or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 26, 2009

And Accounted For

Well, Merry Christmas to you all, or merry whatever it is you celebrate. If I thought I was jaded and bitter last year, it's nothing to how I felt this year, with the season beginning even earlier (we had our first Christmas merchandise at the end of July) and the music much, much worse than usual (don't get me started).

Jim and I had a midday meal, but since in 2006 we had beef stew instead of turkey, we didn't feel too bad about having tourtiere (a sort of meat pie) with gravy and stuffing and vegetables. Otherwise, we more or less ignored the existence of Christmas altogether. We have pretty much everything we need, so we didn't even exchange presents.

Aren't you curious about the word "present"? It has three separate kinds of meanings, with various little jigsaw tabs where they might interlock, but it is not immediately obvious how the noun "present" meaning "right now" has anything to do with the noun meaning "gift", and the adjective meaning "in this place", and the verb meaning "to display to". And yet they clearly must have some sort of relationship.

It starts with the adjective, which is compounded from Latin "pre-", "before, in front of" and "esse", "to be". Once that's spelled out, it's as obvious as can be; someone who is present is standing there before you. The verb naturally follows: to present someone is to place them before you so they can be acknowledged. The present is the time which is immediately at hand, which is right in front of you (as opposed to the behind-you past and the off-in-the-distance future). And a present is something that has been presented to you. There are dozens of finely varied meanings ("to present arms"), but they always boil down to the same thing: whatever it is, it's right there.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Who even knows how I find these things? I certainly don't. I just puddle around the Internet and open twenty-thirty tabs and read them over the next day or so and some of those lead me to other places, and eventually I can't even remember how I got there.

But this particular there is about bats, and I guess I ended up there because I was temporarily interested in how bat and human arms and fingers are similar, and they really are,

which means either that a creator built mammals to the same basic body plan, or that humans and bats evolved in different directions from a common ancestor.

But here's the first sentence of the article:

The German word for bats is "Fledermäuse," which translates as "flying mice."

Not quite. Bats do fly, obviously, but if you look at "Fledermaus" (the singular form), you can probably hazard a guess as to a better translation: "fleder-" is in fact related to English "flitter" , the frequentative of "flit".

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Straw Man

Why, it seems like only days ago that I was criticizing people who use foreign food terms without understanding them, and now look what we have here!

TIP: Use creme fraise instead of cream in the peas.

"Fraise" is the French word for "strawberry". The term the writer was taking a blind stab at was "creme fraiche", or, if you want to be particularly accurate and French about it, crème fraîche, though of course in English we generally discard accent marks in foreign imports.

"Fraiche" is the French word for "fresh"; more accurately, it's the feminine form of the adjective, the masculine of which is "frais". "Fraise", despite the fact that it looks very much like these words, is quite unrelated, instead being akin, believe it or not, to Italian "fragola", "strawberry", which in turn is derived from (of course) Latin "fragum". (French "framboise", "raspberry", is also related: the "-se" ending on "fraise" was apparently appended in imitation of "framboise".)

Monday, December 21, 2009


Here's a grisly story from Slate about a murder in Peru and its raison d'etre, a container of human fat, which was supposedly being trafficked to the cosmetics industry but was actually collected for use in some dark ritual by the superstitious. (A moment's thought will suggest that if commercial skin-cream purveyors actually needed human fat, they wouldn't have to pay Peruvian dirtbags for murder but could easily get it from liposuction clinics.)

The story employs a most interesting word that I'd never heard before and that I'm betting you hadn't, either; "axungia". It's soft animal fat, as opposed to lard (which is firm--think of cold bacon fat) and suet (which is dry). Since humans are animals, axungia can come from us, too.

The word comes from Latin, as you may have guessed: it means "axle grease", composed of the forebears of "axis" and "unguent".


Here's a delightful thing from Boing Boing, an Italian rock song which is sung to lyrics which sound very very much like English that you can't quite wrap your brain around. They're nonsense, of course, but they feel like English.

