or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reading Material

First of all, and apropos of nothing, is this video, the Irish-dance team of Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding, who (as the English say) take the piss out of their art form by performing in strait-jackets with their mouths duct-taped shut. Since parodying the rather stone-faced, arms-to-your-sides rat-a-tat format of Irish dance clearly wasn't enough, they created an equally percussive variant using nothing but their hands and arms.

If that doesn't bring a little joy to your day, then honestly, I don't know what will.


Jim and I just got back from another week in London: long story short, we got bumped from our flights last June and ended up with travel vouchers that we used to pay for another trip. It was awesome, because London is awesome.

I've read on the opera site Parterre Box of people being so disenchanted with a performance that they walked out during the first or second intermission, and I never could understand that. You've probably paid upwards of $150 for a ticket: could the opera really be so bad that you would actually just walk away? I always figured I'd stay just to try and get my money's worth, if nothing else, and maybe the whole thing would improve; you'd never know unless you hung around until the end. But now I understand, because we went to see a production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, and we left at the intermission. It wasn't terrible, although Jim thought it was: it just wasn't very good. Part of the trouble was our fault: we had made the huge mistake of booking tickets for the day we arrived, when we were tired and jet-lagged (it was the only performance at which we could get good seats), and Jim nodded off a few times while I actually couldn't focus my eyes for about twenty minutes. The real problem, though, was the production, which had been uninterestingly and confusingly modernized, with bad cuts--there were sequences that could easily have been cut but weren't, and lines that were cut that might profitably have been left in. Also, some of the actors couldn't project, at least not over the sound effects, with the result that if I hadn't known how the play opened, I would have had no idea what the guards were talking about.

Not repeating the mistake we made last time, in which we managed to pack an entire week's worth of clothing into a single carry-on bag and then discovered that if you buy one single thing then nothing will fit any more, which forced us to buy another suitcase less than a week into the trip, we brought much bigger suitcases, which were only half full when we left for London and full to bursting when we returned. (Staff weighed them at the train station on the way home from Halifax: mine was 50.65 pounds.) We bought a lot of books*, over a dozen**, and Jim bought a year's worth of shirts at Marks and Spencer, which used to have a very grandmum kind of feel but now has really excellent, well-made and attractive clothing; I bought a heavy jacket and a couple of light sweatery cotton things that actually fit. Also, black dress socks, the best I have ever owned, fourteen pairs.

Now, about those books. At the airport we each bought a book for the plane trip over: mine was "I Drink for a Reason" by David Cross, a comedian whose stand-up work I generally like. Here are a couple of sentences from the preface:

I like very much the idea that I'm writing a book and by extension am now a "writer," because let's be honest, no one considers sketch or stand-up "writing," even though of course it is. But writing a book, well, that puts me in the same rarified air as Voltaire or Sue Grafton or Tim LaHaye.

And I thought, oh, nice, a typo on the very first page of the book. Seriously: the first page. But "rarified", although it is not actually correct, is kind of sort of more or less accepted by some dictionaries as a variant on the indisputably correct "rarefied", so whatever. I let it pass.

And then, on page 18, this sentence:

That's one of those little things on the plus side of being an athiest, no conflicting rules within your prescribed religion in which you have to pick, and then justify, a side.

An actual bona fide typo. "Athiest". Athy, athier, athiest. Wouldn't you think that an atheist would be able to spell "atheist"? Wouldn't you think that someone along the way from Cross' fingers to the finished book might have at least run the text through a spellchecker? Wouldn't you think that even if the hardback somehow made it onto bookstore shelves without ever having passed beneath the eyes of an editor of some sort, the paperback edition of the book might at least have been scrutinized?

But that is just the start. The book is littered with mistakes--contaminated with them. Typos, grammatical errors, flat-out mistakes, you name it. If you aren't David Cross or don't work for the company that published "I Drink for a Reason", you can probably skip right to the last few sentences, because what follows is a list of the mistakes I flagged, and it may not be very interesting if you haven't read the book, but I am just that sort of completist.

