or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, January 31, 2009


What was it I said yesterday about what I was going to post today? Ignore it. I'm a liar. I'll get to it tomorrow. This is too good to leave for another minute.

Dana Stevens, the movie reviewer for Slate, has seen a lot more Anne Hathaway movies than I have. Here's a sentence:

I'd love to see her take on something, anything, completely outside the Hathaway canon: a schlumpily dressed, unprincesslike, unfeisty schmo.

Haven't you ever wondered where "feisty" came from? It sounds like it must be from "feist" plus the usual adjectival ending "-y", but is "feist" even a word? And if it is, what can it mean?

Well, "feist" is a Southernism--that is to say, a term used in the southern United States--for a scrappy, belligerent little dog. That word never spread to the rest of North America, but, for some reason, "feisty" did.

And where did "feist" come from? You don't have to believe me, though it's in all the dictionaries, but it's actually related to "fart". Yeah, I know.

Middle English had a very German-looking verb, "fisten", likely pronounced as if it were spelled "feisten", which meant "to fart". This stemmed from Old English "fisting", pronounced "feisting" (or something like it), which was a noun meaning "farting". This ultimately came from the Indo-European "pezd-", which meant, yes, "to fart".

"Feist" is an abbreviation of the expression "fisting dog", with that "-i-" pronounced long as if it were "-ie-". I am not sure why a farting dog might be expected to be particularly high-strung or ill-tempered, but I didn't make up the expression, I'm just reporting it.

If you have a very good memory you may recall that in October of 2007 I wrote about the partridge, whose name more or less literally means "farter" (from French "perdrix", which, with what appears to be that feminine "-drix" ending you will have seen the likes of in "aviatrix", we may translate as "fartress"). The French comes intact from Indo-European "perd-", which means that, as bizarre as it may seem, IE had not one but two verbs for farting.

In that October posting I said that "petard" was derived from "perd-", but it seems instead that it came from "pezd-". I don't know how I made that mistake, but I'm correcting it here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Air Show

Here's a Boingboing piece on a story in a 1951 issue of Mechanics Illustrated (back issues of which I greedily devoured as a kid) about how in the future, everyone's going to have their own personal one-man helicopter. I think they're not, for the obvious reason that if something goes wrong, you're going to die. It's not like a car, where you have only two dimensions to work in (most of the time) and brakes are possible, not to mention guardrails and airbags.

Anyway, one of the commenters used the phrase "bailing wire", and while I am not in the habit of criticizing the spelling of people who post comments on blogs (they're not professionals, so they get to make mistakes), the spelling is wrong, and it led me to wonder just where the words "bale" and "bail" came from.

There are several definitions of "bail" in English, and some of them are related: let's see if you can guess which ones.

1) Money used to release an arrested person.
2) The handle of a bucket.
3) To use a bucket or other container to remove water from a boat.
4) To abandon an enterprise or an aircraft (usually with "out")

The two "bucket" senses, it may or may not surprise you to learn, are unrelated. The bucket-handle version actually seems to be related to "bagel", believe it or not: both are are straight objects bent into curves. The emptying-a-boat sense comes from Latin "baiulare", "to carry a load", which in Vulgar Latin became "baiula" and then in Old French "baille", a bucket, which made its way from there, as such things will do, into English. The money sense is also from this source: the Latin word became in Old French "baillier", "to take charge of", and this became "bayle", "custody", in Middle English, and from there our word meaning the money which frees you from that custody.

The correct term in the above case is "baling wire": wire used to tie things into bales. The word "bale" is an Old English derivation from Indo-European "bhel-": it is related to "ball" and "boll", and many other words (some of them amusing), which I believe I will get to tomorrow, because it's pretty late.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


It is enormously gratifying to enjoy doing something you're good at. If you're a talented singer but you absolutely hate performing, isn't that kind of a drag? Either you do it out of a sense of obligation, or you refrain from doing it and live with the feeling that you're squandering your life somehow.

I'm extremely lucky that I'm good at my job and that (the usual corporate bullshit aside) I really enjoy doing it, and also that I love to knit and am good at that, too. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from both things, which means that both my work time and my leisure time are fulfilling.

