Monthly Archives: March 2022

nattitude

I have a new attitude, an attitude of nattitude. Not for nothing, I don’t want to be naughty; I have a need to be natty. I’m too used to not being spruce, and the time has come again at last to put on the dog – or at least to get a new leash on looks. I’m known sometimes for nuttiness, but now I want nattiness.

What, by the way, is this word natty? Well, we know: trim like a fancy tree (a spruce, clearly); smart in the sartorial sense – and perhaps not just that. In its earliest known uses it has a clear tone of craftiness and cunning – clever fashion, and perhaps not just well-chosen cuffs but well-picked pockets, too: natty lads was noted as a term in the late 1700s for light-fingered young men.

I am not so young, and no thief either, but my fingers are light in other ways (if you know the type, or the typing), and I have uses to which to put them – to wit: to wit. And I may or may not trip the light fantastic, but I will try to take a fantastic trip, or at least a light one, and have a ball. Because after two years of dressing down or, when cold, dressing in down (or staying in my dressing gown and hoping not to get a dressing-down), I want to dress up, mister.

We don’t really know where natty comes from – OK, it comes from England, the London area in particular, but we aren’t sure of its lexical heritage, other than it may be related to neat – but it has spawned nattily and nattiness. And, yes, now nattitude, which may seem redundant given that we have nattiness, but I’d say nattitude has more of an attitude, dude, and perhaps a greater sense of measurability, like altitude: how high is your fashion?

Why the y’s?

My latest article for The Week is on the reason for the many y’s in transliterations of Ukrainian and Russian names, and how to read them:

A word to the Y’s on Ukrainian and Russian

brooding

The thing about brooding is, chicks love it.

No, seriously. A hen sits and broods, keeping her eggs warm, and those little chicks grow and hatch so happily, like little fluffy yellow balls of freed sunshine. No wonder brooding is such a happy word – as the Oxford English Dictionary says, it’s a word for something that “cherishes … , hatches, or incubates.”

Um. You look skeptical. …Yes?

Robert Pattinson? What?

Who said Robert De Niro? 

Marlon Brando? James Dean? Christian Bale? Ralph Fiennes? Matt Dillon? What’s going on here? Not one of them is a chicken! Total bros, every one!

And yet.

If you see the word brooding in a magazine or on a website, it’s not very likely to be talking about incubating eggs, is it? For that matter, even though it comes from brood, as in ‘family of young animals, especially ones that hatch’, often seen in brood of vipers and similar phrases, there seems to be no direct connection between its usual objects and younglings (except, of course, in that one movie involving Hayden Christensen).

Gonna need to think about this for a few moments here.

Of course, brooding isn’t just applied to the kind of actors who make every other guy on the planet seethingly resentful. It’s also applied to singers. And, more to the point, it’s applied to songs, and paintings, and even architecture. It’s an aesthetic effect: lowering, gloomy, moody, pensive. Like Hamlet (as long as Hamlet is being played by the right actor). But… how did something that started out so warm and fuzzy end up so cool and scratchy?

It’s two things. When a hen broods, she sits above the eggs, overhanging them. And also, more to the point, she sits there and just, you know, thinks. Each egg is like a thought – or perhaps, since they shall be hatched, a plot. Oh, and you’re probably well advised not to bother her; brooding hens are very protective. 

So you get brooding skies, with brooding clouds that overhang; and you get the sense of brooding as meaning ‘sitting and thinking’ – or, anyway, ‘thinking seriously for a long time and not doing anything else’. And if you’re brooding, you’re probably brooding over something: your misfortunes, your unhappiness, or, as Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “the dark prospect of approaching poverty.” Definitely more vipers than chicks.

Where, by the way, does this word brooding – or, rather, its root brood – come from? It’s from an old Germanic root, bro-, which has to do with warmth or heat and with breeding.

Which, I guess, is fitting, since all those brooding actor bros are, in the eyes of their fans, pretty hot… and suitable for breeding, too, probably.

vernality

Some people are so desperate for a bit of the green, they will do whatever it takes. It doesn’t matter, night or day: they’re looking to be in the clover.

That’s the essence of venality – seeking money, literally being “for sale” (from Latin venum, ‘for sale, sold’) – but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about vernality. We are back in our salad days.

Which I could mean in the Cleopatra sense: “My salad days, When I was green in judgment: cold in blood.” But while it is both green and cold here right now, what I mean is just that it is the springtime of our lives, yet again, and also everything is becoming springy, verdant, salad-like. Vernal. Exuding vernality. No longer hibernal – which means wintry (from hibernalis), but Hibernian.

