Wednesday, January 05, 2005

My latest Tribune language column:
A preview of PBS' Do You Speak American?
temp link/perm.preview

• I was trying to figure out why the month of January, named for the Latin word for "door" or "entry," was not originally the first month of the year. Then I read that the Roman year originally went from March to December--January and February were added later. More:

3. Weird Words: Janus-faced
Having two contrasting aspects.

The name of the Roman god Janus comes from Latin "ianua", an
entrance gate. He was the god of doorways and gateways; as doors
can be passed in either direction, he came to represent both the
past and the future. Because of that, his image was of a man with
two faces, looking both forwards and backwards. The Romans always
put Janus first in prayers, because in particular he symbolised
beginnings. But he could also represent success or failure,
especially in war. He was the god of January, whose name comes from
him (in Latin "Januarius (mensis)", the month of Janus), which had
become the first month of the Roman calendar probably some time in
the second century BCE. A person who is "Janus-faced" has two
contrasting aspects and in particular is two-faced or deceitful.
Israel Zangwill wrote a century ago that "Life is Janus-faced, and
the humourist invests his characters with a double mask; they stand
for comedy as well as for tragedy." A "Janus-faced word" is a
contronym, a word like "cleave" that has two opposing meanings.
-From WW Words/more

Update: From AHD:

A holiday for janitors ought to take place in January, for the two words are linked. In Latin, ianus was the word for "archway, gateway, or covered passage" and also for the god of gates, doorways, and beginnings in general. As many schoolchildren know, our month January - a month of beginnings - is named for the god. Latin ianitor, the source of our word janitor and ultimately also from ianus, meant "doorkeeper or gatekeeper." Probably because ianitor was common in Latin records and documents, it was adopted into English, first being recorded in the sense "doorkeeper" around 1567 in a Scots text. In an early quotation Saint Peter is called "the Janitor of heaven." The term can still mean "doorkeeper," but in Scots usage janitor also referred to a minor school official. Apparently this position at times involved maintenance duties and doorkeeping, but the maintenance duties took over the more exalted tasks, giving us the position of janitor as we know it today.

• Here's a string of words that have probably never been strung together before in the history of the English language. From a spam message I got: "The unusual things do happen sometimes potassium"

• Fun stuff from DTWW:

n. a gift bag or package containing unknown and varied merchandise, sold at
the New Year for a large discount. [From Japanese ? fuku 'good fortune;
luck' + ? fukuro 'bag'] Categories: Japan. Japanese. link

metric butt-load
n. a large but indeterminate quantity. Categories: English. Slang. link

• After reading the books of a couple of linguists, I have a theory that studying other languages can inhibit your rhythm when you write in English. John McWhorter, whom I admire, coins this sentence in his book "Power of Babel": "I still use the Web more when I must than as an ingrained habit." (p.15) (It makes sense, but ...) McWhorter also uses the word "strayest" (p.23); I'd never seen that word before as a comparative.

• Clipped a while back from the Sun-Times' QT:

QT Grammar R Us Seminar on the English Language

News Item: ". . . widespread commercialization is
literally just around the corner. . . ."
News Item: ". . . more tough times are literally just
around the corner. . . ."
News Item: ". . . an eruption is literally just around
the corner. . . ."
News Item: ". . . with a session of the Georgia
General Assembly literally just around the corner. . .."

Be careful next time you walk down the street.

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