Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How does one fail without having a goal?

I don't know, but looking at the trend of my posts since this blog's inception, I have to say it looks as though I have failed as a blogger. That is, if my initial rate of posting is taken as an implicit statement of purpose, then my failure to maintain that rate indicates a failure of the blog as a whole. On the other hand, in my pop-culture inundated life (and my none-too-bright brain), in this pop-culture inundated culture, non-pop-culture topics are rare, and my natural reticence means I will want to speak about any given topic even more rarely; therefore, posts to this blog should be expected to be rare.

I'm glad we cleared that up.

I have a question, that may just be evergreen--even deathless--that I'm not equipped to answer. (As a sidelight, does the existence of unanswerables, in comparison to the complete reinvention of human life wrought by science, indicate that philosophy, as a human endeavor, has wrought less than it ought? Maybe it's a dumb question--I'm not educated enough to judge.)

But the question I want to ask is, why we have emotional reactions to depictions (written or drawn) of heinous acts? And why do we talk about the depictions as if something had actually happened?

And if we had no emotional reaction to depictions would there be any point to making art? Where is the moral line in depictions, and where should the legal line be? What harm comes from restricting depictions that the public deems undesirable?

Huge questions with huge answers, and they are cried into the wind without even an Echo as answer. But is that any better than the answers we've gotten from millenia of the best human thought? I don't know. I should go back to school--or at least read a goddamn book.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"The present study presents new postulates for the interpretation of the basic features of the Proustian universe."

That's a line from a book I might read, not from a post I'm about to write, sadly. But when I think about my schooling, it seems I really ought to be able to write about Proust from something like a critical perspective. Maybe tomorrow. Whoops, no --we have a show.

For now, here's an entry in the Copy Book, from Swann's Way, right near the end of the Combray section: "When, on a summer evening, the melodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Meseglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs."

Oh yeah! That's what I came here for!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pixies and Cake

Holy Crap! Only one post all month? I knew I was lagging, but come on.

And all I've got for you today is --oh, there's that dreaded word again!-- just some Pop Culture commentary. I'm start to think I'm obsessed it. Sad. My life is squandered so fully in intellectual whipped cream that there is not even such substance as would constitute intellectual dessert at the bottom of the dish --nothing else for me to write about. Not even dessert!

Right. I was astonished to hear, in the film for which Frank Capra was crowned best director of 1936 by The Academy, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, two old biddies from the Heartland repeatedly use a word which one associates today with things not particularly common in 1936, especially out in the fly-over states: pixilated.

It must have been viewed at the time as an archaism and a gem of local color, because the judge in the scene (Mr. Deeds is on trial for being crazy) explains "Pixilated is an early American expression formed from pixies, for elves; they use it where we would use 'barmy.'" I quote from memory, so don't forget your grain of salt.

I'm ever so fond of this word, all the more so because it's now ambiguous (in speech) with the altogether different word, which I presume would be spelled pixelated, in order to distinguish its separate origin, though the 'L' could be geminated to indicate that the 'e' is not to be pronounced 'ee,' though that is actually --if you can believe such things are possible in the word of orthography--a matter of choice; see 'canceled' and 'cancelled' both of which it is possible to see in correspondence from Amazon about a single cancellation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Languishing in a Proustian fog of indolence and dissipation . . .

. . . is what I wish I'd been doing this week; instead, it's wall-to-wall LEGO Star Wars and futzing around with my new computer --let this be a lesson to you: the quickest way to a new (Windows) PC, if you don't know what you're doing, is to install Ubuntu through a complete hard drive wipe. And so I'm hopelessly behind on reading Swann's Way.

There's plenty of pop-culture fun on my mind, but that's what you have the rest of the internet for. This is the No Pop Culture Blog. The above mentions of LEGO and Star Wars are to be stricken from the record, and the readership are to disregard them in reaching their verdict. Their verdict as to whether they'll continue reading, I guess.

Let's talk about the past perfect (in English) for a while. Take a verb like swim: he swims; he swam yesterday, when he was swimming; he has swum before. My guess is that some of you --or rather, if my readership was substantially larger, then a subset of it-- were surprised by the form swum in the last example. And now we realize that this is a bad example, because swum is a rather rare form, and I'm guessing that plenty of people don't use it --I learned it, as a boy, from Disney's Robin Hood (there's that damned pop culture again), and upon first hearing it thought it sounded decidedly odd; naturally I had to adopt it as an affectation immediately, and cleave to it from then on.

Digression: on is not a preposition in that sentence, but it might be a post-position. I once did a paper on the post-position in English, because English doesn't have any, generally (ago is the exception). I don't think I collected this use of on, but I collected plenty of other bad examples of what were not post-positions at all, so it won't hurt much if I'm wrong about this one too.

I was talking about the past perfect, right? Forget swum. Let's go with the common, perfectly ordinary inflected forms, like ridden and written and taken. Whoops. These forms, if I'm going to call them PAST perfect, have to be combined with auxiliaries, and will have the same form whether they're present perfect with has or past perfect with had. Anyway, what I'm tryng to get to is that lots of people don't use this form. I had a very small collection of examples, but I've decided that, since it's impossible to bring up this kind of minuscule usage variation without sounding like you're calling for conformity to a standard, I'm not going to report the examples. And that also means that I have no point to make. I've led you down the garden path and there is nothing left to do but club you over the head and drag you back to my cooking fire.

That's kind of icky. Okay, I will peeve out a bit on this subject. Because it's easy to recognize the colloquial use of the past tense form in place of the perfect form (had wrote instead of had written) and people don't want to commit the most heinous of crimes, the solecism, I think there is a common tendency to overcorrect (you automobilists know how bad this is) and I hear a lot of past perfect forms when the past tense is what's called for. Listen for it on NPR --not the hosts, but the people on the street. Now that I think of it, it's probably not overcorrection at all; using the past perfect when you're explaining how something happened probably signals that the past perfect verbs are part of the action of the story --a way of keeping track of two different time streams, the story and the present conversation. So did I lead you down another garden path? Oh, look over there! Club club.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cuke Boy speaks!

Here's a poem I wrote in college, featuring characters from a concept I had --even then, in my salad days, in another century-- for a comic strip.

Anyway, it's a new revision, to better fit the villanelle form and to get closer to a three-foot iambic line --and to spell 'lullaby' right:

Princess Coughsyrup Lullaby

Do not 'Alack!' my love,
That we are lost on Titan,
The Milky Whale is still above.

