or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 28, 2009


You are reading Cake Wrecks on a regular basis, aren't you? Because it's great.

The most recent installment is about the cup cake cake, or CCC, the bane of that blogger's existence. A CCC is a batch of cupcakes assembled into some shape or other, frosted as a single unit (meaning there will be a whole lot of frosting between the cupcakes); the usual rationale is that it's easier to serve since it doesn't require cutting--it's pre-portioned. And it's usually hideous. See?

So naturally, being me, I decided to Google to find out what other people were doing with and saying about CCCs, and here is one of the pages I found, and here is a bit of text from it:

Often cupcakes are thought to be called that because they are small cakes. The real reason is that....

There is only one possible way to end that sentence, which is "...they used to be baked in small cups rather than large pans." But no. The writer has done a tiny bit of research and discovered that there was once something called a "cup cake" which used equal quantities of the four main ingredients, such as two cups each of butter, flour, eggs, and sugar, leading to the alternative names "1234 cake" or "quarter cake". This was novel at the time because most cooks used weight rather than volume to measure ingredients (when they bothered to measure). The observant will notice that the recipe for a quarter cake is also the approximate recipe for a pound cake, which used a pound each of those same four ingredients*, and this marks the difference between a cup cake and a pound cake: the first used volume for its measurements (as is almost invariably done in North America), and the latter used weight (as is almost invariably done in Europe).

That term, naturally enough, has fallen out of use, and the current usage of "cup cake" or "cupcake" refers to something that would once have been baked in ramekins or other small containers, and now is generally baked in a cupcake or muffin pan, which is to say a number of small cups joined together for ease of handling. So what we have is two completely different terms which just happen to take the same form, and once again someone has confused the two, presumably from not doing enough research, and once again I am forced to say that etymology is not for the amateur.

*The very observant, and the experienced cook, will have noticed that the cakes are not going to turn out exactly the same, because the proportions of ingredients are not exactly the same, because two cups of flour do not equal a pound, while two cups of butter do.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


There are people out there, native-born English speakers, who simply have no ear for the English language at all, not the slightest feeling for how it ought to flow, no conception of rhythm and meter and prosody, scarcely even the sense that words themselves have meanings.

Some of those people are professional writers, disturbing though the notion is. Published authors who've been paid for their labours! One of them is Jerry Jenkins, author of the "Left Behind" series, which has sold millions of copies and is being systematically dismantled by Fred Clark in a terrific blog called Slacktivist. A recent posting (discussing pages 28 to 32 of the second volume of the twelve-book series, so you can see that this is going to take a while) quotes the following sentence from the book:

Meanwhile, the four of them would stud up walls, run power and water lines into the hold, and generally get it prepared as a hideout.

That sentence has been plaguing me for weeks, because it seems to encapsulate so much of what's wrong with the book series. The clause "...and generally get it prepared as a hideout" bothers me, and specifically the word "generally" just makes me grit my teeth, because there's no better or easier way for the author to demonstrate that he just doesn't give a fuck. He couldn't be bothered to research what it would take to create a livable hideout for the characters, and he sure couldn't be bothered with writing vivid descriptive prose, so he just chucks it all away with the word "generally", confident (and no doubt correct in assuming) that his readers will just gloss over this sad, weak, pathetic little wad of a sentence, eager to get to the next item on the post-rapture checklist. All this, of course, is based on the assumption that Jenkins is conscious enough to know that good writing is possible at all; it may be the case that he's just some talent-free, tin-eared hack who simply stumbled onto a lucrative job.* Either way, it's depressing and enraging at the same time.

For sale at the store in which I work is a picture frame meant to hold a graduation photo, and written on the glass around the space for the picture are the following words (repeated four times each, forming the four sides of a square):

Celebration • Dream • Believe

One of these things is not like the other, wouldn't you say? "Celebration" is a noun. "Believe" is a verb. "Dream" can be either. It is obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the language that the first word ought to be "Celebrate": three imperative verbs appropriate to a new graduate. The fact that this frame was somehow produced and marketed--the text was written, the object was designed, the glass was etched or painted, the completed shipment was deemed marketable by a corporate buyer--is mind-boggling. It makes you despair for the very idea of literacy.

*He's written a hundred and fifty books, too, which means that there are a lot of undiscriminating readers out there. Whether ignorant of the language or cynically uncaring, Jenkins is a staggeringly bad writer, and proof of this is found in every Slacktivist posting, but most directly in this one, which begins

It's a dangerous thing for a writer to introduce a fictional character who is, the reader is told, the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time. The pitfall here is the same as if you introduce a character by telling readers he is "the absolute funniest person who ever lived."

