Monthly Archives: August 2010

hoard, horde, whored

They’re taking down the hoarding in front of the Sony Centre, across the street from where I live. That’s nice – for so long it felt as though they were hoarding it to themselves. Soon, renovations done, they will open their hoard to the hordes who will come to see acts from the hortatory to the hoary. Some may accuse the artists who play such a cavernous space of having whored themselves, sacrificing art for cash. But who’re they to criticize who work uninspiring day jobs just to earn the pay to see someone else’s output? Well, let them make themselves hoarse preaching “with a little hoard of maxims,” as Tennyson put it in “Locksley Hall”; their end would be the state Tennyson described in “Don Juan”: “Society is now one polish’d horde, Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.”

Hoard, horde, whored… These words are tolerable in British accents that drop the /r/, starting with a light breath and then holding on a lax mid-back rounded vowel until the final voiced stop. But in North American English generally, they come too close to what is sometimes called “throat hawking,” that thing one does to produce a “loogie.” The tongue is raised at the back and curled up at the front, and the /d/ is the saving grace, keeping it from burying in the back.

But that pulling back and gathering in, that curling and bunching, at least may seem to have some iconicity with respect to the sense of the words: the retentiveness of hoard, the clannishness of horde, the dim bedchambers and clandestine involvements of whored. There’s no particular reason to think the words came about because of this, but it may or may not have helped their persistence. In any event, their sources are separate. Hoard is from a Teutonic word for “treasure”; horde is from a Turki word, orda, meaning “camp”, which also gave us Urdu, the name of a language; whored is from whore, of course, which in turn came from an old Germanic word for “adultery” – and whore is a word that never had a pronounced /w/ (the w was added to the spelling rather late) and that is also often pronounced with the vowel as /u/ or /U/, and a word that has a common root, back in Proto-Indo-European, with charity, which really is ironic, isn’t it?

I should add, too, that hoarding is from another word hoard that came about as a reanalysis of hurdis (taking it for a plural), which in turn comes from Latin and French words for “palisade”. As for hoary, it comes from hoar (as in hoar frost), which refers to grey hair but comes from a Germanic root meaning “old” and “venerable”.

We find, indeed, that this simple sound string gives us quite a hoard of words – even, perhaps, metaphorically, a horde, except that the words do not form a clan per se, not being related. But perhaps a horde need not be seen as related; after all, horde shows up most often with media (as in the media horde or a horde of media) – the rough and bunchy sound, redolent of hairy sorts on horses screaming themselves hoarse, seems apt for the muddled huddle of paparazzi and assorted reporters. But it also shows up with Golden – the Golden Horde were central Asian conquerors of the 1200s – and thus we have a link with hoard, as gold and (more especially) cash are the two things most often spoken of with hoard. And no doubt we have heard on occasion of the sterotype of a “whore with a heart of gold” – but that’s not as common a usage, and the past tense verb, whored, is much less common and does not have any usual golden collocation.

But now I feel that I have reached my maximum, and I hope that you are not of the tribe of the bored.

Thanks to Gabriel Cooper for suggesting hoard, horde, and whored.

nincompoop

If you’re more of a Johnny-come-lately than a summa cum laude (watch that snag in all the spam filters), if in fact you’re perhaps a bit non compos mentis, you might well be a nincompoop. You could be a rich nincompoop – there’s nothing requiring an income pooped out – but if you remain a ninny, a cumbersome old poop, then you get the one-two-three punch of this word: nin – first at the front, on the tip of the tongue, with a high front vowel sliding into a nasal – com – a bounce from the back back to the front by way of a central vowel, rhyming with dumb poop – a little puff from the lips, like blowing off a bit of fluff, but the vowel is high and back, so the sequence of vowels is front-mid-back while the consonants start on the tip of the tongue, bounce off the back and end on the lips.

It makes for a good effect. I recall a Bugs Bunny cartoon wherein Bugs is deriding a nemesis only to be bonked on the head and left in a daze: “Why, you big nincom… [bonk] …poop!” with the “poop” on a high note. It also has a modest flexibility, as when Frank Burns in M*A*S*H referred to a non-commissioned officer (corporal or sergeant) as a “non-com-poop”. And the repeated letters – n and n, p and p, and those googly eyes oo – add to the childishness, as repetition often tends to do.

