or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Our dear friend Rebecca got married today, and this gent here

was the best man, and no, I am absolutely not kidding. (Perhaps if Becca gives me permission, I'll post a picture or two from the ceremony to prove it, and tell you the story behind it into the bargain.)

Anyway, as Jim and I were getting dressed this morning--7:30 this morning, because we and a few other friends of the bride's somehow got shanghaied into decorating the hall, because Rebecca is very sweet and very convincing and also generally gets what she wants and we are frankly pushovers--I noticed that the hanger for my suit-jacket had a word printed on it, and that word is PROTOCOL, the name, presumably, of the company that made the jacket; they like to remind you of these things.

Now, it is obvious that the first half of "protocol" means "first"; "protos" looks Greek, and is, and means the first of something. The proton got its name from...well, it's actually sort of complicated, but you can read about it on Wikipedia, as usual. The figure of speech called hysteron proteron more or less means "last first". And the prefix "proto-" means the first of something: "proto-human", for example, or "protozoon", "first animal".

But the second half? That's kind of mystery, and it remained a mystery until I got home this afternoon. I just couldn't make any sense of it: when I found out the answer, I could have smacked myself, but not really, because even if you know the word that it comes from, you still don't know why.

As it turns out, "-col" is related to French "colle", which means "glue", from Latin "colla", with the same meaning. The word also appears in some English words: "collagen", "glue-maker", for instance, the substance that holds the human body together, and also "colloid", "gluelike", a word referring to many diverse things such as blood, mayonnaise, opal, Styrofoam, cigarette smoke, and soapsuds, which all have this in common: they are composed of one substance suspended in another. (An opal is actually water dispersed throughout a solid: this also describes gelatin, and in fact opal is correctly called not a mineral, but a mineraloid gel. Because of this, an opal can be ruined by drying out, and should be immersed in water from time to time.)

So: knowing that "protocol" ought to mean "first glue", how can we make any sense of this, also knowing that "protocol" means "a code of behaviour and etiquette"?

We can't, of course, because the word has changed its meaning over the centuries, and also because it has other meanings in English--protocols are also the formalized plans for something or the methods of achieving it, and a protocol can also be a preliminary draft. This suggests the sense of "first" that we're looking for, and it hints at the real source: Middle Latin "protocollum", the table of contents of a document, and so "protocol" isn't so much "first glue" as it is "first, glued", literally the first page which is glued onto the rest of the volume.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


What's this over in the comments section of the
A.V. Club review of a cult-favourite DVD movie
? Why, it's an unspeakably tedious grammarwank!

If biweekly means twice a week, then we should be celebrating the bicentennial two hundred times each year. "Biweekly" happens every two weeks. "Semiweekly" happens every half week. You see how the prefix works?

No, but do you know how the English language works? Words shift and flow, their meanings overlapping and diverging. The prefix "bi-" means "two", and some people have interpreted "bimonthly" to mean "two times in a month", and others to mean "once within a two-month span". Both of these meanings are perfectly logical and are not really open to argument, any more than is the formatting of a date or the meaning of "healthy" versus "healthful". The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of both instances of the usage occurring within a twelve-year span, from the mid-nineteenth century, so if this is a problem, it's been one for a hundred and sixty years or so, long enough for people to figure out that it's part of the language.

What any sensible person does is to simply avoid using those constructions altogether, unless it's in a restricted environment in which the meaning is set and inviolable. The Free Dictionary notes that "each noun form has only one sense in the publishing world. Thus, a bimonthly is published every two months, and a biweekly every two weeks." Otherwise, it would obviously be a smart move to use some other more precise construction, which luckily in English is not hard. "Every fourteen days." "Twice a week." "The second and fourth Fridays of every month."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Colour Theory

Here's a link to a tremendously interesting Slate slideshow about the colour pink and its history.

It just wouldn't be a Slate piece without an error of some sort, I guess, and there is one, on slide #6: in the sentence, "Just as the quick burst of a sakura's petals drop to the ground, the thinking goes, so must warriors be ready to fall unquestionably in battle," the word "unquestioningly" must surely have been intended.

That out of the way, the piece is fascinating, because the colour pink is so indelibly associated with girls in Western culture, and blue with boys, that it can be a bit of a shock to learn that it was not always that way: even less than a century ago, girls were often clad in blue, the reasoning being that it is a prettier, daintier colour (not to mention the signature colour of the Virgin Mary), while pink was for little boys, since it's a stronger, bolder colour, a diluted but still potent version of military, hematic red.

Even though children look good in bright saturated colours, baby clothes are historically often pastel for a simple reason: they're going to be washed a lot in strong detergent, and (until the advent of modern dyes) will fade, so they might as well start out pale rather than gradually looking more and more unkempt and wan. (When I'm making baby clothes for a baby of unknown sex, I generally knit them in pastel shades of white, yellow, and green--safe, genderless colours. But high-quality acrylic yarn, and, even better, machine-washable superwash wool, which don't fade, make bright fun colours a possibility too.)


Speaking of errors in Slate--and when am I not?--here's a sentence from a review of survival guides:

In a section on wounds, he shares a treatment for "mad dog" bite and another for lightening strike ("To revive one stunned by a thunderbolt, dash cold water over him").

Not only was the wrong word--off by a letter!--chosen, or mistyped and not corrected in editing, but "lightening" isn't even from the same root as "lightning": they are entirely unrelated etymologically. The two words entered English (well, Old English) in similar forms, quickly converged in spelling and pronunciation, and moved in lockstep ever since, but they still don't mean the same thing.

