Notes on some quirks in anglic usage

Well, words matter a lot to me. My native tongue is English, the progenitor of the anglic group, which has been a veritable magpie of a collector. Where anglophones have met a word for which we can't think of a clear English equivalent, our language has been gracious enough to import the word. Naturally, after a millenium or so, this has lead to an enormous vocabulary; which leaves a fair few words now redundant or seldom used, to which the anglophone naturally reaches when seeking something to which to tie some meaning for which no word sprang to mind. All very fine and natural, though I'd be happier if some more care were taken to avoid ambiguity and over-loading. One should not get to attached to any particular standard of correctness, but I do derive some mild amusement from some of the silliness that arises.


The word multiple has come to be used in a way I find discomforting; it's crowding the meaning of several, many or (as my friend Alexey points out) numerous, while abandoning the distinction it used to enable. This change in usage smells of the user trying to impress folk with their command of fancy words; as ever, this is only attempted by those with a poor grasp of the language.

I suspect the confusion comes from the short-form prefix multi– which does have the given meaning: a multi-volume novel is a single novel split across several volumes, no one of which is a multiple volume (whatever one of those might be). A particularly apt example is that someone I would describe as multilingual is said to speak multiple languages. Now, it seems to me that the only multiple language of which I've ever heard is double dutch: and that anyone who claims to speak multiple languages is, indeed, speaking it. Ironically, there is only one multiple language (to my knowledge), so one can speak the multiple language, but not multiple languages.

Multiple is the generaliser for double, triple, quadruple, etc. If someone eats a double or triple cheese-burger, they're eating a multiple cheese-burger, or maybe a multi-burger (and let none grumble at a cheese-burger being a beef-burger with cheese; after all, a beef-burger is a hamburger, a preparation of beef (not ham) of a style which is purported to come from Hamburg). If someone eats several (single) burgers, they haven't eaten (any) multiple burgers. A multiple fracture is where one bone is broken in several places; when several bones are broken, the patient has several fractures. When a killer goes down the road shooting innocent passers-by (and what other sort have you ever heard of ?), they commit several homicides; but, unless a single shot kills several victims, no multiple homicide is committed. The terrorist whose bomb kills several victims does commit a multiple homicide; but, to be guilty of multiple homicides, the terrorist needs another bomb in a separate incident.


Once upon a time, optimize (and yes, that was the U.K. spelling given by the 1973 O.E.D.) meant: make something best or most favourable. By the '80s, it was widely used to mean: make something better. For example, in the world of computer scientists, compilers have several optimization levels; here are some snippets from the gcc compiler page:


Optimize. Optimizing compilation takes somewhat more time, and a lot more memory for a large function. …


Optimize even more. …


Optimize yet more. …

Finally, the birth of the internet has seen a marvelous new variant: where a web page is said to be optimized for some particular web browser, what it means is that the web page only works for visitors using that browser. The author has deliberately chosen to produce a page which is inaccessible to anyone not equipped with that browser, and they think this is clever. They didn't produce a web page which worked for all browsers, then make improvements specific to the one for which they claim to have optimized: they totally ignored all browsers but the one they took into account. Indeed, the page is in fact pessimized (i.e. made worst or least favourable) for all browsers but that one.

What they're doing is coding against the feature set of a particular proprietary browser, rather than coding to the publicly agreed standards of the W3C. One can enhance the latter with occasional tweaks to exploit features of (or avoid the bugs in) a particular browser, and the W3C's deliberations are careful to ensure that one can do so (in moderation) without adverse impact on a page's utility to users of other browsers (albeit major browser distributors endeavour to design seductive facilities which break this care).

The funny thing is, pages optimized for one browser frequently look dreadful even with the given browser – the sort of web designer who makes this idiotic mistake is typically better at making excuses for how bad the results are than at actually designing web pages. I know my web pages aren't beautiful, but they're easy to compose and every browser displays them well enough to let site visitors read them – any browser which didn't would certainly be abrogating the W3C's specifications !

