or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Look Up

Recently I used the word "heaven" in a tweet (yeah, I do use Twitter, but only in the service of my other blog) on the way to work, and what do you suppose? I began to wonder about the etymology of it.

There is a mental checklist that it is helpful to run through when you are pondering unknown etymologies and don't have a dictionary at hand:

1) Latin, of course, depending on the affixes, or possibly
2) French if the vowels work. And then there is
3) Greek if the consonants fit, but otherwise probably
4) Norse, though if it's short and basic, then maybe
5) Old English, possibly through
6) Germanic.

So: "Heaven". Almost certainly not Latin, which gave us "celestial", from "caelum": therefore not French, which uses its descendant "ciel". German likewise uses "Himmel", so probably not that. Greek is most unlikely: I can't even guess what the Greek would be. Norse. How about Norse? Or Old English, which often amounts to more or less the same thing? If you collapse "heaven" into something Norse-ish or Old English-esque like "hefn", then that is a distinct possibility.

And so it is: Old English "heofon", to be exact. The thing is, though, that the German word is actually related to "heofon", although you'd never know it by looking at them: "himin" and "hibin" were two variants of the same thing, and the German word took the first path and the English took the second.

Turns out, since you have to have been wondering, that the Greek word I couldn't call to mind is "paradeisos", the source of English "paradise", possibly from an Arabic word meaning "walled enclosure".

Friday, January 27, 2012


Back in 2002 I was living in Halifax, which had and still has a stand-alone cinema, the Oxford, one of a dying breed, although it manages to chug along somehow. It wasn't quite a repertory cinema, but they showed lots of small, sometimes obscure movies, the kind that will stay open for a week or maybe two in an average-sized city. (It's where I saw "Requiem for a Dream" and "Himalaya". On the other hand, "Titanic" played there for something like three months, which I guess pulled in enough profit to keep the theatre running for another year or two.)

This poster showed up in the Coming Attractions outside the building, and how could you not want to see that? So I did. In the opening sequence of "Secretary", which I watched last night on Netflix, a twentyish woman, clearly the secretary of the title, walks into an office, staples some papers together, takes another sheet of paper from a typewriter, gets a cup of coffee, walks into her boss' office, and, since her hands are full, kicks the door shut. She's conservatively dressed in a high-necked white blouse and a knee-length black skirt, but the scene is completely sexual in the most arresting way, and as soon as you see it you know you are in the hands of someone who has a masterful control of tone.

The studio tried a number of ways to advertise the movie, and I think this is the DVD cover, which perhaps unnecessarily highlights the word "secret", though it naturally enough got me to thinking: is the word "secretary" related to "secret"?

My guess was that although "secret" must be related to "secrete" somehow, "secretary" (obviously Latin or French, because of that "-ary" suffix which comes from either Latin "-arium" or its descendant, French "-aire") might come from somewhere else, because I couldn't think of any way that the words might be related.

And I was wrong. "Secretus" is the Latin adjective for "set apart", so a secret is something that is hidden: "secretion", from which "secrete" is a back-formation, is something set apart from the main body. (The other verb "secrete", "to hide a thing", is derived directly from "secret".)

You wouldn't think a secretary is someone who hides things, but in fact an original meaning of the word was a synonym of the noun "confidant", someone who can be trusted to keep a secret. The modern sense of someone who takes dictation and keeps records is almost as old: they date from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, respectively.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eye of the Beholder

Pajiba is a website devoted mostly to film reviews and other pop-cultural criticism, but they also like to throw us other tidbits every now and then, such as this hodgepodge, which contains among other things a link to a list of someone's idea of the 100 most beautiful words in English.

It seems very random. "Assemblage"? "Brood" (the verb, not the noun)? "Incipient"? There's something I'm not getting, obviously.

Lexicographer Wilfred Funk (of Funk & Wagnalls) once produced a list of most-beautiful which was on the whole a little closer to the mark, including such undeniable beauties as "halcyon" and "anemone", although I think he was swayed a little more by the words' meanings that I would have been: I would prefer to consider also their flow and euphony. Not that he didn't: he also included such enchanting words as "cerulean" and "mignonette", but then he mucked up the list by including "tranquil" and "bobolink", which, whatever associations they may conjure up in your mind, have no music in them at all.

