I have been using “cf.” wrongly for my entire life

Number theory was famously described as absolutely, gloriously useless by G H Hardy, but is now vital for encryption and therefore the digital economy (and all else “e”) While looking this up, I came across this discussion on the site Math Overflow. And in that discussion, I came across this comment:

Pet peeve: “cf” stands for “conferre”, which means “to compare”; you are using it as reference or a “see for example”. Though an extremely common usage, it is incorrect. “cf” should be used for “compare with”, and you don’t want to compare the writings of Hardy with the statement that Number Theory was considered useless; rather, you want to use Hardy’s writings as a reference to the assertion that Number Theory was considered useless…

As well as Arturo Magidin, the authority of Wikipedia backs this up:

The abbreviation cf. (short for the Latin: confer/conferatur, both meaning “compare”)[1] is used in writing to refer the reader to other material to make a comparison with the topic being discussed. It is used to form a contrast, for example: “Abbott (2010) found supportive results in her memory experiment, unlike those of previous work (cf. Zeller & Williams, 2007).”[2] It is recommended that “cf.” be used only to suggest a comparison, and the word “see” be used to point to a source of information.[3][4]

I am ashamed to say that for my whole life (well, the portion of my life I have used Cf., which I would say is twenty-something years) I has been offedning Arturo Magidin and indeed proper usage by using it to mean “See”.

You learn something new every day.


Was the term “bed and breakfast” first used in 1978? (as well as “Tinseltown”)

Merriam-Webster have a fun online toy which you use to enter a year and purports to show you the words that first appeared in print that year. (I came across this via the newsletter of the excellent Way With Words radio show)

The first year I tried was 1978 and the results run from androgenism to wideout via antichoice, MDMA, megadeal, Tinseltown, and voxel.

Tinseltown? Really? I would have thought it redolent of the days of the studio system and starlets arriving off the bus to be whisked into a soundstage… sometime in the 50s or even 20s.

Well, here is the OED:

Tinseltown n. a nickname for Hollywood; also transf., the supposedly glittering world of Hollywood cinema; the Hollywood ‘myth’.

1975 Bookseller 16 Aug. 1305/1 The tinseltown stuff when Wodehouse won the applause of the theatre-going fans.
1984 Times 5 Mar. 8/7 When a filmmaker starts cherishing the natural roar of traffic on the soundtrack..you know she believes in Tinseltown

Do Merriam-Webster mean Tinseltown as a noun rather than tinseltown as an adjective?

And even more of a really? moment greeted bed-and-breakfast. It seems hard to credit that this first appeared in print less than forty years ago. Of course, the B & B concept is presumably much older than the word but 1978 seems very recent for a term that was firmly established in the Ireland of the 1980s (in my memory at least)

Of course, lexicographers are constantly finding earlier usages and one shouldn’t get too het up about this. Merriam-Wesbter have a set of disclaimers here… but another search of the OED seemed in order:

bed and breakfast:

(a) the provision of a bed for a night and breakfast the following morning: an arrangement offered by hotels, boarding houses, etc.; also attrib.

1910 Bradshaw’s Railway Guide Apr. 1125/1 Residential Hotel… Bed and breakfast from 4/-.
1930 Morning Post 17 June 18/5 (advt.) Married couple for bed and breakfast house; Kitchen Man and House-Parlourmaid.
1936 J. L. Hodson Our Two Englands x. 174 It is true that I have seen the signs ‘Bed, breakfast and garage’—a new form which the historian should make a note of.
1967 Listener 10 Aug. 178/1 I had previously booked bed and breakfast somewhere in Bloomsbury.

Hmmm. I thought all that would be harder! Perhaps there is some subtlety in Merriam-Webster I am not picking up, but I am afraid over the course of this blogpost my faith in its fun little toy has been shaken considerably….

2008: “How technical should dictionaries get in their definitions?”

Further continuing my rather self-indulgent nostalgia trip, here is a post I had entirely forgotten from 2008:

A chap called Ammon Shea has written a a very funny sounding book about reading all of the OED in a year. I particularly like this part of the excerpt posted online at the link above:

Absurd Entries is the name that I gave to a certain class of definition that I would come across every so often when reading the OED. They are rarer than the mistakes, and considerably more fun to read. These are the extremely rare moments when the OED does something that is so inexplicable that you have to close the book and check the cover to make sure that it is indeed the same book that you thought. I have decided, without giving too much thought to the matter, to divide them into two separate categories: ‘Blatant Disregard for the Reader’s Level of Education’ and ‘What Were They Thinking?’

In the category of Blatant Disregard, the past editors of the OED had seemingly come to the conclusion that since they sat around all day reading about words, accruing a monstrous knowledge of vocabulary, their readers must have done the same, and therefore it was not necessary to talk down to anyone with the definition. For instance trondhjemite is defined as ‘Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase’. I have my doubts as to whether anyone has ever thought to themselves ‘I wonder what trondhjemite means?’ But if someone did, and went to look it up in the OED, it seems unlikely that this definition would clear things up much.

In a similar vein, self-feeling is defined as ‘used to render coenaethesis’, and occupatio is simply ‘preterition’. (I should add that in the online version both coenaethesis and preterition are linked to definitions, which feels a bit like cheating) The word syllogism has a fairly simple and informative definition, and the OED even thoughtfully provides an example of a syllogism at the end of it. Which is written entirely in Latin. Although for sheer incomprehensibility, I do not think that I have seen many entries that can beat the masterful one that was created for the curious word disghibelline – ‘To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline.’

I posted about this on a trivia-focused internet forum here. A poster responded

In the second paragraph, Shea appears to be calling for the entry of every technical word in the dictionary to define the word down to the level of everyday English. This is, of course, ridiculous– the dictionary would have to contain a biology textbook, not once but many times over, and likewise for every other discipline. This is all the more impossible since Shea regards hyperlinks as “a little bit like cheating.”

Maybe so, but as I respond to that poster, the Wikipedia definition of trondjhemite is much more useful for the non-specialist. One can discern from it that we are talking about rocks, for one thing. It also turns out Ammon Shea’s joke has prompted some self-scrutiny in the world of geology.

This is an issue for medics and economists and all academics who try and communicate with the general public and engage with the general culture alike – how do you explain the terminology of the discipline to the public? How do you bridge the tension between being as accurate as possible and as clear as possible?