In a similar vein, many cities are optimized for cars – i.e., if you want to get around in them, you'd better be in a car. Support for pedestrians and bicyclists is added in a half-hearted manner after the fact of design decisions which could never have been made if non-car road users had been taken into account from the outset – as we should be.

Gender words

When my mother chaired committees, she expected the title chairman and understood it to mean whoever is chairing this meeting: the title makes no statement about the chairman's gender or sex, only about her rôle in the meeting. Some folk seem to want to excise the letters m, a and n from words, where they appear together, but it seems to me far wiser to try to lay claim to man as meaning any member of our species – I'd have no more ground to object to being called a penisman (or use some anglo-saxon in place of the latin) than a wombman has when that's shortened to its modern form. What I really want, when refering to someone, is to only need to mention those aspects of them that are relevant to the discourse. Since folk's genitals are seldom the aspects of them relevant to their rôles in any of my texts, I don't want to need to involve sex-lives, actual or potential, in how I refer to folk.

Much of the time I dodge this by constructing sentences which evade bits of English which call for gender resolution: and I make much use of the word folk. At times I'll treat fool as though it were a singular of folk, ignoring (though not necessarily denying !) its proper meaning. It's also sometimes useful to play around with pronouns: I'll use I and you for two protagonists in a discourse, and English won't force me into gender terms to discuss us; when I need more protagonists, I'll use either he or she for the third, the other or possibly it for a fourth, leaving room for a fifth if I need it. At times, likewise, I simply won't bother with a pronoun – it stands for a noun, and repeating the noun once and again can surely be little worse than repeating its pronoun over and over. I suspect most texts on God would be greatly improved by replacing He with God throughout and leaving the divinity's gender out of the discussion: when God's sex-life or genitals are relevant, use the pronoun by all means – but only then.

Infernal Propaganda

It has always amused me how the word inferno has come to mean what it does in English. Protestant preachers painted a fire-and-brimstone hell to scare folk into subservience, thereby creating the myth that hell is hot – hence the expression when hell freezes over for never. These cheap theatrics, for all their efficacy in cowing simpletons, utterly reversed the principal prior account of the nature of hell – as given by Dante in his Inferno, the first volume of his famous trilogy, whose name thus came to be attached to the hot and scary place the protestant ranters described and, by association, with any place of unendurable heat or grotesque suffering. Which is marvelously absurd: Dante was describing a hell which is predominantly cold, miserable and far duller than the torture-parlour the protestants invented. Having read Dante's Inferno, I confess his account of hell shows a spiritual and theological sophistication utterly lacking in the melodramatic drivel of those who ended up turning the book's title's meaning on its head. Take note: much of hell had already frozen over when Dante visited it.

It is perhaps worth noting that the same ranting preachers and their pamphleteering buddies are also responsible for myths about the Spanish Inquisition. The historical record paints a far calmer and gentler picture of The Inquisition (a general branch of the Roman church, by no means confined to Spain): though its opinions and policies stood in the way of progress and silenced good folk, their methods were nothing like as infernal as their enemies claimed.

The Inquisition did, after all, sincerely believe that it was answerable to God, staffed by sinners and so bound to have some humility in its pursuit of truth; and it knew that its first duty was to love the sinner, hating only the sin (ah, how much better the world if that recipe were more widely followed), and guide the fallen back to the path of virtue. Any inquisitor who might have felt tempted to use improper means (in the hope of thereby attaining ends he imagined to be just) lived with the knowledge that The Inquisition did check up on what inquisitors did; and did insist on a full audit trail of investigation – which is why there's a rich historical record to defend them from their contemporaries' slanders; albeit client confidentiality prevented them from presenting this evidence at the time.

