December 31, 2011

A pun from history

I came across this pun in very poor taste in a book about the Louisiana State University law school.
During the time when Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower was campaigning for president and Adolph Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem, a sign appeared [on a law school dorm] saying "We Like Eich." 
W. Lee Hargrave, LSU Law: The Louisiana State University Law School from 1906-1977 (2004), p. 203.
I never would have thought of that one! For the sake of exactness: Eisenhower's last campaign would have been in 1956, and the trial of Eichmann took place in 1961.

December 12, 2011

Bodegas and bodegas

A recent visit to Spain reveals a trans-Atlantic distinction in the meaning of the word "bodega." When an American, at least in the northeastern U.S., thinks of a bodega, he thinks of something like Latin Americans mean by the word:

I found this picture at, but
it shows up often if you look for "bodega" on the internet.

In Spain, however, a bodega is a wine cellar or winery.

Thanks to Bodegas Arzuaga-Navarro.

The Diccionario of the Real Academia Español has a useful entry.

Another "word of the day": A "bodegón" is a cafe, or a genre scene in painting that features food.

December 3, 2011


"Cannon-fodder" are the unfortunate mass of soldiery, doomed early in the battle because of inadequate equipment, training or leadership. Webster's Third International Dictionary traces it to the German Kanonenfutter. Then, Kanonenfutter is traced by German sources back to English. That's based on Shakespeare's image of "food for powder" in Henry IV, Part 1, IV: 2 ("Tut, tut! good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They'll fill a pit as well as better"). See Adolf Bach, Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache, p. 315 (8th ed. 1965); Brockhaus' Konversationslexikon vol. 10, p. 98 (1894-96). Wikipedia's articles on cannon-fodder and Kanonenfutter suggest a circa-1814 French use of a similar term as the origin of the English "cannon-fodder."

Another notice for "fodder" today--Frederick I Barbarossa, German emperor in the mid-twelfth century, had the right to fodrum in the Italian territories he controlled, "a right to fodder for the royal army, and then to a payment in lieu of fodder." Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany, p. 180 (1984).

November 5, 2011

Implied nudity

Florida's Palm Beach Post publishes a Washington Post-distributed feature, "Should Your Kids See It?". It's a series of movie reviews that addresses all the objectionable elements of movies--whether they have foul language, violence, drug use, etc.; I suppose, so that a parent can make an informed choice about the level of trauma to inflict on his child. The movie reviews often mention "implied nudity" or even just "implied toplessness." Doesn't clothing necessarily imply nudity? I guess the answer is that you can't be nude (in a woman's case anyway) unless there's a nipple; in Vermont, for instance, you are a criminal voyeur only when you get a look at "any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola" (13 Vt. Stat. § 2605).

October 28, 2011


Spanish and English share much vocabulary--necesario, requirir, demandar present no obstacle to the English speaker, and English words of Latin extraction have their Spanish parallels.

A wrinkle in the Latin fabric of our languages: I noticed in the past week or so a that a Mexican businessman, writing in English, described certain items as "exigible"; and a film-music composer described Pedro Almodóvar as a "very exigent director." An exigible item is one an English speaker would describe as, according to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2d., "liable to be exacted; requirable"*--but my point is that an English speaker probably wouldn't. "Exigible" is just not used by modern English speakers. The same goes for describing a person as "exigent"--we'd just say "demanding," but a Spanish-speaker would still describe his boss as exigente. (I think English speakers would still say a situation is exigent.)

I still remember "El Exigente," by the way.

*Sic; not "requireable?"

October 13, 2011

Terrible poetry

I was very disappointed a week or two ago reading Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems ("City of the big shoulders," "Hog butcher of the world"). Perhaps this is the worst of them (courtesy of


I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

Yuck. Starting with the least-awful objectionable aspect, it's in this careless, not quite rhythmic free verse. And the way the Hungarians example is set off from the rest with a different rhythm makes everything so nice and pat. I don't like the lame, obvious contrast, either.

Finally, I had to laugh; part of that, I think, is that the Hungarians are an ill-chosen group of poor people. It's one of those words that sounds too funny in English to take seriously. Just remember: "In 1970, the British empire lay in ruins; foreigners filled the streets, many of them Hungarian (not the streets, the foreign nationals) . . ."

September 28, 2011

"Nelly Furtado Gives Gadhafi Money"

The elevators of the office building I work in contain screens run by the distastefully named "Captivate Network" (not because it's captivating, but because you are a captive in the elevator for twenty seconds; the name probably appealed to marketing geeks who have internalized their science). It's not all ads, and does feature news and sports scores, but I think it's most fascinating for the abuse the news headlines inflict on English. Tonight I saw "Nelly Furtado Gives Gadhafi Money"--by which they meant that she gave money from Qaddafi away to a charity; but it was pretty shocking to read. (If you don't see why, test the effect of the word order with the sentence "N. gives me money.")

The same little screen told me yesterday something like "77% of employees go to restaurants recommended by their work spouse." By work spouse, they mean what I would call a work-wife (a friend of either sex at work whom you regularly commiserate with), and some women call a work-husband. "Work-wife" is a joke; I don't think anyone is entitled to regularize it along the lines of wife-husband-spouse.

August 28, 2011

Good night, Irene: Cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons

Trapped inside by Hurricane Irene, I've had time to find you the National Hurricane Center's web page detailing the first names given to storms. Different sets of names are available to be given to a "tropical cyclone," depending on which region of the world's oceans the cyclone originates in. I've been in hurricanes here on the east coast, and I've been in a typhoon in Hong Kong.*

There's a whole taxonomy of big, rotating storms, which you can derive from the glossaries of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service and from various dictionaries.  I don't whether cyclones, tornadoes and whirlwinds can be grouped together based on their natural characteristics; I am just trying to organize the terminology.
  • Cyclones
    • Anticyclones (meh--just a cyclone rotating in reverse)
    • Extratropical cyclones
    • Tropical cyclones (subcategorized according to windspeed, in order of ascending speed:)
      • Tropical depressions
      • Tropical storms
      • Hurricanes; in the western Pacific, called typhoons
    • "Willy-willy" is an Australian (native?) term for a tropical cyclone
  •  Tornadoes (called "cyclones" in the U.S. midwest: Webster's Third)
    • Waterspouts
  • Whirlwinds
    • Dust devils or dust whirls (here's a video of a dust devil on Mars)
    • According to the unabridged Random House Dictionary and Webster's Third, a "violent squall or whirlwind of small extent," apparently on the west coast of Africa, is a "tornado."
A storm in India can be called a "typhoon" also (Random House); and storms archaically were called "tornadoes" (Webster's Third).  If you can suggest other terms for this taxonomy, please do!

