or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Coming Up Roses

One of the earliest rules we're explicitly taught when learning English as children is that a short word has a short vowel, but adding an "-e" to the end reliably turns it into a long vowel. Cub becomes cube, the sound magically changing from "kub" to "kyuuuuuub": tam likewise turns into tame, cop into cope.

A corollary of this, one that we aren't taught (at least not that I remember), is that as a good general rule, a vowel followed by a doubled consonant is a short vowel; this often serves as a way of distinguishing it from the word-with-an-"e" form. Conversely, a single consonant after a vowel is likely to be long, particularly if there's a doubled form either in the language or possible within it. "Top" and "tope" become "topper" and "toper", short and long vowels respectively. We automatically know that "cap" and "capper" have short vowels, "cape" and "caper" long; likewise with "sop" and "soppy"* but "rope" and "ropy". We instinctively know that the nonsense word "hab" has a short vowel and "habe" long; therefore, "habber" and "habby" must have short vowels, and "haber" and "habey" (or "haby") long.

It's so much a part of our language, in fact, that it seems like it's part of language. So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that other languages not only don't follow the rule, they use its exact opposite (single consonant, short vowel: double consonant, long vowel)**. This is just what happened when I saw a poster for the French dub of the American movie "Air Bud", which would probably not translate into any other language very well (it's a parody of "Air Jordan"): the French title is "Tobby le joueur étoile" (kind of a dud of a title, that).

"Tobby," I thought. "What the hell kind of a name is that?" And then I figured that it looked sort of like it might be Toby, and then I vaguely remembered that French has names such as Dany or Danie, which are pronounced just like English "Danny". The movie's title in French translates to "Toby the star player", which still isn't much of a title, but "Toby" sounds better than "Tobby", even for a dog. To my ears, anyway.

Over on my other blog I've written about a scent named after Spanish model/actress/singer/fabulousness Rossy de Palma. For years, after seeing her in Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (see if if you haven't already), we assumed her name was pronounced as it would be in English: "Ross-ee". It simply didn't occur to us to pronounce it any other way, because in fact there isn't any other way to pronounce it under the rules of English. But when I was doing the research for the scent, I discovered that her given name is Rosa, and then it hit me that Spanish must surely have the same rules for the pronunciation of dupled consonants (because apropos of the name Dany above I also vaguely remembered some Spanish-speaking actress, possibly Maria Conchita Alonso doing press junkets for "Predator 2", pronouncing Danny Glover's name "day-nee", and it all fell into place), and that de Palma's name must be pronounced just like English "rosy" or "Rosie". And that is how it is pronounced, too. (I've heard it on Youtube interviews.)

So the lesson is...well, I don't know what it is, exactly. You can supply your own moral.

* And then of course there must be an exception: "copy" has a short vowel. The letter "-l-" creates almost nothing but exceptions: "silly", but also the rhyming "lily", yet also "willy" and "wily". Such is English.

** When the word ends with a "-y" and has two syllables, anyway. Double consonants in a word ending with "-er" have short vowels: the verb "casser", "to break", is pronounced as you would expect. (I mean, except for the fact that the ending is pronounced "-ay" instead of "-err".) There may even be exceptions to this rule, with some "-er" verbs taking a long vowel despite a doubled consonant. I'm not fluent in French.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I suppose it's fair to say that I didn't need a new Mac, in the sense that one needs oxygen or a haircut, but I seem to have acquired one anyway. My old iMac was almost four years old, and the monitor had been going seriously wonky for over a year (first one column of dead pixels, then another, and eventually sixteen, making the watching of movies and videos unpleasant if not impossible). I could have gotten it fixed after the first two lines appeared--it was under an extended warranty--but I didn't want to let it out of my grasp for the couple of weeks it would presumably have taken to have the screen replaced, so I just said the hell with it.

