An amature mistake

I have seen the spelling amature on websites enough times to notice, but have never commented about it, either on those websites or here. I have just seen the spelling amuture.  

The correct spelling is amateur. Different dictionaries give its etymology as ama + teur and others as amat + eur, but the difference doesn’t matter. An amateur is a lover of what they do. Some amateurs are very, very good at what they do, but’s third definition is “an inexperienced or unskilled person”. It has just occurred to me that amature might be a (not) + mature, but that would be adding a Greek pronoun to a Latin root (which does happen). (By the way, the original Latin spelling amator seems not to be used.)

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Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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Misled by the egregious treachery of memory

Right at the end of my previous post, I said that I’d love to see someone deliver commentary on current events in the sesquipedalian style of JEL Seneker. In particular, I was imagining insulting public figures by stealth by using very long words.

That reminded me of an exchange in an episode of the British tv series Yes, Minister, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby (a career civil servant) convinces Jim Hacker (an occasionally well-meaning but usually self-serving politician) that egregious is a compliment. I remembered the exchange as:

Jim (reading a newspaper): “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What does “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: It means “outstanding”, Minister.
Jim: Oh, that’s nice of them to say so.
Sir Humphrey: I’m glad you think so, Minister.

Searching online just now, it seems that my memory is faulty. Various websites record the exchange as:

Jim: “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What’s “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: I think it means “outstanding”.
Jim: Oh…?
Sir Humphrey: In one way or another.

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Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism

While I was researching for my previous post, I stumbled across an extraordinary book titled Frontier Experience or Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism from the Occident, by J.E.L. Seneker. The first paragraph gives a taste of its style:

Most Sophomorical Sir:–

Your Græco-Latin epistolet or cabalistical abracabra, lies before me, deciphered and eclaircised to the best of my linguistic, pasigraphical, and exegetical ability. As merited castigation therefor, and to test your wonted longanimity, I shall recalictrate by effunding upon you, in epistolic form, my scaturient cornucopia of lexiphanic sesquipedalities, Johnsonian archaisms, exoticisms, neologianisms, patavinities, et id genus omne.

A little is explained in the front matter to the book. In the Prefatory Remarks by the Author, he states that after some study, he spent:

several years in the far west, Mexico, California, British Columbia, Alaska, Ontario, &c., &c. These fustian letters, a few copies of which I have, at the request of many of my friends, printed, give, to a limited extent, that part of my varied experience in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico:– at that time wild west frontiers … I have greatly amplified the original text, and incorporated many lexiphanic words.

In other words, as I understand it, he wrote the letters as a young man, and published them in an expanded form later. 

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Who’s eating whose pizza?

Who’s eating whose pizza?
Someone’s eating someone’s pizza. (or her/his/their)
My cousin’s eating my cousin’s pizza. (or her/his)
Alex’s eating Alex’s pizza. (or her/his)
I’m eating my pizza.
You’re eating your pizza.
She’s eating her pizza.
He’s eating his pizza.
It’s eating its pizza.
We’re eating our pizza.
They’re eating their pizza.

Who’s and whose, you’re and your, it’s and its and they’re and their (and there) are some of the most easily confused pairs (and trio) of words in English, and dominate examples and discussions of ‘grammar fail’ on the internet. It is easy, tempting and, for some people, irresistible to say “Gotcha” and cast aspersions on the writer’s intelligence and/or education, but language is never pure and rarely simple, so it is worth taking the time to consider all the issues.

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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.

preventive, preventative

A few days ago an article I was subediting had preventive and preventative in quick succession.’s main entry is preventive, but it adds “also preventative”. Its entry for preventative redirects to preventive. Google Ngrams shows that preventive is more common, but preventative is certainly an established alternative. So preventive it became.

I have been browsing through Jan Freeman’s discussion of Ambrose Bierce’s Write it right. He states: “No such word as preventative”. She adds: “There was and is such a word as preventative, of course; it arrived in English only a few decades after preventive, in the mid-17th century. Two hundred years later, Hurd 1847 [Seth Hurd, A Grammatical Corrector] decided that the longer spelling was “a common error”; it took another couple of decades for usage critics to declare it nonexistent. Preventative is longer and less common than preventive, and no doubt is a “needless variant,” but its enemies have not yet managed to drive it out of use, or out of our dictionaries.”

If you want to choose, or have to choose, use preventive: it’s (two letters) shorter and more common. Otherwise, be consistent.

So what is it about preventative which had usage commenters of earlier times foaming at the mouth? There is a long list of adjectives ending with –ive, –ative and –itive. Almost all words ending with –ative have corresponding noun ending with –ation. There is “no such word” as *preventation; it’s prevention. The most analogous word is invent > invention / *inventation > inventive /  *inventative.

So why did people start and continue to use preventative? I don’t know. But “no such word” or “not a word” is not an argument, certainly not by itself. If some people use a word, and everyone knows what it means (even as they are foaming at the mouth), then it’s a word.