Word collector Willard R. Espy had the cheek to include in his own ten-best list, along with Funk's "gossamer" and "lullaby", "gonorrhea", which may be going a little too far in the other direction.

As for mine, well, I have grazed against this subject before (six and a half years ago!), and my opinion hasn't changed: if you ignore the meaning altogether, I cannot think of anything lovelier than "irremediably", a limpid, meandering brook of a word.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Centre of Attention

No, this is not me. Alas.

Over on my other blog I've just written about a scent called Nombril Immense. A nombril is a navel, otherwise known in English as the belly button, and would it surprise you to know that "nombril" exists in English? We do have a way of multiplying words: even when we already have a perfectly good one, we want more more more.

We don't actually use it to refer to the belly button, though. "Nombril" is used in heraldry, a topic which is so deeply uninteresting to me that I can't even be bothered to tell you what it means (it has something to do with the fesse on a shield, which is perverse, because "fesses" are haunches), but you can, of course, look it up for yourself. A great many heraldry terms are French, as far as I can see, so it doesn't surprise me that "nombril" would appear there as well.

The word itself is related to Latin "umbilicus": it was the similar "ombril" at one time, but, says The Online Etymology Dictionary it changed from "l'ombril" to "nombril" through the process of dissimilation, in which one instance of a repeated sound in a word changes or vanishes (the first "-r-" in "February" disappearing in spoken English to become "Feb-you-ary"), although I do wonder if in a variant of junctural metanalysis "un ombril" simply got blurred into "un nombril" over time, since the two are indistinguishable in speech.

"Navel" comes to us almost directly from Indo-European "nobh-" via Germanic "nabalan". (It showed up in Old English as "nafela", which once again shows the intimate relationship between the "f" and "v" sounds: they have identical mouth positions, and so have on occasional come to replace one another, as in "fox" and "vixen", or "vat" and archaic "fat", as in "wine-fat".)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dear Diary

You might think that after a lifetime of reading and most of a lifetime of looking, really looking, at words, I would have figured out all the basic ones by now, but they still have the power to surprise.

Yesterday I was reading some posts on Manhunt Daily (pretty definitely not safe for work)

when I noticed this graphic in a sidebar:

And I thought, "'Diario'! Well, that looks just like 'diary'! So wouldn't that be like 'Manhunt Diary'?" And then the light bulb flicked on and I realized that "diario" could very well mean "daily" in Spanish, because the word "diary" almost certainly comes from the Latin "dies", "day, because a diary is something you write in daily. (It's descended from "diarium", originally a daily allowance, later a daily journal. The "-rium" later became the suffix "-aire" in French, which English adopted as the suffix "-ary", "pertaining to", often used as a combining form to denote a collection, so an aviary is a collection of birds and a bestiary is a collection, in book form, of beasts.)

Maybe this is obvious to people who studied Spanish, but it wasn't to me because I never did: the French word for "daily" is "quotidienne", so I never ran across "diario" before.

Anyway, "diario" does in fact mean "daily", and every day is a day in school, if you're paying attention.

While I am at it I might as well look at the etymology of the word that "diary" is most often confused with and/or mistyped as; "dairy". "Dairy", on the surface of it, is completely unparseable: where could it have come from?

You'll never guess. "Daege" was an old, old English word meaning "maid" or "female servant": it seems to be related to "dough" in that the servant in question was the one who kneaded the dough for bread. Eventually "daege" was shortened into "daie" and then "dae", and with the French suffix "-erie", which turns a noun or a verb into (usually but not always) a place, it became "daie-erie" or "dairy", the place where the maid (presumably the milkmaid) went about her milking and butter-making business. (The other English "dae" word is "lady", the first half being a compaction of Norse "hlaf", "loaf": Old English hlaefdige was the lady of the manor, but literally the one who made the bread, the loaf-kneader.)

Oh, and speaking of butter-making and the suffix "-erie", transformed to "-ery" in English (as in "refinery" and "bakery"), do you know what a buttery — the noun, not the adjective — is?

