Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

Friday Free-for-All #76: Skill, youth, fashion, offense

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What skill do you wish more people took the time to learn?

Well, speaking as a resident of the U.S. and on behalf of quite a number of people for whom English is their first language (Canada, y’all get a pass here), I really wish that more people who only speak English would learn at least one other language, no matter how young or old they are.

The U.S. itself has no official language, despite what so many ignorant people seem to think. Sure, some states do, even a state as liberal as California, but only because our ballot initiative system is so screwed up. And, then again, our state government wisely ignores the “English only” BS that was passed in the 1980s, so it doesn’t really matter.

But learning another language and getting good at it is probably the best way to broaden your perspective, connect to another culture and — ironic, I know — learn a lot more about your own. Want to really, really learn about English? Study Latin, German, or French.

Or if you want a deeper dive into the effects of colonialism, study Spanish, any one of a ton of First Peoples’/Indigenous languages from the Americas, Hawai’ian, or take your pick from the language groups of the Philippines.

You’re welcome. Hey, at the very least, you’ll be able to order at your favorite local ethnic restaurant without sounding like a moron, so there’s that.

What do you really wish you knew when you were younger?

Oh, if I knew this one, I would have been dangerous. It’s a simple rule that applies any time, really, before you’re at least a few years out of college and into your first real adult job where they let you actually give your opinions about shit.

So… from infant sentience to maybe 26, essentially.

And the secret is this: Everyone else your age that you meet is just as goddamn insecure and scared and worried as you think that you are. It’s just that some are better at pretending that they’re not. Want to rule the school? It’s easy.

Give up your fear and cease to give a royal fuck about what anyone else thinks of you. Make bold statements. Commit outrageous creative acts. Be so daring that you inspire others.

I got a great example in this a couple of years ago, when I reconnected with one of my old college roommates on Facebook. When we finally got into an extended chat, we told each other what we had thought of each other at the time, and I was blown away.

See, I thought that he was this really confident, mature guy who was wise in the ways of the world and knew things about how life worked that I possibly couldn’t because I just felt so emotionally immature and totally insecure, and really didn’t know how to relate to people.

But he told me that his apparent bravado was just a cover-up for his shrieking insecurity, and that he always thought of me as one of the most intelligent people he’d ever met. But see, that was because I tended to use information and knowledge as a shield against my own insecurity — “if I tell you this fact, you won’t see my fear.”

It was a totally eye-opening experience not so much from what I learned about him but what I learned from him about me. It’s never easy to find out that someone else’s impression of you is so ridiculously positive, but it is encouraging.

So, when you’re young, if you’re the one who asks intelligent questions or approaches people and makes them feel welcome and heard, you’re going to be the coolest one in the room. But never do it to cover up insecurity. Learn first that all of your insecurity is self-produced and it probably can’t hold a candle to all of the insecurities that the #1 Influencer on campus actually has.

After all, if they’re so confident, why would they feel the constant need to basically scream, “Look at how amazing I am, and isn’t all the stuff I own just bonkers?”

But… guess what? The grown-ups are just the same, only worse. Inside every Karen, who seems to not give a shit what anyone thinks about them, there’s really an insecure child who feels utterly helpless without being a control freak. Hence, when they hit an obstacle, they start abusing the staff and screaming for the manager/

They’re not powerful. They’re pathetic.

So, kids, when the adults try to stifle your personality or creativity just because they think they can, well… if you truly wind up with all this adult knowledge stuck in your young head, dispatching them should be no problem at all, because they are even more insecure and worried than your own cohort.

Finally, if you rebel in the right way by driving them nuts without making them prosecute you, even if you get kicked out of school, you’re going to have set up the platform to becoming a superstar.

But I think that part has always been true.

Who do you think has the biggest impact on fashion trends: Actors and actresses, musicians, fashion designers, or consumers?

Oh, this one is easy. It’s the idiots who think that fashion trends have any importance at all. Or, in other words, the stupid consumers who buy it. This is one of the reasons that The Devil Wears Prada is so great.

Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly (yeah, no symbolism in that name!), builds up this incredible defense of what she does and why it’s important and it sounds plausible — but it’s a house of card(igan)s and even while it’s brilliantly argued in the film by her character, it also falls apart even while she’s extolling a (very particular) shade of blue and how it became a “thing.”

Simply put, her influence only exists because some people actually give a shit about what she decrees to be fashionable. And upon her words rise or fall the designers, and then the actors, actresses, musicians, and other influencers who get the free clothes to parade on red carpets in order to try to sell it to…

Oh yeah. The group I started with. The consumers. And it’s simple. Stop buying their shit and paying too much for it, wear what is within your budget and comfortable, and you could destroy the fashion industry in a season.

Or, you know — grow a set and make your own fashion. Truth to tell, some of the best-dressed people I know shop exclusively in vintage stores and thrift shops or even make their own. This is how hippies created their own unique style, and it was also the punk aesthetic before that got co-opted by… whatever they called hipsters in the 80s. Poseurs, maybe?

But ooh. Power! Take that non-designer purse or cheap wallet, spend in the right places, and bring down one of the most pretentious industries in the world.

Sequel idea to the above move: The Angel Wears Whatever the Fuck They Want To.” Coming to Amazon Prime, Spring 2022.

How much effort should an individual put into not offending others?

Well, it depends. Are you an artist, comedian, satirist, marketer or other creative doing your job? Then it’s practically your role to offend, with a couple of caveats.

Always punch up, and never down. Making fun of the homeless or addicts or the poor, etc.? Yeah. Fuck right off. Making fun of someone because of a trait they can’t control — like age, race, handicap, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, etc., then also fuck right off.

Belief systems have a wider range, since they are traits that people can control. So if they follow a particular religion (or not-religion) or political bent or whatever, but do not use it to punch down at others, then give them a pass.

If, however, they use the beliefs they have chosen to be dicks to people, then you owe them no courtesy, whether you’re a working artist or not.

Making fun of politicians, billionaires, celebrities, people richer than they ever need to be, and other random elevated idiots? Fire the hell away with both barrels.

And the last two bits apply to average people as well, on the internet and in real life. If they’re an elected official or espouse a certain ideology or political view and use that to try to oppress people for what they are instead of how they believe, then take the gloves off and punch away.

