Monthly Archives: April 2015


Today, the MESSENGER orbiter, which had been circling Mercury since 2011, executed a lithobraking manoeuvre.

What is lithobraking? It’s one of the ways of reducing the velocity of a spacecraft. Yes, it’s braking as in braking, that thing you do to slow down a car or a bike. The verb brake in this sense comes from the noun brake, ‘device for slowing or stopping a wheel’, which comes from one or both (by mutual influence) of the Dutch verb breken ‘break’ (in reference to crushing flax in this case, apparently) and the Old French brac ‘arm’ (in reference to a lever, which is used for applying the brake), which comes from Latin bracchium.

Spacecraft are gliding through space, so you can’t just slow down a wheel that’s in contact with a surface; you have to use some external force. One way of doing this is by aerobraking. A spacecraft that has come a long distance at high speeds needs to slow down enough to get into the right orbit around a planet, and if you dip into the atmosphere and back out, you can use the friction of the atmosphere to slow it down rather than needing to burn a lot of fuel firing rockets to the same effect. So: aero, from Latin for ‘air’. And braking.

The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) probe didn’t use aerobraking at any point; Mercury doesn’t have enough atmosphere for that to work. When it arrived at Mercury in 2011, it had to use a complex and large set of manoeuvres to take it to the right speed and into orbit. But it settled into its orbit and commenced mapping Mercury. It was set for a one-year mission. But at the end of the year, it still had lots of juice, so they decided to keep it going as long as possible. And they started live-tweeting it: a person on Earth tweeting as the first-person voice of MESSENGER.

Orbit is not a pure and simple thing. Your straight-line speed has to be just right to pull you away from what you’re orbiting with the same energy as what you’re orbiting is exerting through gravity to pull you towards it. Orbits can decay: the speeds aren’t quite matched. MESSENGER needed to fire some rockets occasionally to fix decay of its orbit. And finally it no longer had the fuel to do so. Its orbit would inevitably give way to the pull of gravity. It was determined that the resolution of this would be lithobraking.

Do you recognize lith? It’s a Greek-derived root meaning ‘stone’; you see it in lithograph (a printmaking technique using etched stone) and monolith (speaking of things in space, cue 2001: A Space Odyssey). Lithobraking is using rock to reduce the speed of a spacecraft. It has been used with the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover, for instance.

Where do you get rock in space? You don’t. You get it at the surface of the planet.

The Mars landers inflated big balloons and bounced along the surface of the planet until friction with the stone finally stopped them.

MESSENGER did not have big balloons. It was not designed to be a lander.

Lithobraking is a technical term for a precise manoeuvre calculatedly using the rock of a planet’s surface to stop a lander. It is also a more sarcastically euphemistic term for crashing.

The MESSENGER ground crew on Earth knew that this was the inevitable ending. The orbit was decaying and gravity would win. They let this be known on April 16. @MESSENGER2011 tweeted:

Oh No!! I’m going to be creating a new crater on Mercury? Hum.. This should be interesting.

They made a manoeuvre on April 24 to set the trajectory. The probe would come into the planet at 3.9 km per second and would contact the planet’s surface at about 54˚ north on April 30, at 2:36:06 EST, Earth time. The probe tweeted more information, including this:

I’m only ~ 3m across, but I will create a crater about 16 meters across.

Yesterday (April 29), it tweeted:

Well my lithobraking will occur tomorrow @ 3:26pm EDT. More info here:

A Twitter user commented this morning on the use of lithobraking. @MESSENGER2011 responded:

It’s called I don’t want to think about crashing. Lithobraking sounds a lot better.

And at just the predicted time, in just the predicted way, MESSENGER lithobraked from 3.9 km/s  to 0 km/s instantaneously – on the other side of Mercury from the Earth, so there are no pictures of it as it happened. But there’s a new crater on Mercury now. You can find out more at @MESSENGER2011 and

And now so many more of us know this word lithobraking. The first half is smooth and classical, the liquid /l/ and soft /θ/, like flying through space though it refers to stone. The second half is hard, abrupt, an odd and uncertain form from Germanic and/or Latin. Collided together, they make quite the contrast. Of course, contrast is what lets you see craters…


You may have seen this word somewhere. Perhaps in a corner of some depiction pinned on Pinterest? Can you multiply a pin by it (pin x it)? Or is it a mix between a pixie and a minx, perhaps making its grand exit, observable only when you’re in the middle of pint number eleven? It sounds like some shear cut in the fabric, leaving a sawtooth edge: “she pinks it.”