Page 21: There are few greater proponents of absolute, improvable hucksterism than psychics. Should be "unprovable".

Page 22: Half of the planet doesn't and hasn't celebrated "Magick Day" for the last two thousand years. Should be "doesn't celebrate and hasn't celebrated".

Page 25: "psylium" should be "psyllium.

Page 30: "for all their worth" should be "for all they're worth".

Page 49: "less then". Seriously.

Page 55: Whoopi Goldberg's name misspelled twice as "Whoopie Goldberg". At least he's consistent.

Page 65: "Antartica". Which, I am disgusted to note, my spellchecker doesn't even flag as incorrect. It is, though.

Page 82: In the guise of their public persona, they have never made a genuine apology, or, having the valuable benefit of hindsight, changed their position about a polemic event unless it was cajoled by some vague, begrudging idea of propriety. I don't quite know what Cross means by "polemic" in this context, unless it's "controversial", and in any event there are clearer ways to express the idea than this badly written sentence, which should have received a few slashes of an editor's red pen, unless Cross has, as Bret Easton Ellis was said to have had, a no-editing clause in his contract, which is about the only way I can explain the barrage of mistakes. But there are more!

Page 87: a heroically long and convoluted sentence that begins with It should be ascribed with such physical characteristics as... (what? "should be ascribed with"?) and ends with ...a much different, albeit as equally beautiful, heaven resembling the biblical Golan Heights ("albeit as equally beautiful"?). Another candidate for the red pen.

Page 93: "genetalia". Oh, honestly.

I'm kind of running out of steam here, so let's quicken the pace. On page 105, a misplaced apostrophe, as far as I know ("toy's", which could be deliberate, but probably is a mistake, and if the reader can't tell, it should be fixed). Page 111, a cock-up in parallelism ("wants, hopes, and actually prays for": one "for", two, or three?). Page 145, "belay" used where "betray" was meant, and how does a mistake like that even happen? Page 186, Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds, misspelled "Aeolis", which is flagged by auto-correct and would have been caught by any spellchecker or any editor who has ever read any Greek mythology. And some other things which I flagged as, if not completely wrong, then at least clumsy and in need of some discussion and probably correction.

Maybe Cross is just a bad speller--that's no crime--but I reiterate that it is quick and easy and free to run your copy through a spellchecker before you hand it over to the publisher, and how can it possibly be that this book obviously got no editorial oversight whatever through a hardcover edition and then a subsequent paperback? In the acknowledgements at the back of the book, Cross jokingly refers to "the editorial staff at The National Review" and thanks "[e]veryone who priff-read this," which actually kind of pisses me off, because this is a book that wasn't priff-read, or even proof-read, which means I gave money to someone who apparently doesn't give a damn about his readers.

Anyway, there you go, Grand Central Publishing. Not guaranteed to be complete (I read most of it on two airplanes), but at least guaranteed to be correct. Get on it for the next edition, will you?

*I had been vaguely thinking of buying a Kindle: we saw so many people reading them in the airports, on the planes, and on the subway. They sure seemed like a practical idea after we lugged all those books home. But then I checked and discovered that most of the books we'd bought weren't available in the Kindle format, so it's probably just as well that I didn't invest in one.

**You want to hear something weird? I had read good reviews of Derren Brown's latest book, Confessions of a Conjurer, which was published just a couple of weeks ago. Early on in our trip, I had leafed through a paperback copy in some bookstore, probably Waterstones but maybe W.H. Smith, but decided not to get it right then. When a couple of days later I found his first book, Tricks of the Mind, I bought that and then tried to get his newer book, too, but could only find the hardcover, anywhere. I looked everywhere and was beginning to think I had just imagined the paperback version, somehow; nobody had it. Finally, on our last day, literally, Jim found it in the W.H. Smith in Gatwick Airport, and of course I bought it immediately. When I got home, I went online and discovered that the hardcover had been published on October 14th, and that the paperback isn't due out until April 14th, 2011. How can this be? How can bookstores have a book that isn't supposed to exist for another seven months?

