or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year: A Look Back

No, not really. I don't do those year-end retrospectives, and even if I did, what would be the point? "Oh, I saw a whole lot of really bad typos in 2008!" I don't think so.


Now, where to begin on this last day of the year?

To start, this is, to my thoroughgoing amazement, my one thousandth post. See?

Too much detail? Here's a closer view.

It was mostly an accident of timing. I didn't plan it or anything, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed that I had done 987 posts, and a bit of quick math suggested that I could hit a thousand on December 31st or January 1st if I were diligent. And I am!

I was idly reading a website called ExChristian.net (but not for long, because it's not very well designed) and looking at some parodies of Jack Chick tracts, and I ran across this page in a tract called "Something Fishy":

And that's a big no. You can't just make up etymologies based on what a word sounds like, or where you think a word might have come from.

I'm not getting into the Indian derivations of the names and words in question, because it's all wildly complicated (you can get some of it here, I guess), I don't know much about it, and I'll probably get it wrong. Whether "cunt" is related to "Kunti" isn't for me to say. I do know, though, that the English word, as I have noted before, is almost certainly either from Greek "gyne", meaning "woman", or Indo-European "gen-", which led to a family of Latin words such as "genus" and "generation".

"Kin", as it turns out, is from this latter source, logically enough. But "country"? That's just ridiculous. "Country" is from Latin "contra", "opposite, against", because the countryside is the land that's lying all around you--opposite to the position in which you find yourself. And "cunning" is related to English "ken", "knowing" (compare to the German verb "kennen", "to know"), which in turn is related to a whole batch of knowing-words that stem from Proto-Indo-European "gno-": "gnostic", "diagnosis", "prognosticate", "know", "con" (in the sense of "to study carefully"), and quite a few more that I think I will save for another day.

Etymology is not for people who like to make things up on the spot in support of a line of reasoning.


Speaking of saving something for another day, I said yesterday that I would finish up the Latin offspring of "specere", and here they are.

As I mentioned yesterday, we've got "inspect" and "expect", "spectator", "speculum", "speculate", "spectacle", "spectre" (or "specter" if you are American), "spectrum", and "specimen". What else?

All the other "-spect" words, of course: "aspect", something you look at; "circumspect", because you look around before making a decision; "suspect", when you look under something to see what's going on below the surface; "prospect", something that's right in front of you to be looked at; and "respect" (although this one is an idiom, because it literally means "to look back at", as does the more literal "retrospect").

And there's more! "Special" means something worth really looking at, and "species" is a special variety of a more general family--in other words, something "specific". "Respite" is a brief period of rest in which you may look back over your work. When something is "conspicuous", it compels you to look intently at it ("con-" being an intensifier here). "Despicable" (along with the verb form "despise") refers to something you look down upon. "Perspicacity" is clear-sightedness, literally the ability to see through something, and "perspective" is your view of that thing (or any other thing).

And one more, most unexpectedly: "spice", derived from "species" through French "espice"; the Latin original meant "wares", and only later took on its most specific sense.

Whew. You can see why I wanted to leave it for another day.


And I hope you have a happy New Year's Eve, don't drink and drive, kiss lots of willing strangers, and I'll see you in 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Look Out!

I think it's safe to say that, as a rule, the human brain doesn't work too well at five in the morning.

No, wait. There are people who work during the night and sleep during the day, and their brains probably work fine, so I think it's safe to say that, as a rule, the human brain doesn't work well on three hours of sleep.

My own fault, really. I got home from work at 6 yesterday and was really thirsty (and hadn't had any caffeine since about 7 a.m.), so I drank a couple of glasses of Diet Coke. Big mistake. I slept from 10:30 to about 1:15, and then I woke up, and I've been up ever since. (Up for a couple of hours, went back to bed in a fruitless attempt to sleep, lay there for half an hour, and here I am again.) Something that popped into my brain, for no reason that I can detect or remember, was the pair of words "inspect" and "expect". They must clearly be related, but how?

Well, when you inspect something, you look into it, as the prefix indicates, and when you expect something, you look out for it, once again according to the prefix. Piece of cake! And then my train of thought went entirely off the track, because I couldn't figure out the actual root of the words. Was it "-pec-"? And if so, how did that relate to "look"? Was it descended from a word that also gave us "peek"?

No, of course not. The root isn't "-pec-" but "-spec-", from Latin "specere", "to look at". This self-evidently gave us a host of looking-at words such as "spectator", "speculum", "speculate", and also "spectacle", this last from the French, descended from "spectare", the frequentative* of "specere". We also have "spectre", "spectrum", and "specimen"

"Specere" comes from Indo-European "spek-", "to observe", which through Greek donated to English all the "-scope" words; through French, "spy" and "espionage"; and through Latin, a host of words in addition to those mentioned above, so many that I'm going to save them for tomorrow.

"Peek", as it turns out, is unrelated. Nobody knows where it comes from, but "specere" isn't it.

*A frequentative is a repeated action, indicated in English by the suffixes "-le" or, less commonly, "-er". "Drip", a single drop or a widely-spaced repeat of a drop: "dribble", a continuous stream of droplets. "Bat", to strike at: "batter", to strike repeatedly. "Crack", to break along a line: "crackle", to break along many small lines. You get the idea.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Under Wraps

I do believe I promised you "(s)keu-" on Christmas day, and by god, you shall have it.

