Monthly Archives: May 2018

Das Kapitalization

That’s it. I’ve thrown in the towel on capitalization. I am not going to say any way of capitalizing is wrong. Against House Style, sure. Trite, perhaps. Inventive, maybe; faddish, maybe. But wrong? Nah. Do as you will, as long as you can justify it. Have a look at the options that are Broke, WOKE, and BEspOKe:

The new rules of CaPiTaLiZaTiOn

Pronunciation tip: Łódź

My latest pronunciation tip lets you in on a couple of things in Polish you’ve probably wondered about. Now you’ll know how to pronounce the name of the city Łódź – and Wrocław and Kraków, while you’re at it. And as an added bonus you’ll know why is called “double u” instead of “double v.”


Well, that explains everything.

I’ll explain. A friend (Doug Linzey to be precise) suggested I taste this word. So of course I looked it up, not just what it means – it’s made of well-known parts anyway – but what and who brought it forth. And I found a bunch of links to articles and tweets attributing it to Karl Popper, the philosopher. And one link to a Wikipedia on Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist. But when I clicked through on the article, the word was not to be found – vicitim, I suppose, of some recent edit.

So I searched monocausotaxophilia Pöppel. And I found what I suspected: Ernst Pöppel invented the term. Thing is, he’s not very well known to the world at large; Karl Popper is somewhat better known (not least, I’m sure, because his name makes many people think of popcorn). So some people saw Ernst Pöppel and misremembered it as Karl Popper, because that was a path of less resistance. His name was more familiar. And it was plausible: he’s a philosopher, and in particular a philospher of science who argued against inductivist and justificationalist approaches to science (ironically, given the misattribution of the quote to him) and in favour of what is now accepted as standard scientific method: keep making experiments, and you’ll have more and more evidence for something, but you never know for certain that a generalization is true, you just know when it’s been proven false. So anyway, a philosophical thing a neuroscientist said could readily be misattributed to a philosopher of science.

And what I’m getting to is that this tendency to misattribute quotes to whichever person has the maximum combined fame and appropriateness (seriously, I think most quotes are more often attributed wrongly than rightly) tells us enough about the way people think that it can also help us to understand how words are formed and altered. For instance, internecine comes from Latin neco ‘I kill’ plus inter, which – like several other prefixes – served as an intensifier. It meant, originally, ‘killing them all’ or ‘thoroughly deadly’. But people saw inter and recognized it as a prefix that they were used to meaning ‘between’ or ‘mutual’ and so its sense became ‘mutually destructive’. The meaning swerved over to the track of least resistance.

Quite a few words have shifted sense on the basis of their sounding more appropriate to another sense because of other things they sound like. Some words have had their use affected in other ways – if a word sounds too much like a word we want to avoid, we tend to avoid that word too, even if its sense and origin are unrelated (I’m sure there’s some suitable remark about mutual destruction I could make here). And we also break words apart where it sounds best to us rather than at the places they were originally joined together, which is why we say copter rather than pter and shopaholic rather than shopcoholic.

All of this also tells us why we have a word such as monocausotaxophilia. Have a look at its bits: mono from Greek μόνος monos ‘alone, single’, taxo from Greek τάξις taxis ‘order’, philia from Greek φιλία filia ‘love’, but causo from Latin causa ‘cause, reason’. These are all parts of the lexical Lego bucket, but from two different sets that have been combined. It just happens that the Greek equivalent of causa, αἰτία aitia, is not much used in modern scientific neologism. Go with what you know. Like the guy who was looking for his car keys under the street light not because that’s where he most likely dropped them but because he could see better there.

Anyway, Pöppel’s term isn’t in as wide circulation as it could be, but it’s a valuable one, because it names a thing that’s quite common in scientific fields – and other intellectual endeavours. I’ve known and seen quite a few people who have exemplified it. The parts of it may or may not have made its sense clear, but I’ll tell you what it means: ‘the love of single causes that explain everything’.

chowter, chunter

Life can sometimes be kinda thick and chunky. Things don’t always go smoothly. And perhaps we’ll protest that we don’t like bringing it up, but quite often we do seem to like chewing on these tough little bits half-quietly for quite a while. Maybe not all of us, but not none of us, that’s for sure, if you know what I mean. When our discontents are our dish contents, we make a fine chowder of chowtering. And if we can’t keep it down, I won’t say we chunder (look, we’re not in Australia here, as the typical weather ought to tell you), but we sure enough do chunter.

