or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Over on my other blog I posted a little nothing piece about an article in The Onion, Hillary Clinton Launches Intimidating New Fragrance Line. What I didn't bother pointing out there, but will here because that's the sort of thing I do here, is that, uncharacteristically for The Onion, the piece isn't really very well written.

Where to begin? "Eaux de toilette" is plural, but there's only one scent under discussion. "Designed to evoke the olfactory equivalent" doesn't make sense, because a scent doesn't evoke the equivalent of something, it is the olfactory equivalent of something, or it evokes something: one or the other, but not both. "This is a controlled, competent, and, above all, patient essence that makes men sit up, take notice, and not speak until spoken to" is wrong, too, because "controlled" and "patient" don't fit with the kind of woman who makes a man "not speak until spoken to": "controlling" and "no-nonsense" are probably closer to the point.

Could have used another editor.


Speaking of The Onion, reader Joel noted this completely unnecessary error:

Just today on the AVClub (www.avclub.com) "...this Battlestar Galactica prequel finds humanity sewing the seeds of its destruction." Sewing the seeds to what? With what kind of needle?

When I read this, I thought, "Oh, they didn't!"

They did, though.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Salon's sports columnist, King Kaufman, seems to be giving up his sports-column-writing duties because "Salon asked me in the wake of the financial crash to switch gears and take on some editing duties while continuing to write the column whenever I could. I said I'd try that, though I didn't think I'd like the column-writing part of it."

Wait. Salon has editors? People who look at copy and fix it before it reaches readers' screens?

Then how do you explain this?

Over at Burger King, they've bypassed humans of all persuasions and gone straight to the crazy, with the King singing, "SpongeBob Got Back," a remake to the tune of the Sir Mixalot classic featuring, yes, SpongeBob Square Pants, and a posse of ladies wearing striped knee socks and little maroon gym shorts, enhanced by what appear to be a phone book stuck down the back. Be warned: After a single viewing you'll find it hard to erase lines like: "Why don't we keep it grungy?/ Cause everyone knows he's so spongy!" And:  "Shake it! Shake it! Shake that cubicle butt!"

"Cubicle"? How could it possibly be "cubicle"? The word is self-evidently "cubical", which is to say "cube-shaped", and the writer should have figured this out from its context in the song, and even if she didn't (which clearly she didn't, because she repeats it in the article's closing line, "Now, I'm off to shake my cubicle butt"), any editor who saw it should have fixed it, but for far too long Salon has been loaded with unnecessary oversights and errors that make it pretty clear there's no copy-editing of any sort going on. Financial crash or no, that's just wrong.


From another recent Salon piece about the economy, by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich:

Of course mortage rates are declining, mortgage orginations are surging, and people and companies are borrowing more.

My eye naturally landed on "orginations". I had never seen the word before, and it looked like a typo, but I am not an economist, so for all I knew, it was an actual word that economists use.

But no. A mortgage origination is an activation fee, and "orgination", as I had suspected, doesn't exist. The author should have spellchecked to catch this: he didn't, so an editor ought to have caught it--I mean, I did, and I wasn't even trying--but as we know, such a thing simply does not happen at Salon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Not a Chance

I was lying in bed early this morning on the off chance that I might be able to fall asleep again (after I had gotten up to take a whiz): this hardly ever happens (the falling-asleep-again, not the taking-a-whiz-at-2-a.m., which happens all the time), but one can hope. Naturally enough, I began to wonder exactly why it might have been that so many negated words begin with "in-" (or "im-", for the labial consonants, or "irr-") and so many other with "un-" and why there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, yet another cruel trap for people learning the language. I couldn't figure this out, for the simple reason that nobody can, but I could, and did, mentally make an alphabetical list of some words that begin with the one prefix or the other. (I think I do such things because I can't sleep: Jim thinks I can't sleep because I do such things. Six of one....) After a while I realized I wasn't going to get back to sleep, so as usual I decided to get up and write it all down:

Inanimate but unannounced
Imbalanced but unbaptized
Incredulous but uncrated
Indecipherable but undetectable
Inedible but uneducated
Infallible but unfathomable
Inhospitable but unholy
Inimitable but unimportant
Injudicious but unjust
Immobile but unmoving
Innocent but unnoticed
Inoffensive but unofficial
Impossible but unpopular
Inquiet but unquestioned
Irreversible but unrewarding
Insupportable but unsuspected
Intractable but untraceable

and then I lost interest because I realized I was going to have no luck with "inw-" and "unx-".

