Tag Archives: word


Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada.

Beware the ides of March!

Beware the ides of every other month, too. And the nones. And the calends. Actually, beware Roman calendars pretty much altogether. But beware the ides of March especially.

We generally think of ides as being a March thing, since Julius Caesar was stabbed on that day. But every month in the Roman calendar was marked by three days: calends, nones, ides. All the other days were counted in relation to them. But how they were counted serves as a reminder that things we take for granted as plain and obvious are actually not inevitable and have been done differently in other places and times.

The Roman calendar was originally a lunar calendar. A month started with the new moon. That was the calends (Latin kalendae), which appears to trace back to calare (“proclaim”). About a week later would be the half moon. That became the nones (Latin nonae), so called because it was the ninth day before the ides—which is to say, it was eight days before the ides. (Confused? We’ll get to that.) The third day of note was the full moon, which was the ides (Latin idus, from some Etruscan word). And then…apparently nothing of note between full and new moon.

The calendar came to be standardized and no longer attached to lunar cycles. In the eighth century BC the calendar of Romulus featured ten months of alternating lengths, 30 and 31 days: Martius (31), Aprilis (30), Maius (31), Iunius (30), Quintilis (31), Sextilis (30), September (30), October (31), November (30), December (30). Does that not add up? Well, the rest of the days of the year between December and Martius were just there, not part of any month. Kind of toss-away. Which is how we feel about them even still.

A few decades later Ianuarius (29 days) and Februarius (28) were added. Months with 30 days were trimmed back to 29. The whole year was 355 days long, so every now and then a whole extra month would be stuffed into the end of February (of all the times to have an extra month!). It took quite a long time for the exactly right number of days in a year to be sorted out. More than two millennia, actually.

With the fixing of the months, the specific positions of the nones and ides were set according to the length of the month. The ides fell on the thirteenth day of months with 29 days and the fifteenth day of months with 31 days. The calends was of course the first day of the month. The nones was the fifth or seventh day of the month, because it was nine days before the ides, counting the ides as the first day.

And, of course, counting backwards. Because that’s what they did. The day before the ides, nones, or calends was the pridie of that day—so March fourteenth was the pridie of the ides of March. And the day before that was the third day before the ides. The day before that was the fourth day before the ides. And so on. Everything was in countdown.

Which means that the entire second half of a month, after the ides, was numbered in reference to the calends of the next month. The day after the ides of March is the seventeenth day before the calends of April. That’s what it was called. They didn’t number forwards. There was no Martius twenty-fourth; it was the ninth day before the calends of Aprilis. But still part of the month of Martius. You may be beginning to think the dates were called ides, nones, and calends because people would say “Any idea where we are on the calendar?” “None.”

But hey, if you think that seems like something from Harry Potter, don’t forget that when they added an adjustment month of 22 days, they stuffed it in after the twenty-fourth day of February. Not the twenty-eighth. The twenty-fourth.

But if we just want to wave our hands and say, “Well, those Romans were crazy,” ask yourself this: would it seem crazy to start the new year right in the middle of a month? So that, say, the first 24 days of March were in one year and the last week was in the next? Because guess who did that.

Not the Romans. Nope.

We did.

OK, by “we” I mean western Europe, notably including England and its dominions — such as Canada. Of course, Canada wasn’t a country then and wouldn’t be for another 115 years.

That’s right, England marked the new year on March 25 until 1752 (meaning 1751 was a short year—but so was 1752: they cut out 11 days in September because of the necessary adjustment in the switch from Julian to Gregorian calendar…that’s a whole other article again!). Other countries switched over to January 1 sooner—Scotland in 1600, most of western Europe at various times in the 1500s. To be fair, the new year had in previous times been on January 1; it was switched to March 25 in the middle ages. Why March 25? It’s the feast of the Annunciation: the day marking Mary’s being told by the angel that she was pregnant with Jesus. Somehow that led to the conception that it would be a good day to start a new year…

So the ides (the fifteenth day) of March of 1599, when Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, would have been almost a year later than the twenty-fifth day of March of 1599…and would on the same day have been the ides of March of 1600 just across the border in Scotland. Beware—or be where—indeed!


Imagine speech as a continuous stream of variegated colours flowing past uninterrupted, one sound into another. Now imagine written (or printed) language as a bunch of pieces of fabric of individual colours sewn together in an attempt to approximate the flow of colour that you hear from the spoken.

Yes, the written word is a quilt, a fabric mosaic approximation of reality sewn together from bits. And you are the sewer.

Or should I say the sewist.

Sewist? That’s not a word you will find in a dictionary. No, for a long time the standard agentive suffix for deriving nouns from verbs was er: doer, thinker, walker, worker… a joke my brother came up with is that since I live, and I am (infinitive be), I must be a liver and a beer. But this derivation becomes a problem with someone who sews.

The issue is that the verb spelled sew represents a word now said /so/. This is illustrated by the pun sew-and-sew referring to someone who sews (it only works if you know the derogatory epithet so-and-so). So what would be written soer (itself a little problematic) if the word were spelled so (obviously also an ambiguity risk) is instead spelled sewer, which happens to be the same as the word for a cloaca. An underground gutter. An artificial watercourse for drainage.

