Monday, May 31, 2010

Today's Word: memoriter

memoriter (meh-MOR-uh-ter): Based on or marked by memorization, e.g., learning by rote.

I found in Google Books a description of the Alpha Memoriter Bible Society, which describes, in its constitution, that "[t]he object of this society shall be to treasure up in our minds, and to repeat, memoriter, from time to time, such portions of the Holy Scriptures, as our abilities and opportunities may admit." (Caldwell, John, ed. 1816. "Juvenile Department: From the Alleghany [sic] Magazine." The Christian Herald, Vol. 2:12.)

I hope that memoriter has fallen into disuse because memorization as a learning tool has lost its allure. Some rote learning is unavoidable (I was quizzing my son on state capitals just a couple days ago), but not nearly so much as was thought two centuries ago.

I couldn't find anything about what happened to the Alpha Memoriter Bible Society. If anyone knows anything about the fate of this group of young men, please leave some info and/or pointers in the  comments.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Today's Word: edulcorate

edulcorate: to sweeten or to free from harshness. It has also been adopted in the digital world to refer to the elimination of unnecessary or redundant data from a database. In chemistry, it can more specifically mean “to free from acids, salts, or other soluble substances by washing." Edulcorate and dulcet share the common etymological ancestor dulcis, meaning "sweet."

Here’s an actual use of the word from the Repertory of Patent Inventions, which Google Books says is from 1814: " is only necessary to add to the wine the vegetables and aroma’s [sic] that are deemed necessary to edulcorate it suitably, or to leave it dry..."

And a contrived use: "We had hoped that the electroshock therapy would edulcorate Rita’s personality, but after a week of treatements, she was as curmudgeonly as ever. And now she twitched all the time."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lynne Truss's Fluffy Duck Comma

Sometime last fall, my ex-wife bought our younger son a copy of the kids version of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves. (I don't link to it here because I don't want to encourage you to buy it.) In this book, facing pages show the same sentence, but with different punctuation, and each page is illustrated to show what the sentence says.

Some of the examples in the book are wonderfully illustrative of the importance of proper punctuation to communicate the desired meaning. For example, "After we left Grandma, Mommy and I skipped about in the park." versus "After we left, Grandma, Mommy, and I skipped in the park."

But one of the examples left me flummoxed, and I am flummoxed still. On the left is a picture of a boy on a playground holding a yellow plush ducky while a mean little girl blows raspberries at him. The sentence beneath the illustration says, "Becky teased the boy with the fluffy duck."

On the opposite page, the same girl is standing on a chair, holding the plush ducky over the boy's head, just out of his reach. The sentence beneath this illustration says, "Becky teased the boy, with the fluffy duck."

In the back of the book, Ms. Truss explains the difference like this:
"Becky teased the boy with the fluffy duck."
(Without the comma, with the fluffy duck modifies the boy.)
"Becky teased the boy, with the fluffy duck."
(With a comma separating the two phrases, with the fluffy duck describes Becky's actions.)

In what English-speaking world does setting off the prepositional phrase "with the fluffy duck" change the meaning of this sentence in this way? None that I know of.

The truth is, the original sentence ("Becky teased the boy with the fluffy duck.") could be interpreted either way -- either she has the duck, or the boy does. Punctuation cannot clarify the intended meaning of the sentence. With no context to tell us what's going on, the only way to clarify the meaning is to rewrite the sentence or to add information:  This is one instance in which a passive sentence structure will give a clearer meaning: "The boy with the fluffy duck was teased by Becky" cannot be misread. I think any copy editor worth his or her salt would rewrite the sentence completely to make it clear.

So where was the copy editor during the writing of this little book? One may be tempted to blame whatever editors were in charge of this book for not pointing out this problem, but I know from experience that the author always has final say on edits. And in a book (and a world) in which Lynne Truss considers herself an expert on proper punctuation, if she truly believed that the insertion of this comma changed the meaning of the sentence, I can't imagine that any editor would have been able to change her mind.

But, simply put, she should have used a different example. Is there, I ask you, dear reader, an example that fits this mold? Can you think of an example of a sentence that changes meaning if you merely set off a sentence-ending prepositional phrase with a comma?

If you think I'm wrong about this, let me hear about it. I'm open to arguments. But, as a copy editor myself, this sentence would need to answer me these questions three, ere the other side ye see.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


freemium = free + premium

A price structure that offers a basic product for free, but gives the opportunity to pay for premium services. Examples of freemium pricing include Second Life, Disqus, Pirate Quest, and

baklava vs. balaclava

If you're doing some shopping, it's important to keep these two separated in your mind. A balaclava is a knitted cap for the head and neck. If you're wearing one when you rob a bank, news anchors will probably refer to it as a ski mask, though not all balaclavas are good for skiing. Here's the sexiest balaclava I could find (from Oxford Products):

Baklava, on the other hand, is a sweet Mediterranean dessert made from thin pastry, nuts, and honey:
Eating baklava can give you diabetes. Eating a balaclava can give you life-altering constipation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Today's Word: halcyon

I am back for a time from the frenzied world of concert prep, parenting, copy editing, money management, parenting, spam, eggs, parenting, baked beans, parenting, parenting, and parenting. The end of the school year is always a busy time, with performances (both mine and the boys'), ceremonies, celebrations, and preparations competing for my diminishing free time. But my most time-consuming responsibilities have past, so it's back to the blogging board.

halcyon: A legendary bird (identified with the kingfisher) that was said to have a calming effect on the sea during the winter solstice. Here's a kingfisher from the Gallery of Birds:
These days, halcyon means "tranquil or idyllic," especially in reference to the happiness of earlier times. My halcyon days were certainly those I spent surrounded by friends, no worries of money or love to weigh me down.

I believe that many of the conservative talking heads who talk of returning to "our American roots" or "the moral America of teh past" — espousing, of course, only their own morality and tastes — are remembering their younger, happier, halcyon days. Unfortunately, those days were so tranquil and idyllic precisely because they were children, dealing with a child's worries but overall protected from important decision-making and the cruel world by their parents.

It's one thing to want to feel that joy again; it's quite another to try to legislate it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Paliban = Palin + Taliban

I don't know if it was his coinage or not, but twitterer @alexanderchee (via @hangingnoodles), linking to a Huffington Post article titled "Sarah Palin: American Law Should be 'Based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments," referred to Mrs. Palin's response to the protests over the National Day of Prayer as "The Paliban Platform."

For people out there who have had a difficult time understanding how a hard-line religious group like the Taliban could manage to gain power over an entire country and create a strict theocracy, you should follow Mrs. Palin's exploits. The only difference is the religion involved.

Monday, May 3, 2010


aquapocalypse = aqua + apocalypse

Aquapocalypse  was used recently to describe the effects of the water main break in Boston over the weekend. Hopefully, the aquapocalypse is almost over.

I will eventually get around to writing about the use of apocalypse and armageddon in portmanteaus, but for now, I have to get back to work.