or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Little Details

Over on the A.V. Club there's a little news article about some British actor named Rob Kazinsky leaving the set of "The Hobbit", and since it would be very hard for me to care less about the movie, I wouldn't have ever bothered clicking the link if the thumbnail headshot they posted didn't suggest that the actor in question was exceedingly attractive indeed, as a little further research proved to be the case.

Unshaven redheads? Yes please!

And, the A.V. Club commenters being what they are, someone raised the issue of "dwarfs" versus "dwarves" (since this is Tolkien we are talking about), and someone eventually wrote a long and involved reply that I am quoting here in full because I was so intoxicated by it.

Here's the thing. There are basically two classes of English nouns ending in f. You have ones like leaf and roof and wolf, which are older in English and derive from Anglo-Saxon and tend to morph the f into a v when pluralized. Then you have ones like proof and brief and chief, which derive from Romance languages usually keep their f in the plural form.

Of course, people don't generally remember where words come from, so over time these classes got mixed up. Belief is Anglo-Saxon, but it only changes to believes when it's a verb: nobody ever talks about their personal believes. Because dwarf and elf aren't as common in every day speech as leaf and roof, the older forms plural forms were forgotten, and dwarves and elves became dwarfs and elfs.

Tolkien thought this was bullshit, for a number of reasons. First, he hated to see words mangled by the passage of time just because people forgot how they were supposed to be pronounced or deemed the old-fashioned way "archaic." As far as he was concerned, elf and dwarf were as old and Germanic as leaf and roof, and deserved their v's to show it. Furthermore, in writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings he made a deliberate effort to avoid words of Latin origin, and his eyes "dwarfs" was a Latinized bastardization of a thoroughly Anglo word. Obviously, it's impossible to write prose of any length in modern English without using ANY words from Latin, but his sense of style and the setting of the story made him heavily biased against them. Given the choice between a word from Old English and an import via French, he almost invariably went with the former.

Actually, Tolkien showed considerable nerd-restraint in using "dwarves." Dwarf in Old English was dweorh, which was pronounced with a guttural sound at the end: it changed to f in Middle English in the same process that altered the sound of words like enough. The "proper" plural was dwarrows, but Tolkien decided that it would be too jarring for any reader not thoroughly versed in the philological history of the word. If anything, he was enraged at the way his publishers disregarded what he must have felt was an artful compromise.

Well then!

Friday, April 29, 2011


I was reading Slate a few days ago, and over in the sidebar was a link to a Washington Post story about Prince Harry, and even though I honestly don't give a toss about the marriage of his brother, like him a hereditarily rich and powerful person, to the woman he's been seeing on and off for the last few years, I clicked on the link anyway, because Harry is mildly interesting, because without the pressure of being groomed for kingship he appears to be doing something with his life, and also for the obvious fact that unlike his brother he looks quite literally nothing like either of his parents, and is almost certainly not the son of Prince Charles, but instead of James Hewitt. At any rate, the story had some pointless video about wedding dresses captioned as follows:

As London prepares for Britain's Prince William to marry commoner Kate Middleton, bridal shop owners are prepping for the rush of bride-to-be's who may want to copy the soon-to-be princess's style.

What the hell?

What English speaker doesn't instinctively feel that the plural of "bride-to-be" isn't "bride-to-be's", which is wrong in two ways, but "brides-to-be"? What kind of idiot wrote that? And what other idiot let it be published?

In English, it is true, the matter is not completely settled on how to pluralize a compound noun, and never will be: the most usual tack is to pluralize the noun itself, even when the word isn't hyphenated--"passersby"--but Shakespeare wrote "son-in-laws" instead of the more usual "sons-in-law", and some seemingly parallel nouns are pluralized in different ways: "attorneys general" is considered the correct form, but so is "brigadier generals", though they have exactly the same structure. The reason is that "general" is a military title, and in a title such as "brigadier general" or "major-general", both halves are considered nouns rather than one being an adjective as it is with say "governor-general", and the "general" part is the more important and therefore is the one pluralized. Some people disagree with this, so you don't need to take me to task for it if you're one of them, and in fact I don't care which plural you use. I don't even really care if you like the non-standard "passerbys" or "man-o'-wars". If I were your editor I would probably red-pencil them, but in day-to-day use? Do what you like.