No doubt the excremental undertones of the ending of the word help maintain its dismissively derisive tone. Not that the poop is necessarily the fecal one; it may be from a less common word, a verb meaning “cheat”. But that word in its turn likely has influence from the dung, perhaps through the back door, as it were. And from dung to dung returns – the word poop in you old poop (as in Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond) is likely shortened from nincompoop.

But whence comes this word entire? Samuel Johnson thought it came from non compos mentis, but there is no good evidence of this, and the oldest forms (mid-1600s) appear to be nicompoop – the second /n/ coming later. A later writer, John Ciardi, followed the sound-coincidence trail of folk etymologists everywhere and decided that since there was a Dutch phrase that could be constructed that sound somewhat similar and meant something kind of similar – nicht om poep, “niece of a fool” – it must be the origin, even though there was a lack of any other evidence to the cause (such as actual instances of usage of the Dutch phrase).

In truth, the best evidence is that it’s formed from Nicodemus, via French nicodème meaning “simpleton” or “naïve person”, with the derisive poop tacked onto the end in place of the original final, and extra nasals inserted along the way. That’s not certain, but it has more to back it up than the other proposals. But evidence doesn’t always manage to get in the way of a cute story, a contrived sound coincidence, or a dedicated nincompoop.

iff

“Your honour,” said the plaintiff, “I’m no pontiff, but mister Cardiff, here held by the bailiff, is a real goniff.”

“Ah, go jump off a cliff,” shouted Cardiff, miffed. “Your honour, it was just a little tiff.”

“Tiff!” exclaimed the plaintiff. “You stiffed me! I bought a spliff from you, and when I complained it wasn’t the real stuff, you riffed on your supplier. But after I left, I came back and caught a whiff – you’d lit up in a jiff and were puffing away on a real reefer. When you had sloughed off chaff on me!”

“Oh, what’s the diff,” sniffed Cardiff. “We all got it tough.”

“Gentlemen,” interrupted the judge. “Given that selling and buying marijuana remains illegal in this jurisdiction, including soliciting such sales and purchases, the plaintiff must admit to a felony in order to make a complaint against the defendant. In short, mister Cardiff has commited a crime iff – if and only if – the plaintiff has. Does the plaintiff truly wish to pursue this action? …Do you get my drift?”

Ah, iff. By itself, a term from formal logic – meant for writing rather than saying – meaning “if and only if” (in other words, A iff B means that A and B inevitably go together – A is necessary and sufficient for B and vice-versa). But its form – a sound like a sniff, a huff, a good stiff cuff, or the sifting of chaff, and a shape like blowing wheat or puffing smokestacks – shows up at the ends of other words.

While it is not a proper morpheme, it does have a common origin in plaintiff and bailiff, tracing back to Latin ivus by way of French (it’s if in French): these are nouns indicating an action role. Pontiff also traces to Latin via French, but in this case it’s a shortening, from pontifex (French pontif). Nonetheless the word appears to be similarly a noun of role.

Goniff, which is one transliteration of the Yiddish for “swindler” or “thief”, may also be a noun of role, but its root is in Hebrew gannabh. Cardiff, which (aside from being a toponymic surname) is the English name of the capital of Wales, traces back to Welsh for “fort on the [river] Taff”.

But we do seem to like the double f rather than the single for the end of a word! It’s also standard for one-syllable words ending in a /f/ sound, whether they be clippings of longer words (diff, jiff; riff is from refrain), onomatopoeic or imitative formations (tiff, whiff, sniff, miff), good old Anglo-Saxon formations that just by arbitrary chance have the sound (stiff, cliff), or words the origin of which is uncertain (spiff, spliff). It’s simply an expected English pattern.

For all that, though, the word if has rarely been spelled as iff in English history, though it has had many spellings (gif or yif would be truer to its oldest form). And the logical operator iff “if and only if” has only been around for about a half a century. Aside from that, though it can produce impressions, it is not per se a morpheme – and it is certainly not the case that its presence has a necessary or sufficient relationship with some specific sense!

firmament

Plant your feet firmly on the earth. Affirm that you are fixed on the fundament. Reach your arms high, towards the sky. In one direction is the firmament, and in the other?

