can think of all kinds of ways to abuse this sort of power, but I guess I'll just ask the Most Beautiful Flower of Mount Carmel to provide every newspaper with a squad of trained and vigilant proofreaders.