Thursday, 27 December 2012

impregnable and impregnate

Are wholly unrelated!

The first is borrowed from French imprenable, with the negative prefix in- plus prenable "able to be taken".

The second is borrowed from Latin impraegnāre "to make pregnant", with a different prefix in- meaning "into" plus praegnāre "to be pregnant".

Additional: Grammar Girl has twitted this post, and Anna Key has expressed skepticism that these words could be wholly unrelated. They are. prenable is from Latin prehendere "to grasp" from Proto-Indo-European *ghend- "seize, take" and praegnāre is probably from prae "before" plus gnāscī "to be born" (OED) from *ǵenh₁- "to give birth, beget".

Saturday, 15 December 2012

I feel a sadness on me

This is from The Invisibles volume 1 issue 4:

"I feel a sadness on me," says Tom. "That's how the Irish people say it. In their language, you can't say, 'I am sad,' or 'I am happy'. They understood what we English have long forgot. We're not our sadness. We're not our happiness or our pain but our language hypnotizes us and traps us in little labelled boxes."

I'm reminded of Geoffrey Pullum's awesome response to a piece about how the Gaelic word sgrìob, apparently meaning "the tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky" says something profound about Gaelic ways and priorities.

In Irish Gaelic, tá gruaim orm translates word-for-word as "sadness is on me" (I think). Scots Gaelic does something similar: Tha an t-acras orm translates word-for-word as "hunger is on me", that is "I'm hungry". Dè an t-ainm a th'oirt translates word-for-word as "What (is) the name that is on you", that is, "What's your name?"

Pity us English speakers, having long forgotten something the Irish understood… except that we haven't forgotten. It's easy enough to say "I feel a sadness on me", in fact Tom himself said it! It's not hard to figure out what it means. And it's possible to find other examples:

Sadness on the soul of Ida fell. - Tennyson, The princess
sorrow and sadness sat upon every face - Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
A search for "sadness fell on me" in google books gets a number of results.

If our language traps us in little boxes, they're boxes made of tissue paper, easy to break out of.

Tom's claim that Gaelic speakers can't say "I am sad" just doesn't hold up. If it was true, it would mean that Gaelic speakers think in English, and just translate their English thoughts word-for-word into Gaelic when they talk. tá gruaim orm translates word-for-word as "sadness is on me", but its meaning is "I am sad".

Saturday, 1 December 2012

silurid, dodo, arse

In an earlier version of this post, I wrote that silurid and Silurian were related. They're not!

Silurus lithophilus

Silurus is a genus of sheatfish, and silurid is a term for a kind of catfish.
Silurus and silurid are from Greek σῐλουρος "river fish, sheatfish", probably from οὐρά "tail" with an obscure first element. οὐρά is from PIE *ors- "buttocks, backside".

*ors- became English arse and ass. According to the American Heritage Dictionary it also became Dutch dodors (from dot "tuft of feathers" plus ors "tail"), borrowed into Portuguese as dodó, and English dodo.

Silurian has a completely different origin. It's borrowed from Latin Silures "an ancient British tribe which inhabited the south-eastern part of Wales". The OED provides this citation, which helps explain the word's connection to a geological period:
1835 Murchison in London & Edinb. Philos. Mag. July 48, I venture to suggest that..the term ‘Silurian System’ should be adopted as expressive of the deposits which lie between the old red sandstone and the slaty rocks of Wales.
I wonder what this "ancient British tribe" looked like. Could they perhaps have looked something like THIS??

Monday, 26 November 2012

we've been expecting you

Tourism Toronto has a number of posters of people wearing t-shirts saying "We've been expecting you" in various languages. I think they're really cool. Here are some of them.

