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.)

Peeve of a Summer’s Day

The air is thick with humidity and allergens, and I am peevish.

Listen to me, O People, when I say unto you, the phrase is not “mother load”, it is “mother lode.”

The term comes from mining, specifically gold and silver mining, where it refers to a principle vein or group of veins of ore.  The Mother Lode, in the United States, is an area of hard-rock gold deposits in California’s Sierra Nevada, running through a zone 120 miles long and in some places almost 4 miles wide.  (It was, unsurprisingly, discovered during the California Gold Rush.)

A mother lode of something, then, is an abundant source or principle supply of that thing.  The “mother” part comes from the use of “mother” to refer to a source or origin:  “Mother of pearl” refers to the substance known as nacre, with which a mollusk encases the bit of irritant which forms the center of a pearl; “mother of vinegar” is the naturally-occurring bacterial culture which, when added to wine or other substances, causes them to ferment into vinegar; and “mother” or “mother dough” is a term sometimes used in baking to refer to a naturally-cultivated yeast starter.

And the “lode” part?  That’s from the Old English lād, meaning “a way” or “a course” – usually a watercourse of some sort.  So a lode is a way or course that ore runs through, like water runs in a stream.

It’s Dr. Doyle’s Question and Answer Time!

Q. Are you really a Doctor?

A. Yes.

I got my Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, back in the Dark Ages 1981. My primary field was Old English, and my cognate field was Old Icelandic, which makes me the sort of person who once stayed up until 2 in the morning reading a book on historical linguistics for fun. Old Icelandic is a great language – we get “to egg (somebody) on” from there, as well as “ransack”, plus a wonderful verb that we don’t have in English but sometimes I wish we did, ydda (“to show the point [of something] on the other side [of something]”; as, for instance, a sword and someone else’s back.)†

Q. What on earth are you doing here, then?  Shouldn’t you be off in an ivory tower someplace, instead of writing fiction and editing other people’s novels for pay?

A. Hah.  Don’t I wish.

I finished my degree at about the same time as Academia started devouring its own young.  The need to hire lots of new-minted scholars every year to teach the glut of baby-boomers and draft-avoiders was coming to its end, and colleges were starting to use spreadsheets and do the math and figure out that they could hire adjunct faculty (aka “temps with doctorates”) and avoid the extra cost of insurance and other perks, and tenure-track positions got scarcer and scarcer.  (Also, colleges realized that you could dangle the prospect of tenure in front of a new hire, and they’d run after it like a greyhound after a mechanical rabbit for five or six years of high toil and low pay, and then you could turn them down for tenure and start the whole process up again with the next victim.)

So I became one of the science fiction and fantasy field’s renegade medievalists, instead.

Q.  Well, that explains the writing, I guess.  What about the editing?

Money, at least in part.  Writing can pay well, but it always pays irregularly, and almost all the writers I know do a lot of other different things to fill in the gaps.

As for why this, in particular:  Teaching (and marking up essays) was something I learned how to do as a grad student and teaching fellow at Penn, and while at the time I thought I didn’t like doing it very much, I eventually figured out that what I actually didn’t like was working on stuff written by people who didn’t want to be writing it.  (I’ve graded freshman essays, and I’ve read slush – unsolicited manuscripts, for those not conversant with the lingo of the trade – and I’m here to tell you that as bad as slush can get, at least it’s all written by people who are willingly putting words onto paper or pixels onto screen.)

Working with people who are actually interested in improving what they’re doing is, on the other hand, fun.

Q. Do you only work with established writers and self-publishers?

A.  Heavens, no.  I’m just as happy to work with writers who are at an earlier stage of their development.  As I say on my “about” page, I can’t promise that their  work will publishable when we’re finished, but I can promise that it will be better than when we started.

Back when I was laboring the the fields of freshman composition, under whatever name it was being called at the time – Introduction to Rhetoric, Expository Writing, or plain old English 101 – I often found that while working with the one or two natural A-level students in the class was easy and refreshing, at the end of the semester I got more satisfaction from having helped a high-B+ student move on up into the A range, or from helping someone who started out as a C- lift themselves up to a good solid B.

†I’ll freely admit that I picked Old Icelandic for my cognate field because I liked all the bloodshed and violence in the great sagas. But my geekhood is safe – my other big interest was subordinate clauses in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Summertime, and the Living Is Sneezy….

We’re now well into the time of hot, oppressive days and high pollen counts.  The cats, instead of sitting like little furry meatloafs with tails and paws neatly tucked in, are stretched out into longcats, and can be reliably used to find the spots with the best cooling cross-drafts.

Which are no good to the rest of us, because the cats own them.

Summer is not the most enjoyable time for doing work, but work nevertheless must be done (this is where I point, in a discreet parenthesis, to the “Editorial and Critique Services” link up at the top of the page), so I’ll leave you with a handful of links to amuse or interest you during the days when you’re not on vacation at the beach, or in a mountaintop cabin, or in a hermetically sealed and thoroughly air-conditioned hotel room, if such is your pleasure:

First, a clip of Jim Macdonald, my co-author, in his other role as a magician (complete with top hat!)

Next, a good (and funny) explanation of the context rules for the use of bad language, and a report on the discovery of the earliest known use of the f-word in written English.

And finally, a video demonstrating how to put on a set of late 14th-century armor.

Stay cool, and enjoy.

Sometimes the Transmission Gets a Bit Fuzzy

As a tool for getting ideas out of one person’s head and into another’s, language (whether spoken or written) is a poor substitute for telepathy . . . but it’s the only tool we’ve got.

It’s not surprising, then, that writers often have an ambiguous relationship with language.  It’s both the tool we use and the medium we work in, and we admire its beauties and cherish its quirks at the same time as we curse at it for its limitations – not least because we can never really be certain that the worlds and characters which we use language to create are being re-created as we intended in the minds of our readers.  (Who, after all, speak their own personal  subsets of our common language, which of necessity are not the same as ours.)

For an interesting example of this phenomenon, consider this post on the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog, which discusses J. R. R. Tolkien’s description, in the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, of Lúthien dancing in “a mist of hemlocks.” The blogger points out that English and American readers may well visualize that scene differently, since the English “hemlock” is a flowering plant and the North American “hemlock” is most commonly a tall coniferous tree.

Really, given the different word-hoards and world-views that we all carry around inside our head, it’s amazing that language works as well as it does.