Archive for the 'Words and all that' Category


November 18, 2008

“Meh,” the sound from “The Simpsons” signifying boredom, has been voted into the Collins English Dictionary, beating out hundreds of other new words such as “textovert” and “MIRF.” My favorite among those that didn’t make the cut:

Deja Moo:

THE feeling that you have heard this bull before.

If you don’t like that choice, go ahead and give me a thumb lashing.


Words, words, words

October 10, 2008

Fifty fun words. This has always been one of my favorites:

Tatterdemalion – a person with tattered clothing or of unkempt appearance. This word has, to my mind, a “bouncy” rhythm to it and use it often. I know several people who could have this word attributed to them…

Just the sesquipedalian in me, I guess.

A bald assertion

September 17, 2008

“The media this year are really in the tank for liberals.”

“That, sir, is a boldfaced lie.”

Sorry, that’s the first thing I thought of when I read this:

Yesterday Jr. Illinois Senator Obama told a bold-faced lie on the stimulus package. Not only did he not have a role in formulating the legislation, he didn’t even bother showing up to vote on it.

Actually, though “baldfaced” is the most commonly used, “boldfaced” isn’t exactly wrong, nor is “barefaced.” Here’s a fascinating history of the phrases by William Safire, who also notes that the original meaning of bald was “white,” hence bald eagle (the white feathers) and Old Baldy, the term for horses with white markings on their noses.

Reminds me of . . .

September 9, 2008

Stay calm, partisans. I’m linking to this New York Times article on Barack Obama not for any political reason but just because of an interesting word use:

FLINT, Mich. – There is something reminiscent about the argument Senator Barack Obama is increasingly making to audiences these days as he works to persuade voters that he is the reliable candidate of change in the presidential race.

99.99 percent of the time, reminiscent is used as part of the phrase “reminiscient of,” as in “to some music historians, hip-hop is reminiscent of the talking blues” or “Jim Carey’s movie performances are reminiscent of Jerry Lewis.” But the word doesn’t have to be used that way, since it means “awakening memories of something similar; suggestive.” Used in the way the Times did, the word intrigues us and makes us want to read on for a paragaraph or two to find out the “of” part.

Tryst me later

September 4, 2008

Romance goes awry in southern Indiana:

Events did not go as planned for a Linton man and a woman from Vincennes who agreed to have sex with him in exchange for vodka, cigarettes and $10 cash.

Corey Breneman, 36 of Linton, faces a charge of patronizing a prostitute. And 40-year-old Eydan Brown of Vincennes is charged with prostitution.

The whole story is about as sordid as you might imagine considering the headline: “Tryst results in prostitution charges.” Nothing much good ever comes from a tryst, does it? But it’s one of those perfectly respectable words that have come on hard times. It just meeans to arrange a meeting — only in one of its definitions does it say, “esecpially by lovers.” Maybe we should try to rehabilitate the word: “City Council members agreed to a Thursday evening tryst for its finance committee.” Nah, guess not.

Quick, after those goats!

August 28, 2008

Words from the not so wise:

Among the gems from this year’s undergraduate exams are an economics student at City University in London student who attributed Northern Rock’s downfall to the “laxative enforcement policies”.

In literature, a student from Bath Spa University wrote of Margaret Atwood’s book: “The Handmaid’s Tale shows how patriarchy treats women as escape goats.”

A University of Southampton student concerned by global warming wrote that: “Tackling climate change will require an unpresidented response.”

And a fellow undergraduate concerned by the threat of diseases, wrote: “Control of infectious diseases is very important in case an academic breaks out.”

They have all been entered in the Truer than Intended section of the Times Higher Education’s revived “exam howlers” competition.

We can shrug off the others, but I think we’d be foolish not to be concerned about academics breaking out.

Spel gud?

August 26, 2008

And the most commonly misspelled word in the English language is . . . give up?

Collins Dictionaries of Britain said its researchers have estimated that the most commonly misspelled word in the English language is “supersede.”


The company said the word is misspelled one out of every 10 times it is used because many other words with phonetically similar endings — such as intercede and precede — are spelled with the letter “c” instead of “s,” The Daily Telegraph reported.

I’ve noticed across the blogosphere that people have a lot of trouble with words containing double letters: millennium, embarrassment, accommodate, occurrence, questionnaire. Bonus: Take this easy spelling test.


August 22, 2008

Be a manly writer! Don’t be a girlie scribe; it will lead you into sissy sentences; your writing will be convoluted and your thinking vague:

Butterworth, who had worked in the States, wondered why so many Americans shared Donald Barthelme’s sense that the mark was “ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.” His answer: As a culture, we Yanks distrust nuance and complexity.

Ben McIntyre, writing in the Times of London a couple of months later, added to the collection of semicolon snubbers: Kurt Vonnegut called the marks “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King, said McIntyre, “wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons.”