Greek: Σας περιμέναμε (Sas perimename)

Russian: Мы Вас ждали (My Vas ždali)

Bulgarian: Най-после сте тук (Naj-posle ste tuk)

Polish: Spodziewaliśmy się Państwa

Persian: منتظر شما بوديم (muntaẓir šamā būdīm)

Panjabi: ਸਾਨੂੰ ਉਮੀਦ ਸੀ ਕਿ ਤੁਸੀਂ ਆਓਗੇ (sānūṃ umīd sī ki tusīṃ āoge)

Bengali: আমরা তোমার প্রত্যাশায় রয়েছি (āmarā tomāra pratyāśāẏa raẏechi)

HindI: हम आपकी प्रतीक्षा कर रहे हैं (ham āpakī pratīkṣā kar rahe haiṃ)

Lithuanian: Laukėme jūsų atvykstant 
Tagalog: Hinihintay namin kayo

Finnish: Olemme odottaneet sinua
Armenian: Մենք սպասել ենք քեզ! (Menk’ spasel enk’ k’ez)

Hungarian: Már vártunk rád

Arabic: إننا بانتظارك معنا

Maltese: Konna qed nistennewk

Somali : Waan ku filaynay

Japanese: 待ってたよ (mattetayo)

Korean: 잘오셨습니다 (jalo syeoss seumnida)

Thai: เราคอยคุณอยู่ (reā khxy khuṇ yū̀)

Tamil: நாங்கள் உங்களை எதிர்பார்த்திருந்தோம் (nāṅkaḷ uṅkaḷai etirpārttiruntōm)

Twi? Yɛatwɛn wo akyɛ

Swahili? Tumekuwa tunakutarajia

Ojibwe: Gi'gii pii'igo ji'bidagoshi'nan

Canadian syllabics: ᐣᑭᐢᑫᐣᑌᑕᐣ ᑭᒋ ᐯᒋ ᑕᑯᔑᓇᐣ - is this Cree?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Super Grammar

I work a lot with comic books, and this week I found a new one: Super Grammar, a book that purports to teach children about grammar using superheroes. It seems like a great idea, but considering the poor state of English grammar teaching, I wasn't expecting much.

It's the same old story. Semantics, syntax, punctuation, dialects: they're all lumped together into one big Bag of Grammar. There's a section on "The Sabotage Squad", "the sworn enemies of correct grammar." Three members of the Sabotage Squad are punctuation errors, one is "The Disagreement" (subject-verb disagreement) and the fifth is "Double Negative", who will trick you "into saying the exact opposite of what you mean." So negative concord, a normal part of some English dialects, is equated with punctuation errors.

You're not no superhero.
Double negative. If you're not no superhero, then you must be a superhero.
Who would interpret that sentence that way? Someone who was trying to deliberately misunderstand, that's who. Wouldn't it be better to teach children about register and dialect rather than tell them their native dialect is "double-dealing double talk"?

We find the usual confusion between syntax and semantics: the first superhero we meet is "The Subject", whose main power "allows him to be the person, place or thing the sentence is telling us about."

To find the subject of a sentence, ask yourself: Which person, place or thing is the sentence telling us something about?

Using the same example sentence, "The hero fights crime," we can find the subject by asking this question: Which person, place, or thing fights crime?

The answer is "The hero" because "The hero" is the person, place, or thing that "fights crime."
This is so unclear. "Crime" is also a person, place or thing this sentence is telling us about. Why is the subject of this sentence not "crime"?

And how do you find the subject in sentences like these:
It’s raining.
There is a plane in the sky.
What people, places or things are these sentences telling us about? In the first sentence, it's rain. In the second, it's a plane in the sky. But neither of these things are the subjects.

Why are children taught a rule about how to find the subject that will misidentify the subject in a lot of cases? What am I missing?

Other things I didn't like about this book: it states that "will" forms the future tense, it promotes the myth of FANBOYS, and I don't even know what I'm supposed to make of this chart. Who knew that reflexive pronouns were subjects?

Saturday, 22 September 2012


The subway has this new ad for the radio station Kiss 92.5, with the word "listen" in various languages. Except that, as usual, the scripts are messed up.

Here the letters are not connected; this should be عمتسا, which is apparently Arabic for "listen".

For this word, not only are the letters disconnected, this is printed in the wrong direction. It should be گوش دادن goš dādan Persian for "to listen" - literally "to give ear".

The Hindi is disconnected too. tsk tsk…

And a lot of these words are infinitives, not imperatives. It's almost as if someone used Google Translate.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

juice and enzyme

Proto-Indo-European *yeuH "blend, mix food" in the suffixed zero-grade form *yuH-s- became Latin iūs "juice, broth", and French jus. This came to be spelled juice in English; ce replaced s in many words by analogy with French, even in words that were not spelled that way in French.