* I was in a shopping mall bargaining to get the price down (as one does in that part of the world) on a pair of binoculars.  As he and I reached an impasse, the proprietor of the shop said I had to decide quickly because the shop was closing in 5 minutes.  I looked at him incredulously and asked why, and he said, "Typhoon!"  I didn't know how to respond to such a silly tactic and walked away.  A few hours later I was standing soaked in the typhoon that really did materialize.

    August 16, 2011

    Apropos of "apropos"

    I polled several dictionaries and style guides on the proper use of "apropos" (/A-pro-POH/), which I've only ever seen in phrases like "apropos of nothing" (= "this isn't related to the current topic, but …"), and the general "apropos of x" (= "since we've been discussing it"; as in "apropos of breakfast, I like eggs").

    "Apropos" is from the French à propos, "to the point" or "to the purpose," and it can be used with or without a preposition as an adjective or an adverb. It describes something or an action as timely or appropriate. "Apropos" can also be used as a preposition, with or without "of" or "to," and means "with respect to" or "regarding" (Webster's Third cites "'apropos the return of young Americans to lyricism'" and "'his remark to Emerson apropos of diplomas'").

    When using the preposition, English-speakers generally use "apropos of." Additionally, there are a number of 20th-century citations with "apropos" and no appended preposition; but there are many fewer citations for "apropos to." (See Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.) "Apropos of" sounds most correct to me, and Henry Fowler and Merriam-Webster seem to prefer "apropos of." Fowler favors "apropos of" on (in part) the shaky grounds that it translates a cliché that must once have been well known: à propos de bottes (bottes = boots). À propos de bottes was used to switch to an entirely new subject.

    "Malapropos" is available to English-speakers too. It's probably only an adjective or adverb, meaning "inappropriate, inopportune," and takes no appended preposition.

    August 12, 2011

    Watch your "which"

    Here's an irresistible sentence from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's description of a Louis Comfort Tiffany chair:
    This chair is one of a pair closely related to a suite of furniture from the music room of the H. O. Havemeyer house, which Tiffany designed with Samuel Colman in 1891-92.
    Now "which" of the bolded nouns did Tiffany and Colman design? We can almost definitely rule out "this chair"; but that still leaves four possible antecedents for that put-upon relative pronoun.

    The Dictionary of American Regional English will soon be complete

    According to their website, the fifth and final volume of the American Dictionary of Regional English will be released next year (ten years after Volume 4). The dictionary is based on dialect research and on questionnaires administered to Americans throughout the country back in the 1960s. It admits to having a few idiosyncracies too, such as entries based on a single informant's answer, like
    "Bull cactus … Perh[aps] a prickly pear …"
    (To me, anyway, these may be nonce words not used enough to warrant inclusion in a dictionary.) As you will note from "Bull cactus," most of DARE is really not interesting reading, especially when compared to slang dictionaries like Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang or the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang; it's much less personal and focuses on shorthand detail, especially with respect to geographical distribution of words in the fifty states.

    August 10, 2011

    Strunk and White--suck and blight?

    Here's a very entertaining article about why Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is an inaccurate guide to English grammar, and a purveyor of rules you should ignore. Geoffrey K. Pullum's article is already a few months old, but better late than never.

    August 9, 2011

    People of color

    Reading the 1788 edition of Francis Grose's 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, I found this:

    BLUE SKIN. A person begotten on a black woman by a white man. ["]One of the blue squadron["]; any one having a cross of the black breed, or, as it is termed, a lick of the tar brush.

    The equation of having dark skin with blueness may be widespread: the Dictionary of American Regional English finds that black people themselves called very dark-skinned blacks "blues"; while Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English finds half-black, half-white people are called "blue skins" in the West Indies. The Janjaweed in the Sudan call the black African Muslims they terrorize zurqa, from Arabic azraq, "blue." (Someone on Wikipedia believes that this use of "blue" is actually a polite one.)

    By the way, blue can mean dirty or sexual, as in "blue movie"; or drunk, in both English and German; among many other things.

    August 3, 2011

    U.S. Postal Service doublespeak

    The USPS is looking into closing 3,700 of its 32,000 retail post offices. It's impossible to say how sincerely they intend to shut the offices down, and the process would probably be lengthy and expensive; the list of offices being considered is here.

    You should note that the USPS is calling this part of its "Expanded Access plan" (because of a tentative plan to let private businesses offer some of the services of the closed post offices). How great is that?--cutting back on offices is "expanded access!"

    July 30, 2011

    Natty and tatty

    For the poetically inclined, here's a rhyming doublet I have been thinking about.  The contrast between "natty" and "tatty" is interesting.  According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary and others, "natty" means "trimly neat and tidy, smart," well-put-together, and typically refers to clothing or some room.  I don't really have any cites to hand, but the word seems British to me, and in British writing "nattily dressed" is almost a cliche.  It's not the direct opposite of "tatty," which I saw in the last New York Times Book Review.  Tatty can mean poorly maintained, but more often refers to the cheapness of the material of which the tatty item is constructed.   "'Even the jabiru storks,' he notes, 'seemed to belong to a long-lost age. They’d all stand around in their tatty coachman’s livery, stabbing at the frogs and then tossing them back like shots of gin'" (John Gimlette, Wild Coast, quoted in Liesl Schillinger, "Travels North of the Amazon," New York Times Book Review p. 17, July 24, 2011).

    July 27, 2011

    Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day

    The OED sends a word to subscribers each day for free.  It's useful and fun--without even asking, I found out that "jarhead" meant a mule, and then any member of the U.S. Army, before it came to mean a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. Subscribe here to Word of the Day.

