Fossil words, usage collisions, and Latin plurals

July 10, 2013

Time for an update on my recent writing for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I have three new articles to report.

Colliding with common sense and usage looks at a language peeve over the word collide (and collision, etc.), which says you can use these words:

only when both items in a collision are moving. So if you cycle into a stationary gate, that’s not a collision, but if the gate is swinging at the time, it is a collision. Maybe you find this logical somehow – or maybe, like me, you think it’s awkward and silly. Or it would be, if it were an actual rule.

In the article, I summarise the history of this belief, how it was spread by Bill Bryson and Theodore Bernstein, among others, and what usage experts say about it.


Fossil words of yore in the offing is a brief survey and description of lexical fossils. If the term is new to you, let me explain:

we may wait with bated breath for something in the offing, but it’s unlikely that anything else in our experience is ever bated, or that we’ve made any other use of the noun offing. (Unless we’re sailors; offing can mean the part of the deep sea visible from the shore.)

These words are known as fossil words, because although they are no longer productive in the language – their creative capacity is not in fine fettle – they have been preserved in set phrases, idioms and contexts. Like physical fossils, they offer a glimpse of earlier times, throwing a light on language from days of yore.

As I go on to show, it’s not just words and short phrases that get fossilised: entire sentences do too, for example if they’re tied to some popular ritual or tradition.


Finally, The minutiae of Latin plurals addresses the consistently curious nature of English’s curiously inconsistent plurals, specifically Latin imports. I begin with a comparison of personas and personae, and note that:

The two spellings’ coexistence – some call it competition – is not unusual: witness appendixes and appendices, formulas and formulae, millenniums and millennia, referendums and referenda, stadiums and stadia, and thesauruses and thesauri, all used regularly. Neither one in any pair has ousted the other, though some eventually will. Millennia overtook its rival in the 1930s and is likely to maintain its supremacy.

There are no hard and fast rules about which plural to use and when. In certain cases the Latin is more formal or even affected, but not predictably so. Occasionally the two spellings differentiate in meaning.

See if you can think of examples of this last phenomenon, where the Latin plural and the anglicised plural of the same word have diverged semantically. Then read the rest for data on Latin plurals becoming English singulars, and other such fun.

[Archive of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog]

Reductio ad Godwinum

May 7, 2013

Anyone who has spent some time online, especially in forums or social media where chat and debate predominate, is likely to have come across references to Godwin’s Law, created by Mike Godwin in 1990:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

This builds upon reductio ad Hitlerum (aka argumentum ad Hitlerum or playing the Nazi/Hitler card), an association fallacy proposed by political philosopher Leo Strauss a few decades ago. Godwin says he aimed to:

build a counter-meme designed to make discussion participants see how they are acting as vectors to a particularly silly and offensive meme…and perhaps to curtail the glib Nazi comparisons. (Wired, 1994)

Godwin’s counter-meme spread successfully – so much so, that references to Godwin’s Law are now common enough for me to suggest reductio ad Godwinum as a recursive corollary:

As an online discussion of online discussion grows longer, the probability of a reference to Godwin’s Law approaches 1.

Have you ever invoked Godwin’s Law? And what other corollaries or fallacies might we idly invent?

The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology

November 28, 2011

The word hybrid (from Latin hybrida, “mongrel”) commonly refers to animals and plants of mixed lineage, and more recently to vehicles with two or more power sources. In linguistic morphology it refers to a word formed by combining elements that originated in two or more languages. The process is called hybridization.

Many new words arise through compounding and affixation, and a lot of roots and affixes in English derive from Latin or Greek — sometimes indirectly, such as through French. (Classical compounds are a related source of new vocabulary, but they are of a “purer” strain than hybrids and need not concern us here.)

There is a tendency for like to join with like, but because affixes from other languages are so well-established in English, and their origins are not widely known, etymological affinity is not routinely observed when words are formed. English has always added foreign bits to native bits, and both to other foreign bits. It does this in its sleep.

Hybrids are ubiquitous: they “luxuriate in the English word-garden”, as Simeon Potter put it. A familiar example is television, which (via French) yokes Greek tele- “far” to Latin visio “seeing”. Neuroscience joins Greek neuro- “nerve” to science, from Latin scientia “knowledge”. Other hybrids include automobile, hypercorrectionlovable, merriment, monolingual, sociology, and talkative.

Frankenstein’s monster reads a hybrid word and collapses in a daze; Dr F. flees in fright and disgust.

Purists used to complain about hybrids as if it were somehow unsavoury to fuse morphemes from different languages. Maybe this attitude owed something to a fastidious temperament and a bias for classical learning. Jan Freeman, writing about these Frankenwords, said that “usage gurus who could flaunt their Greek and Latin did, and those who couldn’t copied them.”

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, said neologisms should avoid “unseemly misalliance” and pay heed to “etymological decency”. Ralcy Husted Bell called jeopardize “a monster”, which seems a bit harsh. These phrases give the impression that hybrids are malformed abominations, hideous chimeras to be shunned and disowned.

