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New Ask Us Theory About
Sez You...

From Rob Collins:

You wrote: 

The name [quire] comes from Medieval Latin quaternus "a set of four" which became quaier in Old French and quire in English.

I assume you could add Spanish cuaderno [notebook] to the list of quaternus derivatives.


From Steve Whitelaw:

About 40 days. I recall reading, although I have forgotten the source, that the ancient scrolls contained a word that meant something like "quite a while", which in translation became "40 days", and that explains why so many events in Biblical times lasted for 40 days, or "40 days and 40 nights." Any information on that?

We checked for occurrences of 40 days in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The corresponding Hebrew word in the Old Testament was 'arba`iym, and the corresponding Greek word in the New Testament was tessarakonta.  Both of these mean "forty".  If there are any Hebrew or Greek scholars out there who are aware of different nuances to these words, do let us know.

About "Old Dart". This is just wild speculation of the worst kind, but is there any chance that the reference was to Dartmoor, the infamous English prison? If it was in existence at that time, many of those sent to Australia many have been in Dartmoor.

This connection is discounted by every etymologist who discusses the term Old Dart.

Great site. First thing I look at on Monday morning. Cheers me right up.

Thanks, Steve!

From Anson Young:

No quarter:  I didn't see this sense of quarter (meaning 'sparing the lives of surrendering enemies') in you recent discussion of quarter.

Well we did consider including this but decided against it because the derivation of that particular meaning is rather obscure and we do like to be sure of ourselves. (Well, the site is called Take Our Word For It).  One suggestion is that it arose from the notion of "giving quarter" or quarters, to prisoners.  If a prisoner is to be put to death, he isn't given a place to stay for any length of time.  This sense arose in the early 17th century.

From Bruce Yanoshek:

In this week's issue, you called the possessive its irregular. If it were a noun, its possessive form would be irregular, but no apostrophe is regular for possessive pronouns.

You are correct in that it is not irregular with regard to other pronouns. Please forgive our lapse from perfection - we'll go back and change it.

From Greg Umberson:

Just wanted to make a small comment on the story behind tragedy. You say that "the original Greek word was tragodia which seems to be formed from tragos, "goat" +ode, "song" but there is little agreement on why this should be so." I thought some of your readers might be interested to know one theory mentioned in a few books about why this should be so. The early Greeks held contests with three plays on a tragic theme, followed by a burlesque play involving a satyr, a mythical creature being part man and part goat. Thus the contest comprised 3 plays followed by a "goat song". Another possible connection between goats and tragedy (are goats inherently more tragic or comic?): a sacrificial goat was often the prize for these early contests.

There's also an interesting connection between tragical goats and aegis. The original Greek for "goat" was aix/aig (the x would be pronounced as a "g" in certain derivations). The shield (or cloak) entrusted by Zeus to Athena was supposed to have been covered with (or made of) goatskin and called aegis (Zeus having been suckled by a she-goat as a baby). So where does the "tr" come from in "tragedy"? Prefix to aix/aig the Indo-European t(e)r/tor, meaning "rub, gnaw, crush, etc.", to get tr + ago. Now you have the Greek tragos, meaning a "gnawing goat" or "he-goat" (as opposed to aix/aig which was used for she-goats).

Thanks again, keep up the good work, and a Happy 4th of July.

We hope you had a good Independence Day, yourself.  As for the tragic goat connection [hmm... good title for a movie?], that is all quite interesting.  We'd like to see whether the author(s) of these theories are making educated guesses or have some evidence to back them up.  Thanks, Greg.

From Ramona Boersma:

"Almost infinite" means a very large number of unknown extent, but that is not technically infinite (without end). Does "almost without end" bother you? It is effective at getting the point across, and is much more elegant than saying something like "extremely numerous," which lacks the emphasis that "almost infinite" has. 

From Felix Hoffman:

Firstly, a comment about almost infinite. While I agree that this does not make literal sense, it nevertheless represents a valid idea which may be roughly paraphrased as 'no limits need to be taken into account for present purposes'. Almost unlimited/limitless means much the same thing but appears to be more acceptable. Perhaps we should think of it as a manner of speaking, like "The sky is the limit". Infinity itself is very much a theoretical concept, something that may be approximated but never reached. For example, parallel lines are said to meet in infinity (but I'm not on firm territory here).

Secondly, I am a bit miffed about the condescension you show by stating "For any speakers of English as a second language out there (and any native English speakers who just don't know), it's is a contraction of "it is", while its is the possessive (albeit irregular) form of it." By this you insinuate that anyone whose first language is not English has no hope of getting the distinction right. My claim is that someone who bothers to learn a foreign language in a systematic fashion (at school age or even later in life) is more, not less likely to know such basic details. I invariably see this error made by people posting on the net (maybe they're just too lazy to reach for the apostrophe key). Anyway, it is worth remembering that the use of the apostrophe is a mere typographical convention which serves to distinguish a pair of perfect homophones. The linguistic value of such distinctions is questionable (after all, you are not likely to confuse it's and its when listening to spoken English).

Of course we were referring to the literal sense of infinity, but your discussions were nonetheless interesting.

As for addressing "speakers of English as a second language" in the discussion of it's vs. its, we did so because the person initiating the conversation was a non-native speaker discussing the difficulty that non-native speakers have with those homophones.  We do not believe that we insinuated to even the slightest degree that non-native speakers have no hope of getting it right.  We simply addressed the speakers of English as a second (or third or fourth...) language as that is what the writer was talking about.  We agree that some non-native speakers are more likely to use it's and its correctly than native speakers for the reasons you suggest. 