Which is, if you don’t know, being of, related to, or about Hibernia, which is Ireland – and we’re surely at the time of year when that’s peaking. Why, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade was just today itself in Toronto (yes, three days late, but it has to be on a Sunday). 

And yes, if you’re wondering, Hibernia does have some connection to hibernal. They’re not related in origin (the Greek Ἰέρνη Iérē, source of the Latin, comes from the same source as Eire and the Ire in Ireland), but hibernal seems to have influenced the appearance of the b in Hibernia. Which is hironic, I mean ironic, given that we associate Ireland with the green of spring (and I am here to tell you that Ireland is indeed a very green country overall; see photo above – which was actually taken in the fall!).

But it’s not the already past 17th I’m on about, it’s today, the vernal equinox – when night and day are equal, and it’s the one time of year things spring forth – and neither hibernal nor Hibernia relates to vernality, in truth; vernality comes from Latin ver, ‘spring’, which somehow is not related to Latin verus ‘true’. 

Well. There are a lot of words springing forth from the wellspring of Latin (and its further sources). And the joy of etymology and word tasting is evergreen – which, again ironically, is not particularly vernal, since it’s green all year round. (It’s also not particularly venal, since it doesn’t pay. But it may be venial, since it’s pardonable.) 

But it’s never the wrong time to leaf through a dictionary. Don’t be verecund (‘shy’); sure, you never know when you might get lucky.

Don’t miss the craic!

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and for my latest article for The Week I’ve taken a look at a word you may see in the vicinity of an Irish pub:

Have yourself a cracking St. Patrick’s Day

And while we’re on St. Paddy’s, I’ve made some videos over the years on how to say some Irish things:

vestuous

I was watching a video yesterday about a 32-hour train trip through Argentina, an interesting trip in a new train on old tracks, with a locomotive that is made to go up to 160 km/h pulling a passenger train at an average 36 km/h over old tracks past endless scenery, towns, and stations. As with many YouTube videos about train trips, the narration is in subtitles rather than voice-over. About halfway through, as the narrator took the chance at a station stop to get an outside view of the train and the station, he noted that the railroad was not in its newest condition:

“Take a look at the tracks,” the subtitle reads, with a view from above of two largely overgrown pairs of tracks next to his train… “it’s vestuous for sure.”

Vestuous.

This is not a word I had known before. It seemed to have come from ancient days, not much refreshed by recent use, rather like the tracks it described. But what, exactly, did it mean? Overgrown? Decaying?

I looked in Wiktionary. Wiktionary did not know the word.

I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED did not know the word.

I knew – only because he had told the viewer so – that the narrator was French. So perhaps the word is an attempt to render a French word directly into English? I did a Google search and found a couple of sites that had been machine translated from French.

The first, from Chateau.com, is a tantalizing description of a champagne. “Vestuous of a magnificent golden colour with light emerald tints, the Cuvée des Princes is crossed by a fine cord of creamy bubbles.” 

Hmm. If you click on the language button at the top, you get the French: “Vétu d’une magnifique robe dorée aux légers reflets d’émeraude, la Cuvée des Princes est traversée par un fin cordon de bulles crémeuses.” 

OK, so that means ‘robed’ – vétu is a misspelling of vêtu. So the tracks are overgrown?

But then the second, from an Airbnb listing, is in a review of a house in France. The Google results give the following preview: “Nice stay, great pool, the host is available, the house is a bit vestuous but with large room that can accommodate a large family.” 

Hmm. However, when I go to the site, I see that sentence as “Pleasant stay, great swimming pool, the host is available, the house is a bit old-fashioned but with large rooms that can accommodate a large family.” So Google’s preview translates vestuste as vestuous but Airbnb’s site translates it as old-fashioned

But I also see “Some info has been automatically translated. Show original language.” I click on that, and I see this: “Sejour agréable, super piscine, l’hôte est disponible, la maison est un peu vestuste mais avec de grande chambre pouvant accueillir une grande famille.”

Now, if you run that through translate.google.com, you’ll get yet another result: “the house is a bit dingy.” But vestuste is not a word you can find in a French dictionary. That, however, is because it’s a misspelling for vétuste – which means ‘dilapidated’ or ‘antiquated’. It’s from Latin vetustus, from vetus, ‘old’. It has a rarely used English counterpart: vetust.

