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.