From Pierre Roberge:

I really enjoy your website, but... Yes, there is a "but", I'm sorry to say. Today is the First of July, Canada Day; being a proud Canadian, I feel I have to comment on your reply to Ms. Pizzolato (Issue 161, Word to the Wise). You write "Some of them simply hopped across the border into Maine and the rest traveled all the way to the deep south..." That implies that all or most Acadians chose to migrate there. The fact is that they were forcefully expelled from their homes by the British, then deported. The "Acadiens" call it "Le grand dérangement", that is, "The Great Trouble". Just thought you'd like to know about that shameful bit of British history.

I'll sign off now lest gloom settles in; after all, today should be all about celebrations! So... Vive le Canada! 

We apologize if it sounded as though we were trivializing the move of the Acadians to the U.S.  We did not intend to do so.  We have Cajun friends in Louisiana who are proud of their heritage and communicate their history quite readily (and ably).  Thank you for that clarification.

From Erica Hruby:

To drag out the discussion of now words meaning "later": I was in South Africa last year, and I recall a similar distinction being drawn locally between now and the near future: now now means "right now," while just now means "in the near future."  I hope I am recalling this verbiage correctly.

Thanks, Erica. The thought that now has shifted meaning so much that folk must say now now to make themselves understood has quite made our day. On the other hand, it has caused us to wonder why people say now now to soothe a baby.

From Mats Tölöberg:

A small comment on the little Welsh sentence in the recent edition of Curmudgeon's Corner: As a multilingual Swede, having studied in Wales but currently living in Luxembourg, I fully agree with Mike that Welsh names are more beautiful than English ones. In addition it always warms my heart a little to see the beautiful Welsh language in print. In my humble opinion it is the most beautiful of all the world's languages.  Hwyl yn fawr.

Diolch yn fawr, Mats bach!

From Bill O'Meara:

So how does one avoid confusion between etymology and entymology?  Easy.  eNtymology is about Nsects.

Clever!  And netymology is a species of plausible yet spurious etymology promulgated on the [inter]net!

From David Gould:

Let me say what a wonderful site you folks have.  It has provided me with hours of entertainment and, I hope, linguistic improvement. Thanks for all your great work.

My questions is vaguely related to your explanation of tattoo. You note that one use of the word is for a bugle call, from the Dutch taptoe. I was wondering if this use is related to the famous bugle call "Taps," played in respect to a death? 

Thank you for the compliments and yes, it is.  Taps refers to turning down the flame on an oil lamp by means of a tap ("turning the lights out"), just as taptoe means "shut your tap".

From Jack Chastain:

I was just reading drtaher's note to you concerning certain Indian misunderstandings of English.  I work with many Indians and find both their speech and writing enjoyable - but one in particular stands out. A co-worker will usually respond, when presented with something he considers amazing, with the written exclamation: "Wholly Cow!"  It never ceases to elicit a chuckle!

Indeed!  Thanks for the laugh.

From Shane Markle:

I know this isn't about an English word, but it has its origins in an English word....  Reading the discussion on terms regarding U-turns reminded me of the interesting formation of the word in Kenyan Swahili for a roundabout. Signs posted at roundabouts in Kenya during the time of British rule were in English and said "keep left". So when a word was taken into the local speech for said type of intersection, it was not roundabout but was instead keeplefti. (The "i" is a grammatical ending.)

Delightful! Such random accidents are what make the study of languages so interesting.

From Will Wagner:

Well, it has happened yet again. When I left the medical profession, I had hoped to escape the use (or is that mis-use) of the word disorientated. Use of this word seems to be extremely prevalent among nurses, but most everyone else uses the proper term disoriented. Yet today someone commented to me "[Being caught in an undertow] was very disorientating."  Looking it up in the dictionary, I did find a comment under disorientate that lists it as a transitive verb with usage dating back to 1704. However the definition is simply "disorient" (which according to my dictionary dates to around 1655 from the French désorienter.) and is further defined as we know the word. Am I wrong in being annoyed by this?

From Stephen Pitts:

Automobile instruction manuals used to be really poorly written. The annoying thing I best remember is the instruction to depress the emergency brake in certain circumstances. (Is that the opposite of press?) I suspect they hire serious wordsmiths these days, because these manuals now tend to be models of verbal efficiency and graphic clarity.

Lawyers, mostly, have brought us clearer automobile users' manuals.

Here's another useless syllable: orientate. At least this one doesn't provoke uncertainty. 

From Herman Wissenberg:

Longer-than-necessary-words: to orientate instead of to orient.

From Rob Ambrose:

How about disorientate, disorientated? Or the unfortunately becoming more popular preventative for preventive?

In times like these we turn to the excellent H.W. Fowler's The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (third edition, edited by R. W. Burchfield) for a decision.  He examines the words' etymologies (they both derive from the French desorienter, as Will Wagner points out).  They both followed the same path to their present-day meanings, which are identical.  In the end, Fowler says that the two words are equally interchangeable. One may find that orient is more common in the U.S., while orientate appears more frequently in the U.K., but they are still equal in meaning and correctness.

Fowler says the same about preventive and preventative, though he does say that preventive is the more common of the two; however, that has no bearing on the fact that he feels both forms are correct.

But four letters about the same word in one week!?  Was there some strange alignment of the planets or did you all watch the same TV program?


Or read last week's issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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