or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


This is such a little thing and in truth I feel very mean laughing about it, but it is funny.

There is a footnote at the bottom of a recent Slate article called "What you should know about free-range pigs", or possibly "Hog Heaven", or maybe even "Hog Heaven: Life is no picnic for free-range pigs": I can never quite tell with Slate stories, because they always have a main title and then a sub-title and thirdly a different title at the header for the page itself. But anyway, that footnote:

Correction, June 29, 2009: Due to an editing error, this piece originally identified Temple Grandin as a man; she is a woman.

Well, fair enough: "Temple" is not a very usual first name, and since unfortunately the ordinary instinct is to assume that people of unstated sex and dubious nomenclature are male unless proven otherwise, it's not a complete surprise that the writer would use the pronoun "his" in the sentence in question. (Although William Faulkner did write a female character named Temple Drake, but there was a U.S. senator, a man this time, named Temple Dickson, so I guess it's anybody's guess as to gender when someone is named Temple.)

Anyway. The sentence in question, which originally must have read "The French have banned the practice because, as Grandin and his co-writer, N.G. Gregory, write in Animal Welfare and Meat Production, 'it is considered cruel,'" now reads as follows:

The French have banned the practice because, as Grandin and HER co-writer, N.G. Gregory, write in Animal Welfare and Meat Production, "it is considered cruel."

HER! Not "his"! HER, I tell you!

Monday, June 29, 2009


It's raining outside right now. Not a torrential downpour, but if you went out in it without an umbrella, you'd get pretty wet pretty quickly. I'm not looking forward to going out this morning, but I have to get to work somehow. Thank goodness for umbrellas. It's not often I wish I had a car, but days like this....

Here's a screen capture from The Weather Network's website. I took it about three minutes ago. It's dated 5 a.m., so: pretty recent.

Light rain now, rain in the morning, rain in the afternoon, showers in the evening, showers overnight.

And then, at the bottom, the kicker:

We don't expect any precipitation from Monday Morning and Monday Overnight.

Are they using some arcane definition of "precipitation" that I don't know about?

No, probably not. It's just a badly coded website, that's all. Left hand doesn't know what the right is doing and all.

Now, wouldn't you like to know where the word "precipitation" comes from? Sure you would. "Pre-" is from Latin "prae-", "forth, forward, before, in front of", and the rest of it comes from "caput", "head", so to act precipitately originally meant to rush headlong into something, and eventually to simply fall into it, and eventually the word "precipitate" meant just to fall, period, as rain does. ("Precipice", something steep from which you might fall, is related.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Sometimes a typographical error tells you everything you need to know.

From Pharyngula, a sign on the athletic field of an organization of homeschoolers in Georgia:

And yes, it's real: it was published in the New York Times, which, whatever its faults, is not going to Photoshop a public sign for a cheap laugh.

I'm certainly not going to make fun of Georgians or homeschoolers wholesale. I am going to suggest that if this is the sort of thing that homeschooling leads to, then let's have less of it, please.

I can't even convince myself that the sign-printers made the mistake and then shipped the finished sign to the organization, which didn't have time to get a new one made and had no choice but to post the erroneous one. No, it's pretty obvious that whoever wrote the text for the sign actually thinks that that's how those words are spelled, that "athletics" has an extra syllable, and therefore an extra schwa, in it, and furthermore doesn't know that "academics" is related to "academy" and "academia" and "academe" (coming, as it does, from "Akademos", a Greek gent upon whose property Plato taught) and therefore has an "-a-" in the third position and not an "-e-". Such a person has no business being involved in the education of anyone, at home or anywhere else.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

PIN Head

Oh, Fail Blog, where would I be without you?

Just another bit of proof that proofreading really is important in any kind of signage, no matter what form it takes. Especially where money is involved.

Friday, June 26, 2009


So there I was, filling the water-filtering pitcher, and as usual I filled the filtering part pretty much to the top and beyond, and naturally there formed (thanks to the wonders of surface tension) a dome of water before it had a chance to subside into the pitcher proper, and I recalled (and you may know) that this curve is called a meniscus, and then of course I realized that I didn't know where "meniscus" could possibly have come from, except that from the shape of it it was pretty definitely Latin.

