Thursday, October 11, 2007

Monsters and things

It's getting close to Halloween, and so I've decided to do a little monster etymology etc.

lemures - this Latin word referred to ghosts...spirits of the dead. The lemur (animal) was named after it, possibly for its spooky eyes. Or possibly for the sounds they make at night.

larva - yet another Latin word for ghost that was later applied to biology.

nightmare - an evil female spirit that suffocates persons while they sleep.

incubus - another evil spirit who messes with people as they sleep, especially one who engages in sexual intercourse with sleeping females.

succubus - the female equivalent of the incubus; this one sleeps with men as they sleep.

demon - the original Greek form referred to "half-gods" or low level deities; the evil connotations came later.

spirit - related to the Latin word spirare for "to breathe", this referred to the vital force...that which separated the animate from the inanimate.

sprite - originally a differently spelled version of spirit, it now seems to refer to some type of supernatural being who lives in the woods. Also used in computer science to refer to a moving image or set of pixels.

Will-o'-the-wisp - also known as ignis fatuus; a light that runs away, causing the curious travelers to leave the road and venture into the woods (etc.) to chase after it. Also sometimes called Jack-o'-lantern.

ogre - a man-eating giant.

orc - a member of an ogre-like species; the modern version was popularized by J.R.R. Tolkein. Orc also used to refer to a sea creature, and from this the species name orca is derived.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Transposed proununciations

Which of the following is correct (one for each pair):
chaise lounge/chaise longue

Each of the words in the above pairs is pronounced differently. And in each case, the second word is the correct spelling (and thus pronunciation).

Larynx is correctly pronounced "lare-inks", whereas the incorrect version (larnyx) is "lare-nix". I wouldn't go to any doctor who calls it a "lare-nix".

Chaise longue: chaise is French for chair, and longue is French for...long. And in English, it is properly pronounced "shaze long".

Rohypnol is the infamous date rape drug that is often mispronounced as rophynol. It is this dyslexic pronunciation that (most likely) gave rise to its nickname, "roofie".

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Free rein

It's free rein, damn't! Not reign! It's a horse thing...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

"Flaunt" the law

To "flaunt the law" is to carry the law around with you, showing it off as you strut, saying "hey, check out my law...I know, it's a pretty sweet law. It cost me quite a lot. Do you have a law like this? You don't? I'm sorry. Did I mention I went to Cornell?"" Maybe making a copy of the law, and having it framed.

To "flout the law" is to show contempt (or very little respect) for it.

To "flounder" is to move clumsily.

To "founder a ship" is to sink it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Steroids and narcotics

Please do not use the word 'steroid' to refer to any substance that boosts athletic performance. Some of these substances are steroids, and they belong to a group of chemicals known as anabolic steroids. But not all qualify for the designation. Molecules that are classified as steroids have a specific chemical structure which is similar to that of sterols. So what are examples of steroids? Testosterone, estrogens, cortisol, and cholesterol. When doctors use the word 'steroid' , the usually are referring to anti-inflammatory drugs that resemble cortisol.

The word 'narcotic' is also frequently misused. It should only be applied to "downers".

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Moral versus ethical

Moral and ethical mean the same thing. 'Moral' is derived from the Latin equivalent of the Greek word 'ethikos'. Any distinction between the two is what I call "artificial" and is by no means universal. Artificial distinctions are...well...bad. Please don't take synonyms and try to separate them.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The Internet and the World Wide Web are not synonymous. The Internet comprises the Web, e-mail, as well as a variety of other "things" (e.g. FTP).

By the way, the whole comprises the parts. It would be incorrect to say that "The Internet is comprised of the Web..."

Monday, May 22, 2006

Why doctors use Greek/Latin

Did you know that the word leg properly refers to the body part between the knee and the ankle? By properly, I don't just mean "according to anatomists/doctors"; it is historically true as well. The part between the knee and trunk is the thigh. If we abide by this usage, we are left without a very good word for the "lower extremity".

Anatomists often use arm to mean strictly the upper arm (i.e. the part between the elbow and shoulder), but this is not historically justified.

The waist is the narrow part of the body between the hips and rib cage. And yet, it seems only middle-aged women wear pants around the waist. My belt goes around the hips.

