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UPDATE. August 19: We are up and running again, if you don’t count that humongous dead tree lying across the front yard (deposited by a subsequent storm) and various other problems. The August Issue will be posted within the next few days.


Due to the 80 mph wind that blew down one of the power poles on our land, thereby pulling down several trees and ripping the power feeder cable from the side of the house, there will be a slight delay in our July Issue. At the moment, it’s 100+ degrees F in the house, we have no electricity, no water (well pump doesn’t run on wishes), no a/c, no tv and no computers. They say it may be another 4-5 days until it’s fixed, but with more storms coming, that may be optimistic.

Everyone else on our road now has power. Life not fair. We have lost all the food in our freezer and fridge (~$400), so donations to our storm fund (aka subscriptions) are much appreciated.

(posted from Panera Bread, where I bought a consolation bear claw.)


June 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


And you may ask yourself What happened to the month of May?

And you may say, This is not my beautiful May Issue of The Word Detective!

And you may say, No, seriously, this is supposed to be a monthly deal! I’m paying to read this on my Kindle!

And I say, Mea culpa. You really wanna know what happened? OK, but after the jump.

Meanwhile, I did finally finish reading the 10,000-page opus 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (on my little Nook, with the font jacked up to 72 points). My one-word review: incompetent. Boy howdy, what a waste. A real shame. And I’m still annoyed at this dead goat of a book. Then again, I’m not alone. I just really wish I’d read this (major spoilers) before I wasted my time and retinas. Ho, ho, ho.

What else? Well, Google+ is pretty definitively kaput as far as I can tell. Frankly, they made it so difficult for non-heavy-hitters to play that I’m not gonna miss ’em. Keep your dumb old API read-only, see if I care.

On the bright side, I’m here to say that I was wrong about Twitter. Someone recently tweeted (still hate that verb) that signing up for the service was like seeing “mastheads come to life,” which is a good way of putting it. I follow mostly writers, editors and  journalists, and often see pointers to great stuff to read online that I otherwise would have missed. I’m also a fan of accounts like @pourmecoffee, @kenjennings and the late, all too  brief @NotTildaSwinton. I know it was actually just two guys without jobs, but … maybe it really was Tilda. Come back, Tilda. Your Tildren miss you, and we miss your wisdom:

A mission for you. Go outside, hold an animal to your breast. That is real warmth, not the glow of your screen. I typed this on a rabbit.

Or maybe not. I guess wherever you are they don’t have biting flies.

Speaking of biting flies, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent brouhaha occasioned by the decision by The New Yorker to commission a review of Henry Hitchings’ new book “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by their, um, dance critic, Joan Acocella (who may be a fine dance critic but, in this case, has literally no grasp whatsoever of the subject she’s writing about). What, as they say on the internet, could possibly go wrong? A lot, in fact, and Steven Pinker summed it up nicely thus:

Not since Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings.

Language Log was, of course, there for the ensuing dustup, and a good place to start, for those with lots of spare time and a desire to understand the ruckus, would be here. By the way, my father, William Morris, is mentioned early on in Ms. Aocella’s jeremiad. I’m fairly certain that he would not have been amused by her hallucinations.

So here’s the June Issue, which contains 18 columns (rather than the usual 12 or so) to make up for my tardiness. And thanks to all the folks who have contributed by subscribing lately. It would be awesome if more of you folks did. But it would also be great if you’d just send in some questions, since they are, after all, the raw material I need to run this circus, and the more I have the easier it is.

And now a depressing explanation of where the May Issue went:

Continue reading this post » » »


It’s not all that “Fancy” anyway. Tastes like Spam.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve been wondering how “bent,” as in “He has a philosophical bent” came to be, as opposed to just calling it a “bend.” Can you offer anything? — Dalton.

Hmm. Hey, how about a nice cat? Everybody likes cats. And, after a while, they bring out your philosophical bent, even if you never thought you had one. There you’ll be, sitting in your cold, dark house, impoverished by vet bills, shunned by friends who have just developed convenient allergies, with both your furniture and your future in tatters. At that moment, when all seems lost, you’ll pause, muse philosophically, and realize that you still have a prize more precious than gold — the knowledge that you have made one small, furry creature very happy. Because it just won a coin flip with you for the last can of Fancy Feast.

Oh, you meant something useful about “bent.” Yeah, no problemo. “Bent” in the sense that you use it in your example is simply a noun formed from the common verb “to bend.” In this sense we use “bent” to mean “mental inclination or tendency; disposition; propensity, bias” (Oxford English Dictionary), as in “Henry was of a numismatic bent, and spent every day collecting coins and bills; it was several years before the police discovered he was getting them from his neighbors’ houses.” As an adjective, “bent” in this sense means “determined to follow a certain course of action or to pursue a certain goal” (“Despite the intense lightning, Trevor was bent on finishing the tennis game, and eventually triumphed over his opponent, the late Victor Nubbin of Dover”).

The story of “bend” goes back to its Germanic root, which was “band” or “bandjan.” This root produced a number of other English words, including “band,” “bind,” “bond” and “bundle,” all of which carry the general sense of “tying something up.” And so, at first, did the English verb “to bend.” In Old English (as “bendan”), and initially in English, “to bend” meant to bind or constrain something very tightly (usually with a “bend,” the noun form then meaning “bond, shackles, fetters, etc.”).

The question that I’m sure has occurred to you by now (because all my readers are of a logical bent) is “So how did this word ‘to bend,’ meaning ‘tie up tightly’ ever come to mean ‘to form into a curve’?” Good question. It appears that, early in the word’s evolution in English, the sense of “to bind tightly” was applied to the process of stringing an archer’s bow, which requires considerable strength and results, of course, in the bow assuming a curved shape. Thus, to cause other things to take the curved shape of a strung bow became to “bend” them and they were thenceforth described as “bent” (the past participle of “to bend”). This sense of “bent” was eventually broadened to include things that were of any arched, angular or crooked shape, not just the gentle curve of a bow, and today “to bend” can apply to any deviation of a thing from its usual axis, such as when we “bend” our knees to pick up something from the floor. “Bend” is also a perfectly fine noun, commonly used to mean a turn or fold in something, such as “a bend in the river.”

Interestingly, the origin of “to bend” in stringing a bow gave us another sense of the word as well, “to bend” meaning “to direct one’s thoughts, energies or actions toward something.” This sense reflects an earlier sense of “to bend” meaning “to aim a weapon,” reflecting the “bending” of a bow to fire an arrow. It is this “directing one’s thoughts and energies” sense of the verb “to bend” that produced the noun “bent” in the sense of “mental inclination or bias.”

The noun “bend” was also briefly used, beginning in the 16th century, to mean “a turn of mind or inclination,” just as we use “bent” today, but that sense of “bend” eventually became obsolete and “bent” took over its job. The reasons “bent” won out over “bend” in meaning “inclination” are a bit hazy, but it seems that “bent” in this sense with its terminal “t” was formed on the model of other English nouns drawn from verbs of Latin or French origin, e.g., “to descend” produced the noun “descent,” “extend” gave us “extent,” etc.

So there’s really no compelling logical reason why we use “bent” for “inclination” instead of “bend.” That’s just the way it turned out, and today we speak of a politician’s larcenous “bent” as he “bends” the ethical rules.