« previous post | next post »

Sometimes more is less. In Frazz for 6/6/2011, Caulfield is frustrated that Mrs. Olsen is among those who think that the first syllable of penultimate is some kind of emphatic particle:

It's hard for a kid in school to learn the value of diplomacy:

Mrs. Olsen is apparently not as dumb as she sometimes seems — though the direction of the difference is always in doubt:

For example, here:


  1. Alacritas said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 6:45 am

    My favorite is definitely the last one. The punchline is perfect!

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:02 am

    "Frazz" similarly warned of the perils of permissivism back in 2006. Then it had to do with the word sauna, which Frazz said was supposed to be pronounced /ˈsaʊnə/.

  3. Ian Angus said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    In the song "Have some madeira, m'dear," the great British team Flanders and Swann managed to use the word "antepenultimate."

    Now THAT's a word that is unlikely to get absorbed into the language, in its original meaning or any other.

  4. Gary said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    The classicists for whom antepenultimate is a technical term always shorten it to antepenult.

  5. Aviv said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    I'll always remember the meaning of the word thanks to Monty Python's "Michaelangelo and the Pope" sketch.

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:45 am

    Linguists in general are familiar with the word. Note that one of the uses in the Merriam Webster of Usage linked in the post is for "ante-penultimate"!

  7. Trimegistus said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    I expect regular readers of this 'blog have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. How old were you the first time you knew a word your teacher didn't?

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    "It is the duty of the student
    Without exception to be prudent.
    If smarter than his teacher, tact
    Demands that he conceal the fact."

    I remember the teacher I first corrected (I now get corrected at the blackboard all the time), but I don't remember realizing that a teacher didn't know a word I used.

  9. linda seebach said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    And the syllable before that is the pro-ante-penult. My Greek professor used antepenult as the noun, to distinguish it from antepenultimate as the adjective. (Which self-referentially illustratrates the shift in syllabic emphasis it describes.)

  10. Bernie said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Well, I hope they who insist on the correct pronunciation of sauna also use the proper plural saunat, and not that uncultured saunas.

  11. Adrian said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    To me, in the first frame of the cartoon it looks like the kid thinks that it's the last week of the school year, misuses the word, and the teacher, realising this, puts the kid straight on his dates. (Of course the second frame shows my interpretation to be wrong.)

  12. JL said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    Perhaps this is the place to broach something that's been bothering me for some time: the word 'epicenter'. (Then again, perhaps it isn't the place, but…)

    My understanding is that the prefix 'epi' means 'above', 'on top of', or 'next to', and that the reason why a place is referred to as the 'epicenter' of an earthquake is simply that quakes happen underground. An 'epiphenomenon' is a phenomenon which follows on, and is an outgrowth of, another.

    And yet people consistently, I daresay almost universally , use 'epicenter' to mean 'the very center', or 'the 'center of the center' — using 'epi', that is, as "a sort of emphatic particle" — when in fact it means quite the opposite: 'next to, or some measurable distance away from the center'.

    The OED is somewhat vague and terse about this, and I almost never bother to correct people. But inside, I seethe, briefly. So, am I wrong about either the meaning or the (mis)use?

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    @JL: Dr. Zwicky discussed epicenter at

  14. army1987 said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    I remember a time where among about eight people in a room, I and the only other non-native English speaker were the only two people to know the word anti-penultimate.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    @army1987: I'm confused. What would it mean to be opposed to the next-to-last?

  16. Thor Lawrence said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    army1987, did they know the word ante-penultimate? ;>}

  17. JL said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    With all due respect to Prof. Zwicky, I disagree with him, if only out of respect for heuristics — which is, after all, how many of us suss out the meaning of unfamiliar words. Someone who believes that the epicenter is the true center would be justified in thinking that an epiphenomenon is the most important phenomenon; that the epidermis is the central layer of skin; or — god help them — that an epithalamium is meant to be sung within the bridal chamber, rather than outside the door.

  18. Nelida said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    @army1987: You are so right. In Spanish (which is my native language) the use of ultimate, penultimate and antepenultimate is commonplace and nobody gives it a second thought. BTW, no hyphens are necessary to separate the prefix "ante" from "penultimate".

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    @JL: The ones I know are concerted effort (by one person), epicenter, foreshorten, penultimate, quantum jump/leap, quintessential, and sea change. I have a tendency to seethe too, though the OED says quintessence has meant "the most essential part" since the 16th century, so I think we could call that one established.

  20. Mark F. said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    I don't think the metaphorical use of epicenter comes from any notion that "epi" must mean "exact". People just know that the epicenter is some kind of central point for an earthquake, so that there is a lot of shaking there and less as you get farther away. That's a very good metaphor for things like social revolutions that began in a particular place. This is not a case of an error being legitimized by frequent usage; rather, the objection to it is an over-literal interpretation of a metaphor.