Trick question. It isn't a place where butter is made or stored or anything else: it doesn't even have anything to do with butter. It's actually a storeroom for bottles of liquor, coming from French "boterie" and somehow having a vowel corrupted in its travels.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Card Games

Yesterday I got a comment, not on
this posting
specifically but on a topic that lies at the intersection of my two blogs. Vanessa wrote,

I was recommended to approach you with my question about the meaning of the word "OLFCARTOPHILE". Is it - as my research suggests - a lover of perfume cards (pre-scented or otherwise):

I came across this term while researching the history of perfume cards on a French website, and assumed it would work in either language.

It's a neologism, something invented to fill a perceived lack in the language; but it's pretty close to being a nonce word, which is unlikely to enter wider circulation because it's so idiosyncratic and, let us face it, not especially useful, not an everyday word even for a perfume fanatic.

If it serves a purpose, all well and good: but I could never use it, because it's not very well constructed. It is obviously a portmanteau — a macaronic, in fact – of Latin "olfacere" (the source of English "olfaction" and "olfactory"), French "carte" (because it appears to be a French coinage), and Greek "-phile", a lover of something. Therefore, it would certainly mean "a lover of perfumed cards".

But I don't think you can trim "olfacere", or its English "olfaction/olfactory", down to "olf-", because that isn't how the word is made: it's composed of "olere", "to emit an odour", plus "facere", "to make". If you want to deconstruct the word into reusable pieces, you really need to keep those pieces intact, which would give you the unwieldy but more defensible "olfactocartophile".

I think it's a nonce word because Googling it gives only 37 unique matches, and a lot of those seem to refer back to one another. It appears on this page of coinages related mostly to perfume, so I'm guessing that someone was just having a bit of fun with the language, in the same way that some people like to devise far-fetched phobias (some of these are silly, and many of these are patently ridiculous: who on Earth has geniophobia, an all-consuming and irrational fear of chins?). It hasn't caught on because it's not essential or even particularly useful. If you think you could get some use out of it, I'm not going to try to stop you, and I don't think anyone else will, either. But it really isn't a very good word.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sing For Your Supper

Last night for the second time in three days I watched "Tosca", one of my three favourite operas ever*. First was the Metropolitan Opera version with Hildegarde Behrens, who was a terrific singer but perfectly happy to jettison a beautiful sound in favour of dramatic truth: after she's stabbed a man through the heart (going against everything she believes in, but he was about to rape her) and is screaming at him to hurry up and die already, it's not a pretty sound, but it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to make your hair stand on end, and by god it does.

Last night I watched an Italian broadcast version from the Teatro Carlo Fenice in Genoa (there are eight others on the site: the "Salome" is particularly good). Even though it's sung in Italian, it's subtitled, which is only fair: when I'm watching an English opera, I want subtitles, because when the words and the music duke it out in opera, the music always wins.

I had only ever watched "Tosca" with English subtitles, but I didn't really need them this time around because I knew the story well enough: still, I didn't mind the Italian subtitles, and it was a novel experience to see the words that were being sung rather than a translation. Early on, a priest says, "Il paniere e intatto," which means "the basket [of food] is untouched."

"Paniere" is instantly recognizable as a relative of English "panniers" (taken, as so many fashion words are, from French), sort of the opposite of a bustle (which augments the form of the buttocks), worn under a dress to exaggerate the width of the hips to cartoonish proportions, as you can see.

I had known this for years. But in Tosca, when the priest holds up the basket and the subtitle says "paniere", I understood instantly that "paniere" was essentially the same word as "pannier", and that both of them meant "bread-basket", because French "pain" and Italian "pane" mean "bread".

The Tosca in the Genovese production was Daniela Dessì, and Italian opera-goers, a committed lot to begin with, sure know how to treat a hometown girl: after she finished her big number, "Vissi d'arte", they went insane and wouldn't stop cheering and applauding until she broke character, acknowledged them, and agreed, encouraged by the conductor, to sing the number a second time.

