The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 22, 2016

Usage Finds of the Month

“As I’ve eluded to above the three key advantages are . . .”  ~ Antibody Review Blog

“Love him or hate him, Trump is one of the most consistent people you will ever meet. He changes his political opinions over time, which is normal, but his patterns of behavior rarely seem to waiver.” ~ Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog

Like “tow the line” and “pour over [the document],” these are symptoms of a culture that has become oral and visual rather than literate. What’s wrong with that, you ask? When the spelling of written English is so perverse that it selects for people with a genetic polymorphism that links the sound of a word to the precise look of it? What is the use of being able to master English spelling for conveying meaning? It communicates like a social code to other elite freaks, that’s all.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m one of those freaks, so I don’t want to just assume we’re right and those who can’t do this trick are wrong. I happen to love written English spelling because it’s a playground, or graveyard, of etymology. How words are spelled tells you not only the words’ root meaning but the language they came from (Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Latin, and French having all poured, ahem, into the brew that became English in the first place) and the way their ancestors were pronounced. “Through, thought, rough, dough, plough” send me into paroxysms of delight because I can image phlegmy Anglo-Saxons hawking them up. One doesn’t need to know that to write a blog post that gets its point across, but a language with amnesia for its antecedents is denuded of earth and depth.



May 1, 2014

Fossil Mixed Metaphors

Most high-flown abstract words started life as physical, material metaphors, colorful analogies between actions of the body and actions of the mind. (To “deliberate” is to weigh.) The root words for those physical actions still lie buried inside their abstract descendants. Because I feel the roots of words (do I need a root canal?), it really bothers me when abstractions are put together whose underlying physical actions do not go together at all, but clash absurdly.

The example I’m looking at right now is “precipitated a quagmire.” You can’t do that, somehow.

“Quagmire,” like most Anglo-Saxon words, is a much “younger” abstraction than the Latinate “precipitate.” That is, you can still hear the metaphor loud and clear. A “quagmire” is barely one step removed from a quaking bog in which you would “bog down” (heh) and flounder: a slower sort of quicksand. In Latinate words, on the other hand, the physical root is hidden and forgotten, unless you take an obsessive kind of interest in these things. “Precipitate” is, thanks to the indispensible Online Etymology Dictionary, “from Latin praecipitatus, past participle of praecipitare ‘to throw or dive headlong,’ from praeceps ‘steep, headlong, headfirst’ (see precipice). Meaning ‘to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of’ is recorded from 1620s. Chemical sense is from 1620s; meteorological sense first attested 1863.”

Look at the layers of metaphor in that abstraction! It’s a thing of beauty, like a first-rate geological dig site. It goes back to “prae-ceps,” “first-head,” and a precipice is something you fall off headfirst. It’s interesting too that the chemical sense and the metaphorical sense (“to cause to happen, hurry the beginning of”) date to the same time. What is the physical action behind that metaphorical sense of the word? Is it the chemical meaning — when a solid suddenly forms out of a solution — or is it getting something rolling by pitching it downhill?


January 24, 2014

Metaphor Deafness

This kind of thing bothers me perhaps more than it should, and I wonder if it bothers anyone else:

Even though the rules may be simple, the pathway through the cosmos to you or me is laden with twists and turns.

(Never mind that the author had originally written “the pathway . . . to you or I”; that’s a whole other topic.)

“Laden with twists and turns.” Laden? That means loaded, burdened. I don’t know about you, but this sentence makes me visually see a person carrying an armload of curved segments of toy-train track, or a bundle of sinuous slides from the old board game “Chutes and Ladders.”

There are metaphors hidden, often not very deeply hidden, in the etymologies of lots of our words, especially verbs. Most of those metaphors are physical, and boil down to a simple repertoire of objects and actions. We “weigh” a decision, we “grasp” an idea. The metaphors are a little more hidden in Latinate words than in Anglo-Saxon ones — “comprehend” — but it’s just a translation of the same thing. A monkey has a “prehensile” tail; it grasps.

Language is very physical to me, and I see and feel a kind of cartoon of these actions within abstractions. So when someone writes something like “laden with twists and turns,” it bothers me.

