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.