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Eve Blunt Created a Poem from “Dodder”

February 25th, 2014


To walk with an unsteady gait,
as if from old age or other frailty.
To shuffle, teeter, hobble.
To move forward feebly and unsteadily.
To muddle, stumble.

Travelling as touteren: to waver or swing.
Totter, toddle; an unsteady walk.
Did dodder produce doddle, which ended up dawdle?
This word wanders haltingly in circles within circles within circles.

–Eve Blunt

Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages

February 19th, 2014

Paul Ogden, one of the editors of the Good Word series, responded to my etymology of the word amorous and we engaged in an e-conversation I thought might interest the readers of this blog. Here it is.

Interesting etymology. Something similar happened in Hebrew and some of the other Semitic languages. The Hebrew word for mother is emm, the Aramaic word is immah, and the Arabic word is umm.

The liturgical word amen, which at its core means “confirmation, support”, is derived from the words for “mother”. Another derivation from amen is oman, Hebrew for “artist”, from the days when artists made faithful representations of what they saw. A slew of additional Hebrew words that mean loyalty, trust, reliability and so forth are in turn derived from amen.

I replied:

Fascinating. Mother and father started out the same way. Ma and pa are usually the first two “words” settled on by an infant in referring to its parents. So to these utterances were added the suffix marking members of a family: ma-ter and pa-ter. Compare brother and sister, which started out with the same suffix and—voila—the words for “mother” (mater) and “father” (pater).

Paul replied:

But there’s more:

Av is Hebrew for father. Abba is Aramaic for father. Ab is Arabic for father. I know that P and B are considered pretty much the same in historical linguistics, so we’re not too far here from papa, pappas, and the like. [The only difference between [p] and [b] is that we vibrate our vocal cords when pronouncing the latter. –RB] The noun abbot, referring to the Christian religious authority, comes from Aramaic abba.

The word abu that you sometimes see as an element in Arab male names means “father of”, e.g., Mohammed Abbas is sometimes referred to as Abu Mazen, meaning he has a son, probably his firstborn, named Mazen.


January 13th, 2014

George Kovac shared this memory with me on the occasion of the publication of the Good Word mincemeat:

A childhood memory of  Thanksgiving is that my mother would always make a pumpkin pie and a mincemeat pie. The filling came from the store in a box labeled with the word “mincemeat.”  I asked my mischievous older brother “What is mince meat?”  He cruelly told me that a “mince” was a small monkey, and I was horrified.

That brand of filling is still sold in grocery stores, but several years ago they started calling it “mince” instead of “mincemeat.”  I guess the marketing folks decided small boys and ordinary consumers are unable to digest the etymology.

A Letter from Australia

January 5th, 2014

I recently received this message from Sally Dunkerly in Australia:

Dear Dr Goodword,

My name is Sally, I’m fifteen years old and clearly not the best with the English language. However, I have recently finished reading your incredible book, The Hundred most Beautiful Words in English and fell in love with it right from ailurophile. I loved the words you put in there, and the examples you included of how to use the words, sounded so nice that now I can’t wait to read more of your books!

I also want to tell you my favourite word. It’s not very pretty or interesting and we use it all the time without thinking about it. My favourite word is if, I just love it because it hints at a possibility, some sort of unknown and we might have to make a choice. ‘If the house burns down’ or ‘If i win the lottery’, ‘if he’s lying to me’—it is just one of those words that is so commonly used that people don’t understand it’s mysterious beauty. It’s such a dainty word, additionally, it doesn’t contain a single ugly sound, maybe because it only has one syllable, but it’s still beautiful to me!

I apologise because this won’t be the most exciting thing you read today, and that my fifteen-year-old English and typical Australian laziness with my words may annoy you. I know it’s far-fetched, but I’m aspiring to be a novelist some day, and the beautiful words you have shown me in your book are really going to add life to the pages I’ve written so far, so thank you for helping me with my biggest dream.