There are no negated words beginning with "ing-", "ink-" or "inl-". All "ing-" and "inl-" words use the prefix "in-" as "in", not "not", and all "ink-" words are derived from "ink". Anything after "int-", well, you can look it up yourself if you want to.

Yeah, I'm cheating on a couple of them--"unbalanced" also exists, as does "unquiet"--but the point remains. "Immobile" is right while "unmobile" is wrong, "unmoving" is right while "immoving" is wrong. The only way to make an intelligent guess is to notice that Latin/Romance words, particularly those ending in "-able"/"ible", are more likely to begin with "in-" and Germanic words with "un-", but there are lots of exceptions (such as "untraceable" and "unmanageable"), so mostly you have to learn each form individually, and there are thousands of them. It's like a mean trick we played on anyone learning the language, but it's not intentional: we just seem to have shoved the prefixes on and then let them duke it out to see which one survived the experience.


By the way, one of the words that got edited out of the list, "impregnable", and I'm sure you have wondered about this before, has absolutely nothing to do with "impregnate". Completely unrelated etymologically. Isn't that a hell of a thing!

"Pregnant" and its offshoots come from "pre-", "before", and the verb "gnasci", "to be born", itself a member of the enormously fecund Indo-European "gen(h)-" family, so "impregnate" is a compounding of four parts: "im-", "in, into", plus "pre" plus "gnasci" plus "-ate", "to do, to make, to act upon".

"Impregnable", on the other hand, consists of "im-", "not", plus the French verb "prendre", to take", in the form of the Old French adjective "prenable", "able to be taken", from Latin "prehendere", "to take, to grasp" (which is also the source of "prehensile", as in the tail of certain primates). The "-g-" doesn't really belong there at all; it was added in the sixteenth century by busybodies who were trying to restore English to the grandeur of Latin, which had given English, through French, such words as "reign" from "regnare", "feign" from "fingere", and "deign" from "dignari". Said busybodies began shoving "-g-" into places it had no business being, such as "impregnable" and "foreign" (from Late Latin "foranus", "outside, outdoors", and therefore unrelated to "reign").

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


If you want to know what it was that finally broke me, here it is: a Slate.com article which answers the crucial question of whether you can absorb enough cocaine from performing oral sex on a drug user to test positive for the drug.

Here's the sentence that did the job on me--the very first sentence in the article:

A Manhattan cop who tested positive for cocaine claims he got the drugs in his system by performing oral sex on his girlfriend, whom he later discovered was a regular user.

"Whom he later discovered."

The rule is so simple. Reconfigure the sentence and replace the pronoun "who" or "whom" with the pronoun "him" or "he" as appropriate: if it's the object pronoun "him", use objective-case "whom", and if it's the subject pronoun "he", use subjective-case "who": m=m, vowel=vowel. You may also use "her"/"she" with the same results: consonant=consonant, vowel=vowel. (You don't even need to know that they're objective or subjective case pronouns: I just like to toss that in in case someone cares.)

I concede that this is not always easy to do when you're speaking, but when you're writing, there is nothing easier. There's no reason to ever get this wrong, ever, in writing. In this case, the reconstructed sentence contains the clause "he later discovered she was a regular user" (because it is not even conceivable that any native English speaker would ever say "he later discovered her was a regular user"), and therefore the correct word would be not "whom" but "who".

So this is how broken I am: I am finally ready to say that maybe it's time to just retire "whom" altogether from the language. Nobody seems to know how to use it correctly, nobody really seems to give a damn, and it probably causes more trouble than it's worth. English sounds nicer with it ("To whom am I speaking?" is lovely), and its loss will leave a tiny but perceptible gap in the language, but if hardly any users can ever get it right, not even a paid writer who has the time and the incentive to do so, then maybe it's time we just scrapped it altogether.