Every culture is going to have an idea of what a foreign language sounds like to them; the Muppets' Swedish Chef probably doesn't sound a whole lot like actual Swedish, but it does sound like what Swedish sounds to an English speaker, which is not the same thing. The stress patterns (or lack thereof), the average length or number of syllables, the distribution of vowels and consonants, the presence or absence of diphthongs and nasalized vowels, rolled "r"s and fricatives; all these and a lot more are going to determine the overall character of a language's sound. Even two closely related languages are going to have differences, as in this famous chunk of gibberish German, easily recognizable as such to any English speaker (and just as easily comprehended if you know even a little of the language):

ACHTUNG! ALLES LOOKENSPEEPERS! Das computermachine ist nicht für gefingerpoken und mittengrabben. Ist easy schnappen der springenwerk, blowenfusen und poppencorken mit spitzensparken. Ist nicht für gewerken bei das dummkopfen. Das rubbernecken sichtseeren keepen das cotten-pickenen hans in das pockets muss; relaxen und watchen das blinkenlichten.

Doubtless a German native would say that this isn't much like real German, and it actually isn't, but it feels like German to an English ear, and that's the point.

Jim thinks the Italian rock song doesn't sound particularly English, and maybe it doesn't, to him, but English is so different from Italian, and this song's lyrics so different from Italian, that i sounds right to me. I can easily imagine that it sounds like English to an Italian speaker, most particularly the short bit at 3:05, which has (to an English-language brain) that tantalizing quality of being just barely beyond the point of comprehension: you feel as if you could understand what he was saying if you just focused on it.


I had the most bizarre argument with a co-worker yesterday: let's call her Zelda. She's Canadian but was mostly raised in America, and although she's funny and smart, she has some extremely strong ideas about language, specifically about how ridiculous and wrong Canadian English is, both in usage and pronunciation. Quebec, she insists, must be pronounced "kwe-beck" (in the usual English manner) and not "ke-bec" or "kay-bec" (as it would be in French, which is perfectly logical since we live in a bilingual province in a bilingual country) because we're speaking English and therefore have to pronounce everything in the English manner. (I wonder how she manages "détente" or "ballet".) Likewise, to her, "papier-maché" is wrong: it must "paper maché", as it's usually (though not always) styled in American English, and "papier-maché" is "stupid". And don't get me started on her pronunciation of the very usual Canadian "pop" (as opposed to American "soda"), which she parodies as a long, exaggerated "paaaaaaaaahp".

Now, I have been accused of being one of those people who always has to be right, and of course I am; what's the alternative, being wrong but adhering to your wrong belief? I think it's an admirable trait to always try to be right; when you're wrong, you cheerfully admit it (as I will always do) and change your way of thinking, and then you're right again. But Zelda, whatever her good qualities, unfortunately likes to be right without generally ever wanting to admit that she has ever been wrong, so when a discussion begins to go south, she has a tendency to treat it as if it were a personal attack (as if she's being criticized for the mere existence of her side of the argument rather than the argument itself). That's when it gets ugly.

Yesterday, for some reason, probably because we were using the vacuum press, I idly asked another co-worker (Wanda, why not) to spell "vacuum". She ventured "vacume", which I think is a pretty usual misspelling, and then tried "vaccume" and "vaccum" and a couple of other things, but never did stumble upon the correct one, which I will certainly concede is improbable because a doubled "u" is extremely rare in English, existing only in a small handful of Latin borrowings (the only other common one is "continuum", with "residuum" being rarely encountered and "menstruum" even less so).

So Zelda wandered by and Wanda called out, "Hey, Zelda! How do you spell 'vacuum'?" She ventured "vacume" as well, and was corrected by Wanda and me, which is when all hell broke loose.

Zelda insisted that "vacume" was correct and that "vacuum" was wrong, and I suppose I was less than completely nice and patient, but I really didn't insult her when I said that, no, "vacume" was not a correct spelling, and that I was a really good speller (which I am) and that "vacuum" was the only way that the word was ever spelled. She whipped out her web phone and Googled "vacume"; this first hit was for the Urban Dictionary--everyone's top pick for accuracy in orthography!--which has one definition for the word, an incorrect one: "The same as a vaccum anywhere else in the world, however in Ontario & Quebec it is spelt this way." No, it isn't. Not in Ontario or Quebec, certainly not in New Brunswick, nor anywhere else in the English-speaking world. "Vacuum", always and only, everywhere. "Vacume" may unfortunately become a standard spelling, in defiance of history and etymology, but it isn't right now.

But right now, Zelda is mad at me because she thinks I called her stupid (which I didn't), and she still thinks that "vacume" is correct. And she's still wrong.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Mouthful

Employing a somewhat less than fully naturalized foreign-language expression is a perilous endeavour, because unless you know the original language, the odds are unfortunately good that you're going to get it wrong somehow.