You can get away with this, somewhat, if you're writing about a great painter or musician. There you can get away with simply piling on the superlatives, perhaps describing the reaction of others to the artist's work. Readers do not expect you to actually show them a painting or play for them a symphony.

But if you introduce a character, as L&J do with Buck Williams, as a great writer and reporter, the reader has a right to expect that you will provide more than overheated adjectives. Readers want to read what the GIRAT has written.

and ends thus:

Anyway, here's how the GIRAT reported, firsthand, from the scene of an all-out nuclear surprise attack:

To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long.

Just remember, when L&J discuss good writing, this is what they mean.

Now you can see why Clark called the "Left Behind" series "the worst books ever written".

Friday, May 22, 2009

Earthly Cares

I'm reading Neil DeGrasse Tyson's "The Pluto Files", about the rise and fall of the ninth planet (or is it?), and early on he presented me with a fact I did not know: like various other elements named after the planets, the elements tellurium and selenium, which are in the same column of the periodic table and therefore have some properties in common, are named after the Earth and the moon, respectively.

I like that. Paired in the solar system and on the periodic table. But "tellurium" struck me as odd, because I knew that the usual Latin word for "earth" or "Earth" was "terra", so where did "tellurium" come from? Could it be that the "-ll-" had been transformed into "-rr-", or vice versa? It seemed unlikely but not impossible, because those sounds are so very close together in the mouth that lots of foreign speakers of English have a great deal of trouble not only distinguishing them but learning how to pronounce them.

The facts are even more interesting. Latin had two words for Earth: "tellus" and "terra". They are not one and the same: the one did not emerge from the other, though "tellus" is apparently older. The word "terra" may have originated from a corruption of the Latin phrase "tersa tellus", "dry land".

I said above that "terra" was the usual Latin word, and I said so because it's the one that gave English so many offshoots and compounds. "Terrarium", a collision between "terra" and "aquarium", is a dry aquarium, one with a little piece of land inside rather than a little ocean. "Terrestrial" means "earthly", "terrace" a platform built on a bed of earth, "terrain" the expanse of earth before you, "terra-cotta" literally "cooked earth", a kind of pottery made of fired or baked clay. "Terra" and its descendants originate from Indo-European "ters-", "dry", because dry land is not the ocean.

"Tellus", on the other hand, comes from IE "tel-", "flat, ground, floor, board", the root of hardly any English words, surprisingly enough. I did track down one for you, though: "title", which as I once said originally came from Latin "titulus" and meant "superscription": the "tel-" connection is the signboard on which this superscription or title was written.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

The company for which I work is American, so naturally some of the official signage--backstage, at least, where customers don't get to go--is in both English and Spanish. We go through so many cardboard boxes in the run of a week that there's a massive compactor in the warehouse, and it is big and scary, so much so that nobody under the age of 18 is allowed to touch it. Here's what the English sign on it says:

Do not operate, load or unload compactor unless 18 years or older

and here's the Spanish translation:

No opere, carge or descarge el compactadora a menos de que sea mayor de 18 años

(I might have written down a word or two slightly wrong: if there's a mistake, it's almost certainly mine and not the sign's.)

The word "mayor" struck me as particularly interesting, not only because it looks exactly like an English word to which it might well be related, but because it also calls to mind other words in other languages. So let's have a look at that, shall we?

These are the things that I thought before I even got around to looking it up when I got home. First, "mayor" clearly means "more than" in this context, and that makes me think of French "meilleur", "better" (in its way a synonym of "more than"), which, though its spelling is very different, is pronounced almost the same: "may-ur", more or less. Second, the idea of "more than" suggests not only "better" but also "bigger", and Spanish "mayor" makes me think of English "major", in the sense of "big" or "biggest", from Latin "major", "greater", which also calls to mind Italian "maggiore". And finally, of course, English "mayor" is the chief of a town or city,a person who could be considered the greatest of its citizens.

Did I miss anything important?

A few things, maybe. Latin "major" is the comparative form of "magnus", "great". English "mayor" doesn't come from Spanish (no real surprise), but instead from French "maire"; the coincidental spellings are just that, ordinary coincidences. And all these words come from Indo-European "meg-", "great". So let's have a look at some of its other offspring.

All the "mega-" words in English that you can think of come from this source, of course: they're from Greek. The "mag-" or "maj-" words having anything to do with size or importance come from Latin: "magnificent", "majesty" and "magisterial", "majuscule" (the opposite of "minuscule"), "magnify", and probably even "magic", which seems to stem from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "to have power". And there's a clutch of Sanskrit words that begin with "mah-" that also derive from this source, including "maharajah" and "maharani", "mahatma", and "mahout" (a person who drives an elephant, and would presumably have to have some kind of personal magnetism or other power to be able to control such an enormous beast).

