or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sub Standard

So, did you get in on that free-sub deal at Quizno's? You went to their website, gave them some marketing information, and received in return a coupon for a free six-inch sub. I decided not to, because I wasn't sure if it was good in Canada, because I didn't want to give yet another company my personal info, and mostly because I figured there would be trouble redeeming the coupon, which turned out to be true.

Here's a photo from that Consumerist article; a sign posted at a Quizno's saying, or meaning to say, "No coupons allowed":

and yes, this is going to be one of those nitpicky posts where I whine about the lack of educational standards.

"Accept" and "except" are pronounced identically in standard English, which doesn't help matters, but once again we have a situation in which reading makes all the difference. If you've only ever heard the words used, you know what their meanings are, but you might not know that there are two different spellings differentiating those meanings--that they are, in fact, two different words. If you read, you will inevitably have come across the two spellings (they're very common words) and will, even if you are a bad speller, internalize that they are different in a very important way. If you are a bad speller, you might spell the second one "eccept", but at least it will be clear that you understand the difference. If schools taught reading and spelling skills as a matter of course...well, this sort of thing would probably still happen. But not as often.

It's entirely possible, of course, that the sign was written by someone whose first language isn't English, which is a good excuse: English is loaded with sound-alike words that are a trap for anyone who isn't completely immersed in the language. In that case, my whine isn't about the educational system, but about, once again, the necessity for proofreading. If you're making up a sign to be posted in a public place, then you absolutely have to run it past a second set of eyes. Period. I don't care if you're a professor of English: even the best, most careful writer makes mistakes, and it is notoriously hard for the writer to catch them. I also don't care if you're a small business with only a few employees. Make friends with someone who knows the language inside out. Every organization that makes any kind of public announcement--which is to say, essentially, all of them--ought to make it a priority to have on their staff some well-read person who can manage the language.

"Accept" and "except" both have the same Latin root: "capere", "to take". It's the prefix that, as usual, makes all the difference; it acts like a preposition in English and refines the meaning. The prefix to "accept" is "ad-", "towards"; to accept something is to take it towards yourself. "Except" has as its prefix "ex-", which means "out"; to except something is to take it out--out of a list, out of consideration, out of play, out. Therefore, if something is not accepted, it's shunned or forbidden, and if something is not excepted, then it's explicitly permitted, and therefore the sign actually means the exact opposite of what it intends to say.

If I had been in that store, it would have been very hard to resist arguing this point, even though I would have lost the argument.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Growth Industry

I have plugged The Teaching Company's lectures before, and now I'm going to do it again. No, they're not paying me to do it; they just have a really good product.

Every year, every one of their courses goes on sale, though not all at once. Right now, one of the sale courses is The History of Ancient Rome. I've only just started listening to it, but I'm quite sure it will be good, because the lecturer, Garrett Fagan, also has another lecture series, Emperors of Rome, which was riveting (and is also currently on sale, $49.99 and worth it).

Seriously, audiobooks are great. You can listen to them on your daily commute, while doing mindless housework, or while at the gym. The Emperors of Rome series was so interesting that I actually stayed on the boring cardio equipment for an extra session because I wanted to hear a particular lecture to the end.

Anyway, in the second lecture of History of Ancient Rome, the word "arable" was used in reference to the fertile soil of Italy, and naturally that got me to wondering just where the word came from. It means "cultivatable", and it seems pretty obvious that it's composed of the stem "ar-" plus the usual "-able" suffix, but I didn't know where the stem might have come from. It couldn't be in any way related to "agriculture", from Latin "ager", "field", could it?

Nah. That would be too easy. It would have to be a word I didn't know already, and that word is Latin "arare", "to plow", from the Indo-European "arh-", with the same meaning. "Arare" led to "arabilis", "plowable", which the French turned into "arable". This word, interestingly, supplanted an extant Old English word, "erable". Wasn't much of a stretch.

The reason I had never heard of the root of "arable" is that, unlike yesterday's "dhragh-" as the progenitor of a massive wad of interrelated words, "arare" left no other offspring in English, not a one.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Under the Influence

Sometimes an etymology is staring you right in the face, and you just don't see it. And sometimes it is wonderful.