Books, by the way, are much cheaper in the UK than they are in Canada. Huge difference. I paid £16.99, or under $29, for a massive book called "London: The Biography", and the Canadian price stamped on the back--it has both the UK and Canadian prices, for some reason--is $42.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


This is the sort of thing that drives grammar fans crazy.

From, as ever, Slate, specifically the advice column Dear Prudence:

I would have loved to hear your sister's side of this, but I can say with near certainty that she would disagree with your characterization that she's severed your relationship over "one mistake."

"I would have loved to hear" is, I would have thought, self-evidently incorrect, because "I would have loved" suggests to corollary "but I do not, in fact, love." What was intended was obviously (I would again have thought) "I would love to have heard", because the corollary to that, "but I didn't hear", is what is intended--the columnist didn't hear the letter-writer's sister's side of the story. The conditional mood--"I would have" plus a past-tense verb--has somehow gotten attached to the wrong verb in this admittedly complex structure.

You don't often hear this construction correctly, do you? It wouldn't take much to convince me that the incorrect version is more common than the correct: I can't prove it from Google, because "I would love to have" usually continues with a noun ("I would love to have kids/a Maserati/twenty-inch biceps"), but "I would have loved to" gets about four million hits, and that's seriously four million too many.

Here's a variant of it that you also hear all the time: "If I would have known he was sick, I would have visited him." In this case, the subjunctive "If I had known" somehow gets squished into the conditional perfect "would have", and the speaker or writer creates a sentence that's not only a grammatical mess but also unattractive and overly wordy.

The headline to an article from the business-oriented Self-Improvement Association:

"10 Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before I Went Into the Real World"

The missing thing number 11: I wish I had learned correct grammar before writing business articles.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Big Ideas

My friend Ralph recommended to me a book called Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield, and a good read it is, too. (I ordered it sight unseen from Amazon.ca, because I trust Ralph's taste.) Using the Oxford Corpus, a two-billion-word description of the English language, Butterfield entertainingly dismantles and analyzes the tongue. For instance, did you know that twenty-five per cent of all the words we write consist of the following list of ten words?

is (and its conjugations)

And a mere 100 words--which I will not bother listing for you, but it's more of the same, really--comprise half of everything we write?*

In the first chapter, Butterfield is wondering how we define a person's vocabulary size and consequently discussing what exactly a word is, and says the following:

...You and I know the 'word' drive, and probably think of it as a single vocabulary item. But drive can be a verb, a noun, and an adjective....So is drive one word or nine? If we count it as nine, we'll marginally inflate the size of our vocabulary....But that is not the way vocabulary size is calculated, or how the Corpus is usually analysed. In those contexts it makes more sense to take drive as a single unit--technically, it's known as a lemma, and is what you'd look up in a dictionary. Its individual variations are known as word-forms. (p.15)

But is it true that "drive" has to be either one thing or nine? I think Butterfield has chosen an awkward example, because "drive" has a great many uses in English--just about thirty, according to the Free Dictionary--but they all have the same basic sense, that of impulsive force. "Drive", in all its forms, really is just one word, whether it's a charity drive, the four-wheel drive in your SUV, or a line drive.

I would rather look at a word that has related but drastically different meanings which are usually but not necessarily obvious from context. "Round", for example. It has one primary meaning, that of an adjective--"curved", which applies to a person, a ball, the hole that a square peg won't fit into. Then there are secondary meanings that derive from the sense of curvature but diverge further and further: "complete", or self-contained and tidied up, alluded to in "a round number" and "rounding off"; "a complete, self-enclosed unit of something", as a doctor's rounds, in which he visits every patient once; "a single instance of something", as a round of applause. There are at least forty definitions, and while they might be related, they aren't as obviously so as the meanings of "drive", and some of them are very far afield indeed, such as "thoroughly and angrily": "she berated him roundly for his insult."