But if you aren’t dealing with assholes who choose to be assholes, then opt for compassion.

That obnoxious Karen screaming at a grocery clerk for daring to tell her to pull her mask over her nose? Yeah — give that bitch some sass and chase her out of the store.

Meanwhile, that maybe homeless person with the cardboard sign on the off-ramp… well, you may not feel inclined to give them money because it may not actually help, but the least you can do is just shut up and not call them names while you’re waiting at the light.

Oh yeah — I’ve seen this shit from far too many Karens in Range Rovers that I just know their gentrifying, developer husbands bought the Climate Change inducing vehicles mainly to keep their harridan trophy wives out of their hair.

That, and the little detail that driving a Range Rover is the universal language for “Caution: Giant Asshole on Board.”

Oops. I just punched up. See how that works? If they don’t like it, they can go cry on their yacht.

Talky Tuesday: Listen up!

Words are wonderful things in any language because they can communicate so much. Even more so, at least as far as English is concerned, the words themselves don’t have to make much sense and yet can still convey so much.

Just look at the two opening stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Jabberwocky. Most of the words aren’t real words, and yet the thing still makes sense in its own way:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now, why does it make such sense? Mainly because here Carroll is mostly just playing with the nouns and verbs. He leaves the other parts of speech alone. This tells us a lot about how English works, because if I said, “Did those mamleplompers from the widget fiskers over in Nimblebleck caravel up the shashandy yet, or do I need to frelgoik the yerpers in the warehouse,” wouldn’t it sound like it made some sort of sense, and you only didn’t get it because you didn’t know the jargon yet?

Real world example: “So if we go with the birthday rule, you can update your supplement next May, but there’s nothing we can do about your Part D until open enrollment, and as for your spouse, since they’ve already qualified for Part A but had prior coverage, it comes down to whether they fall under IEP or ICEP, which all depends on when Part B became effective.”

In that case, all of the words are English, but that probably made not a lick of sense to most of you and, about two years ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either. (And in the five months sine I left that field, the lingo is slipping away.) Yes, jargon is a foreign language as well, and English (and all other languages) has many jargons.

But the fuckery can go a lot further than Carroll ever took it, and if we jump into the 20th century, we meet James Joyce, who wrote an entire novel, Finnegans Wake, using multi-lingual puns to create a language that almost did and didn’t make sense. And yet, somehow (to those of us who’ve braved it) it does somehow communicate meaning. The trick, I think, is to read it out loud, which turns it into an hallucinogenic experience. That’s right. Reading this book will make you trip balls.

Here’s just a taste from the first chapter:

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Really, read it out loud a few times, and it will start to make sense. Trust me.

Another author who played with language in a different way was William S. Burroughs (one of my influences), but rather than making up words, he instead broke up narrative coherence through a rather brute-force physical method called the cut-up technique. This literally involved cutting pages apart and then sticking them back together in random order.

It’s not prevalent in his early works beyond the galleys for Naked Lunch being sent to the printer separately and then put together and published in the order they were returned, which wasn’t the order they were written in. But in his later works in the 60s, he published his Nova Trilogy, three books created using this method. This article has an excerpt from the second book in the trilogy, The Ticket that Exploded.

The next one to play with language was Samuel Beckett, and while I don’t think he used the cut-up method, he did manage to create endless staircases of words that always seemed to be going somewhere but then which would hit a landing and start over. In his case, there weren’t really any cut-ups and all of the words and sentences made sense, but the ultimate effect was always a frustrating trek that dragged us along without taking us anywhere.

Well, at least not anywhere in terms of story, but good Beckett moments like this done with commitment by a talented actor can get us to exactly what he was aiming at. A great example of his style is the famous speech by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He’s a character who is mostly mute for the entire show, led around by a noose around his neck, but when he gets his moment, well… you can watch for yourself.

Of course, the key to each of these authors is to actually listen to what they have written, and I see people constantly not do that. In fact, most people I know dis Joyce, Burroughs, and Beckett because they’ve tried to read or see their stuff and just didn’t get it. Meanwhile, they love Carroll as long as it’s Alice, but go beyond that and their eyes roll back faster than an odometer on a sleazy used car lot — especially when he was writing about math.

And that is a shame. Because, really, none of them are that hard to understand if you just take the time to read it, experience it, and ignore the literal while letting everything else wash over you. And, ultimately, Joyce’s intent was to recreate the experience of a dream, which only ever makes sense to the dreamer, because the cast and metaphors and everything else only have meaning to them, screw you Freud.

Honestly, I think that the main reason that all of these works by all of these authors are not appreciated is because the public takes half a second to try to understand, then throws up the, “Nope, sorry. Hard. Bye!” flag, and that’s it.

And, honestly, that is one of the biggest failings of society. It’s certainly one of the things that makes me cull my friends if they don’t have it. Mainly… be at least a bit curious about the world around you, and try to learn one or two new things. Or more. But, most important of all, your reaction to a new thing or bit of information should never, ever be, “Oh, no. That is way too hard for my little brain to learn.”

Instead, it should be… “Oh, cool. Opportunity.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. If you do get it, maybe you won’t be into it, or maybe you will — but you won’t ever know if your first response is “No.”

Image: John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, 1871

Talky Tuesday: Words you might be using incorrectly

If you want to communicate effectively, and especially if you want to have credibility whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s important to use words correctly. Yet I hear certain words misused all the time, even by otherwise well-educated people.

Note that I’m not talking about often mangled phrases, like “for all intensive purposes” instead of the proper “for all intents and purposes,” or mixing up words like “affect” and “effect.” These are single words that are frequently used improperly.

Cliché

We probably all know that “cliché” means something that has been used in art or literature so often that it has become bland and predictable, and so should be avoided. Movies are full of them — the horror movie villain who isn’t really dead after they seem to have been killed, the henchmen who are terrible shots, the witty comment as the hero dispatches a goon.

We also get these in live theater, though. The so-called “11 o’clock number” comes from the world of Broadway musicals, when the shows used to start at 8:30. This was the “knock ‘em dead before the finale” show-stopper of a song that usually highlighted the vocal talents of the lead, manipulated emotions, and was catchy as hell. Think Memory from Cats, the titular Cabaret, or Rose’s Turn from Gypsy. Also note that nowadays, it’s more likely to be the 10 o’clock number.