The word "draw" has a great many meanings in English: there are certainly forty of them, maybe more. And what is wonderful is that they all come from the same source, Indo-European "dhragh-", "to draw, to pull, to drag", which came into Old English as "dragan" from Germanic "draganen" and became "drauen" in Middle English. Every sense of "draw" in English has that same notion of pulling or dragging. To draw a picture is to drag your pencil across paper. To draw breath is to pull it into your lungs. When a game is a draw, it's because both participants (as in a tug-of-war) were pulling equally hard to win. You draw your weapon, draw a crowd, draw out a leisurely lunch, draw interest, draw back, and in every case the meaning is "to pull".

Now, "dhragh-" looks like "drag", and every sense of "drag" in English also has that notion of pulling, with one likely exception (which you will probably guess). A horse drags a wagon behind it; later, "drag" came to be used for the wagon itself, and the slangy sense of a car as a wagon (you can still buy a station wagon) led to "drag racing", which could take place on the main drag. ("Drag" even came to mean the car itself, although this, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, perhaps rather sniffily, is "criminals' slang".) You take a drag on your cigarette, you drag your feet when you're tired, a bore drags out his tedious story: again, pulling, every time. The only exception is the drag which people wear, whether in the most literal sense of "the clothing of the opposite sex" or the metaphorical "clothing for a specific purpose" ("business drag"). This may come from the sense of a woman's long skirts dragging on the floor, but that stinks of folk etymology: a better guess is German "tragen", "to wear", via Yiddish "trogn", which would have been heard in theatrical circles. (The OED declines to speculate on the matter.)

Another offshoot of "dhragh-" is "draft", and damned if every single sense of "draft" in English doesn't also have that sense of pulling or drawing. Draft beer is pulled from a tap; the draft pulls conscripts into the army; a rough draft is drawn up quickly, a draft of air is drawn through an opening into a room, a draftsman draws for a living.

Discovering things like this makes me just absurdly happy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rough and Tumble

The other day I discovered that the Polish word "Rudobrody" means "Red Beard". I don't know if it's an actual, usual word, or if it was composited out of two words (or parts of words, or word stems, or what), but there it is on the movie poster, and presumably Polish people can translate it without any effort.

Today I wondered about the English word "rude". "Rudo-" seems pretty clearly related to "ruddy", meaning "reddish" when applied to the complexion, and "ruddy", and also "red", are from Indo-European "reudh-".

Now, "rude", in its usual English sense of "ill-mannered", doesn't have anything to do with this, that's obvious. But there is another sense of "rude", not heard so much any more but still in currency, meaning "vigorous"; it's generally seen in the expression "rude good health". So my question to myself was, is this rude related to "ruddy"? Seems like it ought to be.

'Tisn't, though. Every sense of "rude" in English is from the same source: Latin "rudis", meaning rough, either in manners or in surface texture. "Rude good health" simply means that its possessor isn't effete and coddled, but is strong and robust in an earthy way, a sort of Rousseauvian natural man.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Happy Ending

Well, I'm back. Not that I ever went away, but I was multiply preoccupied with work and knitting and reading and writing and general life-having.

Last week, I had to frame some movie posters for a customer: they were small, about 9 by 12, and all advertising Akira Kurosawa movies, but in different languages. One of them a co-worker* and I couldn't quite figure out: it was either Hungarian or Polish (languages neither of us speaks, to say the least), but there wasn't enough information on it for us to be completely sure, given our limited knowledge of these languages.

I decided it was Polish because of an interesting thing that I thought I had seen in other Polish names or words: the director's name was rendered Akiry Kurosawy.

So we tossed it around for a few minutes. (The name, not the poster.) Why would the Polish language change someone's name? It wasn't mere transliteration, because Polish uses a Roman alphabet with a few diacritical additions (such as that "l-"with-a-slash-through-it which is pronounced like English "w"). Finally I had a bright idea: perhaps his name ends in "-y" because he's a man?

We both knew that in some languages, the woman's version of a masculine name will end in "-a". This is true in English, certainly: Paula is the women's version of Paul. This is also true in Italian, where the man's name will end in "-o" where the woman's ends in "-a": Paolo/Paula, Lauro/Laura. (In French, the ending, or at least one ending, is "-le": Michel/Michelle, for instance.)

So my theory was that Akira Kurosawa had to be rendered Akiry Kurosawy in Polish, because to do otherwise would suggest that he was in fact a she. I am not absolutely certain that this is the case, but after getting home and doing a little research, I think it is. The Wikipedia page on Polish nomenclature says that "If a masculine surname ends in -i or -y, its feminine equivalent ends in -a", and I have no reason to think that the same is any less true of first names, as well.

