Monthly Archives: February 2016

omnibus notum, scilicet

Good scholars always want to add to their skill kits, obviously, but they can sometimes be a silly set too. There are times when levity is the only sensible response to the gravity of the situation – to wit, when there is something that everyone knows, or that follows easily from something everyone knows, but no one has bothered proving. It’s not that citations bring excitation, but there is an expectation that if you say it you can cite a source for it. If it’s notable, it should be footnotable; absence of a note would be ominous. So when you are making a point in a paper, and you get to something that’s important to the point, and it’s an “everybody knows” thing or a “well of course” thing, but you can’t find prior research to support it, what do you do?

What you want to do is footnote it with “Obviously” or “Everybody knows this.” But that seems rather… um… frank. Frankly English, for one thing. This is scholarship, you know! You don’t put “Smith, the same one I just cited,” you put “Smith, ibid.”; you don’t put “Smith, here and there throughout the book,” you put “Smith, passim.” So what do you put instead of “Everybody knows this” or “Obviously”? I’d be tempted to put res ipsa loquitur, a well-known phrase that means ‘the thing speaks for itself’, but it has a specific legal use – to wit: the very nature of a particular accident is evidence of negligence (i.e., that kind of accident can’t happen unless someone screws up).

So I put the question to fellow scholars on Twitter, which in such matters can be an omnibus full of notables. Various suggestions came through. One from Laura Gibbs that I especially liked was omnibus notum. This does not mean a post-it note on a transit vehicle; it’s Latin for ‘known by all’. It can easily be abbreviated to om. not. or o.n. If the reader sees you footnote “An egg will probably break if you drop it from shoulder height onto a tile floor” and says, “A footnote? Are you joking?” you can say “I om. not.

An even more cogent one could be what Gregory Stringer suggested: scilicet. It’s a term used in various Latin writings; it is actually a synthesis of scio licet, which means ‘it is permitted to know’, but the Romans used it to mean ‘obviously’ or ‘naturally’ or, in a concessive manner, ‘of course’, to be followed with a sed (‘but’) clause. It can be pronounced in the classical Latin way, “ski li ket,” or it can be said in the English way, like “silla set” or “sigh la set.”

The fact that there is an existing English-style pronunciation for it tells us that it is in use as an English word.1 So we’re all set, right? Hmm, well. There are two English usages. One, no longer current, means ‘doubtlessly’ sarcastically: “Should Trump become president, he will scilicet brush up his diplomatic skills.” The other one uses it in another sense available from its construction: ‘evidently’ or ‘to wit’. That is to say, it means ‘that is to say’ – i.e., it’s another way to say i.e. It’s like a clickable plus sign that has expanded to show the extra information. So if you set scilicet the reader may be conditioned to expect just that thing you were using it to avoid: an explanation.

Ah, drat. No rest for the learnèd. However obvious the thing, however needless an explanation seems to be, you can’t always conceal it, or skip it, or hope it’s too obvious for a note. Why not? Because, as Mark Twain wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”2 The great advances of knowledge have come from disproving the obvious.3 So you sigh and see what you can set down.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for setting this thought train in motion.

 

1Res ipsa loquitur.

2Actually, this can’t be found in any of Twain’s writings, though he did write “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar. A similar quote is attributed to Twain’s contemporary Josh Billings: “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.” This likewise does not appear in Billings’s work. But Billings’s 1874 Everybody’s Friend, or Josh Billling’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor has “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.” (Thanks to Bob Kalsey, http://wellnowbob.blogspot.ca/2008/07/it-aint-what-you-dont-know.html, for this.) In any case, the idea itself has an intuitive appeal and a certain… obviousness?

3If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I can’t see why not.

ablute

The dirty things we do for money. Lucre is called filthy, but while that’s not ludicrous, it’s really the rolling in the mud we do for the loot that pollutes us. Sometimes our solutions are nothing but soil from a slough. If we wish to ablate it or even abate it, we must ablute it – and ourselves.

Ablute! Does that wash with you? If so, what does it wash you with? Ab initio it has that ab, ‘from’, but how do you play that lute? Can you be resolute? Or is it muddy?

Well. It comes from Latin lutum, ‘mud, filth’. But just as in English you can core and peel an apple, and having done so leave it with neither, in Latin you can mud things and leave them immaculate – luere, the verb from lutum, can mean ‘wash, clean, remove mud’. From it we get ablute, elute, and for that matter dilution and the better-known noun partner to our verb, ablution.

But we also get pollute. What a dirty trick. Mudding can also mean adding mud. It’s like asking someone to dust the room with a feather duster and instead they dust it with confectioner’s sugar. What is the solution then? How do we solve it? Can we dissolve it? Be careful with the dissolution into solution – there is no washing available in that; it comes from solvere, a different root. Absolution for the culprit may involve ablution. But not of the room – that would make a sticky situation; better to sweep it. Then wash your hands.

