or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Math and Latin

This is why we should teach Latin in school, or at least etymology with a definite Latin slant:

"Circum-" means "around". "Dia-" means "across". The word the writer was grasping for was "diameter", not "circumference". A disc with a diameter of 1 7/8" is about the size of an Oreo cookie; that same circumference makes it smaller than a dime--tinier even than the incredibly wee 1-cent Euro coin.*

Even the most basic knowledge of Latin would have forced the writer to say, "Hey, wait a minute...."

* Knowing the the circumference is the diameter times π, approximately 3.1416, and therefore the circumference divided by π gives the diameter, a circumference of 1 7/8", or 48 millimetres, gives a diameter of about 15.25 millimetres; the Euro cent is 16.25 mm.

The only reason I have seen a Euro cent, not having been to Europe since the early 1980s, is that a couple of years ago we were in London, and I saw on the floor of a subway station something that looked like a shiny coin, only much too small to actually be one. And yet it actually was one. I couldn't believe just how little it was--certainly the smallest coin I had ever held. I brought it back as a sort of souvenir, and promptly lost it--that's how small.

A Canadian dime is about 18 millimetres across. Just so you know.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Making a Stink

Yeah, I'm going on about avoidable typos again. But at least it's not The Sims.*

My other blog is about perfumery, and I need to fuel it, so I was ordering some samples** from a British company called Ormonde Jayne, who could really use a proofreader. Or even a spellchecker. On this page, you see the following tool tip (which shows up if you let your cursor sit on the image for a few seconds):

Now, honestly. "Beautifil"? "Specialtu"? A seven-year-old could have pointed those out.

*It could have been. I've been playing it a lot in the last week, and I've found others besides the two I pointed out. But a promise is a promise.

**And just look at the packaging!

Now, isn't that just about the most elegant packaging you ever saw in your life? For samples!

UPDATE: February 12th. The package arrived today, and the case is even more elegant than I had thought, because you see that little ribbon tab on the right? When you pull it, naturally the drawer with the samples comes sliding out; but so does that other drawer with the little book, in the opposite direction. It's a fairly simple trick--a divider between the two layers, a strip of acetate attached to the ends of the drawers and threaded over the divider--but it's charming and shows an attention to detail. Shame their website doesn't have quite that same level of attention.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I promise I won't make every post for the next few weeks about The Sims (although come to think of it I've broken a lot of promises over the years), but yes, I have stumbled across another typo, and it's a good one.

"It certainly isn't something that is for the feint of heart." No, and neither is correctness in spelling and grammar.

The word "feint" exists, of course: it means "a manoeuvre designed to mislead". Doesn't it look French? It is, from "feinte", and is related, predictably, to "feign", which in turn--and you are going to like this--is related to "fiction" through Latin "fingere", "to shape, to devise, to feign". Will it astonish you to learn that "finger" is not, in fact, related to "fingere"? It would be so easy to concoct an etymology, but it would be incorrect: "finger" is from a set of Old Norse relatives (you can easily imagine the Norse-looking "fingr", and you would be correct), and these may ultimately derive from Indo-European "pengke", "five", which I am quite sure I don't need to elaborate on.

"Faint", on the other hand, comes from...exactly the same place as "feint"! To faint originally meant to get out of a job by pretending to be unwell (from French "faindre"), so the relationship to "feign" is obvious.

That's all perfectly sensible. What I can't understand is how someone might use the considerably less common, and incorrect, "feint" in place of the much commoner, and correct, "faint".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Foreign Language

If I've been incommunicado, it's because I am once again playing The Sims 3. There's a new expansion pack, World Adventures, which allows you to travel to France, Egypt, and China. You can explore tombs in all three countries: I guess the tombs in France are like the caves at Lascaux, I wouldn't know, I haven't been there yet, I've only gotten to Egypt.

In the screen shot below, my Sims have been poking around in the basement of a pyramid, and one of them has formulated the desire to find a hidden door. And look! A typo in the wild!

I've spotted typos in The Sims before: here's one in The Sims 3, and one in its predecessor. This one is new, and new to me, too.

