or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hard and Soft

It took some digging, but I finally tracked down the etymology of "osteomalacia" for you. You're welcome!

Yeah, I know. You'd probably never even heard of osteomalacia before now. I hadn't, either, until I followed a Pharyngula link to a Huffington Post page full of medical quackery regarding H1N1, aka swine flu, and every time I look at "H1N1" I can't help but pronounce it "heinie". Anyway, the HuffPo doctor recommends homeopathic remedies, so you know he's talking out his ass: homeopathy doesn't work and can't work, and I'm not going to get into why; you're on the Internet, you can do the research.

At any rate, the doctor used the word "osteomalacia", which means "softening of the bones", and of course you know that "osteo-" is Latin for "bone", as in "osteoporosis", porous and therefore brittle bones. But what of "-malacia"?

It really did take a lot of digging, but I eventually surmised, and then discovered for a fact, that the meaningful part of "-malacia" was a very productive Indo-European word stem which is actually "mel-", "soft", but which often shows up in altered forms as "-mol-" or "-mal-" or even "-mil-".

Some other mel- words: "mollusk", which is soft and squishy inside its hard shell; "melt", which is to say "become soft"; "emollient", "having a softening effect"; "mild"; "smelt", to melt down metal; and "enamel", a melted-down porcelain paste. But not, unfortunately, "malleable", which, though it means "soft", actually means "able to be beaten into shape by a hammer", since the "mal-" of "malleable" is related to "mallet", from Latin "malleus", "hammer".

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sound Effects

Have you listened to that aria yet? Because you should. I can't get it out of my head. I have decided that it is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard in my life. Suddenly I understand a story told of the legendary castrato Farinelli: "during ten years, until the death of Philip V, he sang four songs to the King every night without change of any kind." Jaroussky could sing me that song every night for the rest of my life and I would never tire of it. I mean, as long as he brought his orchestra with him.


Last night just after I went to bed I got hiccups. After waiting a minute to see if they might subside on their own--they never do, I don't know why I bothered--I got up to cure them. My Newfoundland grandmother's sure cure for hiccups wasn't a teaspoonful of sugar, or a sudden fright: it was nine glutches of water.

"Glutch"! Don't you love it? Isn't it fantastically vivid and onomatopoetic? It's even better spoken with a proper Newfoundland vowel, just halfway between "ah" and the more usual "uh", which is to say a short "-u-" with the jaw dropped a little.

The word was likely brought over to the island by British settlers. The OED neglects to mention it, but, rather surprisingly, Dictionary.com has a listing for it, noting that it is both a verb ("to swallow") and a noun ("a mouthful"). The Dictionary of Newfoundland English lists it, of course, and in fact repeats my grandmother's sage advice verbatim: "If a person has hiccups and wants to get rid of them he can do so by taking nine glutches of water." "Of uncert. origin," says Dictionary.com, but I think Dictionary.com is just not willing to go out on a limb, because "glutch", like "gulp", is one of the most obviously onomatopoetic words imaginable.

The nine glutches did their trick, the hiccups were stayed, I went back to bed, and all was well. I mean, until three hours later when I woke up to use the conveniences and could not get back to sleep and so got up and began writing this. But that is the usual state of my life.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Unkindest Cut

Now, I believe I promised you "kes-".

It is an Indo-European root meaning "to cut", and since you know that cutting is a fairly basic concept (which means that the root is likely to spawn plenty of variants) and that "castrate" comes from it, you might be thinking that some other cutting words are from the same source, and you would be right, but you would probably not guess what most of the words are.

How about "chaste"? Yes, really. Latin "castus", "cut off from", gave rise to "caste" in the mid sixteenth century, a word meaning "a race of people", which is to say "people of pure stock", people cut off from contaminating outside influences, but much earlier than that (in the early days of the language, actually, the first part of the thirteenth century) it had sprung up as "chaste", from that same sense of purity.

