Saturday, 31 October 2009

theremin, a new word for me

Today in The Age newspaper Danny Katz referred to a theremin. Actually, he mentioned a Dr Who theremin.

I didn't have the least idea what it would be - turns out it's a musical instrument. Aha, so that's how they made that weird sound in the Dr Who theme.

Here's a guy having fun trying to play the theremin. Amazingly, you don't touch it to produce the music.

The story of the inventor is interesting, too. He was a Russian who went to the US but was forcibly repatriated to the USSR in 1938, put in a prison camp for some time and is said to have subsequently worked for the KGB. Maybe one of these days we'll be watching a film based on his life.

Here's a page of information about the theremin and its inventor. And here's a musician playing Ave Maria.

Oh, by the way, the theremin was played in the best sci-fi film ever made - of course, I refer to the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Friday, 30 October 2009

ghost writing vis-a-vis co-authoring

Today Richard Stubbs on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne talked with Felix Francis, the younger son of Dick Francis, the author of so many horse-racing related thrillers.

I've already mentioned that Hackpacker had a cross-posted report from the Edinburgh Book Festival in which it was said that most of Dick Francis' books were ghost-written by his wife.

Felix Francis explains the writing of the novels - which I loved - as more of a 'family business' than ghost-writing. He told Richard Stubbs that he has taken over the writing of novels in the Francis name, but Dick Francis is still involved in the composition of the stories and has the power of veto over what is written under this 'brand name'.

In an article in The Age newspaper he is quoted:
''My father was the ideas man, he was great on characters and plots,'' says Felix Francis, 56, as he sits in the grandstand at Flemington. ''My mother would take his words and put rhythm into the sentences, polish them. She always said she corrected the spelling, but she did more than that. My mother and father wrote the books together, they always did.''
With the rise of new technologies in the world of writing, it is tempting to see a novel as a 'product'-if you buy a digital copy you are not buying the physical book, you are buying the way the words were put together. So it seems logical to refer to the Dick Francis novels as a 'family business'.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

a whole nother conversation

Still on the track of that elusive new word, nother, I found a trace of it today on the radio, on ABC 774, when Jon Faine, a presenter whom I respect, used it. He was talking to John Alexander, former tennis star, about Alexander's try for preselection in the electorate of Bennelong, and Faine said a particular topic (I forget what) was "a whole nother conversation".

As far as I can see, the new word only occurs with the word whole. Back in August I thought it would oust other, but I'm coming to the conclusion that it will come in as a new word alongside it, seeing it is only occurring as a phrase with whole.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

what spelling tells us about word history

I often notice the words stationery and stationary used interchangeably, and wish the writer had been fortunate enough, as I was, to have a teacher explain a useful mnemonic for remembering which is which.

(In researching this post, I've come across a fun site called Mnemonic Dictionary where people suggest their own mnemonics for various words.)

The trick I was taught for distinguishing between stationery and stationary was similar to the one at

But I think the best way to distinguish between spellings is to know the reason behind them. A stationer, in mediaeval times, was a merchant who had the right to stay in one place rather than have to wander around, as pedlars usually did at that time. The stationer was usually based near a university and sold books - but also writing materials.

So, if I just remember that there's a person selling paper and writing products in the shop, and that person is a stationer, I should remember the spelling of stationery.

The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers in Britain has a little more about the topic. (I love that name.)

And more at Ryman Stationery in the UK.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Mechanics Institutes

The latest edition of the local paper for the Upper Yarra Valley has an advertisement for a building for sale. I don't expect to learn more about the meaning of words from real estate ads, but I did today. The building in question is a Mechanics Institute. I've seen them all around our own state, Victoria, but didn't realise until I started writing this post that they are part of a world-wide movement.

It had never occurred to me previously to wonder whether there were so many mechanics in the nineteenth century that the need to educate them was so pressing that hundreds of institutions were built and staffed.

But I read that the word mechanic in the nineteenth century meant artisan, craftsman or working man. (Hmm...I wonder if women were permitted to attend these early institutions for adult education.)

The Online Etymological Dictionary says the word used to refer primarily to those who were employed in manual labour, handicraft workers or artisans, until the rise of the automobile, when the main meaning came to refer to those who make or repair machinery.

Friday, 23 October 2009

interstitial art

Now that I've acquired the word interstitial as a part of my vocabulary, it's great to have a chance to use it, so I'll link to a Boing Boing post on interstitial writing.

The post says, 'Interstitial art is found in the interstices of recognized category and genre.' For eight weeks The Interstitial Arts Foundation will be publishing one short story a week.

Hmm... the more times I write this word, the harder it is to spell it, so I won't be surprised if I've got it wrong at least once in this post.

when expressions go extinct

As I was listening to a discussion today on the ABC about the future of the Southern Bluefin Tuna, an expert in the area said they might possible go extinct if we don't work out whether we are overfishing this species.

I don't say "go extinct". I would normally say become extinct. I was surprised to hear the former phrase used on the ABC, and by an expert. I had noticed the same phrase used in the book I mentioned on 17 September, The Link, by Colin Tudge.