What exactly do I mean by hip? Normally, I use it to refer to the wide part, at the bottom of the trunk. The pelvic bones. But in other situations, hip refers to the hip joint, where the femur (thigh bone) interacts with the pelvic bones. And thus, a broken hip usually refers to the head of the femur breaking off.

Thorax has a fairly specific meaning, but what about its supposed equivalent in English: chest. If I get shot in the back, just below the neck, will I have been shot in the chest? Or does the chest only comprise the front part of the thorax?

Is the thumb a finger? Is the hand part of the arm, or just connected to it? English, in these cases, is very imprecise. And so don't blame doctors for occasionally speaking in tongues.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


What does one call old persons? This is one area where the euphemisms have gotten ridiculous. Elderly is a euphemism that has apparently become offensive because of its connotations with the elderly. So what are the alternatives?

Geriatric is derived from two Greek combining forms: ger- refers to old age, and -iatr- refers to doctor/treatment/medicine. Pediatrics is the medical treatment of children, and geriatrics is the medical treatment of the old. Thus, the word shouldn't be applied to old people in general.

Senior citizen. What makes this an absolutely ridiculous euphemism it the inclusion of the word citizen. This is comparable to the "hyphenated-American" craze. How about just senior? It is the comparative form of the Latin word senex, which means old (in the sense used in this article). And the fact that it is the comparative takes the edge off a little, and masks its connection with the word senile.

Or how about old? I promise that (if I am fortunate enough to live to the applicable age) I will not be offended by the word. And I promise not to drive.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Planning to paraphrase poorly

A headline from the reads:

Bush 'is planning nuclear strikes on Iran's secret sites'
And the story starts with the following, which I assume is a paraphrase of the above quote:

The Bush administration is planning to use nuclear weapons against Iran...

While the paraphrase does mean essentially the same thing in the most correct sense of 'to plan', it communicates an entirely different idea in the common sense of the verb. While the quote in the headline says that plans are being drafted, the paraphrase suggests that it is the intention of the administration to use nuclear weapons against Iran.

I do not know whether this is strictly an American English thing or not, but following the verb plan with an infinitive tends to communicate intentions, not simply options.

"I am planning to go to the grocery store" might mean two things.
1. I intend to go to the grocery store.
2. I am drafting plans for a trip to the grocery store, so that should the need arise, I would find myself prepared for the trip.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Recapitulating the perquisites

There are a number of words for which the shortened (slang) form is more well known than the original. In fifty years, I predict dictionaries will use the following definitions:

perquisite : a perk. Pedantic.
recapitulate : to recap. Pedantic.

Gender and Sex

The word sex properly refers to the trait of being male or female. Sex is now commonly used to mean sexual intercourse (aka sexual congress). Not that anyone really has a problem with this usage.

The controversial usage is that of the word gender. It is a grammatical term. A noun's gender is masculine, feminine, or neuter. According to Fowler c. 1926, if you use gender in a serious manner to mean "male or female", then you are an utter fool, and you should be beaten. Or something like that.

But wait, let's go back to the dictionary of Samuel Johnson ("SaJo") from 1755. His #1 definition of gender is "a kind; a sort". What's the #2? "A sex." And #3 is the grammatical sense.

The third edition of Fowler's (1996) mentions that some people are using gender outside of its grammatical sense, but Burchfield doesn't take a stand.

A sociology textbook I have defines gender as social meanings related to biological sex. But then again, the word sociology is a barbaric Latin(French)/Greek hybrid. I mean, really, who are they to give usage advice?

The big question: is it okay to use gender instead of sex? My answer: only to avoid confusion (e.g. the first Austin Powers movie--"Yes, please"). In general, though, this use of gender should be avoided, because it makes the writer seem like a euphemizer. And that's bad.

Oddly enough, in the OED, one of the obsolete definitions of the verb gender is "[to] copulate".

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Words for the collegiate weekend

To pigeon-hole something is to put it away for consideration in the future. A pigeon hole was originally a recess that a pigeon could nest in. The term came to be applied to recesses in which things could be stored. Hence the verb's definition.

To button-hold someone is to sequester him at a party (and talk his ear off). Notice that it is button-hold and not button-hole. It comes from the act of grabbing someone's button so as not to let him or her leave.

