Category Archives: Words

Latin Plurals: Nouns Ending in -us

Gary The Grammar Cactus
© 2011 Jesse Tahirali


Most Latin words in -us have plural in -i, but not all, & so zeal not according to knowledge issues in such oddities as hiati, octopi, omnibi & ignorami

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary Of Modern English Usage (1926)

Writing about the noun form of bogus recently made me think about nouns ending in -us, and how some of them have irregular plurals derived from their Latin origins: alumnus and alumni; cactus and cacti; stimulus and stimuli—and so on. What these words have in common is that they derive from Latin second declension masculine nouns.

My three examples above are still in fairly standard use, but not all English -us words that are derived from the Latin second declension customarily take -i in the plural. Here’s the Google Ngram for crocus and its two plural forms, for instance:

Pretty much everyone is saying crocuses, while croci has always languished. Other second declension nouns in the same category are callus/calluses, campus/campuses, chorus/choruses, circus/circuses, genius/geniuses and lotus/lotuses. Virus/viruses is something of a special case, since virus (“poison”) was a non-countable noun in Classical Latin (like “music” in English) so it had no plural form. And in the singular it seems to have behaved as a second declension neuter noun, for which plural forms were rare and irregular. So viri has never been an appropriate plural.*

For -us words that do take -i, there’s been a creeping trend towards regularization. Here’s the Ngram for hippopotamus and the two versions of its plural, for instance:

There has been declining discussion of the hippopotamus in the Google corpus over the last century, but we can see that the regular plural hippopotamuses started to edge out the traditional hippopotami at some time during the 1980s.

And the two plurals of nautilus fought a brief tussle in the 1960s, but nautiluses is now the clear winner:

You can still say nautili if you want to, of course. But there are some -us nouns in English that never take -i in the plural, except by mistake.

One reason for this is that not all Latin nouns ending in -us were second declension. Some were masculine fourth declension nouns, for instance, which signalled their plural form simply by lengthening the “u” in -us—the spelling remained the same. In English, nouns derived from the fourth declension take the conventional plural form. Among the commoner examples, we have: apparatuses, censuses, consensuses, foetuses, hiatuses, impetuses, linctuses, nexuses, plexuses, prospectuses, sinuses and statuses.

Then there are the occasional neuter third declension nouns ending in -us that have carried their own elaborate plurals into English: corpus/corpora, genus/genera, onus/onera, opus/opera. And should you ever need to talk about more than one Venus, (at a classical sculpture exhibition, perhaps) you should know that as a feminine third declension noun its plural is Veneres.

Octopus was adopted into Latin from Greek oktopous (“eight-footed”), and retained its Greek plural octopodes, which is also used in English. If you’re nervous of that one, octopuses is equally acceptable. Platypus, also from the Greek, might perhaps take platypodes, but standardizes instead on platypuses. Platypus was originally the formal genus name assigned to this Australian mammal, and it’s customary for all common names derived from “modern Latin” biological nomenclature to take a standard English plural—tyrannosauruses, colobuses, ficuses, acanthuses.

Another reason for a Latin-derived English noun ending in -us to avoid the -i form in the plural is if it’s not a noun at all in Latin. So we have bonus/bonuses (an adjective in Latin); ignoramus/ignoramuses (“I do not know” in Latin); omnibus/omnibuses (“for all”) and rebus/rebuses (“by things”). I’ll spare you a few other more recondite examples, but I can’t resist mentioning the marvellous pair mumpsimus and sumpsimus. Mumpsimuses are people who cling to erroneous ideas to which they’ve become accustomed; sumpsimuses are new ideas brought in to replace old errors. Both words derive from a story told by Richard Pace, the Tudor diplomat, in his book De Fructu Qui Ex Doctrina Precipitur (1517). Pace tells how a priest, illiterate in Latin, intoned “quod in ore mumpsimus” during the Mass instead of the correct “quod in ore sumpsimus” (“what we have received in the mouth”). When challenged on the matter, he declared, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.”

While sumpsimus was good Latin (“we have received”), mumpsimus was of course not Latin at all. Which brings me to my final group of English nouns ending in -us—the ones that aren’t Latin. Many are simply nonsense sounds: wampus/wampuses, rumpus/rumpuses, ruckus/ruckuses, doofus/doofuses, goofus/goofuses. The old noun bogus/boguses, designating a counterfeit coin or an illegal coin press is (as I’ve previously described in detail) probably Germanic in origin, and related to the word bogy. The source of caucus/caucuses is obscure, but it may come from an Algonquian word cau-cau-asu. Grampus/grampuses is an old name for a porpoise (or for someone who puffs and blows like a surfacing porpoise) and comes from Old French graundepose, “big fish”. Surplus/surpluses is likewise Old French (“more over”). And hocus-pocus/hocus-pocuses is probably also nonsense, though it may have originated as a parody of the phrase hoc est corpus from the Latin Mass. But the correct version is hoc est enim corpus meum (“for this is my body”), which rather strains the proposed etymology.

And then (sigh) there’s Prius. The car made by Toyota. For reasons best known to themselves, Toyota invited the general public to vote on a plural for this name—and they got what they deserved, ending up with the frankly daft Prii. Now, Toyota are a little incoherent about what Prius means—according to their website it’s “derived from the Latin prefix meaning ‘to go before’”. Actually, prius is either a Latin adverb (“before”, “sooner”), or the neuter form of the adjective prior (“first”, “previous”). The only way to wring a plural out of that is to use the plural neuter adjective, priora. Which, I think you’ll agree, is no better than Prii.

So. Repeat after me. These cars are Priuses. Priuses.

Berlin Police Priuses (not Prii)

* And virii, concocted by the hacker community as a plural specific to computer viruses, makes no sense at all, since (if anything) it would have to be the plural of the nonexistent word virius.
Let me just write that again: IT MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.



bogus (noun): a press for producing counterfeit coins; a counterfeit coin
bogus (adjective): not real, counterfeit, existing in order to deceive
bogus (adjective, 21st Century): bad, wrong, inappropriate

A coin press
Image from ClipArt ETC

 Bogus is a potentially expensive word. Back in 2008, the science writer Simon Singh wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper, entitled “Beware The Spinal Trap“, in which he described the absence of evidence for some of the claims made by chiropractors. In the article he made a specific claim about the  British Chiropractic Association:

This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

The BCA brought a libel action against Singh. The Guardian subsequently reported the findings of the preliminary hearing:

Mr Justice Eady gave a preliminary ruling on the meaning of the words used in Singh’s piece. He held that the phrase implied the association was being consciously dishonest. Singh yesterday denied he intended any such meaning, but said such an interpretation made it very difficult for him to fight his case in court as he had planned. “If we go to trial it’s almost impossible for me to defend the article, because it’s something I never meant in the first place.”

Since Singh was surprised by the ruling, it’s evident that he had not intended his use of the word to imply “existing in order to deceive”—which is the original meaning of the adjective, referring back to its connection to the production of counterfeit coins. Presumably Singh had intended one of the word’s milder modern meanings, implying wrongness or inappropriateness, but without the baggage of any deceitfulness. Whereas it was always on the cards that a High Court judge with a well-thumbed dictionary would adhere to the older meaning. And so it turned out. Eady judged that:

Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

Singh (already on the sharp end of £100,000 in legal fees) appealed the judgement, Eady’s ruling was overturned, and the BCA subsequently withdrew their libel action. The finding of the Court of Appeal is interesting, since it deliberately steers clear of defining the word “bogus”:

Ms Rogers [representing the BCA] has understandably not sought to make a major issue of the word “bogus”. In its context the word is more emphatic than assertive.