There is a controversy later in the post about whether the em dash is masuline or feminine; I’m staying away from that one!

Foxy Hemingway

August 14, 2008

He fished. Then he wrote about fishing. It is a good read. A fine read. Not a hard read:

In a letter to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway described “Big Two-Hearted River” as a story in which “nothing happens.” Nick Adams walks out of Seney, makes camp, and goes fishing. Beneath this mundane surface, however, swims a potent personal drama.

Something bothers Nick. The text doesn’t say what. As an author, Hemingway routinely withheld what would seem to be key information; his stories are often exercises in decipherment. A close reading of “Big Two-Hearted River” reveals that Nick’s trek into the backwoods of Michigan is about much more than hooking trout.

But it wasnt the Two-Hearted. It was the Fox. He changed it. He had a reason.


Under a spel

August 11, 2008

Guess the battle has been lost:

Embaressed by yor spelling? Never you mind.

Fed up with his students’ complete inability to spell common English correctly, a British academic has suggested it may be time to accept “variant spellings” as legitimate.


Rather than grammarians getting in a huff about “argument” being spelled “arguement” or “opportunity” as “opertunity,” why not accept anything that’s phonetically (fonetickly anyone?) correct as long as it can be understood?


“Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I’ve got a better idea,” Ken Smith, a criminology lecturer at Bucks New University, wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement.


“University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.”

Of course, whether those “variant spellings” can be understood is a subjective judgment, which is why it’s sort of nice to have standard spellings that are commonly understood and accepted, but what the hell. Anything to relive the little darlings’ stress levels.

The rights stuff

August 11, 2008

My English teacher Mrs. Lee would have been appalled at the sheer illogic of a sentence such as this:

Numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday reveal that nearly one out of 10 counties are now classified as “majority-minority,” meaning the county’s population includes over 50 percent minority residents.

Of course that was back in the Stone Age, when “majority” meant over half in a political-rights sense, not “white,” and “minority” meant less than half in a political-rights sense, not “non-white.” Well, not just non-white. Women, currently about 51 percent of the popualtion, are also counted as “minority.” The meaning of the words had to change to keep up with the meaning of rights. The old minority had the right to equal treatment under the law. The new minority has the right to a share of the spoils.

O, plz

August 11, 2008


“Da vp iz?”

In text messaging lingo, that translates to “The vice president is?”

Four years ago, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) announced his vice presidential nominee, then Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), at a morning rally in Pittsburgh.

How times change.

Last night, in a cell phone text message that was quickly followed by an e-mail linking back to a new page on his Web site — — aides to Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) campaign wrote: “Barack will announce his VP candidate choice through txt message between now & the Conv. Tell everyone to text VP to 62262 to be the first to know! Please forward.”

Note three things: the casual reference to the candidate (“Barack”); the call to “forward” the text (to friends, relatives, etc.); the perceived personal appeal of being “the first to know”; and the timing — the text was sent two weeks before the Democratic National Convention kicks off. That gives plenty of time for the text to be passed around.

It also gives the Obama campaign one more way to differentiate itself technologically from its Republican opponent; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) doesn’t have a text messaging program.

I understand McCain is working on an innovative way of making his veep announcement, too, but the pigeons keep getting loose.

War of the words

July 29, 2008

It’s been widely discussed that how a poll question is worded can affect the outcome of the poll. Apparently, that’s true for ballot initiatives as well:

Supporters of Proposition 8, the proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, said they would file suit today to block a change made by California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to the language of the measure’s ballot title and summary.

Petitions circulated to qualify the initiative for the ballot said the measure would amend the state Constitution “to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

In a move made public last week and applauded by same-sex marriage proponents, the attorney general’s office changed the language to say that Proposition 8 seeks to “eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry.”

[. . .]

Political analysts on both sides suggest that the language change will make passage of the initiative more difficult, noting that voters might be more reluctant to pass a measure that makes clear it is taking away existing rights.

Supporters of the measure have a point. One way of wording it just says what will be done — the other says who it will be done to. One version will get more votes for one side, and the other would cost that side votes. There’s no way to make the language neutral.

Maybe everybody should insist on such help with the language. Proposals to designate public areas nonsmoking could be worded, “The right of some taxpayers to engage in a lawful activity in places of their choice will be taken away.” And let’s make all tax proposals include the wording, “The citizens in this jurisdiction will longer have the right to keep and spend the same amount of their own money as in the past.”

Nosh it

July 25, 2008

I’ve worked with some first-class prima donnas in my day, but this guy has them all beat:

One of Britain’s leading restaurant critics has been left red faced after an obscene 1,000-word email rant he sent to his editors emerged on the internet.

Their crime? Changing a single word in one of his reviews.

