An awful lot of words

(Or a lot of awful words.)

While I was writing a recent post, I started thinking about the following words (and there are more similar):

awe (n) – awe (v) – awesome / awful (adj)
dread – dread (v) – ?dreadsome / dreadful (adj)
fear (n) – fear (v) – fearsome / fearful / afraid (adj)
fright (n) – fright / frighten (v) – ?frightsome / frightful / frightening / frightened (adj)
terror (n) – terrify (v) – terrible / terrifying / terrified / terrific (adj)

The questions which arise are ‘Who does what to whom?’/‘Who feels that way?’ and ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’. Awesome is good, but awful is now almost always bad. Originally, we were full of awe, but there are references to God being awful. The most common uses of awful now are in the noun phrases an awful lot and an awful thing. An awful lot and an awful thing aren’t full of awe, and probably we aren’t, either. 

This is even more so when these words are used as adverbs:

It was awesome/awful of you to do that v It was awesomely/awfully kind of you to do that.
It was dreadful of you to do that v It was dreadfully kind of you to do that. 
It was fearful of you to do that v It was fearfully kind of you to do that. 
It was frightful/frightening of you to do that v It was frightfully/frighteningly kind of you to do that. 
It was terrible/terrifying/terrific of you to do that v It was terribly/terrifyingly/terrifically kind of you to do that. 

This process is called semantic bleaching, or “the reduction of a word’s intensity”, which is really very common, as Merriam-Webster explains.

(By the way, dreadsome and frightsome are in dictionaries, but are obviously very rare. If I was writing a historical fantasy novel, I would have a character nick-named Dreadsome.)

(I seem to remember a cartoon in which a primary school teacher says to a student something like “There are two words I will not tolerate in this classroom. One is cool and the other is groovy.” The student replies “Cool! What are they?” I can’t find that, but there is definitely one of a father saying to two children “There are some words I will not tolerate in this house – and ‘awesome’ is one of them”. There’s nothing wrong with awesome – it’s just overused.) [Edit: it may have been swell and lousy – see the comments below.]

God is terrible

This idea is scattered throughout the bible, if not in exactly that form. I probably knew it first and certainly know it most familiarly through Ralph Vaughan Williams’ anthem on Psalm 47, O clap your hands.

O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.

English has a number of words derived from Latin terror (noun), terrēre, terrificāre (verbs) and terribilis (adjective), including terror, terrorism/t, terrify, terrorise, terrible, terrifying and terrific. Terrific is now positive (though I remember a primary school teacher telling us that it should only be used in contexts of terror), terrifying is negative and terrible sits uncomfortably between the two.

As is usual with biblical words like this, there are many translations. In the 54 English versions on Bible Gateway:

awesome 18 awesome beyond words 1 awesome and deserves our great respect 1
awe-inspiring 3 

to be feared 9 to be feared [and worshiped with awe-inspired reverence and obedience] 1 fearsome 1 fearedful (to be feared/to be revered) 1 fearful 1 

terrible 10 
excites terror, awe, and dread 1

wonderful 3 wonderful [awesome] 1

stunning 1 

We must fear the Lord 1 We must fear Yahweh, Elyon 1

most of which have other problems, especially these days awesome. If “Everything is awesome” then there’s nothing special about God. At least no translations use awful (see this post, towards the end) (or dreadful).

(Another choral setting of the same psalm, by John Rutter, uses to be feared.)

Lying behind all of these is the Hebrew word נוֹרָא (nora, Modern Israeli Hebrew pronunciation noˈʁa). I will let an actual Hebrew speaker pronounce it and explain. So, awesome or awe-inspiring, or terrible or awful, even in Hebrew.

My problem with all of these is that if God is terrible, to be feared or even awesome, then our response will be terror, fear or awe, but will not and cannot possibly be love, and certainly not with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength.

It is noticeable that most of the verses describing God as terrible (in whatever words) are in the Old Testament (the one exception being the Old Testament-focused Hebrews). Elsewhere in the New Testament, we get “God is love” (not “God is loveable”!).

(I possibly have more to say about this, but would be venturing too far into theology for my comfort.)