You won't see this in North American houses, whose patrons consider breaking character, or any sort of intrusion into the opera, to be bad form. (There was sneering when Anna Netrebko did it in her triumphant "Anna Bolena" at the Met last fall.) Though the repeat has a long history, I didn't even know it was still done in Italy, but there's the proof. And just to show that they don't discriminate when it comes to local talent, when the Cavaradossi, Fabio Armiliato, also from Genoa, sang his big number, "E lucevan le stelle", they screamed and clapped and wouldn't stop until he agreed to sing it again, too. It was awesome. I wish I had been there. I told Jim that if we ever go to Italy, then we are going to an opera, and he said, "Obviously."

European audiences don't shout "Encore!" when they want a rerun, even though "encore" is French for "again". They shout "Bis!", which means "twice", naturally enough, because "bi-" words in English mean two of something: bilateral symmetry involves two mirror-image sides, a bicycle has two wheels. And can you think of a common English word that uses "bis"?

Right: "biscuit". "Cuire" is the French verb for "to cook", "cuit" means "cooked", and "biscuit" literally means "twice-cooked", just as in Italian "biscotti", which are made by forming the dough into a loaf, baking it to firm it up, slicing the loaf, and then baking the slices a second time. German "Zweibach" is made the same way, and means exactly the same thing: "twice-baked".

* The other two are "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "Salome". I could listen to them and watch them again and again, and do, and never get tired of them, because they are so effective at doing what opera does best, which is bypassing rational thought and going straight for the limbic system. You will feel pity, horror, sadness, revulsion, because the music really leaves you no choice.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Earthly Pleasures

This has nothing to do with my usual line of blogging but I really, really want you to watch it anyway (or if that pasted video should fail, watch it here):

Five people. One guitar. I am speechless. It doesn't hurt that the song (originally by a singer-songwriter named Gotye) is lovely. But the laserlike focus of the five performers (I guess you would have to focus on something like that, just to keep from banging into someone if nothing else) is riveting: it sounds like a stunt if you hear it described, but when you watch it and listen to it, it's intoxicating.

Oh, very well then, my usual line of blogging: the guitarists are a Canadian group called Walk Off The Earth, and you may know that "Earth" is related to the German "Erde" (via Proto-Germanic "ertho"), hence the name of the all-knowing, all-fertile Earth goddess in Wagner's Ring Cycle. The French word for "Earth" is "monde", related to the English word "mundane", from Latin "mundus", "world, universe".

Germans also have "Mond" in their vocabulary. It can't mean "Earth", since that space is taken up by "Erde". So what do you suppose it means? "Moon", of course. You know, just to keep you on your toes.

And "Monday" literally means "Moon's Day"; in German it's the exactly parallel "Montag". And while we're at it, the French for "moon" is "lune", as in "lunar" and "lunatic" ("moon-sick"), and their word for Monday is "Lundi": also "Moon's Day".

In Indo-European, "meses" or "menses" meant both "moon" and "month", because the earliest and most logical way to mark out a span of time larger than a day (if you are willing to play jiggery-pokery with the calendar) is by counting from, say, one full moon to the next. The word in IE, in fact, is thought to be descended from "me-", "measure", because of the way the moon measures out time.

English kept this tradition, with "month" deriving from a descendant of "moon" (Old English "monað" or "monath"), and the German word for "month" is likewise "Monat": this is generally true of the Germanic languages. The Romance tongues on the other hand kept "menses" for "month" (Italian "mese", French "mois") but used some form of "luna" instead for "moon": "luna" is related to "luminous", because the Moon is by far the brightest thing in the night sky, so brilliant that before people knew that the Sun is a star and the moon a pebble, they thought that the Moon emitted light in the same way that the Sun does. Predictably, English, never content with one word when three will do, has a Latinate word for "month": "lunation".

Don't you love knowing things like this?

Friday, January 06, 2012

Throwing Shade

For an upcoming post over on my other blog I am writing about a scent which contains galbanum, an intensely green-smelling resin. Now, as it happens, galbanum is an umbellifer, which, you may know, denotes it as part of a family that also contains angelica, Queen Anne's lace, and dill. What do these plants have in common, you ask? Well, you tell me:

That's right: they all have flowers that are big and poofy at the top. (Other members of the umbellifer family include chervil, anise, parsley, and carrots and parsnips: you can look them up yourself, or you can just trust me that they likewise have big poofy flower tops.)

