Ah, Summer.

The weather is hot and sticky, and leaves me disinclined to do anything at all, including cook dinner.  So cold cuts and storebought potato salad are the order of the day.

We have what I think — based on comparison of its noises with sound files on the web — is either a barn owl or a screech owl living in the messed-up soffits of the upstairs gable window.

There is a black bear wandering around town, eating from the garbage cans out back of the Wilderness Restaurant and showing up in people’s back yards — also once in broad daylight at the verge of the school baseball field, while a game was going on.  (The kids were taken inside — a case of “game called on account of bear,” I suppose.)

And something knocked down and tore up our front-yard bird feeder last night.

It’s enough to make one peevish, so it is.  Herewith, therefore, a peeve to make your day complete:

Past and passed are not the same word.  Past-the-noun refers to an earlier point in time (“The past is another country”); past-the-adjective describes something having to do with an earlier point in time (“remembrance of things past”); and past-the-preposition indicates that something is moving from a point either metaphorically or literally behind something to a point forward of it (“a first-past-the-post voting system.”  Passed, on the other hand, is the past tense of the verb to pass (“time passed” or “the winner passed the post in record time.”)

Don’t confuse them; it makes the baby copyeditors cry.

A Brace of Peeves

(Because I’m waiting on a dishwasher-repair person, and that sort of thing always makes me peevish.)

Peeve the first: It’s vocal cords, people, not vocal chords. It’s an easy mistake to make, given that cord and chord are homonyms, and given the association with sound-making and hence with music . . . but the items in question were named by anatomists, not musicians, and for the anatomical mind the notable thing would have been their physical structure. Wikipedia has some good pictures, which I’m not going to reproduce here because while interesting, they aren’t particularly handsome or appetizing.

Peeve the second: This one’s a bit more subtle. If you’ve got a character listening in on another character or characters talking about something, but the listener isn’t quite able to make out what’s being said, the conversation isn’t undecipherable or illegible.

Undecipherable and illegible are adjectives for something that is, or is meant to be, seen or read. Something that’s undecipherable is, taken literally, unable to be decrypted or decoded; by extension, it refers to something drawn or written or otherwise seen, the meaning of which cannot be determined. (You can have an undecipherable letter, or an undecipherable carved inscription, or — speaking metaphorically — an undecipherable expression.) Something that’s illegible is something written that cannot be read, such as an illegible signature (though not — because it isn’t written down — an illegible expression.)

If what you’re dealing with is something that is, or is meant to be, heard, the words you’re looking for are unintelligible (the listener can hear it, but not well enough to make much sense of it) or inaudible (the listener can’t hear it well enough, period.)

I run into this one oftener than you’d think, and it drives me batty.

Six of One and Half a Dozen of the Other

But no ones or twos.

Or, like this post, half an appreciation of nifty stuff and half a peeve.

The nifty stuff, first:

Medieval Dice with No 1 or 2 Found on Street in Norway.  Dice are really old tech, as it were, and crooked dice of one sort or another are almost equally old.  When Og and Ugh were casting knucklebones to pass the time in their Paleolithic cave, it probably wasn’t long before Og figured out that if he shaved down one side of his favorite knucklebone just so, he could up his chances of winning by enough to end up the possessor of Ugh’s best flint hand-axe before Ugh caught on.

Now, the peeve:

The article isn’t actually about finding dice.  It’s about finding a die, singular.  That’s how it goes:  One die, two (or more) dice.

It’s a common error, but one expects better of a science blog. I blame LiveScience.com for the error, because when I followed their link to the source article at  Norsk institutt for kulturminneforskning, and clicked on their link to get the text in Norsk bokmål, I saw that the  caption for the picture of the crooked die used the singular terning, as would be proper, rather than the plural terningen.  (The article itself speaks of dice, plural  and die, singular, depending upon context.)

From the Department of Exceedingly Mixed Metaphors

Here’s Forbes Magazine – which really ought to know better – in the midst of an otherwise unexceptional article about the impact of the mega-success of Black Panther on the movie industry’s current reliance on producing a year-round series of blockbusters:

This is an entire pre-summer slate of would-be event movies getting steamrolled by one very big tentpole.

Squint a little with your mind’s eye, if you can, and try to picture what would you would be seeing, if this were a literal image.

Right. You’ve got a chalkboard getting squished by a support pole (I’ll even make it easier for you by assuming a circus-tent-sized wooden mast, rather than a flimsy aluminum pup-tent sort of thing) attached in some fashion to a piece of heavy road equipment. Which puts us squarely in Toon Town, if it puts us any place at all.