"To lighten" means "to relieve the burden of: to make lighter", and this "light" filtered into Old English as "leoht" from the various Germanic languages from Indo-European "legwh-", which had various connotations of lightness, agility, and ease of movement. (The same IE root turned into Latin "levis", which gave English such words as "levity" and "lever".)

The noun "light", on the other hand, is from IE "leuk-", which means "light" or "brightness", and this word managed to survive unmolested into modern English (through Greek "leukos", "white") in the word "leukocyte", "white blood cell". The various derivatives and relatives of "leuk-" refer to lightness or brightness in some way: Latin "lucere", "light", gave us "lucid" and "pellucid", "Lucifer" ("light-bearer"), "lucent" (and therefore "translucent"), and the name Lucius. (Latin "lux", "light", did not give rise to "luxury" or "deluxe": those are from "luxuria", "excess", one of the Seven Deadly Sins.)

There is a third sense of "light" in English, the verb "to touch down: to land", and this is related to the adjective "light", because when you alight from a horse, you lighten its burden.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Past

I have a vivid memory from my school days: not so vivid that I remember every single humiliating detail, but clear enough. In French class, probably Grade 5, I hazarded a guess that the word "maintenant" meant something like "to maintain" or "to handle", and was thoroughly laughed at. By the teacher.

I suppose I should have know what the word meant at that point, because it's one of the most basic words in any language: it means "now: the present".

If the teacher could have gotten inside my head, though, my guess would have been entirely logical, because "main" means "hand" in French, and "tenant" is a form of the verb "tenir", "to hold", so "to handle" (hold in the hand), "to manipulate" (work with the hands), "to claim" (to take in hand), or any other of a raft of other possibilities are obvious if you don't know the correct answer. I didn't actually think it through in these terms at the time; it was just plain to me that that's what the word ought to mean.

I mention this only because today, thirty-odd years after the fact, the word "maintenant" popped into my head and I tore it apart and it finally occurred to me that my original guess in fact is what it does mean. "Now" is the period of time that you can hold in your hand, that you can handle, that you keep with you, as opposed to the past and the future, both equally out of reach in opposite directions.

"Maintanant", in case you don't speak any French, is pronounced approximately "man-t'-non", with the "-t-" just a wee glottal stop to indicate its existence and the "-n" at the end of the other two syllables thoroughly nasalized in the French manner. French likes to throw away sounds with even more abandon than English does: entire syllables can vanish into the ether. (The third person plural of the verb "devoir", "to have to", is "doivent", and it's pronounced "dwahv": the whole last syllable is just not there.)

Since the "-tenant" in "maintenant" derives from "tenir", it is natural to assume that English "tenant" is the essentially same word, and of course it is: a tenant is someone who holds land via a lease. "Tenir" comes from Latin "tenere", with the same meaning. There are quite a few "tenir" or "tenere" derivatives in English, including "tenacious", holding on tightly; "tenet", a principle you hold onto; "tenure", a position you have the right to hold; and the "-tain" constructions such as contain (to hold within), obtain (to get and hold), detain, retain, and, yes, maintain (to hold in the hand).

"Tenuous" is related, but in a slightly roundabout way, and for that we have to go to the Indo-European root "ten-", which means "to stretch". A tenuous claim isn't one that you don't have a good hold on; it's one that is stretched thin, that it would be a stretch to believe. "To stretch" became "to hold" because they both carry the sense, however metaphorically, of the effort of keeping something in place.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tomb Raider

Look, I know I said I wasn't going to keep posting mistakes from The Sims 3, but frankly there are a lot of them, and you may have noticed that I haven't been posting a whole lot lately, mostly because when I'm not reading I'm either knitting or playing The Sims, very often at the same time (I'm talented that way), so it's this or nothing.

And it's not that often that you get to see "epitomy" in the wild, because you would think that most people who make their livings using computers, especially those working at companies that make enormously popular software, are at least savvy enough to use a spellchecker, especially if they are publishing enormously popular software.

I've spotted at least half a dozen typos and grammatical errors so far in the World Adventures expansion pack, which to me is way too many. (There should be none.) Almost makes you think the company rushed it out before it was ready, which in fact is the case; there have been a number of patches since it was launched in mid-November, the most recent one less than two weeks ago (just look at that list of fixes), and I guess all the bugs still aren't ironed out, because I've had two crashes back to the desktop since then, which never happened in living memory (and I've been playing The Sims since the very beginning in 2000). Lucky I save frequently.

Still, I'm playing it, which must mean it can't be that tragic an experience.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Apologizing for Jerks

Unfortunately, it will now be necessary for you to have a Blogger account to post a comment, not that people were falling all over themselves to do that anyway (my regular readership is probably in the tens, which, really, is fine with me), but the huge majority of the comments I receive are of the spam variety, which means I spend more time cleaning up their filth than I do posting, and what's more, I receive an e-mail alert every time someone posts a comment, which means that I spend nearly as much time cleaning up my mail software's In basket, so if you really need to comment (and I do appreciate your taking the time), just make a Blogger account: it doesn't take long, and you're bound to use it sooner or later, even it's only to make comments on other people's blogs.

Monday, February 01, 2010


Lorem ipsum: it's back, courtesy of Photoshop Disasters!*

How many hands did this pass through? How many people from the graphic designer on down to the printers saw this and somehow didn't register that it was wrong? How can such a thing even be?

*Although technically this is not a Photoshop disaster, it's a disaster, and that's good enough for me.