"Tombs and catacombs are writhe with secret doors and passageways."

So some writer heard the word "rife" once, didn't know what to make of it, and rendered it as "writhe" instead, which is ridiculous, shouldn't have happened, and ought to have been caught by an editor. Or, worse, some editor changed it from the correct word to an incorrect one. I don't even know what to say about that possibility.

"Rife", by the way, isn't related to or descended from anything else, it would seem; it's just a word that means what it means, which is to say "laden [with]: abounding [in]". "Writhe", on the other hand, is--and this is very predictable--from Old Norse, from a word that means just what you would think it means: "to twist".

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Here's a stunning sentence from a recent Slate article on the popularity of the MTV show Jersey Shore, and the impossibility of a second season:

There are two main Masshole strands: Kennedy-lite types, often from the North Shore or Boston's wealthy Metro West area, who go to small New England liberal arts colleges (Bowdoin, Colby, Dartmouth) and wear lots of khaki; and more blue-collar types, often from South Boston or one of the commonwealth's harder-knock-cities (Everett, New Bedford), who share a hairdo: a weathered Sox cap in the warmer months, a fleece-lined Pats hat in the winter.

A hairdo? Requires hair. A hat? Does not. A weathered Sox cap is no more a hairdo than a pair of fleece mittens are a manicure. I am flabbergasted that anyone could actually write that sentence. I ought to be equally flabbergasted that it could make it through the editing process, but I think it's been fairly established that at Slate, there isn't one. If there is, it isn't working.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Body Language

The Setup: There is a little opera by Handel called "Acis and Galatea", a charming pastoral which contains a few moderately famous arias and choruses, most particularly "Heart, the Seat of Soft Delight", "Hush, Ye Pretty Warbling Quire", and "Galatea, Dry Thy Tears".

I used to subscribe to a magazine called Classic CD, which contained articles about classical musicians and reviews of classical and operatic CDs. It's no longer being published, as far as I can tell, but this

is a cover from 1998. The magazine had a column of amusing typos, overblown promotional text, and the like--just the sort of thing I'd enjoy. They printed a listing for a BBC radio program in which the title of one of the choruses from Acis and Galatea was misprinted as "Galatea, Dry Thy Teats".

The Punch Line: I was looking at a recording of Acis and Galatea on iTunes, and that very song was misspelled again, but not in the expected way; this time, it was this:

"Galatea, Dry Thy Ears".

The Kicker: I went a-Googling for "galatea dry thy teats", and there was nothing, meaning nobody remembers it except me; but the very first search result contained this:

"Heart, The Teat of Soft Delight".

It's endless, is Acis and Galatea.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Food For Thought

A comma is not an apostrophe.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Acting Out

If you are a putatively respectable British newspaper and don't bother to hire any editors to make sure that the text is accurate and properly spelled and so forth, then you should be properly ashamed of yourself, despite the probably correct assumption that nobody these days will notice. If, on the other hand, you don't direct your writers and compositors to at least run everything through a spellchecker, well, you ought to be put of of business, that's what.

The headline

Amy Winehouse pleads guilty to pantomime assault

in this Times Online story would be bad enough in any case, because as Jim pointed out to me this morning, "pantomime" can function as a noun or an adjective, which means that the reader doesn't know if the chanteuse in question 1) assaulted someone at a performance of a pantomime or 2) simply mimed an assault and, for all we know, accidentally punched someone in the face.

It is, naturally enough, the former, but in fact this is the headline that was published:

As Wikianswers wryly notes after defining the intended word with a straight face, "pantomine" is "a common but incorrect spelling of the word 'pantomime'."

That's not to say that "pantomine" doesn't look at least plausible: "-ine" is a fairly common suffix in English used to indicate an adjective: "porcine", "piggish", for instance, or "sistine". Nevertheless, it is wrong, and the fact that it ever saw the light of day is disgraceful but not that surprising. Not any more.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Number Theory

I don't know if you have to be outside of a certain age group to think a nap is a good idea (say, six and fifty), but sometimes it's just what you need to recharge the batteries, or get rid of a headache. The Spanish have the right idea: get out of the midday sun, sleep off lunch, then get back to work. They even gave it a name: siesta.

