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I’m loath to loathe

In the Microsoft Teams chat at work yesterday, I had cause to describe a task as loathsome. Typing this word caused a shuddering realisation, one that probably dawned on you many years ago: ‘loath’ and ‘loathe’ are really quite similar words. Many websites tell me that these two words are commonly confused, yet I’ve never noticed the similarity.

I ‘loathe’ (rhymes with ‘clothe’) really horrible tasks: I hate them, feel repulsion from them. I’m not willing to do things I loathe.

Things that are ‘loathsome’ cause me to hate them… such as really horrible tasks. It’s just ‘loathe’ plus ‘some’ to make an adjective.

On the other hand, I’m ‘loath’ (rhymes with ‘both’) to do things that I dislike: I’m reluctant, somewhat averse. I’d prefer not to, but I will if I have to. ‘For fairer, for loather’ used to be a line in marriage vows—which perhaps demonstrates how different ‘loath’ is from ‘loathe’. You’d hope nobody would consider their partner loathsome at their wedding.

How did we end up in this linguistic quagmire, where the adjective ‘loath’ means something quite different to the verb ‘loathe’? Quick, let’s crack open the Oxford English Dictionary.

Unsatisfyingly, any explanation is lost to history. The divergence in meaning probably happened 1,000 years ago or so. ‘Loathsome’ came into the picture in the 1300s, which suggests that the divergence had occurred by then, as something wouldn’t need to be described as loathsome if it could just be described as loath.

Apparently, ‘loathe’ is more than twice as common in modern written English as ‘loath’, which—given the more robust sense of negativity—strikes me as a sad indictment of our times. But I can hardly complain about that when my own use of ‘loathsome’ started me down this track.

So, let me defend myself. In the two-decade-, 3,000-post history of this blog, I’ve used the word ‘loath’ twice: I was loath to read a book about the pandemic and loath to criticise those who claimed that King Charles’s approach to monarchy was reflected in his haircut

Yet, there’s only one thing I’ve ‘loathed’: I really had it in for the characters of Jane Austen’s Emma. Hmm.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

Dispelling misspellings

There’s a poster I pass at work regularly about identifying phishing emails. It advises that the content of these emails is frequently ‘mispelled’. I’ve spent more time than I ought pondering whether that misspelling was intentional or not, likely a slightly-less-obvious version of telling us that emails might be full of ‘seplling mystakes’.

Then, I doubted myself and wondered if ‘mispell’ was an acceptable alternative to ‘misspell’. I checked the Oxford English Dictionary: it’s not. There’s no historical context in which it is correct—the etymology is plainly ‘mis’ + ‘spell’. The inclusion of a lonely ‘s’ is simply wrong, whether or not it’s intentionally wrong.

The Dictionary does list a single quotation in which the word appears as ‘mispelling’: England’s 1695 Treason Act. Section XI of the Act provides, among other things, that misspellings in legal documents cannot be used as the sole grounds for dismissing a case unless highlighted before any evidence has been presented (in which case, they could be corrected and the trial could proceed). Amusingly, ‘misspelling’ is misspelt:

noe Indictment for any of the aforesaid … shall bee quashed on the Motion of the Prisoner or his Counsel for miswriting mispelling false or improper Latine

This section of the Act was repealed with the passage of the Treason Act 1945, so you needn’t worry about the misspelling of misspelling still being in force. Unlike the poster, we can, at least, assume the 1695 mistake wasn’t a deliberate pun.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

The nonsense quotient

I had to attend some leadership training this week, which is a cross we must all bear from time to time.

The trainer declared that IQ, as in ’intelligence quotient’, was one of only four jointly conceived attributes which make up a rounded person. The others, for what it’s worth, were cited as the ‘emotional’, ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ quotients.

The trainer explained that the word ‘quotient’ shared a root with ‘quadrant’ and was chosen because there were four domains.

My bullshit antennae were firing so intensely at this point that they may have been visible if it wasn’t quite so long since I last cut my hair. Yet, at least the trainer’s misplaced confidence made me spend a few minutes reading around the topic from sources more reliable than the course’s tie-in leadership paperback.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that ‘quotient’ is a direct borrowing from the Latin ‘quotiens’ meaning ‘how many times’ or ‘how often’. In the ‘intelligence quotient’ sense, it’s referring to the quantity of intelligence. There’s no historical or modern sense in which it connects to a sense of there being four parts.

The prefix ‘quadr-’, as I should have remembered from school, comes from the Latin numeral ‘quattuor’.

But what about IQ? I should have remembered this, as I recall presenting on it during a special study module I took in learning disabilities a couple of decades ago. It was created in the early 1900s by the German psychologist William Stern as a standardised figure for monitoring child development: simply divide their ‘mental age’ by their ’chronological age’ and multiply by 100.

EQ is rooted in more modern psychology, while PQ and SQ seem to be modern inventions by leadership gurus, keen to repackage and upsell ancient philosophy.

I may have been cynical about the course, but it clearly has made me learn something.

This post was filed under: Health, .