How about the word "castle", a fortress heavily fortified and cut off from the outside world, and also place names ending in "-caster" or "-chester" such as Winchester and Doncaster? Same source. (And also the town of Cheshire, known for cheese and cats. A cat, anyway.)

Here comes a big tangle. "Quash", "to crush, to suppress", is from the Latin frequentative "quassare", "to shatter", from "quatere", "to shake", through French. ("Squash", with an almost identical meaning as "quash", is from "ex-" plus "quassare".) These come from, or are related to, Latin "cassus", "empty, void", in turn related to "castus", presumably because the...empty container has been cut off from its contents? I don't know, but the etymological link is sound. Bizarrely, "cask" and its (presumed) diminutive "casket" seem to be related through an uncertain chain of etymologic alterations; the stream of meanings is apparently something like "shattered - potsherd - pot - helmet - skull - container - container for wine". Though probably not quite in that order. Though who knows?

You would think that the verb "to cashier", which is to say "to dismiss", would somehow be related to the cashier who rings through your purchases, and yet they are from two completely different sources. The noun is from French "caissier", in turn from "caisse", "money-box", while the verb is from "casser", "to discharge", also "to break", from Latin "cassus", "void", in the sense of an annulment.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Cut Above

Now, here's what I wanted to get to yesterday before I was so pixilated with grammar:

You really need to watch this Youtube video, a Vivaldi aria by a countertenor named Philippe Jaroussky. Maybe you don't like opera, maybe you don't like Vivaldi, maybe you don't like countertenors, but you ought to listen to it anyway, because it is the most perfect thing of its kind ever. The orchestra is playing rather desperate staccato figures over which the singer's voice floats in a plangent song about love which is about to be lost:

Vedro con mio diletto
l'alma dell'alma mia
Il core del mio cor pien di contento.
E se dal caro oggetto
lungi convien che sia
Sospirero penando ogni momento...

What pleasure it will give me
to see the soul of my soul
the heart of my heart
filled with happiness.
And if I must be parted from the one I love
I shall spend every moment
in sighing, and suffering...

I am obsessed with this. I have listened to it dozens of times in the last few days. I've heard plenty of countertenors and enjoyed some of them, but Jaroussky has a glorious tone, never forced or squally, even in the uppermost register. I do not think any living being of either sex could sing it more beautifully.

In Renaissance times, women were not allowed to sing in church, so boys whose voices had not changed and occasionally men who could produce a good falsetto sound sang the highest parts. Eventually it became the practice to castrate boys to keep their voices from changing by forestalling puberty; as their bodies matured, their chests, ribcages, and lungs expanded, but their vocal cords hardly lengthened or thickened at all, making it possible to continue producing a high sound, but with the power and intensity of a man's voice.

"Castrate" comes from Latin "castrum", "knife", which in turn derives from an Indo-European root which I can't believe I haven't done yet, and which I will have to get to tomorrow, because it is time to get ready for work. You know what I'll be listening to on my iPod on the way there.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Beginning

Okay, I had this thing I was going to talk about, but then I stumbled across something else that is really really cool. I guess if you are a grammarian or have studied Latin to the point of fluency, then you will have heard of this; otherwise, hang on, because it is tremendously interesting.

I vaguely wondered where the word "adolescent" might have come from, because it doesn't suggest anything else in English. It turns out that it is pretty much straight-up Latin which came about, though a series of little grammatical changes, from the verb "alere", "to nourish". To be nourished from infancy is to be able to grow up, of course, and so the Latin verb "adolescere" meant just that, compounded from, as we would expect, "ad-", "towards", and "alescere", "to be nourished".

All well and good. What really grabbed me is that "alescere" is derived from "alere" by the insertion of "-sc-" (and an extra vowel to make it flow), and that this infix is used to create a grammatical form not really seen in English; the inchoative. An inchoative aspect gives a verb the sense of just beginning to happen, and we can give a verb this sense in English by prefixing it with "to start" or "to begin" or occasionally "to get": "to start running," "to get going".