Basket case is slang for a soldier who has lost all four limbs. Its meaning is extended to those who are unable to function. The OED's earliest listed citation is from 1919.

Mental case is slang for someone who has mental problems.

Punch-drunk describes a mental state similar to drunkenness caused by blows to the head.

Nauseous describes something that causes nausea.

Nauseated describes someone who is affected by nausea.

To black-out at a party means to get to the point of drunkenness where (later on) one cannot remember what happened.

To pass out is to become unconscious.

Inmate is a fairly general word to describe someone who lives in a structure that houses many. For instance, the OED defines collegian as a "member or inmate of a college". It is most frequently used, however, to describe patients in a hospital or residents of a jail.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Of Dams and Breaches

It was apparent to me a few weeks ago that not everyone in the press is in the same boat when it comes to the meaning of the word breach. Is a breached levee a broken levee? Is a levee breached when water flows over it?

Breach is a cousin of the word break. In fact, almost every OED definition for the noun uses some form of the word break. A breached levee is one with a physical break in it. A gap. After a storm, one can look at a breached levee and say something like, "Check out that breach," or "Wow, that's a big breach." When water flows over a levee, we say that the levee is topped. Or at least that's what I say.

A breeched levee is a levee that is wearing pants.

Is a levee a dam? Yes. A levee is a type of dam. When I think dam, I usually think something that cuts across a river at a perpendicular angle. But dam is far more general than that. Levee specifically refers to the type of dam which runs parallel to a river. The first few citations for levee in the OED refer to New Orleans. Indeed, the word comes into English through French (from the feminine version of the past participle of 'lever').

The problem with dike is that it can mean both embankment/levee and ditch/pond. Of course, it's also a quasi-pejorative term for lesbian, but I can't imagine a context in which that meaning is confused with one of the others.

I have absolutely no idea what is meant by a 'dry levee'. I guess I don't really know what/who an American Pie is either.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Monolingual v. Unilingual

A Reuters article just used the word 'monolingual'. Perhaps I am being neurotic, but I cannot accept this as a word. The word should be 'unilingual'. A quick review of combining forms:
English : one, Greek : mono-, Latin : uni-
English : tongue, Greek : -glot-, Latin : -ling-

To mean 'under the tongue', doctors say 'sublingual' or 'hypoglossal', not 'subglossal' or 'hypolingual'. Although, should words derived from Greek end with 'al'? I think 'hypogloss-' was imported into Latin, and thus qualifies for the -al suffix. Not that I really care about that though.

Of course, 'monocle' is guilty of the same thing. As well as a number of words that I use everyday. So I'm a subcrite. Get over it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cosmo in Torino

Turin or Torino? Many of the reports I see use 'Torino' instead of 'Turin' to describe the host of the 2006 Winter Olympics. 'Torino' is of course is what the Italians call their city, whereas 'Turin' is the anglicized version of it. I was not alive during the 1972 olympics, and I can only wonder whether they were the München Games. In Bayern. In Deutschland. If not, well, then maybe they should have been. Am I saying that we should adopt the "local" version of the place name? Only in certain cases.

For one thing, 'Torino' is not an odd looking word for English speakers. It flows rather well. And yet we say 'Turin.' Why has Tblisi avoided the anglo-axe? 'München' is rather odd for English speakers, and perhaps 'Munich' is better.

We should not automatically adopt the local name for the place. For one thing, not everyone uses the Latin alphabet, and phonetics must be taken into consideration. Another thing: there might not be a single "local name". What do locals call Switzerland? Schweiz? Suisse? (How about "the C.H."? "Don't call it that," says Michel Bluth.)

For certain "contested" names, maybe we should go back to Latin as a standard. For example, the Danube is a river that flows through many European countries, and thus is called a variety of names. 'Danuvius' is not a bad name for it in my opinion. Of course, what have we gained from calling it that? English speakers and Latin speakers unite? I suppose it's mostly pedantry.

But Torino is better than Turin. Thus spoke Zoroaster.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Do not use the word 'transpire'. Why? Because if you use it to mean 'occur', you are both incorrect and polysyllabic. If you use it correctly, people will be confused. But if you must use it, please use it correctly.