I don't know enough Spanish to know exactly where the word "siesta" comes from, but I was lying in bed the other night thinking about it, and it seemed to me that it must be related to "six" somehow. It sounds sort of like "Sistine", our translation of Italian "sistino", which is an adjective referring to Pope Sixtus, after whom the chapel was named, and "Sixtus" definitely comes from Latin "sex", the progenitor of "six". All the big European languages have approximately the same word for "six": in addition to the English, there's German "sechs", to which it is obviously related, and French "six", pronounced "seese", Italian "sei" and Spanish "seis".

So if "siesta" is derived from "six", then the question naturally poses itself: six what? That was the thing I couldn't figure out. The answer is ridiculously simple: six hours after sun-up, give or take, is when the sun is highest in the sky, so that's when you take your nap.


A nap is otherwise known as forty winks. Why forty? Why winks?

According to Wikipedia, and I have no reason to doubt their sensible etymology, a wink is the shortest possible sleep--"didn't sleep [even so much as] a wink"--and forty is "an indefinite term for a large number that has almost sacred or magical quality", as attested to by its various uses in the Bible.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


"Caustic", of course, means "corrosive", which is to say "having the property of dissolving by chemical action". Or, metaphorically, "incisively cruel", as in a caustic remark or caustic wit.

That up there is a bag of lye, aka caustic soda. I'd stay well away from it if I were you.

But these are also caustics in a body of water (well, it's a computer-generated image, but that is what caustics do look like, as anyone who has ever been in a swimming pool knows).

and that bright area on the table is also a caustic. (Also a computer-generated image, but still also a good mimic of the real world.)

So a caustic is a curved geometric shape created by the warping of light, and the only possible response is, Yes, but what has that to do with lye?

I'm about to tell you. Of course!

"Caustic" comes from Greek "kaiein", "to burn", by way of "kaustos" and "kaustikos", "combustible, able to be burned". A caustic made of light can focus that light in such a way that it causes something to catch fire--think of a parabolic mirror. And that's it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Middle-Aged Spread

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about "cretons" and bemoaned my lack of success in discovering the etymology of the word. Jim dug a little deeper, and here's what he came up with:

This fellow was just as interested as you. He found it was originally gratton: Le mot viendrait soit de creton (désignant un morceau de lard frit, du néerlandais « kerte » : entaille) ou du verbe gratter (qui nous renvoie au francique kratton)

The word (gratton) became creton (meaning a bit of fried animal fat from the Dutch "kerte": notched) or from the verb "scratch" gratter which came from the Frisian(?) kratten.

So grattons (something scratched together) becomes cretons (yummy pork bits.)

I got lost a couple of times because pain de cretons (Creton Bread) kept getting in the way. That's when bread is tossed in the bottom of the fry pan to soak up extra fat and then given to the dogs as a treat.


And as soon as I heard that it was related to "gratter", "to scratch", I knew that this dish was all somehow tied up with "pork scratchings", which is what the British call deep-fried pork rinds. And then I also realized that this must somehow (and I am not sure how, and uncharacteristically don't care) be tied up with scruncheons, which are also fried pork rinds.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I will be taking my own sweet time getting to the point of all this, but there is a point to all this, so do hang around.

Jim and I went to see a show at the Bleecker Street Theatre when we were in New York last May. When we dropped by around noon the day of the show to pick up our tickets, we were surprised to see that the lobby was mobbed with little girls. They were there, it turned out, to see a musical called Pinkalicious, based on a children's book I had never heard of.

I am enormously fond of English's penchant for treating words as pieces of recombinant DNA, hacking them apart and reconstructing them in various forms, even if they don't withstand a moment's analysis. If there is such a thing as an alcoholic, someone addicted to alcohol, why not a workaholic or a chocoholic? Those words don't make any sense if you dissect them, but they don't need to: their meaning is immediately evident. Same thing with "-licious"; "delicious" doesn't break down into "de" plus a root word*, but you can create a character called "Pinkalicious" or a girl-group called "Girlicious" and the point of it is obvious.