Indo-European "(s)keu-" meant "to cover: to conceal", and it gave rise to the most startling array of English words, every one of which can be seen to have some sense of the original word. "Hose", of course, I mentioned earlier: a cover for the legs. ("Culottes" is another pants-word from this source, from, obviously, French.) But also:

"Scum", which covers a pond or a boiling pot, and also "skim", which you do to remove that covering.

"Sky"; not because the sky covers us, but because in Old Norse, "sky" meant "cloud", and clouds cover us.

"Obscure" (and Italian "chiaroscuro", literally "light and dark", "chiaro" being related to French "clair", which is related to English "clear"), originally from Latin "obscurus", "covered" (and therefore dark).

"Custody", from Latin "custos", "guard", and who has you covered better than someone who's guarding you?

"Hide". Both the verb ("to conceal") and the noun ("the skin of an animal") are from "(s)keu-", but they took slightly different paths, both through Old English: the first, through "hydan", later Middle English "hiden", with the usual Germanic verb ending, and the second through "hyd".

"Cunt", from Latin "cunnus", "sheath".

"Huddle", which perhaps is a very abstract sense of covering or concealing, since it means "to crowd together", but the idea of a group of people or animals tightly grouped for communal shelter presents itself.

"Cuticle", from Latin "cutis", "skin", plus the usual "-cle" diminutive suffix, and also "subcutaneous", "beneath the skin".

"Hoard", a thing hidden away, from Old English.

And finally, and best, "kishke", direct from Russian: a kishke is a sort of sausage, using chicken intestines as the casing, and "kishke" (or "kishka") is the Russian word for "intestines", which, like "cunnus", make a sort of sheath.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Typo Graphic

Every now and then I mention that there are certain word or things you don't want to misspell if you don't want to look like a complete moron. People might not notice if you misspell "Manhattan" or "deciduous", but they are almost certainly going to smirk if you get "misspell" or "education" or "intelligent" wrong. If text might be construed to refer to itself or its surroundings in some way, then you had better be very sure, even surer than usual, that you haven't messed it up.

So if you're publishing a book about typography, specifically a book about letter-spacing, word-spacing, and typographic design, you do not want the cover to look like this:

I suppose this particular image could have been made up as a joke, and if so, it's a good one: it fooled me. But I think it's real, and what's more, "Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type" really is a real book: see?

I suppose I should also mention that in the bad version of the cover, "arrangement" is misspelled as "arrangment", which, despite the American predilection for deleting the "-e-" in such spellings as "judgment" (in preference to British "judgement"), is not and never has been correct, never once in the whole history of English.

Friday, December 26, 2008


And did Santa bring you everything you wanted?


Here's one of the things I'm bringing you: a good laugh! I am fairly sure I read this book

as a child, but not this version of it, which describes the internal operation of computers thus:

An instruction is fetched from the store by a bee and kept temporarily in a register while the kitten warms up....When the kitten is ready, the Encyclopedia Britannica is first consulted, then Wikipedia. If the answer is not obtained, the kitten hands control of the operation to the puppy, which then consults Google.

So go read it.


Here's the text on something I saw at work the other night, a package of scents for home-made soap:

This set of concentrated essential oils is specifically formulated to mix with and compliment each other.

A lot of people seem to have trouble with "compliment" and "complement", but they're not the same thing, and they haven't been for three hundred and fifty years.

"Compliment" as a verb means "to praise or congratulate". That's pretty much the only thing it means. The verb "complement", on the other hand, means "to bring to completion: to join with to make a whole", and once again, that's pretty much the only thing it means.

Both are originally from Latin "complere", "to fill up". "Complement", originally meaning "that which completes", is a direct steal by English from early fifteenth-century Old French, which in turn took it from the Latin word "complementum", with the same meaning. "Compliment", on the other hand, is from late sixteenth-century Italian "complimento" (note the different vowel), which meant "an expression of respect", derived from an older sense of completeness: "to complete or fulfill the obligations of civility." By the middle of the seventeenth century in English, the two words had gone their separate ways, with their different spellings, and they have been separate ever since.

There is no shame in having trouble distinguishing between two words. However, such mistakes are not supposed to make it into print, certainly not in packaging and advertising: this is why there used to be proofreaders and copy-editors, and why there still should be, since a spell-checker can't tell the difference.

If it helps to sort them out in your mind, you can think of "complement" as "complete-ment".

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Merry Christmas to everyone, and I hope you all got what you wanted. If you don't celebrate Christmas, well, welcome to the club: I used to, but four-plus years in the heart of big-box retail has made me jaded and bitter (and thoroughly sick of Christmas music), so I'm done with the holidays and will be glad when they're over. I know: bah, humbug.

Despite my general hostility to the season these days, wouldn't you like to know anyway where the word "stocking" came from? Sure you would.

The stock which forms the main part of a tree, the stock of a rifle, the stocks in which criminals used to be put, a family or other collection of people (think "family tree") or animals ("livestock"), and on and on, all of them are from the same source: Proto-Germanic "stukkaz", "tree trunk". The very narrow sense grew and proliferated to cover such things as investment certificates (a paper form of wealth, virtual livestock), a group of things or people (stock footage, a theatrical stock company, merchandise kept in stock), and on and on, including such metaphorical uses as "stock-still" (motionless as a tree trunk, a very old figure of speech dating from the fifteenth century).

A stocking is also related: Old English "stocc" meant "tree trunk" or "log", and "stocka" eventually came to mean "leg covering", presumably because of the visual similarity between tree trunks and legs (mine, anyway). The Christmas stocking is first found referred to in print in the mid-1800s.