Internet to the rescue! I now know, and soon you will too.

The first appearance of "meniscus" in English had nothing to do with water about to overflow its container. It was used instead to describe lenses, which generally have at least one convexly curved edge. (Some don't: you can make a lens with any combination of convex, concave, or flat--"plano"--surfaces.) The term "meniscus" was taken straight from Latin, which stole it from Greek "meniskos", which in turn is derived from "mene", "moon", and means "lunar crescent".

Well, that's that solved, then! But just looking at the word "moon" reminded me of something else that has struck me as odd for quite a long time. The German word for "moon" is "Mond", and you can see that the two words are related. But here's what baffled me: the French word for "world" is "monde". Isn't that a hell of a thing? The French and the German look so alike, and yet they mean such different, yet at the same time related, things!

The Germanic moon-words (which also include Dutch "maan" and Danish "måne") are related to the word "month", for the most obvious reason possible, and both words stem from Indo-European "me(n)ses-", which is also self-evidently the source of "menstrual", again for obvious reasons.

French "monde", on the other hand, comes from Latin "mundus", which meant not only "world" but also "universe", and the reason for this is not obvious. "Mundus" originally was an adjective which meant "clean, neat", and the universe was thought (for a very long time, actually) to be neatly ordered, with the Earth in the centre and everything else whirling around it in perfectly round orbits. However, it's not true, as is commonly thought, that all Greeks believed this Ptolemaic cosmology, although it was dominant in Western culture until the late 16th century: other Greeks followed the Pythagorean system, which held that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

Since "mundus" means "the world", "mundane" must mean "worldly", as opposed to "heavenly", and that is just what it does mean. It has taken on a shade of meaning in the intervening centuries (it was coined in the late fifteenth century): now it generally connotes "ordinary; commonplace". Just what we would expect of something that exists in the physical world as opposed to some theoretical world of wonders.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Which Your Humble Servant Jumps To A Hasty And Ill-Formed Conclusion And Is Rightly Corrected By An Admirably Polyglot Member Of The Public

I cheerfully admit that I'm not an expert at anything. I'm a passionate amateur in a couple of fields, so I blog about them, and I have plenty of other interests, though I'm not starting any more blogs any time soon. (I was considering a knitting blog, until I realized that I would have to take a lot of photographs, and I just can't be arsed.)

But because I am not an expert, I do make my mistakes, and when I do, I cheerfully admit those, too, and then move along.

A couple of years ago I noted during a trip to Wales that the Welsh word for "church", "eglwys", was essentially identical to the French word "eglise" with the same meaning. Aha, I figured: when the French kindly took over conservatorship of England in 1066, and naturally imported their vocabulary into the bargain, they must have given Welsh the word "eglise", which was transformed into "eglwys". I mean, just look at them! Except for that interpolated vowel, just the sort of thing that happens over the centuries, they're exactly the same word!

But it seems I might have been wrong about that. I was recently informed that Welsh didn't take the French word, but instead evolved it independently, from, as with the French, the Latin word "ecclesia". I naturally did my research, and while I couldn't find any solid proof that I was wrong, I couldn't find any proof that I was right, either. Most sources simply say that the words are from the same Latin mother-word, in one of those intriguing instances of parallel evolution, and so it seems I am going to have to concede that I was almost certainly wrong and that I made an unwarranted assumption (something which I'm always warning against in matters of etymology). Tsk.

I'll try to do better in the future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Squared Away

A couple of months ago I sniped about someone who used "cubicle" when she meant "cubical", and now just look at this. Just look at it.

See that in the upper left-hand corner? "5 Easy Ways To Turn Your Cubical Wall Into An Emotional Wall That None Can Truly Penetrate".

Goddammit. Goddammit all to fucking hell. Is it really so hard to use those two words correctly?

"Cubical" is an adjective that means "cube-shaped". "Cubicle" is a noun that means "a small room or compartment". They're not the same word. They're not interchangeable. If you work in an office but you don't have your own office, then you work in a cubicle, which has walls, and they're cubicle walls.

You can tell this pisses me off because of all the italics. They're not cheap, people.