I knit a whole lot--I've finished two pairs of socks this month already*--and I've ordered from Knitpicks before. It's a great company with great products (the best needles, hands down, that I have ever used), but what's this on the very first page of their catalogue, which arrived in the mail today?

I have no argument with the product, which could be very handy if you hold the yarn in your left hand.** But we have a word in there that's just plain wrong.

I've seen "chafing" spelled "chaffing" quite a few times. It's a mistake usually committed by people who don't seem to understand that doubling a consonant shortens the vowel sound that precedes it. "Bared" is not "barred". "Taping" is not "tapping". And so on.

As usual, this is a mistake that a spellchecker will not catch, because "chaffing" exists; "chaff" can be used as a verb, but it doesn't mean what most people think it means, which is "to tease in a friendly manner". It is, interestingly, probably derived from "chafe". But that doesn't mean that "chaff" and "chafe" are interchangeable, either as they are or as other parts of speech.

*One of my New Year's resolutions, the only one I'm keeping in any serious way, is to knit a pair of socks a month. I usually knit them on fairly small needles, 2.75mm, to give a nice firm long-lasting fabric. It took me three weeks to knit the first pair on these needles. But then I wanted to start February's pair early, and for a lark I made them on larger needles, 3.25mm, and this made a huge difference, because you need fewer stitches; I finished the pair today, and it took me a week. A week! (The first pair also had a stitch pattern, which takes more time to execute: the second pair had a patterned yarn, so I knit it up in stocking stitch, which is faster.)

**In Europe, knitters generally hold the yarn over their left index finger, as the knitter in this image is more or less doing (with mechanical assistance), and pick up each new stitch; this is called "picking". North American and British knitters, in contrast, generally hold the yarn over their right index finger, and wrap the yarn around the needle for each new stitch; this is called "throwing". My Finnish co-worker, who naturally knits in the European manner, thinks that the North American way is mildly hilarious, which it might be, and inefficient, which it definitely is, but I don't care. She's tried to teach me the picking method, and I could probably get the hang of it if I practised enough, but nearly a quarter century of habit is very hard to break, and I'm good at it this way, so I don't really want to change.

Monday, January 26, 2009


From a recent Slate.com blog posting about plush dolls modelled after the daughters of President Obama:

The cheerleader Exciting Emily comes close to having your hair, Emily, but her eye color is a little upsetting. Apparently her "team colors (lavender and teal) really bring out the color of her eyes." Oh right. Her lavender and teal eyes. And the Sweet Sammi doll that I can only assume was named after me has a similar octal malfunction. Clad in an orange hoodie, blue-eyed Sammi is also, apparently, benefiting from an outfit that "really brings out her eyes!"

The writer, Samantha Henig, isn't just some random blogger: she's a journalist who writes for Newsweek. And she apparently thinks that the word "octal" has something to do with the eyes.

How can she think this? And if she doesn't and made an honest typing mistake (and didn't re-read her piece before publishing it), how can there possibly not be an editor at Slate who caught it?

"Ocular" is the adjective she's looking for. "Octal" means "having the number eight as a base", and it's from Latin "octo", "eight", as in "octopus". "Ocular" is from Latin "oculus", "eye", as in "monocle". Nothing in common.

Edited to add, some hours later:

I see from the comments that Ms. Henig corrected the error (after something called Google Alert, which I must investigate further, told her about it), and this confirms my suspicion that it was merely a typing mistake of the kind I'd made a thousand times: you begin typing a word, your fingers take over and complete the word differently, and you don't even notice, at least not right away. (I wrote "alone" instead of "alike" two paragraphs below.)

But that puts the blame squarely in the lap of Slate and its nonexistent corps of editors, which forces me to say, for the thousandth time (and you should imagine this next rant illuminated with various levels of italics and bolding because most of the words, if I were saying them out loud, would be stressed in one way or another):

Every single word meant for any sort of official publication beyond a readership of one, every article for a magazine or a newspaper or a website, every coin and banknote, every advertisement and sign and placard, every book and pamphlet and broadsheet, everything that contains as much a solitary word: every single scrap of it requires the oversight of some sort of editor. Failure to provide this does a tremendous disservice to readers and writers alike, and I would be hard-pressed to say which of them suffers the more. It is nearly impossible for writers to copy-edit their own work: they see what they intended to write rather than what they actually did write. Readers cannot be expected to do the work of editing, nor to try to winkle out the meaning of a piece which contains unnecessary errors. This is the job of the publishing body, and if they cannot be bothered to do it, then they have no business publishing.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Yesterday I wrote about the word "policy", and of course there's another "policy" in English, an insurance policy, and would it amaze you to learn that the two words are absolutely unrelated to one another, not even the slightest point of contact?

