Posts for Category Language

Hunting for treasure in the sewers of London

Toshers made a living digging through the sewers of 19th-century London for items of value
Oct 022012

Some years ago I read Charles Palliser’s novel The Quincunx. Though I don’t remember much about the book at this point, it stands out in my mind as one of my favorites. Perhaps one day I will reread it and see if it holds up.

One thing I do remember from the book is that it introduced me to toshers (I have mentioned them before)–the people who made their living scrounging through the sewers of 19th-century London looking for items of value. I was therefore quite excited when I came across Mike Dash’s post about toshers in Smithsonian magazine’s Past Imperfect blog. Dash describes

the men who made their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.

The work was dirty and dangerous (“what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats”) but apparently surprisingly lucrative, earning toshers enough “to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class.”

After you’ve read up on toshers, learn more about what was going on beneath London in the 19th century in Dash’s post about the first attempt to build a tunnel under the Thames.

You could also read The Quincunx and let me know what you think.

Report Disable Motorist

Do your duty, citizen: report disable motorist
Jun 062012
roadside message board reading "REPORT DISABLE MOTORIST"
Created at Atom Smasher

Driving along the highway today I saw one of those generator-powered roadside signs with this message:


That’s a fake version of the sign over there at the right because I wasn’t able to snap a picture of the real one as I went by at 65 55 mph. Though I did consider, more than briefly, getting off the road and looping back with camera at the ready so I could get a picture.

The real sign was narrower (or the type bigger) than the fake sign pictured here, so “DISABLE” wasn’t so much a typo as a running out of space. Clearly they meant: “REPORT DISABLED MOTORISTS.” Page 2 of the message told me to call #77 to make my report.

For a moment I considered calling to report the fellow in the next lane with the wheelchair symbol on his license plate, but then I realized they wanted me to report disabled vehicles, not motorists. If I were a slightly different person, I would have called anyway and recorded the conversation for your enjoyment.

May 222012

I’ve discovered that I have quite a backlog of pictures on my phone of things that need to be made fun of commented on. Here’s the first one:

van with sign on side: "Psychic reading. Call for appomiment"

There’s an obvious and old joke–why would I need an appointment? Doesn’t the psychic know I’m coming? But mainly I can’t figure out where “appomiment” comes from. At first I thought it might be carried over untranslated from the psychic’s non-English native language, but I haven’t yet turned up a language where “appomiment” is legal. Most of the results from a Google search are Google Books results where the optical character recognition software misread a properly-spelled appointment. There were, however, a few human-generated occurrences of “appomiment.” It’s hard to tell, given that most people posting on the Web are only semi-literate, but they seem to come from native English speakers.

On Facebook, Becky Princess Butterworth shares her “eye brow waxin” appomiment needs with the whole world.

In a pain management discussion, a forum poster writes,

look when i am in a flair up with my back i get spacy with the pain more so than the meds i blow off appomiments and work and forget a lot of things … you need to set up a appomiment with your doctor … let him know how you feel tell him you want him to manage “ALL YOUR MEDS”….

In another forum we find

Hi i am 13 weeks and 3 days today and just wanted to know how long it is between your frist midwife appomiment and the secound one as they have sent me a date for januery and baby is due in april.

And then, bless his heart, there’s Sal, writing a blog called “My Day’s“:

welp this hetectic weekend is over thank god, i didn’t like it at all ahah well today i didn’t get to go to school..darn and i was lookin forward to it too, no but i went all the way to novato for a chiropracter appomiment for my back cuz it hurts alot and cuz the accident thingy just wanted to make sure speakin of the accident its all over and done with the guy fixed his car him self. the only bad thing is that sals car going to car heaven tomorrow! hahah it was blowin hela oil out the tail pipe today it was horrible, poor piston rings..haha wheee whoo im going to starbucks tomorrow morning! haah man i dont have a car now! that bites hela hard welp haha i dont really want to type this today like usual ahah i just typed hela shit so ya ima go get a bowl of honey nut cherrios and a bannana! YUMMY!

You don’t have to read around long on My Day’s to realize that a) bold white text on a black background makes your head hurt* and b) Sal is deficient in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and, most importantly, a sense of irony:

Shit man haven’t wrote in the for daaaaays!!! this is going to be humongo big like emilys balls! hahahahaha anyway umm this week was purtty chill. In english we got this book and it hurts my brain hella bad…its like from the south and its a black person point of view and the spelling is so fucked up! ahah its like impossible to read..i was lauhgin when i teacher was reading it out loud! so umm ya that’s about it nothing exciting went down …..oh on thrus me n chirs went to Starbucks..haha it was great then we went to get ross HA HAHAHA OMG HAHA it was great his car only has 2 seats so ross had to ride in the back were the spare tire was..ahaha and their is no carpet stuff back their just metal..ahah it was great then we turned the stearo up hella and let the 12″ bumb out ross ear..