That’s nice clean work, as it were. Do an absolutely spotless job and you get a blue ribbon. It sure beats flinging lutum in hopes some loot will come your way. That’s a brutal thing to do. Best to abstract and ablute yourself.

The real meanings of these 10 insane words are crazy

My latest article for The Week is on psychiatric terms that are used very loosely in common speech, such as OCD, ADHD, narcissist, manic-depressive, and paranoid. Want to know what the official diagnostic meaning is? You might be surprised:

10 commonly abused psychology words — and what they really mean

 

ignorandum, ignoranda, ignorandus

Some things are best left aside. In the business of daily life, we have multiple memoranda (things to remember) and a full agenda (things to do), and so many people demanding our attention. And if you’re on a social network, some of those people might be real ignoramuses too, but somehow they still think they merit interaction; they may even provoke it. Somehow we need to need to do a triage. Never mind things to get around to. We need to make a list of things not to get around to. Things to ignore. And people to ignore.

So. A memorandum is a thing to remember; the word memorandum is a Latin singular neuter future passive participle of memoro ‘I bring to mind’; it means ‘to be remembered’, as in ‘a thing to be remembered’, i.e., ‘a thing to remember’. The plural is memoranda. Similarly, agenda is the neuter plural or feminine singular meaning ‘thing(s) to do’.

So what would be a thing to ignore?

That’s easy enough if you’re no ignoramus on Latin roots. The Latin verb ignoro means ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t know about’ or ‘I ignore’. The first person plural conjugation is ignoramus ‘we don’t know; we ignore’. That word was pressed into service as the name of a lawyer in the 1615 play Ignoramus by Georges Ruggle, and from that has come to be the English noun we all know. (You can’t pluralize it as ignorami because it’s not a noun in Latin.) So if ignoro is the verb, the future passive participle will be ignorandus, ignoranda, ignorandum in masculine, feminine, and neuter, respectively. Since we normally use the neuter – memorandum, originally plural agenda – we can go with ignorandum for a single thing to ignore, and ignoranda for a list of things to ignore.

We can, if we really want to be exact, use the masculine for a single male who needs ignoring: ignorandus (plural ignorandi). This is most likely to be of use on social networking sites, where one may encounter randos – random dudes who just butt in and expect unearned attention to their obnoxious opinions. It works especially well because it is so close to ignoranus. Should that be ignoramus? No, it’s a popular wordplay: an ignoranus is a person who is both an ignoramus and an anus (you may more likely use the English equivalent for the latter). We may say with confidence that every ignoranus is an ignorandus to add to the ignoranda.

And, as an added bonus, the masculine accusative plural is ignorandos, which means that “Just ignore the ignorandos” is actually using proper Latin. The singular dative and ablative are ignorando, so “I want to get away from that ignorando” is also using proper Latin. (The whole declension is on Wiktionary.)

clarty

If you’re looking for some clarity, I’m afraid I can’t help you see clear to that this time. Today’s word is a dirty, dirty word, and a rude thing to say. Oh, it’s not crude language; your churchgoing grandmother could say it, and might if she’s Scottish or northern English. But it has a certain unpleasant clatter to it, and while it’s as plain as day, it’s also as clear as mud – and as filthy, too. Clarty means ‘dirty, muddy, sticky, nasty’; it has a related noun clart meaning ‘mud, filth’ and a related verb clart meaning ‘smear with dirty, make dirty’. If you’re in Scotland, you may well hear the word used today, but if you do, it will not be with a positive tone (see this article in The Scotsman). It has been in the language for most of a millennium, but its origins are – sorry – unclear.

If language is a window on the world, it takes only an iota to make the difference between gleam and grime, between purty and dirty, between clarity and clarty. The merest misplacement can make a mess. I’m reminded of a joke – a meta-joke, because it’s a joke about someone telling a joke. A fellow hears the joke “Did you hear the one about the dirty window? Never mind, you wouldn’t see through it.” He thinks it’s funny, so next time he’s at a church social, he tells a few people present, “Did you hear the one about the window you couldn’t see through? Never mind, it’s too dirty for you.”

Which makes me think about the time I cleaned the shower door in our last apartment. We had moved in perhaps a year earlier. I finally got around to using some CLR on the shower door and cleaning all the accumulated minerals off it. Aina came home, looked at it, said “It’s clear!” and, after the briefest of moments, pulled a face of horror and disgust: “Ewwwwwww.” She had thought it was frosted glass. She just realized she had been showering all year next to an incredibly filthy piece of glass (well, minerals, but you know). Its lack of clarity was because it was clarty. And that, ladies and gents, is how you get from pane to pain.