Let's begin at the beginning so you can see how the word slowly evolved. Indo-European "deik-", "to show", gave Greek "deiknynia", "to show". With the prefix "apo-", "off", the word mutated into "apodeixis", "proof", which eventually became in Middle Latin "apodissa", which meant "receipt", written proof that money or goods had changed hands. This in Italian became "polizza", with the same general meaning, and in Middle French "police", "contract", after which, in the middle of the sixteenth century, it showed up in English in its current form and with its current meaning.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

By The People

There is a pair of signs in the men's changing room at the gym, one in English, the other French, which say approximately the same thing. I didn't take a picture of them, because nobody wants to see a guy running around a locker room with a camera (and because there's another pair of signs which say you can't use cell phone in the changing room, for the obvious reason that all cell phones nowadays have cameras in them), but they're asking you to refrain from fuming up the place with colognes and such, not that anybody pays attention to it--the place stank of Axe or the like when I got in this morning.

The English sign reads

Please respect our scent free policy

and the French reads

Veuillez respecter notre politique sans parfum

so "policy" in English is "politique" in French, and damned if that doesn't look just like "politic" in English, and therefore they must be related, right?

Right. And what a chain of evolution it is, too.

"Policy", meaning "an official course of action", is descended from
French "policie" (unsurprisingly), "civil administration", from
Latin "politia", "the state", from
Greek "politea", "the state", from
Greek "polites", "citizen", from
Greek "polis", "city", from
Indo-European "pelh-", "a fortified citadel", from
Proto-Indo-European "p(o)lh-", "an enclosed space".

"Politics", "the science of governance", is from French "politique", originally "political", which is from Latin "politicus", "of the state", which then follows the previous line of descent to and beyond "polis", which, you will be unsurprised to learn, is also the source of "metropolis" (literally "mother-city") and "police".


Now, if "politique" and "policy" are related, and the aim of the gym's policy is to avoid incommoding other members--in other words, to be polite--then surely "politique/policy" and "polite" are related, yes?

No, believe it or not. "Polite" is from an entirely different IE root, "pel-" (one of many), which meant "to beat". Eventually one of its meanings was "to beat woollen cloth to full it", which has the effect of making it smoother, and this gave rise to the Latin verb "polire", "to polish, to make smooth", which eventually made it into French in the form "polir", with the same meaning (where it remains today): one of its verb forms, "poliss-", gave English "polish". The adjective "politus", "polished", led directly to English "polite"; exhibiting polished, refined behaviour. No relation to policy of any sort.

However, it may interest you to know that "interpolate" is related to "polish": literally meaning "to polish up", it's from Latin "interpolare", "to touch up", and means "to alter [and presumably improve] a text by inserting material into it".

Monday, January 19, 2009


Yesterday I was snarling about a misuse of a preposition, and I recalled that I snarled about this very same misuse a week or so prior, but when I went to the blog to look up the reference, I couldn't find it, at which point I remembered that I had had a big old computer hang a few days back which, evidently, killed the piece before I'd had a chance to either save it or publish it on January 8th or the 9th or thereabouts, so now I have to reconstruct it, like a tiny, insignificant version of Carlyle's "French Revolution" (burnt by a servant and rewritten by Carlyle).

Here is a sentence from recent Salon piece by Garrison Keillor:

And we allow the Current Occupant to leave the Mansion d'Blanc with a big grin in a couple of  weeks, his self-esteem apparently fully intact, imagining that his legacy will emerge golden and shining in a hundred years after all of us are deceased.

While I agree with the sentiment, I don't agree with "Maison d'Blanc", which is wrong for four reasons, three grammatical and one stylistic.

First, "blanc" is masculine in form both as a noun and an adjective, but "Maison" is a feminine noun in French, so the adjective it would take must also be feminine; "Blanche".

