A little Latin is a dangerous thing. Once you start realizing where words come from, you’ll never be able to utter a sentence again without thinking about what these words ‘really’ mean. I, who have acquired more than a little Latin, am a linguistic terrorist. I blow up entire sentences, leaving verbal debris.

More often, though, I just run around in circles, chasing an elusive insight through the tangled underbrush of meaning.

For example, I started this morning with the word ‘identity.’ We talk about identities being stolen, when what we really mean is numbers have been stolen, particularly that unique identifying string of digits we call a Social Security number. Society is much more secure now that we all have numbers.

Except when they are stolen. If I lose my identity, I am no longer unique. Possessing this, another person can steal other bits of my life — credit card numbers, checking account numbers, passwords.

But ‘uniqueness’ can’t actually be stolen, since what truly makes us all unique is DNA. Unless you’ve been cloned, no one has DNA identical to yours.

Linguistic point of order: No one is more unique than anyone else, or any less unique. That’s because unique is an absolute. You either are, or you’re not.

If we’re all unique, then none of us is really special. More

Don’t Pet the Peeves

My water was orange this morning. Not a nice Sunkist orange, but a rusty brown-orange. We had a big thunderstorm last night, and the river is very high, but I’m not sure whether those things are responsible.

If this happened all the time, I would put it at the top of my Pet Peeves List, but it rarely happens, so I haven’t exercised that peeve enough to get ratcheted up all the way to ‘annoyed.’

I have pet peeves. I regularly feed them and take them out for walks, but I don’t let them up on the furniture. Most of them are linguistic peeves, like when people say, “My eyes literally popped out of my head!”

After the orange water I ran into a couple of them.

It seemed like a good morning to go out for breakfast, so we did. My first question to our server was, “Is your water orange?” Because it’s difficult to tell when coffee has been made with orange water.

She gave me a funny look. “Is your guys’s water orange?” she asked, coffee pot poised to pour.

I replied in the affirmative, making a mental note to check whether ‘guys’s’ is really a word. It raises my hackles.

Those restaurant guys’s water was not orange, so we allowed her to fill our cups.   More

Do or Do Not

“Do or do not. There is no try.”    — Yoda

I picked this quotation because it illustrates one of my favorite grammatical concepts: dummies.

I’m not talking about people who don’t know whether it should be “John and me” or “John and I,” or people who abuse the subjunctive by saying “If I was…” I’m talking about linguistic clutter, words without content which nevertheless have a grammatical function.

For example: “There” is an adverb meaning “in, to, or at that place or position.” Not complicated.

Hypothetical Girl Telling Pointless Story: So, there’s this guy who keeps texting me. So, yesterday he says–

Me (looking around): Where?

HGTPS: Huh? Where what?

Me: Where is he — the guy who’s bothering you?

HGTPS: How should I know? That’s not important. So, he’s texting me–

Me: You said he was there. You said, “There’s this guy…”

HGTPS: I didn’t mean he’s there. I just mean there’s this guy who keeps texting me.

Me (enlightened): Ah, you mean the dummy subject.

HGTPS (nodding): Yeah, he’s an idiot. So, he texts me…

In the  preceding dialog, as in Yoda’s quotation, ‘there’ is not an adverb, nor any sort of ‘content’ word. It is a grammatical dummy, taking the place of the true subject, “this guy” in an inverted word-order sentence. The sentence really means: “A guy exists, who keeps texting me.” But nobody talks that way. More

Word Fun

Long before people were learning Klingon, long before I’d heard of Esperanto or Volapuk or Quickscript, I started making up alphabets and languages. I don’t know when it occurred to me that such things could be invented. Norwegian-speaking relatives exposed me to the notion that words can only mean what people agree that they mean. In the third grade I read a book about codes and ciphers; for a while I wanted to work for the CIA, but soon I was more interested in spelling reform.

Tolkien’s languages were my first encounter with an artificially constructed language. I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy several times; I read the appendices so many times the pages fell out.