    Some recent favorites:

    Dogpatch, n. … Etymology: Dogpatch, the name of an impoverished rural community in the comic strip Li'l Abner by ‘Al Capp’ (Alfred Gerald Caplin, 1909–79) … U.S. … (The type of) an unsophisticated, impoverished rural community.

    1976 N.Y. Times 11 Feb. 1/5 Many Northerners used to think of the states below the 37th parallel as a vast Dogpatch fit only for the nation's amusement and contempt.

    ipsative, adj. … Etymology: classical Latin ipse ipse pron. + -ative suffix, after normative adj. … Psychol. … Designating or involving a measurement or scale calculated relative to a person's own performance or responses, rather than those of others.

    Mother's Day, n.

    2. U.S. slang (chiefly in African-American usage). The day on which a person (usually a woman) receives money, esp. unearned money such as a welfare payment.

    1979 Los Angeles Times 18 Nov. II. 1 Mother's when Social Security, veterans' pension and disability and welfare checks are delivered. 1991 Economist (Nexis) 30 Mar. 17 On Chicago's south side the day the monthly cheque arrives is nicknamed ‘mother's day’, because that is the day when absent sons and husbands turn up.

    July 26, 2011

    Tom Coburn's plurals problem

    Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn was unflatteringly quoted in this Sunday's New York Times. He seems deeply affected by the lack of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. "There isn't a senator or a member of the House that at some time doesn't get a little too full of themselves."

    "A senator or a member" should guarantee "full of himself," "full of herself" or "full of him- or herself" in that last clause. However, English doesn't afford an epicene plural pronoun that would succinctly convey both sexes, and so speakers and writers use "they" or "their" even when one person is meant; Coburn knows "themself" is not a word; so he gets stuck using "themselves."

    Coburn's problem gets worse.  "'The No. 1 thing people should do in Congress is stay true to their heart,' Mr. Coburn said." That should be "hearts"; but the senator is so accustomed to using "their" as a singular pronoun that he forgets the subject of his sentence was plural.

    The article referred to is Jennifer Steinhauer, "A Rock-Solid Conservative Who's Willing to Bend," New York Times, July 24, 2011, p. 15.

    July 20, 2011

    Foreign words for foreign places

    It's interesting that languages often have their own names for foreign places. They can be well-known substitutes for the native original--English "Germany" and French "Allemagne" mean "Deutschland." They can be obscure--English "Leghorn" for Italian "Livorno." The pairs can be quite similar--"Belgium" for "Belgique"; French "Londre" and Spanish "Londres" for "London"; or far off from each other--the old "Pressburg" in English and German for the local "Bratislava." I'd like to compile a list of these; any suggestions?

    My favorite came to my attention during the 2006 World Cup--the Ivory Coast, officially Côte d'Ivoire, was called on German television Elfenbeinküste. The players were referred to in sports advertising as "Elefanten," the elephants. This is a knowing pun. "Elfenbein" for ivory is shortened from "Elefantbein," elephant bone, according to the classic dictionary written by the brothers Grimm.

    If Germans might call the people "Elefanten," Americans are supposed to say "Ivoirian"; how you pronounce that is anyone's guess!

    June 23, 2011

    Euphemistic parallelism . . .

    …to coin a term. It denotes how parallelism can be used in structuring phrases to make one very bitter phrase seem as sweet as another phrase, which the bitter phrase parallels.

    It's the parallelism inherent in the general names for the two major kinds of retirement plans offered to employees by American employers. The two kinds of plans are 1) the "defined benefit plan," which you can think of as the traditional pension which pays to the retiree a set amount each month from retirement until death; and 2) the "defined contribution plan," typically a 401(k) plan, where employee and employer pay a set amount each month into an investment or savings plan--and how much the retiree receives depends on the value of that account at the time of retirement and after.

    "Defined benefit plans" have become much less common, because a retiree is entitled to the money regardless of the pension plan's or employer's ability to keep paying. Think of how defined benefits plans are bankrupting the government of California. But they usually provide constant, reliable income and are therefore good for the retiree. On the other hand, the value to a retiree of the "defined contribution plan" is based on the value of the assets the plan purchased with the contributed funds. So, if the contributions into a defined contribution plan were used to buy Enron stock, or any American stock at all leading up to the 2007 crash, the retiree could get MUCH less than he had been counting on.

    The parallel structures of the phrases "defined benefit plan" and "defined contribution plan" make them sound like two sides of the same coin, and like two more-or-less-equal alternatives. But to a retiree, the defined contribution plan is a lot more risky, and all he can be certain of is the amount of today's income he is paying in before he retires. The recent stock market catastrophe has painfully shown that the amount of money paid out after retirement is not certain at all. So that kind of plan needs to be described euphemistically. Hence, the use of euphemistic parallelism.

    Can you think of other examples of euphemistic parallelism?

    June 22, 2011

    Newfoundland English

    Americans recognize that Canadians pronounce their vowels differently, a phenomenon called "Canadian raising." There's more to Canadian English.  In Newfoundland, the easternmost place in the U.S. and Canada, a strange, sing-song and sonorous version of English can be found.  The CBC news magazine-radio show "As It Happens" recently interviewed a "Newfie," who apparently lives in Labrador on the mainland, just north of the island of Newfoundland.  (The province is called Newfoundland and Labrador.)  You can listen to him at their website, starting at the 1:00 mark.

    Here's a gem from the online Dictionary of Newfoundland English (2d ed. 1990):
    unknown … Of a person, odd, strange, slightly deranged.
    … There was a woman down to Gaultois who was a little unknown; she would steep tea but instead of drinking [it] she would throw away the tea and eat the tea leaves.1

    I have observed that Americans pronounce "Newfoundland" something like /NOOF-in-lind/.   I was amazed to discover that Canadian broadcasters say /noof-ind-LAND/. 

