The Compulsive Copyeditor

October 30, 2019

“The multitudinous seas incarnadine,”

“Making the green one red.”

Macbeth on washing the fathomless blood from his hands; Shakespeare on the dual troves of English, the multisyllabic, grandiloquent Latinate and the blunt, earthy Anglo-Saxon.

This was shown to us in my life-changing freshman English class, Humanities 6. (Contrary to Harvard’s reputation for scorning undergraduate education in the snooty pursuit of higher scholarship, everything about freshman year was life-changing. I walked out of there fully equipped for a long and fruitful mental life in, as the faculty was called, “Arts and Sciences.” The rest was dispensable.) I’ve never forgotten that revelation of the unique resources of my language, laid down by the layers of English history: the Angles and Saxons, the Danes (who gave us the word “die”), the Catholic Church, the Norman French—and, buried at the bottom and squeezed to the margins, the druidic Celts—the amulet, the wild card queering the lot. What a pig-out for poets! The best of them land their most stunning punches using these contrasting palettes.

Over the centuries, though, something sad and strange has happened to English. Latin languages are beautiful, flowering with mellifluous flourishes; but in the dour climate of industry and commerce our Latinate words have dried out and stiffened into bureaucratic abstractions. Too many of them end in “–tion.”

I noticed the problem while trying to translate, or failing that, to show why it’s impossible to translate, Rilke, a German poet of immense tenderness. In Rilke’s hands German, of all things, is as rosy and warm and pliable as young flesh by candlelight in a Latour painting. I was trying to convey the intimacy of the words “Inneres der Hand” that begin one of his poems. “Palm of the hand” is a correct translation, but bare of the sheltering, sharing, confiding overtones, the trusting touch, of the word InneresHere, I’ll show you my secret, just the two of us. “Palm” is anatomically accurate and pleasantly tactile, a word that blends Fingerspitzengedâchtnis (“fingertip memory”—I just made that up) with the involuntary movement of the tongue rolling over in bed beside the silent “l,” as in “balm.” But next to Inneres it’s Samson without his hair, Saturn without its rings.

How do you translate that word? “Interior”? That’s from a real estate ad, not even Vermeer anymore. “Inside”? Bones and blood vessels. “Inwardness”? Awkward,  and means something else, more disembodied, more solipsistic than shared. On the spectrum. Do you coin a word (as Rilke may have coined “Inneres“), like “innerness”? Too precious, and lacks the double whammy of being at once physically literal and emotionally resonant. “In-side,” with a hyphen, maybe, except it isn’t a side. It’s more like a face. Or an underbelly.

It’s worth noting that a German academy of the seventeenth century had as its mandate “to maintain the purity of German through the purging of foreign words (mainly French and Latin).” This obliged Germans to translate Latinisms into German or construct new abstractions out of German roots, which in turn keeps German abstractions closer to their roots. Their roots are showing. Few of us any longer see the weighing scales in the verb “to deliberate,” or, in “inexorable,” the child-eating monster under the bridge who “can’t be talked out of it.”

Purity be damned. English was born bastardized; it didn’t even exist until the Normans aristocratically raped the smallholder Saxons. “Inexorable” has taken on its own stony beauty:

and the light seems to be eternal
         and joy seems to be inexorable
         I am foolish enough always to find it in wind
                                                                    ~ Frank O’Hara

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?


April 21, 2012

This Is Just Wrong!

Filed under: history of English,language degenerating — amba12 @ 1:17 pm

While copyediting a manuscript today (which needs, among other things, Britishisms translated into American), I came across “on the firing line” used to mean “in the line of fire.”

I had no idea how widespread this misusage was. But it is actually enshrined in the online Free Dictionary:

be in the firing line  (British, American & Australian) also be on the firing line (American & Australian)

if someone or something is in the firing line, they are likely to be criticized, attacked, or got rid of. The judge found himself in the firing line from women’s groups after his controversial comments about sexual assault. Recent cuts in council budgets mean that concessionary fares were next on the firing line.
I wondered if I was the one going crazy, so I looked further and, to my relief, found this:

What does “firing line, on the” mean?

In the forefront of any activity or pursuit, especially a controversy. For example, At the sales conference they asked so many questions that Anne felt she was on the firing line. This expression originally meant the line of positions from which gunfire is directed at a target and is still so used in a military context. Today it is also used more loosely. [Late 1800s]
No shit.
This usage has come adrift from its moorings because wars haven’t been fought that way for a century or more. Who knows anymore what “Hoist with his own petard” means? Yet terrorists do it all the time—even by accident.
I must say I expected better of the Brits.  Expected, at least, more interest in the traces of history still nested in the genome of their language. I forget that, even though they still sound erudite, their accent too is a fossil.  They are becoming as postliterate as we.
P.S. WordPress is going to hell; neither with carriage returns nor with HTML am I able to get the paragraph separation formatting I want in the last part of this post.

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.

May 3, 2010

A Thesaurus We Need

Filed under: history of English,vocabulary — amba12 @ 11:10 pm

A notice just appeared on Twitter of the publication of the  expanded second edition of The Thinker’s Thesaurus:  Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words, by Peter E. Meltzer.  It’s the first edition I ever heard of.