    The same thing applies to quantum leap. The property of it that made it a good metaphor was its discontinuity, not its absolute size.

  21. davep said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    Adrian "To me, in the first frame of the cartoon it looks like the kid thinks that it's the last week of the school year, misuses the word, and the teacher, realising this, puts the kid straight on his dates. (Of course the second frame shows my interpretation to be wrong.)"

    It's weirder than that. The teacher is assuming that the student was "not smart enough" and was using the word the wrong meaning. Thus, the student's attempt at convincing the teacher he was smart enough was doomed to fail.

  22. davep said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    Of course, you have to wait until the third strip to get that. (And then the last frame puts it back into doubt!)

  23. Kylopod said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    I wish I'd had teachers this openminded.

  24. Mr. Spider said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    If the antepenultimate is third-to-last, would the antipenultimate be second?

  25. army1987 said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    @Nadia: I just put the hyphen in to make my spell checker contented. (It's set to English / United Kingdom, FWiW). (Same reason why I put the space in "spell checker". :-))

  26. army1987 said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    @Robert Coren: that'd be third-last.

  27. Rubrick said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    I now feel the need to start using the term "postpenultimate".

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    @Mark F.: I don't have any facts to dispute your history of epicenter with, but people do use it when I can see no metaphorical connection with earthquakes. For instance, 'LaHood calls Wichita "epicenter" of aviation industry'. This isn't "exact center" either. Maybe it's just a fancy way of saying "center".

    In quantum jump the discontinuity is indicated by jump. If I'm not mistaken, quantum originally meant that the change in energy, instead of being able to take on any value as in classical physics, had fixed values. The usages of quantum jump that I categorized with epicenter are those where you could just say jump:

    "With Agustín Yáñez's Al filo del agua, called a 'landmark' effort, the novel in Mexico took a quantum jump into a respected place in the main channel of modern literature."

    (If that's enough metaphors for you.)

    Walter Langford, The Mexican Novel Comes of Age

    What the locutions on my list have in common, I think, is that the first word or morpheme originally had a specific meaning, but now is sometimes taken to be merely an intensifier or decoration.

  29. old_maltese said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    @ JL: (A) you're right, and (B) if Ray LaHood uses it differently, one couldn't ask for better proof.

  30. JL said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

    @Jerry Friedman and Mark F.: Indeed, one of the first hits one gets on Google for "epicenter" is for the "Epicenter Athletic Club" in Seattle, Washington. Unless they're trying to suggest that it's one hell of a gym (and judging from their website, it doesn't look like an especially strenuous place, with dropped weights shaking the floor and so on…) I doubt even a metaphorical association with earthquakes was on their minds. It seems they just thought 'epicenter' was an especially exact or emphatic word for 'center'.

    As I say, this bothers me not because I'm a stickler for 'correct' meaning as such, but because, if things like prefixes and suffixes aren't used in accord with some kind of rule, it becomes much more difficult to guess at the meanings of words which are otherwise unfamiliar. 'Epi-' is not a perfect example of this, just because there aren't so many words that use it as a prefix, but in any case, it's not correctness that I'm after, it's consistency. And while I'm sure English is rife with such inconsistencies, (the 'in' in 'inflammable' doesn't mean the same thing as the 'in' in 'inexact'), it seems needlessly complicated and counter-productive to let such things multiply.

    Imagine, for example, if it became common for 'prototype' to mean, not the first of its kind, but the most typical of its kind. It would then be very difficult for someone, happening upon the word 'protoplasm' for the first time, to even begin to figure out what it might mean.

    [(myl) This is difficult. "Prototype" does often mean "the most typical of its kind". Probably you knew that, and were being ironic. But just in case, I'll note that the wikipedia entry for Prototype Theory says:

    The term prototype has been defined in Eleanor Rosch's study "Natural Categories" (1973) and was first defined as a stimulus, which takes a salient position in the formation of a category as it is the first stimulus to be associated with that category. Later, she redefined it as the most central member of a category.

    And if you search Google Scholar for Prototype Theory, the first hit is a book chapter by Daniel Osherson and Edward Smith, "On the Adequacy of Prototype Theory as a Theory of Concepts", which defines "prototype" in such a way that "the closer an object is to its prototype, the more characteristic it is of the concept". This has been standard usage in cognitive psychology for more than 30 years — models of Prototype Theory often involve defining the Prototype as some kind of weighted average of exemplars.]

  31. Steve Morrison said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    Well, I am a stickler for correct meanings. In fact, I am the penultimate prescriptivist.

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    JL, I share your peevism (though I try to keep mine internal and I don't confuse my peeve with actual "correctness"), but there's a couple of things wrong with your analysis.