These are both verbs, chowter and chunter, and they’re pretty similar. I’m tempted to think that chowter is a misreading of someone’s sloppy handwriting for chunter, because it was only documented briefly in the early 1700s, and you know how people were at that time, everything in mansucript and don’t bother saying that their handwriting was all perfectly schooled if you haven’t had a nice look at it for yourself. Anyway, Doctor Johnson included it in his dictionary with the charming definition “To grumble or mutter like a froward child” (who even uses froward anymore? so Shakespearean).

You know exactly what that means. The husband who hangs back from his wife in the shop saying sotto voce to the dust bunnies, “If you were going to say we can’t afford it, why did you take me here to look at it in the first place?” The dog owner who pass-aggs the pooch with “Sure, no problem, I just love getting dressed at this hour to take you out to redecorate the streetscape like you didn’t want to do when I was perfectly ready and dressed and not lying in bed reading the most interesting chapter of the book.” The reader who gestures at the website and says  “OK, move on, I get your point, I got it ages ago, come on.”

So chunter means the same thing as chowter? Nearly. The Oxford English Dictionary’s not-quite-so-cute definition of chunter reads “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain. Also in extended use.” Well, it sure as heck is in extended use around where I live nine months of the year, thanks to our weather, which is not only disgusting but unpredictable for the duration of hockey season, like there’s anything of that worth staying inside for. But that’s not what they mean, of course; they mean like if I were to say “His car chuntered down the uneven pavement” or “My fridge is chuntering in its late-night way.”

And where does this word chunter come from? “Apparently of imitative formation,” Oxford says, without so much as hinting how it is that grumbling sounds to any normal person like “chunter.” When I was a kid, we tended to imitate it with “ritz-a-frickin” or “skrtzifrtz” or similar closed-up collections of retroflexes and fricatives. “Chunter” seems rather crisp and open.

Well, whatever. People just make up words because somehow in their world they think it sounds right and other people for their own strange reasons hang onto these words or don’t. I mean, mutter, grumble, murmur, kvetch, how many words do we need for this crap? Maybe if the weather were better in England (and Canada) we wouldn’t have so many words for expressing annoyance. OK, yeah, it was really nice today for a switch, but I’m sure that it’ll pass through spring in three days and then make the rest of the leap from cold and wet to sweltering and muggy. But you know me, I don’t like to complain.

Pronunciation tip: Aalborg and Aarhus

Last time around, I talked about Å. Well, in Denmark, å used to be written as aa and still shows up that way in some place names sometimes. And I’m sure people have occasionally wondered about how to say Aalborg and Aarhus. Thing is, I’ve been avoiding talking about Danish. The Danish language is… well, you’ll see…


Twenty-three years ago, I blew off my master’s convocation ceremony and went wandering around a cemetery with a young lady. While hundreds gathered on the brick-ringed lawn of the academic quad at Tufts University to march through the glowing gates of new adult life, R. and I strolled through the iron gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery and meandered by the marble stones of people who had long since passed through the pearly gates. While my name was being read from the rolls of those who had achieved graduate degrees, a man in a golf cart was calling out to R. and me lying on the lawn that this was a cemetery and we should comport ourselves accordingly.

Mount Auburn Cemetery may be a village of the dead, but what a glorious village it is, a Butchart Gardens of the decadently decedent.

Were this April, I would be tempted to quote T.S. Eliot: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” But there is another poem that is better suited to this occasion: “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith (most famous for the play She Stoops to Conquer), published in 1770. It is a paean to a lovely place, a childhood home that, like all memories of youth, cannot be strolled back into. It is still there, but all the there that was there is not there anymore: it is depopulated and dilapidated. Its denizens have not died; no, it has fallen victim to the privatization of the commons, the appropriation of public goods to the pleasure domes of the overenriched few. It starts with this:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill,
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made!

But nothing stays the same. You can never go home again; the houses I grew up in are changed or gone, and the places I knew people in may still be there but the people have moved on. After stooping to conquer me, R. moved on as well, and so did I. And Mount Auburn Cemetery remained, having already been through its change to be an album of marmoreal memorials.

Sweet Mount Auburn. It was once not a farm of headstones but Stone’s Farm, a piece of peaceful rural land nicknamed Sweet Auburn by locals who had read Goldsmith. And, fittingly or ironically, it too was thereafter enclosed, taken from the planting of crops to the planting of corpses – just the well-off ones – and given its current name and state. But it is open to the public; it is credited as a pioneer in the American public parks and gardens movement. So just as death claims us all, the commons have, in their way, reclaimed this farmland, at least for visiting rights.

One may be tempted to say its name would be more apposite in the fall, when all is burning reds and browns. For what is auburn if not a rich brown as of hair that inspires poetry? But even that has not stayed the same. If you want to see the epitaph for the youth of this word, look at any pearly tombstone showing a century’s patina. Auburn comes from Latin alburnus, ‘whitish’ (you may recognize the alb from album). It came through Old French alborne or auborne, and in its middle age – a century or so before Goldsmith – it was sometimes written abrune or abroun. And by way of that it came to be thought of as more a burning brown.

