Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Morphology: Word Structure' Category

To -ly or not to -ly

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

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 “don’t let anyone tell you differently,” not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after some verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective inevitably with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the way it is being told,” i.e. in a whisper, in a letter, or some other way. 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 (that she had been kept late). As you can see, we often supply a subordinate clause for clarification.

Without the subordinate clause the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which is undressed, the salad or Mary. So, let’s not give up this distinction: we need all the laughs we can get.

Why Gender?

Monday, May 10th, 2010

David Kelley of the Bucknell Electrical Engineering Department just dropped a note that I thought worth sharing with the world. Here is what he asked and how I answered.

I enjoyed reading Sam Alcorn’s ‘Ask the Experts‘ profile of you that has just recently appeared on Bucknell’s web site. There is an aspect of language that has puzzled me for 25 years. I have never found a satisfyingly complete answer to my question, so I thought I would ‘ask the expert’.

Does anyone know why (or have a good theory for why) gender developed in most of the world’s (or at least Europe’s) major languages? I know French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, and I know German adds “neuter” to the list. Even more intriguing to me is why English, which is derived from German and has borrowed heavily from French and Latin, has lost the classification of nouns by gender.

David, thank you for your note. I’m happy that you enjoyed Sam’s interview with me; I was pleased with it myself.

We should keep in mind that we are not looking for logical reasons for gender, so the question “why?” begs the question. Gender exists for grammatical reasons alone and our mental grammar has its own rules. Grammar interacts with other mental processes but it should not be confused with them: it is an independent human mental faculty with rules of its own.

That said, gender is actually a category of the lexicon, out mental vocabulary, the dictionary of words we have in our heads. Grammar, the rules for organizing words in sentences, works together with lexicon to bridge our minds and the real world. Their job is to provide a speedy means of the expressing ideas about the real world to others out there. The first step in this process is to categorize everything.

Just as we have semantic (conceptual) categories like animal, vegetable, bodies of water, countries, we have lexical categories that group words so that they may be quickly grasped and understood in speech: gender, number, person. These categories are usually reflected in the dress of words, the suffixes, prefixes, endings, that they bear. Gender is one of those categories, a category with two or three members, usually masculine and feminine, but also neuter in some languages.

Now, remember that the lexical categories have to do with words, not semantic categories. The names “masculine” and “feminine” are therefore misleading for they also refer to the semantic categories of males and females. Masculine and feminine nouns are not limited to males and females. The word for table in Russian, stol, is masculine while la table in French is feminine. As I hope is obvious to all, tables have no semantic gender at all. Moreover, in Russian, the words for “uncle”, “judge”, “daddy”, and all male nicknames are feminine and the word for “girl” in German, Mädchen, is neuter.

Lexical gender, then, is an arbitrary set of classes and all nouns must belong to one of them. There is a tendency to associate semantic categories with lexical categories because of the confusion between the two that led to the names “masculine” and “feminine” for the lexical categories. Still, speakers have to memorize which class a noun belongs to just as they memorize each word’s meaning.

Languages that have gender also have agreement. This means that when a noun is used with an adjective or verb in those languages, that adjective and verb must bear an indicator (suffix or prefix) associated with the class of the noun. This helps the mind of the listener keep up with which adjective and which verb goes with which noun in complex sentences that have multiple adjectives and verbs. This is generally the purpose of lexical categories and, as you can see, it is purely grammatical, not semantic or logical.

The relation is not logical because languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no prefixes or suffixes, no gender, no agreement yet speakers and listeners have no trouble processing these languages. English historically has been moving away from gender-agreement to the Chinese and Vietnamese model. We use only a handful of affixes now and there is evidence that they are losing their grip.

Why? No one knows. Clearly gender and agreement are not required of a functioning language; they just come and go for the arbitrary “reasons” of language alone, reasons linguists have not yet been able to establish.


Wednesday, April 7th, 2010


I occasionally refer to reduplication in the word histories of my Good Words and Steve Parris has asked that I elaborate on it. Since it will require work on my part that I would prefer not to reduplicate (so to speak) in the future, I thought it better to share it with everyone.

Languages that use affixes (prefixes, suffixes, infixes) generally attach predefined affixes to the stems of words. In English, suffixes include -er, -ed, -ing, and the everpresent -s. They are spelled the same way—or vary slightly in predictable ways—when they are added to a stem: paintpaint-er, paint-ing, paint-s.

Some languages simply reduplicate the entire word as an affix. In Chinese, ren means “person” while renren means “everyone”. In Malay rumah means “house” while rumah-rumah means “houses”. Wiki in Hawaiian means “fast” while wiki-wiki means “very fast”, much like red, red rose means “a very red rose” in English.

