Monthly Archives: April 2014

doozy

Oh boy, tonight on Twitter was a doozy.

Does that word, doozy, get used much anymore? Well, if it’s not so familiar, let me start by talking about what went down online. Twitter is where I get my breaking news first. So I was sitting at my computer listening to a Led Zeppelin live concert CD set and trying to do some research for a presentation when I started seeing tweets about Toronto’s dudebro-in-chief, Rob Ford, taking a leave of absence.

Why? He said it was to go to rehab. But as “Dazed and Confused” blazed and buzzed on my speakers I learned that someone had an audio tape of Ford – all drunk and woozy – saying some perfectly awful things this past Monday, including crude racist and sexist comments. Oh, and someone else has a video of him – dazed and dozy – smoking crack (not just a  doobie) in his sister’s basement this past weekend. Then there was Justin Bieber asking him at Muzik where he could get crack. And some other stuff about nose candy at some event. Oh, and there may be a sex tape? Excuse me, I’m feeling queasy.

Oh, and plus also as well in addition too, the Raptors won their playoff series. Many of the usual suspects in Toronto politics were trying to enjoy the game when all this broke (ah, the dues they must pay!). The Raps blew a 20-point lead in the last quarter (there was speculation Rob Ford had put on a Raptors jersey) and won a knuckle-biter in overtime. Utterly dizzying.

So yeah, a doozy. But doozy doesn’t have any direct connection with dazed, dizzy, dozy, woozy, queasy, nose, or dude. It may gain some effect of their sound on the sense, of course, along with the effects of the big hollow [u] vowel, the start that’s like doom, the end that’s like crazy and so many other things, and maybe a bit of the buzz of the [z]. But it doesn’t come from them. Not that we’re entirely sure where it does come from.

What we do know (thanks to Oxford) is that the word first showed up in the early 1900s. And it meant, as it does now, ‘an impressive, remarkable, amazing, or unbelievable thing’. Also, it was used as an adjective first, and showed up as a noun soon after.

Beyond that, there are various ideas. It may have morphed from a sense of daisy meaning ‘first-rate person or thing’. It was very likely affected by the actress Eleonora Duse, who was at the height of her fame at the time the word became popular. But there was also another thing that gave it some drive – and a clear 1920s and ’30s taste.

That something was a car. Not just any car: this car was a doozy. I should say a Duesy. It was the Duesenberg, a high-performance luxury car that gained association with some rather famous owners, including tycoons, actors, and criminals. Its nickname naturally mutually reinforced with the already existing word doozy.

Duesenberg cars are long gone, alas. We have nice cars and all that now, but an era of glamorous style and design is gone, and with it are the tycoons, actors, and criminals of that age. Now we have to make do with a Ford. But that can still produce the occasional doozy.

Germany, Allemand, Deutschland, Saksa, Tyskland, Niemcy…

My latest article for TheWeek.com is about how (and why) some countries have completely different names in different languages:

The Netherlands, Holland, and the Dutch: Why some countries have so many different names

 

lottery

I like to play the lottery.

There, I’ve said it. Go ahead and make your snarky comments now. There are a lotta reasons they’re misconceived. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

I like the word lottery too, though that’s not why I play the lottery. I like it a lot, because it’s fluttery and lettery and a little bit buttery, and because it gives us a key to an old and influential concept.

The concept is of choosing a person for some purpose by “random” chance. I put “random” in scare quotes because what we treat as random is really just whatever has causes and mechanisms inaccessible to us and, consequently, outcomes unpredictable to us. When ancient people wrote names on pieces of wood – each one a lot (Old English hlot) – and shook them in a jar and saw which fell out first, the rules of physics governing what fell out first were the same ones that apply everywhere. Today we could in theory with perfect data and a precisely calibrated machine cause a specific lot to fall out as we wish. The same goes for coin tosses, balls from lottery machines, and so on. Even random functions in computers are actually based on identifiable input and processes. It’s just like the ball-in-cup game: if you can pay close enough attention, it’s not random.

But that’s a lot to ask for. Quite literally. Say, wonder how lot came to be used for land, auctions, and indefinite plurals? Originally, your lot was what determined for you what you got when goods or property were assigned; then it spread to the thing you got. Which would be property of some kind. Or a set of property, as in an auction. And from that, a lot of other things. And when you “accept your lot in life,” the lot is not your property, it’s your “random” drawing. (There is no known connection between this lot and the Biblical Lot whose wife was turned to a pillar of salt in a suspiciously Eurydice-like moment.)

More things than just pieces of wood in earthen jars can be used for “random” outcomes now, of course. Coins are very popular for Boolean stochastics. And coins illustrate nicely two fallacies about probability.

The first is well enough known. If a coin has come up heads three times in a row, what are the odds of its coming up heads the fourth time? One in two, of course; a fair coin has an equal chance of coming up either side in any toss with no regard to prior results (provided the tosser is not so adept as to control the outcome).