And now I have the luscious machine you see above, with a 24-inch monitor (which makes my old one look about the size of a playing card) and a terabyte of storage, which is to say one thousand gigabytes, and four gigs of RAM, which I really, really needed, because I have the unbreakable habit of running a whole lot of applications at the same time, and Safari, though a terrific browser, is a real memory hog. And I wish you could see the keyboard!

The keys have the same area as those on a standard keyboard,

but they're extremely thin and low-profile, and the whole object has almost no margins at all and is likewise exceedingly thin, so your first impression is of a dinky, cheap toy, yet it feels terrific under the fingertips and looks elegant once you get past the idea that tiny equals chintzy. Overall it is an exceptionally beautiful machine and I am happy.


A couple of weeks ago I was listening to yet another Teaching Company audio lecture series, this one about biological anthropology (on sale right now and super cheap, definitely worth it), and the lecturer was talking, of course, about Neanderthals, and she pronounced it "nee-an-der-tall", which I have heard before. And here is a story which provides some evidence that homo sapiens killed off homo neanderthalensis: a Neanderthal skeleton with what appears to be a wound made by a spear, and not the first such skeleton found, either. The article uses both usual spellings, "Neanderthal" and "Neandertal".

Now, my own preference is for "Neanderthal", because that is how the word originally entered English. It is a German word meaning "Neander valley", which was named after Joachim Neumann: "Neander" is the Greek, or Graecized, form of "Neumann", which is German for "new man". (You don't see it so much these days, because everyone would laugh at the pretension, but once upon a time, scholars often took Latin or Greek versions of their names: Nostradamus is the Latinate version of Nôtre Dame, and the putative seer was born Michel de Nostredame.) But the interdental fricative "-th-" does not exist in German, and borrowings that use that pair of letters are pronounced as if the "-h-" were missing: "theatre" in English is "Theater" in German, and pronounced "tay-AH-tr" (not so different from the French, which, of course, is where the word comes from). Therefore, the spelling "Neandertal" is also possible in German, and in fact (according to this) the spelling was changed in 1904 to more closely reflect pronunciation.

However, by that time, the word was already well established in English with the original German spelling, and it may be the case that scientists were using the German pronunciation ("nay-AN-der-tall"), but to any native English speaker, a glance makes it clear that the word must naturally be pronounced "nee-AN-der-thal", and that, in my experience, is by a considerable margin the more common pronunciation. Not to say that the German pronunciation is wrong, of course: if that's your preference, then use it.

But get it right. If you are going to be stickler and insist that the "-thal" be pronounced in the German manner, then you must go all the way and pronounce the entire word as German, which means getting the first syllable correct. None of this "nee-an-der-tall" nonsense, as the Teaching Company lecturer, good though she was, pronounced the word. It's all or nothing: "nee-an-der-thal" or "nay-an-der-tall", whichever you like, but not some nonsensical Anglo-Germanic hybrid. Go big or go home.

"Thal", by the way, is related to English "dale": they both mean a sort of valley. "Thaler", short for "Joachimsthaler", "of the valley of Joachim", was a unit of currency, and can you guess what English word "thaler" or "taler" gave us? Yeah: "dollar".

Monday, July 20, 2009

To The Moon

I never, ever feel bad about being nitpicky about grammar and spelling and language in general. That's just who I am. Sometimes, though, I feel bad about writing about some nitpicky little thing, because really, who cares? (Except me and the other nitpickers, I mean.) There are surely more important things in the world than whether a verb agrees with its subject or whether someone has spelled a word wrong.

Still, here I am, writing this, and here you are, reading it, and here we are.

This is a sentence from a piece about Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon 40 years ago, still an astonishing thing to contemplate:

Instead, consider that for a number of years Aldrin was not only completely adverse to giving interviews, but lost in depression and alcoholism.

Oh, dear.

"Adverse" and "averse" are often mixed up. They look so alike! And they're even from the same source! But they are two different words with two different meanings, and even, in the broad view, two different etymologies, since they're constructed from slightly differing parts.

