Sunday, 27 September 2009

ancestor or descendant?

It's surprising how often peope accidentally use the word ancestor when they mean descendant.

Today an article in The Sunday Age said:
During the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, Confucius - "Kong Fuzi" in Chinese - was reviled as a "stinking corpse" by Chairman Mao, whose Red Guards were ordered to destroy Confucian artefacts and persecute his ancestors as symbols of feudal oppression.
I did a mental double-take when I read it, wondering if perhaps Confucian family corpses had been dug up and desecrated.

But on a second reading I think the writer has used the wrong word.

A while ago I watched an episode of the British televsion series, Who Do You Think You Are, a wonderful programme, and I'm reasonably sure I remember one of the speakers using the word ancestor incorrectly.

English Common Errors mentions that in an earlier edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J K Rowling made this error. (It was corrected in a later edition after many people commented on it.)

Language Log, in a discussion of the linearity of English, suggests that people might use ancestor as a word that covers both directions in time, ie those who were born before and those who were born after.

This sounds reasonable to me, since I've never heard anyone confuse the two words in the opposite way.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

detecting or detectoring for an Anglo-Saxon treasure?

I was listening to a report about the amazing discovery of a hoard of Anglo-Saxon metal artifacts, a discovery that will change the way historians view the seventh century. The reporter said the finder was 'doing a spot of metal detect-' and I expected to hear detecting.

But she said detectoring.

My computer dictionary doesn't like this word detectoring and insists on putting a little red dotted line under it. And Google asks me, when I search the word, do I mean detecting?

But I guess the people who go looking for metal know the jargon for their activity, and the Romney Marsh Metal Detecting Club uses the word detectorists to describe their members.

But I notice they are a detecting club.

Friday, 25 September 2009

mediaeval help-desk

A friend forwarded me this short clip on how mediaeval readers might have coped with changes in the technology of reading.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

origin of the word scientist

Robyn Williams, on The Science Show, was recently in Britain talking to scientists in Guilford, in Surrey, at The British Festival of Science. He said this festival has been going for about 180 years.

I was interested to hear him say it was here that the word scientist was first coined, in 1833.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that William Whewell (1794-1866), who originated the word scientist, was an influential thinker, respected by the major scientists of his day, so much so that he was frequently asked to invent new words.
Whewell invented the terms “anode,” “cathode,” and “ion” for Faraday. Upon the request of the poet Coleridge in 1833 Whewell invented the English word “scientist;” before this time the only terms in use were “natural philosopher” and “man of science.”
Wondering why it took a poet to request a new term, I looked at a short piece by John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston. It's a brief discussion of the influence the Romantic Poets had on the science of the 19th Century. In part, he says:
When those 19th-century thinkers attacked Rationalism, their impact on the world of making and doing was profound. Science went into retreat while a technology like none ever known rose up in England. Machines, of course, are the first fruit of the human mind. Before a machine can be built in the world, it must be built in the mind. It is a synthetic reality. Technology acts out the Romantic vision.

I must say, to me it's poetry in motion to see a passenger jet streak across the sky, or to listen to the rumble of traffic across the old stone bridge over the Darebin Creek.

funny quotation marks

I've just been laughing out loud at the photos on the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks.

It's hilarious.

What a money saver it would be if someone told the sign-writers not to waste paint on those unnecessary punctuation marks.

I found this great site by following a link from Language Log.

browsing or grazing?

Sometimes the origin of a word is so obvious that I wonder why I never thought of it.

I'm still reading (and loving) The Link; Uncovering our Earliest Ancestor, as I mentioned on 17 September. Last night I was struck by the simple word graze when I was reading about the important role grass has played in the history of our planet.
But grass has always been important to us. The evolutionary rise of grass matters to us absolutely, but grass has become such a powerful player in the world's ecology primarily because, almost uniquely among plants, it likes to be eaten - not too much but quite a lot.
Well, that certainly makes me feel better about mowing the lawn. I don't eat the grass, but I do feed it back to the ground, as mulch.

Grazers eat grass. So simple. So elegant. I wonder if in the distant past our ancestors called them grassers.

Browsers are herbivores also, but they feed on the shoots of leaves and bushes.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


I came across a new word today, one I simply have to have, because it says something so economically. It's lagniappe and I saw it at Language Log.

It means something thrown in as a free extra. It's pronounced lan-yap and comes from the US, from American French, via American Spanish, from Quechua.
Merriam-Webster dates it from 1844

I'll be looking for a chance to use it.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Morgan the dog and the etymology of his name

A research project at LaTrobe university aims to study ways to help people remember faces and names. Since I'm terrible at both of these tasks, I volunteered to take part. In the course of the first interview, one of the strategies mentioned was to make a memorable association with a newly heard name.