So aren’t we lucky that the suffix ist has become a fadfix? It’s the hot new agentive! Word quilters take note: no need to have those bland er panels when you can add a bit of spice with ist. And, in some cases, avoid an unpleasant ambiguity.

Because really, why have two words spelled the same way that have different sounds and meanings, especially if one of them refers to something unpleasant? And especially if you could use a different form for one of them?

We can’t use a different form for sewer meaning artificial water channel; it’s not formed with sew plus er – in fact, it’s a digested-and-excreted form related to Latin exaquatorium. But sew plus er meaning ‘someone who sews’? Why not use something clearer?

Sewist is, in fact, as Jim Taylor has told me, a current term in the world of sewing. It’s a new twist, a bit of a swizzle in the drink. It may annoy those people who prefer the old established forms, problematic though they may be. Such people tend to cover for their mental inflexibility with invective against the intellects of the more practical and forward-thinking people who would dare pour troublesome old forms in the sewer.

Think of sewist as a new patch on a problem, a deft bit of sewing that takes a little different fabric to sew a new representation together. Expect to see it in dictionaries before too long; eventually it will be the standard term, simply for better communication. Which is, after all, what language is really for. Not just needling.

A walk on the wildcard side

In my experience, most editors – let alone less proficient users of Word – have little to no familiarity with Word’s wild cards and are afraid to try them. This is a pity: It’s like being afraid to learn how to copy and paste instead of retyping every time. Using wildcards is not hard, and it can save you a lot of time.

Do you need to memorize a whole bunch of rules? No. This isn’t a course where you will have a closed-book test at the end. Whenever you can’t think of what to do, the Microsoft Word MVP Site has a lovely resource at word.mvps.org/faqs/general/UsingWildcards.htm . You can just look there and refresh your memory. But I’ll save you a little time and effort with a rundown of the basic principles, followed by some useful examples.

Basic principle 1: Know your superheroes

There are a few symbols that, when you have “Use wildcards” checked under Find and Replace, become something magical and highly powerful:

  • *: The asterisk can represent any number of whatever characters. If you search w*rd you will find word, weird, walked backward, and even phrases such as what! To do 7 isn’t hard – anything that starts with a w and ends with rd and doesn’t have another w or rd in between. Also wrd, because * can stand for nothing at all.
  • ?: The question mark represents one character of any type. Search l??t and you will find lent, last, l33t, etc., but not lit or least.
  • @: The at-sign represents a repeat of the previous character zero or more times. If you search ah@ you will find ah, ahh, ahhh, etc.

Basic principle 2: Be more specific

Much of the time, you don’t actually want to use such high-powered ammunition. You may not be able to specify an exact word – if you could, you probably wouldn’t need wild cards – but you can limit it to a smaller set of characters. There are four tools you need for this:

  • <>: The angle brackets indicate the start and end of a word. So <*> is a word of any length, <?> is a one-letter word, and so on. You don’t have to use them together: ?> will find the last letter of any word.
  • []: Square brackets let you search for any one of a specified set of characters. If you want to find mad, bad, sad, or dad, you can search [bdms]ad. If you want to find a semicolon or colon, use [;:]. If you want any of a range of characters, you can use a hyphen to indicate the range: [0-9] means any numeral; [A-Z] means any capital letter; [a-z] any small letter; [A-z] any letter at all; [0-9A-z] will find any numeral or letter.
  • !: The exclamation mark means “not!” So if you want an occurrence of a letter other than lowercase p or q, for instance, use [!pq]. And if you want to find all words that are not capitalized, you can use <[!A-Z]*>.
  • {}: If you want more than one occurrence of the type of character just specified, you can specify how many using curly brackets. [0-9]{2} will find any two numerals: 29, 47, 68, etc. You can indicate minimum and maximum numbers of occurrences with a comma: [A-Z]{1,3} will find anything with one to three capital letters in a row; [0-9]{2,} will find any set of two or more numerals in a row (no upper limit). To find all capitalized words four or more letters long, use <[A-Z][a-z]{3,}> (if you don’t use the <>, you will also find the Phone in iPhone, for instance).

Basic principle 3: Divide and number

You are very likely to want to break down what you’re searching for into two or more parts, so you can change, move, or remove one part and not another. The way to do this is to use parentheses in your search term and backslash numbers in your replace term.

For instance, let’s say you have 99039 J Wilkins, 85042 K Palmer, etc., and you want it to be Wilkins: 99039, Palmer: 85042, and so on.

So you start with three parts: The number, the initial, and the last name. They are, respectively, [0-9]{5}, [A-Z], and <[A-Z][a-z]{1,}> – plus the spaces, don’t forget that there are spaces between the words. We can use parentheses to divide it into the following parts: ([0-9]{5})( [A-Z] )(<[A-Z][a-z]{1,}>).

We now have parts 1, 2, and 3. And that is how Word will know them – to be precise, as \1, \2, and \3. In your replacement, you are putting the third one first, then a colon and space, then the first one third – in other words, \3: \1. That’s it!

