or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


The word that popped into my head and demanded to be etymologized was, for no evident reason, "suffocate". Isn't that awful?

Trying to pick it apart without guidance is no use at all, believe me. You could guess that it is Latin, and that it starts with "sub-", which got mutated into "suf-" because that sound is easier to say before the letter "-f-": other than that, what could it possibly be? You'll never guess!

It comes, as we guessed, directly from Latin: "suffocare", "to suffocate". It originally meant "to narrow, to construct", and was formed from (again, as we guessed) "sub-", "(up from) under", and "fauces", "throat, narrow passage".

"Fauces", you say? "Narrow passage," you say? Well, doesn't that look just exactly like "faucet"?

Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't. It's complicated.

To tap a keg of beer, you need a device consisting of a long thin tube which can pierce the cask and a plug of some sort, possibly a stopcock, which can control the flow. Way back when, a spigot-and-faucet was the name of this device: the spigot (related to "spike", for reasons we don't need to get into) was the stopper and the faucet was the narrow tube. The throat, if you like. Therefore, the word must logically come from "fauces".

But there's another proposed etymology: "faucet" comes from French "fausset", which is related to "fausse", "false", through an extended meaning of "fausser", "to break into". In this case, the spigot is the hollow spike that pierces the cask, and the faucet is the part--the bottleneck, the narrow passage--that controls the flow. This, in fact, was the original sense of spigot-and-faucet: only later, and only in some parts of England, was the whole contraption reversed, etymologically.

So which is it? Different sources have different opinions, and the OED refuses to speculate, saying only that "faucet" is "of unknown origin". I personally think that "fauces" is more likely, but, and you will have figured this out already, I am not a professional, so take that for what it's worth.

At any rate, nowadays, of course, the whole operation is called the faucet, at least in the U.S. In the UK, they call it the tap. In Canada, they call it both, or either; the words are interchangeable.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Out and About

As you know, because I keep bringing it up, I am listening to a lecture series from The Teaching Company called History of Ancient Rome: I'm on, like, lecture 37 or 38 out of 48, so I won't be bothering you with this for too much longer.

Yesterday I used the word "egregious", because it was in my head, because it had appeared in a lecture on Roman society, but not in its English form. The social structure of ancient Rome was extremely stratified, with various grades and classes of people: the equestrian or knight class, which was fairly high up on the social scale, was further divided into such units as the "vir perfectissimus", "most perfect man"; "vir clarissimus", "most famous man"; and "vir egregius", "most outstanding man".

I wrote about "egregious" quite a while ago, and I made the observation that the word literally meant "out of the flock", because the person who behaved egregiously was going to get himself kicked out of polite society. But back then, as the term "vir egregius" suggests, the word didn't have our negative connotation. Just the opposite: someone who is "ex grex", "out of the flock", is someone who (in actuality or by title) has through his character and deeds managed to separate himself from the common rabble and prove himself exceptional.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Over the Coals

I ordinarily do not consider blog comments to be a hunting ground for mistakes and incorrect assertions, but this is just so egregious that I can't leave it be.

Parterre Box is an opera blog written and read by ferociously devoted and opinionated opera fans. You could learn a lot about the art form just by reading the comments. However, someone in a recent discussion made the following observation:

“Rehearse.” “Re-hear.” The opportunity for the director to evaluate the work the performer has been doing between rehearsals.

Anybody who knows anything about etymology will look at that and, even if they don't know the specific root in question, immediately guess (correctly) that that is complete nonsense. "Rehearse" obviously didn't come from "hear": the vowel sound is wrong, the putative suffix isn't a suffix at all, it's just ridiculous.

If you know any German, you will have noticed that their verb "hören", "to hear", is close in sound to our "hear", and must be either the source or the cousin of it, and that is just how it is. The two words probably come from the Indo-European root "keu-", "to perceive", which also, interestingly, gave us "show" (which meant "to look at" before it came to mean its current opposite, "to hold up for others to look at").

