Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Coulda, shoulda, woulda

I never, ever say going to when I mean gonna. I don't say "I'm going to do this," I say "I'm gonna do this." Or, even more likely, I would say "I'ma' do this." 
I'm not illiterate or inarticulate. I know the right way to say things and the right way to write things. I certainly wouldn't write such a thing in a technical document. But why wouldn't I? How many people do you know who don't say gonna? Who says kind of instead of kinda? Supposed to and not sposda
I think about that a lot. Why don't we write like we talk? 
In technical documentation, you're not supposed to personify computers. Computers don't talk to each other, they communicate. They don't see hardware attached to them, they detect it. When a programmer explains something to me in programmer-ese, it's my job to translate it into English. But if a programmer explains to me that the Server "sees" another computer on the network, I have to translate it to the dry diction of technical documentation. To do otherwise would make the documentation seem unprofessional. 
Of course, back in the day, you weren't supposed to use the second person in professional writing.  Instead of saying "You can configure the program this way or that way," you would say "the user can configure the program this way or that way." Why ever would one add more words to make a sentence less direct? Because those are the rules.

When we were kids, we were supposed to practically copy the encyclopedia articles when we wrote a report. Then we were supposed to paraphrase the encyclopedia. Then we weren't supposed to use the encyclopedia when we wrote reports.
Once, we learned a million fanciful ways to say the word said. Declared, stated, exclaimed, voiced, communicated... and you barely use any of them. If you wrote fiction and used a different synonym for said every time someone said something, you'd look pretty silly. 
It's not linoleum, but it is flooring...
Or is it a picture of the Midwest from above?
Once, we learned a million and one adjectives and adverbs, and we were encouraged to use them to make our writing more descriptive. We padded our papers with them and no one complained. Then William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well told me not to overuse adverbs. They're annoying and often redundant, he said. Instead, you should use strong verbs that make adverbs unnecessary. He's right, of course. The longer you take to get your point across, the more work your audience has to do to get what you're trying to say, the less effective your message. Adjectives need to be got rid of too, of course. William Zinsser says "The adjective that exists solely for decoration is self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader." Sometimes it's important that your reader know that the table is ornate, oak, and ancient. Most of the time, all they need to know is that it's a table. That's tricky too. In technical writing, I have to decide whether to tell the reader to push the round, red button, or whether the reader will know what I mean if I just tell them to push the button. In fiction, it's even trickier. If the table is too thoroughly described, it's burdensome vanity. But sometimes you need details to draw your audience into the scene. If you set me in a room with a table, I'm in a white-walled room with a nondescript table, and I'm not invested. If I know that the room has cracked linoleum and that the table smells of Murphy's Oil Soap, I'm right there. I may, though, just have proved Zinsser's point... there's only one adjective in that sentence. If I said that the linoleum was black, cracked, and dusty, would that really be telling you anything you really need to know and/or couldn't infer? 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What's cooler than being cool?

I don't feel like posting today. I've got a case of the doldrums (from 1811, from dulled)
So seriously, I'm so uninspired today that I'm going to tell you the etymology of the thing I bought today. Which I thought was really, really lame until I read the etymology on the Online Etymology Dictionary. I assumed sofa came from the Spanish sofa, probably from French, probably from Latin, right? Nope. From Turkish sofa from Arabic suffah. Neato.
Neato can do you one better. It goes all the heck the way back to proto-Indo-European nei (they think) which meant shine. Anyway, neat started being used by the young whippersnappers in the '30s to mean very good. Neato dates from 1968. 
By the way, a neato VP at my company pointed me in the direction of this cool mini-story about the history of words that mean cool (apparently dope is back, according to the little bar graph. Kids today. Can't even come up with their own slang). Seems cool has been cool constantly since it became cool to use cool to mean cool in the 40s. Although the Online Etymology Dictionary says that that usage actually dates back to jazz slang. Sometime I'll have to look into why all our slang seems to come from black urban slang. But not right now. Right now I'll tell you that cool, meaning chilly, goes back to Old English col, which goes way back to proto-Indo-European gel for chilly or frozen. Associated with cool cash as far back as freaking 1728. I'd assumed cool cash came from the more modern sense of cool. Meaning calmly audacious since 1825. So cool as in cool customer  dates back to before cool as in cool. Not that I'm claiming cool customer goes back to 1825. Unfortunately I can't tell you because I can't find a good idiom etymology site to save my life. I can't find any idiom etymology sites, for that matter.
Bed. Now. Stay cool my friends. Stay cool. 
Oh yeah, and I bought a sofa. My cats need something new to destroy.

