Monthly Archives: January 2011

What would result in you sounding better?

A fellow editor was wondering aloud (OK, on email) about a sentence with a construction similar to the above (What would result in you sounding better?). She thought perhaps it should be your rather than you: What would result in your sounding better? So… what would? Continue reading

psithurism

Psst! Listen! Sifting, siffling, shifting, sighing, whispering, rushing, brushing… It starts like a sound of corduroys whiffing together, perhaps, or a sigh, a distant waterfall… As it approaches, the shaking becomes visible, thousands of shades shifting, and the echoes of restrained applause or quiet dissonant voices (is there rhythm? nary a bit; you’d sooner find it in Ligeti’s Kyrie)… Then a gradual rise to a roar, a crashing washing, white noise, and all is in motion, leaves, twigs, branches, all the trees, lifted and whirling and flailing in the gust, like thousands and thousands of dancers or papers or birds or dervishes or even the sparkling sun on a lake, shades of green glittering in the breeze, this prism undulating in emerald… and then it passes again, and all calms down to a quieter whisper.

Ah, the psithurism of the trees in the breeze in my native Alberta, rising and falling in the gusts of the spring and fall. Does it sound romantic, idyllic? Try hearing it outside your window in the night, perhaps in an empty house, just you and the darkness and the rushing wind rising and falling, and the trees sighing and shaking and asking your name. I admit I am not much treated to psithurism in my aerie in downtown Toronto, but I also do not so much feel the Windigo coming for me.

Now, psithurism does not have to refer to the sound trees make when they whisper in the breeze, since it comes from Greek πσιθυρισμα psithurisma, “whispering”, but it does have a history in English of focus on trees and leaves – inasmuch as it has a history in English, of course. It arrived only in the 1800s – likely accounting for the fact that, unlike earlier borrowings, it renders the upsilon as u and not y. It’s been taken so directly from Greek, and with so little wearing down by the breezes of common conversational usage, that I really do think one can pronounce the initial p. It’s a word that seems almost just to be passing through the language, stirring it a bit on the way by and then moving on, with no lasting state, just as it rustles the lips and the tip of the tongue without shaking the root: start with mouth closed, open to the tip of the tongue hissing a little air, then a lift, a touch of the teeth, a slight recoil and back to the tip and again the lips close and it is finished.

hack

So there was this hack hacker who was hacking away while hacking some bricks – a guy’s gotta earn a living; he also drove a hack – when some guy come up on a hack with a hack-hawk and asked, “Hey, can you hack a hack with that hack?” and pointed to the hacker’s hack. “Don’t you know the hack for that?” said the hacker. “You put the hacks in before it freezes.” He started hacking and hacking away again. The guy on the hack was pretty hacked off. “Too late for that, now, isn’t it? Look, if you can’t hack it, can I borrow your hack?” The hacker stopped hacking and hacking and said, “Go hack yourself.” So the guy set his hack-hawk on him.

So there was this second-rate computer hacker who was coughing nastily while putting some bricks in a drying frame – a guy’s gotta earn a living; he also drove a cab – when some guy came up on a hired horse with a young hawk in training and asked, “Hey, can you cut me a curling foothold with that mattock?” and pointed to the hacker’s mattock. “Don’t you know the shortcut for that?” said the hacker. “You put the footholds in before it freezes.” He started racking the bricks and coughing away again. The guy was pretty annoyed. “Too late for that, now, isn’t it? Look, if you’re not up to doing it, can I borrow your mattock?” The hacker stopped coughing and racking bricks and said, “Go hack yourself.” So the guy set his young hawk in training on him.

Was that a piece of hack writing, or what? I think the word hack was getting pretty hacked – meaning hackneyed – by the end. But it’s just a fact that there’s a lot of hack out there. It’s a short, convenient word, easy enough to say – unless your native tongue doesn’t have the sound /h/, of course, and allowing for considerable variation in the realization of the vowel, depending on accent. It nonetheless has one letter more than it has sounds; in English (unlike in Dutch, Danish, or Swedish), hak would look like bare hack-work, and frankly foreign. And of course hac would just be wrong – well, it’s a Latin word meaning, roughly, “over here”, but that’s entirely separate – partly because it wouldn’t look quite right but in the main (for my tastes) because it would lose that nice look of the h getting hacked into a k.

