peroquial and ineaningfrrl

I have written several blog posts with the tag ‘lost in autosubtitling’, most recently three days ago, so you may think I have a dim view of technological approaches to language. But sometimes technology gets it right, even when humans have made the mistake in the first place.

Yesterday morning I read a Facebook post in which someone complained about the “peroquialism” in a certain book sometimes considered an Australian classic. My first thought was that it was related to colloquialism – that is, “characteristic of or appropriate to ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing”, but the lack of a first l made that unlikely. (All the speech-related words have loqu– or loc-, from Latin loquī to speak.) When I searched for it, a well-known search engine suggested “Did you mean: parochialism” – that is “excessive narrowness of interests or view” Continue reading


Write on queue

A few days ago I had to ring a government department. I hate ringing government departments, but I couldn’t find anything on their website about this particular issue. The call took an hour and 44 minutes in total, being about one minute talking to the first person, about one minute talking to the second person who the first person put me through to, about three minutes talking to the third person who the second person put me through to, and about an hour and 39 minutes listening to ‘on hold’ music, announcements about the information I could find on the website, and automated recordings telling me that I was now the [number]th caller in the queue, starting from 59th between the first person and the second person, and 68th between the second and the third  and gradually counting down.

I mentioned this on Facebook, and one online friend who lives in another English-speaking country commented, using the spelling que three times in an otherwise perfectly written comment. I sent her a private message asking whether that was her usual spelling, or was widely used in her English-speaking country. Continue reading

celebrate celebrities, because because

One recent grammar activity in the textbook was building abstract nouns from a given concrete noun, verb or adjective plus one of give set of seven suffixes: –hood, –ship, –dom, –ity, –ness, -(a)tion and –ment. One of the given words was celebrate. The expected answer is celebration, but one student wrote celebrity. In real life, yes, in this activity no. Maybe in these days of manufactured famous-for-being-famous “celebrities”, we lose sight of the fact that we (should) celebrate celebrities and celebrities are, literally, celebrated. A celebrated tv star is very different from a celebrity tv star (though in one or two cases I won’t name, it could be arguable exactly which side of the coin s/he is on).

But in this activity celebrat(e) + ity results in celebratity, which is wrong. But are we limited to root + suffix, or can we make other spelling changes? There’s the drop-the-e rule, obviously, and another example was possible > possibility, which needs the insertion of an i. And is celebrity an abstract noun? No and yes. We most often talk about a celebrity (concrete), but we can also talk about the idea of celebrity (abstract). Continue reading

acclimation v acclamation

I was reading a blog and noticed that the writer typed acclimation rather than the clearly intended acclamation. I’m not going to name the blog or writer, because I am not a ha-ha-you-made-a-mistake-on-the-internet type of person. Rather, I got thinking about the brain and finger(s) processes which lead to mistypings like this. There are pairs (or trios) of words which sound the same or very similar, and most often the more common word is typed instead of the less common one. (There are exceptions, but that’s the general rule.) According to Google Ngrams, acclimation is slightly more common than acclamation. But not for me. I would never use acclimate and acclimation, though I know they exist. I would use acclimatise and acclimatisation, even though they’re longer. So the chances of me accidentally typing acclimation are very small.

Acclamation is derived from acclaim (verb and noun) and Latin acclāmāre (verb). Acclimate is derived from climate (noun) and Latin clīma (noun). Acclimate seems wrong to me, but has the same form as accompany (ac+noun = verb). Acclimate is the slightly older form, but acclimati(z/s)e was more common until the 1970s.

So, people make mistakes. Just to prove it, I originally typed acclimitisation. Pages for Mac red-underlines my -ise/-isation spellings anyway, so I didn’t originally spot it. WordPress accepts acclimatise and acclimatisation, though. Acclimiti(z/s)ation is just wrong.

Strenuous laboratory

Two snippets from this week.

1) My class was practicing changing verbs into nouns into adjectives and vice versa. One word was strength, to be changed into an adjective. Most students wrote strong, but one wrote strenuous. To the extent that I have ever actually thought about it, I have never thought that strenuous is related to strong, so I had to check it quickly. No – it’s not. Online dictionaries didn’t give quite enough information, but Etymology Online shows the derivation of each, slightly confusingly, but convincingly.