Contrast this with the protestant world's witch-hunters, who overtly hated the bad people and would sooner kill them than hear their account of the truth. They were safe from oversight – questioning their work was all too readily construed as evidence of collusion with the alleged witches. Their legacy lives on: questioning McCarthyism in the '50s was evidence of communist sympathies; questioning modern anti-terrorist legislation (which indisuptably hampers the very freedoms the governments who enact them claim to be defending, while only debatably hampering only some of the methods terrorists have sometimes used) today is likewise apt to be construed as, at the very least, condoning the hideous human cost of some unknown party's scarcely-noticed message of 2001, September the 11th. But I digress.

The pamphleteers' and preachers' slander of The Inquisition was motivated by a desire to make folk fear the church of Rome – casting the inquisitors in the rôle of evil bogey-man – and turn to its slanderers as saviours. The lies they invented were protestant propaganda – wherein I can find a further irony. The word propaganda means that which is worthy of being spread; the Roman church had always taken pains to control its public utterances (as do so many political parties today), so every episode of disembling by a church mouth-piece pushed the word propaganda a step or two closer to its modern meaning. It took the protestant ranters, however, to fully turn the word's meaning on its head, so that propaganda now means: lies that are told for political expediency (but, when one does so oneself, it's called public relations).

A closely related notion is right teaching, which is what orthodox started out meaning. For a somewhat contrary notion one might call impropaganda, see the FSF's description of some words to avoid in any attempt at avoiding the biasses of vested interests in discussion of copyright and kindred issues.

On the Proper Form of Dictionaries

I have a dictionary which describes itself as Engelsk-Norsk Norsk-Engelsk ordbok which might superficially be supposed to claim a certain symmetry between the two languaes addressed; but notice that its claim is in Norwegian. Indeed, having now used it for some time, I am painfully familiar with the subtle ramifications of its target audience being, in fact, Norwegians. For example, while the translation for et barn as a child takes the trouble to note that the plural is children, its reverse does not bother to tell me that the correct indefinite article for barn is et (rather than en or ei, so that its definite form (the child) is barnet, not barnen or barna) let alone that the plural of barnet is (irregularly) barna (which is the word I was trying to make sense of; it seems to mean a singular female child in definite form, but is actually the definite form of the plural, with unspecified gender, which the dictionary neglected to tell me). This has set me to thinking about dictionaries and how they should actually be organised.

Note that we also have dictionaries for a single language, which explain the meanings of words. For contrast, the common form of cross-language dictionary tells one the relevant synonyms without explaining them. When a word has disparate meanings (as commonly happens with slang usages deviating from normal ones) it is necessary to go to the other half of the book and look up their several translations back again to discover which of them matches the meaning you want and avoid potentially embarrassing mistakes.

So my idea for how dictionaries should be organized is this: the dictionary targets the speakers of one language (say Norwegian) wishing to deal with another language; I'll describe the target audience's native language as the target language and the other language as foreign. The dictionary's title makes its asymmetry plain by being in the target language. One part of the dictionary maps the words they are familiar with to, simply, lists of words in the foreign language, with some remarks on any pertinent idiomatic anomalies. Thus far, all is as we are used to; and we may continue the parallel with other good features, like a section on the grammar and regular declension of words in the foreign language. However, the other part of the book makes no pretense of symmetry: it is, in fact, a meanings dictionary – it gives, for each foreign word, an entry that explains, in the target language, its meanings and idiomatic usages, just as would normally appear in a single-language dictionary.

This would doubtless require fatter dictionaries to cover any given fraction of a language; or a sparser coverage of the language in order to fit in a given volume of paper. However, it would serve the reader better than the illusory symmetry of each half serving to map words in one language to lists of words in the other. It is also worth noting that a single-language meanings-dictionary would then simply be the special case where the foreign language and the target language are one and the same: the dictionary is the foreign-to-target portion; its target-to-foreign portion would then be a thesaurus.