Almost all of the various senses of hack above come from two sources. One is a Germanic root, which has shown up in cognates in the various Germanic languages (mainly spelled hack, hak, hacke, and hakke), and it has to do with hewing and striking and implements for so doing. The other – relating mainly to the for-hire and transport senses – is as a shortening of hackney, which some trace to the British place name Hackney (“Haca’s Isle” or “Hook Isle”) but others (including the OED) trace to Romance sources such as French haquenée and Italian acchinea, “ambling nag”. There are also a couple of other hacks in there, including the drying rack for bricks and the table on which meat is set out for a young hawk in training (whence hack-hawk), which appear to have different origins, though etymologists can’t quite hack the sources of those.

Hack certainly has lots of echos (especially if you do it in a canyon). Many of them come from other meanings of hack. There are also all the other words that rhyme with it, plus words such as hap and hat, and hick, heck, huck, hock, hook, hike, hake, hark, hork… /h…k/ is a very useful frame for those linguistic bricks, phonemes. And it has an undeniable flavour that colours, to some extent, every usage it has, with its shortness and sharpness, starting with a quick chest pulse and staying stuck at the back of the tongue (well, except for the vowel – hock would be all back, all the time).

I am also, just incidentally, put in mind of Hakka, which is a dialect of Chinese and an associated ethnic group within the Han Chinese. That’s not pronounced like “hacka”, though – the a is as in father. And while you might be led to expect a dialect with a sort of hacking sound and rhythm, Hakka is actually pretty even and smooth overall (I have a couple of friends who speak it).

And I suppose it makes me think of my last name, if I drop the rbe from the middle. But I don’t expect anyone else to make that association!

Thanks to Doug Linzey for suggesting hack.

concatenate

This word has quite the interesting dry sound, with its voiceless stops (two back, two front) and its four-beat rhythm stressing on the second syllable: perhaps mechanical, like an assembly line, the raw goods coming through conca and being formed by a stamping or bending machine into the final result tenate (the c’s pressed and formed to t’s – or to e’s with the t’s inserted; vowels inserted, removed, or reshaped); perhaps like a chain of tapdancers or stomp-dancers stamping a finale; or perhaps like the sputtering of someone with a mouthful of dry feathers – maybe Sylvester spitting and hacking as Tweety has escaped from his mouth (and left a little something behind as a lesson). He’ll never be the cat that ate the canary, but you can’t keep a cat from its innate disposition, not even with a chain.

Concatenate can’t avoid sounding like a technical word, but at the same time with a little tinge of taste of something out of whack or collapsing, discombobulated, perhaps (or maybe with a cry of “Suffering succotash!”) – a half-heard echo of catastrophe, plus the sense, like one gets with procrastinate, of being a useful long word for something that could of course always be said with a set of shorter words rather than a chain of morphemes.

And what are the morphemes? It’s Latin, of course, and you will know con: yes, “together” again. The ate ending is a verbal suffix, and a very common one in English; we still make new words with it on occasion, all to do with making something of something or changing something from one state to another or simply engaging in an activity of some sort (I leave it to you to meditate on examples to illuminate, such as your mind may prestidigitate when you cogitate). That leaves us with caten, which comes from Latin catena “chain” and can also be seen in the geometric term catenary, which names the graceful curve produced by a chain hanging from both ends.

So what are the shorter words we could use? Well, chain together would be one possibility. If you’re devoted to Anglo-Saxon roots, however, you’ll have to let chain fall; it, too, comes from catena. An alternative would be string together.

