Monday, January 26, 2009

Wordsmiths, Know-It-Alls, Cash Prize

Put your knowledge and your words together, and win $1,000! Google Knol and have gotten together to host a how-to contest. Write a how-to article about anything and submit it to Knol and Dummies. Dummies editors will pick the best one, post it at, and send you a check. More information here:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Disputed Words: forebear, forbear, and for(e)bearer

A forebear (main accent on the first syllable) is simply an ancestor; there's no dispute there. To forbear (accent on the second syllable) means to abstain or avoid something; also no dispute. (Its past tense is forbore, and something could have been forborne.)

A problem occurs, though, with for(e)bearer. Sometimes a person giving a speech wants to find a more politically correct term for the now clichéd forefathers. They sometimes choose forebearers, which makes a certain sense because our forefathers had to bear the responsibility of government before us. But the bear in forebear stems from the verb be plus the suffix -er, that is, forebears are really fore-be-ers — they existed ("to be") before us. In contrast, the bear in forbear is from the word meaning "to carry."

Somewhere in the middle is the idea of to bear a child.

So with the e (forebearers), the extra -er is simply redundant — like engineerer (a person who engineers?) or pioneerer (a person who pioneers?). Without the e (forbearers), it ought to describe "a person who forbears," as in, "Those who chose to receive their cootie shots had no problems; the forbearers of the shots, however, were afflicted with the spontaneous amputation of their pinky toes."

So, by all rights, forbearers ought to always be defined as the latter. But you don't always have a dictionary handy, and neither word (forebear and forbear) is common enough that hoi polloi are tacitly versed in the differences. Using for(e)bearers to mean forbears happens often enough, though, that we might consider that a "new" meaning — one not originally intended — has arisen. (I write "new" because the usage would be new only to the dictionary; people have been making this "mistake" for a long time, so it isn't new in speech and writing. I write "mistake" because . . . oh, never mind.)

This is how language evolves. And, just like speciation, it isn't always clear when a new definition (species) has been created.

None of this is to be confused, of course, with Fourbears, a children's story sequel about interracial (err, make that interspecies) adoption in which Mama Bear and Papa Bear attempt to legally adopt Goldilocks, creating a controversy in the courts and ultimately leading an attention-starved Baby Bear into a meth addiction.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Today's Words: algid and gelid

algid, gelid: Although at first glance, these might seem like scientific taxonomic terms — phylla or species maybe — they're really just fun, fancy, Scrabble-friendly words for cold. Algid comes from the Latin algidus, cold; gelid comes from the Latin gelidus, frost. (The word gelatin stems from the same root.) Gelid temperatures are therefore colder than algid temperatures. And you can nounify both of them as algidity and gelidity.

And it's certainly gelid here in the Midwest today, with temperatures just below 0ºF, and wind chills about 15 degrees lower than that. The worst part about such frigid temperatures, aside from snot freezing in my nostrils, is that as the gelidity goes up (or would it be down?), drivers' common sense abates. I've always said that the worst part about driving is other people on the road; that goes double for wintertime driving.

On the subject of whether algidity and gelidity (and frigidity, for that matter) goes up or down as it gets colder, consider this: French astronomer Joseph-Nicholas Delisle created a mecury thermometer in 1732 for Peter the Great. Delisle's scale was based on the contraction of mercury, not on its expansion, as today's temperature scales are. In the Delisle scale, at sea level, water boiled at 0º and froze at 150°, so the higher the number, the colder it was. If that seems odd, what many people don't know is that the original Celsius scale, credited to Anders Celsius around 1742, was inverted: water froze at 100º and boiled at 0°. Other scientists later turned the scale around.

For more about temperature scales, take a look at these two articles written by a guy I know:

How did we end up with both Fahrenheit and Celsius scales?
What is absolute zero?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Today's Word: porcine

porcine: Of or like pigs. (Notice the resemblance to the word pork.) Porcine has a certain elegant feel to it, one of those words you can use to insult someone without them knowing it. "Porcine? That sounds French!"

Monday, January 5, 2009

Today's Word: quincunx

quincunx: An arrangement of five objects with one in the center and one at each corner — like the 5 face on a die. It also a) happens to be the last word on p. 1177 of my dictionary, so I see it in that upper-right corner an ungodly number of times when I'm flipping through the dictionary; and b) is a great Scrabble play if you have one of the letters open: the letter tiles are worth 26 points, plus whatever bonus tiles you can grab, plus 50 points for using all seven of your tiles.

There also appears to be a band called The Quincunx. Visit their site to see a few other uses of this word. Quincunx also has botanical uses to describe a specific arrangement of five flower petals.

"The Beatles surrounded Yoko Ono, creating a quincunx with the doomed interloper at the center. Three of them began cudgeling her with ham-sized halibuts while the fourth wrote a song about it."