The moral of the story, if there is one: If you’re going to commit metaphor, for goodness’s sake take moment to visualize the whole thing first

Today’s Bit of Linguistic Amusement

From Texas Monthly online, a discussion of the phrase “fair to middlin’” (as in, “How’re you doin’?” “Oh, fair to middlin’ – can’t complain”), which wanders through the Texas cotton patch, the Texas oil patch, cotton-grading systems in Liverpool and cotton mills in Lancashire, the rivalry between Midland and Odessa, and the transatlantic popularity of country music.

This sort of thing is, as they say, my jam.

Vocabulary Expansion Through Homeownership, and Other Lexical Consequences of Choosing to Settle in Northern New Engand.

Let us consider, for example, “soffit.” Until I ended up living in a 19th-century wooden house in deep snow country, I had no idea what a soffit was. I may have been in the vicinity of soffits from time to time, but they had by no means impinged upon my consciousness.

But now I know. Per Wikipedia, “in popular use, soffit most often…refers to the material forming a ceiling from the top of an exterior house wall to the outer edge of the roof, i.e., bridging the gap between a home’s siding and the roofline, otherwise known as the eaves.”

Per my own experience, soffits are those rotted bits under the roof of the upstairs gable windows that I’m going to have to get replaced this spring, right after I get the plumbing fixed and the north side of the roof reshingled.

(Old houses always need the plumbing fixed. I think it’s a rule.)

Winter weather up here provides other items of interest for word nuts, as well. Like this idiomatic tidbit, picked up from listening to the local road crews on the radio scanner: “Be careful up on Titus Hill. It’s getting greasy out there.” Translated out of the north woods accent, what this means is that the previously snow-plowed roads, having been lightly rained on for a few hours, are now in the process of freezing again, and have reached a particularly nasty and treacherous state of slickness.

Good weather for staying in and updating one’s blog, in fact.

A Brace of Peeves

Because sometimes they come in matched sets.

Peeve One:  Criteria is a plural, dammit.  The singular is criterion.  (The word is Greek in origin – the –on ending is a clue.)

Peeve Two: Data is also a plural.  The singular is datum.  (This one is Latin.  Again, the ending is a clue – the –um is a neuter singular ending.)

Both of these words are, as is the way of language, in the process of slowly morphing into singular nouns, but they aren’t there yet, and until they get there, some people, like me, are going to bristle up at the usage.

(In principle, I’m a descriptivist.  In practice . . . well, in practice, I get peevish sometimes.)

Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

I keep reading bits of narrative lately where a character who’s walking around aimlessly or randomly is described as “milling about.”


Milling about is not something one person does, or even two people.  Milling about requires at least a small crowd.  The “mill” part of the verb comes from the idea that the random circular motion of such a crowd resembles the rotary action of a mill wheel.

One person alone might pace, or might wander about, but they aren’t going to be milling, even if they’re doing it with a friend.

Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

Flare is not the same as flair, so don’t use one when you mean the other.

A flare is a sudden burst of flame or light:

A solar flare will cause the aurora borealis to be visible (except for wherever I happen to be at the time, which will be clouded over.)

Or it’s something that starts out narrow and ends up wide:

The sleeve of the gown was a graceful flare, trimmed with gold embroidery at the open end.

A flair is a knack for doing something stylishly and/or particularly well:

Janet has a flair for mathematical puzzles.

Flair without the definite or indefinite article refers to a quality of stylishness, élan, and panache:

The final entry in the show was presented with even more flair than the ones that preceded it.

Highway flares, of course, are related to the first definition, since they spring into light with a sudden burst when struck.  (They also give us the technical term flare out – as in, the first EMT to respond to the accident flared out the scene, meaning that they lit flares and placed them on the roadway to warn drivers of the obstruction.  I love technical jargon and specialized lingo; they do fascinating things to the language.)

Harbingers Ahoy!

First Tree Color SmallerThat tree in the front driveway that I was talking about the other day is now showing its first patch of color.  Summer is now officially (for local household values of “official”) transitioning into autumn.

We have also recently taken in our first batch of gift zucchini. Likewise a couple of locally-grown tomatoes, which promptly went into BLT sandwiches.  Raising tomatoes up here in northern New England is a triumph of hope over experience every time; they have to be started indoors, and once they’re out in the garden, it’s a race between them and the first frost.

(A harbinger, by the way, was originally a person who went ahead of an army to arrange for lodgings, going back through Old French to Old Saxon to a couple of root words heri and berga – meaning, respectively “army” and “a fortified place.”  The latter is the same root that shows up in a lot of place names, since for a long time, historically speaking, “city” and “fortified place” were more or less synonymous.)