    First, etymology doesn't determine meaning. Yeah, it's true that these Greek (and Latin) prefixes and such are widely found in English and have a modestly consistent meaning in English; and, true, many people know what the prefixes mean in the Classical languages. But, nevertheless—and I'd be interested in hearing an Actual Linguist's authoritative statement on this—but this sort of thing is true for most words, yes? That they're formed from roots and such that make it seem as if one can discern their meanings from their construction and etymology…but, of course, that has a limited usefulness and will lead one badly astray in many, many cases.

    Personally, as one who studied Homeric and Attic Greek in college, I'm pretty sensitive to this sort of thing but I try to keep a perspective on it.

    Second, the demand for consistency in language usage is quixotic insofar as one imagines language to act like some kind of formal system and, more to the point, that one's demand for consistency has any practical effect whatsoever other than annoying the hell out of the people of whom one makes such demands.

    People do somewhat learn the meanings of new words from things as similarity and recognized roots and such; but I feel fairly certain that the vast majority of what people learn about the meanings of new words comes from context and generalizing about experienced usage by others. I daresay that it's only the more analytically-inclined personalities, a minority, who will rely heavily on, well, such constructive analysis.

  33. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    Well, I am a stickler for correct meanings. In fact, I am the penultimate prescriptivist.

    There's a novel in there, somewhere.

  34. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    My second-grade teacher, in a classroom demonstration of the power of silent e, told us that adding an e onto the end of the word "quit" produced "quiet". She had kids standing up in front with cards with letters on them (the e was on a top hat, as befitting its magical powers), and said that the word they were spelling was "quiet" when anyone could see it was "quite". There was, I recall, some muttered protest from the crowd, but she soldiered on.

    I've often wondered about that incident since then. She was, generally speaking, an awful teacher. In this case, either she genuinely didn't know how the word was spelled, or she wanted to make a little joke (she described "quiet" as "her favorite word," as she often bellowed it at us in class) and just didn't care that she had to give us wrong information to make the punchline work. I don't think she intended to provoke us to correct her as a teachable moment, since some of us tried to do it and she ignored us.

    The interesting thing is, few people who I tell this anecdote believe it happened as described.

  35. Aviatrix said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    In the run up to the turn of the millennium I managed to combine two peeves to admirable effect by declaring in appropriate contexts that "1999 was the penultimate year of the 20th century." No one ever disagreed. Those who can't understand why each a century starts with a year ending in one and ends in a year ending in zero have never learned what penultimate means, either.

  36. Hermann Burchard said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    This LL blog meme has no German analog.

    In German "penultimate syllable" is "vorletzte Silbe", "antepenultimate" is "drittletzte", I was reminded — hate to admit reliance on Google translate. Do recall we might say "vor-vorletzte," We do have "ultimativ" for "ultimate" but mainly in diplomacy when thinking about ultimatums.

    So, the cartoon in German becomes a joke, it cannot be rendered.

    This goes back to an 18th century movement, continued in the 19th, to replace Latin and Greek roots by German, the term was "eindeutschen" (prefix "ein" meaning "into", not "one"). Of course, scientific vocabulary remained full of Latin, Greek roots, but these all used to be considered Fremdwörter, foreign words, still are: Langenscheidt has an online foreign word dictionary Fremdwörterbuch.

  37. Craig Russell said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 1:22 am


    But I see the process working like this:

    1. The word epicenter is coined by scientists to describe the center of an earthquake.
    2. The word enters the public consciousness through reporting on earthquakes.
    3. The word is applied metaphorically in other situations that resemble earthquakes by affecting a large area, but being identifiable as having radiated from a central point.
    4. As the metaphorical use becomes more common on its own, it is felt less and less as a metaphor and more as a primary meaning of the word.

    So which of these steps is it that's objectionable? Ironically, the etymology of the word 'center' (Greek kentron) shows a similar evolutionary path:

    1. Kentron originally means the sharp pointy end of a long narrow object like a cattle prod.
    2. As the science of geometry develops, the language of everyday objects is borrowed to describe mathematical concepts. Because a compass is used to draw a circle, and because the 'center' of the circle it identified by the sharp, pointy end of the compass that the other end is rotated around, the word 'kentron' gets used to mean the exact middle of a circle.
    3. The word is applied metaphorically in other situations, etc.

    This is just how language works. I suppose what you're really objecting to with 'epicenter' is that, with this new extended use, the meaning of 'epi' becomes impossible to analyze, or liable to be mis-analyzed (though has this actually happened with epi and epicenter? Has epi become productive as a prefix meaning "exact"?). But (1) this consideration is unlikely to actually affect people's language use, and (2) you could say the same thing about plenty of other epi words, e.g. episode, episcopal, epilepsy.