The same page also contains the very interesting fact that the surname "Kowalski" means "blacksmith".

Anyway. Wikipedia notes that there is a class of surnames which end in "-a", but that these are derived from verbs. So my original guess still stands: Akira Kurosawa looks like a woman's name in Polish, and so on a movie poster had to be reinvented into Akiry Kurosawy to make it clear that he was a man. If anyone out there is fluent in Polish and can expand on this, or correct me if I'm wrong, that would be swell. Otherwise, it's my best guess.

By the way, even if you don't know a whole lot about Kurosawa's oeuvre, can you guess what "Rudobrody" means from looking at the poster above? I couldn't. I was staring at the word, thinking, "Well, it's clearly not a Japanese word, and it doesn't appear to be a Kurosawa movie that I've ever heard of," and I was so bemused by the whole "Akiry" thing that I forgot to, you know, use my brain. You can't always assume that configurations of letters in another language will have anything to do with your own language (Finnish looks nothing like anything you've ever seen in English, since it's from a completely different language family), but "Rudo-" suggests such the word "ruddy" and therefore "red", "-brody" calls to mind German "Bart" and its English descendent "beard", and the poster is a picture of a guy with a red beard. Me: not too bright sometimes.

*I've mentioned her a dozen or more times before: Finnish, speaks five languages, very cool? I may as well give her a name. I don't think she'd mind. It's Eeva, and that's pronounced "ay-vuh", like one of the usual English pronunciations of "Ava". Or possibly "Eva", if you are a Gabor sister. In Finnish, if I have this right, a doubled vowel lengthens it, so "Eva", if it existed in that language, would be pronounced "ev-uh". "Eva" in English is usually pronounced "ee-vuh", and to get that in Finnish, it would have to be spelled "Iiva".

In some dialects of Newfoundland English--let's say most of them--a vowel sound at the beginning of a word is usually preceded by a heavily aspirated "h-" sound. (Perversely, an "h-" sound at the beginning of the word is dropped: "I'm 'er huncle.") My grandmother, who did not have any particularly strong Newfoundland accent, nevertheless pronounced "onions" as "HUNyuns", as a joke. In fact, a joke that Newfoundlanders tell about their own accents is that "they loses the aitch on the 'ighway and picks it up on the h'overpass".

I tell you this because Eeva--whose name any English speaker would naturally pronounce "ee-vuh", because a doubled vowel is long--goes to a church whose now-retired minister was a Newfoundlander with an industrial-strength accent. He naturally enough pronounced her name in the English manner plus that aspirate at the beginning, turning it into "hee-vuh", which, unfortunately, is the pronunciation of a word in Finnish: "hiiva", which means "yeast".

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Earlier today I was reading the comments section from a blog post, and then of course I went and closed the tab that it was in so I can't even show you the example, not that it matters: I don't like to make fun of people's comments (because they can't edit them, because nobody else can either, and because they're not usually professional writers). But I was puzzled to see the expression "miner bird", because not only did it sound familiar and yet wrong at the same time, but I couldn't figure out what the writer could possibly have meant. Eventually it dawned on me that the intended expression was "mynah bird".

The entirety of the so-useful Online Etymology Dictionary listing for the word "mynah" reads,

type of passerine bird of India and the East, "talking starling," 1769, from Hindi maina "a starling," from Skt. madana-s "love, passion," with a special sense of "bird."

That's pretty clear, except for the "'love, passion' with a special sense of 'bird'". In what sort of special sense do love and passion have anything to do with birds? (Except lovebirds.)

Anyway, that led to "passerine", which luckily I remembered I already did almost two years ago, so you can read that if you're interested.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Bad Taste

Over on my other blog I've posted a review of a scent called Gourmand Coquin, and its name has a most interesting etymology.

The "gourmand" part is pretty self-evident: we have the word "gourmand" in English, where it's a noun meaning a person who gorges himself, as opposed to a gourmet, someone who takes pleasure in fine, well-prepared food. In French, the words have pretty much exactly the same meaning as they do in English. "Gourmet" and "gourmand" are not directly related etymologically, but they influenced one another in spelling over the centuries: "gourmet" started out as Old French "grommes", wine-tasters, and "gourmand" started out as "gormant".