That works with the YouTuber’s intention. But that’s an interesting trip from the old to the new. To get to vestuousfrom that, you have to conjecture an s where there wasn’t one. At least to get to it from vêtu the s is historically accurate (as usual in French, the ˆ indicates a historical s that stopped being said and then stopped being written) – it’s related to English vest – but of course it’s been misspelled with é on the site. And either way, the -u or -uste has been turned into English -uous, which is not really how it would usually go – an English -uous is more likely matched to French -ueux and -ueuse

So in both cases there’s been a misspelling, and the machine translation, instead of understanding the intent, has grabbed this apparently suitable English word. Except where did it get the idea that there was an English word vestuous to translate either of these words to? 

Well, there’s one more fun thing, one last bit of dressed-up antiquity: there are several other results for vestuous on Google, all in historical English books… all of which have been digitized with OCR (optical character recognition). In many cases, you can see the original. And you find that the OCR has read veſtuous – which it then rendered into modern typography as vestuous – where it saw vertuous. Which is (as context will readily tell you, even if you don’t look it up) an old spelling of virtuous.

An ancient virtue, decayed and misunderstood, brought into the modern times as nothing but a byword for obsoletion and costume. How damned perfect. I think I will start using vestuous for the myriad faux-archaisms often inflicted on us: ſ misread as f, þe olde misread as ye olde, endless excrescent e’s (CrowneRanche), and wanton misuse (typically mocking) of -eth­ and -est­. “Ah,” I can say, looking at these new trains travelling labouredly on old tracks, “vestuous for sure.”

labant

Slush has slushed slipperily, and even (or especially) for the fleet of foot the streets are fletiferous; the nimble and awkward alike are likely to become labant.

Labant? Is that something you could transcribe in Labanotation? Well, perhaps, if it’s choreographed. But more likely, on lubricated pavements, you will not be tripping the light fantastic, just tripping – slip-sliding away, slipping into something less comfortable: perhaps an esker of snirt, perhaps just the sidewalk muttering to itself in geological time about how hard it used to rock. You see, when you are labant, you are sliding, or falling down, or at least wavering or tottering.

And where does this word come from? The dictionary, of course. Now, most words can be found in dictionaries, but that doesn’t mean it’s where they’re from any more than the DMV office you happen to be lined up in to get your licence is where you’re from. But there is a special set of words that are conceived in dictionaries and live their whole lives there: born to be defined. Fletiferous is one such, and labant is another, both noted in the Oxford English Dictionary with this caveat: “Obsolete. rare. Apparently only attested in dictionaries or glossaries.”

Well, ya know, when we availed ourselves of the replete pantry of Latin roots, we just couldn’t resist confecting almost anything plausible, just so we would have a fancy word in a scholarly robe for something we previously had to speak of only in brutish Anglo-Saxon. In the case of labant, it’s coined from labare, ‘fall, slide’. But the chips will fall where they may, and for some words, whether they even totter briefly, they land squarely on the otiose side. The lexicographer has laboured in vain.

But all is vanity, and every word is a free coin you can use when speaking to God, yourself, and your cat, even if no one else. If you like labant, keep it. Add it to your slush fund.

When is a staycation not a staycation?

We have a paradoxical view of travel and time off in English. As I’ve already noted, we historically associated travel with unpleasantness. And yet we assume that significant time off will be spent away from home. In my latest article for The Week, I look at some of the other lexical paradoxes we have for leisure time:

There’s no vacation from the quirks of English

Rules and laws

For Grammar Day, I want to talk briefly about laws and rules, and the fact that some people who should know better get them confused.

Let’s start with laws of nature. Say someone holds a rock in front of them and lets go of it. It flies upward instead of falling. Do you say, “No, you’re doing it wrong – the rock is supposed to fall down”?

Then there’s criminal law. Let’s say that instead of dropping the rock, they throw it through a store window. You might say “Hey!”; a cop who is nearby might arrest them – or they might get away with it.

That’s sort of like the rules of sport. Say the person is playing football, and they throw a rock instead of a football – or maybe they just throw a football the wrong way. The player will get a penalty – if the referee sees it.

But how about the rules of grammar? Let’s say someone writes a sentence: “Person the throw rock football and window at.” Your reaction on reading it is probably something like “Huh? That doesn’t even make sense.”

So let’s say instead that the sentence is “Smashing a window, the person throwed rock and football.” If you’re like a lot of people, you’ll readily utter a correction of one or more errors, even if no one asked you to. You may also say something about the intellect of the writer.

