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!"