But the written ruling then goes on to use the word repeatedly in contexts that make it clear the Appeal Court judges are using it in the way Singh used it, and not the way Eady interpreted it.

Meanwhile, British Chiropractic Association vs. Singh had become something of a cause célèbre, fueling widespread debate over the potential use of libel laws to stifle free speech, particularly in matters of science. It ultimately led to a revision of the libel laws in England and Wales, the Defamation Act 2013. But I do wonder if any of that would ever have happened if Singh hadn’t settled on that fateful little word bogus.

Something that is bogus has bogusness; it behaves bogusly. But the origin of the word, as applied to a counterfeit coin press, is a little obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary relays a convoluted but pleasing story concerning the word’s first appearance in print, in the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph of 6 July 1827:

Mr. Eber D. Howe, who was then editor of that paper, describes in his Autobiography (1878) the discovery of such a piece of mechanism in the hands of a gang of coiners at Painesville, in May 1827; it was a mysterious-looking object, and some one in the crowd styled it a ‘bogus’, a designation adopted in the succeeding numbers of the paper. Dr. Willard considers this to have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father’s time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object; he points out that tantarabobs is given in Halliwell as a Devonshire word for the devil.

If a tantrabogus was and “ill-looking object” in the northeastern USA, that probably explains its use as a name for a horse in rural Maine during the early twentieth century. But I do feel sorry for Tantrabogus Helvey (born c.1805), who turns up on various genealogy websites. He must have been a very ugly baby.

The OED ties the Devonshire tantarabobs, the Devil, to a little group of words signifying evil spirits of one kind or another, all deriving from Middle English bugge, “ghost”, which I’ll come back to in just a second. James Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs from the Fourteenth Century (1847) also lists tantara, with the meaning “a confused noise”—so tantarabobs was presumably a noisy evil spirit. The OED says that tantara (together with its more elaborate synonym, taratantara) imitates and denotes the sound of a trumpet or drum. Taratantara is also used, metaphorically, for “loud, extravagant, or pretentious talk”. To taratantarize is to sound a trumpet, or to make a sound like a trumpet.

Now, back to those evil spirits with names derived from Middle English bugge. First, there is bug, which was a goblin of sorts. (Whether or not that bug gave its name to the insect bugs seems to be a topic of debate.) A variant form was the bugbear, a creature in the form of a bear that was supposedly sent specifically to devour naughty children. It subsequently came to designate any source of imaginary dread, and then its meaning softened towards mere sources of annoyance. Bugbeardom is the collection of all imaginary fears; someone or something that behaves in an annoying manner is bugbearish. And a bugaboo is … well, a bug that goes “Boo!”—another imaginary terror.

From bug we get bog—another word for an evil spirit or a source of imaginary dread. To boggle is to jump as if you’ve just seen an evil spirit. It was originally said of skittish horses, which were describes as being bogglish. The verb then went through a series of evolutions, all now extinct: “to raise objections, to demur”; “to quibble, to equivocate”; “to hesitate”; “to bungle”. We’re now left only with its presence in the stock phrase “to boggle the mind”, which probably harks all the way back to those skittish horses, in describing a state of uncomprehending amazement.

Adding the augmentative suffix -ard gives us the name of another goblin, or source of imaginary dread—the boggard or boggart. A gloomy place, potentially haunted by boggarts, is said to be boggarty.

Adding a diminutive suffix gives us bogy or bogey—again originally an evil spirit, again now used for imaginary sources of dread. If you promote imaginary sources of dread, you exhibit bogyism; if you are much affected by imaginary sources of dread, you suffer from bogyphobia.

The Devil himself was Old Bogey or the Bogey Man, and he ruled over bogydom—Hell. He seems to have managed to work his name, in this form, into the game of golf. The OED relishes another convoluted story:

One popular song at least has left its permanent effect on the game of golf. That song is ‘The Bogey Man’. In 1890 Dr. Thos. Browne, R.N., the hon. secretary of the Great Yarmouth Club, was playing against a Major Wellman, the match being against the ‘ground score’, which was the name given to the scratch value of each hole. The system of playing against the ‘ground score’ was new to Major Wellman, and he exclaimed, thinking of the song of the moment, that his mysterious and well-nigh invincible opponent was a regular ‘bogey-man’. The name ‘caught on’ at Great Yarmouth, and to-day ‘Bogey’ is one of the most feared opponents on all the courses that acknowledge him.

So bogey was originally the par score for a hole—only later did the name attach itself to a score that is one over par.

As an object of dread, it’s no surprise that bogey also came to be a slang word for a policeman and, during the Second World War, an enemy aircraft. Quite how it came to designate a piece of dried nasal mucus is a mystery, though.

Finally, in Scotland, we have another diminutive of bogbogle. And once again a word originally associated with evil spirits has come to be associated with mere imaginary fears. And from there, to an association with scarecrows. There can be very few Scottish children who didn’t love the word tattie-bogle (“potato-bogle”, “scarecrow”) from the moment they first heard it.

Brora Scarecrow Festival 2017
Click to enlarge
A couple of tattie-bogles in the garden of the police station, during the Brora Scarecrow Festival
© 2017 The Boon Companion



septentrionate: to tend, or point, to the north

The Bigger Dipper / Plough asterism

This word septentrion and its derivatives are hardly anglicized; they are harsh, unnecessary and little used, and may well be suffered to pass into disuse.

Noah Webster, American Dictionary Of The English Language (1828)

The Septentrion is pictured above—the seven stars that make up the asterism known in the UK as the Plough and in the USA as the Big Dipper. The name is Latin, from septem triones, traditionally understood to mean “seven plough-oxen”.*  And, pleasingly enough, the Septentrion septentrionates—two of its stars, Dubhe and Merak (the rightmost pair in the image above), point to the Pole Star.

Since the Septentrion stays always in the northern sky, it became (with a lower-case “s”) a synonym for northern things—the direction, and places in that direction. Northern things are septentrionalseptentrial or septentrionic. The state of being northern is septentrionality, and if you move northwards you travel septentrionally. (Webster, having been rude enough about septentrion and septentrionate, could barely speak when it came to septentrionality and septentrionally, dismissing each as simply “A bad word“.)

In the days when map-makers used Latin, they marked the northern edge of their maps Septentrio, as in Abraham Ortelius’s Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio (“Map of the Northern Regions”), from the sixteenth century:

Abraham Ortelius's map of northern regions (c1570)
Click to enlarge

If you look around the edges of the map, you’ll see that they’re all labelled with the names of the principal directions, and I’m going to come to the others later. But first, some more northern words.

The Greeks and Romans called the cold north wind Boreas, and that gives us our word boreal—the boreal forest, the band of conifers that circles the globe in high northern latitudes, is the largest biome on the world, outside of the oceans. And of course the aurora borealis (“northern dawn”) is a quintessentially northern phenomenon. Something pertaining to the north is borean, and something pertaining to extreme north is hyperborean. (Ortelius’s map contains an Oceanus Hyperboreus, which we now know as the Greenland Sea.) And Robert E. Howard was undoubtedly playing with the Greek concept of hyperborea (“extreme northern lands”) when he invented his own Hyborean Age for the adventures of Conan the Barbarian. Finally, I can’t move on without mentioning the verb to borealize, a word reserved for the affectation of Northern English manners or pronunciation by a Southern English person. (Does that ever happen?)

