or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Not Today

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day, and though I am not a prankster, I enjoy reading about them, as will you: here are a hundred classics.

Probably my favourite of them is The Guardian's 1977 San Serriffe advertising supplement, which must rank as one of the most elaborate and thought-out April Fool's Day pranks ever. The only thing they didn't think about was the public response: their offices were flooded with calls from curious holiday travellers and travel agents who refused to believe that this beautiful, unspoiled semi-colon-shaped pair of islands wasn't theirs for the despoliation. (Anybody who knows anything about typography will get the joke immediately: the islands of San Serriffe are called Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, the capital is Bodoni, and one of the languages spoken there is Caslon.)

Another classic is that perpetrated by Discover Magazine in 1995 with their brief story about the Hotheaded Naked Ice Borer of the Antarctic, which tunnels up through the ice, melts the snow beneath penguins, and devours them. The researched who discovered these creatures was a Dr. Aprile Pazzo, which is a joke not quite as obvious as San Serriffe: "Aprile pazzo" is Italian for "April fool". (A further joke in in the piece is that an explorer named Philippe Poisson was apparently done in by the borers: "poisson d'avril" is the French way of saying "April fool".)

And fictitious Dr. Pazzo got me thinking that in Italian, the plural of "pazzo" is "pazzi", and this sounds just like English "patsy", which is to say a dupe, a sap, a sucker: and therefore "pazzi" must be the source of "patsy". So obvious! The most obvious thing in the world!

You'd think that, wouldn't you? But apparently you would be wrong. I was. The Oxford English Dictionary says the etymology is uncertain, and I guess they'd know, but when you have a word in one language that means exactly the freaking same as a word in another language (plural, but still) and is pronounced identically, the inference is naturally that the words are related. But language is not always so straightforward, I guess. Still, I am going to my grave believing that "pazzi" is the source of "patsy".

Something else I believe is that, like expletive "bastard", "patsy" is specifically a word that refers to men. I don't know why some words have these iron-clad connotations for me: I don't usually attach gender to what people generally think of female-gendered words like "nurse" and "whore", but "patsy" and a few others ("schmuck" comes to mind, although it could be because that's Yiddish for "penis") are irrevocably male in my mind.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Seeds of Doubt

The first copy of Spy Magazine I ever bought was the December 1987 issue: it had been in existence for about a year, but had never showed up on my city's newsstands before then. I proceeded to read it cover to cover, repeatedly over the years, and buy every issue that came out. I even knew what day it would hit the racks. It had a good six-year run, but it started to slowly go down the toilet in late 1992 (right around the time it began resorting to cheap Photoshops for its covers) and kept publishing, unfortunately, for another six years, irrevocably tarnishing its legacy. But those first six years were pretty good!

It hasn't aged as well as I would have hoped, mostly because every issue was so firmly anchored in its time and place: who even remembers "bosomy dirty-book writer Shirley Lord" except former Spy readers? still, there's lots of great writing, investigative journalism, and graphic design to enjoy, and although not every issue is currently available, you can read most of them on Google Books, with more issues being added all the time.

One of their signature gags was "Separated at Birth?", which juxtaposed pictures of (usually) two celebrities to (usually) comic effect--they got an entire book out of the premise--and in this spirit I offer you wedded-to-his-surfboard wuss-rock chanteur Jack Johnson

and wedded-to-Reese-Witherspoon talent wrangler Jim Toth

(he's the one on the left).


You're reading Regretsy, aren't you? It's a gloriously mean site devoted to finding the very worst of the online craft market Etsy and ripping it to shreds. This

is a gross little necklace you're supposed to give your daughter when she gets her first period, and the writeup is full of new-agey ickiness which the Regretsy writer meticulously deconstructs.

I share her revulsion with the spelling "womyn" (or "womon", or "wimmin", or what have you), and add to the pile by noting that you can't hear the difference in speech, so why even bother? It's like trying to reclaim "cunt" by spelling it "kunnt". If you cannot bring yourself to employ the word "man" or "men" in the service of a longer word, then use another word. Make one up, if you have to, or go back to the earlier days of English and use "quean" or "wif", or, better still, just deal with the fact that we have an ancient word which it does not belittle you to use.

However, the only reason this is even an issue is that one of the commenters noted that

the “Womyn” bullshit comes from the chicks that feel the need to erase all words with the term “Man” or “Men” in them. Also the same fucknuts that think we shouldn’t call it a semester, but rather an “ov-ester” while in college

and while I usually cut commenters all kinds of slack in spelling and usage and such, it bothered me that "ovester" was completely wrong, because "semester" has nothing to do with "semen", being instead essentially formed from the Latin for "six months", the "-mest-" being related to "menses", and therefore a word that feminists might embrace. The word the commenter was thinking of was "ovular", which was in fact repurposed by some feminists to replace "seminar", which is related to "semen", though probably not in the way that they think. "Ovular" is actually an adjective, not a noun, and is the adjectival form of "ovule", which is a small or immature ovum. I am very much in favour of working with the language to make it more equitable, and of filling gaps in the language through the creation of new words or the repurposing of old ones, but I like there to be some reason for doing this.