Here's are a few sentences from a recent Slate article about Christmas gift-giving:

Cheese may, at first, seem like a bright idea. A lovely hunk of parmesan, or a log of bucheron—delicious dairy twists on the Bouche de Noel. What red-blooded American doesn't love fine foreign cheese?

What red-blooded Canadian doesn't want to see French spelled correctly?

You'd think that "bucheron", not a word in everyone's vocabulary, might have been a hint that "Bouche de Noel" was incorrect. Last things first: "bouche" is the French word for "mouth", whereas "bûche"*, a very different thing, means "log". The Bûche de Noel is a traditional French (and Canadian) dessert at Christmastime, a sort of jelly roll cunningly decorated to resemble a log, hence the name.

"Bucheron", or "boucheron", or even "bûcheron", is a kind of cheese sold in the form of a log or roll, and the name accordingly means "logger" or "woodcutter". See how it all fits together?

The Slate writer, and any subsequent editors (if there are any), didn't.

* It is tempting to guess that "bûche" is directly derived from "bush", since that circumflex usually denotes a vanished ess, making it "busche". It sort of is, distantly, but it's actually from "bois", "wood", that word being related, at some remove, to "bush".

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Public Service Announcement

As you may know, there is a fair number of botanical names which are formed from the name of a person, often a botanist, with the letters "-ia" appended: freesia, zinnia, copernicia, and so on.

One of these is the Christmas staple known as the poinsettia, which is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the US.

Please note that the plant's name is "poinsettia", not, as it is nearly always pronounced, "poinsetta", any more than a begonia is called a "begona" or magnolia "magnola".

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cough It Up

Tonight at work the word "expectorate" came to mind because I was looking for a synonym to placate a co-worker who hates the word "spit" (for some reason). As soon as I thought of the word, I began to wonder about its etymology, and my train of thought ran more or less as follows:

"Ex-" means out, obviously, and the root of the word must be "-pec-" or "-pect", but the only word I can think of that might apply is "pectoral", and that's just stupid, because what could spitting have to do with your chest muscles?

So I wrote down the word and eventually came home and eventually looked it up, and I am fairly sure that you are ahead of me in thinking, "No, you dunce, 'expectorate' must be related to 'pectoral' because to expectorate is not to spit, exactly, but to hack up and expel phlegm from the chest." And yes, that's where it's from, all right, and my only defence is that I was at work and engaged in a number of other things and didn't really have time to analyze the word. But that's a slim excuse. It should have been obvious, and it was, but I didn't see it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pig Latin: The Sequel

Or, The Revenge of Lorem Ipsum.

Pharyngula has a piece about quack science in the form of a "doctor" who claims that black coffee will make you fat. Fatter than a pig. Because a cup of black coffee is "worse than five hot fudge sundaes". Well, any coffee except the stuff that she personally is selling, that is. Magical coffee! Scientifically treated! Patented!

God forbid I should give them free publicity, but the website is something that has to be seen to be believed. It isn't bad enough that the home page has typos on it ("If your drinking anything other than...." and "Selcet one of our blends"); nearly all the remaining pages currently look like this.

You could click on it to see it bigger, but I think you get the idea. Missing images. Links that don't link to anything. And best of all, huge wads of lorem ipsum.

There's nothing wrong with using lorem ipsum as a placeholder--that's what it's for--but you have to get rid of it before your website goes live. Otherwise, you look like a hack, an incompetent. Certainly not anyone that people would want to buy products from.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Breakdown

Another one of those nights while I was lying in bed waiting for sleep to come (it hardly ever does when I most want it to), and one of things I was idly wondering--one of the things that pops into my head and probably keeps me from sleeping as I ponder it--was where the word root "-lysis" might have some from. I don't recall which word came to me first and started the chain of wondering: was it "paralysis", or "hydrolysis", or maybe "electrolysis"?

"Hydrolysis" is probably the most easily fractionated if you know its meaning: it's the snapping apart of water molecules (that's the "hydro-") into its component elements hydrogen and oxygen. So "-lysis" must be the action of dismantling something. But how does that make any sense in the word "paralysis"?

