Monthly Archives: September 2013

glitch

To me, this word sounds like a bug meeting an abrupt demise. Or perhaps someone stepping into something they really didn’t want to. Something slippery. Ew. It has that /gl/ onset that often comes with things wet and/or shiny (like glops of glossy glue on glass), and it ends with that voiceless affricate that can be splashy or scratchy or aggressive… and there’s just a short high vowel between them. It could be a sound effect from a sci-fi movie.

We know what a glitch is, right? We use it to mean a brief error, a blip, a flaw. A bug in the program, maybe? Legend has it that bug as in computers came from a problem caused once by an insect that had worked its way into the wiring and sent everything haywire with its self-immolation. Bzz bzz bzzz glitch! But glitch doesn’t come from that.

But glitch does relate to computers and other electronic things. We generally talk of a computer glitch or a software glitch or more generally a technical glitch, or a glitch in the system. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of it is from 1962, when astronaut John Glenn defined it as “a momentary change in voltage in an electrical circuit.” Just a little flaw in the current, but one that can cause problems.

The use has broadened considerably since then, but it is still used mainly for electronics and computers and such things. Can we use it for other things? Errors and oversights? Momentary mental or editorial lapses? That might seem a bit of a stretch, especially since an error is more likely the product of a glitch rather than the glitch itself.

Say, for instance, a dictionary has a word in it for which it lists the etymology as “unknown.” Say you go to another dictionary and find the etymology traced with good probability to a word in Yiddish and German (Yiddish being a variety of German with significant Hebrew influence) – a word with a different but quite plausibly related meaning, pronounced the same and spelled nearly the same. That’s a bit of an oversight for the OED not even to make mention of that, isn’t it? Perhaps the product of a mental glitch?

Or maybe not. We don’t want to slide down that slippery slope of extending glitch too broadly.

But what is that German word that glitch likely comes from? The verb glitschen, ‘slip’, with its related adjective glitschig, ‘slippery’. My Oxford Duden German dictionary doesn’t have a noun Glitsch, but at dictionary.com I find a reference to Yiddish glitsh ‘slippery area’ or ‘slip’ (noun). We can talk in English about a little slip-up or slip of the tongue; in Yiddish that figurative extension is also possible. So a bit of Yiddish appears to have slipped into the technical jargon to refer to a little slip-up in the circuits.

Glitschen and glitsh are also related to gleiten, which is related to English glide. But aside from that, and aside from what else it sounds like, glitch does communicate suitably the sound of slipping, too, doesn’t it – perhaps on a banana peel? And maybe the sound of a circuit shorting out…

seclusive

On the ferry to the island to hit the beach for one last sand and spash, Aina and I looked across the water at the island owned by one of the city’s yacht clubs: a lush green retreat, just across the harbour from the city, nestled in with the busy popular parkland but not connected to it – not even a bridge. We talked about how nice it could be to be able to go right from downtown to a nice little secluded and exclusive retreat like that.

Secluded and exclusive? “Seclusive,” Aina said.

Which sounds like a made-up word blending secluded and exclusive. But actually it’s a real word. If exclusive is ‘tending to exclude’, seclusive is ‘tending to seclude’ – seclude oneself, that is. If you are seclusive, you are disposed to close yourself off.

That’s from Latin se ‘apart’, as seen in separate, segregate, secede, and claudere ‘shut’ – also seen in exclude, include, preclude.

So the ex pushes out – just like your tongue saying it: lifting up and touching at the back and then pressing forward. A yacht club can certainly seem exclusive – though the one we were looking at across the water came into being from being excluded: the grand old yacht club excluded members of certain ethnic and religious groups, so this one was founded to be more inclusive. But it’s still exclusive in that you have to be able to afford a membership, and you can’t go there unless you’re a member or guest.

The se, on the other hand, starts with the tongue on the tip and then releases – not exactly pulling in and closing off, but not pushing out either. But seclusive is an easier word to say than exclusive; it’s less plosive, and can be whispered quietly in the ear without causing a wince. It can even be whispered while inhaling.

And to be seclusive is rather less offensive than to be exclusive. If you are exclusive, you are pointedly pushing away others. People value exclusive things precisely because they leave other people out: it’s about feeling good because other people feel bad. But if you’re seclusive, you’re simply drawing yourself away. You’re not with an exclusive in-group above and beyond others; you’re in an out-group – perhaps an out-group of one. You’re not pushing everyone else away; you’re pulling yourself away. Off to your mountaintop or cloister or island.

