Category Archives: Words



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

Cities In Flight first publications
Click to enlarge

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.

Magpies & Grasshoppers

I was trying to explain the content of this blog to someone the other day, and I said that it combined two states of mind, the magpie and the grasshopper—the magpie’s hoarding of appealing objects, the grasshopper’s leaping from place to place

And that, in a self-referential kind of way, got me thinking about the words magpie and grasshopper.

European magpie

The magpie is a common enough European bird, recognizable by its black-and-white plumage, long tail and rather sinister chuckling call. When I was child you never saw them in Dundee, but during a drive to the west one of them always seemed to show up just outside Glasgow. However, in the last decade they seem to have decided to colonize the Tay estuary, and nowadays I can usually hear a pair of them chortling from the rooftops just down the road.

Their acquisitive nature made them a metaphor for hoarders and collectors, and they gave their name to a 1970s children’s TV programme from Thames Television:

In those days, you were either a follower of the BBC’s staid Blue Peter, or ITV’s very slightly psychedelic Magpie. I was a Magpie kid, and nursed a mild case of the hots for Susan Stranks, who was in every way superior to Blue Peter’s Val Singleton, at least in my estimation.

The magpie was original just called a pie. The word was adopted from Old French pie, which in turn came from the Latin name for the bird, pica (preserved in the Eurasian magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica). If something was particoloured, like the bird, it was pieda word that’s now preserved pretty much single-handedly by the story known in English as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin“. The mysterious piper in the mediaeval story wore a particoloured suit of clothes—in Robert Browning’s version:

His queer long coat from heel to head
Was half of yellow and half of red

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842)

The variation piebald has survived better, in application to particoloured horses (the “bald” bit coming from a very old usage, designating a horse with a white blaze on its forehead).

Some time around the turn of the sixteenth century, there seems to have been a vogue for applying given names to common bird species: so we had a Jenny wren, a Robin redbreast, a Jack daw, a Tom tit … and a Margaret pie. Shakespeare disconcertingly turned this into maggot-pie in Macbeth, but the version that persisted was Mag pie. Eventually (like Jack daw), the old name of the bird was forgotten, and it became just plain magpie.

Its Latin name, pica, is a medical term, designating a desire to eat something that isn’t normally considered food (a reference to the magpie’s supposedly indiscriminate appetite). Under the umbrella of pica fall such practices as coprophagy (eating faeces), geophagy (eating earth), ryphophagy (eating “filth”, which I suppose could involve either or both of the preceding), onychophagy (nail biting) and trichophagy (eating hair). This last practice can give rise to a fibrous mass of undigested hair sitting in the stomach, called a trichobezoar or just bezoar.

Bezoar comes from Persian pad-zahr, “against poison”—the original Persian bezoars were concretions taken from the guts of various ruminants, which were held to prevent poisoning if they were dropped into a cup before drinking from it. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the most prized bezoar was the lapis bezoar orientale, taken from Persian wild goats; inferior products were the lapis bezoar occidentale, from the Peruvian llama, and the German bezoar, from the chamois. And who knows? Maybe the large surface area of those porous concretions really did absorb a bit of poison.


Grasshoppers, crickets and locusts tend to look alike and behave alike, and together they make up the insect order Orthoptera, “straight wings”. So if you’re not sure whether you have a grasshopper, a cricket or a locust in your hand, you can just nod wisely and call it an orthopter or an orthopteran. Something that resembles an orthopter is orthopterous or orthopteroid.

Grasshopper does what it says on the tin, etymologically speaking, and there’s not much more to add, beyond saying that grasshopperish and grasshoppery are both words meaning “like a grasshopper”, while grasshoppering is living improvidently, like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper.

Cricket is imitative in origin—something that goes krik! in the grass. Something like a cricket, or like the noise a cricket makes, is crickety. As far as we know, the insects have nothing to do with the game of cricket, which instead might possibly derived from a kind of footstool called a cricket, and a ball game called “stool-ball”, which (you’ve guessed it) involved throwing a ball at a stool. Then again, it might not.

Locust is from the Latin locusta, which was a word applied to locusts and grasshoppers, but also to lobsters and other crustaceans. Something pertaining to a locust is either locustal, locustian or locustical, so you’re spoiled for choice there.

From locusta and its Latin application to lobsters, the Spanish got langosta (a lobster or crayfish) and its diminutive langostino, by which they designate the small lobster Nephrops norvegicus, otherwise known in English as the Norwegian lobster or the Dublin Bay prawn. The French went down essentially the same etymological route, using langouste for the crayfish and langoustine for the Norwegian lobster. Langoustine is a name that seems to turn up fairly regularly on menus in the UK these days, except when they’re fried in batter and served with tartare sauce, in which case they’re scampi—the plural of scampo, the Italian word for the Norwegian lobster.

The English word lobster also derives from Latin locusta, which was mangled in Old English to loppestre (presumably by someone quite hard of hearing). Lobstering is fishing for lobsters; lobsterish means “red faced”, like a cooked lobster; and to lobsterize is to walk backwards, in the way lobsters are said to do, by people who have never seen a lobster walking.

And I guess all of the above is as good an example as any, of how this blog tends to be both magpie- and grasshopper-minded.



serendipity: The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery

Staph aureus culture, antibiotic sensitivities
Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, University of Iowa

People like the word serendipity—there’s something cheerful and unexpected about that “-dipity” ending which makes them want to say it or write it, and so its original meaning has gradually eroded away. The definition above comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, but a quick search of the internet turns up a more compact version of the same thing:

Finding something good without looking for it

So merely happening on some money lying in the street nowadays counts as serendipity.

