6.14.2015

A Passage to Bainbridge Island

When I tell people we live on Bainbridge Island, they often assume we have to take a ferry to get anywhere on the mainland. It’s true that we often take the ferry to Seattle, but since 1950 there has been a bridge spanning Agate Passage at the Island’s northern tip.

I have long puzzled over the fact that the locals usually refer to this as the “Agate Pass bridge.” Indeed, according to Google Maps the Agate Pass Bridge crosses over Agate Passage.

The term “pass” has historically more often designated a passable way through mountains or other obstacles. In former times it could be used to designated a crossing over a body of water, or even a bridge (the Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “now rare”).

In modern usage, this is the most common OED definition of “pass” in its geographical sense:
A way through or across an area where passage is limited by natural impediments, such as trees, marshes, or hills. Chiefly spec.: a route over or through a mountainous region; a narrow passage between mountains. 
But a pass can also be a channel within a body of water:
A navigable channel, esp. at a river's mouth or in a delta; spec. one in the Mississippi delta.
But it a pass is usually not the name for the narrow body of water separating two land masses—a strait. So why do most neighbors of Agate Passage refer to it as “Agate Pass”?

Is it just a handy abbreviation? Maybe, but we also have Rich Passage to the west, and nobody ever calls it ”Rich Pass.”

But on Agate Point we have an “Agate Pass Road.”

In the wider area, there’s the wonderful Agate Pass Cafe in Suquamish, Agate Pass Crossfit in Poulsbo, and Fabrik Agate Pass Stoneware made in Seattle by Jim McBride in the 70s and 80s.

On the other hand, we have right here Agate Passage Psychological Services. In this era of personal “journeys” it makes sense that a psychotherapy clinic would choose “passage” over “pass.” Similarly, local Quakers have formed the “Agate Passage Friends Meeting.”

By now you may wondering: are there agates in Agate Passage? Not so far as I know. Surely if there any existed, genuine Agate Passage agates would be choice souvenirs in the many local shops serving tourists.

In fact the name has nothing to do with the gemstone.

In 1841 Captain Charles Wilkes was leading a US Navy expedition to scout  navigable waters to the west, including Puget Sound. He was the first explorer of European descent to discover that Bainbridge was indeed an island, when he found the strait separating what is now called “Agate Point” from the Kitsap Peninsula. He named it “Agate’s Passage” after the expedition’s distinguished artist, Alfred Thomas Agate (1812–1846)—a significant fact in that although the Island is poor in agates it now abounds in artists.

Agate created the first known depiction of nearby Mount Rainier, where there are many agates.

Agate Island in Fiji was also named in Alfred Agate’s honor because of the usefulness of his drawings he made in that area years earlier.

As for “Bainbridge,” that was a considerably more arbitrary name assigned to the Island by Capt. Wilkes in honor of American Naval hero William Bainbridge, captain of the USS Constitution in a string of victories of which the Navy was extremely proud.

Finally, why do residents capitalize “Island” when referring to their home land mass, even when the word  is not preceded by “Bainbridge”?

They just do. “Bainbridge” is understood.



6.04.2015

Slippery Discs

In my entry on “disc/disk” (p. 85) I mention that the inventors of the compact disc chose the “C” spelling, so it makes sense to follow them. The invention was developed by Philips and Sony, and the logo they designed has appeared on millions of recordings. Its frequent appearance in this form made publications which adhered to the “disk” spelling seem arbitrarily stodgy.

The New York Times used “compact disk” for decades, but finally caved in. I noticed in a recent issue of The New Yorker that the magazine, famous for its adherence to older traditions in spelling and punctuation, is still using the spelling “disk.”

Discussions of the SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) format often refer to its having become obsolete with the decline in its use, but those of us who still collect classical music on European labels know better. There are many recording companies using the format for new releases, and a few release all their recordings as SACDs.

For a while CD player manufacturers failed to support the format, but the higher-end ones have now realized that SACD is very much alive. I bought my current Oppo player partly because it plays SACDs in full high-resolution surround-sound mode.

