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. 

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

rhyming slang

The tv comedy Mind your language ran from 1977 to 1979. I use it occasionally in class to illustrate vocabulary, grammar and communication. One episode (“Many happy returns”) is largely about money. It starts with Sid the college caretaker asking Gladys the tea lady for a free cup of tea, because he’s (something). She replies “You’re always skint, Sid!”. The subtitles (whether auto-generated or created by a human – some episodes are better than others) have “I’m a bit glacier mint”, but audibly that’s not what he says. I had always guessed that it is rhyming slang, as several other episodes show him using that, and even attempting to teach it to the students (one of whom refers to it as “cockeyed slanging rhyme”).

Fast-forward to a few days ago, when I was browsing through a book which I’ll donate or throw away soon. It has a section on Cockney rhyming slang, and one of the items is boracic lint. That is indeed what Sid says, but what is it? Wikipedia explains, quoting its entire article:

Boracic lint was a type of medical dressing made from surgical lint that was soaked in a hot, saturated solution of boracic acid and glycerine and then left to dry.

It has been in use since at least the 19th century, but is now less commonly used. When in use, boracic lint proved to be very valuable in the treatment of leg ulcers.

The term “boracic”, pronounced “brassic”, is also used as Cockney rhyming slang for having no money – “boracic lint” → “skint”.

Continue reading

Christmas hymns

Two of the most popular Christmas hymns are Hark, the herald angels sing and Joy to the world. We sang both on Tuesday morning, which sparked this post.

Hark, the herald angels sing is usually sung to the tune MENDELSSOHN, which is usually credited as, eg, “From a chorus by Felix Mendeslssohn-Bartholdy 1809-47 adapted by William Hayman Cummings 1831-1915” (The Australian Hymn Book). So which work of Mendelssohn is this adapted from? Something pretty obscure. The website Hymnary.org states:

The tune is from the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn’s Festgesang (Op. 68) for male voices and brass; it was first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, a festival celebrating the anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Continue reading

Passively accepting grammar check suggestions

I don’t use the grammar check on Pages for Mac at home, but I do on Word for Windows and Mac at two workplaces. Even if I ignore it nine times out of ten, it saves my backside the tenth time, with all the copying/cutting, pasting, adding and deleting of text I do. A few weeks ago it flagged three instances of passive voice. It correctly identified passive voice, but its suggestions for change were wrong. (It actually flagged more than that. I took photos of three then gave up.)

Firstly, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice such that it needs to be flagged every time, in the same way as, say, subject-verb number disagreement, which is always wrong. Even the most anti-passive style advisers, such as Strunkandwhite and George Orwell, use passive voice  perfectly when appropriate. Secondly, if you’re going to suggest changing it, then make absolutely sure that your suggestion is right.

But that is not easy for a computer to do, as these three (slightly adapted) examples show. 

1) Protection is provided by defining a safety area, whose shape and dimensions must be specified according to a risk assessment.

Suggestion: Defining a safety area, whose shape, provides protection [plain wrong]

2) Alerts and reports are provided by [this software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format.

Suggestion: [This software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format provides alerts and reports [mostly wrong]

3) Areas of the multi-purpose centre have already been made available for use by community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers.

Suggestion: Community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers have already made areas of the multi-purpose centre available for use [possibly right, but not]

Continue reading

Family history

My sisters and I have been notifying relatives and friends of our father’s death. One of them got a card from our mother’s father’s cousin. Given that our grandfather would be 115, how old is his cousin? One sister found a family history website that gives her year of birth as 1926, so she’s 92 – her father married late.

That’s a very big family history website. How far back does that go? One section (a family tree showing names only) traces that side of the family back to Scotland in 1520 (with a lot of Majors and The Reverends along the way). (At one point there were three Major John [surname]s in a row. The first was the son of Sir John, just to be different.) Impressive. But another section of the site (giving more or fewer biographical details for each person) traces the family back through earls of various places in Scotland (at one point there were three Earl Patricks in a row) to King Duncan – you know, the one fictionally killed by Macbeth (apparently the real Macbeth didn’t kill the real Duncan, but defeated him in battle) (you mean Shakespeare made stuff up?). The male line stops at Duncan’s father, but Duncan’s wife’s family traces back to Kenneth MacAlpin, the first ‘King of Scots’ (my 35x great-grandfather, if I’ve counted correctly) and past him to semi-history/semi-legend then complete legend.

I may have written a different essay for year 11 English if I’d known that.

Continue reading

eak, nouce and beaurocratic

When I’m not working, I don’t set out to find typos in what I read, but sometimes I just can’t not. I’m re-reading some old books before deciding whether to keep them or sell, give, donate or throw away (I can’t stand throwing away books!). One of these is the story of the British comedy team The Goons. In one chapter, there were three instances of one mis-spelled word and one of another, and I found a third while I was skimming through to find them before drafting this post.

Spike’s time spent eaking out unperformed scripts on his old typewriter would not go to waste.

‘Now most of those tapes lie gathering dust at the BBC. You’d think they would have the nouce to broadcast [them].’ (quoting Spike Milligan)

‘I’m not surprised at the way the BBC eak out an occasional Goon Show recording rather than broadcast a whole series on radio.’ (Milligan)

’Now a Goon Show is being eaked out for a miserable once-a-year airing on cassette. Blind, misguided, beaurocratic BBC.’ (Milligan)

This is a quality production, edited by a woman who used to be Milligan’s personal assistant. It’s easy to say “Haha, you made a mistake in a printed book”, but it’s more interesting to explore the linguistic issues behind them, and I don’t want to name and shame the editor and publisher. Eke and nous are very rare words, bureaucratic is moderately rare, and all three have very unusual spellings. Continue reading


My wife and I are in the process of selling one house, buying another and moving. While writing comments on Facebook, I noticed that its spell-checker was red-underlining removalist. (Pages for Mac and WordPress do, too.) Dictionary.com lists removalist as “Australian”, which surprised me. I asked my North American friends on Facebook, and they said they would only use mover but would understand removalist in the context of moving house. (By the way, moving house or just moving are both reasonably strange things to say. One student once told me that she’d spent the weekend “moving my house”.)

Some of my Facebook friends also mentioned packers. I have been doing most of the packing myself, and we won’t be paying specifically for packing (the removalists may do some incidental packing). Many years ago I attended a party for a friend whose company was relocating her to Melbourne. She said that the company was paying for the move, including the packing. Later in the evening, someone else commented on the lack of cardboard boxes around the apartment. I said “Kerry and Jamie are coming tomorrow morning”. She looked puzzled, and so were my North American friends when I told that story on Facebook. Anyone not from Australia is welcome to guess my meaning before I update with the answer. [edit: Kerry Packer was then Australia’s most powerful media owner. Jamie (now known as James) was being groomed as his successor; his interests are more broadly commercial]

One of my Australian friends mentioned a play (later a movie) by the Australian playwright David Williamson titled The Removalists. Given that there is only one actual removalist in the play/movie, it is possible that there is a double meaning in the title.


I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.

The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage. Continue reading


A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

Continue reading