Concatenation is a useful thing. We use it a fair bit in English word derivations; it’s common in many languages, and some use it quite liberally (those long German words spring to mind, but agglutinating languages go even farther – meanwhile, isolating languages don’t use it for making new words). But it’s also useful in other areas. Concatenate happens to be one of my favourite commands in Microsoft Excel, for instance, because you can take sets of text in different categories (be they names and addresses or variable components of a URL) and string them together to coherent outputs. It’s saved me a lot of time from time to time.

But a difference between how we tend to think of concatenation and how real chains are actually made is the matter of overlapping. Chains work precisely because they overlap (though I suppose if you used glue to hold the parts together that wouldn’t technically be overlapping), while concatenation in Excel and in many other things is a matter of packing and sticking.

As it happens, concatenate has a bit of an aspect of overlapping: there is the a from catena and ate. And, of course, there are bits you can see in it that aren’t really source parts, just adventitious strings: cat overlapping with ate overlapping with ten (the cat ate ten what? Canaries? Ha – nary a one, not even the one on the catenary. But we do know he ate ’n’ ate. Maybe it was conch. Maybe it was just at a chain restaurant).

Watch your endings, genii!

A colleague just quoted from a website on which genie is pluralized as genii.

No, it’s not correct. Genie does derive ultimately from Latin genius (which can be pluralized as genii or as geniuses), but it came to us by way of French, and it’s an English word now, so it’s genies.

But this reminds me of a much larger issue that needs to be addressed: the idea – a rather common one, it seems to me – that there is a Latin plural ending -ii that should be applied to Latin-seeming (and some other foreign-seeming) words. I see it, for instance, when some people write virii instead of viruses.

To be as plain as possible: in Latin, -ii is not a plural ending. Ever. Nor is it one in English (unless this pseudoplural catches on, I guess…). In fact, I can’t think of a language in which it is a plural ending, though there might be one somewhere. Not English, though!

No doubt some of you are saying, “Hey! That’s wrong! What about genii for genius and radii for radius?” Continue reading

remunerate

This word confuses quite a lot of people. It’s as though it’s been stirred or something – remunerate? Shouldn’t that be renumerate? As in numeral? Or perhaps related to Latin nummus, “coin”? We’re talking about paying here, after all, settling accounts.

Well, that may be, but we’re not talking about it on the basis of numbers or coins. It’s a question of giving here. The Latin source is munus, “gift” – and the re made it mean, originally, “give back” (there was once also a word munerate, but that one has gone by the wayside). So this word is related to munificent. It’s also related, just incidentally, to municipal, because the same root munus could also refer to “office” and “official duty” – making it also the source of communal and community. The connection between gifts and offices is obligation and being obliging.

So this word might lead a person to think of giving back to the community, for instance. Remunerate can of course refer to any kind of payment (and especially wages), but when we think of the benefits we receive from our community, and the obligations we have to help maintain it and its benefits, we really ought to be so obliging as to think about giving back rather than holding back. (I cannot hold back from observing also that anyone who thinks that their community can maintain or increase services while receiving less remuneration must be innumerate – though, alas, such people also seem almost innumerable.)

This word is, however, in the main a ten-dollar word for “pay” – especially “pay wages”. And its far-more-common noun derivative remuneration is correspondingly a ten-dollar word for “payment” – or the noun “pay”. You give your work, you get money back for it. Do you get fair pay, or just fair words? That depends on your employer, of course. But I am put in mind of a scene from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Costard (a comic servile knave) is set to a task by a rather pompous fellow, who presses some money into his hand and says, “There is remuneration; for the best ward of mine honour is rewarding my dependents.” Once the fellow has left, Costard inspects it and says, “Now will I look to his remuneration. Remuneration! O! that’s the Latin word for three farthings: three farthings, remuneration. ‘What’s the price of this inkle?’ ‘One penny.’ ‘No, I’ll give you a remuneration:’ why, it carries it. Remuneration! why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will never buy and sell out of this word.” (A farthing was a quarter of a penny.)