Around my hand your glove
And fingers, trembling, tighten.
Oh, do not 'Alack!' my love.

No cause to coo, my dove,
Let me your heart-load lighten:
The Milky Whale is still above.

We'll have the night I dreamed of,
With you and I uniting.
Oh, do not 'Alack!' my love.

Though Stinking People shove
And sheep-horned eels are biting,
The Milky Whale is still above.

My words must be enough:
I got out now to fighting.
Do not 'Alack!' my love.
The Milky Whale is still above.

Cuke Boy

Friday, November 28, 2008

Oh, what the hell . . .

Here's that sentence I promised you, three-quarters of the way to it's final revision, with the word count standing at around 530 in the subject and 1 in the predicate (at least for the main clause):

None of my first few abortive attempts to form a band, neither the Island Puddles, whose entire line up was me and one friend, to whom the name was revealed in a dream on a vacation to the British Isles during the summer after sixth grade, two twelve-year-olds who had never so much as held a guitar let alone attended a lesson, but nevertheless wrote songs (or the lyrics of songs) such as "Brown Bear's Gonna Get You" and "Satan Sucks," a timely attack on the seizure of Devil Worship that then gripped the country; nor Stone Monkey (which was named by me this time), a rotating gallery of thieves and stunted post-adolescents (including one fellow, possibly from Sweaty Nipples, who regaled us with tales of leaving his seed in equal parts in his ex-girlfriend and his parents' hot tub), who thundered, on equipment mostly stolen from the middle school, stumblingly --in a shower of orange paint chips from my too-thick drum sticks-- through renderings of the current MTV rotation, such as Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity" and Tesla's popular update of the 5-Man Electric Band's "Signs," and the easier tablatures from the guitar magazines, such as Kiss's "Deuce," often while loosened of our teenage (or somewhat older) inhibition by whiskey or vodka purloined (or, as we said, "kyped") from unsuspecting or maybe permissive parent's liquor cabinets and wet bars, a loosening of judgment which found us committing one caterwauling afternoon to tape, capturing a stab at Faster Pussycat's "Bathroom Wall" alongside an original from my own pen called "Charon" (which I pronounced as though it were etymologically related to "charcoal") during which I embellished my lofty poetry by screeching "bitch!" every few bars; neither Krass Bantam, a flock of my high school friends who gathered in a hayloft overlooking one of the local Stake Houses in order to give protracted birth to multi-segmented chug-rock songs, like the hate ballad throat-wailed by our spectacularly unmusical singer who called it "The Box," along with the unavoidable Sex Pistols covers, all of which we recorded, trembling with performance anxiety before the tape machine, and played back, again and again, on our smoking trips to the abandoned cannery, trying to discern, without any critical faculty to do so, whether what we heard was genius or diarrhea; nor the true glistening carbuncle in this Crown of Zits, the Grease-Eatin' Hootenannies Rock 'n' Roll Combo, a high-school tribe (of my younger brother's friends this time) who specialized in highly enlightened punk- (by which I mean the Bad Religion videos we saw on, once again, MTV) inspired rants against the Drug War as continued by Bill Clinton, paranoid fantasies about the cameras in UPS trucks, even a (rhyming but unmetrical) sonnet that deployed the knowledge gained from an hour's perusal of an electronic component handbook to mock AC/DC --oh, and an elegant, eloquent complaint about my first work experiences called "I'd Rather Be A Diaper" a title I was so proud of that I emblazoned a sweat-stained t-shirt with it in black marker as a slogan and badge, and wore it practically every day of my first two years at college; no, none of these bands, hard as it may be to believe, lasted.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Epanalepsis? Tough break.

So, you won't be surprised to learn that I can't write poems at work. But that's not true, I write all of my poems at work! Fine. But I can't write a poem at work today. Not enough sleep. Too much non-ergonomic and, frankly, pretty Francophone drumming in the Old North French style. Of ROCK.

So, epanalepsis. This was mentioned in a lecture about sentence craft and I did know what it was. I try not to bother you with every word I look up, but this one sounds like a disease of the butt, so it's fair game for LBRTFD --which should probably go, when it's going by letters-only, by its old name of TYDCA.

Epanalepsis is a rhetorical device in which you repeat the words at the beginning of whatever syntactic unit you like at the end of that unit. I wish I didn't have to come up with my own example. Ah, red like a tomato is red. That's a fine example of how epanalepsis can be used to good effect, says the man who just heard of it for the first time half and hour ago.

That's the way to use it elegantly on a small scale, but I'll bet you're familiar with epanalepsis on the grand scale (and I don't mean chronic, malignant epanalepsis of the butt), where a paragraph or a chapter or a whole Proustian Monster Mega Novel ends, sometimes after a colon (not of the butt --and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Comedy Rule of Three), with the same word it began with.

And then there's the practice of using different forms of a word, or words of common origin in an epanaleptic fashion: we'll have athletics for the athlete, mathletics for the mathlete, aesthetics for the aesthete --that sort of thing. This particular device actually has a name of its own, but who cares? Those ridiculous lists of Greek names for rhetorical devices don't help you learn anything. I wish they would teach the devices first and then bring out the names only when we need a short-hand way to talk about the patterns --you know, when you might actually care what they're called. But then some people like to pull fancy-sounding words that nobody else understands out of their butts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In Praise of Cowardice, v.3.0

While I'm working on rewriting my favorite poem from my college glory days, 'Princess Coughsyrup Lullaby,' I thought I'd share with you a lyric that is perhaps of interest to no one but Central Boise Library fans, a small subset of which strangely overlaps with the tiny (but complete) set of my readership. . . It might be of interest to them because it was what Sam sang, for a year or so, for the song that became "A Certain Bully." Yes, my modesty is false: I do think this poem stands on its own merits:
There are three hard returns here, but Blogger simply will not display them. I shrug.
In Praise of Cowardice (v.3.0)
A coward hides his tail
between his hind legs,
looks back with ears held flat
as he slinks away.

A hero dies just one time;
A coward has a thousand lives,
A thousand chances to contemplate,
A thousand chances to hesitate.

(this stanza doesn't scan right at all, but he made it fit, sort of):
Sometimes there is no bridge
between the thought and the deed;
if you would cross the gap
all you can do is leap.

(this was the chorus):
I love my cowardly ways.
Cowards should be everyone.
You can't get shot in the face
If you know when to run.

