Talky Tuesday: Words you might be using incorrectly

fIf 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.


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.”


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, to 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.


This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple mnemonic 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 way to remember it 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.


Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song is. 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 by a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.


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.”

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.


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 get 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?”

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.


You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence

Talky Tuesday: More misused words

It can be a chore sometimes trying to convince people that spelling and grammar are important. And FSM knows I can be a hypocrite in that I roll my eyes and say, “Oh, hell no” every time someone laments the inability of people nowadays to write or read in cursive.

Then again, I really don’t see the point of cursive, especially not when we can do most things by keyboard. Although the flip-side of that advantage is that it lends itself to text speak and emojis — which is fine in the context of messaging, where it works. But if you’re attempting anything more formal, and that includes arguing about shit in social media, then for the moment you still want to go for the good spelling and grammar.

Why? Because to do otherwise really undercuts your argument. If you have sloppy grammar or bad spelling, it tells us one of two things, depending upon your attitude about it.

First, if you misspell or misuse words and don’t care, or spell them like you hear them instead of like they are (e.g. caught in the wild: “riddens” instead of “riddance”) then it tells us that you are intellectually lazy, so that means we don’t have to bother listening to anything you have to say, because you haven’t bothered to research it, you’re only parroting what you’ve been told, thank you and good night.

And if you misspell or misuse words because you just can’t remember the difference between things like your and you’re, that tells me that you really can’t retain easily learned information, and probably are not the best choice for trusting with anything complicated.

Hint: At those times when I’ve been in charge of hiring, cull trick number one was to dump any résumé with an unforced error in either of these areas. Note that this doesn’t include typos. For example, if I see “the” where you clearly meant “they,” that gets a bit of a pass. But if you mix up words or spell things wrong, then… b’bye.

That said, here are some more heinous abuses of the language that I’ve seen in the wild in just the last couple of weeks.

Raindeer instead of reindeer

I suppose this might make sense since these noble creatures are associated with Santa Claus and winter and a time when it might rain, except that reindeer and Santa are associated with the North Pole (or at least Finland and Lapland), so if they were being named because of the weather, they’d probably be snowdeer.

Not to mention that they’re more elk-like. But the whole idea of the “rein” in “reindeer” is that reins are things you put on animals to steer them.. The most famous example of reined animals are horses, although you can rein cattle. You don’t rein oxen, though, you yoke them, and they seem to figure it out from there.

Nobody puts Bambi in a yoke. Or reins. Or a corner. But as for those fabulous Lap cervidae with the fabulous antlers… better rein them in so that they can lead Santa’s sleigh.

Adieu instead of ado

Most often seen in a phrase like “with no further adieu (sic)…”

This is an interesting example of ignorance trying to appear more intelligent, since there’s the appropriation of a French word there — adieu, for good-bye, which is a cognate of the Spanish adios, both of which literally mean “to god!” And if you take them in the context of when and where they originated, they were basically saying, “Hope to see you again, but if you die of plague before that, which is really likely old friend, may you go to heaven.”

Whoa. Heavy. So saying “Much go to god” makes no sense at all. Instead, we have the early middle English word (thanks Willy Shakes) a-do, which takes that old Romance pronoun “a,” meaning motion toward, and sticks it on that definitely English verb “do,” which is such a powerful auxiliary verb in the language that it steps in for most translations of direct questions in romance languages.

“¿Hablas español?” “Do you speak Spanish?”

“¿Quién lo hagas?” “Who did it?”

 “¿Sabes qué hora es?” “Do you know what time it is?”

I guess the only trick here is to think of the “a” in the negative as “nothing more to,” and then naturally sticking it on the verb to do, dropping the to. Or, in other words, why not the phrase “With nothing more to do” or “No more to do before…”

With no further ado…

Per say instead of per se

This one is simply an example of never having seen the word in print and pushing English onto it. Except, if you’ve ever studied any Romance language or Latin, this form makes sense, because the pronoun “se” will immediately hit your eye as a thing that’s used to create the passive tense, at least in Spanish.