Shellharbour and Victor Harbor

My wife and I spent a night in the coastal town of Shellharbour. Similar couples spent a similar night in a similar coastal town, Victor Harbor

Australian English overwhelmingly prefers –our spellings to –or (most style guides specify –our and Pages for Mac’s Australian English autocorrect changed Victor Harbor to Harbour), but usage has swung back and forth over the years. Around the time Victor Harbor was officially named, –or spellings were in favour, so that official spelling was given and has been retained; likewise with the Australian Labor Party. (For more about these spellings, see Wikipedia in general, about the Labor Party. Basically, the –or spellings reflect the Latin original and the –our spellings reflect French –eur.)

Note also that Shellharbour is now one word, while Victor Harbor remains two. I guess running four syllables together is just too clunky.

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

Maths v math

In bookshop I saw two books:

Help your kids with maths – An Australian step-by-step guide

and

Help your kids with math – Revised edition

There is no particular reason why British, Australian and New Zealand English speakers say and write maths and USA and Canadian English speakers say and write math. We just do. 

Or maybe it’s not that simple. Google Ngrams shows that since 2010 math is more common that maths in BrEng, though it doesn’t show how much of that is mentions rather than uses (that is, talking about the word rather than actually using it). Conversely, maths is very rare in AmEng.

Surprisingly, the two abbreviations have been widely used only since the 1950s. Further, in AmEng, math has now overtaken mathematics.  

(Compare mathematics and the almost non-existent mathematic (either as a noun or adjective).)

An ingenius genious

I have seen the spelling

genious

enough times to notice it. It seems to be used either by mistake or sarcastically in response to something someone else has posted. It’s not a variant spelling; it’s plain wrong, which varius other people on the internet have pointed out. But inquiring linguistic minds want to know why. 

ius is a vary rare English suffix. In fact, it is arguable whether it is an English suffix. Dictionary.com lists 13 words ending with –ius, of which genius, radius and trapezius are the most common. All of them come directly from Latin, and some would only be found in ancient Roman contexts, for example denarius. All of them are nouns (as far as I can tell), but –ius is not a productive noun suffix. We can’t create new English words with it, unless we are trying to evoke an ancient Roman mood.
ious is a common English suffix. Dictionary.com lists 276 words, including various. Most of them come directly or indirectly from Latin, but there is no restriction on the contexts in which they can be used. All of them are adjectives (as far as I can tell), and –ious is a moderately productive adjective suffix. Some unknown person in the 19th century coined bodacious and Roald Dahl coined vermicious knid.

The relevant Latin adjectives had the forms -ius and -iosus, seemingly interchangeably, but the path from Latin to English is obscure because online sources don’t give examples from every step through Old French, Anglo-French and Middle English. The modern French equivalents are génie (compare Arabic jinn and English genie) and divers (compare diverse), which doesn’t help, but see furieux/furieuse

In You are a genius, genius is undoubtedly a noun. In That is a genius comment, it is still a noun but looks, sounds and feels more like an adjective (indeed, some dictionaries define attributive uses of nouns as adjectives). If any change of spelling ever happens, it will be that the second use becomes genious and the word becomes a genuine adjective. But not if word processor programs can help it – Pages for Mac just changed genious to genius and is red-underlining it now I’ve changed it back. Genius as a head noun is unlikely to change spelling, and all those –ious adjectives are simply never going to become –ius

Complicating all this is ingenious, which is undoubtedly an adjective but which is more distantly related, coming from genus and not genius (though those two words are related further back). So some geniuses are born and others are made.    

I slept (or sleeped) and dreamt (or dreamed)

Some time ago I posted about the alternation between leaned and leant, dream and dreamt etc. I said that I had more-or-less decided to use leaned and dreamed, mostly because they are clearer for second-language listeners to understand, but then I quite naturally used leant when talking to one second-language listener. 

My work team has been working from home (mostly full-time but at least part-time) for almost two years. Alongside work-related emails, we send social/personal ones. One of my colleagues is studying psychology and is particularly interested in dreams. I can’t remember enough of most of my dreams, but occasionally one will persist after I wake up. A few days ago I sent an email with a brief description of my dream, starting “I dreamed …”. Another colleague picked me up this, so I explained the alternation and my decision, with a link to my blog post. She commented that the song from Les Misérables really couldn’t be I dreamt a dream. (With a side thought about the alternation between I dreamed/dreamt a dream and I dreamed/dreamt, and also I had a dream.) 