To give credit where credit is due, it looks like quite an improvement over regular thesauruses (by the way, can you tell me why this word sounds as if it refers to a large extinct reptile?  is there any etymological — or evolutionary — relationship?  and what would a thesaurus look like roaming alongside a stegosaurus?).  It gives much clearer guidance for finding the synonym with just the fine shading of meaning you’re after, and it will lead the browser to many new, delectable, and useful words, from deep within English and from outside it, such as bashi-bazouk (a disorderly, undisciplined person, from the irregular troops of the Ottoman Empire).  I would have this book on my reference shelf.

That said, I want its opposite even more:  Common Alternatives to Sophisticated Words.  As an editor, I’m forever translating writers’ unnecessary Latinisms back into their Anglo-Saxon equivalents.  Counterparts.  (That’s actually Latin too, but it sounds Anglo-Saxon for some reason.)  Sometimes, of course, a Latinism is just the right word.  “Obfuscate,” for example — one of the best examples I know of a word that does what it says, that is almost onomatopoetic in its self-reflexiveness.  It’s a veritable octopus of a word. cloaking itself in ink.  But more often, writers obfuscate unnecessarily by using Latinisms because they think it makes them sound . . . like sophisticated thinkers instead of common storytellers.  Latinisms have a marvelous precision — they are verbal instruments, calipers, compasses, astrolabes — and they can sound grand or sensuous, like a resplendent ceremony or a Latin lover’s mellifluous murmur gliding into your ear; but they can also sound pompous, fusty, abstract, and bureaucratic, and they usually sound the latter way when they are used for their sound of authority rather than for their sound, or their precise sense.

Everything I need to know I learned freshman year in college, in two basic courses called Hum 6 and Nat Sci 5.  (Hum for Humanities.)  Hum 6 was a course on how to read, how to use yourself as an instrument, how to watch yourself react and then pinpoint what it was in the text that got that rise out of you, and — if deliberately done — how the writer did it.  I don’t remember whether it was the lecturer or our section head, a graduate student, who pointed out the gloriously mixed archaeology of its history embedded in the English language.  There was the Anglo-Saxon layer, the church Latin layer, then the Norman French layer — Latinate too, but lightened, aerated like a soufflé, less about fate and law than court and gesture —  each with its own very different quality and effects.  Whoever it was showed us how conscious Shakespeare was of those different resources and how meta-consciously he sometimes deployed them:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

I also cannot remember who it was (Strunk and White?) who drilled into me that as a general rule it was better, more honest, to use short, blunt, Anglo-Saxon words than Latinate ones, the coiling lingo of lawyers.  That’s basic, not advanced, advice; the right word is not always an Anglo-Saxon one, and it would be a poor, bare language that did not have any of Latin’s purple and gold.  It’s the variation and contrast — the hybrid vigor — that makes English so mighty.

I wish I had kept a list of examples from my editing work of when the use of a Latin word seemed to be putting on an obfuscating mask, or insecure airs.  But I haven’t, so I will add examples to this post as I come across them.  If you have any favorite pairs of Latin and Anglo-Saxon words with roughly the same meaning, please put them in the comments and talk a bit about the different worlds evoked by each word.  Among other things, it strikes me that politics, as discussed here, penetrates even here.

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?

August 7, 2009

A Hole in English

Filed under: English is weird,grammar,history of English,language evolving — amba12 @ 10:42 pm

English is so stripped-down, so shorn of grammatical clues, thingamabobs, and “this end up” arrows, that if you didn’t study Latin, German, or Russian, you’d never realize that English too had a dative case (indirect object) and an accusative case (direct object). To illustrate:  in “give [to] the dog his food,” the dog is the indirect object; in “walk the dog,” the dog is the direct object.  In German, the language in which I discovered these things, the dative “to the dog” is “dem Hund,” and the accusative dog to be walked is “den Hund.”  Once you have grasped this distinction in another language, you can feel it in English even though it’s not marked.

We manage to make our meaning clear by word order, juxtaposition, and context, and the words not fixed in their particular role of the moment by case endings seem freer and more mobile, like Americans.  (Chinese, I’m told, has even less grammar and makes no time, case, or number changes in its words at all; they are simply strings of unaltered nouns and uninflected infinitives, modified only by their proximity to each other.  Can anyone confirm or correct this?  Randy?)

But there is at least one grammatical hole in English that gapes like a missing tooth.  You can tell it’s there because people have tried repeatedly to fill it.  None of the tries have attained to official status; they’re all dismissed as uneducated or slangy, regional or generational dialect.  Nonetheless, we keep using them, like temporary patches grown permanent, because we need to fill the hole.

That hole is the second person plural pronoun.

We’re supposed to say “you” when we mean one person and “you” when we mean a bunch of people, and damn it, that just doesn’t work.  So we’ve had:

yous(e) – Brooklyn

y’all –  South (“all y’all” for a really large group)

you guys – urban youth (applied to both genders)

Which of these do you think is the best solution?  (I think it’s “yous” — which simply pluralizes the pronoun by applying a universal rule.  Ironically, this is considered the most “uneducated”-sounding of the three.)  Should one of them be made official?  Do you have yet another, new candidate for English’s second person plural pronoun?  Or must we just keep on scraping by, stumbling into the hole?  It’s frustrating not to have a word there!

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