Or, of course, you can do something even cleverer: create a candy shaped like soda-pop bottles and call it Soda-Licious. Get it? "So delicious"?

Jim didn't, for years. His brain just doesn't work that way. (As he put it to me in an e-mail, "It's like there's the word, the spelling of it and the sound of it and they don't really hang out together in my head.") My brain, though, generally does work that way, but even so, I miss stuff that should have been obvious to me in retrospect.

Last night at work I was taking a break and, as always, my eyes were flicking around the room looking for input while I was knitting (a mindless hat for a co-worker, something that requires no concentration whatever). Eventually they settled on a container of candy that someone had brought in. "Marshmallow hearts", it said on the lid, and just below that the inevitable French translation: "Coeurs à la guimauve."

"Guimauve". "Gui.....mauve". Mauve! "Mauve" is the French version of German "malve", which is the source of English "mallow"! How can I not have ever noticed that "guimauve" is decomposable in pretty much the same way as "marshmallow" is?

Here's what really boggles me: I wrote about marshmallows, and mallow/malve/mauve, four and a half years ago and never made the connection. How is that even possible? Was I just not paying attention?

Anyway. "Guimauve" does in fact break apart into "gui-" and "-mauve", and you will never, ever guess where "gui-" comes from if you don't know. It's not that "gui" is the French word for "marsh", because it isn't; "gui" is a word, but it means "mistletoe"**. (I know this only because there was a long-gone perfume called Sous le Gui--"under the mistletoe"--in a book about Lalique bottles.) In English, the mallow plant is also known as "white mallow", and in Dutch "witte malve". The English word for "war" comes from Old French "werre", which in modern French is "guerre", and likewise "William" comes from Old French "Willaume", now "Guillaume". So French "guimauve" is actually a form of "white mallow" or "witte malve", with the first half transliterated and abbreviated into French "gui'".

* Well, it does, of course, in an etymological sense. "Delicious" is from Latin "delicia", "a delight, a delicacy", from "de-", "away", plus "lacere", "to deceive: to lure"; something that's delicious is distractingly pleasurable and commands all your attention.

** I don't in turn know where "gui" comes from. Wiktionnaire doesn't know, either, and the other versions of the word listed mostly look like either "mistletoe" or Latin "viscum".

Monday, January 11, 2010


Oh, Slate, Slate, Slate. You're so hopeless.

Here is a sentence from a review of a book called "The Unnamed":

Then he gets back to wondering why Old Brizz bequeathed Benny Shassburger a totem poll.

And because I can't believe they did it, and I also can't believe that it won't be corrected in the next few minutes, here's proof:

Honestly, I'm speechless.

"Poll" is from an old German or Dutch word meaning "head", so a poll, logically, is a head count. "Pole", the intended word, is a long stick of some sort: it is related to "pale", which is also a stick, or a stake.

The North Pole, polarity, Polaris, the poles of a magnet, and other geographically and astronomically pole-y things are, and this may surprise you, not related to the pole which is a stick, even though it is easy to envision a long (invisible, metaphorical) stick running through a planet around which it may revolve. That word instead comes from Greek "polos", "a pivot or axis", which in turn is from an Indo-European root meaning "to turn".

The Pole which is a person, I do not think I even need to tell you, is unrelated to both of these things, and comes from the Polish word "Poljane", "field-dwellers".

"Poll parrot", which has a pleasantly old-fashioned, rather Edward Lear sound, has nothing to do with heads (and isn't even pronounced the same--it's got a short vowel sound): it's just a shortened form of Polly, which became a popular name for parrots for god only knows what reason other than alliteration.

Bafflingly, "Polly" is itself a variant of Molly, which is a pet name for Mary, in much the same way that Margaret gave rise to the pet names Meg and then in turn Peg. How lucky that the nickname Millie (a short form of Millicent, a lovely name well overdue for a comeback) did not turn into Pillie.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Opposition Speaks

Almost exactly a year ago I was snarling about the lousy faux Italian on a sub-shop sign. Today, someone left a comment on it, and since I have all comments e-mailed to me, I got to read it:

dude, you are a tool. get a life. nobody gives a shit about what you think. i cant believe this page came up when i typed in "pane di toasty"

I may well be a tool, but what do you call someone who from the comfortable seclusion of anonymity insults someone whom it would have been just as easy--easier--to ignore, someone who is only trying to increase the amount of accurate information in the world?