There was a variant chorus, but I don't remember what it was. It must not have been as punchy a getting shot in the face. I stole that idea from Faith No More, the song 'Ricochet' I think, or maybe 'Last to Know' --I haven't heard the King for a Day . . . record for a while.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Re-Christening

I think I'd rather call it a 're-inauguration' since there won't be any actual Christening, and I hate to bother Christ about such a trifling matter --he must have enough on his plate already, what with the Rapture coming up and everything.

Also, calling it a re-inauguration let's me bring up a variation in pronunciation (I still want that word to have another 'o' in it . . .) that I've been hearing, our new president having a inauguration on the horizon: I say, and prefer to hear, in-og-you-rayshun --with a couple of stresses somewhere, but that's beside my point; but I've heard three or four people on the TV say in-ogger-ayshun. What's up with that?

I can appreciate that leaving out the added 'y' sound calls attention to the word's origin in augury, specifically haruspicy, the telling of fortunes through the inspection of sacrificed bird entrails --I mean, who wants to gloss over words that arise from bird entrails?-- but, isn't it harder to say that way? Doesn't it become a mushy mumble that could easily be firmed up by putting the 'y' in there, like I --the ultimate arbiter of all taste and propriety-- do?

Well, let's check the dictionaries . . .

AHD4 doesn't list the 'ogger' variant-- so, take that, all you Augurists! But it also reveals that I was bullshitting you (again) about the haruspicy: 'auspices' is the common word that arose from bird guts; inauguration's root 'augury' just refers to divination in general, gutless and birdless though it may be. But! NOAD2 lists the 'y' as optional, and indicates that the variants occur with equal frequency, if I'm reading it right. So it looks like AHD4 missed something when it recorded this pronunciation, and failed to record the other. I'm gonna write a letter to President Obama! After the inauguration, of course.

Anyway, I changed the name of the blog, in case you didn't notice.

Who doesn't love the Norman French?

They were French-speaking Vikings who conquered England --and that reminds me of a quip and a reversal of that quip (and then a fundamental, too-obvious-to-notice fact about the quip that undermines the whole enterprise) that delights me, probably because I learned it in Jon Dayley's History of the English Language class, which I loved.

But first I want to say that I fully intended to return to Richard Baker's sentences this weekend but UPS jealously sequestered my "Welcome Package" from Qwest, in which was housed the activation code for internet service in my new abode. Thus I am reminded how much I hate UPS's 'signature required' delivery services. Many thanks to both companies; I hope they get what they deserve during the upcoming New Depression.

Well, that was more animus than required. Sounds like somebody's got a case of the Mondays.

Right, the Norman French. So I'm sure you've heard, from a member of the Freedom Fries, the French are (ahem . . .) sissies crowd, that 'we' --which in this case means the English language, rather than the US armed forces as it usually does when these people say it-- learned the word 'surrender' from the French. As in "We saved their asses (note the special use of 'we') in Dubya Dubya Two and therefore only French people have a word like 'surrender.'"

Okay, I've created a Straw Man argument, but I hope you'll pretend that you've experienced a similar scenario.

So, 'we' did get the word from the French, but (as I'm sure you're well aware) not so recently as 70 years ago --oh no-- it was closer to 1000 years ago, in 1066, when William the Bastard, a Norman Frenchman, began a conquering which would eventually cover every inch of English soil, not to mention so much of English vocabulary that whatever word it was that the Anglo-Saxons he conquered used to indicate that they yielded to his French bootheel was forever replaced by the word he gave them: surrender.

But. This whole enterprise (and now we come to the undermining I mention earlier) is an example of linguification, a term that I believe I learned from Mark Liberman, but on Language Log anyway, that refers to the tendency we have of talking about facts about language as though they were facts about the state of the world --as in "I don't know the meaning of the word 'failure.'" Maybe so, and that's probably true of most people who don't speak English, but that has nothing to do with whether you can fail. It's a very common figure of speech, or rhetorical device, or something, but it can lead to some pretty bad reasoning.

And. I haven't checked the facts of when English borrowed 'surrender' so everything you've read so far has been bullshit at best and, perhaps, totally worthless. Haha, joke's on you.

Oh, now I'm insulting my faithful readership. What has gotten in to me? I do apologize.

Ah, so that was the digression. Now to the reason I started this post in the first place: Norman French loanwords and their cognates in English vocabulary. There are two pairs of words with much the same meaning, one of which 'we' got from Norman French and the other from regular French: Guard and Ward and Guarantee and Warranty. Remembering that those 'gu-' words have Norman French (w-) siblings helps me remember (or at least understand) their weird spelling. AHD4 calls Norman French 'Old North French' which I like a lot. I think I'll set my drums up in the Old North French style tomorrow.

Oh, and there's a new word 'guerdon' (dictionary.com's word-of-the-day today) that, because it means 'reward,' looked like it was part of the same family. But it's not, though it does come from Old High German (by way of Latin and French) from a w- word: 'widar' which I would bet is the source of the widder- in widdershins, as it means 'back, against.'

Yep, it is. I checked --no more bullshit this time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why is this sentence so bad?

Ah, Friday afternoon: every drop of motivation to work, or even pretend to work --evaporated; every ounce of restraint that normally prevents me lashing out at or raining blows upon my colleagues --spilled; every coagulation of cogent cogitation my enfeebled, boredom-addled, over-worried, and sleep-deprived brain was once capable of --bled out and scabbed over; and so I resort to copying things out of books:

"From over Araevin's shoulder, a pair of silver arrows streaked out and took the first of the insect fiends in the jaw, vanishing up to the feathers in its foul mouth." This is from Forsaken House a Forgotten Realms novel by Richard Baker, whose profession, I believe, is game designer first and novelist second.

Why is this sentence so bad? I'm brought up short first by 'the insect fiends.' I guess he doesn't have a better name to call them, perhaps because his Point-Of-View character doesn't know what their official Monster Manual name is, but 'the insect fiends' just doesn't sound right. I think 'creatures' would have been less obtrusive --would have sounded more like what you might name creatures that fell upon you in a dark dungeon hallway.

I also don't like 'streaked out,' and it's an example of general problem we'll see in the rest of this passage: too many prepositions/adverbials. Does the first part of the sentence work if you put it like this: "from over his shoulder arrows streaked out" They streaked out from over his shoulder? Do they really need to streak out? Don't they need to come from inside, or at least at something in order to go out from it? Yes, I think they do. We don't need the 'out' and we don't need both 'from' and 'over' either but I'd let them slide since they efficiently position everything in space.

