Daily Archives: October 18, 2014

righteous, wrongeous

The author of the blog Bag of Anything is a righteous poet.

When I say righteous, though, I don’t mean it in the sense ‘not wicked but good’; I mean it in the sense ‘wicked good’. I mean it like the righteous in The Righteous Brothers: right on.

If you go to Bag of Anything, you will see what I mean. But here’s what drew the blog to my attention: Near the end of my word tasting on mosaic, I wrote, “Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous.” The author of Bag of Anything, who signed the comment as “Rain, Rain,” gave this poem:

Deplore cast stones? Sinner, avoid the righteous;
Likely they are spoiling for a fight. Just
Follow Jesus’ counsel: in a throng, us
Common folk are safer with the wrongeous.

(It’s available on Bag of Anything at “Avoid the Righteous”.)

You may reckon that wrongeous is something I made up on the spot and is not to be found in the dictionary. You’d be half right. I did make it up on the spot, but I figured it would also be in a dictionary, and I was right – although the preferred spelling is wrongous. I also figured it would show in the Oxford English Dictionary as at best a historical word now generally disused, and I was right about that too. And I figured that it would mean something in the order of ‘having a wrong quality; tending to be wrong; acting wrongly or wrongfully’. And I was right again.

So I guess that makes me a righteous person. Well, except that we don’t typically mean ‘correcteous’ when we say righteous. (No, correcteous is not in the dictionary. But I bet you caught my drift.) We mean ‘holy’ or ‘highly justified or justifiable’ (an act or state can be righteous too – “so righteous was his need” is a line from Steely Dan) or ‘admirable’ or similar approbative things.

Now I want to ask you: do you find wrongeous righteous or wrongous? And do you find wrongous righteous or wrongeous? Which works better, if either does?

I like the parallel with righteous, but we have a little problem: the t in righteous doesn’t stand for exactly the same sound as in right; it has palatalized and affricated due to the high front vowel after it, so it sounds like “ch.” The closest thing we could do with the ng would be to say “rongyus,” which would palatalize it and probably really convert it into a nasalized glide. But that’s not the pronunciation, according to Oxford: it’s “rongus.” So that e seems not to belong, although it is historically attested. So hmm.

To be fair, the e isn’t original in righteous either. Actually, the words righteous and wrongeous come from right+wise and wrong+wise, with a shift in the unstressed second syllable over time (a half a millennium or so) to match words such as perilous and integrous. If I listed the historical changes of form leading to the modern form it would more than double the length of this blog.

Well, everything changes. To try to cling to some fixed historical form, or to try to maintain some imaginary purity or fixity in the language, would be altogether wrongeous. To try to disallow unfamiliar but usable words is also wrongeous. But to have fun, and to write witty poetry… well, that’s righteous, dude.

You can have Danishes with your giant beaver, but maybe not croissants

In one episode of Big Bang Theory, Amy and Sheldon are playing a game they call “Counterfactuals” (let’s leave aside the linguistic use of that term, which is a little different). They challenge Leonard with this question: “In a world where mankind is ruled by a giant intelligent beaver, what food is no longer consumed?”

He guesses wrong, of course, because that’s how the show works. The correct answer, according to Sheldon and Amy, is cheese Danish. The explanation: “In a world ruled by a giant beaver, mankind builds many dams to please the beaver overlord. The low-lying city of Copenhagen is flooded. Thousands die. Devastated, the Danes never invent their namesake pastry. How does one miss that?”

So anyway, that never sat quite right with me, and I was thinking about it today while I was face down on a massage table. First of all, it didn’t sit quite right because Denmark isn’t all that low-lying overall, certainly not as much as the Netherlands (hence the name: nether lands). Of course, Copenhagen is at sea level, but so are many other cities, some of which may likewise be associated with particular foods. I think Dutch pancakes and other Dutch foods would be at least as endangered. Except, of course, the Dutch would build dams to keep the water out of Amsterdam. As in fact they have.

Which leads me to the key point. Dams would not make the sea level rise. I mean, yeah, if they put dams around more low-lying land to reclaim more of it from the ocean, that might have a modest effect, but you know that’s not why or where beavers build dams. Beavers build dams on rivers. To make big ponds. Lakes, even. Reservoirs. Just like people do. Only presumably more dams would be built than we have already.

And all those dams would keep water from getting to the oceans. So, if anything, the sea level would be a bit lower. Not a whole lot, probably, but maybe a bit.

But meanwhile, big cities on rivers would be flooded. Sorta like what has happened to some cities in China where they’ve built dams. Whole cities have been submerged, their residents relocated.

So name a big city on a river that would be submerged, a big city associated with a famous pastry.

I’m going with Vienna. It’s on the Danube. I think it would be likely to be underwater. Vienna is associated with croissants. (The story of their being invented in honour of bakers hearing moorish armies tunnelling under the walls has no historical basis – and in fact croissants aren’t as old as that – but still, Vienna. Croissants. Anyway, Paris would also be underwater, don’t you think? Damming the Seine? I think so.) So you probably wouldn’t be able to get croissants. Maybe several other things invented in Vienna and Paris and other river cities too.

But you’d be OK. You could have a Danish instead.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s a TV show. Remember, I was lying face down on a massage table. You’re supposed to relax, so I wasn’t going to lie there planning my day or week. I needed to think of completely irrelevant things.

Is my point that the writers of Big Bang Theory aren’t geniuses? Oh, no, they’re geniuses. (Or genii if you prefer.) But geniuses at being funny. They pulled it off. And they kept me thinking about their show after.

I’m not even going to go into other things, such as how Sheldon, Leonard, et al. would surely recite the rhyme of the One Ring not in English, as they did in one episode, but in the Dark Tongue of Mordor (as I did at the TV in response). Again: What, were they going to translate it for their audience? If the show were written at true full-on geek level the audience would be much smaller. See? They know what they’re doing.

But I just thought you would like to know. Not Danishes. Croissants.