Another example: After looking at pond water, Antony van Leeuwenhoek looked under his microscope at some scrapings from

the fascinating, but rarely embraced, nooks and crannies of the human mouth.

I know what the writer is trying to say: that no one (except a dentist or dental hygienist) exactly rushes to meet the yucky inside of the human mouth with . . . er . . . open arms. But how exactly would you embrace a nook, or put your arms around a cranny?

I call this “metaphor deafness.” A writer is using language as pure abstraction, amnesic about its origins, cut from its corporeal roots. It hurts in a Frankenstein’s-monster kind of way, dragging along severed body parts, stitching together a mental action out of mismatched physical ones.

Am I crazy? Sometimes I think I drive writers crazy, making them use not just any abstraction with the right meaning, but one that also has the right action in its bones.

Other examples? I regret now that I haven’t been collecting them, but I will from now on.

August 14, 2010

Evil Twin of the Week

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language degenerating — amba12 @ 9:23 am

We’ve talked about people who “pour” over manuscripts, “horde” their possessions and “tow” the line.  Well, they also “reign in” their emotions.  AARRRRGGGHHH!!!  I’m not reining mine in!

It’s an understandable case of mistaken identity, I guess.  You could certainly “reign over” your emotions, in the sense of “govern,” “rule,” “control.”  And a “rein” is used to govern, rule, control a horse, so I wondered if they had a common root that would stretch to justify the misuse.  Nope.  I consulted the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary (if you don’t know it yet, you should):

reign (n.) early 13c., “kingdom,” from O.Fr. reigne, from L. regnum “kingship, dominion, rule, realm,” related to regere (see regal). Meaning “period of rule” first recorded mid-14c. The verb, meaning “to hold or exercise sovereign power,” is attested from late 13c., from O.Fr. regner, from L. regnare, from regnum.
rein (n.) c.1300, “strap fastened to a bridle,” from O.Fr. rene, probably from V.L. *retina “a bond, check,” back-formation from L. retinere “hold back” (see retain). The verb is c.1300, from the noun. Figurative extension “put a check on” first recorded 1588.

Wait a minute — retina??  OED (were those initials intentional?) doesn’t comment on it, but:

retain late 14c., from O.Fr. retenir, from L. retinere “hold back,” from re– “back” + tenere “to hold” (see tenet). Meaning “keep (another) attached to one’s person, keep in service” is from mid-15c.; specifically of lawyers from 1540s.
retina late 14c., from M.L. retina, probably from V.L. (tunica) *retina, lit. “net-like tunic,” on resemblance to the network of blood vessels at the back of the eye, and ult. from L. rete “net.” The V.L. phrase may be Gerard of Cremona’s 12c. translation of Arabic (tabaqa) sabakiva “netlike layer,” itself a translation of Gk. amphiblestroeides (khiton).
It’s hard to tell if the Latin rete, net, is related to re-tenere, to hold back, but it seems logical.  Think of a fishing net stretched across a stream to hold back salmon.  Lawyers, though?  Eyes?  How far afield we’re led by language’s tangled web!  Yet every far-flung excursion circles back to the same handful of basic, kinesthetic roots.  To grasp, to hold, hold over, hold back.  Rule, regulate, restrain, retain, rein — maybe this mistake, at least, conceals an insight.

February 17, 2010

The Genius of Slang

Filed under: etymology,language evolving,slang — amba12 @ 9:26 am

This post is a showcase for brilliant examples of the wit and wisdom of the vernacular.

It was inspired by finding this one, never before heard:

“I’ll be 75 Oct. 6,” Willie says. “And still getting me some unda-yonda.”

That could be the best term for sex ever invented.  What else captures in a breath the way it’s at once low down and far out, humiliating and transcendent?  “Genius” is not an overstatement.

(Sex and its associated anatomy are of course among the greatest inspirers of these coinages.  Nookie is another goodie.)

The anonymous folk poets who coin these things are among my foremost culture heroes.  They salt and season the language, that bubbling Irish stew anyone can throw a little something into, that ever-evolving collective cuisine we all take into our mouths every day.