At the start of this post, I described the Plough (Big Dipper) as an asterism because, strictly speaking, it is not a constellation in its own right, merely part of the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear—the three stars of its handle forming an improbable tail for the bear:

Sidney Hall's Ursa Major from Urania's Mirror

The Greeks called this constellation Arctos (“bear”), which gives us our word arctic. Someone who explores or navigates in arctic regions is an arctician, and if you have become accustomed to arctic conditions you have arcticized. And of course the part of the world opposite the Arctic is the Antarctic.

Then there’s our word “north”, which comes from a Germanic root that also gives us nordic, “pertaining to Scandinavia and its peoples”. Nordicism is the state of being nordic, and Norway was the “north way” for ancient navigators. Finally, there’s the rather splendid Canadian concept of nordicity, which  refers to “the state, degree, awareness and representation of cold territoriality in the northern hemisphere”. Nordicity is measured using a nordic index, which scores a location against ten criteria relating to environmental conditions in high northern latitudes, allowing a map to be drawn connecting places of equal nordicity using isonords. (No, really.)

Nordicity map
Source: Historica Canada

Now, moving to the side edges of Ortelius’s map, we find the Latin directions Occidens (“West”) and Oriens (“East”), which give us the English words Occident and Orient with the same meanings, as well as the adjectives occidental and oriental, and the nouns occidentalism and orientalism, denoting the culture or style of western and eastern nations, respectively. An orientalist studies oriental languages or culture; an occidentalist does the same for occidental languages and culture, but the word is much more rarely used.

A “pearl of orient” was once the term for a pearl taken from an Indian Ocean oyster, considered to have superior lustre to European pearls—so orient is a rare technical term for pearl lustre. The verb to orient originally meant to position something so that it points east—specifically Christian churches, which are traditionally built with the chancel and altar at the east end. It later took on the more general meaning of moving something (or oneself) into a specific position, or of finding one’s position—the latter giving us the name of the sport, orienteering. The verb to orient has a cousin, to orientate, with exactly the same meaning—its use is restricted almost entirely to British English.

Churches aligned conventionally to the east are said to be oriented. Those rare Christian churches which face west instead are sometimes said to be occidented, though this seems to be more of a joke than a technical term of art.

Ortelius marks the south with Latin Meridies, which means “south” but also “mid-day”, because that’s the direction in which the sun lies at noon, north of the tropics. It gives us our word meridian, which used to mean “mid-day”. By association, it was also used as a name for some things that happened at mid-day—either a rest period, if you were a hard-working monk, or a shot of whisky, if you were a nineteenth-century Scot. Nowadays it designates a north-south line of longitude—at noon, the sun lies on the same meridian of longitude as the observer.

Something that pertains to the south, or noon, or a meridian line, is meridional. Something that occurs in the morning is antemeridian; something in the afternoon is postmeridian—hence our familiar abbreviations for these time periods, a.m. and p.m. And a meridiation is a fine old word for a mid-day snooze. Both the word and the concept should enjoy greater popularity.

The Romans called the south wind Auster, which gives us our word austral, pertaining to the south. The aurora australis is the southern cousin of the aurora borealis, and Australia is a southern country. (Confusingly, Austria is an eastern country—its German name, Österreich, means “eastern realm”.) The word austrian was once used to mean “southern”, but that never took off, for obvious reasons; and austrine died a similar death. Australopithecus means “southern ape”—it was an extinct genus of hominin first discovered in South Africa.

Finally, austromancy is a the practice of divining the future by observing the winds and cloud movements. I can offer no technical advice, but the etymology suggests that the south wind was particularly important to austromancers, for some reason.

* I say “traditionally” because triones meaning “plough oxen” is apparently only ever attested by Latin authors, such as Varro, who are attempting to explaining the etymology of the word septentrio. We don’t have any examples of its use applied to real plough oxen.
If the name really does refer to oxen, one is left wondering why. One suggestion is that the rotation of the Septentrion asterism around the Pole Star reminded the Romans of the movement of oxen around the central axis of a threshing floor. But that doesn’t explain the “ploughing” reference.

Letters From Abroad: Eng

Variants of engI’ve always been fascinated by the way languages other than English use letters other than our familiar 26—not so much completely different alphabets, like Greek, Arabic or Cyrillic, but those little tweaks to the Latin alphabet, ranging from unusual diacritical marks to additional letters, that other languages use to communicate particular sounds to their readers. So this is the first of what may or may not grow into a series of posts entitled “Letters From Abroad”—and it deals with the letter ŋ, which is called (among other things) an eng.

Eng symbolizes the nasal sound most commonly indicated by the letter pair “ng” in English—technically called a velar nasal, it’s the sound we make at the end of words like sing and thing. Less obviously, it’s also the sound we usually give the letter “n” when it comes before a “k” or a “g”—as in pink or bingo. If you try to say pink or bingo with a pure “n” sound, you’ll be aware that your tongue has to do a little leap backwards between the “n” and the next sound. The “n” is an alveolar nasal sound, with the tongue tip pressed forward behind the teeth while air flows through the nose, whereas “g” and “k” are velar stops, with the tongue moving back to block the airflow against the soft palate—hence the sense of rapid tongue movement if we try to sound an “n” followed by a “k” or “g”. In normal speech we tend to let one sound slide into the next, and so when pronouncing pink and bingo normally we just keep our tongues against the soft palate and cycle smoothly from the velar nasal to the velar stop. Since ŋ is the phonetic symbol for that velar nasal sound, we can say that pink is pronounced /pɪŋk/, not /pɪnk/.

The reason we ended up with the odd letter combination “ng” to symbolize the velar nasal sound in English is because we used to pronounce the “g” at the end of words like sing. So exactly the same thing happened to the “n” when we tried to say “sin-g” as happens to the “n” in bingo. We said /sɪŋɡ/, not /sɪnɡ/. And then, after a while, when English dropped the terminal hard “g” sound, we hung on to the velar nasal pronunciation and the original spelling. *

Long ago, the Ancient Greeks noticed the velar nasal sound that occurred before their velar stops, symbolized by their letters gamma (γ) and kappa (κ). They marked the eng sound in these locations with a letter gamma, so that γγ was pronounced /ŋɡ/ and γκ, /ŋk/. Latin writers tell us that the Greeks had a special name for a letter gamma when it was performing this duty—with a simple sound transposition, they called it an agma. That word was adopted in English as a name for the velar nasal sound, but by association with the sound it symbolized, it has mutated into angma.

Eng is an old word, dating back to at least the twelfth century, when it appears in a treatise on the sounds of Old Norse, Fyrsta Málfræðiritgerðin (First Grammatical Treatise)—in that text it’s associated with the velar nasal sound, but assigned a completely different symbol, like a letter “g” with a bar through it. The etymology of eng is probably simply imitative, like other letters of the alphabet. And it seems to have had an influence on angma, which sometimes appears in a hybrid form, engma. So we have actually four words for the same sound, but eng is the word that’s nowadays most often associated with the symbol ŋ, so that’s the name I’m using here.

So much for the sound and its name. Where did the symbol ŋ come from? William Holder seems nearly to have got it into print in 1669, but his printers let him down. In the errata to his book Elements Of Speech, he wrote that:

… there was intended a Character for Ng, viz. n with a tail like that of g …

But the printers (not having such a character in their type-box) had replaced his carefully crafted manuscript symbol with a random selection of  n‘s and y‘s.

Benjamin Franklin seems to have been the first person to both usher the eng character into print and propose it as a new letter of the alphabet (rather than just a symbol for a sound), in his “Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling” which appeared in his essay collection Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces (1779).

