or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Carry On

The other day I was talking about pronouncing words incorrectly because you'd only ever seen them spelled and not heard them. In the course of my research today I remembered having run up against the word "cation" in a chemistry text. Now, I think it is fair to say that most English speakers who had never heard that word would pronounce as if it were the second half of "altercation", yes? It makes sense. "Cay-shun".

Near "cation" in that same chemistry text you would be likely to come across "anion", another word which it might be hard to suss out: is it a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable, like "onion"?

Nope. They're both kinds of ions, and once you know that you can probably figure that they are pronounced "cat-ion" and "an-ion". Greek "kata-" means "down", and "ana-" means "up", so a cation is an ion that migrates downwards to the cathode, and an anion is one that migrates up to the anode. (Cation/cathode: anion/anode. See how easy? The "-ode" in "cathode" and "anode" is from Greek "hodos", "way"; you've also seen it in "electrode".)

I was reminded of all this because of this Slate article about a company called Cataphora, which gathers information which can be used to determine what employees might be up to. Its meaning in English--for it is an English word, a rhetorical term related to and alongside such others as "anaphora" and "diaphora"--is "to refer obliquely to something which will be referred to again later more specifically". In the sentence "She didn't know it at the time, but she was pregnant", the word "it" is a cataphora, because the word is explicated later (and is not a mere placeholder, because the sentence could have been written as "She didn't know she was pregnant at the time"). The construction can be used to build up a tiny bit of suspense: you could string together a series of clauses to keep the revelation for later. ("She didn't know it at the time, and she would have been horrified if she had known....") You can spin it out for quite a while, too, as in the lyrics to Elton John's "Your Song":

So excuse me forgetting but these things I do
You see I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue
Anyway the thing is what I really mean
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen

"They" in the second line is finally explained in the fourth line as "your eyes". Good, isn't it?

I feel as if "Cataphora" is not the best possible choice for a business name in this context, because the most usual meaning of "cata-" in Greek is "down", and sometimes "against". Couple that with "-phore", from Greek "pherein","to carry, to bear", and the innocuous meaning "to carry down [to a further point in the sentence]" can be interpreted as "to bear down [on]" or "to bear [witness] against". I'm sure it's just me, it's all in my head, but I find that a little unsettling.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Here on Slate is a review of a new edition of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" as a graphic novel. You will probably find it interesting of itself, but I also thought it tied in to some of the things I said yesterday about reading versus watching.


Here on Slate is a review of a new Pepsi advertising campaign. And here at the bottom of the page is the photo credit, which I have included as a graphic image because I suspect if I simply told you, you would not believe me:

In an article which contains the word "Pepsi" three times and sits below a picture of Pepsi bottles in a case labelled PEPSI-COLA, the photo credit spells the name of the product "Pepsie".



Here on Slate is a reprint of a most interesting article about jellyfish, which contains the following sentence:

Planning is not their forte.

Regarding yesterday's posting, an anonymous commenter had this to say:

I actually quite liked the movie- I built all 9 reels of it for our theatre, and screened it into the wee hours. Much better than I would've guessed, seeing as I don't really like much of Tarantino's repertoire.

I don't believe I've ever heard "Mores" as anything but monosyllabic, but I'll continue treating it like I do "forte": the wrong way, because I'll continue to be understood by all but the most pretentious of folks. Saying either the correct way will require explanations occasionally.

The movie could be good. I don't think Tarantino is a talentless hack, though I do think he has been seriously overrated pretty much from the beginning of his career, since he hasn't yet made a great movie. (I liked parts of "Kill Bill" and the first half of "Pulp Fiction", but "Death Proof" is simply terrible and "Reservoir Dogs" is just not as good as people think it is.)

"Mores", meaning "customs and conventions", is pronounced exactly as if it were the eels: "more-ays". I think that, unless the people around you use it a lot and always incorrectly, you probably ought to pronounce it in the correct manner, because it's still correct, and, I hope, still generally understood in that form.

"Forte", on the other hand, is correctly pronounced as a single syllable, just like "fort", but the battle for that word is lost, because it is, in my experience and to the best of my knowledge, invariably pronounced with two syllables, just as if it had an accent mark over the second vowel. It is probably time to admit that there is no turning back the clock on "forte", so you might as well say it as everyone else does so that you will be properly understood. My usual tactic is to simply avoid using the word altogether. I can do without it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


I haven't written anything worth its weight in electrons for over a week because it is the end of summer and it just too damned hot to write. Or do anything else. If I had central air conditioning, you wouldn't be able to stop me, but I am just not built for heat. At least it will all be over in a couple of weeks.

