Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar

If you’re not familiar with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, you should be. This particular column takes on the passive voice and other modes of ambiguous grammar.

I particularly like the “past exonerative tense.”

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[Tip o’ the hat to Matt Sergi for pointing this one out to me.]


Tracing the origin of this word has been a difficult one for etymologists and lexicographers. Because it has been a taboo word for many centuries, there is little record to go on. But modern etymologists have pieced together the history, albeit with some gaps still existing here and there.

We know that fuck is of Germanic origin. Note that is Germanic and not German—an important distinction. It does not come from the modern German verb ficken. Instead, these two words probably share a common root. Fuck also has cognates in other Northern European languages: the Middle Dutch fokken meaning to thrust, to copulate; the dialectical Norwegian fukka meaning to copulate; and the dialectical Swedish focka meaning to strike, push, copulate, and fock meaning penis. And both French and Italian have similar words, foutre and fottere respectively. These derive from the Latin futuere. The relation between this Latin root and the Germanic ones, if any, is uncertain.

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I was shocked to realize that I had not included the etymology for raccoon on this list, not because it’s a particularly challenging one, but because after living in Toronto for five years, encounters with raccoons have become a daily occurrence. The city is overrun with them, to the extent that when one died, it got a memorial worthy of a rock star.

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I Could Care Less

xkcd does it again:

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When Not to Correct People’s English

No comment necessary…

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Internet Quotes: Langland on the Decline of English

I’ve come across the following quotation in a number of places, such as this article from The Economist:

There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.

The quotation is attributed to William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who died in 1386. The problem is that I could only find the quotation in modern translation and it sounds distinctly un-Middle Englishy, so I doubted that it was authentic. Because I could only find it in translation, tracking it down was difficult—it’s hard to search for a Middle English quotation if you don’t have the Middle English diction. It turns out that the quote is genuine, but it is a rather free translation.

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Sometimes you find an antedating that is much earlier than you expected. Such is the case with blaster, the science fiction word for a ray gun.

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A friend of mine, who is renovating a bathroom in her house, posted the following to Facebook yesterday:

The real skylight is one floor above in the bathroom we’re renovating. A water leak during demolition banjaxed my entire kitchen ceiling.

To which another friend replied:

Outstanding use of “banjaxed.”

I’d never noticed the word before, although I should have as it appears in several rather famous books that I have read. It’s Irish slang meaning to batter or ruin.

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planet, dwarf planet

Our word planet ultimately comes from the Greek πλάνητ-, πλάνης (planet-, planes) meaning wanderer, a reference to the motion of the planets relative to the stars. The word came into English via Old French planete and the Latin planeta. While the etymology of the word has never been in doubt, exactly what constitutes a planet has constantly changed over the centuries and is still hotly debated today.

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dwarf planet, planet

See planet.

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