Franklin's engAnd it has been hanging around as a potential letter of the alphabet ever since. It featured (in a slightly curlier form, emphasizing its relationship to both “n” and “g”) in James Pitman’s Initial Teaching Alphabet, which enjoyed a brief vogue in UK “progressive” schools during the 1960s, ensuring that some of my contemporaries had to learn to read twice (and that some have been unable to spell since).


So the eng never made it into the English alphabet. But it turns up elsewhere:Orongo sign with eng, Easter IslandThis sign is on Easter Island, and it’s a new one. An older sign for the same placename looks like this:Orongo sign with ng, Easter IslandThe older Rapa Nui alphabet used “ng” for the velar nasal sound, but that alphabet was a colonial inheritance, and the digraph makes little sense, particularly since the Rapa Nui language has no other use for the letter “g”. But at the turn of the millennium there was a resurgence of interest in written Rapa Nui, with textbooks and a newspaper being produced for what had previously been largely a spoken language, and the opportunity was taken to rationalize the spelling, producing a new alphabet that ditched the colonial “ng” and replaced it with an eng. In the example of Oroŋo, above, it dissuades English speakers from reading the name of the place as O-ron-go, with a hard “g”, and reminds us to say O-rong-o instead. (Although, in a hair-tearing moment on Easter Island, I overheard an English couple solemnly deciding that “ŋ” was a combination of “n” and “j”, after which they carefully repeated O-ron-jo to each other a few times, nodding sagely.)

Elsewhere, too, old orthographies are being discarded, and native speakers are replacing them with character sets that better suit their purposes. Alphabetical restrictions that are inherited, in many cases, from the keyboard of a missionary’s typewriter, are being replaced using the rich resources available from modern electronic typesetting. So the eng now appears in a slew of African languages, extending in a line from Senegal to Sudan (with a couple of outliers in Zambia). The other big eng consumers are the Sámi languages of the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. And there are a scatter of others, from Australian Aborigines to Alaskan Inuit. The Native American Lakota alphabet also uses the eng, but in a different way from the other languages. It only ever appears after a vowel, and it indicates that the preceding vowel is nasalized—so the eng is performing the same function in Lakota as the tilde accent has in Portuguese.

Finally, there’s the matter of the capital eng. It comes in two styles, which appear at the head of this post. You can either preserve the style of the lower case letter, but make it bigger, or you can add a curved tail to a conventional capital “N”. These are called the “n-form” and “N-form” respectively. Which form you get depends on the font you’re writing in—at the head of the post, Times New Roman on the left is n-form, but the same text converted to Cambria on the right is N-form.

A factoid that echoes around the Internet claims that the African languages take the n-form capital, whereas the Sámi take the N-form. But in practice, there’s not much evidence of this. Electronic publishing often means that the writer has little or no control over the typeface seen by the reader, and it’s possible to find African websites sporting the N-form, just as one can find Sámi texts using the n-form. The distinction, if it ever existed, is certainly fading.

Every now and then, though, problems occur. Sometimes the typesetter doesn’t have either the character set or the patience to hunt down an eng. So occasionally another similar character is pressed into service. Here’s another example from Easter Island, in which some despairing Rapa Nui sign-maker has pressed a Greek lower-case eta (complete with diaeresis) into use, enlarging it to match the capital letters on either side:Rapa Nui sign using an eta instead of an eng, Easter Island

* In fact, we didn’t all drop the “g”—in parts of England, notably around Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, people still say /sɪŋɡ/ rather than /sɪŋ/, a pronunciation that’s been called “velar nasal plus”.


ˈwɒs(ə)l / ˈwæs(ə)l / ˈwɒseɪl / ˈwæseɪl

wassail: a salutation spoken when presenting a cup of wine or drinking to another’s health; the wine drunk on such an occasion; the custom of drinking wine in this way on special occasions; a carousal or celebration; a song sung during such a carousal or celebration; to celebrate or to drink to someone’s health1856 Twelfth Night Wassail Bowl

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Traditional English Christmas carol

The first problem with wassail is how to pronounce it. You can say it to rhyme with “hassle”, or you can round the first vowel to make it sound like the start of “wobble”. And instead of condensing the second syllable to something like “sill”, you can say it like “sail”. All are acceptable versions.

It started life as a salutation in Old Norse, ves heill, meaning “be well”. The equivalent in Old English was wes hál, and in both languages it was something you said on meeting or departing—the equivalent of both hail and farewell. But it seems to have mutated into a specific drinking toast among the Danish settlements in England, and it is in that form it turns up in Middle English. A cup was raised or presented with the words Wæs hæil, and the toast was return by saying Drinc hæil—“drink in good health”.

From there, wassail underwent a series of transformations. The wine drunk during the toast became known as wassail, too, and it was drunk from a wassail-cup filled from a wassail-bowl. Then wassail drinking became associated with particular festivals—Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night—and wassail came to be the name of the custom of offering wassail-cups on those occasions. From there it was a short leap to calling any sort of celebratory drinking party a wassail. And finally it became associated with drinking songs, and with Christmas carols.

The first part of the word, wes in Old English, is a little piece of linguistic archaeology, reminding us that we used to have more verb forms in English than we do now. There used to be two verbs “to be” in Old English—beon and wesan. Wesan had connotations of current relevance, while beon applied to habitual states, especially if they implied a state of being that would extend into the future. They shared a common past tense (derived from wesan), but existed in separate forms in the present, subjunctive, imperative and participial. The subtle distinction in meaning between the two different verbs seems to have been patchily observed, at best, and, the various duties of “to be” were soon divvied up between the two  verbs. In modern English, wesan has won the battle for the present tense—am, are and is are all little changed from their Old English wesan equivalents (as are the past tense was and were). But beon has kept the infinitive and the participles—to be, being, been.

Going back to Old English again, the verb in wes hál is the imperative singular form of wesan, used to issue a command or instruction to a single person. We don’t use imperative forms of the verb in English any more, but we do have imperative clauses that do the same job, and they use the infinitive form of the verb: “Be well!”

The second word in the phrase that gave us wassail is hál, “healthy”. And we still use hale in that sense, in the phrase “hale and hearty”. And since wes hál was originally a greeting, we also have hail, in the sense of a greeting (“hail and farewell”), which is now more commonly associated with the act of shouting to someone to attract their attention, as with a loudhailer. Another association with greeting provides hail with yet another meaning—a cry of adulation, as in “Hail, Caesar!” The German equivalent is heil, as in the notorious Nazi salute, “Seig Heil!” meaning “Hail victory!”

Hál is also the origin of health, healthy and heal. In the 15th century there was a sudden enthusiasm for adding “w” to the start of words beginning with “h”, and that gave us wholesome, “health-giving”, and whole, with an original sense of being uninjured, and therefore healthy.

Another strand of development for this word takes us back to its Teutonic roots. While heill meant “healthy” (or “lucky”) in Old Norse, heilagr meant “holy”. The same thing happened in Old High German, in which the adjective heil, meaning “healthy”, contrasted with heilag, “holy”. And in Old English we have hál, “healthy” and halig, “holy”. The link seems to have been with the idea that something holy is inviolable or perhaps indestructible—it stays healthy (if it is a person or god) or whole (if it is an object).

The association with holiness and healthiness made these roots a popular source of children’s names—we have Helga, Olga and Ole, and an old German name Heiluid (“healthy and wide”!) which is the origin of the French Héloïse , which in turns gives us Eloise, Louise, Louis and Lois.