Now, "umbellifer" looks sort of like the word "umbrella", doesn't it? And the big poofy top (technically an inflorescence) of those plants sort of looks kind of like an umbrella, doesn't it? And therefore you might logically think that the words "umbrella" and "umbellifer" are related, mightn't you?

You might. And you would be right. Latin "umbella" meant a sort of parasol, from "umbra", "shade": they lost the "-r-" when they made it a diminutive, but we shoved it right back in there (where it may rightly be said to belong anyway) when we implanted the word into our language around about 1600. When we needed a word for a family of plants with big poofy tops, we compared them to umbrellas and took the Latin word, naturally tacking on the "-fer" suffix which means "bearer"; the umbellifers carry their own umbrellas, and how cute is that?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

One Thing Leads To Another

I love love love discovering something that I didn't know and then discovering that in fact I did in a sense know it: I just didn't know I knew it.

Yesterday I was reading Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation on the bus to work (you can dip into it here — god, I love Google Books so much) when I ran across this sentence from American President Garfield's commencement speech to his alma mater in 1880:

It has occurred to me that the thing you have, that all men have enough of, is perhaps the thing that you care for the least, and that is your leisure — the leisure you have to think; the leisure you have to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet into your mind, and sound the depth and dive for things below.

"Throw the plummet into"! That means that "plummet" can be used as a noun, and not just a noun derived from a verb (and therefore synonymous with "a fall" or "a drop"), but a solid, objective sort of noun, a noun that names something you can touch and feel.

I did not know this. But a moment's reflection brought me down this path: A plumb is a weight of a sort, the name deriving from Latin "plumbum" (as I already knew, having written about it some time ago), which is their name for "lead" (the metal, that is) via French "plombe", which they to this day use for the metal. Therefore, "plummet" can only be the diminutive form of "plumb": "plumb-ette". Therefore (and you will have to imagine my immense delight at realizing this fact), the verb must have derived from the noun which until a few seconds ago I never knew existed!

The noun "plummet" is very old indeed, dating from 1388 (as "plomet"). The verb meaning "to plunge rapidly", on the other hand, first entered print in 1939. And yet somehow in that short span of time, a few human generations, the verb has entirely taken over the word's life, and the noun has receded to the point that in all my forty-odd years of reading I have only just encountered it.

Oh, and while I'm at it, I might as well point out that "plumber", as will be obvious as soon as you think about it, derived from "plumbum", because pipes used to be made of lead, and likewise the system of pipes that carry our water is called the plumbing.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


A few days ago — that's me, always ahead of the curve — there was a Gawker article called These Words Are Now Banned From The English Language. If only! Some of them I don't mind so much: "amazing" held the number-one spot, and I can see how it might get kind of old, but I think it still has some life in it. Most of the others, though, I would love to see forcibly hauled off to an island and dumped into a volcano: "baby bump" is just disgusting (and although it didn't make the list, the British-journalist "yummy mummy" is even more revolting), "ginormous" is all used up, and "man-cave" is stupid and insulting.

But of course most of them are going to disappear in short order anyway, volcano or no. That's the way with slang: young people make up hundreds of new terms, most of which deservedly die as they age (the terms, not the people), and new words and usages rise up to take their place.

Last night for something to do I watched the Marilyn Monroe vehicle "How To Marry A Millionaire" on Netflix. (I'd never seen it and figured I might as well.) It was pretty bad, but it did contain a sterling example of slang that was so baffling, I couldn't tell if it was actually a term people used at the time or if the writer was trying to deliberately insert it into the popular culture*.

The first usage is perfectly normal:

"The [car] they sent for me had gold trim. Smooth, huh?"

Ordinary everyday agreement-by-elaboration, like responding to "Isn't he the best?" with "The very bestest". But then a little while later, when someone is describing an upcoming get-together:

"Sounds creamy to me."

What? That's really jarring, if not actually kind of creepy, because it sounds as if "dreamy" was intended instead. And then it gets worse:

"I saw a picture in Harper's Bazaar of a mountain shack. It was creamy."

