Well, words matter a lot to me.
My native tongue is English, the progenitor of
the anglic group, which has been a veritable
magpie of a collector. Where anglophones have met a word for which we can't
think of a clear English equivalent, our language has been gracious enough to
import the word. Naturally, after a millenium or so, this has lead to an
enormous vocabulary; which leaves a fair few words now redundant or seldom used,
to which the anglophone naturally reaches when seeking something to which to tie
some meaning for which no word sprang to mind. All very fine and natural,
though I'd be happier if
some more care were
taken to avoid ambiguity and over-loading. One should
not get to attached to any particular
correctness, but I do derive some mild amusement from some of
the silliness that arises.
multiple has come to be used in a way I find
discomforting; it's crowding the meaning of
many or (as
my friend Alexey points out)
numerous, while abandoning the distinction
it used to enable. This change in usage smells of the user trying to impress
folk with their command of fancy words; as ever, this is only attempted by
those with a poor grasp of the language.
I suspect the confusion comes from the short-form
multi– which does have the given meaning: a multi-volume
novel is a single novel split across several volumes, no one of which is a
multiple volume (whatever one of those might be). A particularly apt example
is that someone I would describe as
multilingual is said to
multiple languages. Now, it seems to me that the only multiple
language of which I've ever heard is double dutch: and that anyone who claims
to speak multiple languages is, indeed, speaking it. Ironically, there is
only one multiple language (to my knowledge), so one can speak
language, but not
Multiple is the generaliser
quadruple, etc. If someone eats a
double or triple cheese-burger, they're eating a multiple cheese-burger, or
maybe a multi-burger (and let none grumble at a
cheese-burger being a
beef-burger with cheese; after all, a
beef-burger is a hamburger, a
preparation of beef (not ham) of a style which is purported to come from
Hamburg). If someone eats several (single) burgers, they haven't eaten (any)
multiple burgers. A multiple fracture is where one bone is broken in several
places; when several bones are broken, the patient has several
fractures. When a killer goes down the road shooting innocent passers-by (and
what other sort have you ever heard of ?), they commit several homicides;
but, unless a single shot kills several victims, no multiple homicide is
committed. The terrorist whose bomb kills several victims does commit a
multiple homicide; but, to be guilty of
multiple homicides, the
terrorist needs another bomb in a separate incident.
Once upon a time,
optimize (and yes, that was the U.K. spelling
given by the 1973 O.E.D.) meant: make something
best or most
favourable. By the '80s, it was widely used to mean: make something
better. For example, in the world of computer scientists, compilers have
optimization levels; here are some snippets from
the gcc compiler page:
Optimize. Optimizing compilation takes somewhat more time, and a lot more memory for a large function. …
Optimize even more. …
Optimize yet more. …
Finally, the birth of the internet has seen a marvelous new variant: where a web
page is said to be
optimized for some particular web browser, what it
means is that the web page only works for visitors using that browser. The
author has deliberately chosen to produce a page which is inaccessible to
anyone not equipped with that browser, and they think this
is clever. They didn't produce a web page which worked for all
browsers, then make improvements specific to the one for which they claim to
have optimized: they totally ignored all browsers but the one they took into
account. Indeed, the page is in fact pessimized (i.e. made worst or
least favourable) for all browsers but that one.
What they're doing is coding against the feature set of a particular proprietary browser, rather than coding to the publicly agreed standards of the W3C. One can enhance the latter with occasional tweaks to exploit features of (or avoid the bugs in) a particular browser, and the W3C's deliberations are careful to ensure that one can do so (in moderation) without adverse impact on a page's utility to users of other browsers (albeit major browser distributors endeavour to design seductive facilities which break this care).