Old English halig of course gave us holy and hallow. In addition to being a verb, “to make holy”, hallow also used to be a noun—a hallow was a holy person or saint. All-Hallows meant “all the saints” (a common dedication for a church). All Hallows’ Day was the festival of All Saints, celebrated on the first day of November, and also called Hallowmas. The day before Hallowmas was Hallow-Eve or Hallow-e’en, which is the origin of our (generally very different) celebration of Halloween.

Halidom is a combination of holy with the suffix -dom, which designates either a state of being (boredom, freedom) or a domain of some kind (kingdom, Christendom). So a halidom is in a state of being holy—it’s a holy place or holy relic. A piece of folk etymology later stepped in to produce the variant holidame— in the belief that the word referred to a “holy dame” in the form of the Virgin Mary. Although neither version crops up much in conversation these days, it was common in the 16th century to swear using references to holy objects and personages, and the oath “By my halidom” crops up several times in the plays of Shakespeare.

JULIA: Host, will you go?
HOST: By my halidom, I was fast asleep.

Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV, Scene 2

And finally there are plants of  family Malvaceae that used to be called hocks, but which are now known as mallows. There are many varieties, including the Common Mallow, the Marsh Mallow, and the Hollyhock—the “holy mallow”.


To finish on a Christmas theme, I’d love to tell you that the name of the holly plant has the same derivation—but it doesn’t. It seems instead to have a long and obscure etymology stretching back to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kel-, meaning “to cut or prick”.

So I’ll just wish you a good wassail, if you’re inclined to have one.


Perihelion: Part 3

Earth at perihelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

At last, the final instalment of my series of posts about words relating to perihelion. In my first post on the subject, I discussed the various technical terms in astronomical use (and some that have simply been invented by Wikipedians). In my second post, I discussed words formed from the prefix peri-, and its opposite, apo-. This time around I’m going to talk about words relating to Greek helios, “sun”.

The element helium takes its name from helios because it was, improbably, discovered in the sun before it was known here on Earth—its presence heralded by an unidentified emission line in the spectrum of solar prominences.

A heliograph is a “sun-writer”—a system of mirrors used to send messages by reflected sunlight. If something resembles a child’s drawing of the sun—a central circle and spreading rays—it is helioid. A heliolator is a sun-worshipper, and heliotherapy is an attempt to treat disease by exposure to sunlight. An animal or plant is heliophilous if it loves sunlight; it may exhibit heliotaxis (moving towards the sun) or heliotropy (turning towards the sun). Something that exhibits heliotropy is a heliotrope—a name once given to plants like sunflowers and marigolds that turn their flowers to follow the sun, but now applied to a family of little purple flowers that were once imagined to turn in this way. (Which is why the colour heliotrope is a shade of purple, and not a cheery sunflower- or marigold-yellow.)

Heliotrope flowers

The opposite of heliophilous is heliophobic (“sun-fearing”), heliofugal (“sun-fleeing”) or apheliotropic (“moving away from the sun”); the last of which employs our old friend, previously discussed, the prefix apo-. A leaf is paraheliotropic if it turns itself edge-on to overly bright sunlight, so as to avoid burning; and a lizard is diaheliotropic if it turns its long axis transverse to the sunlight, so as to present a large surface area in order to warm quickly on a chilly morning.

I’ve written in the past about parhelia (“beside-suns”)—the patches of bright rainbow light that can appear on either side of the sun, which are also known as sun-dogs. An anthelion is a patch of back-scattered sunlight directly opposite the sun—it’s responsible for the glory that is sometimes seen surrounding aeroplane shadows, or the shadows of mountaineers. And paranthelia are a kind of sun-dog to the anthelion—patches of vague brightness caused by multiple reflections within hexagonal ice crystals either side of the antisolar point. (Although anthelion is formed from the prefix ant- combined with helion, it’s pronunciation gives it a central soft “th” sound: ænˈθiːlɪən.)

And by slipping in the word anti-solar, “opposite the sun”, I’ve made my segue to Latin—sol is the Latin word for “sun”, and solar pertains to the sun. As you’ll know if you’ve read Andy Weir’s book The Martian (or seen the film), sol is the technical term for a Martian day, which is forty minutes longer than its Earth equivalent. The actors in Ridley Scott’s film seemed to be a little uncertain about how to pronounce it—it’s sɒl, with a short vowel that rhymes with doll, not dole. The word has shaken off its Latin origins, and with them its Latin pronunciation. If something resembles the sun in its brilliance (literal or metaphorical) it is soliform; and a solarium is a place you go to enjoy the sun.

The word solstice comes from Latin solstitium, “sun standstill”—the times twice a year, when the sun stops moving towards higher latitudes and starts drifting back towards the equator. A summer solstice produces the longest day and shortest night in one hemisphere of the Earth, but it is simultaneously a winter solstice for the opposite hemisphere, bringing the longest night and shortest day. So unless the context is geographically specific, it’s better to talk about the June solstice and the December solstice. At best talk of “the” summer solstice creates potential confusion; at worst, it causes offence to folk in the southern hemisphere who are justifiably tired of “north-centric” usages.

Something you can hold between yourself and the sun, to get a little shade, is a parasol. An oriental parasol, made of bamboo and oiled paper, used to be called a kittisol, from the Portuguese and Spanish quitasol, “warding off the sun”. And the idea of warding off the sun is implicit in the English word umbrella, too—from the Italian ombrella, “little shadow”. The French at least have a name that matches function—French umbrellas are parapluies, “against the rain”.

Something that follows the sun is solisequious. That gives us the Latin equivalent of Greek heliotrope—solsequium or solsequy, old names for the marigold. French tournesol, “turn-sun”, gives us the English turnsole, an old word for both the heliotrope plant and a kind of purple dye. And Italian girasole (“turn-sun”, again) is the origin of girasol, an old name for the sunflower.

The North American sunflower Helianthus tuberosus was imported to Italy in the seventeenth century, primarily as a root vegetable. Its tubers were found to taste like artichoke, so the Italians called it girasole articiocco “sunflower artichoke”. English speakers imported the vegetable, but misheard the name. And so the girasole articiocco became the Jerusalem artichoke.

Jerusalem Artichoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers photographed by Paul Fenwick, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.



nosthedony: The pleasure to be gained from examining old objects

Stone arrowheadMany of the [museum’s] objects touched me with nosthedony—the pleasure of returning to the past. For in many of the items I saw reflected a time when human life was different, perhaps less secure, certainly less austere.

Brian Aldiss “Appearance of Life” (1976)

Like anti-agathic, this word was coined by a science-fiction writer—the quotation above marks its first ever appearance. But unlike anti-agathic, it’s not a science-fiction word—it seems like a word we almost all need, at one time or another, and I think it deserves wider currency.

Aldiss is a great word-coiner. His Helliconia trilogy, which I recently reviewed, contained many words created especially to designate concepts and objects unique to his imagined world. Some were made up out of whole cloth, like harneys, which Aldiss used for the combination of mind and brain; some were old words pressed into new usage, like eddre, for the heart and emotions; and some were deliberately constructed from familiar etymological components. In this last category there’s his description of the minds of his alien “phagors” as being eotemporal—the phagors have little understanding of time (or at least respond to it differently from humans) and eotemporal seems to be a hybrid word meaning “dawning time”. Others of his inventions were more opaque—some of his human characters worship “God the Azoiaxic“, a word that made me fret for quite a while before, late in the final novel, Aldiss has one of his characters state that this deity is itself unliving, but central to the existence of all living creatures. So it seems to be a bit of a portmanteau of the real word azoic, “unliving”, and an Aldiss invention, zoiaxic, “central to life”. (Perhaps just a little too abstruse, that one.)