Something I am not willing to give up, though, is certain gendered words. You may not like that we have different words for male and female massage therapists ("masseur" and "masseuse") or yellow-haired people ("blond" and "blonde"), but we do have them, and they have a history in the language, and are still useful because they convey information that may be relevant. And so I object strongly to this sentence from a silly gossip item about a soon-to-be-jailed Briton, once again the first sentence in the article:

Jack Tweed, widow of Jade Goody, has been sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for assaulting a taxi driver.

A woman is a widow. A man is a widower. Jade Goody was a woman. Jack Tweed is a man. He was her husband. She has died. Ergo, he is a widower.

Now, how hard was that?

Monday, April 13, 2009

It's Melting

It has finally stopped snowing. It started yesterday morning and it's finally stopped. And here I thought it was supposed to be spring.


I know this is a terribly geeky thing to say, but I've said it before and it's still true: one of the greatest pleasures in life is figuring something out, that "Aha!" moment when the light bulb in your head suddenly illuminates and you understand something you didn't before.

A couple of days ago I was waiting at the bus stop and I noticed a large circular metal object set into the ground. What it is isn't important (which is just as well, because I'm not altogether sure), but what it said is: "Fonderie St-Michel" or something like that.

"Fonderie". I don't know if two simultaneous thoughts will invade your mind, but they did mine. First, "Oh, 'fonderie'. That must be from French 'fondre', 'to melt'." And second, "Oh, 'fonderie' has to be the source of the English word 'foundry', because that's where metal is melted to make things into!"

The light bulb!

Because when you look at "foundry", it doesn't have any obvious relatives in English, does it?

"Found" as a verb, meaning "to establish", is obviously unrelated: it comes from Latin "fundus", "foundation, bottom", which also gives us "fundament", "fundamental", and "fund", the money which is at the bottom of an investment. "Founder", which is what a ship does when it takes on water and then falls to the bottom of whatever body of water it happened to have been floating on, is also from this source.

"Found" as the past tense of "to find" is straight from Germanic: the modern German verb is "finden", the preterite is "fand", and the past participle is "gefunden". (The Old English equivalents were "findan", "fand", "funden". We've lost "fand" altogether, but the others are still with us, minus the Germanic endings we thankfully dispensed with.) "Finden" comes from Indo-European "pent-", "to tread, to go", because you have to go after something in order to find it. (Other "pent-" words: "path", on which you tread; ditto French "pont", which means "bridge", and also the related "pontoon"; and Latin "pontifex", "priest", someone who sets out the path which believers are to follow, which gave English "pontiff", a pope, and "pontificator", one who speaks as if he were a pope.)

I wrote about "fondre" a year ago and somehow in the midst of listing related English borrowings such as "fondue" and "fondant" I completely failed to discover that "foundry" was also in the family. Better late than never.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Skinny

Today I looked up "skin tag" on Wikipedia. I won't repulse you with the reasons for my looking this up (they're not really that repulsive, but still): I'll just say that the medical term for a skin tag is an "acrochordon". Isn't that awful?

So. Obviously Greek, but where does it come from?

The "chordon" part looks as if it must be related to "chord" and therefore "cord", which it is: from Greek "khorde", "gut, string". I don't know if a skin tag is called an acrochordon because it's stringlike*, or because it protrudes like a bit of gut, but there it is anyway. I'm guessing "gut", because skin tags, though usually tiny and floppy nubbins, can actually become as big as golf balls and can also burst, which is something I never want to think about again.

The "acro-" prefix is something you will probably have seen in at least one other word, possibly two. Acromegaly is the medical condition in which the outlying parts of the body, most usually the hands, feet, and facial features, grow unnaturally large. (There may also be internal complications, such as enlargement of the heart and compression of the optic nerve.) And acrophobia is the irrational fear of heights, although, as fears go, acrophobia is one of the more sensible ones.

Given those two words, we can figure out what "acro-" might mean. Since "mega-" means "large", "acromegaly" would seem to mean the enlargement of the extremities, and "acrophobia" would be the fear of extreme heights, so "acro-" ought to mean "extreme" or "extremity", and so it does. And therefore an acrochordon is a bit of skin--a tiny string, a tiny protrusion like a gut from a hernia--which forms a little extremity on its own.