In their influential King’s English, the Fowler brothers object to amoral on the grounds that a- is Greek, moral is Latin, and it is “desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed”. H. W. Fowler later compiled the following “ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, & some all”:

amoral, amusive, backwardation, bi-daily, bureaucracy, cablegram, climactic, coastal, colouration, dandiacal, floatation, funniment, gullible, impedance, pacifist, racial, sendee, speedometer

Several are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine them bothering anyone; others never caught on. Often it seems to be the newness wherein lies the main trouble: rarely is there a problem with well-established hybrids. On this point, Robert Burchfield found that “the arguments apply only to words formed in the 19C. and 20C.”

Fowler believed that word-making,

like other manufactures, should be done by those who know how to do it; others should neither attempt it for themselves, nor assist the deplorable activities of amateurs by giving currency to fresh coinages before there has been time to test them.

But even if we were to deny ourselves the natural, playful urge to neologise, who would do the testing to which Fowler refers? An elite cadre of grammarians and grammaticasters, or the general population whose language it equally is? Again I find myself siding with Burchfield, in his New Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

Homogeneity of language origin comes low in [language users’] ranking of priorities; euphony, analogy, a sense of appropriateness, an instinctive belief that a word will settle in if there is a need for it and will disappear if there is not — these are the factors that operate when hybrids (like any other new words) are brought into the language.

This to me is a more sane and tolerant stance, free of purist dogma and control-freakery. Rejecting hybrids in English just because their parts’ ancient origins don’t match is pointless peevery. Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that nowadays “only a few Classics professors” object to them. Let us be thankful for that.

My only regret is that hybrid is not a hybrid and so does not describe itself the way portmanteau does. But it’s probably too late to do anything about that.


Updates: Ben Zimmer has drawn my attention to a T-shirt with the text: “Polyamory is wrong! It is either multiamory or polyphilia but mixing Greek and Latin roots? Wrong!”

Ben quotes a similar joke from Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love: “Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin!”

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
[Frankenstein image from Wikimedia Commons]


October 25, 2011

On Twitter some time ago, I had a chat with Kory Stamper and Jeremy Kahn about the plural of octopus (octopuses? octopi? octopodes?)

This prompted Jeremy to write a rhyme, Plurals of the many-footed, in which he posed the question: “Would they think us all wusses / not to embrace the octopuses?”

I responded with eight hurried lines of nonsense, reproduced here for the pleasure (or more likely pain) of posterity:

Octopodes, they swim not run,
They have a beak but not a bill.
Larger things they tend to shun,
Littler things they tend ta kill.
But what an octopus might think –
Whether singular or plural –
Is hidden in a cloud of ink
Obscuring all things cephaloneural.

Jeremy’s post links to Kory’s helpful and popular video for Merriam-Webster about the various plurals of octopus, and to an excellent Stæfcræft & Vyākarana post on the same subject.

To these I will add this useful discussion at bradshaw of the future, who notes that “usage trumps etymology every time”.

I prefer the plural octopuses, except where rhyme or rhythm warrant one of the alternatives. An adequate summary of their merits would require several paragraphs, which would be pointless given the links above: all are worth a moment of your time, if the topic interests you.

Wikipedia also has a decent, well-referenced account.

Curiosities of biological nomenclature

November 9, 2010

Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature is a wonderful website you might not have come across. Its creator, Mark Isaak, introduces it as follows:

Scientific names of organisms are not usually known for their entertainment value. They are indispensable for clarity in communication, but most people skip over them with barely a glance. Here I collect those names that are worth a second look.

And what a collection it is. Virtually every page offers an eye-opening, smile-inducing specimen – often several of them – with succinct and edifying commentary. You’ll find funny facts, strange stories, verbal delights and historical oddities. The site is divided into sections such as Etymology, Puns, and Wordplay, and its many sub-pages amount to a feast of fine browsing material, which is regularly updated.

An example of its taxonomic lore: I learned that Piseinotecus divae, a nudibranch,* gained its peculiar name after an incident in which one of its discoverers “stepped on [a] dog on the way to the kitchen in the middle of the night”. Apparently, Piseinotecus means “I stepped on Teco”, Teco being the name of a dog that belonged either to a diva or to Professor Diva Corrêa.

Chimera fans will appreciate Boselaphus tragocamelus (an antelope, pictured below) whose Latin name translates as “ox-deer goat-camel”; Chaetopterus pugaporcinus (a marine worm) is a “Chaetopterid worm that looks like the rump of a pig” (judge for yourself); while Vampyroteuthis infernalis is, more B-movie-ishly, the “Vampire squid from Hell”. Pun names include Apopyllus now (a spider), Daphoenus demilo (an extinct bear dog), Heerz lukenatcha (a braconid), Pieza deresistans (a fly), and Verae peculya (another braconid).

Offensive names are officially prohibited, but insults and imprecations slip through, sometimes cryptically. Other names are inadvertently indecent. There’s the beetle Foadia (its offence is acronymic), Fukuia (a snail), and Silybum (milk thistle). They get much ruder. Under “Valid Words in Other Contexts” we encounter an insect named Alienates, a beetle named Euphoria, a sea urchin named Disaster, a spinosaur named Irritator, a snail named Provocator, and an arachnid named Oops.

