In my dreams

Two recent dreams have involved language. I don’t usually remember my dreams in much detail but these were short and involved language. Two days ago Facebook informed me that it was the birthday of one former student who returned to Hungary. I wished him happy birthday in English and he replied in English. That night I dreamed I was in a classroom. The first student greeted me in Korean, which I speak to some extent. The second student greeted me in Hungarian. Hang on … I don’t speak Hungarian, so how did this person in my dream speak it, and how did I know that it was Hungarian? Either I have absorbed some Hungarian, somewhere, some time, somehow, or my subconscious just made up something which sounded approximately appropriate and I just knew it was meant to be Hungarian.

Longer ago I had a dream in the thriller genre. The only part I remember is one person pointing a gun at another person, and the other person saying:

Do not shoot.

Do not shoot and Don’t shoot mean the same thing, but contracted forms are less formal and, in this case, more urgent. I can’t imagine anyone facing the business end of a gun saying Do not shoot instead of Don’t shoot, but that’s what my subconscious made that person say. Do not shoot (until, unless …) is more like something said or written in a firearms safety course, or said by a police/military commander. Google Ngrams doesn’t help, processing do not and don’t in the same way. A general Google search shows about 15 million results for “don’t shoot” (in quotation marks for exact match) and 2.5 million for “do not shoot”. 

I don’t (or do not) know what conclusions I can draw from these dreams.

I kept an extensive diary during my first stay in Korea 2006-09, which often throws light on my own usage. There are 6 instances of do not and 200 of don’t, including 58 of I don’t know, so I obviously spent most of that time in a state of considerable ignorance.

That’s a moray

A document referred to someone transgressing the social morays of his community. Morays for mores is not a knew misteak. The Eggcorn Database (2005) and Language Log (2004) have both discussed it. I was surprised to find that mores is far moor common in general than morays – more often the misteak is using a moor common word in place of a less common one. That has to be wayed against the fact that morays is a moor obvious spelling. The traffic seems to be all one weigh – I can’t imagine that anyone writing about Muraenidae (I had to look that up – I am not a marine biologist) types mores by misteak. 

Social mores mostly come in plurals. A singular social more exists but is used less often. Technically, won of them is a social mos but I doubt if even the most ardent Latinist says or writes that.

Talking about this with my colleagues, I couldn’t help mentioning the song That’s amore. Many years ago I encountered the parody:

When an eel bites your knee as you swim in the sea, that’s a moray.

The next day one of my colleagues complained that the song had been stuck in her head all day. I said: 

When it sticks in your head as you’re lying in bed, that’s an earworm.  

(PS sea watt I did their?)

It was cake

I recently discovered the blog Peaks and penguins, by a young Canadian/US couple who lived in South Korea for some years (and maybe still do). They chronicled their explorations of the mountains there, guided by the lists of 100 top mountains by the Korean Forest Service and a commercial hiking wear/gear manufacturer. (80 mountains appear on both lists and 20 are unique to each, so there’s 120 in total, which I think they explored all.) I am half disappointed that I spent so much of the time I was in Korea not exploring mountains and a quarter excited and a quarter daunted that there’s so much for me to do when I go there again (when, when, when?). And that’s just the mountains, not all the other things to do.

One of their early expeditions nearly ended badly: the weather changed, they were short on warm clothing and other provisions, and they lost their way. Fortunately they encountered a Korean hiking group who warmed them up and pointed them in the right direction. They wrote: 

Our descent was cake compared to our trials on the ridge.

Was cake, not was a piece of cake, which is an established idiom.

I haven’t been able to find any equivalent use of “was cake” (in quotation marks for exact match). There are sentences like When was cake first made?, We heard/were told there was cake and And then there was cake. But I can’t say that those bloggers are wrong; it’s very clear what they mean and is a natural shortening (<haha) of the idiom. Maybe people say it or write it in places Google can’t find.

According to Google Ngrams, is/was a piece of cake rose in usage in the mid-1970s. Without context, it’s impossible to tell how many occurrences before and after then were literal usages of the phrase, and how many were idiomatic. I had always assumed that it is/was a piece of cake was, in turn, a shortening of it is/was as easy as eating a piece of cake, but Ngrams shows no particular usage of as easy as eating.

Is/was a piece of cake seems to be used/usable in singular forms: My homework was a piece of cake, ?My exams were pieces of cake, My exams were a piece of cake

Adaption and adoptation

A few days ago I hurriedly typed adaption rather than adaptation. Adaption isn’t wrong – it’s in multiple dictionaries and Pages for Mac accepts it – it’s just far less common than adaptation

Starting with adapt and adopt, there’s no particular reason why adaptation and adoption are standard, adaption is rare and adoptation is either very rare or wrong (Pages for Mac auto-corrects it to adaptation, then red-underlines it when I change it back.) Perhaps it’s related to the fact that opt by itself is a verb, whereas apt is an adjective. But that shouldn’t matter as long as adapt and adopt are both verbs.