Not today, though. The sun was a dark, vicious red-orange this morning, the reddest sun I've ever seen, and you know what they say:

Red sky at morning, sailors take warning
Red sky at night, sailor's delight

and any sailors might well take warning, because all or most of a hurricane is headed our way. Tomorrow we'll be lashed with rain, a couple of inches of the stuff (it sounds so much worse in metric--40 to 50 millimetres), and as a consequence it is warm and disgustingly muggy, as it has been for days now. Enough!

And now on to some dudgeon!

I have actually written several things for both of my blogs but I couldn't work up a head of steam about any of them. This, though, is different. This sort of thing really ticks me off. The title of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, "Inglourious Basterds", may bug the hell out of you, but at least you can sort of guess where it's coming from. (The second word, in particular, is obviously meant to forestall any advertising problems.) But the script for the movie has been posted online the first half here and the second here, and I read as much of it as I could stand; not much, as it turns out. The man may or may not be able to direct, depending on your point of view (I think he, as with Mark Twain's Wagner, has great moments but dreadful quarter-hours), and he may or may not be able to write dialogue (highly overrated and far too stylized, in my opinion), but he can't write anything else, and he obviously doesn't read.

The proof:

Two mistakes in one tiny excerpt, and believe me, there are a whole lot more where they came from.

"Sit's" is inexcusable for any literate person. It's a common mistake: lots of (not to put too fine a point on it) borderline literate people like to shove apostrophes in wherever they can, usually as a sort of signal flag that an ess is coming along pretty soon. Anybody who has even a half-decent grasp of English learns that apostrophe-ess has two meanings, possessive ("Quentin's bad writing") and contractive ("it's just awful", "it's" being a contraction of "it is"), and that there is no instance in English in which an apostrophe is used in a present-tense verb.

What really gets my goat, though, is in the first sentence up there. Anybody who does not read at all might mishear "carafe" as "craft" and fuse the two words in their head. That's pretty unexceptional. But if you read at all, you will sooner or later come across "carafe", not a particularly rare word, and put two and two together and realize that you were mistaken, and laugh about it, and get it right from then on.

This drives me crazy. Tarantino is famously literate in film, mostly foreign cinema and trashy b-movies. He can get words down on paper and get his point across: he's not illiterate. But the entire script from start to finish makes it clear that he doesn't read. A sampling: to pluralize the surname "Dreyfus", he uses "Dreyfus's" and "Dreyfusis", but never seems to stumble across the correct form, "Dreyfuses". He uses "there" instead of "their", a mistake that most grade-school children have been trained out of. "Gourd" is "goard", "rodents" is pluralized as "rodent's" and "areas" as "area's", he thinks "debt" is spelled "debit"....and that's as far as I got. Perhaps the movie is a masterpiece. Certainly any of the mistakes in the script either won't be audible or will have been ironed out by a script editor (so that Brad Pitt is not saying "debit" and sounding like an idiot). Perhaps none of these things matter. But isn't it troubling that a scriptwriter who is famous for his dialogue is such a sloppy writer?

In order to have any sort of mastery of English, you have to do two things. You have to hear the language being spoken, and you have to read the language. If you do only one to the exclusion of the other, then you are going to miss out on things and misunderstand others. (I'm not immune. I used to think--a long time ago!--that "mores" was pronounced with one syllable, instead of the disyllabic "more-ays" that it is, from Latin. Once I had heard it pronounced instead of just reading it, I immediately have figured out what was going on. Since it's the sort of word that can easily come up in print but is not that commonly used in speech, it took a while.) If you only read, you're going to get some pronunciations wrong (unless you are particularly diligent in looking these words up), and if you don't read at all, you're going to mishear plenty of words and, if you ever end up writing them down, look uneducated. And who wants that?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Heaven Sent

Just try to guess where the word "paradise" comes from. You'll never guess!

I certainly didn't. I didn't expect to get the second half, necessarily, but the first half seemed pretty obvious: Greek "para-" usually means either "beyond" or "beside" in English, as in "paranormal", something which goes beyond the bounds of ordinary experience, and "paramilitary", a militarily trained group of civilians which operates alongside (but subordinate to) the actual military. Perhaps "paradise" was beyond the Earth?