"Rehearse", on the other hand, is "re-", "again", plus "-hearse", and yes, that is the "hearse" that carries a coffin. But more on that in a minute, because it's complicated. "Rehearse" comes from Old French "rehercier", "to repeat", literally "to rake over", because "hercier" meant "to rake", from "herce", "a rake, a harrow". This referred to a metal framework hung over a coffin which held the candles which were used in the funeral service, which presumably resembled a harrow, a farm implement used for tearing up soil: a long heavy metal frame with sharp teeth. The Latin word for it, "hercia", apparently came from an even older word, "hirpus", meaning "wolf", for its teeth. The original candleholder meaning of "hearse" dates from the late thirteenth century: by the mid-seventeeth century, the word had come to mean the vehicle that takes the casket to the burial ground.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Point

Here's a screen capture from the trailer for a movie called "The Objective", which looks like kind of a piece of crap, or at least not the sort of thing I'd watch, even if it were free.

Last I checked, "phenomena" was still plural. "Bacteria" and "data" might be lost causes, but both "phenomenon" as the singular and "phenomena" as the plural are still alive and well in the language. It's not even a tricky one, like "octopus", which would be "octopodes" in Greek but, since most of us do not speak Greek as our mother tongue here in North America, is merely "octopuses" (and not "octopi": Fowler's Modern English Usage states that "the only acceptable plural in English is octopuses," and that octopi is misconceived and octopodes pedantic).

Mixing up the singular and plural of an ordinary everyday noun, something which even six-year-olds can reliably get right, makes you look stupid.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Once again yesterday at the gym I was listening to the History of Ancient Rome (I'm up to lecture 34 of 48--they had a lot of history back in those days), and the lecture used the word "erase" a couple of times in a previous lecture, but, being Irish, he pronounced it "eraze". (I've heard a pronunciation like this on occasion, and not just from UK speakers: Canadians tend to pronounce the word with a hard ess, but sometimes will pronounce "erasure" as "e-raze-ure".)

All this, naturally, set my mind a-wondering: could "erase" in fact be related to "raze"? I mean, it doesn't have to be: it's not necessary that it be. It's not even altogether obvious: the words have meanings related at least tangentially, but stranger coincidences have happened in the history of the language. Just the other day, after all, we had two completely identical words, both "repair", which nevertheless came from two different sources: "erase" and "raze" could have been the product of the same sort of coincidence.

They aren't, though. Both come from Latin "radere", "to scrape", which also, as even the least thought will suggest (if you haven't already divined it from "raze"), must have given birth to "razor", which scrapes the stubble from your skin. To raze a building or other structure is to demolish it and scrape it clean down to the ground on which it was built: to erase something from a document originally meant to scrape the ink off the parchment or vellum, and now simply means to remove it by some mechanical means. (When I was in school, what's commonly called an eraser--a little pink or white oblong for removing pencil marks--was called a rubber, because that's what it used to be made of, though now it's invariably synthetic. Nowadays a rubber is something else altogether, and an eraser is always an eraser.)

It seems that "radere" descended from Indo-European "red-", "to gnaw, to scrape", a word which also gives English the rodent which gnaws (the connection to "rat" is postulated but uncertain) and the rash which we scratch away at.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Over on my other blog I wrote a piece about human body odour--no, seriously, read it, it's very interesting, lots of links and provocation--and I mentioned a book called The Smell Culture Reader, which you can poke around inside thanks to Google Books. I was just skimming a piece called "Queer Smells: Fragrances of Late Capitalism or Scents of Subversion?", which promised to be madly post-modern and pretentious but possibly also interesting. And on the second page of the piece is the following sentence:

When, for example, the perfume industry, which has been built on pedaling essences of heterosexual man and heterosexual woman for centuries, appears, at least party, to have abandoned its heteronormative bias in ways that appear to be queer, just how radical are queer theories themselves?

As usual, my eye unerringly found the mistake, because for better or worse, that is what my brain does. What's baffling to me is that the mistake is a correctly spelled word, but used in the wrong context, and yet I found the mistake anyway without trying, without even really reading the text. This is a mystery.

But enough about me. The mistake. "Pedal" as a verb means "to operate with the foot": you pedal a bike. It's also an adjective meaning "of the foot", and a noun meaning "a part of a machine which is operated with the foot". All three words are foot-centred, which is only natural, as they come from Latin "pes", "foot", of which the genitive is "pedis".

"Peddle", on the other hand, is a back-formation from "peddler" or earlier "pedlar", the provenance of which is a complete mystery. It is not, however, related in any way to "pes". It means "to sell". That's the word that was intended in the article. That's the word that should have been inserted by the copy-editor. That's the word that casts doubt on the entire book, because if there was nobody around to catch the mistake, who knows what other errors might have slipped in?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Remember Papa

You never know what's going to stick in your head from your childhood, do you? Little bits and pieces of things, television jingles for products that are no longer made, offhanded comments from relatives, the smell of Play-Doh, all in there in a big jumble, waiting to be dredged up by happenstance. You may not remember an anniversary, but you sure do remember the name of your childhood pets.

