or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The suffix "-er" has multiple uses in English. Probably the commonest in everyday use is to form the comparative from most one- and two-syllable adjectives: ugly/uglier, sane/saner. Another common example is as what's called an agentive suffix, one which turns a verb (usually) into the thing that performs that action: kill/killer, bake/baker. (It also appears in such nouns as "commoner", from the adjective "common".) There's also the frequentative "-er", which is, as linguists say, "no longer productive", which means we don't make words any more in this form, though many frequentatives still exist: "flicker" from "flick" and "patter" from "pat", for instance. And of course sometimes the letters "-er" just appear at the end of a word thanks to its etymology and not as a suffix: "canter", for instance, which looks like it ought to be a frequentative but is actually a contraction of "Canterbury gallop", and "slaughter", from Old Norse "slahtr".

Sometimes we have a collision between these various endings with their various meanings, and that can lead to a little bit of confusion, or at least a momentary pause. Here's a sentence from the A.V. Club review of Burlesque:

It’s a glittering neon valentine to divadom so exquisitely, unapologetically gay that Alan Cumming’s homage to Joel Grey in Cabaret actually constitutes one of its butcher elements.

Nothing wrong with that at all, and "butcher" is the most obvious comparative form of "butch" (although "more butch" is perfectly acceptable). But didn't it give you pause to read it? Didn't it maybe just a little bit make you think of Alan Cumming in a bloody apron wielding a carving knife?

Here's the funny thing: "butch", in the sense of "tough and masculine", is apparently a contraction of "butcher". How about that!

"Butcher", by the way, is, if you know any French, obviously derived from or otherwise related to "boucher", which--and this is the less-obvious part--is related to English "buck", which now means "male deer" but once meant "male goat".

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Currant Events

Dare French Cremes. All you Canadians will know what they are. They used to be better, or at least better-textured if not actually better for you, because now that icing on top is made with palm oil, which leaves that greasy scum on your tongue a minute after you eat one.

Someone left a box of them on the breakroom table yesterday: we do that all the time, buy a big bag of chips or a box of candy and leave it out for everyone to share. A co-worker and I were wondering just what was in the cookies that made them so deliciously dangerous, and so we were reading the lists of ingredients, she in English from her side of the box, I in French from mine. Yeah, we lead fascinating lives, but in our defence, we were on a break, when heavy intellectual lifting is not expected.

When I came to the sixth ingredient on the list, "raisins de corinth", my first thought was that "Corinthian raisins" was kind of funny, because naturally it is going to make you think of Ricardo Montalban talking about rich Corinthian leather, and then it hit me: Corinth! That must be where the word "currant" comes from!

It sure is. "Raisin" is actually the French word for "grape": what we call "raisins", they call "raisins secs", "dried grapes". (Our "grape", wonderfully, is related to "grapple", because the word originally referred to the hook used to harvest grapes and then synecdochally became the fruit itself: prior to that, the Old English word for "grape" was "winberige", "wineberry".) Corinth, where the raisins once in fact came from, was rendered in the French-English hybrid spoken in Britain as "Corauntz" and later in Early Modern English as "Curans", and finally, well, you know.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Old Whine in New Bottles

Here is a really interesting site vending beautifully designed things that you probably do not need but might nevertheless like to have.

Here is one of those things, a wine aerator that supposedly makes inferior wines taste better, which really sounds like bullshit to me, but then I think wine pretty much all tastes alike, so I'm probably not the best judge.

Here is a sentence from that item's lengthy and glowing description:

vino arielle™ - wine aerator designed to instantly alleviate the flavour of wine, accentuate its aroma, and smoothen its texture.

I'm going to allow "smoothen", which is more usually rendered "smooth" these days, though "smoothen" is actually a word and therefore valid. What gets under my skin is "alleviate".

Did someone sort of get the idea that since "alleviate" means "to make better", then it can be used synonymously with "improve"? Because it can't. "Alleviate" has exactly one application in English: it is invariably used in conjunction with some pain, illness, or infirmity. You can alleviate symptoms, you can alleviate pain, you can alleviate boredom, even. But you can't alleviate wine.

Seriously. If you don't know what a word means, you really have no business using it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Obsessive Compulsive

One of the glories, and problems, of modern technology is that it allows us to completely throw ourselves into whatever happens to strike our fancy at the moment. For example, this song:

Now, I love a minor-key dance tune, particularly one that is about past or present misery and suffering, and this one fits my brief so perfectly that I have listened to hardly anything else for the last three days. See? (You may have to click on this to be able to read it.)

Date added: Thursday, November 18th. Number of plays 31. And that doesn't count the number of times I watched the video.