Naturally, when I learned this, I was delighted, and I began racking my brain (inchoative aspect!) to try to think of any words that had "-sc-" within them. "Coalesce" is from the same root as "adolescent", and devolves into "to grow up together", and therefore at one metaphorical remove "to grow together". "Dehiscent" is not a word you see every day, although it happens that I know it, and it too is an inchoative form, of the Latin verb "dehiscere", "to begin to gape open"; dehiscence is the act of splitting open, as when a seed pod pops and releases its contents. "Irascible" is related to "irate", from Latin "ira", "ire"; "tumescent" from "tumere", "to swell", "obsolescent" from "obsolere", "to fall into disuse" (itself from "ob-", "away from", and "solere", "to be accustomed to"). "Reminisce" is ultimately derived from "mens", "the mind".

That was where I ran out of words, but naturally I dug around and found some more for you. "Crescent" is the inchoative of "creare", "to create", because a crescent moon (or a crescendo) is increasing in size, creating itself or being created. Nouns ending in "-escence" such as "phosphorescence", "fluorescence", and "iridescence" (and their adjectival forms ending in "-escent") were devised after the Latin model and so are inchoative as well.

Not every word containing "-sc-" is inchoative. ("Descend" is from "de-" plus the Latin version of Indo-European "skand-" "to jump", and "ascetic" is from Greek "asketes", "priest".) But plenty of them are.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Here is a sentence from a New Yorker article called "Read All About It" by Adam Gopnik on page 21 of the September 28th edition:

Brown's long occult-mystery novels, featuring the intrepid Dr. Robert Langdon, a tenured Harvard professor of something called symbology--a field unknown to both Harvard and spell-check (try it)--are the welcome if improbable million-and-beyond best-sellers of our time, with the latest episode, "The Lost Symbol", now upon us.

Well, I love a challenge! So I did try it, and what do you know? The spellchecker in my Macintosh OS 10.5.8 ("Leopard") doesn't red-flag "symbology". Nor does the spellchecker that Firefox uses in Ubuntu Version 9.04 ("Jaunty Jackalope"). It may not be in the standard Windows spell-checking dictionary, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Symbology may be a made-up field of study but it isn't a made-up word; it's even listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as dating from 1840 and first put down in print by no less than Thomas de Quincey. It is, frankly, stupid to claim that the word is "unknown to spell-check", because it is demonstrably untrue, besides which it says nothing about the validity of the word. ("Jackalope", above, gets red-pencilled by the Mac spellchecker, and isn't that a word? Of course it is.) If a particular string of characters isn't in a particular computer's spellchecker and so gets a warning underline, you don't know that the word doesn't exist, although you may have learned something about the people who compiled the dictionary used by the spellchecker. If a writer can't even be bothered to check to see if the spellchecker's jagged red assertion is true, then that tells you something about the writer, even if it's no more than that he was under a deadline.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Today in the comments section of a website I noticed the misspelling "obsurd". (I'm not telling you which website and I'm not singling out the comment's author for ridicule, either. It's just a mistake, that's all.) It is, of course, "absurd", and what an odd looking word that is when you really look at it!

The first part is obvious enough: Latin "ad-", which either means "from" or is an intensifier, converted into "ab-" because that is what we do before the letter ess. But what about that surd?

I couldn't tell because "surd" is actually a word referring to a kind of abstruse mathematical expression involving repeatedly extracted roots of irrational numbers, and I couldn't imagine what this might have to with absurdity, except for the obvious fact that such a thing is absurdly distant from most people's experiences of mathematics.