Later in the scene, Costard is set to another task by another, ironically more munificent, fellow, who gives him a shilling and says, “There’s thy guerdon: go.” Costard’s response: “Gardon, O sweet gardon! better than remuneration; a ’leven-pence farthing better. Most sweet gardon! I will do it, sir, in print. Gardon! remuneration!” Ha – marry, quite contrary, no? How does the guerdon go!

The best thing I can think of to help a person remember that it’s remunerate rather than renumerate (and remuneration rather than renumeration) is to think of money (not nummy), although it’s not actually a related word. Or you can think of your municipal community! For me, I am actually put in mind of French remuer, “stir” – also unrelated, but it is fun on occasion to mix it up a bit.

adnexa

OK, yes, this word caught my attention when it crossed my eyes in no small part because of the x. (I’ve since uncrossed my eyes. Also undotted my tease.) You can just picture the effect of an unexpected word on the ordinary sleepy eye: sleepy eye e sees word, blinks for a moment x, then opens wide a. If it’s a really good word, the hairs on your head and neck might even stand up d. Safe to say, though, that your fingernail on your fingertip n won’t extend to be a claw, unless you’re a cat.

Adnexa seems like it could be a name for a girl, doesn’t it? Or perhaps for a consulting company or advertising broker. Or a model of car. At the very least it seems to me to have an air of almost studied sexiness, the sort that comes with wavy hair, long eyelashes, painted nails…

On the other hand (the one without the painted nails, I guess), the sound of it, I must admit, also makes me think of sinus congestion. It’s the /dn/, for sure, but amplified by the sticky-throat and harder-swallow sound of /ks/ at the x. That sense is a sort of awkward appendix to the rest of the word.

Hm, well, perhaps appendix isn’t the right word, quite. In literature, an appendix is something extrinsic but useful, but in the body an appendix is simply vestigial and without apparent function. And anything that bears on the taste of a word has a function – or should I say an effect. Even the off tastes come in subtly.

So what is the word for those parts of the body that are peripheral to an organ but also have functions? Like the eyelids on an eye – and the eyebrows, tear ducts, et cetera? The hair growing on your skin, and even the muscles that horripilate (make it stand on end)? Fingernails too? Oh, I know. It’s from Latin ad “to” plus nectere “tie, bind”. Is it annex? No, though annex also comes from that. Nope, the word I want is… oh, yes, you guessed it… (I guess I am dotting my tease after all…) It’s adnexa, noun, plural.

fatigue

I’m listening to Jan Kaczmarek’s soundtrack for Washington Square, the movie directed by Agnieszka Holland in 1997. It’s really a nice piece of work, and one I do not tire of (except for the short children’s song “The Tale of the String”). In particular, there is one song in it, sung by Catherine and Morris as they play the piano, that is quite lovely. The words are in Italian; they are actually a poem by the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, “Tu chiami una vita.” (I feel quite certain that the song is not in Henry James’s book, although I have not read it. The book was published in 1880; Quasimodo was born in 1908.) The opening words are “Fatica d’amore.”

Ah, now, what is fatica d’amore? I’m sure you know that amore is “love”. Fatica, for its part, happens to be related to English fatigue. (It it also pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.) So is fatica d’amore “fatigue of love”? It could mean that; it could also mean “hard work of love” – you could say “labour of love,” though more in the sense of “love’s labours.”

But how is it that the word could mean both the labour and its result? Well, at least the senses are connected. The Latin source, as it happens, is a verb, fatigare, which means (according to the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary) “weary, tire, fatigue; harass; importune; overcome” (and of course we have an English verb fatigue, which you now know was not formed by verbing the noun). Verbs that denote the causing of an effect can be nouned into the effect or the cause. Or, sometimes, both, by choice.

In English, we mostly don’t use fatigue to refer to things that cause fatigue, though in the past it was an available sense. The modern exception is in military usage, where non-soldierly grunt work, often assigned for punishment, is called fatigue (and the kind of clothing one wears to perform such work is called fatigues). Otherwise, it refers to a weariness that comes from sustained exertion.

