Conspiracy theorems

I have written before about students choosing the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. Sometimes two words in their language correspond to one word in English, or one word corresponds to two.

The class was practicing ‘first conditional’. The first half of sentences were given, and the students had to write a suitable second half. One was “I’ll do the washing up if …”. The expected answer was “you cook”, but I can imagine a number of other answers which would be suitable (eg, “if you do it tomorrow”). One Korean student wrote “I theorem”. This is obviously wrong and he’d obviously chosen the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. But I wanted to find out what he’d meant, he showed me his translator and there were no other obvious words in sight, but I couldn’t guide him toward telling me anything else about this mysterious household activity. Another student from Korea was there, so I got them to talk about it briefly in Korean, but the other student couldn’t explain either.

When I got home I asked my wife about it, she said that 정리 (jeong-ni) can mean either ‘theorem’ or ‘tidy up’. Google Translate gives ‘theorem’ and ‘arrangement’, so 정리하다 means ‘arrange’. I thought about ‘theory’, which Google Translate gives as 이론, but my wife said “That’s a completely different word”. She couldn’t tell me what the difference was (explaining Korean words (her first language) in English (her second language)), but I’m not sure that I could explain the difference on the spot, either (explaining English words (my first language) and English (my first language).

I know that Pythagoras had a theorem and Darwin had a theory. Hercule Poirot might have a theory about whodunnit, but not a theorem.


Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism

While I was researching for my previous post, I stumbled across an extraordinary book titled Frontier Experience or Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism from the Occident, by J.E.L. Seneker. The first paragraph gives a taste of its style:

Most Sophomorical Sir:–

Your Græco-Latin epistolet or cabalistical abracabra, lies before me, deciphered and eclaircised to the best of my linguistic, pasigraphical, and exegetical ability. As merited castigation therefor, and to test your wonted longanimity, I shall recalictrate by effunding upon you, in epistolic form, my scaturient cornucopia of lexiphanic sesquipedalities, Johnsonian archaisms, exoticisms, neologianisms, patavinities, et id genus omne.

A little is explained in the front matter to the book. In the Prefatory Remarks by the Author, he states that after some study, he spent:

several years in the far west, Mexico, California, British Columbia, Alaska, Ontario, &c., &c. These fustian letters, a few copies of which I have, at the request of many of my friends, printed, give, to a limited extent, that part of my varied experience in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico:– at that time wild west frontiers … I have greatly amplified the original text, and incorporated many lexiphanic words.

In other words, as I understand it, he wrote the letters as a young man, and published them in an expanded form later. 

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Effective English

… more important than so-called good English [is] effective English. English that clearly, strongly and unambiguously ‐ unless you’ve a penchant for ambiguity – conveys from writers’ brains through their typing fingers and onward to the imaginations of their readers what it is that writers are attempting to communicate.

Benjamin Dreyer is “is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House”. He has just released a book called Dreyer’s English AN UTTERLY CORRECT GUIDE TO CLARITY AND STYLE, which I am neither endorsing nor not endorsing. I am less likely to buy it after finding myself described as a “godless savage”, and Dreyer obviously didn’t proofread that job title himself. And I would question three things about style in the quotation itself. But I fully endorse effective English.

Today on the Sydney Morning Herald website is this article, from which the quotation comes.

(Checks post very carefully in case there’s any mistakes: Muphry’s Law.)

Not so fast!

I was editing an article about intermittent fasting (that is, not eating for all or part of a day, interspersed with normal (possibly restricted) eating on other days). 

Inevitably, I got thinking about the various meanings of fast, as an adjective or adverb meaning quick(ly), as an adjective or adverb meaning firm(ly), secure(ly) and as a noun or verb meaning an abstention/to abstain from food. doesn’t help. It lists the quick(ly) and firm(ly) meanings together, and notes that they are “akin to fast2” (that is, the noun/verb). has possibly too much information. As I understand it, the firm, secure meaning came first. The abstain from food meaning came next, and means, basically, to hold oneself firmly. The quick meaning came last. If you run firmly, you run quickly. (Fast asleep means firmly, securely asleep, not quickly asleep, which might be confusing to young children, who almost certainly encounter the quick(ly) meaning first.)