This is seen in conjunction with a craft, to be sure, but not one of the cloth, unless that cloth be stretched canvas. Or we could think of the fabric of reality, lying smooth in most places but, like the fabric of space-time in the presence of massive gravity, bulging here and there under the influence of some sheer genius or more workmanlike efforts. Art erupts, you know; it is not created so much as heaved up from the frost that underlies our lives. A little bit of melting or overexpansion and then pingo: a bump, a high point, a disruption. But pingo is not just a mound swelling up from the permafrost. It is also Latin for ‘I paint’.

I paint, yes… I paint the head of a pin, or a canvas, or a plate; I depict a pixie, or a naiad, or some other thing more or less expected. And then, having limned it, I wish to to claim the art, to let it be known who did it. I could simply leave my name, sign it somewhere and let it be understood that I am the artist. But I could also be classic and classical and self-declare in Latin. I paint, I painted? Pingo, pinxit. On a painting I have done, I could put “James Harbeck pinxit.” And – pace thorn, the letter that looks like b plus p but sounds like “th” – I wouldn’t mean “James Harbeck þinxit is very good.” No, just “James Harbeck painted.” Should it be “painted it”? No one does that: pinxit it, no; the “it” is implied. The same goes with scripsit (“wrote it”), dixit (“said it”), and fecit (“made it”). Most painters don’t use pinxit, but some did, especially during the Italian Middle Ages, when signing one’s work was a newer thing to do.

So. The painter paints, pingo, and, having painted, pinxit, signs, and then leaves: exit. But the picture (from pictus, ‘painted’) still exists.


Sometimes, following caprice, I just swim through the sediment of the Oxford English Dictionary feeling for strange words that I would have no reason to encounter in my daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly life. Extend a tentative tendril here, a probing appendage there; see what words emerge when you stir up the lexical mud of centuries. Will you get some garnet from the gentry? Or just turn up grunge? What do you get as a lexical bottom-feeder?


You get gurnettier and gurnettier sometimes, but you don’t get gurnettier; you just get gurnetty, which implies the comparative. It implies it because it’s an adjective form. As the OED explains, gurnetty means “Resembling a gurnard.”

So now we have two questions: What is a gurnard, and Why is this word not gurnardy?

First: a gurnard is a bottom-feeding fish. Oh, come on, like you didn’t see that coming with all the hints dropping around you like… um, like fish poop falling to the ocean floor, I guess. A gurnard has big fins, a big head, big eyes, and three appendages hanging down below its – not neck, but where that would be – that feel for foodstuffs in the muck. It probably comes from French grognard ‘grumbler, grunter’.

It also has some alternate forms in English; the one that is still current is gurnet. That undoubtedly came through predictable English sound changes and reductions – take some illiterate British fishermen and give them gurnard and you might yet net gurnet. Not exactly a gem, but not exactly the gentry, and not really urgent, either.

And if you do net a gurnet? Apparently they’re often tossed away as a bycatch, but increasingly they are being kept, as they have (per the BBC) “firm white flesh that holds together well in cooking.” They don’t have a lot of flavour, though. So they’re best in stews and such like.

So there it is. You come for lexical enlightenment, you get a tasteless (but resilient) bottom-feeder. ’Twas ever thus.


Laurie took a sip from his glass. “Brack!”

“Old brack water?” I said.

He shook his head and spluttered. “Brock! York! Guelph!” Or maybe he was just yucking and yexing.

I decided to test the hypothesis that his distaste for the water was equal to his distaste for certain Ontario universities. “What was it, loo water? Would you like some rye instead?” (Waterloo and Ryerson, like the other three, are also not the University of Toronto or McMaster, Laurie’s almae matres.)

