or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Top of the World

We went to the opera this afternoon (it was Hamlet, which I didn't expect to like a lot because I am really not a fan of French opera, but after some seriously dull stretches in the first and second acts, like falling-asleep dull, though I did not actually fall asleep, but Jim did, it picked up, with the second-act finale being very exciting and the rest of the piece engaging and occasionally beautiful), so as usual when I got home I naturally wanted to read what other people thought of it on the opera blog Parterre Box, and when reading some of the other posting stumbled onto this Wall Street Journal piece about soprano Anna Netrebko's apartment in New York, and what did I see? This.

"A peak at the soprano's residence near Lincoln Center."

Have we really come to this, where a Wall Street Journal writer can't tell the difference between "peek" and "peak", and where there are no editors of any sort to fix the mistake?

Or worse, have we finally reached the point that the two words are interchangeable? Because if we have, I give up.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


As I said the other day, if you have a collection of Latin roots in your head, you can often be successful at picking apart words that momentarily interest you. But sometimes you are led astray through no fault of your own.

The word of the day yesterday was "affiliate", and of course the first syllable is our old friend "ad-", "to", mutated by its proximity to the fricative "-f-". The rest, though. All I could come up with was "filament", from Latin "filum", "thread", and so something to which you are affiliated must be...something you are...tied to...with thread....

Okay, that's obviously nonsense. But I couldn't get past the "filum" association. When I got home and looked it up, I could have slapped myself, because it was so obvious in retrospect: the word was related not to "filament" but to "filial", because Latin "filius" means "son", the verb "affiliare" means "to adopt as a son", and therefore to affiliate yourself with an organization means to be (figuratively) adopted by them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tales From the Crypt

In the preface to this month's cryptic crossword puzzle in Harper's magazine--and if you haven't finished it yet, you had probably better stop reading--is a sentence reading, "Apologies for the entry at 28A."

My natural assumption was that the crossword's author (or, as the British say, compiler), Richard Maltby, Jr., had committed a particularly horrible pun, a form of wordplay that I loathe. I know if I felt compelled to do so--if I had devised a clue that was irresistibly clever, despite its being a pun of some sort--then I would have apologized for it, too.

But no. The entry eventually resolved itself into _HIC_ENS_I_, and I thought, "Chicken suit? Chicken skin?" It turned out to be, and I assume that you are quicker on the uptake than I am, "chickenshit"*.

At first, I thought, "For that he needs to apologize? How fragile does he think the average Harper's reader is, anyway?" But then I thought, well, if you can just blithely toss words like "chickenshit" into your crossword puzzle, then what's the next stop? "Motherfucker"? Probably best to imply that you couldn't not use it (it fits the space, it's a valid word), but at the same time imply that you won't be doing that sort of thing again anytime soon.

Come to think of it, why couldn't he have used "chicken skin"? It's also a valid word, the common term for a dermatological condition properly known as keratosis pilaris.


Speaking of particularly horrible: Where I work, we're perpetually barraged with astoundingly bad corporate-decreed music (really, amazingly, fantastically bad) interspersed with commercials for the store's upcoming events, one of which is an Easter-cookie-decorating thing, which wouldn't interest or affect me in any way except that the gratingly smarmy woman who voices the announcements somehow decided that the word "scrumptious" is properly pronounced "scrumptuous", as if it were derived from "sumptuous", which in fact it probably is, but still--the word is "scrumptious" and is pronounced as it looks, to rhyme with "bumptious", and saying "scrumptuous" makes her sound like she don't actually know what she's doing** (in addition to being gratingly smarmy), and hearing her say it drives me around the bend.

* The clue, for the curious: "Around his kitchen, cooking is really small-time", which is to say "around"="c" plus "his kitchen", cooked, or anagrammed, equals "chickenshit", a word meaning "really small-time". I can see why he couldn't resist using it: it's very good.

** When the Christian Dior scent Poison came out in 1985, I heard a sales clerk--and I would imagine her subconscious mental process, if you can call it that, informed her that it was a French scent from a French house and therefore must have a French name, and also that "Poison" is clearly an English word and therefore could not be the name--pronounce it "poisson", which is the French word for "fish".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Touch of Evil

One of the nice things about knowing a bit of Latin, if you are the sort of person who likes to analyze words every now and then, is that when you have built up a big enough store of Latin roots, you can often pick an unfamiliar but Latinate word apart and make an educated guess as to its meaning, and it is an enormous pleasure to be right.