You’ve probably seen “Se habla español,” and what it means is “Spanish is spoken here.” Well, at least in English translation. A more literal translation that is not as English friendly would be something like “it is spoken, Spanish.”

As for “per” it’s a well-used word in English, and you see it in prices all the time. “How much are the lemons?” “It’s $1.25 per pound.”

In other words, “per” in English means “for” or “for each.” Pretty much the same as it means in Latin or, shift it to “por,” in Spanish.

Put the two together and, in Latin, it makes total sense: per se, for itself. In Spanish, not so much, and “por se” is not a thing. But the important thing on top of that is that “say” is not a word in Spanish, Latin, French, or Romanian.

Which brings us right back to the original and only translation. Something noted with “per se” is by, of, for, or in itself. So… “I’m not saying that all Romans will know this expression per se, but I think a lot of them will…”

Complimented instead of complemented

This one is not as hard as it might seem. Compliment means to say something nice about someone. Complement means to go together. So here’s the reminder: In order for you to get a compliment, I have to do it. Well, someone has to, but the point of the mnemonic is that compliment has an I in it. Complement doesn’t.

As for “complement,” it all goes together, as in the word has one O, two E’s, and no other vowels. Or you can think of the word complete, and remember that when one thing complements another, it completes it.

When in their adjectival forms, complimentary and complementary, you can remember which is which in pretty much the same way. As for the other meaning of complimentary — something received for free, like a hotel’s complimentary buffet — remember the I because it’s a gift.

Breaking instead of braking

The trick here is in the vowels. Well, sort of. If you’re talking about a car — or an auto or any vehicle stopped by gripping the wheels or other things — then the only vowel is an “a.” Ergo, the word is braking. Hit the brakes. Brake to a stop. Brake the car. Or… brake the automobile, which starts with A.

Now, you’d think that the name for a light-weight jacket often made of synthetic materials should then be a “windbraker” becase it stops the wind, but it’s not. It’s a windbreaker. Now why is it called that? If it’s because it breaks wind, that would be a really neat trick for a jacket to pull off, not to mention either amusing or alarming, depending upon your sense of humor. (Personally, I’d find it hilarious.)

The real answer is that Windbreaker® is a registered trademark of the company John Rissman & Son, so in reality we should really use the alternate name windcheater. However, Windbreaker is going the way of Kleenex and Xerox, both trademarks that have basically become generic in common usage.

Or, in other words, a lot of people probably ask for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or use the Xerox machine even if it’s a Canon or Brother, and we all google stuff even if we’re using Bing — but, really, why would anyone be? What we don’t see are companies releasing things like “Billy Johnson’s kleenex” or “FlurfingtonCo xerox machine,” because those would still violate the law.

Oops. Let me put the brakes on that digression. The other word, “break,” basically means to divide, shatter, ruin, wreck, interrupt, or make something useless or incomplete. Break-up, prison break, break dishes, break the mold, break a record, and so on.

It can also mean to suddenly start something — break into a sweat, break into a run, break out in song — or to prepare something for use — break in the car.

One use that simultaneously interrupts one thing and starts another is going to be the key to remembering this spelling, and that’s breakfast. If you’ve never really thought about it, that word may seem weird, but let’s break it down (see what I did there?) so that we get break and fast.

Fun fact: the word is exactly the same in Spanish: desayunar, to breakfast, combines the verb ayunar, to fast, with the prefix des-, which means to remove. The noun form is desayuno. And yes, in English it is entirely possible to say, “Let us breakfast this morning” and use the word as a verb.

Now where did fasting come into it the equation? Simple. You haven’t eaten anything since before you went to bed the night before, which should have been at least eight hours ago. So when you have your morning meal, you are interrupting, or breaking, that fast. At the same time, this meal is the start of your day. So you get two interpretations of break for the price of one. And since you do it by eating, there you go. This version of the word that sounds like braking has “ea” in it. And you can’t eat or break without them.