Laurie wiped his mouth. “Brackish. Send it back.” Then a thought occurred to him. “Is that onomatopoeia? Brackish? Doesn’t sound like water to me.”

“I wonder,” I said. “More likely we’re going at it brackwards: gross salty water may seem flat and cracked like ‘brack’ because of the sound of brackish.” I saddled up a computer and did some looking up. “Seems to come from Middle Dutch brak, ‘salty’ or ‘worthless’. The trail is kind of lost after that.”

I kept looking while Laurie sought out something better to drink. “Maybe some backwater with bark and a crab in it?” he said over his shoulder. “Or Aristophanes’ frogs, brakakakax koax koax?”

“Well, that was ‘brekekekex,’ but…” I said, snorkelling the internet. Actually, snorkelling is perhaps not a good word for it, as brackish water nauseates me, too, and I have a consequently bad record when snorkelling. But anyway. “There was a brack that was a loud noise or outcry, but that’s obsolete,” I said. “It could also mean a break or rupture. Oh, and there’s an Irish seed cake. And there’s bracken, which is a kind of fern.” I looked up. “Of course there’s brachy, a Greek prefix for ‘wide’, as in brachydactyly. The wide brackish Sargasso Sea? And there’s Georges Braque, a cubist painter, many of whose works were shades of brown and black. And of course the rather distasteful mania for collegiate basketball playoff brackets that comes around every March.”

“Give it a break,” Laurie said, handing me a glass of beer, another for himself in the other hand. “At least these won’t be brackish.”

“Until we belch: ‘brack!’” I said. Laurie pulled a face. I sipped. I paused. I pulled a face too. “Um, what kind of beer is this?”

“Let me see… something like Busch. Or Pabst. Or Schlitz.”

“Aw, man,” I said. “Rule number one: Don’t drink beer that sounds like a beer can opening!”

Thanks to Laurie Miller for suggesting today’s word. I hope he doesn’t mind my putting rather more words into his mouth than he used in suggesting it – but he did supply the university yexing.


There was a time in American English when words were like contraptions you could jerry-rig: a bit from here, a bit from there, all bolted together to make a pseudo-classical bit of hickery. Absquatulate and copacetic are two classics – though copacetic is the newer by nearly a century, showing up circa 1910. Absquatulate hit the scene around 1830. So did contraption – a pseudo-classical construction with a trap stuck in it. And so did conniption.

You know what a conniption is, right? It’s a fit: a fainting fit or a hissy fit or some other pique or fright. We often see the redundant (but assonant) phrase conniption fit – in fact, that’s how it shows up in the earliest attested uses.

I think conniption has a good sound; that nip in the middle is fittingly indignant but short; the gathering con could call on confound and condemn and consarn (a fake-swear probably based on concern and usable where one might use goshdarn), and the ption ending brings out not only contraption but corruption, consumption, and conscription – and eruption and exception, among others. And just maybe, the word as a whole has an air of a sneezing fit.

So where did conniption come from? Um, the US… around 1830… and no one’s really sure of anything more than that. There’s speculation, of course, but not even a whole lot of that. It was confected; it fit well; it stuck. If you look at Google ngrams, you’ll see ebbs and flows over the decades.

Mind you, you’ll also see results from the earliest 1800s. Have a look and you’ll find hits like these:

“there are a thousand occasions in which it breaks through its original conniption” —1803

“The economy of injustice is, to furnish resources for the fund of conniption” —1807

“who would be the avengers, not the abettors of conniption” —1811

“the moral conniption of our first parent has been entailed on his whole posterity” —1811

This is rather entertaining. But if you click through and look at the actual photo facsimile, you will find what you may have already guessed: it’s due to bad optical character recognition. This conniption is in every case a corruption… of corruption.

Tsk. It’s enough to give one a conniption.

When intransitives go transitive

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the official blog of the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada.

We’ve all learned that there are two kinds of verbs: transitive and intransitive. Transitives take a direct object—“I fry an egg”—and intransitives don’t—“My stomach aches.” But that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s not actually quite right.

For one thing, there are also impersonal verbs (“It seems to me,” “It rained”), which don’t even have proper subjects, just empty pro forma its.