(That isn't even the same character, so it's not as if one person is just using the term in an idiosyncratic manner: everybody who uses it and hears it acts as if it's entirely normal.)

And finally, in reaction to one character's upcoming wedding:

"Congratulations! We read about it on the plane. Just creamy!"

I just can't convince myself that people actually said this in the fifties.

And there's more. Look at this:

That's a Google ngram for the word "creamy" in published books from the beginning of time (okay, 1500) to the present day. Look closely at 1950: the word "creamy" begins a rapid plummet in usage. This tells us nothing about spoken English, of course, but it does clearly show that the usage of the word fell precipitously in the early 1950s and didn't recover until the present day.

There is only one possible explanation. "How To Marry A Millionaire" was released in 1953. The moviegoing public — and that would be a lot of people, because it was the fifth most popular movie of the year — were so horrified by the attempt at enforced slang that they made a pact never to speak or write the word again, and not until that generation had passed the baton to the next could the word be used in polite society.

*This rarely works, even in fiction. In the movie "Mean Girls", one member of a clique is trying to coin the slang word "fetch", as in "fetching": after a number of attempts, the queen bee snaps, "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's not going to happen!" Beth in the TV series "Newsradio" is slightly more successful: after she invents and employs the hilarious "bitchcakes" just to see if it would catch on (it's an adjective meaning "psycho", as in "She went totally bitchcakes"), her boss uses it just as if it had been in the lexicon for years.

Sunday, January 01, 2012


I'm back!

Did you miss me? I missed you.

There's a sketch on the British comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look (series 4, episode 1, if you're interested: it's on Netflix) in which a small-business owner shoots all of his employees, one after another. when he discovers their little mispronunciations and errors in usage during a staff meeting. I can sympathize: hearing someone say "pacifically" instead of "specifically" or "expresso" instead of "espresso" makes me grit my teeth, and it's just as well I don't have access to a Luger, I suppose. But after almost seven years of blogging, I simply ran out of bile, or at least redirected it.

So it's time for a do-over. What I'm still interested in is etymology, and so I think that unless something really chaps my hide or otherwise distracts me, I'll be focusing on that. Let's have some now, shall we?

The French word for "citrus" is "agrume", and both of these words are at first glance a bit of puzzle; you can make out from the "-us" ending that "citrus" must be Latin, but otherwise, how baffling! "Citrus" may come originally from Greek "kedros", "cedar", but as is so often the case, nobody is absolutely sure: but neither is anybody proposing that citrus fruit grows on cedars. The link seems to be that the Greeks came across an African tree with fragrant wood and lemon-like fruit and, rather than using the native name for it, just named it after a tree they already knew that also had a fragrant wood.

"Agrume", on the other hand, is of certain etymology, and it too is Latin: from Late Latin "acrumen", "sour fruit, a sour thing", from Latin "acer", "sharp". And a number of other English words derive from or are otherwise related to this, all of them having some sense of "sharp" or "sour. "Vinegar" is a direct steal from French "vinaigre", "soured wine", and another name for vinegar, "acetic acid", derives both its parts from "acer": "acetic" is the adjective and "acid" (derived from "acidus") the noun evolved from "acere", "to be sour". "Acerbic" and "acrid" are both relatives (as is "exacerbate", literally "to make sharper"), and words somewhat farther afield such as "acrimonious" are kin, as well as, most unexpectedly, "acrylic", not having anything to do with paint but being originally a chemical term derived from Greek "acrolein", "sharp-smelling".

A word that both English and French use for the smell of citrus fruit, a word mostly used in the perfumery biz (which as you may know I have a passing interest in), is "hesperides". Anybody familiar with Greek mythology knows that word: the Hesperides were the nymphs who tended the orchard in which those troublesome golden apples grew. "Hesperides" means "from Hesperus", which was another name for the planet Venus, long associated with beauty, and a descendent of the word "Hesperus" is (via Latin) "vesper", which originally meant "the evening star" (another name for Venus) and a century or so later came to mean "the evening", with "vespers" being the Latinate name for evening prayers (beautifully rendered in native English as "evensong").