    Labrador and Newfoundland are linguistically interesting for at least one more reason.  As the North America area (notwithstanding Greenland) nearest to Europe, they received European travelers first (an 11th-century Viking settlement may be visited at the eastern tip of Labrador.)  Mark Kishlansky, A Basque History of the World (2001), discusses how Basque fishermen arrived there early (maybe even before Columbus's voyages) and how some Basque vocabulary may have been adopted by local Indians.

    1. The dictionary points out that this usage is known from south Lancaster in England, too, citing Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905, repr. 1965).

    June 10, 2011


    … is a neologism based on "whitewashing," to superficially cover over a problem to approve appearances--without solving the problem.  "Whitewashing" is a metaphor based on coating a house or a fence, as in the beginning of the novel Tom Sawyer, with whitewash (which is not paint, but a mixture including water and lime or chalk).

    Greenwashing (apparently coined in the 1980s)1 is a company's attempt to cover for poor environmental practices with minor changes to its business or with a marketing campaign.   My favorite example is the BP logo:

    A green sun for a company that primarily deals in oil, and has spewed many millions of barrels of it into the Gulf of Mexico.  BP says that the logo "symbolises a number of things--from the living, organic form of a sunflower to the greatest source of energy...the sun itself."  But it's clearly an attempt to capitalize on customers' interest in environmentally-friendliness, just by changing a picture.

    My favorite example of a company that appears NOT TO engage in greenwashing is the Sherwin Williams paint concern:

    1. My cursory search for the earliest use of "greenwashing" led to a Time article from 1985, where it means "money laundering."

    June 9, 2011

    Historic vs. historical

    After the major blackout across the northeastern United States in 2003, which shut down New York City and areas from Ontario and Ohio to New Jersey, I remember the Chinese factories rushed to produce t-shirts that read, "I SURVIVED HISTORICAL NEW YORK BLACKOUT."  I wanted to get one of these, not because I lived through the blackout--I was 90 miles away in Philadelphia, just south of the blackout area--but because of its crazy corruption of English. 

    The shirt really meant to say "the historic New York blackout."  "Historical" generally describes anything having the quality of history--the historical borders of the German Empire; historical population statistics.  Things that are historical have come and gone.  "Historic," however, refers to a special, even epoch-making quality: the historic election of Ronald Reagan or of Barack Obama.  See, for instance, the entry in Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (rev. ed. 1994). 

    I'd call a classic car an "historic car," but not an "historical one."  You care about the car (if you care) because it's old and special.  New York State makes the error on its license plates.

    June 1, 2011

    Not so humerus

    Margaret suggested to me that the point of one's elbow is called the "funny bone" because it's near the end of the upper-arm bone, the humerus. "Humorous" … "funny bone" …

    The pun is thought-provoking as an etymology. I happen to think it's a coincidence: First, most people don't know the Latin name humerus, leaving few who would be eager to propagate the pun. Second, there is a regional American term "crazy bone," meaning "funny bone"; "crazy bone" obviously developed without being based on a pun; if "crazy" could be used without needing a pun, why couldn't "funny?"

    If I'm right and Margaret is not, her etymology might be what's called a false etymology. If you think false etymologies are interesting, also look at the Wikipedia article on the distinct phenomenon of folk etymology.

    By the way, the scientific term for the funny bone is apparently "olecranon."

    May 26, 2011

    Vermawnt slang!

    I spent ski season in Vermont this year and picked up some funny lingo. Up here, soft-serve ice cream is a "creemee." A local who does his venison shopping during hunting season is a "woodchuck."

    Even stranger: In Vermont, and from upstate New York through Maine, a "camp" isn’t just a collection of tents and lean-tos—it’s a real house. You might not live in it year-round, but it has plumbing and electricity. Most Americans would call one a "cabin," but "camp" is used and understood up here. "Camp" can mean a pretty big place--
    "Van Patten Camp, Charlotte,1 1896. William Van Patten built his impressive summer camp on a cliff overlooking Converse Bay on Lake Champlain." Paul A. Bruhn, compiler, Vermont's Historic Architecture: A Second Celebration (1985).
    "Camp" in this sense is listed in speech and in casual books for areas from New York to Maine in the Dictionary of American Regional English, and in Louisiana and Georgia too from the middle of the twentieth century.

    The “kee-imp,” as Vermonters pronounce it, is on every lakefront. Places that are pleasant and accessible are kind of expensive, so the owner of a lakefront farm can raise a lot of money selling off his lake shore in long, narrow strips. Sometimes a parcel with ten feet of lake frontage will extend 50, 100, 150 feet back to the public road that gives the "camp"-owner access. The "camp" home will be perched right on the water, and much less than a stone’s throw from the neighbors.

    Is "camp" slang? I don’t think so—it’s a regional, proper word for what it denotes. It’s used commonly in speech and in books, and it even comes up in court decisions in Vermont,2 although I couldn't locate it in the statutes of any state. ("Camp" appears, in them, only to refer to temporary summer tent camps and hunting camps in their commonly held senses.)

    It happens that, in South Africa, a "camp" is "a fenced enclosure for grazing, equiv. of paddock," from the Afrikaans kamp. Jean Branford, A Dictionary of South African English (1991).

    1. Charlotte, Vermont, pronounced “shuh-LOT.”

    2. For instance: “There is a camp or cottage and outhouses located on the lot in question.” Montgomery v. Branon, 278 A.2d 744 (Vt. 1971); “At the sentencing hearing, defendant used the term ’seasonal dwelling’ to describe the structures at issue in his burglary convictions. On appeal defendant refers to the buildings as ’summer camps.’ In either case, defendant recognizes that the buildings were used as dwellings when seasonally appropriate.” U.S. v. Fredette, 15 F.3d 272 (2d Cir 1994)(reviewing a Vermont case).

    May 22, 2011

    "To rapture"

    The surprising snafu for Robert Camping and his followers illuminates the verb "to rapture."  It means to carry a Christian believer to Heaven in the "rapture" or "Rapture" so that he avoids the pains of the "Tribulation" at the end of the world. I'm used to the verb "enrapture"--to seize someone's attention, to make someone rapt; but for me "to rapture" has the specific meaning of taking someone up to Heaven.  Use of "rapture" to mean "enrapture" is attested in dictionaries, but I'd bet that meaning is on its way out.  The word is from the Latin "rapere," meaning to "seize" or take away.  In an old-fashioned English use "to rape" meant to kidnap or carry off, among other things.  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the sexual meaning of rape came later, by transference; a Latin word for that was "stuprare," and if you look up the English words "stuprate" and "stupration," you will find them.