Medical Etymology for Anatomic Pathologists is a gold mine for, well, medical etymology. It's just a starting point, no detail at all, and it's self-evidently incomplete and a bit of a mess, but if you want to puddle around and discover that "sarco-" is Greek for "flesh" (and then realize that "sarcophagus" must mean "flesh-eating", and do the research and discover to your amazement that coffins used to be made of a kind of limestone that would dissolve the body) , or be surprised by the fact that the symbol for the element mercury, Hg, comes from Greek "hygron", "water" (something I did not know), because mercury flows like water, then this is the place to go.

* What's white and stringy?


What's brown and sticky?

A stick.

I'm sorry. I'll stop now.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Stretch

Newspapers just don't care any more, do they? Leverage your name to make people think you still have a believable voice, make it look at least somewhat visually appealing to keep people coming back so you can shove more ads at them, chuck any old thing on the page or the screen without any real editorial oversight, and hope nobody notices the deficiencies, which there are guaranteed to be.

Here's a headline from a story today in the Globe and Mail:

Yeah, that famous American actor Billy Bob Thorton.

He may have acted like a complete douche in that CBC Radio interview, but when you're writing about him, you still have to spell his name correctly.


Last weekend I went to see my all-time favourite opera, "Lucia di Lammermoor", in the cinema for the second time. (Anna Netrebko is not my idea of a great coloratura singer, but even an imperfectly cast Lucia is better than none, and the Edgardo was very good. It'll be on PBS this coming Wednesday if you want to catch it.) Yesterday I listened to four different recordings of Act I, Scene 2, yes, really. And just as I was heading in to work it struck me that a word in that scene was odd--at least for English.

After Lucia has begged Edgardo not to tell her brother of their clandestine love affair, Edgardo says, "Intendo!", which means, in this context, "I understand," or, approximately, "Oh, I get it." (You can read the whole libretto here, if you have a mind to.) This suddenly struck me as very peculiar, since "intend" in English, which must surely be related to the Italian word, has no point of contact with it at all in meaning.

I know just enough Italian (more than a house cat in Wales, less than a one-year-old in Palermo) to guess that the infinitive of "intendo" is "intendere", which is what it turned out to be. That means that the etymology is presumably Latin "in-" plus "tendere", "to stretch", from which we also get the stretchy tendons on our bodies, the tendrils which stretch out from a plant, and so many more words.

The real puzzle is how "intendo" is related to "tendere", because there doesn't seem to be any connection between the one and the other. Somewhat less baffling is how English "intend" ended up mean "to plan to do something", but only because the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the "[s]ense of 'have as a plan' (1390) was present in Latin."

Google Translate may have its problems, but it does give a nice list of meanings for "intendere":

be an expert
be going to
get on with
know about

Three of them ("be going to", "intend", "mean") line up pretty well with the English usage of the word, and "know about" is an approximation of the sense used in the libretto. (It's also used in the libretto in a slightly different sense, closer to "hear": it seems to mean "perceive"--"Ben chiari e tristi nel tuo dir presagi intendo!", roughly "I clearly see terrible omens about your future".) There is also the expression "lasciar intendere", which means, as far as I know, "let it be understood".

It's not as if English doesn't have verbs that display a wide variety of senses, either. "Make" has quite a large number, and some of them are so idiomatic as to be almost unrecognizable: you can make money, merry, legislation, friends, dinner, trouble, war, sense, or a difference, she'll make a good teacher one day, ham makes a delicious Easter feast, and now I think I'll make like a banana and split.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

We Few

Here in the Independent (a UK newspaper) is a depressing look at Dubai. And here's a depressing sentence from the article:

Whenever I eat, I am one of the only people in the restaurant.

How did it happen that "one of the only" replaced "one of the few"? Because "one of the only" doesn't make any sense.

"Only" needs to appear in relation to something else. The nice thing about "few" in this context--in any context, really--is that it means something specific despite being vague, and that specific thing is "Two? Five? A dozen? Don't worry yourself about it, because the exact number doesn't matter." It suggests that you didn't waste any time actually counting.