So, today, when I was trying to memorise the name Morgan (the name of a dog, I might mention), I thought of Morgan the pirate. I can't remember anything about Morgan the pirate, but his surname has stuck in my memory. The dog is black, and I thought it might be a black business being a pirate.

So far, so good. The black dog is named Morgan...

But then I wondered about the word morganatic. Being an occasional reader of Regency Romances (well, more than occasional), I know about the morganatic marriage between George, Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert. But how did such a marriage get its name?

I was surprised to read on TripAtlas that morganatic marriages have never been a part of British law; but that does explain why society in the early nineteenth century did not recognise the marriage.

WorldWideWords says etymologists puzzled over the origins of morganatic, and even at one time believed it might derive from the unequal marriage between Morgan le Fey (a fairy) and a mortal.

Michael Quinion, the author of WordWideWords, suggests that the generally accepted meaning is associated with an old word for Morning Gift, morganegiba (think of the modern German word for morning, Morgen). In an old custom, a husband would give a gift to his wife the morning after a marriage was consummated. In a morganatic marriage, this is all the wife receives - she can't make a claim on the husband's rank or entitlements and neither can any children of the marriage.

Incidentally, I was interested to read on TripAtlas the assertion that the church pushed for the adoption of the practice of Morning Gift as a way of giving women more security in a marriage - any lands or goods given were owned independently by the wife and held for her children.

But, after all this research, I'm left with the most important piece of information - my new canine friend is named Morgan!

Perhaps I could have saved myself a long process if I'd taken notice of his owner's assertion that his name means 'lives by the sea' - but no associations occurred to me about a young black labrador and the sea.

Hmmm... wait a minute? Weren't Labrador retrievers originally bred to help fishermen haul in the nets?

Friday, 18 September 2009

prefixes, suffixes and infixes - and arpy darpy

When I posted about the use of bloody as a highly informal insertion into Australian English words, I didn't know this form of expression is called an infix, until Anonymous commented on the post.

Since then I've discovered that this particular infix is a FREE morpheme (smallest unit of meaning) because it can also operate as a stand-alone word - that is, it can move freely within a sentence without being part of another word.

I've been told about blooming, which can operate in the same way, but has more of a British English tone.

And, just now, I was browsing HyperTextBooks and saw a mention of damn used in the same way - fan-damn-tastic - though I must say the particular example doesn't roll off my tongue as smoothly as our Aussie expression does.

But, best of all , I suddenly remembered arp-language! When I was young I could speak it quickly and fluently, but now I have trouble even remembering how it worked. But I think it involved inserting arp - an infix! surely an infix! - before any vowel that was sounded. For instance, bottle would be barpottle and camera would be carpamarperarpa. Or maybe it would have been carpamarpra, because we pronounced it camra.

A Wikipedia entry calls this language game Arpy-Darpy and says it is spoken in New Zealand. Well, I can attest that it has been spoken in Australia, though I don't know if anyone plays with it now. We called it Arp-language.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

origin of the phrase 'survival of the fittest'

I'm reading a book about the discovery of the most complete early primate fossil ever found. It's called 'The Link' and it's by Colin Tudge. (If you click on the link - no pun intended - to the book, you'll arrive at a wealth of information about this fossil, and you can download the first chapter.)

I'm fascinated by the story of Ida, the young creature who breathed carbon dioxide, died and fell into a pool, her body preserved as a perfect specimen because there was no air at the bottom of the pool. But I didn't expect the laugh-out-loud moment that came with the reading of a paragraph about the phrase 'survival of the fittest'.

Tudge explains that in the middle of the nineteenth century the word fittest didn't have the dominant connotation it has now, 'of health and raw strength'. To the Victorians the word meant suitable or apt, and Charles Darwin was quite clear that natural selection does not need to result in creatures that are superior to their predecessors. Tudge explains:
He [Darwin] had spent a long time studying barnacles, after all, and barnacles are astonishingly successful - we find them everywhere. But they descended from free-living, shrimplike ancestors and became barnacles by losing their brains and sticking themselves head-first to rocks - hardly a great leap forward, but it worked.
I love this explanation!

By the way, Darwin didn't coin the expression survival of the fittest. It was first used by Herbert Spencer.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

a mysterious advertisement without a gerund

We received a strange brochure in our letterbox today. It's from Australia Post and shows pictures of various computing devices for sale.

At the top it says: Part of me staying up to date.


There's a picture of a man typing at a computer. I thought maybe his hands are the part of his body staying up to date. Or maybe his brain...

And then I wondered if the word 'staying' is a gerund, and not a present participle. Perhaps it means that having items of modern technology is part of his staying up to date.