Like so, I think. The Greek verb "lyein" means "to loosen: to untie", so anything ending with "-lysis" or its various offshoots ("analytical", "catalyze") has to do with the deconstruction of something or other. The prefix "para-" has a number of differing but related meanings, including "beyond", "beside", "against", "aside from", "contrary to", and "abnormally". I think the "para-" of "paralysis" means "beyond" in the sense of "beyond the normal bounds" and therefore "completely"; when you have a paralyzed limb, it's completely disconnected from the rest of your body without actually being severed--you can't move it, you can't feel it. I suppose the sense of abnormality that "para-" can convey might be applicable as well, but I like my idea better. Since no dictionary I've consulted, not even the OED, wants to spell it out for me, I'm just going to have to go with what I know.

The rest of the common "-lysis" words in English are much more easily understood. Pyrolysis: the destruction of something by fire or heat. Catalysis: the complete breaking down of something ("cata-" means "down"). Dialysis: the taking apart of something ("dia-" means "across" or "apart"), most usually blood, which is mechanically separated into its good and bad elements for people whose kidneys can no longer do the job. Analysis: the thorough ("ana-" equals "through, throughout, thoroughly") breaking down of a problem into its component parts. Electrolysis: well, that one's self-explanatory, isn't it?

Friday, December 11, 2009

All Over the Place

You don't expect corporate communications to be models of clarity and good writing--not if you don't want to be severely disappointed--but sometimes they seem to go out of their way to produce head-slapping dismay ("impact" as a verb and its hideous spinoffs like "impactfulness") or mirth. Every week, the company for which I work puts out a sort of newsletter full of depressing information about upcoming promotions, ways we can more efficiently separate the customers from their money, and exhortations to sell sell sell. I'm probably the only person who reads it, less for the news it provides than for the unintended laughs. Such as this, from a 'tis-the-season piece about ways to "protect our most important asset, [company] associates":

Be aware of your surroundings. If something does not seem right or someone is lurching around your shopping center, stay safe and determine if police need to be called.

I would think that if someone were lurching around the shopping centre, you might call an ambulance rather than the police (unless we're talking zombies, in which case all bets are off).

A long time ago I wrote about pairs of words that end in "-ch" and "-k" and are related, and do I even need to say that "lurch" and "lurk" are not one of those pairs? Mix them up and hilarity ensues!

For the history of "lurch", the misused word, I cannot do better than the Online Etymology Dictionary, without which I would be lost: "sudden pitch to one side," 1819 (in Byron's "Don Juan"), from earlier lee-larch (1769), a nautical term for "sudden violent roll to leeward which a ship often takes in a high sea," perhaps from Fr. lacher "to let go," from L. laxus. From this sense of pitching and rolling we get the extended sense of "a staggering, stumbling gait".*

"Lurk", the intended word, comes from somewhere else altogether: it is actually related to "lower" in the sense of "to be threatening; to glower".

Me, I would have avoided the problem altogether by using "skulk", which is a bit closer to the mark than "lurk", since the former suggests stealthy and suspicious movement while the latter carries within it a sense of both motionlessness and careful hiding, which may be suspicious but is less so (and by design less noticeable) than active skulking.

* The observant will have observed that there is another "lurch" in English, in the sense of "leave someone in the lurch", and this is a whole different word with a whole different etymology, this one possibly related to or influenced by "lurk"; it's from a backgammon-ish French game called "lourche".

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

I don't know if you're one of those people for whom certain words have very specific, narrowly defined meanings, but I am. Ages ago I noted that "munch" ought to be limited to crunchy foods (you can munch celery but not applesauce or ice cream), and I still think that. Here's another word that I think is used incorrectly, even though every dictionary in the world might not agree with me:

See, I think that "glisten" is wrong in this context. I don't suppose I could defend it in a court of law, but I think "glisten" specifically refers to things that shine because they are soft and wet, or look as if they are. Eyes glisten with tears, a pond glistens in the moonlight, but a jewel doesn't glisten under any circumstances, even if you hose it down, because it is hard. It may glitter, shimmer, shine, sparkle, gleam, or twinkle, but not glisten.

Some dictionaries are on my side, more or less, saying that, for example, the word means "be shiny, as if wet"; others merely say that it means "to shine with bright reflected light." I couldn't tell you why exactly I think that "glisten" ought to be reserved for things that are 1) wet and 2) soft; something from my distant past, no doubt. But I hold fast to this belief, and don't expect anything will change it. I'm stubborn that way.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Joint Effort

Here's the headline for a news story about corporate underwriting of a vile performer (site possibly not safe for work):


Now, the headline was intended to be read as "The Pepsi-Cola Company is sponsoring in Uganda a singer, Beenie Man, who sings 'murder music'."