The form *yuH-s-mā- became Greek ζύμη zumē "leaven". This was combined with ἐν en "in" and was borrowed as enzyme, which first meant "The leavened bread with which the Eucharist is administered in the Greek Church".

The biochemical term enzyme was apparently borrowed from modern Greek ἔνζυμος "leavened".

Friday, 24 August 2012


hamburger is derived from the town of Hamburg which, we're told, has nothing to do with ham. Or does it?

The OED says ham "the thigh of a slaughtered animal" is from ham "the hollow or bend of the knee", apparently from Proto-Germanic *ham(m)- "to be crooked". Skeats derives this from the Proto-Indo-European root *kam- "to bend". Nowadays this is written as *kamp- and might be the source of gam "leg" and jamb, both from French.

Assuming that ham is from an earlier form meaning "to be crooked" or "bend", then it's tempting to say that Hamburg was named because it is a burg at the ham, or bend, of a river.

But the AHD says English ham is from Proto-Indo-European *konh₂-mo- "shin, leg, bone". In that case the Proto-Germanic form was hamma- meaning "leg", not "crooked". Although it's plausible that the "leg" sense changed to "bend" at some point, and that this sense could be the origin of Hamburg, but I'm just speculating now. 

Another possible derivation is German dialectal hamm, which according to Grimm means "meadow, forest, house, yard" in Frisian and Lower Saxon.

*konh₂-mo- gives us gastrocnemius from Greek κνήμη "calf of the leg" (plus γαστήρ "belly"). gastrocnemius is the calf muscle that sticks out, like a belly.

Monday, 20 August 2012

wassail and divan

wassail is from Middle English wæs hæil, a calque of Old Norse ves heill "be healthy". Apparently the expression was used as a toast by the Danes in England, and it spread to the English. One said wæs hæil when drinking someone's health, or when presenting a cup of wine to someone. The reply was drinc hæil "drink healthy".

heill and hæil are cognate with hale, whole and healthy and are from Proto-Indo-European *kailo-.

wæs, ves are from Proto-Indo-European *h₂wes- "to live, dwell, pass the night", which gives us was and were. The suffixed form *h₂wes-eno- became Old Persian vahanam "house" according to Pokorny and the AHD. Also according to the AHD, this became Persian دیوان dīvān, which could refer a collection of poems, account book, or royal court. Borrowed into English as divan, it originally referred to "An Oriental council of state", then "A room having one side entirely open towards a court", then "a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch" (OED). That's what I think when I think divan: a sort of long chair-type thing with cushions.

The word shows up in French as douane "customs".

Friday, 17 August 2012

Toronto Korean

영 헤어 살롱 yeong heeo sallong = Yonge Hair Salon - where 헤어 heeo sounds like a nonrhotic version of "hair"

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

grace and bard

Proto-Indo-European *gʷerh₂- "to favour" in the suffixed zero-grade form *gʷr̥h₂-to- became Latin grātis "pleasing, beloved, agreeable, favorable, thankful". This gives us words such as grace, grateful, congratulate.

According to the AHD, *gʷerh₂- might have combined with *dheh₁- "to set, put" to form *gʷr̥h₂-dh(h₁)-o- "one who makes praises", becoming Proto-Celtic *bardo-, Welsh bardd and Scots and Irish Gaelic bard.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

cravat and Croat

cravat is borrowed from French cravate, which is a use of Cravate "Croat, Croatian". The OED tells us that cravats were worn by Croatian mercenaries, and the style was adapted by the French in the 17th century:

It came into vogue in France in the 17th c. in imitation of the linen scarf worn round their necks by the Croatian mercenaries. When first introduced it was of lace or linen, or of muslin edged with lace, and tied in a bow with long flowing ends, and much attention was bestowed upon it as an ornamental accessory. In this form it was originally also worn by women. More recently the name was given to a linen or silk handkerchief passed once (or twice) round the neck outside the shirt collar and tied with a bow in front; also to a long woollen ‘comforter’ wrapped round the neck to protect from cold out of doors.