Yours sincerely,


As a former teacher, I love to receive letters like this. I have never had any desire to influence people; I prefer affecting them. This note seems to indicate I’ve done that in Australia. My response was this:

Your letter was exactly what I love to receive. I was a teacher for 36 years and, as you might know, teachers do not work for money, but moments like the one you gave me. As I usually say to someone who offers gratitude for my work: “All appreciation is appreciated.”

You have a good sense of words. That’s good if you plan to be a poet, but if you plan to be a novelist, you will need to be a good story teller. There is a movie you should see: Wonder Boys (2001) with Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas. They do an imagination exercise in which they visit restaurants and bars, select someone there, and make up a story about him or her based on how they are dressed and how they comport themselves.

There is another movie with an imagination exercise, called The Magic of Belle Isle with Morgan Freeman (2012). He takes an aspiring novelist onto an empty street and asks, “What don’t you see?” She, of course, says, “Nothing,” immediately, but by the end of the film, she can see things that are not there.

I never taught creative writing and was never a novelist. (As expectable I was a passable poet, who published a poem in the last issue of the New York Times that carried poems back in July 1971. I’ve often wondered what my role was in replacing the poetry in the Times with a paid ad from Mobil Oil. I was never a good story-teller. I hope these two films help you; you can get them from Netflix.

Good luck, and thank you again for your lovely letter.

I ran if January 6, 2014.

Starting First

December 12th, 2013

I heard a TV talk show host say recently, “I want to talk to all of you but starting first with [John Smith]“. My question is, could we start second with someone? Starting sort of implies first, right?

Language is full of redundancies like this. We simply write this one off as one of the many idiomatic phrases that haunt English, or any language for that matter. How often have you heard (or said) “Let me start first with . . . ?” “ATM machine” is another that bugs me. What do we think the “M” stands for?

The Fate of English Plurals

December 10th, 2013

Jan Miele sent me the following note today:

I’ve just this MOMENT received an email with this subject line: “Hurry, there’s only a few hours left to pick your offer.” Shouldn’t this read instead as: “Hurry, there are only a few hours left to pick your offer.”

I’m seeing this sort of thing all the time now! What’s up with that?

My response was as follows:

If you are a linguist, read Lorimor, H., Bock, J. K., Zalkind, E., Sheyman, A., & Beard, R. 2008. “Agreement and attraction in Russian.” Language and Cognitive Processes 23, 769-799, and the works on English listed in the references by Kay Bock. She thinks there is some change in the grammar of English taking place, whereby agreement marks the last word in the subject noun phrase, for example “a group of girls have arrived” instead of “a group of girls has arrived”.

I disagree with my former student. I think that English is losing the category ‘plural agreement’ in verbs and there is no consistency or pattern in verbal agreement. The tendency for the verb to agree with the final noun in a noun phrase is just a logical speech error in the transition. Bock’s position doesn’t make sense grammatically; it would defeat the purpose of agreement, which is to show the head of a subject noun phrase.

Your example confirms my position, since there is no noun phrase involved here. Actually, I’ve heard the example you sent so often, I sometimes catch myself making the same mistake, if it is a mistake in a transitional stage of development.

High Dudgeon but not Low Dudgeon

November 30th, 2013

George Kovac asked about the idiomatic used of the Good Word dudgeon, to wit:

“Why is it always high dudgeon? Does no one (but me) ever say just dudgeon or low dudgeon or even medium dudgeon? Some words are always paired in usage, and I guess I should get over it. For example, have you ever heard of something being boggled other than a mind? And if someone is always in a state of high dudgeon, why can’t we describe them as uneven keeled?”

Well, George, the rules of language are strewn with linguistic rubble. Sometimes it results from the lack of a reference (what else besides a mind could be boggled)? Sometimes we simply don’t know. How to you explain the rubble left from grinding out rules that are always changing?

