Sunday, 27 December 2009

Shakespeare overtaken in the neologism stakes by the Simpsons?

In The Age newspaper yesterday Ken Nguyen wrote about the perils of quoting from the Simpsons; he sets out a range of possible faux pas, the worst of which is 'to use any of the early seasons' self-consciously manufactured catchphrases' - Eat my shorts, for instance.

I won't be likely to make this faux pas, as I don't know any phrases from The Simpsons.

Not consciously, that is. But I may be more influenced by this television program than I realise. Nguyen refers to a comment by Mark Liberman of Language Log that The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture's greatest source of idioms, catchphrases and sundry other textual allusions.'

Liberman originally mentioned the idea only in passing, but it's spreading around the Net.

Considering that The Simpsons has now been around for twenty years I guess it could have had a massive impact on our vocabulary, but I'd doubt it could equal the huge number of nelogisms attributed to Shakespeare. Here's a piece from The Washington Post that quotes from Harper's Weekly:

If you had lived in Shakespeare's time you might not have ranked him as the best of the London dramatists. In the April issue of Harper's, Jonathan Bate explores how Shakespeare emerged to become the most famous writer in the world, and how his works have endured all the changes in taste and political fashion over the past four centuries. I can't find a (free) link to the story online, so I'm going to type in a passage on Shakespeare's neologisms. It's not true, Bate writes, that Shakespeare coined more English words than anyone else. But his coinage was still impressive:

'He gave us such verbs as "puke," "torture," "misquote," "gossip," "swagger," "blanket" (PoorTom's "blanket my loins" in Lear), and "champion" (Macbeth's "champion me to the utterance"). He invented the nouns "critic," "mountaineer," "pageantry," and "eyeball"; the adjectives "fashionable," "unreal," "blood-stained," "deafening," "majestic," and "domineering"; the adverbs "instinctively" and "obsequiously" in the sense of "behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead." Many of Shakespeare's coinages are not new words but old words in new contexts (such as the application of "manager" to the entertainment business, with Midsummer Night's Dream's "manager of mirth") or new compounds or old words wrested to new grammatical usage. Although twenty-first-century electronic databases diminish the extent of Shakespeare's actual coinages, they immeasurably enrich our sense of the astonishingly multivalent, polysemous quality of his language.'

Friday, 25 December 2009

weeding the garden and pit verbs

Recently I was thinking about the verb to weed, so I was interested to read a post today on Language Log about verbs that mean removing the thing that is named, for instance to bone a piece of meat, to gut a fish or to string a bean.

The post also refers to pitting a cherry and says this is why this type of verb is called a pit verb. I would not use the word pit to refer to the seed in a cherry. I'd use the noun pip instead, and I think this is probably standard in Australia. But if I needed a verb for the action I'd say I was going to pit the cherries.

I definitely wouldn't say I was pipping cherries.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

christmas wishes and seasonal wishes to everyone

On behalf of Penny and myself, I'd like to wish everyone a happy holiday season, no matter what kind of celebrations you have at this midsummer/midwinter season.

Best wishes for peace and joy.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

when our choice of vocabulary changes our thinking

I used to hate weeding the garden. Now I don't mind, because I think of it as harvesting the weeds.

My attitude to this task alters with the use of a different verb.

I made this change in my vocabulary, and thus in my thinking, when I read a couple of books by Jackie French: Soil Food and Organic Control of Common Weeds. She believes weeds have a place in our gardens, because they stabilise disturbed ground and prepare it for other species to grow there when the time is ripe. In Organic Control of Common Weeds she writes that they are plants 'in conflict with human wishes... Deep rooted weeds can bring up leached elements from deep in the soil where shallower-rooted plants can't reach. As their leaves break down these nutrients are returned to the top soil where shallow-rooted plants can use them.'

In Soil Food she explains how to sink weeds into a bucket of water (with a lid so mosquitoes don't colonise) and wait for them to decompose. The liquid can then be watered down as a light fertiliser and the gunk in the bottom can be used as mulch.

Here are some weeds I happily collected today, ready to be plunged into water and covered.

And here are some that are ready to go back into the soil.

And here are more.

I now see my weeds as a resource and not a nuisance, all because of changing the words I use in thinking about them.

So what is the origin of the associated noun, weed? According to Linguistic Wonder Series in, originally in Old English we:od meant 'grass, herb, weed'.

So, I don't have to be frightened of the enormous task of pulling out the weeds in my garden. I can see it as an opportunity to return their nutrients to the soil.
If I persevere...

Monday, 21 December 2009

hell - cold or hot?

Last September I wrote that I wondered whether the word hell has a similar origin to the German word for a cave, Höhle.

I'm still not sure about that point, but in a book called Word Histories and Mysteries; From Abracadabra to Zeus I read that for the Old English, Hell was a black and fiery place, but for the Old Norse, hell was cold. The Old English meaning came about because the Roman Catholic church was the predominant religious system at the time in England and the Mediterranean view of torment - heat - prevailed there.

The Indo-European root behind the word is kel-, to cover, conceal, so hell once meant the concealed place.

So I guess it could be the same root as for Höhle.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

omitting apostrophes

The Australian Government Style manual, the official arbiter of grammar and punctuation in Australian publications, says of apostrophes:
It is increasingly common for the apostrophe to be dropped from the names of other institutions where the plural reference is a human reference - for example, Geologists Conference, Plumbers and Gasfitters Union. In all such cases, the plural word is not strictly possessive; its relationship with the following word or phrase is associative or descriptive, rather like an adjective.
Now, a toilet block is not usually considered an institution. But, maybe I shouldn't always smile when I'm walking in Darebin Parklands and I see these two signs:

I always have an image in my mind of little 'mens' and 'womens' making their way into the toilet block. I don't know why they have to be little, but that's the way my imagination processes it.

If I visualise the toilets as a meeting place, a kind of informal conference centre, and think of the words as having the understood extra word, toilet - mens toilet, womens toilet - then it sort of fits the rule I quoted at the start of this post, ie it's not a place owned by men or women, but a place where they are gathered.

But, deep down, I want to add an apostrophe.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

at last, a photo of Kathryn/e street that is nearly visible

Here's a pretty good nother try at photographing the strange additional letter on the sign for Kathryn Street on the Metropolitan Ring Road in Melbourne.

Oh, I would so-o like to know who did it and why.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

kathryn street or kathryne street?

There's a sign on the Metropolitan Ring Road in Melbourne's north, originally posted as KATHRYN STREET but altered by some brave, obstinate or foolhardy soul to say KATHRYNE STREET.

I say 'foolhardy or brave' because it is on a bridge at a busy part of this multi-lane freeway and I can't visualise how the perpetrator got to the sign to insert the small letter 'E' on the end of the sign, or, more importantly, why they wanted to do so.

As I was driving to Melbourne on this road today, near Fawkner, I was determined to get a shot of the sign. I had my passenger all set up with camera at the ready, and here's the photo:

Yes, it's a terrible shot, and we missed the sign altogether, but it was the best we could do in the thundering traffic. So, how did the writer manage to get down to the road and add a letter to the inaccessible and dangerously-situated sign? And why did he or she care about the spelling of this word?

