or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Today on Now Smell This was the announcement of a new Lalique scent, Hommage a l'Homme, and nearly as soon as I saw that I realized that "hommage", the French word for (and ancestor of) English "homage", must obviously be descended from "homme", "man", somehow, and I couldn't believe that I hadn't noticed this before, although if we stopped to think about the provenance of every word that passed our lips or entered our heads we would never get anything done, so perhaps it's just as well.

"Homme" is in fact the progenitor of "hommage", which originally meant allegiance to one's feudal lord, vowing to be his man, but now in English more broadly means a display of respect to someone or something.

Today would have been David Foster Wallace's birthday, and as it happens, I'm in the middle of one of his books ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"). I decided to read one of his pieces online, "Consider The Lobster" (not in the book I'm reading but in the book of the same name), possibly not the sort of thing one wants to read if one enjoys eating lobster because it will thereafter be hard to enjoy it quite so much, and as I was reading the piece it occurred to me that the French word for "lobster", "homard", looks as if it too ought to be related to "homme", though of course that is impossible. And thankfully, the two words have nothing to do with one another.

"Homard" is, somewhat bizarrely, a Frenchification of the German word "Hummer", meaning the same thing. (Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian also employ this word, and it might be the case that it came to French from one of them.) Those northern tongues got it from Old Norse "humarr", which in turn got it from...Latin, of all things, the Latin for "lobster" being "cammarus".

I was sure I had done "lobster" before but apparently not, so here it is: originally Old English "loppestre", from Latin "locusta", and you are going to say that "lobster" and "locusta" do not look much alike, to which I will reply that neither do "homard" and "cammarus", but that is the sort of thing that happens to words over the decades and centuries.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Daily Grind

Having twice in the last week dealt with "molar" and its offshoots, I naturally began to wonder about that other crushing device, the mortar and pestle.

There are three versions of "mortar" in English: there's the cup- or bowl-shaped grinder, the bomb, and the mixture of cement. And wouldn't you know it? They're all the same word!

The bomb is the newest of the three usages, named for its shape, which resembled that of the bowl in which we grind things. (I have a little marble mortar-and-pestle in my kitchen.) The other two are neck-and-neck for the origin of the word, a chicken-or-egg situation: was the bowl named first and its pulverized contents named after it, or was it vice versa?

"Pestle" is more straightforward, since there's only one, and it's from Latin "pistillum", with the same meaning, and that in turn stems from Indo-European "peis-", "to crush". But wait a second: doesn't "pistillum" make you think of "pistil", the female reproductive organ of a flower? And isn't a pestle more or less the same shape as a pistil?

Yes and yes. And there's more: "piston" is also from the same source, since a piston is shaped like a large pestle, more or less. And more: "pesto" is so named because it is traditionally made of basil and pignoli, pounded in a mortar. (I've made it that way, once, and it wasn't really worth the trouble, although maybe if I'd had a bigger mortar....)

And one last thing: although you needn't believe me, "tisane", which I mentioned yesterday, has nothing at all to do with tea, but is instead related to "pestle" and its kin: it comes to us from French, obviously, though it began its life as Greek "ptisane", "crushed barley", via "ptissein", "to winnow".

Monday, February 13, 2012


There are websites for every sort of person on earth, and therefore there are websites for men who are obsessed with the perfect shave, an obsession I do not share: wet it down, soap it up and carve it off, that's what I say.

However, I will also say this: a decent shave cream and a shaving brush make the difference between a mere shave and a really good shave. When I visited my mother after my stepfather died last October, she tried so hard to get me to take things of his home with me that she actually offered me another suitcase to put it all in. I declined, but I did take some things home with me, some shirts and ties and belts, mostly, along with five tubes of shave cream (he, being German, was partial to the European brands Kaloderma and Kappus) and two (unused) boar shaving brushes. I have always been one of those men who shaves his face in the shower, because letting the hot water soften your bristlage makes carving through the stubble a lot easier (and my beard hair is like copper wire in every way except in being a good conductor of electricity, as far as I know), and I have long been in the habit of just using shower gel or shampoo to lubricate the process. But using a pencil-eraser-sized squeeze of good shaving cream and a brush to whirl it into a dense, close foam makes for a terrifically smooth and comfortable shave. I'm a convert.

