Sunday, February 22, 2009

Big words

Some time ago, I learned about a book simply referred to as "Fowler". A book identified only by the the name of its author must certainly be an important one, and so I sought out the title of the book, which turned out to be "Modern English Usage," or "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage." The former title appears on the spine, while the latter appears on the first page of the dictionary.

While visiting a friend's office one time, I noticed two very old books on a desk. One of them was a desktop Oxford English dictionary. The other was a 1926 edition of Fowler. The book belonged to neither my friend nor his friend, the only other inhabitant of the office. So I took it.

There were dictionaries aplenty in every classroom of my grade school and most of my high school classrooms as well (mainly those which were mostly likely to host an English class). We were encouraged to use them. We also learned grammar throughout. Or at least the teachers tried to teach us. Thus, we had access to the bits and pieces of the language, and we knew the mechanics of how these bits and pieces fit together. But no effort was put into telling us how to use the language, or even where we might go to find such advice. Style guides by any author if they existed at all in the classroom, were never mentioned by our teachers. There are a variety of types of entries. Some give more detailed explanations of certain words than a dictionary would give. Other entries dispel various taboos about grammar that were invented when the first authors English grammar books seem to have been under the impression that the language was a dialect of French [1]. Some entries identify pitfalls of writing, such as writing sentences which, although meaningful and grammatical, are too long and complex, or how best to write a letter (not so much relevant anymore). Others are designed to give you an answer of "Yes" when you ask the question "Does this sound right?"

Among the pitfalls of writing are the entries on Pedantic Humour and Polysylabic Humour, which I reproduce below.

Pedantic Humour: No essential distinction is intended between this and Polysyllabic Humour; one or the other name is more appropriate to particular specimens, and the two headings are therefore useful for reference;but they are manifestations of the same implus, and the few remarks needed may be made here for both. A warning is necessary, because we have all of us, except the abnormally stupid, been pedantic humourists in our time. We spend much of our childhood picking up a vocabulary; we like to air our latest finds; we discover that our elders are tickled when we come out with a new name that they thought beyond us; we devote some pains to tickle them further, and there we are, pedants and polysyllabicisits all. The impulse is healthy for children, and nearly universal — which is just why warning is necessary; for among so many there will always be some who fail to realize that the clever habit applauded at home will make them insufferable abroad. Most of those who are capable of writing well enough to find readers do learn sooner or later that playful use of long or learned words is a one-sided game boring the reader more than it pleases the writer, that the impulse to it is a danger-signal — for there must be something wrong with what they are saying if it needs recommending by such puerilities — and that yielding to the impulse is a confession of failure. But now and then even an able writer will go on believing that the incongruity between simple things to be said and out-of-the-way words to say them in has a perennial charm. Perhaps it has for the reader who never outgrows hobbledehoyhood; but for the rest of us it is dreary indeed. It is possible that acquaintance with such labels as pedantic and polysyllabic humour may help to shorten the time it takes to cure a weakness incident to youth.

An elementary example or two should be given. The words homoeopathic (small or minute), sartorial (of clothes), interregnum (gap), or familiar ones: -- To introduce 'Lords of Parliament' in such a homoeopathic doses as to leave a preponderating power in the hands of those who enjoy a merely hereditary title./While we were motoring out to the station I took stock of his sartorial aspect, which had change somewhat since we parted./In his vehement action his breeches fall down and his waistcoat runs up, so that there is a great interregnum.

These words are like most that are much used in humour of either kind, both pedantic and polysyllabic. A few specimens that cannot be described as polysyllabic are added here, and for the large class of long words, the article Polysyllabic Humour should be consulted: -- ablution; aforesaid; beverage; bivalve (the succulent); caloric; cuticle; digit; domestics; eke (adv.); ergo; erstwhile; felicide; nasal organ; neighbourhood (in the n. of, = about); nether garments; optic (eye); parlous; vulpicide.

Polysyllabic Humour. See Pedantic Humour for a silght account of the impulse that suggests long or abstruse words as a means of entertaining the hearer. Of the long as distinguished from the abstruse, terminological exactitude for lie or falsehood is a favourable example, but much less amusing ad the hundredth than at the first time of hearing. Oblivious to their pristine nudity (forgetting they were stark naked) is a less familiar specimen. Nothing need here be added to hat was said in the other article beyond a short specimen list of long words or phrases that sensible people avoid. Batavian, Caledonian, Celestial, Hibernian and Milesian for Dutch, Scotch, Chinese, and Irish. Solution of continuity, femoral habiliments, refrain from lacteal addition, and olfactory organ for gap, breeches, take no milk, and nose. Osculatory, pachydermatous, matutinal, diminutive, fuliginous, fugacious, esurient, culinary, and minacious, for kissing, thick-skinned, morning, tiny, sooty, timid, hungry, kitchen, and threatening. Frontispiece, individual, eqitation, intermediary, cachinnation, and epidermis, for face, person, riding, means, laughter, and skin. Negotiate and peregrinate for tackle and travel.
All this being said, I want this book.