Which is a shame, because it used to mean something different, nuanced and more useful. The word was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, the Whig politician and author of the proto-Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. And he wrote a famous letter to Horace Mann explaining its origin:

This discovery [a piece of useful information Walpole had chanced upon], indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have no better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity?

Later in the same letter, Walpole condenses his definition of serendipity down to two words: “accidental sagacity”.

Unfortunately, Walpole’s derivation didn’t really match his definition. The three princes of the story were supremely observant and sagacious—forerunners of Sherlock Holmes, in fact. From clues along the roadside they deduced that a camel they had never seen was not only blind in one eye, but also lame, missing a tooth, carrying a load of honey on one side and butter on the other, and ridden by a pregnant woman. The accidental aspect in the story is minimal.

But what Walpole seems to have had in mind, with his “accidental sagacity”, seems to be pretty much what Louis Pasteur was talking about when he said:

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
(In the realms of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.)

From a lecture at the University of Lille (1854)

So serendipity is an unlooked-for discovery, for sure, but the sort that requires a degree of observation and thought to appreciate its value. Alexander Fleming‘s discovery of penicillin is perhaps the archetype of that kind of serendipity in science—the chance observation that an unwanted fungus colony on an agar plate had killed the staphylococci growing around it. Fleming’s sagacity converted that accident into a medical revolution, with the introduction of antibiotics. The event is commemorated by the Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award, an award for a “person or organisation that built a thriving business on an idea that originated in the most unexpected or surprising way”.

Serendipity languished, rarely used, for two centuries after Walpole coined it—then it seems to have been suddenly discovered in the 1940s, and its popularity has ramped steadily ever since, as its Google Ngram shows:

Google NGram "serendipity"

Along the way, it accreted a new meaning, which has run in parallel with Walpole’s original usage, and with the increasingly common “finding something good unexpectedly” interpretation. Margot Lee Shetterly put it this way:

Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one things encounters something else: the unexpected.

Hidden Figures (2016)

The medical educator Julius Comroe, Jr. put it differently:

Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.

Quoted by Eldon Taylor, What Does That Mean? (2010)

The idea here is that it’s not merely a chance encounter, seized on sagaciously, but that serendipity happens when you’re looking for something else. Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays falls into this category—he was experimenting with electron beams in a partially evacuated glass tube, when he noticed that a fluorescent screen across the room lit up when he activated his apparatus. Röntgen gave up on the electron investigations he had planned, and devoted himself to studying the mysterious “X” rays that his apparatus was generating. He then experienced another moment of the same kind of serendipity. During a series of experiments in which he tried to block the penetrating X-rays from reaching his fluorescent screen, he was reaching out to place a piece of lead in the ray path, when he inadvertently got his hand in the way instead, and caught sight of the silhouette of the bones of his hand projected on to the screen.

The etymology of serendipity is pretty clear from Walpole’s letter—he took the three princes’ country of origin, Serendip, and appended the suffix -ity, which we use to generate the name of a state or condition from its adjective. So we have purity, the state of being pure; inferiority, the state of being inferior; suavity, the state of being suave, and so on. The suffix came to us from French -ité, which in turn came from Latin -itas, both of which do the same job as the English version. We have a unique case in which both the English and Latin versions are current—gravity and gravitas, performing slightly different functions.

Cover of The View From SerendipSerendip was not a mythical place—it was the island we now call Sri Lanka. (In 1977 Arthur C. Clarke, who lived for most of his life in Sri Lanka, published a collection of essays entitled The View From Serendip, dealing with, among other things, the serendipity of his arrival on the island.) The original Persian was Sarandip, which came ultimately from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, “island of the Sinhala people”. The Greek version was Selediba, and that seems to be the origin of the name Ceylon, by which Sri Lanka was previously known.

The Tamil people of Sri Lanka use the name Eelam, which has various competing and abstruse etymologies. Tamil Eelam is the name given to an aspirational independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

A Sinhalese name for the island was Tamraparni, variously translated as a reference to copper-coloured leaves or red trees. The Greeks borrowed that one as Taprobana, which found its way into Ptolemy’s Geographia in the second century, and so enjoyed some currency in mediaeval Europe.

Ptolemy's map of Taprobana

Arthur Clarke borrowed it (as Taprobane) for the name of a fictional equatorial island in the Indian Ocean, in his novel The Fountains Of Paradise.

And finally there was Lanka, the name of the island used in classical Indian epic poems. With the Sanskrit honorific prefix Sri, it was adopted as the name of the newly independent republic in 1972.

Perihelion: Part 1


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

Not to be confused with the parhelion, which I wrote about last month. Today (4 January 2017), the Earth is at perihelion, its closest to the sun, a mere 98% of its average distance. On 3 July 2017, it will be at aphelion, its farthest from the sun, 2% farther than average. In the short term, perihelion and aphelion occur at pretty much the same time of year, year on year, so the southern hemisphere has its summer when the Earth is close to the sun, and its winter when we’re farthest away. In the northern hemisphere that seasonal rhythm is reverse, and it makes the northern summers just a little cooler, and the northern winters just a little warmer, than their counterparts in the southern hemisphere.

Perihelion & aphelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

If you want the dates of Earth’s perihelion and aphelion for the next few years, you can find a table here, confirming that they’ll hang about in early January and early July for the rest of the century.

