or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Stone's Throw

Yeah, it's me again. I don't know what the deal is. I can't seem to work up enough umbrage to rip apart some avoidable mistake that someone committed to print, I can't get really worked up about any etymology (I tried with "spinach" but my heart just wasn't in it), I haven't discovered any particularly captivating side roads of the English language, and those are really the only three things I ever talk about. I'm mostly just working and production-knitting (more hats to sell, and I won't get rich but a few extra bucks before Christmas will be nice) and reading and that's just about it.

Well, let's have this, anyway. It's better than nothing.

I ended up at the website for Fire Mountain Gems somehow, and I don't quite remember how or why and even if I did it wouldn't be that interesting, but pretty soon I was reading about Swarovski crystals on this page and saw this:

and what I thought was "'Greige'? What is that, some cheap made-up portmanteau of 'grey' and 'beige'? Typical copy-writers!"

But then I thought about it a little more, and it occurred to me that I had seen the word "greige" before, and that it was an actual word, which, in fact, it is. A second's thought will suggest that it sounds rather like Italian "grigio", as in "pinot grigio", a word which means "grey", which the rock in question clearly is. And this turns out to be correct: "greige", not entirely unlike "beige", is an adjective describing unbleached, undyed (and therefore greyish) textiles.

So maybe there's a lesson in this about not jumping to conclusions. Probably not, though.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not Again

Wise old Henry Fowler rightly despised what he called "elegant variation", in which a writer, terrified of repetition, will crack open the thesaurus and use, in subsequent clauses or sentences, "automobile" and then "vehicle" and perhaps in desperation "conveyance" instead of "car".

There's nothing wrong with a certain degree of repetition in good English, though it has to be carefully balanced so as not to give the impression of a limited vocabulary: you may need to repeat a noun, but you don't usually want to use the same adjective three times in one sentence (unless repetition is in the service of a specific stylistic end such as anaphora or epizeuxis).

What is most irritating about elegant variation isn't its mere existence: it's when a writer uses it and gets the variant wrong. Here's the headline and sub-head from a recent Salon television column:

The headline, "So your marriage is like an inflamed bunion", is followed by "Whose isn't? On 'The Good Wife' and 'Dexter,' rotten betrothals make for great drama".

A betrothal is not a marriage. A betrothal is a promise to marry: to plight your troth (etymologically related to "truth", which is to say in this case "fidelity", being true to someone) means that you will pledge faithfulness to the one you intend to marry. After a period of engagement, you presumably wed that person, and then the marriage ensues. Whoever wrote that sub-head didn't want to use the word "marriage" again, so they hunted around for a word that seemed to mean the same thing, and flubbed it.

I'm pretty sure the writer, Heather Havrilesky, isn't the one at fault here, because writers don't often write their own headlines and less often the sub-heads and such flotsam. But someone at Salon is to blame. As usual.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Missing in Action

Two whole weeks! Tsk. But I've been busy, reading and working and writing stuff that isn't this blog and production-knitting (those kids' hats shaped like pumpkins and cupcakes and strawberries don't just knit themselves, you know).

What have I been reading, you ask? A book which I borrowed from a co-worker, Daniel, and here are a couple of paragraphs:

In his youth, Augustus had had (but why? To this day, nobody knows but him) what you might call a moral crisis, a crisis so alarming that cousin of his, a naval man, in fact an Admiral, afraid of blowing his brains out in a fit of anguish, distraction or illumination, got him to do a six-month stint on his sloop "Flying Dutchman", aboard which Augustus was taught a harsh but invigorating job, that of cabin boy.

On coming out of his psychological convulsion, which was in truth so profound that his circumnavigation didn't totally fulfill its function of curing him, Augustus was to fall for a charlatan (or quasi-charlatan), Othon Lippmann, who had, as a
soi-disant yogi, a charismatic gift that would transform many of his faithful into fanatics.

The author is Georges Perec, a French writer after my own heart, one who loves to construct long but entirely comprehensible compound-complex sentences larded through with commas and clauses. The book, written in French as "La Disparation" and translated into English as "A Void" by Gilbert Adair, has a gimmick, which I am guessing that you, if you don't already know, would not be able to figure out from the passage I've quoted, so masterfully written and translated is it; the entire thing is done without the use of the letter "e", the most common in both French and English.

This poses a number of dreadful problems, one of which is that articles ("the", "le"), verbs ("to be", "être"), most compound verbs (many infinitives in French end in "-er" or "-re", and past perfect in English is extremely hard to do without an "e"), and overall a large portion of the vocabulary is barred to you. (German has it worse; Daniel and I speculated that it would hardly be possible to translate the book into that language, since "e" is even more prevalent in it and pretty much every infinitive ends in "-en", but we had underestimated human ingenuity and were wrong: it was translated, almost ten years before "A Void", as "Anton Voyls Fortgang".)