Jim likes to drink Numi Desert Dry Lime tea, which is more accurately a tisane (since it contains no actual tea leaves), or, if you like the company's term, a "teasan", which I think a hideous neologism. He orders it from Well.ca, which offers free shipping, and on his last order he tossed in a tube of Alba Coconut Lime shave cream, because he already uses a coconut-and-lime shower gel and thought it sounded nice (and if you knew him and his nose you would understand that for him to say that anything smells nice is a rarity).

The product's page contains a nice uncommon word: see if you can figure out what it might mean.

1) Certified by Quality Assurance International
2) Certified by Oregon Tilth

"Tilth". Pleasantly old-fashioned, isn't it?

English contains a fair number of words that end in "-th", some four hundred or so, but only a few are nouns constructed from an existing word plus that suffix. You can probably call most of them to mind easily: width and breadth and length and depth, obviously, plus wealth and health and strength, growth, dearth, stealth, and also truth and therefore the uncommon troth and the rare but valid trowth, and the ruth of ruthless. ("Wealth" is the exception in that list: it's formed from a noun, "weal", where the others are from verbs or adjectives.) There are surely a few others that I've missed, but you get the idea.

"Tilth" is one of these words, formed from "till", and therefore it is identical to "tillage" (which is to say the preparation of soil for agricultural purposes), but there's always room in English for a multiplicity of words with identical meanings.

While I was looking up shave creams, I also saw a listing for something that many men are familiar with: a styptic pencil, used to stanch bleeding. (My father had one in the medicine cabinet, but mostly he just used little torn-off fragments of toilet paper., Me, I don't bleed when I shave.)"Styptic" is one of those pleasant words that you can look at and instantly know which language gave it to English. It has to be, it can only be, from Greek. It is from "styphein", "to constrict", and if "styphein" gave English so much as one other word, I can't find it. One's enough, though, isn't it?

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Last Sunday I wrote about the Latin "rogare", "to ask", and a reader asked me a very sensible question:

The word that came to my mind was "derogatory." How does that fit in?

"Derogatory" means "insulting" or "belittling", and it is difficult to see how this could have any connection with "rogare". But of course there is one. The answer to the question is that "rogare" had multiple shades of meaning, and that "derogatory" didn't always mean exactly what it means now.

"Rogare" does mean "to ask", but it also means "to question" (not quite the same thing in English) and "to propose (a law)". Consequently, the Latin verb "derogare", "rogare" prefixed by "de-", "away", likewise had a little clutch of meanings: "to minimize", "to detract from", "to modify", and "to partly repeal", the last two in a legal sense, which is the key to the evolution of the modern sense of "derogatory". Originally in English, back in the early 1500s, it meant "detracting from or diminishing one's legal rights"; not too long after that, it came to mean, as an obvious consequence of having one's legal rights taken away, "diminishing one's reputation or standing," which is the only thing it means now in common usage.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Burning Up

Today we went to see the Metropolitan Opera's production of Götterdämmerung (in a movie theatre: we're not actually in New York right now). The climax of the six-hour production is the immolation scene, in which the heroine builds a funeral pyre for the recently dead hero, sets it alight, and rides onto it with her horse, with the eventual result that, as Anna Russell says, "It's all burnt." Everything burns up, including Valhalla, the gods' home, which you might have thought was loftily celestial enough to avoid such a fate, but no: it and its residents go up in flames. The whole planet doesn't actually ignite because the River Rhine overflows its banks and puts out the fire, and it's not supposed to make sense, it's opera.

Now, mindful of the fact that I had deconstructed the word "molar" a few days before, as soon as the word "immolation" was uttered in one of the intermission interviews, I thought to myself, "'Immolation' HAS TO BE related to 'molar' in some way, because it's so obviously Latinate: in- plus -mola- plus an active suffix. But how?"

Here's how. We tend to think of "immolate" as specifically meaning "to burn (oneself) up in a fire", but it actually has a broader meaning, simply to sacrifice: fire is the most usual way, but not the only one. The "-mola-" of "immolate" is indeed related to "molar", from "molere", "to grind": Latin "mola" is not only a grindstone or a mill but also the product of that grinding, and to immolate is literally to sprinkle a pending sacrifice with meal (as a sort of purification, I think) before committing the deed.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Molar Mass

Is is possible to have a paradoxical reaction to codeine? Like, instead of making you sleepy, it revs you up like a caffeine bender? Because I took a Tylenol 3 at 4:30 or so and another at 9:30 and I am supercharged. I Googled it and came up empty-handed, but seriously, I'm just wired.