Monday, January 23, 2012

V-Day - Until the Violence Stops

Warning: Here there be anatomy words

The word vagina, which came to describe a woman's lady bits starting in the 1600s, comes from the Latin word vagina, which means sheath. The sole purpose of a sheath is to be a receptacle that holds something. A receptacle meant to be penetrated by a deadly weapon, no less. What an interesting commentary on the ideas of the purpose of women's bodies - the purpose of women, as perceived at the time. And how much has our attitude toward the vagina really changed.
This February, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton will be staging a production of The Vagina Monologues. The show is complicated, troubling, and controversial, but I still absolutely think you should come see it February 25th at 7pm at our location at the corner of Easton and Middlebranch. Seating is limited, so be sure to hit me up right away if you think you want to come. All proceeds benefit organizations that victims of violence against women.
Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues after interviewing a few hundred women about sex, gender, sexuality, and yes, their vaginas. She compiled these interviews into a 90-minute one-woman production, which she first performed off-Broadway in 1996.
Ensler wanted the show to "celebrate the vagina," but the overall tone of the piece is far from celebratory. That's probably why, in later years, the show became more about spotlighting and fighting violence against women.
According to the production's introduction, "Over 200 women were interviewed. Older women, young women, married women, lesbians, single women, college professors, actors,  corporate professionals, sex workers... Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one's ever asked them before." And that's true. Vaginas aren't a thing we tend to talk about. Men turn green around the gills when they hear the word, and women shift uncomfortably in their seats. Some say "you shouldn't talk about that" or "nobody wants to hear about that." Women use all kinds of euphemisms for their lady bits - "lady bits" being among my favorite (I'm also fond of cooch, vag, bajingo, and hoo hoo, if you're curious). The vagina's a dirty thing that society tells us we shouldn't talk about it.
Perhaps because of this informal ban on the discussion of our bodies, talk of rape is taboo as well. Rape's a dirty thing, and societies throughout time have openly blamed the victim. Even today, rape victims are often accused of having "asked for it," based on the way they dressed, the way they behaved, what they drank. In 2011, a Canadian law enforcement official voiced the opinion of many when he said that "women should avoid acting like sluts in order not to be victimized." 
The Vagina Monologues discusses rape without shame, without victim blaming, and without hiding beneath euphemisms meant to avoid making people uncomfortable. The stories are troubling. The language is frank, and many will find it offensive. Some speakers engage in behaviors or espouse opinions with which many people - including myself - wholeheartedly disagree. And that's okay. It's okay to feel uncomfortable, offended, alarmed, and upset. Rape, violence, they should alarm us. Discussing this stuff will inevitably make us uncomfortable. But what's important is opening a dialog. What's important is letting go of the social stigmas that keep us silent. What's important is making people aware of the world around them. What's important is helping make the violence stop.

Monday, January 16, 2012

We Shall Overcome

These words from Martin Luther King, Jr. have been my guiding principal since I first read them when I was 20, and I hope I never stop striving to live up to them:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
The most un-American of all actions is to see injustice and do nothing. The most patriotic thing an American can do is fight, no matter how unpopular the fight, for the life and liberty of our fellow Americans. That's what Martin Luther King taught me. Not just because he fought for the rights of people with brown skin, but because he taught us all to fight for the rights of each other.