The second is sometimes overlooked. If a coin has come up heads 15 times in a row, what are the odds of its coming up heads the 16th time? In this case, given that only one time in 32,768 will a fair coin toss come up heads 15 times in a row, we may ask ourselves whether there isn’t a much greater than 1/32,768 chance that the toss is not fair. It seems reasonable, frankly, to imagine that the coin is unevenly weighted or the tosser especially skilled. So I would go with heads again, unless it seemed like that was just what the person flipping the coin was waiting for me to do.

But, now, lottery. People like to joke that the lottery is just a tax on people who are bad at math. As it happens, I’m quite good at math, and I know that the odds of winning the big prize (easily looked up anyway) are vanishingly small (heck, they post them online). So why would I play it?

Simple. In Ontario (where I live), the lottery is run by the government, and the profit from the lottery goes towards arts and hospitals and community projects and similar things, things that really deserve support. So I’m happy to see some money go to them, and it’s a lot cheaper than a charity dinner (if you go to a $200-a-plate charity dinner, not all of that money goes to the charity, after all). And there are prizes other than the big prize. Every so often I will win a free ticket or $5 or $10 or, now and then, $50. Once I won over $100. Do I run a net loss? Of course I do! Really, it wouldn’t make money if people didn’t. But I find it amusing. I get more fun out of a $5 lottery ticket than I would out of a $5 sugary coffee drink. It buys a piece of a fantasy. It’s like probability porn. Do you really think people who look at smut think they have any real chance of getting it on with the men and women they see there? Pfft. Same with lotteries: ticket buyers generally know their chances of winning are inconsiderable. I know that instant millionaire is not likely my lot in life. So what.

There’s one more thing that many people don’t understand about lotteries: what odds are and aren’t relevant. I once looked (for some reason) at one of those little checkout-stand impulse-purchase booklets on things to do to win the lottery (sorry, did you have something in your mouth? take a moment to clean your screen), and it gave advice that showed a basic failure to understand the nature of the thing. It said that you should make sure to distribute your numbers fairly evenly because the odds of them all clustering within, say, the set of numbers that can represent birthdays is on the low side.

Well, yes, that’s true, but it’s irrelevant. You’re not betting on the distribution of the numbers. You’re betting on six or seven specific numbers. Which means that you’re betting on six or seven specific balls in the machine (that’s what they use to draw the numbers). Each of those balls has no idea of what number is on any of the other balls, nor, in fact, even of what number is on it. You may as well be betting on which six random strangers out of a crowd of 49 will scratch their noses first. Or on which 6 specific paint colours out of 49 will be chosen first by a crowd of deranged colour-blind interior decorators. In the world of the balls, 8 is not between 7 and 9; it is just a ball with a two-looped ink shape on it, bouncing around with all those other balls. Unless you realize that, you don’t get what’s going on. 1 2 3 4 5 6 has exactly the same odds of coming up as 1 5 17 24 33 46.

But also, until you realize that those balls are actual physical objects with subtle irregularities, objects that are replaced every so often when they seem to come up too often or not often enough, you also are overlooking potentially relevant information. Just remember that the subtle increase or decrease in the odds may require a lot of play to net you any benefit.

The biggest hazard in games of chance, in fact, is not utter naïveté. It is cockiness. It’s thinking you’re smarter than all those suckers. Once you get cocky, you’re an easier mark. Cockiness results in failure to accurately assess what is and isn’t relevant.

Consider a roulette wheel. It is spun by a croupier, a human who has certain tendencies in when to set the ball rolling and how hard to push the ball and so on. If you think you see a recurring pattern in the numbers, you may be wrong, but then again, you may not. One time I watched a person spinning a cogwheel at the Canadian National Exhibition and realized that the stopping spot tended to be a predictable distance around from where the person pushed it from. I used this to double up my money. And then I moved on. Remember: it’s not really random. But it’s not always completely predictable, because there are too many factors involved.

And one of those factors is humans. Humans can sometimes be moderately predictable – there’s money to be made from that, and more in sales than in gambling – but can also in ways be sufficiently irregular to be as good as random. When so many people can’t manage to construct a five-point bulleted list with syntactic parallelism, you have to reckon that the way they do anything else will also be unreliable. Better to bet on bouncing balls. Although you know you can’t know well enough how they will bounce.

But I know this: When I buy a lottery ticket, part of it goes to something worthwhile. And the rest goes to fantasy. And it’s cheaper than most fantasies and not as brief as many. And that’s saying… well, if not a whole lot, then at least half a lot. It may not be my lot in life to win a lot in the lottery, but so what? It still draws me.

vow

This word is, in my opinion, overrepresented in newspaper headlines.