    In any case, old (Greek/Latin) roots being re-analyzed and becoming productive with new etymologically unsupportable meanings is nothing new: witness 'metro' now meaning 'city', 'meta' now meaning "self-aware", etc. Do these bother you too?

    (Having said all that, I will admit that I too have peeves that are not logically defensible; for some reason 'alright' instead of 'all right' really bugs me, despite the fact that (1) it's commonly used and has been for at least a century, and (2) I'm not bothered by already, altogether, although, etc.)

  38. Craig Russell said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 1:29 am

    @Hermann Burchard

    This one movement has made academic German so much more difficult for Anglophone scholars to read! I can't count the number of times I've had to look up a monstrous German compound only to discover that it is this kind of recreation of a Latinate word that would have been transparent and easy to guess in e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, etc. I wonder if this fact also makes English/French/Spanish/Italian scholarship more difficult for Germans to read?

  39. Hermann Burchard said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 2:41 am

    @Craig Russell

    Great question, sorry about the trouble! And I know what you are talking about: I gave German tests to our PhD students — poor kids, it's tough: "Stetige Funktion" is "continuous function," not "steady function." At least "Funktion" is an easy translate.

    But traditionally perhaps for this very reason, educated Germans learn several foreign languages in Gymnasium. Nowadays, Germans publish maths in English predominantly.

    I had English, Latin, Greek, not French (I skipped French which was optional, an hour early "Frühklasse"). Learnt French later along with the maths from Nicolas Bourbaki, the famed maths consortium. Now read newspapers online in French, Italian — for the latter I need Google translate all the time, also Dutch, Danish, Spanish when the occasion arises. I learnt Spanish in my first, failed banking career taking special courses. One of my bank supervisors was appalled that I didn't know enough French to converse with a French bank on the teletype.

    My dad read several languages. His Sunday morning paper was Politiken, leading Danish daily. Distraught about my poor English grades, he gave me an English novel to read over the summer, which I read in one sitting, looking up a mere handfull of words in the dictionary. Thereafter my grades went up.

  40. maidhc said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 2:57 am

    Aviatrix: There are, though, people who believe that the calendar is a totally artificial construct which attempts to combine two unrelated phenomena, the earth's rotation time and its orbital period, and to make it work out right, seconds, days and weeks and months have been put into it or removed from it over the years. From that point of view, having a century with only 99 years in it, in order to make the other centuries work in a logical fashion, is hardly worse than the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582.

  41. maidhc said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 3:16 am

    Irish has an interesting take on this. inné is "yesterday" and arú inné is "the day before yesterday". amárach is "tomorrow" and arú amárach is "the day after tomorrow". arú doesn't exist as a stand-alone word.

  42. AS said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 5:19 am

    @army1987 – You still don't understand. They are referring to your mistaken usage of the prefix 'anti', which generally means 'opposed to, against'; the proper spelling (no hyphen necessary) is 'antepenultimate'. The prefix used in this case (ante) derives from Latin 'before'.

  43. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 6:31 am

    1. The word epicenter is coined by scientists to describe the center of an earthquake.

    No, the scientists coined a word to describe the point on the surface of the Earth directly above the point within the Earth where lies the center of an Earthquake.

  44. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 6:33 am

    @Craig Russell, do you understand from my previous comment that epicenter does not describe "the center of an earthquake" and that's precisely why some people object to its usage as "the center of something"?

  45. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    a few years ago (I think some time in mid-2005) the magazine New Scientist had a correction of their misuse in an earlier edition of 'epicentre': they had printed that the recent quake's "epicentre was 10 kilometers below the surface"

  46. Aidan Kehoe said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    ‘Epithelium’ was a bit of a confusing word for me; etymologically it means ‘that which is on top of the nipple.’ In my experience the best way to define it would actually be something like ‘mammalian tissue that stains positive for keratin.’ And ‘endothelium’ … has even less relation to nipples.

  47. JL said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    @myl: I didn't know that, actually — that 'prototype' is often used to mean 'typical' rather than 'first', so I'm afraid the irony is on me, rather than from me. Which just goes to show you…something.

    @Almost everyone else: I, like everyone, have peeves, but this isn't one of them; and, as I said, I very rarely 'correct' people. Nor do I 'demand' consistency. It's just that it seems to me mildly unwise to promote inconsistency beyond necessity. Put it this way: I myself don't use 'epicenter' to mean 'the exact center'. I'm occasionally taken aback when other people do. I'm not sure whether the people who do are ignorant of the actual meaning, or if their use has, in fact, become the actual meaning.

  48. Dan T. said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    If I had to guess at the meaning of the prefix "epi-", I'd probably put it as meaning something like "event", as in "episode" (I don't know what "-sode" means, though). Then "epicenter" would be the center of an event.