For no apparent reason, a joke (which I am probably not remember entirely accurately, but such is memory) surfaced today from a long-forgotten episode of "M*A*S*H", which I have not seen in thirty years or more:

"Shall we repair to my tent?"
"Why, is it broken?"

Now. Why should it be that that joke is even possible? There are two words in English which are identical in every respect except for the fact that their meanings have no point of contact; where did they come from?

The second meaning of "repair" in the joke, "to mend", comes from Latin "re-", "again", plus "parare", "to prepare", because when you repair something you re-prepare it for reuse.

The first meaning, "to go", comes from somewhere else entirely: Latin "repatriare", "to return to one's country of birth", via French "repairer", with the same meaning. "Repatriare" also shows up in English as "repatriate", and is related to "patriot", someone who stands up for his or her country: these words are descended from Latin "pater", "father", because your own country is of course the fatherland.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Here's a paragraph from a Boingboing story about the 1962 World's Fair theme song:

The other problem with the song is the recording. By 1962 standards, this is dreadful. It sounds like the band was encased in an oildrum and miced from the outside. Audiophiles should note that this recording will likely reverse the magnetic fields in your Harmen-Kardon speakers.

Got that? "Miced".

Now, I know that the word "microphone" is often abbreviated to "mic". I think this is a very stupid spelling of the abbreviation, which is pronounced, and obviously ought to be spelled, "mike": mike-row-phone. I mean, "microgram" is sometimes abbreviated to "mike", particularly when it's referring to LSD, and if we can do it to "microgram", why ever not "microphone"? "Mic", according to the rules of English, looks as if it ought to be pronounced "mick". "Open mic night" versus "open mike night"; which makes more sense?

And when you spell the abbreviation of "microphone" as "mic", and then you turn it into a verb, you end up with "miced", which looks as if the "-c-" ought to be soft, and then you get a word that seems as if it ought to rhyme with "diced", confusing everyone (because what do mice have to do with the recording?), whereas "mike" if neatly verbified into "miked", which pretty much pronounces itself. There isn't any way to make "mic" into a verb and then form the preterite without making a giant hash of the thing.

English lets us change the spelling of things if the existing spelling is going to baffle and annoy the reader. It encourages us to do this, in fact, by giving us a big palette of phonemes and judiciously looking the other way when we employ it. Just look at "refrigerator". I've seen, from fifties writing, the abbreviation "frig", which is obviously disastrous: though etymologically impeccable, it lends itself to being pronounced incorrectly, on top of which the word already exists (and has a meaning unrelated to refrigerators). How do we invariably spell the abbreviation? "Fridge". We get to tuck in a couple of letters that don't belong there, in the service of making the word pronounceable in a logical, obvious way. That's what should have been done with "microphone" from the get-go, and it's what we should do now. It's not too late.

(Oh, and the writer was so busy making a joke that he also spelled "Harman-Kardon" incorrectly, but we'll let that pass.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Home Truths

One of the most endearing things about etymology is its habit of expanding to fill more space than you would have thought possible.

Today I had a lovely customer who wanted to frame a piece of her own art as a donation to a riding club. We got to talking, and I eventually discovered that she was from Scotland (not that I couldn't have guessed from her accent), a place called Prestwick. It sounded very nice, so I naturally wanted to look it up, and also, as is my way, to see the etymology of the place name. Prestwick, it turns out, means "priest's farm": "preost wic". The "preost" part meaning "priest" is obvious enough, but what of "wic"?

"Wic", as seen in place names ending in "-wick" (such as Gatwick, which means "goat farm") and also places ending in "-wich" (Greenwich, Norwich), ultimately derives from Latin "vicus", "village". I think three words are likely to come to an English speaker's mind at the sight of "vicus": "vicious", "vicinity" and "vicar", only one of which is related; "vicinity" is traced through "vicinus", "neighbour", and then to "vicinitas", its adjectival form, "of neighbours or a neighbourhood". ("Vicar" is from "vicis", "an office", and "vicious" is from "vitium", "a fault".)