Perihelion comes from Greek peri-, signifying “around” or “close” and helios, “sun”. Aphelion instead uses the Greek prefix apo-, meaning “off” or “away”. Many folk pronounce the word to keep the “ap” separate from the “helion”, which seems fair enough. But the Oxford English Dictionary, conscious of the way the Classical Greek apo- would turn to aph- when it ran up against the “h” in helion , tells us to pronounce the “ph” as “f”. So it’s əˈfiːlɪən. The “ap-helion” crowd, unaware of the Classical Greek argument, look down on the “afelion” crowd, thinking they just don’t understand how the word is formed. And the “afelion” crowd look down on the “ap-helion” crowd, thinking they just don’t understand how the word is formed. So if you’re ever called upon to discuss an aphelion (I know this happens to me from time to time), your best bet is to duck the issue and let someone else pronounce it first.

Appropriately enough, both words were coined by Johannes Kepler, the man who first realized that the planets moved around the sun in elliptical orbits. He formed the words by analogy with two older words, perigee and apogee, which come from Greek gea, “the earth”. Astronomers before Kepler used these words to designate the points in a planet’s orbit when it was closest too and farthest from the Earth, at a time when all the planets were assumed to be going around the Earth, rather than the sun. Nowadays, they’re used only for things that are really in orbit around the Earth—the moon and artificial satellites.

These two pairs of words have formed the basis for many other, newer coinings, according to which object a body orbits around. For orbits around stars other than our sun, we have periastron and apastron, from Greek astron, “star”; for orbits around the galaxy, we have perigalacticon and apogalacticon, from the Greek galaxias, “the Milky Way”.

For orbits in general, there’s periapsis and apoapsis, which together take a Greek plural, and are called the apsides. The original Greek was aphis, “fastening”, a word that was also applied to the curved sections of wood that were fastened together to form the rim of a wheel. (In English, these are called felloes, in case you’re wondering.) So that’s a nice designation for the sections of the orbit that are nearest to and farthest from the centre. The apse of a church has the same derivation, because of its curved shape. For those who aren’t Classical Greek wheelwrights, there are modern equivalents to the apsidal names that make the meaning more obvious, at the expense of being hybrid wordspericentre and apocentre. Perifocus and apofocus are also sometimes used, and are more mathematically correct—an object in an elliptical orbit is moving around one focus of the ellipse, not its centre.

So really, once we know the words for the apsides and their synonyms, which are completely general terms, we shouldn’t need any more specific apsidal words. That hasn’t stopped people inventing them, though.

As soon as we started thinking about sending spacecraft to the moon, the words pericynthion and apocynthion were contrived. And I mean contrived—cynthia means “of Cynthos”, the mountain on the island Delos where the moon goddess Artemis / Diana was said to have been born. So the name Cynthia has a long history in English of being used as a poetic reference to the moon. But why this rather convoluted derivation was preferred to the much more straightforward periselene and aposelene, from Greek selene, “moon”, is anyone’s guess. But the –cynthions became the preferred terms of the Apollo program, and the –selenes languished and were rarely used. A pair of hybrid Greek/Latin words was also invented that made more immediate sense—perilune and apolune, from the Latin luna, “moon”. An effort was made to press two pairs of words into service with different meanings—the –lunes for spacecraft launched from the moon, and the –cynthions for spacecraft launched from elsewhere. But it doesn’t seem to have ever been a consistent distinction. The Google Ngram for these words shows an interesting double spike—one in the ’60s and ’70s, during the Apollo missions, and one in the ’90s when the moon was revisited by unmanned spacecraft after a decade-long hiatus.

When we come to the individual planets (and Pluto) you’ll find a neat list being cut-and-pasted around the internet. It has the merit of pairing Greek versions of the planet names with Greek prefixes, avoiding the dreaded creation of hybrid words from mixed Greek and Latin roots. For each body, simply combine peri- or apo- with a suffix from the following list.

  • -hermion (Hermes, Greek equivalent of Mercury)
  • -cytherion (Cytheræa, “of Cythera”, another name for Aphrodite,  Greek equivalent of Venus)
  • -areion (Ares, Greek equivalent of Mars)
  • -zene (Zeno-, a combining form of Zeus, Greek equivalent of Jupiter)
  • -krone (Shortened form of Kronos, Greek equivalent of Saturn)
  • -uranion (Uranus is a Latinized version of Greek Ouranos)
  • -poseidion (Poseidon, Greek equivalent of Neptune)
  • -hadion (Hades, Greek equivalent of Pluto)

Neat, eh? Trouble is, almost none of them are words in active use by scientists and engineers. If you search the full text of all the astrophysics papers held in the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, you won’t find a single occurrence of pericytherion, apocytherion, perizene, apozene, periuranion, apouranion, periposeidion, apoposeidion, perihadion or apohadion—tens of thousands of papers, two hundred years, not one occurrence of any of them. Nor will you find them mentioned in any of the books scanned by Google Ngram Viewer. That’s remarkable, isn’t it? Where on earth do these unused words come from, if not from books and scientific literature? They come from Wikipedia—some time in the early 2000s it seems that someone at Wikipedia just made up a list of nice Greek words, and they’ve been echoing around the internet ever since, without a single citation in the scientific literature to support them.

So what words are actually being used? There are a couple of citations for -hermion, but they are hugely outweighed by periherm and apoherm (and a condensed equivalent, apherm)—the technical terms adopted by the scientists involved in the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. Although Venus has been orbited by several spacecraft, there seems to be no specific term relating to that planet, apart from very rare appearances of perivenus and apovenus, which seems to indicate a significant failure of imagination. For Mars, periareion and apoareion (or their condensed equivalents, periareon and apoareon) seem to be the words of choice across several missions. At Jupiter, perijove and apojove are the words actually in use (from Jove, a Latin alternative name for Jupiter), with a usage record going back to the early nineteenth century. Perijovium and apojovium are rare (and usually old) variants. For Saturn, perikrone and apokrone (or their equivalents perichrone and apochrone) have been in use since the turn of the millennium, but perisaturnium and aposaturnium have been used more often, with a history stretching back to the nineteenth century. Beyond that point in the solar system, it goes quiet. Periuranium was last used in 1922, and there are a couple of citations for perineptune and peripluto.