Second, the preposition "de" is apostrophized into "d'" only in front of a vowel sound: "d'heure", "d'accord".

Third, as I said yesterday, you cannot insert that preposition between a noun and its adjective in Italian or English, and you can't do it in French, either. If you absolutely had to, you could theoretically say "maison de blancheur", "white house", literally "house of whiteness", though you wouldn't, but the part of speech that follows "de/of" has to be a noun.*

Fourth, there's no reason whatever to render "White House" in French, either correctly ("Maison Blanche") or not ("Maison d'Blanc"). It has no bearing on anything in the sentence, the paragraph, or the whole article. It looks pretentious, and when the pretentious is combined with the incorrect, it looks willfully ignorant and therefore shameful. Is Garrison Keillor too famous (possibly) or too good a writer (obviously not) to require an editor? Or are there even any editors at Salon?

* You may object that "house of white" is valid in English. That's because, like all colour names, "white" can function as either a noun--"the colour white"--or an adjective--"having the quality of being white". In the case of "house of white", "white" is acting as a noun meaning "whiteness", in the same way that "blue" in "Five foot two/eyes of blue" actually means "blueness". Since "blanc" is also a noun in French, it follows that "maison de blanc" is a meaningful phrase, and in fact it can be; there's a large department store called "Grande Maison de Blanc" in Paris, with "white" in this case referring not to the colour of the building, but of its contents, originally linens ("whites", as in "white sale", back when all bed-linens were white and some enterprising store owner had the idea of selling them as a loss leader). The Washington White House, however, is unvaryingly "Maison Blanche" to the French.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


So we had lunch today at Quizno's, the very essence of subly sublimity, and as always I had a chicken carbonara (no vegetarians in this house).

I am not as big a fan of the corporate décor, though.

There are three big murals plastered on the walls of the local outlet (the other location in town, which closed a couple of years ago, had different artwork). One of them depicts a chef and a big wheel of cheese and reads "Formaggio fantastico", which is, to the best of my knowledge, impeccable Italian. (It means "great cheese".) Another shows a rather abstract salad with a grinning spoon and fork, and reads "Salad spectacolo". Well, that's not Italian! "Salad" in Italian is "insalata", and "spectacular" would be, I think, "spettacolare", with the usual masculine suffix, though I don't speak Italian (Google Translate as usual is no help in this regard). I think they could have used the proper Italian wording and still be understood; it would have been better than some fake, bastardized language.

But my real scorn is reserved for the third mural, which depicts a freshly baked loaf of bread (with steam rising from it forming the word "toasty" dwarfing a tiny, pleased-looking chef, as well he might look after having successfully baked such an enormous object. The legend under the bread is "Pane di toasty", and this absolutely will not do.

The preposition "di" in that context is exactly parallel to French "de": it functions like English "of" in such phrases as "man of steel" or "heart of glass". That is to say that, when yoked to another noun, the preposition forms a phrasal adjective, but the key is that it must precede a noun.

"Toasty" is not a noun.

"Pane" means "bread" in Italian. You can say "toasty bread" or (I hope) "pane tostata", or "bread of toastiness" (I daren't attempt that in Italian), but you cannot say, in English or Italian or any admixture thereof, "bread of toasty". Those are the rules.


Oh, and that reminds me of something else I wanted to tell you.

The second-best ever episode of Futurama is called "Hell is Other Robots", and it contains a really top-notch song which contains these lines:

Cigars are evil
You won't miss 'em
We'll find ways to simulate that smell
What a sorry fella
Rolled up and smoked like a panatella
Here on level one of Robot Hell.

You can hear the whole song here: sorry for the general crappiness of the reproduction, but Fox seems to have litigiously purged all the decent ones. (You can hear an acoustically better version of the song, but without the accompanying visuals: there should be at least a couple of links on the above page.)

Anyway, I was wondering where "panatella" might have come from, so Jim looked it up, and guess what? It's a diminutive of "pane", so basically a panatella--a long slender cigar--is nicknamed a breadstick, which I love.