Please contribute your own examples.  Please live up to the high standard set by this one.

There are basically two categories:  new terms you’ve just discovered, and clichés reappreciated.  Every cliché is a fossil coinage that was so apt that it got swallowed by the language.  My kickoff example for that category is over the hill.  You don’t know how apt that one is until you get over said hill.  Only then do you realize how hill-like life is — an energetic, engrossing climb with your next steps in front of your nose and the summit in your sights, followed by an unanticipated and precipitous toboggan ride.

There may even be a third category for word-origin sleuths:  what were probably once lively slang expressions entombed in etymology.  Like the grandly dismissive Latinate  preposterous, which essentially means “ass-backwards” (which actually means “ass-forwards”).

Have at it.

October 20, 2009

Hals- und Beinbruch! [UPDATED]

Filed under: etymology,other languages,translation — amba12 @ 6:36 am
Tags: , , , , ,

If I haven’t been around here for a while, it’s because I have a new compulsion:  a translation compulsion.  My brother’s crash course in reading scholarly German has lured me back into that Gothic thorn-thicket.

Und das hat mit ih-ih-rem si-ING-en

Die Lor-e-lei getan.

*     *     *

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

spontaneous joy and natural content

out of my heart.

Sorry, my brain has a line of verse for every occasion lately.  Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So when not copyediting for a living, I’ve been wading into the dense passages of theology David had to translate, wondering how I would do it, admiring the persistence of Herr Heggen’s 45-year-old operating system installation, and trying to figure out how to give clues and tips to someone who’s lost in German — a trail of breadcrumbs through the Black Forest of the Brüder Grimm.

His exam was today.  And it was predictably grueling.  If he flunks, I flunk as a guide.

UPDATE: He passed!!  High pass!  A triumph for him, and for me, and a tribute to Herr Heggen!

Two things.

David has been an actor, so I wanted to wish him “Break a leg,” and it immediately echoed in my head that in German it’s Beinbruch . . . but it’s “Something-else-and-Beinbruch.

I looked it up.  No need to suffer from middle-aged memory impaction now that there’s Google.  Who says there’s no progress??

It’s Hals- und Beinbruch. In German, you don’t just say, “Break a leg.”  You say “Break your neck . . . and oh, while you’re at it, a leg, too.”

I figured David would Grimmly appreciate that upping of the ante.  But better yet, then I came upon this:

It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.

What could be more perfect for someone who is learning to decode scholarly German for the purposes of a doctorate in Jewish studies?

The other thing:

Coming across the word Zweifel, doubt, I remembered that in German Verzweiflung is despair — a higher octave, a compression and lethal concentration of doubt.  (Take any verb in German and add “ver-” or “er-” to make it first thumbscrews and then fatal.  Ertrinken means to drown.)  For us it’s desespoir — a loss of hope.  For them it’s too much of something — a busy mind, too busy tearing down, a good image for the obsessive negative rumination of depression.  For us it’s too little of something — the departure of Glinda the Good Witch, perhaps, with her gauzy gleam — dream, desire, illusion.  There’s something passive about it.  Hope leaves, what can you do?  A German, by contrast, can’t stop doing.  Doubting.

Thinking about it some more, though, I realized that linking doubt and despair is in fact theological.  Like so many things we don’t give any thought to — like the fact that genus and species names are in Latin — it’s a living fossil of the overwhelming importance and omnipresence of God in every corner of our culture until less than a hundred years ago.  Despair was the loss of faith, and doubt risked it.  It was called acedia, and it was a sin.

So I look for a link for you, and what a surprise, I turn up a completely contemporary one:  this year, Kathleen Norris, aspiring contemplative, author of The Cloister Walk and more, published a book called Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Its starting point:  the deep apathy Norris fell into, understandably enough, after both her father and her husband died.  USA Today not only did an interview with her, but gave it a sidebar of quotes on acedia that Norris collected, from the Psalms to Chesterton, Kafka, and James Bond.

So there you go.