    My own continued peeving over people using .com domains for noncommercial websites fits into the category of not liking prefixes and suffixes to be used in a manner that breaks their etymological meaning.

  49. Mark F. said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    An earthquake that is triggered underground will create shaking on the surface. On average, the point directly above the origin of the earthquake will be the center that surface shaking. Viewing an earthquake in terms of its surface effects, the epicenter is a pretty good proxy for the center of surface-level vibration.

    So the only thing wrong about what Craig Russell said was his description in step 1. It still makes sense as a metaphor for a center of activity, and then the other steps he describes follow naturally.

    This isn't to say that every time someone uses 'epicenter' it's a good word choice.

  50. Craig Russell said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    Sorry, all, for not being careful with my wording. Please amend "center of an earthquake" to "place on the earth's surface above the center of an earthquake".

    Now that I think about this distinction more carefully, I realize — and perhaps this is part of the objection — that the word "earthquake" itself is used in two very slightly different senses: scientifically, it is used to describe the shifting of the tectonic plates and all that, and looks at the world three-dimensionally, as activity beneath the surface of the earth radiates out and affects the earth above it. But in common speech, when we talk about an earthquake, we see it two-dimensionally, as a disturbance on the surface that affects a certain area; we rarely spend much time focusing on the subterranean aspect of it.

    From this point of view, 'epicenter' can easily blend into 'center'; I imagine that from a popular point of view, knowing the epicenter is generally relevant with reference to the area where the damage was greatest. Anyway, sorry I wasn't addressing JL's original complaint clearly enough.

  51. Steve Morrison said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    The odd thing about the "epicenter" example is that the underground point where the earthquake originates isn't called the center. Instead, it's called the hypocenter.

  52. JL said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    @Steve Morrison: Very odd — though I see you're right — since the OED lists the prefix 'hypo' as meaning 'below' or 'under', hence "sometimes antithetical to terms in epi-".

    So if the epicenter is above the center, and the hypocenter is (etymologically, if not in actual usage) below it, then where's the damn quake?

  53. David Margolies said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    My English History teacher complained to my father that I corrected him in class. My father asked for an example, and the teacher said he had told the class 'if you get on a boat at the Houses of Parliament (in London) and sail to Hampton Court, you pass the Tower of London' and I had said the Tower was in the other direction from Hampton Court. My father told me not to correct teachers even when I was right.

  54. Boris said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    This is absolutely the wrong thing to do. If a teacher says something wrong and goes uncorrected, the other students in the class, who don't know better will assimilate it into their world view. This is especially true if the mistake is in the subject the teacher is teaching. This is not to say I'm in favor of prescriptivism, but if a teacher believes penultimate means "very ultimate" (and I know such a person, a substitute teacher and self-styled poet), as opposed to knowing both definitions and explaining which one is correct or formal or whatever word you want to use, she needs to be corrected.

  55. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

    The opposing opinions on whether one should ever correct a teacher says a great deal about whether the subcultural emphasis is on respecting authority or respecting the activity of learning. I certainly know which I prefer, but I've long found it deeply fascinating how much of educational culture (in all its variations) tilts more toward respect for authority than toward learning.

    I'm temperamentally inclined to think this must be dysfunctional in some way, but I'm begging the question because I take for granted the notion that education is about learning, and not institutional acculturation.

    But it very often is about the latter; and, more to the point, in many cases probably should be. Primary education, especially, functions culturally at least as much as learning to properly behave in institutionalized society as it does actually learning what it ostensibly aims to teach.

  56. Hermann Burchard said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    @Keith M Ellis

    "Knowledge is Power" interpreted widely as "being taught will cost you," in our competitive universe of discourse. Made a popular rallying cry among socialist workers by Liebknecht in 1872.

    Thomas Hobbes "Scientia potentia est" more than Francis Bacon credited by Wikipedia [en., de. differing].

    Authority of teachers derives from that, and I would suggest not being stingy marks a good prof. — Respect for school, civ soc, ~discipline taught at home?

  57. John Swindle said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    The odd thing about "hypocenter" is that it's the actual center of a subsurface event and the nearest point on the surface to an atmospheric event.

  58. Jonathan D said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

    @JL, surely it's not so much that one's above the centre and the other below, as that they are the upper centre and the lower centre. Perhaps even the seismologists correctly aware of the three dimensional nature of things weren't trying to shake off the idea that there was a centre of the activity on the surface.

    I very much agree that this sort of thing is just a metaphor that ends up getting forgotten. If the prefixes end up mis-analysed, that comes later, and often the peeves themselves don't make any more sense.

  59. JL said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

    @Jonathon D: Not according to the OED, anyway, which defines 'epicentrum' (or epicentre), as:

    "The point over the centre: applied in Seismology to the outbreaking point of earthquake shocks."

    and "hypocentre" as:

    "The focus of an earthquake, the point within the earth where it originates."