Indeed, it almost seems a word made to be said when fatigued. It starts with the puff of /f/, and then a reduced vowel in an unstressed syllable; after that is the /t/, which may be crisp but comes with a puff of air after it that, in a fatigued condition, may become an escaping sigh. The main vowel is that /i/ that we hear in please, gee, yeesh – the tongue still able to tense, but the incipient exhaustion and perhaps exasperation is forcing its way through. And then it ends with that back-of-the-mouth stop /g/, as in words of tossing up one’s hands as with ag! or just trying and failing to swallow. Put all together, it moves from the front to the back in a sort of fading away, evanescing.

The written shape has a certain something that way too, if you wish. The f is already bent over; the t is shorter; the i is more reduced again; and after that nothing stands up, and in fact it sinks in a slump into g. The last two letters aren’t even pronounced. (That’s because we got the word from French, but I will not tire you with a history of French pronunciation and orthography.)

Of course something may be a labour of love without being laboursome or fatiguing – these word tastings are an example for me. But I have a hunch that Salvatore Quasimodo, in his poem, meant something deeper. The poem speaks of sadness and of naming a life that within, deep, has names of heavens and gardens (and Kaczmarek’s music repeats a lovely sequence on “di cieli e giardini”). But then it adds, “E fosse mia carne che il dono di male trasforma”: “And it would be my flesh that the gift of evil transformed.”

Evil? Well, or misfortune, harm, pain, ache… just like French mal. Heavens, gardens (to labour in?), flesh transformed by a gift of hurt… indeed, the fatigue of love. And, not incidentally, quite apposite to Washington Square.

Two spaces and authority

Something I have to tell people about every so often, and would probably have gotten around to doing a blog post on, is that the rule so many people learned about putting two spaces after a period was a rule invented for typewriters and never appropriate for proportional type, such as we use now on computers. However, Farhad Manjoo of Slate has just given such a nice explication/rant on the topic (even if a little too harsh at times) that all I really need to do here is link to it. Which I have just done.

But if you’ll look at the comments, you’ll see not everyone agrees with him. And their reasons for disagreeing with him are for the most part not based on rational argumentation focusing on the points he’s made. They’re generally in the line of “You’re wrong because you’re wrong,” “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong,” “Who cares?” and “That’s not what we were taught, so you’re wrong.”

The first two kinds of response – “You’re wrong because you’re wrong” and “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong” – are easily waved off. Circularity is obvious and juvenile, and popularity is not always a proper basis for correctness. (In typography, the design aims for maximum readability and minimum unbidden distraction, and double spacing defeats that when the type was designed to have proper kerning after a period. So it’s not like language usage, which in the long run is decided by mass opinion.)

The third, which is exemplified by the comment “You know what’s even more outdated than using double spaces at the end of a sentence? Typographers,” is the argument from and for ignorance. The truth, of course, is that typographers are not outdated; perhaps that commenter thinks that God or magic makes everything look pretty and readable on the page, and that all letter forms are sent straight down from heaven. But if there were no typographers, he and others would discover the true meaning of text looking like shit.

It’s the final category of comment, though, that touches on a point that comes up quite often when language professionals talk with their clients and other people who might think they know what they’re talking about but don’t really. An exemplary comment is “Hey jackass. Us two spacers didn’t invent this practice. It was taught to us somewhere, more than likely in a typing class. So despite your assurances, I assure you that it is correct.”

Oh! It was taught to you somewhere! Ohhhh. I see. So it must be right then! Because teachers are always right. And yet there are other commenters in the same thread who say they were taught not to use two spaces. So they were taught somewhere that double-spacing was wrong! So that makes them both right! But they can’t both be right! Oh noooooooes! Mai hed hurtz.

So I’ll say it, just to be clear: Just because you were taught it doesn’t mean it’s right.

And here’s an even more important fact: School teachers are not subject matter experts. They teach what is in the curriculum, which has been determined by school boards and politicians, and most of the time it’s right, and of course in order to teach it they need to know enough about it to teach it. Certainly most of what they will teach you is true (whether you remember it correctly is another matter). But they are not always right about everything.