I was in the showing idly looking at a bottle of dandruff shampoo, which claimed to be a sure cure for dandruff and seborrhea. "Seborrhea," I thought. The second half is evidently Latin "-rhea", "flow", as in "diarrhea" and "rheostat" (a device for controlling the flow of electricity). The first half? Clearly must be related to "sebum", skin oil, so seborrhea is an excessive production of oil, or, by extension, a scalp condition caused by that. Which in fact it turned out to be: seborrheic dermatitis is dry, scaly skin which usually manifests itself--ironically, you would think--in sebum-rich areas of the skin such as the scalp and face.

Sometimes, though, the root is more elusive than that.

The word that popped into my head a little while ago and demanded to be stripped bare and examined was "contaminate". The first syllable is our old Latin friend "con-", "with". The rest of it, though, did not make any sense to me, and with good reason, as it turns out; it's a much-altered variation of "tangere", "to touch", because, presumably, someone diseased (though not with seborrhea, which is not contagious) who touches you will contaminate you. ("Contagion" is also related.)

"Dandruff", by the way, is a bit of a mystery, at least the first half of it. The second half is from a Norse ancestor, "hrufa", "scab", from a word meaning "leper". Yuck!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

High Anxiety

Those of us who believe that there is a right and a wrong way to use the language still understand that words change over time. Sometimes they take on an entirely new meaning: sometimes their meaning simply shifts a little. Some people, though, just don't get this: they seem to believe that language is a form of algebra, in which each term has one and only one meaning, with no overlap and no possible confusion.

Here is the concluding paragraph from a post on Pharyngula about that hick town in Mississippi that cancelled the school prom rather than allow a young woman to attend in a tux with her girlfriend rather than in the socially approved manner:

I predict that Constance McMillen will be one of the progressive young people who will be fleeing Small Town America as fast as she can, as soon as she can. And the old geezers and flea bag preachers will sit around in their shrinking, backwards-looking community and wonder why the young people are so anxious to abandon them.

And here is what a commenter wrote:

"Anxious" and "eager" are not synonyms. Not at all. "Anxious" means having apprehension, worry, even painful uncertainty. Anxiety can even be a psychological disorder. You meant "eager".

And this is absolutely, entirely, unequivocally wrong.

"Anxious" has been a more or less precise synonym for "eager" since the middle of the eighteenth century; the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation to this effect just 120 years after the word "anxious" first appeared in print in 1623. "Anxious" in this form usually takes the preposition "to": "I am anxious for their safety" means I'm distressed or fretful, but "I am anxious to see him again" means I'm eager or anticipatory. (It can also take "that": "I am anxious that they have a good time.")

When I get an idea in my head about whether something is right or wrong, I do a little research first. I guess not everyone could be bothered, and this is what gives prescriptive grammarians a bad name.

"Anxious", by the by, is clearly from Latin, and is related to such English words as "anger", "anguish", and even "angst", all words for big, painful emotions, which is only right, as the Latin root, "angere", means "to cause pain". The "hang-" in "hangnail" is from this source, too: the nail isn't hanging, it's painful.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Video Conferencing

I have nothing to say about any of my usual stuff today, but here are two videos to occupy you anyway, and you really need to see them, because they are both going to mess with your head in the best way possible.

First, a very strange conglomeration of teddy bears and pigeons and cars at the seaside set to some horrifyingly infectious music; the thing starts out very chipper and adorable--teddy bear waves hello!--and soon takes a violent turn (teddy bear batters pigeon with a light standard and then gets hit by a car), later becoming rather Dada with, eventually, a healthy dose of Escher. As it gets more and more complex, sort of like that Kylie Minogue video taken in a freakish and sinister new direction, it shovels increasingly enormous amounts of data into your head, and while I was sitting watching and listening to it, with a fan blowing at me (it was a warmish day) and the smell of a new perfume (one I'm trying to write about) wafting in my nostrils, I came as close as I have ever come to total sensory overload, which was a little scary but also very exciting.

And then the newest Lady Gaga video, "Telephone". I don't care if you don't like her. Watch it with the sound off, if you must. It's a hell of a thing, art-directed out to Jesus and back, referencing dozens of American movies--it's like something Quentin Tarantino would have made if he were gay.