Well, as you may have guessed, the "-surd" in "absurd" is in fact the same as the mathematical surd, or at least they're from the same place: Latin "surdus", "deaf, mute". The reasoning goes that someone who is deaf and mute has a hard time making himself understood to hearing people, and so something which is absurd is likewise incomprehensible and senseless. A surd is so called because in the original Arabic, an irrational number was called "inaudible" (in contrast to the "audible" rational numbers), this eventually became in Arabic "asamm", "deaf or mute", and this was translated directly into Latin "surdus". All very strange, but that's mathematicians for you.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

I guess it's Fashion Week again, or something, because Slate has re-run a couple of pieces from 2004 and 2005 about it. Down at the bottom of the latter piece is the following:

Correction, Feb. 6, 2008: This article originally São Paulo incorrectly. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Your corrections shouldn't need corrections. Your corrections that do somehow need corrections should probably have been corrected more or less at the time they were originally published, so that they aren't still incorrect twenty-one months later.


But this does not surprise me, because here is a sentence from a rather more recent Slate article, this one datelined yesterday, about news coverage of a recent murder at an American university:

Gristly crime stands in disconcerting relief against their vaunted reputations—and the resulting cognitive dissonance has news weight.

There's no way Jack Shafer wrote "gristly" and didn't notice it and submitted the piece for publication and managed to get it published without anyone else noticing, is there? And yet he can't possibly have meant "gristly", can he? He must surely have meant "grisly", right?

I hate it when that happens. I groused once about a writer who used "glowering" instead of, I assume, "glowing". A writer of, say, fiction can use words with vague or multifarious meanings to add richness to their work, but a journalist is expected to write accurately and precisely so that there's no doubt about their intention. It's just barely possible, maybe, that Shafer meant to write "gristly": maybe the crimes in question have lots of cartilage and sinew flung about. But "grisly", which I have covered in some depth here, is (to say the least) much more commonly used to refer to crimes. No, I'm pretty sure it's a simple error on the writer's part--an error which another reader would have caught. After all, this one did.

Once again, it's the sort of mistake that someone might easily make, that a spellchecker won't ever catch, but that an editor of some sort would, which once again points to the short-sightedness of publications in getting rid of any and all editorial oversight as an affront to the bottom line.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Speed Freak

I think this joke comes from Nicole Hollander's cartoon Sylvia:

"I live like I type: fast, and with a lot of mistakes."

Words to live by. But at least I know how to spell, and generally catch all the spelling errors as soon as I've committed them. The ones I do miss will usually show up underlined in red by the spellchecker (I invariably, and I mean absolutely every time and without fail, type "synthetic" as "synethtic"). Then I'll re-read what I've written, and re-read it again, and so I usually get all the mistakes. I hope.

Sometimes the spellchecker will surprise you by failing to flag a word that you typed by accident. I was writing an e-mail to a friend this morning and instead of "rule" typed "tule". And this was not underlined, which means the spellchecker thinks it's a proper word.

And it is! A fantastically useless word in my universe, but a word nonetheless. A tule is, according to the various dictionaries,

either of two large New World bulrushes (Scirpus californicus and S. acutus).

So there you go. Not many bulrushes in my part of the world, and if I do need to talk about them I generally just call them bulrushes, but maybe you can find some use for it.

The "bul-" in "bulrush", by the way, is the word "bull", also seen in such compounds as "bullfinch" and "bullfrog", in the sense of "large and ungainly". Or else it's from "bole", because of its thick stem like the bole or trunk of a tree. Nobody seems to know, so they're just guessing. (Even the OED presents both possibilities equally, and then goes on to say, "The suggestion 'pool-rush' is baseless", which means that even etymologists just make stuff up sometimes out of desperation.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Body Language

Over here on Pharyngula is a link to a video of vultures eating a corpse in Tibet. Well, there was a link, anyway, but I guess someone complained to YouTube, because it's gone. That's okay as far as I'm concerned: I don't have any problem with scavengers eating human remains, but I don't really need to see it happening.

Anyway, I thought of four words that mean "human remains", and as it turns out, I could only figure out one of them without any help. The four words are "carcass", "corpse", "body", and "cadaver". Can you at least make a guess at the most obvious one? I bet you can, if you look closely, maybe strip off a letter or two....