"Adverse" means "bad" or "antagonistic", and is used to describe a thing: it is most often seen paired with the words "reaction" (referring to medication), "weather", or "circumstances". It is composed of the prefix "ad-", "towards", and "vertere", "to turn", because when an enemy turns towards you, a bad thing is about to happen.

"Averse" means "hostile [towards]", and is used to describe a person: it is virtually always followed by the preposition "to". It is composed of the prefix "ab-", "away", and "vertere", because when you are averse to something, you would rather be turning your gaze away from it. And when you turn your gaze, you avert your eyes, because "averse" and "avert" are more or less exactly the same word.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I got an e-mail the other day from an acquaintance--

Don't we have a better word in English for something between "friend" and "stranger"? "Acquaintance" seems almost Victorian in its distance, but distance is exactly the issue, because I've never met this person: we've exchanged a bunch of e-mails and did a fragrance swap. "Friend" won't do, "acquaintance" doesn't really work for me. What else is there? I've checked the thesaurus and everything falls wide of the mark. Yet another shortcoming of the English language: I'm quite sure other tongues have words for such a thing.

--who remarked on a reference I had made on my other blog to a scent that smells mostly of hot tar. By way of illustration, I had used a picture of the La Brea Tar Pits, about which he had this to say:

...and coincidentally, when you posted that picture of The La Brea Tar Pits (do you speak Spanish? It means The The Tar Tar Pits) we were there.

I don't speak Spanish, and I had never really thought about what "La Brea" means. When it's all spelled out like that, it does look silly, but of course any language is going to take foreign names and naturalize them, so that sort of thing is going to happen. There's probably a language out there that refers to The CN Tower and attaches the definite article to it in some way. I wouldn't be a bit surprised. (English does this in other languages, too: we always say "the hoi polloi", even though "hoi" means "the" in Greek.)

Foreign borrowings exist in various states of naturalization. Sometimes we'll take a French word and leave the accent marks in place: "résumé" is an obvious example, though we leave the accents in place only because it usefully distinguishes the word from the verb "resume". (Some people use only one of the accents, usually the second one. I say, all or nothing, bub.) Most of the time, though, we'll dispense with the accents altogether, because we scarcely ever use them in English: when was the last time you saw the phrase "a la mode" spelled in the French manner with an accent over the first word, "à la mode"? Have you, in fact, ever seen it in use? The accent isn't written and isn't needed, because the phrase is indisputably English (and with a remarkably specific meaning: "served with a scoop of ice cream on top"). Same with German "Gemütlichkeit" (not readily translatable into English, which is why we took their word, used to describe a place which is cozy and in which one feels accepted and at home), which is sometimes seen in English, but doubly Anglicized: we make the first letter lower-case, because German capitalizes all nouns and English doesn't, and we drop the umlaut, because in English those are used only to break a pair of vowels into its component sounds, as in "näive" or "Zöe", and hardly even then any more.

And so it is with that tar. "The La Brea Tar Pits", an entirely English place name despite the presence of Spanish words, no doubt sounds very silly to those who speak Spanish and English both, and to people who really, really care that every single element of the language make perfect sense (i.e. people even pickier than I am). To the rest of us, it's just the name of the place, and it makes perfect sense.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Don't Knock It

I don't have time to tell you about ablaut, because I have to get ready for work and I want to share this with you, so let's just say that it's the process of vowel change within words over time, such as the German verb "singen", which has as its principal parts "singen/sang/gesungen", and which obviously gave English the parallel sequence "sing/sang/sung".

English has lots of these ("ride/rode/ridden", "throw/threw/thrown", "drink/drank/drunk"), and sometimes the preterite (the simple past tense, the middle part of the verb set) just kind of vanishes from the language, no matter how much people like me might complain about it, so "shrink/shrank/shrunk" devolves into "shrink/shrunk/shrunk" and you get movie titles such as "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" when it obviously should be "shrank".