The earth, of course.

Let’s approach this another way. You know Atlas: he’s that bloke with the globe on his shoulders, right? So what’s he holding up?

The firmament. And where’s he standing?

On the earth. The Atlas mountains, now in Morocco, to be precise. (What would he be standing on if he were holding the earth – a turtle? Which is on another turtle, and so on all the way down?)

Never mind that firmament appears to have two feet firmly planted in it, m and m. It means the heavens. That globe Atlas is holding is the celestial sphere, not our planet, and really, in mythology, he’s holding the sky above the earth. And the sky, wherein the sun, moon, planets, and stars are fixed, is the firmament.

That seems a touch weird, doesn’t it? Although firm is not a hard word (no knocking stops in it), it has that sturdy hum like a diesel engine. And ment makes a noun of something – it pours concrete on a concept. But the heavens are mostly empty space with balls of hot gas spinning about in it. They’re the counterpoise to terra firma. So what silly person decided the heavens were the firmament?

I certainly found it confusing for a long time. When you get a sentence like the first verse of Psalm 19 (KJV), “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” you can think firmament means the earth. But when you run up against Hamlet saying “This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,” well, you’re going to get confused.

You wouldn’t be the first. Evidence suggests that the people who translated the Bible from Hebrew to Greek were also confused. Referring to the vault of the sky, the Hebrew word most likely meant “expanse” or “spread”, but in Syriac the same verb meant “condense” or “make solid” (probably the divergent senses both trace back to a sense meaning “tread” or “beat out metal”), and that led the Greek translators to make it “firm, solid structure” – which went from the Greek to the Latin, where it was rendered firmamentum, from a verb firmare meaning “strengthen”.

So much for a firm basis for interpretation! An error stands on another error standing on another… Turtles all the way down? No, the bottom turtle is standing on air, but no one’s noticed. And now it has the solidity of tradition! Good heavens.

canola

In the summer, the Canadian country driver between Kelowna and Kenora or perhaps between Cornwall and Petrolia may happen to pass great fields of little yellow flowers. Beneath each green stem lies a bulb of the Brassica kind, akin to a turnip. But it is the seeds that are the crop. They are not the kinds of seeds one crunches in granola, nor quite like the linseeds that go into linoleum. No, they are a great part of the Canadian identity and the Canadian kitchen, and if (as the turn of phrase goes) you know shit from Shinola, you know they’re canola.

It’s almost an Italian-sounding name, isn’t it, canola? But you’re unlikely to find canola with canoli or canneloni; Italians use cream and butter for fat for the one and might have some olive oil (and more) with the other. Nor is it akin to NOLA, New Orleans, Louisiana, home of many fine foods such as muffuletta sandwiches. Canola is also not like payola but in a can – though the same ola that has a certain phonaesthemic presence in granola, payola, Shinola, and Victrola (and originally pianola) no doubt influenced the formation of this word. So, too, we may expect, did the ola that is truly morphemic in cupola, aureola, and lineola.

That second ola is canola‘s one vague link with Latin. For more Latin we would need to go back to the root – and I don’t mean that bulb of Brassica. The Latin name for this kind of plant (or turnips generally) was more commonly rapum, from which we get the rape that is in rapeseed – an entirely different rape from the one signifying sexual assault. But how could anyone see the one word and not think of the other? No wonder, when Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson bred a variety of rape in the 1970s that was low in undesirable erucic acid, they took their description Canadian oil, low acid and made an acronym of it – the first half a syllable acronym (as in SoHo and SoWeTo), the second half an initial acronym (as in NASA, RADAR, and TASER): Canola (because CanOLA is tacky and canola oil is slippery).

Yes, the can in canola is short for Canadian, like so many cans in our can-do country. And its popular oil is emblematically Canadian, even though canola is now grown in other countries too. If, as Pierre Berton once said, a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe, then surely a Canadian is also someone who knows how to make food with canola. (Not that it’s difficult, unlike that canoe thing.)

Thanks to “Upstater” for asking about canola and rape via a comment on triticale.

bookkeeper

I remember a little story in some book of mental exercises about a bookkeeper who happened to be entering an item about a purchase of balloons (probably 1100 of them) and noticed that there were two double letters in sequence, lloo. He got to thinking about other words that had the same (I don’t remember their examples, but spittoon and settee would be others), and wondered whether there was any word that had three double letters in a row. After thinking long and hard, he noticed something in his office that gave him the answer. What was it?