That etymology is not precisely, one hundred per cent true, mind you. Spanish got their word for bread, "pan", from Italian, but the American Spanish word "panatela" means not a breadstick but a long, thin biscuit; this is what gave the cigar its name. (And the Italian word for "breadstick" is "grissino", which you might have noticed, if you are Canadian, in altered form as the trade name of a commercial variety of breadsticks, Grissol.) But, never having seen one of these attenuated Spanish biscuits, I am forever going to think of a panatella cigar as a smokeable breadstick.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Here's a snippet from a recent Slate piece on Susan Crawford and the definition of torture:

Her principle objection to detainee abuse is not ephemeral or spiritual....

Oh, argh.

"Principle" is only ever a noun and not ever, ever an adjective, as its place in the sentence would demand: it means "general or fundamental rule". "Principal", on the other hand, can be an adjective meaning "foremost", and this was the intended word. They're both from the same source, Latin "princeps", "[one] that takes first", but they entered the language separately, almost a hundred years apart (both from Old French, "principal" in 1290, "principle" in 1380, each identical then to their current forms), and they do not overlap in meaning. (I was tempted to say "they have never overlapped in meaning", but I can't prove that never once in their centuries-old history have they done so. I doubt it, though.)

Such a mistake is not significantly different from mixing up "cord" and "chord", which likewise come from a common source and which likewise are not interchangeable. Ordinary people might occasionally make such mistakes, but professional writers and their editors are expected to know better.

"Princeps", by the way, is a compound word, from "primus", "first", and "capere", "to take", so a princeps, or a prince, is someone who takes his place as first among citizens.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Coverup

Jim e-mailed me today to say that he'd bought a used copy of a slightly older edition of this book, a visual dictionary of French, and then added,

Did you know that  "paupière interne" is the french for a cat's nictitating membrane?

I did not. ("Paupiere interne" literally means "internal eyelid".) I would have sworn I had written about nictitating membranes before, but apparently not. So many words, so little time. (A nictitating membrane is the transparent or translucent "third eyelid" that some animals, including cats, use to protect their eyes. The word is from Latin "nictare", "to blink, to wink", which did not leave many traces in English save "connive", literally "to wink together", which is to say "to wink at a misdeed".)

"Paupière" is the French word for "eyelid", so naturally I looked up the etymology and couldn't find anything (my resources in this area are not great), but I did discover something else nice: the German word for "eyelid" is "Augendeck".

Now, "Auge" is the German word for "eye", and "Deck" means "lid", and if you think back a few weeks you will see that the "Deck" that means "lid" is exactly the same as the "deck" in English that means, basically, "the lid to the innards of a ship", from Indo-European "(s)teg-". Don't you love it?


Something else I love: I was at City Hall buying a new bus pass today and I discovered that the French term for "shower head" (they were vending low-flow versions) is "pomme de douche", or, literally, "shower apple". Wonderful!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Collect Call

An anonymous reader writes:

Last week, I saw in a department store a display of a commemorative plate marking Obama's election to the presidency. It is marked as a "Collectable Plate". Maybe it's because I'm from the states, but the -able ending just seems...wrong. I know that it is the British standard, and is a recognized variant of the US-preferred -ible, but it still makes me want to grab a label maker and cover that A with an I.

I'm on your side, but unfortunately, popular usage isn't.

Let's start with the general rule, which is that if you subtract the suffix and the word is still a word, then the correct suffix is "-able", which is also a word; otherwise, the suffix is "-ible". Palpable, commendable, contestable: frangible, risible, possible.(You may also need to remove prefixes: "insuperable", for instance.)

This is not always true. "Contemptible" defies the rule, as does "inevitable". But if you're rolling the dice instead of consulting a dictionary or trusting the spellchecker, then the rule is a good one.

Now. "Collectable" has also been spelled "collectible" almost since its appearance in English (over 350 years ago), so there's no point in fighting about which word has seniority. It's true that in this instance the "-able" ending is more usual in British English, and "-ible" in American, but that doesn't make either more valid than the other. The fact is that you can spell the word either way and be equally correct. That doesn't invalidate your feeling that "collectable" is wrong in its context, of course: if you've grown up more used to a particular usage, then the other is likely to feel wrong.