For another thing, there are different kinds of intransitive verbs. Linguists divide them into unergative, where the subject really is the one doing the thing, and unaccusative, where the subject is treated as being on the receiving end of the action and can be modified by the past participle. We see from the guests are departed and the departed guests that depart is unaccusative; run, on the other hand, is unergative—you can’t say the run horse.

There are also verbs that change from intransitive to transitive or vice versa—several kinds of them. We don’t always think about them. In fact, some details of them are still being argued about by linguists.

I think it’s time for a quick field guide to these changeable verbs, complete with their overstuffed technical names.

Agentive ambitransitives

Some verbs can name the object of the action or not, but they always say who or what is doing the action (i.e., what is the agent). Read is one of these: “What are you doing?” “I’m reading.” “Reading what?” “I’m reading this article on grammar.” These are the nice, simple ones, and we don’t need to worry about them. But worry, now… yes, that verb can worry us a bit more, or we can worry it.


With worry, the object when it’s transitive—“That worries me”—is the subject when it’s intransitive—“I worry about that.” Another one of these is break: “I broke the window,” but “The window broke” and “The window is broken.” And if “I fry an egg,” then “The egg is frying.” Do those look like the unaccusatives I just mentioned? Some say that’s what these are. But some linguists argue that these aren’t true unaccusatives, precisely because they have transitive variants. True unaccusatives, like come and arrive, can’t be used this way. So what do we call these ones? Ergatives (from a Greek root for work). Well, some of us call them that, anyway.

Some people call some of these middle voice. Take for example shave: “The barber shaved me” or “I shaved myself”; “I shaved” means “I shaved myself” and “The barber shaved” means “The barber shaved himself.” Why middle voice? Because it’s not exactly active and it’s not exactly passive—or, we could say, it’s both at the same time.

Preterite causatives

Our real favourites, though (if by “favourites” we mean “favourites to get exercised about”) are a set of verbs that express transitive causation by using the past tense of the intransitive form. We don’t make new preterite causatives anymore, but we have some lying around… not laying around.

Yes, lay is one of these. “I lie down today,” “I lay down yesterday”; “Now I lay me down to sleep” (reflexive), and “I lay down the law of grammar” (transitive). We wanted something to express “cause another thing to lie down,” and we just used our past tense of the intransitive for the present of the transitive (and then made a new double past from that: lay gets a d to be laid). I’m sure many of you wish we hadn’t.

Another one like this is fell. This isn’t an ergative—if it were, you could have “I am felling the tree; the tree is felling.” Nope. “The tree falls,” “The tree fell”; “I fell the tree today,” and “I felled the tree yesterday.”

Cognate object constructions

There’s one more especially fun case: verbs that are intransitive—and in some cases always and everywhere intransitive and never taking an object—except when the object is a nominalization of the verb. You die, and you don’t die something, but you can die a death. You can die the death of a hero; you can die a happy death or a sad death. Likewise, you can smile, and you can’t smile me and I can’t smile you and neither of us can smile our faces (not in standard English, anyway), but we can smile a smile. I can smile an aimless smile that hovers in the air and vanishes along the level of the roofs (to steal from T.S. Eliot). And then perhaps you can smile that same smile.

What do we call these? What we probably should call them is a term Iva Cheung made up for them: self-transitives. But in case you haven’t noticed, linguists sometimes like ugly terms a bit too much, and so it turns out that the technical term for this sort of thing is cognate object construction, because the object has to be cognate (coming from the same source) with the verb. I wouldn’t blame you for preferring Iva’s term, though.

cymotrichous, leiotrichous, ulotrichous

When I was a little kid, certain adults would tell me to eat the crusts on my bread because they would make my hair curly.

This did not make me want to eat the crusts on my bread.

Seriously, what was so much better about curly hair? I was perfectly happy with my hair, which was fine and straight. (It still is, though I have since discovered that if I grow it to 24 inches it develops a whorl at the bottom.)

Nonetheless, one time at age 4 or 5 when I was at the home of a friend of mine, her mother was curling her hair and asked if I would like a curl, and when I said yes she put a curl right in the middle of the top of my head. I think it lasted a few days. I probably looked like a soft-serve ice cream cone.

