Friday, 30 May 2008

prescriptivist pop

Marina of Hot for Words (who I've mentioned before) stars in a music video by JamesatWar parodying the "bad grammar" in pop songs.

I'm trying to see the funny side of this, but I can't. This is just plain snobbery aimed at people who don't use the same language JamesatWar does. It borders on offensive since a lot of the language in pop music, the sort of language that the song is parodying, is African American Vernacular English. The native language of a large number of Americans, which is slightly different from your own - that's "bad grammar." Being creative with words in a song to create interest and rhymes - that's "bad grammar."

I could get all literal and comment on some of the inaccuracies (in' for ing isn't as simple as leaving the last letter off words) or silliness (no idea what a singular verb is?) or offensiveness (never changed ma verbal habits since I was three) but I've had enough. I'll just leave you with a selection of the lyrics.

take the last letter off the end of words
now you're talkin' wit' some bad grammar
I ain't pullin' tricks with my linguistics
I'm jus' talkin'
I don't use no syntax
I ain't got no idea what a singular verb is
I'm worser at superlatives
and I don't ever use no double negatives
baby it's alright now don't be skurred
it's all the latest craze to mispronounce some words
like instead of "that right there"
we would say "that right thurr"
and we won't even spell it right

baby girl
when I took my english class you know I barely passed
listen baby girl
got no proper verbal skills
but I be wearin' grillz
listen baby girl
I ain't gotta talk the talk
to make ma record pop
so that's why baby girl
when I'm talkin' it seems impaired
yo ma gramma ain' no prodigy
my strongest suit isn't morphology
it's hard for people to be understanding me
never changed ma verbal habits since I was three
so listen baby girl
before you make another sound
make sure you're on par
cuz listen baby girl
we talkin' with some bad gramma'

Thursday, 29 May 2008

the door is sluice

When I was in Italy I noticed an interesting sign on the door of our hotel. It said something like "When you leave, please make sure the door is sluice." I don't have a photo so you'll have to trust me.

chiusa is the feminine form of chiuso "closed", but la chiusa also means "sluice". Enter la porta è chiusa (the door is closed) in babelfish and it returns "the door is sluice." So it's a machine translation error.

I couldn't write this without mentioning that sluice, closed and chiusa are all related. sluice is from Old French escluse from Late Latin exclūsa, which is the feminine past participle of exclūdere "to shut out". This is a combination of ex "out" plus claudere "to shut". The verb close is from Old French clore, past participle clos, "to close," from Latin claudere. I'm almost completely certain that the Italian chiudere "to close", past participle chiuso is from Latin claudere as well.

Here's another bad machine translation that I did photograph: a menu in Montecatini. Pens to the angry one!

Monday, 26 May 2008

desiring cows

We're told in one of those emails full of useless facts that the Sanskrit word for war literally translates as "desire for more cows".

Most sources that repeat this info don't say what the word is, but I found one that does: gavishti.

गविष्टि gáviṣṭi is "desiring cows; f. heat, ardour, fervour; eagerness for or heat of battle; combat" according to Macdonell. It's also in Āpte, but it's spelled गविष्ठि gaviṣṭhi.

For what it's worth, Monier-Williams simply translates gáviṣṭi as "desire for fighting, ardour of battle, battle".

There's also गव्यत् gavyát: "desiring cattle; ardently desirous; eager for battle".

Etymologically, gáviṣṭi is composed of गो go "cow" and इष्टि iṣṭi "any desired object". Please note that Monier-Williams tells us that iṣṭi can also mean "a desired rule , a desideratum , a N[ame] applied to the statement of grammarians who are considered as authoritative."

Friday, 23 May 2008


Bill Poser writes about a third century CE artefact:

The writing on the pot is in Tamil Brahmi, a writing system that only fairly recently has come to be well understood. It says: n̪a:kan uɾal, Old Tamil for "Naakan's (pot with) toddy-sap". In modern Tamil writing this would be: நாகன் உறல்.

I think the Tamil should be நாகன் ஊறல் (nākaṉ ūṟal) - the article in The Hindu notes that the vowel should be long (romanized as oo):

The Tamil word ooRal (from ooRu ‘to ooze’) meaning ‘freshly tapped toddy’ is spelt here with the short vowel u probably due to oversight or reflecting the colloquial usage.

Tamil-Brāhmī was an intermediary between Brāhmī and Vaṭṭeḻuttu, which was used between the 5th and 6th centuries CE. The modern Tamil script is descended from Aśōkan Brāhmī - here is a comparison.

This site has a chart for Tamil-Brāhmī. It's very similar to Brāhmī but has letters for the alveolar sounds of Old Tamil. Out of interest, I made an image of what nākaṉ uṟal might look like in Tamil-Brāhmī. Of course I could be very wrong.

I see the second word, but I probably am wrong about the first word.

Another south Indian script that is not used much nowadays is Grantha, developed for writing Sanskrit. Here is a photo I took in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, of what I think is a Pallava Grantha inscription.