"Cubicle" and "cubical" are related, though, back in the mists of time. "Cubicle" is the English adaptation of Latin "cubiculum", "bedroom", which is in turn derived from "cubare", "to lie down", or more accurately "to fold oneself up", because it comes from Indo-European "keu-", "to bend, to fold". "Cube" comes from the sense of bending, because a cube is bunch of lines with bends in them, and "cubical" just adds the usual "-ical" ending to form an adjective.

But that doesn't make them the same damned word!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


The appalling Pat Buchanan has an appalling organization called The American Cause, devoted mostly to abhorring people who aren't just like him. Here's a sign from their no doubt appalling 2009 conference, hanging in a room in which panellists were arguing for the imposition of English as the official language of the U.S.:

Ha ha! Ahahahaha! "Conferenece"!

Mind you, it may not actually be the organizers' fault. They would have to have made up the text for the signs and sent it off to the printers, and maybe the text was correct and proofread but the printers made a mistake, and maybe the signs arrived too late to be fixed. These things really do happen. Still, the conference people are clearly assholes, and they're on the wrong side of history, to boot, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving crowd.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cutting Remarks

You know how the other day I was going on about how cut-and-paste sometimes causes more problems than it solves? Case in point.

And you know how I'm always gassing on about how every piece of published text needs a proofreader? Case in point.

No, try to tear your eyes away from her manufactured bosom and her hideously Photoshopped lower body. Look down. Way down. Yes, that's right: "Thusdays".

Saturday, June 20, 2009


There are plenty of words in English that mean more or less the same thing, and that can be used interchangeably with no appreciable loss in meaning: "coat" and "jacket", while not identical, are near enough in meaning that you can say one or the other and people will get your drift. There are also words that have more than one meaning, one of which is so primary that the others are eclipsed: you can say "pachyderm" instead of "elephant" if you like, and even though there are other pachyderms (the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus), people are generally going to know what you mean.

And then there are words that are related but not at all the same, words that cannot be interchanged because they really do change the meaning of the text. Have a look at this sentence from a recent Slate piece about Anne of Green Gables:

More than 50 million editions of the first volume are in print around the world.

Now, "edition" has a small cluster of closely related meanings, and not one of them is correct in this context. Here are the pertinent definitions from The Free Dictionary:

a. The entire number of copies of a publication issued at one time or from a single set of type.
b. A single copy from this group.
c. The form in which a publication is issued: a paperback edition of a novel; an annotated edition of Shakespeare.
d. A version of an earlier publication having substantial changes or additions: a newly revised edition of a standard reference work.

Definition 1a is the only one that really applies, and using that definition, there have surely been hundreds of editions of Anne of Green Gables--thousands, because the book has been translated into many languages. But not millions, and assuredly not fifty million, unless every single copy that was ever published was its own original edition, a costly endeavour.

What makes it even worse is that just two sentences later, the word is used correctly:

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Anne's enduring vitality is the decision by the solemn eminences who edit the Modern Library to issue and heavily promote a centennial edition of the first volume in the series.

In that first instance, how hard would it have been to use the correct word, "copies", instead of the wrong one? I honestly don't understand.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


From an otherwise interesting article in the UK newspaper The Guardian, Same-sex relationships may play an important role in evolution:

When bilogists think about selective pressure in evolution, they tend to focus on environmental concerns such as weather, temperature, or geographic features in a particular locality.

And a bilogist is what, exactly? A specialist in bile?

We all know that newspapers don't use copy editors any more because they're too expensive--why, a good copy editor can make upwards of two hundred and seventy thousand pounds a year!--and that nobody really cares about proper spelling and grammar and such niceties these days, but honestly, is it too hard to just run the text through a fucking spellchecker before publishing it?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


From the wonderfully multifaceted blog Pharyngula, which is nominally about biological science but covers a whole lot of ground:

For example, and this is a very small thing that will grate on any biologist, is that he refers to single species as "specie". The singular of species is "species"; specie is money in the form of coins. The third time Fleury did this, it was driving me nuts.

It isn't just biologists that it grates on, of course. It isn't a mistake that I see often, but it drives me nuts, too.