Among the Long and Short Names in the Wordplay section, I met Polichinellobizarrocomicburlescomagicaraneus for the first time; unfortunately, its identity remains a mystery. One page is dedicated to Drosophila melanogaster’s noteworthy gene names, which include currant bun, faint sausage, karst, prospero, skittles, snafu and splat. There are anagrams and tautonyms, rhymes and reversals, onomatopoeia and oxymorons (e.g., Anoura caudifera, the tailed tailless bat).

Names of living things are often redundant and are subject to ongoing revision. One reason for their proliferation is that some namers are “splitters” rather than “lumpers”. All the more reason to be grateful for a website that records and aggregates some of the most interesting and entertaining names in biology.


* Nudibranchs are sea slugs from paradise.

A minuscule matter of spelling

July 28, 2010

Minuscule’s main use is as an adjective meaning tiny or insignificant. It can also mean written in minuscule (= minuscular), referring to a small cursive mediaeval script. Minuscule as a noun can refer to this palaeographic writing or simply to a lowercase letter.* But its general use as an adjective is what we usually encounter, and it’s the variation in its spelling (minuscule or miniscule) that interests me here.

The word comes from French minuscule, from Latin minusculus, fem. minuscula, as in minuscula littera, ‘slightly smaller letter’. Minuscula is formed by adding the diminutive suffix -cule to minus, neuter of minor — ‘less, smaller’ — from Proto-Indo-European *mei-, ‘small’. The common prefix mini- has probably lent minuscule a folk etymology that influences its contemporary spelling: miniscule is a popular variant. Pronunciation might also have played a part. Here are some examples of miniscule I’ve come across in books:

There is even a miniscule dance floor for the perpendicular manifestations of horizontal intentions (Hugh Leonard, A Peculiar People)

Only in the microscopic domains of the atom, or the vast reaches of interstellar space, do miniscule discrepancies between nature according to Newton and nature according to Nature make themselves known. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos)

hiragana […] often, in miniscule writing, glosses obscure kanji to help the reader (Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Language)

Miniscule occupies a grey area of legitimacy and is likely to attract criticism. Some call it non-standard; others dismiss it as an error. Bryan Garner rejects it, MWDEU doesn’t, while The Columbia Guide to Standard American English sits on the Fence of Judgement but advises the uncontroversial spelling minuscule. The OED says miniscule is “very common but regarded as erroneous”; its associated website is less lenient still.

Unless you’re prepared to argue miniscule’s case, you’re better off avoiding it. If you want to remember the more correct form, think of its association with minus, or tell yourself that minuscule is preferred by us. Or maybe, like Mark Peters, you consider the issue nanoscule.

* Its counterparts are majuscule (n., adj.) and majuscular (adj.).

Ad nauseum ad nauseam

June 24, 2010

Ad nauseum is a very common misspelling of ad nauseam, even among careful writers. It’s a subtle enough error to slip past the copy editors of reputable publications (recently here, for example, until a commenter pointed it out). The wayward spelling ad nausea also appears, sometimes as a joke. I mentioned ad nauseam before, along with a mnemonic to commit the correct form to memory, but the prevalence of ad nauseum suggests the need for a dedicated post; some background information might help.

Ad nauseam is an adverbial phrase, clearly Latin: ad here means to; nauseam is nausea in the accusative. So ad nauseam means to (sea-)sickness, i.e., to a nauseating or sickening extent, often figurative for “to a very tiresome or boring degree”. To do anything ad nauseam is to be sick of doing it. The phrase is said to originate from argumentum ad nauseam, a term in logic similar in sense to argumentum ad infinitum. It has been used in English since the 17C.; there’s a slightly earlier form, usque ad nauseam or ad nauseam usque (all the way to nausea, i.e., to the point of nausea), which is rarely encountered nowadays.

The difficulty with spelling ad nauseam probably results partly from its Latin origin: we recognise its Latin-ness but associate the language more with -um endings. There’s also the indistinct pronunciation: though it’s correctly pronounced /ad ‘nɔːzɪam, -sɪam/, the closing /-am/ is often rendered as /-ɘm/. The unstressed vowel sound ɘ is a schwa, known in Spelling Bee circles as “the dreaded schwa” because it’s so difficult to guess which vowel lies behind it. Thus it is with ad nauseam. To remember the spelling, think of nausea. Or more elaborately, say to yourself: “I am nauseated not to know.” If you think it might be -um, consider ummm a hint that you should keep wondering about it another moment, until you think: “Ah! Now I am sure: it’s ad nauseam.”

Google search hits shouldn’t be taken literally, but they can offer a crude indication of popularity; and a comparison today shows the erroneous form topping the traditional by 530,000 to 476,000. I could say I see ad nauseum ad nauseam, but that would be an overstatement. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with exaggeration.) It’s possible that ad nauseum will eventually be accepted as standard — English is not Latin, after all — but for now I advise the use of the standard spelling ad nauseam.


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