And here's another photo... I think this is Vaṭṭeḻuttu.

Here's an article on early Tamil epigraphy.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

word, verb, irony, rhetoric

A four-way orgy of etymology.

Proto-Indo-European *werh₁- "to speak" (not to be confused with *wer- or *wērh₂-o- or even *h₂wer- or *wer- or *wer- or *weh₁-r-) in its suffixed zero-grade form *wrh₁-dʰo- became Proto-Germanic *wurđam and then word.

In Latin, *werh₁-dʰo- became verbum "word", which was borrowed into English as verb.

The form *werh₁-yo- became Greek εἴρω eirō "to say". From this came εἴρων eirōn "someone who pretends" and εἰρωνεία eirōneia "pretending, putting on a false appearance". eirōneia was borrowed into Latin as īrōnīa "irony", which became irony thru Old French.

The form *wrē-tōr- became Greek ῥήτωρ rhētōr "public speaker" and English rhetoric.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

golden yellow Chloe

The Proto-Indo-European root *ǵʰel- "to shine" in the suffixed zero-grade form *ǵʰl-to- became Proto-Germanic *ǥulþam and English gold.

yellow is from Old English geolu from Proto-Germanic *ǥelwaz, from the suffixed form *ǵʰel-wo-.

The suffixed variant *ǵʰlō-ro- became Greek χλωρός khlōros "greenish-yellow", then χλόη khloē, "young green shoot". This is the origin of the name Chloe.

The form ǵʰel-i- became Sanskrit हरि hari meaning a number of things, including "to be yellow or green", "horse", "lion", "the sun", "the wind", and "worshipper of Vishnu". Related to this is Hindi हरे hare, one of the names of Vishnu - as in Hare Krishna.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


English schmuck "A clumsy or stupid person" was borrowed from Yiddish שמאָק shmok "prick, dick; jerk, unpleasant person". I assumed this was cognate with German Schmuck "jewelry". It seems obvious, right? Family jewels and all that. But as zmejzhd points out, this connection is problematic because German u corresponds to Yiddish u, not Yiddish o. The American Heritage Dictionary states that the Yiddish word is probably borrowed from Old Polish smok "grass snake, dragon" - so its similarity to German Schmuck is a coincidence.

On the other hand, Calvert Watkins and the American Heritage Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots state that English schmuck is "possibly" from Middle High German smuck, "clothing, adornment, jewels" (presumably thru Yiddish) from "Germanic *(s)muk-, referring to wetness and also to figurative slipperiness." Other words from Proto-Germanic *(s)muk- include Swedish smycken "jewelry" and English smock. (What is the connection between slipperiness and clothing/jewelry?)

The Proto-Indo-European root is *meug- "slimy, to slide". In addition to smock, it became Old English smēah, smēag "creeping, clever, sharp", smēagan "to think, to seek". Pokorny also lists sméagol "narrow, tight" (altho this is not in Bosworth and Toller). This must be where Tolkien got the name Sméagol.

The photo is from my trip to Berlin.

Friday, 16 May 2008

ymbe þreo þing

1) Mahendra Singh (an illustrator busily fitting Lewis Carroll into a protosurrealist straitjacket with matching dada cufflinks) has made available the Preface and Fits 1 & 2 of his illustrated Hunting of the Snark as a PDF. This is one of my favourite poems. Drawing on surrealist and protosurrealist sources past and future, Mahendra has managed to impossibly capture the spirit of this poem exactly right. Bravo. Bravo.

2) This installment of Dinosaur Comics (pointed out by Our Bold Hero) makes a mistake in etymology, of all things.

The word [woman] originally derives from the Old English "wïfmann", where "wïf" meant "female" and "mann" meant a person of either sex: thus, a female human!

This is true.

Man didn't mean male?

Nope! It derives from the Latin "humanus" (earthling), from "humus" (earth, soil)!

This is not so true. There is no etymological connection between man and human. Just thought I should point that out.

3) The city of Toronto has a poster on display in some buildings listing "the top 64 languages spoken in Toronto, as reported in the 2001 census" plus "the four predominant First Nations languages spoken in Toronto."

Very cool. I didn't expect to see Konkani, Hindko, or Michif. Note the Syriac script for Assyrian and Chaldean (Neo-Aramaic). It's weird that they classify Spanish as being from Spain. I doubt that all Spanish speakers in Toronto are from Spain.

Thursday, 15 May 2008


hooligan is from the Irish name O hUallachain. Perhaps it can be traced further. Many sites tell us that O hUallachain is derived from Irish Gaelic uallach "proud". MacBain's Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language says

gay, proud, so Irish; from uaill.


pride, Irish uaill, Early Irish úaill, Old Irish uall: *oukslâ, root eu@g, ve@g of uasal.