Giles Coren, son of the humourist Alan Coren, was angry that his phrase “where to go for a nosh” had been replaced with “where to go for nosh”, with the penultimate word removed.
[. . .]
“There is no length issue. This is someone thinking: ‘I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate c*** and I know best’,” he wrote in an email to four of his sub-editors. “Well, you f****** don’t.”

[. . .]

“I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve f****** stripped it out like a p***** Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks s*** with a bear (sic) so plastering over it.

“You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, f****** christ, don’t you read the copy?”

“Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not f****** rocket science. It’s f****** pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. F***. F***, f***, f***.”

Yeah, I can’t tell you how many of my brilliant pieces have been just absolutely ruined by those f****** unstressed syllables. The funny thing is — if I understand my UK slang — “nosh” or “a nosh” either one would work in a sexual way. (WARNING: material may be offensive to some.)

So sory,we regret the errorr

July 25, 2008

It’s only July, but already says this may be the favorite newspaper typo of the year:

This Monday readers of New Hampshire’s Valley News were surprised to see the paper’s name spelled “Valley Newss” on the front page masthead.

The following day the newspaper, which covers the Upper Valley area straddling New Hampshire and Vermont, published an “Editor’s Note” acknowledging the error.

How embarasing. It sure sucks to be in newspapers this year.

He/she/it bites

July 24, 2008

For the “surprised it didn’t happen sooner” file:

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has given its initial approval to a bill that would require all future legislation be written in language that is gender neutral.

The one-paragraph bill says legislation should contain non-gendered phrases such as “he/she” or “his/her,” instead of following past practice and using the masculine pronoun by default.

Since most legislation applies to groups rather than individuals (and any law that doesn’t apply to everyone should be suspect) why don’t legislators just use the gender-neutral plurals “they,” “them” and “theirs”? Is there any clumsier construction in the English language that “he/she”?

Praise be

July 17, 2008

Here’s a line from a story in the Richmond paper,

Richard Bryant ordinarily accepted his kudos for victories on the football field as coach of the Red Devils

and a quiz. What’s wrong with the following sentence? The kudos received by the coach is much deserved.

Give up? Nothing. It was a trick question. You know, if it weren’t for newspapers, that word would have died out a long time ago.

You say you want a devolution

June 26, 2008

With the Supreme Court’s death penalty decision, we’re going to hear more about this country’s “evolving standard of decency,” so let’s have a little vocabulary lesson.

Devolve is not really the antonym of evolve, or at least it wasn’t until recently. Devolve means a transer or delegation (of a duty or responsibility, for example) to another. We can say that, because of the county’s dissolution of the cumulative bridge fund, maintenance of Fort Wayne’s bridges has devolved on the city.

But I notice the misuse has been committed so often that the anti-evolution definition has started creeping into a few online dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s, which means it’s well on its way to being a correct usage. But there are still other words that get the job done as intended: decline, decay, degrade. I like regress. (Ah, memories; regress, we’ve had a few).

And evolve just means to develop gradually. It’s neutral as to the type of development — it doesn’t mean gradual improvement or getting better. But the way the word has been used lately, many people probably think to evolve means to become more civilized or something.

Guerdon-variety words

June 3, 2008

After every National Spelling Bee, it is required that at least one witty columnist write a piece making fun of all the exotic words that pop up by using every single one of them in a “We don’t talk like that at the coffee shop” column. (I think it’s one of those secret clauses Al Gore got put into telecommunications law, like the one that requires us to pay for all sorts of things through our phone bills that we know nothing about.) Here is this year’s entry, from the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin’s Jeff Vrabel:

Mishra, by all accounts, was a gracious and entertaining champion, keeping judges and audiences entertained with witty one-liners while routinely knocking back words like “guerdon” and “numnah.”

Both of those words, like all spelling bee words, were absolutely made up for the competition and don’t remotely exist in real life. Let me know, however, if you’ve ever been relaxing in a coffee shop and overheard someone at the next table saying, “Yeah, Bill, I really got a bad guerdon in the numnah right now, and my opificer says I need to have that brankursine removed by cryptarithm before the empyrean gets inflamed and itchy.”

“Guerdon” (GUR dn), for Vrabel and other word reverse-snobs, goes all the way back to the 14th century and has a heck of a pedigree: Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin variation of the Old High German word widarlon. It’s a wonderful word meaning a reward or recompense. Another useful word in the “reward” area is lagniappe (lan YAP), which is an Americanism of Creole origin. It literally means a small gift given to the customer on top of his purchase and, figuratively, an unexpected gift or benefit. I’ve also frequently heard it used as the equivalent of “icing on the cake.” But it’s such a common word that even Connecticut columnists might not think it was made up. Such words add variety and spice to our language.

Also after each spelling bee, somebody is sure to point out that the kids get lists of all the words that will be used, which means that the contest is “just” memorization. But memorization is calisthenics for the brain cells. There probably should be more rote learning in classrooms, not less.

Anyway, congratulations to Sameer Mishra of West Lafayette, who for the next year will be the hero of nerds everywhere (just look at that photo, for God’s sake) and who is reponsible for dozens of headlines across the country that start out “Indiana boy. . .” and don’t end with something embarrassing.

Effete to be tied

May 13, 2008

Any of you know what “effete” really means? I searched Google News for a hint that anybody writing about politics today has a clue:

  •  “As an issue it’s nothing, but it shows him as the effete, academic liberal.” Nope. That’s Charles Krauthammer, for pete’s sake, and he seems to think it means aloof and elitist.
  • “It’s very confusing trying to figure out what an elitist is these days . . . If you’re an elitist-using politician, you’re accusing someone of being an intellectual, an out-of-touch wine-drinking effete snob.” Not him, either. That’s Tom Alderman at the Huffington Post, describing those who have lost touch with the common man.
  • “McCain has been portraying Obama as inexperienced, self-entitled and effete, a candidate coddled by a loving press corps and lacking the judgment necessary for the highest office in the land.” Way off. Elite and pampered.

“Effete” is a wonderful, useful word that has been destroyed by its association with politics (and what hasn’t been, eh?). It means — or meant, for a few hundred years — worn out, used up, exhausted of energy, perhaps even a little decadent or degenerate. It comes from the Latin effeta, meaning sterile or unable to produce for having overproduced, in the child-bearing sense. When Spiro Agnew called Vietnam War protesters an “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” he was calling them pretenders to intellect, blisfully unaware that their philosophy was spent and lifeless. Both arrogant and ignorant — it was a $5-word way of calling them high school sophomores.

Perhaps Agnew, in fact, did not know what the word meant, but William Safire certainly did, and he’s the one who probably wrote the speech. “Effete” was immediately misunderstood by almost everybody to mean something like “effeminate,” and nobody from the White House bothered to correct it. Why would they? In “Nixon vs. The Hippies” America, that was at least as good an insult. You can now find effeminate as one definition for effete, down about three or four into the list. But you won’t find elitist anywhere. Yet.

So we now have a new word for elite, which the world didn’t need, and we’ve lost a perfectly good word that expressed something in a way no other word quite matches. So do we tie the language in knots.

OK. Rant over. You may now feel free to use “effete” as a description for the ideas of certain editorial-writing bloggers. 


May 12, 2008

As I hauled my creaky bones out of bed this morning, I decided there needed to be a new word for people like me, and here it it is: “Crippie,” meaning crippled-up old hippie. The folks at the Urban Dictionary have a different definition, but what do they know? Come to think of it, there could be some connection there . . .


April 21, 2008

A breathtaking achievement

Research has led to the discovery of the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312 …:


The line forms here

April 3, 2008

George Orwell would understand:

CLEVELAND — It’s no secret that schools need volunteers in order to do more for students, but one proposed law would make it a requirement for parents to volunteer at their child’s school.

Parent Darlene Boyd has been volunteering at her grandchildren’s school for six years. If the state legislature passes House Bill 519, she’ll have a lot of company.

The bill would require all parents to volunteer 13 hours each school year, either in the lunchroom, chaperoning field trips, or wherever the district needs help.

Require to volunteer. This may be the most creative use of language since “affirmative action” interpreted the laws against discrimination to mean that discrimination (of the right sort, of course) was not only permitted but required.

Mr. Pedant strikes again

March 31, 2008

I know I have a lot of pet peeves for someone who cautions against being overly fussy about language and grammar, but here’s another one:

Depending on who you believe, Indiana could be close to hiring its next basketball coach or the situation could still be in the early interview stages.

It’s true that “whom” is disappearing as our language becomes more informal, but it’s still around and so should still be used when the situation calls for it, as here: depending on whom you believe. We believe he or she or they? No. We believe him or her or them. The objective form is called for.

A good offense

March 18, 2008

Another language pet peeve:

The Clintons are barnstorming Indiana, with six stops today and Thursday in a push to win this state’s May 6 primary election.

Former President Bill Clinton will hold rallies for his wife’s presidential campaign today in Lawrenceburg, Richmond and Fort Wayne. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will crisscross the state on Thursday, with stops in Terre Haute, Anderson and Evansville.
“This is really the Clinton full-court press,” said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Anybody who follows basketball knows that a full-court press is a defensive move — the idea is to slow down the team with the ball so much that it has trouble even getting out of the backcourt. But people who use the term figuratively use it to describe an offensive maneuver — to go all out to win, as the Clintons are doing now. In their case, though, given Obama’s lead, maybe the defensive interpretation can be justified. You know what they say about the best defense . . .