Grammatical Chimeras

The chimera of myth consisted of the parts of three animals: lion, serpent and goat. By extension, a bio/genetic chimera is an animal composed of more than one genetic line (Wikipedia is there to help if you want to know more).

Let’s consider chimerism in grammar. In English, we usually inflect words to indicate number (the chimera devours, the chimeras devour), tense (the chimera devours/devoured), comparative & superlative (chimeras are scary/scarier/scariest), &c.

Inflections can be regular (devour/devoured) or not (eat/ate). But some irregular inflections move beyond mere irregularity.

Example 1: bad/worse/worst. Badder & baddest, now non-standard, were once the comparative & superlative of bad. But some while back, “worse”, the comparative of what is now German wirren, confused, was called into service as the comparative of “bad”. Similarly (but harder to trace), good/better/best.

Example 2: go/went/gone. “Went” was (and I suppose still is) the past tense (or, as the cool kids say, preterite) of “wend”. But long time since it was pressed into service as the preterite of “go”.

Example 3: You might object that my first two (or three, I suppose) examples are, being only two-part hybrids, don’t truly qualify as chimeras. So I’ll leave you with “to be”, a true chimera, being, in the words of the OED, “a union of the surviving inflexions of three originally distinct and independent verbs”.

You can’t do better here than to go directly to the OED. I’ll whet your appetite with the very beginning of its article “be”:

[An irregular and defective verb, the full conjugation of which in modern Eng. is effected by a union of the surviving inflexions of three originally distinct and independent verbs, viz. (1) the original Aryan substantive verb with stem es-, Skr. as-, ‘s-, Gr. ἐσ-, L. es-, ‘s-, OTeut. *es-, ‘s-; (2) the verb with stem wes-, Skr. vas- to remain, OTeut. wes-, Gothic wis-an to remain, stay, continue to be, OS., OE., OHG. wesan, OFris. wes-a, ON. ver-a; (3) the stem beu- Skr. bhū-, bhaw-, Gr. ϕυ-, L. fu-, OTeut. *beu-, beo-, OE. béo-n to become, come to be. Of the stem es-, OE. (like the oldest extant Teutonic) possessed only the present tenses, indicative and subjunctive (orig. optative), all the other parts being supplied from the stem wes-, pa. tense was, which, though still a distinct and complete vb. in Gothic, was in OE. only supplemental to es-, the two constituting the substantive verb am-was. Béon, be, was still in OE. a distinct verb (having all the present, but no past tenses) meaning to ‘become, come to be’, and thus often serving as a future tense to am-was. By the beginning of the 13th c., the infinitive and participle, imperative, and pres. subjunctive of am-was, became successively obsolete, the corresponding parts of be taking their place, so that the whole verb am-was-be is now commonly called from its infinitive, ‘the verb to be,’ although be is no part of the substantive verb originally, but only a later accretion replacing original parts now lost. In OE. the present indicative of am had two forms of the plural, (1) sind, sindon (= Goth. and Ger. sind, L. sunt, Skr. sánti) and earon, aron (= ON. eru), the latter confined to the Anglian dialects, where it was used side by side with sind, -un. Of these, sind, -on ceased to be used before 1250, its place being taken in southern Eng. by the corresponding inflexions of be. We, ye, they beth, ben, be, were the standard forms in southern and midl. Eng. for centuries; and even in the sing., be, beest, beth began to encroach on am, art, is, and are now the regular forms in southern dialect speech. Meanwhile aron, aren, arn, are, survived in the north, and gradually spread south, till early in 16th c. are made its appearance in standard Eng., where it was regularly used by Tindale. Be continued in concurrent use till the end of the century (see Shakespeare, and Bible of 1611), and still occurs as a poetic archaism, as well as in certain traditional expressions and familiar quotations of 16th c. origin, as ‘the powers that be.’ But the regular modern Eng. plural is are, which now tends to oust be even from the subjunctive. Southern and eastern dialect speech retains be both in singular and plural, as ‘I be a going,’ ‘we be ready.’]

More examples?

Update: a Language Log commenter pointed me to suppletion, qv.


Via HuffPost:

The Associated Press decided to remove the hyphen from “e-mail” in its Stylebook—the bible for many media outlets—on Friday.

The AP announced the changes at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society in Phoenix. The use of “e-mail” was seen as a relic of an earlier age, when the Internet was new to most people and the idea of “electronic mail” was confusing.

The change mimicked a similar one that the AP put in place in 2010, when it decided that “Web site” could now be called “website.”

The AP also announced that it is changing “cell phone” and “smart phone” to “cellphone” and “smartphone.”