Along the way, because of its connection with dream, I also thought about sleep, which has the strong irregular form slept. But sleep now means something like to place a computer into a power saving mode. We can sleep a computer, and sleeping a computer is also common, but do we say I slept my computer or I sleeped a computer? At the moment, the usage isn’t common enough to be sure. There are a handful of results for I slept my computer and one for I sleeped my computer. Most people avoid the problem by putting their computer into sleep mode. Compare Stephen Pinker’s example of The batter flied out to centre (<my Australian-set auto-correct changed center to centre), not The batter flew out to centre. Because of my almost zero experience of baseball, I don’t have to worry about that, though.

Despite what I wrote in the title to this post, I definitely slept, but I may have dreamt or dreamed.

Verb it!

I’ve been struggling for ideas for posts, so I turned to the online discussions I had with my classmates during my masters study in 2010-12, which we were able to save as text files.

One involved the use of technology-related nouns and verbs. The discussion thread was Google it! As the name of a website, Google is a noun (and upper case), but people soon began using it as a verb and writing it in lower case. Many people decry the verbing of nouns and/or using registered company or product names as generics (see generic trademark) but both are common procedures in English. I can remember people faxing (though fax was never a proper noun, and was an abbreviation of facsimile (another common procedure in English – I don’t think anyone ever facsimilied (btw when was the last time you sent a fax?))), and references to people telexing (which was originally an upper-case proper noun). Before that, people telephoned, then ’phoned then phoned. All of these are transitive verbs: Google it, fax the document to me, fax it to me, fax me the document, ?/*fax me it, phone me, ?telephone me. (See also telegram, telegraph (including its metaphoric use) and wire.) (I can also remember an advertisement (?for a graphic designer) informing us that we could ‘fax or modem’ our requirements to them.)

Continue reading

Omelette

Yesterday, a colleague advised us that it was International Chocolate Cake Day. Another colleague shared an image of a chocolate cake with the text: 

I had this delicious omlette this morning. I seasoned the eggs with sugar, oil and chocolate, and threw in a little flour for texture. 

Ha ha.

A third colleague pointed out that there should be an e after the m

Inquiring linguistic minds want to know why omelette is right and omlette is wrong. 

Courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, the story begins with Latin lamina (plate, layer) (with a variety of modern meanings) and lamella (small plate, layer) (also with a variety of modern meanings) and progresses through French la lemelle > l’alemelle > alemele > alemette (which is a double diminutive) > omelette to arrive in English. American English prefers omelet. Omlette and omlet exist but are rare, and at this stage are probably still mistakes rather than genuine alternatives. Pages for Mac autocorrects omlette and omlet to omelette and omelet. So omelette has the first e because Latin lamella had/has one.

For me, omelette is solidly two syllables, but Dictionary.com gives the two- and three- syllable pronunciations.

Loitering and sauntering

Wikipedia’s page on the American writer Dorothy Parker mentions that she was once fined $5 for “loitering and sauntering” while taking part in an activist protest. 

Loitering is a well-enough known offence, but it is hard to see what the offence in sauntering is; indeed it is hard to see what the offence in loitering is. Surely we have all loitered or sauntered, or strolled, wandered, meandered, moseyed … at some time. 

According to dictionary.com loiter is the older word: before 1300–50; Middle English loteren, loytren, perhaps from Middle Dutch loteren “to stagger, totter”; compare Dutch leuteren “to dawdle”. Saunter is: 1660–70; of uncertain origin, though one blogger traverses a number of suggested origins. 

Loitering is still an offence in some jurisdictions, but usually more is needed than just standing around doing nothing, for example the intention to commit some more substantive offence, or failing to move on when directed. Basically it gives the police the power to charge anyone they want to but can’t pin anything else on, often people in easily identifiable groups in society. I can’t find anything about sauntering as an offence, except for one possibly automated website which states:

Saunter and commit crime are semantically related. In some cases you can use “Saunter” instead a verb phrase “Commit crime”.

Yeah?

Not the Nine O’Clock News was a British television sketch comedy show from 1979 to 1982. I don’t remember watching it, but remember a friend playing one sketch on cassette, which I still remember close on 40 years later. A police constable is summoned by a sergeant and reprimanded for “being a little over-zealous” (video, script) (medium potential-for-offence warning). In one month, he has “brought 117 ridiculous, trumped-up and ludicrous charges … against the same man”, who happened to be in of those easily identifiable groups. One of those was “loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing”. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover. (Yes, the sergeant is played by Rowan Atkinson.)