Of course, in the latter case, the cliché isn’t so much a specific thing as it is a stylistic conceit.

In literature, clichés can refer to either hackneyed turns of phrase — “I need that like a hole in the head” — or plot elements that have been pounded to death. Young adult literature in particular, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games via Twilight and Maze Runner abound with them, although, to be fair, they’re more forgivable in YA only because their audience may not have met them yet.

All that said, then, how does the word “cliché” itself get misused? Simple. It’s a noun, and never an adjective. So you’re safe if you say “that’s a cliché.” Not so much if you try to describe something as “that’s so cliché.” In that case, you want the word “clichéd.”

Comprise

This is a word that tends to get used backwards. Hint: If you follow it with a preposition and a list, then you’re using it wrong. Nothing is ever “comprised of” anything else. In that case, you’d be looking for “composed of.”

The “mp” combination in English is interesting because it is one of the ways in which the language has a lot in common with Spanish, and it comes from compound words that would otherwise create the consonant combination “np.” Hell, it even shows up in “compound!” A good Spanish example of this is the word “compartir,” which is very common in social media, because it means “to share.” The constituent words are “con” and “partir.” The former is a preposition that means “with.” The latter is a verb that means “to split.” So, when you share, you split something with someone else: con + partir, but that “np” isn’t liked, so we get “compartir.”

Now to get to the meaning of “comprise,” we have to go back to Middle English via Middle French, where the word “prise” meant to hold or grasp, so the combo basically means “to hold with.” Your preposition is in the phrase, so all you need to add are the nouns.

So… The U.S. comprises fifty states or the U.S. is composed of fifty states.

Further

This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple way to remember the difference, making this a very short entry. “Further” is metaphorical, while “farther” is literal. The latter refers only to physical distance, while the former refers to abstract difference.

“Dallas is farther from Boston than Chicago.”

“He managed to walk farther than his brothers that day.”

“She ran farther in the competition than any other runner.”

Those are the literal versions. As for the abstract or figurative:

“He could extend the metaphor no further.”

“They wouldn’t accept any further questions.”

“Their research proved they had no further to go.”

The simple mnemonic to remember it by is this: To create physical distance, you have to go away, and farther has an “a” in it. Yeah, simple and cheesy, but it works.

Ironic

Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song was. Irony is not some weird coincidence that happens. For example, slamming the keyboard lid on your hand and breaking it right before your big piano recital is not ironic. Neither is someone saying something during that whole “speak now or forever hold your piece” moment at the wedding.

There are three forms of Irony. First is when what you say is the opposite of what you mean. For example, someone gives you rollerblades for your birthday but you have no legs. That part isn’t ironic, but if you open the gift and announce, “Oh boy, just what I wanted,” then you’re being ironic.

Situational irony is when the intended results of something turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. For example, a husband surprises his wife with an anniversary trip to Paris because she’s always talking about the city, but the real reason she’s seemed so obsessed is because she’s always hated the place, so he’s given her the worst gift ever.

The third form is dramatic irony, and if you’ve ever heard of O. Henry, particularly his short story The Gift of The Magi, then you know this one. A man sells his expensive watch to buy some combs for his wife’s hair. Meanwhile, she cuts off her hair and sells it to buy a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.

Less

If you’re a grammar nerd like me, then every time you see that “15 items or less” sign in the store, your butt probably clenches and you have to resist the urge to tell the blameless clerk why it’s wrong. The difference between “less” and “fewer” is really simple.

“Fewer” refers only to countable nouns, while “less” refers to uncountable nouns. And if that seems all super-grammar unintelligible, it’s not, because the words mean what they say. Countable nouns are objects that can actually be counted: one apple, two oranges, three ducks, etc. Uncountable nouns are those that can’t be counted: sugar, coffee, tea, etc.

Note, though, that uncountables can become countable when they are quantized: a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, a glass of tea, and so on.

But here’s the rule. If you can count them, then you want to say “fewer.” If you can’t, then it’s “less.” “I want fewer apples.” “I want less sugar.” But also note: “I need fewer pounds of sugar,” since pounds are countable.

I don’t have a great mnemonic for this one, although maybe remembering that the “F” in fewer is in “First,” a counting number, might do the trick. And the great compounder to this one is that the term “more” refers to both countable and uncountable nouns: More apples, more tea.

Yeah, I never said that English made any sense.

Whom

This one is not as hard as it might seem, and in order to get it right all you have to do is rephrase the sentence in your head. For example: “To ??? should I send the gift?” Make it not a question, and it becomes “I send the gift to him/her/them.” And the clue comes in the masculine and plural pronouns. They end in “m” and so does “whom,” so if the rephrase would use him or them, then the other way around would use “whom.”

Most of the time, you’ll use “whom” after a preposition, although not always. For example, a question involving verbs without prepositions gets tricky. If someone asked you which person you believed, would it be “who” or “whom?”

Turn it around and you get, “I believe them,” ergo, “Whom do you believe?” (The implied but omitted preposition is “in.”)

Of course, this also puts the lie to the lyrics of several songs. But no one ever said that lyricists have to be grammarians. Poets do get to slide a bit, after all, no matter the language they write in.

 

Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 2

At the end of the first half, the score was America, 9 and Britain, 2. Let’s cheer the teams back onto the field as we continue the list and find out who wins. If you missed the first half, you can catch it here.

  1. Demister (car) vs. defroster

It’s in your car. It’s designed to clear up your back window on particularly damp, humid mornings when the glass is fogged by condensation. I suppose that it could theoretically be used to remove frost and ice, but most people facing icy circumstances will use a scraper first, instead.

Nope. What we’re generally dealing with here is a wet, foggy window that you can’t see through.

Correctness Verdict: The point goes to Britain, for actually using the right term. 9-3.

  1. Drinks driving vs. drunk driving

You shouldn’t do this no matter what you call it, but the first one sounds like an awkard sentence made up of two verbs: “He drinks driving.” The second is a nice, simple adjective and verb combo.

Correctness Verdict: America, for not have an utterly stupid sounding expression. 10-3.