Humans tend to want to say things as economically as possible. Adaptation and adoption are standard, so English speakers are more likely to shorten adaptation to adaption than to lengthen adoption to adoptation.

This got me thinking about the whole process of derivational suffixes in English. Humans will say longer word if there’s a change in meaning or word class. Adapt and adopt aren’t good examples, whereas act gives far more examples:

act (verb, noun) > active (adj) > activate (verb) > activation (noun)
act (verb, noun) > activity (noun) > do an activity (verb phrase) 
act (verb, noun) > action (noun) >  %action, %actionis/ze (verb) > %actionis/zation (noun) 
(among others)

Some people complain about or reject either or both of zero derivation (action as a verb) and overuse of –is/ze (actionis/ze) (partly because these are associated with business-speak), but these words fill a useful gap. Actioning or actionising a request or order isn’t the same as activating it, or even acting on it. The client makes or submits a request or order and the service worker ____s it. Google Ngrams suggests only receives, grants or refuses, which is not what we’re looking for. Fulfil is possible, but that means completing the action. Is the service worker the actioner? (Not auctioneer, which Pages for Mac just changed it to.)

See acclimate v acclimatise and direct for similar thoughts.

Merry holidays

In a comment to my previous post, I mentioned spotting a question on Stack Exchange from a school music teacher whose principal had banned ‘all holiday-related music from our performances’ because one family had chosen not to attend. S/he later refers to ‘Christmas and Chanuka songs’.

From around mid-December, mainstream and social media abound with opinions as to the rights and wrongs of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’, which I won’t weigh into. These reminded me something I’ve had on my ‘ideas for posts’ lists for several months. A document referred to an applicant returning to his country for ‘holyday’. Not holy day or holiday – holyday

Holidays were originally holy days, when most people didn’t work in order to attend church then feast and carouse on the village green. In Australian English, holiday now has probably three related meanings: a public holiday, on which most people don’t work but essential and service personnel do; annual leave, for most full-time, permanent employees, and a travelling vacation. I would not naturally say or write vacation; it sounds American to me, which Google Ngrams confirms. I would have to use either ‘I’m staying at home these holidays’/‘I’m having a holiday at home’ (some people use staycation but it’s still rare) or ‘I’m going away these holidays’. Because Christmas Day and Boxing Day fell on Saturday and Sunday this year, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 were official public holidays. Most Australian businesses shut down completely between 25 Dec and 3 Jan inclusive, with 3 Jan being an official public holiday because 1 Jan also falls on a Saturday.

A vague vagary

A legal officer referred to a claimant’s claims and evidence as vague and inconsistent (which is not unusual) but also as containing significant vagary and inconsistency.

By itself it is possible for claims and evidence to contain significant vagary:

1. an unpredictable or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance
2. a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action

but the closest noun equivalent of vague is vagueness. In fact, doesn’t have a separate definition for vagueness, redirecting searches for it to the definition for vague. Vagary may at one time have been the best equivalent for vague, but it isn’t now. –ness is a very common and productive noun morpheme. Also, vagaries is much more commonly used than vagary

We most often talk or write about (a/the/-) vague idea(s), sense, feeling, notion(s), term(s), way, hope (they are mostly internal), (a/the) vagary of nature, thought, fashion, fate, fortune/Fortune, imagination, taste, mine, fancy and vagaries of life, nature, weather, chance, climate, fortune, fashion, politics, fancy, imagination (they are mostly external). 

But vague/vagueness and vagary share an origin in Latin vagus, wandering,  vagārī to wander (compare vagrant/vagrancy).

the square __ the hypotenuse

One of the choirs I sing in started practicing the chorus of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, very slowly, starting with 

with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

Hang on, shouldn’t that be on the hypotenuse?  At least, that’s what I’ve always thought it was.

Apparently not. The two books on Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas I have both give of, and the video I linked above has it. But, in general, of and on seem to be interchangeable, with a recent preference for of

There doesn’t seem to be an original Greek form of the theorem, whether formulated by Pythagoras or someone else. If there is a difference, it’s that the square on the hypotenuse is an actual square on an actual side of an actual triangle, and the square of the hypotenuse is a mathematical function of the length of that side. To the ancient Greeks, γεωμετρία (geometria) was literally about measuring the earth.