If you know that "round" means "curved", and "a drink for each person at at the table" (You buy this round) and "a unit of game-play" (a round of golf), and I know these things but I know that it also means "a cut of beef" and "a musical composition in which voices singing the same melody enter at different times", then isn't my vocabulary bigger than yours? Even if we know exactly the same number of words, isn't it the case that someone who knows a larger set of the meanings of those words has a larger vocabulary?

I don't think vocabulary is a single thing; I think it's two different but related things. First, and most obviously, it's breadth of your knowledge of the language, the actual number of words that you know--In Butterfield's formulation, both "active vocabulary", or the words that you use on a daily basis (that list of a hundred words mentioned above, and a few thousand nouns, verbs, and adjectives), and "passive vocabulary", the words that you know and can presumably define, but that don't generally make it into your everyday speech and writing, such as "supernumerary" and "Manichaean". Second, vocabulary is the depth of your knowledge of these words: if you know that "fix" means not only "to repair; to mend", but also "to prepare" (to fix dinner) and "to make permanent" (to fix a photograph) and "to castrate" (get your dog fixed) and "a dose of narcotic" and "a thorough understanding" (a fix on the situation), then your vocabulary is deeper than that of someone who knows only one or two of these meanings.

A good Scrabble player is likely to have a very broad vocabulary, because you can't play the game well unless you know a lot of words, but little depth, because depth isn't necessary to play the game: the meanings are irrelevant as long as you know for certain that the words exist and are allowable under the rules. You don't need to know what "beziques" means in order to get 392 points (the highest possible single-turn score) by playing it. (It's the plural of "bezique", a trick-taking card game, in case you wanted to know.)

You also need to combine the two qualities to master the language: the ability to use a large vocabulary deftly and accurately, to be able to navigate all the fine and minute variations between the endless synonyms in English. If you're trying to describe a large person, it's not much use have twenty terms at your disposal if you don't know that "voluptuous" is a complement and "elephantine" isn't, that "Rubenesque" refers to women and "burly" to men, which is why a thesaurus is such a peril--worse than useless--to the undiscerning writer.

*The list isn't definitive, of course. Other sources suggest other rankings: this one says that "of" is the second most common word, relegating "to be" to seventh place. The list also refers to written English: I recall having read that the most common word in spoken English is "I", which would not surprise me, but I can't find a citation, so consider it anecdotal at best.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


A Slate article--and what did I say yesterday about Slate articles?--on masculinity and men's magazines contains the following sentence:

The idea, apparently, is to rebuild the American Man, vertebrae by vertebrae.

"Vertebrae" is plural. "Vertebra" is the desired-in-context singular.

People who don't know anything about Latin plurals probably shouldn't be using them.


You know who else shouldn't be using Latin? Doctors.

I mean, they can use it among themselves. It has a long tradition, and they understand it. But I think it's time to retire it when dealing with the public at large, because they're unlikely to understand that "q.i.d." on a medicine label means "quater in die", or "four times per day".

Oh, you might say, but medicine-bottle labels don't use those terms any more. No?

Hilarious! "1 suppository per rectum"! As if there were people who had more than one!

But of course "per" is Latin for (in this context) "through", and therefore means "via". It ended up on FailBlog because it seems like a violation of natural English usage, when it fact it's perfectly correct Latin, and medical, usage. But it's still a fail, because it seems wrong, and a medicine-bottle label is surely the very last place you would want there to appear to be an error.