The manufacturers of high-resolution video discs chose the awkward spelling “Blu-ray Disc” with “ray” treated as if it were part of a hyphenated word instead of the second word in a hyphenated phrase: with a lower-case “r.” The official abbreviation for this format is “BD” but I’ve never heard that form in speech.

Some predict the premature death of BDs because high-def streaming over the Internet is now available from sources like Netflix and Amazon, but for critical viewers with high-end equipment, Blu-ray delivers noticeably superior image quality. It can also deliver true surround sound, which streamed recordings often do not. However some studios have begun pressing special Blu-rays for the rental market which lack surround sound and some of the extras one gets on a direct-to-consumer discs. Very annoying.

Truly cutting-edge videophiles are looking forward to the arrival of super high-definition 4K Blu-ray Discs. Even experts debate whether the improvement provided is truly visible; but whether or not the new format catches on you can be sure the recordings will still be “discs,” not “disks.”


5.05.2015

Y not Y?

I used to frequently walk by a sign advertising  the “Slush Puppie” brand of crushed-ice drinks. The odd spelling bothered me partly because the corporate symbol is a dog—a puppy—and partly because the name is a pun on hushpuppy: both of them with with Y endings. In these and many other words the Y changes to IE only when pluralized: puppies and hushpuppies.

Was the brand name influenced by the fact that the generic term for the drink is a slushie rather than a slushy? Even its more sophisticated relative is a smoothie—not a smoothy (a smooth-talking guy) .

Of course brand names often use nonstandard cutesy spellings such as “Krispy Kreme,” but notice that even in this famous instance the -Y suffix from crispy remains. The spelling only changes to -IE when pluralized, as in Rice Krispies.

There are other instances in which the two suffixes have different meanings. Although usage varies, usually a caddie carries your golf clubs and a Caddy is a car. Cadillac doesn’t make golf carts. A fish caught in polluted water might be a crappy crappie.

Common Errors in English Usage has this entry for hippy vs. hippie on page 143:
A long-haired 60s flower child was a “hippie.” “Hippy” is an adjective describing someone with wide hips. The IE is not caused by a Y changing to IE in the plural as in “puppy” and “puppies.” It is rather a dismissive diminutive, invented by older, more sophisticated hipsters looking down on the new kids as mere “hippies.” Confusing these two is definitely unhip.
Both suffixes are used in people’s names, with -y more common in men’s names and -ie more common in women’s: Bobby vs. Bobbie, Terry vs. Terrie,  Cary vs. Carrie, etc. (To check which spelling is used for a specific gender, type a name into Google and choose “Images,” but don’t search for “carie” unless you want to be grossed out by multiple images of gum disease.)

Female names often use the Y ending too. There is Lucie and Lucy, Katie and Katy, Tracie and Tracy. 

There are variations in adjectives associated with femininity: Bonnie may be bonny or slinky, but also a pixie—a real cutie.

Of course there are many ways to make a traditional masculine name feminine besides changing the suffix (the reverse process is rare) Sometimes they are just appropriated unchanged, as in Daryl, Ashley, Blake, Tristan, Dylan, Nikita, Madison, Lindsay, Ryan, Taylor—the list goes on and on. In other cases names are feminized with alternative spellings: Alex becomes Alix, Joe becomes Jo, and Tony becomes Toni.

I used to have to explain to my literature students that Virgil’s Second Eclogue is a homosexual love poem—they didn’t realize that Alexis had always been a male name until very recently.

But to return to our topic, the Guardian and Observer style guide provides these useful guidelines:
As a general rule: -y is an English suffix, whose function is to create an adjective (usually from a noun, eg creamy); -ie was originally a Scottish suffix, whose function is to add the meaning of "diminutive" (usually from a noun, eg beastie).  
So in most cases, where there is dispute over whether a noun takes a -y or an -ie ending, the correct answer is -ie: she's a girly girl, but she's no helpless girlie. Think also scrunchie, beanie, nightie, meanie ... There are exceptions (a hippy, an indie band), but where specific examples are not given, use -ie for nouns and -y for adjectives.
For a detailed scholarly article on the origins of the -y suffix, see this article.

