Tuesday, 14 October 2008

one seraph is enough to sing about

Today I was listening to a beautiful rendition of 'Let the bright Seraphim' by Lesley Garrett and I thought seraphim would be a plural noun, based on the rules of the Hebrew language. But was the singular seraph?

Yes, my computer's dictionary said it was.

But it's a back-formation, a word formed by deleting the suffix from 'seraphim'. The Princeton WordNet explains a back-formation as 'a word invented (usually unwittingly by subtracting an affix) on the assumption that a familiar word derives from it.' For instance, the verb burgle came into use because of the mistaken assumption that burglar is a noun formed by adding the ar ending.

As William Safire said in the New York Times, "People do not consciously work out the backward step, but they have a sense that burgle is to burglar what sail is to sailor."

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the first use of seraph to 1667, by Milton, and suggests he formed this singular noun by analogy with cherub/cherubim.

I guess Milton wouldn't have had much experience with Hebrew plurals used in English, as they're not common. Nowadays there are only a handful in use. Laurie Bauer, in the book Morphological Productivity, says there are probably only cherubim, seraphim, kibbutzim and goyim in regular use.

After considering all this information I was left with the question: what did people before 1667 call one of the seraphim?

Maybe they just didn't talk about them.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

millionth word in English?

When is a word a word? According to most dictionaries, there are about 600,000 words in English, but the Global Language Monitor reports that it has so far tracked about 900,000, and that a new word is added to the English language every 98 minutes.

Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst at the Monitor, quotes the Middle English definition of a word as 'a thought spoken'..."which means if I say a word, and you understand me, it's a real word."

I read about this on Boing Boing. The original article at Smithsonian.com explains the difference between the methods used by traditional dictionaries and the algorithm used by Global Language Monitor, who expect the millionth English word to be coined around April 2009.

Friday, 3 October 2008

becoming a locavore

I discovered a new word just now, one that appeals to me on many levels: it was coined by women; it expresses a hopeful view of what we can do to avert climate catastrophe; and it quickly achieved inclusion in the New Oxford American dictionary. In fact, it was declared by Oxford University Press USA as the 2007 word of the Year.

The word is locavore and was invented recently by four women in San Francisco. It defines a person who tries to eat only food grown or produced within a radius of 100 miles. Such food is said to be more nutritious, to taste better, and to use less fuel in transportation.

I support the concept expressed in this new word, though I have read it can be better to transport food from a distance if it comes from a more environmentally efficient source than the local one.

Enthusiasm for the ultimate in local produce - my own garden - prompted me to browse the Net and I was researching this topic when I came across the word locavore on a site called Edible Garden.

A class at Bulleen Art and Garden last night has filled my head with plans to transform our garden into a rich harvest of vegetables and fruits. However, a little voice does whisper, 'Yes, but it has to rain!' (We've just had the driest September ever recorded.) On the other hand, there are also more classes promised, on the use of recycled water, so I guess I should stay hopeful. The teacher, Karen Sutherland, showed us photos of her own productive and beautiful garden.

I guess I'm not the only one full of hopeful plans, because I heard on the radio today that the growing of vegetables in the home garden has become hugely popular in the US, Britain and Australia.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

naprons, neologisms and an elegance efficiency

On Radio National today a well-spoken man repeatedly said, 'And that's a whole nother issue.' He'd probably be surprised to listen to a replay of the program and hear his mangling of the word other.

Yet his accidental changing of a common word echoes a historic process. A woman tying an apron around her waist doesn't think about napkins or napery, because the n has migrated from the article to the noun and hidden the etymological relationship between the three words.

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories tells the story of this word-evolution and also of the transformation of nadder(serpent) into adder.

When we speak it's often hard to distinguish the boundaries of words. My mother’s elderly friend invariably stopped eating before her plate was empty, wiped her lips neatly with a folded serviette and announced, ‘No more for me, thanks. I’ve already had an elegance efficiency.’ This idiosyncratic turn of phrase died with her, unfortunately.

Friday, 19 September 2008

phwoar, it's lubricious

I learned one... no, two... new words today. The Telegraph, in the UK, ran a story about the inclusion of phwoar in the Oxford English Dictionary of Modern Slang.

I pointed out the article to my sister and said I'd never heard the word, and she said, 'Of course you have. Phwoar!'

If it's an 'expression of enthusiastic or lubricious approval', then I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit it's new to me. Surely I've walked past a few building sites in my time. How come no-one wanted to lubriciously approve of me?

Lubricious - that's the other new word. My computer dictionary says, 'offensively displaying or intended to arouse sexual desire'.

Maybe I looked so elegantly poised the workers didn't want to impose on me by expressing their approval.

And if you'll believe that you'll believe anything.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

to apostrophe or not to apostrophe

A sign on a parked car caught my attention today - Dyson group of companies. I was sitting in the sunshine outside a vet clinic, having voted with my feet to enjoy the fresh air rather than be crammed into the busy waiting room.

A bus had broken down at the nearby stop and I enjoyed watching the consequent comings and goings.