The reason that I took some Tylenol 3 is that I have a few stitches in my head, and I'm trying to head off the pain: it hasn't been bad so far, because I have a high pain threshold, but better safe than sorry. And the reason I have a few stitches in my head is that they're closing up a hole where a tooth used to reside.

Since it had been nearly twelve years since my last dental examination, I decided as a new year's resolution that it was high time to have my teeth seen to. I thought I had been taking good care of my teeth, but it turns out I had really only been taking good care of my gums (the hygienist was very pleased when I went in for my cleaning), and so I needed a whole pile of fillings. (Luckily we have really good health insurance.) One of the teeth was kind of mess, with a cavity extending under the filling, and the options were an expensive, time-consuming crown to save a tooth that I don't even use (it didn't make contact with any tooth in the lower jaw) or an extraction, so I said the hell with it, just rip it out of my head. And today that's what I had done.

My dentist sent me to a specialist because the tooth in question was the rearmost maxillary molar, which has three roots, and they don't politely line up parallel with the sides: no, they splay out so that the gum has to be cut open to free the tooth. The specialist was really good: after I had been frozen up, it took him no more than five minutes to haul that chunk of ivory out and sew me up. I didn't even know the tooth was out until I saw him threading the suture needle. They asked me if I wanted to see it, and of course I said yes. They asked me if I wanted to keep it, and of course I said yes, and (after a good hard scrubbing, because it had clumps of gum tissue stuck to it) it is sitting on my desk in front of me. And it's big, the same size as the ear-bud on my favourite Scosche headphones. I can't believe that eight hours ago that thing was locked into my head, that thing my body made thirty-five years ago and I'd been lugging around ever since. I also can't believe that the holes in the roots through which the nerves pass are so tiny: I guess I figured they'd be as thick as a pencil lead, but they're really minute, the thickness of a strand of sewing thread, if that.

"Molar", in case you were wondering when I was going to get to the point, is from Latin "mola", which is a millstone, because the molars are the broad, flat grinding teeth. And if you thought to yourself that "mill" might be derived from "mola", then you are absolutely correct, and the evolutionary path is, for once, gorgeously straightforward: Latin "molinus", Late Latin "molina", French "moulin" (which it remains to this day, as in "Moulin Rouge"), Old English "mylen", and Modern English "mill".

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

You know there are more than five senses, right? A dozen for sure, maybe as many as twenty. And you are going to say, "No, idiot, there are five, touch taste sight hearing smell, everyone knows that." And I am going to say, "Well, what about pain?" It's not the same as touch, but it most assuredly is a sense. And what about the ability to feel heat and cold? They're also not the same as touch because you can sense them from a distance, and what's more, they operate with different sets of nerve endings, so they're not one extra sense, they're at least two. Isn't balance a sense? Isn't hunger a sense?

The most extraordinary sense, I think, is proprioception, which is the map in your brain that tells you where all the parts of your body are at all times in relation to one another. I was thinking about this in the shower this morning, because after shaving I squirted some shower gel into my hands, closed my eyes, and proceeded to wash my hair and face, at which point I realized that I could do this with my eyes closed — that I know exactly where each part of my face was, that I could get my soapy hands to my face and get it clean without actually knowing where it was or even thinking about it, without jamming my fingers into my mouth or whacking myself in the ear. That is astonishing when you think about it, though it such a commonplace that we hardly ever do think about it, any more than we think about breathing, and yet you always know on whatever subliminal level where each part of your body is located in space. It is the most ordinary of marvels: you couldn't get through life without knowing how your body is arranged in space, and yet how much brainpower must be devoted to that seemingly simple task?

The French word for the adjective "own", as in "my own body", is "propre". This certainly looks like English "proper", and it certainly is where we got the word from. The French word in turn is descended from Latin "proprius", "specific to oneself", from "pro privo", "of or from the individual". And this, of course, is the source of "proprioception": the collection of receptors that give a sense of self. It's a new word, only a century old, but a good and useful one.

English "proper" with its wider sense of "right, correct, fitting" is very old, from the 13th century. "Proprietary", "appropriate", and "propriety" are obvious extensions of this.

English "own" is related to German "eigen" with the same meaning, in case you were wondering where that comes from. And this is very interesting: the verb "to own", an obvious extension of the adjective, died out in early English, though its noun "owner" persisted, and verbal "own" was resurrected as a back-formation from "owner" in the early 1700s.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Ask And It Shall Be Given

I am reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, and although the book could have used a copy editor and a serious pruning — it's easily too long by a quarter — it is overall a fascinating read.