French cravate was borrowed from German Krabate, borrowed from Serbian/Croatian Khrvat/Hrvat. Croatian Hrvat was adapted into modern Latin Croatæ, then borrowed into English as Croat.

Friday, 13 July 2012


I got an email from Grammar Girl last week to advertise her book 101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in no Time. The word in question was momentarily.

What's the Trouble? Momentarily is losing its original meaning.

Momentarily has its roots in the word momentary — as in the Pink Floyd album A Momentary Lapse of Reason — and it traditionally means "for a moment." However, it's more common nowadays to hear people use momentarily when they mean "in a moment." The Oxford English Dictionary says this is mainly an American problem.

What Should You Do?

Don't use momentarily to mean "in a moment"; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There's no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.
If it's more common for people to use momentarily to mean "in a moment", then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying "don't speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks." This seems counterproductive.

She gives two reasons. The first is that it might confuse people - but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing? The second is that it might annoy language purists - in other words, "speak like a small select group of people want you to speak", in other words, crazies win.

And it's not true that the word is losing its original meaning. The word has two meanings, both of which are normal English. Gabe at Motivated Grammar has a good discussion of the dispute, and he sensibly concludes that allowing for both meanings of momentarily won't cause a lot of ambiguity. I mean, if I'm on a plane and the pilot says "We'll be landing momentarily", I don't think that means the plane will land and then take off immediately. Yes, that's one way to interpret the sentence, but it's a way that doesn't tally with how I know the world works.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

rooibos, rorqual, erythema

Proto-Indo-European *h₁reudh- "red, ruddy" became Proto-Germanic *rauđaz, becoming English red and Dutch rood. rood became Afrikaans rooi, found in rooibos, etymologically "red bush", a southern African plant.

*rauđaz became Old Norse rauðr, which combined with hvalr "whale" in Norwegian Nynorsk røyrkval. This was borrowed into French as rorqual, and then into English as the name for baleen whales, such as the humpback whale and mink whale. Why a whale would be called red is unclear. The OED suggests that they might have been called red because of the meat and because of a taboo on mentioning the whale's name at sea.

The suffixed zero-grade form *h₁rudh-ro- became Greek ἐρυθρός "red" and ἐρυθημα "redness of flush upon the skin", borrowed as erythema.

Sunday, 8 July 2012


The poster for this new Hindi-language movie, English Vinglish, uses a combination of Roman and Devanagari in the poster. Not just in the name of the film, but also in the credits: इROS INTERNATIONAल & R.BALकी, the name of the director: GAUरी SHINदे, and the further credits at the bottom of the poster that are too small to read.

And there's a Telugu version: ENగLISH VINGLIష్.

And a Tamil version: ENGLIஷ் VINGLIஷ். Tamil has no letter for /g/.

The movie is about an Indian woman learning English, and it looks to be interesting for anyone who has tried to learn or teach English as a second language. I'm guessing that the title is a reduplication, similar to how I might say "English Shminglish".

Friday, 15 June 2012

faith and abide

faith is borrowed from Old French feid, feit, which was pronounced with a final fricative, explaining the fricative in English. The French word is from Latin fidem from *bhidh-, the zero-grade from of *bheidh- "to trust" (the IEW has "advise, force").

*bheidh- also probably became Old English bīdan "bide, wait for" (from earlier "await trustingly, expect, trust" which combined with the preposition on to form English abide.

The OED says fidēs has an etymological cognate in πίστις, which struck me as weird, but it's true, at least according to Pokorny's IEW 117, where he places πίστις in the entry for *bheidh-, from an earlier form with *φ.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Jodorowsky's Dune: the movie you will never see

This is an excerpt (clumsily translated by me) from Les mystères de l'Incal by Jean Annestay. This excerpt was written by Alexandro Jodorowsky, and it's about his involvement in the film version of Dune:

In a lucid dream God told me: "Your next film will be Dune." I hadn't read the book. I woke up at 6:00 in the morning, and like an alcoholic waiting for the bar to open, I waited for the bookstore to open so I could buy the book. I read it without pausing to eat or drink. I finished reading it at exactly midnight on the same day. One minute after midnight I called, from New York, Michel Seydoux in Paris... He would be the first of the seven samurais I would need for this huge project. For me, Michel was a young man (26) with no film experience but his Camera One society had bought the rights to The Holy Mountain, my last film, and he had distributed it. He told me: "I would like to make a film with you." I didn't know much about him, but with an intuition that surprises me today, I recognized in him, despite his youth, the biggest producer of the time... Why? A mystery. And I wasn't mistaken. When I told him that I wanted him to buy the rights to Dune and that the film should be international because it would go over ten million dollars, (a huge sum at the time: even Hollywood didn't believe in science-fiction films, 2001 would be unique and unsurpassable), he didn't blink: "OK. We'll go to Los Angeles in two days to buy the rights." He hadn't read the book... I think that he didn't read it because Herbert's prose bothered him. And we could buy the rights - easily because Hollywood thought the book was unfilmable and not commercial. Michel Seydoux gave me carte-blanche and enormous financial support: I could create my team without any money troubles.

I needed a precise script... I wanted to realize the film on paper before filming... Now all special effect films are made like that, but at the time this technique was not used. I wanted a comic book artist who had genius and speed, who could act as my camera and who could give a visual style at the same time... By chance I found myself with my warrior: Jean Giraud alias Moebius (at the time he hadn't yet made The Airtight Garage). I told him: "If you accept this job, you must abandon everything and leave tomorrow with me for Los Angeles to speak with Douglas Trumbull (2001 A Space Odyssey)". Moebius asked me for a few hours to think about it. The next day, we left for the US. This is a long story... Our collaboration, our meetings in America with foreign luminaries and our conversations at 7:00 in the morning in the little cafe that was our home base and that by "chance" was called "Universe Cafe". Giraud made more than 3 000 marvellous drawings... Thanks to his talent, the script for Dune is a masterpiece. We could see the characters live, we followed the camera's movements. We visualized the editing, the design, the costumes... All of that with a few pencil strokes every time. I was behind his shoulders and asking him for different viewpoints... directing the actors, etc. We filmed...

For the third warrior I needed an ingenious dreamer who could draw the spaceships in the style of American films.

That's why I wrote to Christopher Foss, an English artist who illustrated science fiction novel covers. Like Giraud, he had never thought about film... Very enthusiastically, he left London and moved to Paris. This artist, with the ships that he drew for Dune, made a mark on cinema. He could draw semi-living machines that could metamorphosize into the colour of space rocks. He could draw "thirsty breastplates dying century after century in a desert of stars waiting for the living body that will fill their empty vessels with subtle secretions of its soul..."

After that I found Giger, the Swiss painter whose catalogue Dali showed me... His decadent, sick, suicidal, genius art was perfect for realizing the planet Harkonnen... He made a project of the castle and the planet that really touched on metaphysical horror. (Later he designed the sets and the monster for Alien.)

For the special effects, thanks to the power given me by Michel Seydoux, I could refuse Douglas Trumbull. I couldn't take his vanity, his patronizing airs and his exorbitant prices. Like a good American, he played at despising the project and tried to give us a complex by making us wait for everything by speaking with us at the same time as with a dozen people on the phone, and finally showing us suberb machines that he was trying to perfect. (?) Tired of all this comedy, I dumped him and started looking for a young talent. I was told that in LA it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I saw a cheap film at a small amateur science fiction film festival, and I thought it was marvellous: Dark Star.

I contacted the guy who did the special effects: Dan O'Bannon. I discovered almost a wolf-child. Completely outside conventional reality, O'Bannon was for me a real genius. He couldn't believe that I could entrust him with such an important project as Dune. He was obliged to believe it when he received his plane ticket for Paris. I was not mistaken: Dan O'Bannon later wrote the script for Alien and many other very successful films.

With Jean-Paul Gibon, the executive producer of Camera One and who loved the project as much as we did, we left for England to find the musician. A vital aspect for me: each planet had its own musical style, for example a group like Magma would be very good at realizing the rhythms of the Harkonnen warriors and who could crystallize the planet's beautiful sands with its mystery and implacable strength, the strange symphony of the rings of the green giants.

