Monthly Archives: July 2010


We’re coming around to the most sultry part of the summer, when the cicadas buzz like oven timers. Many is the person who wants to stretch out panting like a dog in front of a fan. Certainly those who are well insulated may wish they were svelter. As the Lovin’ Spoonful sang in “Summer in the City,” “All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.” For, as Noel Coward put it in “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “the sun is much too sultry and we must avoid its ultry-violet rays.” (Unless, of course, one is a mad dog or an Englishman.)

Oh, summertime, and the livin’ ain’t easy. Certainly not easy as pie, unless it’s Don McLean’s “American Pie”: “Helter skelter in the summer swelter.” Ah, now there’s the word for it: swelter. In this welter of swells sweatily waltzing the sun-walled sidewalks, every soul wilting, as wet as if wearing a sweater, what other word could carry not just the solar radiation (infrared!) but the humidity, the heat coming up as well as down, maybe an egg hissing as it fries on the sidewalk, and the sense of melting away unto death? It hisses, it swells, finally it burns off.

And, after all, swelter is related not just to sultry (via sweltery, at least as far as anyone can tell) but to death too: its origin is in the verb swelt, which meant first “die” and subsequently just slightly more figurative uses: “faint away”, “be overpowered by heat.” (Although perishing of heat may make you more svelte, svelte comes from Latin ex “out” and vellere “pluck”.)

But of course many of us are not so oppressed now. We have air conditioning; we may retreat, we lucky ones, as William Vaughn Moody put it in “Gloucester Moors”:

To be out of the moiling street
With its swelter and its sin!
Who has given to me this sweet,
And given my brother dust to eat?
And when will his wage come in?

Swelter: roll the word on your tongue, verb or noun, and enjoy it. It’s a well-turned word. You need but taste it; you are not committed to it if you have it easy, if you have A/C.

There is cash to purse and spend,
There are wives to be embraced

Moody, by the way, had a larger view in his poem than some hedonism – no thelemite, he. He wanted to know where this ship of a planet we are on is heading. And as we sit in our cool buildings and look at the swelter outside, we ought also to ask:

shall a haggard ruthless few
Warp her over and bring her to,
While the many broken souls of men
Fester down in the slaver’s pen,
And nothing to say or do?

And are we festering… or haggard and ruthless?

For anyone who hadn’t noticed…

…I am not a prescriptivist grammar Nazi and I don’t think the language is going to hell in a handbasket.

I had thought that this was fairly obvious, but I guess that some of the things I say may lead one to that conclusion if one does not have the context of my other opinions. I shall have to be careful to be clearer.

I mention this just because I had a debate with a fellow editor recently, my side of which I revised a little and posted here as “Streamkeepers of the language.” I’ve just found out that said fellow editor characterized that debate as “a lengthy debate with a fellow editor who feels very strongly that the English language is going to hell in a handbasket.”

Oh dear. The fact that I disagree with people who are trying to exert certain influences over certain usages, and that I wish to encourage others to resist those influences, does not mean that I think English is going to hell in a handbasket. Apparently this is less obvious than I thought it was.

Just to make sure anyone who is interested can know what my positions on language and language change are, here are some particularly germane posts:

For an in-depth exploration and appreciation of language change, check out “An Appreciation of English: A language in motion.”

For a detailed explanation of register, which is the question of different levels of English usage for different situations, go to “What flavour of English do you want?

For good ammunition against people who complain that the language is going to hell and who want to impose prescriptivist rule, read “When an ‘error’ isn’t.”

There’s plenty more where that comes from, of course, including salvos against grammar Nazis at “A new way to be a complete loser,” “For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?“, and “Fulford fulminates – pfui!” among others.

I hope that sets the record straight.


My word tasting class were having the discussion that all linguistics students have sooner or later, usually when covering morphology.

“So if I say absofreakinglutely, what is that?” Kayley asked.

“Rather tame!” Anna said. “I’d say –”

Kayley cut her off. “I know what you’d say. But what do we call it? It’s like we’re splitting absolutely into a prefix and a suffix and sticking them onto freaking.”

“Only,” said Brian, “it’s really absolutely that’s being modified and freaking that’s doing the modifying. So it’s an infix. And for any word you can predict where it will be infixed.”

“Only it’s not, really,” I said. “What’s a key feature of an affix? What kind of a morpheme is an affix? A prefix, a suffix: pre, un, ness, ing… Can I use them as independent words?”

“Nope,” said Anna. “They’re stuck freaking tight. Hangers-freaking-on.”

Brian nodded. “They’re bound morphemes.”

“Bound and freaking gagged,” Anna added.

“That would be nice,” Kayley said purposefully at Anna.

“An an infix is also an affix,” I said, “just one that’s wedged in the middle.” I tried to ignore Anna adjusting her shorts in response. “We don’t have them in English. So the best word for this phenomenon, I would say, is tmesis.” I wrote it on the board.

Jenna put up her hand. “I can’t read your handwriting. It looks like you have a TM at the start of the word.”

“That’s what it is,” I said. “From Greek for ‘a cutting’.” I said it again: “T’mee-zis.”