The poor billion, and its cousins

Once upon a time in English (and still in most of Europe, though the spelling and pronunciation will be slighly different) there were a chain of names for the powers of a thousand: thousand, million, milliard, billion and billiard; to which there is enough rational structure to allow continuation with trillion (not Trillian), trilliard, quadrillion, quadrilliard, quintillion, quintilliard and so on. Crucially, the billion, trillion, quadrillion (and so on) are, in this scheme, the second, third, fourth (and so on) powers of the million; and each ~lliard was a thousand times the corresponding ~llion.

Meanwhile, in the U.S.A., another scheme is in common use (and, until 1948, was also used in France): the successive powers of a thousand are thousand, million, billion, trillion and so on. With these meanings, the billion (milliard, 1e9) isn't the second power of any whole number (let alone a nice round power of ten); the trillion (billion, 1e12) is the third power of ten thousand; but, thereafter, the quadrillion (billiard, 1e15), quintillion (trillion, 1e18), sextillion (trilliard, 1e21) and all subsequent members of the family aren't relevant powers of any whole number. Each member of this sequence has name derived from the latin for a number, n, with -llion or -illion appended: the member means 103.(1+n) in this scheme, where the same name means 106.n in the European scheme.

This didn't matter to anyone much (since few had occasion to speak of such huge numbers) until the nineteenth century, when some U.S.A.ish businessmen amassed so much wealth that they owned millions of dollars; the U.S.A.ish press took great glee in talking about these millionaires, at least until the novelty wore off. Before so very long – though it might have been the twentieth century by then, and there may have been some exaggeration involved, possibly conflating the wealth of a corporation the man controlled with the man's own wealth – there were men who commanded thousands of millions of dollars. To the U.S.A., these were billionaires; but in Europe they would have been called milliardaires.

It took most of the twentieth century for the U.S.A.ish usage to infiltrate English, and much of mainland Europe spurns this as a corruption; the net effect is that the prudent author is obliged to avoid using any of the terms from billion onwards, for fear of confusion. Thankfully, scientific notation provides a replacement, albeit one with several guises – what I write as 1e21, following a form common in computer programming languages, is commonly written as 1021, pronounced ten to the (power) twenty-one, meaning the result of multiplying together twenty-one instances of the number ten. I can refer to a gigaeuro or terraeuro without danger of the ambiguity with which a billion euros is fraught; unfortunately, since scientific quantifiers are jargon, this isn't much use when writing for a general audience. I find it particularly comical that (supposedly conservative) republican governments in the U.S.A. have saddled that nation with terradollars of debt.

Both systems of naming were originally French. Personally, I'm in favour of junking both in favour of the SI nomenclature: I'm pretty sure that trying to introduce yet another nomenclature would totally fail to gain traction !


I treasure this strange combination found in very few persons: a fierce desire for life as well as a lucid perception of the ultimate futility of the quest.

Madeleine Gobeil

Compare and contrast with: a lucid perception of the value of life, devoid of any desire.



a Norse word, literally (that which is) for lay(ing on bread), serving to unify cheese, jam, sliced meats, meat pastes, fish pastes, pickled fish and all. An anglophone would pronounce Paul egg or poor leg as near to the Norse pronunciation of påleg as can be hoped for; I suspect the right way for anglic to spell this word would be palleg, though porleg would do. I want anglic to import this word ;^>


David Morgan-Mar unravells the twisted history of this word in the annotations to an episode of his Irregular Webcomic.

is allegedly the word for a fear of long words; even its allegedly original shorter form, sesquipedaliophobia, is long enough that it would likely be troubling for someone suffering from this condition. Sadly, I know no ancient Greek, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of the allegations.

Groucho Marx

One might also say the same of intelligence. The word military appears to be a negatory qualifier. Either that or words like justice, music and intelligence have become minor collateral damage. Then again, what is ordnance when it isn't military ?

David Parnas

Poetic justice: 65% of freeze-dried coffee drinkers prefer the brand which used this wording in its advertising.