A minority majority

In the two decades over which I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve covered—at least in passing—five general elections. In the intervening times, I’ve written more than even I would care to read about UK politics.

And yet, it is only today that I’ve realised that we use the word ‘majority’ in UK politics to mean two entirely different things.

The first, and to me, the most intuitive, is defined by the OED as

The greater number or part; a number which is more than half the total number, esp. of votes; spec. (in a deliberative assembly or electoral body) the group or party whose votes amount to more than half the total number, or which has the largest share of votes; the fact of having such a share.

The outcome of the general election held in 2019 was that the Conservative Party won a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. That is, they had 80 more seats than all the other parties combined: the Conservatives had 365 of the 650 seats, while all other parties together had 285. The excess number of seats—the majority—was 80 seats.

But—set your phasers to ‘stun’—we use the word ‘majority’ to mean something completely different at the individual constituency level. We use this, more recent, OED definition:

The number by which the votes cast for one party, etc., exceed those for the next in rank.

To take a topical example, Nadine Dorries won her Mid Bedfordshire seat with a reported majority of 24,664. Dorries garnered 38,692 votes, her nearest competitor won 14,028 votes, and the difference is reported as the majority. We ignore the rest of the votes.

This leads to some oddities. For example, in the 2005 election, Dorries won 23,345 votes—that was 11,355 more votes than her nearest competitor. She therefore won a ‘majority’ of 11,355. Yet, a much larger number of votes—27,075—were for other candidates. Like many candidates, Dorries therefore simultaneously won a minority of the votes, yet secured a stonking five-figure majority.

This weird convention makes sense in terms of the numbers it prioritises. A government with a healthy majority can command increased confidence in its ability to pass legislation. Similarly, a legislator with a health majority can command increased confidence in their re-election prospects. It makes little difference how far ahead the government is compared to the official opposition, and it makes little difference how far ahead (or not) the legislator is versus the entire field of opponents.

But, blimey, how have I lived for thirty-eight years without noticing this quirk?

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

Slag in the vestibule

In an old LRB diary, Patrick McGuinness makes an observation about loquacious train announcements:

In Europe what you hear on trains is minimal and informative: you get told your destination and the stops as they approach. In Britain it’s a relentless patter of pseudo-information aimed at pseudo-customers by people running a pseudo-business. You don’t ‘read’ the safety instructions, you ‘take some time to familiarise yourself with’ them. Your belongings must always be ‘personal’, and in case you were wondering, as you neared your ‘station stop’, what to do with them, you are ‘advised to remember to take them with you’. The train is also the only place outside a Classics course where you’ll hear the word ‘vestibule’. That’s OK, it’s nice to hear it again, but they spoil it by saying ‘vestibule area’.

He’s wrong about ‘vestibule’: you can also occasionally hear it in our house, where Wendy and I sometimes playfully use the word to refer to our porch. It’s even what we call the porch in our smart home setup.

This is an anatomical joke: there are many vestibules in the body, which are generally small spaces leading to larger spaces. The anatomical features retain a metaphorical connection to the original Latin vestibulum, the small enclosed room at the entrance to a house… otherwise known today as a porch. But I’d never thought about it enough to realise that we were re-creating the metaphor in reverse.

You’re also possessed of a pair of vestibulocochlear nerves. We occasionally misappropriate the word as an adjective meaning ‘in the porch’—‘Who turned the vestibulocochlear light off?’ There ain’t no humour like anatomical humour, amirite?

Musing on this today, however, made me wonder about the connection between a ‘vestibule’ and a ‘vestry’ in a church. I first wondered if it was maybe a similar metaphorical thing, in that the ‘vestry’ is the area in which one prepares before entering a church. Or perhaps the connection is ‘vesting’, as in donning or doffing clothes.

So I fired up the OED.

As it turns out, they seem to be unrelated, or at least both existed in Latin. As I’ve mentioned, vestibule comes from vestibulum, which retains its meaning today. The history of ‘vestry’ is less certain. It seems to come from the ‘vestments’, from the Latin vestīmentum—clothes. However, it’s not clear if that’s a direct thing—because it’s where the garments are stored—or a metaphorical thing, ‘vesting’ in the sense of endowing someone with something, like ‘investment’.

A ‘vestry’ in the church sense is also sometimes called a ‘revestry’ or a ‘vestiary’—some sources suggest that ‘vestry’ is just a corruption of ‘vestiary’. Interestingly, Wikipedia seems to prefer ’sacristy’, which I would have said was specifically Catholic, but very much isn’t.

The OED provides a whole separate meaning of ‘vestry’: the rubbish associated with a mine, which I think I’d probably naturally refer to as ‘slag’. I would never have previously imagined featuring those two words in the same sentence.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”

2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.

3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.

4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.

5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.

6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.

7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.

8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:

9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.

10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.

11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”

12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.

13: What’s the difference between music and language?

14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”

15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.

16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.

17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.

18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”

19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.

20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.

21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”

22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.

23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.

24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?

25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.

26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”

27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.

28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.

29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.

30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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