But "wic" did not start out meaning "farm" or even "village". It began its life as Indo-European "weik-", meaning "clan", and took root in a number of languages; Persian, Gothic, Sanskrit, and Celtic, not to mention Latin "vicus" and the intimately linked Greek "oikos", meaning "house". (It's hard to see the relationship if you don't know that the "v-" in Latin was pronounced like our "w-", and "wicus" is very obviously the cousin to "oikos". It's also amusing to think that what English speakers untrained in Latin think of as an Italianate "veni, vidi, vici" with its "v-" and "-ch-" sounds was actually pronounced much more like "weenie, weedy, weaky".)

And Latin also had a "weik-" word meaning "house": "villa", which we still use to this day, and which "village" also comes from, via Italian, in which it meant, depending on context, "house", "country house", or, to get back to where we started from, "farm".

The Wikipedia page for Prestwick contains the following sentence:

Incidentally, to the north of Prestwick is the small village of Monkton.

Incidentally, indeed. The sentence has no relationship to anything else on the page, it doesn't link to anything else, and so it is entirely inconsequential, except for one thing: I live in a small city called Moncton, as if that sentence were put on the page just for me to discover this evening. How eerie!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


A couple of months ago I was talking about swearing in other languages, and now Slate has a piece on the word "motherfucker" and the question of whether that word or some variant on it exists in every culture. The short answer is, "Yes, more or less": the long answer is, "Read the article." After all, it contains such interesting facts as this one:

Given the Chinese culture of ancestor worship, Cao ni zu shong shi ba dai, or "fuck your ancestors of 18 generations," may be the worst incest instruction of all.

Lots more here. And also some more here, a piece I did on obscenity last March 14th, so maybe we're developing some kind of theme. (As an unrelated fact, you might like to know that March 14th is Pi day.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

That Run-Down Feeling

I haven't posted in days, which always makes me feel bad, but I've been busy at work (inventory) and I haven't posted to my other blog for a week and half, which makes me feel even worse, but what can you do?

Now, I was listening to The History of Ancient Rome on my trip to the supermarket today, and I won't bore you with the details, but the lecturer mentioned something called the "cursus honorum", literally "course of honours", and the I was immediately distracted by a whirlwind of words flooding through my head, because "cursus" is so obviously the relative and/or progenitor of a whole wad of English words, some of which I'm sure will also occur to you if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds.

The very first word that came into my head wasn't one that probably occurred to you right away--we'll get to that--but instead was French "courir", "to run", because of the way the lecturer pronounced "cursus". "Courir" is self-evidently the parent of "courier", literally "runner".

Immediately after that, I thought of the word "cursive", which had never occurred to me before, for some reason: it was clearly so named because cursive script is all run together rather than being formed of unconnected letters.

After that came "cursor" (which one would think would be the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing "cursus", except possibly "curses", which is probably unrelated), and I could not quite figure out why that should be named a runner, since it doesn't really run: we move it instead. But what we think of as a cursor, the little arrow or hand or other indicator that we drag around the computer screen, isn't the original sense of a computer cursor: that was the little blinking bar that indicates where text is going to appear when we type. That cursor in turn got its name from the indicator on a slide rule, which it resembles (at least a little). And that cursor...well, I don't quite know why it got called that, unless someone thought that it ran back and forth on the slide rule, which I suppose, in a way, it does.

Then, of course, came "cursory", which I assumed came from the fact that when you give something a cursory glance, you run your eyes over it.

Then, let's see. "Course", of course. That seemed pretty self-evident: a course is something you run on, a university course is a series (a run) of lectures. "Of course", a moment's thought suggested, must have come about as a contraction of the phrase "as a matter of course", with "course" having its usual sense of "run", in this case "the way things are run". In fact, every sense of the word, and every word containing "course" such as "discourse" or "recourse", is related.

That was all I could come up with in a few minutes. There are others. Lots of others. The sense of running is pretty basic, probably one of the top ten or so verbs, and so the Indo-European root "kers-", "to run", could be expected to find its way into lots of words in lots of languages: it certainly did in English. In addition to all the words mentioned above, offshoots of "kers-" include "current", something which runs (a rivulet, a jolt of electricity) or a description of something that's happening (running) right now. as well as "occurrence", the noun for that same thing happening; and "currency", originally "having the quality of flowing or running", later specified to mean the flow of money and then narrowed down to the money itself.

In Spanish, a corrida is a bullfight, earlier the run in which the fight was staged; this in turn suggests English "corridor", which runs between rooms and through a building.