Talky Tuesday: Careful where you stick your ‘but’

Conjunction junction, what’s your function… this is a refrain many of us might know from Schoolhouse Rock, but the important conjunction here is “But.”

And is the conjunction that puts words together: “This and that.” Or is the one that allows both options: “This or that.”

Then there’s but, which pretty much excludes whatever comes before it.

You’re probably already jumping ahead to a common sort of phrase it appears in, but let’s hold back for a moment.

“I like pasta and sushi,” she said. So what’s the function of that sentence? Inclusion, pure and simple.

How about this one? “I’ll take pasta or sushi.” Both options are acceptable although, while it’s not clear whether the speaker is making the choice or only responding to the options given by someone else, there’s no judgement.

Finally, “I like pasta but not sushi.” This is basically a refusal, whoever was given the choices. The speaker reads a menu to make their own choice, picks pasta, done. Or… the speaker’s date asks what they want, and the reply is pasta, not sushi — which could be a really big dismissal of what the date likes, intentional or not.

However, this conjunction gets a lot more troublesome in other contexts, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s look at the others.

“And” and “Or” are inclusive, always.

“Do you want to watch some BBC, and then Netflix?” Boom. Both. Done.

And “Or” isn’t as inclusive, but not dismissive. “Would you rather watch BBC or Netflix?”

“I don’t have a subscription to Netflix, so BBC?” (or vice versa) or even “I don’t like (BBC/Netflix), so the other?”

When we get to but, there’s a bit of a problem. Any invocation of “but” requires a condition to go with it. You cannot just say, “I like A, but not B.” Even though that B comes with a not, that “not” means nothing without a qualifier.

And when the construction that comes before “but” is in the form of “I’m not a (blank)…” then you really need to think long and hard about what the hell you’re saying.

As in things like, “I’m not racist, but…” Guarantee you that the next words out of your mouth are going to be 100% racist.

And stick any other –ist or –ic in there, and you’re done.

“I’m not homophobic, but I wish that gay men weren’t so swishy.”

“I’m not misogynistic, but why are women so pushy?”

“I’m not racist, but why don’t Mexicans speak English?”

And on and on and on.

Well, I hope you get the idea by now.

Any phrase that begins with “I’m not (X) but (Y) immediately tells the rest of us that you are absolutely X, and you absolutely believe that whatever bullshit you spew in Y is true.

Period, end of quote.

So, especially in these trying times, if you ever try to say, “I’m not X, but…” stop right there before you open your mouth, think about what you were going to say, then go ask a smarter friend to bail your ass out before you go full-on stupid.

And… happy almost summer, and or happy surviving the really weird times w’re going through right now.

Talky Tuesday: El-Al

No, the title of this post does not refer to the Israeli Airline, although it does allude to that part of the world. It’s just that the suffix –el and the prefix al– are often, but not always, clues that words in English and Spanish came from either Hebrew or Arabic respectively.

Hebrew and Arabic both use roots with prefixes and suffixes to indicate things like gender, number, case, part of speech, and so on. In the case of Arabic, “al” is a prefix that means “the.” Interestingly enough, in Spanish, “al” is the combination form of the preposition “a”, which means “at” or “to”, and the masculine singular definite article “el”, which means “the.”

So the phrase “el hombre” in Spanish means “the man,” while “al hombre” indicates giving or moving something to or at the man. The article “el” in Spanish bears absolutely no connection to the Hebrew suffix “-el”, though.

Let’s look at Arabic first. From 711 CE to 1492 CE, much of Northern Africa and most of Spain was under Muslim rule. As a result, the Arabic language and culture left a huge influence on the country, even after the Reconquista.

There are a lot of Spanish words that came from Arabic because of this, of course, but here I’m only going to look at a few of the “al” words. I find these a bit amusing if only because if you use them in Spanish with the definite article, you’re redundant. “El Alhambra,” for example, would be the the Red Fortress.