  1. Earth vs. ground (electricity)

This is the third wire that provides a method for your electrical circuits to not kill you by directing overload and the like down into the ground where it will dissipate. Yes, technically the ground is the Earth, but the problem with using “earth a circuit” as a term is that it turns the planet into a verb, which is unnecessary since you can just ground a circuit instead.

Correctness Verdict: America, because planets should not be verbs. 11-3.

  1. Fairy-cake vs. cupcake

Although fairy cakes are a little bit smaller than their American counterparts and have less frosting, it’s another case of the fanciful versus the practical.

I mean, what could a fairy cake be? A sheet cake decorated with fairies? A bar of soap made by the same company that made Fairy washing-up liquid? (That’s dish soap in the U.S., which should be another point to the U.S. because dish soap is specific.)

Fairy cake conjures up those abominable flavors of American ice cream, like birthday cake or unicorn vomit or whatever they call that one — conflagrations of unnatural pinks and purples with far too many sprinkles, way too much sugar, and a base of vanilla fighting valiantly against it all.

Meanwhile, a cupcake is a cake small enough to have been baked in a cup. Simple. Straight-forward. Practical. You know what it is immediately even if you’ve never seen one.

Correctness Verdict: America, for not being twee about it. 12-3.

  1. Fancy dress vs. costume party

I’m sure that this one has caused much an embarrassment on either side of the pond. If you’re invited to a fancy dress party in the UK, don’t show up in black tie and tails. Well, I mean, you could and claim that you came as James Bond, but you’d still feel awkward.

Of course, there have probably been people who were invited to something fancy dress in the U.S. and appeared decked out as Peter Pan only to find a sea of black tie and tails. Now, we don’t tend to use the term fancy dress here all that often — generally, we’d say black tie if we meant it — but fancy dress would never mean the equivalent of Halloween party or furry convention.

Correctness Verdict: I’m calling this one a tie, because you can never be overdressed, even at a costume party, and American English doesn’t lead to the error. 12-3.

  1. Flyover vs. overpass

These are things you see on the freeway or highway (both U.S.) or the motorway (UK), and they are ramps designed to enter or exit by going up and over what I’ll collectively refer to now as the roadway. They have a lot to do with how that roadway was built, with overpasses or flyovers being much more common between cities and underpasses (or… flyunders?) more common within cities.

That’s because the intercity/interstate routes were quite frequently laid down through undeveloped land with long, straight stretches, so it was just easy to keep the whole thing at grade — meaning ground level — then build a bridge over it where necessary to join it to local roads or create interchanges with other major arteries.

Meanwhile, within cities, there were already existing streets, so the roadways had to be elevated to pass over them, with ramps going down to street level to provide entrances and exits.

Again, this is a case of British English being unnecessarily obtuse. They could have called it a drive-over, although it’s probably fortunate that they didn’t call them pass-overs instead. But no. They had to suddenly mock the fact that we still don’t have flying cars.

Correctness Verdict: Clearly America. It passes over the road. Simple. 13-3.

  1. Greaseproof paper vs. wax paper

Another kitchen staple and it’s actually for the purpose that the British word states on the tin. Yes, it does this by being coated with a thin layer of wax on both sides and it’s great for keeping things from sticking or keeping oil from leaking through onto the cookie sheet. But people who don’t cook or bake a lot might wonder why it should even be a staple in their kitchen drawer.

Still, the American term is misleading, since it’s paper coated with wax and not paper made out of wax. Some people do say “waxed paper,” but they’re actually wrong. And remember: wax paper is mostly used for putting greasy things on when they come out of the fryer or oven, or separating layers of sticky things like fudge.

You shouldn’t put it in the oven because it will smoke. For that, they make parchment paper, which is not for writing on.

Correctness Verdict: Point to Britain here, despite the term using more syllables. 13-4.

  1. Hen (stag) night vs. bachelorette (bachelor) party

No matter what you call it, it used to be an excuse for that final night of debauchery before locking oneself into presumed monogamy. Of course, the complexion of both has changed. A lot.

Once upon a time, the guys’ version usually involved lots of booze, strippers, perhaps a pub crawl, and either the future groom or best man or both having a go at one or more of the strippers, either separately or collectively.

What happened at the bachelor party was like what happens in Vegas. It stays in Vegas.

Meanwhile, back in those days, bachelorette parties were sort of like baby showers, but for the bride, with her, the bridesmaids, and friends gathering to give the bride gifts — some serious, and some of them raunchy gags — along with playing various slightly risqué party games. There might even occasionally be a male stripper, although it would be far more likely for an unmarried bridesmaid to have her shot at him instead of the bride-to-be.

Present day? At least in America, a bachelor party is just as likely to involve an evening of laser tag or an escape room, no strippers, and a lot more decorum. Bachelorette parties, though, frequently go off the hook, with the popular pre-COVID version being the whole party renting a limo, taking over a popular local gay club, and then getting bombed and groping all the cute men.

No, I’m not making that up.

Meanwhile, stag nights in the UK seem to remain the piss-ups that they’ve always been with epic pub crawls that often end in inappropriate behavior among the boys — who leave video evidence online — which is even more incriminating if they take the party to Magaluf for the weekend.

Hen parties are likewise, apparently. The women are just wise enough to not post it all on TikTok.

Correctness Verdict: Point to America for not using animal terms that imply strength vs. weakness. 14-4.

  1. Hoarding vs. billboard

Once upon a time, a “bill” was something put on a wall to advertise something — hence a common admonition seen in places like temporary walls around construction sites: “Post no bills.”

Eventually, advertising got bigger and paid for, and so those bills got put up on big boards. These were attached to walls, building marquees, or freestanding frames. In the modern day, we even have electronic billboards that can change their message every minute or two.

Technically, a British hoarding is the temporary fence put around a construction site, but that term is also unique to the UK. Also note, temporary vs. permanent. In the U.S., billboards, particularly the large ones on rooftops or their own poles, are permanent, with the ads rotating in and out on a regular basis.

Correctness Verdict: A tie, mainly because while there are connections between the two, they really aren’t the same things. 14-4.

  1. Hob vs. stovetop

To Americans, British kitchens are just weird. For one thing, what is your washing machine doing in there? Okay, once upon a time in New York, the bathtub was in the kitchen as well, but that was New York, and it was always weird.