Virgin Records received us and offered us Gong, Mike Oldfield, Tangerine Dream. That's when I said: "And why not Pink Floyd?" At that time the group was so successful that almost everyone would consider that an impossible idea. I was lucky, thanks to my film El Topo, to be known by these musicians. They condescended to meet with us in their London Abbey Road studios where the Beatles had had their success. Jean-Paul Gibon was very happily surprised that the group met with us. At that time I myself had already lost my individual awareness. I was the instrument of sacred, miraculous work, where everything could happen. Dune was not working for me, I, like the samurais that I had found, was working for it. They were recording Dark Side of the Moon. When we arrived I did not see a group of great musicians realizing their masterpiece, but four young guys devouring steaks and fries. Jean-Paul and me, standing before them, had to wait until their voracity was satisfied. At the mention of Dune I was taken by a holy wrath and I left slamming the door. I wanted artists who knew how to respect a work of such importance to human consciousness. I don't think they were expecting that. Surprised, David Gilmour ran behind us, making excuses, and had us attend the final mixing of their public concert where thousands of fans cheered them. They wanted to see The Holy Mountain. They saw it in Canada. They decided to participate in the film by producing a two-disc album that was going to be called Dune. They went to Paris to discuss the finances and after an intense discussion, we reached an agreement. Pink Floyd would make almost all the film's music.

With the best music on our side, I started looking for the actors. I had seen Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz. I wanted her for Jessica. She refused the role. At that time she wanted to make two or three commercial films, her love life interested her more than art. David Carradine went to Paris, interested by the role of Leto.

The actor I wanted most was Dali: for the small role of the crazy Emperor... What a story!

Dali accepts the idea of playing the Emperor of the galaxy with a lot of enthusiasm. He wants to film in Cadaquès and to use a toilet made of two intertwined dolphins as a throne. Their tails would form the steps and their two open mouths would function by one receiving "pipi", and the other receiving "caca". Dali thinks that it's in horribly bad taste to mix "pipi" and "caca".

We tell him that we will need him for seven days... Dali answers that God made the universe in seven days and that Dali, not being less than God, must cost a fortune: 100 000 dollars an hour. Maybe, after arriving on set, he will decide to film one more hour each day at the same price.

The Daliesque happening will cost us 700 000 dollars. We ask him for some time, one night, to make a decision, and we part. That night, I tear out a page from a book on the tarot: there is a card: the Hanged Man. I write him a letter telling him that the film cannot pay him 700 000 dollars.

For 150 000 dollars, I want three days and not an hour and a half of filming. I'd also like to have his replica as a polyethlyene puppet, to use as his double in the film. Dali is enraged. He cries: "I will have you like rats! I am going to film in Paris, but the set will cost you more than the Cadaquès countryside and my museum's executive. Dali costs 100 000 dollars an hour!"

Bitterly, he calms down and accepts the idea of having himself reproduced in plastic if the sculpture is given to his museum after the film. We decide to definitely close his contract the next day. I talk with Jean-Paul Gibon and we arrive at the conclusion that it is impossible to haggle with Dali. I meditate for a long time and I make this final decision: I reduce Dali's role to a page and a half in the script. I accept his price: 100 000 dollars an hour, but I only use him for one hour. The rest I will film with his robot double. Dali cannot allow himself to go back on his price. We go to see him. I give him the small page and a half and Dali accepts the proposition because his honour is safe. He will be the most expensively paid actor in the history of cinema. He will earn more than Greta Garbo.

Dali enthusiastically shows me his wooden bed with the dolphin sculpture. A workman is there already taking an imprint of the dolphin for the toilet.

As much as for Dali as for me, the Hanged Man on which we wrote a few words serves as the contract.

Dali loves the aristocracy and like all men of noble spirit, he keeps his word.

I myself loved fighting for Dune. We won a lot of battles, but we lost the war. The project was sabotaged by Hollywood. It was French and unAmerican. Its message wasn't Hollywood enough. There were intrigues and robberies. The story-board circulated among all the big studios. Later, the visual aspect of Star Wars strangely ressembled our style. To make Alien, they called Moebius, Foss, Giger, O'Bannon, etc. To the Americans, the project signals the possibility of making big-spectacle science fiction films outside the scientific rigour of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Dune changed our lives.