    Any seismologists out there who can clarify this for us?

  60. JL said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 10:01 pm

    See also:

  61. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

    If prototypical can mean "the most typical", then there's a gap that needs to be filled with deuterotypical (0 Google hits), etc. ("Etc." is a way of saying my guesses on the following prefixes would be increasingly wild.)

    This reminds me of archetypical, as in "Can you describe the archetypical student for your school?" from the Admissions Process Q and A for NYU Law School. I don't see any connection with old or Jung. This usage may arise from a confusion between arche- and arch-, which I see are an etymological doublet. Could the meaning of arch- as in archbishop have arisen by the same process?

  62. John Swindle said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 11:43 pm

    @Jonathan D: This description of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs seems to support your analysis of epicenter and hypocenter as upper and lower centers. Here the blast in the air is the epicenter and the point below it on the ground is the hypocenter. Caution: large file.

  63. Stephen Nicholson said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 1:59 am

    One of the problems with penultimate is that it's a word for something I don't think many people feel the need to discuss very often. Generally speaking, I don't need a word for the next-to-last thing in a series as it's not something I refer to a lot.

    For example, it's not very often (if ever, I can't recall a single instance of uttering this) that I need to say something like "I can't wait for the penultimate week of school." Almost there, last stretch, other various metaphors, sure. But not penultimate.

    The problem, I think, is that penultimate is one of those words that's really heard and people don't look up when they read it because they parse the meaning from the context. If, like the Usage guide points out, they don't have the meta-linguistic knowledge to know what's being talked about, the reader might very well assume that the subject is the last in the series. Because who ever needs to talk about the second to the last in a series.

    In fact, Caulfield's usage doesn't sound like someone talking about the second to last week in school, but the very last week. If we cut out the other panels and dialog, I could excuse someone who had never heard the word penultimate before and didn't know what it means for getting the wrong meaning.

    It's like some kind of linguistic "gotcha!"

  64. JL said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 2:04 am

    @John Swindle: Yes, but the blast on the ground precedes and causes the blast in the air, and in fact another word for hypocenter, at least as regards nuclear explosions, is "ground zero", which is what most people seem to mean by 'epicenter' — thus, hypocenter would seem to be a better word to use by metaphorical extension.

  65. Ellen K. said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 3:54 am

    JL, are you referring to the explosion being triggered by hitting the ground, with that hitting the ground being the "blast on the ground" that causes the blast in the air? Otherwise, I'm not understanding why you see it as two different blasts.

    And, either way, an nuclear explosion doesn't have to have anything happening at ground level.

    As I understand it, for earthquakes, and for explosions below ground, the hypocenter is where the explosion or earthquake occurs, the epicenter is the point on the ground surface below it, and for an explosion above the ground surface, the epicenter is the point where the explosion occurs, and the hypocenter is the point on the ground surface below it. In both cases, one word is for the place where the explosion or earthquake occurs, and the other is for the corresponding point on the ground surface. And in both cases, the upper of the two places is the epicenter, and the lower is the hypocenter.

  66. Dan H said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 6:52 am

    The opposing opinions on whether one should ever correct a teacher says a great deal about whether the subcultural emphasis is on respecting authority or respecting the activity of learning.

    This is partially just playing devil's advocate, but I think you can make quite a good pedagogical argument for not correcting teachers.

    The first thing to remember is that the anecdotal evidence here is grossly skewed. Everybody knows a "stupid teacher" story, and everybody likes to hear them and repeat them because they make us feel clever. In my experience as a teacher however, nine times out of ten when a student tries to correct a teacher, it's the teacher who's right. (Only this morning I had a colleague explaining how he'd had a student who refused to believe that "amoung" was just an outdated spelling of "among" and not a different word with a unique meaning in English.) "Correcting" a teacher will very often not only make you look like an idiot, but will also genuinely confuse and distract other students.

    The second thing to remember is that while teachers do make mistakes, it often doesn't matter. While Matt McIrvine's anecdote above, about the teacher who insisted that "quit" plus "e" spelled "quiet" is amusing, it's worth pointing out that Matt clearly didn't grow up spelling the word "quiet" incorrectly and that even more importantly *even with that mistake* the lesson achieved its learning objectives. Matt's teacher was trying to teach him that adding a letter e to the end of a word changes the way it is pronounced (and possibly also that it makes other vowels "say their names" – at least that's how it was described to me at that age).

    To me, the dichotomy here isn't "learning versus respecting authority" but "learning versus demonstrating your own cleverness". If a teacher makes a mistake, and you correct them, you obviously don't learn anything by it (because you obviously know the right answer anyway), and nobody else learns anything either (because they don't know who to believe, and if it develops into an argument you're only going to waste everybody's time). And all you gain is the ability, ten years later, to tell a story about how you got one over on your teacher.

