Monthly Archives: December 2014

The whale fail

mwdeu2Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is a great book. It’s a hefty, well-researched, non-dogmatic guide to usage debates past and present, and I rely on it a lot.

But there’s a typo on the front cover.

A bit embarrassing to get the name of the book (and the publisher) wrong, so prominently. And it is wrong: on the dust jacket and the inside pages, the hyphen is there.

This reminds me of another book with a hyphen problem: Moby-Dick.

Yes, Herman Melville’s book is called Moby-Dick, with a hyphen. But the whale in the book is called Moby Dick, without one.

Moby-DickNo one knows exactly why this happened. Melville changed the title (from The Whale) at a late stage in production, and perhaps a message got garbled or someone at the publisher’s put a typo on the title page of the first edition. Whatever the cause, the hyphen stuck.

My own theory is that the hyphen that should be on the cover of MWDEU fell through a freak wormhole in the fabric of spacetime and landed on the front of Moby-Dick.

Scraping the sky, raking the moon, tall tales and horseplay

Here are three facts that, taken together, have puzzled me for a while:

  1. Skyscrapers are so called because they are such tall buildings that they scrape the sky.
  2. Scraping is a kind of movement.
  3. Buildings do not move.

So what the hell’s going on?

The answer is that “skyscraper” had earlier meanings, more associated with movement. The OED’s first record of “skyscraper” to mean a tall building is from 1883. But its previous uses had included:

  • a ball hit high into the air (from 1866)
  • a tall man (from 1857)
  • a tall hat or bonnet (from 1800).

But the most common early use of the word seems to have been nautical, meaning a particular kind of sail placed at the very top of a tall mast:

Sky-scrapers. These sails are triangular… The foot spreads half of the royal yards (1794)

Four vessels hove in sight…with…royals and skyscrapers set (1797)

There were studding-sails set aloft and alow; royals, sky-scrapers, and moon-rakers (1803)

James Bond fans take note! Although it turns out that “moonraker” is older and ruder, dating back to 1767 as a term for the natives of Wiltshire. Apparently these witless bumpkins, seeing the moon reflected in a pond, would mistake it for a block of cheese and use rakes to get at it.

But the first known use of “skyscraper” is the name of a racehorse born in 1786. Skyscraper, owned by the fifth Duke of Bedford, won the Epsom Derby in 1789. He was the foal of a racer called Highflyer and later sired another called Skyrocket – all very tall and very fast.

Skyscraper seems to have passed into legend, because by 1826, his name was being used as a general term for a tall horse.

So, from equestrianism and seafaring, “skyscraper” became a byword for something tall. Then, in the late 19th century, when buildings were starting to shoot upwards in American cities, it came easily to mind.

Finally, there’s a more figurative use, to mean a tall tale:

My yarn won’t come so well after your sky-scrapers of love. (1840)

Aren’t words fun?

“Publicly” and “publically”

From time to time I see “publically” in copy. I’ve even caught myself typing it once or twice. It’s widely regarded as a mistake (although some dictionaries now list it as a variant spelling).

But the approved spelling, “publicly”, is a unique oddity. It’s the only adverb ending in “–icly” formed from an adjective that ends in “–ic”. Compare:

  • hectic – hectically
  • tragic – tragically
  • archaic – archaically
  • cryptic – cryptically
  • idiotic – idiotically

And so on. But “public” alone bucks the trend to become “publicly”.

At least, it does most of the time. In the GloWbE corpus (a record of language used on web pages archived in 2012), “publically” is about 6% as common as “publicly”. In the Google Books records, it’s below 1%.

People who write “publically” – whether through momentary carelessness or because they think that’s how it’s spelt – may be mistaken but they’re not stupid. They’re promoting regularity in the language. They’re like children who say “runned” and “buyed” and “bringed” because they’ve worked out the rule for forming past-tense verbs but haven’t realised that there are exceptions.

We get taught about these exceptions, though: there are over 100 irregular verbs, most well-known. But there’s only one “publicly”, so people are less aware of it as an issue and it appears in adult usage far more than over-regularised verbs.

I don’t know why “publicly” is unique, but Pam Peters notes that several adjectives have both “–ic” and “–ical” forms. Some of these pairs have pretty much the same meaning:

  • botanic/botanical
  • geometric/geometrical
  • monarchic/monarchical
  • poetic/poetical
  • rhythmic/rhythmical

Some are subtly different in meaning:

  • comic/comical
  • electric/electrical
  • lyric/lyrical

Others are more significantly different:

  • economic/economical
  • historic/historical
  • politic/political

Peters connects this to the adverb situation:

The parity of adjectives in -ic and -ical helps to explain why the adverbs for both types end in -ically. So, for example, the adverbs for organic and tragic are organically and tragically. Even though the -ical forms of the adjectives have long since disappeared, their ghosts appear in the adverbs. The effect is there even for adjectives which never had a counterpart ending in -ical. So barbaric, basic, civic, drastic and others become barbarically, basically etc., and it’s as if -ally is the adverbial ending for them. This has become the general rule for all adjectives ending in -ic except public, whose adverb is still normally publicly.

This is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us why the adverb forms settled as “–ically” rather than “–icly”.

So I looked at the OED historical citations for the 16 bullet-pointed examples above, and found that for 12 of them, the “–ical” form of the adjective pre-dated the “–ic”. This kind of suggests that, if these pairs were interchangeable at the time (1400s–1600s in most of these cases), the “–ical” forms may have been better established and so had a dominant position when it came to forming adverbs. Hence the “–ically” convention.


But this doesn’t tell us why “publicly” now stands alone. It did appear earlier than most of the other adverbs above; the OED’s first “public” is in 1394 and “publicly” 1534. So maybe it had managed to dig in by the time the “–ically” convention was blossoming? The OED has a couple of “publical”s (one in 1450, one in 1898) but they’re clearly rogue; “public” has always been the only accepted form of the adjective, and this fact may have pushed people towards “publicly”. (“Publically” doesn’t appear until 1797.)

A scrap of support for this theory comes from the fact that “publicly” hasn’t always stood alone. The now-dead “franticly”, which Peters mentions, used to be common. The OED’s first “frantic” was in 1390, “franticly” in 1549 and “frantically” in 1749; it has no record of “frantical”. The situation is very like that of “public” and its derivatives, except that “publicly” has managed to survive regularisation.

So far, at least.