The saga contines...

One of these days I'll get a good photo and post it, and one day I'll find out the answer to this question.

Friday, 11 December 2009

comma splices gain credibility

I've just noticed some comma splices in such a prestigious text that I'm now doubting my own ability to spot them. It's in a book called Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolley: Her life and Work.

As the blurb says, 'Elizabeth Jolley is one of Australia's most significant and best-loved writers'. So, if she's using comma splices they must have a role to play. I noticed them most in a short story called Paper Children. Here are a couple of examples:
Even their letters were strange, they wrote in English because Lisa had never learned to speak anything else.

Lisa tried to look forward to the visit, she knew so little about her mother, an old lady now after a life of hard work as a doctor.
The use of these constructions seems to me to give a sense of intimacy, closeness to the point of view of the two characters in the story.

And, from another story, Pear Street Dance:
No one needed to read anything, the Newspper of Claremont Street told them all the news.
I guess, now that I'm looking out for comma splices, I'm going to find them all over the place...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

comma splices and a frightening and thrilling Pastworld

I've just read a novel I thoroughly enjoyed. It's called Pastworld. After a while, mainly because of the age of the main characters - 17 - I realised the book was written for young people. It's published by Bloomsbury Children's Books.

The idea underlying the plot is gripping - London, in the middle of the twenty-first century, has been bought by a mega-Corporation and turned into a huge theme park where residents and visitors live according to Victorian-era laws, morality and culture. The darker side of Victorian life (and of mega-corporations!) creates a sense of evil that provides the tension.

The book's a great read and I wonder if it might one day be made into a film.

One odd thing that struck me about the writing was that the author, Ian Beck, sometimes uses comma splices.

At first I thought it was occurring only in dialogue, which seems fine to me, as it gives a sense of the individuality of a character. Here's an example from page 84. 'At least we shall travel on a steam train, you might enjoy that.'

But there are comma splices in other places too, for instance on page 88: Lucius turned to Caleb and stopped him, he held on to his arm and said almost in a whisper...

There are many more examples of this construction.

I've heard it said that the comma splice will eventually be acceptable in English. I know that I see it often in the writing of teenagers, which makes me wonder if their writing is a sign of the times to come. I like changes in English, in language generally, because to me that's a sign of life, of change and growth. But I must say that comma splices 'twang' for me when I'm reading and take me momentarily out of the world of the writer's imagination.

Anyway, here's a great gift idea for all those writers who've already moved into the brave new world of comma splicing.

When I checked out the home page of the writer, Ian Beck, I was pleasantly surprised to realise he's the author of some of the lovely picture books I've shard with young children in the past.

a good nother idea

I'm still on the trail of the new word nother. Recently my sister said, 'That'll weigh a good nother kilo, I reckon'.

Okay... now I've heard a different word than whole inserted between an and other.

So now I think maybe our brains are processing the expression as one word rather than as a phrase. Maybe it's the word another with an infix in it.

When I looked up infix in the Merriam Webster online, I was surprised to discover it can be a transitive verb or an adjective as well as a noun. However, it seems as if we don't use infixes much in English compared to other languages.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

when a gerund does the job better than another noun form

I noticed a sign on the back of a van today. It said, 'Pipe and cable locating'.

My first reaction was that it should have said, 'Pipe and cable location', as I think location is the noun that best describes what I presume this company does - scan for pipes before the client excavates.

But they used a gerund, a verb form that operates as a noun.

On reflection, I think the sign is clever, in that the gerund form creates a subtle advertisement for them as an active business that will do things for you.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

a creative use of minimalist graffiti

A great use of two letters of the alphabet to transform a boring road sign into something with a message!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Oxford dictionary's word of the year in the 20th century

I wondered whether the British part of the Oxford University Press has a different Word of the Year from the American English one, unfriend, but I haven't found the answer yet.

However, I did find a list of the words that were chosen as most prominent, from 1906 to 2006.

I estimate thirty-four of those words are part of my regular vocabulary.

American English word of the year is unfriend

The New Oxford American Dictionary has declared that the word of the year for 2009 is the verb unfriend.

That seems a sign of the times - unfriending people is a word that “has both currency and potential longevity", according to Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for the New Oxford American Dictionary. It's a pity the friendships don't also have longevity. I must admit to a cynical attitude about friendships maintained exclusively on Facebook without some personal interaction to bolster them. And perhaps we live in times when everything is disposable. Even people.

Lindberg says
Most “un-” prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar “un-” verbs (uncap, unpack), but “unfriend” is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!).
I recently posted about Chad Taylor's use of the modern verb friend and I subsequently discovered a Grammarphobia Blog entry dating a similar verb, to friend, back to the thirteenth century.

Monday, 16 November 2009

more about truce terms in children's games

Papillon Bleu (whose blog about miniatures and dolls I love reading), has told me that when she was growing up in France, she used the term 'pouce' as a truce term in games. I'll post her comment here so you can read it:
We used to say "pouce!"when I was little and we had to put both thumbs up.I don't know if the children in France still use this expression.
Google translates this word as thumb.Wikipedia isn't my favorite place for researching things, but I did think it was interesting that the article on truce terms refers to the possible use of the thumb in this context as far back as the time of James I of Scotland (early fifteenth century):
The use of barlay as a truce term appears in the 14th century poem Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight and Tobias Smollett's The Reprisal. It is recorded in lexicographer John Jamieson's 1808 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language as a term specifically used by children to demand truce. A probable variation also appears in the 1568 manuscript Chrysts-Kirk of the Grene, sometimes attributed to James I of Scotland, as follows;

Thocht he was wicht, he was nocht wyss,
With sic Jangleurs to jummill;
For frae his Thoume they dang a Sklyss,
Quhyle he cry'd Barlafummill.

The "Thoume" (thumb) that is "sklyss" (sliced) in the quote above may refer to the thumb having been raised by the man calling barlafummill, a common accompanying gesture to the use of a truce term in Scotland.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

One mistranslated word can make a big difference

There's a story making the rounds of the internet, reporting that a tourism advertising campaign for the city of Riga in Latvia accidentally printed the wrong captions on posters. Instead of saying Riga City: easy to go, hard to leave, it said Riga City: easy to go, hard to live.

A rather bad mistake!

Here are pictures of the posters. Some seem to have the correct word.

Given that more are correct than incorrect, I suppose it was a mistake at the printers, rather than at the translation level.

It's all too easy to criticise translations into English, but I can't be too smug if they've taken the trouble to learn my language and I don't know one word of theirs.

I couldn't say the promotion would encourage me to include Riga on my next travel itinerary, because I dislike the puffy heart-thing that appears in the photos, and the fact that Riga is Birthplace of Christmas tree. Now for 499 years is totally uninteresting in terms of tourism. (And that piece of clumsy English does seem to be the responsibility of a translator.)

All this reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story that Mitsubishi accidentally named one of their car models the Starion, intending it to be the Stallion. has an interesting discussion of this and other possible translation disasters in relation to automobiles. (Surely it can't be true that Mitsubishi had a car called The Lettuce!)