There are some words in English that look like plurals but aren't (necessarily), and can't be converted into the singular form by removing the final letter. "Species" is one. So are "kudos", "pathos", and "bathos", not to mention "mathematics", "congeries", and "measles".

"Specie", meaning "money in the form of coins (as opposed to banknotes and bullion)", is, you will surely have guessed, related to "species", which I wrote about eons ago and will therefore not bother to recapitulate.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


The ability to cut and paste text is a blessing, no doubt about it. One of the complaints about the iPhone and the iPod touch--which are essentially small computers that just happen to double as phones and MP3 players--is that you couldn't cut and paste text in their built-in word-processing software, so you couldn't, for example, cut an URL out of an e-mail and paste it into the browser. The new Version 3.0 software fixes that, and about time, too.

But cutting and pasting presents its own problems, because it's appallingly easy to duplicate a piece of text and make changes to it without noticing that you didn't make all the changes you ought to have, or to shuffle bits of text around and have the result make less sense than it ought to.

Over the weekend I bought some liquid ibuprofen capsules, another blessing, because they seem to work faster than the tablets at blasting their way through a migraine (it might be the power of suggestion, but I don't care). The box contains a placemat-sized piece of paper listing the various warnings and interactions that drug manufacturers are legally forced to scare us with. And as you will have guessed, there are problems. Not actual typos, which would worry me, but cut-and-paste errors, which simply annoy me.

Adults and children over 12: For the pain of migraine, take 1 or 2 capsules at the first sign of symptoms, and every four hours as needed. For all other uses, take 1 or 2 capsules every four hours as needed. Do not exceed six capsules in 24 hours, unless directed by a physician.

Adults and children over 12: For the pain of migraine, take 1 capsules at the first sign of symptoms, and every four hours as needed. For all other uses, take 1 capsules every four hours as needed. Do not exceed three capsules in 24 hours, unless directed by a physician.

"1 capsules". Cut, paste, hack out the unneeded numbers, forget to correct for grammatical number. At least they caught the "six"/"three" difference, because that would have been a bad thing. (Ibuprofen, though a wonder drug, is not so good for your kidneys in high doses.)

What it does:
IBUPROFEN LIQUID FILLED CAPSULES/EXTRA STRENGTH IBUPROFEN LIQUID FILLED CAPSULES contain ibuprofen, which belongs to the class of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which act by decreasing the prostaglandin synthesis, which are naturally occurring substances in the body involved in the production of pain and inflammation.

Someone wrote "synthesis of prostaglandins", from which the rest of the sentence hangs. Someone else decided it should be "prostaglandin synthesis", for some reason, switched those words, and didn't change anything else, meaning the "the" and the entire remainder of the sentence is simply wrong and ought to have been rewritten.

Friday, June 12, 2009

That Takes the Cake

I stole this picture from Cake Wrecks, which is probably pretty obvious because of the big "www.CakeWrecks.com" watermark smack in the middle of it.

See? What have I been telling you all these years? Every piece of public text needs a proofreader, even a five-word sign. I'll ignore the irony of a store calling itself the Perfect Cakes Bakery putting a huge typo on its teaser banner ("comming soon", indeed), and just note that if the store can't even get anything as simple as that right, then it's a good bet that its owners/employees are not going to be any better equipped to spell such things as "congratulations", "birthday", or "you" correctly when they try to render them in icing. There couldn't be a better advertisement that the business is not going to be able to deliver what you'd expect it to. And all because of a single extraneous letter!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'm Dyin' Here

Today at the gym, as usual, one of the TVs was tuned to TLC and, as usual, an episode of the unavoidable "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" was on, and will someone explain to me the appeal of watching a publicity whore with a functioning uterus and chemically overstimulated ovaries peddle her kids to the highest bidder?

And on the way home I saw a vanity licence plate--"vanity" being the operative word--reading "2SASY4U", which seems like the sort of plate that Gosselin would have. As far as I'm concerned, "sassy" is a word that other people get to apply to you: if you use it to describe yourself, it generally means you're a screechy, obnoxious endlessly talkative attention junkie who thinks she's fun but is in fact kind of an asshole.

