-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]


A few days ago I explored a box of class materials accumulated by a colleague or colleagues unknown. One of them was a set of small, laminated slips of paper with one or two words each:


The aim is obviously to create sentences, but that’s easier said than done. The sentences aren’t from any textbook I’ve used or seen, and searching online for the five names returns nothing useful.

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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.)


I am currently filling in for my colleague who teaches the weekend class, which is working from the advanced textbook, so I have suddenly been confronted with words like ‘multitasking’ and ‘mindfulness’, which I haven’t taught about for a long time. The reading about multitasking says ‘Multitasking is a natural everyday occurrence … we can talk to a friend while walking down the street without bumping into anyone’. One of the comprehension questions (true/false) is ‘It is often dangerous to chat to a friend while walking down the street’. (This can possibly be answered from real life, without even looking at the reading.) In one pair, one student said ‘false’ (the ‘correct’, or at least ‘expected’, answer) and another said ‘true’, and they were deep in conversation about what kind of ‘chat’ this sentence meant. The first student and I thought that it meant actual talking, which would make the sentence false, but the second student was adamant that it meant text/email/video chat, which would indeed make the sentence true. If this was a test, and I was marking his answers, I would have to mark it incorrect. Fortunately for him it was a lesson, so we were able to talk about it. For me, ‘chat’ is, all else being equal, actual talking. Both of the students are about the same age (?late 20s), and the first first is from a country largely associated with electronic communication, while the second isn’t.


A moment ago I saw the word affinity on a website, which jogged a memory from all the way back in grade 1 of primary/elementary school. The teacher had told us about infinity. Soon after, a female classmate (my only serious rival as the most advanced student in the class) drew a picture of a dancer with a large number of streamers, with the caption effinity streamers. I managed not to say anything to her, but I was inwardly scathing that she had misunderstood the concept and mis-spelled the word. Or maybe she hadn’t misunderstood: the first dictionary I checked just a moment ago includes the definition ‘indefinitely or exceedingly great’. There was certainly an exceedingly great number of streamers. (If I’d had to draw a picture illustrating infinity I would have drawn stars.)

Another definition is ‘unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless’. Most internet service providers talk about unlimited connection (previously dial-up, now broadband). One ISP is currently advertising limitless broadband. English allows for negative adjectives in the form un-N-ed and N-less (and also non– and il-/in-/im-/ir-). Unlimited is the earlier form and is still used almost four times as much as limitless. On the other hand, boundless has been (slightly) more used than unbounded since 1820.

There doesn’t seem to be any difference in meaning (though mathematics may have specialised usages of limit-related words). In terms of the internet, Google Ngrams records unlimited internet from 1991 and unlimited broadband from 1992 (which may be a glitch in the data – the rate for 1993-1997 is identical) and limitless internet and limitless broadband not at all up to 2008 (when its data finishes).