Occasionally he does realize that he might be misspelling something:

so i stayed home…bored…went to walmart and got Co2 and pellets for my pellet gun, gonna shoot me sum possems!!(SP) haha ya we have them in our back yard! haha and man do i gottta PEEE! haha i just dont want to get up

I frequently see “(SP)” used in situations like this and I always wonder: Why does he care that he’s misspelling possum but doesn’t care that he’s also misspelling every third word that he writes? And, if he’s aware that he doesn’t know how to spell the word, why doesn’t he go look it up? A quick Web search wouldn’t take much more time than typing “(SP).”

Back at “appomiment,” I’m still stumped as to how people end up writing appointment that way. I’ve never heard it pronounced as “appomiment” or anything close.  When I went to search Bing, I noticed from the suggested searches that “appomient” and “appoiment” are popular mistakes:


“Appoiment” makes sense as a typo or misspelling based on mispronunciation, but “appomient” is just as baffling to me as “appomiment.” In this example the writer uses both “appoiment” and “appomient,” suggesting that maybe she thinks it’s spelled “appoiment” and “appomient” is a typo for “appoiment” (bonus: another use of “(sp)” for one misspelling in a sea of them):

i need serious answeres no answere like”ewww” or “go to the doctors” i have had this problem my hole life and have gone to doctor appoiment and doctor appomient and need some answeres i have had ultra sounds and upper gis and a colonoscapy(sp?) okso heres my prob i can go like a week and some times up to 2 weeks with out going to the bathroom and when i go to the bathroom i am in so much pain some times i would rather just die then have to go to the bathroom and i get naushies 90% of the time when i go to the bathroom i will almost puke my mouth will fill up with spit like some on eturned on a faucet and then i will have diariha and be sick as a dog for likr 3days

And I’ll end with that lovely image fresh in your mind. If any of you, dear readers, can shed some light on this “appomiment” thing, please pipe up.



Sal complains that he’s getting a D in his web design class at school. He blames it on the fact that he “missed 3 weeks from the flu” but I suspect there might be other factors.

Big Brother is stalking me

I recently did some Web searches involving the word "coin," and now suddenly I'm getting mail from the United States Mint. Coincidence?
Oct 262011

Bill's head on a gold coinI don’t collect coins. I’ve never been interested in the topic other than that I think numismatics is a cool word (though not as cool as numismatism, which sadly isn’t a “real” word, or numismatology, which is).* I’ve never bought anything from the United States Mint or had any other dealings with them. If I’ve ever received mail from them before I’ve forgotten it. But I did recently spend a lot of time doing Web searches that involved the word coin for my post on “to coin a phrase.”  I even stopped by the US Mint Web site when I was looking for pictures to illustrate the post. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that I opened my mailbox the other day and found this:

envelope from the US Mint

Inside was the 2011 Fall Catalog of collectible coins. I do a few Web searches and all of a sudden the United States government thinks I might want to buy some coins? Creepy.

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How to coin a phrase

Bill looks at the origin, meaning, use, and misuse of "to coin a phrase." Ben Franklin stops by, too.
Oct 192011

Last year I coined the phrase “raining monkeys and banjos,” and I coined it correctly: I invented a phrase that didn’t exist before. Lately “to coin a phrase” has been jumping out at me when I hear it, because it seems like most people are using it incorrectly–they say “to coin a phrase” when really they’re quoting someone else’s phrase, at best. I had a specific example of incorrect usage (spouted recently by some politician or other) which was what got me thinking about it enough to write this post, but I’ve forgotten what it was. So here’s an example from The Daily Telegraph:

Given London’s importance as an global financial centre, this Commission and its aftermath could also influence the shape of the world economy. British banking reform, to coin a phrase, isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s far more important than that.

Who knows which phrase they even think they’re coining here, given the way those sentences are structured, but they certainly haven’t created anything new.

I set out to write a quick piece about rampant misuse of the phrase, but things got more complicated, as they’re wont to do.