Ah, an island. Your own little island, perhaps. Quiet, lush, away from the hustle and bustle, a comfortable chair to sit in, surrounded by bookshelves…

Seclusive people are much more my kind of people, I think. But they can be so hard to find.

curt

Is succinct the boldest kind of counsel? Is terse the least courteous manner?

No.

Think of when you are cut short. In fact, shot right out the middle. Cut short… Cu…rt… That is what kind of reply does it. Curt.

Curt is so curt it does not even start with “If I may be so bold”; it just is so bold. Curt sounds like the beginning of courtesy, but that is quickly curtailed, and uncourteously at that. The curtain is pulled.

Curt looks like it could be a rude word. A word that is curt is a rude word, you can bet on it. It can hurt. Get your knickers in a twist, even.

It sounds crisp and cutting. The tongue kicks at the back, passes arched through the middle, taps cold and hard at the front. That is all. It has a sound of a short skirt, but it is not. A short skirt may be interesting. Curt rebuffs.

Now tell me what sort of a fellow is likely to be curt. Is it a fellow who is likely to be Kurt, or Curt?

Two names identical in sound but different in feeling because of their spelling. Also because they come from different origins. Both are short forms of something else. Curt is short for Curtis, which originally came from Old French for ‘courteous’ but was later associated with curt hose ‘short leggings’. Kurt is originally a short form of Konrad, which originally meant ‘bold counsel’.

And curt?

Latin.

Curtus. ‘Short’, now so short it cuts us out. Shows up in French court, Spanish and Italian corto, but also German kurz and Swedish and Danish kort.

If you are being curt, you are being short with someone.

Obviously.

terse

Succinct may be succulent or have a shiny sound like a knife, but terse cuts worse. Terse is tense. There is no tergiversation in terse. No time for verse, not terza rima, not even the tierce of it (one third). You can see the e and e giving you the cut-eye.

The word starts with a little spit of exasperation, the aspiration on the /t/. Then it’s straight into a syllabic liquid (or a neutral vowel for the non-rhotic), and quickly thereafter a hiss that can last as long as the other two phonemes combined. A jab, a sound, a hiss. And that’s it. Pressed reset. Wiped clean. Polished like a cut diamond, and just as cutting.

Whence comes this tight insertion? Where else but Latin? From tersus, ‘wiped’, past tense of tergere. Wiped? Wiped clean, polished, burnished, shining smooth without dirt. Spruce. Trim. Pithy. Visual Thesaurus gives three synonyms: Crisp. Laconic. Curt. You may be succinct without being impolite, but it is hard to be pleasant when being terse… though it’s perhaps not quite as rude as curt.

succinct

Look, someone’s left nail clippings in this word, cc c. You can hear the clipper: “succinct, succinct.”

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Could be bellows, this word. It sounds like “sucks in,” as in breath. And you can whisper it well while sucking in your breath.

It slices the air around your tongue like a scalpel, this word. As Jim Taylor puts it, “Such a nice word, with all those sucking sounds, and those pursed-lip c’s, ending with the distinct smack. Sounds of suck, of course, but also vestiges of sphincter locking tight. Argument sucked dry, closed, no loopholes left…” Quick. Tight. A cinch.

Literally a cinch. A cinch, after all, is a sort of girdle on a horse to help hold a saddle on. The word cinch comes from Spanish cincha ‘girth’, which can be traced to Latin cingere ‘gird’. And it is that that undergirds this word: sub ‘under’ plus cingere is succingere, and the past participle is succinctus. Undergirded. Girdled. A bit of verbal belt-tightening. (Economic belt-tightening may be because of lean waists from lean diets, but verbal belt-tightening is more like corseting, tightening up to display to greater advantage the more salient parts.)

Still, as succulent and sexy a lexical succubus as succinct is, it’s not as terse as terse. Nor as curt as curt.