  1. Alcalde: al-qadi, the judge; Spanish for mayor. The feminine form is la alcaldesa. Originally, they were sort of assistant judges, but eventually became more municipal officers until the word took on the modern sense it has now.
  2. Alfombra: al-ḥánbal, a ceremonial tapestry. In Spanish, it means carpet, and if you watch awards shows in Spanish language media, you’ll hear the phrase “la alfombra roja” all the time: the red carpet. Now, since a tapestry is normally something hung on a wall, I have to wonder whether turning them into carpets wasn’t a little FU response by the Spanish once they threw off Muslim rule — “We’re going to turn your pretty wall hangings into something we walk on.” Hey, it’s not impossible.
  3. Algodón: al-qúţun, probably flax. The word is Spanish for cotton but, despite the similarity in sounds, there is no known connection between the Arabic and English words.
  4. Alhambra: al-Ḥamrāʼ, the red fortress, which describes the building in Granada, Spain It really is an architectural wonder, and must have been an amazing place to be during its heyday.
  5. Almoháda: al-mujadda, a word which means the same in Arabic and Spanish, and something I’m sure that all of us appreciate a lot more right now, if only it means we can stay in shelter and follow or increasingly vivid dreams. Una almoháda is a pillow.

As for English words that came from Arabic, here are a select few:

  1. Alcohol: al-kuḥl, which originally referred to kohl powder, which was used as an eyeliner. It was via the distillation process that the Egyptians used to create kohl that the word alcohol eventually came about. but eventually to any distilled or rectified spirit.
  2. Algebra: al-jabr, the reunion of broken parts, which is kind of what algebra does with its equations. Specifically, this referred to reducing fractions to integers in calculations. –
  3. Alkaline: al qaliy, referring to calcined ashes, which were the original source of alkaline substances, which is the current source of an ineffective fad Or, at least, misidentified. While the diet can have positive benefits, it has nothing to do with altering alkalinity in the body. Rather, the diet focuses on fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables, which is healthy regardless.

But I do digress. Onward!

The Hebrew suffix –el, which means god, is appended to names to create an attributive phrase. A lot of these names were applied to archangels in Hebrew tradition, and I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the more famous ones, many of which are very common first names in the Western World.

Just remember that in the original, the emphasis would be on last syllable so that, for example, the name Michael would be pronounced Mika-EL. Also, the name of the country Israel itself is an example of one of these words, from yisra-el, meaning “god contends.”

Yisra is derived from the word “sarah,” meaning to contend, and Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled — or contended — with an angel of god.

To derive the female versions of these names, general just add an “a” — Daniel, Daniela, etc.

  1. Ariel: ari-el, lion of god. The Angel of Nature, Ariel is depicted as either male or female, depending upon tradition. They protected and healed animals and plants, and punished those who injured nature. Ariel was also the chief of the choir of angels known as the Virtures.
  2. Azrael: azar-el, he who helps god. Although not explicitly stated as such in Jewish tradition, Azrael is one of the Islamic angels of death. He’s not necessarily a malevolent angel, more of a civil servant, although not to be confused with the completely fictional Aziraphale from the book and minseries Good Omens. Okay, not that the other angels aren’t completely fictional as well, but… oh, you know what I mean.
  3. Daniel: din-i-el, god is my judge. Daniel is an angel in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, but not elsewhere in the Bible. He is, however, the quite human star of the Book of Daniel, where he is most famous for surviving being thrown into the lion’s den — an incident that happened because he happened to be good at his job and incorruptible, and it made the other satraps jealous and angry, so they set him up.
  4. Gabriel: gever-el, god is my strong man. One of only two archangels named in the Bible, he appears three times: The first is in several mentions in the Book of Daniel as Gabriel arrives to explain one of Daniel’s visions to him and to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, Gabriel shows up to both Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, and Mary, wife of Joseph, to let the former know that his wife was going to give birth to John the Baptist, and the latter know that she was going to give birth to Jesus, good luck explaining that one to Joe, apparently.
  5. Michael: micha-el, who is like god? The other archangel mentioned in the Bible, and one that I have an affinity with even though I consider myself to be a Catholic atheist. That might sound weird, but the idea is that I appreciate the trappings and customs of the religion of my mother (except for the kiddie-diddling) while believing in none of it. For me, though, St. Michael, the archangel depicted slaying Satan, is above all a symbol for each of us defeating our own dark sides. Since the two are always depicted together, they are sort of a Catholic yin-yang.
  6. Nathaniel: netan-el, gift from god. There’s no Jewish tradition of any angels named Nathaniel, but that hasn’t stopped modern woo culture from plowing on ahead and creating their own. He does show up in the Bible, though, as Nathanael, one of the Apostles, but is only mentioned in the gospel of John and nowhere else.
  7. Uriel: uri-el, light of god. Not an official archangel, although he possibly hung out with cherubim guarding the east side of Eden wielding a flaming sword after Adam and Eve were kicked out.