"Carcass" probably comes from the Latin verb "cadere", "to fall, to decline, to die", which I mentioned here in reference to the word "escheatment", which is when you die intestate and your estate reverts to the government, and also here in reference to the words "decay", "decadent" (i.e. decayed morally), and "deciduous" (trees that decay in the autumn).

"Carcass" has the French ancestors "charcois" and "carcois", but nobody knows where they came from.

"Body" appears to come from an ancient German word, "botah", which became "bodig" in Old English: it originally meant "cask", and later "trunk" or "chest", both words which to this day refer to the major central portion of the human body. Its original sense is very old; the abbreviated sense in which we often use it now, to mean "dead body" or "body of a dead person", dates from the late thirteenth century.

That leaves "corpse", the only one I figured out, and if you hack the last letter off you will see "corps", which still exists in English to refer to a body of people, and also shows up in such words terms as "corporal punishment" (i.e. the bodily sort, as opposed to, say, detention), "corporation" (a legal body), "corpulent" (having too much of a body), and "corporeal". The word "corps", with its silent "-p-", is from French, which to this day uses it to mean "body".

Monday, September 14, 2009


Yet another one of those clever blogs that I wish I'd thought of (but my brain doesn't work that way, alas) is Food in Real Life, which has a devilishly simple idea: buy some commercial food, prepare it and stage it so that it looks as much as possible like the picture on the box, and compare the two.

Less rigorously controlled are the reader submissions, which are usually just a photograph of the food item with no real effort made to duplicate the serving suggestion on the package. Here's one for a meatless product called Smart Bacon, which, as a vegetarian product, I can tell you from experience, doesn't duplicate its namesake with much fidelity.

Here's the company's own web page about the product. Now just have a look at that box.

It says "Pig-out intelligently." Intelligence wouldn't be selling, or eating, a faux-meat product*; it would be using correct grammar on your packaging.

"Pig out" in this context is an imperative phrasal verb, and like a great many phrasal verbs in English, it can be hyphenated into a single word, a transformation which invariably changes its part of speech. In this case, it turns into a noun; "to pig out" means to eat a large quantity of food, and "a pig-out" is the act of doing so, or an oversized meal. This sort of transformation is not a hard concept to grasp. What is hard to grasp is how a company could have printed such a mistake on the front of their packaging without anybody noticing.

* I used to be a vegetarian, and it's not always easy; sometimes you really do just want a burger or a piece of ham or something, but you want to stick to your principles, too. However, in hindsight it seems like a strange and rarefied form of hypocrisy to do so. If you want to be a vegetarian, at least own the name and don't pretend to be eating something you're not. Would you deliberately wear fake fur, giving the impression that you had had a number of small animals killed for your sake when you really hadn't? Would you go fishing and ostentatiously toss back the fish you caught so that you could have the superficial pleasure of the kill without actually killing something? No? Then don't eat fake meat, either.

I think I would make an exception for those faux hamburgers, though, partly because some of them are actually quite delicious, but mostly because putting something between two pieces of bread is time-honoured and not necessarily indicative of eating meat; you can grill up a portobello mushroom and shove it in a bun and not pretend that it's a hamburger. But those fake luncheon-meat slices and hot dogs and chicken nuggets are meant to be a kind of pretend-meat, and surely that's the very thing you wouldn't eat if your vegetarianism had any kind of meaning.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Rest

As you know if you own or ever have owned or been owned by one, cats love to climb into cardboard boxes. It is an irresistible thing for them. (Paper grocery bags, too. Also open suitcases, desk drawers, tucked-in bedclothes, and really almost any well-defined enclosed space.) I have never known a cat that didn't do this with at least one of the available forms of space (some cats prefer gym bags, some gravitate to desk cubbyholes, but nearly all of them seem to adore cardboard boxes). I am fairly sure it stems from their evolutionary history of being both hunter and prey, and therefore liking to fit themselves into small spaces from which they can watch without being watched. Therefore, making cat furniture out of cardboard boxes seems like an obvious thing to do if you're the sort of person who likes to make things for pets, and therefore here is a stylish chaise longue for a cat.