And, while I'm on the subject of leg coverings, what about "hose" (from a couple of days ago)? I figured it was from French in one way or another, since someone who sells them is a hosier, and his product came to be known (in the late eighteenth century) as hosiery, and they look pretty French (if you assume that the French "-ie" ending was changed to "-y" in English). However, as it turns out, "hose" is pretty old, dating from the twelfth century, and English merely tacked on the "-ier" suffix, for "one who": we did get that from French, but the rest of the word is actually Germanic. "Hose" are trousers in Mittelhochdeutch, hence "Lederhosen", "leather pants". (Since pants are composed of tubes, the sense of "a tube for conveying water" was not too far behind: it dates from 1497.) "Hose" originated in IE "(s)keu-", "to cover or conceal", about which more in a day or two, probably.

Seriously, though. If you celebrate Christmas, have a good one, and if you don't, you probably still have some time off, so have a nice holiday, whatever it be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Written Word

Once again as I'm doing the dishes, my brain says, "Oh, for god's sake, read something, will you?", and so my eyes start scanning the little packages on the built-in shelf above the sink, boxes of freezer bags and plastic wrap and folder clips and the like, and looky there--a box of parchment paper. And the French word for "parchment" is "parchemin". And I ask myself, who stole it from whom?

Tough call. It would be easy to guess that the French was converted into the English, but on the other hand, "parch" looks to be a sturdy Old English sort of word, and "parchment" could therefore mean "the drying of", and since parchment is scraped, tanned, and dried animal skin used for writing, it's entirely plausible that we invented the word and then the French took it and ran with it.

But no, it was theirs to begin with, and it has a more complicated trajectory than you might anticipate. For starters, the Greek city of Pergamon, or Pergamum, invented the use of animal skin as a substitute for Egyptian papyrus. This surface came to be known in Latin as "charta Pergamena", "paper of Pergamon", and then just "pergamina". This word in Old French collided with "parche", which was a variation of Late Latin "parthica", short for "parthica pellis", which meant "Parthian leather", a valuable commodity in Roman times. "Pergamina" and "parche" eventually formed "parchemin", which Middle English took and converted, with the application of the standard "-ment" noun suffix (from Latin "-mentum"), into modern "parchment".

"Parch" is unrelated. It seems to be instead a variant of "perish"; isn't that nice and unexpected?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All Hers

From Boingboing's Winter Zen, a collection of Depression-era newspaper ads that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, devised to get people out and shopping to help bolster the economy. It's fascinating stuff, at least what you can read of it--some of the images are teeny, and you there's no way to enlarge them. Some of them are rather demanding: #13 insists that "She Wants a Robe This Christmas" (oh, she does, does she?), while #26 merely promises that "She'd adore Elizabeth Arden's Blue Grass". Others are a mite baffling: #20 thinks you ought to give a gift of a case of canned beets. "Of course you'll give cigarettes for Christmas," asserts #25. And #29, not fucking around, says that "It's hard to think of a more luxurious gift" than a $100 silver-fox scarf, something like $1500 in today's money.

But look at this second ad in the 30-part slide show:

If you can tear your eyes away from the luscious gams for a few seconds, you will note that the ad's headline reads, Give "Her" Hose!

I have no idea whatever why those quotation marks are in there. Usually, quote marks mean one of two things: something is being directly quoted, or it's wrong or unreal. You often see them (incorrectly) in casual use (such as hand-written signs) to add stress to something, as if they represented italics or underlining, but that doesn't even seem to be the case in this ad. Did the ad's designer mean to stress the third word ("This year, give her English muffins!") and missed his aim? Is the "her" smirkily meant to refer to a mistress rather than a wife? Is there something else going on that I'm too dim-witted to get? I just can't imagine what he was thinking.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Reader D.J. has this to say about yesterday's post:

I'm willing to give them a pass because of this: "Jim was poking around in his phone..."

Sure, "prefix" has the meaning you describe. But when you're talking about phone numbers, it also has a specific technical meaning, viz. "those first three numbers after the area code that used to be encoded with a cool exchange nickname and a single number, like PEnnsylvania 6-5000."

So the phone engineers, faced with the need for a verb to describe the action "dial 9 to get an outside line," found that the correct word was already in use. So instead of using "prefix" for two different things, they kitbashed together "prepend" and knocked off for a beer.

In French, this would be unforgivable. But in English it's just another day in the linguistic salt mines. I can't get too worked up about it.

I'm not too worked up about it, either. I just don't like it. I love charming or amusing new coinages, but I really do not care for words that have the stink of knowing cleverness about them (like Sniglets or the words in Barbara Wallraff's Word Fugitives) or those that seem superfluous because a word already exists that fills the need.

To me, "prepend" is just such a word.

In my experience, engineers, whatever their social malformations (a very boy's-club lot were most of the ones I knew), are very intelligent people, and it seems to me that they ought to be able to tell the difference between "prefix" used as a noun ("those first three numbers...") and as a verb ("dial 9..."). Context would make it absolutely clear which meaning was intended. They didn't need to invent a word for the sake of precision, as the medical world is known to do. They just made one up because, and I still don't see how it was needed, and I still don't like it.

I agree with you about the salt mines, though. "Prepend" is par for the course, just another shovelful.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Jim was poking around in his phone, for some reason, and said, "What does 'prepend' mean?"

I'd never heard it before, and I wasn't even sure it was a word, but I said, "Well, judging from the etymology, it means 'to hang before', so I guess it must mean 'to append to the beginning of'," which doesn't actually make any sense--"append" means "to attach to the end of"--but it was as close as I could some.