I really don't like 'took the first . . . in the jaw' (which maybe I should have listed first). The 'took' does suggest a good arrow-like 'toonk' sound effect, but when you 'take someone' in their 'something', it really sounds sexual, and a little too vernacular --though, since I've only read this passage, I don't know if the vernacular diction level is what he intends.

And finally, 'foul mouth' really works against the sentence because you cant read it without being reminded of the expression 'foul-mouthed' --unless the insect fiends have been cussing (and maybe they have) it would be better to avoid suggesting it. Furthermore, did the arrows hit its jaw or its mouth? Did they go in from the side or from the front? And why is its mouth foul anyway? Did the character get a whiff of its breath? I guess I'm going to have to read back and find out.

Tune in next time when I --armed with better knowledge of the context-- nitpick the rest of the paragraph.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Idaho accents, anyone?

I directed your attention recently to a post of Mark Liberman's about the moral superiority (and logical correctness) of those who do not view accents and other deviant speech acts as signs of intelligence or of the soundness of arguments; now, the often obstreperous and always pungent Cambridge Grammarian Geoff Pullum offers some dissent:

I have to confess that I don't think anybody who regularly engages in this sort of chaotic blurt-and-babble speech in interview situations can be regarded as suited to a position involving political leadership or executive responsibilities in the government of a democracy.

I think being so utterly unable to explain what one wants to say is truly and reasonably regarded as a defect in one's qualifications for office — partly because being so inept at talking in a controlled and sensible way strongly suggests that there was no sensible thought back there, and partly because even if there were sensible thoughts back there somewhere, a leader needs to be more skilled at articulating them.

I can see the value in his position --maybe it's clearer if you read all of his post-- though it doesn't change the insight of Liberman's position; rather, it reveals a different position from which to reach the same conclusions about Sarracuda that prejudice against Idaho (oh right, Alaska) accents would lead you to.

Boy, I bet those of you who read Language Log on your own must be tired of me phoning it in --I can't even be bothered to crack open a dictionary anymore, now I'm reading to you from other blogs. But you'll be soon hearing a lot more from Geoff Pullum, I hope --I'm GOING BACK TO GRAMMAR SCHOOL, by which I mean I'm going to read his A Student's Introduction to English Grammar and tell you all about it. I don't understand the terms he uses in his posts --they're different from what I learned in school, so I need a refresher; and I understand there's a Future Real Linguist in my audience, so I gotta get my shit correct.

A hearty thank-you . . .

. . .to the (regularly-practicing-if-not-yet-performing) members of A Seasonal Disguise --including our new honorary tambourinestress-- who helped me move house, with particular attention to the day-long patience and forbearance of my far-too great demands on his time, labor, and automobile of the estimable Monsieur von House, the heart and soul of the whole operation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

In which I reverse my years-long disdain for quoting quotations. . .

First, an aphorism that I think it worthwhile to carry around with you (found in no less worthy a place than Gmail's advertising ticker): from St. Augustine, who was named for Tully's daughter: "Patience is the companion of wisdom." So, maybe you're not all that wise, at least you can act like you are.

And an opinion of Mark Liberman that should probably be printed on all the world's currencies --and flags: "But I also believe that it's also morally wrong to try to win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish." (Read more about Liberman's views here. It's about Sarah Palin.)

I can't judge why it would be morally wrong, since I haven't yet encountered an intellectually satisfying moral system, but I can see (now that I think about it) how it's logically wrong --it's an ad hominem attack. In other words, a person's accent has no bearing at all on the content of their argument. The only thing you prove by making fun of accents is that you are a provincial snob.

What I find so remarkable about this is that EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD DOES IT. Lynne Truss's fame is entirely based on it (I think. She wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I haven't read but I think it calls for fatwa against people who misuse apostrophe's). So, let's all be better than everybody in the world and stop thinking that regional accents make people dumb. Sarracuda has lots more going for her in that area.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What the Hell Happened to Your Damn Blog?

Ah, I'm moving, so I haven't had time to, and have been too distracted to, write anything for all of you to . . . well, you know the name of the blog.

But look at this: Anu Garg is doing a whole week on prepostions! Closed class indeed.

He also says a few words about the rule against using those prepositions in a sentence-final sort of a way. I threatened to take up that subject myself not long ago, so I guess its time has come. I only have a few things to say:

First, an example that is a bit of a cheat ( taken from Garg's remarks): Which of these two sounds like something a human speaker of English would actually say: About what are you talking? or What are you talking about?

If the first sounds more natural to you, or even if you've ever uttered it in ordinary conversation, then this discussion has no value for you --it is not about the variety of English you speak. I don't worry about offending you because I don't think you exist. The rule would have to say something that no one would say. How can it be 'correct' if it's self-evidently awkward English?

I call this example a cheat because the preposition is stranded as a pretty much necessary part of forming the question: putting the question word standing for the object of the prepostion at the front of the sentence. But what about when the preposition is stranded in non-question sentences?

Those who forbid the sentence-final prepostion will have to explain why, in a sentence like "the accident gave him something to both apologize for and think about," the stranded preposition before the conjunction commits no offense to propriety, but the one before the period is outrageously unacceptable. What is different about the two positions in the sentence? One is at the end, but what is there at the end of the sentence that should make it a strictly segregated area forbidden to those second class (but very hard-working) sub-words, the prepositions?

Well, nothing, right? Just the rule --but ask the rule why it exists, or look into the sentence for some unwanted effect the rule exists to avoid, and there is nothing. The rule would have you say instead "the accident gave him both something for which to apologize and about which to think." Clearly an atrocity, and for no good reason --no reason at all, in fact.

I for one, insist on no atrocities without proper justification.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The 'mauve' count stands at eight

Eight mauves in nine hundred pages --it's not an obsession or anything, just a feature of style, let's say. Now if I could just find some significant pattern in the appearances of these mauves. Oh, I'm talking about Proust again, in case you're just joining us.