The Northern Echo features a discussion of the pitfalls of naming a vehicle that will be sold all around the word.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

calling a barley truce in a game

When my dog jumps onto her green mat during a game of chase-her-to-get-the-ball, it's called barley, which in our family means a truce and no-one can grab the ball from her.

I got to wondering whether other families use the expression 'barley' in this sense, and found it's not widely used.

The Virtual Linguist is collecting examples of the use of this and similar words. A Wikipedia article refers to the use of this term, with variants, in Australia.

It said
Peter Opie, who in 1959 conducted the most extensive study on the subject to date, considered the truce term to be the most important word in a schoolchild's vocabulary and one for which there was no adult equivalent...However, research into early recorded use of these terms found examples of some of these terms being used as a sign of surrender in battle or adult fights or quarrels as late as the 18th century.
It seems to me the phrase will stay in an adult's vocabulary if the adult continues to play, in the kind of innocent way children play - and, of course, that's what pet dogs teach us to do.

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,by Iona and Peter Opie, was published in 1959, with an introduction by Marina Warner that says, in part
In the chapter called “Code of Oral Legislation,” they give a truly mind-boggling list of over fifty “truce terms,” including variations on “barlay,” “crosses,” and “squits,” by which children “obtain respite” from one another during a fight or other kind of struggle; a gloss provided by J. R. R. Tolkien himself connects “Fains” (pronounced “Veins” at my convent school in the Sixties)
with Old French se feindre, and he is able to use it to throw light on a crux in Chaucer, making the term five hundred years old. It must be said that the beautiful “distribution maps”—no less than six in this chapter alone, here illustrating truce terms’ usage—add considerably to the impact of the data; with something of the quality of a handdrawn treasure map in an adventure story, they reach a high-water mark that published scholarship in this field will probably never attain again.

I notice the word is spelled barlay in the Opie book.

I think I'll look for a copy of the book, after reading a review of it by Kenneth Rexroth (written in 1960).

Sunday, 1 November 2009

hypo and hyper and a game called MooT

Browsing the internet tonight to check my understanding of the difference between the prefixes hyper and hypo, I've come across an interesting-looking game called MooT.

I was thinking how strange it is that we have taken two similar-sounding prefixes from the Greek language and thus set ourselves up for confusion - hyper meaning above, and hypo, meaning under. I always remember that hypo means "under", because I visualise a hypodermic, which goes under the skin.

The most frequent confusion of these two prefixes, in my experience, is in a school situation, when someone remarks that a child is hypo. I always have a vision of a quiet, sleepy child who is "under the weather", but the speaker means a child who is overactive. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the use of hyper as a stand-alone word to mean overexcited, was first attested in 1942.

I would say that I've heard hypo used much more frequently than hyper, in this context, and I wonder if it will eventually be the preferred word, even though it has the opposite meaning.

A Google search on hypo landed me on the Moot site, and I think the game looks like great fun.

some names need to be remembered forever

Douglas Bader was one of my heroes when I was growing up. I'd almost forgotten his name, but was reminded of him when Richard Stubbs mentioned him recently on his afternoon show on ABC radio 774 Melbourne. Stubbs says this is one word we should all remember - and I agree.

The word Bader is a synonym for courage and determination. He lost both legs in a time when disability was seen as a barrier to achievement, but refused to be sidelined. He taught himself to walk on two "tin legs", without even using walking sticks, and eventually flew fighter planes in the second world war. For a brief summary of his life, look here.

I didn't see a reference in that article to something Stubbs and his guest talked about - the fact that the Germans allowed a British plane to fly over their territory during the war to drop a prosthetic leg to replace the one Bader had lost when he was captured.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

theremin, a new word for me

Today in The Age newspaper Danny Katz referred to a theremin. Actually, he mentioned a Dr Who theremin.

I didn't have the least idea what it would be - turns out it's a musical instrument. Aha, so that's how they made that weird sound in the Dr Who theme.

Here's a guy having fun trying to play the theremin. Amazingly, you don't touch it to produce the music.

The story of the inventor is interesting, too. He was a Russian who went to the US but was forcibly repatriated to the USSR in 1938, put in a prison camp for some time and is said to have subsequently worked for the KGB. Maybe one of these days we'll be watching a film based on his life.

Here's a page of information about the theremin and its inventor. And here's a musician playing Ave Maria.

Oh, by the way, the theremin was played in the best sci-fi film ever made - of course, I refer to the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Friday, 30 October 2009

ghost writing vis-a-vis co-authoring

Today Richard Stubbs on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne talked with Felix Francis, the younger son of Dick Francis, the author of so many horse-racing related thrillers.

I've already mentioned that Hackpacker had a cross-posted report from the Edinburgh Book Festival in which it was said that most of Dick Francis' books were ghost-written by his wife.

Felix Francis explains the writing of the novels - which I loved - as more of a 'family business' than ghost-writing. He told Richard Stubbs that he has taken over the writing of novels in the Francis name, but Dick Francis is still involved in the composition of the stories and has the power of veto over what is written under this 'brand name'.

In an article in The Age newspaper he is quoted:
''My father was the ideas man, he was great on characters and plots,'' says Felix Francis, 56, as he sits in the grandstand at Flemington. ''My mother would take his words and put rhythm into the sentences, polish them. She always said she corrected the spelling, but she did more than that. My mother and father wrote the books together, they always did.''
With the rise of new technologies in the world of writing, it is tempting to see a novel as a 'product'-if you buy a digital copy you are not buying the physical book, you are buying the way the words were put together. So it seems logical to refer to the Dick Francis novels as a 'family business'.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

a whole nother conversation

Still on the track of that elusive new word, nother, I found a trace of it today on the radio, on ABC 774, when Jon Faine, a presenter whom I respect, used it. He was talking to John Alexander, former tennis star, about Alexander's try for preselection in the electorate of Bennelong, and Faine said a particular topic (I forget what) was "a whole nother conversation".

As far as I can see, the new word only occurs with the word whole. Back in August I thought it would oust other, but I'm coming to the conclusion that it will come in as a new word alongside it, seeing it is only occurring as a phrase with whole.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

what spelling tells us about word history

I often notice the words stationery and stationary used interchangeably, and wish the writer had been fortunate enough, as I was, to have a teacher explain a useful mnemonic for remembering which is which.

(In researching this post, I've come across a fun site called Mnemonic Dictionary where people suggest their own mnemonics for various words.)

The trick I was taught for distinguishing between stationery and stationary was similar to the one at

But I think the best way to distinguish between spellings is to know the reason behind them. A stationer, in mediaeval times, was a merchant who had the right to stay in one place rather than have to wander around, as pedlars usually did at that time. The stationer was usually based near a university and sold books - but also writing materials.

So, if I just remember that there's a person selling paper and writing products in the shop, and that person is a stationer, I should remember the spelling of stationery.

The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers in Britain has a little more about the topic. (I love that name.)

And more at Ryman Stationery in the UK.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Mechanics Institutes

The latest edition of the local paper for the Upper Yarra Valley has an advertisement for a building for sale. I don't expect to learn more about the meaning of words from real estate ads, but I did today. The building in question is a Mechanics Institute. I've seen them all around our own state, Victoria, but didn't realise until I started writing this post that they are part of a world-wide movement.

