or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wait a Sec

One of the joys of having an iPod Touch is that, since it's a teeny tiny computer, you can fill it with tons of applications to occupy those odd moments such as when you're standing in line at the bank or waiting for the bus or sitting on the can or whatnot. You can read books (and it can hold a whole lot of books and newspapers--I don't really get the Kindle or other dedicated book applications, to be honest), you can play games, you can write e-mail. Not a wasted moment!

One of the games I like is called WordJong*, which is like that Mah-Jongg tile-matching game only with letters on the tiles: you have to form the longest possible words (up to nine letters) out of a set of letters, the catch being that all the letters you can use aren't immediately available; removing a tile and placing it in the scoring rack usually exposes one or more letters that you can subsequently play. The strategy isn't deep (you can slap random letters into the rack to see what's beneath them, then put them back on the board with no penalty and plan your play accordingly), but it's a lot of fun, and getting a sequence of three or four nine-letter words is difficult and therefore gratifying.

The game has a dictionary, of course: it has to know if the word you're proposing is legitimate. It's the usual Apple dictionary, scrubbed of anything that might potentially offend anyone, although since you would have to already know the word to be able to use it in the game, I honestly can't see how offense enters into it. Presumably the company is afraid that some parent is going to test the game for dirty words, and, having found them, screech that their children will be corrupted by the game (ignoring the fact that, as I have said, you have to know the word exists before you can try to play it). How very Johnsonian!**

The point of this (yes, of course there is a point to this) is that I was playing today's game--is it the same game for everyone or does it randomly generate a batch of tiles? I don't know--and one of the words that it was possible to make was "caesurae". Which the dictionary rejected. Huh, I thought, and since there was another ess available, tried "caesuras" instead. Which the dictionary accepted.

Now, honestly. If you look at "caesura", you can tell instantly that it must be Latin and can be no other, which, of course, is just what it is. It comes from "cadere", "to cut", and its plural in Latin--again, you know this by looking at it--is "caesurae" (just as the plural of "alumna" is "alumnae", since they are feminine nouns).

In English, of course, we have a habit of pluralizing by adding "-s" or "-es" to the ends of words, and so it is natural that we would make "caesuras" the plural of "caesura". That's fine; that's as it should be. But "caesurae" is also in the English language, giving us two valid plurals for the same word (not at all unheard of in English, which positively revels in multiple forms), and what committee decision decided that one ought to be in the game's dictionary but not the other I cannot even comprehend.

At any rate, now you have a new word, perhaps. A caesura is, as its name tells you, a cutting, but a very specific sort: an audible pause in poetry or song. English is studded with punctuation marks, and nearly all of them denote a caesura of some length or intensity: period, comma, colon, semicolon, question mark, exclamation mark, dash, ellipses, parentheses--evidences of caesurae, every one.

* You can even play an online version of it here. It's not the same as the iPod version: you only get seven letters instead of nine, which limits your scope for delighted smugness, although I would like to note that I just played a quick round of it online and spelled "zeolite" on my very first turn.***

** Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister, Mrs. Brooke, they were every now and then honoured by the visits of Dr. Johnson. He called on them one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. 'What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?' said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.
H.D. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897) vol. II, page 390, edited by George Birkbeck Hill

*** I would also like to note that one of the reasons I don't play Scrabble is that Scrabble players tend to memorize useful-to-them lists of words that fit specific situations--all possible legitimate permutations of the letters ADEIRST****, all the words that use "-q-" without "-u-"*****, all allowable two-letter words ******, that sort of thing--but they don't actually care what the words mean, which is an incomprehensible and intolerable state of affairs to me. I wouldn't have played "zeolite" if I didn't know what it meant--not because I take some moral stance regarding word games, but because once I know a word exists, I must know what it means, and, more often than not, its etymological provenance.

**** Aridest, astride, diaster, disrate, staider, tardies, tirades.

***** Qi, qat, qadi, qaid, qats, qoph, faqir, qadis, qaids, qanat, qophs, tranq, faqirs, qabala, qanats, qindar, qwerty, sheqel, tranqs, qindars, qintars, qwertys, qindarka, sheqelim. Do you know what most of these words mean? Most Scrabble players don't, either. I mean, some of them do, but mostly, knowing what the word means is just useless information, something to clutter up your brain when you could be memorizing more lists of words. In Scrabble, as long as you know the word is valid, and can point to it in whatever Scrabble dictionary your club is using, then it's a word, and that's all you need to know. You could read "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis if you want more on the subject, but mostly I just found the book depressing, because how can these people not care what words mean? It's like collecting butterflies because you like sticking pins through dead insects.

****** You can look that up for yourself, I think.


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