P.S. Zweifel has “zwei” in it — two. Doubt in German comes from there being two possibilities.  Maybe God exists, maybe He doesn’t.  It’s the tortured, busy, pre-quantum theory form of ambivalence where you still think it’s a matter of life and death that you decide, before you reach the befuddled peace of “neither/nor,” “both/and,” “maybe.”

September 1, 2009

Visiting German [UPDATED AGAIN]

(New UPDATE:  Read my brother’s wonderful discovery-tribute to the German language, even though it does make him break out in flop sweat and armbands.)

My brother, back in grad school as he approaches 50 (and feeling alternately exhilarated and ridiculous), is taking a crash course in reading scholarly German, than which nothing could be more insane.  You could accurately translate every word in a passage of such German, painstakingly consulting an on- or offline dictionary (here’s an amazing one, by the way, which serves up all the alternative and idiomatic translations of any word you feed into it, complete with examples in vivo), and still not understand the logical links and interactions among those words engineered by German grammar.  If you misread number, case, or gender, or overlook a little track-switching word like nur (only) or nicht (not) or sondern (which always works in harness with nicht to mean “not this, but rather that”), you could go in exactly the wrong direction.

Fortunately, my brother has a sort of tutor — me — at his fingertips, and I in turn have the indelible memory of three years of drilling in grammar by an actual German German teacher in my high school, W. Gregor Heggen (wow, never Googled him before, amazing how many people thank him for things like helping them learn Irish), overlaid by some experience speaking and reading the language, to draw on.  (Hey, that was a lot like a sentence in German!)  I’m subfluent, and I probably have to look up almost as many scholarly-vocabulary words as my brother; but I have a basic grasp of the underlying track-switching system, the rails of relationship beneath the freight cars of vocabulary, that weaves the structures of meaning in German.   Getting just that basic grasp took all three years.  When our teacher took eight of us teenagers to Germany for the summer of 1962, starting with a one-month family stay in his hometown of Paderborn, we all soon started speaking German, but I was the only one who spoke it grammatically, because I was the only one with three years under my belt.  The idea of a crash course in German grammar boggles the mind.

I’ve seen three passages my brother had to translate, and they represented three very different kinds of German.  One was modern and brusque, written in short sentences almost imitative of Hemingway English.  One was pretentious and convoluted, exploiting to the full the German mind’s ability to put the forward progress of a sentence indefinitely on hold right before the consummating verb for an enormous, indigestible digression.  (It gives an English speaker a case of linguistic blue balls that makes you go “hmmm” about German sexuality.  It’s almost sadomasochistic, that withholding of the verb that alone will let you off the hook about what’s actually happening in the sentence.  The English speaker has to plod around the digression in search of the verb, and perhaps the German mind does this too, but much, much faster, scooping up the whole digression as it goes in one deft pelican gulp.)

The third was a rather famous passage by the composer Arnold Schönberg.  Here it is in German, and here’s an official English translation — which is a lot like and no smoother than the one my brother accomplished with a little remedial nudging from me.  You’d think the Arnold Schönberg Center could have found a better translator, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that it is untranslatable.  Rarely have I read anything in German so purely German, in that nearly every word of it falls either into a space between two English words or a space that encompasses two or three English words.

Take, for example, Geist, a cognate of “ghost” in English.  (That remains a minor and archaic meaning in German; there’s a separate word for the spooky meaning of “ghost,” Gespenst.)  In some contexts, it will be translated into English as “spirit;” in others, as “mind” or “intellect.”  But in German, it encompasses both.  They are not two different things.  We need at least two words to approximate the German word — poorly.  What does that mean?  It means, I think, that in English we think of mind as a tool, mechanism, or process that assembles or manipulates parts of ideas, while spirit is sort of featureless and above all that.  Mind is a factory, if an advanced one; spirit is a mist.  But in German, you think with your spirit.  Ideas are not something you assemble, they’re something you apprehend.

And here’s another one:  Wesen.  Literally Wesen means “being” — it even shows up doing scutwork in the grammar, where gewesen means “been.”  On a loftier plane it means the suchness of a thing — what in English it takes four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins to say:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

UPDATE: Or, as Dr. Seuss put it

Today you are You/that is truer than true./ There is no one alive/ who is Youer than You.