naked text

its international punctuation day so ive given punctuation the day off after all on mothers day were supposed to give mothers the day off right im also giving capital letters the day off because why not they can go and have a nice lunch with the punctuation marks

i have recently talked about how much less useful the apostrophe is than we generally believe it is i would not say the same about other punctuation marks nor capital letters although people often have a very hard time getting capitalization rules straight

to celebrate id like to present another poem from my book songs of love and grammar please buy it or ill think you dont like me

getting naked

i met a woman young and fair
who liked her skin to feel the air
now im not wedded to convention
but i felt some apprehension
when i got to know her better
and she sent me this short letter
it is time that i should tell
i keep my text au naturel
i know that this will sound uncouth
but i believe in naked truth
in every place and situation
shed the chains of punctuation
doff the clothes of upper case
and stand revealed on white space
now i dont mind it being nude
but naked text at first seemed crude
however now its plain to see
that form and sense are both more free
and so we read our morning papers
sprawled in bed we serve up capers
in the kitchen we grow flowers
in the garden we take showers
in the bathroom we go hiking
on the mountains its our liking
to go swimming every day
in the pond in a cafe
sip a coffee or just run
on the trail our life is fun
my only cause for consternation
is some miscommunication
if my lover should insist
on writing on the shopping list
get some mustard greens and tea
do i buy two things or three
and now i have this little note
that concerns me and i quote
darling i think love is great
with others i would hesitate
to give my all to none but you
i feel open can you too
as i read it twice im guessing
if shes offering her blessing
to monogamous relation
or some other situation
its one thing when going shopping
now im faced with chamber hopping
in this textual revolution
can i find a real solution

chaff

The NPR affiliate radio station KPCC in Los Angeles broadcast an interview with me today (listen to it here) about my article “Kill the apostrophe!” (as republished on Slate). Their website has drawn a few comments, pretty much in the same line as the comments the article has gotten on TheWeek.com.

One comment I particularly liked in defence of the apostrophe was “I like it because you get to separate the people as wheat from the shaft.” Ah, honest: the apostrophe is there so you can look down on some people. It shows who doesn’t know English well enough!

Mind you, so does making an eggcorn error in a common phrase. “Wheat from the shaft”? Um, heh heh, as two subsequent commenters quickly pointed out, that’s chaff, not shaft…

It’s an understandable error: we just don’t thresh or winnow grain by hand anymore; chaff is something most of us have no literal personal experience of. On the other hand, we know what wheat looks like, kernels of grain on a stalk – that is, a shaft… So this commenter has reanalyzed it to make it something that makes sense to him.

There we go, one of the great sources of error in the English language: “It’s obvious!” Something looks like it should be so, so it is assumed that it must be so. Another great source of error, on the other hand, is “It’s too obvious!” (or “It’s too simple!”). We have a tendency to prefer the marked (the less obvious or less usual) in many cases, especially thanks to our perverse spelling and our heavily idiomatic usage patterns.

Our perverse spelling… Oh, we do chafe at it. And yet we look down on anyone who has not achieved sufficient mastery of it. At one time in our history we added an erroneous s to iland because we thought it came from Latin insula. Several attempts, some very persistent, have been made by various parties at various times since then to remove that s, but the ordinary user won’t tolerate it – that would be wrong and uneducated! – and so it stays in. We do love our mumpsimuses. And we do love to use the perverse rules of our language as means of social control and exclusion. And we have a long and popular history of language complaining (the link is a PDF).

How about the spelling of chaff? That’s easy, isn’t it? Sure, no problem. We just take it as a given that [f] at the end of a word is represented by a double letter as a rule. Why? Because it is! Sshh! Look at the nice ff like heather in the breeze.

But of course it wasn’t always thus. The Old English spelling was ceaf, which for the pronunciation and spelling rules of the time was a perfectly phonetic spelling (they said it almost exactly as we do, but with the tongue moving towards the middle of the mouth during the vowel).

It’s such a nice word, in its way, isn’t it? It really has a sound rather like what I imagine winnowing would sound like, throwing up the grain and letting the wind blow away the undesired light bits while the grain falls to the floor to be collected. Or maybe like threshing, beating the grain to separate the useful from the useless.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that with language? Have the unnecessary crap and the silly fake rules blown away in the breeze, or flail it away? But, ah, what is and isn’t unnecessary, and why? How much of these assorted accretions lends flavour and interest, too? And what about the people who would like to keep the chaff in just so that fools can choke on it while the wise simply pick it out?

Such as our commenter. Yes, sure, let’s keep apostrophes just so we can see who has learned how to use them and exclude those who have not. But let’s make sure we extend that reasoning to every bit of English: all idioms, all grammar, all spelling… Our commenter would surely not be chuffed to find he’d given himself the shaft.

Well, let those without error thresh out the first chaff. (This is where, as with the biblical precedent, all should retreat, ashamed. In reality, several will charge forward… and give each other a good thrashing. Oh, by the way, thresh and thrash are in origin the same word.)