Well, it might be, but that's not where the word comes from, because its form is deceptive. It looks like "para-", but it isn't, at all. It's actually related to Greek "peri-", "around", as in "perimeter", the measurement around something, and "periscope", a device that lets us see around obstacles. But "paradise" doesn't originate from Greek (although it did of course work its way through Greek before it got to us): it comes from an Avestan word, "pairidaeza", "to build a wall around", which then entered the Iranian language (Avestan is an old Iranian tongue). The "around" part is "pairi", which, as we can see, is related to Greek "peri-". The second half, which I knew I'd never be able to guess and was right about, is from Indo-European "dheigh-", "to form, to build".

Greek took the word "pairadaeza" as "paradeisos", which meant a kind of walled-in park and only later an actual Paradise. Latin, of course, later took the word as "paradisus", French ended up with "paradis" (which it still has--why mess with a good thing?), and English got "paradise" out of the deal.

"Dheigh-" is very interesting, and I can't believe I haven't mentioned it before, so I'll try to get to it tomorrow, though you know me. No promises.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fine Dining

Last night we went out for supper, and it's probably less the fault of this little cityette we live in than the fact that gustatorily our standards are not particularly ritzy, but we ate a place that used to be called Mike's, and served pub food, basically, and now has reinvented itself as an Italian, or Italian-esque, restaurant. You know, pizza, pasta, veal parmigiana with red sauce and linguini on the side, that sort of thing.

Anyway, now it's called Trattoria di Mike's, and I am not a fan (though I ate there anyway). "Di" in Italian marks possession, as the word "of" does in English, and so does the apostrophe-ess ending in English. But it seems to me that the whole phrase is meant to be, or look, entirely Italian, and Italian does not use the apostrophe-ess (it's an Anglo-Saxon thing). It's like a really clumsy double genitive ("the trattoria of Mike's") spanning two languages. I understand that the restaurant's original name was Mike's and they're hanging on to the brand, but "Trattoria di Mike's" sounds pretentious (and wrong),"Trattoria di Mike" is a better name if you want to go Italian, and honestly, what's wrong with "Mike's Trattoria"? It's not as if a hundred and seventy-five years after its introduction into English, "trattoria" wasn't a fully naturalized citizen by now.

Anyway, we split an appetizer of fried calamari (so good) and then I had fettuccine carbonara, which was delicious, but probably bad for me (cream plus parmesan plus bacon equals not perhaps so healthy for the coronary arteries), so I was wondering what the damage was. I Googled "calamari calories" (best not to even talk about the carbonara): the first website that came up was called The Daily Plate, and here is a snip from their fried-calamari page:

Under the heading "Other users of the Daily Plate often eat the following foods with this item," it says "muscles", and that can't be right, can it? It almost certainly means "mussels", right? They couldn't mean "muscles", which, to be absolutely literal about it, is what most meat actually is, could they?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wait a Sec

One of the joys of having an iPod Touch is that, since it's a teeny tiny computer, you can fill it with tons of applications to occupy those odd moments such as when you're standing in line at the bank or waiting for the bus or sitting on the can or whatnot. You can read books (and it can hold a whole lot of books and newspapers--I don't really get the Kindle or other dedicated book applications, to be honest), you can play games, you can write e-mail. Not a wasted moment!

One of the games I like is called WordJong*, which is like that Mah-Jongg tile-matching game only with letters on the tiles: you have to form the longest possible words (up to nine letters) out of a set of letters, the catch being that all the letters you can use aren't immediately available; removing a tile and placing it in the scoring rack usually exposes one or more letters that you can subsequently play. The strategy isn't deep (you can slap random letters into the rack to see what's beneath them, then put them back on the board with no penalty and plan your play accordingly), but it's a lot of fun, and getting a sequence of three or four nine-letter words is difficult and therefore gratifying.

The game has a dictionary, of course: it has to know if the word you're proposing is legitimate. It's the usual Apple dictionary, scrubbed of anything that might potentially offend anyone, although since you would have to already know the word to be able to use it in the game, I honestly can't see how offense enters into it. Presumably the company is afraid that some parent is going to test the game for dirty words, and, having found them, screech that their children will be corrupted by the game (ignoring the fact that, as I have said, you have to know the word exists before you can try to play it). How very Johnsonian!**

The point of this (yes, of course there is a point to this) is that I was playing today's game--is it the same game for everyone or does it randomly generate a batch of tiles? I don't know--and one of the words that it was possible to make was "caesurae". Which the dictionary rejected. Huh, I thought, and since there was another ess available, tried "caesuras" instead. Which the dictionary accepted.

Now, honestly. If you look at "caesura", you can tell instantly that it must be Latin and can be no other, which, of course, is just what it is. It comes from "cadere", "to cut", and its plural in Latin--again, you know this by looking at it--is "caesurae" (just as the plural of "alumna" is "alumnae", since they are feminine nouns).

