or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Glancing Blow

For people who are not naturally good spellers, English is a nightmare of a quagmire of a curse: so many words that sound identical but are spelled differently! So many potential mistakes that can elude a spellchecker and expose your error!

This morning I was reading an article in a back issue of Harper's Magazine (August 2011 — I'm behind in my reading), and I could not quite believe my eyes when I read the following sentence:

The Patriot Act removed that wall, enhancing the FBI’s surveillance capabilities through new powers such as roving wiretaps, “sneak and peak” search warrants—which allow agents to search a suspected terrorist’s home without prior notice—and the expanded use of “national security letters,” which give agents access to personal records without requiring a court order.

Yes, it really did say "sneak and peak", and I expected better from Harper's. The archived version online has the error corrected, but I can't sneer about that, because I've gone back and fixed mistakes online before. Still, Harper's has professional copy editors who are supposed to make sure that sort of thing doesn't happen. (They're not alone: the Wall Street Journal has done it, too.)

You might guess based on their meanings that "peak" and "peek" have the same source, French "piquer", "to prick", which also gave us "pique", meaning that English has not two but three homonyms to confuse people. (And they do: Google "peak your curiosity" and prepare to be depressed.) A peak is something high and sharply pointed, and a peek is a quick, sharp glance, so they could easily have arisen from "pique". But not quite. "Peak", and its relative "pike", are from "piquer", but "peek" is an unknown quantity: all we know is that it's related to "peep".

Monday, March 12, 2012

Oh Boy

I think that cats are the most aesthetically pleasing of the animals we encounter in everyday life, and among the most beautiful of all the animals there are. I think that men in general are or at least have the potential to be aesthetically pleasing, and that men with beards are doubly so (in fact I think that with few exceptions all men require facial hair to reach their full aesthetic potential). Therefore, it makes sense that men, particularly bearded men, and cats ought to create a sort of ornamental synergy, and I am not the only person who thinks so, which is why websites like Boys with Beards with Cats exist and provide us with pictures like this, which is labelled "Cutest Cat On Earth?"

and also sites like Hot Guys With Cats which bolster my contention with pictures like this

and I rest my case.

Even without the beard, when you have a man who looks like Marlon Brando in his prime, you get pictures like this

and this

and, well, just look at them!

In a desperate attempt to tie this into my usual line of investigation I have a question for you. In the name of the website Boys With Beards With Cats, there are three nouns: which is the odd word out? I'll give you a minute. You can look at this picture while you think about it.

The answer is "Boys", because the other two are Germanic, and what's more, they even look like their modern German counterparts: "beard" is "Bart" and "cat" is "Katz". There are several contentious etymologies for "boy" and I'm not going to get into them, but none of them has direct roots in German (although Google Translate tells me that one of the synonyms for "boy", alongside the "Junge" and "Knabe" which I learned in university, is "Boy", leading me to assume that if Google Translate is correct, which is not a given, then German borrowed it from us).

But the origin of "with" is very, very interesting. It is also Germanic, related to modern German "wieder", "back" or "again", and it originated in Old English as "wi∂er" or "wither" (unrelated to the modern verb "wither", which is a variant of "weather"). And "wither" meant "against", as "with" occasionally does nowadays: you can fight with someone or fight against them, and it's the same thing. There are other remnants of against-with in English: "widdershins" means "counterclockwise", or literally "against the way", and "withstand" means "stand against".

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Listen Up

Via Boingboing, an insane list of Nazi rules for the performance of jazz music, which contains the following sentence:

Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden.

If you are a musician, then perhaps you have heard the word "sordine" before, but I hadn't. It's a mute on a musical instrument, like the damper in a piano, and it's a French-looking version of the Italian "sordina", with the same meaning.