I see it quite regularly. Just in the past week, for instance, the Toronto Star has had two articles with headlines starting “Ontario Liberals vow”… It seems as though nearly any time some official figure states an intention, it is magically transmuted into a vow in order to fit the headline space. While at least this has a mechanical justification, unlike overuse of munch and croon in articles, it is still just not quite right. Not to my ears and eyes, anyway.

An avowal is more than a v and a vowel; indeed, it is so certain that it ends with a double-you-or-nothing (W against 0). Did you ever play “truth, dare, double dare, promise or repeat” in your youth? Vowing is like double daring yourself. Double dog daring yourself, in fact. You just can’t not do what you have vowed. A vow is a promise, and not just any promise: a solemn promise. It is solemn enough to make you say “wow” and solemn enough to harden that first [w] to a [v].

In my world, a vow is a constative, like a promise. It is a speech act; you vow by saying you are vowing (or a synonymous statement). Indeed, it is a deed in a word. I vow is instantly binding, like I promise but even more solemn, or like I swear but without as much religious overtone (you may swear on a Bible, but you just vow, not on anything – other than your honour). The idea that saying I vow was instantly binding seized my young mind for a time; easing myself into a hotel-roof hot tub in Honolulu at age 12, I thought – before I could stop myself – “I vow to stay in this pool for 20 minutes.” And that was that: I had bound myself to it. If I were to get out even at 19 minutes and 48 seconds, I would be that worst of creatures, an oath-breaker. I was pretty heated up by the time the clock released me.

Of course a compulsive thought that wanders across your mind like that need not be taken as a binding commitment; it has not even been uttered to another person. But you see the power that the idea of a vow has. In many times and places there really has been nothing worse a person could be than an oath-breaker, a person who does not keep vows. Even today, vows are associated with binding formal commitments: wedding vows, for instance, but also monastic vows of silence, celibacy, and poverty.

It must be an important and powerful word; it’s so short. It’s been sanded down from the Latin: the original verb is vovere, which gave us the noun votum – source also of our word vote, which is now a commitment of a different kind, though also constative.

Language changes, of course. But we don’t have to be willing participants in any change we dislike. We may lose the battle, but if there is a battle still to be fought, why not join it? Thus I pledge my resistance to use of vow as a short synonym for promise or state intention. I give you my word I will stand against it. But I won’t say I vow to do so; that’s still so solemn and binding it makes me nervous. Really, you may vow blood revenge, but you don’t vow added highway funding – nor, a fortiori, to get a drink or stay in the hot tub.

Here, try this: every time you see “vows” in a newspaper headline, replace it with “goes down on one knee with hand on heart and solemnly swears” or “raises fist to sky and proclaims to God and all humanity…” See how that feels.

pulsatilla

Spring on Cougar Mountain, the rocky backyard hill of Exshaw, was a pulse of purple: waves and waves of rippling crocuses. We would go for a little hike to pick them. Such lovely things, these little purple flowers, looking like your grandmother’s eggcups, blooming around Easter on the wind-beaten slopes. The air was surely packed with pollen, but it didn’t bother me at all – my nose was filled with the fine spice of springtime, never a sneeze or a sniffle. My lungs, on the other hand, heaved with asthma from cats and dust mites, but breathed easier in the clear outdoor breeze.

In fact, my nose has rarely been a big problem for me. Colds, yes, of course, but allergies not really. One standout exception to my general sinus bienséance came when I was in graduate school in Boston. I got some kind of sinus infection. I think I may have aggravated it by trying to flush it with a neti pot. I sought some relief: I went to a bookstore and natural medicine shop in Harvard Square. I looked in their homeopathy reference and, flipping between different options and diagnoses, decided that I should give pulsatilla a try: it was associated with (among many other things) thick mucus in quantity. I bought a little vial of sugar pills that had been coated with water that had pulsatilla diluted in it to something like one molecule per mole of water. Would it provoke curative symptoms that would paradoxically result in a faster and more effective resolution of my problem?

I really can’t say for sure if the “pulsatilla” pills had anything to do with it, but my nose, for several days, produced the most prodigious quantities of phlegm imaginable. I recall teaching a test prep class – showing a couple dozen young people how to put their brains in gear for the SAT or GRE – and having to step out every five minutes to fill a half dozen Kleenices each time. (Kleenices? One index, two indices; one Kleenex, two Kleenices.) I really have no idea where all that white glop came from. Had I turned into a cousin of Moby-Dick, with my forehead all full of spermaceti?

Since then, I have associated pulsatilla with little pills and with phlegm in prodigious quantity, and also incidentally with all those things associated with phlegm, including slow pusillanimity. My sinuses are ill disposed towards it.

Which is really not fair to those pretty crocuses.

