"So there are Oliphaunts. But no one at home will ever believe me."
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Portable Document Philes

Overheard:

“How do you change a pedophile?”

“What?”

“I have something that I need to make changes to. A pedophile.”

“Ahhh… I’m not sure what you mean?”

“You know, these pedophiles? Or what do you call them? PD files?”

“Oh. You mean Adobe Reader files? Like PDF?”

“Yes, yes. Pedophiles.”

Beware, the PD Bear.

May 20, 2010   Comments Off

Caveman Grammar

I just taught what was quite likely the best 25 minute introduction to grammar, ever, and I made it all up on the fly.

I did it by describing language as developing first from the caveman’s desire to name things, and from that came the first NOUNS. So any word that names a thing—objects, people, ideas—is a NOUN. Next cavemen wanted to describe those things by size, shape, or color, so the ADJECTIVE was invented. Eventually it wasn’t enough to talk about things, and people needed to talk about what things-with-names were doing, so VERBS were created. Just like the ADJECTIVE was needed to NOUN, the ADVERB was needed to describe the VERB’S activity.

It may sound simple, but those guys learned more about the parts of speech in 25 minutes that they had in four years of high school. They were able to identify word roles easily where 30 minute earlier they couldn’t even say with confidence what the parts of speech were.

Of course language almost certainly did not develop that way at all, but that’s some effective pedagogy.

May 19, 2010   Comments Off

Scrabble for iPad

Scrabble on the iPad has become a part of the morning ritual along with the illy café from the moka pot. Sometimes games take days, other times we decide that we have wrecked the board with too many tightly played words and start over. Sometimes we forget whose turn it is and only realize after the next person goes.

The game has a terrible built in dictionary, accepting words like, NE, QI, QUOD, ENVIRO, ZINE and AE. But we aren’t playing seriously so it is tolerated. The official Scrabble dictionary is only about 660k, and this is a licensed version, so I don’t see why they couldn’t include that.

They need to add the ability to store multiple in-progress games, and a customizable dictionary. Worth the $9.99 price, though.

May 10, 2010   Comments Off

Fairy complicated

I was doing a bit of background research on The Sorcerer’s House, the latest novel by my favorite author, an extremely dangerous and subtle man. Several of his more recent works have mined the mythologies of northern Europe—Gaelic/Celtic lore and the Norse cycle. When I was younger I regarded those mythologies are ridiculous (leprechauns) or brutal and predictable (Viking drinking songs). I was wrong, of course. The cute little fairies of Ireland and Wales are beings capable of reason, very powerful, and utterly soulless–hence, quite psychotic; and the tales of the Norse Edda are some of the most disturbing things imaginable, and seem to suggest that LSD was discovered a thousand years earlier than generally acknowledged.

I had the following links open while trying to wrap my head around the story.

All worth perusing.

Bonus cool derivation (not just the word, note the name at the end):

The word fairy derives from Middle English faierie (also fayerye, feirie, fairie), a direct borrowing from Old French faerie (Modern French féerie) meaning the land, realm, or characteristic activity (i.e. enchantment) of the legendary people of folklore and romance called (in Old French) faie or fee (Modern French fée), derived ultimately from Late Latin fata (one of the personified Fates, hence a guardian or tutelary spirit, hence a spirit in general)…

To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, heronry, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in by a person (cookery, midwifery, thievery), and in later usage generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular sort of person (as in English knavery, roguery, witchery, wizardry)…

The word fey, originally meaning “fated to die” or “having forebodings of death” (hence “visionary”, “mad”, and various other derived meanings) is completely unrelated, being from Old English fæge, Proto-Germanic *faigja- and Proto-Indo-European *poikyo-, whereas Latin fata comes from the Indo-European root *bhã- “speak”.

Morgan le Fay, whose connection to the realm of Faerie is implied in her name…

(From “Fairy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.”)