My own preference, which is completely insupportable (but I don't care), is to use "collectible" in the limited, modern sense of "gewgaws mass-produced to be sold to undiscerning people at inflated prices" (or as its adjectival form, in such phrases as "collectible dolls"), and "collectable" for other uses, such as bills due.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Why is it that conservative political cartoons seem to be so unfunny?

I mean, just look at this:

I have two words: Kenneth Starr. The behaviour of Republicans during the Clinton administration has debarred them in perpetuity from criticism of investigating political scandals, or, as was generally the case with Clinton, "scandals". (The previous cartoon showed Democrats frantically getting into shape--President Obama playing basketball, of course--because, as the Joe-Blow character says in the last panel, "They're getting ready to spend our money", as if Republicans had not spent the last eight years spending incalculable sums of taxpayer money, including at least half a trillion dollars on a needless war which, one recent book says, is likely to end up costing the U.S. at least three trillion dollars and probably more. The very idea that a conservative could call Democrats spendthrift boggles the imagination.)

At any rate, that's not the reason I showed you this rather desperate and mindless cartoon. The reason is that we yet again have someone who doesn't understand how to pluralize a possessive noun. The possessive of "The Dems" (an abbreviation of "Democrats", if that wasn't instantly obvious) would be "The Dems'", my preference, or "The Dems's", if you insist that a possessive must always end with apostrophe-ess (which I dealt with when this blog was not even a month old). Instead, the cartoonist has written "The Dem's", which is the genitive of something or someone named The Dem, which is wrong.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Joint Effort

I was writing this big convoluted (yet interesting and well-formed) thing about adjectival suffixes and comedians and Spanish verbs and god alone knows what-all, but it's not finished, and it certainly doesn't look like it's going to be finished any time soon, so instead you get a little blurb about a word I just discovered.

"Anarthrous". Isn't that nice?

Look at it very closely. Strip away any apparent prefixes and suffixes. Does it remind you of anything?

"Arthritis" and "arthropod", maybe. Greek "arthron" means "joint", so arthritis is an inflammation of the joints, and an arthropod (such as a spider, centipede, or lobster) has jointed...legs, actually, though "arthropod" actually means "joint-foot". Near enough.

And "anarthrous", with its "a-/an-" prefix of negation and its "-ous" suffix marking it as an adjective, means "jointless". This is exactly what it means in zoology, but in grammar, it has a very different meaning, one not immediately discernible from its appearance: "lacking an article". I could explain it all to you, but Language Log, where I found the word, will do a much better job, and will trash Dan Brown into the bargain, so it's win-win for you.


Something else I discovered while I was writing that thing I alluded to up there, something that had occurred to me many, many times over the years but which I only just bothered to look up today: "avocado". It looks so much like a Spanish version of "advocate" (and in fact many is the time over the years that I have referred to the magazine The Advocate as "The Avocado"), and yet what would a pebbly green fruit also known as the alligator pear (for obvious reasons) have to do with advocates?

Not a lot, and yet that's more or less where the name came from. More or less.

"Avocado" actually comes from the Nahuatl word "ahuakatl", which means, and I am not kidding, "testicle". Whether this has to do with the shape or with the putative aphrodisiac properties of the fruit is up for debate. "Akuahatl" became "aguacate", and this eventually was turned into "avocado", which already existed and meant "lawyer".

"Avocado", of course, no longer means "lawyer" in Spanish: the modern word is "abogado". Still; pretty close.

"Advocate", by the way, is descended from Latin "vocem", "voice", because an advocate is one who gives voice to your concerns.

Also, guacamole.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reader's Digest

Regarding Sunday's post, Frank writes:

I remember reading in A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson that it actually was originally wistaria, but wisteria was eventually made to conform to freesia and gardenia. I think. It's been a while since I read it. But I DO know there's a story to it.

There is a story to it, but I don't think it's the story you remember. (I do that sort of thing all the time, for whatever it's worth.) "Wisteria". despite its typo, already does conform to "freesia" and "gardenia", being, despite the spelling change, the namesake with "-ia" attached to it. (Admittedly, Freese had his name truncated for "freesia", and that is a mystery, because Adam Buddle's name wasn't similarly truncated for buddleia, which would have done just as well being spelled buddlia.)