But what about "coquin"?

At first glance it seems likely to be related to "coq", which is to say "cock" or "rooster". In addition to the dish "coq au vin", we have another "coq" word in English: "coquette", a flirtatious woman. (French also has the masculine version, "coquet", which exists in English but is rarely seen.) There's also the derived "cocotte", which goes beyond mere flirtatiousness: a cocotte follows through on her flirting, and is therefore a promiscuous woman--a tart.

"Coquin" means, as a noun, "rascal", and as an adjective (as it is in "Gourmand Coquin") "rascally". So obviously "coquin" and "coquet" should be related, being two elements of the same essential pattern of behaviour: the roguish flirt. And yet surprisingly, they're not related in any way.

This is very complicated, so gird your loins. "Coquin" is derived from "coquille", which is the French word for "scallop shell", as in "Coquille St-Jacques", a dish made of scallops in an egg-based sauce and protected with buttered and seasoned breadcrumbs, baked or broiled in the shell (or in a ramekin). (Scallops themselves are called "petoncles", a word which derives from Latin "petunculus", diminutive of "pecten", "sea comb", another name for the scallop.) If you ever wondered why scalloped potatoes--mixed with a cheese sauce, covered in crumbs, and baked--are called that, now you know. "Coquille" in turn comes from Vulgar Latin "conchilia", "shell", which I would think is self-evidently related to "conch", from Greek "konche", "mussel".

Coquille St-Jacques is named after the saint James, "Jacques" in French, whose symbol was the scallop shell and whose devotees also used the shell for symbolic as well as practical purposes: Middle Ages pilgrims on their way to his shrine in Spain would stop along the way to beg for food, and would ask the donor only for as much food or drink as would fit into the scallop shell, a good thing for impoverished citizens who were nevertheless morally obliged to assist the pilgrim.

A coquin, then, was someone who begged with a coquille, or scallop shell. Eventually it came to be applied to those pilgrims who abused the hospitality of those at whose houses they stopped along the way, and eventually to any man ("coquine" is the feminine version) who variously abused the hospitality of others, or was simply a bad influence.

Yes, I know all this sounds vaguely preposterous, but as Anna Russell liked to say, "I'm not making this up, you know."

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Yes, I'm very lax and very apologetic.

Here's something to distract you, though.

From Pharyngula is this little video which compresses the evolution of the Earth, from its formation to the present moment, into a single minute. There's a bigger version here. You may need to watch it a few times to take it all in: the last few seconds are overwhelming. (I should point out that it contains a typo, and a very baffling one: the text on the screen says, "Last Banded Ion Formation", and I thought, "Banded ion formation? Can ions even form into bands?" And then I realized that it must be "iron", not "ion", which, in fact, is the case. The maker is going to correct this.)

And here's the same idea stretched out by Carl Sagan in a bit from Cosmos which maps the entire history of the universe onto a twelve-month year. It has less of a visceral impact--Sagan's soothing voice makes sure of that--but is no less thrilling in the long run.

Do people really find it depressing to be reminded of how short a time humans have been around, how comparatively insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things? I don't. I think it's rather astounding and wonderful. We think we're the centre of the universe, which is so big and so old that it hasn't really noticed us and wouldn't miss us if we disappeared. Puts things into perspective.

Monday, February 09, 2009

No Smiley

Maybe my sense of humour is impaired. I mean, I laugh at funny things, but when something is presented straight-faced, when it's subtly ironic or sarcastic, sometimes I miss the point and take it at face value.

Is that what I'm doing here? Is the writer being funny? Am I really missing it?

First, have a look at this:

It's from a recent Boingboing piece called Emoticon from 1862?

And then the Boingboing article quotes a writer as saying this:

Bryan Benilous, who works with historical newspapers at Proquest, said the team felt the “;)” after the word “laughter” was an emoticon, more than a century before emoticons became a widespread concept.

Could it be? Was this just a typo, a mistake, or was the reporter, transcriber or typesetter having a bit of sly fun?

Since it's self-evidently none of the above, all I could think was, "Okay, you've got to be kidding me, right?" Because how could any even halfway-intelligent person seriously think that that juxtaposition of two punctuation marks was an ur-emoticon?

