-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

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The planets

For some reason, I got thinking about the pairs of adjectives venereal and Venusian, martial and Martian, and jovial and Jovian. The second of each pair relates only to the Roman goddess or god or the planet, while the first relates to personality (jovial), soldiers or personality (martial) and love (venereal). The last could have positive collocations (affections, delights) but has come to be associated primarily with sexually transmitted diseases and their symptoms.

So, are there also mercurial and Mercurian, and saturnial and Saturnian? No, lower-case mercurial refers to personality and upper-case Mercurial to the god and the planet. Lower-case saturnian refers to personality ‘prosperous, happy, or peaceful’ and upper-case Saturnian to the god and the planet. But saturnine means ‘sluggish in temperament; gloomy; taciturn’ (somehow one god and/or planet was seen to be responsible for both happiness and gloom) as well as ‘due to absorption of lead … suffering from lead poisoning’ . (In Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Saturn is subtitled ‘The Bringer of Old Age’.)

These were the planets known to the ancients and early and middle English speakers. From the modern age come Uranian, ‘pertaining to the planet Uranus’ and ‘(of males) homosexual …from Aphrodite Urania heavenly Aphrodite, inspiration for male homosexuality in Plato’s Symposium’; Neptunian, relating to the god or the sea, the planet, or ‘(often lowercase) Geology. formed by the action of water’.

Where’s Pluto? For the sake of completeness, I’ll add Plutonian ‘Also, Plutonic of, relating to, or resembling Pluto or the lower world; infernal’.

Note also the chemical elements mercury (ancient), uranium, neptunium and plutonium (modern). In classical alchemy, Venus was associated with copper (?a woman’s mirror), Mars with iron (?a soldier’s weapons), Jupiter with tin (??) and Saturn with lead (see ‘lead poisoning’ above).

[all definitions from Dictionary.com]

right and left or left and right

This page of the textbook just keeps on giving. It is on what the authors call ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I am not convinced that those are the best terms. It says “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. I have blogged about this page twice before. The first time I picked up about combinations of colours. After the class, I researched on Google Ngrams and found that ‘black and’ is most followed by white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey and green. Further, ‘black and white’ is most followed by photographs, stripes and marble (among and/or, is/are and in/of/on).

The second time I picked up about the textbook saying “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. That simply isn’t true. Google Ngrams shows that ‘white and black’ is used, though, obviously, much less than ‘black and white’. I researched each of the pairs they give and found that most of them can be reversed – butter and bread and breakfast and bed being the two exceptions (those two are recorded, but are very, very rare). I concluded “If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.”

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geology, geography and geometry

Yesterday, I posted twice. In the first post I mentioned the book Alex through the looking glass by Alex Bellos and in the second I mentioned the delight of finding that two words are actually related, or actually not. This morning, something happened to combine both those ideas. To explain what, I have to flash back several decades.

Possibly in my last year of high school, when some of my classmates were studying geology and others were studying geography, I used the little Greek I had picked up to figure out that geo-logy was the study of earth/land and that geo-graphy was ‘drawing’ it. Possibly because geometry was not a final year high school subject in its own right (it was a sub-subject of mathematics), I didn’t think about it as well. Also, modern-day geometry has very little connection with land.

But ancient geometry did. Bellos writes, ‘The historian Herodotus was the first to use the word ‘geometry’, or earth-measure, describing it as a practice devised by Egyptian tax inspectors to calculate areas of land destroyed by the Nile’s annual floods’.

(Compare and contrast astro-nomy, the ‘naming’ of stars, and astro-logy, the ‘study’ of ‘stars’, where the modern disciplines have diverged and refocused.)

Practical cats

A few weeks ago I mentioned the musical Cats, and commented about translating the title and the lyrics into other languages, including Korean.

The first song is ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, which is not in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, so I guess it was in TS Eliot’s unpublished poems, along with Grizabella. Andrew Lloyd Webber consulted Valerie Eliot while composing this work. (Note that Trevor Nunn wrote the lyrics for ‘Memory’ (and see my previous comments about this song here.)) The song ends with a series of 22 occurrences of ‘adj cats’:

Practical cats, Dramatical cats
Pragmatical cats, Fanatical cats
Oratorical cats, Delphicoracle cats
Skeptical cats, Dispeptical cats
Romantical cats, Penantical cats
Critical cats, Parasitical cats
Allegorical cats, Metaphorical cats
Statistical cats and Mystical cats
Political cats, Hypocritical cats
Clerical cats, Hysterical cats
Cynical cats, Rabbinical cats

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‘To the egress’

At a railway station in central Sydney, I saw a door marked EMERGENCY EGRESS ONLY. I guess that at least 99% of such doors in the English-speaking world are marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.

Egress is the slightly earlier word, dating from the 1530s. Exit as a stage direction (technically, a verb) as in ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ dates from the 1530s, but from the 1590s it was used as a noun, as in ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances’ and (occasionally) a ‘real’ verb.

From about 1650 to about 1850, the two words were used more or less interchangeably, but then the use of exit grew and egress declined, probably corresponding to the growth in public railway travel. Then in the early 1970s, the use of exit skyrocketed, for reasons I can’t think of, but curiously declined from 2000 to 2008. Most of this was due to the use of exit as a noun; exit really only began to be used as a verb in the 20th century.

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