Some languages, however, reduplicate prefixes, suffixes, and infixes from letters (or sounds) in each stem, so that they vary greatly from stem to stem. Ancient Greek, for example, had a prefix which we could symbolize as Ce-, where the capital C represents the first consonant of any Greek verb to which it is attached. This prefix marked the perfective aspect, indicating the absolute completion of the action named by the verb. In that language we find the following words:

bio- “live”:   be-biō-k- (bebiōk-) “have lived”
game- “marry”:  ge-gamē-k- (gegamēk-) “have married”
ly- “unfasten”:  le-lŷk (lelŷk-) “have unfastened”

In other words, the initial consonant of this prefix “reduplicates” the first consonant of the stem to which it is attached. In the Tsimshian language, spoken by a native American people on the West Coast of the US, the plural is formed by adding the prefix Cik- where, again, the C will be whatever consonant occurs initially on the stem to which it is attached:

dasx “squirrel”:  dik-dasx “squirrels”
seyp “bone”:  sip-seyp “bones”
yexł “spit”:  yip-yexł (yipyexł) “spits”

That is what “reduplication” is: copying a letter or two from the stem into a prefix or suffix that is added to it.

Maths, Aftermaths, and Foremaths

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Donald Schark discovered a new word recently and wrote in about it. Words are “discovered” in other words, and this one is quite a surprise to me. Donald wrote:

“I am reading an author who wrote of people facing the math and aftermath of their decisions. I have never heard math used before without the prefix, so I checked Webster. Math is from the AS “mowing.” Why is such a useful word in disuse? It certainly applies to those who are currently suffering the math of war or the latest earthquake.”

Indeed, the sense of “mowing” has shifted to “a disasterous event”, since this is what is implied today by aftermath. It implies another compound, too, namely foremath, as the foremath of an earthquake or sunami. Much is being written about that now as we try to forecast these events. The foremath of hurricanes, we now know, is long, tumultuous, and filled with evidence about the storm itself.

I will run this word as a Good Word soon no matter what the research turns up simply because of the excitement at discovering a new word. I felt the same way when I found ease in disease and busy in business., and at one in atonement. Finding words inside words we take for granted everyday is an exciting experience—whether those around me realize it or not.

More Shenanigans over Henanigans

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Lenn Zonder sent such profound comments on my recent treatment of the Good Word shenanigans that I just have to share them with everyone. Here is his response:

“I was so glad to read your definition of shenanigans and noting that it has nothing to do with the female gender as there is no henanigans.”

“Historectomy used to scare the daylights out of me until I found out it actually should be called a herstorectomy.”

“Seriously, though, you let the Germans off the hook in charting the etymology of shenanigan. I would point out that the second through the sixth letters of this word, H-E-N-A-N, names a large Chinese province on the south bank of the Yellow River. and remember, San Francisco has one of the finest Chinatowns in America.” [A great lead to follow were the word henanigans—REB]

“Also, if you take those same five letters and add a second ‘E’, it spells Heenan, a fine old Irish name. And lord knows the Irish have produced some of the finest practical jokers to have ever walked this earth.”

“Just blowing some smoke up Smoketown Road in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. :-)”

‘Nuff said.

Idyl, Idyll, and the Ideal

Monday, October 12th, 2009

I received this note from Rebecca Casper today:

“The word that came up in the debate tonight was idyll or idyl. Some believe it is related to ideal. Others said, “No.” In any event, its full meaning is not altogether clear from a simple dictionary. Have you ever featured this word so that you could share your research? It is of Greek derivation, but I thought it was also an allusion to some Greek myth or legend. (But I can’t find anything.) Tennyson wrote ‘Idylls of the King,’ but that doesn’t give us a good etymology. Can you?”

First of all, how do we spell this word: Idyll or idyl? The US dictionaries don’t seem to care how many Ls we use but idyll is the original spelling. Idyl is a later misspelling that has become acceptable.

This word is unrelated to ideal though the latter may have informed the meaning of the former. Ideal is the adjective for idea under the assumption that the idea of an object is always a perfect representation of that object.

Idyll comes, via Latin idyllium, from eidyllion, a diminutive of Greek eidos “form, that which is seen, a person’s beauty”, from the verb meaning “to see”, the one that also went into the making of English video. The diminutive of this word came to refer to a type of short idealized poem, usually a bucolic one, which is to say, a romantic poem about the countryside.

An idyll today still retains a bucolic aroma but today it means “a simple, tranquil state of affairs”. It can also refer to a peaceful interlude that is absolutely perfect, a vacation or affair in a place we normally only dream about.

Look for this word as a Good Word toward the end of October.

The Prefixes Para- and Tele-

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Andrew Rowland dropped a line a few days ago and I finally got around to answering him today. The question is so interesting, I thought it might be worth sharing.

It’s really a question about to words, or part words that are used in many other words. I was wondering about the words para, as in paranormal, parachute etc. and also tele, as in telephone and television. Are there any meanings to these words, and if so, what are they?

These lexical items are sort of semi-prefixes. We borrowed a lot of them from Greek and Latin and they “sort of” have meanings though they are not always exact. Tele- is pretty straightforward, it means “distance” or “at a distance”. Tele-phone is a Greek compound meaning “distant sound” or “sound at a distance” and tele-vision means pretty much what it looks like “vision at a distance” or distant seeing. Tele-scope is “distant watching”.