WikiAnswers says that the term "douchebag" "implies a variety of negative qualities, specifically arrogance and malice." Arrogance? Check. Malice? Check. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a douchebag.


I suppose I ought to be ashamed to admit that after having seen this video for a song called "Fireflies" by a person who performs under the name Owl City, and discovering that the song was stuck in my head, I actually bought the entire album, but I did.

You have to have a fairly high tolerance for adorableness, but there are some pretty good songs on the album ("Umbrella Beach" is preposterously catchy electropop). Some of it's pretty twee: "Dental Care" is just what you think it is*, and it contains the lines

I've been to the dentist
A thousand times, so I know the drill

Now, that's just too cute for words, but it does raise an interesting question: how does the "drill" in "know the drill" relate to a dentist's drill?

I was thinking about this while waiting at the bus stop, and here's what I came up with on my own: the mechanical drill came first, then the metaphorical sense of drilling a piece of information into someone's head; the military drill came after, because such a drill consists of actions repeated over and over until they become second nature, and then finally the idiom "to know the drill"--to have memorized any fixed set of actions. (There is a kind of monkey called a drill, which has a relative of which you will have heard called the mandrill: I was fairly sure these were unrelated.)

Drill-the-mechanical-borer did come first; there was never any doubt about that. Military drilling, though, is nearly as old, which is a surprise. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that it isn't related to the fairly obvious metaphorical notion of drilling an idea into someone's head, but instead comes from the repeated turns that soldiers make in a drill. The OED, I am sad to say, supports this, although it does qualify it with a "Prob." Still, I was probably wrong. But it wasn't for lack of trying.

*This made me think of two things: the band Shonen Knife, which has performed songs entitled "Cycling is Fun", "Mayonnaise Addiction", and "Cookie Day"**, and Solyman Brown, "The Poet Laureate of Dentistry", who in 1834 published a long poem entitled "Dentologia", and I would bet you good money that this is the first time the names Shonen Knife and Solyman Brown have ever been mentioned in the same sentence.

** Looking over the names of Shonen Knife songs made me think in turn of the episode of Mission Hill in which Jim goes to Japan and brings back such cultural oddities as Fun Fun Umbrella Juice and Anus Bar.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

But Soft

Over on that other fragrance blog, a discussion of a scent veered off into a discussion of Jovan fragrances, and I went to their website to see what they were up to (still not making Andron, alas), and what they're up to is a really confusing typo.

Or, to be more specific,

"Soft words." As a perfume note. I stared at it in complete confusion before realizing that, oh, yeah, they must have meant "soft woods".

Proofreaders, people. Worth their salary!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Rich and Strange

And now, a mystery.

On January 1st, as we always do, we had breakfast at Cora's, a Canadian restaurant chain. As I generally do, I had cretons, which is a sort of pork paté made with actual pork instead of liver and usually spread on buttered toast with mustard: you can read more about it on, unsurprisingly, Wikipedia. The next day, my appetite for cretons not yet whetted, I bought a jar in the supermarket and had some with dinner. This morning I had some more for breakfast. Delicious.

The mystery is just where "cretons" comes from. The French version of Wiktionary, Wiktionnaire, has no idea, and in fact rather plaintively begs anyone who does know to tell them:

Si vous connaissez l’étymologie manquante de ce mot, merci de l’ajouter conformément aux instructions décrites ici,

which is to say "If you know the missing etymology of the word, we would thank you for adding it according to the instructions described here."

So that's them out of the loop.

The OED is no more help, noting only that "cretone/critone/cretoyne" is obsolete and comes from Old French "cretonné", which it then does not bother to explain, define, or elucidate.

Now, "cretons" may make you think of a fabric called "cretonne". This obviously has nothing in particularly to do with pork spread: it's named after a French town, Creton, in which linen was manufactured.