Finally I noticed the bus had Dysons written on the front. Aha, that explained the man with the clipboard who'd climbed out of the car and gone to talk to the driver of the bus.

Why Dysons on the front of the bus? Why not Dyson?

Maybe a plurality of Dysons ran the bus company.

Or perhaps the word was a possessive; the bus was Dyson's property. If so, why was there no apostrophe?

In 1966 the Geographical Names Board of Australia decided placenames and street or road names in text, maps and public signs would be written without an apostrophe.

About twenty years ago the final act of a retiring principal at a local school was to climb a ladder and insert the apostrophe in the school's name - Pender's Grove Primary School. It's gone now (the apostrophe, not the school).

Sadly, he was twenty years too late to fight that battle of names, because the school was named after a place.

However, I still wondered about the Dysons question.

The official Australian Style manual says on page 86:
A possessive apostrophe is not necessary in the names of institutions, professional and industry bodies and other groups.
Perhaps the car had the clue after all; Dyson GROUP. Maybe they read their Style Guide and noted page 86.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

our plastic brains

There's a photo in the South Australian State Library showing a group of children playing with plasticine. Looking at it takes me back to those restful moments in my classrooms when all the children were busy (and happy) rolling out sausages of plasticine and creating fantastic sculptures with the untrammelled imaginations of childhood.

Plasticine, a soft modelling clay, was invented in 1897 and teachers loved it because it didn't stick to children's hands and it could be used repeatedly without going hard. I presume its name was based on the concept of its plasticity.

I've been thinking about the word plastic since I listened to
All In the Mind yesterday on Radio National. It was called The Power of Plasticity and was one of the most reassuring programs I've heard. The basic point was that our brains are capable of development as long as we are alive.

We long ago realised children's brains are malleable. That's why we concentrate so much of our resources on schooling in the younger years. But recent research indicates that our brains are plastic all through life. What we think about actually builds the structures in our brains. A thrilling concept. Since I listened to the show I've been walking around saying, 'I have a good memory. I have a good memory.' I hope I can remember to keep doing it...

I digress. Back to plastic. The Online Dictionary has the word being used as far back as 1632 in the sense of something capable of being shaped or moulded. The noun meaning 'solid substance that can be moulded' is dated from 1905- originally dental moulds.

The modern usage, a 'synthetic product made from oil derivatives,' seems oddly non-plastic to me. If I pick up a plastic container, I don't expect it to be malleable, especially if it's holding hot liquids. If I give it any thought at all, I would presume the plasticity was a necessary part of its formation into its present shape.

In terms of my brain, I hope the formation process never stops. 'Use it or lose it'. It comes down to that, I suppose.

One especially interesting aspect of the radio program was the statement that the brain and the mind are not the same - a challenging concept for me.

Yesterday's program was only part one. I'll be tuning in to part two.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

cosmology, the hadron collider and cosmetics

I was reading Mark Lawrence's blog post about the Large Hadron Collider and wanted to leave a comment reflecting on a cosmology course I once attended. I say attended, rather than studied, because my body was there but my brain was overwhelmed by the amazing concepts the teacher revealed to us - so much so that I wasn't even sure I'd remembered the name of the course correctly. In a half-remembered state, cosmology has scary connotations of astrology.

I looked in The Free Dictionary and found cosmology defined as
The study of the physical universe considered as a totality of phenomena in time and space.
a. The astrophysical study of the history, structure, and constituent dynamics of the universe.
b. A specific theory or model of this structure and these dynamics
A visit to Online Etymology Dictionary surprised me with the connection between the words cosmos and cosmetics. It's strange how often we use words from a similar root without thinking of their history.
In ancient Greek kosmos meant 'orderly arrangement', but had another sense of 'ornament, decoration, dress'.

A glance at the Collins Contemporary Greek dictionary - you never know what you'll find on a shelf in this house - comes up with κóσμημα (kosmeema) meaning decoration or jewel, and, even more interestingly to me, κόσμιος (kosmeeos), decent, modest or proper.

It's encouraging to consider that, no matter how weird daily life might seem, we're living in a universe that is supposed to be orderly and decent. If only there were some way to communicate this rule to the chaos that surrounds us, we could get on with living a predictable life.

But then again, tomorrow the Hadron Collider may suck us into a black hole.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

origin of the dog name Fido

We think of dogs as faithful companions; hence the use of the word 'Fido' as a generic term for domesticated dogs. Google Answers result for this name says that Fido was Abraham Lincoln's dog and because of Lincoln's celebrity status many people gave the same name to their dogs.

It certainly seems that Lincoln valued Fido, even though he couldn't take the dog with him to Washington.

I wondered why this name ended with the letter 'o' and then I recalled from my long-ago, short stint of learning Latin that this is a first-person verb ending. A site listing male names says it means 'I trust'. Hmm... who trusted whom? Did Lincoln name the dog because he trusted it, or did he believe his dog trusted him?

The University of Notre Dame Latin dictionary defines 'fido' as 'to trust, believe, confide in'. Okay, that's good - next time I find myself confiding my problems to my dog I won't feel embarrassed.