And sure enough, if "prepend" means anything, it means "to attach to the beginning of". The reason I'd never heard it before is because it's computerese, jargon, a made-up word modeled after "append", designed to not confuse people who might not understand that "prefix" is not only a noun but also a verb with exactly the meaning that "prepend" was coined to have.

I don't necessarily have an argument with invented words, but it does bother me when someone decides to make up a word for something that we already have a good working version of.

I would like to note that the spellchecker on my Mac does not red-flag "prepend", so it knows it and likes it. I beg to differ.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hidden Agenda

Another one of those lovely coincidences, sort of, only not really.

Jim was reading a web page about steganography, which is the hiding of information inside other information: specifically, the hiding of information so that its existence is invisible and, usually, unsuspected. If you write a letter using some form of cipher or code, it's obvious that it's a hidden message, but if you write between the lines of an ordinary English-language letter another message in invisible ink, that's steganography, because nobody would have any reason to suspect that the letter is anything except just what it looks like.

As he was doing this, I happened to have my blog-editing page open, and there happened to be among all the other titles a blog post entitled "Stick Around", and I guess it triggered something in the back of my brain, because I thought, "Stick...steig-...can't have anything to do with steganography, can it?"

Well, it can't, but the truth is even better. "Steganography" comes from Greek "steganos", "covered, hidden", and Latin "graphia", "writing", which describes it perfectly, I think you'll agree. After I told Jim this, he said, "Stegosaurus?", and I couldn't quite see how there could be a connection, but as it turns out, there is one. The stegosaurus is the one with those big lozenge-shaped armour plates on its back, and it got its name, not because it is covered with armour, but because those plates resemble the tiles which cover a roof. Don't you love it?

"Steganos" is derived from Indo-European "(s)teg-", meaning "to cover". English doesn't have as many offshoots of this as you might expect, but there are a few, some of them surprising. Fittingly, because a stegosaurus' back is adorned with roofing-tiles, "tile" is one derivative. Latin "tegere", "to cover", led to "protect", which is to say "cover", and also "detect", or "uncover", as well as "integument", a protective biological covering such as skin or a shell, and "toga". Germanic relatives from "(s)teg-" include "thatch" (a simpler roof covering than tiling) and "deck", in a couple of senses--the deck of a ship, which covers its innards, and the verb most familiar from the Christmas carol "Deck the Halls", because you cover them in decorations (a word which is unfortunately not related).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Quick Thinking

This thing is called a swift, or, more precisely, an umbrella swift, but swift will do. You hang a hank of yarn around those ribs, which expand or contract to hold the yarn snugly, and then the main body spins freely so you can wind the hank of yarn into a ball. (You can also use it in reverse, to turn a ball of yarn into a hank, for dyeing.)

I lent mine to a friend who returned it today, dropping it off at my workplace. As we were leaving work tonight, several people wanted to know what it was, and I briefly explained it to them, saying, "Every serious knitter has one." They thought maybe a serious knitter who lives in the eighteenth century. But country-Georgian though it may look, it's a very useful article.

Looking the word "swift", might you hazard a guess as to its origin?

I thought, well, it looks very Middle-English-from-Old-English, and the "sw-" at the beginning means it's probably from Old Norse (originating as "sv-") or another of the early Germanic languages. I am always willing to be wrong, and as you know if you read back, I certainly am wrong from time to time. But not this time. Old English did use the word "swift" as we use it most often, as an adjective meaning "quick" (or "quickly turning"), from the verb "swifan", "to move in a course, to sweep". This led to the other meanings of "swift": a quick-flying bird, the rapidly spinning yarn support, and of course any kind of speed, including mental agility (or more likely its lack, when we describe someone as "not too swift").

Now, there are two verbs directly related to "swifan" that you might be able to guess, one of them rather obscure but well-known to readers of Chaucer. The more common one is, charmingly, "swivel", which means "to move in a curve around a fixed point". The other is "swive", which means "to have sexual intercourse". (The slangy "swivet", meaning "a dither; a tizzy; a panic", is unrelated, evidently a made-up word.)

"Swifan" originates from Indo-European "swei-", "to turn, to bend". This also gave English "swoop" (which a swift--the bird--does) and "switch", originally a flexible tree branch, later an equally flexible electrical device.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Yesterday I saw a sign on the way to work...

No, wait. Back up and fast forward. I had today off because Jim had to go to the hospital for surgery. Oh, it was nothing serious: it's called a laser iridotomy, which means they use a YAG (yttrium-aluminum-garnet) laser to poke a little hole in the iris to release some pressure when you have something called narrow-angle glaucoma. (Could have been worse: back before lasers were invented, they had to poke a hole with a surgical implement, which, I'm sure, was just as horrible as it sounds.)

It seemed to go smoothly, but I wasn't in the room watching it, and I also managed to absent myself when they had to poke his eye with a little rod to check for intraocular pressure. (They used to use a little puff of air, but apparently that isn't as accurate.) As soon as Jim told me they were going to do this, I sat in a different part of the waiting area where I couldn't see him, and stayed out of sight until he was all done.

Anyway, he's doing fine.


Yesterday I saw a sign on the way to work; it was in English and French, as is the way in Canada, and the English part said "BUMP" (over a picture of a bump in the road), and the French part underneath said "BOSSE".

Remind you of anything?