This is all very odd, if you think about. Orbits have various defining characteristics, and the pericentre is just one—there’s the orbit’s eccentricity and period, for instance, to pick a couple of easy ones. But we never talk about the “hermioeccentricity” or the “cytherioperiod”—one name is good enough for a given parameter, no matter where the orbit is. But the historical precedents of perihelion and perigee seem to have convinced (some) people that they need to find a new pericentre name for every kind of orbit that turns up.

As a case in point, there’s the fact that there are already two names in the scientific literature for “closest approach to a black hole”—peribothron (from Greek bothros, “hole or pit”) and perinigricon (apparently a double hybrid, combining the Greek prefix peri- and Greek suffix -icon with Latin niger, “black”). And another one crops up in fiction—physicist Geoffrey Landis (whom we last encountered when I wrote about human vacuum exposure) has written a science fiction story (you can read it here) which uses the word perimelasma, from the Greek melasma, “black spot”. I suppose it’s easier to defend the case for coming up with a fancy but pointless word in a work of fiction—it’s just unfortunate that Landis chose to use the name of a common skin condition.

Anyway, that’s enough for this time. I had planned on writing about words derived from peri- and apo-, and words derived from the sun, but got distracted by the sheer number of different kinds of named pericentres. So I’ll write about all those other words in Part 2.



Yuletide: The Christmas season

US armed forces Christmas greeting card, 1944, War in the Pacific
A greeting card from the War in the Pacific. Read more about it here.

Yule is a bit of an etymological orphan. The origins of the word are obscure, but it seems to have been the name of a twelve-day pagan winter festival, celebrated among the ancient speakers of the Germanic language family, and called jól in Old Norse*. As with many other pagan festivals, it was later hijacked by Christianity, so the word yule became synonymous with Christmas and Christmas celebrations. The only words it has spawned in English are compounds: yule-log (a log traditionally burned in the hearth at Christmas, and surely a relic of yule’s pagan past), yule-song (another name for Christmas carols), and of course yuletide—Christmas time.

The use of tide to mean “the time at which something happens” is ancient, and precedes its present meaning. So we have eventide, “evening time”; Christmastide, “Christmas time” and Lammastide, the Scottish Lammas festival on August 1st. And we used to have St Andrew’s tide, and similar names for all manner of other saint’s days; summer’s tide, and all the other seasons; and even April-tide, May-tide and so on through the months.

Something that happened in a timely manner was tidy. That word has gradually crept away from all association with time, at first coming to mean “satisfactory” (still with us in phrases like, “a tidy sum of money”), and finally “neat” or “orderly”.

Two archaic words that are still in occasional use preserve the original meaning of tide. If something betides you, it happens to you—nowadays, it seems to be only woe that betides anyone. And tidings are an announcement of something that has happened. In pleasing counterpoint to the woeful usage of betide, we have the Christmas phrase “good tidings of great joy” from the King James version of the gospel of Luke.

Round about the time of Chaucer, sailors began to refer to the times of high and low water at sea as the tides. (Prior to that, Old English had referred to the high water as flód and the low water as ebba—words that are with us still in the form of flood tide and ebb tide.) After a while, the association with time was lost, and the word tide became associated with the physical phenomenon itself.

But before that time, English had two words, time and tide, that meant approximately the same thing. The proverb “Time and tide wait for no man” has its origins during that period. So it has nothing to do with the tides of the sea—it’s warning us that time passes, and if we don’t get things done at their due time (their tide), we’ll have missed an opportunity that may not come again. (If you search the internet, you’d be forgiven for forming the idea that Geoffrey Chaucer originated the “time and tide” proverb. But he never wrote such a thing—what he did was to make references in his writing that suggest the phrase already existed in his time.)

Cover of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European RootsWhen we see two words with similar sounds and similar meanings, it’s usually telling us that they have a common origin, but have arrived in English by different routes. And that’s the story with time and tide. They both go back to a reconstructed Indo-European root that sounded something like di-, which was associated with the meaning “to divide”. There was also an Indo-European root used to form abstract nouns from verbal roots: ti-. So the Indo-European root di-ti-, “an abstract thing that divides”, is what flowed down through the old Germanic languages to give us Old English tid, “tide”. However, if you combined Indo-European di- with mon-, “neck”, you got di-mon-, “a physical thing that divides” and it was Indo-European di-mon- that evolved into Germanic ti-mon- and then Old English tima, “time”, shedding its physical nature somewhere along the way.

The story with di- is a little more complicated, though. Indo-European indulged in various vowel shifts to generate various bits of grammar, and di- is actually a variant of the basic form, da-. Another variant of the same root, dai-, when attached to mon-, “neck”, evolved into the  Greek’s word daimon, designating a supernatural spirit that existed in the divide between humans and gods. That gave us the English word demon, for an evil supernatural creature. But we preserve the Greek sense with a slightly different spelling—mon, for a supernatural creature that is not (necessarily) evil in intent. Philip Pullman used the latter word extensively in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

And, come to think of it, you could probably make a case for Santa’s elves being dæmons, too.

* Modern Pagans still celebrate Yule, usually on a single day around the Northern Winter solstice. Opinion varies on whether to use 21st December every year, or to track the astronomical solstice more closely as it flips back and forth between the 21st and the 22nd with the leap years.