The organization also announced the move on Twitter, writing, “language evolves.”

The changes go into effect on Saturday. Copy editors, take note.

What do James, Yakov and Santiago have in common?

A nice bit of background on “James”, from Johnson:

What do James, Yakov and Santiago have in common?

THIS is à propos of nothing, but I’ve always wondered why English-speakers call a certain Christian saint “James”, while he is called “Santiago” in Spanish. That led to some scraping around on Wikipedia, which always reminds me that linguists must love editing there; the articles are usually shockingly good.  Anyway, the story is quite a whirl. Ready?

The original name is Hebrew’s Ya’aqov, the same as the Old Testament patriarch known in English as Jacob. Jesus’s brother “James” had that same name, which is given as Iakobos in the Greek of the Gospels. From these two, you can see where Russian and other Slavic languages get Yakov, German gets Jacobus and so forth. The French Jacques is no longer a stretch.  And Santiago?  Well, it's just Sant Iago, Saint Iago(v).

James, then, is still an outlier. Where did that "m" come from?  Apparently the late Latin Iacobos turned into a Iacomos. First, the “o” became nasalised (like the French vowel in bon), which made that “b” become “m-like”. Iacobos -> Iacombus. Then the “b” was “simplified” out of existence, leaving Iacomus, and on to James. (How the J that most Europeans pronounce as a "y" sound became our "dzh" sound is a story for another day.)  Cousins with an "m" are the Irish Seamus and the Scottish Hamish.

Johnson: answering questions you never asked.

Dirigible choices

As transport in the 1800s, balloons had a frustrating drawback: they were at the mercy of the wind. With the invention of lightweight engines, it became possible to direct the course of a balloon, a distinct improvement. The word “direct” comes from the Latin dirigere, to straighten, set straight, direct, guide. Thus “dirigible balloon”: a balloon that can be guided, or directed, by its pilot, instead of being passively directed by the breeze.

(And soon enough the adjective “dirigible” was nouned into a balloon.)

I’m not suggesting that the etymology of a word like “dirigible” is an authoritative guide to its meaning; it is not. Words grow up and leave home. Some make bad choices, but we love them anyway. So be it.

Still, etymology enriches our experience of our language, dirigible being a case in point. Thus Alban Joseph Zolly, Mr Zolly to us eighth-grade English students at Camp Zama in the early 1960s (I incant his full name in the slim hope that someone might someday search the web for his name and turn up this remembrance).

Dirigible/direct is part of a pattern that includes corrigible/correct, negligible/neglect, intelligible/intellect and eligible/elect, among a few others (when’s the last time you heard “erigible”?). We have legible, but “lect” survives only in works like lector, lectern, lecture. Patterns have a mysterious power to explain, though in a sense they only deepen the mystery.

Of the list, “eligible” caught my eye, I suppose because of my side interest in elections and voting. In English, perhaps especially American English, “elect” is highly associated with voting. But its meaning is rooted in the idea of “choose”, and a moment’s reflection will remind us that we still use it that way from time to time, and that the voting sense is a fairly obvious outgrowth of “choose”: we choose our leaders, representatives, whatever. But we still elect to do something, take elective courses, and the like. So to be “eligible” is to be capable of being chosen, or elected.

The dog went to the bathroom?

Geoff Pullum, of course.

Asterisks Justin’s dad says

A truly strange piece of euphemism came up in a UK newspaper interview with Justin Halpern, the creator of the hit Twitter page Shit My Dad Says:

One day we took the dog for a walk. My dad said: “Look at the dog’s asshole — you can tell from the dilation that the dog is about to shit” and the dog went to the bathroom. He was incredibly impressed by his prediction.

The dog went to the bathroom? Not exactly a case of like father like son, linguistically.

Keep in mind, Justin is the son of the man (a San Diegan) who said of Los Angeles: “It’s the epicenter of the asshole earthquake. They’d fuck you twice if they had another dick.”

We are talking about the dad who said (on being asked how he lost 20 pounds), “I drank bear piss and took up fencing. How the fuck you think? I exercised.”

The man who claims, “Look, we’re basically on earth to shit and fuck. So unless your job’s to help people shit or fuck, it’s not that important, so relax.”

This is not a man who would describe a doggie as going to the bathroom, is it?

Reading the piece was even stranger in a UK context, where the euphemism “going to the bathroom” is not at all common, since the room in question is not called the bathroom, it’s called the lavatory or the toilet (both of them being euphemisms too, of course). I assume that it was the architectural practice of having the WC in the room with the bathtub gave Americans their euphemism, while the British practice of having it in a separate very small room near the bathroom did not favor it, though I don’t intend to do any scatoarchitectolinguistic research on the matter.