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Get ready for Dictionary Day

Sunday is Dictionary day. Bill celebrates by reading the dictionary and making fun of fake dictionary entries.
Oct 132011

Dictionary entry for "renovate"Dictionary Day is this Sunday, October 16. Why? Because it’s Noah Webster’s birthday. The folks at Wordnik are having a Dictionary Day photo contest: “now that you’re using Wordnik as your go-to word source, show us how you’re putting your print dictionary to use.” “Perhaps you’re using it as a door stop,” they suggest. Now Wordnik is nice and all, but I still read my print dictionaries. I love browsing through them and stumbling upon new things. I guess I need to go take a picture of myself furiously reading the dictionary. Here it is:

Bill reads the dictionary!
Title page from Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary of the English Language: A DICTIONARY of the ENGLISH LANGUAGE in which the WORDS are deduced from their ORIGINALS, and ILLUSTRATED in their DIFFERENT SIGNIFICATIONS by EXAMPLES from the best WRITERS, to which are prefixed A HISTORY of the LANGUAGE, and An ENGLISH GRAMMAR.

That dictionary I’m reading is a facsimile of Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, though I suppose I should have grabbed a copy of Webster’s in keeping with the celebration of his birthday. I don’t know who published this facsimile or when, since it contains only the exact facsimile, and I’ve lost whatever other information came with it, if any.

I still remember going to the book store to buy the Shorter OED (my first “grownup” dictionary) many years ago. My friend Jim was along, and he was astounded and amused. “You’re spending $100 for a dictionary? A dictionary? What are you going to do–sit home and read your big dictionary?” Yep.

Erin McKean (among other things, founder of Wordnik) wrote in a column about Dictionary Day two years ago that,

Language is power – we understand that words can move us to tears or laughter, inspire us to great deeds or urge us to mob action. Dictionaries are the democratization of that power, and the more words they contain, the more democratic they are. The dictionary is a gigantic armory and toolbox combined, accessible to all. It reflects our preoccupations, collects our cultural knowledge, and gives us adorable pictures of aardvarks, to boot. And it does all this one word at a time.

So there, Jim.

* * *

Here’s a sign I saw the other day, created by someone who didn’t spend enough time reading real dictionaries before trying write a dictionary entry of their own. It’s at an apartment complex, explaining the renovation work they’re doing:

fake definition for "renovate"

The sign reads:



Let’s skip over the fake pronunciation (and the fact that the whole thing is in ALL CAPS; why do people do that?). They’ve identified renovate as a verb. Good start. And they note that it’s “used with object.” Also good, though in a real dictionary you’d probably say it’s “transitive.” On to the definition. Hmm. Now I’m confused. Are they saying that I can “new roof” my house? Or maybe renovate isn’t actually a verb and “a renovate” is “new siding”?

Tip for aspiring dictionary entry writers: when you’re defining a verb, your definitions should describe actions. Here’s Johnson’s definition from 1755: “To renew; to restore to the first state.” No siding involved.

I know: it’s not supposed to be a useful dictionary entry, and most people who see the thing won’t be terribly familiar with dictionaries or parts of speech, either. But still. Perhaps (inspired by the suggested activities for National Grammar Day and National Punctuation Day) I should get some spray paint and go out Sunday morning to “renovate” the sign in the name of Noah Webster.*


This is a joke. I do not suggest, endorse, or condone such vandalism.

Link: Word of the Week: Scofflaw

Scofflaw was invented for a contest to create a new word to shame drinkers during Prohibition
Oct 132011

I’ve been meaning to write about scofflaw myself ever since I overheard the story of its origin on an episode of Ken Burns’s Prohibition that I wasn’t actually watching, but now I don’t have to, because Nancy Friedman beat me to it. In case you didn’t see/hear the same show, the word was invented for a contest to create a new word to shame drinkers during Prohibition.

Colds, collops, and meldrops: Bill’s Head snivels

Bill catches a cold and discusses some cold-related words
Oct 032011
Photo by Jen Waller

Though I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, I seem to be drawn to Scandinavian and Icelandic detective fiction, and I’ve been working my way through the Swedish Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell.* Last week I started the seventh book in that series, One Step Behind, and within the first two paragraphs read this passage:

…the dampness had nonetheless seeped through his clothing. He felt a sudden flash of anger. He didn’t want to catch a cold. Not now, not in the middle of summer.

Come on: it’s the 21st century (well, it was still the late 20th when the book was written, but still). Don’t we all know that viruses cause colds, not damp weather? In typical Bill fashion I was getting all annoyed at Henning Mankell for propagating an old wives’ tale–I even highlighted the passage and added a cranky annotation (yay, Kindle!)–but then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he as the author knows better even if his character does not.
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