After contemplating a novel without "e", it is natural to wonder if anybody ever a novel using all the "e"s that Perec left out of "A Void", and it turns out that, unsurprisingly, Perec himself wrote it: "Les Revenentes", which uses "e" as its only vowel; this has also been translated into English, as "The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex" . Another French writer noted that the existence of these two books made possible a third book which used none of the words in the other two, a book in which every word contained an "e" plus at least one other non-"e" vowel. These books are examples of what is called constrained writing, text which has a formal structure imposed upon it: each word's length is that of the digits of pi, for example, or the entire piece is a palindrome, which reads the same forwards as backwards. There's even a book called "Never Again" in which no word is used more than once; a moment's thought will suggest that such a thing places a terrible strain on the writer, who can't repeatedly refer to any place or character by name, but take it from me: it places an even greater strain on the reader.

Some of these constrained writings are mere tricks, arch clevernesses, and consequently not very good, but some of them, such as "A Void", are not only well written but force you to consider language in a new way, and isn't that one of life's pleasures?

Saturday, October 03, 2009


As I believe I have mentioned before, a guy named Fred Clark is masterfully deconstructing the dreadful "Left Behind" series a few pages at a time--he's up to page 104 of the second of twelve volumes--and it's essential reading. In this week's entry, a commenter had this to say about a word Clark used:

'Botswanan' is incorrect. Mwangati Ngumo is the Motswana president. He is not the leader of the Botswanans, but the Batswana.

All that is very interesting, and doubtless true in Botswana, but in the English language (which I cannot help but note the commenter is using), "Botswanan" and "Botswanans" are correct, for one simple reason: "Botswana" is an English word, and follows the rules of English.*

You hear this sort of thing from time to time. I knew someone of Greek parentage who said that "pi" is not properly pronounced as we always do in English, "pie", but "pee", to which I responded, "Well, what's the capital of France?" "Paris," he said, and pronounced it, of course, in the English manner, "par-iss". But if you're following his rule--that a word can only be properly pronounced as it would be in its country of origin--then the capital of France is "par-ee". And you'd better roll that "-r-", too.

"Pi" is properly pronounced "pie". "Detente" doesn't require the accent ("détente"), although you are welcome to use it if you like, and it takes the indefinite artlcle "a", not "une". "Moscow" is spelled that way rather than either the Romanized ("Moskva") or the Cyrillic (approximately "Mockba") versions. All these these things are true in English, because those are English words. Every language does this, English perhaps more so than others if only because it has more adoptees than any other language. A language's users need to talk about place names in other countries, or they find a gap that can be remedied by borrowing a term from another tongue, but they don't import all that tongue's grammatical rules and spelling niceties and pronunciation quirks along with it: they take the word, naturalize it, and then do with it whatever they would do with any of their own words. This is as it should be, and more, it's as it is, always, everywhere. A moment's thought would reveal that it cannot be otherwise: are the speakers of any language expected to memorize every possible form of every word describing every nation and its inhabitants in that country's languages?

*The Wikipedia page for Botswana has this to say:

The official languages of Botswana are English and Setswana. In Setswana prefixes are more important than they are in many other languages. These prefixes include "Bo", which refers to the country, "Ba", which refers to the people, "Mo", which is one person, and "Se" which is the language. For example, the main tribe of Botswana is the Tswana people, hence the name Botswana for its country. The people as a whole are Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language they speak is Setswana.

This is tremendously interesting, but it has no application to English, of course (though doubtless it is a feature of Botswanan English, since that is one of the country's two official languages and it lives cheek by jowl with Setswana). But living languages are not carved in stone, and it's not inconceivable that such grammatical features could filter into Standard English: if Botswana became globally important and its representatives requested that the country's words be used in news reports, for instance. For now, though, we're following the rules of English, and if you asked pretty much any English speaker outside that country what the language or the people of Botswana were called, you know what they'd answer.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


There's a new--well, newish--movie out called "Surrogates" and the reviews are on the whole pretty scathing so we decided not to go last weekend, but I got to thinking about the word "surrogate" and deconstructing it in my head, because that is what I generally do, and it seemed pretty obvious that it was constructed out of "sub-" plus some form of the English word "rogation" (most likely from a Latin verb, probably "rogare", which had a familiar ring to it), which is to say a very specific sort of entreaty or supplication, in this case to a deity asking for divine mercy (and generally in regards to crops or fields), most usually seen in English as part of the phrase "Rogation Day".

Well, all of this turned out to be correct, and all that was needed was to nail down what "rogare" meant and where it came from, and the answer is this; "rogare" means "to ask", because of a rather complex series of metaphors that began with Indo-European "reg-", "to straighten; to move in a straight line", and from there went to mean "to stretch out", and then "to stretch out (the hand)", and from there to "to ask".

"Surrogate", then, was originally someone acting in the stead of someone else who wishes to ask for something (sending a proxy to beg for clemency from the Emperor or some such, I would imagine), and eventually just someone who acts in the place of someone else, period.

I just noticed "proxy" now after having written it. Where can that have come from? Latin, natch: "procuratio", "management", which led to Anglo-French "procuracie", and then to the mashed-together Middle English "prokecye".