Just don't ever, ever use "bride-to-be's". EVER!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Holy Cow

I was poking around the Internet with the help of Stumbleupon when it fed me 21 Reasons Why English Sucks, which is a list of sentences containing words which are spelled the same but pronounced differently:

3. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse.

17. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

As the computer people like to say, that's a feature, not a bug. We often pronounce identically-spelled words differently to indicate their different parts of speech, rather than having to use endings. There are a great many pairs of words in which the stress on the first syllable indicates one part of speech, usually a noun or an adjective, and on the second a different part of speech, usually a verb, such as "refuse" up there, plus "record", "invalid", "desert", "minute", "annex", and lots of others.

English being English, though, there are no hard and fast rules. Some other words, out of sheer perversity, are pronounced the same: noun and adjective "mobile", for instance. Sometimes we'll have two nouns or verbs but will still pronounce the vowels differently to distinguish them: "primer", say, or "read". "Abstract" is another special case, because it serves as three parts of speech, so the second-syllable stress serves as usual for the verb while the first-syllable stress denotes both a noun and an adjective, and depends on context to make its meaning clear.

Still, beyond a doubt, that has to make English tricky to learn, especially if you speak a language that doesn't rely on stress patterns. I don't think it's reason enough to say that the language sucks, though.


It's Easter Sunday, which I don't celebrate, not being Christian or any kind of religious, because my opinion of religion, not that it matters, is that it's based entirely on wishful thinking: all our enemies get punished for eternity (the Abrahamic religions), we all have latent superpowers (Scientology), we don't die (the hopeful origin of most religions, actually), we can live together in peace and harmony except for gay people (Baha'i). But that doesn't mean I don't know anything about religion. In fact, in my experience, atheists generally know more about religion than religious people, because atheists have to defend their position while religious people have the "Because God says so, that's why" fallback position.

I am in the middle of reading--actually reading, not audiobook-reading--"Filthy English" by Peter Silverton, which is a sort of history and etymology of swearing in various languages, mostly English, and not really as good as I had hoped (it could have used a good editorial pruning: not every anecdote and derivation is fascinating). but I was seduced by its joyous cover.

It could have used a copy editor, too. Here are a few sentences from page 168:

...there are two possible views of the Virgin Mary's immaculate conception. One, that she really was impregnated by an angel--via the ear, if I remember my catechism right. Two, that the virginity of HolyMaryMotherOfGod--as the same catechism taught me to refer to her--was conceptual and symbolic. The immaculacy of her conception was a way of desexualising maternity, of taking the fucking out of motherhood.

I suppose it's safe to assume that Silverton is Catholic*, but if so, how can it possibly be that he does not understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of the four guiding principles of Mariolatry, or devotion to HolyMaryMotherOfGod**?

The Immaculate Conception (see second footnote) is not the same as the Virgin Birth, which is the doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin who was impregnated magically by God himself and not through messy carnal intercourse. I will never cease to be amazed at the number of Catholics--for whom this is pretty much the cornerstone of their faith--who don't know this.

*He may have said, but I've been reading the book in three- to six-page chunks, and I don't remember, and I don't feel like going back over the preceding 167 pages to find out. I could be wrong.

**If you must know, they are the belief that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ and therefore existed in a state of Perpetual Virginity; that she, being the mother of Jesus, who was part of the trinity of GodTheFatherGodTheSonAndGodTheHolyGhost (to use Silverton's formulation) and therefore is God, must therefore actually be the Mother of God; that she, to be a fit vessel for the Saviour, must have been born, unlike every other living human, without the stain of original sin, and therefore was the product of an Immaculate Conception; and finally, that, being without sin, she did not have to be judged after death, but was simply Assumed Bodily Into Heaven.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


As I believe I may have mentioned, I'm listening to a lot of audiobooks these days, mostly at the gym and on the way to and from work. (Their existence is probably the only reason I haven't bought a Kindle yet.) Right now it's Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff*, which is fascinating, and beautifully read by Robin Miles.

However. It really threw me when Miles pronounced the word "unguent" to rhyme with "pungent". I had never, ever heard it pronounced any other way than "un'-gwent".

But guess what? Apparently rhymes-with-pungent isn't actually wrong, which is to say that I located a dictionary that allows it, specifically Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, which I'm not linking to because each page has an auto-start video which I find terrifically annoying.

I still don't like rhymes-with-pungent, but there is precedent, for some reason.