Other than working for the CIA or translating books into Esperanto, I couldn’t figure out any really fun careers that would use my skills. If the school guidance counsellor had suggested that I look at artificial language construction, I might have gone that direction.

If I had, I would probably still be living in my parents’ basement. There’s not a big call for artificial languages, and there are a lot of people who would apply for any job requiring conlang skills.

Instead, I went the traditional way. I studied Spanish, Latin, French, German, Esperanto, Italian, Anglo-Saxon and Greek. I took courses in linguistics. And like any other graduate holding a degree in something useless, I became a teacher. More

Unpossible Words

The Romans were never able to conquer Germany, but they certainly stole English from the Germans. Originally a first cousin of German, English has acquired so many words from other languages, mainly Latin, that they now outnumber the Germanic roots four to one.

The resulting language is is a strange, hybrid monster.

Since English isn’t picky about how it creates new words, we’re always adding vocabulary. When students complain about how many words Latin has, I remind them that by some counts, English has over a million words. The Oxford Latin Dictionary has only about 40,000.

Prefixes are one way we add words in English, and many of these are stuck to Latin words. Because English draws both from Latin and German there are many redundancies: in– (along with its clones ir-, im-, and il-) and un– mean the same thing. Both turn a word into its opposite: necessary, unnecessary; sincere, insincere.

What’s sort of strange is that there are tacit rules about which prefix is used. We don’t have inhappy or unpossible. Who decides these things? In– is usually preferred with Latin roots, but necessary, a Latin word, has unnecessary as its opposite.

Further confusing things is the other prefix in- that means ‘into’: influence, induction, influx.

When we see a word like inflammable, how do we know whether it means ‘not flammable’ or ‘able to burst into flames’? It means the latter, but most trucks carrying combustible material use flammable, just so there’s no confusion.

And then there’s anti-, contra– (counter-), non-, dis– and a-, all used in much the same way: matter / antimatter, clockwise / counter-clockwise, advantage / disadvantage, sense / nonsense, symmetrical / asymmetrical.

When my students complain that Latin doesn’t make sense, these are the examples I pull out and ramble about for twenty minutes or so. By then, they’re all saying, “Can we just get back to Latin?” Mission accomplished.

Sacrificing to the Test

I spent about 15 hours last week proctoring the state proficiency exams we are required to give to our students. It is an awful week for everyone. By Friday, the students were so burned out that they could barely think.

My responsibility as a proctor was to stare at them for two and a half hours, occasionally walking up and down the rows and looking over their shoulders. It occurred to me as I was sitting there that I didn’t know the etymology of ‘proctor.’ Obviously Latin, but I couldn’t think of what word it came from.

I couldn’t abandon my staring duties to go find a Latin dictionary, so I just forgot about it until a few minutes ago.

‘Proctor’ is a medieval shortening of ‘procurator.’ We think of procurators as people working in museums, but it originally meant a steward or treasurer. ‘Procuro,’ the verb it derives from, means ‘to look after, administer, have charge of.’ Interestingly, it also has the meaning, ‘to avert by sacrifice, to expiate.’

Etymology yields such interesting ironies. Who are we sacrificing with these tests? What sins are we forcing our children to expiate? More


The f-word is wearing out. It may still have the power to shock some people, but in general, it seems to be moving into the mainstream, following in the muddy footsteps of ‘damn’ and ‘shit,’ which have become almost acceptable (except in Judge Judy’s courtroom).

There is no longer an ‘f-bomb’ – it’s becoming just another filler word like… well, ‘like.’ Or ‘um’ or ‘you know.’ These are verbal tics; we don’t realize how often we’re saying them until students start keeping track and reporting back to us.

But unlike “like,” f*ck is versatile, providing verbal, adjectival, and nominal uses. There is rarely a sentence that can’t be augmented by one f*cking profanity. I am convinced that this is a big part of its popularity.

I’m not morally opposed to profanity; I just can’t use it. My mother would be disappointed in me. I know she can’t hear me, but whenever I use those words, my ears start to turn red. More

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