Did you read the wonderful article that appeared in a 1957 edition of The New Yorker called “How I Met my Wife“?

Where does PIE ‘Nest’ Nest?

November 14th, 2013

I received this very pleasant comment from Supriya Dey today:

“I absolutely enjoy the daily Dr Goodword feeds. Thank you.”

“For today’s word, I was wondering if nid in nidicolous is related to nir [neer]. which means “home” or “nest” in some Indian languages. The syllable col also means “lap” in Bengali, an Indian language. Any relations?”

I responded:

It depends on which Indian languages you are talking about. If they are Indo-European, like Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Oriya, the answer would be an unqualified “yes” for nir “nest”. They would not be included in the etymological sources that I use because little is known by Western European etymologists about Indo-Iranian languages. If you are talking about Dravidian languages, like Kanada, Telugu, Mayalayam, the answer would be “no”.

The word col “lap” presents more problems, however. Col- is the PIE root (if this is the root of Latin colere at all), which would have changed considerably in the past 5000 years. This root became carati, calati in Sanskrit and referred to movement. There are many questions surrounding this word even if it occurs in Bengali. As I say in the Good Word nidicolous: it takes some stretch of the imagination to take “rotate” to “inhabit”. The same would apply for “lap”. Taken together, the sound change problem and the semantic one, would probably exclude it from consideration.

I heard back from Supriya telling me that nir does, in fact, occur only in north Indian languages.

Marshaling the Skills to Spell ‘Martial’

October 28th, 2013

A long-standing friend of Dr. Goodword, David McWethy, dashed off this note to me about a week ago under the subject: “Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Martial Matt Dillon”. He was clearly over-excited, but with good reason. Let me let him explain it to you.

“I was whiling away this past weekend, musing on thoughts of my tranquil hours while a DVD of my personal favorite genre was playing in the background, when the video below whizzed past before it fully registered in both hemispheres of my brain.”

Martial Law“‘I can’t believe I saw my eyes’, as my grandmother would say. So I spent several minutes rewinding/playing, rewinding/playing until the video below—right there in front of God and everybody else—was frozen for the benefit of posterity” (see picture).

“It takes some doing to render me speechless, but this one managed in a walk. Just to make sure that it was not I who was pathetically out of step, I checked my favorite dictionary, to be rewarded with ‘The word you’re searching for is not listed’. Even the authority of great unwashed Wikipedia hadn’t a hint of marshal except to mention en passant that:”

‘This article is about a title. For other meanings, see Marshal (disambiguation). For the rank of Field Marshal, see Field Marshal. This article has multiple issues….This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.., [concluding with the dispositive] (not related to court martial).’

“I’ve come to two conclusions: The lesser of the two being that since martial has apparently not been used as a Good Word, the timing of the tie-in to the egregious use above could hardly be better. My second epiphany is the conclusion that history may judge sites such as alphaDictionary, to a great or lesser extent, as civilization’s front-line defense to the—like, ya know, OMG!—onslaught of the illiterate hordes, who could not create a written or spoken sentence in the English language. (Just in case you ever have moments of doubt whether your efforts are really worth it).”

I [Dr. G] would just note two things. The unread sod who created this poster used only one L, which indicates to me he understood the difference between the name Marshall and the title of the law enforcement officer, marshal. Since martial law is a state in which the military tries to maintain law and order, and since marshals would otherwise maintain law and order, we can see how his mistake is possible. About 2 million occurrences of this mistake are on the Web today.

When is ‘different’ treated differently?

October 19th, 2013

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be differently, not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective different with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the normal way of telling”, e.g. whispering, or in a letter. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different”.

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (at the way the boss treated her). In the former sentence, furiously modifies the verb; in the latter sentence, furious refers to she. As you see here, when the adjective is used, we usually supply a subordinate clause to clarify.

Without the subordinate clause, the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which thing is undressed: the salad or Mary?