A little clutch of words referring to things that run on wheels also sprang from "kers-": car, cart, chariot, and carriage. Also part of this family, believe it or not, is "carpenter", "cart-maker". Something else that runs may also have come from this source (though the etymology is not certain): "horse", which is plausible because k-sounds have been known to shift to h-sounds in Germanic languages. (It's part of something called Verner's Law, and I don't pretend to understand it completely because I am not a professional, but it's the reason that Latin "centum" showed up in English as "hundred", which you may compare with German "Hundert". It also, of course, makes an appearance in its original guise as "cent" and "century".) Also related: the cargo which these things carry, and the word "carry" itself.

And one more. "Career" originally meant (and still occasionally means) "to run at top speed"; now, idiomatically, it means the way you run a part of your life--the course which your working life follows.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Ancient History

As I said the other day, I'll be going to see "Watchmen" next weekend, and in preparation, I'm re-reading the book. One of the many things I had forgotten about since I first read it three or four years ago was that one of the main characters, the wealthy Adrian Veidt, has successfully marketed a great many products, including a perfume called Nostalgia, which drifts through the story both literally and figuratively as all the main characters are compelled to revisit their pasts (Dan and Laurie almost accidentally return to their superhero ways, costumes and all, while the psychotic Rorshach has his dragged from him by a prison psychiatrist).

We all know what "nostalgia" means, but where does it come from?

If you pick apart the word, you can probably guess what the second half means: "-alg-" shows up in other English words such as "analgesia" ("no pain") and "neuralgia" ("nerve pain"), and comes from Greek "algos", "pain, distress". The first half, though, is trickier, because it doesn't appear in any other common words. It's from Greek "nostos", "homecoming". The word "nostalgia" was originally coined to refer to severe, debilitating homesickness, and was considered a mental disease. Over the next hundred and fifty years, its meaning was diluted to its current sense, "a wistful longing for things past".

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Rhythm Method

I usually leave the rant to the end, but this time it goes at the beginning, just to get it out of the way. You can come back and read it later, or skip it altogether (because you've heard it from me before).

This is what happens when there are no editors. Writers can and do make mistakes, although this mistake, I have to say, shouldn't have been made in the first place: but it was, and it should have been caught and corrected, and would have been if Slate bothered to hire copy editors. But they don't (and a spellchecker wouldn't have noticed it, because the mistake is a valid word), and so we're stuck with errors like that which leave us to wonder if the writer just made a simple typo--it's just a single letter in a single word--or if he actually doesn't know the word in question, and I hate being forced to wonder that.

Here's a sentence from Watchmen, the book, not the movie (which I am going to see next weekend):

Gibbons found himself cramming his graphics into a neat box-arrangement of nine frames per page, and the result was a minimalist, Philip Glass-y, metronymic tone.

Now, if you know even a little about etymology, you will know that whenever you see "-nym" at the end of a word, it invariably refers to a name, because it is descended from Greek "onyma", which is a form of the word "onoma", which means "name". (A few days ago I wrote about the word "nomenclature", and Latin "nomen" is from the same source.) Therefore "metronymic" must have something to do with the name of something, and this cannot possibly make any sense in the context in which it is used.

The context instead suggests another word that has to do with music and rhythm, and that word is in fact "metronomic", from "metronome", a device used to count time. If the comic in question has a metronomic tone, then the writer is saying that the panels are repetitive and rhythmic in nature, which they are.

"Metronymic" means something else altogether. The "metro-" part is the same as that in "metropolis", which is to say "mother" (because a metropolis is a mother-city from which other, smaller cities are born when its residents move on to found their own). A metronym is therefore the opposite of a patronym; it's a name that is taken from one's mother or her line rather than one's father or his. (My own last name is just such a one: having been given my father's surname at birth, as was the style at the time, I discarded it and legally took my mother's maiden name instead.) "Metronymic" is a variant of "matronymic", the more usual form, but, as in "metropolis", "metr-" is common enough variation of "matr-".

In case you were wondering, which you surely were, I have already done "metronome", to which I will add only that the second half of the word, "-nome", is wildly complicated and interesting. Will I get to it tomorrow? I just might.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Rise Up

While reading an article called Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? (short answer: no, assuming he even existed), I was struck by a pair of words in relatively close proximity, because I realized that I had no idea where either of them might have come from. One of them, it turns out, is forgivable, because it has an obscure root and no other relatives in English. The other, though; I should have been able to guess.

