Free cake

A colleague made a cake for his birthday and brought it to share. He explained that it was “vegan and gluten free”. As legal editors do, we discussed whether that meant it was (vegan) and (gluten free) (probably) or (vegan free) and (gluten free) (probably not), and further what “vegan free food” might actually be (as opposed to “vegan, free food” (which would probably be “free, vegan food” anyway)). 

The phrase can either be ADJ and N free or N and N free. Vegan can be a noun (My cousin is a vegan) or an adjective (?My cousin is vegan, This cake is vegan).  Compare organic and preservative free and additive and preservative free. Hyphens might or might not help: organic and preservative-free, additive- and preservative-free, additive-free and preservative-free.

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Sciencing

I previously mentioned the Youtube channel It’s okay to be smart by Joe Hanson, which presents bite-sized chunks of general science, specifically his catch-phrase “Stay curious”. Another catch-phrase is “[Name/pronoun] did a science”.

In the movie The Martian (but not the novel, which I recently bought, partly to research this), astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after his crewmates think that was killed during an emergency evacuation. He survives (obviously), then records a video outlining what he must do to survive, partly to clarify his own thoughts and partly for any future mission which might find him (dead). He concludes: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m faced with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”.

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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.]

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.    

Signs of ambiguity

Youtube more-or-less randomly showed me two ads with similar taglines: 

We’re built for growing businesses.

and:

Your business matters.

Ambiguity in English arises for a number of reasons. One is that a gerund-particle (like growing) can be used in a noun-type way (We’re built for the purpose of growing businesses), or an adjective-type way (We’re built for businesses which happen to be growing). In this case, the ambiguity is small, and probably deliberate. 

Compare Moving pianos can be dangerous (which can have both interpretations), Tuning pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the noun-type meaning) and Falling pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the adjective-type meaning). Note that the ambiguity can be resolved by using a different verb tense: Moving pianos is dangerous (gerund) v Moving pianos are dangerous (participle).

Another reason for ambiguity is that many words ending with –s (like matters) can be a plural noun or a 3rd person present simple verb. In this case, the full stop probably forces the verb interpretation. Even without the full stop, most people would find the verb interpretation, which creates a complete sentence, in preference to the noun interpretation, which creates a noun phrase: compare Your business matters are important to us

Last weekend we went for a drive in the Blue Mountains. I saw a sign saying Falling rocks, and thought that it probably doesn’t, especially from the height of the cliffs there. Another sign said Slow buses, in which slow might be an adjective or an imperative verb. In this case, most people would find the incomplete adj + noun interpretation. In the imperative verb + noun interpretation, there are further options if you are the bus driver, a super-hero or a pedestrian. 

Today we drove in another direction. We visited a business which proclaimed Growing since 1919. Especially apt for an orchard/nursery/garden supplies business. One of the banners in the outdoor furnishing section stated Dark matters, which I couldn’t quite figure either way.  

A log truck

A few days ago my wife and I visited some friends in the country. On one road there was a sign warning of log trucks. If a log cabin is a cabin made of logs, then a log truck is likewise a truck made of logs. Ummm, no … it’s a truck designed to transport logs. In fact, in some parts of the English-speaking world, such as Wikipedia, they are logging trucks, which term I had never consciously encountered. Compare a wooden truck, which is (?toy/model) truck made of wood, and a wood truck, which is a truck designed to transport wood. 

English allows the modification of a verb by another verb, which I would call a noun modifier but which Wikipedia calls noun adjuncts and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls nouns as attributive modifiers (p 537). The two nouns can have a wide range of meanings, but neither of those sources has a comprehensive list. Most of the time we have no difficulty understanding the meaning, but there is ample scope for ambiguity, eg a brick factory.  (A glass house v a glasshouse (greenhouse) raises another issue, which I won’t go into.)

Some sources classified or classify noun modifiers as adjectives. They’re not – they can’t do adjective-y things like being further modified by very, making comparative or superlative forms or forming adverbs: *a very log truck, *a logger truck than the previous one, *the loggest truck I’ve ever seen, *The truck drove logly.

A vague vagary

A legal officer referred to a claimant’s claims and evidence as vague and inconsistent (which is not unusual) but also as containing significant vagary and inconsistency.

By itself it is possible for claims and evidence to contain significant vagary:

1. an unpredictable or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance
2. a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action

but the closest noun equivalent of vague is vagueness. In fact, Dictionary.com doesn’t have a separate definition for vagueness, redirecting searches for it to the definition for vague. Vagary may at one time have been the best equivalent for vague, but it isn’t now. –ness is a very common and productive noun morpheme. Also, vagaries is much more commonly used than vagary

We most often talk or write about (a/the/-) vague idea(s), sense, feeling, notion(s), term(s), way, hope (they are mostly internal), (a/the) vagary of nature, thought, fashion, fate, fortune/Fortune, imagination, taste, mine, fancy and vagaries of life, nature, weather, chance, climate, fortune, fashion, politics, fancy, imagination (they are mostly external). 

But vague/vagueness and vagary share an origin in Latin vagus, wandering,  vagārī to wander (compare vagrant/vagrancy).

Strongness

The hymn Just as I am, without one plea (Charlotte Elliott) (or at least some versions of it) contains the verse

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Breadth, length and depth, as well as width, are a small group of words in which the noun is formed from the adjective by changing the vowel and adding -th, which was obviously a standard procedure at one stage in the history of English. Height doesn’t quite fit, but heighth is a “chiefly dialectal” alternative. To these we might also add strong > strength. Alongside the noun is another formed by adding –ness to the adjective, and we can also add a verb ending with –en:  

broad – breadth/broadness – broaden
long – length/longness – lengthen
deep – depth/deepness – deepen
high – height/highness – heighten 
wide – width/wideness – widen 
strong – strength/strongness – strengthen 

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intercess

Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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Too many choices

swim    have a swim    go for a swim    go swimming     go to swim

In recent post, I discussed V and have a N, specifically argue and have an argument. In a comment, I added go for a swim. Later, I also thought of go swimming and go to swim.

In general, the first four seem to be interchangeable, but the last may have a different nuance.

I swam    I had a swim    I went for a swim    I went swimming    I went to swim 

The first four entail that I did actually swim. The last doesn’t (automatically): I went (somewhere) with the intention of swimming. In fact, the third might also mean that I didn’t swim. I can think of a difference between We went-for-a-swim and We went (to the beach) for a swim(, but it was closed because of coronavirus restrictions). 

Consider also:

I swam at the Olympics    I had a swim at the Olympics    I went for a swim at the Olympics    I went swimming at the Olympics     I went to swim at the Olympics 

The first definitely means that I was a competitor. The fifth might mean that. The others probably mean that I was a casual swimmer. This difference probably has more to do with the requirements of swim at the Olympics, compare I sang at the Olympics. (True: I was in the massed choir for the opening ceremony.)

I haven’t been able to find go for a swim in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Have a swim is a light verb construction, and go swimming and go to swim are catenative verb constructions, but what is go for a swim? It has some similarities with both, and is obviously a unit of meaning by itself; compare I went for a pizza. The indexes don’t help. I looked under go, for and swim, and the grammatical index doesn’t really help unless you already know what a construction is called (and GCEL often calls things by different names than everyone else). Maybe I’ll let serendipity guide me to the correct entry.