May 1, 2010   Comments Off

Goldman sucks

Law professor Ann Althouse has an appreciation for words and imagery—one of the reasons I read every post at her site—but I wonder about this derivation. There is no doubt that soak does derive from a word originally meaning suck, but I don’t think that the following necessarily holds true:

But the old expression “soak the rich” was not originally based on an image of dunking the rich in a vat of water or other liquid or somehow hosing them down or otherwise wetting them. The original etymology of “soak” is “suck.” So “soak the rich” is more like suck the rich dry.

There is no mention of when the word soak completely lost its sucky sense, but the first use in the sense of overcharge was in 1895. It seems likely to me that the proto-Germanic sense was completely lost by 1895, so I expect there is a different explanation for this idiom.

The original post, by the way, is about the profanities used in the Senate hearings on Goldman Sachs. I saw excerpts of this hearing on the news. I think that there is plenty of room for argument about how to design and impose rules to prevent over-leveraged investment firms from wiping out the global economy, but I am amazed (truly amazed, not in the sarcastic sense) that the members of the pertinent rule making body, the Senate of the United States, appeared to comprehend banking, savings and investing at a junior high school home economics level. Truly disturbing. So it’s hard not to enjoy the irony of the lead inquisitor being unmasked as voting for the very bill deregulating the firms he wishes to hoist.

In the end, I don’t think that the regulations will matter, in the sense of achieving their designers’ desired effect. Thanks to advances in mathematical modeling, assisted by computerized trades and global financial markets, the smart money is getting exponentially smarter. The demons have jumped out the box, and they’re not going to be persuaded back in by a few rules. I think we end up in a world with some unimaginably strange currencies being swapped trillions of times a day by ghosts.

(From “Althouse: “In an angry hearing peppered with shouts and potty talk, Goldman Sachs brass doggedly insisted Tuesday they have no regrets about dubious mortgage deals that soaked investors.”)

April 30, 2010   Comments Off

Fun with words: Oh, Henry

I’m reading (on my iPad, hooray), Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. I thought that perhaps I was descending into idiocy, but in researching this post I was gratified to learn that even admirer Edith Wharton found his later works to be nearly incomprehensible. The language and the narrative are similar: challenging, opaque. Beyond the veil the book offers convincing psychological clarity and the pleasure of enjoying of the brilliant use of English.

I don’t wish to write about the book, however; just one single word in it, whose use was, in its time, likely common: “I engage myself to you for ever,” (Kate Croy, wishing to commit herself to marriage, or at least, maybe, the possibility, if only… yes, it’s complicated).

I wondered at the unusual employment of engage. Of course people who are affianced are described as “engaged,” but I had never seen the word used in the active voice—that is, one expects to see “I am engaged” not “I engage myself.” The iPad’s built-in dictionary offered no definition supporting this use, but in the etymological note it stated that the word is derived from one meaning, “to pawn or pledge something,” later coming to mean “to pawn or pledge oneself,” and, by mid 16th century, “enter into a contract”. The word later comes to describe meeting in combat, and then finally reaches the modern, and very much abstracted from the original, meaning of “to be involved with.” The original meaning is nearly obliterated except in the vestigial remnant of “they are engaged [affianced]“1.

Other words of pledging develop special uses (e.g., “commit troops to combat”) but I find that the history of this word to be curious. Originally it focused on the pledging a thing, or oneself, to another, but eventually the focus of the word moved from the one promising to the effect of the promise on its recipient in the interaction of the two parties. Consider, for example, “they were engaged in a discussion,” or “the two gears engaged.”

I was surprised to see that this word is not Latinate. It comes from French through German. Cursory further digging suggests that, accounting for the shift from Germanic w to French g, (en)gage is related to wage and wed2.


1 I’m not sure what dictionary the iPad uses or I would attribute this etymology. It appears to be the same dictionary in OS X’s Dictionary.app.

2 Again, as per Dictionary.app.

April 24, 2010   2 Comments