Actually, as it turns out, I do have something to say about the sort of thing I usually have something to say about, because it occurred to me while thinking about that first video that even if you didn't know the source of it, you could guess that the word "pigeon" would absolutely have to be French. You can just tell. And of course it is. But here's what's interesting: before we stole "pigeon" from the French, we had another word for the bird, one which I had never heard before: "culver". In Old English it was "culufre", which looks French but actually isn't, although from the look of it, it must surely have been influenced by French spellings: that word comes from Latin "colomba", the Latin word for "dove" or "pigeon" (which is a sort of dove).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Teaching Moment

Professionally printed signs. At least a half dozen people through the production process saw these before they hit the streets, and nobody caught this, and then someone tried to fix them, and they still couldn't get them right.

If you're determined to fuck up a protest sign, at least try to make sure it isn't educated-related. Or, conversely, if you're making education-related protest signs, have them proofread by someone who has an education.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Spice Rout

I don't hold bloggers to the same standard that I apply to the more established media when it comes to editing. If you have an advertising budget and a publication schedule and a staff of more than three, then by god one of those people had better be an editor, but if it's just you and your passion, mistakes are bound to happen.

Over on my other blog, I just wrote about a scent called Owari, for which Basenotes lists the following notes:

Top notes: Owari Mandarin, Bright Green Bergamot, Grapefruit Leaves. Middle Notes: Cubeb Pepper, Amyris Wood, Crisp Neroli. Base Notes: Cedarwood, Golden Amber, Tonkin Musk.

Somewhere along the line, someone took a look at that and said to themselves, "Oh, look! A typo! I'll just fix that right up." And as a result, here is the list of notes as seen in the blog Scented Salamander:

02 aka Owari features notes of Owari mandarin, bright green bergamot, grapefruit, cubed pepper, amyris wood, crisp neroli, fresh cut cedar wood, golden amber and Tonkin musk.

Now, I don't expect everyone to have heard of the cubeb: the only reason I have is that it was a popular spice in mediaeval cookery, and I have read a couple of mediaeval cookbooks. I do wish, though, that before making a correction that is itself incorrect, people would take a few seconds to do a Google search, and then double-check their search results just to be sure. Typing "cubeb" into Google would have told whoever made this fix that they were heading down the wrong path.

Update! A mystery, solved!

Someone from Now Smell This noted (as you can see in the comments, if you like) that when they posted a blog entry on the Odin line, that company's press release, reprinted verbatim, said "cubed pepper". Which means that Now Smell This, Scented Salamander, and who knows how many other perfume bloggers were blameless in having posted what they did, because the fault lies entirely with the Odin press department (probably one person). It also means that my assumption that someone took the press release and incorrectly corrected what they perceived to be a typo was incorrect.

On top of all that, it presumably means that someone at Basenotes fixed it from the meaningless "cubed pepper" to the obviously (to those in the know) correct "cubeb pepper", and seriously? Good for them.

I hope this is all straightened out now.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Breath Control

A couple of weeks ago I was describing a scent that had a suffocating quality, and, looking for an adjectival version of "asphyxia", settled on "asphixiatory", after considering and dismissing "asphyxiative", although that would have done, too, I think--I just liked the sound of "asphyxiatory" better in context. (One of the nice things about English is that with our trousseau of affixes, we can make up words to suit our needs; I needed an adjective, took a noun, transformed it, and got the word I wanted. This, as I have warned in the past and will now mention again, is not for the novice; like handling a loaded gun, you have to know what you're doing.)

Yesterday I got an e-mail from Yves Rocher--I am on so many mailing lists, you wouldn't believe--and was baffled by a product they were offering: "Anti-Asphyxiation Flash Mask". No, it isn't an oxygen supply: it's some sort of gunk that apply to your face, and I guess it keeps your skin from...asphyxiating. As if your skin were ever in danger of doing that in the first place. But the best way to sell something is to 1) invent a need that nobody knew they had and 2) sell a product to meet that need as if the purchaser's life depended on it. I suppose if you are afraid that your skin will suffocate, you'll pay anything to keep that from happening.

Anyway, that weirdness aside, where did the word "asphyxia" come from in the first place? Gotta be Greek, obviously, but after that...what?

You will hardly believe me when I tell you that originally it had nothing to do with breathing at all. The root is "a-", "not", plus "sphyzein", "to throb", so something asphyxiative is something that stills your pulse, which suffocation will undoubtedly do if you keep at it long enough.