It appears I am behind the times, so I'd better adjust my vocabulary to the twenty-first century.

A quick Google search on the phrases 'go extinct/become extinct' comes up with a list of sites almost equally divided between the two phrases, but the interesting thing is that many of the brief summaries use both expressions interchangeably.

So maybe I can keep on saying it my way. My way is not extinct yet.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

ghost writers in the sky

Okay, I couldn't resist heading this post with a feeble pun.

Today I read an article in The Age about the launch of a book by Mick Gatto, an autobiography. I think it's interesting that the launch featured three Mick Gattos; Gatto himself; the actor who played him in Underbelly, a recent televison series about gangland warfare in Australia; and, not least, the writer who ghosted the book.

The Australian says Gatto raced his story into print to get in before the producers of Underbelly produce a film about Gatto's life.

I think it's not often that a ghost writer is given a significant role at the launch of a book, even appearing as one of the major speakers.

Incidentally, the book was produced in only four months, according to The Australian.

Ghost writing must be a highly specialised skill, I reckon, because you have to write in another person's voice. For more information on this, there's a cross-posted report from the Edinburgh Book Festival on Hackpacker's blog.

Monday, 5 October 2009

yet more about the prefix be-

In searching out information about befriend as a verb, I came across a word I hadn't heard before - it's privative. I came across the word in the summary of an article about be- and bi- used as prefixes in verbs of deception, like beguile and betray. There's another word, bewray, meaning to divulge, reveal or betray, but that word's not used nowadays at all.

I think the article argues that this psychological sense of the prefix came about via an earlier privative construction, such as in bereave or behead.

A prefix can be privative. Hmm... What does that mean? I was beginning to feel completely lost, until I looked up the meaning of this new word. Privative, according to thefreedictionary, means 'altering the meaning of a term from positive to negative'. Yeah... getting beheaded would be a very negative experience.

And then, of course, there's privation, which sounds similar, so I'm going to remember this new word, privative, by comparison with privation and being deprived of something.

Well, I'll remember it for as long as I can - probably till tomorrow morning if I'm lucky.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

use of the prefix be-

I'm still wondering about the difference between the verb befriend and the verb, to friend.

I thought I'd have a look at the meaning of the prefix be-.

The dictionary on my computer has this entry for be- in the formation of verbs:
• all over; all around : bespatter.
• thoroughly; excessively : bewilder.
2 (added to intransitive verbs) expressing transitive action : bemoan.
3 (added to adjectives and nouns) expressing transitive action : befool | befriend.
4 (added to nouns) affect with : befog.
• (added to adjectives) cause to be : befoul.
5 (forming adjectives ending in -ed) having; covered with: : bejeweled.
ORIGIN Old English , weak form of bī [by.]

It sure is a useful prefix.

And when I looked in The Word Museum, by Jeffrey Kacirk, I found lots of lovely old words that we don't use now:
beblubbered = swollen
begrumpled = displeased (Now that one is definitely going into my vocabulary.)
begrutten = showing the effects of much weeping (I hope I don't need that one in the near future.)
behounc'd = tricked out to look fine (You'll have to buy the book to track down the origin of that one.)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

friend is not such a new verb after all

I've just noticed a post on LanguageLog Grammarphobia Blog about the verb friend. The post cites a history for the verb friend going back to 1225!

I love reading LanguageLog. What a coincidence that it has a post on the very topic I'm interested in right now.

befriend or friend?

I posted about the new word friend, a verb meaning to make friends with someone on Facebook. (I don't think I've seen this word used as a verb on Facebook itself, though.)

I was wondering why we don't use the existing word, befriend, but perhaps befriend has too specific a meaning:
verb [ trans. ]
act as a friend to (someone) by offering help or support.
Maybe when we friend someone on Facebook we don't want to enter into the complexity of a relationship that places any demands on us; we don't want to have to help out or support the other person. After all, the new Facebook friend might be someone we haven't seen for twenty years, someone we don't intend to see in person in the next twenty.

new word 'friended' slides into everyday parlance

Chad Taylor wrote an article in The Age newspaper last week about turning his back on Facebook because it no longer serves his needs. He said,
I liked it at first. I joined and was quickly “friended” by an ex-colleague…
I didn’t “friend” strangers or celebrities.
It’s a relatively new word, friended, so it seemed logical to me that Chad Taylor would place it in quotation marks. After all, he’s a word-smith, a novelist.

But the third time he used it in his article, he didn’t put quotation marks around it. He said,
…but one of her friends was an editor whom I friended…
And that seems logical to me also. You can’t go on forever placing quotes around a word. If it’s going to make its way in the world, it has to stand on its own.

So Chad Taylor’s one-page article seems to me a microcosm of the absorption of a new word into everyday English.

(I'd like to have put a link to the article but you have to pay to read it, so I didn't do so. Oh, the joy of old technologies - I have a hard-copy on my desk, and I can re-read it as many times as I like, for free.)