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.



July 9, 2010

Coining a Word (Well, Trying To)

Filed under: language evolving,new words,other languages,vocabulary — amba12 @ 6:13 pm

For those who missed it on Twitter, or who didn’t but can stand to think about it a little more, I asked if there was a word for someone who shares your exact birthday — day and year  (someone, that is, who’s not your actual twin) — and if not, whether we could come up with one.

Disclaimer:  of course, you can invent words till you’re blue in the face, but there is no guarantee that any of them has that effanineffable whatchamacallit that will make it catch on.  Catching on is also about context; there are vehicles — certain TV shows and movies; viral videos; disasters, scandals and gaffes — that have the mojo to drive their contents, both words and images, home into the end zone, the Zeitgeist and the vernacular, whether they merit such pawn-queening apotheosis or not.

Ann Althouse was born on the same exact day as Rush Limbaugh.  I was introduced to Jacques, indirectly, because of a guy who I learned only much later was my . . .

connascent, Chicken Little’s good coinage — probably the best so far; or

day-double — my Anglo-Saxon alternative, in turn inspired by Jason (the commenter’s)

birthdaygänger, as in Doppelgänger.

Other suggestions of varying seriousness:

soul sister what Ruth Anne’s father called his connascent, Audrey Hepburn, which made me think of


Mitgeburtstag, Chicken Little’s stab at what the Germans would call it, and

Zeitzwilling (time-twin), mine, ditto;

homonatal, my lame attempt at a temporal version of “homeboy”

star-crossed, star-linked, or star-siblings, from reader_iam, and in the same vein,

ZodiacXerox from the inimitable KngFish.

Co-incident and contemporary were suggested by reader and by @dustbury, respectively, but were deemed too nonspecific.

More suggestions?  I can imagine a compound using natal (conatal?  connatal?  sounds NSFW, somehow) or arrival, f’rinstance, but I can’t come up with one.  Co-arriviste would mean something quite different.

Have at it.  And tell whether you feel a bond with someone you discover was born your same day, or whether it seems like meaningless coincidence.  Also welcome:  examples of famous connascents (Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln!).  And then of course we need a companion word for people who die on the same day (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson).  Comorbid?  No, no.  Conatal and comortal?  Croakmates?  Crap, why is it easier to think of good words for death than birth?

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 19, 2009

Witness Spot Run. [UPDATED AGAIN]

Filed under: grammar,other languages — amba12 @ 9:45 am

When I came across this sentence in a piece I’m working on —

There he [1]witnessed a reindeer, of the Ocean Harbor herd, steer a little too close to the rookery of a feisty juvenile king penguin .

— I tripped over it and fell, hard.

Since it is after 4 AM (yes, I’ve had some sleep already.  Yes, it was over the computer, sitting up), rather than compose a long post I’ll just let you see my footnote.

[1] EDITOR’S NOTE (CE):  You can say “saw him steer,” but can you say “witnessed him steer,” or must it be “witnessed him steering”? My ear rebels at the former. Usage is divided on the question, and authority is silent (probably because I don’t know how to formulate the question).  I did stumble on a fascinating linguistics paper [PDF; HTML] that suggests that the word “see” has been “grammaticalized,” not only in English but in other languages as well, and that this reflects the “evidential” systems of preliterate times. Does this mean that multisyllabic synonyms for “see” can also be “grammaticalized” by analogy? My ear is protesting “No.” Anyone else?

The linguistics paper, by a University of Arizona professor, is technical; it revolves around a word the meaning of which I do not know:  “deictic.”  (Pause, and what would once have been the riffle-rustle of dictionary pages, but now is the swift snick of keys.)

  • Main Entry: deic·tic
  • Pronunciation: \ˈdīk-tik also ˈdāk-\
  • Function: adjective
  • Etymology: Greek deiktikos able to show, from deiktos, verbal of deiknynai to show — more at diction
  • Date: 1876

: showing or pointing out directly <the words this, that, and those have a deictic function>

OK, it’s what I would call “indicative” if I didn’t know that has acquired another, technical meaning that I don’t know.

But the whole business of “evidential” systems built into the grammar of language is utterly fascinating, because it dates back to a very important preliterate distinction we have utterly  lost:  that between direct eyewitness testimony and hearsay.  Imagine trying to be a fact checker as a hunter-gatherer.  Your knowledge of what actually happened, as opposed to self-interested propaganda and rumor with an agenda (can we make like academics and call it “agendized”?), depended on your having been there to see it with your own eyes, or, wanting that, on your trust in the character of an informant.  The reliability of the information would diminish exponentially with your degrees of separation from the eyewitness.  I was enthralled to learn, more than thirty years ago, that in quite a few languages (I believe Hopi was one and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf was my informant) that distinction is “grammaticalized.”  That is, the statement “I know” would be modified grammatically depending on whether you really knew because you’d witnessed an event, or had only heard.  Imagine so-I-heard (which a preliterate friend of ours, described below, always inserted with a cautionary emphasis, deictic finger raised) being built into the undercarriage of your utterances!  Language itself once insisted on a distinction that we preserve only in law.