Thinking that, since the literature of the flaneur is unconcerned with the juvenility of plot, there was no danger in reading Proust's biography in the facing pages of my current volume, I did in fact spoil the languid flowering of what is perhaps the signal development of Proust's life: the discovery of his homosexuality. But spoil it I did, and now I'm become perhaps too sensitive to suggestions of it. You be the judge:

At the beginning of The Guermantes Way, Marcel hasn't come out yet: he's infatuated with, mad with adoration for, ass-over-teakettle ga-ga for the Duchess de Guermantes, a stranger to him and the aunt of his friend Robert Saint-Loup. Entirely in the interest of using his connection with Saint-Loup as a way to get to know the Duchess, Marcel has gone to the cavalry barracks where Saint-Loup is stationed and sleeps the first night there --in Saint-Loup's room. Big deal. I've done that. Still, what are we to make, in light of this relationship, of the way Proust describes the landscape of the barracks . . . well, we know exactly what to make of it --we may even think it's just a bit too easy to make out:

"And next morning, when I awoke, I went over to Saint-Loup's window, which being at a great height overlooked the whole countryside, curious to make the acquaintance of my new neighbour, the landscape which I had not been able to see the day before, having arrived too late, at an hour when it was already sleeping beneath the outspread cloak of night. And yet, early as it had awoken, I could see it, when I opened the window and looked out, only as though from a window of a country house overlooking the lake, shrouded still in its soft white morning gown of mist which scarcely allowed me to make out anything at all. But I knew that, before the troopers who were busy with their horses in the square had finished grooming them, it would have cast its gown aside. In the meantime, I could see only a bare hill, raising its lean and rugged flanks, already swept clear of darkness, over the back of the barracks."

I can get with that. But he doesn't stop there --in fact he takes it into the realm of stuff that I'm not really in to:

"Imbued with the shape of the hill, associated with the taste of hot chocolate and with the whole web of my fancies at that particular time, this mist . . . came to infuse all my thoughts of that time . . . [i]t did not, however, persist late into the day; the sun began by hurling at it in vain a few darts which sprinkled it with brilliants, then finally overcame it. The hill might expose its grizzled rump to the sun's rays, which, an hour later, when I went into the town, gave to the russet tints of the autumn leaves, to the reds and blues of the election posters pasted on the walls, an exaltation which raised my spirits also and made me stamp, singing as I went, on the paving-stones, from which I could hardly keep myself from jumping in the air for joy."

You click your heels all you want, Prousty Baby; meanwhile, I can never look into a mug of Swiss Miss again with out seeing, mindless eyes peering from plushy muppet-flesh, the face of Rick Santorum.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Copy Book: from William H. Gass

In Fiction and the Forms of Life:

"For most people, fiction is history; fiction is history without tables, graphs, dates, imports, edicts, evidence, laws; history without hiatus --intelligible, simple, smooth. Fiction is sociology freed of statistics, politics with no real party in the opposition; it's a world where play money buys you cardboard squares of colored country; a world where everyone is obediently psychological, economic, ethnic, geographical --framed in a keyhole and always nude, each figure fashioned from the latest thing in cello-see-through, so we may observe our hero's guts, too, if we choose: ah, they're blue, and squirming like a tickled river. For truth without effort, thought without vigor, feeling without form, existence without commitment: what will you give? for a wind-up world, a toy life? . . . six bits? for a book with a thicker skin? . . . six bucks? I am a man, myself, intemperately mild, and though it seems to me as much deserved as it's desired, I have no wish to steeple quires of paper passion up so many sad unelevating rears."

This is now at the top of my list of Favorite Sentences Ever (the list currently numbers one); it has everything a man could want out of life: squirming guts, tickled rivers, the suggestion of sodomy-by-foreign object, and most important, naked ladies --naked lords too, I guess, but you don't have to look at them. Oh, apparently it's more than one sentence. Favorite Paragraphs Ever? Pff.

I don't know what a quire is, but I don't imagine I want it steepled up my rear any more than I'd want that feat of reaming consummated by a choir. I also had never heard of steepling things up other things, but I can imagine what it feels like.

Heh-heh. A quire is one twentieth of a ream.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What's the Word?

In my Proust this morning, this sea-wet morsel: tergiversate.

Ter-giv-er-sate! From what manure-mucky corral of the Old West did this surly harlequin emerge, kicking against the rough fenceposts of our unsuspecting world with its mudheeled boots of fine-tooled Mexican leather? Erm, the muddy corral called Latin.

The Roman centurion might have been heard, before driving his spear into the side of yet another nameless, soon-forgotten enemy of the Empire, to say "Let's not tergiversate about whether this one is dead." Only he'd say everything but 'tergiversate' in Latin. Well, he'd say 'tergiversate' in Latin, but it's already Latin. I mean it's still Latin. Except for the suffix. Okay, I'm sick of this god-stabbing centurion.

This two thousand year survivor of a word was formed by combining tergum 'the back' with versare 'to turn' or 'to see' and AHD4 defines it as 1) to use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate; and 2) to change sides; apostasize.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mary Oliver, and a ridiculous detour

At the end of Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse Mary Oliver sends us off with expansive words (but I'm not actually going to give you all of the expanded parts):

"No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever."

Why she got to get all up in my grill like that? Now I have to tear up either a whole stack of notebooks and loose leaves, or my Rustic Poets* Association membership card. Or maybe I can just sweep a few of these into the rubbish bin. . .

*This is an allusion to Frank Zappa's Illinois Enema Bandit, a song most certainly designed to demean . . . quite a few things, mostly women*.

*No, not really. It's a satire of pretentiousness and liberal piety. That just happens to demean to women. But only college-educated ones.

An adventure in forgetting

My week's vacation ended, I'm once again able, after a gap of a few lazy days, to conveniently return to posting all of my idle thoughts about which you all so fervently do not care.

I firmly believe in the propriety of 'splitting the infinitive.' I believe it is the duty of every right-thinking writer of English --prose or poems, journalism or drama-- to proudly split any infinitive they choose. And to use 'they' with singular referents, as you already know. I put 'split the infinitive' in "scare quotes" (though my scare quotes are, of course, in truth pretentious 'inverted commas') because the act of placing words between the infinitive particle and the uninflected form of the verb, in fact, does not 'split' the infinitive: it's two words to begin with. What possible warrant could there be for the claim that in this situation, uniquely, two quite separate words are not to ever be separated by modifiers?

There is much that must be shown if this case is to deserve more than out-of-hand dismissal, especially given that the rules of ordinary speech in no way prevent, neither by etiquette nor the obviously more real demands of making sense, any speaker at all to blithely, indiscriminately, even casually, put anything they like between the particle and its verb.