The one word you might have been expecting to see here is "magnet", which, as it turns out, is not related. If you wanted to concoct an etymology you could easily do so, because we alredy have the sense of "power" in IE "meg-" words, but we know where "magnet" comes from, and it's not "meg-". The stone which attracts other stones gets its name from Greek "Magnos lithos", "the stone from Magnesia", Magnesia being a region of Thessaly which derives its name from an earlier city, Manisa, on which Magnesia was actually built. Besides, since Greek used "meg-" instead of "mag-", the connection to anything etymologically related to IE "meg-" is unlikely.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Same Old Same Old

Yesterday as we were getting ready to leave New York, we had the television on (a rare occurrence) and were intermittently watching a Spanish news channel (a complete novelty), which was airing a story about an upcoming vote on same-sex marriage in the State Assembly. (It passed last night: if the Senate approves it, Governor Patterson will sign it into law.) In Spanish, the phrase "same-sex marriage" is rendered as "matrimonio del mismo sexo", and that struck me as odd, because "mismo" looks so much as if it ought to be related to "mixed" in English (because Italian "misto" does in fact means "mixed"), while it obviously means just the opposite. So what gives?

I wish I could tell you, but I can't find an etymology for "mismo" anywhere. However, I did stumble across a relative to the word, if that's any help, and it was right in my own brain all along! French, as I have said before, often indicates a vanished ess by placing a circumflex over the vowel that preceded that letter: "côte", for instance, is analogous to English "coast", and "fête" is related to "festival". The French word for "same" is "même", and if you tuck the vanished ess back in there, you get "mesme", which is clearly a relative of Spanish "mismo".

That's all I have for that word, but I can tell you that English "same" is fantastically old: Old Norse "same" came from Indo-European "samos", which led to a string of words with related meanings in English, such as "similar" and "semblance". An alteration of the opening sound of the word led to Greek "homos", "the same, one and the same", which gave English a raft of words such as "homology", in biology "the quality of being similar", and of course "homosexual".

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rich and Famous

I don't quite know what the deal is, but we are going to see a lot of theatre here in New York. We never do it at home, and we don't even do it that much when we travel. But we've been here since Thursday afternoon, and we've already seen four performances, and have tickets for two more before we leave on Tuesday morning.

Today we saw the 2 p.m. matinee of "The 39 Steps", which was hilarious, and tonight we saw the off-Broadway show "Sleepwalk With Me" by comedian Mike Birbiglia.

Now, the very first day we were here, Jim saw actress Jessica Walter on the street: I wouldn't know her if I tripped over her, but Jim recognized her, so that's good enough for me. Last night on the way home from "33 Variations" (not really very good: it could have used an editor, though Jim says it went through extensive rewrites, it was sort of obvious and didactic, and Samantha Mathis, though charming in the movies, isn't really a stage actress, starting off and often slipping back into a declamatory style that was not at all naturalistic or convincing), I saw Jackie Mason walking down Broadway with a friend.

But tonight at "Sleepwalk With Me", which is staged at a very small and intimate theatre, I thought I recognized someone from the side, though I am not awfully good with faces. "That guy over there looks kind of like Keanu Reeves," I said to Jim. "The one with hat and the bad beard." (It was a bad beard, patchy and scruffy and not remotely attractive.) Jim took a look and said, "That is Keanu Reeves, you dope." And it was, too.

And he was with Parker Posey! If I were not so Canadian I would have figured out a way to go over to them and say, "I'm a huge fan!, and when Reeves modestly thanked me, which I assume he would have to do out of basic politeness, I would say, "Not you, her!" Because unlike Keanu Reeves (a limited range, to say the least, quite good in "Speed" and a couple of other roles but otherwise rather stiff, and he came very close to ruining "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Dangerous Liaisons"), Parker Posey is always good.

Apart from a sullen cash-register jockey today--we were picking up a few grocery items and when I set the basket on the conveyor belt, she looked at me with bland disbelief that I would expect her to do anything as pedestrian as take the items out of my basket--New Yorkers continue to be polite and friendly and quite unlike their reputations. People on the subway say "Excuse me," pedestrians give directions if they have them, everyone's just nice and human. What a relief!

If you're expecting anything except a travelogue for the next few days, you will be disappointed, I think. You might as well just come back on Wednesday, when I'll see if I can't have something for you more in my usual line.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Big City

Jim and I have been in New York for two days now, and my initial impression of it, which is heretical and which has been tempered, a little, by the sheer magnificent scale of the place, is that it is essentially Toronto writ very large and rather dirty. (Another heretical opinion is that London is more wonderful than New York.) Tonight we were walking home from the theatre, surrounded by a throng of people, really one throng among many, and I was reminded of Thomas Carlyle's cruel and no doubt accurate description of the verbose Thomas Babington Macaulay: “Macaulay is well for a while, but one wouldn't live under Niagara.”* Being in New York is rather like being in a Niagara of people. It doesn't stop. It is thrilling, in its way, but how do people live in it day in and day out?