I flashed on Benjamin Lee Whorf when I met Brooklyn George, a semi-illiterate Italian friend my husband made once when he was working the door in an after-hours club as a favor to another friend.  Georgie might have been a gangster of some note had he not been a gambling addict.  Or he might’ve been something else:  he had a straight brother who was a high school teacher.  While Georgie could barely write out a sandwich order — somewhere I still have a slip of paper with the words B O L G A N A and P R O Z L O N E painstakingly printed on it, that J and I marveled over — it soon became obvious to me that he was fearsomely bright, even wise.  (So why was his life so screwed up, you may ask?  Um, have you ever known a brilliant person who applied that firepower to the living of his or her own life?)  He was given to gnomic utterances that had the profundity of Zen koans.  This was the guy who once said to J, “When I first met you, I thought you were stupid.  Then after a while I realized that I was stupid.” (Trust me, I was there.  I heard it myself.)

Georgie talked different from a literate person, and one of the biggest differences that got my attention was that he was always meticulous about distinguishing what he actually knew personally from what he’d only heard.  We literates and postliterates assume we “know” stuff we’ve read in the newspaper or seen on a screen!  When and why did we lose that visceral skepticism about hearsay?  When I saw the connection to Whorf and the grammar of Hopi, I realized what an amazing window Brooklyn Georgie opened into the way everyone lived and thought a few thousand years ago.

. . . OK, I just took off in a powerful rocket aircraft headed for orbit, rising over an incredible panorama of New York harbor predawn.  I forgot to fasten my seat belt, and as I reached uo to pull it down the G forces . . . woke me up to discover that my head was drooping sideways and my neck hurt.  It’s time to get horizontal.

UPDATE: Rereading this, I flashed on a line of poetry:  “I was the man, I saw it, I was there!”  Where does that come from?  Anybody?   Beat poetry, I think.  Google knoweth it not, which may mean I have one word wrong.  But in the process of searching for it, Googling the words “I saw it, I was there,” I discovered the power that direct witness still has for us.  Look.

UPDATE II:  Got it.  It’s Whitman, from one of the greatest portraits ever drawn of what true leadership is.  And it’s even more intimate than eyewitness:

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times;
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless
wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm;
How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch,
and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalk’d in large letters, on a board,
Be of good cheer, we will not desert you:
How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them –
and would not give it up;
How he saved the drifting company at last:
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when
boated from the side of their prepared graves;
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted
sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men:
All this I swallow – it tastes good – I like it
well – it becomes mine;
I am the man – I suffer’d – I was there.

September 15, 2009

Interlanguage Land Mines

Filed under: other languages,translation — amba12 @ 5:40 am

Gestures don’t travel well between cultures.  If you flash a Brazilian the thumb-and-forefinger circle that to us means “A-OK,” he’ll punch you out for calling him an asshole.  Japanese people appear to waving bye-bye when they’re actually saying, “Come here.”  More examples invited.

The same is often true of words, to mortifyingly comical effect.  In English, “mist” is a wistfully romantic word.  It enshrouds the lighthouses and lonely sea widows on the covers of romance novels, bosoms heaving with longing.  Like falling in love, or like Vaseline on the lens of the movie camera, it softens harsh reality to a flattering blur.

But in German, as Chicken Little pointed out in the comments to my recent post on German, Mist means “manure.”

Animal crap.  And since the manure pile in a German farm courtyard was also the compost heap and all-purpose trash midden (I’ll never forget being told brusquely by a child in a German-Romanian farmyard, when I asked him where all his new puppy’s siblings were:  “Im Mist“), to throw something “an den Misthaufen” is to dismiss it, discard it, shitcan it on the trash heap of history . . . one word encompassing both our meanings of “dump”!




What does that do to the song “I Get Misty, The Moment You’re Near”? Does it mean romance is a load of crap?

Are we having fun yet?

When J’s German cousin Ada came to visit us in New York many years ago, we were puzzled that she shrank from putting sugar in her coffee. We kept the sugar in a pretty coffee can with a Christmas design. On the can was the word “Gift.”  In German, that means “poison.”

Then there’s pula:
In Finnish:   the national bread.

In Setswana, the language of Botswana:  rain; also the name of the currency. (I adore that; calling your money “rain.”  I can relate.)

In Romanian:  penis.

(Man-na from heaven?)

More examples?

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?

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