In English, of course, we have a habit of pluralizing by adding "-s" or "-es" to the ends of words, and so it is natural that we would make "caesuras" the plural of "caesura". That's fine; that's as it should be. But "caesurae" is also in the English language, giving us two valid plurals for the same word (not at all unheard of in English, which positively revels in multiple forms), and what committee decision decided that one ought to be in the game's dictionary but not the other I cannot even comprehend.

At any rate, now you have a new word, perhaps. A caesura is, as its name tells you, a cutting, but a very specific sort: an audible pause in poetry or song. English is studded with punctuation marks, and nearly all of them denote a caesura of some length or intensity: period, comma, colon, semicolon, question mark, exclamation mark, dash, ellipses, parentheses--evidences of caesurae, every one.

* You can even play an online version of it here. It's not the same as the iPod version: you only get seven letters instead of nine, which limits your scope for delighted smugness, although I would like to note that I just played a quick round of it online and spelled "zeolite" on my very first turn.***

** Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister, Mrs. Brooke, they were every now and then honoured by the visits of Dr. Johnson. He called on them one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. 'What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?' said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.
H.D. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897) vol. II, page 390, edited by George Birkbeck Hill

*** I would also like to note that one of the reasons I don't play Scrabble is that Scrabble players tend to memorize useful-to-them lists of words that fit specific situations--all possible legitimate permutations of the letters ADEIRST****, all the words that use "-q-" without "-u-"*****, all allowable two-letter words ******, that sort of thing--but they don't actually care what the words mean, which is an incomprehensible and intolerable state of affairs to me. I wouldn't have played "zeolite" if I didn't know what it meant--not because I take some moral stance regarding word games, but because once I know a word exists, I must know what it means, and, more often than not, its etymological provenance.

**** Aridest, astride, diaster, disrate, staider, tardies, tirades.

***** Qi, qat, qadi, qaid, qats, qoph, faqir, qadis, qaids, qanat, qophs, tranq, faqirs, qabala, qanats, qindar, qwerty, sheqel, tranqs, qindars, qintars, qwertys, qindarka, sheqelim. Do you know what most of these words mean? Most Scrabble players don't, either. I mean, some of them do, but mostly, knowing what the word means is just useless information, something to clutter up your brain when you could be memorizing more lists of words. In Scrabble, as long as you know the word is valid, and can point to it in whatever Scrabble dictionary your club is using, then it's a word, and that's all you need to know. You could read "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis if you want more on the subject, but mostly I just found the book depressing, because how can these people not care what words mean? It's like collecting butterflies because you like sticking pins through dead insects.

****** You can look that up for yourself, I think.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


Today at the gym I was listening to a Teaching Company audio lecture, AS USUAL, and really, they should PAY ME for PIMPING THEIR PRODUCTS but they're REALLY GOOD. This one is "Great Battles of the Ancient World", and military history is really not my thing but I've listened to a couple of the lecturer's series before and enjoyed them, so I figured what the hell. (Also, PURELY BY COINCIDENCE, this lecture series happens to be on sale right now and it is a BARGAIN and I must reiterate that the company is NOT PAYING ME and I guess I will STOP SHOUTING NOW.)

So the instructor used the word "host" to refer to a large army, and it occurred to me that there are three count 'em three different meanings of the word in English and they're surely unrelated, because the meanings don't have any overlap, but where did they all come from?

The "host" in the sense of "large army" or, more modernly, "any large number of things" comes from Latin "hostis", "enemy, stranger", and don't tell me that you didn't instantly think of the word "hostile" when you saw that, because they're obviously related.

The "host" that means "someone who tends to guests" comes from Latin "hospitem", which meant both "guest" and "host" (confusingly), and don't tell me that you didn't instantly think of the words "hospital" and "hospitable" (or "hospitality") when you saw that, because they're obviously related.

Here's the shocker, though: the two words are actually the same word, and if you think about it, you can see why. A host is, or can be, someone who takes in and takes care of a stranger (the manager, say, of a hostel, another related word), and an army is composed of enemies or strangers--often, in the ancient world, the same thing--and both words came ultimately from Indo-European "ghostis-", "stranger", and don't tell me you didn't instantly think of the word "ghost" when you saw that, and therefore get fooled, as I was, because "ghostis-" is not the source of "ghost": "ghois-", "to be frightened", is.