Let's look at the evidence. The phrase "applause and laughter" starts with a parenthesis. It also ends with a parenthesis. They form a set. In this context, you never see one without the other. A quick scan of the text supplies no other closing parenthesis to match the opening one: therefore, the two belong together.

Now, what about that semicolon? It represents a pause in speech, a longer one than a comma alone. Since what we're looking at as a transcription, a moment's thought will suggest that the transcriber wishes to indicate that the speaker paused during the applause and laughter. Nowadays we wouldn't use a semicolon in a transcription to notate such a thing (we'd probably use a paragraph break), nor put a free-floating punctuation mark just before a closing parenthesis, but common sense might reasonably lead us to think that that's just what the original writer did.

And finally, what about that space between the word "laughter" and the semicolon? Again, something that isn't done these days, but some languages (such as French) place a space before certain punctuation marks as a typographic convention. For example, look at these sentences from the French Wikipédia page for "Typographie":

Cependant, dans un texte encyclopédique, il est d’usage d'éviter les abréviations. On écrira alors « Le docteur Folamour a reçu monseigneur Don Camillo. » ou encore « Maître Corbeau sur un arbre perché tenait en son bec un fromage. ».

Those little paired-arrow things are opening and closing quotation marks, and, as you can see, they have a space before and after them.

English used to do the same thing with certain punctuation marks such as the semicolon*, not unlike the way in which, in the typewriter era, two spaces were inserted instead of one after a period.

Even if you didn't know this last bit, the first part is self-evident and the second will easily suggest itself after even the briefest of consideration. So why on Earth would someone seriously contend that the modern emoticon was in use several years before the first commercially available typewriter?

Obviously I'm just not in on the joke.

* I didn't just pick that page at random, of course. It contains the following relevant passage:

Le Code typographique impose parfois des spécifications différentes du Code dactylographique enseigné dans les écoles de secrétariat. Ainsi, le Code dactylographique impose de ne jamais avoir d’espace entre la dernière lettre d’un mot et le signe typographique qui la suit, tandis que le Code typographique demande d’y intercaler une espace protégée fixe lorsque le signe est une ponctuation double, de la hauteur d'un caractère (; : ? ! % etc.), pour des raisons de lisibilité en chasse variable (le procédé diminue au contraire la lisibilité en chasse fixe si l’espace protégée fixe est remplacée par une espace justifiante).

This tells us, to paraphrase, that in typing, one no longer uses a space before a punctuation mark, whereas in typesetting, for purposes of readability a space is to be inserted for tall punctuation marks such as the semicolon, the question mark, and so on.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


I have been remiss, haven't I? Sorry. My computer's desktop is scattered with at least five different things that I haven't even bothered to finish. I don't know what the deal is. I've been writing my other blog a lot, though, so you could always go read that.

Yesterday I got a sample in the mail, courtesy of Patty from the Perfume Posse. Its name is Péché Cardinal, which is French for "cardinal sin", and although I haven't had a chance to smell it yet, I know that it is based on the peach, which makes the scent's name one of the best visual puns in the fragrance business, because the French word for "peach" is "pêche". (They're pronounced completely differently: "péché" has two syllables, and the accent marks indicate that the vowels aren't the same. But they look like the same word!)

"Peach" is, it will not surprise you, descended directly from the French word, or rather an older version of it: Old French "pesche". (This will particularly not surprise you if you have a long memory, since I wrote about "peach" a few years back in the context of the word "impeach". I'm going to repeat myself now so you don't have to go back and read that if you don't want to.) In French, as I have mentioned before, a circumflex accent--the little hat over a letter--usually indicates a vanished "-s-", and so "pesche" became "pêche". "Pesche" in turn came from Middle Latin "pesca", from Late Latin "pessica", from "persica", from an abbreviation of Latin "malum Persicum", "Persian apple", with "malum" being the genitive (I think) of "malus", "apple".

"Malus" may look familiar if you read the ingredient list of cheap candy: malic acid is a sour flavouring derived from the apple. This in turn may also suggest another word: "malice". "Malus" and "malice" are unrelated, but the Latin word for "evil" was "malum", the source of "malice" (and lots of other words in English that start with "mal-"), and the plural of both was "mala". Is it any wonder, then, that the apple, with its pun-ready Latin name, was used as a symbol for evil in translations of the Garden of Eden fable?

"Péché", on the other hand is ultimately derived from Latin "peccare", "to sin".