This seems to be saying that uaill is from Proto-Celtic *oukslâ, the same source as uasal.

noble, proud, Irish, Old Irish uasal, Welsh uchel, Breton uhel, huel, Gaulish uxello-: *oukselo-, high, root eu@g, ve@g, rise, increase; Greek @Gu@`yclós, high, @Gau@'xw, increase; Latin augeo, increase, vigeo, be strong; English up, German auf; Lithuanian áuksztas, high.

MacBain's is conflating a bunch of Proto-Indo-European roots here; the relevant one, as reported by The Etymological Lexicon of Proto-Celtic and Pokorny is *upo- "under, up from under, over".

This derivation of hooligan is not in any published sources as far as I can tell. But maybe there's something to be investigated here.

The most interesting reflex of *upo- is Sanskrit उपल upala "stone, gem", which was borrowed into English as opal. Hobson-Jobson says "We do not know how the Skt. word received this specific meaning", but the AHD connects it to उपर upara "lower; later; nearer; m. the nether stone (on which Soma is pounded)" from उप upa "below".

Sunday, 4 May 2008

the Snicket emergency

I love the books of Daniel Handler, especially the Series of Unfortunate Events he wrote under the name Lemony Snicket. He writes novels for adults as well, including The Basic Eight, described as "a Beverly Hills 90210 episode scripted by Nabokov". The Basic Eight is in the form of diary entries written by an extremely unreliable narrator, the high school student Flannery Culp, who tells us "I learned lots about narrative structure in my Honors English classes so I know what I'm doing." Flannery is very obsessive, and this is demonstrated thru her prescriptivism.

(I have the Harpercollins paperback edition.) Flannery often repeats a sentence in order to unstrand the preposition:

Would it be like studying hard and getting good grades, or would it be like sneaking into a room I had no business in and setting free little bugs that were never supposed to be free, never supposed to be flying unfettered in the air? I know, I know: in which I had no business. (page 102)

Now there's an essay question that nobody would give me an A on. On which they'd give me an A. (page 77)

The second example has "nobody" as the antecedent of "they".

She wonders about the grammar of the school sign:

The PTA had placed a welcoming sign there which said: "WELCOME! HOPE YOUR SUMMER PREPARED YOU FOR A YEAR WHERE YOU WILL BE PUSHED TO THE LIMIT ACADEMICALLY, ATHLETICALLY AND SOCIALLY!" framed by smiling faces drawn in Magic Marker. I'm pretty sure it should be "a year in which you will be pushed." (page 37)

In her notes on a TV program:

"... your hometown at home." (lines 6-7) What boggles the mind is that she doesn't say these things off the top of here head; her eyes clearly glide along cue cards just off-camera. So somebody drafted and wrote the phrase "your hometown at home" in big felt-tip letters, and nobody thought to think it was redundant. (page 132)

I like "thought to think it was redundant."

She complains of spellings on signs:

Day 'n Nite Foto is the only place we can think of where you can get your pictures developed in one hour and that's open at this one. Otherwise, I swear, we would not be giving our hard-earned money (sweaty quarters, dollar bills crimped into dead origami) to an establishment that not only misspells both night and photo but uses that most ugly of contractions, the telltale 'n. (page 165).

And in A Series of Unfortunate Events book 3: The Wide Window, Josephine leaves a hidden message for Violet, Klaus and Sunny in the form of a letter full of spelling errors. The children are able to decipher the clues with the help of the books Advanced Apostrophe Use and The Correct Spelling of Every English Word That Ever, Ever Existed.

galore and warlock

galore is from Irish Gaelic go leór "enough", which is from the particle go plus leór "enough". leór is from Old Irish lour, an alternation of roar, from the Proto-Celtic compound *ro-wero- "sufficiency". This is formed from the intensive prefix *ro- (from PIE *per-) and *wero- from PIE *wērh₂-o- "true, trustworthy".

*wērh₂-o- in Proto-Germanic became *wēra, then Old English wǣr "covenant, pledge". warlock is from Old English wǣrloga, the loga being related to Old English lēoȝan "to lie, deceive" (from PIE *leugʱ- "to lie"). So the etymological meaning of this word is "pledge-breaker". The Middle English warlow(e) was replaced by the Scots variant warlo(c)k.

*wērh₂-o- also became Latin vērus "true", and very.

Thursday, 1 May 2008


Back when I wrote about checkmate, nnyhav asked "So is stalemate then 'the thief is at a loss'?" That would be cool, but it doesn't look like it. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says

XVIII. f. synon. [obsolete] stale (XV-XVII), prob. - AN. estale, position, f. estaler be placed, f. Germ. *stall-; see STALL1, MATE2.

STALL1 is "division in stable or shed", from Old English steall from Proto-Germanic *stallaz, which the ODEE traces to *sta- "stand" (i.e. PIE *steh₂). On the other hand, the AHD traces it to PIE *stel- "to put, stand", an unrelated root.

The Middle English verb was stālen "in chess: to trap (an opponent's king) in stalemate", and the noun was stāle "A stalemate in chess". It's also related to finger-stall, a sheath worn over the finger for protection. zmjezhd has a collection of Google Books scans of finger-stalls.