It had never occurred to me previously to wonder whether there were so many mechanics in the nineteenth century that the need to educate them was so pressing that hundreds of institutions were built and staffed.

But I read that the word mechanic in the nineteenth century meant artisan, craftsman or working man. (Hmm...I wonder if women were permitted to attend these early institutions for adult education.)

The Online Etymological Dictionary says the word used to refer primarily to those who were employed in manual labour, handicraft workers or artisans, until the rise of the automobile, when the main meaning came to refer to those who make or repair machinery.

Friday, 23 October 2009

interstitial art

Now that I've acquired the word interstitial as a part of my vocabulary, it's great to have a chance to use it, so I'll link to a Boing Boing post on interstitial writing.

The post says, 'Interstitial art is found in the interstices of recognized category and genre.' For eight weeks The Interstitial Arts Foundation will be publishing one short story a week.

Hmm... the more times I write this word, the harder it is to spell it, so I won't be surprised if I've got it wrong at least once in this post.

when expressions go extinct

As I was listening to a discussion today on the ABC about the future of the Southern Bluefin Tuna, an expert in the area said they might possible go extinct if we don't work out whether we are overfishing this species.

I don't say "go extinct". I would normally say become extinct. I was surprised to hear the former phrase used on the ABC, and by an expert. I had noticed the same phrase used in the book I mentioned on 17 September, The Link, by Colin Tudge.

It appears I am behind the times, so I'd better adjust my vocabulary to the twenty-first century.

A quick Google search on the phrases 'go extinct/become extinct' comes up with a list of sites almost equally divided between the two phrases, but the interesting thing is that many of the brief summaries use both expressions interchangeably.

So maybe I can keep on saying it my way. My way is not extinct yet.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

ghost writers in the sky

Okay, I couldn't resist heading this post with a feeble pun.

Today I read an article in The Age about the launch of a book by Mick Gatto, an autobiography. I think it's interesting that the launch featured three Mick Gattos; Gatto himself; the actor who played him in Underbelly, a recent televison series about gangland warfare in Australia; and, not least, the writer who ghosted the book.

The Australian says Gatto raced his story into print to get in before the producers of Underbelly produce a film about Gatto's life.

I think it's not often that a ghost writer is given a significant role at the launch of a book, even appearing as one of the major speakers.

Incidentally, the book was produced in only four months, according to The Australian.

Ghost writing must be a highly specialised skill, I reckon, because you have to write in another person's voice. For more information on this, there's a cross-posted report from the Edinburgh Book Festival on Hackpacker's blog.

Monday, 5 October 2009

yet more about the prefix be-

In searching out information about befriend as a verb, I came across a word I hadn't heard before - it's privative. I came across the word in the summary of an article about be- and bi- used as prefixes in verbs of deception, like beguile and betray. There's another word, bewray, meaning to divulge, reveal or betray, but that word's not used nowadays at all.

I think the article argues that this psychological sense of the prefix came about via an earlier privative construction, such as in bereave or behead.

A prefix can be privative. Hmm... What does that mean? I was beginning to feel completely lost, until I looked up the meaning of this new word. Privative, according to thefreedictionary, means 'altering the meaning of a term from positive to negative'. Yeah... getting beheaded would be a very negative experience.

And then, of course, there's privation, which sounds similar, so I'm going to remember this new word, privative, by comparison with privation and being deprived of something.

Well, I'll remember it for as long as I can - probably till tomorrow morning if I'm lucky.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

use of the prefix be-

I'm still wondering about the difference between the verb befriend and the verb, to friend.

I thought I'd have a look at the meaning of the prefix be-.

The dictionary on my computer has this entry for be- in the formation of verbs:
• all over; all around : bespatter.
• thoroughly; excessively : bewilder.
2 (added to intransitive verbs) expressing transitive action : bemoan.
3 (added to adjectives and nouns) expressing transitive action : befool | befriend.
4 (added to nouns) affect with : befog.
• (added to adjectives) cause to be : befoul.
5 (forming adjectives ending in -ed) having; covered with: : bejeweled.
ORIGIN Old English , weak form of bī [by.]

It sure is a useful prefix.

And when I looked in The Word Museum, by Jeffrey Kacirk, I found lots of lovely old words that we don't use now:
beblubbered = swollen
begrumpled = displeased (Now that one is definitely going into my vocabulary.)
begrutten = showing the effects of much weeping (I hope I don't need that one in the near future.)
behounc'd = tricked out to look fine (You'll have to buy the book to track down the origin of that one.)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

friend is not such a new verb after all

I've just noticed a post on LanguageLog Grammarphobia Blog about the verb friend. The post cites a history for the verb friend going back to 1225!

I love reading LanguageLog. What a coincidence that it has a post on the very topic I'm interested in right now.

befriend or friend?

I posted about the new word friend, a verb meaning to make friends with someone on Facebook. (I don't think I've seen this word used as a verb on Facebook itself, though.)

I was wondering why we don't use the existing word, befriend, but perhaps befriend has too specific a meaning:
verb [ trans. ]
act as a friend to (someone) by offering help or support.
Maybe when we friend someone on Facebook we don't want to enter into the complexity of a relationship that places any demands on us; we don't want to have to help out or support the other person. After all, the new Facebook friend might be someone we haven't seen for twenty years, someone we don't intend to see in person in the next twenty.

new word 'friended' slides into everyday parlance

Chad Taylor wrote an article in The Age newspaper last week about turning his back on Facebook because it no longer serves his needs. He said,
I liked it at first. I joined and was quickly “friended” by an ex-colleague…
I didn’t “friend” strangers or celebrities.
It’s a relatively new word, friended, so it seemed logical to me that Chad Taylor would place it in quotation marks. After all, he’s a word-smith, a novelist.

But the third time he used it in his article, he didn’t put quotation marks around it. He said,
…but one of her friends was an editor whom I friended…
And that seems logical to me also. You can’t go on forever placing quotes around a word. If it’s going to make its way in the world, it has to stand on its own.

So Chad Taylor’s one-page article seems to me a microcosm of the absorption of a new word into everyday English.

(I'd like to have put a link to the article but you have to pay to read it, so I didn't do so. Oh, the joy of old technologies - I have a hard-copy on my desk, and I can re-read it as many times as I like, for free.)

Sunday, 27 September 2009

ancestor or descendant?

It's surprising how often peope accidentally use the word ancestor when they mean descendant.

Today an article in The Sunday Age said:
During the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, Confucius - "Kong Fuzi" in Chinese - was reviled as a "stinking corpse" by Chairman Mao, whose Red Guards were ordered to destroy Confucian artefacts and persecute his ancestors as symbols of feudal oppression.
I did a mental double-take when I read it, wondering if perhaps Confucian family corpses had been dug up and desecrated.

But on a second reading I think the writer has used the wrong word.

A while ago I watched an episode of the British televsion series, Who Do You Think You Are, a wonderful programme, and I'm reasonably sure I remember one of the speakers using the word ancestor incorrectly.

English Common Errors mentions that in an earlier edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J K Rowling made this error. (It was corrected in a later edition after many people commented on it.)

