Record breaches dog state facility

A headline in the Austin American-Statesman on January 26th read: “Record breaches dog state facility.” The words threw me, and perhaps they throw you too. Take a moment and see what you can make of that headline, then keep reading.

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I initially took record to be a third-person-singular subject and breaches to be its matching verb. That left me trying to figure out not only how a record could breach a dog state facility, but also what a dog state facility is: a facility in a dog state (but then what’s a dog state?); a state facility for dogs? Eventually I figured out that breaches is a plural noun acting as the subject, that record serves as an adjective modifying it, and that dog functions as the verb. In other words, record numbers of breaches have continued to occur at a certain state institution. Memo to headline writers: avoid headlines that are syntactically and semantically ambiguous.

Anyhow, now that we’ve got the word breach, let’s look at it. It’s an alternate form of break, so a breach is a break. (Compare the same phonetic alternation between seek and its compound beseech.) Those native English words go back to the synonymous Indo-European root *bhreg-, which gave rise in Latin to the nasalized verb frangere, the source of Spanish frangir, also synonymous. The corresponding Latin adjective was the non-nasalized fragilis, literally ‘breakable,’ from which we have taken frágil/fragile. By natural phonetic development, Latin fragilis became Old French frele, which English has carried over as frail, a doublet of fragile. At the same time, Medieval Latin looked back to the classical verb frangere and created the new adjective frangibilis, the source of Spanish and English frangible, which is a fancy way of saying ‘breakable.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Feb 10, 2014 @ 08:59:04

    I think I finally understand what that headline means. It has nothing to do with dogs.

    Reply

  2. shoreacres
    Feb 11, 2014 @ 21:46:21

    The headline made no sense at all when I first read it. In the process of trying to interpret it, I thought a word was missing. Perhaps it should have read, “Record breaches at dog state facility.” Perhaps packs of clever dogs were escaping under the fence. Or something.

    I know we use “breach” in a multitude of ways – a breach of trust, for example. But I never hear the word without associating it with “levee”. It’s amazing, really, that famous breaches like that in the 1927 Mississippi flood revealed what many considered perfectly adequate protection to be as fragile as a child’s dam.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 11, 2014 @ 22:16:14

      Yesterday something else in the Austin American-Statesman caught my attention: a statement that the population here is increasing by about 100 people a month. I knew the figure couldn’t be anywhere near that low, because it would mean an increase of only 1200 people a year. I e-mailed the reporter, who in her reply told me where she’d gotten the figure, but she still didn’t seem to understand why the correct value couldn’t possibly be that low. I e-mailed her source, who confirmed he’d made a mistake and that the correct increase was about 100 people a day (for the Austin metropolitan area, which includes Round Rock and some other fast-growing suburbs). The reporter later e-mailed me that she’s arranged for a correction to appear in tomorrow’s paper. I hope mistakes like that won’t dog her facility with numbers in the future.

      Reply

      • shoreacres
        Feb 12, 2014 @ 06:31:06

        Heaven knows I’ve had errors of fact over the past five years. Still, this one surprises me. Even if common sense didn’t raise a red flag, it’s only two clicks from a search engine to this If the reporter had compared her figure to even one other source, she might have recognized the error.

        For example: growth in Austin alone (not the SMSA) between 2012 and 2013 was roughly 18,000. Divide by 12 and you have 1,500 per month, more than the figure given in the article for the entire year.

        I didn’t need to tell you that, but it tickled me that I could figure it out without resorting to paper and pencil.

        Reply

        • Steve Schwartzman
          Feb 12, 2014 @ 07:44:47

          As soon as I saw the unrealistically low figure of about 100 people a month I did what you did, namely go to the Internet for recent population numbers. Apparently the reporter wasn’t struck by how low the rate she gave was, even after I pointed it out to her; her first reaction was to stand by her source rather than by the reality of the situation.

          Long live arithmetic!

          Reply

        • Steve Schwartzman
          Feb 12, 2014 @ 08:18:16

          I just noticed that even the correction printed in today’s issue of the newspaper isn’t quite right: “A story… incorrectly stated the number of people who are moving to Austin. The estimate is about 110 net people per day.” The figure of 110 a day is an estimate of the increase in population of the Austin metropolitan area. It’s not an estimate of how many people are moving here, but an estimate of the change in population, only one component of which is net migration. Another large factor is births of children to Austin residents. I guess you could say the reporter is right if you consider birth as a migration from a womb to the outside world. We wouldn’t even have to call that a net migration, as I’m not aware of any newborn babies choosing to go back to the womb (as much as they might like to).

          Reply

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©2011–2014 Steven Schwartzman
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