Oh my. I had no intention, in beginning this post, to divert along the screeding path of grammatical rabble-rousing. Do forgive me. And don't my sentences become insufferable when I write in a rush? I'll have to take up sentence-final prepositions another day, because it is something I both make use of and have strong feelings about.

But I brought you here today to share a story of my forgetting a word, then finding a scrap of paper where I had used that word, then learning the word anew, in a different context, with an altogether different meaning: Atop a stack of notes and scraps I saw a sketch of a drum beat above which an arrow pointed to a brief rest, an eighth of note perhaps, and at the blunt end of the arrow, the notation 'anacrusis'; having no memory of writing the word, or any trace of its meaning, I set the page aside and thought no more of it --that is, until I ran across 'anacrusis' again that same day (we have discussed how this reliable coincidence of words new-learned both is and is not a property of the universe, have we not?) in Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance, a little, worthy book about metrical poetry, where the word means the addition of a syllable extraneous to the the meter of the line, not belonging to any of its feet, as in this from Twelfth Night: "O mistress mine where are you roaming?" in which the supernumerary to the trochaic four-footer is that aitchless 'O.'

O, I'm so proud of that last sentence! Can you tell I've been reading William H. Gass? --well, it'd be pretty surprising if you could, given both his relative fame these days and the paucity of evidence --anyway, he writes long sentences and I want to be like him. I have a sentence of his in my copy book that I'll share with you shortly.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New occasional feature: Learning to Spell

Maybe I've done it more than most, but everybody as learned to spell some words in ways that are, shall we say, not generally recognized. My new realization is that I need to take the 'e' out of 'sizeable' and put it on the end of 'therefor'. Where did I read 'sizable' twice and think, "hey lookit how dumb this guy is"? And then I saw it somewhere else and suddenly it was all, "oh, lookit me, I guess." No, don't lookit me, please. Of course, the Oxford American (2e) lists 'sizeable' as an also variant, which in this case means it's also standard. Maybe I'll keep my spelling after all.

As for 'therefore', I really hate that 'e' at the end, even though I dearly love 'e' in isolation. Oh, don't keep 'e' in isolation! He'll get lonely. Invite 'e' in to sit by the fire, won't you? Ahem. I don't like the standard spelling, but 'therefor' is a different word --maybe slightly different, maybe seriously different-- so I'd better learn to keep them straight. Plus, who doesn't know how to spell 'therefore'? Sheesh. What are you, a drummer?

The Forest of Sticks and Skins

Okay, I know the answer before I begin, but I still want to ask: is it even possible to blog about drumming? Are there any drummers who can read? And if the one literate drummer is blogging, who is left to read their blog?

I thought that drumming might be something I could write about on those days when the dictionary gods vouchsafe me no secrets, but I hesitate because I fear there would be a disconcerting dissonance between the subject of rock drumming and --whatever it is that I write about here.

Yes, it is revealed to me that my multi-faced nature is so radically bifurcated --nay, omnifurcated-- that its splendiferous multifarity cannot be contained --confined!-- within the bounds of one paltry uni-topical log of . . . my idle musings. Nor, apparently can the virile urges of my idio-semantics be contained by such outmoded machinery as actual words --nay!-- the needs of my meanings are such that I must shatter the whole of English morphology into recombinant pieces that I may mortar together in any form that suits my grand designs.

But I don't have anything to say about drumming.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Copy Book: A sentence most difficult to understand

From Proust again, naturally:

"Philosophy distinguishes often between free and necessary acts. Perhaps there is none to the necessity of which we are more completely subjected than that which, by virtue of a climbing power held in check by the act itself, brings back (once our mind is at rest) a memory until then levelled down with all the rest by the oppressive force of bemusement and makes it spring to the surface because unknown to us it contained more than any of the others a charm of which we do not become aware until the following day. And perhaps, too, there is no act so free, for it is still unprompted by habit, by that sort of mental obsession which, in matters of love, encourages the invariable reappearance of the image of one particular person."

It's three sentences, but you need the first to make sense of the second (good luck with that) and you need the second to make sense of the third. Though the third has its own super-abundance of self-interruptions, it's the second that really stopped my gob: I read it four times before I realized what an unparsable wonder it was and decided to preserve it forever in my copy book.

I count two places where it interrupts itself, but at 'and makes' I can no longer tell what is interruption and what is the main stream of sense, and I give up hope. A bit more punctuation might make it easier on the brain, but our current system of dots must be impotent of containing or guiding the maelstrom of meanings Proust packs into his lines, so what might properly belong behind fences of paired commas, or maybe curly braces, instead spring up like fully-endowed members of the sentence proper and blot out with their coagulated semantics any chance for the hapless reader to ever learn what the fuck Proust is trying to say.

You are, like, Borg

I hope you'll forgive my late lapse into peevology, as they call it over on the Language Log --and I hope you'll forgive the deletion of that peevology. What do I care if people want to surround every noun and verb and adjective of their cellular telephone conversations (held five feet from my very ear) with attenuated likes? I doesn't mean they're stupid, just* that they sound that way.

So, I will instead say only that the cellular telephone is the crumbling verge of the slippery slope to Borgdom --no, no pop culture references allowed-- it's the slippery slope to the Hive Mind. You know, bees. You are always connected.

But I have it heard it said that resistance is, like, futile.

*You are hereby instructed to view that 'just' as a coordinating conjunction, or at least something with equivalent force. No comma splice to see here. Move along.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's not very good but I wrote it anyway

I've tarted it up in an inappropriate title, but it's got to have a title. This one admits poetry's apiaries all belong to one person --but what am I gonna do? I'm the bee guy. Besides, when the Poet Tyrant sees it I'll never have another chance to write anything, let alone bad poems. Here you go:


The bees of a slow world do not buzz;
The whirring of their wingspans isn't wind;

The honey of slow bee, though sweet,
The sweetness is itself enough to eat;

The sweetness of a beesting isn't sleep:
It is loss and it is longing. It is heat.

In the slow world we don't speak;
We don't remember, we don't know
Where we have been.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New Occasional Feature: The Copy Book

Here is Proust on adolescence (from the Modern Library edition of Within A Budding Grove):

"But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through --awkward indeed but by no means infertile-- is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind. There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer posses the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything."

I recognize myself in there, especially the bit about giving anything to annul our past mistakes, though in my case that desire continues up to the present day. I regret pretty much everything I have ever done.