But lest this turn into some sort of unintended festival of misogyny (I'm just in a slightly grumpy mood, is all), let's have a look at this sentence from the introduction to the rather good book* "Deep Time" by Gregory Benford, which I'm re-reading, at least in part, for probably the third time:

The Pharaohs apparently built the pyramids to solidify their hold on the world's first and greatest Thantocracy.


Thanatos was a minor Greek divinity, the personification of death. (He had a twin brother, Hypnos, the personification of sleep, and a shitload of siblings: deception, suffering, doom, old age, strife, blame, and actually pretty much every bad thing you can think of.) You will have seen his name in the word "euthanasia", compounded from Greek "eu-", "good", plus "Thanatos", plus "-ia", which we use to turn things into nouns.

Therefore, a government ("-cracy") whose functioning is controlled by the idea of death ("Thanatos") is a thanatocracy, and not a "thantocracy", which is not a word but a mere typo, and one that shouldn't have found its way into the finished book. The thing is, though, that this part of the book was reprinted in the magazine "Fantasy and Science Fiction", and you can read it here, and the typo is in that, too, so what happened? Did the FSF people just get a chunk of text and shove it in there without proofreading or even spellchecking it? 'Cause that's not right.

*Rather good. Not great, because I find it starts to drop off about halfway through as the ideas get less concrete and more fanciful. Still, the central idea of the book is fascinating: that a human lifespan is short but human existence is long, and we try to cheat death by communicating through the millennia. How we have done this in the past and how we might continue to do it into the future is a difficult and fascinating topic. The book starts with an extremely immediate problem: how to dispose of enormous quantities of radioactive waste that will remain poisonous for thousands of years, and more to the point, how to mark the sites of disposal so that their danger will be understood for all those thousands of years, persisting through any conceivable changes in society, civilization, language, and climate. The second part of the book is the story of how we sent a probe into deep space, tried to include a little encyclopedia of our culture in it, and failed utterly due to infighting and politicking. After that it gets, to my mind, rather uninterestingly speculative, perhaps because we've read this sort of thing before: how to preserve the DNA of all species through possible extinctions, and how to deal with the long-term consequences of human-generated climatic change. But maybe you'll like the second half better than I did, and even if you don't, the first half of the book is well worth a read, and will set your mind whirling for days. If this sort of thing interests you, you might also want to read about the Clock of the Long Now.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Go with the Flow

Yesterday Jim and I went to see The Audition, a film about the semifinals and finals of the National Council Auditions, in which up-and-coming opera singers perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in hopes of winning a $15,000 prize (there will be five or six winners) and boosting their fledgling careers. Great stuff, and some great singing.

One of the shots in the film, taken outside the Met in 2007, shows this image printed on a fabric banner:

It's a painting by John Currin (an artist I generally dislike, since so much of his work is smirkily, post-modernly hideous, though I concede this one is pretty enough), commissioned by the Met to advertise an opera by Richard Strauss called Die Ägyptische Helena. The Wikipedia page for that opera contains the following line

Although not dense and magmatic as the orchestration for Elektra and Salome, it is still impressive

and as soon as I read that I thought, "There is no way that 'magmatic' belongs in that sentence," or, to use a popular Internet saying, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." (It's a version of a line from the movie "The Princess Bride". You could look it up.)

Even if you had never seen the word "magmatic" before, and I confess that I had not, it's pretty easy to see that it's a regular English word, formed in the ordinary way from the noun "magma" and the adjectival suffix "-tic". Most people know "magma" to mean "molten rock, liquefied by pressure and heat, under the Earth's crust", it used to mean "sediment" or "dregs of wine", and it has a couple of other rare meanings referring to fine particulate matter suspended in some liquid or other.

What could the Wikipedia writer have meant by "magmatic"? Was he or she aiming for "volcanic" or "incandescent", two words associated with magma? I honestly have no idea, and that right there is the peril of using the wrong word.

In all fairness, "magma" is a deceiver, because its etymology will happily lead you astray. It is pure Greek, meaning "ointment", originally one created by kneading a substance, and it derives from the verb "massein", "to knead", from Indo-European "mag-", "to knead". As soon as you see "massein" and "to knead", you will, if you are me, suspect that the verb "massage" must also come from this source. But it doesn't! "Massage", obviously French, comes instead from Arabic "masaha", "to stroke, to anoint".