My 1973 poxy tells me that terrorism means systematic intimidation as a method of governing or securing political or other ends, with terrorist and terrorize (not -ise, even in English) as derivative words. Sadly, the word terrorism has now been down-graded to mean actions perpetrated by anyone of whom we do not approve; while some who might otherwise be called terrorists are called freedom fighters for no better reason than that they serve the interests of those who so call them. [More on this.] Such mendacity can only lead to a weakening of the moral sensibilities of those who are taken in by it; those who foster it have clearly already abandoned all moral sensibilities.

If you need to talk about computers in Anglo-Saxon, there's now a handy glossary for you.


Anglic contains plenty of words ending -tion which are susceptible to mis-typing to end -iton or -tino; which sound like endings of names of particles in the bestiary of modern physics, leading (in me) to a natural tendency to see these typos produce fascinating candidate particles. For example:


the irreducible constituent of which instructions are made. Then again, what would an instruciton be ?


the fundamental particle of curiosity. (First noticed in an e-mail by Christopher Petrilli on the PSA members' list.)

I guess the -iton and -tino should caricature electron and neutrino, respectively. This would make -tino hard to observe and relevant mainly to transitions involving an -iton, which would be easy to observe and do the main job hinted at by the mis-typed word. Presumably an optino would sway decisions imperceptibly. Perhaps soliton (a self-sustaining solitary wave) could be used to inspire different readings of the -iton forms.

Orthographic revisionism

The U.S.A. went through a phase, mostly in the 19th century, of orthographic rationalisation – i.e. tidying up spelling. This is a very sensible idea, since Anglic's spelling consists almost entirely of anomalies. The idea was to fix this by introducing a systematic approach to spelling. It's one of those good ideas that's doomed to failure, but at least they had a go at it. This is why U.S. English and English are spelt differently. Then again, I suspect quite a lot of why English is so oddly spelt is down to Sam Johnson's personal prejudices about which of the spellings his contemporaries were using to include in his dictionary; so you can think of the revisions as a matter of chosing differently from him. However, the revisionists just exacerbated the situation because, of course, much of the anglophone world wasn't paying any attention to them.

So, if you've ever wondered why fibre, colour, sulphur, centre, aluminium, etc., along with all those words which sound like they end in -eyes (or -ize, or -ise), enjoy such diversity of spelling among anglophones, now you know. Well, OK, natural anglophone slackness about spelling contributes. Ironically, increasingly many English anglophones are now ending various words in -ise that always used to end in -ize even in the U.K.; this is partly because spell-checkers, when asked to check U.K. English, over-simplify the difference from their default U.S. spelling, but equally because plenty of U.K. anglophones back-derive the uncorrected -ise spelling because they think U.K. spelling used to be uniformly -ise, which it never was.

Anyhow, orthographic revisionism inspired Mark Twain [I've also seen a conflicting attribution] to a pleasantly entertaining satire:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

I've also met (thanks to Jim Peters) an updated version of that for late twentieth century Europe:

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations Her Majesty's Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5 year phase-in plan that would be known as Euro-English.

In the first year s will replace the soft c. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard C will be dropped in favour of the k. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome ph will be replased with the f. This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments enkorage the removal of double leters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent e in the languag is disgraseful and it should go away. By the 4th yer peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing th with z and w with v.

During ze fifz yer ze unesesary o kan be dropd from vords kontaining ou and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. After ziz fifz yer ve vil hav a rali sensible riten styl. Zer vil be no mor truble or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer.

Ze drem vil finali kum tru!!

Meanwhile, in case anyone thinks English spelling and pronunciation make sense already, here's a little riddle for you: if ghoti were an English word, how would it be pronounced ?

Well, consider the words tough, women and ignition and you'll soon enough see that it's pronounced the same as fish. Obvious, no ? I gather this folly is mid-Victorian (and commonly mis-attributed).

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