Not "boss", as in "overlord", which I thought might be Dutch (it suggested the spelling "baas", for some reason), which it is (and "baas" is also its source, which suggests that I didn't guess correctly but actually read it years ago and unconsciously memorized it, because I know no Dutch). No, "bosse" made me think of "emboss", which is to say "put bumps into the surface of". "Emboss" is from Old French "embocer", from "boce", a lump or bump or hump.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A La Mode

You know what a modal verb is, right? The people at Lexus don't.

Just in case you don't, here's a quick refresher. A modal is sort of a supplemental verb (it's also known as an auxiliary) that conveys a sense of intentionality, possibility, or obligation. "Ought to", "must", "might", "could", "will", and "should" are all modal verbs that alter the main verb in subtle but important ways. "I might go", "I ought to go", and "I will go" all express different meanings. (Lots more here.)

The crucial thing about a modal, though, is that it doesn't stand on its own: it's latched to another verb, and the two together are what form the whole verb. As usual, in English you can under the right circumstances delete the verb itself, as long as that verb is understood or implicit. As here:

"Are you going to tell her?"
"I ought to."

The "tell her" is implicit in the second sentence, so the modal can seem to stand on its own; it's still invisibly tethered to the verb and its object, though.

So have a look at that ad up there, from the back cover of the latest New Yorker. Click on it to blow it up, if you need to. Do you see the problem? It's a list of modals, followed by a verb in a different typeface, and this would not bother me except that lower down, the same verb, in the same contrasting typeface, is inserted into a sentence. The thrust of the ad is clear: the company isn't just going to try to do something new, it's actually doing it. The problem is that you can't substitute the verb in the sentence with any of the modals, because they've all been stripped of their main verb, which is "to be". For the ad to make sense as it was clearly intended, you would have had to add the active verb to each of the modals in turn: "could be", "might be", "will be", "should be".

It seems clear that the ad's designer was going for punch rather than any kind of grammatical meaning, hoping that we would fill in the active verb ourselves. It doesn't work that way.

It's probably futile to insist that advertisers write grammatically correct copy, but I can still gripe about it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Internet Addiction

I am not a mystically minded person, but sometimes it honestly seems as if the universe is trying to shove you in a particular direction, doesn't it?

Yesterday I was reading something or other on the Internet (of course I was--I hardly ever read books or magazines any more, and if I'm not working or sleeping, I'm probably reading), and I tried to get to an article in the New Yorker which wasn't available without a subscription. I thought about it: only $39.95 for a whole year, which gives you a year's access to the entire archive of the magazine from 1925 to the newest issue. I made a note and decided to think about it.

This morning I was reading something else and found a reference to an old Edmund Wilson piece I thought I should read, so I checked to see if it was available online. It was available...in a 1945 issue of The New Yorker.

And so I subscribed. And it is heroin. No, cocaine. No, a heroin-and-cocaine speedball. I can't tear myself away.

"Can you download images from it?" asked Jim. A quick test proved that you could, and I thought to myself, this has a whole lot of blog potential.

Here's page 44 of the January 13, 1945, issue:

And here is a close-up of the relevant portion:

and it's my old friend (and nemesis to the careless writer), the hyphen, in action. As I feel like I've said so many times before, when you're hyphenating a phrase, it's all or nothing: either a hyphen goes between every word, or you don't use them at all. Therefore, depending on the circumstances, you may say "two-and-a-half", or you may say "two and a half", but you most emphatically may not ever say "two-and-a half".

Anyway, they got it wrong from the get-go, because if the phrase "two and a half" precedes the noun which it's modifying, which adjectives nearly always do in English, then you use no hyphens whatever. (To hyphenate it correctly, the phrase would be have been "a two-and-a-half-century-old name".)

We certainly can't blame the proofreaders at the New Yorker for that one: the ad was what's called camera-ready, and needed only to be pasted down and printed. I would imagine there were more than a couple of rolled eyes at the magazine that day, though.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Yesterday on the reliably amusing Consumerist there was a piece about a commercial brand of egg nog which boasted about its "Traditional Recipe":

Our splendid Bareman's American Traditional Recipe Egg Nog is made from all natural ingredients, including eggs and fresh cream. Just exactly like it was made, back when Grandfather started our dairy business in 1898.

Well, that there's some American Traditional Bad Writin'.

It's also a parcel of lies, because here are the ingredients:

Milk, high fructose corn syrup, cream, egg nog base (spray dried egg yolks, grade A whey powder, corn starch, natural & artificial flavors, sugar, guar gum, salt, nutmeg, carrageenan, annatto & tumeric (for color)), grade A whey powder, and nonfat dried milk.

Now, what's wrong with that list? The inclusion of things like spray dried egg yolks, artificial flavors, guar gum, and high fructose corn syrup, of course, because not only can they not really be called "all natural ingredients", they didn't even exist in Grandfather's day, so "just exactly" is patently untrue. But what caught my eye was "tumeric", because it's wrong.

It is spelled, and pronounced, "turmeric". (No tumors anywhere.) That first "-r-" has been there since the word's beginning, in Middle English, where it was rendered "turmeryte" (suggests the word "temerity", doesn't it?), apparently from an old French word, "terremérite", which meant "saffron", because turmeric is sometimes used to replace the far costlier saffron.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Usually if the time on one of my postings says 1:44 in the morning or something along those lines, it means that I actually wrote it the day before and then changed the time from, say, 9:44 p.m. today to 1:44 a.m. tomorrow.

Not this time, though. It really is one-whatever. I was working the night, and the store doesn't close until 10 during the holiday season and of course we had to do recovery, so I didn't clock out until 10:55, and I never can sleep right after work, plus I had had a bottle of Diet Coke at around 8, which usually means I'm up for another 5 hours or more, so I stayed up to watch a rerun of Law & Order on Bravo at midnight and I'm still not tired, so here I am.