Speaking of Merriam-Webster, read this sentence from an A.V. Club piece about home taping**:

Since my Hee Haw problem was the first time I’d had a Macrovision issue with my TiVo, I’d hesitate to call this a huge crime against the consumer, but it’s definitely aggravating.

Nothing wrong there, you might think, and you would be right. But some really prissy protectionists of the English language, aka prescriptivist grammarians, say that "aggravating" is a barbarism in this context, because "aggravate" literally means "to make worse" . Well, no, actually it doesn't: if you want to get right back to the beginning, it means "to make heavy", from Latin "gravare", "to weigh down", also the source of "gravity" and "gravid", which is to say "heavy with child". But prescriptivists like Fowler, bless him, were and are given to making such pronouncements as, "To aggravate has properly only one meaning -- to make (an evil) worse or more serious."

Here's the thing, though: "aggravate" took on Fowler's meaning at the end of the sixteenth century, and not even three decades later had already acquired its most usual modern meaning, "to irritate or exasperate". It's meant that for some four hundred years now: surely we can admit it into the family as full kin and not some bastard pretender? (I suppose I should say at this point that due to an overzealous teacher in my past and a small hard nugget of prescriptivism in my soul, I don't in fact love "aggravate" in this context, and never use it, preferring instead to use one of English's massive collection of finely nuanced synonyms: "vex", "trouble", "bedevil", "annoy", "bother", "gall", or "infuriate", to name just a few.)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage has a lot to say about "aggravate", so you might as well read it if you have nothing better to do.

*Whose name through no fault of her own is the same as that of the fictional best friend of the fictional and hilarious Libby Gelman-Waxner, former movie reviewer for Premiere magazine and alter ego of Paul Rudnick, about whom I am forced to say that he writes great jokes but terrible, terrible screenplays.

**Remember that old industry ad line, "Home Taping is Killing Music"? One of the commenters parodied it as "Home Fucking Is Killing Prostitution," which is delicious. Not original, but still a great joke.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Memory Lane

Remember when The Onion had sharp, on-the-ball writers and copy editors? Yeah, those were the days. Now we get things like this:

Don't get me wrong—I love my job and I enjoy working my ill-informed fans into a frenzy by tapping into their deep-seeded, ignorant fears of people who are different from them.

We may be losing "decimate" and "hoi polloi" (apparently a lot of people think it means "the upper crust" and not "the [common] people"), but the expression intended above is "deep-seated", and ought to remain so. (College Humor knows what's what.)


Remember when Failblog was excellent? Now they'll put up anything: you can stick a soft-core porno movie on the kids' DVD shelf at your local video store and take a picture of it and they'll post it. And they'll also post things like this:

Have we actually lost the euphemism "four-letter word" as something that means "swear word or otherwise bad thing"? Are there actually people who don't know what it means, and take it literally?

I guess so.


At least we've still got Ugliest Tattoos, where you can see treats like this:

Funny may be a matter of taste, and fails may not be what they used to be, but ugly tattoos are forever.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Change or Die

I suppose you've already read this piece that was published last week in Slate about changes in word usages over time and when we ought to throw in the towel?

Some of the words and phrases are already lost causes, of course. "Decimate", despite an etymology which points to its original sense of "to kill one in ten", now means "to destroy the larger part of". "The lion's share", from one of Aesop's fables, once meant "the entirety [of]", but now means "most [of]". (I would perversely argue that it always meant "most", because, wild animals being what they are, sneaky carnivores such as the jackal are going to skitter in and grab what they can get while the lion isn't looking.)

Some of the words it will be a real shame to lose. I think many people wouldn't know the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested", but the former has a specific meaning--"partial in judging to neither side, and therefore presumed to be fair"--which is useful, and in no way connected to the meaning of the latter. (Another similar pair of words is "unused" and "disused", the latter of which is generally disused these days.)


It's always hilarious to hear people talk about the purity of English, as if the language was now or ever had been at any point some sort of beacon of polish and refinement instead of the linguistic version of the North Pacific Gyre, sucking in flotsam from every part of the globe where it may commingle, most of it sinking from sight and the remainder forever being circulated and altered and recombined.

I am not opposed to change in language, of course, but I like the idea that words mean something, that they're not just interchangeable parts: I am opposed to the descriptivist notion that near enough is good enough. I don't expect English to remain unchanged, but there are changes and then there are changes.