Names Of Trigonometric Functions

Trigonometry in actionsaɪn

sine: Originally, the length of a straight line drawn from one end of a circular arc parallel to the tangent at the other end, and terminated by the radius; in modern use, the ratio of this line to the radius


secant: Originally, the length of a straight line drawn from the centre of a circular arc through one end of the arc, and terminated by the tangent or line touching the arc at the other end; in modern use, the ratio of this line to the radius


tangent: Originally, the length of a straight line perpendicular to the radius touching one end of the arc and terminated by the secant drawn from the centre through the other end; in modern use, the ratio of this line to the radius

Yes, those definitions definitely need explanatory diagrams, and I’ll come to that in a minute. First, a bit of background.

The word trigonometry comes from Greek trigonon, “triangle”, and metria, “measurement”—it’s the mathematics of triangle measurement.

Cover of Chambers Four-Figure Mathematical TablesBack in the Dark Ages before electronic calculators and personal computers, there were things called trigonometric tables, which listed various properties of right-angled triangles—you looked up an angle of the triangle, and the table gave you the ratio of two of its sides. For a given angle, you could find out about the ratios of different sides of the triangle by checking the appropriate trigonometric function of that angle—functions with exotic names of obscure origin, like the ones listed at the head of this post. I still own a rather sexy set of trig. tables, which I take off the shelf and pat nostalgically from time to time.

The earliest trigonometrical tables we know of were prepared by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea, who lived in the second century BC. In a lost work entitled Ton en kukloi eutheion (Of Lines Inside A Circle), he listed the lengths of the chords of a circle of standard circumference, which he set at 21600 units (the number of arcminutes in 360º). He provided a length for chords drawn at regular angular increments of 45 units, which corresponds to 7.5º.

Here’s a diagram of one such angle and its corresponding chord:

One of Hipparchus' chords
One of Hipparchus’s chords
An angle of 3600 units (60 degrees) produces a chord 3438 units long

Each chord formed the base of an isosceles triangle inscribed within the circle. If you understood that all triangles with the same angles have sides in similar ratios (which the Ancient Greeks did), then you could use the data from Hipparchus’s table to work out the length of the sides of other isosceles triangles with the same apex angle.

In fact, Hipparchus’s table worked exactly like the modern sine function. The only differences between the two are a simple matter of the multipliers involved:

  • To work with Hipparchus’s table, you needed to first work out the radius of his standard 21600-unit circle, because two sides of his isosceles triangle are formed by radii of the standard circle. Modern trigonometric functions effectively set the radius of the circle to equal one, which is much easier for scaling.
  • The “chord values” Hipparchus listed for each angle are, in modern terms, twice the sine of half the angle.

If we go back to the definition of sine at the head of this post, you can maybe see where “twice the sine of half the angle” comes from. Here’s the original definition again:

The length of a straight line drawn from one end of a circular arc parallel to the tangent at the other end, and terminated by the radius

The line originally defined as the sine
The line originally defined as the sine
In modern terms, the sine of the central angle is the ratio between this line and the radius:
“opposite over hypotenuse”, in other words

It should be apparent from the diagram that the “sine line” is half the length of Hipparchus’s chord, and is based on half its central angle.

Sine comes from the Latin sinus, “bay”, and you can see the little bay that’s formed between the sine line and the arc of the circle.

Now, here’s the original secant definition again:

The length of a straight line drawn from the centre of a circular arc through one end of the arc, and terminated by the tangent or line touching the arc at the other end

The line originally defined as the secant
The line originally defined as the secant
In modern terms, the secant of the central angle is the ratio between this line and the radius:
“hypotenuse over adjacent”, in other words

Secant comes from Latin secare, “to cut”, because it cuts across the arc of the circle.

And the tangent was defined in terms of the secant:

The length of a straight line perpendicular to the radius touching one end of the arc and terminated by the secant drawn from the centre through the other end

The line originally defined as the tangent
The line originally defined as the tangent
In modern terms, the tangent of the central angle is the ratio between this line and the radius:
“opposite over adjacent”, in other words

Tangent comes from Latin tangere “to touch”, because it just touches the arc of the circle.

Each of these basic trigonometric functions had a complementary function, flagged by the prefix co-, which comes from a similar Latin prefix meaning “jointly” or “together”. So we also have cosine, cosecant and cotangent. I’m going to skate straight past the detailed meaning of these complementary functions, but it turns out that the six trigonometric functions  explore all possible ratios of the three sides of a right-angle triangle. Three of them are inverses of the other three:

cotangent = 1/tangent
cosecant = 1/sine
cosine = 1/secant

So you can do trigonometry using just three functions, one from each row above. Which is why, when I was at school, I never heard about secants—we used sine, cosine and tangent, and took inverses whenever we needed to.

But back to the original trio. We have sine, which forms a bay within the curve; secant, which cuts the curve; and tangent, which touches the curve. The obscure names actually make sense!

Sinus Iridum
Sinus Iridum, “Bay of Rainbows”, on the Moon
(Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera image)

Latin sinus, “bay”, comes into English unchanged in the form of the sinuses in your head that can become inflamed with sinusitis. Each sinus air cavity has a narrow entrance and a broad inner extension, like a sheltered bay. Something that winds back and forth creating bay-like curves is sinuous or sinuate. The act of winding about is sinuation. And if we introduce an idea in a tortuous and winding fashion, we insinuate it.

Latin secare, “to cut”, gives us lots of cutting words ending in –sect. Bisect, trisect, quadrisect and quinquesect are the verbs for cutting something in two, three, four or five equal parts. To intersect is to cut across something, to dissect is to cut something up, to resect is to cut something out, and to prosect is to cut something in advance—the process of dissecting a specimen for an anatomical demonstration. To persecate is to cut, to desecate is to cut something free of entanglement, and secament is material that has been cut off something else (like the wood chips left over from whittling). If something can be cut, it is secable or sectile. A sector and a segment are both things that are cut off from a greater whole. Secateurs are cutting implements. The full etymology of sickle is unclear, but it may well have arrived in the Germanic languages from the Latin. (Sect, on the other hand, is more likely to have evolved from Latin sequi, “to follow”.)