Well, memory, like tombstones, becomes more golden as it fades. Our minds are the goldsmiths of time. And if time and the distillation of the years makes auburn auburn, poetry makes it Mount Auburn:

And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excell,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!

Pronunciation tip: Å

My latest pronunciation tip is on the name of a place (several places, really) and a letter:

umthink, umbethink

What, between two half-minutes, do you turn away to take to mind? What moments do you look to see receding in the farther distance? What memories do you seek the sea-bound masts of from the high perch of your stolen moments? Do you recall a word from a high-school crush on the stairway between classes, or the taste of cold lunch in an alpine meadow? Grass on the back of your head with a lake a distance downslope, or a steady stare across a table at a spark you never talked to again? An almost-accidental hand caress as you passed a glass, or the musty mythic smog smell of an ancient city visited for the first time? A word misspoken once and regretted needlessly at flashing moments in heavy traffic, or a defiant dance in a nightclub with a half-stranger?

Proust ate some French pastry or toast, I’m told, and it made him think of things. I need no such starch to fuel my umthinking. I may umbethink myself of any old moment at any new moment; my memory is an effervescent glass and the past is the gas – or perhaps it is more a thick old stew burping in a pot at the merest stir.

I look up from the words on my screen, I look away, I look over the shoulder of my mind, to hear a voice of a person long buried calling me to remember them just for these twelve seconds. We are told to live in the now, but life is only a long pulled taffy of nows, and what if now and again it bends back to touch another now? I can umthink, I can umbethink myself; I can, um, think, and, um, be thinking myself somewhere I am not standing at the moment.

These words, umthink and umbethink. The think is obvious, the um and umbe are about from old. The latter, umbethink, is still with us, I am told; it is a reflexive referring to reflecting, calling to mind. The former, umthink, is obsolete, obelisked, been but not to be any more, but in its transit it could be intransitive. I do not mind using it, calling it to mind, staring one more time after its sail at the horizon’s edge. For a moment its now is now again.


If looks could kill, eh?

Well, what? What if? Would they run you down like a runaway Volkswagen Jetta striking a tourist? Or would they reach out and strangle you? Would they torture you to death, or would they just treat you as you deserve?

A look is a gesture, after all. Imagine the Roman emperor looking from his high chair down on you in the arena, pronouncing ex cathedra with a single thumb your persistence or demise. Imagine a guard in a prison camp judging you in a glance and waving you one way or the other, to a quick death or a slow one. These gestures are seen and they cause actions. Now imagine a flat gaze from a person you wished to impress. Imagine cut-eye from someone near to you at a comment you made. You see and you could just die, you know?

But those are semiotic: message received, response effected. If a person gives you a hard stare, the hairy eyeball, a mad-dog, and you see it, they may as well have said a harsh word, or even have slapped your cheek in challenge. But what if they throw it at you behind your back, when you can’t see it?

The eyes may seem the beacon of the soul, but they do not shine; they only reflect and absorb. The gaze may seem to leap and dart, but there is no real jeté. They are not searchlights. They are buckets, not fire hoses. When you see what the eyes tell you, you see not what the eyeballs do but what the eyelids and eyebrows and other surrounding muscles do. And you see it with your eyes just because light lands on them and bounces in through your pupils.

But that’s all scientific. You tell that to someone who has had the jettatura, or seen it. A jettatore throws a glance – no, not a glance, an arch and evil gaze, shooting out of the eyes like jets. The kind that needs to be warded off, preferably with a gesture with an obscene referent: the horns will do – index and little finger pointing outwards, distracting the demons for a moment with thoughts of cuckoldry. (This is also the source of the devil-horn gesture popular among heavy metal fans.) What, they don’t protect? I defy you to say light does not bounce off them. I defy you to be as rational as that and yet by implication accept the possibility of a curse coming from someone’s gaze.

And that someone is a jettatore and the look they throw is a jettatura. It’s from Italian (but you still say the as in English), from the same source as jet and jeté: a Latin word meaning ‘throw’. You throw a bad look at someone, even behind their back, and they have bad luck. It’s a convenient way to explain mischance – and dislike. And perhaps to hope that a good hard look at someone will be enough to make them go away.

The medicalese looking-glass

I’ll be giving a webinar in two weeks for on translating medical writing into normal English for ordinary people. I’ve written a blog post for them on one of the most significant features of medicalese: it makes people disappear.

Medical Writing: Looking in the Glass