or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Isn't It Ironic

And why behold you the mote that is in your brother's eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?

There was a piece on Slate a few days ago under the rubric of "Copy-Editing the Culture", ending with the exhortation,

Spot a grammar clunker in the cultural limelight? Send it to copyeditingtheculture@gmail.com.

and I thought, Oh, they should talk. But I let it go.

A few days later there was a Slate review of a new show, No Ordinary Family, and here is a sentence from it:

Given the way that the Powells brush off this vacation mishap, you might suppose that they had merely blown a fan belt on the way back from the Grand Canyon, rather than breaststroked through florescent waters that (it turns out) endowed them with superpowers.

Now, "florescent" is in fact an English word, so a spellchecker won't catch it if you misuse it. A quick examination will suggest to you that "florescent" has something to do with flowers*, which in fact it does: the word means "a period of flowering", so a tree can be florescent.

I thought, well, maybe the water the family swam through actually had flowers growing on or throughout it: not impossible if they were paddling through a lily pond. So I actually went the extra mile by watching the trailer, and here is a line of relevant dialogue:

"The water had a ....phosphorescence. That's the only explanation."

Phosphorescence is not the same as fluorescence, but they both involve the transmission of light, which is near enough for our purposes. It is abundantly obvious that the writer meant "fluorescent"**, and further that there is not much in the way of editorial oversight at Slate beyond possible spellchecking, and further still that anybody at that online magazine who is going to have their bit of fun ridiculing other publications for their mistakes might want to see that their own house is clean before swiping a superciliously gloved finger over everyone else's mantelpieces.

* Spanish "flor" means "flower", and Latin "flora" refers to all plant life, from Flora, the goddess of flowers.

** "Fluoresce" might call to mind "fluid" and "fluent" and "flux": they are all, of course, from the same source, Latin "fluere", "to flow".

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Big Mistake

Here's a paragraph from a new Onion story, New Evidence Suggests God Also Had Incredibly Busty Daughter:

Explaining the difficulty of interpreting the texts, McCormick cited a passage that reads: "Saith Tammi, 'Consider ye this on the forgiveness of one's enemies: Let he who would slander you sup at your table, let he who would inflict…I saith unto thee: Look upon mine eyes, which dwell within mine head, and not upon mine bosom, wherein no wisdom dwells.' And then did Tammi snappeth her fingers together, saying, 'Seriously; I doth mean it. Up here.'"

I'm surprised. The writers at The Onion are smart people: how could they honestly not have any idea that Early Modern English isn't just a random scattering of "thee" and "dost" and "shalt", but that it has a set of rules?

The relevant rules are not very hard to learn:

1) First person possessive is "my" before a consonantal sound, "mine" before a vowel sound: "my father", but "mine enemy". Same with second-person informal: "thy wish", "thine own". This is easy to remember because it's exactly the same as Modern English "a"/"an".

2) Second-person nominative verbs end with "-est", or sometimes its contraction, "-st"; "thou goest", "thou wert" ("were-" plus "-t"), "thou hast". This is easy to remember if you think of "thou dost", because "thou" starts with "t-" and "dost" ends with it.

3) Third-person nominative verbs end "-eth", or sometimes its contraction, "-th", and words ending in a consonant followed by "-y" make the ending "-ith": "he hath" (has + eth, contracted), "she drinketh", "the day brighteneth". This is easy to remember if you think of "he hath"; the pronoun begins with "h-", verb ends with it. (That way, you won't mistakenly say "he hast".)

By my count, there are 6 mistakes in that one short Onion paragraph. We might as well enumerate the EME-isms and see just where the problems lie.

1) "Saith Tammi" is correct, as is

2) "consider ye" (which is actually "thee", using the letter "y" to replace the thorn, the Old English way of representing the sound "th-"). And then it starts to go to hell:

3) "I saith" is wrong, obviously, because "saith" is third-person, not first-person: "I say" is what's needed here.

4) "Mine eyes" is correct, but then

5) "mine head" isn't, unless you're not aspirating the "h-" in "head", which you probably would.

6) "Mine bosom" is also wrong.

7) "Snappeth" is obviously wrong, doubly so, not only because it's the wrong verb ending, but because

8) it's a compound verb, "did snap", so "didst" is what would have been expected, with "snap" taking no ending.

9) "I doth" is of course wrong. "I do" is correct, even if it doesn't sound suitably archaic.

Writing humour doesn't give you licence to jettison all the rules of English, even if those rules are over three hundred years old. Especially because those rules are over three hundred years old.


Speaking of enormous round objects, you really do need to watch this

which ought to give you a sense of perspective. God made the world and the whole universe just to plunk us teeny humans down in it? I don't think so!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ladies, Please!

