Thursday, December 22, 2005

Plenty of Bread

The loaf of bread I bought yesterday is labeled "Extra Sourdough Bread." Does this mean that you can buy it only if you already have some bread and need some extra? Or does this mean that they had a lot of leftovers at the factory? (OK, I'm guessing that bread isn't really made in a factory, but it's funnier than "bakery.")

So how would one correctly point out that the sourdough bread is extra sour? It would have to be "extra-sour sourdough bread," neh? I'm not sure that "extra-sour bread" would convince anyone that it was tasty, plus what happened to the dough?

OK, back to real work--

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Unique or An Unique?

Just another note about the challenges of the English language. Why "a unique..." rather than "an unique..."? When a "u" word is pronounced as though it begins with a "y" (yoo nique), it's treated more like the consonant sound of the y. So, a university, an umbrella, a usual day, an unusual day.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Here Am I

On Wikipedia, someone asked on the language reference desk about the difference among "I am here," "Here I am," and "Here am I." Other people had input; I added the following.

I usually see "here am I" in a more poetic or philosophical sense rather than in a physical sense; "here am I, pondering the vagaries of the English language once again." It puts more of an emphasis on the "I" part. Here's part of a favorite poem:
Shadows creep up the mountain,
Mountain goes black on the sky,
The sky bursts out with a million stars
And here, by the campfire,
Am I.

(Kathryn and Byron Jackson)

I'm thinking about this even more and actually the first two phrases can have different emphasis depending on the situation:
  • "No one showed up for this meeting!" "Hey, *I*'m here."
  • "You're daydreaming again instead of being mentally here with me!" "No, I *am* here."
  • "Where are you exactly?" "I am *here*."
  • "I give up, I can't find you!" "*Here* I am!"
  • (Upon entering a party, late, where you're expected:) "Here I *am*."
  • "We were all supposed to meet here at 2:00, well, here *I* am."

(So, in looking at those examples, you can see that ... putting "I" first places more importance on the person (note that importance isn't necessarily emphasis) but "here" first puts more importance on the location.) But I can't think of any more than one general usage for "here am I", which is the metaphysical or philosophical sense of one's existence as I mentioned earlier, or a poetic variation on "here I am".

(In response to question as to whether "here" is a preposition in these sentences:) Actually here is an adverb in most standard uses (as is there). Prepositions usually have an object (not sure that's the right term), explicit or implicit, as in "over the fire", "through the tunnel". Here is describing the ''am''.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

We Know What They Mean, But--

Heard on the radio (often): "Thanks to Ron of the KCBS phone force, there's a tremendous backup on 101..." Gee, yeah, thanks a lot, Ron...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Who Needs Conjunctions Anyway?

Ahhhh, the joys of technical writing. On a daily basis I get to read enlightening engineering-written phrases like these:
This can be appended with C/C++ style structure member selection syntax.

Parse it, go ahead, I dare you.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

B0o5t sat1sfact!on

Even with several layers of lovely spam filters, I get about 150 spams a day. I skim their subject lines because, once a week or so, some legitimate piece of email lands in the wrong place. Ergo, I am privileged to become intimately familiar with subject lines that are often boring, often schoolboy gross, usually crassly commercial--but sometimes filled with nothing but intriguing words, designed of course to get past the spam checkers that would be baffled by the vocabulary. For a while a few months back, every spammer, it seemed, found words from the hoary depths of the most obscure Scrabble or crossword puzzle dictionaries, but that trend has mostly, sadly, stopped. Yet some still arrive. Get out your dictionaries or explore at OneLook and get ready to play the dictionary game at your next cocktail party. (Which are real words? which not? can you tell before clicking the link? can you define them?):

Who knew you could learn so much from spam? I mean, other than by actually opening the messages to find out how to become twice the man you used to be, for example.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Lady Mondegreen Sings Christmas Carols

Tis the season to drape thousands of lights upon my tree and listen with half an ear to my Christmas CDs. I enjoy it all; but sometimes at this time of year I miss the companionship of a spouse or partner. Perhaps it's no surprise that, singing along with "O Christmas Tree", I found myself mouthing the words, "O Christmas Tree, you are my only lover." What a sad and lonely Christmas the songwriter must have been having, thought I. Then, sanity reasserting itself, I listened more carefully to hear what they were really singing. By Jove, it certainly sounded like "you are my only lover," no matter how carefully I listened. (The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas, 1987, Disc A, "Medley," Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.)

This carol is interesting because it wasn't written originally in English, but in German ("O Tannenbaum"). As a result, there are no "correct" English lyrics; what you read, hear, or sing depends on the translation used. Each book of carols in which I looked it up and on each lyrics web site, the words are somewhat different. So I suppose it's possible that, in this one translation, someone slipped in "you are my only lover," although I haven't been able to verify that.

If so, I suspect it was the Lady Mondegreen's doing. For more Mondegreen Christmas lyrics, see And read additional information about Mondegreen lyrics by the author of the entertaining book, Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly and Other Misheard Christmas Lyrics.

Three Times Three (and bonus jargon)

We return you to today's Mercury News. Not that I'm picking on them--they just happen to be there. From an article on airport runway safety, it describes beds of crushed gravel as safety zones at the ends of runways and says that such systems "have stopped three dangerous overruns three times since May 1999 at Kennedy Airport." I'm afraid for my flying safety if indeed there have been 9 dangerous overruns in total. Don't you find it interesting that, in each of the three times when the safety beds worked, there were three simultaneous dangerous overruns? Or perhaps I'm confused—perhaps there were only three overruns, but each had to be stopped three times? (Why, didn't they get it right the first time?)