The first is "sepulchre", which is a tomb or burial chamber. (It gets red-lined in my spell-checker, because Americans spell it "sepulcher", which is not, to my eyes, nearly as aesthetically pleasing.) It's from Latin "sepulcrum", which in turn is from the verb "sepelire", "to bury, to inter". No other English words (that I know of) are from this source, so it's no wonder I couldn't figure it out.

The other word, though, is "resurrection", and you'd think I would have been able to make some sense out of that. "Resurrection" comes directly from Old French in the late thirteenth century, so it's been around a while. ("Resurrect" is a back-formation from the late eighteenth century.) That in turn is derived from Latin "resurgere", "to rise again", from the usual prefix "re-", "again", plus "surgere", "to rise", which obviously gave us "surge". "Surgere" in turn comes from "sub-", "up from under", and "regere", "to guide".

"Surgere" looks like "surgery", and it would be natural to wonder if there were any connection between them, even though it's pretty obvious from the etymology that there couldn't be, and there isn't. "Surgery" is instead related to "urge", which on the face of it is just as ridiculous, but here's how that works. Latin "chirurgia", "surgery" (modern French "surgeon" is "chirurgien"), is derived from Greek "kheirourgia", "something done by hand", compounded out of "kheir-", "hand", plus "ergon", "work". "Ergon" is the source of a few English words including "erg", a unit of work energy", "ergonomics" (mashed together from "erg" and "economics"), and "urge", "to compel to work". "Kheir-" gave English a couple of less common words: "chirality", meaning "handedness" (it refers to molecules which can come in left-handed and right-handed versions, such as dextrose, table sugar, and its mirror version levulose, from respectively "dexter", "right-hand side", and "laevus", "left-hand side"), and "chiromancy", otherwise known as palm-reading.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Shiny Shiny

Tonight, as usual, I was working, and as usual tidying up the paint aisle, and one bottle of paint, produced by an American company for the joint American/Canadian market and therefore having a label printed in three languages, was full of silver metallic paint, the label reading, "Silver / Argent / Plata". And I thought, "Well, that's interesting": three different words for the same thing in three languages, two of which are intimately related. I jotted the words down on a piece of paper (alongside the words they called to mind: Silver silber Argent argentum Plata platinum) and resolved to look them up when I got home.

"Silver" is, as I noted, related to German "silber"; they both spring from the Proto-Germanic word "silubra", which gave most of the Germanic languages their silver-words. (Dutch has "zilver": isn't that pretty? And there's an old Slavonic word, "sirebo", and I don't know about you, but I can't pronounce that without imagining it being spoken in Japanese.) As for where "silubra" came from, there's mostly just a lot of speculation which doesn't interest me. You can look it up if you want.

Did you know that "argent" occurs in English? I didn't. I knew it was the French word for "silver", and that it came from Latin "argentum", and that this was where the abbreviation on the periodic table of elements, Ag, came from. But English certainly does love to borrow words, and it happily took "argent" from French and applied it to what was later called quicksilver and is now called mercury. (The "quick-" in "quicksilver" has nothing to do with speed: it means "alive", as in "the quick and the dead", because mercury moves around as if it had a mind of its own, particularly when you try to pick it up with your fingertips and it divides and scatters, leaving you with nothing but tiny spherules of the stuff between the grooves in your fingerprints.)

"Plata", Spanish for "silver", looks like "plate", and it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to guess that that's where it comes from: a sheet or plate of metal. Platinum, which looks rather like silver, also gets its name from the Spanish: "platina", the diminutive of "plata", was turned into "platinum" in, of all things, modern Latin in the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bosom Companion

I downloaded yet another free application for my iPod touch from the iTunes Store the other day. (I do have some paid applications, but mostly I just get the free ones. I wonder how the folks at Apple feel about that.) This one is called Cheap Chirp!, the stripped-down version of Chirp!, which is a collection of bird calls and pictures so that you can learn to match the sound with the bird, or just amuse yourself and the cat with bird sounds. Cheap Chirp! has fifteen birds, and a number of them are tits. But why exactly might it be that there is a kind of bird called a tit?

Glad you asked.