The Poet Tyrant

I am the art.
I am rime.

Whosoever, with unworthy words, shall insult the dumb stone,
and their hired engravers too, and those who made the insults
to be engraved, and all who can read the wounded stone
without a loosening in the bowels --for this sin is a contagion,
a stain that won't wash clean, that passes from eye to mouth to ear
and envermins every true use of rime, in study or in ceremony,
of whom the worm infects-- shall be put to death.

Or let them be confined for life, or until they can be
made to feel the weight of their crime
against rime.

Or let their confinement be one lifetime
for each "butterfly,"
each "everlasting."

But death, only death
for "Love."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Own Private Incestuous Echo Chamber

FAIR WARNING: I guarantee you won't care about this even more than you already don't care about everything else here at TYDCA.

Here's a comment on a review I wrote of a D&D module on Amazon. I decided not to respond to it there because I don't care to participate in the Free Exchange of Stupidity --even if this is not a stupid comment: I think his facts are right, but I'm not sure his warrant for defending the title of the module is well grounded. It might just be that old Appeal to Tradition again. Then again I actually didn't know, until I went there just now to get the URL, that the title was an allusion to Idylls of the King. See how I can mention the title now, just like I've known about it for more than two minutes?

Apart from that, I have no interest in his objections to my criticisms, but I suppose they provide a healthy contrast of opinions that might help the savvy consumer in their decision of whether to purchase a crappy supplement to a freshly obsolete game system.

Oh, and the reason I posted this at all is that I get a thrill from the irony that he's lecturing me about the history of a word --and that I didn't know that history.

Monday, October 13, 2008

My job is Guantanamo Bay today

Who would've thought that the part of Cuba with the most outrages upon human diginity wouldn't be the part controlled by Castro?

Torture, they say is for the birds,
Not fit for the Best Empire Still Living.
Why then, every Canadian Thanksgiving,
Do you command us here and gag us all with words?

Give thanks to my proofreader

Well, he's just about my only regular-kind-of-reader as well.

Dear Old Mr. Joss Nixon, after being big-hearted enough to read my blog --and after having been the original captive audience of the old-tech iteration of Things You Don't Care About-- offered his service this morning as a proofreader to save me from the shame of having my errata and sloecisms flapping in the breeze. And no doubt also so that he wouldn't suffer the same shame if he tried to share the blog with his SMART friends.

But why would anybody want to read this blog? It's like being read to from dictionaries.

Anyway, I've combed through all the entries and squashed several typo fleas, and some more serious vermin, so I hope that in future your reading experiences will be as bug-free as they can be here on Things You Don't Care About.

Thanks Joss!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What's next, mixing up the Wilde Flowers and the Soft Machine?

I would like to apologize to the members of A Seasonal Disguise for claiming that 'Pretty Ballerina' was by the Merry-Go-Round. It is, of course, by the Left Banke.

You'd think I would be able to remember who did that song in particular. (This link went to the MySpace page for Lust For War, where the Left Banke song was posted. It has long since vanished through my deleting it.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Eric the Urchin

In the dentist chair this morning I saw a bit of that Planet Earth deal, and the phrase 'larva of the sea urchin' made me wonder about why we call them larva and urchins, and why do we call both street urchins and sea urchins urchins? It just so happens that I wonder about the etymology of every word for which I don't already know; the difference this time is that I remembered which words I wondered about. And I have a this blog, and whole world of people who don't care that I can explain it to.

So, larva in Latin meant something like lemure, which is plenty interesting and probably something I'll use in D&D, but it's not my topic this afternoon. Urchin, you crafty Universe, is also a name for hedgehogs. Is there anything about hedgehogs that isn't wonderful? Their German name is Igel, so, you know, it sounds like eagle; and they're the mascot of the German Green Party, for which reason Doris Matthaus paints them into a great deal of her boardgame artwork, to my endless delight.

But I digress. And I hate that game. Hard.

Yesterday I saw a hedgehog in a top hat on a shelf in the grocery store, lying in a jumble of assorted stuffed-animal fur and sundry adorableness, and there was no way I could avoid taking both him and his top hat home with me. Well, not home, but back to work where I gave him to my dear friend Lowdown Larry Lowenbrau. Now, she used to ask 'What's his name please' whenever I presented her with any animal of the small and googly-eyed variety, but this time I was unprepared.

Well, she didn't ask anyway, but the point of this story (and don't get your hopes up, it's not much of a point) is that the Latin source of urchin is ericius, which is not related to Eric (that's Old Norse for 'ever-ruler') except that it looks just like it, so now the hedgehog is named Eric the Urchin. Huh. Oxford American has 'hericius.' If I'd looked there first, I probably wouldn't have thought of Eric. Thanks a lot not-Eric McKean.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Now here's a word we can all get behind


It looks to me like one of those newfangled blends, like craptacular, only this time the crap- is attached to fabulous instead of spectacular.

But, given that I found it in Proust, that analysis is somewhat unlikely. I know of a word, crapulent, of which our word could well be a sibling, that I think means 'drinking too much,' but I'll have to look it up. Oh, how I hate to look things up!

Yep, crapulous and crapulent are indeed brother and sister in meaning ' sickness caused by excessive eating and drinking.' My source is AHD4 as usual. It does seem meet that overeating would make one crapulous.

Now for the part I really hate: the etymology. This crappy word comes to us from Greek kraipale by way of Latin crapula which meant intoxication. But, get this, the Latin toxicus meant poison for arrows, finally explaining to me why the word toxophily, which means archery, sounds so poisonous. Toxon was the Latin for 'bow,' which they borrowed (no doubt at high and pointy speed) from Old Persian, in which it might have had the form taksa and would have meant 'arrow.' My search ends when I check a Farsi-English dictionary and learn that it lists the current word for arrow as tir, and I can but weep that our crapulous friend can trace his free-associative ancestry no further.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Let's invent some new pronouns

Unless my memory is faulty (it is, but I mean on this fact in particular) pronouns are called by linguists a 'closed class,' which means that, unlike with nouns and verbs, you can't add new members and you can't take them away. Well, as my post about THEM shows, the members of the pronoun class can change eventually.

Now, this is actually controversial these days --I'm surprised how often I find myself thinking of grammar controversies. Who knew?-- in that we feel a lack of a third person pronoun that doesn't specify gender. That is, some people feel the lack; smart people recognize that THEY serves perfectly. End of discussion.