Sentence fragments? If you like.

As I sometimes do, I guested into a friend’s online copyediting course as a grammar expert for a week recently. One of the questions I answered was about whether “If you like” is acceptable on its own in any context. The questioner felt that in a conversational context it was acceptable (“Shall we leave at noon?” “If you like.”). Another student said that it doesn’t work because there’s an if but not a then. I said the following:

There are a few important things to remember.

First is that there are many kinds of English, suited for many different situations. To insist on standard formal English in all contexts is like wearing formal wear every day all the time. To use formal English in colloquial contexts doesn’t bespeak class and elegance; it bespeaks tone-deafness and rigidity. Rules are made to serve communication, not vice versa. Get to know the kind of English that is expected and used in each context you’re writing for. The point of editing is to make sure that the text produces the desired effect on the readers. Your job as an editor is to minimize the impedance in the circuit between author and audience. This often involves fixing infractions of rules, but not always. Indeed, sometimes the way to signal the tone of the text is to break a formal rule.

Second is that even in formal standard English, there are many things that are matters of preference, not rules.

Third is that not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are not grammar errors. Neither are malapropisms. They’re errors, but they’re different kinds of errors (and in fact are the kind you can make sure to fix everywhere regardless of the tone and audience).

So, for instance, if as in “I want to know if you’re in town” is not a bad habit you need to cure yourself of for once and for all. The colloquial use of it where whether is the formal standard is very well established, and for some texts using if in place of whether will be the sort of little adjustment you can make to make it seem more relaxed. Bear in mind that “If you’re in town, I want to know” is acceptable even formally (the then can be and often is left out), which means that in the same sense, “I want to know if you’re in town” is also formally acceptable to mean “Let me know in the case that you are in town.” This, I believe, is why it has come to be used in the other sense, “Let me know whether you are in town or not.”

A very common mistake made by people who are eager to be right about grammar is to infer an absolute rule from one case, or to take a rule as learned overtly and apply it too broadly, declaring many common usages to be wrong because they don’t fit it. This is like pulling out a field guide to birds, looking at the picture of a magpie, deciding that all magpies must exactly resemble the exact specific colouring of that picture, and declaring any that don’t not to be magpies (and perhaps repainting or just killing them).

The effective approach is to read widely, see what kind of usages are common in what kind of contexts, and figure out the real rules on that basis. Often the real rule is not so simple and clean-cut; some things that are perfectly standard formal English still provoke arguments among linguists as to their actual grammatical structure.

To address a specific question: “If you like” by itself is a “sentence fragment” because it uses a subordinating conjunction (“If”) without a main clause to be subordinate to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used; we use sentence fragments all the time (I won’t say “The more, the merrier,” but if I did, it wouldn’t have a verb!). Only in the starchiest of contexts is it necessary to avoid starting sentences with conjunctions such as But and And, and in those cases only because some people in the past decided to repaint the magpies. In conversation, it is quite normal to leave out established material, especially in responses: “Shall I join you?” “[You can join me] If you like.” In more formal texts, where it is a monologue, not a dialogue, and is expected to convey clearly the logical connection, you would just use a single full sentence: “You can join me if you like.” (I’m not going to wander into the can/may argument here, but here is a full article on things many people think are errors that aren’t: sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/when-an-error-isnt/)

An important step on the way to being an expert user of the language is to read authors you respect in as many different genres as possible. Learning cut-and-dried rules and trying to apply them as broadly as possible won’t make you an expert user; in fact, you risk destroying your ear for the language. You need to be able to hear and read it as your readers will. You won’t be in a position to give them lessons in how to hear it the way you’ve learned to.

etaonrish, Etaoin Shrdlu

Etaonrish, dlf. Cm, ugyp! W b vkx, jqz…

That is a listing of the letters of the alphabet, in descending order of their frequency of use in English. I learned it in grade 5 from a book on cryptography. I memorized it by pronouncing it with a sound sort of like “Eat your own rice, Dolf. Come, you gyp! Will be vexed, Jacuzzi…”

It was knowledge. It was a thing I had learned, a thing I knew, a master key to special understanding. If I was faced with a long and complex cipher to decrypt, I could start by counting the frequency of the letters and starting to work out which was which from that…

In grade 6, one of our exercises in class was actually to decipher a sentence or two that had been encrypted with a simple replacement cipher. You know, something like this: Ksvl smf Koaa ermy iq yjr joaa yp gryvj s qsoa pg esyrt. So right away, I knew what to do: Count the letters! Figure it out from the frequency! Ah, ha!

