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Ask Language Log: -er vs. -or

From Matthew Yglesias:

A few of us at work were talking about why it's adviser and protester but professor and and auditor and after bullshitting around for 10 minutes I thought "maybe I should ask a linguist." Have you ever blogged on this?

I don't think that we have, though you can find well-informed discussions elsewhere, e.g. here or here/here. The executive summary is that -er is (originally) Germanic while -or is (basically) Latin, often via French.

But this doesn't help much with the particular examples you cite, since all four words are from Latin via French. Like most things about English morphology and spelling, the full answer is complicated, and also more geological than logical. But the OED seems to have the whole story — lifted from the depths of the discussion, the key point is that

Many derivatives [formed with -er as an agentive suffix] existed already in Old English, and many more have been added in the later periods of the language. In modern English they may be formed on all vbs., excepting some of those which have [Latin- or French-derived] agent nouns ending in -or, and some others for which this function is served by ns. of different formation (e.g. correspond, correspondent). The distinction between -er and -or as the ending of agent nouns is purely historical and orthographical.

For a (much) longer treatment — you have been warned — press onward.

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According to Merriam-Webster, a weasel is

: a small animal that has a thin body and brown fur and that eats small birds and other animals
: a dishonest person who cannot be trusted

It's the second sense — and the alliteration with winner — that leads a local sports talk radio show to offer "winner of the week and weasel of the week" pseudo-awards. The  Watcher of Weasels web site similarly has a "weasel of the week" award:

Every Tuesday, the Council nominates some of the slimiest, most despicable characters in public life for some deed of evil, cowardice or corruption they’ve performed. Then we vote to single out one particular Weasel for special mention, to whom we award the statuette of shame, our special, 100% plastic Golden Weasel.

But a couple of days ago, I saw something in the Daily Pennsylvanian that made me wonder whether there's some semantic bleaching going on, washing out the implications of dishonesty, evil, cowardice, and corruption, and thereby leaving weasel as nothing more than mildly derogatory epithet.

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Bakugai ("explosive buying"): Japanese word of the year nominee

The tension is building.  On Tuesday, December 1, the Japanese Word of the Year for 2015 ( will be chosen from among a list of 50 nominees.  It's a good group, with each of the nominees having intrinsic character and worthy credentials.  In this post, however, the focus is on just one of the more interesting candidates:  bakugai 爆買い ("explosive buying").

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Difficult Taiwanese characters

[This is a guest post by Michael Cannings]

This brief news segment features a poster with a lot of interesting points packed into three short lines of text. The billboard is a traffic safety announcement by police in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.

[Screengrab with most of the text visible]

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Scots words for snow

Several people have sent this in: "Scots 'have 421 words' for snow", BBC News 9/23/2015:

Academics have officially logged 421 terms – including "snaw" (snow), "sneesl" (to begin to rain or snow) and "skelf" (a large snowflake).

The study by the University of Glasgow is part of a project to compile the first Historical Thesaurus of Scots, which is being published online.

The research team have also appealed for people to send in their own words.

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New discovery in English historical lexicography

A retired lecturer in medieval history, Dr Paul Booth, has discovered a reference in a 1310 court record to a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele, and he believes it really does mean that the man was known as Roger Fuck-By-The-Navel, the surname (possibly a nickname given by enemies) actually meaning "fuck via the belly button", so this may be the earliest known use of the verb fuck in its sexual sense.

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In a couple of weeks, Pope Francis will be visiting Philadelphia, and the associated security precautions are basically shutting down the city and the region around it.

Major area roads and bridges will be closed, and a "traffic box" will exclude all incoming vehicles in the central part of the city, with on-street parking banned for up to a week in advance. Most regional rail stations will be closed, and "ONLY customers traveling with either a Special One Day Regional Rail Pass or Special One Day Regional Rail Reduced Fare Pass, with the name of the station stamped on the back, will be eligible to travel" from those stations that are open. Many subway and trolley stations will be closed, and because these will include all of the stations in the central city area, transfer between the major east-west and north-south lines will be impossible.

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His hemp-devoted head

So I was reading about the Alien Friends Act, and in James Morton Smith, "The Enforcement of the Alien Friends Act of 1798", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 1954, I stumbled on a quotation from "The Political Green-House, for the year 1798", which with a bit of extra context runs like this:

Lo! now too dismal forms* draw nigh,
And cloud the Jacobinic sky,
While awful Justice lours around,
And Law's loud thunders rock the ground.
Each factious alien shrinks with dread,
And hides his hemp-devoted head;
While Slander's foul seditious crew,
With gnashing teeth retire from view.

* The Alien, and Sedition Law.

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In the online newspaper, Politico, Jules Johnston has an article about new German words coined by youth:

"In the words of young Germans, just ‘merkeln’ " (8/3/15)

The German dictionary manufacturer Langenscheidt came up with the idea seven years ago to create a list of new words and expressions invented by teens by selecting the “Jugendwort” (Youth Word of the Year). And since then, young Germans have been invited to submit terms to an online board.

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Softy Calais goes ballistic…

Calais in north-western France, and Kent in south-eastern England, have been experiencing weeks of extraordinary chaos. Thousands of desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East are fighting to get into the Eurotunnel depot where they think they might be able to stow away on trucks that will make the train journey through the tunnel to the immensely desirable destination of Great Britain. The British think the Calais local authorities and the French government have been making only desultory efforts to prevent the migrants from clogging the approach roads, breaching the security fences, delaying train departures, and causing side effects like 24-hour traffic jams on the M20 freeway in Kent. So the headline writers at The Sun went to work, with feghoot based on a song from Mary Poppins:

Softy Calais goes ballistic… Frenchies are atrocious!

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Stepping stones

From Jerry Clough:

Apropos of nothing in particular I noted that the Wikipedia article on what I call "stepping stones" is called "step-stone bridge".  

I assumed that this was yet another Americanism, but I can't find it in dictionaries here, or any uses of this and related terms using Google ngrams. The useful reference on the Wikipedia article is a glossary of trail terms and only contains "stepping stones".  

I wondered if you, or perhaps Language Log readers, could shed any light on what to me looks suspiciously like a neologism.

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The OED has not yet held a Word Induction Ceremony for derp, nor has that word risen above the noise floor in the Google Books ngram viewer. But the current Google News index estimates 36,200 results for derp, and only a few of them are references to the California Independent System Operators' Distributed Energy Resource Provider (DERP) initiative.

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"Salacious but iffy?"

In the Washington Post recently, Michael Miller covered the life and death of James Jeffrey Bradstreet, a doctor with controversial ideas about causes and treatments of autism ("Anti-vaccine doctor behind ‘dangerous’ autism therapy found dead. Family cries foul.". 6/29/2015). The treatments Bradstreet favored included intravenous secretin, "intravenous immunogloblin" [sic],  chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and stem cell therapy.

The reader who sent me the link noticed a strange word choice in the article:

But as the National Enquirer coverage suggests, some of these treatments were salacious but scientifically iffy.

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