One preterite that did truly and permanently disappear from North American English, but not British English, is the preterite for "spin"; we once had "spin/span/spun", but now the simple past tense in North America is always "spun": "She spun her wheels", or "He spun gold from straw". Not so in the UK, and as proof, here's a bit from an opera blog called Intermezzo:

Her performance was gripping, but it simply wasn't moving. Even when she span out Vissi d'arte quite exquisitely in her tiny porcelain voice, it left me cold.

The "her" in question is Angela Gheorghiu, who is at least as famous for cancelling performances as for her voice. Something else notable about her: This is how she looked in a production of Tosca in 2006

and this is how she looked in the same role a week ago

which led the writer to make the most wonderful pun,

Gheorghiu has her knockers, but while her voice and her (un)professionalism are open to criticism, her presence is undeniably electrifying,

which I had to read a couple of times to make sure it was intentional. It was. Love it!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hitting the Bottle

Over on my other blog I wrote about a scent called Anné Pliska, and over on that fragrance's Blogspot blog--yes, even perfumes have blogs these days--is the following text:

Prices for ordering direct from Anne Pliska Parfums are as follows:

Eau de Parfum Spray - 2 oz -- $53.00
Parfum Falcon - .25 oz -- $68.00

Parfum Falcon. Apparently they have a bird deliver it to your door!

Nah, they just meant "flaçon", and unfortunately "falcon" is a word in English so unfortunately a spellchecker wouldn't catch it, but a human would have and should have, and you know the drill.

"Falcon" is from Latin, from "falx", "sickle", which refers to the shape of the bird's talons, or beak, or outspread wings--take your pick.

"Flaçon", in the usual French spelling, or "flacon", as it's usually written in English, is from Late Latin "flasconem", "bottle", which in turn is related to English "flask" and "flagon". (The cedilla, that little squig under the "-c-", denotes a change in sound: rather than a hard-k "c", it's a soft-s sound: "flass-on". You do occasionally see such French borrowings as "flaçon" and "façade" in English, but since we generally do away with diacritical marks, we usually dispense with the cedilla as well, and trust that speakers will know how to pronounce the word without it. Sometimes this trust is misplaced, but that's English for you.)

In a surprising turn of events, "flasconem" was not originally a Latin word but was apparently borrowed into Late Latin from one of the Germanic tongues, where it may have initially derived from the same source that gave us "flax", because the original sense was of a bottle in a carrier of some sort that would have been woven or plaited around it. (Nobody is quite sure about this. Etymology is not the most exact of sciences.)

So, in a nutshell: "flask" was borrowed from Latin, which borrowed it from a Germanic tongue; "flaçon" or "flacon" is from French, which got it from Latin; and "flagon" is a perfectly ordinary mutation of "flacon", which, without the cedilla, would naturally be pronounced in English with a hard "-c -" and then eventually with a hard "-g-".

Thursday, July 09, 2009

In the Bag

I was getting something out of my knapsack this afternoon when it occurred to me that I have no idea where the word "knapsack" comes from.

I mean, the "sack" part is obvious enough: a sack is a large bag. It's an old word, too: like many simple, basic words that we use all the time, it hasn't changed much in the millennia. It started out life as a Semitic word that made it into Greek as "sakkos", Latin "saccus", and Hebrew "saq", and spread to many of the Indo-European languages (and others besides) more or less unchanged: French "sac", German "Sack", Italian "sacco", Hungarian "zsàc", Dutch "zak", even Finnish "säkki".

But the "knap-" part? Not what you might have expected. It's evidently from Low German "knappen", literally "to snap or crack" and from there metaphorically "to eat", so a knapsack is something in which you keep your meal as you trudge up the Alps.

Germans have another word for the same thing that we occasionally see in English, "rucksack", and this one is more straightforward: "zuruck" is an adjective meaning "[to the] back", "ruck" itself means "back", and so a rucksack is one that you strap to your back rather than carry in your hand.

You may have seen in the liquor store this product: Dry Sack Sherry, sold in a burlap sack.