[1] One example of which is that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. This is pure nonsense, in part because it contradicts the evidence, and in part because it misstates the imagined problem. You're not allowed to do this in French. In English, there is nothing wrong with it. Quite often sentences can be rewritten to avoid it. Sometimes they cannot. Even if they can, the rewritten sentence often sounds awkward and artificial.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

25 Random Things

This 25 Random Things meme has been flooding my facebook news feed for a few weeks now. I read the first one that I saw, when I had not yet realized what a phenomenon it was going to become. I've lost count on the number of people who have posted them since, so I don't remember how many of them I haven't read in full (I do read parts of them if they get comments).

The instructions are simple. Write 25 random things about yourself, then "tag" 25 of your friends who are supposed to do the same. Early iterations included conditions that they had to be true and not well known.

I've been seeing things like this since I started using email, although they usually ask for more specific details than just "things". I've sent a few completed replies (usually after I've been prodded by the sender), and occasionally passed them on. They don't seem to catch on. They've also shown up on blogs, although I've never been a victim of tagging in that case. They've even appeared on facebook in the past. One thing that is interesting (to me) about this particular meme is that a lot more people seem to have been doing this one than those that appear in emails or blogs.

The meme has been dying down. I've seen a few in the last couple days, and other similar ones are now appearing more frequently than the old one. I'm guessing those who thought the last one was oodles of fun are looking for they're next fun fix, but even though they're dominating now, they're not nearly as popular as the last.

In typical Randy fashion, I've jumped on the bandwagon just before it leaves town. I had been tagged a few times, and, you know, you gotta give the people what they want, although I didn't follow the rules very closely. Somebody reminded me today that I haven't blogged in a while, and I figured this would be good blog fodder. Enjoy.

25 Random Things

1. I think most people say "random" when they mean "arbitrary", such as in the title of this post.

2. I think that the 25 things that people write are neither random nor arbitrary.

3. I was in the grocery store when I thought of 1. and 2.

4. The 227g packages of mushrooms for $2.49 were sold out, so I bought bulk mushrooms at $3.99/pound.

5. I bought too many, which resulted in my pasta sauce boiling over.

6. My favourite colour is red. This is not because I find the colour particularly appealing. When I was young, my mother colour coded things so we would know which was mine and which was my brother's. My stuff was red, my brother's was blue. The only logical conclusion that my 4 year old mind could make is that she chose red because it was my favourite colour. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

7. I can show you how to do-si-do. I can show you how to scratch a record. I can take apart the remote control, and I can almost put it back together.

8. A little part of me dies when somebody tells me they want to do a PhD in anything.

9. See number 10.

10. See number 9.

11. What's with those people whose facebook activity seems to have nothing to with anything but politics?

12. The distance from my parking spot at work to the farthest place I've been from home is 3,914 km by car.

13. From 10 May 1940 to 27 July 1945 and from 26 October 1951 to 7 April 1955, I was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. [1]

14. Pending.

15. I's the b'y that builds the boat.

16. I am just as impressed that they all answered the bell when he asked for a helping hand recently.

17. I ripoff most of my status updates from songs, tv shows, and newspapers. Number 7, 15, and 16 are also rip-offs.

18. The status update about candy, if you remember it, is actually about me.

19. I know the difference between it's and its, you're and your, they're, their, and there, and other groups of homophones, butt eye right the wrong won moor then I right the write won.

20. I was feeling bold, so I formatted my note [2].

21. Hey remember that time when I would only read Shakespeare.

22. Hey remember that other time when I would only read the backs of cereal boxes.

23 is a prime number.

24. Having read numbers 1-23, I doubt that you know me any better now than you already did.

25. I agree with this article.

26. I can't count.

[1] Current facebook profile picture.

[2] When you are composing a Note in facebook, there is a small, er, note which reads "Feeling bold? Format your note".

Monday, February 09, 2009

Walking around

I remember learning about traffic circles or roundabouts in elementary school. It seemed like such an exotic form of traffic control. Lately, it seems like a fair number of them have been cropping up here and there. In the last year or two, I've encountered them in Ancaster and somewhere in the Waterloo Region. If any traffic circles existed anywhere nearby when I was learning to drive, I wasn't aware of them, and I don't think my driving instructors were either, because they never gave me any advice how to navigate them. My usual strategy is to go when I feel like it and rely on the politeness of others. So far there has been no honking of horns or crashing of cars. If you're a pedestrian, on the other hand, you don't need any guidance of walking instructors, even if you learned how to walk before the age of roundabouts. The Waterloo Region was kind enough to make a video to help you.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

That don't make cents!

And that is why you don't ignore your math teacher.