Language Log, in a discussion of the linearity of English, suggests that people might use ancestor as a word that covers both directions in time, ie those who were born before and those who were born after.

This sounds reasonable to me, since I've never heard anyone confuse the two words in the opposite way.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

detecting or detectoring for an Anglo-Saxon treasure?

I was listening to a report about the amazing discovery of a hoard of Anglo-Saxon metal artifacts, a discovery that will change the way historians view the seventh century. The reporter said the finder was 'doing a spot of metal detect-' and I expected to hear detecting.

But she said detectoring.

My computer dictionary doesn't like this word detectoring and insists on putting a little red dotted line under it. And Google asks me, when I search the word, do I mean detecting?

But I guess the people who go looking for metal know the jargon for their activity, and the Romney Marsh Metal Detecting Club uses the word detectorists to describe their members.

But I notice they are a detecting club.

Friday, 25 September 2009

mediaeval help-desk

A friend forwarded me this short clip on how mediaeval readers might have coped with changes in the technology of reading.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

origin of the word scientist

Robyn Williams, on The Science Show, was recently in Britain talking to scientists in Guilford, in Surrey, at The British Festival of Science. He said this festival has been going for about 180 years.

I was interested to hear him say it was here that the word scientist was first coined, in 1833.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that William Whewell (1794-1866), who originated the word scientist, was an influential thinker, respected by the major scientists of his day, so much so that he was frequently asked to invent new words.
Whewell invented the terms “anode,” “cathode,” and “ion” for Faraday. Upon the request of the poet Coleridge in 1833 Whewell invented the English word “scientist;” before this time the only terms in use were “natural philosopher” and “man of science.”
Wondering why it took a poet to request a new term, I looked at a short piece by John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston. It's a brief discussion of the influence the Romantic Poets had on the science of the 19th Century. In part, he says:
When those 19th-century thinkers attacked Rationalism, their impact on the world of making and doing was profound. Science went into retreat while a technology like none ever known rose up in England. Machines, of course, are the first fruit of the human mind. Before a machine can be built in the world, it must be built in the mind. It is a synthetic reality. Technology acts out the Romantic vision.

I must say, to me it's poetry in motion to see a passenger jet streak across the sky, or to listen to the rumble of traffic across the old stone bridge over the Darebin Creek.

funny quotation marks

I've just been laughing out loud at the photos on the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks.

It's hilarious.

What a money saver it would be if someone told the sign-writers not to waste paint on those unnecessary punctuation marks.

I found this great site by following a link from Language Log.

browsing or grazing?

Sometimes the origin of a word is so obvious that I wonder why I never thought of it.

I'm still reading (and loving) The Link; Uncovering our Earliest Ancestor, as I mentioned on 17 September. Last night I was struck by the simple word graze when I was reading about the important role grass has played in the history of our planet.
But grass has always been important to us. The evolutionary rise of grass matters to us absolutely, but grass has become such a powerful player in the world's ecology primarily because, almost uniquely among plants, it likes to be eaten - not too much but quite a lot.
Well, that certainly makes me feel better about mowing the lawn. I don't eat the grass, but I do feed it back to the ground, as mulch.

Grazers eat grass. So simple. So elegant. I wonder if in the distant past our ancestors called them grassers.

Browsers are herbivores also, but they feed on the shoots of leaves and bushes.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


I came across a new word today, one I simply have to have, because it says something so economically. It's lagniappe and I saw it at Language Log.

It means something thrown in as a free extra. It's pronounced lan-yap and comes from the US, from American French, via American Spanish, from Quechua.
Merriam-Webster dates it from 1844

I'll be looking for a chance to use it.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Morgan the dog and the etymology of his name

A research project at LaTrobe university aims to study ways to help people remember faces and names. Since I'm terrible at both of these tasks, I volunteered to take part. In the course of the first interview, one of the strategies mentioned was to make a memorable association with a newly heard name.

So, today, when I was trying to memorise the name Morgan (the name of a dog, I might mention), I thought of Morgan the pirate. I can't remember anything about Morgan the pirate, but his surname has stuck in my memory. The dog is black, and I thought it might be a black business being a pirate.

So far, so good. The black dog is named Morgan...

But then I wondered about the word morganatic. Being an occasional reader of Regency Romances (well, more than occasional), I know about the morganatic marriage between George, Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert. But how did such a marriage get its name?

I was surprised to read on TripAtlas that morganatic marriages have never been a part of British law; but that does explain why society in the early nineteenth century did not recognise the marriage.

WorldWideWords says etymologists puzzled over the origins of morganatic, and even at one time believed it might derive from the unequal marriage between Morgan le Fey (a fairy) and a mortal.

Michael Quinion, the author of WordWideWords, suggests that the generally accepted meaning is associated with an old word for Morning Gift, morganegiba (think of the modern German word for morning, Morgen). In an old custom, a husband would give a gift to his wife the morning after a marriage was consummated. In a morganatic marriage, this is all the wife receives - she can't make a claim on the husband's rank or entitlements and neither can any children of the marriage.

Incidentally, I was interested to read on TripAtlas the assertion that the church pushed for the adoption of the practice of Morning Gift as a way of giving women more security in a marriage - any lands or goods given were owned independently by the wife and held for her children.

But, after all this research, I'm left with the most important piece of information - my new canine friend is named Morgan!

Perhaps I could have saved myself a long process if I'd taken notice of his owner's assertion that his name means 'lives by the sea' - but no associations occurred to me about a young black labrador and the sea.

Hmmm... wait a minute? Weren't Labrador retrievers originally bred to help fishermen haul in the nets?

Friday, 18 September 2009

prefixes, suffixes and infixes - and arpy darpy

When I posted about the use of bloody as a highly informal insertion into Australian English words, I didn't know this form of expression is called an infix, until Anonymous commented on the post.

Since then I've discovered that this particular infix is a FREE morpheme (smallest unit of meaning) because it can also operate as a stand-alone word - that is, it can move freely within a sentence without being part of another word.

I've been told about blooming, which can operate in the same way, but has more of a British English tone.

And, just now, I was browsing HyperTextBooks and saw a mention of damn used in the same way - fan-damn-tastic - though I must say the particular example doesn't roll off my tongue as smoothly as our Aussie expression does.

But, best of all , I suddenly remembered arp-language! When I was young I could speak it quickly and fluently, but now I have trouble even remembering how it worked. But I think it involved inserting arp - an infix! surely an infix! - before any vowel that was sounded. For instance, bottle would be barpottle and camera would be carpamarperarpa. Or maybe it would have been carpamarpra, because we pronounced it camra.

A Wikipedia entry calls this language game Arpy-Darpy and says it is spoken in New Zealand. Well, I can attest that it has been spoken in Australia, though I don't know if anyone plays with it now. We called it Arp-language.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

origin of the phrase 'survival of the fittest'

I'm reading a book about the discovery of the most complete early primate fossil ever found. It's called 'The Link' and it's by Colin Tudge. (If you click on the link - no pun intended - to the book, you'll arrive at a wealth of information about this fossil, and you can download the first chapter.)