If you've ever watched CSI or L&O or, I suppose, just about any crime show in the last twenty years, you will have heard the term "petechial hemorrhaging", but, like me, you won't have known exactly what it meant or how it was spelled. (Not having seen it spelled, I would have guessed "patichial": puh-TEE-kee-ul".) Luckily, the captions were on, and luckily, the captioner spelled it correctly, so I made a mental note of it and looked it up after the show was over (the bad guy got his just deserts).

Petechial hemorrhaging is the formation of tiny spots of blood, usually under the surface of the skin or (in the case of victims of strangulation) in the eyes. "Petechial" is the adjectival form of "petechia", plural "petechiae", which means, as you will have guessed, that it's from Latin (filtered through Italian). Petechia, therefore, are tiny purplish spots; the word likely comes from "impeticula", which is the diminutive of "impetix", which is related to--and you will like this, I think--"impetigo", a skin condition caused by a bacterial infection and characterized by small pustules.

It gets better, even. "Impetigo" is pure Latin and stems from the verb "impetere", "to attack", which in turn is compounded from "im-" plus "petere", "to go towards, to seek", and this verb gave English another word: "impetus". (The title of my previous posting, "Repetition", is also coincidentally related to "petere".)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Now, I don't know about you, but sometimes a song will get into my head and it will play there for hours and hours and hours. I don't mean bad things, television commercial jingles or catchily hateable pop songs or whatnot. I mean a song that I actually like and have (usually) been listening to recently. Part of it will just lodge in my brain on an infinite loop. Yesterday, it was the song "Effington" from Ben Folds' newest album, Way to Normal, and more specifically the end of it, which goes

I want to live in Effington.
I want to die there too.
Please bury me in Effington
in Effington, in Effington, in Effington, in Effington, in Effington!

So that ran for three or four hours, occasionally interspersed with other bits of the song, and then for some reason it was replaced by the chorus to an Erasure song, "Love the Way You Do So", which runs

We shall lie [Harmony]
Side by side [A Rhapsody]
Here and now [Melody]
Talk in turn
Love the way you do so

(Those words in brackets are actually sung: they're not stage directions or anything.) After an hour or two of this, I naturally began to think about the word "rhapsody" and where it might have come from. After guessing from previous experience that it was very likely to be Greek, I began to think about all the other "rh-" words I could think of, and I came to the precarious conclusion that very likely every word in English, apart from one or two annoying but inevitable exceptions, that begins with "rh-" is from Greek.

And what do you know? It is in fact the case.

There are, of course, exceptions. There have to be: this is English we're talking about. "Rhine" and its adjectival form "Rhenish" aren't among them, though. They are from German, but they nevertheless stem from Greek "rhein", "to flow", which is also found in "diarrhea" and "rheostat". (This means that the German name for the river is "that thing over there that flows", which seems to suggest a certain lack of imagination.) Even words you'd think couldn't possibly be from the Greek actually are: "rhubarb", for instance, is a compilation of "rhu", which was the Greek word for the plant, and "barbaros", "foreign".

I did find three that don't fit the mould, though. There might be others: I try to be thorough but, as Bernard Black would say, I'm not Wonder Woman. "Rhatany" is a kind of South American plant: its name in Quechua is "ratania", and though there is no connection to Greek, I am willing to bet that the spelling was modified into its current English form by someone who thought there ought to be a connection, because it is also called "rattany" (no relation to rattan, which comes from Malay "rotan"). "Rhodomontade" is an occasional spelling of "rodomontade", which is another name for braggadocio or gasconade: the "-h-" wasn't originally there, and I suspect it's for the same reason as the "-h-" in "rhatany", which is to say that someone deliberately inserted it in imitation of the Greek. ("Rodomontade" is named after Rodomonte, the boastful Saracen in Orlando Furioso.) The third word is "rhebok" or "rhebuck", which is a contrarian spelling of Afrikaans "reebok", and once again I think the "-h-" is a deliberate alteration.

Since you are not too likely to use these words in daily conversation--you might not even run across them in an ordinary lifetime (except here, of course)--I think it would be safe for you to assume that any words you find that begin with "rh-" are from the Greek in one way or another. Rhabdomancy, rhetoric, rhea, rhizome, rhythm and rhyme: Greek to the core, each and every one.

In fact, let's go one step further. If you discount compound words such as "dunderhead" or "barhop"--if, in other words, the combination "-rh-" occurs naturally and isn't shoehorned together--then whenever you see the two letters side by side, they very likely indicate a word of Greek origin. Hemorrhage, scirrhous, dirham (the unit of currency in Qatar, and derived, believe it or not, from "drachma"): Greek, Greek, Greek.

Just for the record: no, really, seriously, the song fragment will run over and over again for hours and hours and sometimes more hours. Occasionally it will still be in there rolling around when I go to bed. It doesn't bother me, it isn't a plague nor an earworm. This is just the way my brain works. I kind of like it, actually. (And now "Effington" is probably stuck there for another while.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

But Soft

After you've finished laughing at this "Hierarchy of Beards" poster (click to enlarge), , from, of course, BoingBoing, check out one of the words in the second line.

"Velutinous". It seems odd, almost made-up, like a variant of "glutinous". But if you stare at it long enough, a few words might occur to you that suggest it's real.

