pulsatilla

Spring on Cougar Mountain, the rocky backyard hill of Exshaw, was a pulse of purple: waves and waves of rippling crocuses. We would go for a little hike to pick them. Such lovely things, these little purple flowers, looking like your grandmother’s eggcups, blooming around Easter on the wind-beaten slopes. The air was surely packed with pollen, but it didn’t bother me at all – my nose was filled with the fine spice of springtime, never a sneeze or a sniffle. My lungs, on the other hand, heaved with asthma from cats and dust mites, but breathed easier in the clear outdoor breeze.

In fact, my nose has rarely been a big problem for me. Colds, yes, of course, but allergies not really. One standout exception to my general sinus bienséance came when I was in graduate school in Boston. I got some kind of sinus infection. I think I may have aggravated it by trying to flush it with a neti pot. I sought some relief: I went to a bookstore and natural medicine shop in Harvard Square. I looked in their homeopathy reference and, flipping between different options and diagnoses, decided that I should give pulsatilla a try: it was associated with (among many other things) thick mucus in quantity. I bought a little vial of sugar pills that had been coated with water that had pulsatilla diluted in it to something like one molecule per mole of water. Would it provoke curative symptoms that would paradoxically result in a faster and more effective resolution of my problem?

I really can’t say for sure if the “pulsatilla” pills had anything to do with it, but my nose, for several days, produced the most prodigious quantities of phlegm imaginable. I recall teaching a test prep class – showing a couple dozen young people how to put their brains in gear for the SAT or GRE – and having to step out every five minutes to fill a half dozen Kleenices each time. (Kleenices? One index, two indices; one Kleenex, two Kleenices.) I really have no idea where all that white glop came from. Had I turned into a cousin of Moby-Dick, with my forehead all full of spermaceti?

Since then, I have associated pulsatilla with little pills and with phlegm in prodigious quantity, and also incidentally with all those things associated with phlegm, including slow pusillanimity. My sinuses are ill disposed towards it.

Which is really not fair to those pretty crocuses.

Those beautiful crocuses that populate the springtime hills and mountains of Alberta are, in fact, not crocuses, not actually. They look like crocuses. They are called, among other things, prairie crocuses. But actually they are related to buttercups. And I have learned lately that they belong to the genus Pulsatilla, flowers including the anemone and the windflower – indeed, the name Pulsatilla appears to be a reference to their being beaten (the Latin pulsa root) by the wind. (The italics aid the visual impression: Pulsatilla.)

Real crocuses grow in Europe and Asia and Africa, and some of them produce saffron, that finest, most expensive of spices. My beloved little succour of spring youth produce purple and pollen and that’s pretty much all. And they have not offended my nose; they have not stirred my sinuses; they simply palliated my perennial chest congestion with an excuse to climb into the fresh air and spur my pulse and respiration.

So now when I hear or read of pulsatilla, something nicer than an overloaded nose will spring to mind.

stupeous

I came out of the swimming pool yesterday, toweled off my hair, looked at myself in the mirror, and thought I looked positively stupeous.

Yes, that’s a real word, but not one often used. What does it mean? The context may not be especially helpful. Could it be… stupendous? No deal: the missing nd makes all the difference. Could it be… stupid? Stupefied? In a stupor? No again – no relation, in fact.

On the other hand, it does have a little in common with that towel I used. Towels tend to have little fibres sticking up from them, at least the kind of terry towels one uses after bathing. And the effect they have on hair is similar: they leave it sticking up in tufts and clumps or matted down. The appearance can be of what is called tow – which is the third resemblance to towel, in that it’s the first three letters (purely by coincidence; no relation).

And what is tow? In this case, it’s something you may not have much truck with: a bunch of flax or hemp (or other) fibres, untwisted – ready for making into rope – and thus sticking up like, hmm, well, like the hair on the head of Bart Simpson or Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Incidentally, this tow is unrelated to the tow that you can do with the rope that will be made of it.

And what has this all to do with stupeous? Well, stupeous comes from Latin stupeus, from stupa, ‘tow’. If something is stupeous, it is like tow. More to the point, it is covered in matted or tufted hairs or filaments. You could say it’s floccose or tomentose; the sense at least overlaps.

So if you have toweled hair or bedhead, you may look stupendous or you may look stupefied or just stupid, but if your hair is short and stand-up-eous you will at least look stupeous.

seeded

Those of us who watch sports – especially tennis – may admit to some deep-seeded uncertainty about a particular usage. Oh, no, sorry, deep-seated uncertainty. The usage in question is when a player is referred to as, say, the fourth-seeded player. Or is that fourth-seated? Seated would make so much sense, wouldn’t it? If it’s a ranking, we tend to talk about where people sit in relation to others, so if someone is sitting in fourth place, they’re fourth-seated, no? Except no, not in this case.

The merger of unstressed /t/ and /d/ between vowels sows the seeds of confusion here: they both become not [d] but a light flap or tap of the tongue, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [ɾ]. So seeded and seated sound the same for us in Canada and the US. The confusion is avoided in any version of English that keeps the /t/ crisp there – or turns it into a glottal stop, Cockney style. We could say that British dialects avoid this problematic direct competition more than North American ones do, generally.

Which is ironic, because the practice of seeding in sports tournaments originated in a desire to avoid problematic direct competitions that would eliminate important distinctions, and because, according to this 1924 quote from the Times, it was not so congenial to the British way of thinking:

This year, for the first time, the draw has been ‘seeded’; how little seeding accords with British notions may be gathered from there being no reference in the Oxford Dictionary—at any rate in the smaller one… In some countries the seeding is designed to keep the better players apart until the final stages.