"Seminar" is a fairly new introduction into the language from German, only about 125 years old, and is related to the much older "seminary", which started life as Latin "seminarium", "botanical nursery", hence a place where young and green seedlings are brought to maturity: the leap to the idea of a school for training priests or other young students is a very small one, and from there it is an equally small leap to the idea of a seminar, at which students are taught by an older and more learned instructor. In its ancient roots it is descended from the same idea as its etymological brother "semen", but it has nothing to do with older men shooting their spunk all over impressionable young women, or whatever it is that leads some people to discard the word in favour of a rather silly replacement.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Just The Facts

Knut was a polar bear born in the Berlin Zoological Garden in December of 2006, rejected by his mother, and raised by zookeepers. He was a hugely popular attraction at the zoo. "Knut" is the German version of "Cnut", also known in English as Canute, the name of the king of England, Norway, Denmark, and part of Sweden, who legendarily and no doubt apocryphally told the ocean to stop rolling in, not, as popular belief would have it, because he was so grandiose that he thought this would happen, but to demonstrate to his fawning courtiers that however powerful a king might be, he still had no control over the natural world. Knut's name--the bear, that is, although also the king--was not "Kunt". Proofreading is very important.

From Failblog After Dark. It's a goldmine. (This could, of course, be a fake, as was that Rachel Ray magazine cover. But it's completely plausible.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Toast of the Town

Etymology in English is so twisted and convoluted, so multifarious and indiscriminately, almost promiscuously, tentacular that however large your vocabulary, unless you are specially and lengthily trained, you are forever presented with words that you cannot make out the provenance of.

Yesterday I couldn't figure out where "destroy" came from, but that was mere carelessness. Today I was confronted with another pair of words related to destruction (as well I might be when reading a book about a great fire): one of them I cleared away in short order, but the other eluded me, and with good reason--it is as misleading as a word can be.

"Conflagration" is pretty easy: the ubiquitous "con-" means together, and "-flag-", or "-flagra-", really, is also seen in "flagrant" and the middle word of the familiar phrase "in flagrante delicto", and means "blazing, glowing with heat", from Latin "flagrare". Something that's flagrant (a sin, usually) isn't just obvious, it's burning so brightly that it calls attention to itself, and "in flagrante delicto" means "caught in the act", literally "in blazing offence".

"Combustion", on the other hand, threw me completely. There's that Latin prefix, again, with en turned into em before a labial consonant for ease of pronunciation. And then...what? What is that? "Bust"? As in "burst"? Did it burst into flames? No, that's ridiculous, but...what?

The verb "urere", "to burn, to singe", that's what. You've probably never heard of it, because it doesn't have much of a presence in English. "Urere" shows up in just one other not particularly common English word: "urticaria", otherwise known as hives, from Latin "urtica", "nettle", because stinging-nettles cause such a rash (as can many contact allergens, including, in my case, cardboard, unfortunately).

But even if "urere" had had all sorts of offspring in English, "combustion" doesn't show any sign of it because of a tangled etymology. "To burn all about" was logically enough formed in Latin as "ambi-urere" and reasonably shortened into "amburere". When someone decided to intensify "amburere" by adding "com-", which literally means "together" but also acts as an intensifier, they hacked the word apart incorrectly and ended up with "am-" plus "burere", giving the demonstrably incorrect (but now-we're-stuck-with-it) "comburere", "to burn up". The verb "comburere" was turned into the noun "combustionem" by the usual rules of Latin, and there you go: "combustion", as well disguised as any word I know.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Building Code

As I mentioned, I am listening to an audiobook called "A Crack in the Edge of the World", and of course the word "destroyed" cropped up, and although I am paying close attention to the book, it did occur to me that I didn't know where the word "destroy" might have come from, which seems like kind of a gap in my knowledge.

I knew that the French verb "detruire" meant, and on reflection must clearly be the source of, "destroy", but beyond that I was lost. If only I had bothered to think about the noun form! But no, I was fixated on "destroy", which was, I could see, composed of "de-", a negating prefix, plus...what? I couldn't make sense of it. Can you?

As it turns out, the root of it is the Latin verb "struere", "to build, to make a pile". Of course! To construct something is to build it up (literally, together): to destroy it is to do the opposite. And if I had thought of "destruction", I expect that the "-struct-" root would have been obvious to me. But it wasn't. Perhaps you had better luck.