So it’s likely that, having just reread the Helliconia novels, I was primed to remember Aldiss’s nosthedony when I most recently looked at the arrowhead in the photograph at the head of this post. It has sat on a shelf just behind me for twenty-odd years, and I pick it up and turn it over and smile from time to time. It’s a piece of stone technology which was given to me as a gift by a nice lady who staffed the front desk in the Thunder Bay Museum, back in 1980. She had been given it, as a child, by someone who had found it locally. It seems to be an Adena projectile point, fashioned from chert—at least a thousand years old, and made in a style that originated with the Mound Builders in the Ohio River valley. So it was at the edge of Adena distribution, up there in Northwestern Ontario—perhaps at the end of a chain of trading. Someone made it, perhaps several people used it, someone lost it or discarded it. A millennium or so later, someone found it, and passed it on to a young Canadian girl of Scottish descent. Who in later life passed it on to a Scottish medical student who had expressed an interest in local history. And at some time before it got to me, someone tried to drill a hole in the stem, perhaps to make it into a pendant. So to me it’s the type specimen of Aldiss’s nosthedony—an artefact freighted with pleasing connections to people who lived before me.

I think we’re supposed to understand nosthedony as a sort of counterpart to nostalgia. Nostalgia comes from Greek nostos, “a return home”, and algos, “pain”. As its etymology suggest, it was originally used to designate a severe kind of home-sickness, and then mutated into its current meaning, associated with a regretful longing for past times. By contrast, Aldiss’s nosthedony combines nostos with hedone, “pleasure”—so it’s a pleasure derived from things in the past.

Nostos hasn’t given us many other English words, apart from those derived from nostalgia. Nostomania is nostalgia in an obsessive form. And nostos is occasionally used in English to designate a story about a homecoming, but particularly the homecoming of Odysseus and the other heroes of the Trojan War.

We’re likewise short on words derived from hedone. Anhedonia is the miserable state of being unable to take pleasure from one’s life. Hedonism started out as a philosophical term, in which pleasure was regarded as the chief source of good, and has evolved to mean pleasure-seeking behaviour, as practised by a hedonist. Things that relate to pleasure are hedonic, and an instrument that measures pleasure is a hedonometer. (This last one turns up as an impossible object, used to poke fun at philosophical hedonism.)

That’s a pretty poor haul of words related to nosthedony—but I hope you can take pleasure from the word itself.



anti-agathic: serving to prevent death; a drug that has this function

Original publications of Cities In Flight, Blish

This is a science fiction word. It was coined during the 1950s by James Blish as a key concept for his Cities in Flight series of novels, to designate the drugs that his characters took to give them potential immortality, allowing them to survive the long periods of time required for flights between the stars. I’ve discussed Blish’s writing style and his Cities in Flight novels in a previous post.

Anti-agathic drugs were such a useful concept that Blish’s word leaked into general science-fictional use, being picked up and reused over the years by such diverse talents as Harlan Ellison and Sheri S. Tepper. But there’s a puzzling problem with this word’s etymology, given that it was coined by a man as well-read as Blish. Agathos is Greek for “good”, and was also used to mean “noble”, “righteous” and “wise”, among other things—these are the pleasant connotations of the now-unfashionable girl’s name, Agatha. An agathodemon is a good spirit, and something that fosters goodness is agathopoietic. Agathism is the doctrine that all things tend toward goodness—to be contrasted with the technical meaning of optimism, which maintains that things are already as good as they can be (that is, optimal).

So in etymological terms, an anti-agathic drug would be one that opposed goodness, which is certainly not the literal meaning Blish offers. If Blish was looking for an etymologically sound name for an “anti-death” drug, he should have used the Greek word for death, thanatos. Something pertaining to death is thanatic; the study of death is thanatology; euthanasia is a gentle death; and athanasy is a state of immortality. Poul Anderson used the word antithanatic in his novel World Without Stars (1967), to designate the sort of drugs Blish was talking about. But by that time, Blish’s word anti-agathic had already enjoyed a decade of currency, so Anderson’s more etymologically defensible alternative never took hold.

So I’ve often puzzled over what led Blish to choose the word he did, and wondered if Blish was making some sort of sly joke with the name. It’s clear from the novels that he didn’t consider his anti-agathics to be an undiluted benefit to humankind, either at the individual level or at the societal level—individuals become bored and jaded with their over-long lives, society is split between the haves and have-nots because the anti-agathics are rare and expensive. Might the “not good” etymology have been an obscure little nod in that direction?

Or did Blish just get the word wrong through carelessness, haste or lack of interest? There’s certainly precedent for that. In The Triumph Of Time he consistently rendered the Norse mythological Ginnungagap as “Ginnangu-Gap”, giving it a vaguely Japanese feel. (And if you do an internet search on ginnangu-gap you’ll turn up almost nothing but Blish quotes and references.)

So during my recent rereading of Blish’s novels, I decided I’d dig a little more deeply into  Blish’s usage of the word, to see if I could tease out what he was up to when he coined it. But that turns out to less straightforward than you might think. Although the word anti-agathic appears throughout all the Cities in Flight novels, that’s no guide to when Blish first introduced the word and the concept, because the stories have a complicated publication history involving multiple layers of revision.

At the core of the series are the two earliest novels, Earthman, Come Home (1955) and They Shall Have Stars (1956). Each of these is constructed from a series of short stories—Earthman, Come Home is put together from “Okie” (1950), “Bindlestiff” (1950), “Sargasso of Lost Cities” (1953) and “Earthman Come Home” (1953); They Shall Have Stars is formed from the interleaving of “Bridge” (1952) and “At Death’s End” (1954). These original short stories were revised by Blish to form a more coherent and consistent structure when he assembled them into the novels. And then there was another round of revision when the first two novels were combined with two more, The Triumph of Time (1958)* and A Life For The Stars (1962), to form an omnibus edition entitled Cities in Flight (1970).

So the only way to judge exactly what Blish was up to when he coined this word is to go back to the six short stories in their original published form, and to read through them in order. That’s what I’ve just done.

The first story, “Okie”, appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950. The original version contains no mention of anti-agathic drugs or of the characters’ long lifespans. Passages relating to anti-agathics and their effects, which appear in the corresponding section of Earthman, Come Home, were obviously added for internal consistency with later parts of the novel.

The second story, “Bindlestiff”, appeared in the December 1950 edition of Astounding. And it produces a surprise:

“Our assays show […] the presence of certain drugs in your jungle—drugs which are known to be anti-agapics—”
“Sorry, I mean that, used properly, they cure death.”

Blish’s first ever mention of anti-death drugs uses a different word from the one that he’s now remembered for! The term anti-agapic is used consistently throughout the short story, but was revised to anti-agathic for the novel. This is another etymologically inexplicable choice—agape is Greek for “brotherly love” (to be contrasted with eros, “erotic love”). But it may be the solution to a puzzle that I’ve only just become aware of, through the miracle of Google—why an “immortality serum” that featured in the “Deathwalker” episode of the science fiction TV series Babylon 5 was called an anti-agapic rather than an anti-agathic.

And if we compare a passage from “Bindlestiff” with the corresponding section of the novel, we also see how Blish’s ideas are still evolving. Here’s the original short story:

Less than a two-thousandth of one percent of our present population can get the treatment now, and an ampoule of any anti-agapic, even the most inefficient ones, can be sold for the price the seller asks.