Those beautiful crocuses that populate the springtime hills and mountains of Alberta are, in fact, not crocuses, not actually. They look like crocuses. They are called, among other things, prairie crocuses. But actually they are related to buttercups. And I have learned lately that they belong to the genus Pulsatilla, flowers including the anemone and the windflower – indeed, the name Pulsatilla appears to be a reference to their being beaten (the Latin pulsa root) by the wind. (The italics aid the visual impression: Pulsatilla.)

Real crocuses grow in Europe and Asia and Africa, and some of them produce saffron, that finest, most expensive of spices. My beloved little succour of spring youth produce purple and pollen and that’s pretty much all. And they have not offended my nose; they have not stirred my sinuses; they simply palliated my perennial chest congestion with an excuse to climb into the fresh air and spur my pulse and respiration.

So now when I hear or read of pulsatilla, something nicer than an overloaded nose will spring to mind.

stupeous

I came out of the swimming pool yesterday, toweled off my hair, looked at myself in the mirror, and thought I looked positively stupeous.

Yes, that’s a real word, but not one often used. What does it mean? The context may not be especially helpful. Could it be… stupendous? No deal: the missing nd makes all the difference. Could it be… stupid? Stupefied? In a stupor? No again – no relation, in fact.

On the other hand, it does have a little in common with that towel I used. Towels tend to have little fibres sticking up from them, at least the kind of terry towels one uses after bathing. And the effect they have on hair is similar: they leave it sticking up in tufts and clumps or matted down. The appearance can be of what is called tow – which is the third resemblance to towel, in that it’s the first three letters (purely by coincidence; no relation).

And what is tow? In this case, it’s something you may not have much truck with: a bunch of flax or hemp (or other) fibres, untwisted – ready for making into rope – and thus sticking up like, hmm, well, like the hair on the head of Bart Simpson or Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Incidentally, this tow is unrelated to the tow that you can do with the rope that will be made of it.

And what has this all to do with stupeous? Well, stupeous comes from Latin stupeus, from stupa, ‘tow’. If something is stupeous, it is like tow. More to the point, it is covered in matted or tufted hairs or filaments. You could say it’s floccose or tomentose; the sense at least overlaps.

So if you have toweled hair or bedhead, you may look stupendous or you may look stupefied or just stupid, but if your hair is short and stand-up-eous you will at least look stupeous.

seeded

Those of us who watch sports – especially tennis – may admit to some deep-seeded uncertainty about a particular usage. Oh, no, sorry, deep-seated uncertainty. The usage in question is when a player is referred to as, say, the fourth-seeded player. Or is that fourth-seated? Seated would make so much sense, wouldn’t it? If it’s a ranking, we tend to talk about where people sit in relation to others, so if someone is sitting in fourth place, they’re fourth-seated, no? Except no, not in this case.

The merger of unstressed /t/ and /d/ between vowels sows the seeds of confusion here: they both become not [d] but a light flap or tap of the tongue, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [ɾ]. So seeded and seated sound the same for us in Canada and the US. The confusion is avoided in any version of English that keeps the /t/ crisp there – or turns it into a glottal stop, Cockney style. We could say that British dialects avoid this problematic direct competition more than North American ones do, generally.

Which is ironic, because the practice of seeding in sports tournaments originated in a desire to avoid problematic direct competitions that would eliminate important distinctions, and because, according to this 1924 quote from the Times, it was not so congenial to the British way of thinking:

This year, for the first time, the draw has been ‘seeded’; how little seeding accords with British notions may be gathered from there being no reference in the Oxford Dictionary—at any rate in the smaller one… In some countries the seeding is designed to keep the better players apart until the final stages.

Indeed, the first reference to seeding of this sort in the full-size Oxford English Dictionary is from 1898 in a periodical on American lawn tennis. So the Americans designed a way of avoiding problematic direct competitions in sports but in so doing created a problematic direct competition in language, while the British, who did not have the language problem, were more prone to the sport problem.

And what exactly is the sport problem? Well, in a multi-tiered playoff format, if there are random draws there is always the risk of the best competitors facing each other early on, resulting in early elimination of a competitor who would otherwise have a good chance at making it rather far. To avoid this, players known to be the best are seeded carefully – that is, placed with care in slots where they would be up against lesser players rather than each other. Just like carefully planting seeds in evenly spaced arrangement so that they will grow optimally, rather than simply scattering them carelessly.

This of course naturally led to a ranking of players, so that you knew who to keep apart for as long as possible and who could be put up against the best ones early on. The slots are prioritized for filling, with the best being seeded first: the first-seeded player. And so on. Thus those who hear “seated” will have to cede the point; we do not want this seed to grow into an eggcorn.

We may also note with interest that seat and seed come from similar-sounding roots all the way back from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic and into Old English and on up, but have always been different words meaning different things. And only now, after all those rounds, are they finally up against each other for an elimination round.

Thanks to Ron and Joan Callahan for suggesting today’s topic.