Here's a sentence from an article in Slate about Christine O'Donnell:

In college she also says she "dabbled into witchcraft," which may have so disgusted her that it led to her anti-onanistic beliefs, since witches masturbate more than any group except sirens, wood nymphs, succubae, and every member of every male species.

You spotted it, right? "Succubae".

Here's the problem. Latin plurals are used less and less these days as people aren't learning Latin in school: the indisputably correct plural of "radius" is "radii", but "radiuses" is becoming more and more widely accepted, and there will come a time when the Latin form simply isn't used any more, as will be the case with "alumnuses", "memorandums", "criterions", and "matrixes". Some of these are already standard, as is the dual status of "data"--singular "datum" is hardly ever seen these days.

If you are going to use the correct Latin endings, then by god you'd better make sure you have them right. Without going into details about the various declensions, the usual plural ending for a masculine noun ending in "-us" is "-i", and likewise a feminine noun ending in "-a" will pluralize as "-ae". Alumnus: alumni. Alumna: alumnae.

"Succubus", though it refers to a female, has a masculine ending. ("Masculine" and "feminine" in grammar have little if anything to do with actual sexual gender: "uterus" in German is a masculine noun.) Therefore, the correct plural of "succubus" must be "succubi", as it nearly always is rendered.

So I can think of two explanations for "succubae". One is that the writer thought that since a succubus was always a female (the male version is "incubus"), it ought to have a proper feminine Latin ending, which is not the way language works. The other is that the writer is correctly pluralizing the extremely rare "succuba", which is "succubus" in a grammatically feminine form, and not unheard of in English. I don't know enough of the history of Latin to say for sure that "succuba" even existed in Roman times, but whether it did or didn't, "succubus" is the almost invariant form in modern English, and therefore "succubi" is how the plural ought to have appeared.

As an editor, I'd have red-pencilled "succubae" in a heartbeat, unless the writer had previously established the use of "succuba". Barring that, it simply looks wrong, and I can't think of a good excuse for it.


Here's a trailer for a movie on right-wing women. I made it to about 1:25 and then I just stopped it in disgust, because here is what plucked, bleached, primped, mini-skirted Ann Coulter has to say:

...and the culture has tried to take everything that makes women so strong away from them: their femininity, their morality....

Nope. Just couldn't take it after that. Not only because I don't think Coulter believes a single word that falls out of her mouth--I think she found a shtick and is playing it for all it's worth--but because she's so completely wrong.

"Femininity" is not something that women innately have, as is so thoroughly engendered in the body of Coulter herself; it is something that women buy, and what is more, they must buy it, over and over again, until the day they die.

Think of two people in a state of nature, unclothed except for an unstylish strip of cloth to cover their sex organs. Can a man in such a state be masculine? Without a doubt. He is hairy--bearded, if nothing else. He is rough. He is primeval. There are things he can do and say and buy to make him more or less masculine, of course: but the man himself as he exists can be masculine.

Now; can a woman in such a state be feminine? Of course not. Nothing she does, no action she performs, will be accepted in our culture as properly feminine. For starters, she, like the men, is hairy, and this is absolutely unacceptable. Look at the quantity of bile--hatred, really--that was dumped on Julia Roberts when she dared to be seen in public with unshaven armpits, or Mo'Nique with hairy legs. A woman must purchase some sort of depilatory agent, or she is disgusting and unfeminine.

And makeup? Put two women side by side, one with the full face of makeup and one unadorned: which one is more feminine? Personal attributes have little to do with it: she can be as dainty as a geisha (sans makeup--an unimaginable thing), as fragile as a crystal swan, as fainting as a mimosa pudica, but with her short pale lashes, wan lips, unimproved complexion, how can she compete against a rouged and powdered lady? To be properly feminine, a woman must have makeup.

And clothing. And accessories. And jewellery. The woman with wrinkles is less feminine than the woman without: that can be fixed, for a while, with expensive creams and surgeries. The woman in low heels is less feminine than the woman in stilettos: she must endanger her ankles, her health, and her safety to be correctly feminine. She must buy, and buy, and buy, and she must never fall behind, never let herself go in any way. She is perpetually at war with herself and with other women.

How can "the culture" take away women's femininity when that very culture, with its unremitting and ever-shallower emphasis on surfaces and money, is what forces it upon her in the first place?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Strike Out

The other day at work, after having written the word "cancelled", I as usual stopped to wonder what its etymology might be. It didn't seem as if it ought to be French, because the French verb "annuler", obviously the originator of English "to annul", serves as the translation for "to cancel". And yet "cancellation" had to be French, because "-tion" is a very French suffix for turning a verb into a noun, and most of the English words bearing it are directly from French, or from its progenitor, Latin, which made do with the suffix "-tio" for the same purpose.*

So we have a few possibilities. "Cancellation" is in fact a French word, presumably derived from the verb "canceller". Or we got "cancellation" from Latin as "cancellatio" and Anglicized it by Frenchifying it. Or we got "cancel" from somewhere else and just back-formed it the French way into "cancellation". Or something else I hadn't thought of.