And there’s just a short survey of words and names that came from Arabic and Hebrew into Spanish and English. There’s a long list of English words that came from Arabic but don’t start with “al,” as well as a bunch of English words that came from Hebrew but don’t end in “el.”

The point is that English really is a melting pot of a language that loves to absorb words from other languages and cultures, and don’t let any schmuck ever tell you otherwise — especially not as you read that previous sentence with words born from Latin, French, German, Saxon, Greek, and Yiddish in it. Capisce?

Talky Tuesday: Language is (still) a virus

I used this Burroughs quote as a post title a couple of years ago in an entirely different context, but the idea has taken on new relevance, as I’m sure the world can now agree.

This post’s title comes from a William S. Burroughs quote which reads in full as, “Language is a virus from outer space.”

What he meant by the first part is that words enter a host, infect it, and cause a change in it. Just as a virus hijacks a host’s cells in order to become little factories to make more virus to spread a disease, words hijack a host’s neurons in order to become little factories to make more words to spread ideas and belief systems.

As for the “outer space” part, I think that Burroughs was being metaphorical, with the idea being that any particular language can appear totally alien to any other. While, say, Mongolian and Diné may both come from humans on Earth, if a speaker of either encountered someone who only spoke the other, they might as well be from different planets because, for all intents and purposes, they are from different worlds, unable to communicate with words.

And the language we use can quite literally create and shape our perceptions of the world, as I discussed in my original Language is a virus post. One of the most striking examples I cited in that link was Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal language that has no words for relative direction. Instead, they refer to everything based upon where it is relative to actual cardinal directions.

In other words, if you ask someone who speaks this language where you should sit, they won’t say, “In the chair on your left.” Rather, they’ll say something like, “In the chair to the north.” Or south, or east, or west. And a speaker of the language will know what that means, whether they can see outside or not.

Quick — right now, if someone said “Point east,” could you do it without thinking?

And that is how languages can change thoughts and perceptions.

But, sometimes — honestly, far too often — language can change perceptions to create tribalism and hostility, and during this plague year, that has suddenly become a huge topic of debate over a simple change of one C word in a phrase.

I’m writing, of course, about “coronavirus” vs. “Chinese virus.” And the debate is this: Is the latter phrase racist, or just a statement of fact?

One reporter from a rather biased organization did try to start the “it’s not” narrative with the stupidest question ever asked: “Mr. President, do you consider the term ‘Chinese food’ to be racist because it is food that originated from China?”

There are just two problems with this one. The first is that what Americans call “Chinese food” did not, in fact, originate in China. It was the product of Chinese immigrants in America who, being mostly men, didn’t know how to cook, and didn’t have access to a lot of the ingredients from back home. So… they improvised and approximated, and “Chinese food” was created by Chinese immigrants starting in San Francisco in the 19th century.

Initially, it was cuisine meant only for Chinese immigrants because racist Americans wouldn’t touch it, but when Chinatowns had sprung up in other cities, it was New York’s version that finally lured in the hipster foodies of the day to try it, and they were hooked.