And some of the things you are taught in school are not entirely right, either. Usually this is because you aren’t quite at a level to understand the matter exactly correctly; you will find this in university, too – linguistics students are constantly being told that what they learned in a previous-level course was actually a bit oversimplified. Sometimes the school curriculum hasn’t caught up with reality. In some places, due to politics, the curricula are impervious to established reality on some important points. But also, students are sometimes taught things that aren’t in the curriculum but that the teacher just happens to believe. This is how many mistaken beliefs about grammar have been spread. (See When an “error” isn’t about those.)

But let’s just get this right down clear and straight: you probably know that your high school biology teacher knows less about the human body than a surgeon does. You may know that your high school physics teacher knows less about physics than one of the physics professors at MIT, Cal Tech, or Stanford, and less about engineering than a professional engineer who builds bridges for a living. So why do so many people believe that what their high school English teacher taught them about grammar and writing is the highest, most expert level of fact, handed down as though from God? Here, I’ll put it in bold so people can see it when skimming: Your high school English teacher was not an English language expert. He or she probably acted like one. But if you really want to understand English grammar and how it works and why it is the way it is, you’re going to need to get much farther than the rather basic understandings you came out of high school with.

Now, those who read this blog regularly will know I take a pragmatic approach, and generally dislike inflexible thou-shalt-not rules. So what’s with me saying thou shalt not use two spaces after a period? Well, it’s like this: you can use two spaces if you want to, but it’s probably not going to look as good. The type was not designed for it. If you submit it for publication, the designer will convert double spaces to single spaces pretty much immediately, and in fact will probably run that replacement without even looking to see if there are any to replace. So you’re making either a little extra work or not really any extra work at all for the designer, but you are wasting your energy with every unneeded space. Hey, it’s your energy…

But if you double-space, at least don’t insist that single-spacing after periods is wrong. It’s not. It’s actually preferable in proportional type. And it doesn’t matter that you learned it in school. The fact that you learned it in school doesn’t mean it’s right. You have a brain, right? I’m sure you’ve questioned other things you were taught. Well, question this too! Find out!

vertigo

You’re up, high up, high in the vertical, eyes diverted, extraverted – outside at the railing – and then you look over the verge, and o, view forever; you are riveted, shivering at vividness of the overt elevation, but, no, git over, your ungoverned gogglings have given way to a riven, gyrating vigilance, and with a vagitus you divagate dizzily to an ogive or trave, a rivage above the gorge, and are revisited by gravity.

Hello, hello… you’re in a place called vertigo. It’s everything you wish you didn’t know… (U2, eh?) But question: what part is the vertigo? You have found yourself in vertiginous heights. Were you overcome with a fear of falling? You may or may not have been, but that wasn’t the vertigo; that’s acrophobia. Oh, millions of people are no doubt under the impression, abetted by the Hitchcock film Vertigo, that vertigo has something to do with heights. But it ain’t necessarily so.

What I mean is that heights can cause vertigo in some people, but so can many other things. I daresay more people probably get it from excessive alcohol consumption. The vert, you see, is etymologically the same vert as in vertical, but the root refers to turning. Turn up and it’s vertical. Turn back and you revert; turn aside and you divert. And if you feel like you’re turning – your head spins right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, round, round – when you’re not actually moving, that’s vertigo. (And I don’t know about you, but when I get it, I go vert – that’s green, son, green.)

Vert is really a sort of angular root – think of vertex, for instance (whereas vertigo is more like a vortex) – but in the end you can see it go round. And in your mouth you can feel it go round, your lips rounding. Not only that, you can feel it go around your mouth, starting with the teeth and lips /v/, coming next to touch at the tip of the tongue /t/, then bouncing off the back /g/ back up to the front /o/. Say it over and over, vertigovertigovertigovertigo, and you can feel it whirl around in your mouth like a carnival ride, until, perhaps, at last you end up with fatigue. It ain’t easy bein’ dizzy.