So...many...shape wipes

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Is a condition I don't have, and an unnecessarily massive word to describe fear of Friday the 13th. Which makes me wonder why we have fancy names for phobias at all. I mean, do we really need to say we've got Coulrophobia? Can't we just say we're afraid of clowns? And would anyone know what the heck I was talking about if I said I had masklophobia; generally it's safer to say I'm afraid of mascots. To which people always reply "Of what? You mean like, at sports games? Who ever heard of someone afraid of mascots?" Well, there's enough people afraid of mascots that there's a word for it. I say it's just better survival instinct. You see a giant unfamiliar animal running toward you acting like a fool, and your first instinct isn't to run, I don't know what to tell you.
...and don't these words have Greek roots? I highly doubt the Greeks had mascots. 
Anyway, since it's going to be Friday the 13th in a couple of hours, I thought I'd talk a bit about it. According to, about 8% of Americans are afraid of Friday the 13th. Seems low to me, considering how careful some people are to step around it. Lots of buildings don't have 13th floors. Most hospitals don't have any rooms numbered 13. And Americans are pretty superstitious in general, I think. Seems like in the US, if we're told we should be scared of something, we usually go ahead and do it, just to be on the safe side. 
So fear of Friday the 13th is actually, according to How Stuff Works, is actually two fears combined - fear of the number 13 (Triskaidekaphobia) and fear of Fridays. I know a whole heck of a lot of people who are afraid of 13, but who the heck is afraid of Fridays? Workaholics? 
There are all kinds of theories as to why people think Friday the 13th is unlucky. The most popular theory is that there were 13 people at the Last Supper. Then there's the fact that Christ was crucified on a Friday, plus there are some Biblical types who think that Adam and Eve ate the fruit and were expelled from Eden on a Friday, though there's no biblical support for that, near as I can find.
How Stuff Works tells me that sailors especially used to be superstitious about Fridays, often refusing to ship out on a Friday. Fun tangential fact for you: research shows that the less control one feels that one has in a situation, the more likely they are to be superstitious. Because of the billion things that can go wrong at sea, sailors tend to be more superstitious than most. /tangent. So some years ago, the British Navy endeavored to allay sailors' fears about Friday by naming a ship on a Friday, sending it off on its maiden voyage on a Friday, and they hired a guy named Friday as the captain. A short time later, the ship and its entire crew disappears. On a Friday. I would guess that has less to do with bad luck and more to do with the fact that they hired a captain whose primary qualification was his name. Not usually a good idea.
Another reason folks are afraid of the number 13 may be that tradition holds that there are usually 12 witches in a coven, and if there is a 13th witch, that witch is actually the devil. Or something. I'm getting sleepy, but I don't seem to think that would make much sense if I was awake either.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Awww... Geek out!

In the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the titular character (I totally just used titular because it sounds dirty) has this great story he uses to impress the ladies. When he's moving in for the kill, he tells them the story of Pac-Man's name. Seems Pac-Man was originally called Pakkuman, after the sound paku-paku, which in Japan is onomatopoeia for the sound of a mouth opening and closing. (See this post for more tales of the Japanese and their awesome onomatopoeias). The game was later renamed Puckman in Japan, but when Midway released the game in the US, they changed the name to Pac-Man to prevent vandalism. 
That is how Scott Pilgrim picks up the ladies. I am pretty sure that I would have fallen for that line once upon a time.
So I was watching Scott Pilgrim on Saturday with my far-hotter-than-Michael-Cera husband, and I started wondering about how other games got their names. I mean I'm not shallow, but I've got to say that if you want me, you've got  to have a chin. Sorry Michael Cera, that's the way it is. And when are we going to get some less than perfect girl actors up in here? I digress.
Now back when it was in development, the Nintendo Wii (which is officially just called the Wii) was called the Nintendo Revolution. After Microsoft announced that the next gen X-Box would be called the X-Box 360, Nintendo announced that the product would actually be called the Wii. According to Wikipedia, the folks at Nintendo say that the renaming had nothing to do with that - they said that they wanted something short, memorable, and easy for folks all over the world to pronounce. I found the change weird largely because, while many products claim to be revolutionary, this one truly was. As the late scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I find the Wii pretty indistinguishable from magic. I used to find Frogger barely distinguishable from magic. 
Speaking of Frogger, Will Farrell once claimed, in a Matrix spoof, to have named the game Frogger, which was before that named "Highway Crossing Frog." Wikipedia reports that, in fact, "Highway Crossing Frog" was the working title of the game. 
Q*Bert, which stars a little orange critter with a very short trunk in place of a nose and/or mouth, took a while to find its name, according to Wikipedia. The working title was Cubes, because the  gist of the game is that you have to make your character hop around on some cubes. Way cooler than it sounds. One executive for Gottlieb, the company that created the game, wanted to call the game @!#?@! after the text that appears in a speech bubble over Q*Bert's head when he falls off the cubes. Other execs vetoed the idea, claiming that @!#?@! is difficult to pronounce. This leads me to believe that none of the other execs ever played the game, because I certainly have no trouble pronouncing that word every time I try to play the stupid thing. I fall a lot. The company finally decided on Cubert, a play on Hubert that also included the word "cube." It was an art director who decided to spell the name with a Q. The Wikipedia article also says that on the original arcade games, the sound produced when Q*Bert fell wasn't software-based - it was actually a pinball coil inside the machine that made the noise. I just thought that little detail was cool.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Boring names for websites, among other things

