Back in the green youth of Languagehat (the blog, not the blogmeister) I wrote a post on coincidence. That precedent established, I follow up with an account of my televisionary experiences of last night in the hope that they will astonish you as they did me. If not, I apologize and advise awaiting better posts.

We here at the Languagehattery, having surveyed the evening’s offerings, decided to watch The River (He liu), a 1997 movie by the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. It didn’t sound very cheerful, but the Time Out Film Guide review mentioned a scene at the Tanshui (Tamsui) River, near which I used to teach college, and concluded “Looks like a future classic,” so we decided to give it a try. When we turned to the WE channel, however, they were showing a movie with Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson; it quickly developed that this was an entirely different 1984 movie also called The River. It didn’t sound that interesting (“Farming family battles severe storms, a bank threatening to reposses their farm, and other hard times in a battle to save and hold on to their farm”), so we went with our second choice, a 1991 British movie called Under Suspicion that featured Liam Neeson and was described as “tautly entertaining, with cunning plot.” We switched to Bravo and were nonplussed to find ourselves not in Brighton but in Puerto Rico, with no Liam Neeson in sight. It turned out that this was an entirely different 2000 movie, also called Under Suspicion, starring Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman! (In both cases, it was not the Times television listing that was at fault, because the Guide button on our remote control provided the same erroneous information.) I’ve never had that happen even once; to have it happen on two different channels at the same time on the same evening is surely extraordinary. (Oh, if you’re curious, the Freeman/Hackman movie is fairly well done and has, needless to say, great acting, but the ending is so stupid and pointless it makes one want to throw the tv across the room.)

Incidentally, in trying to Google various items for this post, I kept getting the following response:

Server Error
The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request.
Please try again in a minute or so.

I’ve never seen that before on Google. Coincidence? I think not.


  1. Hat, you have picked on one of my very favourite subjects today, thank you. I look forward to reading some of the links.

    But, I have come up with another language mystery that is bothering me (I am but a Simple Witch, as you have – no doubt – gathered by now ;).

    Why do we say “a square window”, “a round window” but an “arched window”?

  2. Why do we say “a square window”, “a round window” but an “arched window”?

    When you said “square” in the sentence above, you were using the adjective “square.” This is, by a curious coincidence (heh), a perfect homonym of the English noun “square.”

    Many English words serve double-duty as nouns and adjectives, while others do double-duty as nouns and verbs. “Arch” is one of the latter. If you want to turn the noun/verb “arch” into an adjective, you have to slap one of the handy-dandy adjectivization suffixes onto it.

    Of course, we also say “a rounded window,” but when we do, we’re making a distinction. Something that’s rounded may not actually be round. And when we say something is squared, if we’re not talking about numbers, we’re probably talking about the alignment of several objects (like that painting on the wall, or the sofa in relation to the coffee table).

  3. Thank you rnv.
    I think I understand that.

    But, I am still a bit puzzled (or may be missing the point), because I would have thought (being a Simple Witch) that round, square and arch are all used as the same part of speech in my examples. But, one wouldn’t say “an arch window” would one?

    They didn’t on Playschool anyway, and that’s where my question began, years ago….

  4. I think the real arched/squared/rounded explanation is simpler.

    ‘Square’ means like a square, ’round’ means like a circle or a hole, but for ‘arch’ to mean a window like an arch, there would need to be a polygon called an arch, and there isn’t. Arches are shapes of parts of perimeters, not the whole of perimeters.

    Alternatively, we could go for the replacement theory, that there is already a social adjective ‘arch’ as in “she looked at him with an arch expression”, but I don’t really this meaning is important enough to make it hard to say ‘arch window’.

    I reckon it’s the perimeter thing. Windows are polygons – they have an edge all the way round, and arches are what I think mathematicians would call open curves. Round curves and square curves [mathematical curves don’t have to be ‘curvy’] divide the 2D plane into two regions, as do all normal windows. Unaccompanied arches [such as arches _before_ being added to the bottom edges of bridges and so forth] don’t divide the 2D plane into two regions, so ‘arch window’ sounds weird. Any window has to already have a more basic shape before it can be spoken of as having added archiness, hence ‘arched’.

    Anyone convinced, or a load of rubbish?

  5. round, square and arch are all used as the same part of speech in my examples

    But they’re not: “round” and “square” are adjectives, “arch” isn’t (except, as Mark mentions, in the sense of ‘mischievous’). So you can talk about “round windows” just as you talk about “big windows,” but you have to make “arch” into a participial adjective (like “leaded glass”). Does that help?

  6. I think the real arched/squared/rounded explanation is simpler…. Anyone convinced, or a load of rubbish?

    Yes, Mark, your explanation makes perfect sense, though I don’t know if I’d agree that it’s any more real than my explanation. I was speaking purely of the grammatical reasons, whereas you’re appealing to the nature of the things being referred to.

    If someone is going to have trouble with grammar, this is it: the difference between the thing and the word used to connote that thing. For example, I posit that the common confusions people have regarding when to use “I” and when to use “me” stems from this: we as creatures tend to think of ourselves as the centers of our respective universes. But grammatically, we aren’t always the subject of every sentence that refers to us. “I was run over by a bus” and “the bus hit me” are both about the speaker, but the speaker is the subject of only one of the sentences.