The funny thing is, pages
optimized for one browser frequently
look dreadful even with the given browser – the sort of web
designer who makes this idiotic mistake is typically better at making excuses
for how bad the results are than at actually designing web pages. I know my
web pages aren't beautiful, but they're easy to compose and every browser
displays them well enough to let site visitors read them – any browser
which didn't would certainly be abrogating the W3C's
In a similar vein, many cities are
optimized for cars – i.e.,
if you want to get around in them, you'd better be in a car. Support for
pedestrians and bicyclists is added in a half-hearted manner after the fact of
design decisions which could never have been made if non-car road users had
been taken into account from the outset – as we should be.
When my mother chaired committees, she expected the title chairman and
understood it to mean
whoever is chairing this meeting: the title makes
no statement about the chairman's gender or sex, only about her rôle in
the meeting. Some folk seem to want to excise the letters m, a and n from
words, where they appear together, but it seems to me far wiser to try to lay
man as meaning any member of our species – I'd have no
more ground to object to being called a penisman (or use some anglo-saxon in
place of the latin) than a wombman has when that's shortened to its modern
form. What I really want, when refering to someone, is to only need to
mention those aspects of them that are relevant to the discourse. Since
folk's genitals are seldom the aspects of them relevant to their rôles
in any of my texts, I don't want to need to involve sex-lives, actual or
potential, in how I refer to folk.
Much of the time I dodge this by constructing sentences which evade bits
of English which call for gender resolution: and I make much use of the
folk. At times I'll treat
fool as though it were a
folk, ignoring (though not necessarily denying !) its
proper meaning. It's also sometimes useful to play around with pronouns: I'll
you for two protagonists in a discourse, and English
won't force me into gender terms to discuss us; when I need more protagonists,
I'll use either
she for the third, the other or
it for a fourth, leaving room for a fifth if I need it. At
times, likewise, I simply won't bother with a pronoun – it stands for a
noun, and repeating the noun once and again can surely be little worse than
repeating its pronoun over and over. I suspect most texts on God would be
greatly improved by replacing
God throughout and leaving
the divinity's gender out of the discussion: when God's sex-life or genitals
are relevant, use the pronoun by all means – but only then.
It has always amused me how the word
inferno has come to mean what
it does in English. Protestant preachers painted a fire-and-brimstone hell to
scare folk into subservience, thereby creating the myth that hell is hot
– hence the expression
when hell freezes over
never. These cheap theatrics, for all their efficacy in cowing
simpletons, utterly reversed the principal prior account of the nature of hell
– as given by Dante in his
Inferno, the first volume of his
famous trilogy, whose name thus came to be attached to the hot and scary place
the protestant ranters described and, by association, with any place of
unendurable heat or grotesque suffering. Which is marvelously absurd: Dante
was describing a hell which is predominantly cold, miserable and far duller
than the torture-parlour the protestants invented. Having read Dante's
Inferno, I confess his account of hell shows a spiritual and theological
sophistication utterly lacking in the melodramatic drivel of those who ended
up turning the book's title's meaning on its head. Take note: much of hell
had already frozen over when Dante visited it.
It is perhaps worth noting that the same ranting preachers and their
pamphleteering buddies are also responsible for myths about the Spanish
Inquisition. The historical record paints a far calmer and gentler picture of
The Inquisition (a general branch of the Roman church, by no means confined to
Spain): though its opinions and policies stood in the way of progress and
silenced good folk, their methods were nothing like as
their enemies claimed.
The Inquisition did, after all, sincerely believe that it was answerable
to God, staffed by sinners and so bound to have some humility in its pursuit
of truth; and it knew that its first duty was to love the sinner, hating only
the sin (ah, how much better the world if that recipe were more
widely followed), and guide the fallen back to the path of virtue. Any
inquisitor who might have felt tempted to use improper means (in the hope of
thereby attaining ends he imagined to be just) lived with the knowledge that
The Inquisition did check up on what inquisitors did; and did insist
on a full audit trail of investigation – which is why there's a rich
historical record to defend them from their contemporaries' slanders;
client confidentiality prevented them from presenting this
evidence at the time.