Clever! And completely wrong etymologically. Nothing to do with sacks at all. "Sec" is the French word for "dry", so a sherry that is dry, as opposed to being sweet, was sec. This in English eventually mutated into "sherry sack", and eventually just "sack". You will probably have heard this term in Shakespeare, as in this quote from Henry IV:

Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack
and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon
benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to
demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know.

"Sherry", by the by, comes from Jerez, previously Xeres, the Spanish town in which such wine was originally made.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Changing the Subject

Yesterday I had a day off and spent part of it reading up on vowels--well, who wouldn't?--and diphthongs, which is to say doubled vowels in which the sound changes in the process of moving from one to the other. (The vowel sound in "boat" is not a diphthong, because it's simply a long "-o-", but that in "lout" is, because its shape, which is to say the shape of the mouth, changes in the process of transiting between the first and last consonants. We think of "lout" as having one syllable, and it does, but it also sort of doesn't, a little bit, because the mouth is doing quite a lot of work in that short space. Diphthongs can fall into a grey area sometimes. Look at "flour": same diphthong, but does it have one syllable or two? And what about "flower"? Obviously two syllables. But the two words are pronounced very similarly; at what point does one syllable become two? The diphthong blurs the line.)

Of course I began to wonder if there might be glides consisting of three vowels, or triphthongs--there are--and then I found myself wondering if there were even four-vowel glides.

The first word for such a thing that popped into my head was "quadriphthong", though of course that can't be right, because all words containing "-phth-" are Greek, and "quadri-" is a Latin prefix, and we don't want to concoct a macaronic when there are more legitimate ways of assembling the word. The Greek version is "tetra-", and so the word, if it existed, must be "tetraphthong". And then I decided I needed to make up an example.

If we allow that "glowy" is a word, and I can't think of any really good reason that it shouldn't be (it is assembled using the basic parts and rules of English and it fills a need, albeit a slangy one), then we may as well go further and permit the comparative "glowier", and if we do that, then the next step is the superlative, "glowiest", and there is your neatly diagrammed tetraphthong: the vowel sounds "oh-ooh-ee-eh" in succession, distinctly articulable but all flowing seamlessly into one another.

The trouble is that most linguists would probably consider this at best a pair of diphthongs, because that "-w-", the clipped "ooh" sound, isn't really quite a vowel: it's a sorta vowel, sorta consonant, neither fish nor fowl, which (along with "-y-") is sometimes called a "vocoid" to relate it to but separate it from the vowels. In other words, in "glowiest" we don't really have four independent but interconnected vowels in a row: we sort of have two pairs, broken apart by the consonantality of the "-w-".

Still, I like the idea that there's something as baroque and elaborate as a tetraphthong (and I like the name of it, too), so I think I'll just pretend that it exists.

"Diphthong", in case you were wondering, is assembled from "di-", "two", and "phthongos", "sound, voice", and likewise with "tri-" and "tetra-" and presumably beyond, so if you can even imagine, let alone contrive, some vowelly Hawaiian ululation with seven continuous changing sounds in it, you may call it a heptaphthong, and good for you.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Truck Stop

On Wednesday night, Jim and I went out to see the Canada Day fireworks. We usually skip it, because we couldn't be bothered to douse ourselves with insect repellent and trudge down to the riverfront to mingle with a few thousand other people for the pleasure of watching things blow up prettily for a quarter hour, but in fact I just love fireworks and was very glad I went.

Slate's Troy Patterson, on the other hand, thinks that Fireworks Suck.

What a pill!

Also, he used a common expression incorrectly. I'm not saying "So there nyah", I'm just saying.

Let me be clear: I have no truck with firecrackers or bottle rockets or Roman candles or anything else that one might set off in one's cousins' backyard. Those are pretty fun, especially if you happen to be in any of the magnificent states where that particular type is banned by law at that particular moment. Doing dangerous stuff in your cousin's backyard is an important element of American folk culture. Those firecrackers are handsomely humble.

