Archive for November, 2014

Graph and gram

November 22, 2014

A telegraph is a device or system for sending written messages over long distances. The technology is called telegraphy, and the printed message itself is a telegram.

If the logic of Greek grammar were to be followed, this kind of relationship would hold in general for compounds in which the final element is derived from the Greek verb γράφειν meaning ‘write.’ But it doesn’t. In the technology called photography, it’s the printed result that’s called a photograph, not the device (which is called a camera).

An epigraph is an inscription, or (in literature) a motto or quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter; an epigram is a short, witty saying or poem.

A radiograph is an x-ray photograph; a radiogram is (in American English) a telegram sent by radio.

A pentagram (or pentacle) is a five-pointed star. The word pentagraph is not found in most dictionaries, but it’s found in Wikipedia and means, by extension from digraph, “a sequence of five letters used to represent a single sound (phoneme), or a combination of sounds, that do not correspond to the individual values of the letters.

The best-known example is the German tzsch, which stands the simple sound /tʃ/ (represented in English by the digraph ch), as in Nietzsche. The usual German way of representing this sound is the tetragraph tsch, itself a combination of t and the trigraph sch representing /ʃ/ (in English the digraph sh).

In French, the pentagraph eaulx is one of the many ways of representing the simple sound /o/ a the end of proper names, as in Meaulx, in addition to the tetragraphs eaux and ault (as in Renault) and numerous trigraphs (auxaudaut) and digraphs (os, ot, od); there are probably others. Sometimes one even finds a simple o, as in the case of the actor Jean Reno. But that would be too simple for French; Jean Reno is originally a Moroccan-born Spaniard named Juan Moreno. (Of course, there are many French people with Italian or Spanish surnames ending in o, like the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, or the current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.)



November 3, 2014

Every so often — too often, alas — I find myself forced to refer to the CIA or the FBI as the Central Incompetence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Incompetence, respectively.

But the government agency that to me represents the ultimate in bureaucratic incompetence has, unfortunately for me, no I in its common designation. I am referring to the California Department of Transportation, commonly known as Caltrans. I have yet to find a derogatory name for it that would properly show what I think of it.

The department’s disastrous mishandling of the rebuilding of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge following the Loma Prieta earthquake (almost exactly 25 years ago!) has been thoroughly documented in a long series of articles by Jaxon Van Derbeken  in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I don’t think I need to dwell on them. What I’d like to write about is the many little ways in which a driver on California’s freeways can be annoyed or inconvenienced by the department’s incompetence. I had thought, at one time, that I would collect a long list and write about its items in one fell swoop. That is impractical; I can’t very well take notes or pictures while driving. So I’m going to do a few at a time. I will begin with three illustrations gleaned from the Web.


report-drunk-driversThis electronic sign is ubiquitous along California’s freeways. What does it mean?

First off, it’s illegal to use one’s mobile phone while driving, so that only passengers can comply with the request. And what does it mean to “report drunk drivers”? Drunk driving is a felony under the law, and one therefore does not become a “drunk driver” unless duly tried and convicted. So what it possibly might mean is, maybe, “seemingly drunk drivers” or something like that. And how is someone in a moving car to determine who seems to be drunk? Obviously weaving might be an indication, but this is very rarely observed. So, all in all, the sign is meaningless at best and confusing at worst.


fractionIt’s nice that the distances to nearby exits are posted on signs. But how is one to use this information? For an engineer there’s of course no problem: we can convert ordinary fractions to decimal ones in a flash, and use the odometer. But this is an example of what the linguist Geoff Pullum has called nerdview, characterized by the way that “people with any kind of technical knowledge of a domain tend to get hopelessly (and unwittingly) stuck in a frame of reference that relates to their view of the issue, […] not that of the ordinary humans with whom they so signally fail to engage.” Odometers, of course, register only decimal fractions of miles, but a great many people are not able to convert ordinary to decimal fractions in a matter of seconds, and so signs like the one above are useless to them. Not to mention that other distances are sometimes shown as 500 or 1000 or 2000 feet!


interchangeHere we are on an eastbound street and are told that to take the southbound freeway we need to be in the right lane in order to make a right turn. Great! To take the northbound freeway, we go straight. But then what? If the interchange is a cloverleaf, we would need to turn right and therefore stay in the rightmost lane that goes under the overpass. If, on the other hand, it’s a diamond, we would need to turn left and therefore be in the leftmost lane. In most cases we don’t find this out until we are very close to the on-ramp. Note that there no markings on the roadway, only the overhead sign. And often (I have no picture to illustrate this now, but I’ll try to find one) the road is a curving one so that the lane that the sign appears to be over is not the one that it refers to.

Silly, niggling things, aren’t they? But they show a culture of not doing the work competently.

More in future posts.