4.20.2015

Engrench and Franglais

Although I strive for clarity in my “Common Errors” writing, I sometimes amuse myself by inserting somewhat obscure jokes in an entry. A example is the article on the spelling of “connoisseur,” which some French people object to because the modern spelling in their language is “connaisseur.”

In the early 19th century (specifically in the 6th edition of the official Dictionnaire de l'Académie française), the spelling of many older words containing an OI was changed to AI. But “connoisseur” entered English before this change took place: it reflects the perfectly correct older spelling.

Spoiler alert: unfunny explanation of joke follows.

I reply to the objections of these French critics: “let ’em eat bifteck.” The latter word is the weird French spelling of the English word “beefsteak.” The sentence of course alludes to the comment famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, who when told that the masses could not get enough bread is supposed to have said “let them eat cake” (actually brioche in the original French). For a detailed discussion of this totally bogus story, see the relevant Wikipedia article.

In my Common Errors in English Usage I discuss many English manglings of French words, but the French are equally prone to play havoc with English words and expressions.

One of the first I ran into when studying French was the word “shampooing” which is used in French where we would use “shampoo,” and pronounced “shampwang.”

There’s an interesting page on French words of English origin in the French Wikitionary from which I’ve taken the following examples, listing the French version first, followed by the English source.

babyfoot
a made-up pseudo-English word for Foosball, table football

bouledogue
bulldog

camping
campsite

footing
jogging

hold-up
military attack

magnat
magnate

overbooké
overbooked

parking
parking lot

pin's
badges

planning (noun)
schedule

poney
pony

pull-over
sweater

record man
record holder

redingote
riding coat

slip
panties

smoking
tuxedo

string
string bikini

talkie-walkie
walkie-talkie

When English or pseudo-English words and expressions are mixed with French the result is called franglais (français + anglais), so I figure its complement should be Engrench.

More amusing examples are included in in a Global Post article “A Beginner’s Guide to Franglais” along with a helpful list of French phrases misused by English speakers.

3.24.2015

A Runaway Word: “Bindlestick”

I've recently been enjoying Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, a fascinating encyclopedia of old-fashioned comic imagery.

I was particularly intrigued by the article “Bindlesticks” which discusses cartoons depicting hoboes and runaway children carrying their meager possessions in a bundle dangling from the end of a stick carried over the shoulder.

Miller comments, “As for the stick itself, was that ever really the easiest and most comfortable way for runaways and hoboes to carry their belongings? Couldn't they have rigged up some kind of rudimentary backpack? No doubt. But the stick was the whole point: like a walking stick in certain hands, the bindlestick, if it was ever used in real life, must have been a pretext to carry a weapon—to ward off angry dogs, fellow vagrants, hostile locals, and the like.”

This is an interesting bit of speculation, but Miller is clearly skeptical of the actual existence of bindlesticks outside of popular culture. After all, the longer the stick, the more weighty the burden and the greater the strain on arm and shoulder. Carrying a modest bundle dangling from one hand would seem to be more comfortable. It’s common to see street scavengers with large plastic bags slung over their backs, particularly when collecting recyclable cans; but I’ll bet you’ve never seen one dangling bindlestick style.

Search the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs catalog for “bindle stiff” and you’ll find 11 Dorothea Lange images of men carrying bundles but no sticks.

It’s difficult to say how far back the image goes, but Michael A. Chaney says in Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative that silhouetted figures pictured on early 19th-century runaway slave posters often carried stereotypical bindlesticks.

Trying to research the term I discovered that most dictionaries simply do not recognize this word. It’s missing from the online Merriam-Webster, from Dictionary.com, from the Apple desktop dictionary, and from the Oxford English Dictionary. What they all offer instead is “bindlestiff,” which refers to the person carrying the bindlestick. Writers occasionally confuse the object with the person and miscall a hobo a “bindlestick”

Merriam-Webster’s search engine offers another odd alternative to “bindle stick”—“blanket stitch”!

Wikipedia has no article on “bindlestick” but its entry on “hobo” does explain the term in its common two-word spelling: “bindle stick.” Microsoft Word recognizes only the two-word version, as does the blog software I’m using to write this post.

I’ve always imagined the bindlestick to be the whole ensemble: the stick and the bundle. And clearly so do a lot of other people. Here are a few examples I found in Google Books:

“Other hobo slang includes . . . bindle stick – belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick”
(USA by Rail: Plus Canada's Main Routes by John Pitt)

“Snowie packed her bindle stick as she was planning on running away. . .”
(World of Horrotica: Underworld Origins by David Edward Collier)

“Your lunch will come attractively packed in a ‘bindle stick’”
(Great Family Trips in New England by Harriet Webster)

But it seems clear that to most people the bindlestick (or bindle stick) is simply the stick from which the bindle dangles. That’s what Urban Dictionary says.

There is a coffeehouse offering live music not far from where I live called “Bindlestick,” and there is also a New Mexico art studio and a Texas microbrewery using the name.

Somebody on Kickstarter has raised over $6,000 to market a handsomely carved “bindle stick.”

A Google image search on the word will bring up any number of images, including a rather famous one by Norman Rockwell entitled “The Runaway.”

Whatever you think it means, “bindlestick” is clearly a word, despite all the oblivious dictionaries.




3.04.2015

Opening Pedals

I’m a big fan of Consumer Reports, but they made a lamentable linguistic mistake in the current issue (April 2015). The inside of the back cover of the magazine mocks ads and packaging that contain self-contradictory claims, wildly confusing illustrations, and other amusing blunders.

The first example this month features a photo of a storefront sign reading "Axion Auto & Bodyparts." The accompanying text reads: “Commuting Zombies Rejoice! This sign, spotted by Sandy Green of Lansdale, Pa, hints that the auto body shop is pedaling merchandise far more sinister than spark plugs.”

My first reaction was to think: “is ‘bodyparts’ even a word? Isn’t it “body parts” in both meanings? Neither Merriam-Webster nor the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the one-word form.

But then I noticed “pedaling,” This word is confused with “peddling” often enough that I cover it in Common Errors in English Usage:
If you are delivering newspapers from a bike you can pedal it around the neighborhood (perhaps wearing “pedal-pushers”), but when you sell them from a newsstand you peddle them.
I realize that my example is rather dated: papers are now usually delivered by adults in cars before dawn, not by kids on bikes after school. Beginning in seventh grade I delivered papers on a hilly five-mile rural route until I was a sophomore in high school. Toward the end of my route I had to pedal a full mile and climb a steep hill to reach one isolated farm subscriber. I earned a whopping $20 a month.

We were constantly pressured to sell new subscriptions. I was fine with pedaling, but not with peddling. We were sometimes dumped off in neighborhoods and told to ask at every house whether the occupants subscribed to our paper or would like to. Since there was an altogether superior paper published in a larger town nearby, the answer to both questions was usually “no.”

I hated it.

I am often reminded of my career in newspaper delivery by one of my favorite comic strips: “Red and Rover” by Seattle cartoonist Brian Bassett. The strip is set in the early ’60s and lovingly reflects many aspects of that era, including the fact that Red delivers papers from his bike accompanied by his dog, Rover.

And that in turn reminds me of the old dismissive expression “go peddle your papers.” The entry in the online Free Dictionary, citing McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, reads: 

[get out of my face and] stop annoying me like an aggressive paper boy. Get out of here and go peddle your papers!

This sort of paper boy, rather than delivering papers to subscribers, hawked them on the street, as romanticized in the Disney musical Newsies

Then I began to wonder whether people often confuse “pedal” with “petal.”

It’s not hard to find Web pages offering such items as a “flower peddle plant stand,” a “flower peddle style baby link bracelet,” or a “flower peddle printed cotton scarf”; but I also found a number of amusingly named businesses such as “Petal Pusher” (a floral designer) and “Petal by Pedal,” (a bike-powered flower-delivery service).

Puns work only if your audience knows the usual definitions of the words involved, of course. Now that copyediting is frequently neglected in publishing, readers are less and less likely to be reminded of the correct spelling of words even if they are among the minority that still gets a daily newspaper.