The airport industry assists in my confusion by referring to "Engineered Material Arresting Systems (EMAS)". Another example of appalling industry jargon. With an appalling acronym, as well. Picture yourself the next time you're piloting your 747 into Kennedy Airport, and your brakes are failing, and someone yells "head for the EMAS!" What the f***, you'd be thinking to yourself, does that mean? It means, gentle readers, crushed gravel beds at the ends of runways. Now, if they really felt that they had to give it an acronymizable name, why not something more obvious, like Emergency Gravel Airport Deflection System (EGADS)? Now picture yourself screeching in for the same emergency landing, and the control tower could simply yell, "Egads!" Everything would be hunky dory. See, someone should pay me for these ideas.

(San Jose Mercury News, Dec 10, 2005, "Hemmed-in Chicago runway scrutinized after fatal crash".)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Lock Them Innocents Up

This one gave me pause: Are we not giving framed people tough enough sentences? If we're going to lock them up anyway, we might as well throw away the key so they can't get out to talk about it? (San Jose Mercury News, December 8, 2005.)

Or perhaps they're not talking about prison terms but about the language that attorneys use in the courtroom? Sentences such as "Your honor, we don't have another suspect, so could you please lock him up?" aren't tough enough; instead, sentences need to be more along the lines of, "You'd better lock this guy up, judge, or you're next, and believe me, we know how to frame people. So watch yerself"?

(Also see my small collection of similar examples showing Why Copy Editors Aren't Useless.)

Wrathful Dispersion as Origin of Languages

Watch out, the scientific "evolution" of language is the next target:

The Wrathful Dispersion controversy

Summary: Should the "Wrathful Dispersion Theory," be taught in the public schools alongside evolutionary theories of historical linguistics? The opponents of Wrathful Dispersion maintain that it is really just Babelism... which was clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1–9); it held that the whole array of modern languages was created by God at a single stroke.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Oxford Word of the Year

The Oxford American Dictionary has announced that "podcast" is its word of the year for 2005. It will be interesting to see where this word is in another year, or 5 or 10 years. It will be in the dictionary next year; at the moment, when I do an all-dictionary search (, it shows up in no dictionaries at all. Might be worth it to keep returning to that search to see when it shows up in the various dictionaries.

Also-rans for the year include "bird flu", which has appeared in the daily paper and radio newscasts about 523 times a day for most of the year, and "sudoku", of which I had never heard until the San Jose Mercury News abruptly started including a sudoku puzzle on its puzzle page, oh, maybe a couple of months ago? I'm a word person, not a number person, so I've been pointedly ignoring it.

However, I did just now discover that you can do interactive crosswords here courtesy of the Merc.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

And the Consensus Is--

Although I was slowly nodding off in bed last night, I was not too far gone to notice that Discover's editors, usually excellent, let slide "the general consensus among researchers..." (January '06, pg 22) So tell me, what other kind of consensus is there?

In the same sentence, the author used "intensification," as in "the intensification of hurricanes by global warming..." Doesn't it sound made up? It's not, but doesn't it sound like it? I had to wake up enough to puzzle a bit about whether there's a better word. Decided probably not, although it maybe could be phrased otherwisely, and fell asleep.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Small Cars Back In Vogue!

Pleasanton Auto Mall's ad today on KCBS radio gave me hope that giant SUVs are out and in fact auto dealers are themselves shrinking the cars in their inventories. The ad claims that "All Lexus, Infinitis, and Acuras have been reduced!" I'm not sure how--perhaps they're chopping off the trunk?


An assortment of Christmas-music CDs were playing this morning while I was running speaker wire. I was a bit distracted, but it caught my ear when the singer said, "...and the air filled with hot pumpkin pie." So could you gain weight simply by inhaling repeatedly? (Bobby Sherman, "Yesterday's Christmas," Have A Nice Christmas: Holiday Hits of the '70s (Rhino).)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Plastic Food—It's OK

A co-worker at our company's office-warming party described a restaurant at which "all the food is organic." A guest popped up with the comment that he'd be interested in seeing what inorganic food consisted of. A lively discussion ensued. Organic chemistry, for example, focuses on the carbon compounds of living things and most other carbon compounds. Therefore, does organic food also consist of anything that's carbon based? People joke about that nonfat cheese that won't melt as being "rubber" or "plastic" food. It's clear that both would still be organic; rubber is derived from the sap of the rubber tree, and plastic is derived from carbon-based petroleum substances. Indeed, the Webster's definiton of plastic is "any of numerous organic synthetic or processed materials..." So, got some old, bald tires sitting in your yard? Obsolete polycarbonate items lying around? Eat up—it's all organic!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Of Teachers, Baldness, and Aurals

Have you noticed (I'm sure it's constantly in your thoughts) that some puns work only aurally, not visually? My niece asked at Thanksgiving:
  • What's the difference between a train and a teacher?
    A train says "Choo choo", while a teacher says, "Spit out that gum right now!"
You have to hear it to get it, even if you're hearing it silently in your brain. On the other hand, this one works either way:
  • What did the bald man say when given a solid-gold comb?
    "Thanks, I'll never part with that."
While we're on the subject: Ask someone out loud to define "aurally." Will they define "orally" instead? And does the former pun work only aurally or orally? If there's an aura about the issue, is it an aural issue?--Definitely not, but what is it? Aureate indicates something of a glowing golden color, not necessarily having an aura; auric indicates something simply golden; aureus is a gold coin; aurevoir; auricular, interestingly, is both the same as aural and something relating to an atrium of a heart. Is there a word for "having or relating to an aura"? And should we avoid all uses of adjectives beginning with aur so that we don't need to inject a dictionary directly into our brains?