Here is a sentence from a movie review on Something Awful:

It's used to illicit emotional responses from audiences when you can't do it with story or characters or acting

and here is another

At this point, the very words "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" illicit groans and cries of "Oh, fuck that!" in cinemas everywhere.

Two different authors, the very same mistake. Three possibilities:

1) They're the same person writing under different aliases.
2) An editor who doesn't know better got his hands on both pieces.
3) Mistaking "illicit" for "elicit" is a very common error.

The words aren't even related, for god's sake. "Elicit" is the the fusion of "ex-", "out of", and "lacere", "to draw out, to lure" (the "-lace" of "shoelace", in the sense of "a cord for tying", is kin). "Illicit" is formed of "in-", "not", plus "licitus", "lawful", from "licere", "to be allowed" (seen in "license" and "licentious"). They sound the same, but they are not the same.

Mistaking "illicit" for "elicit" is exactly the same as mistaking "they're" for "their" or "there". Such errors mark you as undereducated, sub-literate. They're a badge of shame.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sew Confusing

I honestly don't know what's worse: people who ought to know better making an obvious mistake, or people who ought to know better making a mistake that might or might not be a mistake, and you can't tell from the context whether it's right or wrong, and you rack your brains trying to figure out if they know what they're doing or not.

Here is a description of a new scent from indie perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz:

Vert pour Madame opens like a wind of Persephone and dries down to the elegance of Demeter. Inspired by the utterly chic and sophisticated style of the late 1970's and early 1980's classic green floral chypre, Vert pour Madame has power but more than that, she has depth. She's achieved it. As well, Vert pour Madame is the perfect harbinger of Spring with notes of hyacinth, jonquil and lily of the valley sewn into the earth with cedarwood, patchouli and moss.

Now, some people are going to read "sewn into the earth" and think it's a poetic turn of phrase. Other people are going to think, "Huh--she obviously means 'sown', because you sow seeds to get plants, so she doesn't even know the difference between 'sewn' and 'sown'!"

Me? I don't know what to think. Maybe she did mean "sewn": maybe she was being clever. Or maybe she just doesn't understand that "sown" in the obvious context is not the same word as "sewn", or maybe she just mistyped it and didn't bother to have a knowledgeable proofreader look over the copy.

And it drives me nuts!

If she wanted use, and meant, "sewn", which is actually possible as a turn of phrase ("sewn into the earth" is rather pretty), then she ought to have set up the word by establishing the notion of sewing, or couture, or weaving, or any sort of stitchery at all. Instead, she's got me, and probably not just me, wondering if her education has a gap in it.

If nothing else, we have another sterling example of my eternal refrain: for the love of all that is holy, before you publish anything, especially if you are selling something to people who might actually be turned off by bad grammar or usage, let someone else have a look at it. Someone literate. Please.

Friday, April 01, 2011

All Over the Place

In English, we don't have a huge amount of leeway in where certain words get placed, not like those languages in which grammatical case takes the place of word order. If you have suffixes which tell you which word is the subject and which the object, while at the same time one adjective has a female ending and another a male, then you really have a great deal of freedom as to where those words are placed in a complex sentence, because it will be instantly obvious how all the words relate one to another. In English, since we don't have those features (and good thing, too, I think), we have to be careful how we structure our sentences.

This aspect of the language makes a certain type of joke possible which wouldn't work in many other languages, such as this Groucho Marx classic:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.

The reason the joke works, of course, is that 1) we generally put adjectives, adverbs, and adjectival and adverbial phrases as close as possible to the noun or verb they're modifying, but 2) our brains seamlessly and unnoticeably deduce that "in my pajamas" must refer to me and not to anything else, so it's a surprise when we discover that it doesn't.

When we don't put a modifying phrase next to whatever it's modifying, we get messes like this, from Slate's slideshow on Google logos:

Google paid tribute to the invention of the first laser on May 16, 2008, with this illuminating display.

Even though the reasonable assumption is that we have an adverbial phrase, "on May 16, 2008", which must refer back to the verb phrase "paid tribute", it is also possible that the sentence may be read as referring to "the invention of the first laser on May 16, 2008". I had to read it twice to make sure that I hadn't somehow read the date wrong, and only then--and only after figuring that the laser was a lot more than 3 years old, since I had a CD player in the eighties--could I be sure I had understood the sentence correctly.

All it would have taken was a quick rearrangement to make it as clear as could be: "On May 16, 2008, Google paid tribute to the invention of the first laser with this illuminating display." Now how hard was that?