Some words are like that curl: unnecessary ornaments used just because someone thinks they will look good: “A longer, hairier word would go better here.” I have nothing against ornamental words, of course – I have a massive collection of them – but I also don’t think they are intrinsically better. There is no prima facie reason to think that a polysyllabic Latin-Greek confection is a truer, more accurate name for a thing than two syllables of Anglo-Saxon. But words are known by the company they keep, and some words just look like they belong to the best clubs.

Today’s triplet of words are a veritable Huey, Dewey, and Louie – or maybe Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – or, hmm, Larry, Curly, and Moe – of ostentatious sesquipedalian pseudo-classicism. They are words that you will probably encounter in three places: newspaper articles written by the same sort of people who feel compelled to call a cucumber an indehiscent pepo and to call a pumpkin a gourd four times for every once they call it a pumpkin; “did you know” articles and lists passed around by the kind of people you’d really like to unfriend on Facebook but don’t want to cause bad feelings; and spelling bees.

All three of these words are made from Greek parts and have been around in English for about a century and a half. They were made up by a French naturalist who wanted to classify humans into types by hair, because if you’re going to classify things you have to classify them in Latin or Greek or it’s not science!

Because of the time when they came into English, their pronunciation follows the old-style English-oriented pronunciation of classical words. For one thing, the stress is on the antepenult – the third-last syllable – in all three. For another, cymo is said like “sigh mo,” leio is said like “lie oh,” and ulo is said like “you low.” (That makes my hair stand on end. People! These are Greek roots!)

Any guesses as to what they mean, what they classify? Try the trichous half; it’s the less tricky part. Have you seen the word trichotillomania? It’s a compulsion to pull one’s hair out. (Endemic to the editorial profession, if figuratively.) The source is the Greek τριχ trikh root, which refers to hair.

So. I am leiotrichous. This may sound like the self-introduction of some ancient monster or warrior, but it just means I have straight hair – Greek λεῖος leios ‘smooth’. Certain adults of my childhood thought it was better to be ulotrichous: to have curly hair – Greek οὖλος oulos ‘crisp, curly’. Many people favour being cymotrichous: having wavy hair – Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’. I like all sorts of hair, and all lengths from ankle to none. I’m fine with what I have.

And now we have three more words to stick on the knick-knack shelf. They are the kind of word you will always need to define on first use unless you’re talking to a true in-group. They’re like that odd mystical little object that looks rare and special and pricey but that is unidentifiable until you explain to your dinner guests that it is the trigger assembly from a Qin Dynasty crossbow. Then they all nod sagely and are impressed.

But you may also want to tread a little carefully. These words are now used (when used at all) simply as descriptives for kinds of hair, but words that began as means of racial classification can sometimes have a bit of an off odour to them – like burnt hair, maybe.

Hello, LA, this is your future talking

My latest article for The Week, “What Americans will sound like in 2050,” has drawn some attention. In particular, it caught the attention of some folks at KPCC, an NPR radio station in southern California. They did a live interview with me this afternoon (this morning their time). They also recorded it and transcribed some of it. It’s 7:23 long, so it won’t eat too too much of your time…

Predicting the future of American English



I was at a very good party last night. I was barely in the door before I was being acquainted with a gimlet, which turned out to be the drink of the evening. I had heard of it before (probably first in magazine ads in the 1970s) but to my recollection had never had one. Well, I had two last night. A gimlet is made with gin and lime cordial – the bartenders at this party used Bombay Sapphire (Broker’s probably would have been better, or Tanqueray; Bombay is a little delicate) and Rose’s Lime Cordial, plus a little lime juice, a cucumber garnish, and – heretically – a mint leaf. It was nice to have a classic cocktail that was also a relief from the usual drill. It augured well: the party was not boring.

Which was ironic. After all, a gimlet – the thing the drink is named after – is a small hand drill for boring holes. It’s like an auger, but smaller. Once the bit bites in, it keeps digging with each twist, spiraling the wood out as it goes. So it’s sharp and piercing, like the lime juice in the drink and like a look from a squinty eye – a gimlet eye, as they are sometimes called. A gimlet eye is not like being sloe-eyed (which is good, because there is no sloe gin in a gimlet). It’s an eye that may seem to throw down a gauntlet but more likely is just drilling you.