Now, if you know any French it will occur to you that "sordine" looks sort of like "sourd", which is to say "deaf", and then it will occur to you that if they're related, which they are, then apparently the Romance languages use "deaf" to express for musical instruments the same idea for which English uses "mute". (English took "deaf" from the Norse/Germanic branch of its word-stock: "mute" is from French "muet", with the same meaning.) Since Italian "sordo" means "muffled", Romance languages are expressing that the sound of the instrument is made to imitate the sound a (partly) deaf person would be hearing, where the English is expressing what's actually happening to or being done to the instrument, which is fascinating.

Now, "sordo" is from Latin "surdus", "silent", and "surdus" more or less demands you think of the word "absurd", which means "nonsensical: contrary to logic". "Surdus" evolved to have a cloud of related meanings: "silent", but also "deaf", "unresponsive" (which the deaf may be through no fault of their own), and "indistinct". "Absurdus" uses an intensifier to take the ideas further: "stupid", "worthless", "incongruous", and "discordant", among others, all of which are elements of "absurd".

If you are instead of or in addition to a musician a mathematician, the word "surd" will have come to mind before now: a surd is an irrational number, one which cannot be expressed as a fraction of integers.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Spume Also Rises

Seven years. I have been doing this for seven years.



As I mentioned not too long ago, I had recently been reading David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. As you may know, the man loved his footnotes, which are on occasion nuisances but which usually add flavour to his pieces (one of his footnotes reads, in its entirety, "Duh."). Here is a sentence plus its footnote, #27, from the title essay:

The whole first two days and nights are bad weather, with high-pitched winds and heaving seas, spume lashing the porthole's glass, etc.

The single best new vocab word from this week: spume (second-best was scheisser, which one German retiree called another German retiree who kept beating him at darts).

You can tell Wallace didn't grow up on a coastline*, because if he had there is scarcely any way he could have avoided hearing the word "spume", which is essentially seafoam**. Nearly any water foam, but mostly seafoam.

Looking at "spume", you can instantly make the connection to a couple of Italian food words: spumante, which is a kind of sparkling wine (it foams up when you pour it), and spumoni***, which is a kind of ice-cream dessert (the name comes, I think, from the frothy whipped cream which is folded into it to lighten it). Therefore, you will reason that "spume" is originally from either Italian or Latin, and of course it must be (though it will not surprise you to learn that we got it from French: it does, after all, end in "-e", where the Italian would probably, and does, end in "-a").

Now, here is something that will surprise you. "Spume" is originally from Indo-European "(s)poimo-", and without the "s-", "poimo-" also gave birth to Latin "pumex", which is the source of English "pumice", a volcanic rock so foamily riddled with air pockets that it floats in water. Fittingly, "poimo-" is also ultimately the source of English "foam".

I wanted to be able to tell you that German "Schaum", which means "foam" and is related to English "scum" and "skim", is descended from "(s)poimo-", but it isn't. Alas.

*He was born in Ithaca, New York, and grew up in Champaign, Illinois, says Wikipedia. No coastlines for him.

**I grew up in Newfoundland, which even for an island is heavily fjorded and fractaled and estuaried.

***According to its Wikipedia page, "November 13 is National Spumoni Day in Canada," and all I can say about that is, "No, it isn't." Or at least it isn't very well publicized, since this is the first I've ever heard of it. I don't want you to get the idea that all we do in Canada is celebrate odd, meaningless and commercially motivated holidays.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Drink Up

I am reading a book by Jeffrey Steingarten called It Must've Been Something I Ate, and about midway through comes the following sentence:

Bridal comes from the Old English "bride-ale", which refers to the drinking of ale at the wedding feast

and my first thought — you would think I would know better by now — was, "That's ridiculous! There are thousands of words in English that end in '-al', and most of them started as verbs or nouns that derived their adjectival status from the Latin suffix '-alis'."

And both of these sentences are true, but it nevertheless is also true that "bridal" did originate as Old English "bryd ealu", "bride ale", which became "brydealo", which is the wedding feast itself, and finally the adjective "bridal", which, contrary to its appearance, does not end in "-al". At least not the Latinate "-al" we all know and love.