In short, “Chinese food” was a positive and voluntary contribution to American culture, and the designation here is merely descriptive, so not racist. “Chinese virus” is a blatant misclassification at best and a definite attempt at a slur at worst, with odds on the latter.

But we’ve seen this with diseases before.

When it comes to simple misidentification of place of origin, let’s look back to almost exactly a century ago, when the Spanish flu went pandemic. From 1918 to 1919, it hit every part of the world, infected 500 million people and killed 50 million.

A little perspective: At the time, the world’s population was only 1.8 billion, so this represents an infection rate of 28% and a mortality rate among the infected of 2.8%. If COVID-19 has similar statistics — and it seems to — then that means this pandemic will infect 2.1 billion people and kill 211 million.

By the way, while the 1918 pandemic was very fatal to children under 5 and adults over 65, it also hit one other demographic particularly hard: 20 to 40 year-olds.

So if you’re in that age range and think that COVID-19 won’t kill you, think again — particularly if you smoke or vape or have asthma, and don’t take the quarantine seriously. And remember: the rich and world leaders are not immune either — not now and not then.

The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was infected in the 1918 H1N1 pandemic in 1919, and while he survived, this assault on his health probably led to the stroke he had late in that year, an incident that was covered up by his wife, with the help of the president’s doctor. The First Lady became de facto president for the remainder of his second term.

In modern times, the first world leader to test positive for coronavirus was Prince Albert II of Monaco, followed not long after by Prince Charles and Boris Johnson. Of course, I’m writing these words a bit ahead of when you’ll read them, so who knows what will have happened by then.

In medical circles, the name “Spanish Flu” has been abandoned, and that particular pandemic is now known as H1N1, which I’m sure looks really familiar to you, because this has been the standard nomenclature for flu viruses for a while: H#N#, sans location, animal, or occupation, more on which in a minute.

But first, let’s get to the reasons behind naming a disease after a place. The H1N1 Pandemic was a simple case of mistaken identity and also contingent upon that whole “Great War” stuff going on in Europe.

See, other countries had been hit by it first, but in the interests of the old dick-waving “Gotta appear strong before our enemies” toxic masculinity, all of them suppressed the news. It wasn’t until Spain started seeing it in their citizens and, because they were neutral, they announced outbreaks, that the world suddenly pointed fingers and said, “Ooh… this came from Spain. Hence, it’s the Spanish flu.”

Except, not. Ironically, it seems now that the Spanish flu originated in… China. Although that’s according to historians. Virologists, on the other hand, have linked it to an H1 strain later identified in pigs in Iowa in the U.S.

Either way, all of the countries involved in WW I, aka “The Great War,” kept mum about it.

So the name “Spanish flu” was a simple mistake. On the other hand, the names of other diseases actually are outright xenophobic or racist, and we only have to look as far  as syphilis to see why.

Basically, syphilis is an STI that was the most feared of its kind until… AIDS, because syphilis was not treatable or curable until penicillin was discovered in 1928 — although it was not produced on a mass scale until 1945, thanks to needs created by WW II, and facilitated by the War Production Board.

Hm. Sound familiar?

But the reason it became known as the French disease outside of France was that it began to spread after Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494-95 to reclaim a kingdom he thought should be his. It was eventually so devastating that Charles had to take his troops home, and so it began to spread in France and across Europe.

Since it first showed up in French soldiers, it was quickly dubbed the French disease in Italy and England, although the French preferred to call it the Italian disease. In reality, it most likely originated in the New World, and was brought back to Europe by… Columbus and his Spanish soldiers, who then somehow managed to spread it to the French as they worked for them as mercenaries.

Hm. STI. A bunch of male soldiers. I wonder how that worked, exactly.

And I am totally destroying my future google search suggestions by researching all of this for you, my loyal readers, just so you know! Not to mention that I can’t wait to see what sort of ads I start getting on social media. “Confidential STI testing!” “Get penicillin without a prescription.” “These three weird tricks will cure the STI. Doctors hate them!”