And the revised version in the omnibus edition of Cities in Flight:

Less than a two-thousandth of one per cent of our present population can get the treatment now, and most of the legitimate trade goes to the people who need life-extension the most—in other words, to people who make their living by traveling long distances in space. The result is that an ampule [sic] of any anti-agathic, even the least efficient ones, that a spaceman thinks he can spare can be sold for the price the seller asks.

At the time he wrote “Bindlestiff”, Blish was obviously still feeling his way towards the central role that his anti-agathics would play for his space-travelling characters.

“Bridge” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1952) contains no mention of anti-death drugs—it’s concerned with the very early days of Blish’s imagined future history, and concentrates on the development of his fictional star-drive.

“Sargasso of Lost Cities” appeared in a short-lived, luridly covered, large-format magazine, Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, in the Spring 1953 edition, and picked up the story of “Okie” and “Bindlestiff”. And, once again, Blish uses the word anti-agapic rather than anti-agathic:

“[…] our stock of anti-agapics is […] adequate for the city, but with little left over to sell to someone else.”

So this is the story in which Blish establishes that his longevity drugs are an essential resource for the inhabitants of his space-faring cities.

“Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953), which follows on from the events of “Sargasso of Lost Cities”, brings another surprise:

But when death yielded to the anti-athapic drugs, there was no longer any such thing as a “lifetime” in the old sense.

Anti-athapic! This new variant seems to lack any sense at all. The nearest I can find in my Classical Greek dictionary is athaptos, “unburied”, but an “anti-athaptic” would be something that countered the state of being unburied.

Finally, in “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954), Blish uses the word anti-agathic:

So what we’re look for now is not an antibiotic—an anti-life drug—but an anti-agathic, an anti-death drug.

Cover of Earthman Come Home, James BlishAnd it’s this third and final variant that Blish adopted, for reasons known only to himself, as the definitive term for his anti-death drugs, when he came to combine and revise four of these short stories (none of which had originally used the word in this form) into the novel Earthman, Come Home.

So I have to throw my hands in the air and acknowledge that Blish just seems to have plain made up some vaguely Greek-sounding names for his anti-death drugs, and evidently didn’t try to keep track of his coinings from one story to the next. But at the time of revision, Blish must have noticed that he’d used three different words in four different stories, and presumably he was aware that he had no sensible etymology to defend even his final choice. He seems to have left us a hint to that effect, in a couple of lines of dialogue he added to the ending of They Shall Have Stars when it was first published in 1956. The lines don’t appear in either of the original short stories that were combined to make the novel:

“[…] Do you also know what an anti-agathic is?”
“No,” Helmuth said. “I don’t even recognize the root of the word.”

And that seems a perfect note to end on.

* The publication history is further complicated by the fact that The Triumph of Time was entitled A Clash of Cymbals in its British edition.

Quotation Marks

Air quotes

The quotation mark has its origin in Europe in the centuries before printing, when documents were copied by hand. It started out as something called a diple. That word comes from Greek diplous, “double”, and a diple was, at its simplest, a line bent in half to form an arrowhead, like this: >.

Diples were drawn pointing inwards from the margins, to indicate noteworthy text. Sometimes a single diple pointed inwards from the outer margin of the page; sometimes diples appeared in both margins:

>      noteworthy text     <

And because the copyists were usually monks, “noteworthy text” was often synonymous with “a quotation from the Bible”.

With the advent of printing, diples caused the printers problems. First of all, printing in the margins was awkward to do, so the diple symbol was often moved into the body of the printed text. Secondly, the printers didn’t have a piece of type that looked like a diple. So they pressed the humble comma into doing double duty as a diple substitute. To avoid any confusion with its usual role, they did various things to this diple/comma, sometimes in combination:

  • Doubled it
  • Raised it from the baseline
  • Inverted it

(This last practice gave rise to the quotation mark’s alternative name in English—inverted commas.)

At the same time as they were experimenting with ways of replacing the diple, printers were also generalizing its use—rather than marking out quotations from the Bible, the new quotation marks were used to indicate all quoted text.

After all the experimentation had shaken down, Europe found itself with five different ways of arranging commas into quotation marks. The first was to open the quotation with a couple of commas on the baseline, and to close with a pair of raised, inverted commas:

Quote variant 1That’s standard practice in much of Eastern Europe, as well as Denmark, Germany and Iceland.

The second was to open with raised inverted commas, and to close with raised commas:

Quote variant 2That’s a familiar form for English speakers, and it has been adopted by a number of other languages, but it’s rare in Europe.

These two styles each have a variant that simply disposes of the inverted commas and uses ordinary commas instead. In parts of Eastern Europe the quotation is closed with a pair of ordinary raised commas:

Quote variant 4The same style is used in Dutch.

And in Finland, Poland and Sweden, the opening quotation marks look just like the closing marks:Quote variant 3The fifth style was championed by French and Italian printers. It originally featured a pair of mirror-image commas to open the quote, and a pair of regular commas to close it, both sets of commas raised half-way from the baseline.

Early guillemetsIt was visually pleasing, because it eliminated the large areas of white space created above or below the doubled commas in the other styles, but it did require a new character (the reversed comma) to be added to the printer’s font. Perhaps the precedent of creating a new character shook this style loose from the constraints of the original character set, because (unlike the other styles) it continued to evolve in appearance. It eventually turned into the set of angled brackets that are the fifth major quotation marks used in European languages—the guillemets, supposedly named after their creator, Guillaume, who is otherwise obscure.

GuillemetsAs well as French and Italian, the guillemets are used by Russian, Norwegian, Greek and all the languages of the Iberian peninsula.

Some countries admit two different styles of quotation mark. In Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, reversed guillemets are seen as an alternative to the standard quotation marks, though they seem to be used only in decorative text in Germany.

Reversed guillemetsQuite early in the development of quotation marks, British printers found another solution to the awkward expanse of white page that appears above or below double quotation marks—they used single quotation marks instead.

Single quotesIt’s a style that has persisted to the present day, with many British publishing houses using single quotation marks; British newspapers and magazines tend to use double quotes, however. And in the United States, double quotes are standard.

In English, if single quotation marks are standard, a quote-within-a-quote takes double marks; if double marks are used, the nested quote takes single marks. (Other languages vary in their approach to nested quotations—some simply repeat the same style of quotation mark; some switch to single marks; and some switch between guillemets and commas.)

The only problem for the British single quotation mark is that the closing quote is identical to the apostrophe, a punctuation mark used to signal either possession or omitted letters. But it’s usually pretty clear from context whether the reader has encountered a closing quote or an apostrophe.Apostrophe and quotes

So all was well … until the invention of the typewriter. The English keyboard economized on keys by using the same character for opening and closing quotes—symmetrical vertical strokes that came as single or double options, with the single quote doing double duty as an apostrophe.

Double straight quotesSingle straight quotesThese symmetrical quotation marks (called “straight quotes”) had never existed until they were invented to address the mechanical limitations of the typewriter. They carried over into the limited ASCII character set used by teletypes and early computers, and are still a standard feature of computer keyboards today, long after the mechanical and digital limitations that led to their creation have gone.

Manual typewriter keyboard
Click to enlarge
This is the keyboard of the manual typewriter I used to write my first published short story, back in the 1970s. The quotation marks and apostrophe are nowadays in different places on computer keyboards, but still the same “straight” style.

So—it’s a little awkward to insert proper opening and closing quotation marks when all you’ve got on your keyboard is straight quotes. I’m typing this with straight quotes at the moment, but you should be seeing proper opening and closing double quotation marks when you look at this web page. The web software I’m using is automatically converting the straight quotes I’m typing into what computer guys call “smart quotes”—actually just standard quotation marks, the only smart thing about them being that the software is working out whether to use an opening or closing quote according to the position in the text.