"Only," though, is extremely relative. In the context of the sentence, it probably means something like "few" does. But it doesn't have to. Look at these pairs of sentences:

"There are only three people besides me in the restaurant."
"I am one of the only people in the restaurant."

"With a population of 31,612,897 in a land mass of 9,984,670 square kilometres, Canada has a population density of only 3.5 per square kilometre."
"I am one of the only Canadians in the world."

You may say that the usages of "only" are not quite the same between the pairs of sentences, and you may be right, but if I were a copy editor at the Independent, I would red-pencil "one of the only" pretty damned quickly. It's sloppily neologistic, it's imprecise in a way that "one of the few" isn't, and it's ugly, to boot.

The Wikipedia page on Canada, by the way, gets it right:

Canada is one of the few developed nations that are net exporters of energy.

This suggests that unwieldy, haphazard Wikipedia has a better editorial staff than the presumably respectable Independent. That's not right.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Around and About

History of Ancient Rome lecture series, word, got me thinking, blah blah blah.

This time (lecture 40, I think, "Women in Ancient Rome"), the word was "ambit", and you probably know that "ambit" means "scope" or "sphere of influence". What it got me thinking about was that if you tack on a common suffix, you get the word "ambitious", and it had never occurred to me before, but "ambit" must certainly be a relative, if not the progenitor, of "ambitious".

And so it is. Latin "ambire", "to go around", is a composite of "ambi-", "around" or "both" (as in "this side, and then around to the other side, and that's both sides"), and "ire", "to go". "Ambi-" more usually shows up in English meaning "both", as in "ambidextrous", dextrous on both sides, and "ambivalent", not the state of wishy-washiness but actually having equally strong feelings on both sides of an issue, because the second part of the word is from Latin "valens", "strong", as seen in such words as "valour" and "valiant".

"Ambit" is from the "around" sense of "ambire", obviously enough, given its meaning. "Ambitious" once had a more literal meaning related to "around": ambition was the act of going around to people to solicit their votes. Over time, the meaning shifted from the act of canvassing to the state of mind of the person who was committed enough to do this.

Other "ambi-" words that might interest you include "ambience" or "ambiance", which is the environment that surrounds you, and "ambiguous", "of shifting or dubious meaning", from "ambi-" plus "agere", "to act", the two parts combining to give the Latin word "ambigere", "to wander".

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Rubbing Me the Wrong Way

Here's a sentence from a recent Slate piece on newspapers:

Yet now, as newspapers attrite and collapse, some scholars are telling us that newspapers are a necessary component of democracy.

Now, I am not a fan of business-speak neologisms. I think they usually sound unpleasantly artificial and pretentious at the same time. That's how I feel about "attrite" in the passage above. I really hate it: it sounds like something invented by a favour-currying middle-management type who throws around words like "leveraged" and "proactive".

The thing is, though, that it's really old, dating from the 1600s, not much younger than the noun "attrition" from which it is formed. Not as a verb, mind you. It was originally an adjective, in the same way that "contrite" is an adjective related to "contrition". Adjectival "attrite", no longer in common currency, originally meant "eroded: worn away", for reasons we'll get to in a minute. But something about the verb "attrite" just pisses me off. I can't defend this unjustified annoyance; I just feel it.

But whatever. The word is apparently in the language and I can't stop its spread. At least not yet.

Now, the root of "attrition", and "contrition", since I mentioned it, is Latin "terere", "to rub", because attrition is the wearing away of something and contrition is the wearing away of a person's will through penitence. I've discussed it before. The Greek branch of the "rub" words comes from "tribein", which I've also gone over.

Both Latin and Greek come from, naturally, Indo-European: in this case, "terh-", "to turn, to rub", which over the centuries spread in meaning so much that it gave birth to a wide array of words: starting from that notion of friction, the sense evolved into such ideas as repeated turning ("drill"), twisting ("thread"), piercing ("trepanation"), beating ("thresh" and "thrash"), affliction ("tribulation"), injury ("trauma"), and elapsed time ("diatribe", literally "wearing away" in argument or discourse).