Archive for the ‘English usage’ Category

Ancient peoples gave us many gifts, the first of which was the Agricultural Revolution, leading to civilization itself. Among the latter’s boons–or possibly its cause–was alcohol, used as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration, but also as a way to sterilize contaminated water. But as always, time allows some things to ferment into greater potency, while leaving other things to rot. Language too often takes advantage of time to decay.

One example of this is the way many attach -ology to Modern English words. Best practice is to take -ology, a suffix formed from the ancient Greek word, λόγος (logos), meaning, word or more broadly, reasoning. Best practice is to find a Greek noun for the subject that is to be studied when forming a new word. Unfortunately, too many would-be coiners of terms are lazy and just slap -ology to modern words.

The case I have in mind today is “mixology,” supposedly the study of mixing drinks. But “mix” is the modern form, and it derives from a verb that didn’t involve what Jeopardy refers to a potent potables. The correct verb here is κεράννυμι (kerannymi), which referred to mixing wine with water–recall the purpose of sterilization–in vessels like this:


called a krater. Our word, crater, merely changes the first letter. Now the ancients had some form of distillation way back when, but distilled spirits date from the high Middle Ages at the earliest. Still (if you’ll excuse the pun), the verb whose root is kera relates to alcoholic beverages and thus is accurate in spirit (I can’t help myself). Therefore, the study of mixing drinks is kerology.

Of course, I prefer my drinks neat.



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I’m working my way through the complete fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. For those of you not familiar with his work, he was a writer of horror stories in the early decades of the twentieth century. Here’s a sample of his work, from “The Statement of Randolph Carter”:

In the lone silence of that hoary and deserted city of the dead, my mind conceived the most ghastly phantasies and illusions; and the grotesque shrines and monoliths seemed to assume a hideous personality—a half-sentience. Amorphous shadows seemed to lurk in the darker recesses of the weed-choked hollow and to flit as in some blasphemous ceremonial procession past the portals of the mouldering tombs in the hillside; shadows which could not have been cast by that pallid, peering crescent moon. I constantly consulted my watch by the light of my electric lantern, and listened with feverish anxiety at the receiver of the telephone; but for more than a quarter of an hour heard nothing. Then a faint clicking came from the instrument, and I called down to my friend in a tense voice. Apprehensive as I was, I was nevertheless unprepared for the words which came up from that uncanny vault in accents more alarmed and quivering than any I had heard before from Harley Warren. He who had so calmly left me a little while previously, now called from below in a shaky whisper more portentous than the loudest shriek:
“God! If you could see what I am seeing!”

As you can see, he wrote in the florid style common to writers of English until Hammett and Hemingway taught us to be sparing in our words–and let me not forget Strunk and White.

But what’s wrong with this? Lovecraft creates an atmosphere in his writing, doesn’t he? It is clear that the characters are horrified. The trouble is that I as the reader don’t know why.

What, for example, is meant by words like ghastly, blasphemous, ceremonial, or grotesque? I realize that the person saying those words has a strong dislike for what he is seeing. But since I can’t see them myself, I’m in the dark. It’s as though the narrator is telling me that I must accept his opinion on the scene without question.

Now I’m not one to demand a lot of descriptive writing in a story. I myself go for Hammett’s style–I told you there’s a chair and a bed in the room. What else do you need to know? But if the author is going to inform me that there be a sight worth seeing heere, I want it shown to me. Don’t just tell me what the author or a character thinks about it. Don’t use vague words that presume that I’ll agree with their opinions. If you want to tell me that there’s a hideous mushroom in the midst of the unquiet cellar, do it this way:

On the damp dirt floor, a lumpy white and red-spotted fungus stood. Was it fond of the odor of decay in the cellar? I wouldn’t know, having never held communication with a mushroom. The smell and the whistling of a faint breeze through the broken pane of glass at the far end certainly made me uneasy.

What I did there was show you the important object, gave you a sense of the cellar around said object, and let you know how the character feels about it. But I also allowed you to decide if you agree with the character.

To quote from Lovecraft’s story again, “God, if you could see what I am seeing!” Indeed. That’s exactly the point. If what the character is seeing is all that important, I need to see it to, not just be told how the author wants me to react.

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President Eisenhower used the phrase, military-industrial complex, in his farewell address on the 17th of January 1961. What he said made a good deal of sense, but he saddled us with a wretched cliché. Lazy writers ever since have scribbled vague warnings about the _______-industrial complexes that threaten our lives.

Please. It wasn’t that great a rhetorical flourish when Eisenhower said it, and by this point, it has lost any power that it once had. Come up with a better way to say what you mean.

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I’m bloody tired of the question posed in the title. Every time I speak with a customer service representate, a nurse, a Nigerian prince, or similar, I get asked that.

The question is really asking for my social security number, but it’s failing. “Social” in this context is an adjective. Without a noun, it means nothing. In days gone by, a social was a party, but people don’t have socials much any more. Now, they gather in the virtual world.

This may sound like the carping of someone clinging to English as it once was, but there is a point here that’s deeper. A social security number is supposed to be only the number used by the Social Security Administration. The fact that it has become a number for general identification and has done so to the extent that many don’t even use its full name any more ought to worry us. “What’s your social?” is a sign of inane acceptance.

Language matters. It’s our way of thinking and of transmitting our thoughts. If we take the time to express ourselves fully, we’ll notice more when our thoughts have gang agley.

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