Bryson does mention wisteria, but he doesn't make any mention of the reason its spelling deviates from that of its namesake, Dr. Wistar. I only know this because, though I don't have a print copy of the book, the full text of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is available online. (I discovered this when I Googled "wistaria Bill Bryson"; innocent that I am, I didn't even know that such a thing existed. It's wrong and it breaks copyright, of course, but the site is in Russia so I don't suppose there's anything that can be done about it. It certainly makes it easy to search the text.)

There are 11 mentions of Wistar's name in the book, mostly in reference to the fact that he had a dinosaur bone in his hands and failed to figure out what it was, thereby missing his chance to be the one who discovered the existence of dinosaurs. Here's the only thing Bryson has to say about the name of the plant:

In that same year, 1818, Caspar Wistar died, but he did gain a certain unexpected immortality when a botanist named Thomas Nuttall named a delightful climbing shrub after him. Some botanical purists still insist on spelling it wistaria.

Here's what Answers.com has to say:

The genus was named after Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761 - 1818), a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. As a consequence, the name is sometimes given as "Wistaria", but the spelling Wisteria is conserved under the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

The OED has no listing at all for "wisteria", subsuming it under "wistaria" instead (which suggests that that's the more common spelling in British English), and then complicates matters by saying that it's named after "Caspar Wistar (or Wister)". I haven't found any evidence that Caspar Wistar ever spelled his name "Wister", but, confusingly, there was an American botanist name of John Caspar Wister, who was related to the Caspar Wistar whose name was donated to the plant, so clearly at some point the family's name underwent a change.

And, finally, the opinion of the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1819, formed by botanist Thomas Nuttall, Eng. botanist, in allusion to Amer. anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) of Philadelphia. The -e- apparently is a misprint.


In response to an older post about swearing, James Baquet writes:

About "someone somewhere thinks that English-language swearing is ludicrous": A Japanese friend told me that calling each other various body parts would be nonsensical in Japanese. True, she said, you COULD call someone, say, an asshole, but it would have the force of calling someone an elbow in English!

I knew it!

It just makes sense. A culture's oaths are going to be a reflection of what it considers taboo. When tribal fighting devolved into cannibalism on Rapa Nui, one curse that evolved ran along the lines of, "Your grandmother's flesh sticks in my teeth!" That would just sound bizarre and gross, but nearly meaningless, in many cultures; it certainly wouldn't have any force in ours. Ancestral cannibalism just doesn't enter into people's minds as a distant possibility, and so a curse like that is as shocking as saying that someone fell out of a tree. On the other hand, if you are much more relaxed about bodily functions than English speakers seem to be, then calling someone a prick or a douchebag isn't going to be much of a curse.

One thing's for sure, though: every language is going to have them. You have to have a way to express extremities of emotion, and however liberated or uninhibited your culture, there's going to be something that pushes a button, something you shouldn't say in polite company. (I bet, without any actual evidence--someone prove me wrong!--that parentage figures into most cultures' swearing somehow: suggesting that someone's mother is promiscuous--"Son of a whore!"--or that one's father isn't one's father--"You bastard!"--has to be on most anybody's list.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Flowering Intellect

Tonight I said to Jim something which is not precisely true: "Whenever you see a plant name that ends in '-ia', like 'gardenia' or 'freesia' or 'wisteria', it's named after someone."

Not even a minute after I had said it, even though we were talking about something else, a little voice in the back of my head said, "What about 'acacia', you dolt?" Because "acacia" is clearly not named after someone: you can tell just by looking at it. (And in fact "acacia comes from Greek "akakia", from "akis", "point", because the Egyptian version known to the ancient Greeks is thorny.)

But as a general rule, it's a pretty good general rule. The gardenia is named after botanist Alexander Garden; freesia, in honour of a German physician name of Freese. Wisteria is actually named after an American professor of anatomy name of Caspar Wistar; unlucky man, to have a typographical error in his namesake!

The camellia is named after botanist Georg Kamel, and this reminded me of something I read the other day. It was a bit of trivia (in an iPod application) that went, "Camel's-hair brushes are not made of camel's hair. They were invented by a man named Mr. Camel." And I said to Jim, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my life."