I thought I said it was controversial. Well, my mind is made up, but other people argue about it.

Back to the new pronouns I'd like to introduce. About ten years ago, a fellow linguistics student (in whose band I happened to play some drums) and I , having learned of the existence in some languages of different kinds of WE, decided we'd like to have some different first-person plural pronouns to choose from as well, to clear away some potential ambiguities. Jar-Jar fever had the land in its rubbery grip in those days, so of course one new WE was WESA, which would mean 'you and me and also everyone else in this conversation,' and to contrast with that, we proposed WENIS, to mean 'me and someone else, but not you.'

So now we could say 'Wenis are going for pizza,' and the Hooper Humperdinks of the world would know right away that we meant Not Them. But we never said it.

I guess we'd still want a WE to mean 'you and me but not anybody else' so the original WE can be left to cover that.

I wish I had more pronouns to propose, but it's not like there's a lot of room in the class. It's closed. Instead --even though it's not at all necessary-- I'll just destroy the objection to using THEY with a singular referent: no one has the slightest difficulty understanding that YOU can have both singular and plural referents, and that it agrees with plural verbs even when its referent is singular.

And citing tradition by saying 'we've always done it this way' or 'this is its original meaning' and therefore it must always be done that way, is a logical fallacy. I mean, it's not like we still say hem for them.


For a good read about a different closed class changing, here's an article from Language Log, by an actual language professional.

The Watchmen and Philosophy

This is not a post about pop culture, oh no. This is a post about philosophy . . . in pop culture. I hope you get a chance to read Watchmen and Philosophy.

My brother's got an article in it!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Oh, Universe, how do you know both Proust and Wood?

In my Proust this morning, Marcel mentions letters from Gilberte making use of the preterite --he in fact makes the word 'preterite' a verb: preterition, I think it was-- I didn't really know what this meant: see the bit about French being 'mute and inscrutable' below.

So, in How Fiction Works just now I read footnote that informed me that French has a preterite tense used only in writing. Oh, Universe, how did you know what I would be reading today? Okay, it's pretty easy to know which books I'm reading, and I even have a schedule for reading them laid out, but still, good work Universe!

Roy Wood was not a member of the Mauve

It makes sense, doesn't it, that if you're going to get the most out of Proust you're going to have to know the meaning of mauve. It looks for all the world like a French borrowing to me --or, should I say, it looks like still-unborrowed French, mute and inscrutable as the rest of that language to me.

If I had to guess what color it refers to, I'd report that it brings to mind a deep purply rose, redolent of rosewater and swathed in a fog of rose-vapors. And as to the pronunciation, I have to say I can't choose between rhyming it with Raskolnikov (unless you put -off on the end of it, I suppose) and taking the preciously pretentious-sounding --vaugely French, even?--option of rhyming it with Karl Rove.

Let's check the desk dictionaries, shall we?

American Heritage, 4e calls it 'a moderate grayish violet to moderate reddish purple.' And they want to me to rhyme it with Rove! Who do they think I am? I have half a mind to spit a mouthful of just-this-side-of-tepid bergamot-tinged tea all over my volume of Within a Budding Grove. Hey, that rhymes with mauve too.

So, the etymology entry tells us the Latin source is malva, which is still the name of a genus of mallow-flowers. We're then directed to MALLOW where we learn that the Latin word is probably of Semitic origin, from the root mlh (the 'h' should have a dot under it; I don't know Unicode either), that root is used in words for 'saltmarsh' where these mallow-flowers must grow, and where they take their name from; mlh is also the root of the Hebrew word for salt.

So, send in your recipes for salty mauve marshmallows now.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What is the Good Life anyway?

It's got to be good both in the sense that it is enjoyable and fulfilling for me, and that it does something to help those people with half-lives, or worse, as Ted Honderich talks about in the Principle of Humanity.

Before getting to the talk of half-lives, I was thinking of responsible living --green energy consumption and sustainable agriculture. I suppose there's always progress to be made on those fronts.

In addition to my inveterate consumption of art-like objects --which makes living sweet for me, but is at odds with green living-- I have to admit that I don't do anything to help all the people not living in comfortable oblivion.

Just look at what happens when you decide that you will not write about pop culture. You don't have anything to say.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Latin has two anuses

Presented without comment: Our English anus comes to us intact from Latin, where it had its present meaning; but Latin bequeaths us another anus, that I learned about from Norman Schur's 1000 Most Challenging Words: anile, meaning to behave like an old woman, comes from the Latin anus, which was their word --entirely unrelated to the other, Schur assures us-- for 'old woman.'


Alright, now for the comment. If memory serves, the Spanish name for the ring finger is dedo anular. I don't know if it's undue influence of Captain Beefheart's song 'Korn Ring Finger*,' but that name looks to me a lot like 'anal finger.' Well, wouldn't you know it, that first Latin anus does in fact also mean 'ring'; I presume the body part was so named for its shape.

I mean no disrespect to old women by writing about this. Pity the word anile isn't so polite. It does have one polite application, I suppose, though the politeness will only be within your mind: if you're unsettled, as I am, whenever someone describes themselves as 'anal' as a shortening of Frued's somehow even less pleasant 'anal retentive' --a concept which deserves none of its currency, I hope you'll agree-- you can pretend they have in fact said 'anile,' even though neither the pronunciation nor the meaning is quite right.

*it's a bonus track added to the 1999 release of Safe As Milk

Let me at 'em

This delights me, but I don't suppose anyone else would care about it: the American Heritage Dictionary (fourth edition) defines 'EM, as I expected, as a contraction of THEM; but the etymology reveals that it comes to us from Middle English hem, which itself comes from Old English him, also spelled heom, the dative and accusative plural of he.

Looking for the sources of THEM, I learn that it comes from Old English thaem and Old Norse theim, again by way of Middle English. So 'EM is not a contraction of THEM?

I thought I had a fancy bit of detective work that I could present to the usual audience of People Who Don't Care, but it turns out the Oxford American Dictionary steals my thunder: its entry of 'EM spells it out for you without requiring the strenuous detective work of reading two different entries. I quote: "Originally a form of hem . . . now regarded as an abbreviation of THEM." Good ol' Erin McKean.

Still, I'm delighted that this old-as-Chaucer word hem, which I doubt anybody speaking English today would claim as their own, is still among us, but unrecognized. Like a Canadian.