Transpire comes from Latin roots: 'trans-' means across, 'spire' means to breathe. It was used to describe gas (water vapor, etc.) passing through pores. It soon gained the meaning 'to leak out, to escape from secrecy to notice' (from the OED). Thus, the moment when something transpires is the moment in which it becomes known. "What transpired at the press conference?" means "What was revealed?" Another acceptable use: "The Senate Intelligence Committee has a transpiration problem."

I rarely see this word used correctly. Instead, I am constantly seeing it used by AP reporters to mean "happen, occur". Even the surprisingly permissive OED says that this usage is wrong. But this happens to be a case where the word has been misused at least since the late 1700s. Does a strong precedent of misuse grant legitimacy to the usage? No.

Sure, languages are living. But not Latin. Lingual rigor mortis. Fairly fixed. Such Latinate words like 'transpire' should convey some meaning that is derived from its original meaning. Why do these reporters feel the need to use 'transpire' instead of 'happen'? It is far snootier. I'm not impressed. Often, one must decide whether to be pedantic or to be incorrect. But one should strive not to be both.


Homicide bomber? Despite a vicious beating by almost everyone on the web, this term is still breathing. At least by the talking heads on Fox News, who use it instead of the term 'suicide bomber'. I can only wonder if there is anyone out there who can defend it. I cannot.

The term's most important flaw is the fact that it doesn't convey the fact that the bomber was killed in the blast. For another thing, the word 'bomber' generally conveys 'homicide'. It is rare that terrorists blows himself up simply to damage infrastructure. Redundancy aside, a more informative term would be "homicide suicide bomber". Or perhaps a new word. How about omnicide? Are you getting this Fox? Omnicide bomber? Yes, it is a little ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as homicide bomber.

I was surprised that the OED lacks the word 'omnicide'. And yet they have the ridiculously constructed word 'deericide', aka cervicide, aka "deer killing". 'Giganticide', or the act of killing giants, is in there as well. (And yet it lacks 'gnomicide', the killing of gnomes.) Both 'sheep' and 'egg' have the same Latin combining forms, so the OED gives two definitions for 'ovicide': "killing eggs" and "killing sheep". Best to avoid that one. Near the end of the list is 'verbicide', the act of killing a word. That's one I'll probably end up using later. But enough about violence for now.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


The word 'spurious' means "false, untrue", while 'scurrilous' means "offensive, obscene". They are two words that are often confused. I read so many press releases that says something like: "These charges are completely scurrilous." Does this person simply mean to communicate the fact that the charges are scandalous, or is the person trying to say that the charges are untrue?

Or maybe these types are trying to capitalize on the fact that people mistake the two. One can appear to be denying something, while at the same time avoid perjuring oneself. Instead of saying "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," perhaps President Clinton should have said, "These charges are completely scurrilous." Or perhaps Clinton could have said the charges were spurious, and when caught, he could have just bitten his lip and said, "I meant to say scurrilous."

Occupational euphemisms

Where have all the secretaries gone? They haven't gone anywhere. They are just called 'administrative assistants' now. As if four syllables were not enough. What was wrong with secretary? Should I refer to Donald Rumsfeld as the "Administrative Assistant of Defense"?

I do think it makes sense for MDs to call themselves 'physicians', at least occasionally. 'Physician' is more precise than 'doctor' (which is short for 'doctor of medicine'). What is less excusable is calling a lawyer an attorney (which is short for 'attorney-at-law'). The word 'attorney' is far less precise than 'lawyer'. I hear that lawyers do this because they think that 'attorney' sounds more dignified, but I am convinced that the law profession just wants to appear at the front of the yellow pages.

Pajama prescriptivism

For some reason, I am incredibly intolerant when it comes to the misuse of English by people who are not me. I mean I. People who are not I. (I make mistakes, and so feel free to point them out). But of course it's rude to say anything, and I try not to act too pedantic in public. So I have decided to let this be an outlet for all of my grammatical intolerance.

Why "Subjunctivist"? English's subjunctive mood is dying, and I thought it needed a defender. That, and "Pajama Prescriptivist" was too long.

Stay tuned for some of the most boring, academic pedantry on the web.