Posts Tagged ‘peeves’

Indicting Co-Conspirator

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

As I was falling asleep yester-day morning, I was thinking with annoyance about the term co-conspirator.

The term conspire comes from the Latin conspirare, which literally means breathe together, and breaks into con- from the Latin preposition com meaning with, and spirare, meaning breathe. So far, so good.

Things run off the rails with that co- in co-conspirator. The prefix co- is really just a reduced form of com-.[1] Part of the reason that the reduced form is used here is that the original morphology of com- was simply forgot, and whoever coined the term reached for analogy with some term formed by a chain of analogies ultimately leading back to a word that used the reduced form as per rules of Latin morphology (such as co-author). Had that person remembered the morphology — had he or she recognized co- as com- — he or she might have seen the deeper problem.

Prefix conspirator with com-, and one gets … uhm, conconspirator; crudely parsed, that's with-with-breather. That result should raise a warning flag. One should ask whether there is any difference between a conspirator and a co-conspirator. It isn't possible to be in a conspiracy of one (though the claim might be made jocularly).

I think that the term co-conspirator first came to general use during the Watergate Era. Certainly, I don't find the terms co-conspire, co-conspiracy, or co-conspirator in the American Heritage Dictionary of 1975. I'd guess that the term co-conspirator was probably coined by a lawyer, and that it lived for some time in the environment of the court-house, before escaping into the wild exactly as a result of President Richard Milhous Nixon's being called an unindicted co-conspirator in court documents.

I'm reluctant to condemn people who, raised in the years since, use co-conspirator without irony. Even if they recognize the absurdity, it is difficult for people to distinguish those absurdities that one must accept from those from which we might more easily be freed. And I suspect that, in many cases, the folk who use this co- are really trying to capture the sense of fellow; though that sense would be better captured with, well, fellow, at least the co- isn't then wholly redundant. But, really, we ought to make an effort to drive this thing from our language.


[1] In Latin, normally, the reduced form co- is used when followed immediately by a vowel, by h, or by gn. The basic form com- is used when immediately followed by b, by m, and by p, but it is assimilated into col- before l and into cor- before r, and it becomes con- in front of the remaining consonants. Things get less consistent when the construction was not actually made in Latin. Meanwhile, in Latin itself the earlier preposition com evolved into cum.

Weighty Matters

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The metric system has some points of genuine superiority to those of the English (aka American) system, but that superiority tends to be exaggerated. For example, the every-day English measures for volume tend to be implicitly binary, allowing easy halving or doubling. (If base 10 were everywhere superior to base 2, then our computers would be designed differently.)

One of the things that I was told as a child was that the metric system were superior because it measured in terms of mass, rather than weight, with the former being invariant while the latter would change in the face of a gravitational field. Well, actually, the English system has a unit of mass; it's the slug, 1 lb·sec2/ft, which is about 14.6 kg.

Meanwhile, I observe that, in countries where the metric system ostensibly prevails, people typically use its names of units of mass (gram and kilogram) for units of weight; they even refer to what is measured as a weight. Now, the real metric system does have a unit for weight, because weight is a force; weight can be measured by the newton (or by the dyne, which is a hundred-thousandth of a newton). But people aren't doing that; they're using kilogram as if it means about 9.807 N.

Much as it may be claimed that America is the only industrialized nation not on the metric system, really nobody's on it.

I notice that the Beeb most often wants to speak and write of weight, rather than of mass, but in the most ghastly unit of all, the stone (pronounced /stɛun/, with at least one pinkie extended). The stone is 14 pounds (divisible by 2 and, uh, 7). When weights don't divide into integer multiples of 14 pounds, tradition is to represent weight in terms of a combination of stone and pounds, as in Me mum weighs 19 stone and 12. Of course, if the Beeb were using pounds at all, there'd be the two obvious questions of

Why aren't you just using pounds for the whole lot?
and
Wait, now that I think of it, what happened to that metric stuff?
So the Beeb feels compelled just to round everything up or down to an integral number of stone, and somebody's mum either gains two pounds or loses twelve.

I suspect everyone, and no one!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

I loathe the way that police officials and journalists will use the word suspect as if it means perpetrator, as in

When the register was opened, the suspect partially jumped over the counter and thrust both hands into the cash drawer, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.

A suspect is one suspected — that is to say surmised — to have done something. To baldly declare that a person did something is to speak with far more than suspicion.

One can have multiple suspects even knowing that an act was committed by just one perpetrator. And one can have no suspects despite knowing that some person or persons must have acted; the use of suspect for perpetrator becomes utterly absurd when virtually nothing is known about the perpetrator. Here

An unknown suspect (or suspects) allegedly entered the garage during the previous night and removed a Cannondale bicycle valued at $500.
the police don't even know how many perpetrators there were. On whom does suspicion fall? Here
officers have no description of the suspect, except that he was wearing a black, red and white bunnyhug
they have a gender and a hooded, tri-color sweatshirt. On whom does suspicion fall?

Muscle-Minded

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

There is no real agreement on how many muscles it takes to frown, nor on how many it takes to smile. But it takes none to be stupidly slack-jawed.

On a Set of Measure Zero

Saturday, 1 March 2008

The 'Net is awash with pages that claim to be about how to do this-or-that in Linux, but are really only about how to do it with some peculiar flavor of Linux.