Etymology of First Names defines it as 'I am faithful'. Seems to me that's putting a slightly different emphasis on the relationship.

Eric Partridge, in Origins, A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, defines this name on page 197 as having probably come into English through the Italian word fido, meaning trusty.

So: we trust dogs
or we expect them to trust us.
Either way it's an important relationship.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Tesco - less is not the same as fewer

I read in The Age newspaper's Odd Spot today that Tesco, the British supermarket chain, is to change their quick-service lane sign from 'ten items or less' to 'up to 10 items'.

It seems the grammar police have won a small victory. I say, thank goodness Tesco didn't opt for 'Ten items or fewer'.

might be the more correct word, but it's a mouthful.

All this reminds me of something I read in David Crystal's book, The Fight for English. He says it's easier to control written language than to make spoken language conform. However, that's not a bad thing, because when you're speaking to someone you have the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings on the spot, but written language has to function without feedback from the reader.

I can't recall the last time I used the word fewer. I think it's gone from my vocabulary.

Uh, oh. I hope they don't come after me for assisting in the disappearance of a useful and precise word from everyday speech.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

interstitiality as a word to enliven our world

A voice on the radio shot a word into my sleepy brain this morning. It was interstitiality.

I had set my alarm to 'snooze' so I could slide back into that delicious half-awake state that begins the day. Suddenly I was focused, because the words coming from the speaker were so beautiful. Margaret Coffey, on the ABC program Encounter was interviewing a Catholic priest, a yogi and a Tibetan Buddhist monk who have set up an interfaith community in Melbourne.

I had a vague idea that the word interstice means the spaces in between atoms. So what did that have to do with spirituality? Swami Samnyasanand, who comes from a Himalayan yoga tradition, explained that the three men regard themselves as representing an interstitial zone in the spiritual life of our community - a meeting place. Water meets land, or day meets night. Dawn. Sunset. Beach. River bank.

These have been the subject of poetry and storytelling from ancient times. Powerful images.

The Swami spoke about the beauty of the sea at sunrise and sunrise and described the way you can sit there in silence to experience the moment where time and place intersect. I think we've all had experiences where we become sparklingly aware of the life of the world around us. It adds an extra dimension for me to be able to put a name to this kind of moment.

I had encountered the word before today, but now I know it in a different way. I think it will stay with me.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

talking to authors

This evening I went to Rendezvous, the Romance Bookshop, because a group of well-known writers were signing their books. They are in Australia for the Romance Writers of Australia Conference, which finished three days ago.

I felt hesitant to go, because I tend to freeze when I meet authors and usually produce a glacial silence, interspersed with bursts of gibberish as I try to squeeze out some intelligent talk. But my sister was the keen fan tonight, so I felt relatively relaxed; I was just moral support.

And then she wandered off.

There I was standing beside Jo Beverley. I've read many of her novels, but 'author phobia' set in and I couldn't remember any of them. I thought I'd better say something, so I asked, 'How much research do you need to do, considering you know your period so well?' It seemed a safe enough question, because I know her historical detail is always accurate.

And the conversation went from there. It was inspiring to a wannabe writer like myself.

Here's some of what I remember of the discussion.
  • Her plot evolves as the events and characters lead her.
  • If she didn't take pleasure in writing a book, it's likely her readers wouldn't enjoy it either.
  • She usually works about four hours a day.
  • Generally she will read back a couple of hundred words of what she wrote the previous day as she starts a new session.
  • She doesn't let her 'internal critic' loose on the first draft and if she can't think of a particular word, she types in symbols as place-holders.

In describing her technique for building characters, Jo used the metaphor of a sculptor building a figure in clay. First she pulls together a rough shape and then adds layers of detail. Which gives me the chance I've been waiting for - to use my newest verbal acquisition. Her characters are made of clay but they don't have argillaceous feet.

And if you don't know what that second-last word means, you might like to subscribe to one of my favorite email services - A. Word. A. Day. If you do, you'll get one interesting or unusual word mailed to you each day.

Today's word was 'argillaceous'; meaning made of, resembling, or relating to clay: clayey.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The love of neologisms

Forty years ago I fell in love with a German.

A German word, that is.

The word was meinetwegen. Its silky syllables rolled off my tongue and I've been using it ever since. To me it means in my opinion. Today, my sister asked me which one of her fabric designs I preferred and I pointed to one and said, "That one - meinetwegen".

But here's the rub.

I just now looked it up in a German dictionary and discovered I'm using it incorrectly. So, do I have to stop using it? My family know what I mean, and they're the only ones who hear it.

Where do words get their meanings? I think it's by mutual agreement between speaker and listener, and that's why words can morph into new creatures - neologisms - over time. Take the example of the extraordinary change in the meaning of that all-purpose word, nice; it evolved from meaning foolish to denoting agreeable.

Words are all around us. They define the way we experience the world. I love discovering new words, whether they are accidents of history or deliberately coined. A visit to Word Spy, a 'site devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases' reveals the extent of change in our language.

I'm starting this blog to express my love of language. I'd love to hear from you if you share my passion.