Don't you just want to run out and get a refrigerator box and make one?

Now, in North American English, in Canada for sure, and for all I know in Britain as well, a chaise longue is almost invariably called a "chaise lounge". We generally pronounce the "chaise" part as if it were French (which is to say "shays" rather than "chaze"), but the second half has mutated from "longue", which is the feminine form of the adjective "long", which means in English what it means in French, as well it might, since we got it from them, into "lounge". Not mutated, exactly: the verb "to lounge" has been in English for a fair while, some five hundred years. What happened was, people looked at the term, figured, "Well, that's got to be a typo, since we lounge around on it," and started calling it a chaise lounge.

Here's the interesting thing about "lounge"; nobody is exactly sure where it might have come from. The Oxford English Dictionary is of the opinion that it might be traced back to "lungis", a corruption of "Longinus", the soldier who is said to have pierced Jesus' side with a spear as he hung on the cross. Huh. "Lungis" meant, for obscure reasons, a slow, lazy person, so it's not hard to see where "lounge" comes into the picture. I think a more likely etymology is that "lounge" actually is related to "longue", from the expression "s'allonger paresseusement", "to lie down stretched out" (with the "-long-" in "allonger" meaning exactly what you think it means). Here's the really baffling thing, though: we got it from Scottish.

Anyway, "chaise lounge" is extremely well established in English: if you are even pickier than I am, you might say that it's wrong, but it isn't. It's been in the language for over two hundred years and is immovably part of the language, though it stems from a sort of folk etymology. I would unembarrassedly say "chaise lounge", although I would hope that the article in question had a backrest at both ends rather than just one, because then I could call it a "récamier", and isn't that a lovely word? (Although if you want to be absolutely correct about it, and I am sure you do, a récamier has no long side, just a backrest at each end. This does not sound as comfortable to me as a proper chaise, because I think I would feel as if I were going to fall out of one side or the other. Presumably Mme. Récamier was made of different stuff than I am, or she just had a better sense of balance.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Simulated Knowledge

You want to know why I post so infrequently these days? It isn't the summer heat (this morning it was 5 degrees, which means fall is coming! Yay!), it isn't lack of things to talk about, it isn't even mere indolence. It's The Sims 3, which is an evil, evil game. It sucks up your life as you control one or more little proxy characters, running their lives, making sure they're fed and rested and have all the necessities of life--in other words, you're living a life vicariously through them, and that is wrong. But you can't stop playing! There's always one more hoop to jump through, one more job promotion, one more opportunity to fulfill, one more thing.

The game isn't perfect, though. Could have used one more perusal by the editor's gimlet eye. Here's a screen capture. (As always, you may click on the images to make them bigger and more readable.)

This is Gerry Silverstein. Vice cop, ace fisherman, award-winning cook, devoted husband, best-selling novelist, athlete, painter, all-around mensch. If he were a grammar cop, he would have busted some programmer for not having installed one single line of code so that "an" would be inserted in front of words that begin with a vowel instead of "a", and we wouldn't have things like "a Outstanding Vampire Fish".* (The program does the same when he catches "a Excellent Red Herring" or whatnot.)

And what have we here?

Gerry's compiling dossiers on suspicious town residents. Apparently they have something called "pasttimes", which isn't a programming error: it's just a plain old mistake.

The word "pastime", as it is correctly spelled, has, as should be evident, nothing to do with the past, making "pasttime" wrong and in fact impossible. A pastime is something that passes the time: we took the word as a calque** from French "passe-temps", turning into "passe tyme", then "passetyme" and eventually into the modern form.