To us, a stovetop is fully covered and has multiple burners, usually four, and sometimes a warmer or covered griddle in the middle. Each burner has a wrought iron metal trivet that holds pots and pans just above the heat source, and each burner is powered either by an electrical coil or a gas flame.

To us, if we even think about it, the gas flame comes from a hob, or nozzle, but it’s a mostly hidden part of the stovetop, and each stovetop has more than one.

A hob just takes a part of the whole but doesn’t really express the entire idea.

Correctness Verdict: America, hands down. You can only light a hob. You can cook on a stove. 15-4.

  1. Hundreds and thousands vs. jimmies or sprinkles

These are the colorful things that you sprinkle on ice cream or sundaes or the like, and note that even in America there are multiple terms, with jimmies being less common and regional. (I picked it up from my east coast relatives. Otherwise, it’s rare where I live in California.)

But if we go with sprinkles, that’s pretty damn accurate. Get your frozen treat, grab that shaker, and sprinkle away.

Meanwhile, what does “hundreds and thousands” even mean, especially given that you’re nowhere near likely to shake that many of them out without burying your ice cream in molded sugar bits?

Correctness Verdict: America, as Britain once again goes for the fancifully impractical term. 16-4.

  1. Ladybird vs. ladybug

 This one just demonstrates a real lack of biological knowledge on one side of the Pond. Yes, both birds and a lot of bugs have wings and legs, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Birds have two legs, warm blood, and feathers. Bugs have six legs, a not at all warm oxygenated goop that doesn’t use veins or arteries to circulate, and no feathers. Not to mention that birds eat bugs.

Even the smallest of birds, the hummingbird, is like a Lear jet next to a typical ladybug.

Of course, there are religious reasons that the ladybug got this very inappropriate name. As with many things over there that have “Lady” in the name, it’s a reference to the Virgin Mary, because the red color of the ladybug’s shell resembled the red cloak with which Mary was often depicted in medieval art, and the European variety tended to have seven spots on its shell, seven being a mystic number.

It is possible that they didn’t use the term “ladybug” in the UK because it’s close to the term “bugger,” but they could have just as easily gone with the original name for it, which was Our Lady’s Beetle.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., if you say “Ladybird,” people are going to think of either a former First Lady, Hank Hill’s dog, or a recent award-winning movie.

Correctness Verdict: America, for keeping religion out of entomology.

Final score, 17-4, America, with two ties.

Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 1

While I have many friends throughout the British Commonwealth (although, apparently, not a drop of British blood according to DNA tests but despite genealogy), it always amuses me how quaint and weird British English sometimes sounds.

I love collecting comparisons of British and American expressions in order to look at their differences, and which language focuses on what. For example, in general I find that British English tends to focus on the form of something, while American English focuses on the function. That’s not always the case, though.

For this round, I’ve got 23 word pairs, and I’m going to take a look at which one is really the more accurate and pertinent of the two. Here we go. In each pair, British appears first and American second.

  1. Sun cream vs. sunscreen

This is a perfect example of form vs. function. “Sun cream” zeroes right in on the original form of what used to be called sun-tan lotion in the U.S. When it first came out, it actually wasn’t even supposed to protect you from UV rays, but rather make sure that they baked you to an even tone of skin cancer.

The first sunscreens also came in the familiar “squeeze it out of a bottle and rub it all over yourself” form, hence the obvious form designation of cream, since the stuff was generally white and about the consistency of clotted cream or whole milk.

But then along came aerosol sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and different classes of sunscreens — chemical absorbers and physical blockers. So the term “cream” really doesn’t apply to them anymore, especially not if you’re spritzing them all over yourself like hairspray.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point. 1-0.

  1. Salad cream vs. salad dressing

Again, another case of British English going right for the color and form of the originals, since many early salad dressings were based on mayonnaise and, in fact, in many places mayonnaise itself is referred to as just salad dressing and appears in the same aisle in stores.

But… what salad cream ignores as a term is, again, all of the many varieties of dressing that don’t revolve around cream or dairy at all. Without dairy, you couldn’t have ranch or bleu cheese or thousand island or any kind of creamy or yoghurt-based dressing.

On the other hand, there are so many other dressings that don’t contain dairy that the ones that fell out of cows only make up a tiny chunk. You’ve got Italian, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette, Russian, French, honey mustard, roasted garlic, lemon herb, raspberry- and  honey-Dijon vinaigrette, red wine vinaigrette, sesame ginger, and  olive oil which is (surprise) the real vinaigrette. That “vin” doesn’t come from vinegar, but from vino or vine.

But… having run down the menu, it’s kind of obvious. Most salad dressings have nothing to do with cream, and since they cover up the leafy bits when used, well, I think you can guess who wins here.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point, bringing the score to 2-0.

  1. Allen key vs. Allen wrench

If you’ve ever put together anything from IKEA, or from any flatpack, really, then you’ve met this little L-shaped bugger. Usually no longer on one side than your pinky and no longer on the other than the last joint of your thumb, this versatile tool has one job: Screwing in bolts and the like that have hexagonal indentations in their heads.

The form factor of the thing makes it really easy to use. Stick short end into opening, turn long end until bolt is screwed totally in, done. Repeat four hundred times before you realize that you stuck the left side of the legs on the right side of the desk. Throw instructions at wall and scream.

Now, in this case, if we look at the words they break down like this. A key opens or closes something, while a wrench grabs and turns something. And while this little tool technically does grab and turn things, it doesn’t actually act all that wrench-like because you can’t clamp it only anything.

Correctness Verdict: British English for the win, and the score is now 2-1.

  1. Anticlockwise vs. counterclockwise

This one is simple to understand — either something goes around the way that the hands on a clock do, turning from left to right, or it goes the other way around. But what to call that other way?

“Anticlockwise” actually seems to have some kind of hidden political agenda to it — “Down with Big Time!” But “counterclockwise” seems a lot more neutral and just implies going in the opposite direction to the norm. Compare to a musical term like counterpoint. They didn’t call it antipoint for a reason.

And let’s not get started on “widdershins,” which neither language has decided to claim.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores, and that score is now 3-1.

  1. Baking tray vs. cookie sheet

 British English doesn’t even call cookies by the right name, instead referring to them as biscuits. Meanwhile, American biscuits are pretty much scones in the UK. And I have no idea what they actually call American cookies in Britain, but the word had better be “delicious.”