What are the two things everyone knows about New Yorkers? Why, that they walk very quickly and that they are extremely rude. Neither of these things is in the least bit true: how do such lies get started? Are they promulgated by people from small towns who all know one another and can't understand why people don't saunter along and greet everyone they pass, preferably by name? We walk at least as quickly as New Yorkers, and faster than some (who admittedly might be tourists).The people with whom we have had contact--shop clerks, pedestrians, restaurant and hotel staff--have all been unfailingly polite. (Well, one waiter was perhaps a little brusque--I prefer to think of him as efficient--and the usher in the theatre tonight was extremely direct, but I suspect she'd been doing her job for at least forty years, possibly more, so I'm willing to forgive her that. But the usher at last night's show who called Jim "darlin'"? The ticket-office staff who were happy to discuss not only the show at their theatre but also any other shows they might happened to have seen? The pretty young woman in the black spangled sweater who seated us at the restaurant tonight? The businessmen who apologized for bumping into us on the sidewalk? Couldn't have been nicer.) It should also probably be obvious that, since we walked home from two different theatres in the last two nights (We saw "Avenue Q" last night, "33 Variations" tonight) and lived to tell the tale, the streets of New York--at least the streets that we've been walking--are safer than you might have been led to believe by the more sensationalist media.

I don't have anything to add that's on topic. I saw an amusingly misspelled and badly corrected sign, but I don't have a photograph of it, and I'm typing this on a tiny computer with an irritatingly wee keyboard that keeps doing things I don't want it to, so let's call it a night.

* Carlyle got as good as he gave: notoriously ill-tempered and married to the similarly peevish Jane Welsh, he led Samuel Butler to note that "it was very good of God to let Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so let only two people be miserable instead of four."

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

But Is It Art?

This is the front cover of an advertising pamphlet for a company that makes wooden mouldings and decorative pieces.

Yeah, that does in fact say "Artisitic", which is, I suppose, something like "parasitic" only, you know, artier.

In case you were thinking, as I originally was, that it was just a simple slip of some typesetter's finger, here's the back cover:

Yeah, there's "Artisitic" again. In case you were thinking that the company's name actually is the illiterate "Artisitic Woodworking", here's the inside front cover:

Yeah, that's "Artistic", as it should be. (Although they did misspell "and" as "adn".) And if you want further proof, here's the company's website, with "Artistic" spelled correctly in the upper right-hand corner.

What I want to know is how a fuckup this monumental came to be. It's an expensively produced, full-colour publication meant to sell the company's products: did it not occur to anybody at the company that correct spelling--of your company's name!--is crucial for putting across a good impression? (It's the first thing young aspiring job-seekers are told about their résumés.) Did they not have a computer with a spellchecker in it? Did they just not care?

And am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Think so if you want, but if I can't count on a company to attend to a minor thing such as spelling (of their own name!), then I can't assume that any instructions they give me about the use of their product will be correct, either. Attention to detail in the way you present yourself or your products to the world fosters trust: it's that simple.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Well, I don't know what happened over the last few weeks. I couldn't work up enough of a dudgeon about anything I read to make it worth posting about, I didn't run across any particularly fascinating etymologies, and I was busy with work and with getting ready to go on my trip, which means that I probably won't be posting much for the next week and a half, either.

But this is interesting. "Empirical". I mean, just look at it. Obviously it has to be related to the word "empire", but no matter how hard you stretch your brain, there's just no way you can make a connection between the meanings of the two words. With good reason, too: as you may have suspected, there isn't one.

"Empire" is taken directly from the French (who pronounce it "om-peer"); this in turn is descended from Latin "imperium", which is ultimately a fusion of "im-" and "parare", "to prepare", which gave English such words as "prepare" and "repair". "Parare" also meant "to order", so "imperium" meant "to rule: to command", from which all the obvious descendants such as "emperor" and "imperial" can be seen to stem.

"Empirical", on the other hand, means "arising from evidence (as opposed to theory or revelation)", and its source is Greek instead of Latin: "peira", "trial, experiment". "Empeiros" means "skilled"--describing someone who has repeatedly tried his hand at his line of work and is good at it--and "empeirikos" means "experienced", so an empirical experiment is one that you actually do, as opposed to one you merely think about. Theorizing (aka "guessing") gets you believing along with Pliny that flies have four legs: empirical evidence will prove that, unless you have cruelly yanked off a couple, they have, as do all insects, six.