Unfortunately, due to one of the many vagaries of the English language, I read it as meaning "Sponsors of the Pepsi-Cola Company have committed the murder of singer Beenie Man in Uganda." Never mind that the word "music" would be superfluous in that interpretation; that's how I read it. And not only I.

If only the headline writer had thought to incorporate a hyphen! That's what it's for; it is the most potent disambiguator we have in the language. A single hyphen, in "murder-music", would have yoked together those two words and prevented anyone from reading them as a verb and a noun, but instead made them into an adjective, and the sentence would have been absolutely clear and free from any possibility of confusing misinterpretation.

If only.

Monday, December 07, 2009

He's Not There

Here is a mildly depressing article about someone who has devoted many, many thousands of hours to a game called World of Warcraft and has apparently done everything that can be done in it. Except one:

The achievement hasn't arrived without some controversy though; WoW-heads point out that technically he's still missing one illusive, event-tied achievement (called "BB King"), but he's managed to dodge it via a glitch awarding one extra, false achievement point.

The unachieved achievement is something that, apparently (I read it somewhere, and no, I don't remember where--you could look it up if you cared), was tied to a specific time or season such as Christmas and can't be replicated or redone. Not that that matters, because here's what does matter (to me):

The word "illusive" is used incorrectly.

There are three similar words that are sometimes misused by people who are not absolutely secure in their employment of the language: "illusive", "allusive", and "elusive". They do not mean at all the same thing. "Illusive" is a synonym of "illusory" and is therefore related to "illusion"; it means "unreal: not corresponding to facts or reality." "Allusive" is related to "allusion" and means "characterized by indirect reference." "Elusive", the most common of the three words and the one that was intended, means "difficult to describe or capture."

They all come from the same Latin root: "ludere", "to play", also the source of "ludicrous". "Alludere" meant in Latin "to mock; to jest" and eventually in English came to mean "to make a fanciful reference to", taking on the sense of indirect reference later. "Illudere" meant "to play with", later "to deceive", which is where the sense of the deceptive illusion comes from. And "eludere" carried the sense of "to make a fool of by escaping from." So, closely related.

But they are not the same thing!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Get Back

I don't know about you, but we figured the swine flu shot was worth getting--that the benefits outweighed the risks--so last night we went to get it. My arm is kind of sore at the injection site, but it's no different from the other, regular flu shot I got last month (my first one ever), so I figure everything is working as it should. It takes 10 days or so to properly kick-start the immune system, apparently, so we figure if we can stay healthy for the next couple of weeks we're in gravy.

When you first saw the nomenclature "H1N1 flu", did you immediately start calling it the heinie flu, at least in your head? Because that's the first thing I thought of. How juvenile, I know.

"Heinie" means, in parts of North America, "buttocks" or "bum" or whatever else you want to call it. (Bette Midler used to refer to Queen Elizabeth II as "her heinie the queen", which may not mean anything to the British but is irresistibly funny to the eight-year-old in every non-monarchist North American.)

It shouldn't take more than a couple of seconds for you to accurately deduce that "heinie" is an infantilized version of "hinder"--the long-i version, not the short-i version that means "to hamper or delay"--or "hindquarters" or "hind end" or whatever other euphemism for arse you would like to employ.

It should not take you more than a few seconds more to once again correctly surmise that the two versions of "hinder" are from the same source, since if you hinder someone, you hold them back, so there's that sense of back-ness.

H1N1, by the way, stands for "Hemagglutanin-1 Neurominadase-1": the words refer to the antigens involved and the numbers refer to the subtypes, so there are other related mutated viruses with names such as H2N1 and H1n4 and so on.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Inside Scoop

As usual, I was lying in bed trying to get to sleep, and, failing that, playing a game on my iPod touch, specifically one called iMafia: one or another of the other players had a username that was some variant of Corleone, the surname of one of the main characters in The Godfather, and it occurred to me that I had never thought about its etymological derivation, since it looked like a word that ought to be decomposable. "Leone" looks like and almost certainly is "lion", I thought, and "cor" looks and sounds like French "coeur", "heart", and so--ta da!--the whole thing must mean "lionheart"!

Which it does.

A moment's further reflection--and I may already have known this, but it was three in the morning--suggested that "cor" must be the source of English "core", which, after all, generally means the heart or the innermost part of something, and this, too, was the case.

That's all I got.