Contrast this with the protestant world's witch-hunters, who overtly hated
bad people and would sooner kill them than hear their account of
the truth. They were safe from oversight – questioning their work was
all too readily construed as
evidence of collusion with the alleged
witches. Their legacy lives on: questioning McCarthyism in the '50s
communist sympathies; questioning
anti-terrorist legislation (which indisuptably hampers the very
freedoms the governments who enact them claim to be defending, while only
debatably hampering only some of the methods terrorists have sometimes used)
today is likewise apt to be construed as, at the very least,
the hideous human cost of some unknown party's scarcely-noticed message of
2001, September the 11th. But I digress.
The pamphleteers' and preachers' slander of The Inquisition was motivated
by a desire to make folk fear the church of Rome – casting the
inquisitors in the rôle of evil bogey-man – and turn to its
slanderers as saviours. The lies they invented were
propaganda – wherein I can find a further irony. The word
that which is worthy of being spread; the Roman church
had always taken pains to control its public utterances (as do so many
political parties today), so every episode of disembling by a church
mouth-piece pushed the word propaganda a step or two closer to its modern
meaning. It took the protestant ranters, however, to fully turn the word's
meaning on its head, so that
propaganda now means: lies that are told
for political expediency (but, when one does so oneself, it's called
A closely related notion is
right teaching, which is
orthodox started out meaning. For a somewhat contrary notion one
impropaganda, see the FSF's description of
some words to
avoid in any attempt at avoiding the biasses of vested interests in
discussion of copyright and kindred issues.
I have a dictionary which describes itself as
Norsk-Engelsk ordbok which might superficially be supposed to claim a
certain symmetry between the two languaes addressed; but notice that its claim
is in Norwegian. Indeed, having now used it for some time, I am painfully
familiar with the subtle ramifications of its target audience being, in fact,
Norwegians. For example, while the translation for
a child takes the trouble to note that the plural
children, its reverse does not bother to tell me that the correct
indefinite article for
ei, so that its definite form
the child) is
barna) let alone that the
barnet is (irregularly)
(which is the word I was trying to make sense of; it seems to mean a singular
female child in definite form, but is actually the definite form of the
plural, with unspecified gender, which the dictionary neglected to tell
me). This has set me to thinking about dictionaries and how they should
actually be organised.
Note that we also have dictionaries for a single language, which explain the meanings of words. For contrast, the common form of cross-language dictionary tells one the relevant synonyms without explaining them. When a word has disparate meanings (as commonly happens with slang usages deviating from normal ones) it is necessary to go to the other half of the book and look up their several translations back again to discover which of them matches the meaning you want and avoid potentially embarrassing mistakes.
So my idea for how dictionaries should be organized is this: the
dictionary targets the speakers of one language (say Norwegian) wishing to
deal with another language; I'll describe the target audience's native
language as the target language and the other language as foreign. The
dictionary's title makes its asymmetry plain by being in the target
language. One part of the dictionary maps the words they are familiar with
to, simply, lists of words in the foreign language, with some remarks on any
pertinent idiomatic anomalies. Thus far, all is as we are used to; and we may
continue the parallel with other good features, like a section on the grammar
and regular declension of words in the foreign language. However, the other
part of the book makes no pretense of symmetry: it is, in fact,
meanings dictionary – it gives, for each foreign word, an entry
that explains, in the target language, its meanings and idiomatic usages, just
as would normally appear in a single-language dictionary.
This would doubtless require fatter dictionaries to cover any given fraction of a language; or a sparser coverage of the language in order to fit in a given volume of paper. However, it would serve the reader better than the illusory symmetry of each half serving to map words in one language to lists of words in the other. It is also worth noting that a single-language meanings-dictionary would then simply be the special case where the foreign language and the target language are one and the same: the dictionary is the foreign-to-target portion; its target-to-foreign portion would then be a thesaurus.