I'm fascinated by the story of Ida, the young creature who breathed carbon dioxide, died and fell into a pool, her body preserved as a perfect specimen because there was no air at the bottom of the pool. But I didn't expect the laugh-out-loud moment that came with the reading of a paragraph about the phrase 'survival of the fittest'.

Tudge explains that in the middle of the nineteenth century the word fittest didn't have the dominant connotation it has now, 'of health and raw strength'. To the Victorians the word meant suitable or apt, and Charles Darwin was quite clear that natural selection does not need to result in creatures that are superior to their predecessors. Tudge explains:
He [Darwin] had spent a long time studying barnacles, after all, and barnacles are astonishingly successful - we find them everywhere. But they descended from free-living, shrimplike ancestors and became barnacles by losing their brains and sticking themselves head-first to rocks - hardly a great leap forward, but it worked.
I love this explanation!

By the way, Darwin didn't coin the expression survival of the fittest. It was first used by Herbert Spencer.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

a mysterious advertisement without a gerund

We received a strange brochure in our letterbox today. It's from Australia Post and shows pictures of various computing devices for sale.

At the top it says: Part of me staying up to date.


There's a picture of a man typing at a computer. I thought maybe his hands are the part of his body staying up to date. Or maybe his brain...

And then I wondered if the word 'staying' is a gerund, and not a present participle. Perhaps it means that having items of modern technology is part of his staying up to date.

To be quite honest, I hardly ever use a possessive pronoun before a gerund these days. Grammartips, at Homestead, gives these examples of incorrect use of the gerund:
He resents you being more popular than he is.
~Most of the members paid their dues without me asking them.
~They objected to the youngest girl being given the command position.
~What do you think about him buying such an expensive car.
~We were all grateful for Jane taking on the responsibility for the party.
I'd be likely in everyday speech to say these incorrect forms, rather than the correct forms:
~He resents your being more popular than he is.
~Most of the members paid their dues without my asking them.
~They objected to the youngest girl's being given the command position.
~What do you think about his buying such an expensive car?
~We were all sorry about Jane's losing her parents like that.

Sometimes, however, using the incorrect form of a gerund makes the meaning unclear. I think the brochure should say: Part of my staying up to date.

Monday, 14 September 2009

language experts and language users

When I roam around the internet, I come across blogs where the writers are experts on language. I also enjoy looking at ones like mine, where the writers are simply interested amateurs.

But I think I enjoy most of all coming across sites where an expert has used language to achieve an effect. By this type of expert, I mean, advertising executives.

For instance, here is an interesting discussion of the usage of the expression yeah-no - which, by the way, like a typical Australian, I find myself saying all the time.

But there's enormous pleasure in seeing yeah-no used to such effect in this advertisement from New Zealand. (I followed a link from Language Log to the advertisement.)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

'bored of' or 'bored with'?

I was working with a young student recently (aged about 10) and was surprised to hear him say he was bored of something.

I suggested he might consider changing to bored with, as that is a more adult way of expressing the concept. I thought bored of might be one of the stages young language learners go through on the way to developing a mature vocabulary. But he, confident and highly intelligent, was adamant that he wouldn't be changing anytime soon, because his was the correct way to say it.

I pushed the discussion to the back of my mind, waiting to discover how often I would hear bored with.

Today it was in our local broadsheet newspaper, The Sunday Age, in a quote from fashion designer Wayne Cooper. He said, 'People are bored of the recession.'

A glance around the internet came up with a discussion at Language Log where these two phrases were discussed in 2004. The author pointed out that
It's not totally impossible, though [that bored of might overtake bored with] -- "bored of it" now gets 25,400 ghits, whereas "bored with it" gets 48,500 , barely 1.9 times more.
A search today on Google found 7,351 for 'bored+of' and 6889 for 'bored+with'. (I put in the plus-sign because simply searching 'bored of' found lots of sites with the word bored in different combinations.)

The Language Log post pointed me to an article in Humanising Language Teaching where these phrases are discussed in the context of the bigger picture of how language changes over time. Most interesting.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

a word in the middle of another word

The commonly used Australian ' word, bloody, can be used in lots of places in a sentence - for instance, in the statement 'John finished last in the competition,' you could say:
Bloody John finished last in the competition.
John bloody finished last in the competition.
John finished bloody last in the competition.
John finished last in the bloody competition.

But, best of all, this useful word can even be inserted into one of the other words, if there are more than a couple of syllables!

John finished last in the compebloodytition.

Hmmm... my example doesn't sound right. But I know I've heard people stick this über-word into another long word.

I'm going to keep my ears open for the next time I hear it.

I think there may be more of these expressions that can be placed inside another word in spoken conversation - though I've never seen this construction in writing.

By the way, for any readers who think I'm using unacceptable language here, bloody achieved respectability in Australia when it was used in the anti-drinking series of advertisements by the government from 1989.

On the other hand, people in the US weren't impressed by the use of bloody (or hell) in the 2006 Tourism Australia campaign based on the slogan Where the bloody hell are you?

Friday, 11 September 2009

like a bat out of a cave

As I was waiting to move off at the traffic lights today I mused that I'd have to go like a bat out of hell if I wanted to get into the right-hand lane before the van that was revving beside me.

Seeing I'm a bit old to be racing cars through our local shopping strip, it was fortunate that I slowed down to think about the expression like a bat out of hell.

I don't see why bats would be racing out of hell. Surely they should hang around down there to bother the troubled lost souls. And the word hell? Sounds like the German word Höhle, which means cave.

An interesting discussion at The Phrase Finder points out that bats flit rather than speeding around; but a mass of bats flying out of a cave together might seem fast.

The writers also point out that the expression was given new life by the Meatloaf song in the 1970s. I'm sure that song is the reason the phrase has stayed in my vocabulary.

Word Detective
Bats also are amazing aerial acrobats, flying swiftly through the night using only their natural sonar (high-pitched squeaks) for guidance. The bat's flight is so quick and erratic that when aviators during World War I needed a simile for flying at top speed, the bat was a logical choice "Like a bat out of hell" first appeared in print in 1921, but is said to have been in common usage several years earlier. The "out of hell" part was tacked on purely for added color, and probably refers to the bat being "from hell," not necessarily trying to leave hell.

I guess the meaning does relate to bats coming out of or from hell, but I prefer my image of bats streaming out of a cave as the sun sinks in the west behind a bank of black clouds.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

use of the word 'sided'

As I reached for a small square of cotton to wipe my face this morning, I was struck by the words on the box: '100 sided sealed cotton squares'.

Sided? I'd never heard the word used in this sense, but when I looked at the cotton in my hand, I saw that it had been sealed down two sides, presumably to stop the cotton falling apart as I used it.

I had a look at the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary®, which gives the the definition:
side vb sid*ed; sid*ing vt (1591) to furnish with sides or siding <~ a house> ~
The dictionary on my computer says:
[ trans. ] provide with a side or sides; form the side of : the hills that side a long valley.
I think it's a great use of this word, precise and succinct.

By the way, they're not squares, as I use the word, because they're 5cm by 4cm.