Rupert raised his hand. “That sounds like the capital of Georgia.”

Jenna looked incredulously at him. “It sounds like Atlanta?”

“The country of Georgia, in the caucasus,” I said. “The capital of which is Tbilisi.”

Brian was sitting back with his arm on the back of his chair, half-smiling. “It looks like a trademark infection.”

“Abso-Fuddrucker’s-lutely!” Anna giggled. “In-Viagra-fected!”

“Well, we might as well say ‘trademarkesis’,” Jenna declared. “We don’t start a syllable with ‘tm’ in English.”

“Except in this word,” I said. “But I know what you mean. It trips and stumbles when you say it, more like something was taken out than put in. To look at it, it looks like the m was just wedged in there, doesn’t it? Like the word is somehow misset, mixed up.”

“So tmesis means putting a word inside another word,” Brian said.

“Well, and there’s the rub,” I said. “Originally, classically, it meant inserting a word into a compound or set phrase. Like what Anna did with those phrases: Hangers-freaking-on. Or like saying Superduperman instead of Superman. Or even whatsoever instead of whatever, or chit and chat instead of chit-chat. Always fitting between the parts of a compound.”

“So not absofreakinglutely?” Kayley asked.

“It breaks it right in the middle of a morpheme,” I said. “Just like we would say heli-freaking-copter even though classically the split point would make it helicofreakingpter. So actually the word stuffed in is a rude interruption.”

Rupert raised his hand.

“Yes?” I said.

“Which seems to be the point,” he observed. “These words are rude, and they interrupt the main word. Rudely.”

“But rhythmically,” Anna said. I was so used to her making off-colour tangents that it took me a moment to realize this wasn’t one. Or at least wasn’t just one.

“Indeed,” I said. “They stuff in right before a stressed syllable – primary or secondary stress. Now, that’s not what most references will tell you tmesis involves. So… tmesis or not tmesis? That is the question.”

“Absoscrewingbluingtattooinglutely,” Anna declared.

Brian had a clever-looking smile. “We can even use it to prove that tmesis doesn’t break English phonotactics. By proving that it has three syllables.”

I paused for just a moment. “You’re right, in fact.” I turned to the class. “Where would you put the tmesis in tmesis?”

“That sounds like autocopulation,” Anna said. “Tumescence!”

Kayley determined to oblige with a response to my question. “T’-freaking-alright-OK-shut-up-already-Anna-mesis!”

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for prompting me to do tmesis.

just deserts

There are times when your surety over what is the right form of a word just deserts you. In place of the usual fertile ground of your linguistic knowledge you find just deserts. Language may usually be a well-earned piece of cake for you, but sometimes there are no just desserts: instead, you are just stressed backwards and distressed in the mix. You have worked so hard to know your language; where are your just deserts?

Often such an occasion will occur when an idiomatic phrase makes use of a word that simply isn’t used anymore – a word, moreover, that is similar to an other, still-common word. There are many such cases in English, and they often lead to misconjectural reconstruals that seem to make more sense, what are called eggcorns, from the misconstrual of acorn. Eggcorns can even occur with phrases that use common words but in less-obvious ways. Common examples of eggcorns include veil of tears, deep-seeded, short-sided, slight of hand, pawn off, high dungeon, vocal chords, straight-laced, short shift, give up the goat, preying mantis, without further adieu, trite and true… and just desserts.

The problem with just deserts, which is the original form, is that the word deserts – with the stress on the second syllable – simply isn’t used anymore; it has deserted the language, or the language has deserted it, and, honestly, it may be deserved. It served its purpose and now it has largely been cleared from the banquet of words… except in one idiomatic usage.

And if you can’t help but think of food when you hear this word, well, it does serve that turn in its way. It come from French but its root is Latin deservir, “serve well”, which is of course also the root of its sibling word deserve. In its turn, deservir comes from de meaning “to the bottom” or “completely” – as in declare, denude, deplore, despoil, decoct, and deliquesce – and servir, “serve”. The meaning transferred from serving well to what you get for serving well.

And if you have been served well – at a banquet, for instance – then the next thing will be for the dishes to be cleared, or dis-served: Latin disservir, “de-serve, clear away”. What is served at the time of clearing away? You certainly hope it will be dessert – from French, from Latin disservir, transferring from the clearing of the dishes to what is served last – or you will have been done a disservice.

So dessert is the end of the meal, and the whole service is thereafter reset. And if in the end you get your proper end, what is coming to you, it seems reasonable enought that it would be your just desserts, doesn’t it? The cherry on top, the icing on your cake – savoy truffle, perhaps, as the Beatles sang, but heed their warning: “You know that what you eat you are, But what is sweet now, turns so sour.”

So it’s hardly surprising that just desserts is now more common than just deserts. We’re seeing a change in progress, and why not? It wouldn’t be the first eggcorn to become an accepted version of a phrase, even by those to the manor born. (Or should I say, as Shakespeare did, to the manner born.)