Once upon a time in English (and still in most of Europe, though the spelling and pronunciation will be slighly different) there were a chain of names for the powers of a thousand: thousand, million, milliard, billion and billiard; to which there is enough rational structure to allow continuation with trillion (not Trillian), trilliard, quadrillion, quadrilliard, quintillion, quintilliard and so on. Crucially, the billion, trillion, quadrillion (and so on) are, in this scheme, the second, third, fourth (and so on) powers of the million; and each ~lliard was a thousand times the corresponding ~llion.
Meanwhile, in the U.S.A., another scheme is in common use (and, until 1948, was also used in France): the successive powers of a thousand are thousand, million, billion, trillion and so on. With these meanings, the billion (milliard, 1e9) isn't the second power of any whole number (let alone a nice round power of ten); the trillion (billion, 1e12) is the third power of ten thousand; but, thereafter, the quadrillion (billiard, 1e15), quintillion (trillion, 1e18), sextillion (trilliard, 1e21) and all subsequent members of the family aren't relevant powers of any whole number. Each member of this sequence has name derived from the latin for a number, n, with -llion or -illion appended: the member means 103.(1+n) in this scheme, where the same name means 106.n in the European scheme.
This didn't matter to anyone much (since few had occasion to speak of such
huge numbers) until the nineteenth century, when some U.S.A.ish businessmen
amassed so much wealth that they owned millions of dollars; the U.S.A.ish
press took great glee in talking about these
millionaires, at least
until the novelty wore off. Before so very long – though it might have
been the twentieth century by then, and there may have been some exaggeration
involved, possibly conflating the wealth of a corporation the man controlled
with the man's own wealth – there were men who commanded thousands of
millions of dollars. To the U.S.A., these were billionaires; but in Europe
they would have been called milliardaires.
It took most of the twentieth century for the U.S.A.ish usage to
infiltrate English, and much of mainland Europe spurns this as a corruption;
the net effect is that the prudent author is obliged to avoid using any of the
terms from billion onwards, for fear of confusion. Thankfully, scientific
notation provides a replacement, albeit one with several guises – what I
write as 1e21, following a form common in computer programming languages, is
commonly written as 1021, pronounced
ten to the (power)
twenty-one, meaning the result of multiplying together twenty-one
instances of the number ten. I can refer to a gigaeuro or terraeuro without
danger of the ambiguity with which
a billion euros is fraught;
unfortunately, since scientific quantifiers are jargon, this isn't much use
when writing for a general audience. I find it particularly comical that
(supposedly conservative) republican governments in the U.S.A. have saddled
that nation with terradollars of debt.
Both systems of naming were originally French. Personally, I'm in favour of junking both in favour of the SI nomenclature: I'm pretty sure that trying to introduce yet another nomenclature would totally fail to gain traction !
I treasure this strange combination found in very few persons: a fierce desire for life as well as a lucid perception of the ultimate futility of the quest.
Compare and contrast with: a lucid perception of the value of life, devoid of any desire.
a Norse word, literally
(that which is) for lay(ing
on bread), serving to unify cheese, jam, sliced meats, meat pastes, fish
pastes, pickled fish and all. An anglophone would pronounce
poor leg as near to the Norse pronunciation of påleg as can be
hoped for; I suspect the right way for anglic to spell this word would
porleg would do. I want anglic to import this
David Morgan-Mar unravells the twisted history of this word in the annotations to an episode of his Irregular Webcomic.
sesquipedaliophobia, is long enough that it would likely be troubling for someone suffering from this condition. Sadly, I know no ancient Greek, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of the allegations.
One might also say the same of intelligence. The
military appears to be a
negatory qualifier. Either that
or words like
minor collateral damage. Then again, what is ordnance when
it isn't military ?
65% of freeze-dried coffee drinkers prefer
the brand which used this wording in its advertising.
My 1973 poxy tells
systematic intimidation as a method of
governing or securing political or other ends, with
-ise, even in English) as derivative
words. Sadly, the word
terrorism has now been down-graded to
actions perpetrated by anyone of whom we do not approve; while some
who might otherwise be called
terrorists are called
fighters for no better reason than that they serve the interests of those
who so call them. [More on
this.] Such mendacity can only lead to a weakening of the moral sensibilities
of those who are taken in by it; those who foster it have clearly already
abandoned all moral sensibilities.