From hold fast has come holdfast, which means a firm grip, a staple or clamp, or an organ by which an aquatic plant or animal can attach to a surface. Note also Holdfast Bay, Adelaide, South Australia, which got its name after Colonel William Light, the SA surveyor-general found anchorage there in a storm.

Hang on, though, I’ve encountered the meaning of a small fortress. But that appears to be used only in fantasy novels; Wikipedia’s disambiguation page gives GRR Martin’s A song of ice and fire series as an example.

PS At a funeral this afternoon, the word steadfast was used.

eak, nouce and beaurocratic

When I’m not working, I don’t set out to find typos in what I read, but sometimes I just can’t not. I’m re-reading some old books before deciding whether to keep them or sell, give, donate or throw away (I can’t stand throwing away books!). One of these is the story of the British comedy team The Goons. In one chapter, there were three instances of one mis-spelled word and one of another, and I found a third while I was skimming through to find them before drafting this post.

Spike’s time spent eaking out unperformed scripts on his old typewriter would not go to waste.

‘Now most of those tapes lie gathering dust at the BBC. You’d think they would have the nouce to broadcast [them].’ (quoting Spike Milligan)

‘I’m not surprised at the way the BBC eak out an occasional Goon Show recording rather than broadcast a whole series on radio.’ (Milligan)

’Now a Goon Show is being eaked out for a miserable once-a-year airing on cassette. Blind, misguided, beaurocratic BBC.’ (Milligan)

This is a quality production, edited by a woman who used to be Milligan’s personal assistant. It’s easy to say “Haha, you made a mistake in a printed book”, but it’s more interesting to explore the linguistic issues behind them, and I don’t want to name and shame the editor and publisher. Eke and nous are very rare words, bureaucratic is moderately rare, and all three have very unusual spellings. Continue reading

rabbit holes, dudes, weir-poles and emulosity

Oh the rabbit holes of language-related website and blogs, words and meanings!

I was reading Niall O’Donnell’s latest post and noticed at the side a picture of Jeff Bridges’ character in The big Lebowski (which I have never watched, but recognise most allusions to). Niall’s Instagram post says “Probably from the Scottish word for clothes ‘duddies,’ where we also get the word ‘duds.’”

On the other hand, says “An Americanism dating back to 1880–85; origin uncertain” (but being an Americanism doesn’t stop it being “from Scottish”). The first dudes were “excessively concerned with clothes, grooming, and manners”, which hardly describes Bridges’ character; partly because of this movie, one would now expect a dude to be rather scruffy and laid-back.

The five contemporary examples and three of the historical examples are unexceptional, thought we might have to think for a moment whether the writer means a ‘fastidious dude’, a man from an Eastern US city vacationing on a ranch, a ‘scruffy dude’ or just ‘any dude’’ll do.

The two others caught my eye, not for dude, but for something else in the sentence:

I allow you to—er—ornament my weir-pole, and ’tain’t every dude I’d let do that.
Cape Cod Stories [1907, short stories, scroll down to The mark on the door]
Joseph C. Lincoln

Having a dude puncher on our range kind of stirred up my emulosity.
Out of the Depths [1913, a western novel, scroll down to chapter XXI]
Robert Ames Bennet

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“a privately-owned solar system”

An article I subedited referred to a company having Australia’s largest privately-owned solar system. The context made it clear that the company owned panels and generators and batteries, but I couldn’t help thinking that it owned a sun and planets and moons, even though this is impossible in practice – there’d be nowhere to put it, for a start.

A major search engine thinks that solar system means a sun and planets and moons. To get an image of panels and generators and batteries, you need to search for solar energy/power/electric system.

(Compare Douglas Adams’ character Hotblack Desiato, a member of the biggest, loudest, richest rock band in the history of history itself, who went from being a man who despised the star system to being a man who buys star systems.)