Indeed, the first reference to seeding of this sort in the full-size Oxford English Dictionary is from 1898 in a periodical on American lawn tennis. So the Americans designed a way of avoiding problematic direct competitions in sports but in so doing created a problematic direct competition in language, while the British, who did not have the language problem, were more prone to the sport problem.

And what exactly is the sport problem? Well, in a multi-tiered playoff format, if there are random draws there is always the risk of the best competitors facing each other early on, resulting in early elimination of a competitor who would otherwise have a good chance at making it rather far. To avoid this, players known to be the best are seeded carefully – that is, placed with care in slots where they would be up against lesser players rather than each other. Just like carefully planting seeds in evenly spaced arrangement so that they will grow optimally, rather than simply scattering them carelessly.

This of course naturally led to a ranking of players, so that you knew who to keep apart for as long as possible and who could be put up against the best ones early on. The slots are prioritized for filling, with the best being seeded first: the first-seeded player. And so on. Thus those who hear “seated” will have to cede the point; we do not want this seed to grow into an eggcorn.

We may also note with interest that seat and seed come from similar-sounding roots all the way back from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic and into Old English and on up, but have always been different words meaning different things. And only now, after all those rounds, are they finally up against each other for an elimination round.

Thanks to Ron and Joan Callahan for suggesting today’s topic.

mode, model, modest

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0011.

I was recently wandering the art gallery – as is lately my mode – scanning the exhibited pictures but also appreciating the two-legged artworks engaging in the same activity. Galleries are good places to see society à la mode: the chilly cream that adorns the pie of life. The clothing is often especially modish. On this particular day, my eyes were drawn to a model of near perfection.

When I say a model, I do not think that she was actually a fashion model, although she did look like a fashion plate (perhaps the plate on which was served the pie). I was told by another person that she was a dancer. But what she was in any event was style itself: as long and lean as a stylus, wearing a dress draped loosely over her sleek figure from neck to toes and a hat with a brim so wide that from most angles her face was invisible. She was not the mode, because the mode is what is most common and she was uncommon; but as fashion is mode, and she was most fashionable, she certainly was the modest. And since her skin was covered completely and neatly concealed from view, her dress was modest, even as it was outstanding.

Is it right to play with mode and modest in that way? Surely modest is not just the superlative of mode…?

No, it’s not, but it does come from it, in a roundabout way. We start with modus, Latin for ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. From it we get mode as in the most common measurement in a set, one kind of ‘average’ (in {1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 72}, the mode is 3 although the mean is 14). We also get mode as in fashion, and as in music (Phrygian? Dorian? Phryg-Dorian?), and mood as in grammar but not as in thought (so the song ‘If I were a rich man’ is in a Phrygian mode and a subjunctive mood, and is not modest in its aspirations). And we get moderate.

Moderate, the verb, means to make something more measured, restrained. Something that has been moderated is, in Latin, modestus. Thus modest. Not extravagant. But one can have extravagantly much fabric leaving extravagantly little skin to be seen and yet consider it modest rather than simultaneously prodigal and parsimonious.

In modern times, modesty may seem outmoded. But remember that modern is a model of mode too: in Latin, modo means ‘to the measure’ or ‘in a certain manner’ and came to mean ‘just now’; that ‘just now’ sense gave birth to modernus. So, if we want to be measured and just now, we can be ‘just now’ and ‘measured’ and that will somehow be the modern way.

So let us measure this model now. We will find at length that she is at a great length, and in a great length of fabric, but she is just a little bit of the mode. Indeed, she is not modus but its diminutive modellus, whence model. We may not think of models as being modest, but in name, at least, each model is a little modest.

This one is more than a little modest. By which I mean she is immodest in her visual salience, but she is quite modest in the fabric module she has enclosed herself in. And she is the chief picture at this exhibition. Oh, there is art, and plenty of it: pictures of buildings, pictures of fairy tales, pictures of rich and poor, all well orchestrated. But she brings electricity to it, which means she is a conductor, and she brings exquisite composition to it, which means she is a composer. And we know who composed Pictures at an Exhibition.

Yes, of course. Modest Mussorgsky. He was named after a Saint Modestus, a man named for exemplify a virtue. Modest Mussorgsky was Modest but his music was specular and spectacular, and he drank immodest amounts and did not live longer than the mode for his time.

Meanwhile, in modern times, our chief picture at this exhibition, our modest model, leans forward to peer at a painting from beneath her brim (thus allowing the draped dress to reveal her callipygian quarters). And, having elevated the mood, she moves on.

I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

There’s a number of reasons to read this

My latest post for TheWeek.com looks at a point of grammar – or, actually, two points, and a fun sentence that sounds right to some very careless people and some very picky people and not to the rest in between:

There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you

 

skulk

skulk. verb. Lurk in the dark; slink in back alleys and murky walks; cloak your bulk; shirk your work or watch the clock.

OK, really, what is it about the liquid-plus-k ending? And even moreso with this word, which slides in with the /s/ before giving that choking dark click-liquid-click. It could be the sound of a guillotine, but more likely it’s a secret door sliding open – or closed. Whatever it is, it carries a skull-crossbones sign.

Skulk comes from some Scandinavian language or other – Norwegian or Danish, we would assume (they’re so similar; Danish sounds like Norwegian that was left in a pocket and run through the wash). The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “There is apparently a remarkable lack of evidence for the currency of the word in the 15th and 16th centuries, compared with its frequency in earlier and later use.” This is, of course, utterly apposite: it skulked for a couple of centuries. Why not?

And what kind of a creature might skulk? A skunk or a skink? Perhaps a snake? As likely a sleuth or a sloth, but those are softer. I would stake my luck on a grimalkin. I will tell you this: the liquidity is crucial. When you skulk, you move like milk, or more likely sulky silk. You do not clunk.