I was at the gym this morning and had "Indestructible" on repeat-play, and after four or five repetitions, I thought, "Well, I should probably listen to something else," and then I thought--and I am absolutely not making this up, and yes, I know how crazy this sounds--"But then I wouldn't be listening to 'Indestructible'." So I kept listening to it nearly the whole I time I was there, and on the way home, too. (The "nearly" was when I turned it off to watch on one of the gym's many TVs the last twenty-five minutes of an episode of "Canada's Worst Driver 6", which was hilarious, while on a cardio machine: then it was right back to the song.)

I'll get sick of it sooner or later, or at least it will cease to have the same magnetic attraction, and will simply fall into my usual rotation of classical music, stuff from the eighties and nineties that I remember fondly, and beat-heavy trance (like another minor-key dance tune I adore, Erasure's Breath of Life). And then it will be on to the next new thing.

So in case you were wondering, "obsession" is from the Latin, "ob-", "against", plus "sedere", "to sit", because the word in that language originally meant "to besiege": less than half a century after its introduction into English, it had taken on a subsidiary but closely related meaning, "to haunt" (as in "I am being obsessed by evil spirits"), and from then it was a very, very short step to the modern sense in which one might be obsessed by a person, an idea, or a really excellent pop song.

Monday, November 15, 2010


In this Atlantic article about Michael Pollan and the ethics of food, I spotted the word "indulge" with an accidental hard hyphen inside it, "in-dulge", which had the effect of spotlighting the word for me, after which I (of course) began to wonder where it could possibly have come from.

Obviously Latin; it starts with "in-" and has a rather Latinish feel about it. But other than speculating that it must be a back-formation from "indulgence" (it certainly has that overtone, as does "burgle" from "burglar"), I could not for the life of me guess what its root was.

And with good reason! Nobody else knows, either.

"Indulge" is a back-formation, I was gratified to learn, so that instinct is still working. As for "indulgence", it emerged from Latin "indulgentia", which is a form of the verb "indulgere", "to be kind, to yield". Before that, well, nothing. It just is. Not a very satisfying resolution, but there are sometimes dead ends in the world of etymology.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

No, The Other One

For some reason the word "altruism" kept popping up in things I was reading, most recently yesterday morning at the gym, when the news channel on one of the TVs had a piece about a couple of women in Ontario who had been arrested for faking cancer as a way of making money from the unsuspecting well-meaning public; some talking head was gassing on about it (not his fault, the news channel has to fill the hours somehow), and of course the word in question came up.

It looks as if it ought to be Latinate, from "alter", "other", but what's that "-u-" doing in there? It ought to be "alterism". It just doesn't make sense.

And then you learn that the word was coined by some French guy (a philosopher named Auguste Comte, if you must know) as "altruisme" (since it's French, but the last letter naturally enough got trimmed when it was imported into English) from the French word "autrui", and you think, "Well, fine, then what's the ell doing in there? It ought to be 'autruism'."

And it turns out that, predictably, "autrui" used to be "altrui" in Old French, and when Comte created the word, he was harking back either to Old French or even older Latin.

So that's that sorted.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Skin Deep

The other day I was wearing a scent called Cuir Cordoba, or "Cordoba Leather", "cuir" (pronounced, approximately, "queer", unfortunately) being the French word for "leather", and of course I began to ruminate on the etymology of the word.

Couldn't think of a thing. (I was at work, so I couldn't look anything up.) There's no reason that "cuir" should have left any trace in English, since we took the Germanic word for "leather" instead: the German word is "Leder", as in "Lederhosen", and the relationship is instantly obvious. But it turns out that there sort of is a distant and barely connected relative of "cuir" in English, really more of a great-aunt's third cousin twice removed, and you will never, ever guess what it is.

"Cuir" is not unexpectedly from Latin originally: it's a derivative of "corium", which means "skin" or "hide", leather being a preserved skin. ("Corium", by the way, exists in English, but in a very restricted sense: it is the deep, sub-epidermal layer of the skin.) You may not have heard of "corium" before--I hadn't--but you have heard of a related word, "cortex", originally in Latin a tree's bark and now the outer layer of a number of things, including the human brain and also the adrenal glands, which is where the word "cortisone" comes from.

"Corium" and "cortex" in turn come from the Indo-European "(s)ker-", "to cut", for obvious reasons, which gave English quite a few words, including "scar" and "shear", along with some more unexpected ones.

Now, the unrelated Latin word "cor", meaning "heart" (as in "cordial", originally "hearty", now just "friendly"), was expanded into "corata", "entrails", which gave rise to the Old French word "corée", with the same meaning. This eventually evolved into "cuirée", which is unrelated to "cuir" but was given its spelling based on "cuir". The entrails of the hunted animals synechdochally came to represent the whole animal, which was eventually referred to as "quarry".

The other kind of quarry, since you are certain to be wondering about it, is related to "quadrilateral": a quarry was a place where stones were excavated, cut out, and squared off.