If you need to talk about computers in Anglo-Saxon, there's now a handy glossary for you.
Anglic contains plenty of words ending -tion which are susceptible to
mis-typing to end -iton or -tino; which sound like endings of names of
particles in the bestiary of modern physics, leading (in me) to a natural
tendency to see these typos produce fascinating
particles. For example:
the irreducible constituent of which instructions are made. Then again, what would an instruciton be ?
the fundamental particle of curiosity. (First noticed in an e-mail by Christopher Petrilli on the PSA members' list.)
I guess the -iton and -tino should caricature electron and neutrino, respectively. This would make -tino hard to observe and relevant mainly to transitions involving an -iton, which would be easy to observe and do the main job hinted at by the mis-typed word. Presumably an optino would sway decisions imperceptibly. Perhaps soliton (a self-sustaining solitary wave) could be used to inspire different readings of the -iton forms.
The U.S.A. went through a phase, mostly in the 19th century,
orthographic rationalisation – i.e. tidying up spelling. This
is a very sensible idea, since Anglic's spelling consists almost entirely of
anomalies. The idea was to fix this by introducing a systematic approach to
spelling. It's one of those good ideas that's doomed to failure, but at least
they had a go at it. This is why U.S.
English and English are spelt
differently. Then again, I suspect quite a lot of why English is so oddly
spelt is down to Sam Johnson's personal prejudices about which of the
spellings his contemporaries were using to include in his dictionary; so you
can think of the revisions as a matter of chosing differently from
him. However, the revisionists just exacerbated the situation because, of
course, much of the anglophone world wasn't paying any attention to them.
So, if you've ever wondered why fibre, colour, sulphur, centre, aluminium,
etc., along with all those words which sound like they end in -eyes (or -ize,
or -ise), enjoy such diversity of spelling among anglophones, now you
know. Well, OK, natural anglophone slackness about spelling
contributes. Ironically, increasingly many English anglophones are now ending
various words in -ise that always used to end in -ize even in the U.K.; this
is partly because spell-checkers, when asked to check U.K. English,
over-simplify the difference from their default U.S. spelling, but equally
because plenty of U.K. anglophones back-derive the
spelling because they think U.K. spelling used to be uniformly -ise, which it
Anyhow, orthographic revisionism inspired Mark Twain [I've also seen a conflicting attribution] to a pleasantly entertaining satire:
A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling
For example, in Year 1 that useless lettercwould be dropped to be replased either bykors, and likewisexwould no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in whichcwould be retained would be thechformation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reformwspelling, so thatwhichandonewould take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolishyreplasing it withiand Iear 4 might fiks theg/janomali wonse and for all.
Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letezc,yandx— bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplaisch,sh, andthrispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.
I've also met (thanks to Jim Peters) an updated version of that for late twentieth century Europe:
The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations Her Majesty's Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5 year phase-in plan that would be known asEuro-English.
In the first yearswill replace the softc. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hardCwill be dropped in favour of thek. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesomephwill be replased with thef. This will make words likefotograf20% shorter.
In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments enkorage the removal of double leters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also al wil agre that the horible mes of the silentein the languag is disgraseful and it should go away. By the 4th yer peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasingthwithzandwwithv.
During ze fifz yer ze unesesaryokan be dropd from vords kontainingouand similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. After ziz fifz yer ve vil hav a rali sensible riten styl. Zer vil be no mor truble or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer.
Ze drem vil finali kum tru!!
Meanwhile, in case anyone thinks English spelling and pronunciation make
sense already, here's a little riddle for you: if
ghoti were an English
word, how would it be pronounced ?
Well, consider the words tough, women and
ignition and you'll soon enough see that it's pronounced the
no ? I gather this folly
is mid-Victorian (and commonly mis-attributed).