The British publication of the interview gave rise to a few translation challenges. I have deasteriskified things for your reading convenience. In the newspaper (The Metro),

  • “Shit My Dad Says” was rendered as “S*** My Dad Says”;
  • “the dog is about to shit” was rendered as “the dog is about to s***”; and interestingly,
  • “asshole” was rendered as “a***hole”, which (if you count the asterisks) tells us that the British newspaper first translated the “ass” of Justin’s American English to “arse” and then did the asterisking out.

The Los Angeles Times couldn’t even get that close to the real title of the Twitter page; on this L.A. Times blog they called it “Stuff My Dad Says”.

Meanwhile, the book Justin has made from his Twitter site had to be titled Sh*t My Dad Says, which doesn’t match the name of the site, and the TV series made from it is called $#*! My Dad Says, which doesn’t match either the site or the book or the L.A. Times reference; it’s a wonder anyone ever finds any of these things.

The terror of printing the most basic of the earthy Germanic words for human excrement clearly continues unquelled. Except here, of course, because on Language Log we are linguists, and we don’t give a shit. We don’t believe simple Anglo-Saxon monosyllables will either sear your eyeballs or warp the moral fiber of the young.

Begging serene detachment

Read Mark Liberman on begging the question, in a blow-by-blow account of the history of the phrase, and sound advice on how to reach a modus vivendi with its current usage, mis- or otherwise.

I’ll repeat that advice here, but don’t miss the lead-up.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.


Has it occurred to you that Listerine is named after Joseph Lister, who we learned (when? junior-high biology?) was the inventor of antisepsis. Listerine was named in 1879, when Lister was still alive and working, so the association was presumably livelier than it is today.

The -ine in Listerine has the sense, from chemistry, of “forming names of alkaloids, halogens, amines, amino acids, and other substances” (Oxford American), and we see it around quite a lot—chlorine, for example, from khlōros, green, and -ine (likewise iodine is ‘violet-colored’).

Cocaine, then, is coca-ine, relating to the alkaloid from the coca leaf. It looks like it should be (and is) pronounced co-caine, though. And co-caine in turn influenced the likes of procaine and novocaine, synthetic anesthetics that replaced the earlier use of cocaine for the purpose.

And let’s not forget caffeine, from the French, café-ine.

Yes, thickheads.

Geoff Pullum. Perhaps you can resist reading the rest of his post.

Language Log asks you (don’t all shout at once)

… Yes, thickheads. I know they won’t like being called that; but hey, what do I care? I’ve shut off the comments area to new contributions now. Let them squirm and fume, with the smoke coming out of their ears. They’re just wrong. I like a good distinction in senses as much as the next man, and I don’t care for ignorant word choice errors; but I don’t get in a stew about it. It’s the way languages are, and the way they’re going to be. You have to deal with it.

Dead metaphor department: running tide

On NPR this morning, of President Obama in advance of tonight’s SOTU: “the tide is running against him”.

This is one of those metaphors that most listeners, if pressed, could explain. I think. While it’s dead, it’s not yet returned to dust. But how many of us have any experience of a “running tide”? We in the SF Bay Area have a nearby dramatic example, four times a day, and I’ve even watched it run from a blufftop overlooking the Golden Gate. But it’s never been running against me.

If our experience of tides comes from our visits to the beach, we know something about the ebb & flow of the tide, but not its running. (It was relatively late in life that I made the connection between “flow”, ebb & flow, and “flood”, ebb tide and flood tide. Duh.)

The sense of “tide” as “time” (eventide, Eastertide) predates its related application to the timing of the sea. We can hear an (unintended) echo of that sense in “the tide is running against him”.

The dangers of monolingualism

Roger Shuy at Language Log:

The dangers of monolingualism

If ever there is a question about the need to know a few foreign languages these days, see this BBC link about the embarrassed Irish cops who have been stymied in their hunt for a serial traffic violator who went by the name Prawo Jazdy. It seems that Mr. Jazdy is not who the cops thought he was. He wasn’t even a person. In Polish, the words mean, hold your breath, “driver’s license.”

Hat tip to Ruth Morris.

Between libretto and lice

The redoubtable Melvyn Quince waxes philosophical.

Between libretto and lice

It seems to me that a dictionary should be there to provide entries for the things one could not know: who would have thought that rhubarb would have the name rhubarb? It’s so surprising it’s almost incredible. If you had asked me to guess, I would have been picking it out of millions of possible words of that length. So it goes in the dictionary. But I think I would have been able to guess that the main Libyan desert might be called the Libyan Desert.

But leave out pieplant?