Latin tangere, “to touch”, appears in the Latin phrase noli me tangere, “do not touch me”, which has been adopted as a motto by many families, including the Tobins, St Aubins, Itersons and the Graemes of Perthshire, as well as by several military organizations.

Iterson family crest and motto
Iterson family crest and motto

It’s actually a Biblical phrase, the Latin rendering of New Testament Greek me mou haptou. These words were reputedly said by the reincarnated Jesus to Mary Magdalene, and a better translation would have been “do not cling to me”.

The extent to which noli me tangere influenced the Revolutionary American phrase “Don’t tread on me!” seems not to be particularly clear, although the two phrases are nowadays bandied about as if one were a direct translation of the other. But “don’t tread on me” would actually be noli me calcare, which is a phrase from St Augustine, not the Bible.

Gadsen Flag
The Gadsden flag of Revolutionary America

Perhaps the current confusion between “don’t tread on me” and noli me tangere was fostered by the flag of the Secessionist State of Alabama, which in 1861 adopted the coiled rattlesnake of the Gadsden flag (emerging appropriately from under a cotton bush), but substituted noli me tangere for “don’t tread on me”.

Alabama state flag (reverse) 1861
The reverse of the state flag of secessionist Alabama in 1861

Tangere is the origin of tangible, referring to something you can touch. Things that touch or influence each other are contiguous or contingent, and a disease spread by bodily contact is contagious. Pertingency is the act of reaching out to touch something. Something that is integer is untouched, meaning whole or undamaged—hence the integers are the series of whole numbers.

From the past participle of tangere comes Latin tactus, “touch”. Tact was originally a word for the sense of touch before it took on its current meaning of “a sense of what is appropriate”. Tactile still refers to something relating to touch, while tactful refers to someone who has a sense of tact. And if something is intact it is untouched, and therefore whole. Finally, I can’t help but mention Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty again—a fifteenth-century Scottish writer, translator and maniacal word-coiner. For a sample of his deranged writing style, you can look at the long quotation at the bottom of my previous post on aegophony, which contains the word tacturiency—the erotic sensation of touch.




nosism: The use of “we” in stating one’s own opinions.

Cover of Adolf Hitler: My Part In His DownfallTwo minutes later, a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said, “As from eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE.)

Spike Milligan, Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall (1971)

Milligan is accusing Neville Chamberlain of nosism there, for comic effect. The word comes from Latin nos, “we”, combined with the ubiquitous suffix -ism. Little -ism can do a lot of different things. It derives from Greek -ismos and Latin -ismus, which were used to form nouns of action from verbs, and -ism still does that job—baptize/baptism, for instance. But it is also used to designate the actions of particular kinds of people (heroism, patriotism), to denote a characteristic linguistic feature (Scotticism, Americanism, Spoonerism), to form words relating to prejudice and discrimination (racism, ageism, sexism) and to give names to all sorts of ideas and practices (radicalism, Buddhism, idealism). This last category is the one that nosism falls into; it’s also a continuing and fertile source of new -isms, to the extent that the perceived overuse of the -ism suffix has its own name—ismism.

Perhaps the most frequently cited example of nosism is Queen Victoria’s “We are not amused.” The phrase comes from an anecdote told in the anonymously authored book The Notebooks of a Spinster Lady 1878-1903 (which may have been written by Maria Shaw-Lefevre, sister of George Shaw-Lefevre, 1st Baron Eversley; or by Caroline Holland, daughter of Sir Henry Holland, 1st Baronet—take your pick). The story goes:

There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during
dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. “We are not amused,” said the Queen when he had finished.

Now, there’s an argument that Victoria might have been speaking on behalf of the all ladies present, and so using the word “we” in an entirely conventional way; but it’s usually assumed that she was employing nosism—specifically the royal we, or pluralis majestis. That usage is said to have its origin in the mediaeval notion of the Divine Right of Kings—since royal status came with divine approval, a sovereign spoke both personally and on behalf of God.

Pluralis majestis is not much used nowadays. Back in 1972, Queen Elizabeth II even poked fun at it. Speaking on behalf of herself and her husband during the celebration of their silver wedding anniversary, she said: “We—and by that I mean both of us—are most grateful …” Not many people have the opportunity to make a joke like that.

Pluralis majestis is an “exclusive we”—the person being addressed is not part of the “we”. Another exclusive we is the editorial we, in which journalists (particularly when writing anonymous editorials) take on the mantle of speaking on behalf of their organization. This lofty affectation has been frequently mocked:

It will be perceived that I have not availed myself of the editorial privilege of using the plural noun in speaking of myself. This is simply because I consider it a ridiculous affectation. I am a ‘lone, lorn man,’ unmarried, (the LORD be praised for His infinite mercy!) and though blessed with a consuming appetite, which causes the keepers of the house where I board to tremble, I do not think I have a tape-worm; therefore I have no claim whatever to call myself ‘WE:’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.

“John Phoenix” (George Derby), Phoenixiana (1856)

(See Quote Investigator‘s fine article for a very great deal more on that topic.)

