Either way, don’t beg the question

Some prescriptivists insist that beg the question means, and can only mean, assume the conclusion of a philosophical argument, and doesn’t mean, and cannot mean, raise the question. The esteemed Mark Liberman of Language Log traces the whole history from Greek to Latin to English in probably more detail than you will ever need or want (brief summary: almost everyone now uses it to mean raise the question) and concludes: 

If you use the phrase to mean “raise the question”, some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ “misuse”, you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean “assume the conclusion”, almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

The reason I am mentioning this is that a few days ago I was watching a TED-X Talk in which the (native US English) speaker said:

Which begs me to ask another question …

No it doesn’t.

PS 26 Aug: A commenter on a Language Log post seems to have used the phrase in its original sense, judging by his punctuation: “”Is this the best way to approach the problem of the lack of scientific terminology in African languages ?”. I think that this begs the question. Is there any evidence that the lack of scientific terminology in African languages is a problem ?”


“incontinent varlets”

A colleague has a calendar of Shakespearean insults which he sometimes shares with us. One recent insult included varlet, which got me thinking about what that actually means. It’s a variant of valet, which comes from vassal + et (diminutive), which in turn comes from Latin vassus, servant. 

I had always pronounced valet to rhyme with ballet, so I was surprised to hear the characters on Downton Abbey pronouncing it to rhyme with ballot. That was the original pronunciation. I think the first pronunciation arose later when actual valets fell out of general use and people read the word rather than hearing it. Valet parking always rhymes with ballet, though. 

The Shakespeare’s Words website shows 27 uses of varlet and associated forms. Without checking each one, it is just possible that some of them mean manservant without any accusation of roguery. Varlets come in various flavours, from thou precious varlet (probably in the sense of flagrant, gross) and a good varlet, through a brazen-faced varlet, dishonest varlet, dissembling abominable varlet, incontinent varlets (that needs some context), male varlet (which seems to suggest the existence of a female varlet somewhere (compare female valets, which exist)), thou naughty varlet, the veriest varlet, varlet vile and wicked varlet to the shouting varletry.

gnädig und gerecht

One of the choirs I sing in has just presented our first concert since coronavirus restrictions were eased. The program was very carefully chosen around the themes of remembrance and renewal. One of the two longer works on the program was Das ist mir Lieb, a setting of a German translation of Psalm 116 by Heinrich Schütz. Although English is a Germanic language, singing in German is a strange mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, even allowing for the fact that the choirs I sing in don’t sing in German much.

Two of the verses are:

Der HERR ist gnädig und gerecht, und unser Gott ist barmherzig. 
Der HERR behütet die Einfältigen; wenn ich unterliege, so hilft er mir. 

Alright then:

The Lord is something and something else, and our God is something different again.
The Lord does something to some people. When I somethinged, he helped me.

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On the back window of a car was a sticker saying


Ummm … is she a physical bitch, a psychotic bitch or both? Sitting in a different car, I didn’t get the chance to ask.

It is very easy to get the phys– words and the psych– words mixed up, and to mis-spell them even when you’ve got the right one (especially if you’re writing in ALL CAPS). The phys– words come from Greek φυσική physike (nature) and Latin physica (study of nature) and the psych– words from Greek ψυχή psyche (breath, soul) (note that ph, ps and ch are all one letter in Greek).

In any not-completely-informal use, physcho is wrong, but some people use it, whether deliberately or accidentally (definitely accident with reference to Alfred Hitchcock (who is more associated with the word than Robert Bloch is)). Did the sticker company use it deliberately, thinking either that the people buying it wouldn’t notice, or would notice but wouldn’t care, or accidentally, realising later (in which case the two previous questions again) or not?


Yesterday I had the sudden thought that we don’t say good-mouth as the equal and opposite of bad-mouth. We may compliment or speak well or highly of people, but we don’t go around good-mouthing them. Maybe we should.

Wikitionary and Dictionary.com trace it to a calque from an expression in a Mande language of West Africa, which entered US English via Gullah. Wiktionary also adds “Compare Japanese 悪口 [waruguchi] (“to badmouth”), which is a compound of 悪 [waru] (“bad, wicked”) and 口 [kuchi] (“mouth”)”. I can also think of Latin maledicere/maledico/maledictus (compare English maledict (rare), malediction), so if three such widely separated languages have a word for it, then surely it’s not uncommon. See also Latin benedicere/benedico/ benedictio and English benedict (not used in this sense), benediction

But imagine that one bus driver drives carefully the whole way, while another starts a sign language conversation with a person sitting in the front passenger seat (which really happened some years ago). Which one am I likely to tell you about, or to complain to the bus company about (I didn’t; another passenger asked him to stop it, and he did)? How many large companies have complaints departments instead of compliments departments? Some websites allow the giving of feedback about how we are doing. I’ll guess that at least 90% of the feedback is negative. 

Many years ago I saw a cartoon of one person complaining about everything to another, who is trying to interrupt. The last panel shows that they are at the complaints counter of a department store. See also Douglas Adams’s Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Department, which is “the only part of the company to still turn a profit”. 

Online searches for good-mouth found oral and dental products and treatments. Searches for bad-mouth found those alongside the criticise meaning. 

Coincidentally, while I was drafting this post, Browse TV Tropes showed me Accentuate the Negative, which discusses and gives examples of this. Accentuate the Positive is a song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.

Resurrection Day

Last year I posted about my firm belief that yesterday and today are Easter Eve and Easter Day respectively. I drafted most of the following post, then actually re-read last year’s post and found that I said most of this in last year’s post. But I’ll post this anyway.