Basic principle number 4: Backslash your way out of conflicts

What if you want to find one of the special characters above as itself? What if you’re looking for parentheses, for instance? Just use a backslash before the character: \( and \) for the parentheses, \@ for the at-sign, and so on.

Now here are three examples of ways wildcard find-and-replaces can make your life easier.

Example 1: Putting en-dashes in number ranges

You want to change hyphens to en-dashes between numbers? You just need to find any number, hyphen, any number, and change it to the same but with a dash in place of a hyphen:

Find: ([0-9])(-)([0-9]) Note that you don’t have to backslash the hyphen – it only has special meaning inside square brackets.

Replace: \1–\3

Be careful, though – if you have phone numbers in your document, you will need to avoid them or change them back.

Example 2: Converting US-style large numbers to metric-style

How about if you need to change numbers such as 4,231 to 4231, but numbers such as 67,853 to 67 853? First change the 5- or 6-digit numbers (because the 4-digit numbers also occur inside the 5- and 6-digit ones):

Find: ([0-9]{2,3})(,)([0-9]{3})

Replace: \1 \3

Then change the four-digit numbers:

Find: ([0-9])(,)([0-9]{3})

Replace: \1\3

But beware: if you have numbers over a million, they will be affected by this, so you’ll have to deal with them first.

Example 3: Formatting titles in a bibliography

Let’s say your bibliography entries are like this:

Garfield TC. The mechanisms of purring. Journal of Feline Biomechanics 23:7 (1998): 12–45.

And you want them to be like this:

Garfield TC. “The mechanisms of purring.” Journal of Feline Biomechanics 23:7 (1998): 12–45.

Because you can’t apply formatting to just part of the result, you need a multi-step process. First add the quotes and some markers for where the italics will start and stop (I’ll use | and §, assuming those are used nowhere else in the text to be dealt with). Turn off the automatic smart quotes – Word may curl them the wrong way.

Find: ([A-Z]. )([A-Z]*.)( )([A-Z]*)( [0-9])

Replace: \1"\2"\3|\4§\5

Then let’s italicize the title:

Find: (|)(*)(§)

Replace: \2 Specify format as italic

Then you need to turn on autocorrect to smart quotes and find and replace all the quotes (find " and replace with " and it will curl them all for you). Et voilà: like magic!


On page 844 of volume 16 of the 1888 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will learn that ctenophores furnish examples of eight-sided amphithect pyramids. On reading this, you will of course think “Amphithect?”

You might from there go to a dictionary. If you do, hard luck for you: it’s not even in the Oxford English Dictionary. You might try to guess the meaning; the amphi will lead you to imagine it has to do with double-sidedness or something similar. But what about the thect? What the heck is that? Does it relate to tect as in architect? Nope. And good luck finding it in your handy little Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary.

You may find yourself down for the count or at least out of the court (the ct), just saying the word again and again, bouncing as it does across the various enunciatory positions – two lips /m/, lips and teeth /f/, tongue and teeth /θ/, back of tongue /k/, and finally tip of tongue on alveolar ridge /t/. Say it repeatedly and you make a neat circuit of your mouth. Pluralize it – amphithects – to get an extra fricative just to lubricate it further.

You can also play with the letters. Amp, hit, he; am, phi, the… match the pi, ham pith etc., at the chimp, hm – pathetic…

And while you’re doing that, perhaps your eyes will coast up the page a bit (page 844, remember? column 1) and see this:

In the highest and most complicated group, the Heterostaura, the basal polygon is no longer regular but amphithect (αμιθηκτος = double-edged). Such a polygon has an even number of sides, and can be divided into symmetrical halves by each of two places intersecting at right angles in the middle point, and thus dividing the whole figure into four congruent polygons.

An amphithect pyramid is thus one that has, for instance, a rhombus as its base. Which you would have learned earlier if you hadn’t gotten on the wrong bus, so to speak. But no wonder it was all Greek…

What? Ctenophores? Oh, yes, I’ll get to those next.


This is a word that says who the a**hole is who’s responsible. I don’t find it a pleasant word – in fact, I took an instant dislike to it when I first heard it in my youth. (I was not surprised to hear CBC’s Rich Terfry declare a dislike of it as well today.) It’s the word that beheaded your bonus. It has the obvious echo of anus, which, aside from being Latin for what everyone knows it means, is also a different Latin word meaning “old woman” – perhaps like the old woman who wags her finger and says “Oooooh! Own up!” This isn’t a broad word like blame or a panicker like fault (as in “It’s not my fault!” and with its echoes of halt and fall); it’s a prissy word, made for saying with a turd under the nose, and it comes complete with the Lain us ending to remind you that it’s an important word, come entirely unchanged from the mouths of the great Roman patricians. And it’s physically indexical and sonically iconic: the mouth starts with the pucker of disapprobation (as if booing) and then withdraws through a quick nasal tap of the tongue to the sustainable final hiss. The word as written could be rotated 180 degrees and look the same, except that where there’s o at one end there’s s at the other, like someone popped someone’s balloon. Oh, and whose fault was that? Hm! Don’t put the blame on us. Those tut-tutters think they own us.