There are pretty much only three things Americans will ever cook on what the Brits call a baking sheet: Cookies, biscuits, or croissants. Okay, there’s the occasional pizza, but let’s not muddy the definition with that, especially since pizza pans are also a thing if we invest enough in our kitchen stuff.

Now since the aforementioned food items (sans pizza) all fall into the basic family of floury treats that either have a lot of butter in them or will get a lot of butter put on them, they’re really the same family of things: Buttery treats.

So we can give them the overall heading of “cookie like objects” and forget the idea that we ever really bake anything else on those sheets.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores again, making it 4-1.

  1. Block of flats vs. apartment building

 Another really baffling British term: flat to mean apartment. So, okay… and what’s “flat” about it? Not a lot. The term is probably derived from a Scottish word, “flet,” which refers to a floor or story of a house. Since most apartments tend to be on one floor, they’re also literally flat, or at least that’s how they try to justify it.

As for the block part… this also makes no sense because a lot of apartment buildings are not just giant square cubes, which is what “block” implies. In the U.S., a block refers more to a street measurement, and demarks the distance, curb-to curb, between points where a road or street interrupts a sidewalk.

In the U.S., a “city block” is generally a half a mile (805 meters), while a residential block is a quarter mile (402 meters). Buildings of all sorts sit within those blocks, but none of the buildings are called blocks, ever. Because they’re buildings. Well, duh.

Correctness Verdict: American English for the self-evident score again, now 5-1.

  1. Breakdown van vs. tow truck

Now this one is just silly. “Breakdown van” sounds like something they send around with a nice mental health counselor who will talk to you at the side of the road and make it all better. They don’t have any tools and can’t fix cars, but you can sit in the back of the van and listen to soothing music or watch calming dog videos.

Meanwhile, “tow truck” is just what it says on the tin. You break down, we send out this hefty vehicle that can winch your pathetic junker up or load it onto the flatbed and whisk it away to the car hospital.

In America, for a small annual fee, you can belong to the Automobile Club (AAA) which is a sort of regional, sort of not organization that provides a butt-ton of services to its members: Free roadside service, towing, trip planning, discounts on various travel and touristy things (and not), a monthly magazine, and cool “avoid the DMV” stuff like auto registration and, now, ability to get your “real ID” (which is total horseshit, but I do digress.)

So… Tow Truck — macho roadside savior. Breakdown Van — is that what it’s called when it’s not trying to find people who haven’t paid their annual BBC license fee? Wimpy.

Correctness Verdict: American, 6-1.

  1. Candy floss vs. cotton candy

Although there were so many better names this shit could have been called — like “Dentist’s Retirement Plan” or “Hyperactivity on a Stick” or “Fluffy Diabetes,” it’s basically hot sugar water shot out through an extruder and wrapped around a cardboard pole by some teen carny who isn’t even making minimum wage because his uncle is the star of the geek and blockhead show and the kid’s mom made him take the job in order to make sure that her brother Toby doesn’t actually injure himself too badly.

A big issue here is referring to it as “cotton,” because that crop has so many nasty connotations in American history. Hell, it was pretty much the foundational product that created decades and centuries of systemic racism.

Plus cotton candy came out of carnivals and stuff like that, and for a long time these were places where only people who couldn’t be hired by “respectable society” (read: Handicapped, disabled, deformed, mentally challenged, or not white) got jobs.

On the other hand, while “candy floss” might sound like something you’d find riding up a stripper’s ass, it has another nice, built-in reminder: Don’t stick this shit in your teeth, okay? And no, I’m not going to make a cheap British dentistry joke here because, you know what?

They’ve done got their shit together on that front. Seriously.

Correctness Verdict: Brits for the win, 6-2.

  1. Cling film vs. plastic wrap

More form vs. function, but the simple answer is “Damn, do the Brits make this product just sound needy.”

[Consumer pulls cling film from box. It wraps around his arm.]

Cling Film: Da! Don’t let go, da! I need you da! PLEASE!!!!!

Consumer: Get the fuck off of me you little freak!

[Rips plastic away and bins it.]

As opposed to:

[Consumer pulls plastic wrap off the roll and stretches it over bowl, pulling it down for a tight seal.]

Plastic Wrap: (in breathy voice) Ooh… thanks, daddy.

Consumer: You’re… welcome?

Yeah, good luck getting that out of your head next time you need to wrap a cut cucumber. But remember: whether you call it cling film or plastic wrap, the thing it sticks to best is… itself.

Correctness Verdict: America is far less needy for once? 7-2.

  1. Corn flour vs. cornstarch

They’re both made from corn, and while the U.S. does have both, they’re different, whereas American cornstarch and British corn flour are the same thing. Confusing? Of course it is.

Cornstarch, as the name implies, is ground only from the endosperm of the corn kernels, so it does not contain protein, fiber, or other nutrients, just starch. Corn flour is ground from the whole kernels, plus the germ and hulls from the corn.

Cornstarch is white and silky to the touch. Corn flour can be white, yellow, or blue, depending on the source, and is a little rougher and not as finely grained.

Both can be used as thickening agents in cooking, but you’ll need to use twice as much corn flour to get the same effect. Since flour actually involves more than just the starchy part of the source grain, I think that this one is easy to score.

Correctness Verdict: America gets the point for culinary accuracy. 8-2.

  1. Current account vs. checking account

This is another one that, to American ears, just sounds weird. We generally have two kinds of regular bank accounts: checking and savings. The latter is the one that you put money into where it theoretically earns interest, but the banks pay so little nowadays that you can have tens of thousands in there and still not make more than half a buck a month.

A checking account is the day-to-day one that you write checks (UK: cheques) from, although that’s become mostly archaic, so it’s now the one attached to your Debit card. They might as well call it a debit account.

Seriously — when was the last time you even wrote a check, or saw someone under 65 write one in a store? And even if you do occasionally get paid by paper check, when was the last time you physically took it to the bank instead of deposited it via your phone?

But… calling it a current account makes no sense at all. Current what? Currently all the money you have readily available to spend? And it’s also kind of an insult to people who aren’t the best at balancing their check books, since what they think they have and what the bank says they have aren’t going to match.

