Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for February, 2011

A Perfect Snow

Monday, February 21st, 2011

The light peeping around the edges of the shades in my room woke me up at 3 AM. I was amazed at what I saw outside. The full moon enlightening the snow-covered garden reminded me immediately of the lines in “The Night Before Christmas”:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, . . .

I managed to get back to sleep despite the brightness and my excitement, and awoke to what seemed to be a perfect snow. The first sign was that it is falling straight downward—no wind. The other was that it was heavier than a flurry but far from a blizzard. A gentle snow but a snow, not a dusting.

Those signs invited me out into it. I’m from the south, North Carolina. I saw snow only once growing up there. Moving to Pennsylvania introduced me to the grace of this kind, heavenly downfall and I’ve always found it more relaxing than music.

The first thing I notice about this perfect snow was the silence it cast about everything. The chilled stillness of perpendicular snow is entirely different. Snowy stillness is unique, somehow, like the petrichor after a rain. One of those mysterious pleasures we enjoy far too often without realizing it.

Air filtered by snow is also different. Breathing rises from a necessity to a pleasure. It is as though it is clearer, more transparent. It become more crystalline, fragile, and brittle. It comes in and goes out more playfully, somehow, on the very edge of reality. The usual aromas aren’t there: no motor oil, no manure on the farm fields around my house, none of those smells we learn to ignore. Snowy air is air in its purest form, air enervating, bolstering the spirit, driving the mind to a new level of consciousness.

No one else seems to think much about snow in Pennsylvania, except to worry about too much of it. I hope I’m not the only one who enjoys the pleasures of the perfect snow.

Umlauts and Diereses

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Jeremy Wheeler and Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer have so far caught what they consider an oversight in our recent Good Word sprachgefuhl. In that writeup I claim that this word is sometimes spelled with an umlaut over the U, which is to say, Sprachgefühl, and explained umlaut as a synonym of dieresis. Although the two are generally used interchangeably, there is reason to maintain a distinction based not on the two dots themselves, but how they are used.

Dieresis comes from the Greek word for “split” and, before English began borrowing words from Modern German, it was used only to refer to an umlaut placed over the second of two successive vowels to indicate that both are pronounced, as in the case of naïve Chloë, Noël, Aïda.

Of course, this alternate spelling is now rare in English and other diacritics serve the same or a very similar purpose. In fiancé, attaché, cliché, communiqué it is the acute that tells us the vowel is pronounced. So the plot, as plots are wont to do, thickens.

I assume the people who named the diacritics did the best they could with what they had to work with. Since we have no word for German Umlaut in English, I still think it reasonable if not preferable to use dieresis for the two dots, regardless of their function.

We do not distinguish between other diacritics on the basis of their use, so far as I recall. Why make an exception here? My use of dieresis followed modern trend of referring only to the two dots placed over some vowels for whatever reason.

The Tale of Two Thans

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden and Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira), has complained about the use of the objective case with than in several of our recent Good Words. Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I have to respond more fully.

If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with current English grammar.

The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa’s Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences, translated by James Sandford (1569:165): “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.

Nor is it uncommon or unexpected. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (than, as, but—as in everyone but her), even the occasional prepositional phrase (alongside).

While many careful readers try to use than purely as a conjunction, the examples drawn from various sources over the centuries in the OED show that this change is not an example language degeneration. I see nothing wrong with going with the flow here, given the origins and histories of conjunctions.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Today’s Good Word is pandemonium, brought up by the current pandemonium on Tahrir Square in Cairo. While editing this word, Paul Ogden, my friend and editor in Israel, had these thoughts, which struck me as worthy of being shared.

Tahrir means “liberation” in Arabic. It’s related to Hebrew herut “freedom”, the original name of Menachem Begin’s party. Hebrew has another related word, shikhrur whose meaning lies somewhere between “independence” and “liberation”.

There is also a big Turkish newspaper called Hurriyet, a word no doubt adopted by the Ottomans from Arabic. Finally, there’s also a big Turkish newspaper called Cumhurryet, which means “Republic”. It was evidently also lifted from Arabic, because the full name of Libya is something like Jamhuuriya al-Libya. (C is pronoounced in Turkish as J in English and Libyan.)