I have long pondered the use in English of the pagan-derived Easter instead of anything actually Christian. After researching this, I found that this is an issue in only two languages: English, which uses Easter, and German, which uses Ostern. Even the closely related Dutch and Danish use Pasen and påske respectively. These, as well as the equivalent words in most other European languages, are derived from New Testament Greek Πάσχα pascha, Aramaic, פסחא paskha and Hebrew פֶּסַח pesaḥ (most often transliterated as pesach), or passover. But using pascha, pesach or passover is going to cause more problems that it solves.

English-speaking Christians in particular can’t complain that Easter has become a secular, commercial food-and-drink-fest when we deliberately and habitually call it by the name of a pagan fertility goddess. I was flipping through a 172-page supermarket magazine and saw one full-page ad headed Celebrate Easter. It doesn’t mention Jesus’s resurrection; it was for a cheese company and featured an undoubtedly sumptuous cheese, fruit and chocolate platter. 

A few European languages unrelated words: Wikipedia lists (Indo-European Slavic) Czech Veliknoce (Great Night), Bulgarian Великден (Velikden) and Macedonian Велигден Veligden (Great Day) and (non-Indo-European Hungarian, húsvét (taking the meat, that is, the end of the Lenten fast) and Finnish language Pääsiäinen, “which implies ‘release’ or ‘liberation’”.

If I can trust Google Translate, many non-European languages use either a transliteration of Easter (Japanese  イースター Īsutā), pascha (Amharic ፋሲካ fasīka (I presume directly, given the long history of Christianity in Ethiopia) and (?) Malagasy Paka (I presume borrowed from French, given the colonial history and prevalence of Christianity there)) or their own words for resurrection  + day (Chinese  復活節 (trad) 复活节 (simp) fùhuó jié and Korean 부활절 buhwaljeol (I assume that Korean borrowed the word from Chinese in the same way that English takes most of its specialised vocabulary from Latin and Greek)). There are also a number of languages where the meaning is not immediately discernible. They are possibly related to resurrection.

I asked my wife if 부활 is used only in the religious sense and she said yes. I then said that in English resurrection is sometimes used about an actor or singer who was very popular, then not popular, then is beginning to be popular again, and she said that it’s used like that, too.

[PS A niece who is an English-speaking member of an Orthodox church and second-language speaker of Scottish Gaelic linked to a Twitter thread of speakers of various Great British languages or varieties discussing various words and phrases they use based on Pasch, Pascha or Pace, so it does happen. Wikipedia mentions the Pace egg play, and see also the Egg dance. The Pace eggs found in Sydney supermarkets are named after the (?Maltese) family-run company which produces them.]


I was using Google Maps to look at a medium-sized city in Nigeria (because work) and spotted Absorption Cathedral. I tested it out on six browsers on two computers at work and home. Microsoft Edge, Google Crome for Windows at work and Google Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer for Mac at home call it Absorption Cathedral. Internet Explorer for Windows at work calls it Assumpta Maria Cathedral (as does Bing Maps for Mac at home). The diocese’s own website call it Assumpta Cathedral (as do Wikipedia’s pages for the diocese and the cathedral) and there are results online for Maria Assumpta Cathedral

I can understand that Google Maps displays differently on different browsers, but would have assumed (<haha) that it uses the same data for each. The Roman Catholic Church is a major international organisation, so the information must be readily available. A number of travel websites show accommodation near Absorption Cathedral

Absorption and assumption have similar meanings (ab- sorbēre to suck in, swallow and ad- + sūmere to take up). Assumption has been given a theological meaning, but absorption hasn’t. 

PS The Borg on Star Trek was/were at the back of my mind, but the word used there is assimilation.


One Christmas Eve many years ago, I attended a party in the early evening before going to church for the midnight service. When I told another party-goer this, he huffily said that he didn’t believe in anything the church taught because it is impossible for human-shaped angels to have bird-shaped wings because of musculature and the size of the breast bone. Random social conversations often flummox me, this one more than most. I can’t remember what I said or did in reply. Probably excused myself very soon after.

The only references to heavenly creatures having wings come in visions (Isaiah, Ezekiel, John are probably the best known), and those are never called angels, and none of the creatures called angels which interact with humans on earth are described as having wings. Isaiah calls them seraphim and only describes them as having faces, feet and six wings which operate in three pairs independently. Ezekiel calls them “living creatures … Their form was that of a man”, but they otherwise had four faces, four wings and various other obviously non-human features. John also refers to “living creatures” with six wings, one of which had “a face like a man”. Clearly, earthly laws of biology and physics do not apply to visions of heaven.

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It’s midnight, cretins

A few posts ago I mentioned a Christmas song which starts in its original language:

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle.

Inevitably, I got thinking about cretins. There is a connection. Cretins are, quite literally, Christians.

Latin Christianus became old and middle French Chrestian, modern French Chrétien and English Christian. Along the way, children with congenital hypothyroidism were called Chrétiens, to emphasise their inherent worth despite their condition. In English, this became cretins, which word was then used to describe anyone of low intelligence or who you simply did not agree with. It is now not used medically, and hopefully less in its wider meaning.

I pronounce it as creh-tin, which is apparently the British pronunciation, compared with the American pronunciation of cree-tin, which sounds too much like Cretan to me. The original cretins weren’t Cretan; they were Christian.

I have a vague feeling that there’s an animated tv comedy (The Simpsons, The Family Guy?) in which two characters quibble about the pronunciation – one calls the other a creh-tin and is immediately taken to task for pronouncing cree-tin incorrectly – but I can’t immediately find it.

Not to be confused with the former prime minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, who was a Chrétien and presumably a Christian, but not a cretin. The modern French word for cretin, by the way, is crétine (f)/crétin (m).