A very old word, dating from the mid sixteenth century, "tit", related to such Nordic words as Icelandic "tittr" and Norwegian "tita", meant any small thing or animal. It doesn't really seem to have come from anywhere; it's a small word (one of the lowest-energy words to speak that it is possible to make in English, actually, requiring virtually no movement of any part of the mouth) for a small thing, and that's enough. Norwegian "tita" means "small bird", and that's just what its relative means in the English-speaking world.

Except, that is, North America, where we do not generally call birds tits. We call them chickadees, from their characteristic call (a trilling "chick-a-dee-dee-dee), or titmice, a word which deserves its own explanation, because they are not mice. The Old English word for the the family of songbirds of which the tit is a part was "mase", the smaller version (and "tit" means a small animal) was the tit-mase, and over time, influenced by "mouse", another tiny creature, it became, reasonably enough, "titmouse".

My stepfather calls chickadees "meatballs", because in his part of the world (the tree-laden hinterlands of Ontario), the black-capped chickadee is the most common variety, and it is essential a tiny sphere with a beak and legs attached.


On an episode of the excellent British quiz show Q.I., host Stephen Fry superciliously noted that Americans were so afraid of the word "tit" that they changed it to "tid-" in the expression "titbit", nearly without exception expressed in North America as "tidbit". And it's true: an old American prudishness almost certainly forbade the use of "titbit" and preferred "tidbit", whose usage, the OED notes, is "chiefly American". (Does one ever hear "titbit" in North America? I never have.) But Fry was wrong about one thing: "tidbit" is older than "titbit". It comes from an old dialectical word, "tid", meaning "nice" or "tender", so a tidbit is a choice morsel of food. "Titbit" rhymes, which means it has an internal balance that people like ("hurly-burly", "pell-mell", "picnic", "blackjack", and on and on), and "tit" means a tiny thing (we are not having any breast jokes here), so "titbit" could also logically mean that choice morsel, and so the word gradually drowned out "tidbit" in the UK.


Since "tit" means a small object, is a "tittle" not something similar? It means a little dot or stroke in penmanship, such as the dot over an "i" or a "j", and is most usually heard in the expression "every jot and tittle", meaning every tiny detail. But the words are not related. "Tittle" comes from Latin "titulus", meaning "inscription". No relation to "tit" at all.


And now, the breast joke.

If you are not a Newfoundlander of a certain age, you have almost certainly never heard of Ron Pumphrey, a journalist, radio-show host, and raconteur (among many other things, as you will discover if you bother to Google his name); but if you are such a Newfoundlander, then it is impossible that you could have avoided hearing of him. I am now going to tell you a story that he told; I'm paraphrasing, unfortunately, but there's no way I can track down the original. I promise you to the best of my ability that the gist of it is correct, as is the punch line. (I made the mistake of telling my mother this story when she was driving the two of us home one night--I was visiting her in Ontario--and she started laughing so hard she almost drove off the road. The story would be funnier if you could have someone read it to you in a Newfoundland accent, but, failing that, you will just have to use your imagination.)

Ron Pumphrey was famous throughout Newfoundland: everyone knew his name, because he was more or less everywhere more or less all of the time, on television, on the radio, in books and newspapers and magazines. Once he was visiting the home of a young couple in an outport town; the wife had just given birth, and she was trying to be a gracious hostess to her celebrated visitor and tend to the fussy baby at the same time. Nothing would calm the baby down, so she undid a few buttons and held him to her breast, but the baby was not going to be so easily placated.

"Take the tit, Frankie," she said, but the baby would have none of it.

She kept trying. "Take the tit, Frankie." Still the baby kept fussing. Finally, at her wit's end, she said,

"Take the tit or I gives it to Mister 'Umphries!"

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


This is sort of about knitting but also about something else. I'd invite you to skip the boring bits if you're not a knitter but it's probably all boring bits if you're not a knitter, so you're welcome to come back tomorrow, which ought to prove amusing.

A couple of weeks ago I got a book in the mail called Selbuvotter: Biography of a Knitting Tradition, which has patterns for really beautiful Norwegian gloves and mittens. I spent a few days going through it, reading up on the techniques, and marking with Post-It flags the things I wanted to make, and then I started one of the projects, a pair of gloves (the ones that start on page 69, if you're following along at home). As soon as I got to the fingers, I ran into a snag, because the numbers just didn't add up: the divisions for the fingers didn't work, at all. I spent a solid hour, probably more, staring at the charts, counting, staring at the knitted piece, counting some more, moving stitches around, trying to make it work. I couldn't.