Well, the plaque on his desk, or the sign on his door, or his business card, whatever – as long as it said bookkeeper. An extra interesting detail about this word, however, is one that might in fact ironically have kept the reader from noticing the sequential double letters: the double k is across a morpheme boundary (since this is a compound word, made of three morphemes – book + [keep + er]), and – unlike most double letters in English – it actually represents a double sound, or anyway a long one (since the /k/ isn’t released twice but is held for double length).

We rarely do double sounds in English. We used to; vowel length once really was vowel length. Now it’s more a function of a change in quality. And we don’t say a long /l/ in balloon (as a speaker of, for instance, Italian might) – it’s not /bal lun/ but /bə lun/.

There are a few other words in English (I don’t have numbers on how many) that have long consonants, and generally they are due to morpheme boundaries. There are at least three that even may be said with long consonants but written with a single letter: thirteen, fourteen, and eighteen, which can (but don’t always) have a held /t/, partly to distinguish them from thirty, forty, and eighty.

But it would be sloppy to say bookkeeper with just a single short /k/. That would make it sound like bookie per, say. And while a bookie may be a bookkeeper of sorts, a bookkeeper is not necessarily a bookie per se.

But this word – and especially its related verb bookkeep – suits bookkeeping well enough. It’s all double-entry ookkee, with the positives b on one side balanced out by the negatives p on the other. (You could also view the kk as the ledger columns, the boo as a positive with trailing zeroes, and the ee as cancelled amounts before the negative p.) Certainly you want to double-OK everything in the accounts, with no book capers and nothing that leaves you saying “eep!”

Book and keep are both old, time-honoured English words (keep originally meaning something more like “capture”). Bookkeeper has, for its part, been around at least since the 16th century. But it has rarely been used for someone like me, who buys books (especially reference books) and almost never sells them. Rather, the books that are being kept are account books (for instance at toll bridges), and the keeping is like housekeeping – not just retaining but maintaining. Why has it always cleaved to that one sense? Oh, there’s no accounting for the vagaries of language… we can just keep the books.

Thanks to my wife, Aina Arro, for prompting me to do bookkeeper.

triticale

This is a crisp, hard, almost brittle word at the start, its sound glittering like a cut diamond, gleaming at the end with the /li/. The crosses of the t‘s add to the angularity, and the short high front vowels keep it clipped and quick before it opens wider into two “long” vowels (really diphthongs). For all that, it’s musical, four crisp beats in two trochees (but you may say it in a three-time rhythm), like tapping feet and perhaps a fiddle, say, at a ceili.

And why not a ceili? After all, the grain this word names was first bred in Scotland – and Sweden. Yes, it’s a cereal grain, the mule of the breadbasket: a cross-breed between wheat (genus Triticum) and rye (genus Secale) that is sterile… until treated with colchicine (I wonder if mules would like a chemical that would let them reproduce).

Triticale sounds technical, strong, important, not trite; it’s a plant with a critical trail, the first man-made crop species. And it can grow in places where wheat cannot, and it has a high lysine content, good for feeding people and animals; it’s thought of as a crop of the future, which, given that its name sounds like a planet from Star Trek, seems reasonable enough.

But how can it replace wheat? Wheat is a softer, shorter word, and we easily think of flour with it… How can something called triticale become soft flour? Why, by being triturated, of course, just as is done to wheat for the same purpose. And rye – European bread and Canadian whisky – can triticale supplant it? Well, why should it – augment it, rather. After all, triticale is an augmented-feeling word (long like the name of a Sri Lankan city, perhaps), suitable enough given that triticale grains are somewhat larger than wheat grains, though not quite as large as rye grains.

But at least the linguistic blend is Latinate. Had it been in Gaelic, it might have been something like cruithneachteagal. Of course, in Swedish it could have made veteråg, which sounds earthy – though more like a name for a troll, perhaps, than something scientific. But had it been a simple English concatenation, it may have been wheatrye, which would have been pronounced like “we try”. And of course we try – that’s how we come up with things like triticale.