And what about "chancel" and "chancellor"? They seem so obviously related, since soft "-c-", its Greek equivalent, hard "-k-", and sibilant "-ch-" are often found in related words: "car" and "chariot", "chamber" and "camera", "leak" and "leach", "loch" and "lake", "bank" and "bench", "hunker" and "haunch". It is hard, though, to see what a chancel--the space around the altar in a church--and a chancellor--a high-ranking government official--have to do with one another , let alone the idea of cancellation.

Nevertheless, there are answers to be had, and they are as follows. "Canceller" is in fact a French verb; they merely have two words for the same thing, a situation not unknown in English, and what's more use them for slightly different purposes, also not a rarity in English. They naturally enough got it from Latin, and you will never guess what its origin was. The word "cancer" meant in Latin "a lattice" (it also meant what it means in English**--why might a word spelled one way not have two completely unrelated meanings?). And this "cancer" was a variant of "carcer", "prison", and where have you seen that before? "Incarcerate", of course! The "latticework" sense of "carcer"/"cancer"/"cancel" obviously derives from the shape of the bars holding the prisoners inside.

"Cancel" came to mean "to delete: to annul" because of the lattice-like shape of the lines and hash-marks used to cross something out. A chancel, you may have surmised by now, is so called because it is usually surrounded by bars or gridwork to delineate it. And a chancellor was originally a sort of court secretary who worked behind a latticed wall.

* And of course "-tio" is the ending of the relatively common English word "fellatio", which properly ought to be "fellation", but instead it was shrouded under a discreet veil of Latin***.

** Which is to say that originally it meant "crab", as in the sign of the zodiac, and later came to mean "cancer", not because the tumour moves about in the body but because a tumour beneath the skin pushed and swelled the surface veins in a way that was thought to look like a crab. English "crab" comes ultimately from the same source as German "Krebs", which as in its Latin incarnation means both "cancer" and "crab".****

*** Which always brings to mind a scene from the 1988 movie "Dangerous Liaisons", in which the Vicomte de Valmont is cheerfully corrupting the innocent Cecile de Volanges; having taken her virginity, he offers to teach her a few words of Latin--including "fellatio" and "cunnilingus", obviously--and then there is a jump cut to a priest performing the Latin mass. A cheap joke, I suppose, but it still makes me smile.

**** And into our little puddle of "-c-" and "-k-" and "-ch-" words we may now drop "cancer" and "canker".

Friday, September 10, 2010


Living well may be the best revenge, but for those of us with an eye for precision in English, poking richly deserved fun at your opponent's sloppy writing is absolutely the second-best.

There is a hideous brouhaha over at the opera blog Intermezzo sparked by...well, it's hard to say what, exactly. Some puffed-up legal beagle at the Royal Opera House sent a couple of pissy, error-spattered e-mails to the blog demanding that some photos be pulled--photos which, as the blogger rightly notes, were credited to the ROH, bring no financial gain to Intermezzo to the detriment of the opera house, and further could be said to help the ROH's bottom line by illustrating productions which the blog's readers might like to attend.

It's all here: the e-mails, the response, the readers' comments, and this, which I adore:

Here are the emails. They are untouched apart from some cheapshot mockery in red, which it gave me great pleasure to add

Cheapshot mockery! The best kind!

And because I used to be a professional proofreader, I noted another error, which I am handing to Intermezzo (for their unlimited use) absolutely free of charge:

May I remind you that you do not own the copyright in the Royal Opera House images and by encouraging visitors to your website to "use material from this site for non-commercial purposes" is (sic)* an infringement of Royal Opera House copyright; therefore unless these images are not removed from the website http://intermezzo.typepad.com/intermezzo/ within the next twenty four hours from the date/time of this email, the Royal Opera House will inform your website hosting company of this situation and will consider appropriate action to protect our valuable copyright.

The sentence contains the contrarily worded "therefore unless these images are not removed from the website", when Mr. Avory meant to write "unless these images are removed" or "if these images are not removed," which means that he unwittingly ordered the blog not to remove the pictures on pain of legal action.

He really needs a proofreader. I'm available. And I'm not at all litigious.