And, of course, the punning use of the phrase only further helps it to be established. There are, after all, numerous eating establishments called Just Desserts. (Torontonians will think immediately of an innocent-bystander shooting that happened at one such in 1994; the following trial was lengthy and nasty, but the killer did get what he deserved.) It would seem that what is trite has a way of being taken as true.

If you’re curious about the origins of desert, the dry place, or desert, the act of abandoning, they both come ultimately from Latin deserere, “sever ties with, leave, abandon”. They thus have little in common with dessert, aside from that you are likely to desert a table after dessert, and that standard English spelling pronunciation rules seem to have deserted all of them at the middle fricative.

Those with a taste for more eggcorns will like “My veil of tears.”


Ladies, this is the word you wish your man could be. Look at the beginning: it’s a saint (st). Look again: it’s no stranger to the street (st again). Do you see a sty? This is no chauvinist pig word. It’s the word of a hero, an Ajax, the Greek warrior, who really cleaned up in battle, like a comet. You see the swords crossing and clashing: x, y. You hear them: /st/, /ks/. Now he’s the Trojan Astyanax. Now he’s Orpheus, crossing the Styx to bring you back. And when you look back at him to check out his muscled thorax, you see a master of the masculine (xy) arts. This is a man who keeps snakes on his tie racks. His pet bird is an archaeopteryx. Give him a golden goblet and he drains it as if it were styrene. He doesn’t pay tax. He even broke syntax. Now he’s a woodsman, holding a sharp ax. What kind of ax? Try a sax. Look again: it’s a hyrax. And it’s eating a bunch of snowbell flowers.

What’s snowbell? It’s a shrub of the genus Styrax. Yes, Styrax is the name of a genus of shrubbery, suitable for pleasing the Knights Who Say Ni! For all I know, it is also pleasing food for the hyrax, which, though it sounds like it should be some kind of heroic horse, is a little furry round creature that weighs about five to ten pounds. (But isn’t it so cuuuute!) But, well, things aren’t always as they sound. The classicists among you will already have thought, “Astyanax wasn’t a warrior – he was killed in infancy!” Likewise, what styrax names is, well, not quite as manly as all that.

But if it sounds like styrene, that’s because styrene is named after it – but actually after levant styrax, an unrelated plant (well, they thought it was related), from which styrene was first extracted. There is some stryene in styrax, too. That’s not its greatest historical usage, however; it has been used for scents for a long time. The resin can be used as incense, or to add a vanilla-like scent; the oil has a woody, balsamic aroma. Of course, it also varies by which of the plants in the genus Styrax you’re getting the scent from – or whether you’re getting it from Liquidambar orientalis, i.e., that levant styrax again.

Anyway, styrax comes to us from Greek, if you hadn’t guessed: στυραξ, also borrowed into Latin as storax, which has also become another English name for styrax.

And is it part of the formula for Old Spice? Dude, I have no idea.


“Well, I know what my favourite kind of phoneme is,” Marilyn Frack purred. “A fricative.” She rubbed herself, catlike, against her other half, Edgar Frick; the effect was enhanced by their wearing not their usual leather but satin, so that the frottage made a /ffff/ sound.

“That’s an infraction, you know,” I said. “Your frequent displays of affection have, you will recall, caused the Order of Logogustation to effect a censure. You’re being fractious.”

“Refractory, in fact,” Edgar said, with a saucy smile. “Look, we left our leather. Tonight is the Favourite Phoneme Festival, so silk and satin seemed suitable, as… yesss… we do like those fricatives.”

“Well, be aware that your friction – and frication – may engender friction.”

“I like gender friction,” Marilyn said. “Anyway, they’re asking for it. Look what they’re serving!” She reached over to the nearby high table for her plate, whereon was a helping of fricassee. She started to brush the plate against her garments. “Mmm, ah want to rub against every Frick ah see!”

“Well,” I said, “I seem to recall there was a phonemic motivation in that, yes, both in the pun and in the fact that a fricassee, when cooking, sounds rather like a fricative too.”

“Indeed,” said Maury, who had wandered over, possibly sent by others to caution the dynamic duo. “Even though fricassee does not share an origin with fricative and friction.”

“There’s the rub,” Edgar observed drily.

“Here’s the rub,” Marilyn said, and again made as if to afflict us with her affection for Frick.

Maury raised a hand. “Please… Bis repetita non placent. Besides, you seem fixated solely on voiceless fricatives: ‘f, s, th’… There are voiced ones, too, don’t forget.”

“Oh, I don’t forget,” said Marilyn. “‘Vvv, zzz’… Such sounds as are made by –” she tugged on a tag on her apparel – “zippers.”

Whereupon, with an appropriate sound, she unzipped her shirt to the navel, exposing a lacy brassiere about the same colour of red as Maury’s face had suddenly turned.

“I think,” said Maury, gesturing towards the door while noting the approach of other members of the organizing committee, “you may be about to change your phoneme type to ejective.”

Thanks to Roberto De Vido for suggesting fricative (a little while ago).

Two weeks’ notice?

This one leaves many people uncertain and even provokes debate, as there have come to be competing standards: should it be, for instance, two weeks’ notice or two weeks notice? Continue reading