One of my favorite Word Nerd websites has a very boring name: Common Errors in English. I like  that it doesn't just tell you the difference between insure and ensure; affect and effect. It tells you how important it is and who is going to care. 
It says, for instance, that to ensure is to make sure something happens and to insure is to provide insurance. However, it notes, that while grammatical conservatives will get bent out of shape if you mix up the two, even though there wasn't a distinction back in the day. I'll point out before I move on, however, that it's called insurance, not ensurance; State Farm doesn't ensure your car; and it's pretty damn silly to have homophones that have the same meaning and yet do not. So maybe I picked a bad example. But I digress as usual.
Anyway, the other day while looking up beside and besides (you sit beside someone, besides means as well as), I learned the difference between rack and wrack. Nerve racked refers to being on the rack, the torture implement. Since the rack stretches folks, then to rack one's brains is to stretch them.
So there.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On returns

Well, I have eaten, drunk, purchased, and received far too much, and here I am, finally able to sit in one place long enough to blog.
The holidays were a whirlwind as they always are. For those of you who aren't aware, Jeremy and I have more family than anyone has any business having... my dad was one of 8 children in his family, my mother one of 7, Jeremy's mom was one of 6 and his dad was one of 5. Which means, among other things, that there are a heck of a lot of leftovers in our fridge, despite the fact that we barely managed to visit with half the members of our families. The rest of y'all are just going to have to come to us, because I am tired. Oh, and lucky; maybe the luckiest lady in the world to have such a surplus of amazing people to love. 
I've had James Geary's book I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World on my bookshelf for a very long time. So long, in fact, that I can't remember why I bought it, and whether I bought it before or after I wrote this post, which was about some research being done at Stanford about the power of metaphor at shaping our thoughts.
Anyway, I have a heaping helping of books sitting on my bookshelf; it has just occurred to me that if I started reading right now, taking breaks only to work and sleep, I would probably not be able to read all of the books in my house  before I died. Of course, Jeremy's entire bookshelf worth of Dungeons & Dragons-type gaming books would probably take up most of that time. But I digress as usual.
Anyway, I'm finally getting to I is an Other, and it's blowing my mind (that expression being, of course, a metaphor). It says that we use about one metaphor for every 10-25 words we speak. You're probably making the same face I made when I read that, so as proof, I'll offer the same example that Geary does. The following comes from an Australian weather forecast, with all the metaphors in italics:
Perth is in the grip of a heat wave with temperatures set to soar to 40 degrees Celsius by the end of the week. Australia is no stranger to extreme weather. Melbourne was pummelled with hailstones the size of golfballs on Saturday. Long term, droughts, bushfires, and floods have all plagued large swathes of Queensland...
I think he missed one, actually. I think the wave in heat wave would also be a metaphor. And looking at the origin of the word wave... the word descends from words that refer to the movement of water, so applying the word to the motion we make with our hands is kind of a metaphor too. 
In fact, looking back just at previous posts on this blog I'm struck with the number of words that began their lives as metaphors:
The word sincere probably comes from words meaning from one growth, or something that was pure, not a hybrid. 
Robot comes from a Czech word for slave. Monster from the word for omen. Gorillas get their name from a mythical tribe of hairy people. 
So really, metaphor goes even deeper than that which we can see on the surface. Using the Online Etymology Dictionary as a microscope, we can see even more metaphors teeming under the surface:

  • Grip descends from a word meaning handful or sheaf
  • Temperature comes from the idea of being tempered from an earlier word meaning to moderate.
  • Extreme ultimately descends from a word meaning on the outside.
  • Weather, if broken down to the root we on which the original Proto-Indo-European word was formed, descends from a word meaning to blow.
Even metaphor comes from an earlier word meaning to transfer. And with that, my mind is even further blown.

From the ruins of a burned down building in
downtown Canton. At the time I remarked that
I felt like I was taking pictures of a giant metaphor.