For a one-word equivalent in English, we have to say “essence.”  While this is in fact the exact Latin equivalent — esse means “to be”! — it’s come to have a different connotation in English; it’s sideslid into the less essential realm of perfumes, oils, and flavorings, which were originally called “essences” because they were a thought to be a concentrate or emanation of the very being of a substance — the way it “selves — goes itself.”  In German, however, that kind of essence isn’t called Wesen — it’s called Geist.  As in Birnengeist, a very concentrated clear pear brandy.  Which brings us around to “spirits.” … and on and on.

Not to study at least one second language is a pity.  Other languages shine a different light on the world, showing up things that are really there that might remain dark in our language.  (There’s sometimes a leap of recognition when you learn a word in another language — it has lit up and pinned down one of the many, many phenomena we all feel but don’t have names for.)  They also shine a new light back on our language, helping us to find fossils and wellsprings that have been buried under the sediments of usage.

Other examples?

July 11, 2009

Twice the Size of Roget’s!

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language evolving — amba12 @ 7:37 pm

Word freaks can now start salivating over the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, in the works since 1965 and due for publication this coming fall.  It includes not only modern and cutting-edge English, but all those delicious historical layers we alluded to recently:

With 800,000 meanings for 600,000 words organised into more than 230,000 categories and subcategories, the thesaurus is twice the size of Roget’s version.

It contains almost the entire vocabulary of English, from Old English to the present day, giving a unique insight into the development of the language. …

The thesaurus is divided into three major sections: the external, mental and social worlds.

The 354 categories cover subjects including leisure, authority, education, faith, armed hostility, philosophy, mental capacity, aesthetics, sleeping and waking, matter, the supernatural and relative properties.

Read the story, it’s quite a cliffhanger.  Back before computers when its evolving contents were scribbled down on slips of paper, the project survived a catastrophic fire because it was stashed in metal file cabinets.  It’s outlived several of its contributors and survived decades of funding and labor shortages, and just when they thought it was done, around 1980, they decided to open it up again to include new words like “speed-dating.”  There went another thirty years.  A sublimely obsessive project that required as much perseverance as the Hubble Space Telescope.  I don’t know about you, but I want one!

July 1, 2009

Spelling as Archaeology

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language evolving,spelling — amba12 @ 5:20 pm

You people are getting me going.

Relating the spelling of “devastate” to its etymology in the comments on the last post — “vast” is in there, and is related to “waste,” as in “a desolate waste(land),” so “to devastate” is “to lay waste” — reminds me of reading this proposal for reforming English spelling by an innovative Australian thinker in her 80s, Valerie Yule.  If the goal is solely to communicate, why not “mischivus,” “gardian,” “sovren”?

I realize that it’s not fair for me to weigh in on this topic because I have the gene for spelling.  (I was the spelling champion of Lee County, Florida, in 1958.  So there.)  You either have it or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or cogency of expression.  Spelling is an autistic-savant talent, like seeing numbers in colors, probably owed to a synaesthetic crossover between the auditory and visual cortices.  If you care about getting spelling right (as ever fewer people do) but don’t have the gene for it, just get a compulsive copyeditor, or a spellchecker, to do it for you.

But I have to confess that even though I’ve watched it drive generations of immigrants mad, I love English spelling.  Love it.  It’s an archaeological treasure trove of the uniquely layered history of our language.  You’ll be going along glibly in lubricated Latinate and all of a sudden the plough turns up a rough chunk of Anglo-Saxon.  There are at least two of them in that sentence, what I think of as the “fossil gutturals.”  If you’ve ever heard the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales read out loud, you’ll forever hear a ghostly echo of that marvelous rasp and traction whenever you see the letters “ough.”  There are silent Greek-Latin fossils too:  you may have noticed the one in “synaesthetic.”  I like the “ae” too; it shines, like Au.

It isn’t practical to be dragging this museum along with you as you speak, text, and tweet at 21st-century speeds.  But it is beautiful.

Blog at