    It’s touching, really, that we have so internalized speech and language that we often forget that words are not things, and things are not words. (Well, it’s touching when it isn’t lethally dangerous, like when someone gets fixated on an idea like “purity” and comes up with a Final Solution…)

    Anyway, all this is to say that in an ideal universe, grammar would refer to the cosmos in such a way that things and their names would always map perfectly and faithfully onto each other. But that ideal universe would be quite terrifying in its infinitely forking paths, since “I” could never be the subject of any sentences “you” utter, and vice versa, and so “you” and “I” would be carried away from one another irrevocably on the swift, unforgiving streams of grammar. No wonder the word is a cognate with “glamour” and that both meant magic spell or enchantment…

  7. And let me also add that it just occurred to me that “square” serves triple duty: noun, verb, adjective. This is very common in English, and one of the reasons its such an enormously versatile language, where nouns become verbs and so forth.

    As Calvin once so famously said, “verbing weirds language.”

    Weirds language? You could say that this is language’s fate…

  8. Goodness me rnv! I can already feel myself getting carried away down that rippling forking diagram of glamorous grammar….

    So the claim I once read by Britain’s opinions-first-facts-later writer Julie Burchill that ‘glamour’ was from ‘gloom’ + ‘amour’ is false is it? I can certainly believe it….

  9. So the claim … that ‘glamour’ was from ‘gloom’ + ‘amour’ is false is it?

    Someone else jump in here if I’m wrong, but my impression was that portmandeau words are relatively uncommon. Not that they never occur, but rather that it’s much more common for words to change through the shifting borders of meaning (“nice” originally meaning stupid or simple-minded — a connotaion it hasn’t entirely lost), or alterations in pronounciation — like how “sassy” and “saucy” are the same word, one from the North, the other from the Midlands. Or how “shade” and “shadow” started out as different declensions of the same word.

    So no, my bet is that “glamour” is not gloomy love…

  10. You’re absolutely right, rnv—people love portmanteau derivations almost as much as they love alleged acronyms (posh = “port out starboard home” being the most famous of these, as hard to uproot as kudzu), but they’re almost all wrong. “Glamour” is a Scottish variant of “grammar,” which itself is from a medieval French modification of Latin grammatica, from a Greek derivative of gramma ‘letter.’ Boring but true.

  11. Fascinating, Steve! I thought there was something a bit pat-sounding about Burchill’s claim. So what’s the real source of ‘posh’ then?

  12. Short answer: nobody knows. This is true of many words (including words as common as “boy” and “dog”), but people can’t stand to accept “etymology unknown,” so they leap at any plausible-sounding answer. There’s a good brief description of frequent fallacies here. As for “posh,” it’s possible that it’s from Romanes posh ‘half’; to cite the usually sensible Online Etymology Dictionary:

    posh – 1918, of uncertain origin; no evidence for the common derivation from an acronym of port outward, starboard home, supposedly the shipboard accomodations of wealthy British traveling to India on the P & O Lines (to keep their cabins out of the sun); more likely from slang posh “a dandy” (1890), from meaning “money” (1830), originally “coin of small value, halfpenny,” possibly from Romany posh “half.”

    But bear in mind that this is only a guess, and if anybody asks, the best answer is the one I gave at the beginning of this comment.

  13. Brilliant! Etymological snopers. Hard to believe there isn’t a Latin-tag-generated acronym hiding somewhere in the high Middle Ages, but perhaps not. My aesthetics tutor told me that acronyms had to make words, but that left me confused as to whether NATO is in a different class from things like laser and scuba which “look more” like words.

    Seems to me we need four separate terms: phrases whose initials spell out existing words [like cabal], phrases whose initials spell out word-like things which can immediately be granted wordhood [like laser], phrases which spell out sounds which can be pronounced [like NATO] but which everyone continues to see as a must-capitalize set of initials and not a “real” word, phrases which everyone feels should be read out as a list of letters [like BBC] and can never, unaltered, be seen as words in their own right, because they cannot be spoken as a single sound distinct from the sounds of the separate letters.

  14. Anonymous says

    “Glamour” is a Scottish variant of “grammar,” which itself is from a medieval French modification of Latin grammatica, from a Greek derivative of gramma ‘letter.’ Boring but true.
    Cf. “grimoire”.

  15. Sorry, that last bit wasn’t supposed to be italicized, nor the post anonymous.

  16. Per Mark’s last comment: computer jargon, which is of course acronym-heavy, contains some which seem unpronouncable but which are pronounced nonetheless. To wit: SQL, although sometimes pronounced “S-Q-L”, is often pronounced like “sequel.” Yet another category of acronyms?

  17. Hat –
    I had heard that the word Port was derived from an acronym. As I remember it was related to the seating, or rooms on a luxury liner. Is there any truth to this statement?

  18. I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the false but beloved “etymology” (“port out, starboard home”) of “posh,” for which see above in the comments. If you mean “port” in the sense of ‘left, opposite of starboard,” it’s probably “from notion of “the side facing the harbor” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

  19. dungbeatle says

    Well I be dunged. Another item of useless knowledged item down the gutter. Next yer be telin’ me that COP does not mean “Constable on Patrol”

  20. Mneumonics: The more obscure the better. It keeps the Illiteri on their toes(BTW) : After hunting the Internet and chasing around grave stones, my mystic came across the letters POSH: The Norman Barrons love to go looking for loose ladies and when they enter’d the market place they kept on shouting “Posh Posh Posh” like some say “bok” So what did they mean Posh . It dawned on me that it stood for “Pox on saxon heathern”. So another rumo(u)r started.

  21. (W)hat, has the derivation of boy from a Norman word meaning `servant’ been discredited?

  22. I don’t know that derivation. The OED says “ME. boi, boy, of obscure origin: app. identical with E. Frisian boi, boy ‘young gentleman’,” which simply means that the common ancestor of English and Frisian had a word of unknown origin.

  23. Since my last visit here I’ve read something about dog that makes me think perhaps Docga was the abbreviated form of the name of a breeder of dogs; though I don’t know enough about OE personal names to say whether that’s plausible.

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