Monday, 10 August 2009

a whole nother new word

Watching an entertaining YouTube clip about teaching cane corso puppies to eat fish, I was struck by the words of the narrator, 'a whole nother fish'. As I've posted before, I think this word nother will win the race and oust other, just as apron has ousted napron.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

how fast do irregular verbs change?

I came across an article in Scientific American discussing the rate of change in the English language. Researchers at Harvard University believe that the words in most common use change slowly and uncommon words change more rapidly.

Mark Pagel and his team examined words in 87 Indo-European languages and concluded less-used used words might change over about 750 years, but common words might stay the same for as long as 10,000 years.

The article was interesting, but the examples selected by the author, Nikhil Swaminathan, seemed rather strange to me. He said:
Researchers scoured grammatical texts dating back to the days of Old English, cataloguing all the irregular verbs they came across. Among them: the still irregular "sing" / "sang," "go" / "went" as well as the since-regularized "smite" which once was "smote" in Old English but since has become "smited," and "slink," which is now "slinked" but 1,200 years ago was "slunk."
I regularly say "slunk", so I guess I should admit there are some mornings I wake up feeling 1200 years old.

I'm not into the business of smiting people, so I can't be sure whether I'd choose smited, but I have a feeling smote would be my choice.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

have the worms turned?

For a long time I've suspected that worms must be getting tired of the government licensing people to stick them onto sharp hooks and put them in danger of being eaten by a fish.

Well, today the headlines tell the story. The worm has turned. (Actually, the worms have acted together, by the looks of it.)

There's been a long history of humans worrying about the worms rebelling. Even before Shakespeare's time it was a well-established source of stress.

I've come across a theory that the word worm in this context might have referred to dragons, or, more possibly, snakes, but I think today's photographic evidenced has settled the matter.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

v-mail, e-mail and pee-mail

V-mail. Seems like a twenty-first century word. But it isn't. It's a word coined in the middle of the last century by the US military to describe a process of microfilming mail to and from military personnel.

The process, in which letters were written on special one-page sheets, originated in England. Microfilming letters lessened the weight of mail and made it possible for more efficient communication between military personnel and their families back home. A slide show at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum makes the process clear and shows the enormous difference in size between a pile of actual letters and the microfilmed copies.

But I've seen another use of the word V-mail. It's the title of a great little book I bought at the British Museum Shop, an intimate look at the everyday lives of Romans living at Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall around the first century AD.

The tablets are small, thin pieces of wood and were used for letters, reports, lists or quick notes. The wooden slices were tied together in bundles. In the book there are all sorts of letters. I like the birthday invitation best:
Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, for the day of the celebration of my birtuday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, it will make the day more enjoyable for me if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you.
I thought the letter from Severus to his slave was interesting, too.
Severus to his Candidus, greetings. Regarding the dish for the Saturnalia, I ask you to buy it at a price of four or six asses and radishes to the value of not less than 1/2 denarius. Farewell.
Next I wanted to find out who coined the word email. But I haven't been able to find out. If anyone knows, I'd love to hear from you. I did discover the history of that first email, but not who named it.

And pee-mail? Well, as any dog-blogger knows, that's how dogs leave messages for each other on any available surface as they take their humans for a walk. It sure slows down our daily walk as my dog scans the liquid deposits for interesting snippets of news.

World's first historical thesaurus of english

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, the world's first historical thesaurus, is to be published in two volumes on 8 October 2009. I read about this at English, Jack and followed the link to the BBC News, where the report includes a sample page giving the evolution of words for trousers.

Of course, we couldn't discuss trousers without thinking of that old favorite song, Donald where's Your Troosers?

And at Podictionary I read the surprising origin of the English word pants.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

clever crows aren't murderers

As I walked the dog this morning I watched a crow going about its mid-winter business - gathering sticks, perhaps for its nest - and I wondered why a group of crows goes by the collective noun, a murder. I've seen some very amusing behavior by crows and I think they're fun to have around. (Maybe the Australian birds are actually ravens, but that distinction is in the 'too hard' basket for me, so I'll just call them crows.)

And this evening, on Boing Boing, I've just read an anecdote in which the expression murder of crows was used. Okay, that's a sign. I need to discover the truth about this harsh noun.

The American society of Crows and Ravens says
A "murder" of crows is based on the persistent but fallacious folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn't belong in their territory or much more commonly feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries (because they scavenged on human remains). In England, a tombstone is sometimes called a ravenstone.
The Grammarphobia Blog, on the other hand, suggests the expression might be a fanciful one and not a genuinely medieval collective noun.

The Boing Boing post reported a study showing crows can recognise individual human faces.

I think they are one of the smartest birds around. And I like them.

Monday, 27 July 2009

a moratorium on remoras

Reading The Big Issue today, I came across the word remora.

It was explained in Mic Looby's regular column. He said the word comes from the Latin for 'delay', because 'according to one legend, a few affixed remora can slow a ship's progress'.

Online Etymology Dictionary says: "sucking fish", 1567, from L. remora, lit. "delay, hindrance," from re- "back" + mora "delay"...Pliny writes that Antony's galley was delayed by one at the Battle of Actium.

I wondered how large they are, that they could slow a ship, so I had a look at a video clip of one attaching itself to a diver who was waiting out a decompression stop on the way up from a dive, and it only seemed as long as his forearm.

Dive The World, where this video was posted, says:
In ancient times, the remora was believed to stop a ship from sailing. In Latin remora means "delay", while the genus name Echeneis comes from Greek echein ("to hold") and naus ("a ship"). Particularly notable is the account of Pliny the Younger, in which the remora is blamed for the defeat of Mark at the Battle of Actium and (indirectly) for the death of Caligula.
Good on you, little (or not so little) remora, I say. Caligula was no loss, from what I gather.

Here's a fascinating essay with interesting quotes from Pliny. It seems that "Upon its being shown to the emperor [Caligula], he strongly expressed his indignation that such an obstacle as this should have impeded his progress, and have rendered powerless the hearty endeavours of some four hundred men. One thing, too, it is well known, more particularly surprised him, how it was possible that the fish, while adhering to the ship, should arrest its progress, and yet should have no such power when brought on board" (Id.). Thus, Pliny points out, "did an insignificant fish give presage of great events.

Encarta says they grow to about 90 centimetres long, so I suppose if you were rowing around in a galley, a few remoras on the hull might slow you down.

Then I got to wondering about the word moratorium. Back to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1875, originally a legal term for "authorization to a debtor to postpone payment," from neut. of L.L. moratorius "tending to delay," from L. morari "to delay," from mora "pause, delay," originally "standing there thinking." The word didn't come out of italics until 1914. General sense of "a postponement, deliberate temporary suspension" is first recorded 1932.
Well, enough of standing here thinking... I'd better stop.

Monday, 13 July 2009

the pompeiians didn't have a word for 'volcano'

When I visited the Melbourne Museum's special exhibition, A Day in Pompeii, I was surprised to learn that Latin had no word for volcano.