So much for exclusive nosism. There’s an inclusive version, too—usually called the authorial we or pluralis auctoris, though it might more accurately be called the academic we, since it’s most commonly used by academic writers and speakers. Here’s an example from A.P. French‘s Newtonian Mechanics (I’ll elide the equations):

 From the geometry of the situation, it is possible to express both of the angles θ and φ in terms of two fixed distances, r and R, and the variable distance s. By two separate applications of the cosine rule we have:
From the first of these, by differentiation, we have:
Hence, substituting the values of cos φ and sin θ dθ in Eq. (8-12), we obtain:

And so on. French is of course doing all this work himself; his nosism is a hopeful effort to include the reader who is following along with the mathematics.

Pluralis auctoris, in which nosism is used in the expectation that the reader is included in the “we”, is one end of a spectrum of usage that extends to pluralis modestiae (the “modest plural”). In modestiae, the nosism is no more than a polite formulation—the speaker is an expert, and knows that the listener isn’t really part of the “we”, but uses the inclusive construction anyway, so as to soften the impression of giving a lecture. Our plumber is very good at pluralis modestiae—whenever I make a bright but unworkable suggestion he sucks his teeth for a moment and then says, “Well, we wouldn’t do that because …” It’s evident to both of us that I would have done exactly what I suggested, but the pluralis modestiae lets him tell me I’m wrong without appearing to tell me I’m wrong. In the academic world, it’s sometimes difficult to know if the speaker is using pluralis auctoris or pluralis modestiae—often, it’s a mixture of both.

Then, of course, there’s a sort of reverse nosism in which the speaker uses “we” but means “you”. I haven’t been able to find a specific word for this usage, but it’s often called the patronizing we:

And how are we today, Mrs Smith?

The name seems to be a good one—I’ve been trying to think of a non-patronizing example of this usage, but haven’t come up with any so far.

Talking about yourself in the third person is called illeism, from Latin ille, “he”. Julius Caesar did this in The Gallic War, presumably to lend his writing a spurious air of impartiality. More commonly, it’s used to transmit either humility (“Your servant awaits your bidding”) or superiority (“Professor Smith is not very pleased with you today”), by emphasizing the role rather than the person. The word illeism is also used to designate overuse of the third person pronoun, instead of using a person’s name. For some reason this seems to have been considered particularly offensive in the feminine—when I was a child, repeated use of “she” would earn the recondite reprimand, “Who’s ‘she’, the cat’s mother?” There seems to be no male equivalent.

Tuism, from Latin tu, “thou”, is (you’ve guessed it) the word for referring to yourself in the second person—it doesn’t come up much, apart from as something some people do when talking to themselves. It has a selection of other meanings, too—in ethics, the practice of putting the interest of others before your own; in linguistics, the use of the familiar second person pronoun (“thou”) rather than a more formal version. There hasn’t been much concern over linguistic tuism in English since the word thou fell out of use, but in other languages that have retained their familiar second person pronouns, it’s more of a big deal. In French, for instance, it involves the transition from calling someone vous to calling them tu—a process the French call tutoiement, with an accompanying verb, tutoyer.

Interestingly, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge sometimes gets the credit for coining both illeism and tuism. He was something of a wordsmith (I’ve mentioned him before in relation to the word transnihilation), and he is certainly the author of the earliest illustrative citations for illeism and tuism recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. He seems to have used them in conscious contrast with egotism (Latin ego, “I”), which in Coleridge’s day meant “overuse of the first person singular”—that is, talking about yourself too much.

But illeism, tuism and nosism certainly provide a selection of ways to talk about yourself too much without ever having to use the word “I”.



-ize: a suffix used to form verbs from adjectives and nouns

Ubiquitization: This is a strategy adopted by service firms in order to physically distribute their products and services ‘everywhere’.

Jones & Robinson, Operations Management (2012)

A variety of  specific E2 carrier protein and E3 enzyme pairs impart another important level of selectivity through their capacity to catalyze the ubiquitization of certain targeted proteins or classes of protein.

Stump & Nair in Joslin’s Diabetes Mellitus, 14th Ed. (2007)

Ubiquitization. Now, there’s a word. It’s the sort of word that people object to, the sort of new coining with -ize that seems to set the teeth on edge. Interestingly, for a new word, it has already acquired two different meanings, illustrated above. Jones & Robinson are using it as you might expect, forming a verb from the adjective ubiquitous. But Stump & Nair have formed the same word from the noun ubiquitin, the name of a protein that is extremely widespread in eukaryotic cells, in which it appears to have many roles, including marking other proteins down for degradation when it binds to them, in a process variously called ubiquination, ubiquitylation or ubiquitization. (Me, I’d stick with ubiquination. Life’s too short for the other two.)

People have been objecting to -ize words for years—in the nineteenth century the recently popular words demoralize, deputize and jeopardize were taken to be signs that the English language was in terminal decline. (The American lexicographer Noah Webster, of whom more later, actually claimed to have coined the word demoralize in a pamphlet written around 1793. But in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1828 he dismissed jeopardize as being unneeded because there was already a perfectly good verb from jeopardy, namely to jeopard. Sadly, jeopard was already dead when he wrote those words—Samuel Johnson had been criticized in 1755 for including such an obsolete word in his own Dictionary.)

Perhaps there are still people around who dislike the word jeopardize. There are certainly  those who still condemn hospitalize as something ugly and new-fangled, even though it’s been in use for more than a century. Of other hated -ize words, prioritize has been around since the 1950s, and incentivize since the ’60s.

The other thing about -ize that seems to raise people’s ire is what I’m doing right now—using British English spelling, but with the -ize suffix instead of -ise. A surprising number of people seem to believe that -ize is an Americanism, and -ise is the correct British spelling.

However, -ize is what I was taught at school, and it’s the standard spelling used by that bastion of British English, the Oxford English Dictionary. British English speakers frequently encounter British English documents using -ize, but many must either fail to notice, assume an error has been made, or deduce that yet another creeping Americanism has crossed the Atlantic.