Eventually it dawned on me that 1) the Internet exists and 2) there might be errata for the book and 3) the Internet was a likely source for these errata. And here they are.

After staring at the chart for a good ten minutes and counting repeatedly, I came to the conclusion that the chart in the book was identical to the chart on the screen, which is probably the case, because the book has had a second edition, which I clearly have, and the errata are correcting mistakes that were in the first edition. (A quick check of the other errata confirmed this.) This means that the chart must be correct, and I just plain can't figure out what's going on in it, which is frustrating, but it might just be me, and I'm going to have to bull my way through it and force the thing to work, which is annoying but at least true to the spirit of a folk knitting pattern.

But look at this.

Perhaps I'm just stuffy but I would rather not see the word "duh" in a page of errata. That's not the point of this, though: the point is the word "patter", which ought to be "pattern", which means that there is a mistake in a piece of text that exists for the purpose of fixing mistakes previously made.

You may insert the standard rant about proofreading here: you've probably heard it from me before, and if you haven't, you won't have to go too far back to find one. The fact is that when your errata page has an erratum, you are just not paying attention.

Monday, March 02, 2009


I was listening to the History of Ancient Rome at the gym this morning, and the lecturer was talking about Roman nomenclature*. He might not actually have used the word "nomenclature", come to think of it, but if he didn't, the word still popped into my head, and therefore of course I was forced to wonder about its provenance.

The first half, "nomen-", was obviously related to English "name" (and French "nom"**, and German "Name"). The second part is less obvious. The only thing I could come up with was the taxonomical term "clade", which I knew was a grouping of an ancestor and all its descendants. I didn't see exactly how the two words could be related, but they sounded kind of alike, and "nomenclature" could possibly be construed to mean "naming of groups".

Unfortunately, I was barking up the wrong tree, etymologically. "Clade" is actually Greek, from "klados", and means "branch", because a clade is a branch on the enormous tree of evolutionary development. The "-clature" of "nomenclature" comes from Latin "calator", "[town] crier", which in turn comes from the verb "calare", "to call out". "Nomenclature" therefore translates as "name-calling", which is exactly what it is: the naming of things.

*What he said, in a nutshell, was that ancient Roman males had three names, and the middle one was the important one***. The first name, the praenomen, was like our given names, and there was a very small pool of them, which is why so many Romans seemed to be named Lucius and Quintus and the like. The middle name was the clan to which you belonged, and that was your primary identity. Because the praenomen was usually hereditary and the nomen always was, there would be lots of men named Tiberius Claudius or whatnot drifting around, so a third name, the cognomen, would be added to the end, a sort of subdivision of the clans. This began as a nickname but eventually became a full-fledged family name, so you could tell Marcus Valerius Britannicus from Marcus Valerius Dubitatus--same clan, different family.

**Actually, "nom" doesn't just mean "name" in French: it also means "noun", because the noun is the name of something. "Noun" in English, predictably, comes from the same place; Old French "nom" or "non", which became "noun" in the English-French hybrid language following the invasion of Britain.

***I don't expect anybody to get that reference.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


I don't even remember how I got to Time Magazine's online photo-essay slide shows: I was kind of poking around the Internet, browsing, following whatever links seemed interesting, and landed on one of them. The captions under the photos in the various slide shows had the occasional tiny typo or mistake, which annoyed me, but when I read this one, my head just exploded. It wasn't that this mistake was particularly bad (although it is); it was the cumulative effect of all the mistakes, capped by something that never should have seen the light of day.

"Je ne sais crois"? What the fuck is that?

The correct expression is "je ne sais quoi", which literally means "I don't know what" and is used to express some indefinable quality that makes someone fascinating or attractive. "Je ne sais crois" means exactly nothing in this context. (You can string those words together in French and have them mean something, just not the way the Time caption writer did.)

"Crois" is the first person singular form of the verb "croire", "to believe, to think". (There's another verb in French, "penser", which means "to think", but they have different undertones: "penser" would be used in the sense of "Think about it", while "croire" is more like "I think so", although you can also use "penser" in such situations, depending on the preposition you use. It's complicated.)

Someone, somewhere, should have caught this. Letting this get into print shows that the people in charge of Time Magazine's web presence just don't give a good goddamn about the reader. Throw together any old crap, chuck it online, make sure the ads are being served, and to hell with accuracy or correctness.