There is one other "sphyzein" word in English, barely recognizable as a relative and not common in any case: "sphygmomanometer", the device that measures your blood pressure with a cuff and a pump. At least in that case you can see where the verb "to throb" would come in.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Pro Bono

Regular readers know I have three basic themes, with a lot of overlap: 1) amusing or appalling typos and grammatical errors, 2) interesting etymologies, and 3) rants about the lack of editors in pretty much every publication of every description on the face of the Earth. This is going to be in the last category, so if you feel like you've heard it before, feel free to come back tomorrow, or whenever I work up enough umbrage to post again.

Here is most of a paragraph from a recent Slate piece about DNA testing and adoption:

In an age of sophisticated genetic testing, the concept of anonymity is rapidly fading. With some clever sleuthing—tests that can track down ancestral origins, donor numbers, and bits of biographical information—parents and offspring can find out the donors. "With DNA testing and Google, there's no such thing as anonymity anymore," says Wendy Kramer, the founder of the Donor Sibling Registry. "Donors are choosing anonymity because they're not educated," adds Kramer. "If they were properly educated on the consequences, then many would choose not to donate."

And here is a later paragraph:

"Donors are choosing anonymity because they're not educated," says Kramer. "If they were properly educated on the consequences, then many would choose not to donate."

What happened there is not the writer's fault. We cut and paste, rearrange sentences and paragraphs and clauses and words, positioning every element for the best effect, the clearest expression of what we mean. Sometimes we will decide, as the writer of that Slate piece did, that a certain quotation works better in a different part of the piece, so we cut it out and paste it where we want it. But maybe instead of cutting, we copy: it's an easy mistake to make, since the universal shortcut for copying is a function key plus C, and the equally universal shortcut for cutting is that same function key plus X, and they're side by side on the keyboard. So the writer, maybe working on a deadline, fails to notice what has happened, and leaves the same wad of text in their article in two places.

And an editor is meant to catch this sort of thing. And if there aren't have any editors, then such understandable, forgivable errors end up in print, and that, frankly, while possibly understandable (because editors cost money, and therefore damage the bottom line), is not forgivable.


Another reason why every piece of text needs an editor:

Oh. Oh, my.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Serious Business

The other day I was listening to a tenor aria from an opera called "Mitridate, Re di Ponto" by Mozart. He wrote it when he was 14, which is astounding, but the aria itself, I hate to say, I found kind of boring. Then I remembered that "Mitridate" was in a style called "opera seria", "serious opera", which even in Mozart's day people were beginning to find kind of boring. Then I thought how odd it was that "seria" looks so much like "serial", even though it means "serious", and "serious" and "serial" can't possibly be related. I mean, can they?

Luckily, they can't. "Serial", the adjective (and later the noun), is derived from "series", in turn from the Latin verb "serere", "to join together: to connect". "Serere" has a clutch of offspring: "insert" is "to connect into", while the verb "desert" is literally "to undo a connection that has been made". "Exert" is a bit more abstract: literally "out" plus "connect", it means "to put forth (effort)", which you can read as "to reach out and take". One of the offshoots of "serere" is rather unexpected: "sermon", a series of words strung together into a lecture.

"Serious", on the other hand, is very straightforwardly from Latin "serius", "important: weighty".

Monday, March 01, 2010

Slam Bang

I happened to see an issue of The Globe and Mail today, which is never a good idea, because pretty much without fail I'm also going to see a typo or a grammatical error, and I'm not going to like it, because these things are not supposed to happen, because there are supposed to be editors of various sorts, but there just aren't, because they (as business people like to say these days) impact the bottom line.

In this Olympics story is the following sentence:

Slam and spoken word, two offshoots of what's known as performance poetry, has been slowly growing in popularity.

It's a slightly tricky construction, granted, at least for a complete novice, because immediately following the noun "performance poetry" is a verb, and so it looks very much as if that verb should also be singular. But of course that little clause, set off by commas, is what's called a non-restrictive clause: it tells you something about the actual subject without limiting it in any way, and so could be discarded without changing the meaning of the sentence. That means it's not the subject of the sentence: the compound subject is "slam and spoken word", which is plural, and therefore requires a plural verb. The sentence ought to have read, "Slam and spoken word, two offshoots of what's known as performance poetry, have been slowly growing in popularity."

A little thing, but the difference between correct and not.