Everyone who participated in Dune's rise and fall learned to fall once and a million times with a wild stubbornness, before learning to stand upright. I remember my old father who, in dying happy, told me: "My son, in my life, I have triumphed because I have failed."

Friday, 13 April 2012

kukri and crepe

A kukri is a curved knife, described by Hobson-Jobson as "The peculiar weapon of the Goorkhas, a bill, admirably designed and poised for hewing a branch or a foe." It's borrowed from Hindi कूकरी/कूकड़ी kūkarī/kūkaṛī, originally meaning "skein". It's from कूकना kūkanā "to wind", probably related to Sanskrit क्रुक्त krukta "curved" and क्रुञ्चति kruñcati "to wind, twist".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *(s)ker- (IEW 935-938) "to turn, bend". The AHD says this is a "Presumed base of a number of distantly related derivatives".

It's hypothesized that there was a suffixed extended form *krīp-so- (from earlier metathesized *(s)kre-i-p-s-) which became *crīpsus, metathesized to Latin crīspus "curly". I know, there's a lot of steps here, and a lot of reliance on these mysterious extensions. The feminine crīspa became French crêpe.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

bungalow and Bengal

bungalow is borrowed from Hindi बंगला baṅgalā "of or belonging to Bengal". It is this Hindi word, or something close to it, that gives English Bengal. Hobson-Jobson explains that when one-story houses began to be built in India "these were called Banglā or 'Bengal-fashion' houses; that the name was adopted by the Europeans themselves and their followers, and so was brought back to Bengal itself, as well as carried to other parts of India."

Saturday, 10 March 2012


The best comic book artist in the world died today. The creator of The Incal, the Aedena Cycle, the Airtight Garage, Arzach. There was no one like him.

images from quenched consciousness

Sunday, 4 March 2012

national grammar day

I'm a nerd, and I recently spent some time with some other nerds, on a boat. One thing I couldn't help noticing, besides how much we hate George Lucas, is how much us nerds love proper grammar.* I guess we love pedantry, and this is an easy way to be pedantic.

Except… in most fields, when we want to find out how something works, we examine the evidence. We don't believe something just because someone tells us to believe it. But when it comes to language, we ignore the evidence and we believe whatever we’re told. After all, what else is “proper grammar”, besides a series of prescriptions usually motivated by nothing more than ipse dixit.

Take this guide to commonly misused words. This is from the entry on hopefully:

This word is used incorrectly so much (including by me) it may be too late. But let’s make you smarter anyway.

How can believing something simply because someone told you to believe it make you smarter?

Or 20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes - if almost everyone makes them, how can they be mistakes? As motivated grammar says, one of these things is not true.

As an example of how we ignore the evidence, look at the rule for which and that from the "20 Common Grammar Mistakes" article. I wrote about this a while ago. Quite simply, the claim that which cannot be used with restrictive relative clauses is false. It doesn't describe how the English language works.

I also wrote about fewer and less: less can be used with count nouns and has been used with count nouns for 1000 years.

Or anxious: anxious has been used without any connotation of anxiety by some of the best writers of English.

This Grammar Day, treat grammar just like any other field of inquiry. Have a look at the evidence - I recommend starting with Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage - and make up your own mind.

* for the record, I personally don't hate George Lucas, and I don't love proper grammar. Maybe I should hand in my Original Geeksta card.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

a whole lot of words from *dyeu-

Greek has Ζεὺς πατήρ Zeus patēr, Sanskrit has द्यौष्पितृ dyauṣ-pitṛ, and Latin has Jupiter from Iouis + pater. The first element of all three of these can be derived from Proto-Indo-European *dyeu- "to shine and (in many derivatives "sky, heaven, god")". The second element is from *ph₂ter- "father". So these three deities presumably come from a form meaning "sky-father".

*dyeu- is also apparently found in Armenian աստուած astowaç "god", usually written Astwatz. I'm not sure exactly what the etymology is here.

In English *dyeu- became the name of the god Tīw as in Tuesday.

*dyeu- is also the source of Latin deus and dīuus as in deity and divine, and Avestan daēuau- "spirit, demon" as in Asmodeus.

