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. Dictionary.com 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).

Etymology.com 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.

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Ms, Miss and Mrs

Yesterday I filled in and submitted a mail redirection form with Australia Post. In the list of names I wrote MR my name, MRS my wife’s name and MS our niece’s name. The clerk checked the form and asked ‘What is that? M-Z?’. I said ‘M-S’. She asked ‘So she’s been married and divorced?’. I said ‘No, never married’. She said ‘I’ll change that to MISS, then’.

I was already mildly annoyed for various reasons, and thought that arguing the point would only result in unpleasantness, so I didn’t.

So 1) an Australia Post clerk doesn’t know what MS represents. 2) an Australia Post clerk thinks it’s appropriate to change MS to MISS. 3) it is quite possible for people to receive mail address to different courtesy titles – MS and MISS, MRS and MS, DR and MR/MRS/MS/MISS or PROF and DR (and MR/MRS/MS/MISS). (It is even possible for people to receive mail addressed to two different names. We knew Dr Susan Green / Mrs Susan Prince (name slightly disguised). Not to mention many mis-spellings of names.*) 4) postal deliveries don’t rely on courtesy titles anyway. Australia Post doesn’t even use them. A few minutes ago I stumbled on their letters to my wife and niece in October notifying them that their mailing address had been changed by someone (me). Both are addressed to GIVENNAME SURNAME and there is no salutation. (*Apropos of not much, one of my sisters once worked as a secretary in a very small town. One day the post office delivered a letter for her boss addressed to “Grandpa, [name of town]”.)

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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 Dictionary.com’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 Dictionary.com, 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.

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, dictionary.com 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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preventive, preventative

A few days ago an article I was subediting had preventive and preventative in quick succession. Dictionary.com’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.

log in, tap on

A few days ago, the class was practising phrasal verbs. On one list was log in (or on) and out (or off). The first logs were lengths of wood from trees, and the first logging (not in or on or out or off) was cutting trees down and into lengths. Some time later, sailors measured the speed of a ship by throwing a log off the stern, to which was connected a rope with knots at specified intervals. By counting the number of knots in a specified time, the captain could calculate the speed, then record it (as well as the direction and other relevant information) in a log book. Even the Starship Enterprise has a captain’s log.

Log books came ashore to be used to record any repeated information, including the times of arriving at or leaving work, or starting or finishing a particular task. From there it was a short step to computers, where logging on ensures that only people authorised to use that computer, or any function of it, do so, and records who does what on it, when. All these logs and logging are from Middle English noun logge or lugge.

A student mentioned log tables in maths. These are not related, being tables of logarithms, from Greek logos, word, speech, logical principle and arithmós number (compare arithmetic). A search for log book shows work-related record books, while a search for log table or log table book shows mathematical resources. (The use of logarithms has largely been replaced by calculators and computers.)

[PS 13 Nov: I knew there was another angle. From the 1990s, online diaries etc became known as web logs, weblogs and blogs. There are also vlogs (video-based diaries), which has to one of the ugliest words ever coined.]

So do we log in and out, or on and off? Google Ngrams shows log on and off to be slightly more common than log in and out, but login as a noun has become one word. (Dictionary.com also records logon, but only to define it as login.) Continue reading