The g on this word, in case you’re not sure, is pronounced “hard” like the one in give, not “soft” like the one in gibe. It comes to us from Old French guimbelet, which is the source of modern French gibelet, which is not to be confused with Old French gibelet, the source of modern French gibelotte and modern English giblet, which has a “soft” g. (This is what you get for drilling down to the giblets.) The source of that Old French guimbelet is also the source of our modern English wimble, which means ‘gimlet’ and is not to be confused with wimple. There is also an unrelated adjective wimble ‘nimble’. Wimbledon is unrelated and it’s not my problem if you find lawn tennis boring.

So anyway, a gimlet – the drink – is for people who want to recast their gin and tonic with lime. Fair enough, since gimlet anagrams to lime GT. It’s maybe more like a lime Tom Collins, though – just replace the lime with lemon and you’re there. (Who was Tom Collins? It’s disputed but most often pointed at an Irish activist of the 1700s. On the other hand, I can tell you that the martini was originally called Martínez.) Now, if you want a different citrus, no need to go off on a tangerine, I mean a tangent; if you’d rather fill holes than make them, just use orange juice in place of the lime cordial – and vodka in place of the gin – and you have a screwdriver.

And, on the other hand, if you decided that the gimlet-eyed person is really sloe-eyed, you can take comfort in that – and complete the assembly – by adding sloe gin and Southern Comfort to your screwdriver and having a drink called a slow comfortable screw. I’m not making this up.

antanaclasis, polyptoton

Imagine lettering these letters on a sheet of letter paper, or articulating them in an article: antanaclasis with its forays of four a’s – see those two articles an an in an article, appearing as is – and polyptoton with its two p’s to tease (and two t’s too), like a pair of polyps until appearing in toto. Such repetition with variation – forms varying as they repeat and repeating as they vary. If you could map them to a map you might imagine an image of Antananarivo, perhaps, or some proximate topology (like the tsingy). But have these word forms landed on the page to inform us about land forms? Is antanaclasis doing its eye-breaking break-dancing to slide in in place of some slide about a landslide? Does polyptoton fall like some fell waterfall, pooling in a pool of manifold loops, so many loopy topoi like so many folds?

In fact, though the results echo by sheer reflex, though the shape reflects that echo and faces you like a sheer rock face, they are not geographic; and though the technique may be rhapsodic – even euphuistic – the technical terms are rock-hard canonical rhetoric, classed more in the classical canon than in hard rock.

Can you sense their sense? Are the above paragraphs sensible or nonsensical? Well, never mind, I’ll ease your mind – or I’ll remind you if you were once mindful of these terms: they refer to related figures in speech and writing.

Antanaclasis comes from Greek ἀντανάκλασις, from ἀντανακλᾶν antanaklan ‘reflect, bend back’, from ἀντί anti ‘against, in the opposite direction’ and ἀνακλᾶν anaklan ‘bend back, break’ (from ἀνα ‘back’ and κλᾶν ‘break’), and it refers to use of a word in multiple meanings: not to find the mean, nor to be mean, but just to mean in more than one way along the way.

Polyptoton comes from Greek πολύπτωτος, which comes from πολυ polu ‘many’ and πτωτος ptótos ‘falling’, and it refers to use of many cases or derived forms of a word: you derive forms by forming derivations to inform your readers formally.

Both of these have been used judiciously by great writers for subtle effect – they are certainly most effective when used subtly. Mind you, antanaclasis is really a way of punning; when Pistol in Shakespeare’s Henry V says “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal,” he’s using just the same kind of figure as in the joke “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” But polyptoton sounds more rhetorical, more speechy: “The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength, Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant” (Troilus and Cressida, by Shakespeare again).

Anyway, you can figure out whether and how they will figure in to your writing. You may enjoy writing their figures – their repeating loops of a’s and o’s and p’s – or you may find them disfiguring; you may like playing with the play and interplay of that their senses denote, or you may find it a senseless display. It’s up to you.

This late loopy type foray is for a type IVa who has lately closed another loop.