But British English was using -ize long before there was an America. for instance, the OED‘s list of citations attests the spelling realize in 1611, whereas realise doesn’t appear until 1755, in a letter written by Samuel Johnson (I’ll come back to that).

Why are there two spellings? The suffix -ize comes from the Greek verb-forming suffix -izein and the Latin -izare. Words that came into English direct from the Classical languages therefore brought a z with them. But some words arrived with us more circuitously, via French. The French language doesn’t have much use for the letter z in the middle of a word, and so replaced it with an s. So Greek baptizein, Latin baptizare, became baptiser in French—“to baptize”. So if English imported a word from French, it came with -ise as the default ending. But there are several problems with using a mixture of -ize and -ise according to a word’s origin: 1) No-one could keep track of that; 2) Sometimes we can’t tell which route a word followed; 3) Sometimes a word arrived by both routes; 4) We’re still inventing -ize/-ise words, within English, and often from words that are not Latin, Greek or French—winterize, for example.

So it really comes down to nothing more than “house style”—publishers (and individual writers) get to choose whether they use -ize or -ise, albeit with certain limitations I’ll come to in a minute. There is no right or wrong, merely a matter of consistency.

Johnson (who, you’ll recall, wrote the OED‘s first example of realise) seems to have been a fan of the -ise variant, but not consistently so. His dictionary has (for example) an entry for epitomise, but also for  gormandize. The latter, being derived from the French, would seem to be a good candidate for the -ise suffix, if you were that way inclined.Johnson's Dictionary "epitomise"

Johnson's Dictionary "gormandize"
Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Noah Webster, though, came down firmly on the side of -ize, partly from etymology, but mainly for consistency and uniformity with pronunciation. His choice has made American English the only version of English in which -ize is required and -ise forbidden. He also established the American spelling -yze (as in analyze), which never occurs in British English (analyse).

Webster's Elementary Spelling Book
Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book (1783)

But British English has always kept a foot in both camps. Back in 1926, Henry Fowler wrote:

Most English printers follow the French practice of changing -ize to -ise; but the OED of the Oxford University Press, the Encyclopaedia Britannica of the Cambridge University Press, The Times, & American usage, in all of which -ize is the accepted form, carry authority enough to outweigh superior numbers.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Since then, Oxford University Press and the OED have held the line, to the extent that the use of -ize is sometimes called “Oxford spelling”. However, the University of Oxford style guide (for staff writing on behalf of the University) recommends -ise. Cambridge University Press’s style guide for British English nowadays allows either -ise or -ize. The Times switched from -ize to -ise in 1992. And the Encyclopædia Britannica is now an American publication that speaks of aluminum, sulfur and defense, and so can’t be taken as an exemplar of British spelling any longer.

 So is -ize now vanishingly rare? Not at all. I did a search of the British National Corpus (100 million words of British English text from the 1990s) using Brigham Young University’s handy search tool. I took the ten most common -ize verbs in the Corpus, and checked the proportion of -ise and -ize forms. (Since you ask, they were realize, recognize, organize, emphasize, minimize, criticize, apologize, maximize, characterize and summarize.) Overall, the -ize ending was used 37% of the time. As a quick check on the extent to which the Corpus might be contaminated by (say) quotes from American English, I checked for the occurrence of aluminum, sulfur and pajamas, which were the chosen spelling less than 1% of the time.

So -ize is still in common enough use in British English that it’s something of a puzzle that so many Brits seem not to have noticed.

There are a couple of reasons you might want to use -ise, however. One was given to me by the editor of a new publishing house, who told me he was going with –ise “… because we don’t want people to think we’ve got it wrong.”

The other reason is that you don’t need to remember so many exceptions. There are about 30 common verbs in English, ending with the sound -aɪz, that must be spelled -ise (even in American English). That’s because, although they happen to have an -aɪz ending, it doesn’t come from Greek -izein, Latin -izare or French -iser. These verbs get their -ise spelling from some other etymological source.

One broad group has the -ise as part of a larger etymological unit. So we have:
Verbs ending in -cise (“cutting”):
circumcise, excise, incise
Verbs ending in -mise (“putting”):
demise, premise, surmise
Verbs ending in -prise (“taking”):
apprise, comprise, enterprise, prise (as in “prise open”), surprise
Verbs ending in -vise (“seeing”):
advise, improvise *, revise, supervise

Another group are those verbs that are derived from a noun which contains -ise:
compromise, disguise, enterprise, exercise, franchise (+ enfranchise & disenfranchise), merchandise, premise
(Verbs premise and enterprise appear in this list and the one above, because there is some doubt about their route of arrival in English.)

A couple are back-formations from nouns containing an s:
advertise (from advertisement), televise (from television)

Finally there are a few that don’t fall into the categories above:
arise, rise (Old English)
despise (Latin despicere, “to look down upon”)
devise (? late Latin *divisare, frequentative of dividere, “to divide”)
chastise (etymology unclear, but not Greek, Latin or French)

There are others: agrise (“to shudder with horror”, from Old English), emprise (“to undertake”, -prise suffix), hypocrise (back-formation from hypocrisy). Altogether, include rare and obsolete words, the list stretches beyond sixty.

So when you use the -ize ending, you have to bear all those in mind.

Whereas, if you go for -ise, you can forget all that detail. But just be sure to remember capsize. No-one knows its derivation, but it’s always spelled with -ize.

* You might wonder what improvise has to do with “seeing”. It comes from the prefix im-, meaning “not”, and Latin provisus, “foreseen”. You improvise in unforeseen circumstances.