To be quite honest, I hardly ever use a possessive pronoun before a gerund these days. Grammartips, at Homestead, gives these examples of incorrect use of the gerund:
He resents you being more popular than he is.
~Most of the members paid their dues without me asking them.
~They objected to the youngest girl being given the command position.
~What do you think about him buying such an expensive car.
~We were all grateful for Jane taking on the responsibility for the party.
I'd be likely in everyday speech to say these incorrect forms, rather than the correct forms:
~He resents your being more popular than he is.
~Most of the members paid their dues without my asking them.
~They objected to the youngest girl's being given the command position.
~What do you think about his buying such an expensive car?
~We were all sorry about Jane's losing her parents like that.

Sometimes, however, using the incorrect form of a gerund makes the meaning unclear. I think the brochure should say: Part of my staying up to date.

Monday, 14 September 2009

language experts and language users

When I roam around the internet, I come across blogs where the writers are experts on language. I also enjoy looking at ones like mine, where the writers are simply interested amateurs.

But I think I enjoy most of all coming across sites where an expert has used language to achieve an effect. By this type of expert, I mean, advertising executives.

For instance, here is an interesting discussion of the usage of the expression yeah-no - which, by the way, like a typical Australian, I find myself saying all the time.

But there's enormous pleasure in seeing yeah-no used to such effect in this advertisement from New Zealand. (I followed a link from Language Log to the advertisement.)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

'bored of' or 'bored with'?

I was working with a young student recently (aged about 10) and was surprised to hear him say he was bored of something.

I suggested he might consider changing to bored with, as that is a more adult way of expressing the concept. I thought bored of might be one of the stages young language learners go through on the way to developing a mature vocabulary. But he, confident and highly intelligent, was adamant that he wouldn't be changing anytime soon, because his was the correct way to say it.

I pushed the discussion to the back of my mind, waiting to discover how often I would hear bored with.

Today it was in our local broadsheet newspaper, The Sunday Age, in a quote from fashion designer Wayne Cooper. He said, 'People are bored of the recession.'

A glance around the internet came up with a discussion at Language Log where these two phrases were discussed in 2004. The author pointed out that
It's not totally impossible, though [that bored of might overtake bored with] -- "bored of it" now gets 25,400 ghits, whereas "bored with it" gets 48,500 , barely 1.9 times more.
A search today on Google found 7,351 for 'bored+of' and 6889 for 'bored+with'. (I put in the plus-sign because simply searching 'bored of' found lots of sites with the word bored in different combinations.)

The Language Log post pointed me to an article in Humanising Language Teaching where these phrases are discussed in the context of the bigger picture of how language changes over time. Most interesting.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

a word in the middle of another word

The commonly used Australian ' word, bloody, can be used in lots of places in a sentence - for instance, in the statement 'John finished last in the competition,' you could say:
Bloody John finished last in the competition.
John bloody finished last in the competition.
John finished bloody last in the competition.
John finished last in the bloody competition.

But, best of all, this useful word can even be inserted into one of the other words, if there are more than a couple of syllables!

John finished last in the compebloodytition.

Hmmm... my example doesn't sound right. But I know I've heard people stick this über-word into another long word.

I'm going to keep my ears open for the next time I hear it.

I think there may be more of these expressions that can be placed inside another word in spoken conversation - though I've never seen this construction in writing.

By the way, for any readers who think I'm using unacceptable language here, bloody achieved respectability in Australia when it was used in the anti-drinking series of advertisements by the government from 1989.

On the other hand, people in the US weren't impressed by the use of bloody (or hell) in the 2006 Tourism Australia campaign based on the slogan Where the bloody hell are you?

Friday, 11 September 2009

like a bat out of a cave

As I was waiting to move off at the traffic lights today I mused that I'd have to go like a bat out of hell if I wanted to get into the right-hand lane before the van that was revving beside me.

Seeing I'm a bit old to be racing cars through our local shopping strip, it was fortunate that I slowed down to think about the expression like a bat out of hell.

I don't see why bats would be racing out of hell. Surely they should hang around down there to bother the troubled lost souls. And the word hell? Sounds like the German word Höhle, which means cave.

An interesting discussion at The Phrase Finder points out that bats flit rather than speeding around; but a mass of bats flying out of a cave together might seem fast.

The writers also point out that the expression was given new life by the Meatloaf song in the 1970s. I'm sure that song is the reason the phrase has stayed in my vocabulary.

Word Detective
Bats also are amazing aerial acrobats, flying swiftly through the night using only their natural sonar (high-pitched squeaks) for guidance. The bat's flight is so quick and erratic that when aviators during World War I needed a simile for flying at top speed, the bat was a logical choice "Like a bat out of hell" first appeared in print in 1921, but is said to have been in common usage several years earlier. The "out of hell" part was tacked on purely for added color, and probably refers to the bat being "from hell," not necessarily trying to leave hell.

I guess the meaning does relate to bats coming out of or from hell, but I prefer my image of bats streaming out of a cave as the sun sinks in the west behind a bank of black clouds.