Correctness Verdict: America for having a term that makes logical sense. 9-2.

And now it’s half-time! Check out the second half for rounds 12 to 23 to find out which version of English will come out victorious.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Sunday Nibble #63: Dyning out

One of the neat things about Greek and Latin is that they use stems and affixes to create a whole lot of words with complex meanings. The affixes are prefixes and suffixes that can completely change the meaning of words.

The prefixes are largely prepositional in nature, but they can also act as adjectival markers. For example, contra-, re-, ab-, and inter- all indicate some sort of physical relationship: Against, back, from, and among. These are prepositions.

Then there are prefixes like ben-, semi-, multi-, and sub-: Good, half, many, and insufficient; adjective. If course, they do overlap, since they’re just creating words rather than sentences.

Most Latin affixes have Greek counterparts. Well, actually, it’s the other way around, since Greek came first. But from one to the other, contra- is anti-; ab- goes with apo-; and re- and inter- have no matches. Likewise, ben- goes with eu-; semi- matches hemi-; multi- hooks up with poly-; sub- matches hypo-.

English lifted a lot of words directly from both languages but frequently with a French influence, which removed typical Latin noun declensions.

Greek was heavily tied up with Western Medicine from the beginning, Latin became first the lingua franca of an Empire and then the religious language of a continent, and then both were eventually preserved and used as the scholarly languages of the Renaissance — when religion was given back to the vernacular.

A lot of it stuck, and you’ll see a lot of Greek and Latin in medicine to this day: prescription, vaccine, hypodermic, and hypochondriac, for example. Of course, a lot of more modern words will just jam the two together. Words like antacid, bigamy, claustrophobia (in fact, a lot of phobias), dysfunction, and liposuction are all considered hybrid words.

But the real power (pun intended) comes in how many different words can come from one stem just by changing the affixes. Today, we’re looking at the stem -dyn, which means power or force — hence the pun.

Here are a few variations.

Dyne: At its most basic, in modern terminology, the stem is a unit of measure. One dyne is equal to the force required to produce a change of velocity in one gram of mass in one second equal to one centimeter per second. If that’s a bit confusing, think of producing a change as just accelerating the mass, but then forget that acceleration only means “pushing forward.” When you hit the brakes on a car, for example, you’re just accelerating backwards, more or less.

Dynasty: Ultimately from Greek dynasthai, with the “thai” ending referring to a class of people. Pretty clearly, it means “people of power,” or those with the leadership roles. It’s resemblance to the English words “die nasty” are pure coincidence.

Dynamic: Basically, the moving force in anything, whether it’s a working machine or the plot of a play, movie, or novel. This gave us words like aerodynamic, photodynamic, thermodynamic, and so on. Aerodynamic also gave us…

Aerodyne: Which was derived by shortening aerodynamic. Specifically, it describes any aircraft that uses principals of aerodynamics to generate lift and so is, by definition, heavier than air. Contrast this to aerostat, which refers to a lighter-than-air ship, like a balloon or blimp, that uses gas to generate buoyancy and lift. Here, the dyne part is replaced with the Greek stem -stasis, which means still or motionless, or quite the opposite of power and force. An aerostat essentially just sits there and lets the gas lift it.

Heterodyne: and others; there are a number of dyne words invented to refer to radio frequency generators from days when they were trying to perfect the techniques. They’re all just variations on how things were done, but this one is typical. The prefex, hetero-, means other. Basically, this was a method of taking two different radio frequencies and combining them, ending up with one that was the sum of their frequencies and the other that was their difference. (Short version: one mix would line up the peaks of the waves and the other would line up peaks and troughs.) Usually only one of the resulting frequencies is used, though.

Dynamite: Finally, here’s one that combines Greek with English. Invented by Alfred Nobel and patented in 1867, his guilt over its destructive power and early use in warfare led him to establish the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, dynamite fell out of favor with the military, who replaced it with TNT (not the same thing) because the latter was more stable, immune to weather conditions, and needed a blasting cap or other charge to set it off. On the other hand, dynamite was very susceptible to the weather, decaying quickly, and was also prone to flames, sparks, or a sudden shock making it go “boom.” Remember: one of the main ingredients in dynamite is nitroglycerin.

Now here’s a fun challenge — see how many Greek and Latin affixes and stems you can spot in words in this story that are not specifically listed as having such, or do it with anything you might happen to read next.

The commonality of such constructions might make you hyperventilate.

Contrarians

There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.

Why?

Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

While the planet became small, the people got smaller

I love the internet because it means that I’m in regular contact with people all around the planet, and have gotten to know a lot of them quite well. I have friends on every continent except Antarctica, but I’m working on that one.

Otherwise, I’ve got Australia and all of Asia covered, from those islands off of the southeast part of it to the major countries in it, from Japan to Russia, as well as Thailand. A tour through the Middle East and Africa brings us to Europe, then finally back to the Americas, where obviously the bulk of my friends are in my home country, the U.S., but quite a lot of them are also in Latin America because I’ve taken the time to become bilingual enough to communicate.

The one thing that most strikes me about chatting with any of these people no matter where they are in the world, what culture they come from, or what language they speak, is that they all want the same things that I do, and that my friends from my culture do. Remove all of the surface decorations, and every human is the same as every other one.

Having been on the internet since the beginning has definitely had one major effect on me. Hell yes, I’m a globalist, but not in the “corporations take over the world” mode. Rather, my form of globalism is this: The citizens of the planet take it back from the corporations. It’s the difference between Corporate Globalism (bad) and Humanist Globalism (good).

Corporate Globalism is a falsehood. It doesn’t unite the world by eliminating barriers and borders. It does quite the opposite. Or, sure, it pays lip service to trading partners and global commerce and all that, but how does it achieve it? By creating artificial barriers and borders.

Truth be told, the developed nations of the planet produce quite enough food to feed the underdeveloped nations, and have quite enough resources to actually pay a decent living wage to the people they currently exploit in them.

The trouble is, the corporate class has a gigantic blind spot. They don’t realize that helping the entire planet profit and prosper will, in turn, lift everyone up, themselves included. If our current billionaires stopped being so selfish for a decade or two, they would reap the rewards and become trillionaires. Give a little bit back today, collect repayment with interest tomorrow.