One sentence that gave me pause was

More certain evidence of northwards exploration is a cairn at latitude 73°N containing a runestone (a stone with writing in the Norse runic alphabet), which states that Erling Sighvatsson, Bjarni Thordarson, and Eindridi Oddson erected that cairn on the Saturday before Minor Rogation Day (April 25), probably in some year around 1300

for which I had to jot down the reference because I realized that, not being Catholic, I had no idea what "Minor Rogation Day" is, or Major Rogation Day, or any other day of rogation, or even what exactly rogation might be.

I had certainly run across the word before. There is a chapter in a book I adore, The Joy of Bad Verse (seriously, buy it, because it will enrich your life in ways you can hardly imagine), about Alfred Austin, dreadful British poet laureate, who wrote among other bad poetry a verse-play, England's Darling, about King Alfred, which contains the lines (which I had unwittingly committed to memory)

ALFRED: Now name me this.
EDGIVA: Milkwort, or gang-flower.
ALFRED: Which the learned call rogation-flower.

Naturally, you are thinking, "This Alfred sounds like a real jerk," and you are right. But I had never actually stopped to wonder what rogation-flower was (that's a picture of it up there: pretty, isn't it?), or how it had come by its name (among the learned, anyway), or what that name referred to.

Last things first, as usual. If you look at "rogation" and think about where you might have seen it or something like it before, it will eventually occur to you that it is the second half of the word "interrogation", and therefore "rogation" might have something to do with asking questions. And that is just what it is. It comes from the Latin "rogare", "to ask"; rogation days are days in the ecclesiastical calendar specifically set aside to ask God for mercy, and the rogation-flower is as Edgiva noted milkwort, which has white, blue, or pink flowers, and is so named because garlands of it were traditionally made and used on rogation days.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Errors in Judgement

When I saw the title of the article 20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes, I thought to myself, Oh, we'll just see about that, now, won't we? Because I had a pretty good feeling I knew what the article was about: prescriptive grammar of a kind that even I would find oppressive and misguided. I wasn't disappointed.

Some of them are beyond discussion: "who" versus "whom", for instance (although I suspect that "whom" is slowly dying out as an archaism, and will be a relic within a hundred years), or "lie" versus "lay" (although the meanings are bleeding into one another and may eventually be interchangeable), or the verbs "affect" and "effect" (between which the distinction will exist as long as the English language does). But others are just flat-out wrong.

"Anxious", we are told, may only express fear or distress and may not be used as a synonym for "eager" or "excited" with an overtone of impatience. But it has been used in exactly that manner ("We are anxious to see our grandchildren") for well over two centuries now, and I think it may fairly be said to be an established meaning of the word. (In fact, its sense of "excited" is so established that it has been used comically to mean "sexually excited": "I'm feeling a little, ooh, anxious, if you know what I mean," says the title character in the movie Beetlejuice. We know what he means.)

Likewise, the author demands that "nauseous" be employed only to mean "having the ability to produce nausea", parallel to "poisonous", and must never be used as a synonym for "nauseated". While I happen to prefer that the two words be kept separate, and I would never say I was nauseous, the fact is that the "nauseated" sense of "nauseous" has been in common currency for a long time, is universally understood, and can't reasonably be considered wrong, if it ever was outside the sphere of a clutch of pedants. ("Nauseating" has replaced the presumably correct sense of "nauseous", so it isn't as though there's suddenly a gap in the language.) The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't mention the usage, except to list a related one which it considered obsolete, but it is widespread in North America, with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage going so far as to say, “Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch with the contemporary language. In current usage it seldom means anything else.”

"Impactful", we are told, "is not a word." It is. It's a terrible, ugly, jargony word, but it is incontestably a word nonetheless. Just don't ever use it.

The best thing about this list is that although the title is "20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes", the URL contains "20-common-grammar-mistakes-that-almost-everyone-gets-wrong", which was the original title. Mistakes that everyone gets wrong? Uh-huh.


I am still working my way through The Young Man's Book of Amusements and it is hair-raising reading. I mean, look at this:

The previous page actually told you how to make your own nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas, and this one tells you how to make a device to use it.