Camel-hair brushes nowadays probably aren't made from camel hair, but that isn't to say they never were. It doesn't have to be the rather woolly hair from their coats: it could have been their tails, or even their long eyelashes. But the idea that they would have gotten their name from their inventor is as silly as the idea that squirrel- or badger-hair brushes were similarly named after their "inventor".

Someone on the Snopes message board agrees with me; camel-hair brushes were invented a long, long time ago, in 250 B.C.E., long before there could possibly have been a Mr. Camel.


I was going to compile a list of all the plants that end in -ia and are namesakes, since nobody else seems to have, but I changed my mind. If you want to, have at it. You can start with the ones mentioned above plus zinnia, begonia, dahlia, fuchsia, magnolia, and, for good measure, euphorbia (such a pretty name, so much nicer than its other name, "spurge").

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Big Chill

"Cryovac", formed from "cryo-" (from Greek "kruos", "icy cold") and "-vac" (an abbreviation of "vacuum", from Latin "vacare", "to be empty"), is a trade name for a process of protectively sealing chilled or frozen food. This article from Slate.com, about how distant we are from the killing of the animals we eat, is entitled "Well Done, Rare, or Cryovacked".

At first glance, I thought, "Hey, wait a minute. Shouldn't that be 'Cryovacced'?"

But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that "Cryovacked" was the right choice. After all, in English, when a multisyllabic word ends in "-c" and we need to form the preterite by affixing "-ed", we (almost) always shove a "k-" in between them so that the pronunciation is obvious. "Magic" becomes "magicked", not "magiced", so that some unwary reader doesn't try to figure out what "mag iced" might mean. Same with "bivouacked", "shellacked", "mosaicked", and so on.

As near as I can tell, there are only three words in English that do not end in "-cked" but instead in "-cced": "sicced", "flocced", and "specced". Even the briefest glance at these words will tell you why we didn't terminate them with "-cked"; because that would turn them into entirely different words. (Yes, "floc" is an English word; abbreviated from Lain "flocculus", "little tuft", it's related to French "flocon", "flake", and it means "a mass of flakes".)

Reluctantly, I have to admit that "Cryovacked" is the way we would logically form the past tense of the verb "Cryovac". I think "Cryovacced" looks nicer, but clearly that's just me: the English language is not on my side in this opinion.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Day One

A whole new year, clean and snowy-white (here, anyway) and unpolluted with typos!

Ah, no such luck. Here's the front of a 2009 calendar from the Landover Baptist Church website, an excellent parody of nasty American religious fundamentalism:The word "calender" actually exists in English. It once meant someone who presses fabric in a mill, or the machine itself: the word is related to "cylinder", because of the shape of the rollers. The word "calendered" is still in currency, and describes certain kinds of paper, vinyl, and other commercial products which are rendered smooth and shiny through the application of heat and pressure.

"Calender" derives from French "calandre", which people who pay attention to such things will notice is the name of a Paco Rabanne fragrance from 1969: it got its name not from an industrial ironing machine but from the other meaning of "calandre" in French, the radiator grill on the front of an automobile. (Yes, I know this seems like a very odd thing to name a perfume, but Rabanne was going for that sense of adventure and modernity that the car still carried with it: the scent was bright and sharp and slightly metallic, and came in a glass bottle inside a metal frame.) In a beautiful illustration of how sounds slip and shift, Latin "cylindrus" became Middle Latin "calendra", which gave French "calandre", which gave us "calender".

The thing on your wall or your desk, though, is a calendar. Different spelling, different word, yet another trap for the users of English, poor things. (The "-ar" spelling was cemented in the 17th century to distinguish between the two words.) "Calendar" comes from Latin "kalends", the first day of the month.

That's all I had to say about it back in 2005, before I started really really digging into etymology, so we might as well trace it back a little farther, yes? The Romans derived their word "calendarium" from "kalend": it meant "account-book", because accounts came due on the first of the month. In the early thirteenth century, this was abstracted to "calendier" in Old French to mean any kind of official list with dates on it, which is what a calendar is.

The origin of "kalend" is the Latin verb "calare", "to announce", because the priests announced each new moon that began the kalendae. "Calare" is in turn related to another Latin verb, "clamare", "to cry out" (from Indo-European "kelh-" or "kele-", "to shout"), which gave English "clamour", "claim" and its relatives, and also "conciliate" ("to call together").