An amature mistake

I have seen the spelling amature on websites enough times to notice, but have never commented about it, either on those websites or here. I have just seen the spelling amuture.  

The correct spelling is amateur. Different dictionaries give its etymology as ama + teur and others as amat + eur, but the difference doesn’t matter. An amateur is a lover of what they do. Some amateurs are very, very good at what they do, but’s third definition is “an inexperienced or unskilled person”. It has just occurred to me that amature might be a (not) + mature, but that would be adding a Greek pronoun to a Latin root (which does happen). (By the way, the original Latin spelling amator seems not to be used.)

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instantaneously v instantly

A few days ago, an article I was subediting used the word instantaneously in conjunction with transmitted – I can’t remember which way round. I started wondering if there is any distinction between instantaneously and the shorter instantly, if there is, then what is it, and if there isn’t, whether I should change it anyway. defines instantaneous as:

occurring, done, or completed in an instant:
an instantaneous response.
existing at or pertaining to a particular instant:
the instantaneous position of the rocket.

It defines instant (as an adjective) as:

succeeding without any interval of time; prompt; immediate:
instant relief from a headache.
pressing or urgent:
instant need.
noting a food or beverage requiring a minimal amount of time and effort to prepare, as by heating or the addition of milk or water, before being served or used:
instant coffee; instant pudding.
occurring, done, or prepared with a minimal amount of time and effort; produced rapidly and with little preparation:
an instant book; instant answers; instant history.
designed to act or produce results quickly or immediately:
an instant lottery.
Older Use
. of the present month:
your letter of the 12th instant.
present; current:
the instant case before the court.

In some cases there, instantaneous and instant are not interchangeable. I’m not sure I’d like to drink instantaneous coffee. 

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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.

Brethren and sistren

Last weekend I got a card for our new local library and borrowed a book about language and the DVDs for the tv science-fiction series Firefly, which I have read small amounts about over the years but never seen. The series mixes futuristic science fiction with wild west settings, as the outer planets and moons of a complex solar system (or an inter-related group of solar systems; it isn’t fully explained) were terraformed to a basic level but the settlers are otherwise expected to fend for themselves.

In one episode the lead character unexpectedly finds himself married by local custom to a young woman who may or may not be what she seems (semi-spoiler: she isn’t). At one point she refers to “my sistren” in “the maiden house”. 

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The justice of scales

A few days ago, I mentioned that hadn’t seen the bathroom scales since before we moved house in early October. My wife replied that “it is in the kitchen cupboard”.

For me, scales are ‘uncountable plural’; that is, they always take are, were, these, those etc. Google Ngrams shows that the scale is/was is more common than the scales are/were. But this is complicated by the fact that there are three kinds of scales: snake/fish, weighing and music/map. Snake/fish and music/map scales are countable and therefore can be singular or plural, and’s entry for weighing scales is “scale2 noun 1. Often scales”.

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illumine v illuminate

One of the prayers for Christmas morning asked God to “illumine” us or some people or the whole world (I can’t check because I didn’t bring the service sheet home). Illumine and illuminate are both valid English words. Both are from Latin illuminare (verb) and lumen (noun). According to, illumine is earlier  (1300-50), but it is defined only as “to illuminate”.  Illuminate dates from 1400-50, and –ate is certainly a more common verb ending. 

Illumination covers actual and metaphorical light. Sometimes the Bible talks about actual light and sometimes about metaphorical light, and sometimes it is hard to know which is meant. This morning’s Gospel reading was from John 1, which includes “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or overcome] it” (vv4-5 NIV, see also vv8-9).

Even though illumine is the older form, Google Ngrams shows that it was very rarely used until about  1700. From about 1750 to 1900, it hovered around a quarter of the frequency of illuminate, after which illuminate has grown and illumine has declined in use.

To me, illumine sounds more poetic, and more metaphoric (no doubt the growth of actual illumination after 1900 largely accounts for the growth of illuminate). While it is possible to ask God to (metaphorically) illuminate us, it would be very unlikely for a movie director or director of photography to ask the gaffer (chief lighting technician) to (actually) illumine the set in a certain way. 

Unlike preventive and preventative, where I would unhesitatingly recommend the shorter alternative, here I would recommend the longer version, illuminate.

preventive, preventative

A few days ago an article I was subediting had preventive and preventative in quick succession.’s main entry is preventive, but it adds “also preventative”. Its entry for preventative redirects to preventive. Google Ngrams shows that preventive is more common, but preventative is certainly an established alternative. So preventive it became.

I have been browsing through Jan Freeman’s discussion of Ambrose Bierce’s Write it right. He states: “No such word as preventative”. She adds: “There was and is such a word as preventative, of course; it arrived in English only a few decades after preventive, in the mid-17th century. Two hundred years later, Hurd 1847 [Seth Hurd, A Grammatical Corrector] decided that the longer spelling was “a common error”; it took another couple of decades for usage critics to declare it nonexistent. Preventative is longer and less common than preventive, and no doubt is a “needless variant,” but its enemies have not yet managed to drive it out of use, or out of our dictionaries.”

If you want to choose, or have to choose, use preventive: it’s (two letters) shorter and more common. Otherwise, be consistent.

So what is it about preventative which had usage commenters of earlier times foaming at the mouth? There is a long list of adjectives ending with –ive, –ative and –itive. Almost all words ending with –ative have corresponding noun ending with –ation. There is “no such word” as *preventation; it’s prevention. The most analogous word is invent > invention / *inventation > inventive /  *inventative.

So why did people start and continue to use preventative? I don’t know. But “no such word” or “not a word” is not an argument, certainly not by itself. If some people use a word, and everyone knows what it means (even as they are foaming at the mouth), then it’s a word.