So that’s one of the ways people became smaller even as the world did even though they should have become bigger. The super-rich decided to keep on hogging everything for themselves, not realizing that this will leave nothing for no one, and when they’ve managed to kill off everyone slaving away to support their lifestyles, they will be left stranded, desolate, and with no idea how to do even the most basic things to survive.

“Sylvia, do you know which button on the stove turns it on to cook water?”

“No, Preston. I have no idea. We could ask Concepción.”

“She died last winter because she couldn’t afford medical insurance, remember?”

“Oh. Crap.”

At the same time, far too many regular people have become too small as well, because they’ve bought the lies of the super-rich, which all boil down to this: “Those people who (aren’t like you/aren’t from here/believe differently/speak another language) just want to come here and steal your stuff.”

Never was a bigger crock of shit foisted on the world than this thinking, which we have seen in many countries in many different eras — and we are definitely seeing far too much of it today.

And it’s nothing but the ultimate in projection, a specialty of the 1%. They are the ones who are afraid of everyone else coming to take their stuff, and they should rightfully be afraid of exactly that, because parts of the world are starting to catch on. Humanist Globalists want to eliminate borders, trade barriers, and the idea of separate nations. Yeah, I know that this can sound scary, but it does not mean eliminating national identities.

It’s kind of the opposite of that. In essence, countries would become the new corporate brands, with their citizens or residents as stakeholders. There wouldn’t be hard lines between them, but there would be ideas and commodities that each particular brand specialized in. It’s kind of a new form of capitalism where the capital isn’t the artificial idea of money. Rather, it’s what it always should have been: The people who work in the system, the fruits of their labor, and the outcome of their ideas. And, in turning it into a “share the wealth” model on a planet-wide basis, we really would have a rising tide that would lift all boats.

The Americas (all of them) sell popular culture, with dashes of Britain, Australia, and Japan included. Europe sells us ideas on how to do things better, especially in urban planning and social policy. Asia sells us technology. Africa sells us the raw materials to make this all happen. The Middle East buys everything because, in an ideal world, they no longer can sell their oil, but if they want to turn Saudi Arabia into the world’s biggest solar farm, let them have at it. And, in every case, the workers who make all of this happen are the real stakeholders.

This is essential in the near future on two fronts. One is in getting our act together to deal with the climate crisis we’re facing and, if we can’t stop it, at least mitigate it. There are going to be climate refuges by the end of this decade, like it or not. We may already have some fleeing Australia. It’s only by eliminating all borders that we can give these people a place to go without politics becoming the cruel boot-stomp in the face that sends them back.

The other front is in getting off of the planet, and the “space race” model born of the Cold War has got to go. Sure, the U.S. vs. USSR is what put us on the Moon first, but later Apollo/Soyuz missions proved that space could be a borderless entity. By this point, when we have multiple nations and private companies firing things into space, we’re basically in the modern version of seafaring in the early 17th Century, a point by which governments (England, Spain, Portugal, France) were financing expeditions to discover new lands, but so were private entities (The Dutch East India Company, Dutch West India Company, etc.)

This was really only a century after Columbus, and we’re a half century past the moon landing, so the timing fits, the only difference being the players, which are now the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, India, both Koreas, Italy, France, and the Ukraine. And, on top of that, add Elon Musk and Richard Branson, the aforementioned companies East (Branson) and West (Musk) that will probably do a better job of it.

All of which reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Valerian and the City if a Thousand Planets, which is going to be a cult classic one of these days. I mean, come on. Just look at this.

But I do digress. The point is that as long as we remain trapped on this tiny muddy rock stuck in orbit around a flaming nuclear ball and with lots of rocks flying around that may or may not end all human life as we know it without warning, then we are stuck with what we were stuck with. The planet isn’t making any more oil or precious metals. It is kind of making more land, but only if you rely on the very long-term volcanic upwelling of new islands, although this is more than offset by the loss of land that’s going underwater.

We do get new oxygen, for the moment, but only for as long as we maintain the planet’s lungs, which are all of the forests we seem hell-bent on chopping down.

The only things we do get more of every second of every day are… energy, from the sun, wind, and tides, all natural forces. They are limitless, at least for our purposes, driven by physics, and if we could harness even one tenth of their energy, we could change the world and save ourselves.

Why doesn’t it happen? As it’s been put in the past, there’s only one reason. Corporations haven’t figured out how to put a meter on natural processes. And this is perhaps the stupidest thinking ever. What about hydroelectric dams or nuclear plants? Hell, what about waterwheels or old-school windmills? All of those use natural sources. All of those have made money for people who controlled them.

What they don’t get is this: Solar, wind, and tidal power, after the initial infrastructure investments, will be far cheaper per kilowatt hour to create, but far more profitable at even one tenth of the kilowatt hour price that power companies now charge. The only reason these backwards thinking troglodytes embrace fossil fuels is because they see a resource that is running out, and so one that they can keep jacking the price up on as it becomes rarer and rarer.

Metaphor: This is like a butcher who has run out of meat, so starts cutting up and selling his children, until he runs out of children, so then starts cutting up himself starting at the feet, and isn’t even aware of the problem because he keeps telling himself, “I’m still selling stuff, and I’m still breathing! I’m still breathing. I’m still… oh, shit. That was a lung.”

Renewable resources, especially of the unlimited kind, are immensely more profitable than finite resources for exactly that reason: You can keep selling them forever, and if you can keep selling them at a small price, demand goes way up, so the economy of scale makes you a lot more profit than you’d get by hiking the price on a vanishing commodity and so reducing demand.

In order to save ourselves and make sure that our grandchildren and their grandchildren actually get a planet to inherit, we need to do one thing right now: Start thinking big by not being so small-minded. Tell yourself every day: There are enough resources for all of us on this planet if only everyone would share. People who don’t want to share are bad, and should be voted off of the island and/or planet. It is only by eliminating all borders and unnatural divisions that we can save this planet by making it one. No, you won’t lose your precious self-identity if this happens. If anything, it’ll just get more fun because you’ll get to tell your story to lots of people with their own stories as you all share.

There’s the key word again, and another reminder of the motto we need to start living by: “One Planet. One People. Please.”

Image: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons