Recently in the Spelling/Orthography Category

Roman numerals in film sequel titles

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Nice article at Slate on the rise and fall of Roman numerals in titles of film sequels, from The Godfather Part II (1974) to The Hangover Part II (2011). Among other things, features the first graph/chart I've ever seen in which the vertical axis is labeled in Roman numerals.

metumpsychosis (sic)

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The other day, while doing some editing, I came across the word “psychopomp,” which obliquely reminded me of an incident from high school. Possibly earlier, but I think it was in my high school Humanities class, which might as well have been called Dead White Males 101, or Welcome to the Canon of Great Western European Art.

Early in the semester, maybe even on the first day, the teacher wrote the word METUMPSYCHOSIS on the board (yes, spelled with a U), and asked us what it meant.

Various kids may have given jokey answers, but nobody knew. I knew I had seen the word before, but wasn't sure what it meant.

When we were done guessing, she told us that it was meaningless, a nonsense word that she had made up. I think she was making some kind of pedagogical point, maybe about the value of admitting ignorance? I'm not sure.

I was confused—I was sure I had seen the word before. But I didn't know where.

It wasn't until some time later that I re-encountered the word “metempsychosis.” (With no U.) It is, of course, a perfectly good word with a respected and ancient lineage. It means “transmigration of the soul,” and the term has been used by writers from Kipling to Joyce (speaking of dead white males) to Pynchon.

Whenever this incident comes to mind, I wonder all over again: what would the teacher have said if one of us had known the word? Would she have told us that this was a different (and made-up) word because it had a U in it? (But if so, then why didn't she mention the real word/spelling to us?) Or did she not know the actual word?

Anyway. A mystery without an answer; I'm not sure which teacher it was, I don't know if she's still alive, and I doubt she would remember the incident. But I do wonder occasionally what she had in mind.


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Best spam subject line of the week:


I thought perhaps a HUDLOOM was a weaving device containing a Heads-Up Display. Or perhaps some kind of magical thingy from a Harry Potter book.

Sadly, it appears to be simply a misspelling of "hoodlum." Still, I was entertained, and thought you might be too.

Also of note is this line from the body of the message, which caught my eye during the two seconds in which I briefly glanced at the email looking for more hudloom info:

The above listed names are been traced/investigated by our team and some of them have elope the country[....]

A nicely poetic way of describing someone fleeing the law, I guess.

I know it's not good form to mock non-fluent English speakers. But I sometimes can't resist.

Mama, momma, mom, etc

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I was recently discussing various words for "mother," and it occurred to me that words/spellings like mama, momma, mom, ma, and mamma have different connotations to me.

MW11 lists them all as synonyms or spelling variants, and sometimes I don't especially notice any difference between them. But if I'm paying close attention, I expect them to be used by different kinds of people. (Especially in prose fiction; in speech, I can't tell the difference between the "mama" variants.)

I think the connotations are more obvious with other variations; for example, not many adults use "mommy" except when talking to small kids; terms from other languages ("amma," "mère," "maman," "madre," etc), when used in English prose, also have particular connotations; "mammy" has very specific connotations in the US; "mum" and "mummy" and "mam" and "mater" are mostly British; etc.

But I think even for the quasi-synonymous group of American English terms I listed in the first paragraph above, the connotations vary by person, at least to some degree; for example, I've seen a story's narrator indicate that "mom" is a word used only by fairly young people, which doesn't match my experience.

So I'm curious: what different connotations, if any, do these words (and others like them) have for you? Are the connotations mostly about age, about class, about geographical region, about culture? Or is there no particular pattern?


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Flemish artists used mixed tempura and oil painting during the 1400s[....]

--Oil paint entry in Wikipedia, until 16 January 2006

I corrected this in the entry, of course, but I was amused enough by it to preserve it here for posterity. I picture old Flemish artists frying up some vegetables and prawns and then dipping them in paint and using them as brushes.

(The Wikipedia article on "tempura" suggests that it's possible the word indirectly derives from "tempera." No idea how plausible that is. But it does remind me of one of my favorite pun phrases: O tempura! O morays!)

By the way, the Wikipedia articles about paint could benefit greatly from editing and expansion by someone who knows something about art (unlike me). If you're interested, follow that link to the "oil paint" entry, edit as needed, then follow links from that page to other pages and edit those too.

For example, the entry on paint is full of clumsy sentences; the tempera entry contains oddly phrased assertions like "True tempera paintings are quite permanent" (as opposed to the false tempera paintings that are only somewhat permanent?); the entry on gouache is listed as a "stub," meaning it's brief and incomplete (for example, there's no explanation of what "poster paint" is or why it's called that); the entries on decal and decalcomania could use some cleanup; and so on and so on.


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[...] there was no way Apple could win the motherload of customers [...]

--Peter Burrows, "Should Apple Open Up?", Business Week, January 11, 2006

I've seen this a couple other times lately in other places. It's "mother lode." It has nothing to do with loads.

Update: I contacted Business Week, and they quickly corrected the spelling, so this item is no longer on their site.

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