or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Em Barrassing

Here is a recent Slate article about the em dash, which I use all the time, or at least a dummied-up version of composed of two hyphens. I don't, however, use it as much as the piece's author, who has so liberally and, I assume, jokingly studded her article with them that I found it unreadable.

If you are going to use the em dash in the middle of a sentence, to insert a thought into the flow of words, then you have to use a pair of them, just exactly as you would use parentheses: most of the time, when I use a pair of em dashes in this manner, it's because I've already in my opinion used up my allotment of parentheses. And yet here are a couple of sentences from another Slate piece about counterfeiting and its possible positive effect on sales of the real thing:

With policing severely curtailed, counterfeiting took off in 1995—Qian estimates a nearly 100-fold increase in the production of fakes within just two years.

That's how you use a single em dash, if you want to tack two clauses together without using a semicolon or a colon. Perfectly valid, although Strunk and White disapprove. But look at this:

The copies of low-end items—produced with cheap fabric on cheap, locally made machinery, were scarcely different from the real deal, which were also produced with cheap fabric on cheap machinery.

Wrong wrong wrong! The parenthetical "produced with cheap fabric on cheap, locally made machinery" is inserted into the middle of the sentence, and has to be bracketed with em dashes. The comma at the end is insufficient.

You'd think someone would have noticed that before it went to print, but this is Slate we're talking about. They don't notice much of anything.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Steal

A few days ago I off-handedly mentioned what looks like an issue of plagiarism in the handmade-jewellery world, although as April Winchell of Regretsy notes, it isn't that cut-and-dried, because nobody seems to know who came up with the idea first, as is fairly often the case with simple, obvious-in-retrospect ideas. (One commenter suggests that the basic concept is at least as old the mid-eighties.)

And then as usual the word "plagiarism" (or my preferred version, "plagiary"), haunted me, because I realized that I did not know where it came from. It suggests the French "plage", "beach", which is stupid, because the words are so obviously unrelated to one another. So where did it come from?

From Latin, it will not surprise you to learn. To the Romans, a plagiarius was someone who took something not belonging to him--specifically a kidnapper, but also a seducer, and, later, a thief of someone's words, the most usual meaning nowadays (although it can also, as in the case of the jewellery, refer to a thief of intellectual property).

"Plagiarius" is from "plaga", "net", from Indo-European "plag-", "flat, spread-out", which is also the source and the approximate meaning of, yes, French "plage", "beach". To my complete astonishment.

"Plagiary" is of course unrelated to "plague", which is evidently from "plangere", "to strike; to lament (signified by the beating of the breast)", the source of English "plangent", referring to a sound with a deep, possibly loud, and generally mournful quality. "Plangere" late in the history of Latin became "plaga", unrelated to the "net" sense, meaning a wound inflicted by a strike and then to a pestilence such as the plague.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Superiority Complex

Ordinarily I am pretty forgiving when it comes to Facebook updates and blog posts and e-mails and comments: nobody is expecting you to write like Faulkner, and a certain degree of hurried inaccuracy is going to creep in. There's no excuse for really terrible spelling and grammar, even if you're just jotting down a shopping list, but I try not to be too judgemental. Grammar Naziism, or at least grammar-wanking, is colossally irritating, in an online context: someone makes a comment with a single misspelling, someone else corrects them, and soon the whole comment thread has devolved into a tiresome slurry of recrimination and insult.

But this thing here? This is kind of genius.

So genius that it could be faked. But even if it was, it's still genius, and if it wasn't, then kudos to Daniel, and a suggestion for Lindsay and her family: Back to school for you lot. Or at least slow down and think about what you're writing before you hit the Publish button.

In fact, it's a lesson for all of us: Don't write angry.

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...."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Leaders and Followers

What happened to me? A KINDLE HAPPENED, that's what. I was thinking about buying one but I was gonna wait until we got back from New York and then a co-worker was reading hers at work and let me play with it and dammit, I had to have one, and now I do, and I have a LOT of books on it--you can get SO MANY for free at Project Gutenberg--and now I am just reading reading reading all the time, on the bus at home at work (during breaks), more than I have in years, probably, and my knitting is falling by the wayside and my blogs are being ignored (by me, I mean) but at least the household chores are getting done, so I'm not completely a lost cause.