    May 17, 2011

    NPR show about words

    Here's an NPR show about word histories and rare English words. They're a little cute but very responsible about giving accurate answers. It's called A Way With Words. Something to listen to while changing diapers or hacking at tree stumps.

    May 11, 2011

    I'm not reticent about "reticent to"

    To be "reticent" means that one is quiet or unwilling to speak (that is, "reserved in speaking"); it can also be used for unwillingness to talk about a specific subject--as in "very private and reticent about the practice of personal religion"1. It originates in the Latin reticeo, "to not speak," and the adjective reticens. "Reticent" is typically used alone or in the phrase "reticent about."

    Recently, "reticent to" has come to be used in place of "reluctant to" with respect to doing something.  "…He'd be reticent to hire a lawyer…"2  Maybe it sounds fancier to some people? See also here. The new use has been noted in two comprehensive dictionaries, Webster's Third New International and the Oxford English Dictionary--but that doesn't mean I have to think it's correct.

    I think it's just plain wrong. And using "reticent to" to mean "reluctant to" opens up the possibility of redundant "reticents": I was recently told by someone that he was "reticent to speak about" something. He meant that he was "reluctant to speak about" x or that he was "reticent about" x; if he had been using "reticent" correctly rubber-lips would have been saying, "I'm reticent about not being reticent."

    1. B. Hoey, Her Majesty: Fifty Regal Years (2002), cited in the online Oxford English Dictionary s.v. (that is, sub verbo or sub voce--"under the word") "reticent-adj."

    2. Faye Kellerman, The Mercedes Coffin (2008), cited in the same online Oxford English Dictionary article.

    May 5, 2011

    Royal wedding edition

    I recently came across the term "morganatic marriage"--one that limits the inheritance rights of one of the spouses--and there's no hint in the press that William and Kate's is one such.

    The suggestion is relevant because Prince William, heir to the British throne, has gotten away with marrying Catherine Middleton, a commoner. That is, she is not a member of the gentry, the nobility, or a royal house--but her half-common children will be in the direct line of succession. Marriage to commoners by men in the line of succession has been a troubled business: Prince Charles, the more immediate heir to the British throne, could not marry commoner Camilla Parker-Bowles until he had married and then divorced Lady Diana Spencer (who was the noble daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer).1 More seriously, King Edward VIII decided, in 1936, to abdicate after he expressed his desire to marry an American commoner, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Simpson was divorced by the time of the abdication from two living husbands, Earl Spencer (plain, old Earl Spencer, not related to Lady Di's father) and Ernest Simpson. In 1936, the unmarried king's affair with a married woman, not to mention her series of divorces, could still raise moral hackles. Worse, it might prevent the marriage from being celebrated2 in a Church of England ceremony. The abdication was the culmination of Edward's unwillingness to give up the marriage in the face of the resistance of the Church, the parliamentary leadership, and the governments of the various imperial dominions.3

    One of the suggestions made by the king's advisors was that the wedding be a "morganatic" one, whereby Mrs. Simpson would not become Queen of England (and instead would be just a princess-consort or something like that) and her children would not be in the line of succession. However, although there's a word "morganatic" in English, there's no morganatic marriage in English law--Parliament would have had to legislate one for the king, and that was not politically feasible.

    Instead, "morganatic marriages" were celebrated primarily in German-speaking areas of Europe, and provided a convenient way for royalty, noblemen or other wealthy men to marry a woman of poverty or of a lower social class. Upon the husband's death, the wife and the children she bore would only inherit that which had been granted to her in the Morgengabe, the "morning gift" on the day of the wedding from bride to groom. The integrity of the groom's social class, or the bulk of the inheritance of the groom's children by a deceased or former wife, would be preserved.4

    The word "morganatic" comes to us via the medieval Latin morganaticum, a bastardization of Morgengabe.

    Some art historians have suggested, inconclusively, that the wedding in Jan van Eyck's famous "Arnolfini Wedding" double-portrait is a morganatic one, because the groom gives the bride his left hand--considered a traditional element of celebrating a morganatic, or "left-handed" marriage.5

    1 "Fergie," Sarah Ferguson, is a commoner who married Charles' brother Andrew. 

    2 If you can find it, a good source is Lord Beaverbrook, How the Duke of Windsor Lost his Throne, Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 29, 1966, pp. 38-51.

    3 "To celebrate" is the American law term for undergoing the legal ceremony; the bride and groom are the "celebrants."

    4 General information on morganatic marriage is in Max Radin, "Legal History of the Morganatic Marriage," University of Chicago Law Review 4: 597-617 (1937).

    5 E.g., Lucy Freeman Sandler, "The Handclasp in the Arnolfini Wedding: A Manuscript Precedent," The Art Bulletin 66: 488-91 (1984).

    April 26, 2011

    A digger and his Sheila*

    Here's an interesting World War II poem written in exaggerated, but authentically tiresome, Australian English.

    *  "Digger," or "dig," was the First and Second World War term for an Australian soldier, and has been used by Australians where an American would say "guy" and as a form of address. "Sheila" ("woman") should be adopted into everyone's vernacular.

    April 24, 2011

    To warn a meeting

    Here's an interesting, and a little archaic, use of the word "warn"--"to warn a" town meeting. It seems to be the only time when "warn" is used without a preposition and the object of the verb is the thing to which the warning pertains (that is to say, the object is not the person being warned). The Oxford English Dictionary lists the preposition-less use as obsolete, although it's found in one or two legal dictionaries.

    It's a local term of art for announcing a town meeting according to legal notice requirements. The word is used in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut, and from statutes and legal cases it seems to tend to refer to announcements of special, rather than regularly held, meetings.

    April 19, 2011

    Timely and timeously

    “Timely” and "timeously" are synonymous, and mean "occurring at the proper time or within an expected time" (“fulfill the contract in a timely fashion”).  Each is used both as an adjective and an adverb.