It's also the source of Sanskrit देव deva "heavenly, divine", and Hindi देवदार devdār "divine tree", whence deodar.

It's also the source of Latin Diāna, the moon goddess.

In Celtic it became Gaulish Dēvona and Welsh duw "god".

In Greek it became δηλος dēlos "clear" (from earlier *deyalos) - as in psychedelic.

Addendum: as pointed out in the comments, δηλος is from a variant (Watkins says the variant form *deih₂-).

Friday, 10 February 2012

fir and cork

The Proto-Indo-European root *perkʷu- "oak" in the zero-grade form *pr̥kʷ- became Proto-Germanic *furh-jōn- then English fir (either directly or borrowed from the Old Norse fyri-).

The form *kʷerkʷu- arose by assimilating the first consonant to the second. This became Latin quercus "oak", which was probably borrowed into Arabic as القورق al-qūrq, then borrowed into Spanish as alcorque "cork shoe", then into Dutch or Low German as kork, then into English as cork.

Monday, 23 January 2012

native English epicene pronouns

There have been many attempts to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into English. I can't see the point; we already have one that serves the purpose: they. Anyway, one of the suggestions is Middle English ou.

But did this Middle English epicene pronoun ou really exist?

Dennis Baron, in Grammar and Gender (1986), page 197, says

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular ou: "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will." Marshall traces ou to Middle English epicene a, used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of a for he, she, it, they, and even I.

William Marshall, in Provincialisms of the vale of Gloucester, writes:

Beside these and various other misapplications (as they for them - I for me, &c.), an extra pronoun is here in use - ou : a pronoun of the singular number; - analogous with the plural they ; - being applied either in a masculine, a feminine, or a neuter sense. Thus "ou will" expresses either he will, she will, or it will.

So there is an epicene pronoun ou, but it's not Middle English; it's part of the Gloucester dialect. It derives from Middle English a, which in turn derives from Old English he "he" and heo "she". Baron goes on to say that by the 12th and 13th centuries, he and heo were "almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation" (he is quoting the OED's etymological entry for she). It is for this reason that she appeared: in order to distinguish the masculine and feminine third person pronouns.

So was Middle English a really an epicene pronoun? Well, we have examples of it from Trevisa standing for both "he" and "she", as in these cites from the OED:

1387 J. Trevisa MS. Cott. Vesp. D. vii. 29 b, He ran home to uore & prayede hys wyf þat hue wolde helpe for to saue hym,‥bote a dude þe contrary.
- from the OED's entry heo ε. ME ha, a.

"He ran home in advance and prayed that his wife would help save him… but she did the opposite."

c1400 J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (Tiber. D. vii) vi. xxix, in R. Morris & W. W. Skeat Specim. Early Eng. (1884) II. 243 Kynge Edward hadde byhote duc William þat a [a1387 St. John's Cambr. he] scholde be kynge after hym ef he dyede wyþoute chyldern.
- from the OED's entry he ζ. ME e, ME–18 (dial.) a.

"King Edward had promised duke William that he should be king after him if he died without children."

It's in Shakespeare too. Here Hamlet is talking about Polonius.

1604 Shakespeare Hamlet iii. iii. 73 Now might I doe it, but now a is a praying, And now Ile doo't, and so a goes to heauen.

Modern versions have

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;

But there seems to be a difference between a and singular they. In the examples above, the antecedents have known genders. Singular they is usually not used when the person's identity has been established. What I'd like to know is: can Middle English a (or Gloucester ou) be used when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant?

Consider these sentences with they/their:

Everyone loves their mothers, but they don't care for their fathers.
Do not speak to the driver or distract their attention without good cause.

Can Middle English a or Gloucester ou be used in this way?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

yeast and eczema

yeast is from Old English ġist from Proto-Germanic *jest- from Proto-Indo-European *yes- "to boil, bubble".

*yes- became Greek ζέω (zeō) "ferment, boil, bubble". Combined with ἐκ "out" gave ἐκζέω (ekzeō) "boil out or over, break out (in disease)" and ἔκζεμα (ekzema) "a cutaneous eruption, eczema".