Henry the Eighth wrote a song called "Passetyme with Gude Companye", and yes, he did write tunes. Of course he did; in the Renaissance, every educated person was expected to be conversant with a host of languages, skills, and art forms. Why do you think we have the term "Renaissance man"?

God, I hope Kate Beaton doesn't mind my posting her cartoons all the time but she is so completely awesome and genius, my absolute favourite online cartoonist.
* See the statue of the jaunty fellow with the gardening implement? Yeah, Gerry is fishing in the graveyard. Best place to catch Vampire Fish and Deathfish, doncha know. Sorry about the general darkness of the picture, but it is nighttime.

** A calque is the adoption of a word or phrase from one language into another by breaking the expression into its component pieces and literally translating them. English "honeymoon" was absorbed into French as "lune de miel", literally "honey moon" or "moon of honey". The English expression refers to the sweet first month of a marriage, "month" and "moon" being related in various and obvious ways.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Snake Eyes

Let's keep this very short and simple. I was reading David Foster Wallace and probably not enjoying myself as much as I should have, and he used the lovely word "herpetic", meaning "snaky" or "snakelike", and not for the first time (because I knew that a herpetologist is a specialist in snakes and other reptiles) found myself wondering why herpes, the disease, seemingly shares its name with snakes and snakish things. Do snakes give you herpes in the same way that toads give you warts?

Not at all. Or, rather, yes, of course, because toads don't give you warts, either. The Greek verb "herpein" meant "to creep"; snakes creep along the ground, and herpes spreads across the skin in a creeping manner. Just like that.

"Herpein", by the way, turned into "serpere" in Latin, with the same meaning, and so a snake is also known as a serpent.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

With a Smile

I almost feel bad about how entirely slack I've been for the past little while, but it was a fairly gross August, not particularly congenial to writing, or thinking of any sort. But I'm back. Huzzah.


There's a mobile food kitchen here in Moncton which feeds the down-and-out. I passed the vehicle on my way home from the gym this morning and noticed that the sign on it read, in French, "la dessert alimentaire mobile".

Mobile...alimentary...dessert? What?

A moment's thought will suggest, if you have any French in your background, another possibility, and that is that the English word "dessert", with its extremely specific meaning ("a dish, usually sweet, served, usually, at the end of a meal"), probably came from a French word, that word being "servir", "to serve". And that is, as you can imagine, the case.

It's even more interesting, actually. "Servir" means "to serve" and "desservir", you may have guessed, means more or less "to un-serve"; that is, "to clear the table at the end of the meal". A dessert, therefore, is the thing that signals that you had better finish eating because the table is about to be emptied and cleaned.

The "dessert" in the French phrase on the van has nothing to do with desserts in the English sense: it's the third person present form of the verb "desservir"; "il/elle dessert".


I would have sworn up and down that I had done "just desserts", but I checked my records and apparently I haven't, so here goes.

"Just desserts", of course, must be wrong, because it doesn't make any sense. It is instead "just deserts", "deserts" meaning in this instance "things that are deserved", a very old meaning which no longer really exists in English except for that phrase, which may be why it's so often spelled the wrong way. "Deserve" doesn't come from "desservir"; it's from "deservir", an altogether different kettle of fish, with "de-" acting as an intensifier, meaning "completely", in the same way that "re-" so often acts in that capacity in English ("refine", "to make completely fine"). "Deserve", then, originally meant "to serve very well; to do good service to", and gradually shifted its meaning to become "to be entitled to or worthy of good service".


And yet the "dessert" on the truck does not come from "deservir", "to serve well"; it comes from "desservir", "to un-serve". Where's the sense in that, you ask? Pretty simple: "deservir" no longer exists in French, with "desservir" serving both purposes. Piece o'cake. ("Servir", "to serve", still exists, though, along with such composites as "conservir" and "reservir", which will be transparent even to the non-French speaker, and "asservir", which will not, because it means "to enslave".)