    Timely is pretty common, but how about that word, “timeously” (pronounced /TIME-ussly/)? It’s a Scottish usage and it’s indicated as South African in dictionaries, too.  It shows up in other places in southern Africa too.  For example: “Land issues in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are said to have a lot of similarities, which need to be addressed timeously,” wrote Irene Hoaës in the New Era newspaper out of Windhoek, Namibia (July 15, 2010). My clumsy Lexis search uncovers hundreds of news references from southern Africa (and plenty from Scotland too).  Note that use of "timeously" is mostly isolated to those nations (an Australian commentator is surprised to see it used1).  The base adjective “timeous” is used too, but more seldom.

    Give "timeously" a try—did you really think you had all the adverbs you needed?

    Now for my two cents.  I don’t like the use of "timely" as an adverb (“Macduff was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripp’d”). Most adverbs are structured as (adj.) + -ly (“happily,” “sheepishly”). “Time” is not an adjective, and “timely” is already the adjective.  Therefore I, if my opinion mattered, would insist “timely” ought to parallel “friendly,” “kingly” and “lovely” as being solely an adjective. I would write "he did it in a timely way" instead of "he did it timely"; or maybe I'd use "timeously" if I was a braver American.

    1. Alan Peterson, “Is Timeous a Wrongeous Usage?; Words,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 8, 1989, p. 84 (he finds “wrongous” as well as “righteous” in his big dictionary, too).

    April 18, 2011

    The crossover of African American slang

    A lot of slang, and even standard English, was adopted from the black community by Americans at large.   The verbs “bad-mouth” and “tote” (carry) may even originate in African languages. 

    The thorough dissemination of black slang among the entire population, from rap music or television I think, is clear even in my temporary home in northern Vermont (a really WHITE place): 

    This is an ad for the New England ice cream and (greasy!!) food chain Friendly’s.  Even in the great white north, we’re all supposed to recognize this slang and get the joke—the advertiser isn’t even concerned that a sense of racial separateness might make us uncomfortable. 

    “Chill” in its sense of "relax" is, according to J. E. Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994), late 1970s black slang that came into its own in the ’80s; “peeps” means one’s people—relatives or close friends, according to Geneva Smithson, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (2000).  The phrase in the ad is a pretty familiar one to me, although I can't cite it right now.

    April 16, 2011

    Online foreign language dictionaries

    Who needs Google Translate?

    For translations from German words online I use Leo, operated by the sonorously-named Technischen Universität München. It's got technical vocabulary, many senses for each entry, and user forums that are genuinely useful.

    Tufts University runs Perseus, which has Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary, besides others. It's also got a "Word Study Tool" here, so that those of us short on Latinity can look up puzzling forms.  It offers Greek, Arabic and Old Norse too.

    Any other suggestions for reliable resources, for any language?

    April 15, 2011

    Kill all the "Juris Doctorates"

    It's a very common error to call the J.D. (law) degree a "Juris Doctorate"; lawyers sometimes make this mistake too, even in print.

    "Juris Doctorate" can't be right because it mixes Latin "juris" and English "doctorate" (the Latin word would be doctoratus). "J.D." is short for juris doctor, "doctor of law." It's not doctor of "laws" either--"juris" is singular for "of law."  The venerable Stanford Law School says that "J.D." is "doctor of jurisprudence," but there's no evidence on websites or in dictionaries of "doctor jurisprudentiae" in the U.S.--but I guess "doctor of jurisprudence" can be an acceptable (if arrogant and maybe imprecise) translation of "juris doctor."

    So do you address lawyer with a juris doctor degree as "Doctor," as you do someone who has a philosophiae doctor or a medicinae doctor degree?  It may be common in Europe, but it's really not done here in the U.S.--it's even considered unethical in many states.  Have you ever heard of a lawyer calling himself "Doctor?"

    April 12, 2011

    Tag questions!

    A "tag question," or "question tag" is the short question clause placed at the end of a sentence in English to indicate that the sentence is a question:
    He's coming, isn't he?
    We did a good job, did we not?
    A little bit of research shows that grammarians don't regard the "huh?" in "We did a good job, huh?" as a complete tag question, but it's very similar.1

    English tag questions get more baroque among foreign speakers of English.  Fijian(!) English speakers would insert the tag question "isn't it?" even into questions about a person doing something:
    He's coming, isn't it?2
    A friend of mine once remarked on his Chinese colleague using "isn't it" in the same way. I, for my part, encountered a Chinese-speaker in (of all places) a Reykjavik youth hostel who would insert "I think so" after questions AND affirmative statements.

    And let's not forget the exotic "eh?" inserted after many sentences in Canada, looking for the hearer's affirmation (oddly, not marked as especially CANADIAN in Webster's Third).

    1. There are "tag imperatives" that look similar, too, as in "Take out the trash, will you?"
    2. Loreto Todd and Ian Hancock, International English Usage (1987), 204.

    April 11, 2011

    Velazquez or Velázquez?

    My last post ended with a treatment of the plural of Velazquez and found the recommended plural is "Velazquez."1 But do we, writing good English, include the necessary acute accent mark over the "a" in the name? There's no definitive answer in the bookshelf of English usage guides. There are endless good-writer examples of "Velazquez" and of "Velázquez." It's not clear that there is a rule, and I would say that use of the accent mark over the "a" is more common in more recent publications. This may be because of a growing awareness among English-speakers of proper Spanish, or that it is easier to write "á" in Microsoft Word than on an old typewriter.

    I am reminded of the old rule that, when special characters are not available one's keyboard, one writes "Vela'zquez" whenever one is minded to write "Velázquez."

    Just be consistent!

    1. A footnote to my remark that I don't take exception to "Velazquezes" in English usage. I am of course not alone: "Velazquezes" is used extremely often to refer to families named Velazquez, and even metonymically for more than one painting.  E.g., "Titians, Rembrandts and Velázquezes,"Intl. Herald Tribune, Oct. 20, 2009, p. 12; "dozens of Goyas and Velazquezes and Zurbarans and El Grecos and Riberas and Dalis and Picassos," N.Y. Times, March 23, 2007, p. E1). And note that the company which publishes both the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times varies in its treatment of that "a."  (Note that there's internal consistency in the Times quote; in Spanish, it's "Zurbaráns.")