But the naming of diseases all came to a head almost five years ago when the World Health Organization (WHO)  finally decided, “You know what? We shouldn’t name diseases after people, places, animals, occupations, or things anymore, because that just leads to all kinds of discrimination and offense, and who needs it?”

This directly resulted from the backlash against the naming of the last disease ever named for a place, despite the attempt to obfuscate that in its official terminology. Remember MERS, anyone?  No? That one came about in 2012, was first identified in Saudi Arabia, and was named Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Of course, it didn’t help when things were named swine flu or avian flu, either. A lot of pigs and birds died over those designations. So away went such terminology, especially because of the xenophobic and racist connotations of naming a disease after an entire country or people.

Of course, some antiquated folk don’t understand why it’s at the least racist and at the most dangerous to name diseases the old way, as evinced by the editorial tone of this article from a right-wing publication like The Federalist. But they actually kind of manage to prove the point that yes, such terminology is out of fashion, because the only 21st century example they can list is the aforementioned MERS.

The most recent one before that? Lyme disease, named for Lyme, Connecticut, and designated in… the mid-70s. Not exactly the least racist of times, although this disease was named for a pretty white-bread area.

The only other examples of diseases named for countries on their list: the aforementioned Spanish flu, Japanese encephalitis, named in 1871 (seriously, have you ever heard of that one?); and the German measles, identified in the 18th century, although more commonly known as rubella.

So, again — it’s a list that proves the exact opposite of what it set out to do, and calling coronavirus or COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Chinese disease” is, in fact, racist as hell. And it won’t save a single life.

But calling it that will certainly endanger lives by causing hate crimes — because language is a virus, and when people are infected by malignant viruses, like hate speech, the results can be deadly.

Inoculate yourselves against them with education if possible. Quarantine yourselves against them through critical thinking otherwise. Most of all, through these trying times, stay safe — and stay home!

Image source: Coronavirus Disease 2019 Rotator Graphic for (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez)


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.


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.

Seven deadly grammar sins that aren’t

There are certain grammar “rules” that everyone knows, but a lot of them are just wrong, or have so many exceptions that it’s pointless to follow them. Here’s a quick rundown.

An easy error with “an” and “a”

What we get taught: If a word starts with a consonant, the singular article before it is “a.” If it starts with a vowel, then you use “an.”

Why it’s wrong: Using a or an doesn’t depend on whether it’s a vowel or consonant. It depends on the sound. And it may even depend on the dialect. But here’s a simple example: “What are you doing an hour from now?” The word “hour” starts with a consonant, but “a hour” is just wrong because the sound is an open vowel.

As for dialect, an American would probably say “there’s a hospital there,” while a Brit would probably say “there’s an hospital there.” Here’s a vowel example: “There is a universe yet to be discovered.” Why? Because in that case, it starts with a consonant (or semi-vowel) sound: “you-niverse.”

There is never a reason that “their” is singular

What we get taught: The only singular pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers, or it/it/its. When the number is singular but the subject is unknown, use the masculine pronouns. They//them/theirs can never be singular, dammit!

Why it’s wrong: Because it’s the goddamn 21st century, and English as a language doesn’t have enough genders to fit the ones that exist. In some ways, it’s kind of nice that English is so genderless, except for those parts when it tries to insist that there are only two genders, and this is one of them. So they/them/theirs are just as valid in the singular as any of the others, and a lot more humanizing than referring to non-binary people as “it.”

It’s really linguistic evolution in action, and very similar to Spanish adopting the conventions of ending nouns and adjectives with either “x” or “@” to be gender-neutral in what’s generally identified as the Latinx or Latin@ movement. (The nice part about @ is that it combines the masculine O ending and the feminine A, although that’s not a hard and fast rule in Spanish, either. La mano and el planeta could tell you a thing or two about that.)