If you are a singer, use what you conductor provides or tells you. If you are a maths teacher, use what’s in your textbook. If you are anyone else, choose one and don’t worry about it.

graph and tele

For reasons I won’t explain, I was thinking about the word(s) photograph and photo. English speakers (and I suspect speakers of most languages) often shorten words like these. Investigating using Google Ngrams, I found that, not surprisingly, photograph was used more commonly for most of the word’s history, and that photo overtook it in 1984 (specifying usage as a noun). My preliminary theory is that photograph declined with the rise of digital photo instead of digital photograph, but Ngrams shows that those two phrases are too late and comparatively too little used to have much of an effect overall. 

Similar is/are telephone and phone, for which the latter became more common (as a noun) as recently as 1998. This is plausibly connected to the rise of cell phone and mobile phone instead of cell telephone and mobile telephone, which basically no-one ever used or uses, but phone had been rising in usage since the 1960s. 

Compare the verbs photograph and *photo and telephone and phone (which switched in 1995). Not surprisingly, Ngrams does not record photo as a verb, but surprisingly also does not record photograph, either. At first I thought I’d mis-spelled it, but no, that’s the result. Also not surprisingly, take a photo increased steadily from about 1980 and sharply from about 2000.

Some languages shorten words even more. In Korean, 디지털 카메라 (di-ji-teol ka-me-ra) become 디카 (di-ka) and if 셀프 카메라 봉 (sel-peu ka-me-ra bong) ever existed, it quickly because 셀카봉 (sel-ka-bong, selfie stick).

Linguistically, this is called clipping. Different parts of different words are omitted or kept. Photograph could not become graph, because that had an existing meaning. Once telephone at least sometimes became phone, television could become telly (or tv), but not vision.


A document referred to someone applying for an Australian carer visa in order to care for a relative who was referred to by name and as the sponsor, the Australian relative requiring care and 

the caree

Caree, as the reciprocal of carer, makes sense and uses an established pattern of English words, and it it is difficult to think of any other suitable word, but it looks and sounds very strange, and is very, very rare. Google first asked me if I meant carer, then career, and Pages for Mac changed it to career (even though that doesn’t make sense in any likely context). 

One of the few official sources in which I found it used is the Australian government’s Social Security Guide (which was not the provision in question in the document I was editing). It simply says that a caree is “a person receiving a substantial level of care” and a carer or care provider is “a person who is providing a substantial level of care to a caree”.

Not surprisingly, Google Ngrams shows that the usage of caree is minimal. Surprisingly, it shows that carer has been widely used only since the late 1970s. I don’t know what people providing care were called before that. 

I can’t recommend or not recommend caree. I doubt if any writers of government guides are going to check my blog before they use it.

oo or u

A document referred to the “Pashtoon” people of Afghanistan, which is the spelling used in the applicant’s written submissions. The usual spelling is Pashtun, and quotations from other sources in the document used that spelling. 

The advantage of using <u> instead of <oo> is that it’s one less letter. The disadvantage is that the default pronunciation of <u> is /ʌ/, so Pashtun would possibly rhyme with Dunne, whereas the default pronunciation of <oo> is /u:/, so it would definitely rhyme with Doone

According to Google Ngrams, Pashtoon dates from 1945 and 1953, which is puzzling, given the British wars in Afghanistan from 1839 (maybe they were just Afghans or natives in those days, because there was no reason to distinguish any one group from any other). The two spellings were used about the same until Pashtun became the preferred spelling from the 1980s (the Soviet invasion) and especially 2005 (the US invasion).

Compare Hindoo and Hindu, where there is no ambiguity of pronunciation: <u> at the end of a word can only be /u:/. The two spellings were used about the same until Hindu became the preferred spelling from the 1940s (leading up to Indian independence). 

Two more words which spring to mind are igloo (Inuit) and kangaroo (Guugu Yimithirr). Igloo is now linguistically transcribed as iglu, while the first recorded spelling of kangaroo was kanguru (Joseph Banks) and the linguistically reconstructed spelling is gangurru. (Various other spellings were used along the way.) Needless to say, the standard and most common spellings in English are igloo and kangaroo (and Pashtun and Hindu). While the plural of iglu is igluit and the plural of gangurru is gangurru-ngay (Haviland 1979),  the plurals in English are igloos and kangaroos (though Linus van Pelt attempted to make igli out of eggshells). Note that in Inuit, iglu refers to any kind of house, while in Guugu Yimithirr, gungurru refers to one specific species of macropod. Also, the people of the Sydney region had no idea what the British were talking about when they used this North Queensland word.

There are also the Chinese names Hu and Hoo, Wu and Woo, which seem to be interchangeable, but for some reason Hoo Jintao looks less presidential than Hu Jintao. Korean 문 can be Mun (ambiguous) or Moon (unambiguous, but possibly causing confusion with the the identically-spelled English word). I once had a colleague with the first name Mun (rhyming with Dunne), who I think was of Malay or Singapore Chinese heritage.