or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, May 28, 2011

By the Book

I got a Kindle recently, sorry to keep bringing it up but it is magic, and the software I use to manage my books is called Calibre (which is excellent, and which the website spells "calibre", lower-case). A co-worker also uses it--she has a Kobo--but she pronounced it "cah-lee-bray", and we had a small and friendly disagreement about how it ought to be pronounced. (I'm fairly certain it's pronounced exactly like the English noun.)

But her pronunciation got me thinking a couple of things. One is that the name is a play on the French word for "book", which is "libre", derived from Latin "liber", which is related to English "leaf" (another word for the page of a book) through, probably, Indo-European "leubh-", "to peel" The second is that the "liber-" in "liberate" and "liberal" and a clutch of other words that have connotations of freedom looks the same as the "liber" that is a book, but could not possibly be, right?

Right. That "liber-" just happens to look the same, but emerges from Latin via another Indo-European word, "leudho", "people", which exists to this day in German "Leute", with the same meaning. In Latin, "liberalis" was an adjective referring to free men (as opposed to women, children, and slaves), and its offshoots in English also have related meanings.


A couple of days ago I read a Boingboing piece about Urban Outfitters, who, and not for the first time, are selling a product that is evidently a rip-off of an artist's work: in this case, little necklace pendants in the shape of a state, with a heart punched in them. Not my kind of thing, but someone's, clearly.

The Boingboing article links to a piece about the controversy in an online magazine, I guess, called Business Insider, containing the following sentence:

Even accusing a corporation of plagiarism can get you nabbed with a liable suit, as happened recently to an Australian bikini designer.

And naturally, I thought, Oh, you have got to be kidding me. A writer who doesn't know the difference between "libel" and "liable"?

And then I thought, okay, there's obviously no way those words are related, surely? And there isn't.

"Liable" is clearly the French-originated fusion of "li-" plus "-able": the only question was what the "li-" stood for, and that turned out to be the "li-" in "ligature" and "ligament", from Latin "ligare", "to bind", because "liable" means "bound to or obligated to by law".

"Libel", on the other hand, originally meant in English a written statement of charges by a plaintiff, taking a few hundred years to accumulate its modern meaning of "writing which harms a person's reputation" in the mid-1600s. "Libel" is derived from Latin "libellus", which is the diminutive form of, yes, "liber", "book".

Small world!


And as a bonus, a commenter on the Boingboing piece wrote the following:

Being a business oriented blog, which might touch on legal things, I would have expected them to know the difference between "liable" and "libel".

Now, I do not generally rag on comments and their makers, because comments generally have no edit function, so typos and other little mistakes are likely to appear and then be set in amber forever more. But if you are going to make a comment disparaging someone else's grammar, spelling, or usage, then yours had better be perfect.

This one isn't. We have a reference problem, a very common one: the sentence as it stands could be reconstructed to read, "I, a business-oriented blog, would have expected...." The fix is easy: "As it is a business-oriented blog, I would have expected...."


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