But do cretons come from Creton? I don't know, and if anyone else does, they're apparently not saying.

If you would like to try cretons and do not live in the easternmost portion of Canada (Québec on eastward), you could certainly make them yourself: they're basically just rillettes, which is to say pulled pork without the barbecue sauce, pounded into a paste and refrigerated so it firms up, then topped with a little melted fat to keep it fresh. It's easy to make and very nice.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Horning In

I'm sitting here listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast (Hansel and Gretel, in English, and it works better than most opera in translation, because the original is in German and the rhythms are somewhat similar), which puts me in mind of something I meant to write about a few days ago, some time after I had gone to see the HD broadcast of another Met opera, Les Contes D'Hoffmann, on December 19th.

I enjoyed the show well enough, but wasn't thrilled with the voice of the tenor, Joseph Calleja, who had a sort of flutter in addition to the usual vibrato in all his held notes. I mentioned this in the comments on an opera blog, Parterre Box, and someone informed me that that flutter was usually called "caprino". I had run across that term previously on that blog (possibly in relation to the same tenor, because people would have been talking about him before the premiere of the opera) and hadn't known what it meant. A cursory Google search didn't help; it mostly led to a Wiki page about a kind of cheese.

The word was, as expected, hovering around in the back of my brain, and then one day at work this past week it finally hit me: "caprino" must be somehow related to "Capricorn". It makes perfect sense: Capricorn is a goat, and so "capri-" plus "-corn", which means "horn", must mean something like "horned goat". "Caprino", therefore, is "capri-" plus some sort of Italian suffix, and must obviously refer to what someone thinks of as the goat-like bleating quality of the fluttery tenor vibrato: now that I know about this, I can't help but think of it as goatish. It may be the sort of thing one just needs to get used to (as is vibrato itself, and, in fact, a lot of the operatic style of singing), but it was new to me--I've never heard a tenor make a sound like that--and I didn't like it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Bless You

A whole new year lies before us, ripe with promises to be broken and mistakes to be made!

The promises, of course, come in the form of resolutions which we all seem unable to keep from making, resolutions we could have made at any time of the year--but then they wouldn't have the same impact, would they? And it's a given, a cliché, that most of them will not be lived up to. So this year I'm not even going to bother. I have a mental list of improvements to myself that I'd like to make, but I'm not going to kid myself that I will actually accomplish any of this. Then, if I do, I'll be pleasantly surprised, and a better person, too.

But don't count on it.


I am one of those titanic, cyclonic sneezers, unfortunately, and today I had a couple of doozies, after which I naturally found myself wondering where the word "sneeze" might come from, since it is a fairly ridiculous word.

Before I go any farther, I need to tell you that once upon a time, there was a typographic convention known as the "long s", which you can see here

in an image which I totally stole from this blog and will return if need be. (The blog is called Babelstone, and the entry on long ess--god, it is ever detailed and complete! I'm so envious.) You can read more about it as usual in Wikipedia, but what you mostly need to know right now is that 1) it is in fact the letter "s", but used at the beginning and in the middle of words, and 2) it looks awfully like lowercase "f" (except that it doesn't have a crossbar, but only a little stub on the left side), which 3) has led to much confusion and minor hilarity in modern times. "The faithful ftork"? Comedy gold!

Right then. The German word for "to sneeze" is "niesen", which is pronounced exactly like "sneezin'" without the ess at the beginning. This seems at first glance like a promising source for the English word, but where might that ess have come from? A mystery!

As it turns out, the progenitors or relatives of the German and English versions of the word include Old Norse "fnysa" and Dutch dialectical "fneizen". As soon as you see those, if you know that the long ess exists, then your brain has got to be telling you that because of the confusion between "f" and long "s", at some point someone turned a version of "fneizen"--to be precise, Middle English "fnesen"--into something like "sneizen"--again, to be precise, "snesen"--and that was the end of that. This, of course, is just what did happen, and so we don't fneeze, we sneeze. I certainly do.

"Gesundheit", by the way, I have already dealt with here.