A couple of weeks ago I was complaining about the misuse of Middle English, and a commenter took me to task (mildly) for insisting that the rules of a disused language be followed when approximating that language in modern times. But it can be done, and done correctly, to hilarious effect, as the invaluable Kate Beaton shows us:

"Someone doth" is correct, and we know this because the unfailing mnemonic is that the pronoun for "someone" could be "he", and as I noted previously, "he" begins with "h-" and "doth" ends with it (just as "thou" and "dost" are paired).

See? That's how it's done. Grammatically correct and still funny.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And Taxes

A Slate article--and whenever I begin a sentence with "a Slate article", you can be sure that you are about to read of some patently unnecessary mistake--on the stereotype of the dumb blonde contains these sentences:

Just like modern gentlemen, Romans valued blondness—they would dye their hair using goat's fat mixed with beechwood ashes or vinegar concoctions or saffron. But as Pitman has noted, earnest types associated hair-dying with vanity and lack of gravitas.

"Dying" is the wrong word here, and I know it is a little thing, just one missing letter, and what's more I know that everybody who reads that second sentence understands what is meant, but nevertheless it is the oafishly wrong and un-proofread word, exactly as if the author had used "there" or "their" instead of "they're", and wouldn't that have exposed her, or the magazine and its obvious lack of editorial oversight, to ridicule?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Don't Do That

I read the Toronto Star every day while I was visiting my mother and stepfather because they have a subscription, but goddamn, I hated doing it, because I could pretty much be guaranteed to find a typo or some other egregious mistake on every single page, and it was like hitting myself on the forehead with a tack hammer over and over again. Now that I'm back home, I guess I wanted to recreate the experience, or maybe I'm just really masochistic, because today I went to Salon, which I hardly ever do any more, and the very first article I read, on Glee (which I still watch, against my better judgement), contained this sentence-paragraph:

And look, we'd be more than happy to take our menus and smile politely through overzealous talk of 2-for-1 provolone-stuffed meatloaf and happy hour specials on Main Street 'Ritas, if it never segued into a warbling, slightly ironic rendition of Meatloaf's "I Could Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," followed by a rambling confession about the control issues that arise when a brand-new relationship goes sour faster than a Red Apple 'Rita.

Ignoring the horrible abbreviation for "margarita", what stands out is the title of the Meatloaf song, because it's self-evidently wrong, and we know this without even being able to call the song to mind because as rendered it is grammatically incorrect, or at least hideous. The actual title is "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)", and the song itself skips the contraction and has the lyrics as "I would do anything for love...", because it scans better. If the second word had been "could", then the third-from-last would properly have been "can't". Would/won't: could/can't. This is obvious. Did Heather Havrilesky actually read what she wrote? Did it ever occur to her to Google the song title, just in case? Or is she just completely tin-eared?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Decorative Elements

A delicious CP error completely and unashamedly stolen from Parterre Box, an opera blog, which I was reading today because I had just returned from seeing Das Rheingold*:

Returning from last season, mezzo Kate Lindsey was again excellent as Hoffmann's devoted but cynical muse, Necklace.

That's "Nicklausse". Even if the reviewer, Mike Silverman, didn't have the production notes handy, wouldn't you think he might have the common sense to think, "'Necklace' doesn't sound like a person's name--I ought to Google that"? I mean, that's what Google is for.

* Last week I was rhapsodizing about "Das Rheingold" and the Ring cycle in general to a friend, and visibly radiating enthusiasm for the upcoming Met production, and she asked if I thought "Rheingold" might be a good starter opera. I said, "Oh, no! Oh, no no no no." "Carmen" is a good starter opera. "Lucia di Lammermoor" is a great starter opera. Maybe "Boheme" or "Barber of Seville". Something with lots of tunes, something at least reasonably familiar. I thought it was Mark Twain who said something on the order of, "Wagner has magnificent moments and dreadful quarter hours", but apparently it was Rossini: at any rate, that's certainly true of "Rheingold", for the uninitiated. Jim slept through most of it. Even I will confess to not being completely enthralled for the entire three-hour production, although the finale was killer.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


After doing some research, I began to suspect I had done today's batch of words already, and maybe I had; I'm away from home and therefore from my complete archive, so I can't easily check. (I did a cursory check online and there's no evidence that I'm repeating myself.)

