My New Year’s resolution was to be a nicer, more positive language blogger. No more slapping Safire around, no more holding journalistic slips up to public ridicule, none of that stuff; instead I’d praise the praiseworthy and let the broom of time sweep the rest away. Well, make ‘em big and break ‘em fast, I say, and having read Baloney Bill’s year-end column, it’s time to start slapping!
The Mooncalf Maven begins with a riff on the suffix -stan:
“Sometimes I get confused with all these stans,” said Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, then the military dictator of Pakistan, “but as long as I don’t say Hindustan” — a Persian name for India that once included what is now Pakistan — “I’ll be O.K.”
That 1982 citation of the suffix -stans in the form of a noun — rooted in the Persian for “home of” — was dug up by the phrasedick Paul McFedries of wordspy.com.
So far, so good; “home of” isn’t exact, but it gives the general idea. (“Place of” would be better; it’s from the Indo-European root *stā- ‘stand,’ and in Persian it’s also used in words like registan ‘place of sand, desert’ and gulistan ‘place of roses, rose garden.’) But he goes on: “Zia picked up the suffix used by critics of South Africa’s proposed black African homelands in 1949; they had nicknamed the impoverished areas bantustans after the Bantu language spoken by the tribes.” Why on earth would you link Zia’s use of an old Persian name for India with a modern South African term Zia might or might not ever have heard of? Zia “picked up” a word that was lying around in his language; if you’re desperate to make a transition to bantustans, make it yourself, don’t foist it on Zia. Furthermore, since all other quotes in the column are from much later, Safire leaves the impression that 1949 is as far back as we can trace the suffix, whereas the first cite in the online OED is from considerably earlier:
1932 Times 7 Sept. 13/6 When all the land in the Stans is collectivized in cotton plantations, say the Soviet governors, then the wheat, meat and vegetables are to come over from the Ukraine, Siberia, and the Caucasus.
Having confused everyone on that score, he moves on to surge, one of those temporarily popular words he loves to put into pun-filled contexts (“We are now inundated by the billowing wave of surge. Put the words Iraq and surge together in a splashy Google search and you can wade into nine million usages of that swell noun and verb…”). In the midst of that harmless fun, he perpetrates this incomprehensible piece of misinformation:
Surge may spring from spring, source of fountains, streams and seas, and in a mysterious undulation of the English language, seems to share a root with the Latin surgere, “to rise,” as the source of the French surgeon.
So (if I’m reading this magniloquent gibberish correctly) he’s saying that the word surge “may” come from the word spring and “seems to share a root” with surgere; I’ve read the sentence multiple times and still can’t figure out whether the last phrase says that the source of the French word is the English word or the Latin one, but let’s be charitable and assume he meant the latter. Now, it’s true that surge shares a root with surgere; this is because it’s from surgere (probably via Catalan and French), so it “shares a root” with it in the same way sushi shares a root with Japanese sushi. Surge has nothing to do with spring. Why he mentions the extremely obscure French word surgeon, meaning ‘sucker, shoot thrown out from the base of a tree or plant,’ is beyond me unless he is under the impression that the French word is the same as the English word surgeon, which of course it’s not (the French for that is chirurgien, and the ultimate source is Greek kheirourgos, literally ‘hand-worker’). His eye presumably caught the OED’s “the earliest examples (sense 1a, b) transl. OF. sourgeon (mod.F. surgeon)” and his magpie nature said “ooh, surgeon, what fun!” and he stuck it in without giving a moment’s thought to what this “mod.F. surgeon” might be.
While I’m breaking my resolution, I might as well commit a multiple offense, so let me add a brief swipe at a sentence in Peter J. Boyer’s “Downfall: How Donald Rumsfeld reformed the Army and lost Iraq” from the Nov. 20 New Yorker. In the context of discussing the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (a proposed reformation of the U.S. armed forces), Boyer writes: “But the last thing the Army was inclined to do while facing cutbacks under the Clinton Administration was tinker with its revered divisional structure, and the Navy was no less inclined to reduce the number of its aircraft-carrier battle groups.” I think if you read that sentence carefully, you’ll see that he should have said “the Navy was no more inclined…” This is an example of what Language Log calls “overnegation as obfuscation,” and the crack editorial staff should have caught it.