Para- is a bit more difficult to put your finger on. It can means “beside” as parathyroid, parachute or “beyond” as in paranormal, or perhaps 4 or 5 other things. The trick to keep in mind is that these two prefixes are Greek, and can only be combined with other Greek, maybe Latin (paranormal) words. You can’t add them to regulary English words, like para-table or tele-car.

The Suffix -ery

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Last month William Hupy asked about an English suffix that he has spotted in a Romance language, too: “What’s up with the suffix -ery, as in livery and grocery? I detect a similar origin with the Spanish cafeteria, farmacia, etc.”

The English suffix -ery is an adaptation of the Latin -oria via the French -erie suffix, usually meaning “place of”: bakery, eatery, brewery, nunnery. However, it sometimes converts a noun into the quality that identifies the noun: tomfooley, knavery, savagery.

If we borrow these words directly from Latin, the suffix is -ory: laboratory, observatory, dormitory, depository, a suffix more frequently used to convert verbs into adjectives: congratulatory, conciliatory, exclamatory. But French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish are Latin as spoken in various parts of Europe today, so they will contain the same suffixes as those suffixes have changed over the years. English has borrowed liberally from all these languages, but especially Latin and French.

Livery and grocery do not contain this suffix. Livery comes from a French word meaning “delivery-boy” while grocery is simply the suffix -y added to grocer. The latter word has an interesting history. It comes from grossus “large, gross” with the suffix -arius, a personal suffix meaning “someone who (does something)”. The original word grossarius meant “wholesaler”, i.e. someone selling on a large scale (by the gross), as opposed to a small-scale retailer.

Huxion Stew, Anyone?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Here is one from the weird and wonderful world of the world’s worst spellers. It was sent to me by Martha Hulshof.

“How about this one, huxion, found in an old 1956 cookbook from Downeast Yarmouth, Maine? My mother-in-law is from Holland and her mother used to cook like this, but she’s not sure what the word means. I looked on line and, remarkably enough, found refrence to the VERY SAME recipie but that author did not know the meaning of the word either! I wonder could you ascertain its origin and meaning.”

Hockshin stewI can’t prove this but I am so sure this is what happened. The stew is made from a hock (hough in Scotland, pronounced [hox]). The hock is that part of an animal’s hind leg just below the knee, thus located near the shin, so some people have used the word hockshin for a long time. It is still alive in parts of Northern England and Scotland, I believe; we have written documentation from as late as 1886. In some areas it has been reduced to ‘huxon’, only a letter away from huxion.

Now, what if we spelled hockshin by the Latin rules of spelling? Hoxion would certainly be a candidate and from hoxion to huxion is but a tiny skid. These types of spelling errors are common for words that are mostly heard and seldom seen in writing.

Further evidence is provided by preserved written examples of hox and huxen in the sense of “hamstring”. The examples are old and these words are clearly archaic but may well have been involved in the shift of CKS to X and the shift from O to U.

Bottom line, the spelling of the word hockshin has rambled all over the place in the past three centuries. That the spelling huxion was one of those places, doesn’t surprise me at all.

Nicknames and Sobriquets

Monday, July 27th, 2009

I was rather taken aback at the response to our recent Good Word nickname. A reader by the rather silky name of Monroe Thomas Clewis admitted, “I have always enjoyed silkier sobriquet as a synonym for the more leathery nickname.”

I must admit material sympathy for Mr. Clewis’s preference. I do think that we have room for both these terms, though. I wouldn’t want to stretch the patience of sobriquet to names like Knucklehead, Stinky, Pusslegut, or even Buck, for that matter. So, I would say that there are both nicknames and sobriquets in this world, and may never the twain collide.

A Canadian reader, Davi McGrew, after buttering me up with an ostensible confession of pleasure in the daily Good Word, tried to tauten my definition of nickname in this way: “It seems to me that Pat, etc. should more properly be acknowledged as diminutives rather than nicknames…of which I have had several myself. If the point was to ‘add something to, or enrich’ [Great approach: pinning me down with a direct quote–DG] then a bald shortening seems besides the point.”

I’m one of the few US-ers who give Canada credit for harboring several clever people, so I am not at all surprised at Davi’s comment—nor his sly argumentational tactics. I fully appreciate them, in fact, even though they leave me unconvinced. Pat as a nickname for Patrick or Patricia could be a “clipping”, i.e. a word the majority of which has been clipped, e.g. Doc for doctor, rep for representative.

I don’t think, though, that I could call it a diminutive, a word that indicates a smaller version, as a napkin was once though to be a smaller version of an apron. English doesn’t sport diminutives any more, just the vestiges of them in words on -kin and a few borrowings from French on -ette, as when the former cigarette was a smaller version of the still current cigar.

Nicknames do sometimes come with diminutives. Billy is more likely applied to a small Bill than a large one; Annie sounds more girlish to me than Anne. In fact, we have lots of these in English: Bobby, Jacky, Johnny. But this is not a consistency in the language. Molly is something quite different from a Moll and I wouldn’t take Leslie all the way down to Lessie.

Anyway, these words do show us how we can find some of the most uncommon behavior in the commonest of our speech habits.