“I’m going to work”

You wake up and complete your morning routine. You say to your partner:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting in your car/bus/train. Your phone rings. Someone asks you where you are. You say:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting at your desk at 9.02 reading a non-work-related website. Your boss passes by and reminds you of the time. You say:

I’m going to work!

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greatful

A former student observed Australia Day and Indian Republic Day by saying on Facebook how “greatful” she is for life in her new country. It’s an easy mistake to make, even for native speaker writers and especially for second language speaker writers (the issue doesn’t occur in speech – who knows how a speaker is ‘spelling’ a word?). A well-known search engine reports about 7,750,000 results for greatful, most of which are dictionaries or usage guides saying “greatful is not a word”.

If greatful means anything, it mean “full of great[ness]”. She might say that her new country is full of greatness, but she can’t say that she is (well, some people may be full of greatness, but most of them probably wouldn’t say so themselves). So what are we full of when we are grateful? Basically, we are full of gratitude. There was an adjective grate, meaning “agreeable, pleasant” from Latin gratus, pleasing, first describing the favoured object or person. Then the thing or person was grateful, that is “full of agreeableness or pleasantness”, then we were grateful for the thing or person.

Meanwhile, great first referred to size, related to Dutch groot and German groß, from West Germanic *grauta, course, thick, then later referred to a subjective evaluation: a great idea doesn’t have to be a big one. A gross idea probably isn’t great idea.

Descriptive linguists have a problem here. Someone who would argue vehemently that irregardless is a word would probably have no hesitation in saying that greatful is simply a mistake. (The spell-checkers in Pages for Mac and WordPress accept irregardless but reject greatful.) I didn’t point this out to the former student. I wouldn’t even if if this was a Facebook post by a current student. But I would if a current student wrote it in class.

PS the opposite switch happened with pitiful, which changed from meaning the one being full of, or showing, pity to meaning the one in need of pity, or even deserving contempt.

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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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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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.

Another rabbit hole confounds me

Another day, another linguistic rabbit-hole.

On Sunday, we sang Universi qui te expectant by Michael Haydn, which I had not previously known. The Latin of the two verses (Psalm 25:3-4) is:

Universi qui te expectant non confundentur, Domine
Vias tuas Domine notas fac mihi et semitas tuas edoce me.

No English translation is given in the score, but at the rehearsal one of the choir members quickly found:

Let none that wait on thee be ashamed
Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. [KJV]

Hang on, though. A little bit of Latin shows that Universi is everyone/all, and that non confundentur is will not be confounded, so the verse should be translated:

Everyone who waits for you will not be confounded.

(The more common Latin word for everyone/all is omnes, which can be followed by a noun: omnes gentes or omnes generationes.) Continue reading