The law of gravity, like any law of nature, doesn’t need anyone to enforce it. If you see a law of nature being broken, you’re wrong: either the law isn’t really being broken (it’s an illusion, or some other law is relevant) or the law as you know it is inaccurate or incomplete and your understanding needs to be revised.

Civil and criminal laws do need enforcement, because they’re human creations. Some of us may believe that laws are there to enforce laws of nature (or of God), but really at most we’ve just appointed ourselves to try and keep people behaving in accordance with our ideas of those laws, which is an us thing. Civil and criminal laws are like the rules of sports, but with broader application and stronger enforcement mechanisms.

And rules of grammar? Ones like in the last example, such as that it’s “threw,” not “throwed,” that you shouldn’t use dangling participles, and that you should be careful with definite and indefinite articles, are also like the rules of sports: in published texts, editors typically serve as referees, following specified style rules; in a broader social context, enforcement is mostly not formalized. The rules may have a certain tidiness, but that tidiness is not a natural law, nor is it inevitable – any editor who works with multiple house styles knows that.

But what about more basic rules of grammatical conmprehensibility, such as the ones broken by “Person the throw rock football and window at”? Those, too, are human creations – just at the level of social norms that we rarely stop even to inspect. Using the rules of some other languages, that weird sentence would be entirely coherent. English puts the definite article (“the”) before the noun, but Scandinavian languages tack it onto the end of the noun as a suffix. English can be very fussy with verb conjugations (“throw,” “throws,” “threw”), especially irregular ones, but other languages are less so, and some – such as Mandarin Chinese – don’t conjugate at all. English requires indefinite articles (“a rock,” “a football”), but Gaelic doesn’t, and Slavic languages don’t use definite or indefinite articles. And English expects “and” to go between the things it combines, but in Latin its equivalent can be tacked onto the second item, as in “Senatus Populusque Romanus” – literally “Senate People-and Roman” (in English, “the Senate and People of Rome”).

So, in short, the rules of grammar, even the most apparently essential rules, are not inevitable. Grammar, even the most fundamental grammar, is not a natural law; it is like the rules of a sport. The way you say a thing is not the one logical, inevitable, natural way to say it, even if – within the variety of the language you’re speaking – it’s the only “proper” way to say it. Even the idea that a double negative equals a positive, which seems plainly logical to modern English speakers, seems otherwise to speakers of languages such as Spanish or Italian, where a negative requires agreement (e.g., “No vale nada” and “Non vale niente”: “It’s not worth nothing”). After all, it can’t be a negative statement if it’s positive in some places. Logic!

But some people, even some otherwise well educated people, seem unaware of this. Editors and linguists are wearily used to people priggishly “correcting” them with simplistic grammar rules and ideas that they recall from school, as though those rules were basic truths like natural law. I’ve seen it even from people who have graduate-level educations and clearly ought to know better.

And why does it matter? I’ve written before about how this kind of dogmatic position is used to license social aggression (see What do we care about, really and Why all English speakers worry about slipping up), but the boorishness of grammar snobs is not the biggest thing. The idea that there is one correct, natural, logical grammar gives cover for not just class discrimination but also racism (because different social groups use different varieties of the language) and even sexism (in particular ideas about such things as pronouns and grammatical gender – I’ve given talks on this several times; a video of one time is at A Hidden Gender?). 

A person who understands the socially decided nature of grammar rules can understand that someone who’s using a kind of English that’s not “proper” is not inferior, and that different varieties of English are grammatically coherent even if they’re different from the schoolbook standard. Knowing this also broadens a person’s expressive repertoire.

Does all this mean that grammar is a free-for-all, or that there’s no point in teaching it? Of course it doesn’t mean that. We teach people about the rules of sports and the rule of law. We also teach people about dress codes – there are certain things you just don’t wear in certain places and occasions, not for any matter of intrinsic suitability (sweatshirts are no less functionally suited to formal occasions than tuxedos), but just because of the social implications they have come to have. Likewise, if you use a library, you learn how the books are arranged on the shelves, and it’s a tidy, systematic, enforceable order, but it’s not an inevitable one: the choice of Dewey versus Library of Congress, just for instance, will give quite different orderings. 

Tidiness can be good, and consistent, well-defined rules can be useful. I make a nice bit of money every year tidying up text. But rigidity and narrow-mindedness are bad. And believing that the simple rules you learned in your simple youth are the only true rules is a mistake that will limit your effectiveness – and, on the larger level, can limit others, and our effectiveness and potential as a society. Learn rules – as many different sets as possible – and use them judiciously.

Oh, and have fun.