Strong is from Proto-Germanic *strangaz and Proto-Indo-European *strenk-. (An asterisk with an etymology means that word has not been directly attested, but has been reconstructed by comparing forms in related languages.) Strenuous is from Latin strenuus and is possibly related to stern.

The student happily accepted his classmates’ answer of strong, but I told him that if he’d written strenuous in a test, I would have given him a mark. Continue reading

Be alert

Many years ago one of my sisters gave me a calendar with a pun-based cartoon on every month’s page. One had a cartoon of two strange animals with the caption “Be alert. Your country needs more lerts.” (Or something like that. One website gives the version “The world needs more lerts”, crediting Woody Allen.)

I have recently been exploring prefixes. For some reason I started at the end of the alphabet and worked my way backwards, and have now reached a-, which is causing me great problems because the humble a– prefix has more meanings than any other.

You probably knew, or guessed, that alert is not derived from a lert. So what is its derivation? It comes from Italian all’erta, or all(a) erta, which means to or on the lookout or watchtower. Erta, in turn, is the feminine form of erto, which is the past participle of Italian ergere, Latin ērigere, meaning to erect, so an erta is something erected. So if you are alert, you are, literally, on the erection. Hmmm …

(The word often seen in close proximity, alarm, is from Old Italian all’arme, to arms – arms being from the Latin arma, not the Old English earmas.)

‘Wilt thou leave me so dissatisfied?’

This week’s chapter of the textbook contained a lot about changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa using suffixes, and modifying adjectives using prefixes, including making negative adjectives. English has rather too many ways of making negative adjectives, including a-, dis-, il-, im-, in-, ir-, –less, non– and un-. Of these, a– is the most restricted and the textbook didn’t even mention it. il-, im-, in– and ir– are fairly restricted (compare illegal and unlawful), and –less can only be added to a noun. The three most general are dis-, non– and un-, probably in that order of restriction: we can say ‘uncool’ and ‘non-cool’, but we can’t say ‘discool’. (There are restrictions on the root adjective as well: we can say ‘unhappy’, but probably not ‘unsad’ and certainly not ‘unmiserable’.)

We have sets of words like comfort (verb), comfort (noun) and comfortable, but discomfort and uncomfortable. uncomfort and discomfortable exist, but are vanishing rare. Sometimes two adjectives sit side by side. Some combination of dissatisfying, unsatisfying, dissatisfied, unsatisfied, dissatisfactory and unsatisfactory cropped up in one lesson. dissatisfying and unsatisfying seem to be more subjective and dissatisfactory and unsatisfactory seem to be more objective: a movie might be unsatisfactory because of the picture or sound quality, but unsatisfying because of the story or acting. lists unsatisfactory, dissatisfactory, unsatisfying and dissatisfied, but dissatisfying redirects to dissatisfy, and unsatisfied to satisfied. On the other hand, unsatisfy and unsatisfaction don’t exist; the verb and noun are dissatisfy and dissatisfaction. Google Ngrams shows unsatisfactory and dissatisfied considerably ahead of unsatisfied and unsatisfying, slightly ahead of dissatisfying and dissatisfactory. So unsatisfactory and unsatisfying are clear choices, while dissatisfied is the better choice, but unsatisfied is not ‘wrong’. But there are two differences. The first is grammatical: Google Ngrams shows that dissatisfied is standardly followed by a function word (dissatisfied with, and, that, in, as, at, because, than, by and to) (and is therefore standardly used predicatively), while unsatisfied is followed by a noun more often than not (unsatisfied with, and, demand, desire, in, by, desires, longing, longings and curiosity) (and is therefore used attributively and predicatively). The second is semantic: people and demands, desires, longings, and curiosity can be unsatisfied, but only people (and maybe larger animals) can be dissatisfied.

Shakespeare has Romeo ask ‘Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?’, but we can hardly draw any conclusions from on random example from more than 400 years ago.