The first thing I thought of was "velouté", which is a white sauce (a sauce made of milk and thickened with a flour-and-butter mixture) made instead with chicken stock (or other light stock such as fish or veal). "Velouté" is the adjectival form of "velour", which is the French word for "velvet", and sure enough, all three of those words are related to "velutinous", which means "velvety: covered with fine, soft, dense hair".

There. A new word for you to play with!

Sunday, December 07, 2008


English is very happy to hand you a toolkit and let you assemble the language yourself, as long as you know what you're doing. Endearingly, it has a sizable collection of suffixes that you can use to indicate that something is similar to, or has the qualities of, something else: "-y", "-ish", "-esque", "-oid", "-like", and "-ed" are just some of them.

Yesterday we passed an A&W and there was a sign announcing a new kind of burger, the Uncle Burger, to go with the rest of the family they've had for ages: the Papa Burger, the Mama Burger, the justly famous and delicious Teenburger, and so on. (Do they still have the Baby Burger? They did when I was a kid.) And the tagline for the Uncle Burger, which is made of sirloin steak:

The Burger Family just got Sirloinier.


Perhaps a hard-liner would balk, but I think "sirloinier" is enchanting. I mean, if you want to describe something as having the qualities of--or, in this case, including--sirloin, why shouldn't you take advantage of one of the language's more charming features, coin the word "sirloiny", and then proceed to transform it into the comparative and the superlative with "-er" and "-est"?

Okay, sure, it's advertising, and advertising copywriters have a bad habit of mangling and otherwise corrupting the language ("chocolatey", anyone?). I don't care. It's not a word that's going to enter popular usage, but for a neologism, it's just right.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


This amusing picture is of a Godzilla-shaped menorah, and even if you aren't Jewish, don't you kind of want one?

It's here in this io9 piece about science-fictiony decorations for the holiday season. Unfortunately the description of it runs as follows:

Did your menorah ever crawl out of the depths of the ocean to reek havoc on an unsuspecting city? I think not. This lovely zillanorah is available in the Chrismukka book, a guide for interfaith families.

Is it mean and kind of snotty of me to suggest that even a relatively well-read twelve-year-old would probably know the difference between "wreak" and "reek"? No? How about a fourteen-year-old?

Honestly, I don't see any excuse.

Both words are Old English, but, obviously, their meanings (and less obviously their derivations) are very different. "Wreak" comes from "wrecan", "to avenge". It's from a big, sloppy family of words derived from Indo-European "werg-", "to do, to work". "Work" itself is obviously related to "werg-"; so is the "-erg-" in "energy" and "ergonomic", as well as "erg" itself, a measure of work performed, through Greek "ergon". Also from "werg-" is "organ", something which does the work of making music or keeping the body running, and various "-urge" and "-urgy" words such as "metallurgy", the working of metal, and "dramaturge", a stagecrafter in the theatre. The Queen of the Night in Mozart's Magic Flute sings, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("A vengeful Hell doth boil within my heart"), and "Rache", "vengeance, vengefulness", is related to "wreak", which derived its sense of devastation and horror from various Germanic tongues: Gothic "wrikan", "to persecute", Middle Dutch "wreken", "to push, to drive", and an even earlier sense from Old English, "to punish". (The Dutch sense of "to push" or "to compel" also shows up in another English word, "urge".) One last interesting derivation which is clearly related to "urge": "orgy", which originally meant a sort of secret religious ritual in celebration of such dissipated gods as Dionysus.

"Reek", meaning "to stink", on the other hand, comes from "reken", which originally meant "to emit smoke" and later came to denote the rising of any sort of smoke, steam, or vapour. You'd think it referred to stinky old burning-refuse smoke and not carefully confected incense, but actually the sense of stinking is relatively new: although the source is an ancient Germanic verb, the malodorousness we consider inherent in the word is only about three hundred and fifty years old, and therefore antedates Shakespeare, so when in his amusing Sonnet 130, long one of my favourites, he describes "the breath that from my mistress reeks", he isn't (necessarily) saying she has viciously bad breath: he's merely saying that she emits breath and that it has some sort of odour which is not, understandably, comparable to fine perfume.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come

I get e-mail notifications of all comments to my blogs, but it was still a bit of a surprise that someone commented today on a really old thing I had written, back in April of 2005. Here's part of what the anonymous reader wrote:

I must confess to noticing many similar typos and mistakes, so I like reading your blog. But you've used 'factoid' incorrectly, tsk, tsk! A factoid is a 'fake fact' rather than a small, unimportant fact. A small lie that is posing as a bit of truth. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factoid. True, CNN perpetuated their bits of trivia as factoids, and even on BBC trivial facts were termed 'factoids,' but I would expect you to know that -oid appended usually denotes something that's pretending to be something else.

But "-oid" doesn't really mean something pretending to be something else, because that suggests a deliberate attempt to confuse: it means something that isn't quite its namesake but that calls it to mind through its general outline.

First things first, though. "Factoid" as it was originally coined did mean something untrue, a fib written for purposes of propaganda. The OED cites its first written usage in 1973 in the words of Norman Mailer, who described them as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper", things which are used to manipulate.

However, over the years, the word became corrupted to mean some little blurby fact used to fill a column inch or two in a newspaper. As a result, it's probably best not to use the word at all, I suppose; but I did use it, and I thought the context in which I used it made my intended meaning clear.

The suffix "-oid" comes from Greek "eidos", "form, shape". When Mailer borrowed the suffix to coin his word, he clearly had in mind the idea that a factoid had the approximate appearance of a fact, but wasn't really one.