So we have a host that is an army of strangers and a host who attends to strangers in his care, and what of the third host, the communion wafer? That one's from Latin "hostia", "sacrifice", and if I were to tell you that that one is also related to the other two hosts, because you sacrifice to the gods the enemies you have captured in war, would you believe me? Because that, in fact, appears to be just where it came from, and therefore all three instances of the word "host" in English, however disparate their meanings, appear to be, in the end, one and the same.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Lessen Plan

Yesterday I was grousing about something on the pop-culture-review website Pajiba, and now there's something else, and I'm not picking on them, I just happened to be reading. They should be happy that someone is paying close attention.

Here's a paragraph from a piece about the way Hollywood studios release tiny scraps of information about upcoming but usually long-distant movies as a way of keeping fans in a perpetual state of eagerness:

Iron Man 2, for instance, won’t be released until next summer, but it seems like a new image is released every other day. And they rarely provide much insight into the movie at all. Likewise, information about the best kept secret in the world, Avatar (the fanboys’ Twilight), has been petering out for a couple of months, too. But because that movie is being kept under wraps, we get crap like concept art or stills of action figures or lame movie posters.

Somehow, the author (Dustin Rowles, the publisher, again) thinks that "peter out" means "dribble out" or "be dispensed in small and gradual amounts". But it doesn't, and it never has. "Peter out" has a very specific and well-defined meaning: "to gradually dwindle away to nothing." I'm very surprised that anyone would not know this, or would use the term incorrectly, but once again, for approximately the hundred and sixty thousandth time, I am forced to say that this is what editors are for, and to add that any website that has a publisher ought to have an editor of some stripe too.

I could tell you about the derivation of the expression "to peter out", but World Wide Words has already done so, and better than I could.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Negative

I don’t know what the deal is these days. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for the language, but sometimes I feel as if every other thing I write is OMG TYPO END OF TEH WORLD!!!!!1!!!!! And typos do bother me, but does anyone else care? Does it really matter? Is it even worth writing about?

Anyway, here’s another kind of mistake, and some didacticism to go along with it, so even if the error is minuscule and irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, someone out there might learn something.


You may recall from school (or you may not) that an appositive is a noun phrase which modifies an adjacent noun phrase in some way. There are two kinds of appositives: restrictive and non-restrictive. A non-restrictive appositive is one that doesn't materially affect the meaning: someone's name, for instance. It is always set off by commas: "My wife, Judith, is visiting her family in Waukegan" contains the appositive "Judith", modifying the phrase "my wife", and this is non-restrictive because the wife's name is not crucial to the understanding of the sentence: the speaker presumably can have only one wife. A restrictive appositive, on the other hand, adds crucial information, and is never set off by commas: "The apostle Paul stopped by a fish-and-chip shop on the way to Damascus" specifies which apostle we are discussing (because there were twelve).

This can be subtle, particularly in speech: "My brother, Bill, is on furlough" indicates that the speaker has only one brother (the appositive is non-restrictive--the brother's name isn't really relevant to the understanding of the sentence), while "My brother Bill is on furlough" means that the speaker has more than one brother, and so is adding more information to clarify meaning; the various other brothers could be anywhere else, even Waukegan.

It can be even subtler: construction matters, too. "Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is in Beijing today" is the exact equivalent of "The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, is in Beijing today," but they are punctuated differently, because the appositive has a different function in each case: in the second instance, you do not require the proper name, because the definite article "the" indicates that there's only one, but lacking this article in the first sentence, you require the name to complete the title, and since this is restrictive--since you need both parts--there will be no commas. (People learning the language often have trouble with articles, but no English native would ever write "Canadian prime minister is in Beijing today" unless she were writing a news headline, and then she'd omit the verb.)

I know this is prescriptive grammar, but I don't care: it's a good rule which contributes to the language, and careful writers will ensure they haven't violated it.

Now, here’s a sentence from a recent Pajiba story about an Alien prequel:

As producer of the prequel, Scott had originally tapped commercial director, Carl Erik Rinsch, to tackle the sequel, a turn that we wrote about in May.

It’s the classic courtroom case of Restrictive v. Non-restrictive. As I have just said, or at least alluded to and am now flat-out saying, an appositive without an article takes no commas, and an appositive with an article requires the commas as well. And therefore the article’s author could have written “...Scott had originally tapped commercial director Carl Erik Rinsch to...”, or he could have written “...Scott had originally tapped a commercial director, Carl Erik Rinsch, to....” The thing he could not correctly do is the thing he did.

But if you’ve read much of Dustin Rowles, author of that article and publisher of the website, you’ll figure that if he ever reads this, he’ll call me a pussy and make fun of my dick or something. Whatever. I’m right and he’s wrong. I may not know jack about movies, but I know what an appositive looks like.