Trouble is, the software can get it wrong. In particular, if it sees a single straight quotation mark preceded by a space, it figures it’s looking at an opening quotation mark, and converts accordingly. So when I type:

the software works out that I mean:

Unfortunately, if I write a word with an initial apostrophe:

the software may still try to give me an opening quotation mark:

And I’ll need to go back and edit the document to get the apostrophe I want:

Now, software’s getting smarter. My web software seems to have become smarter in the last year and a half—it’s messing up my apostrophes and quotation marks much less often than it used to, because it now seems to be able to recognize common words that start with apostrophes. Whereas my old Microsoft Office 2007 is utterly steadfast in its opposition to the concept of an initial apostrophe.

So that’s inconvenient. But it also seems to have convinced some people that initial apostrophes should look like inverted commas, which is a little worrying. I’ve read a couple of books recently, from small publishing houses, in which all the initial apostrophes were upside-down—either they’re doing no proof-reading at all, or they’re convinced that their publishing software knows better than they do.

This problem reached an apotheosis, of sorts, with the American television comedy series, ’Til Death.* First of all, the writers seem to have had a misapprehension that “till” is an abbreviation of “until”—it’s not; it’s a perfectly regular word in its own right, with centuries of usage behind it. So that was bad. But then they believed their Autoformat settings:

At least for the first two years:

* Even my web authoring software couldn’t cope with ’Til. You’re seeing the apostrophe the right way up because I edited the html code by hand.

Perihelion: Part 2


perihelion: that point in the orbit of a planet, comet or other body at which it is closest to the sun

Earth at perihelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

Well, time flies. Back on January 4, when the Earth was at its closest to the sun, I started off to write about words relating to perihelion, and got side-tracked into writing about astronomical terminology instead. So now I’m just catching up with the original plan.

Perihelion, I reported last time, comes from the Greek prefix peri-, meaning “around” or “close”, and helios, “sun”. And its opposite is aphelion, which comes from the prefix apo-, meaning “off” or “away”.

Medicine, biology and architecture have a lot of peri- and apo- words, and I’m not going to try to list all that specialist vocabulary—I’ll stick to general vocabulary, albeit with an occasional diversion into the obscure.

A perimeter as literally a “measure around”, a periphery is a “carry around”, and a period is a “way around”. The last one was originally used to designate any kind of cycle in time—the four-year recurrence of the Olympic Games, the longer cycles of planetary movements. Later, by associations with cycles ending and beginning again, period acquired a sense of completion—you could talk about a time period that didn’t recur. In rhetoric people called a complete spoken sentence a period, and from there the word trickled down to eventually attach itself to the punctuation mark with which we end a written sentence.

A periscope lets you look around, peristrophe is the business of turning around, and a peripatus is a place where you can walk around—it gives us the verb peripatize, to walk around, and the adjective peripatetic, given to walking. Aristotle used to walk around the peripatus in the Lyceum while he was teaching—so the word Peripatetic is also used to designate his particular school of philosophy. A periapt is something “fastened around”—a personal ornament or charm. A peristyle is a row of columns around the outside of a building, or the space they enclose. Periegesis is the act of “guiding around”, so it’s a fancy word for a guidebook; while periplus is the act of “sailing around”, which gives us the name for a description of a sea voyage. The Periplus of The Erythryaean Sea is a first-century Greek text, describing the trading ports in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, which is a striking indication of how far-faring European navigators were in those days.

Periphrasis is “declaring around”—the rhetorical device of using a lot of words instead of a few. It has a Latin synonym in circumlocution. Someone given to periphrasis is a periphrast. (Calling your opponent in an argument “a bit of a periphrast” is a fine way to spread puzzled consternation.)

In a previous post I’ve already mentioned periscian, which means “around shadow”—it’s a designation for someone who lives within one of the polar circles, who therefore will have at least one day a year of continuous sunlight, during which their shadow will be cast successively in all directions as the sun sweeps around the horizon. Now it’s time to mention the periœci, from the Greek perioikos, “living around”—it’s a handy word for people or places that are on the same parallel of latitude, but on opposite meridians of longitude. (Pronounce it pɛrɪˈiːsaɪ.) It has an opposite, of sorts, in antœci, “living opposite”, which designates people or places on the same meridian of longitude but opposite parallels of latitude.

On, then, to apo-.

An apograph is something “written away”—an exact copy of a document, in the days of hand copying, which could be sent off somewhere else. Whereas an apology was something “spoken away”—an attempt to make something to go away by talking about it. It was originally a verbal defence of a person or idea. Someone who delivers such an apology is an apologist. The word apologist has retained the original sense of “defence”, whereas apology has become associated with contrition—a rich source of potential confusion over meanings. Apopemptic refers to something “sent away”—an apopemptic monologue is the Greek equivalent of a Latin valedictory address.

An apocalypse is literally the act of taking the cover off something (from Greek calyptra, “cover”)—a revelation, in other words. The biblical Book of Revelation is also called The Apocalypse Of John—and because the revelation the book’s author describes is about the end of the world, that’s what apocalypse has now come to mean. Staying on the religious theme a little longer, something that is apocryphal is literally “hidden away” or concealed (from Greek kryptos, “hidden”). When the Bible was first being assembled, Christian writings with unknown or dubious authorship were called Apocrypha. And because such writings could not be trusted or were deemed false, that’s what apocryphal now means. An apostle is someone who is “sent off”—a messenger; in the biblical sense, someone who carried the message of Christianity to other lands. An apostate is someone who “stands off”—who abandons a previously held belief. It used to have a female equivalent, an apostatrice, but that’s not much used nowadays. And to undergo an apotheosis is literally to “god off”—to become a god; something the Roman emperors did with monotonous regularity. Nowadays it can also mean some sort of transition to a heavenly afterlife or state of bliss.

An apothec is place where things are “stored away” (from Greek theke, “box”)—a storehouse or shop. So an apothecary used to be simply a shop-keeper; the word only later took on the sense of a person who sold drugs and potions specifically.

Apoplexy is a “striking off”—an old word for the sudden disability caused by a stroke. Something apotropaic causes a “turning away”—the word is used to designate a charm, spell, prayer or ceremony intended to ward off evil. And something aposematic causes a “warning off”—it’s the word for the bright colouration affected by some venomous creatures (or creatures just pretending to be venomous), and in that sense it’s the opposite of cryptic, which is used for colouration that serves to conceal the animal.

There are an impressive three rhetorical devices named using apo-. First there’s apophasis, which means “speaking away” or denial—it’s the trick of urging a course of action while pretending to deprecate it (“I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that …”). The splendid aposiopesis (“silence away”) is the name for the action of falling silent once the audience knows exactly what you mean, but before you actually have to say it (“And if that happens, only one course of action is open to us …”). And apostrophe (“turning away”) is the act of breaking off a speech in order to address some absent party (“And I would say this to our opponents …”). The punctuation mark, the apostrophe, has the same etymology. It was originally (and still is) used to indicate where a letter has been “turned away”—that is, missed out.

Finally, I can’t resist mentioning apophthegm, which comes from Greek phtheggomai, “to raise one’s voice”. It’s pronounced ˈæpəθɪm, and although it looks like it might be a synonym for some sort of coughing or spitting, it just means “a pithy saying”. If you’re given to pithy sayings, you are an apophthegmatist, and you apophthegmatize. Who wouldn’t aspire to such a thing?

That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll come back to words relating to the sun in another post. I hope before the next perihelion.