What was truly vexing was that other students worked it out rather quickly while I was still stuck in the mud. How did they do that? Well, to start with, there are only so many one-letter words in the language, so that gives you an edge. Commonly used three-letter words are also a limited set, and if you see one repeating, that’s a good hint. And so on. Once you’ve gotten a sense of what is a and what is t, h, and e, it gets to be like solving Wheel of Fortune (which, however, did not exist at the time). But I hadn’t approached it like that.

So my knowledge got in the way of actually using my brain. I was using a screwdriver to pull nails.

But still… I knew this thing! It was the real order of the letters! And when, one day in grade 10, a substitute teacher mentioned about how we all knew what etoanirsh was – she wrote it on the board – I was incensed. I didn’t stand up and say something, but I knew she had it wrong. I may have muttered to the person next to me. How can everyone know it? And how can they know it wrong? It’s etaonrish, not etoanirsh! Fool.

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or touch not the Pierian spring.

Not just that, though. My pride in my learning had turned it into a dogma. It was the One True Way, to be used wherever it could, and I was on the right team. Those who thought otherwise were fools. Fools!

It’s just the same sort of thing you see in politics, and social issues, and religion, and grammar. We use our minds to set the world in an order that gives us mastery over it. It’s not a coincidence that comprehend can mean both ‘understand’ and ‘take in, include’. A comprehensive exam is so called not because it tests your comprehension but because it includes everything. We join this desire to comprehend with a desire to dominate, to win, to be better – basic human insecurity. Many people learn one little thing and use it as an omni-trump card, as proof that others are fools. Ha! We own their sorry butts! Lincoln was a Republican, so the Democrats are the real racists! (I’ve actually seen that argument made.) You can’t tell the difference between discreet and discrete, so you must be an uneducated idiot!

And we join this to our tribal instincts to decide who’s on the right team. Dogma, ideology, tribalism. Some people want to blame all of this on theism, but it’s evident in many spheres that have nothing to with religion: politics, sports, social mores, grammar… We decide what is good and what is bad, and from that who is right and who is wrong, and we make our lives – and the lives of others around us – needlessly worse than they could be. Using screwdrivers to remove nails.

Fortunately for me, I had just enough self-doubt and curiosity to want to find out more about this other version. Well, naturally, your frequency distribution will vary according to your sample. There are different dialects, different genres, different times.

In the 1920s, a well-known frequency listing started with etaoinshrdlu. In 1923, the playwright Elmer Rice gave a character in his play The Adding Machine the name Etaoin Shrdlu.

The Adding Machine is an expressionist play, full of the mindless small talk of repetitive unthinking existence. It’s about a man, Mr. Zero, who has been working adding up numbers in a department store for 25 years. On his 25th anniversary of working at the company, the owner calls him in to talk to him. Not to give him a raise, a promotion, or a pen – just to tell him he’s being replaced by an adding machine. He snaps and kills the owner. He surrenders, goes to jail, is executed. He finds himself in the Elysian Fields, where he meets Etaoin Shrdlu, a proofreader who always tried to live a moral existence, always did just what his kind, sweet, patient mother wanted, never disappointed her, always fought his sinful nature. He tried to run away once and join the navy but she stopped him, so he just went on working the right job and living with her and trying to overcome his sinful nature, until one day when he was going to carve a leg of lamb he slit his mother’s throat instead.

Why are these two murderers in the Elysian Fields, where everything is so nice? Shouldn’t they be in hell? Well, they won’t remain, Shrdlu explains. Only the most favoured remain. Anyone who likes may remain, but only the most favoured do. Who are these favoured people, Zero asks? Shrdlu says, despairingly (that’s the stage direction – despairingly),

I don’t know, Mr. Zero. All these people here are so strange, so unlike all the good people I’ve known. They seem to think of nothing but enjoyment or of wasting their time in profitless occupations. Some paint pictures from morning until night, or carve blocks of stone. Others write songs or put words together, day in and day out. Still others do nothing but lie under the trees and look at the sky. There are men who spend all their time reading books and women who think only of adorning themselves And forever they are telling stories and laughing and singing and drinking and dancing. There are drunkards, thieves, vagabonds, blasphemers, adulterers. There is one—

Zero cuts him off and says “That’s enough. I heard enough.” He leaves. He doesn’t want to stay there “with a lot of rummies an’ loafers an’ bums.” He goes and finds himself an adding machine and works on it until he is told his soul is to be recycled, since he’s just taking up space.

We come up with our knowledge, our ideas, our rules, to help us master the world. But if we’re not aware, they master us. Sure, we’ve put everything in order, but is it the right order? Are we putting it to good use? Or are we just using it to hurt others and ourselves? If we don’t check the basis of our rules, consider the premises and evaluate the results, we may just join the cult of etaonrish and find ourselves with – or like – Etaoin Shrdlu.