    I'm certainly not suggesting that students should accept everything they're told uncritically, and students should certainly be encouraged to ask *questions* but teaching is often a hostile environment at the best of times and if students take a confrontational attitude, they can disrupt everybody's learning.

  67. JL said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    @Ellen K. I think your analysis is correct — but only adds to the puzzle. Since, as you say, nuclear explosions don't have to happen at ground level (indeed, they don't have to happen on earth; they can happen in space, where ideas of "above" and "below" don't hold), I would think the relevant category is not spatial, but causal. That is, one would expect one word, 'hypocenter' to refer to the cause, and the other, 'epicenter', to refer to the effect. Indeed, the OED's definition of 'hypocenter' refers to where it 'originates', which I take to be, at the least, a matter of causality as much as location. One precedes the other in time.

    With nuclear explosions — if I read the paper that Mr. Swindle linked to correctly — the situation is (or at least can be?) reversed: the epicenter marks the cause or point of origination, and the hypocenter marks the effect. Unless, it seems, the bombs are exploded on the ground, in which case the hypocenter marks the cause, and the epicenter the effect.

    This is consistent nomenclature if you take 'above' and 'below' to be the fundamental properties you're trying to capture in your vocabulary. I'm just surprised that it is — especially since, again as you say, nuclear explosions can happen in places where there's no such thing as 'above' and 'below'.

    Put it this way: if a nuclear warhead were to go off, say, somewhere between here and Mars (and yes, you can have a nuclear reaction in space, though there will be no explosion or blast:, what do you call the point at which it occurs? Epicenter or hypocenter? Or is there a third term?

  68. KevinM said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    So, in the context of "epicenter," "hypocenter," etc., the expression "ground zero" makes a lot of sense. You have to specify which "zero," or which center, you're talking about: the absolute center of the three-dimensional event that is an explosion or earthquake? Or the "center" of that event conceived of two-dimensionally, on the earth's surface (which approximates how most humans, crawling between earth and heaven, experience it)? The (mis?)use of "epicenter" that started this discussion seems to signify something like "ground zero."

  69. Boris said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    @Dan H,
    Certainly in most cases the teacher knows more than the student. The student better be 100% sure they are right before correcting a teacher and the burden of proof is on them. But when a teacher says Moscow is in Asia and the student who maintains it's in Europe has lived in Russia a good chunk of his life and has been to Moscow (I'm using real examples here, though I'm not saying I was the student in question), who will the other students believe?

  70. LLJ said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    army1987 said,
    June 12, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    "I remember a time where…"

    I think we used to "remember a time when"–but is this becoming standard usage now? My college students use it all the time, and I'm sure I heard Obama say it in a recent speech.

    [(myl) Please, folks, don't be lazy. You could check this here, you could check it there, you could check it in dozens of ways if you really cared about the phenomenon rather than just wanted to register a peeve.]

  71. Dan H said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    When a teacher says moscow is in Asia and a student says it's in Europe, the other students have to make a judgement about which of the two is better placed to make that call, and making that decision will involve time and effort which might be better spent on other things, which is sort of the problem.

    Unless the whole purpose of the lesson is for the class to learn Which Continent Moscow Is In, it might be better for the student to let the point slide than to press the issue, particularly since the actual definition of "Asia" is a complicated one (case in point, some definitions of Asia include Russia and some don't). It's possible that the teacher's reasoning went "Russia is part of Asia, Moscow is the capital of Russia, therefore Moscow is in Asia" while the student's went "Russian people consider themselves European rather than Asian, therefore Moscow is in Europe" in this case both parties would have been right by their own lights, but the distinction might have confused the class.

  72. Boris said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    @Dan H,
    This is getting off topic, but there is absolutely zero room to say that Moscow is in Asia. While there are certain minority opinions that hold that none of Russia is part of Asia, none hold that all of Russia is part of Asia, and Moscow is unambiguously in Europe according to all modern definitions (except perhaps metaphorically: see "War and Peace").

  73. Hermann Burchard said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 3:57 pm


    Please, folks, don't be lazy. You could check this here, . .

    Is there a way to get a log scale on the vertical axis? The "where" option shows up so faintly I didn't know it was there until I learnt I could run it separately. If not, perhaps we could motivate Google to put it in.

  74. Jonathan D said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

    @JL There is probably an exception or two that I haven't thought of, but generally when there is no 'above' or 'below' there is only one interesting centre, and it can presumably be called simply the 'centre'. I think it's more than likely that the use of hypocentre along with epicentre came about when people were wanting to distinguish two different centres, rather than emphasising the origin, which might just be called the focus. When giving the definition in an earthquake context, you want to describe what the hypocentre is and why it matters, not just the etymology.