    On the other hand, a search of J-STOR and Academic Search Premier revealed almost no academic use of "Velazquezes" (I could not determine how often "Velazquez" is used as a plural, but the answer may be never).

    April 6, 2011

    What’s the plural of Jones?

    I suggested last year that a couple with a last name ending in “s,” call them Mr. and Mrs. Jones, print wedding souvenirs with “The Joneses.” A drunken, soon-to-be Mrs. Jones reportedly yelled “What the hell is Jonziz?”

    The plural of Jones is obviously not Jones or Jones’, it’s Joneses. It’s analogous to “lenses” and “buses.” Error in writing and especially error in pronunciation are common--it seems to me that many or even the majority of Americans say “Jones” for the plural; saying /Jonziz/ isn’t entirely natural or comfortable.

    So, what are the possessive forms of Jones and Joneses? All the English style guides insist that singular possessives are formed with -’s and plurals with only -’, so the possessive of Jones (singular) is Jones’s and the possessive of Joneses is Joneses’.

    Fair enough. The Chicago Manual of Style adds another wrinkle: What to do if that final “s” of the base name is unpronounced, like in the French Louis or Charles (pronounced /looey/ and /sharl/)? For a singular Louis or Charles, you make the possessive with the apostrophe-s, "-'s." For the plural, however, you don't add anything, because adding an "-es" would lead mispronunciation. That is, "Charlezes" is just wrong because you'd prounounce it /sharlziz/, when the plural is merely /sharlz/. Chicago would have you write that "eighteen Louis" or "ten Charles" were kings (pronounced /looeyz/ and /sharlz/); the possessive is formed with -’, as under the above, usual rule for plurals, and the pronunciation presumably follows the Joneses' = /jonziz/ rule.

    So you get the odd parallel paradigms, used in proper English writing and speaking, for English "Charles" and French "Charles":
    When you write about:    American /charlz/    French /sharl/
    sing.Charles drinks Bud /charlz/Charles drinks wine /sharl/
    sing. poss.Charles's hot dog /charlziz/Charles's brie /sharlz/
    pl.those Charleses go to Kmart /charlziz/   those Charles go on strike /sharlz/
    pl. poss.those Charleses' SUVs /charlziz/those Charles' Fiats /sharlziz/


    And another foreign wrinkle on pluralizing and possessive-izing foreign names: Chicago would also pluralize a -z name like Velazquez as “Velazquez” (with possessive “Velazquez’”), which accords with the judgment of various Spanish grammars.1 I suppose this is because Spanish-speakers pronounce -ez as /ayss/, which sounds just like their plural. I would have no problem writing plural “Velazquezes” (with possessive “Velazquezes’”) in English, and perhaps I will if it ever comes up. My approach would also make it easier to refer to multiple of the master’s paintings, which you’re each metonymically calling a Velazquez.

    The plural of a name ending in "y," like Perry, is "Perrys" not "Perries."

    1. Batchelor, A Reference Grammar of Spanish (2010); Real Academia Española y Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, Nueva Gramática (2009).

    April 4, 2011

    "It happened on a day"

    Following up on the last post: I was reminded of the archaic idiom "on a day," meaning the unspecific "one day" (and not as in "on a day in March" or "on a day to be appointed," which use "on" in a totally unidiomatic sense).

    "And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman; and shee constrained him to eate bread: And so it was, that as oft as he passed by, hee turned in thither to eate bread." -- K.J.V., 2 Kings 3:7

    April 3, 2011

    “Come back to my blog on tomorrow”

    A couple times, a few months ago, natives of Washington, D.C. said in conversation that they’d see me “on tomorrow.”

    This was a new one on me, and it turns out that “on tomorrow” is dated to 1829 in Virginia in the DARE and OED; DARE features “on yesterday,” too.  DARE has cites from New York and Massachusetts speakers after 1900, so it may not just be a southern usage. 

    I wonder how long it will take for “on tomorrow” to become standard American English.  See also . . . I actually kind of like it, at least.  It leaves a much better taste in my mouth than “y’all.”

    March 31, 2011

    Curious Ethnic Slurs From the Left Coast

    Forgive me for the off-color post, but dirty words are the first things one looks for in a dictionary. 

    Lexicographers used to be prudish when it came to including sexual, excretion and slur words in their dictionaries, writes Henri Béjoint, Tradition and Innovation in Modern Dictionaries (p. 129, Oxford 1994).  (He also reports one study that shows foreign learners’ second-most searched kind of term is the dirty ones, p. 144)  Béjoint describes his study of whether large American dictionaries of the 1970s neglect or avoid defining fourteen ethnic slurs.  The slurs he searched the dictionaries for are all the typical ones, most of which I won’t mention (I will mention “squarehead,” which I get a kick out of and because its targets can speak for themselves).  Among the words were “skibby” and “gu-gu.” None of the six large dictionaries he studies contains them—not even the dictionaries that contain all ten other slurs.  I’m not surprised—I’ve never heard of these either.  The meanings of skibby and gu-gu are not even vulnerable to quick Google searches.  What’s a skibby?  Am I a skibby?

    I doubted I am a gu-gu, at least.  A trip to the local university library has revealed that I am not a skibby—“skibby” is a slur for a Japanese person (from a Japanese word for lewdness that was transferred to Japanese prostitutes and then more widely applied, according to Webster’s Third and the Dictionary of American Regional English).  DARE says it’s “chiefly CA, Pacific NW.”  According to Webster’s Third, a gu-gu or goo-goo is a Philippine islander, chiefly in the speech of Hawaiians.  It’s not in DARE, but is covered in Wentworth and Flexner’s Dictionary of American Slang; the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says it’s pre-1900.

    So there you have it—all Béjoint’s dictionaries were written by easterners.  Perhaps they hadn’t heard of those words any more than I had.  Strange utterances from the land of “hella-cool.”