* Most everyone who's reading this will already know, but in case you don't--and there's no shame in not knowing something--"sic" is Latin for "thus", and when put in brackets after an error in a quoted piece of material means, "It was like that when I got here." Just so your readers don't think you made the mistake. It is a favourite weapon of the cheapshot artist.

Monday, September 06, 2010


Click to magnify if you can't read something so teeny

I should let this pass without comment, I suppose, because its awfulness is more or less self-explanatory, but I can't. How can a professional writer be so ignorant of the general structure of the language that she does not know how to tell a plural from a possessive?

The headline is inexcusable, but might not be the writer's fault, because they don't usually write their own headlines, or at least they didn't when I was in the newspaper biz. The first sentence might also be forgiven if we were to assume that the writer was mimicking, and perhaps mocking, the advertising used by bars. But the phrase appears three times more in the article, once in quotation marks and twice not, and each time it is the same: "ladies night", no apostrophe. There is only one possible explanation, beyond the obvious and much-noted fact that Salon has no editors of any sort, or at least not any good ones, and that is that Tracy Clark-Flory just does not know the difference between ladies and ladies'.

And she gets paid to write!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bad Thoughts

The other day I wrote about spit versus spit, and then today another visually similar word popped into my head: "spite". I didn't actually think there could be any relationship, because first of all, there's no overlap in meaning*, and second, I can't think of a single short-vowel-becomes-long-vowel-with-the-addition-of-'e' pair that's related**, so I couldn't imagine why this one should be any different.

And it isn't. "Spite" (an awful word, one I'm sorry we even need to have in the language, meaning "a malicious desire to cause minor harm or humiliation to") is a shortened form of "despite", which from the look of it you could correctly guess must be French. It comes by way of Latin, which is hard to imagine--it doesn't look particularly Latinate--until you learn that it is related to "despicable", and the "-spic-" is a variant of "-spec-", from "specere", "to look at". And then it all becomes clear: "de-" plus "specere" means "to look down on", which is (sometimes literally) what you do to things you despise; the related French "despit" and English "spite" are the nasty little feelings you have towards those people and things.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has the simultaneously marvellous and chilling note:

Almost became despight during 16c. spelling reform.

The prepositional phrase "in spite of" no longer shows even a trace of its past in daily use, but is simply a neutral phrase meaning "notwithstanding": it is also of course an extended use this word, as a literal translation of the French phrase "en despit de", "in contempt of", but worn smooth from centuries of use.

* You could easily cobble together a faux etymology if you were so inclined: you spit on people for whom you have a feeling of spite.

**There might be some. I just ran through about twenty possible pairs in my head and couldn't find a match. Even the likeliest candidates--"glob/globe", "jib/jibe"--are unrelated.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


I work in a retail environment, and one of the poisonous things about it is the music that they play over the speakers. Ninety per cent of the music is at best complete dreck and at worst the most appalling music ever written and recorded. Some is recent stuff: Sheryl Crow, god help us, that talentless, hacksaw-voiced harpy, and various worthless popular singers such as Taylor Swift and John Mayer. There's plenty of bad eighties music, too, a shocking amount of the ungifted Billy Joel, and lots of Rod Stewart from every era, as if to show that he's never been much of a singer from the seventies to today. And how is it that Michael Bolton ever became famous and popular, given that he can't actually sing and that most of his songs sound as if he's straining over a particularly difficult bowel movement?

Anyway, one of the songs that made it into the new rotation is an Andy Gibb song from the seventies, before he died unexpectedly of heart disease, called, ickily, "Love is Thicker than Water". One of the lyrics is

You are
This dreamer's only dream
Heaven's angel
Devil's daughter

I could hear the song as I was working, and something about it seemed odd, as if it were a record that was skipping; we've had songs that had glitches in them before, but this glitch seemed oddly specific, so I deliberately listened, and discovered a shocking thing: the word "devil's" had been edited out every time it occurred. Someone, presumably at the store level, actually took offence at the song, and someone else, presumably at the corporate level, actually went through it and scissored out the offending word, not bleeped it or dropped the level so you couldn't quite make it out but simply hacked the word bodily out of the song, leaving a jarringly obvious lurch every time it occurred. They didn't just decide not to use the song (which would have gone unnoticed): they decided to used an obviously bowdlerized version.

Censorship: ptui.


I was looking in my head for the word "spitted", as a roast, and came up instead with the word "spittooned", which doesn't actually exist, but it got me to wondering how we have the word "spit" for a rod onto which we fasten meat for cooking (and also a projection of land into the water, obviously an extension of this meaning) and also the word "spit" meaning "expectorate". Not possible that they're in any way related, surely?

Surely not. The "expectorate" sense is related to "spew", and the "pole" sense is related to "spike", and the fact that they look alike is just another one of those collisions that make English so interesting and challenging.