"Magma" is, on the other hand, related to "maceration", another sort of suspension of solids in a liquid.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Mind Games

Unrelated to anything, but still wonderful: the newest Improv Everywhere mission, in which they threw a wedding reception for a newly married couple they didn't even know. Some of their little surprises have been misguided (they once threw a birthday party for some random guy in a bar and it didn't really go well), but this is utterly enchanting. If reading about it and watching the video doesn't make you grin like an idiot, well, I don't even know how your brain works.


Also unrelated to anything, but also wonderful: This Slate.com review of a book that postulates that the cooking of food spurred the evolution of humanity. The skeleton of the idea isn't novel--it's pretty clear that you can generally get more nutrition from cooked food than from raw--but it's the flesh that's amazing and thought-provoking: the author thinks that the ancestors of humans started cooking almost two million years ago, and that the ability to extract more nutrition from less food is what spurred the development of our big brains and everything that came from that evolutionary novelty. I probably have to read this book now (it's in my Amazon.ca cart), but I think the Slate review gives a pretty good overview.


And in my usual line of interest, and also from Slate, this sentence from a review of the highly regarded new TV show "Nurse Jackie":

Then she jokes about her bad back and rattles the last pill bottle in her orange bottle.

Dr. Proofreader to the ER, stat!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


Typos anywhere are bad, but permanent typos are especially so, and two of the places you really, really ought to employ a proofreader are in the creation of tombstones

and tattoos

because who wants to be remembered for having "cavelry" chiseled into his gravestone or "pee" etched across a kidney?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I Object

A couple days ago, The Consumerist printed a story about a newspaper taking outsourcing to the extreme by outsourcing its writing, and if you couldn't tell that the following couple of paragraphs were written by someone whose first language is something other than English, then you have just not been paying attention.

It is quite surprising that a Utah boy is trying his best to set a record by covering his entire face with as many live snails as possible. This 11-year-old boy named Fin Keheler had the guts to allow a whole bunch of 43 slimy mollusks to be put on his face on Saturday. He demands that his effort should be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.

The official Web site of Guinness World Records claims that the initial record that was set in 2007 was of holding eight snails for 10 seconds. While this little boy claims that he always knew that the record was around 36. On Saturday, the young boy Fin tried making around three attempts and the ones which remained on the face for the minimum of 10 seconds were considered.

Not news style, that's for sure. Composed almost entirely of unnecessary and opinionated modifiers ("quite surprising"), sentence fragments ("While this little boy...."), bizarre and mangled colloquialisms ("a whole bunch of 43 slimy mollusks"), inappropriate verbs ("demands"), and oddities that no native speaker would ever, ever produce ("the young boy Fin"), it's practically an anti-style guide.


Also in The Consumerist: fear-mongering! Swimming pools are out to kill you! Another reason not to swim. (W. C. Fields: "I never drink water because fish fuck in it.")

What actually caught my eye was the comments section: someone meant to say "demur", but they wrote "demure" instead. Fine; people make mistakes all the time, and I'm not going to single them out. What struck me was the sudden conviction that "demur" and "demure" couldn't possibly be related, despite the fact that you could, if you had to, cobble together a joint provenance--you could be acting demure while you politely demur.

They're not related, I was unsurprised to learn. "Demur" means "to raise an objection; to take exception to", but it didn't always. It started out meaning "to linger; to hesitate; to delay", and it is French, as you may have surmised, from "demorer", "to delay, to retard", in turn from Latin "mora", "a pause, a delay". ("Mora" made it into English in a very limited and specialized way: it is the length of a beat or a syllable in poetry.)

"Demure" is also from French--again, no surprise--and its meaning has also changed over the centuries. It now means "shy and modest, perhaps affectedly so", but it once meant "gravely polite". It comes from Old French "meur", "discreet, grave, mature", which in turn comes from (yes, again) Latin "maturus", with an obvious meaning. (The "de-" at the beginning is a bit of a puzzle but seems to be an intensifier.)