Birth by psychoprophylaxis

When I was 4 years and 5 months old, my younger sister (then 1 year and 11 months) and I stayed for three weeks with our grandparents while our mother was in hospital and recovering. They were inveterate letter-writers and our mother kept (?many ?most ?all) of their letters from all times, and all of the letters from that time. Some years ago she photocopied the ones from that time and gave them to me in a plastic folder. I knew I had it, but found it while tidying up recently and have been reading them. There are comments relevant to first language acquisityion and use, but my first extract is about something not related to me.

In one of his letters, my grandfather suddenly broke off talking about my mother’s health and my sister’s and my doings to talk about a birth notice my grandmother had seen in the Melbourne newspaper. After the obvious details of names, place and date was ‘Birth by psychoprophylaxis’. He commented ‘It is the first time we have seen the final word in a notice’.

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What do I have in common with Lady Gaga?

Not a lot, I would have thought.

Yesterday, the textbook focussed on adjectives describing personality. One question for discussion was ‘Who is the most glamorous person you know?’. The students asked and answered the questions in pairs first, then I asked random students in front of the whole class. One student said ‘Teacher!’. I asked ‘Why?’. She hesitated, then said something to a classmate in Chinese. The classmate said ‘Body language’. Yes, I do tend to gesticulate and use a wide variety of facial expressions and tone of voice, as part of ‘total communication’, but I wouldn’t have called that ‘glamorous’.

I asked the second student the same question, and she said (you’ve guessed it) ‘Lady Gaga’. I asked ‘You know Lady Gaga?’, followed by a short discussion of ‘know’ in a question like this (know, know about, know of). I then asked ‘Why?’ and she said clothes, makeup, hair, lifestyle etc.

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re-member me

Following on from the lesson about changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa by adding or subtracting suffixes (and enhancing the meaning by adding prefixes), I pulled out an activity from the teachers book of another textbook series. There are 18 cards, each divided into four diagonally, with, typically, a prefix, two main words and a suffix in the four quadrants. The students have to match up the prefix on one card with the root on another to make a compound word, building up a 3 x 6 grid. This is harder than it sounds because so many prefixes and suffixes go with with so many main words. For example, two of the prefixes are pro- and anti-, and some of the roots were government, communist, European and abortion. (Several students chose ‘pro-abortion’. I had to explain that no-one states their own position as ‘pro-abortion’ – everyone agrees that abortion is, in general, a Bad Thing; some people just prioritise a woman’s right to choose as more important.)

Several students put re- and member together to form remember, which is wrong (in this activity) and kind of right (etymologically). I join a choir and am a member. I leave it and am an ex-member. I rejoin it and am a re-member. Makes sense. Except that’s not what remember means. The re- of remember does indeed mean again, but the member is derived from Latin memor, memory: to remember is to memory again. Compare remind, recall and recollect, which are indeed to mind again, to call (to mind) again and to collect (your thoughts) again, and contrast reminisce, which does not mean to minisce again (minisce is ultimately derived from Latin mens, mind). Member, by the way, is derived from Latin membrum.

And a song.

heatable, heatful

I don’t like students depending on dictionaries in class (in fact, I don’t like them using dictionaries at all), for several reasons, another of which I might write about in a future post. Last night the students were practicing changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa (for the sake of completeness, I also added the appropriate verbs and adverbs). Most nouns change to adjectives and vice versa by the addition or subtraction of a suffix. However, there is a group of words which are clearly related but include other changes (long > length, strong > strength etc), sometimes enough to classify them as two  different words (poor > poverty).

One word was heat, for which most students had no trouble finding hot. (Though one student wrote tropical.) Another student then said ‘What about heatable and heatful?’. I said ‘What?!’. He pointed at the dictionary app on his phone. I said approximately ‘Well, I understand I those words but I’ve never seen or heard them in my life. Forget them. If you’ve ever got a choice between hot, heatable and heatful, keep it short and simple, and choose hot.’
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Just before I woke up this morning, I had a long, vivid, fragmented dream. In the last scene, ‘dream I’ was standing in a licenced club next to a man who was looking at the front cover of a gambling magazine, featuring a photo of an apparent famous professional gambler. The man said ‘I want to study his – mercy’ (obviously not sure about the last word). ‘Dream I’ said ‘The word you want is mertique’, at which point I woke up.

‘Real I’ lay there befuddled, trying to decide whether mertique was a real but very rare word, with the meaning ‘another word for technique, most often used about sales staff and gamblers’ or whether my sub-conscious had simply made it up, and if so, why?

After some time, I came downstairs, searched (my default resource) and got no result. I did a general Google search and got ‘About 1,460 results’, including user names on various social media, business names (Mertique Spa), ‘sirloin mertique’ and sentences which look like Latin (one of which turns out to be a mis-OCR-ing of ‘mortique’ (morti(s)+que is identifiably Latin)). Setting Google Translate to ‘detect language’ detects Latin, but then translates it as mertique. None of which explains why my sub-conscious brain chose to use it.

Mertique could be an English word – it fits the sounds and syllable patterns. But apparently it’s not.


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).

Fine for parking here

Yesterday in class, someone, whether a student or I, said something about either one word with two different meanings or two very similar words, which made me think, ‘Oooh, are those two meanings/words actually related?’. After class, I promptly forgot about it, until mid-evening, when I suddenly had a memory of it happening, but no memory of what the meanings/words were. After some racking of my brains, I thought, ‘I’ll look in the textbook tomorrow morning’.

Fortunately, I remembered to do that, and found the word. The topic was traffic, and the textbook introduced compound nouns: bus lane, railway station, seat belt etc. One was parking fine, and I’d said something like ‘That’s not the same word as fine, ok’, before thinking ‘Oooh …’.

Before you continue, think for a moment whether fine, ok is related to parking fine, and if so, how?

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