I had expected to enjoy the exhibition in an uncomplicated way, but reckoned without the fact that the ancient disaster would evoke such strong memories of the recent bushfires here in Victoria. Embarrassed by my reaction, I surreptitiously wiped away the tears as I watched a realistic 3-D computer animation of the pyroclastic cloud rolling down the mountain towards the town of Pompeii. I wondered how many others had the same reaction - the teenage girl beside me spent the entire time sobbing into her mother's breast, the mother gently rubbing her daughter's shoulder.

And the room with the plaster casts of people and animals who died in agony...too confronting in Victoria in 2009.

The striking point made in the exhibition - in what I am sure would be an unintentional reference to the current Royal Commission into the recent deaths here - is that the Pompeiians had to decide whether to stay to defend their property or leave early. Those who fled lived, those who stayed died.

They didn't know what they faced, because they didn't know what a volcano could do. Which seems strange, given the Latin root of the word.

Science and Mathematics in Ancient Greek Culture by Christopher Tuplin and Tracey Elizabeth Rihll, contains an article by Harry M. Hine suggesting the word volcano was coined by Italian or Portuguese sailors as recently as the fifteenth century CE.

When the ancients discussed volcanoes, it was specific named volcanoes, such as Etna, which was one of the more well-known ones. They didn't have a tradition of discussing volcanic activity in a general way, because there hadn't been many eruptions in Europe. Opportunities to witness volcanic activity were rare and localized. Before Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, Etna was the only volcano close enough to major cities to be visible from them.

The modern city of Naples lives on the edge of disaster, as the ancients did - the difference being that the inhabitants have a word for volcano, understand what can happen and should receive some warning beforehand. In a short film about Naples, the narrator argued the necessity for a plan to evacuate the city.

And I wondered how we could evacuate our towns buried in the heart of the flammable bush, with the only possible exits along narrow tree-lined roads.

Let's hope it isn't another drought-stricken summer.

Monday, 6 July 2009

A hound or a dog?

I sometimes wonder why we call our canine pets dogs and reserve the word hound for a sub-group of dogs, given that the German word Hund is the translation of dog and The Free Dictionary gives the etymology I would have expected:
[hound - Middle English, from Old English hund; see kwon- in Indo-European roots.
This question came back to the forefront of my mind when I was browsing the archives of A Word a Day, and read this anecdote, which I've posted on my dog blog:
Our seven-year-old daughter Ananya has developed an interest in etymology. Often she'll interrupt her play in the backyard and peek in my downstairs study to ask about whatever word comes to her mind. Some time back she barged in with, "So how did the word dog came about?" I explained to her that the word dog came from Middle English dogge which came from Old English docga. Satisfied, she went back to her play.

I had completely forgotten about it when a few days later I overheard her talking to her grandmother on the phone, "Amma, we got a dogga." I was puzzled and later asked why she said dogga instead of dog. She patiently explained, "You know, Amma is old. That's why I used Old English with her."
Okay, that explains the word dog, but why has it prevailed over hound as the general term?

An article by Nancy M. Kendall in The Christian Science Monitor gives a clue.
For centuries, sportsmen have bred dogs for their tracking abilities. A "sleuthhound" was a dog trained to follow the track (sleuth) of a quarry in all weather. This Scottish bloodhound not only hunted game but also tracked down fugitives.
Aha! I was on the track (or slot, or sleuth), of my word origin.

And then...I didn't need to search any more, because I found a fascinating post about the underlying human-canine relationships that formed these differences in English vocabulary. It concludes:
It seems that hound and dog are not the same. The word dog implies common in every sense of the word. The word hound implies hunter and nobility. It seems that no creature escapes the class system in our society.
Basically the writer suggests that hounds were for hunting and dogs were for guarding.

Hmm...does that mean it's rather common to keep a dog as a pet? Yes, perhaps in more than one sense of the word, given the ownership rate of dogs. (37.3% of Australian families owned a dog in 2006.)

Sunday, 5 July 2009

chiasmus and chocolate cheese cake

My sister prepared a chocolate cheese cake last night and we just ate some of it, in a celebration of all that is unhealthy in delicious food, a symphony of fat and sugar that will sing through the veins and into the organs and probably settle on the hips forever. (I said 'prepared' rather than 'baked', because it's a frozen, uncooked one, and not such a good choice for a barbecue on a summer's day - but that's another story.)

We felt a teensy bit guilty eating it, but comforted ourselves with the knowledge that although it would have been unhealthy to eat a large portion, we each took a piece that was quite small compared to a huge serve. And then had to admit it was undeniably huge, compared to a small serve.

An example of chiasmus! The very first day after I learned this new word, it slid quietly into the lunchtime conversation. defines chiasmus:
A verbal pattern (a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. Essentially the same as antimetabole.
Of the examples quoted after the definition, my favorite would have to be Samuel Johnson's "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

Sunday, 21 June 2009

the elegance of long sentences

I've been listening to a series of lectures by Brooks Landon on how to compose long sentences rich in meaning and yet easy to understand, and I'm loving the lectures, with their analysis of language and the great examples included in each session.

I've always loved grammar, but tended to see it as the analysis of written words rather than a means of constructing beautiful sentences. Now I'm seeing it in a different light, as a tool for the writer. Which makes me think of a comment about Hegel's Science of Logic in a novel I'm reading (Freedom and Necessity, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. One of the characters writes about Hegel,
And, still in the introduction, he talks about how dry and empty are the forms of grammar when studied by themselves, but how full of meaning they are to one who has studied languages.
I'm also reading a book by Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences; Syntax as Style. To quote the blurb,
In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte presents-and comments on-more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language.

The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept-short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers.
As an aspiring writer, I'm loving the book!

Here are a few of my attempts at long sentences. The first two are based on actual sentences quoted in Tufte's book and the third is my attempt to write a 500-word sentence. (As you will see, I couldn't do it!)

She tried to call the dog, at ease before the fire, his great serrated jaws looming like a cavern, his rough fur lying tufted and spiky along his spine, his enormous tongue and teeth in a gaping, panting yawn, and his sharp curved claws extended and stabbing into the rug.

By night-time, the dogs’ main exercise was undertaken restfully in the lounge-room, lying about on rugs or covering the distance to the couch, all vying with masterful Fido to drag themselves up by paws, claws and teeth like wolves conquering a mountain cliff, while the human woman, a grubby thickly-waisted little person, told them how to behave and yelled angry commands in a beer- soaked growl punctuated by occasional abrupt sneezing, as a result of which she was eventually taken to a hospital in the City.

Dreaming of the past, longing for a chance to make things right, to show Ronald, the man who now despised her, that she wasn’t as evil as he thought, Susan walked along the path in the sunshine, ignoring the songs of birds, the rustle of leaves and the chirping of sparrows; nevertheless, she noticed the mud underfoot, the dirty, stinking mud that coated her shoes and clung to the hems of her jeans, the very jeans she had worn when she betrayed Ronald, giving way to her temper (that temper having caused her enough trouble in the past that you'd think she'd have learned her lesson long ago) and set herself on the path to loss and suffering, not a path that she had taken consciously - she had lost the opportunity to choose when she drove her vehicle into the car park, saw Ronald with the woman, and jumped to such a hasty conclusion, one that she now regretted, and knew she might regret to her dying day.

These awful sentences make it rather obvious I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm having fun.