This is from page 54:

In the name of making a household decoration the book instructs you to make your own fluoric acid, which is hellish stuff, able to cause severe burns that you don't know you have because they don't show up immediately or trigger the nerves that signal pain, and worse, kill you by causing the calcium levels in your blood to plummet. (A burned area of 25 square inches provides enough exposure to kill you; that's less than the surface of one hand.)

There are two baffling, possibly archaic, and also possibly incorrect verbs in that one little piece. The first is "disengaged": "fluoric acid will be disengaged." To disengage is to release, so this probably isn't wrong, although it seems very strange to me, as if the writer had meant "disgorged", though even that is not usual: nowadays we'd use "released" or "liberated".

The other one, though, I just can't make any sense of: "The fluoric acid gas will be absolved by the moisture." I don't believe "absolve" has ever been used in that context: the OED doesn't mention it, and every North American dictionary I checked lists only the obvious meaning of "absolve" — "to free from guilt or blame". The Wiktionary lists two obsolete definitions, "to finish or accomplish" and "to resolve or explain", neither of which fits the context either. Did the writer mean "absorbed by", or "dissolved into", or "attracted to"? I have no idea.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Waxy Buildup

Over on my other blog I mentioned some odd wax candle/sculptures by a company called Cire Trudon, "cire" being the French word for "wax".

You may have guessed that the French word is descended from Latin, especially if you know the patently Latinate word "cerumen", which we will get to in a minute. The Latin from which "cire" is descended is "cera", which also means "wax". "Cire" exists in English, as "ciré", a description for a fabric (since many fashion words in English are French) which is given a glossy sheen with wax. If you play around with Latinate sounds you may come up with "cereus", which is also an English word; it is a genus of cactus, named from its tall, slender shape which gives it the appearance of a candle, and also a night-blooming flower. (Some species of cereus bear fruit called pitaya or pitahaya, which, it so happens, I have also written about on my other blog.)

"Cerumen", from Greek "keroumenos", "made of wax", is something most of us deal with on a daily basis: ear wax.

There is one other rather horrifying English "-cire" or "-cere" word you may have heard of: "adipocere", from "adiposus", "fat". It is also known as "grave wax", and it is formed when the fat in a corpse, in the absence of aerobic bacteria to decompose it, saponifies, which is to say turns into a waxy, soapy substance. The most famous case is the Soap Lady, which you could see, if you had a mind to, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Fun For All

Now obviously you are not going to just start doing experiments from The Young Man's Book of Amusement, because there are a great many amusements that can blow your hands off or put your eyes out. (The full title is "The Young Man's Books of Amusement, containing the most interesting and instructive experiments in various branches of science, to which is added all the popular tricks and changes in cards; and the art of making fire works", as was the style in 1854.) A representative sample:

Put into a crucible four ounces of bismuth, and when it a state of fusion, throw in two ounces and a half of lead, and one ounce and a half of tin: these metals will combine, forming an alloy, fusible in boiling water. Mould the alloy into bars, and take them to a silver-smith's to be made into tea-spoons. Give one to a stranger to stir his tea, as soon as it is poured from the tea-pot; he will not be a little surprised to find it melt in his tea-cup.

I love the fact that the reader was assumed to have available to him a crucible and a mould for making bars of metal, and is accustomed to hieing himself off to a silver-smith's. I also love the fact that the instructions specify that you must play your little prank on a stranger, the reasonable assumption being that your own friends and family are by now leery of your offerings of innocent-looking teaspoons and the like. (This little trick, by the way, is still performed, but with spoons of gallium, which has a melting point so low that the metal will in fact melt in your hand. Since you probably don't live near a silver-smith's you may instead buy your own spoon mould.)

If you will amuse yourself with the japeries in The Young Man's Book of Amusement, and if you should lose a limb or your hearing, or if some irritable stranger with a melted tea-spoon throws the contents of his cup in your face, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE.

Here's what I am responsible for: interesting words and their etymologies!

That's part of page 15, which is far as I initially got before I was stopped cold by a word: "zaffre". Not an everyday word, is it? You might think that it was somehow related to "zephyr", and if you did, you would be completely wrong, because it makes no sense in context. If you know a little bit about cobalt, which as cobalt chloride is a dazzling blue colour, you might guess that "zaffre" is somehow related to "sapphire". And then you would probably be right: "zaffre", or sometimes "zaffer", looks like and is likely intimately related to Italian "zaffiro", "sapphire". Some contrarians think "zaffre" might be descended instead from an Arabic word meaning "yellow copper", but to them I say, Here, have a cup of tea and shut up.