    March 29, 2011

    Some rough contronyms

    Contronyms, or Janus words, are those that have two, opposite meanings.  "Cleave"  means to split into halves, or stick two halves together. 

    I've always thought that "warm" was a Janus word.  You can give someone a warm greeting or, in what may be a mostly British usage, have a warm--heated, angry--debate.

    How about troll?  A troll may sit for hours under his bridge, and a "patent troll" buys up many patents and sits on them, waiting to sue someone who may have (accidentally) infringed a patent.  On the other hand, "troll" is the noun form of the verb "troll," which usually means to move around hunting, for fish or for a date.

    And there's "wicked."  You can be a wicked witch or, if you're from Boston, wicked good at doing something.  It's not just in Boston, either--it's in Webster's Third.

    March 16, 2011

    Review of Erica Reiner, An Adventure of Great Dimension: The Making of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary

    Erica Reiner. An Adventure of Great Dimension: the Launching of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 92 Pt. 3 (2002) (available in libraries and on J-STOR).

    Adventure is about the writing of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, the comprehensive dictionary of Akkadian in all its forms, by a scholar who joined the dictionary in 1954 and was editor-in-chief from 1973 to 1996. Because I’m not up to getting through that book, which stands at 25 volumes with one more on the way, I’ll review this history. (I don’t read Akkadian yet, either, but I’m sure I would by volume 19 or so.) There are no other reviews of Adventure readily available (the only one I turned up, although it is not available to me, is in Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America 26: 211-13 (2005).

    The CAD is a much-delayed dictionary: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago first started collecting material in 1921.  CAD volumes, alphabetized according to the 23 roman and romanized-Hebrew letters into which the initial sounds of Akkadian words are rendered, were published in the order completed. None were finished until 1956, when H came first and was followed by G the same year. Although the staff expected completion of the dictionary to take only about 10 years once compilation began, only a few volumes have come out each decade. A did not come out until 1964 and 1968, in two parts; T and Tet were each released in 2006; U/W still awaits release. From Reiner it’s clear that the main culprit (after the Second World War was over) was the huge amount of material and the relatively small staff.

    Adventure is an interesting and pretty comprehensive book, although it is best read as a sequel to the history of the CAD by I. J. Gelb presented in volume A/1 of the dictionary (1968). That piece includes meat that Reiner does not, such as how citation cards were produced, sources sought out, and how outside scholars, at Chicago’s request, created new translations from which the dictionary could reliably extract meanings. Reiner’s book discusses the mechanics of assembling the entries in the dictionary and includes copies of drafts, but without in-depth, interesting analysis of puzzling cruxes or telling errors. The dictionary was assembled from slips filed away, since about 1920, in great cabinets of the third floor of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Here is a circa 1921 example from an article by the Institute’s founder James Henry Breasted:

    According to Breasted, such a card with a passage typed on it was copied 50 times; on each copy, a different word was highlighted, annotated and translated, so that each word in the passage could have its own card in the file cabinet.  By the mid-1960s there were more than 1.5 million cards (or slips), and by the ’90s about 3 million, but Reiner doesn't describe them.  Reiner also does not provide post-1950 examples, to show us how information-gathering changed over the decades.  Reiner does say that many of these old slips had become inadequate and outdated since the 1920s, making the staff have to get back to basics.  The typescript drafts of entries to H nonetheless are interesting as examples of the composition of entries.

    Most of Reiner’s book covers the 1950s and 1960s and describes the lack of cooperation among the members of the editorial board.  The board members were, in more or less the descending amount of attention she pays each: Benno Landsberger, Leo Oppenheim, Ignace J. Gelb, and Thorkild Jacobsen.  Reiner describes them as brilliant, but each with his own distinct viewpoint on how the CAD should develop.  To actually produce the dictionary, two, Landsberger and Oppenheim, was company, while three and four turned out to be crowds.  Oppenheim’s view of the dictionary was that it be a straightforward listing of the entire Akkadian lexis, occasionally with a discursive, deeper-context paragraph in an entry.  Backed by the elder Landsberger, Oppenheim’s view eventually won out over the opinion of Jacobsen, which seems to be to have focused on fields of words to attack basic concepts, and the approach of Gelb, which to Reiner seems like one focused more on the technique and process of writing entries, than on getting on with it.  Gelb’s slow pace and reluctance to begin writing the dictionary are the most curious and interesting aspects of the personalities involved.

    One fascinating aspect of the writing of the dictionary that Reiner covers very well is the impact of interaction with the Assyriology community, the audience for the dictionary.  The CAD was publicized early to a public skeptical that it would ever be published.  The staff did not help: Gelb unfortunately attempted to communicate with readers in 1954, before the first volume was even close to completion.  He circulated an over-long sample article of "ŝaṭarū," which, in addition to having an  impractical format and impractical length, was full of errors.  Drafts of H as finally compiled and distributed for discussion were also full of errors (the staff discovered the necessity of returning to cuneiform originals rather than relying on existing, some quite old, slips).  The crisis caused by this among an international advisory board, and for the dictionary’s continued funding, is dramatic.  Interesting, too, is an agreement that scholars in Germany would write a short Handwörterbuch, while American resources would go towards the lengthy CAD; the Handwörterbuch, which also took decades for its three volumes to come out, provided a valuable benchmark for the CAD’s progress over the years.

    I would have liked to see suggestions of how to handle the inconsistencies in transliteration, translation, and citation of sources that crop up after such a long time in production.  A 2010 article by current editor Martha Roth does discuss the more-or-less consistent format eventually worked out in the CAD, and it is clear that the main force guiding consistency is the presence of a capable, involved editor of the manuscript.  Another problem Reiner points out, and that Roth acknowledges, is the unlikelihood ever of publishing corrections and additions.  An experiment with putting corrections to a volume in the next-published volume was dropped after the corrections to H were put in G.  With volumes out of alphabetical sequence, for a reader to find a particular set of errata would be very inconvenient. 

    Bibliographies, apparently comprehensive, can be found at the end of Gelb’s history of the dictionary in CAD volume A/1, and in Martha Roth, “How We Wrote the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 69:1-21 (2010).