"Struere" will also make you think of "construe", which is only right, because that is its root: to construe is to analyze or make sense of, literally to build up the meaning of, and to misconstrue is to misinterpret--literally put the wrong construction on--an action or intention.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I have been listening to audiobooks recently, and I have come to the realization that "author" is not synonymous with "voice actor". I understand that a writer might think he or she is the best candidate for the job, since who knows the work better? But committing a book to audio isn't just a matter of reading what's on the page: it requires treating the words as a kind of script, making notations as to what is particularly important, what is linked to what else, what might be tricky to enunciate--in short, drawing a road map through the text.

Malcolm Gladwell's "What the Dog Saw" is fascinating stuff, but he honestly ought not to have been permitted to record his own work, because one would almost think he had never read it before: he phrases things in a bizarre manner, taking pauses between words as if he were inserting invisible and unnecessary commas, stressing some words that shouldn't be stressed while swallowing others that should be emphasized, and overall making the work a bit of a trial to sit through. If it hadn't been so engrossing, I would have given up long before the last chapter.

Some writers, though, were born to it (or studied and worked at it, which is even better). Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World", about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, is on the surface of it a dry bit of work: halfway through the thing, and he hasn't even gotten to the earthquake itself, instead setting it all up with long, sometimes densely worded divagations on plate tectonics, the history of the American west, and the formation of the Earth itself. But he is a tremendously skilled reader, and the audiobook never flags even for a minute.

One of the words Winchester uses, in a passage about the Colorado River, is "debouched", which I think I had never heard before, and isn't it a beauty? Rudimentary knowledge of French will immediately tell you that it is derived from "bouche", "mouth", and clearly refers to the emptying of a river into a larger body of water.

This, interestingly, is not quite how the French use the word: instead of the sense of something pouring out of a mouth (of a river, in this case), there is the sense of unblocking, clearing, or uncorking--the removal of something from a mouth to permit an outflowing, rather than the outflow itself.

"Debouch" inevitably calls to mind the word "debauch" (or probably the better-known "debauchery"), even though obviously the words could have nothing to do with one another: "debauch" means "to seduce into sensual pleasures: to destroy the moral purity of." In fact, nobody is absolutely sure where "debauch" comes from: in what looks very much like a confected etymology, it began life meaning "to entice away from duty", being related to "balk", which once meant a sort of beam, the idea being that a debauchee would be lured from the carpentry workshop with promises of sin.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Well, Obviously

From Failblog After Dark, as you can see.


A sentence from a story in The Onion:

"Since my wife lost her job, we've had less money coming in, but we still make due," said computer programmer Paul Keimel, who cuts corners by always keeping an eye out for cheaper, shittier crap.

I'm speechless. It's not a typo. An actual writer actually thinks that the expression is "make due" instead of "make do", an I-would-have-thought-self-evident contraction of "make it do", as in "It's not exactly what we wanted, but we will have to make this inferior thing serve the same purpose."

Am I expecting too much when I assume that writers will understand that the various idioms of the English language actually have meaning, and aren't just strings of sounds and letters cobbled together?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

If Music Be The Food Of Love

I grew up in a very musical family: we sang a lot, we were all in various choirs and music groups, all played the piano, and some of us (not I) also played the violin and the ukulele (really), among other instruments. Here is a piece we used to listen to, Heinz' Kitchen Symphony, for piano, trumpet, and an array of kitchen implements, whatever you happen to have around, really. We toyed with the idea of learning it, but none of us played the trumpet (though my father for some reason had a clarinet or an oboe or something in the basement: I'm quite sure he never played it, so I have no idea where it came from, but the house was kind of full of inexplicable objects, so that was just one more).

I hadn't heard it in certainly thirty years, but it all came back to me. You really ought to listen to it: it's a little dose of charm and joy in your day. Thank you, Youtube!

There's nothing odd about the fact that we have such a load of words for the kitchen and its arts in English: the language revels in multiplicities. But even though I knew that "kitchen" was Germanic, plainly related to "Küche", and that "cuisine" was obviously from French, I could not place "culinary": it looks as if it might be French in origin, but what was its source?

Well. My first surprise was that "cuisine" is from Late Latin "cocina", and that hard consonant in the middle means that "Kuche" must surely be related, and by golly, it is. "Cocina" is from Latin "coquina", "kitchen", from the verb "coquere", "to cook", and you are ahead of me in realizing that "coquere" is the source of "cook" in English, so the German, English, and French words are all intimately bound up together in their Latin origin.

"Culinary", though, even though it seems as if it ought to have some connection with "cuisine", however tenuous, doesn't make sense. And yet the connection is there, even though it is tenuous: the Online Etymology Dictionary claims its source, "culina", to be an "unexplained variant" of "coquere". Good enough for me!