At any rate, this morning I woke up to daylight and the sun, for the first time since I got here Thursday afternoon, wasn't shining: the sky was covered with a thick scum of greyish clouds. I searched for the exact word to describe the sky, and came up with "congealed", "clotted", and "curdled": a minute or two later, the word "clabbered" joined them, followed shortly thereafter by "coagulated". After being struck by the fact that all of them begin with the letter "c-", I was running them through my head and noticed that as far as I could tell, none of them were related to any of the others.

Why would a language need five different words for what amounts to the same thing?

Well, whether or not we need them, we've got them. Can you figure out where they might have come from?

"Congeal" is obviously Latinate: when it's visibly a prefix, "con-", "together, with", denotes a Latin word, and "-geal-" suggests "gel" and therefore "gelid" ("frozen; icy") so strongly that it can only mean "frozen", the whole word meaning "frozen together in a mass".

"Clot", I thought I recalled, was related to "clod", so a clot is a lump or mass of something.

"Clabber" is short for "bonnyclabber", which is a word I had never heard of before: it's Gaelic, and the "bonny" part doesn't mean what you think it means: it's "bainne", "milk". The "clabber" part means "thick".

"Curdle", I decided, must be the frequentative of the verb "to curd", assuming such a verb existed, which it does. "Curd" is a variation of "crud", a process called "metathesis", in which letters and/or sounds change position in a word: when you hear someone say "nucular" instead of "nuclear", that's a metathetical change. Some common English words or pronunciations were formed by this process: "third" ought to be "thrid", by analogy with "three", "wasp" used to be "waeps" (and in fact in some British dialects, "wasps" is "wopses"), and we pronounce "iron" as if it were spelled "iorn".

"Coagulate" looks Latinate as well: "con-" or "com-" plus something else that started out as or turned into "-agul-". And this is what it is: it's actually related closely to "cogent", which is from Latin "con-" plus "-agere", "to drive, to move", which is, a moment's thought will disclose, the source of "agent", a driving force (and also "agitate", to move, to put into motion), and so "coagulate" means "to drive together (into a mass)".

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Light Goes On

I'm visiting my mother and stepfather for a week, and today, a lovely sunshiny autumn day right on the intersection of warm and cool, I was out walking the dog wearing the sandals I use when I couldn't be bothered to put on shoes. Naturally, since they live more or less in the middle of nowhere (half an hour outside Penetanguishene, Ontario) on an unpaved road, some grit ended up under the sole of my foot, and as I kicked it loose I said to the dog (who, unshod, didn't care), "I got some sand in my sandal. That's why they call them sandals, of course."

And then I realized that I did not in fact know why they called them sandals. It might have something to do with sand, mightn't it? That's plausible enough. And where did sand get its name, anyway? And what about sandalwood? Was it used to make sandals (or at least their soles) once? (That's also pretty plausible.)

"Sand" itself we got from the Germanic and Nordic languages (not, obviously, French, since their word for sand is "sable", which, amazingly, is not related to English "sable", the fur--that's from Germanic, too, originally). It is extremely old in our language, one of the earliest words, as so many monosyllabic nouns of everyday importance are.

"Sandal", on the other hand, is unrelated; it's from Latin and Greek, "sandalium" and "sandalion" respectively. Before that, nobody knows: it could be Persian.

"Sandalwood", marvellously, is unrelated to both "sandal" and "sand". It instead is intimately related to--and I hardly believed this when I first read it--"candle", from Sanskrit "candana-m", cousin to Latin "candere", "to glow, to shine", whence comes "incandescent" and "candelabra", among others. The sandalwood tree is so called because its wood is use to make incense, which glows when you light it.