"To have no truck with something" means to decline or refuse to become involved or otherwise have any dealings with it. If you have no truck with firecrackers et al, then you refuse to sully your hands with them.

What he thought the expression meant, and what the sentence in question obviously means based on the rest of the paragraph, is that he has no problem with them, holds no grudge against them, bears them no ill will. Unfortunately for him, "have no truck with" means just about exactly the opposite: that you do have a problem with them, and therefore will have nothing to do with them. He probably should have known this, and an editor definitely should have caught it, assuming there was one at hand, never a safe assumption in the world of web publishing.

Also, fireworks are awesome.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Poles Apart

One of the reasons you can't just rely on a spellchecker and a grammar checker (still a useless thing in my experience) is that sometimes all the words are spelled properly and assembled according to all the grammatical rules, but one of them is just the wrong word, and nobody noticed, and it throws the whole sentence/paragraph/composition out of whack.

This morning, Jim and I were looking at ordering contacts lenses online, and you can't possibly care about that so I'll just get right to the point, which is that he works for Blue Cross and so we get discounts on some things, and so we were looking at a site called Blue Advantage, which lists all those discounts.

One of the companies from which you can receive a theoretically good deal is Urban Poling, which sounds dirty but is actually just a supplier for those ski poles that you sometimes see people walking around the city using incorrectly. (They're obviously meant to be used rather vigorously, pushing off with each step to really bring the upper body into play rather than letting the whole operation of walking be a lower-body phenomenon: more usually, you will see people holding them rather listlessly, tapping them on the ground if at all, and probably wondering what they were thinking when they paid at least a hundred bucks for them. Even in my dinky little cityette you see people with them: trendy big cities probably have miniature armies of users.)

Okay. That's the setup. Now the payoff. Here's a sentence from the Blue Advantage page for Urban Poling:

By using poles, you use 90% of your muscles and increase your caloric intake by 20%.

Increase your caloric intake by 20%? Is there an attachment that shoves an éclair into your gob every hundredth step? Or could it be that the writer meant to say "expenditure", and there was no editor so nobody caught it?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


I am, once again, listening to a series of audio lectures from The Teaching Company, and no, they aren't supplying them to me for free or paying me to plug their lectures: I just like them, that's all. (Although if they did want to supply them to me for free....)

The one I'm currently working through is called Biological Anthropology (on sale right now for $34.95), and it's tremendously interesting, but round about lecture 3 or 4, the professor used a very strange word that I had to stop to really absorb, and it was strange because it's completely wrong, but it appears to make sense on the surface, if you don't think about it too hard and if you don't know much about Latin plurals.

The word was "indice", used as a singular form of the plural "indices" and pronounced as you might expect, "in-duh-see".

The trouble is that the singular of "indices" is "index". That's how Latin forms its plurals of nouns ending in "-ex". Vertex: vertices. Codex: codices. Vortex: vortices. Cortex: cortices. (And also Latin words ending in "-ix": matrix, matrices. English, typically, took a lot of words that end in "-or" such as "actor" and "aviator" and made them feminine by analogy, appending the feminine ending "-trix" to form such words as "aviatrix" and "legislatrix": these have pretty much disappeared from the language unless you are writing in the period or trying to evoke a specific feeling, though "executrix" and such still exist in legal documents, but those are disappearing, too. Being invented and not proper Latin, those words take the standard English plural form: not "aviatrices" but "aviatrixes".)

Smart-asses will say, "Well, what about 'annex'"? "Annex" wasn't a noun in Latin, only a verb (and then in the form "annexare"), so it didn't have a plural form. When we nounified it in English, as we will do, we gave it a regular plural ending.

Of course, you can use "indexes" as a noun plural if you want to; you can, in fact, standardize all those Latin nouns up there and write "codexes", "vertexes", and whatnot if you like, because they have all been made regular, so the Latin and English plurals coexist. What you cannot do, though, is back-form one of the Latin plurals into a strange, illogical, and thoroughly wrong singular. There is no "vortice" in English, no "cortice", and no "indice", either.