However, what "-oid" nearly always means in one way or another is "having the shape of", and the idea of fakery just isn't there, though the sense of not-quiteness is. The suffix is often used in anatomical terms (which do love to describe body parts in terms of their shape), as in "thyroid", "shield-shaped", or "arachnoid", referring to a membrane separating two parts of the brain: it means "spider-like" but actually signifies a cobweb-shaped membrane. (Oh, and "xiphoid", "sword-shaped", the praises of which I have already sung.)

Astronomy likewise has a number of "-oid" words, such as "asteroid" ("star-shaped", although "planetoid", "planet-shaped", is a better name) and "meteoroid". Geometry has among others "ellipsoid" and "rhomboid", each of which is its namesake at one remove: a rhombus has two pairs of parallel sides, where a rhomboid has only one, and an ellipsoid is a solid form created by rotating an ellipse around one of its axes.

In fact, pretty much every "-oid" word in English except the modern "factoid" is a scientific term, which makes Mailer's invention an anomaly. No wonder it was misconstrued and reinvented.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Here's a bit from Slate.com's women-only group blog (I wanted to quote only the last sentence, but it makes even less sense without the previous couple of paragraphs):

Planned Parenthood has an alternative for Indiana shoppers who were uninspired by this year's exceptionally bleak and cheerless Black Friday. Instead of stocking stuffers, residents of the Midwestern state can instead give their loved ones gift certificates in increments of $25 that can be credited toward any of the organization's services and products from birth control to abortions.

According to Chrystal Struben-Hall, VP of Planned Parenthood in Indiana, the gift certificate campaign will provide options to women who, in light of winter expenses and the economic climate, may have shunted health care costs to the bottom of their priority lists.

Struben-Hall maintains that the certificates aren't specifically intended to dissuade the cost of abortion, but critics of the program have objected to the lack of an official restriction preventing this.

What the hell is going on in that last sentence? It's dreadful, bejumbled with reversals and negatives: you nearly have to lay a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way through it. (In short, the certificates permit an action that critics say should be explicitly forbidden.) It's a bad sentence and a horrible way to try to get a point across. It should have been thoroughly rewritten, possibly broken into two pieces for clarity.

Worse, though, is the word "dissuade", which is simply wrong in that context. To dissuade is to persuade not to do something; you can dissuade a woman from having an abortion, but you can't dissuade the cost of something. It's meaningless. What do you suppose was intended? "Defray", perhaps? It's the only thing I can come up with.

For the love all the is right and proper, Slate, hire some editors. And if you already have some, hire better ones.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What's in a Name?

Now, about those carnations.


Yesterday I was doing some work for a customer whose surname was Wellige, which pretty clearly has to be German (and turned out to be). While working, I was musing on the name. The German word for "wave" is "Welle", as in the (among other tongues) English-language German broadcasting service Deutsche Welle. Some German adjectives end in "-ig", which is exactly like "-y" in English: "blood" in German is "Blut", and "bloody" is "blutig". German nouns and their adjectives are gendered, and one feminine ending is "-e", so, putting it all together, I surmised that what I was looking at was "welle" plus "-ig-" plus "-e", which is to say "wavy" (presumably from someone's hair, just as quite a few English surnames come from people's physical properties, such as Brown or Little or Strong).

And "wavy" is exactly what "Wellige" means. Being right is awesome!


Now, about those carnations.

On Wednesday I wore my last couple of drops of my sample of Carnation by Comme des Garçons. (This is irrelevant to the story at hand, but at some point during the day I realized that I had to own a bottle of the stuff. The last thing I need, I suppose, is more scents, particularly a 100-mL bottle of something I will never use up, but I had been desirous of it for over two years and I had to have it and that was that, so I placed an order that night, forgetting that the next day was American Thanksgiving, so it wasn't shipped until yesterday, but never mind.)

Also on Wednesday I was reading Beeton's Book of Needlework just to see what knitting patterns looked like back in the mid-1800s, and I ran across a pattern for a doily, or, more accurately in her parlance, a d'oyley.

Suddenly both of these things rushed together in one big gravitational collision and I realized that "oeillet", the French word for "carnation", also means "eyelet", and "oeillet" was obviously the source of "doily", something made more or less entirely of little eyelets: "d'oeillet" ("made of eyelets") becomes "d'oyley" becomes "doily". So obvious!

And also so completely wrong. Being wrong is not awesome. But it's a learning experience.

The original doily wasn't a dainty lacy thing: it was a piece of cloth, specifically a napkin (which could have been trimmed with lace, but wasn't itself lace). It didn't get its name from the French "oeillet" at all; instead, it was named from a London fabric merchant in the 1700s name of Doyly, which sounds sort of made-up and folk-etymology but is really true.

The surname Doily, Doyly, Doyley, or D'Oyley (Mrs. Beeton's spelling) is from French, mind you: from the Norman invasion, in fact. In France, your surname might have told where you were from, either your lineage, as in Marie de Guise, "Mary of the house of Guise", or your ancestral place of birth, as in Martin de Blois. The original Doily/Doyly/whatever tribe came from the town of Ovilly; "d'Ovilly" was quickly turned into such things as "de Olli", "Dolye", and "de Oylly".

In case you were wondering (I certainly was), "Doyley" is not at all related to Irish "Doyle". That comes from, as you might suspect, Gaelic; specifically, from "Dhubh-ghall", "dark stranger" (as a way of distinguishing the dark Danes from the lighter-haired Norwegians). "Dhubh-ghall" also contributed another pair of names, these Scottish, to the world's roster of surnames: "Dougall" and "MacDougall".