But there's more. "Culina" gave English another word: since it once meant not only "kitchen" but also synecdochally "stove", it led to the word "kiln". Who'd have thought!

P.S. About that title: an artsy friend once told me the story of a production of Twelfth Night--I recall him saying that he'd seen it, though it might have been just an anecdote--in which the actor playing Orsino began, "If FOOD...." Where do you go from there? Pretend you didn't say it and power ahead? Slink off the stage? Pause and start over?

Monday, March 07, 2011


Often if you should happen to look at the timestamp on one of my blog postings, you may fairly assume that it's a complete lie (I might have started it at one time, which the autosave then preserves as gospel, or I might have deliberately changed it for reasons known only to myself), but this time it's the truth: I'm sitting here writing this at 1:30 in the morning because I have a vicious case of insomnia brought about by a nasty little flu bug which set itself to work on me Thursday last and will not let up. I made the mistake of going in to work on Sunday because I was feeling better, which is to say "better than I was feeling on Saturday", which isn't difficult because I felt pretty dreadful on Saturday, what with the coughing and sneezing and muscle aches that to me always feel like horrible little shivers of electricity running beneath my skin, and since Sunday wasn't that bad, I went in and proceeded to get worse and worse and worse. Lesson learned! And I certainly do apologize to all my co-workers whom I probably didn't expose to my germs but still theoretically might have, and likely grossed them out anyway with all the coughing and hacking and so forth.

I suppose we all know that taking macrodoses of vitamin C isn't going to help a cold or the flu or whatever it is I have, but I still do it, because I figure it's cheap and you really can't hurt yourself--it's water-soluble, so you're going to get expensive pee but nothing worse than that, and hey, it could help, right? (I am also downing hopeful spoonfuls of honey to try and soothe my tormented throat: not really helping.)

I was reading a book in bed tonight while I was trying and failing to lull myself to sleep, and that book is Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management (using the Kindle app for the iPod), which is much more interesting than you might think, giving you an insight into what life might have been like in an upper middle-class British household in the middle of the nineteenth century. (And she died young, too, contracting child-bed fever while giving birth to her fourth, at the age of 28, which gives you another insight into what life might have been like.)

Here is a sentence I chanced to read tonight, from the section on The Lemon:

Its juice is now an essential for culinary purposes; but as an antiscorbutic its value is still greater.

"Antiscorbutic"! You have but to see the word, even if you've never seen it before, to immediately guess two things:

1) The "-scorb-" in "antiscorbutic" must obviously be the same as the bulk of the word "scurvy", meaning that an antiscorbutic drug (from Latin "anti-, "against", plus "scorbutus") must be a scurvy-fighter, which we know vitamin C to be, which is why English sailors were called "limeys"--from their reputed habit of bringing limes with them on sea voyages.

2) The scientific name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, must obviously come from the same source--"a-", "not", plus "scorb".

Both of these things are true.

I am reading a whole lot of what looks like contradictory information about the adjective "scurvy" (meaning various shades of "filthy" and "despicable", usually seen in the piratical phrase "scurvy sea dog") suggesting that it is actually unrelated to the disease, being instead a variant of "scurfy", but I am very tired (though not sleepy) and uninclined to go root through the OED, so it will have to wait for later. Sorry.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Forgot One

Everyone knows it's "druggie's".

I am actually a little impressed at "Sport's Nut's", which displays an admirable commitment to apostrophization. (I am, however, a little disappointed that "Jesus" doesn't have an apostrophe. I mean, it does end with an ess.)

I had to think about "high fullutent" for a bit before I figured out that 1) it's the first half of a two-line phrase and 2) it has nothing to do with tents or their fullness.

"P.K" stands for "Preacher's Kid", in case you were wondering.

He should just have labelled this "People I Don't Like Because They Are Probably Better And/Or Smarter Than I Am, And Almost Certainly Having More Fun."

Courtesy of Jesus is Love.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


I don't know about you, but I actually had come across the word "marmoreal" before, as I did last night in an article about some steroidally hyper-developed bodybuilder, and somehow had never even bothered to look up its definition. Did I just gloss over it? How could I have gotten though a paragraph containing the word "marmoreal" and not actually understood what it meant? Because whenever I see the word, I get this image in my head of some freakishly large-eyed creature like a tarsier

so I am guessing what happened is that somehow in my head the words "marmoset" and "arboreal" got jammed together. Don't you think?

But "marmoreal" has nothing to do with animals in trees. It actually means "having the quality of marble". The Latin word for "marble", see, is "marmor", which the French somehow turned into "marbre" (which they still use), and the English marble-mouthed into "marble".