But… here’s the point. Not everyone fits into either he or she and that is a reality of the present. Therefore, it is entirely all right to use they as a third person singular, and it’s best that we refer to it as the gender-neutral form rather than what they call it in German, Romanian, or other languages with the unfortunately dubbed “neuter” case. Because that one always sounds less than, but the idea with ignoring this rule is to be ever more inclusive. “Their” is one (of many) inclusive gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns available now. Ask people theirs, then use them. It’s not that hard.

James’s rule: Don’t add an “S” after the apostrophe to words ending in “S”

What we get taught: If a word ends in “S,” then you make the possessive by only adding an apostrophe, and not an apostrophe S.

Why it’s wrong: This completely ignores how the word is pronounced, and it boils down to this. If you were saying it out loud, would you pronounce the extra S? In most cases, the answer is yes. For example, look at “The car of Jon” vs. “Jon’s car.” Extra S gets pronounced. So… “The car of James” vs. “James…” That’s right, when spoken, it sounds like “Jameses car,” so the correct possessive is “James’s car.” When you get into plural possessives ending in S, as the link points out, it’s the same deal. When a family named Jones owns a thing, then you pluralize first, then follow the rule for plural possessives and wind up with “The Joneses’ House.”

To glibly split infinitives is wrong

What we get taught: It is wrong to split an infinitive in English, by which we mean nothing can come between “to” and the basic verb form. To be, to do, to go, to eat, etc.

Why it’s wrong: Because some pedant in 19th Century England decided to just make things up. But this rule doesn’t make any sense at all, either. It’s right up there with the stupidity of throwing that extra “U” into words like color or flavor. And, bonus points: English is one of the few languages with infinitives that can even be split because, unlike most other languages that do it with a prefix, suffix, or stem word to create a singular word infinitive, we insist on throwing a preposition in front of a mostly neutral form to create an infinitive. Ooh, look. That was an infinitive right there! English is weird.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something to watch out for

What we get taught: Never end a sentence with a preposition. It’s wrong. Don’t do it!

Why it’s wrong: Cue up another pedant, in this case John Dryden, who, according to that link, was not well-liked by his contemporaries despite his success, or maybe because of it. His whole shtick was trying to force Latin Grammar onto the English language because he really loved him some Latin. But here’s the problem: Although English is partly a Germanic language and German follows a lot of the grammar left over from Latin, English managed to escape that first via Anglo Saxon and next via a mega-dose of Romance Language grammar via the Norman Invasion. Preposition placement in Latin was very carefully dictated. in English, not so much. Put that preposition wherever you think it needs to go.

There’s a very famous anecdote often attributed to Winston Churchill, but probably not him, in which a subordinate made a note on a speech or some such telling him to not end a sentence with a preposition. The reply, which was probably not Churchill, but rather just a joke, was that he wrote back, “This is an impertinence up with which I will not put.” The point here being that this sentence explains perfectly why this rule is so stupid and useless.

“I” before “E” except after “C” is the best of policies

What we get taught: I before E except after C, or when pronounced “A,” as in “neighbor” or “weigh.”

Why it’s wrong: Because there’s not a single thing right about it? There are more exceptions to this rule than there are rules, so it shouldn’t be taught at all. So where did it come from? Simple. Early grammar textbooks in the mid-19th century, designed to be shipped out to remote schoolhouses, and which included lots of lists of little rhyming rules like this that were sometimes right but often wrong. This one just happened to be short and simple, and so it stuck, even though it’s very, very wrong.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction

What we get taught: Using and, so, but, etc. should never come at the start of a sentence.

Why it’s wrong: But so many writers do it. And it can be very useful. So why the problem? Again, it’s made up. Or, rather, it’s an oversimplification of when conjunctions are needed to connect two clauses directly, or when they’re not. The problem, as is frequently the case, are the fanboysfor, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These cannot start sentences because they do connect to the previous clause. The other conjunctions? Not so much, so have at them!

In conclusion

As they say, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. But sometimes, you have to learn that the rules are just plain wrong, and these are examples of that. If you have any favorite grammar “rules” that are wrong, share them in the comments.

Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever seeing iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!