But I'm still listening to the Cleopatra audiobook (might as well use it up), and late into it the author used the word "formidable" to refer to the queen, and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I did not know where it might have come from, and also that it was really a very strange word, because can you think of another English word that might be related to it? I couldn't, except possibly "formicidae", the family of insects that are the ants, and also therefore "formic", as in "formic acid", which is found in the bites of ants and which is colossally interesting stuff, because in quantity it apparently smells like ants, like an anthill, and because it substitutes for hydrochloric acid in the stomachs of anteaters, who devour so many ants that the formic acid in their bodies does the work of digestion, and also because it decomposes (in the presence of heat and other acids) into water and carbon monoxide.

But "formidable" is obviously not related to "formicidae", is it?

No, it is not. But the two words, thanks to their related sounds, evolved from words that are likewise similar to one another. "Formidable" is, as "-able" words generally are, from French, and the French naturally enough got it from Latin: in this case, "formido", which means "fearfulness, dread, terror", making "formidable" another excellent example of that class of words in English that has shed its original connotations of horribleness and come to be a mere intensifier: "terrible", "awfully", "dreadfully". "Formido" in turn seems to have emerged from Greek "mormo", a goblin, through a process called dissimilation, in which sounds are mutated sometimes beyond recognition.

"Formic" and "formicidae" are also from Latin, obviously, from "formica", their word for an ant, which was more or less accidentally re-coined for commercial purposes a century ago from the words "for mica", since the product was originally intended to be a substitute for mica in electrical insulators. Latin "formica" is from Greek "myrmex", "ant", through the exact same process of dissimilation, and "myrmex" may still be seen in English "myrmidon", originally a warrior, now usually taken to mean an unquestioning follower.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Illogical Punctuation

I tried to post a couple of days ago, but Blogger was read-only, for some reason.

Anyway. Here are three articles from Slate. The first is an object lesson in the power of good writing: a well-written negative review will have more of a positive effect than a badly written positive review. As I never seem to tire of saying, there is a lesson in this.

The second article is about something I've had reason to deal with in the past: so-called "logical punctuation", in which the usual American habit of invariably putting terminal punctuation marks such as the comma and the period inside the quotation marks is jettisoned in favour of putting them where they most reasonably ought to be put--inside the marks if what's inside the marks stands on its own, outside otherwise. (A commenter once snottily informed me that I was doing it wrong.)

The third article has nothing to do with grammar or punctuation: it is a review of an American fitness chain. But it contains these sentences:

"There are thousands of average Jane's and Joe's for every big lifter. Many of those Janes and Joes are intimidated by grunting and 50-pound dumbbells. So, they decided to cater to the thousands at the expense of a smaller segment. It seems to be working quite nicely for them."

How did that even happen? How did someone, a paid writer, decide that the plurals of "Jane" and "Joe" require apostrophes (which, for the record, plurals in English do not), and then, in the very next sentence, decide the opposite? And how did that slip past an editor, assuming there was one, which clearly there must not have been?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Grimly Inevitable

I just realized that reading Slate is like watching a horror movie through your fingers with the assumption that something awful will lunge out at you when you least expect it. You'd think I'd read Slate a sense of miserable resignation after all these years, but no, it's like Samuel Johnson's definition of a second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience.

Parallel structure is not that hard to master, but we still end up with ghastly sentences like this one from a story about the Tony Awards:

Margaret and Jackie are stubborn, proud, and cling to a sense that they are good people, even when they aren't.

The rule is simple: if you compose your sentence so that a verb is explicitly used for the first element of a list and then implied for the second, then by god you have to imply it for the rest of the elements in the list, too, and if you can't do that, then you have to recompose your sentence to introduce the new verb correctly. Like so:

Margaret and Jackie are stubborn and proud, and cling to a sense that they are good people, even when they aren't.

Now how hard was that?

