Putting the G in Mussorgsky

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Earlier today, I had occasion to look at the Wikipedia article about Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. I was amused by the section about variant spellings of his last name, especially this bit:

The addition of the "g" to the name was likely initiated by the composer's elder brother Filaret to obscure the resemblance of the name's root to an unsavory Russian word:

мусoр (músor) — n. m. debris, rubbish, refuse

Mussorgsky apparently did not take the new spelling seriously, and played on the "rubbish" connection in letters to Vladimir Stasov and to Stasov's family, routinely signing his name Musoryanin, roughly "garbage-dweller" (compare dvoryanin: "nobleman").

litter, welter, miasma

This morning, out of the welter of vague half-formed thoughts that ran through my head as I woke up, the first coherent one was something like this:

Is litter as in trash cognate with litter as in a bunch of puppies born at once?

I decided to look it up, and then I began composing this entry in my head, and then I thought:

…and while I’m at it, what’s the origin of welter?

And then I thought:

…and if welter isn’t the word I mean, then what about miasma?

So I opened my MW11 dictionary app, and here’s what I found:

  • All of the meanings of litter (including two I hadn’t thought of: a mobile chair for carrying a passenger, and the material that goes in a cat’s litter box) derive “from Anglo-French litere, from lit bed, from Latin lectus.” So what all of those things have in common is beds, of one sort or another.

  • Welter was indeed the word I wanted: “a chaotic mass or jumble.” It’s from “Middle English; akin to Middle Dutch welteren to roll,” and is related to voluble in that both are connected to Latin volvere, to roll.

  • Miasma isn’t really the word I wanted, but it’s still a great word. It goes back to Greek miasma, “defilement, from miainein to pollute.”

snell and frore

I'm not particularly enjoying The Worm Ouroboros, and I switched from reading to skimming about a hundred pages in. But one thing that keeps pleasing me about it is the sheer volume of words I've never encountered before. There's a new one every couple of pages. Most of them are archaic, and a fair number of them are Scottish. Many of them look like typos, but when I look them up, they turn out to be real words.

I haven't been writing down most of them, but here are a few that I did take note of:

  • peace and grith
  • false fazarts
  • A footra for your baits!
  • the breath of that desert blew snell and frore

I particularly like that last one. Snell and frore!

Mnemonic acronyms for diving

The PADI (scuba instruction) people should hire a consultant from the medical-training industry to come up with mnemonic acronyms for their lists of “five steps to do such-and-such” or “nine symptoms of so-and-so.” Medical training, from what I've heard of it, has dozens of catchy mnemonic acronyms for that kind of thing; they seem to be a lot better at it than PADI is. Most of the PADI manual doesn't give mnemonics at all, but the two they do give are not so good:

Predive safety check mnemonic: BWRAF = Begin With Review And Friend = BCD, Weight, Releases, Air, Final Check. I'm not convinced that the mnemonic phrase is any more memorable than what it's supposed to remind me of. (I've decided to pronounce “BWRAF” as “Boo-RAF,” which (in my imagination) is the British air force's equivalent of “Booyah!”)

And the other mnemonic, late in the book, in the midst of the section about using a dive computer is: SAFE= Slowly Ascend From Every Dive.

...because I guess if you don't remember to ascend slowly (something they've been mentioning every few pages for the entire book), you're more likely to remember SAFE and what it stands for (“Wait, I know I'm supposed to be SAFE, but what did that stand for? Sordidly Activate Frequency Enhancer? Guess I better rush up to the surface and look it up”), and that will remind you to ascend slowly? Wouldn't it be simpler to just remember to ascend slowly?

I kind of feel like they might as well say SAFE stands for: Safety is important, Always be safe, For goodness' sake, be safe; Exceptions there are none to the rule of always being safe.

Meanwhile, there's no mnemonic at all for the five steps you're supposed to follow before diving. I decided on the mnemonic RORCOD (Ready, Orient, Regulator, COmputer, Descend), which I guess is either Rorschach's fishy cousin or the fish that roared. (Hey, I didn't say I was good at coming up with mnemonic acronyms.)


The word nurdle has a variety of definitions; in particular, it's most commonly used to refer to a little squirt of toothpaste, or to refer to small plastic pellets.

Edited to add: Okay, I imagine that its use in cricket is actually more common than either of those uses; I missed that brief mention in the linked-to article at first.

I was completely oblivious to the vocal fry/“creaky voice” phenomenon until today. A friend posted about it, and I did a quick search, and found several interesting articles on the subject.

Creaky Voice: Yet Another Example of Young Women's Linguistic Ingenuity
“If you want to see where the language is going, you find a young, urban woman.”
Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-Oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women?
“Previously, creaky voice was interpreted as a voice quality of masculinity or authority. Moreover, a [...] survey indicates that college-age Americans [...] perceive female creaky voice as hesitant, nonaggressive, and informal but also educated, urban-oriented, and upwardly mobile.”
Vocal fry: ‘creeping in’ or ‘still here’?
“these ‘low creaky vibrations’ have been common since forever.” (Also suggests that Mae West used this register.)
This American Life, episode 545, act 2
“Listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word like and about upspeak[...]. But we don't get many emails like that anymore. People who don't like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.”
Stanford linguist Penny Eckert did a preliminary study, and found that people under 40 found vocal fry authoritative, while people over 40 didn't. Ira Glass says “So if people are having a problem with these reporters on the radio, what it means is they're old.” Eckert replies: “[the media] want to talk about the crazy ways that young women are speaking [...], even though young men are doing it too. So it's a policing of young people, but I think most particularly young women.”
Naomi Wolf misses the point about ‘vocal fry’. It's just an excuse not to listen to women
“Vocal fry is not a problem. It is merely another excuse to dismiss, ignore and marginalise women's voices, both literally and figuratively. And it's just the latest in a long history of finding excuses not to listen to what women, especially young women, say.”

sectional (and yak-shaving)

Ah, yak-shaving.

I was curious about the use of the word “sectional” in Civil War-era documents; that's not a usage I had encountered before. So here's how looking up a word goes in the modern world, at least for me:

First I Googled [sectional], and got info about sofas. Then I Googled [sectional Civil War] and got pages that used the term but didn't define it or talk about usage.

So I went to merriam-webster.com to look it up. But that site has once again forgotten that I always check the “Remember me” checkbox, so it wants me to log in again. (If I weren't a subscriber, I would've gone to their free dictionary page and gotten the info I wanted immediately.)

So I sent them a tech-support note asking how to get the site to remember me, but first I had to make sure cookies were enabled, which required digging into Chrome settings and then Googling [_utma].

And when I was done with all that, I still had to sign in to the dictionary. But I didn't remember my password, so I went to 1Password. Except the 1Password extension in Chrome had disappeared. So I went to find it in the extensions store. Turns out it was installed, just disabled. So I tried enabling it, but that didn't work. So I looked at my extensions page and clicked Reload, and that worked. So I tried to use the newly re-enabled extension to fill in my username and password. And it gave me an error message saying it couldn't verify the authenticity of my browser and thus couldn't fill in my info.

Here's how the old style of looking up a word works: pick up a physical paper dictionary, find the word, read the definition. Of course, that would require getting out of bed.

PS: It turns out that the relevant definition of “sectional” is “local or regional rather than general in character.” I eventually found it by looking at the free version of the MW website instead of the signed-in version.

PPS: If you haven't encountered the term “yak-shaving” before, wiktionary has a pair of definitions. Though I feel like there's also a third variation in which the connotation is that you should have avoided the whole recursion chain by doing something different at the start.

My favorite example of yak-shaving is a 30-second video clip that I gather is from Malcolm in the Middle.


The other day, Mary Anne linked to an article that claimed that the new gender-neutral title “Mx” was being officially added to the OED. I'm not linking to that article because it turned out, alas, that it had based that claim on a Sunday Times article that only said the OED was considering adding it. So as far as I can tell, it's not in the OED yet.

But in comments on Mary Anne's post, a couple of people indicated that they didn't see a need for the new title, so I wrote up some thoughts about it, and I figured I might as well post those thoughts as a blog entry.

When we were first deciding on policies for the Strange Horizons fiction department, we decided not to use titles in addressing correspondence to submitters; instead, we decided to use their full names. One reason I was in favor of that policy was that I went to a college founded by Quakers, and the not-using-titles thing rubbed off on me. But another reason, probably the biggest one for me, was that picking an honorific meant making assumptions about the submitter's gender given no information other than their name. A significant percentage of submitters had names that weren't obviously gendered (and even commonly-gendered names are no guarantee), so using “Mr” or “Ms” had a significant chance of being wrong.

And although I do like the address-the-person-by-full-name approach, if “Mx” had been widely known and understood at the time, I might well have been interested in using that, as a form of nongendered respectful address.

Relatedly, a few organizations that I donate to have started to require that donors specify a title when they donate. I currently can't do that without specifying my gender (or lying about my doctoral status), and I don't feel that my gender is any business of theirs. If I could specify “Mx,” I would. Same with my favorite hotel, where despite my complaints they still won't let me reserve a room online without specifying my gender.

More generally: In our society, there are lots of times when people use titles to refer to other people. Under most of those circumstances, gender is completely irrelevant, and yet most of the time we can't use a title without tying gender to it.

So I wholeheartedly support the use of “Mx.”

In the 1970s, a lot of people railed against the awful new title “Ms.” They presumably felt it was perfectly reasonable to require a woman to specify her marital status if she wanted to be addressed respectfully. Today, we no longer feel the need to specify marital status in titles for women (we never did in titles for men), but we still seem to consider it ordinary and reasonable to require binary gender. I'm hoping that forty years from now, “Mx” will be as ordinary and unobjectionable as “Ms” is today.

(PS: I'm using the term “title” here as a synonym for “honorific”; I'm not thrilled with either term in this context, but they seem to be the standard terms.)

More recombinant idioms

The following bit from an old Dr Who episode popped into my head this morning:

Seventh Doctor: Time and tide melt the snowman.

Mel: Doctor, "wait for *no* man."

Doctor: So who's waiting?

I never actually saw the episode, but I liked the quote, though it may not be precisely accurate. So I went to check on the phrasing, and ended up finding some other Seventh Doctor-isms; I particularly liked “Fools rush in where horses fear to drink.”

Elliott has been calling this sort of thing a “recombinant idiom” for a long time. I only just learned, from the Wikipedia article about the Seventh Doctor, that they're also known as “dundrearyisms,” after a character from the play Our American Cousin, which I've never seen nor read.

While I'm here, here are a couple from Elliott from a long time ago that I never got around to posting.

The administration has the upper ground.

—Professor emeritus Nathan Glazer, in a 2003 New York Times article


That way, the public will be more secure that we're not trying to pull a fast one over their eyes.

—Moses Carey of the Orange County (NC) Board of County Commissioners, in a 2003 Chapel Hill News article


To say that the world is trying to destroy “the romance of depression,” and by doing so end the future of literature and art, is a load of crock.

—Liz Kuzemski of Greenfield, MA, in a letter to the editor of the Valley Advocate, Feb. 17-23, 2000.

And finally:

Bush's visit to the vehemently anti-Catholic Jones college is a wedge big enough to drive a candidacy through.

Newsweek, March 13, 2000, p. 34