An article in one of Sydney’s Sunday papers anonymously interviews drivers for senior members of our governments, including examples of the things they see or hear in the course of their job. It explains that ministerial drivers are 

notoriously discrete

I would have expected them to stick together! 

Discrete and discreet are often confused. I was surprised to find that they share an etymology in Latin discrētus, separate (and are also related to discern). has a usage note (scroll down) which I won’t reproduce here.

Google Ngrams shows that discrete is most often used to describe time, event, Fourier (transform), values, set, points, units, particles, steps and components (all things), while discreet is used to describe man, person, silence, manner, men, persons, woman, use and management (all people or their behaviour).



I shouldn’t get up and browse Facebook when I wake up at 1 am, but I did. I followed a link from a friend’s page to humour-based page. One post there was:

Cops just left, they said if I’m gonna walk around my house naked, I have to do it inside.

Many words have multiple meanings, and many jokes exploit this. The usual and natural meaning of “walk around my house naked” is “to various parts in”, but the joke uses the meaning of “a circuit of the outside”. Walking around naked outside is either not recommended or actually illegal.

At the risk of over-analysing the joke, would our understanding of the sentence change if it said:

I walked around my house in my pajamas


I walked around my house in my tracksuit


Meanwhile, it is possible to think of perfectly ambiguous statements: “I put up Christmas lights around my house”.

( lists 32 sub-meanings of around.)


A document referred to someone engaging in what would colloquially be called a one-night stand. I had to write a formal summary of the legal issues in the document. So do I write ‘one-night stand’ or … what? What is the formal way to say one-night stand? I started with “one-time extra-marital sexual …” then couldn’t think of the next word – encounter, incident, intercourse? My team leader suggested “short-term extra-marital sexual relationship”, but I had problems with both short-term and relationship. Short-term surely implies something longer than one act of sexual intercourse (minutes to hours). A short-term relationship is surely days or weeks or maybe months. Again, a relationship surely implies more than one act. A one-night stand may be sexual relations, but it isn’t a sexual relationship. But then defines relationship first as “a connection, association, or involvement” (which would include one act of sexual intercourse) and fourth as “a sexual involvement; affair”. An affair, in turn, is “an intense amorous relationship, usually of short duration”. But it would be hard to call a one-night stand an affair. 

Intercourse started as a perfectly ordinary word meaning “communication or dealings between individuals or groups”. I encountered it several times in the writings of members of the First Fleet who arrived in the new colony of New South Wales in January 1788, and actually used it in the title of my term paper and throughout the paper. The British had intercourse with the natives, and also with the sailors on two French ships which arrived in Botany Bay a few days later.

Some time ago I was a party, and we somehow got to using the older sense of intercourse as often as we could, saying how much we enjoyed intercourse with each other and how we should do it more often. We reduced one member of the group to fits of giggles every time we used it.

Eff it!

Yesterday one of my colleagues said something close enough to ineffable, which led to me paraphrase Douglas Adam’s line: “Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency)

We got talking about this strange word, and soon after he quoted the hymn O worship the King, all glorious above, the last verse of which begins O measureless might! Ineffable love! Today he added Crown him with many crowns, which contains the lines Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime.*

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Nepali again

A textbook mentioned the difference between a cook (a person) and a cooker (a machine). I mentioned that I wouldn’t naturally say cooker – I’d say stove or oven (and I’m not sure what the difference between those actually is). A Nepalese student said that the Nepali word for cooker is kukara. The first possibility is that this is complete coincidence, the second is that Nepali borrowed the word from English, and the third is that the two words share a Proto-Indo-European root. I later found from Google Translate that the Nepali word for stove is sṭōbha and the word for oven is ōbhana, which makes me suspect that all three words have been borrowed from English. traces cook to PIE *pekw- “to cook, ripen” and oven to *aukw- “cooking pot”, but stove only as far as Old English, with a cognate in Old High German. 

If a language borrowed a word from another language, it means either that the word and/or the person/thing/place it refers to didn’t exist in the culture of that language, or that the borrowed word has supplanted the original one. None of the Nepalese students were able to tell about traditional cooking – maybe all cooking was done over an open fire, maybe they had an oven of some kind. If they had an oven of some kind, then they would have had a name for it. Ovens of different kinds were developed in many different cultures around the world. The first requirement is heat, the second is a way of containing it.

Until my students have more knowledge of traditional Nepali cooking, or of the history of the Nepali language, I will never know. Even I’m at the limit of my knowledge. Wikipedia’s article on Nepalese cuisine doesn’t mention any implements. 

(In fact, records that a cooker can be person employed in certain industrial processes, but at least 99% of the time a person is a cook.)

‘Hear, hear’ and ‘Aw’

I have seen, enough times to notice, people writing in Facebook comments ‘Here, here’ instead of ‘Hear, hear’ and ‘Awe’ instead of ‘Aw’ (or ‘Aww’ or ‘Awww’ etc). These are homophones – they sound the same when spoken. 

Hear, hear!’ began in the British Parliament as ‘Hear him, hear him!’ – an imperative to other members to pay attention to what the speaker (the main speaker, not the person saying ‘Hear, hear’) was saying. Now, on Facebook, there is no element of ‘hearing’, and ‘here’ is a more common word than ‘hear’. Also, someone can signal their agreement by saying or writing ‘Same here’. Intriguingly, Google Ngrams shows that ‘here here’ is more common than ‘hear hear’, but I can’t find any examples of it other than in internet forum comments or in discussions of ‘here here’ v ‘hear hear’. I also can’t think of any context in which ‘here here’ would even be possible.

‘Awe’ is a real word, while ‘aw’ is an interjection which can express ‘sentimental approval or commiseration’ or ‘disbelief, disgust or protest’ depending on the intonation’. It is possible that a Facebook commenter is expressing awe at a video of a dog and cat playing together, but I doubt it. I also wondered whether the most common spelling is ‘aw’ or ‘aww’ or ‘awww’ etc). Google Ngrams shows ‘Aw’ a long way ahead, and has an entry for ‘aw’ but not for any of the other spellings.

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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