And this gem from a piece about the new Jodie Foster movie:

In the production notes for The Beaver, the film's "austere palate" is mentioned.

Unless the movie eats like an Anchorite, I am willing to bet that the production notes mentioned instead the film's austere palette. I have been over this palate/palette/pallet mixup before, and as I said the last time, "it's always Slate, isn't it?" And it always is.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


A few weeks ago I was snarking about writers who mistake one word for another even though they ought to know better and the words are completely unrelated, and now look at this mess from a recent edition of The Onion:

"Breech" is hardly ever seen by itself in the singular but often encountered in the phrases "breech-loading" or "breech birth": when it stands alone it's always the plural "breeches", "trousers", frequently countrified to "britches".

The word the Onion writer was making a stab at is "breach", which is the flip side of "break" and has more or less exactly the same meaning. (In English we often see this soft "-ch-" or "-sh-" or "-s-" sound paired with a related hard "-k-" sound: "drink" and "drench", for example, or "haunches" and "hunker".*) "Breech" may or may not be descended from "breach", but it is not the same word.

* An amusing variant of this is "flacon", which in English has a hard "-c-" but in French is spelled "flaçon", with a soft "-ç-": the related word is "flask", but we also have "flagon", which is midway between "flacon" and "flaçon" and seems like a half-hearted attempt to soften the middle consonant without completely mushing it up.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Fertility Treatment

Well, let's see. I was looking at the clevernesses on Must Have Cute when I saw this:

and I know the Japanese come up with some amazing things, but eggs with shaped yolks? How could this be?

With the Magic Egg Shaper, which, not to keep you in suspense, is a cluster of tubular wells with shaped inserts: you separate eggs, pour the whites into the tubes, insert the pegs to leave space for the yolks, dunk the whole thing into boiling water to cook the whites, wiggle out the pegs, pour in the liquid yolk, and boil the whole thing again to set the yolks. Slice 'em and you're done, and won't everybody be impressed?

At the bottom of the page was the usual "Other Products You May Like", one of which was this:

Nice! And no messy dirt to cope with. It's actually simpler than that. You mould a little slab of water-impregnated gel, sprinkle seeds on top, place it in the frame, and leave it to its own devices.

Here's a screen shot from the product's page, which is in French but which I can read:

"Graine" means "grain" or "seed", which, when you think about it, are nearly the same thing, except that "grain" can also mean a small, seed-sized particle of something inorganic such as salt or sand. But what caught my eye was the verb, "semez", obviously the imperative "[you] sow".

And in my usual geek's joy at discovering an etymology, I realized that "semez", its presumed parent verb being "semer", must be related to English "semen", which is to say "seed". And it is!

But there's more. We may have gotten "semen" from Latin, but the verb "to sow" comes from the Germanic tongues, who extracted it from Indo-European "se-". The Latin tongue took the word in another direction: "satum". As soon as you see that word, it is hard not to think of its appearance in English in the botanical name of the marijuana plant, Cannabis sativa. And "sative" is an English word, too: it means "sown: propagated by seed". There are other satives in the world of the flora: saffron comes from Crocus sativus (the masculine form of "sativa"), arugula is Eruca sativa, and the oats we eat are Avena sativa. (If you spend any time in a drugstore you may have noticed a product with the brand name Aveeno, which contains skin-calming oatmeal and which is obviously related to "avena", the "-e-" doubled so you'll pronounce it properly. The French word for "oatmeal", by the way, is "avoine".)

The only question I couldn't find a definite answer to was what exactly makes a sative a sative--how Oryza sativa, rice, might differ from some other kind of rice. The only thing I can think of is that sative plants are sown from seed as opposed to, say, propagated by stem grafting or through runners. I know that garden crocuses are planted as bulbs, so I figure saffron crocuses must be planted as sown seeds. If I'm wrong, it won't be the first time.

Monday, May 02, 2011

It Stinks

Is it real? Don't know. Is it funny? Heck yes!

But whoever's responsible for it might want to get a copy editor to explain subject-verb agreement to them.

Via Win!