or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

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.


Blogger Doug said...

"Pop" is widespread in the U.S. as well; almost universal in colloquial speech in western Pa. & northeastern Ohio, in my experience.

There's an entry for it in the Dictionary of American Regional English on p. 279 of the P-Sk volume.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 11:44:00 AM  

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