    You're right that you might expect the causal relationship to be more important. When the terminology gets taken to another context, either the etymology or the causal relationship might break down, and in fact it looks like someone might have originally preserved the etymology only to end up losing it, with the causality inverted – the online OED gives a second meaning of hypocentre as "the point on the earth's surface directly above or below an exploding nuclear bomb."

  75. Dan H said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 5:42 am

    This is getting off topic, but there is absolutely zero room to say that Moscow is in Asia.

    I'm sure you're right, my geography is frankly terrible. I was just trying to point out that the student might have arrived at their conclusion through faulty reasoning (such as the assumption that none of Russia is in Asia) while the teacher might have been simplifying a complicated situation in order to help the class understand the general principles.

    I think I've probably expressed myself rather too forcefully here, in that I do actually have students pick me up on mistakes all the time and it isn't remotely disruptive (although usually their comments are phrased as questions "shouldn't that have a negative sign" "why have you written inversely proportional instead of proportional" and so on) but I think there's a big difference between politely asking whether maybe somebody might have made a mistake and challenging the actual content of a lesson.

    The reason I think "don't correct the teacher, even if you're right" is actually a fairly reasonable maxim (albeit a slightly smug one) is that students will sometimes disagree with teachers over fundamental issues of content, and this will often cause serious disruption. I once had a student who refused to accept that the observable universe was finite, on the basis that it contradicted his religious beliefs. He obviously thought he was "right" insofar as God was on his side, but it wasn't really a helpful contribution to an A2 Cosmology lesson.

  76. Boris said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    You are certainly right that the correction should be made politely and in the form of a question, but simplifying a complicated situation to get a factually wrong answer is a bad idea. I'm not talking about rejecting useful abstractions ("there's no such thing as sunrise because the earth moves around the sun and not vice versa"). I'm talking about giving students the wrong idea that has zero value. My science teacher told us that glass is a liquid. I spent a good chunk of my life believing this for no good reason.

  77. un malpaso said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

    If a prescriptivist is opposed to a descriptivist, what would an antescriptivist be?

    And would a postscriptivist be involved in the study of Adobe fonts?

  78. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    @Dan H, I'd like to say at the outset that I appreciate that you're arguing a position more forcefully than truly represents your beliefs. And I also appreciate the fact that while my own (devil's advocacy) defense of a maxim against correcting the teacher was based in a sort of acculturation that I think is an essential component of education, yours was built around an argument involving utility intrinsic to education itself.

    In the end, however, I am not quite convinced. Lord knows, I've seen enough argumentative students who know only enough to be dangerous and to make fools of themselves and to confuse other students. But, even so, I've seen approximately as many (in proportion) incompetent teachers. In my opinion, learning that teachers are often wrong is itself an important educational lesson for students.

    Because, ultimately, I strongly believe that the only effective education is education for which the students themselves take primary responsibility. The teacher-as-unquestioned-authority greatly lessens that responsibility (except in the drudgery sense), it encourages a comfortable stupor among all involved, students and teachers alike.

    For example, I think it's best when a class has to spend time hashing out something about which one or more students and the teacher disagree. Why assume that when one student speaks up and disagrees with the teacher, and is mistaken, that one bold student doesn't represent numerous others? Why assume that those others truly do leave the classroom believing the teacher's account (in spite of their skepticism) simply because a dissenting student wasn't given the opportunity to raise the issue? And, in my experience, even when the mistake or confusion is limited to only a single student, two things follow from the resulting argument/discussion: first, the student realizes that he/she is mistaken or, at least, that he/she is quite isolated in their belief; and, second, students (or even the teacher!) who make an effort to explain the mistake to the dissenting student very, very often learn that they don't understand the issue nearly as well as they thought they did, and the end result is a deeper understanding than would otherwise have occurred. The bold, smart-ass, and yet mistaken student (in my experience) is just as likely to produce a net-positive effect on comprehension by the class as a negative one. Indeed, I'd even argue that a quick slap-down by the teacher with no further discussion ends up making the negative outcome more likely, rather than less.

    Having said that, well… I'm quite well aware that my preferred pedagogy deeply relies upon highly-motivated students (and, in the real world, certainly at the post-secondary level, only really works for highly self-selected students) and, frankly, only a small portion of all students will ever be so highly motivated. If that's the case, and I think it is, then we're sort of left with the teacher-as-unquestioned-authority model of passive education for most students with what I think is, all-in-all, a pretty dismal and uninspiring educational outcome for most.

    But, still… I also have come to believe that especially with students, we often underestimate what they can do were they given the opportunity, respect, and corresponding expectations that they do so (or at least attempt it).

RSS feed for comments on this post