Trench

Lexicide gone pear-shaped: a snapshot of lousy, crummy words from World War I

A few months, ago, we asked for your favorite words and terms borrowed from the military. Reader Larry shared this Telegraph article with us, which offers up some revealing tidbits about phrases conjured up during the Great War:

Among the list of everyday terms found to have originated or spread from the conflict are cushy, snapshot, bloke, wash out, conk out, blind spot, binge drink and pushing up daisies.

A snapshot was a hastily aimed rifle shot. Lousy actually meant “infested with lice.” (Think about that when you want to quit your lousy job. You’re not an exterminator, are you?) Crummy follows the same pattern, only with crumbs instead of parasites. Binge and cushy reflect the crashing together of cultures in the trenches. Binge was a term apparently restricted to Lancashire, but spread quickly among troops. Cushy comes from khush (the Hindi word for pleasure) and originated with Indian soldiers serving with Britain.

My favorite revelation is the euphemism gone west for dying in battle. In the U.S.A., we talk of a situation going south when everything goes wrong. I don’t know why south is our compass heading for failure, except that south is “down” on a borealocentric map. It could also relate to being sold down the river, which for a slave in the American South meant a harsher life. The river they spoke of was the Mississippi, and downriver was due south.

Going south is a synonym for going pear shaped, which is the preferred term across the pond. Indeed, the Royal Air Force gets the credit for the term, but no one quite knows why. The two best explanations we’ve heard are: pear shaped refers to women, which are bad news; pear shaped refers to a poorly executed aerial loop – not round, not elliptical, but flat at the bottom. I think I’ll take the latter, as I don’t know many women who fancy themselves as troublesome or shaped like a Bartlett.

Sticking with the theme of bad things happening, Anne, our stalwart reader and teacher from North Carolina, added to the conversation thusly:

To “buy the farm,” meaning to die (which then becomes go out of business, cease to function, etc.) was a WWI term. A lot of young rural soldiers joined the army, each planning to use his pay to marry his sweetheart after the war and buy a little farm somewhere. The phrase became a cliché when one or more of them died, and their comrades mourned that perhaps he had bought the farm now (perhaps in heaven?).

As with much slang, dispute exists on the origins of buy the farm. World Wide Words cites Anne’s etymology as one of the more plausible sources. Snopes points out that to buy as a euphemism for dying dates back even further. Hence, to buy the farm means to lay claim to a piece of land – i.e., your grave.

– Otto E. Mezzo

References:
“The trench talk that is now entrenched in the English language,” The Telegraph
“Sold down the river,” Grammarphobia
“Go pear-shaped,” Not One-Off Britishisms
Fraser’s Phrases: “It’s All Gone Pear-Shaped, BBC America
To buy the farm,” World Wide Words
“Buy the Farm,” Snopes.com

exit from the eurozone: golden star fallen from a blue wall

The Spawn of Brexit

We posed another question on Facebook:

Brexit is another hastily-contrived portmanteau, followed, I see, by a theoretical “Grexit.” But what if Germany leaves? Will it be a “Gexit” or “Dexit”? How about the Netherlands or Italy? Here’s your challenge, which will be featured in a Lexicide article: come up with portmanteau “leave” terms for each EU state. No points for “Finnish.”

The responses, like the Brits’ feelings over Brexit, were quick and strong. Erica, a Virginia-based designer, said: Czexit is really easy, but Czecede is fun. (Tom, an LA-based engineer, gleefully called out Czech, please!) Erica continued: Obviously, Latvacate. Goland? Andy, the Floridian pilot contributed Adiostria and Greeced Lightnin’. Gary, a playwright in NYC, offered Italeave, Latervia, and Belgone. Cannady, a NASA technical writer, wondered whence Lithuoutahere, Portugo, and And-out-the-dora before realizing Andorra is not in the EU. Erica came back with Republic of Byeprus, eliciting howls of derision from Otto, who wonders why the EU even admitted Cyprus, which is both geographically and politically of dubious European provenance.

So we had some fun playing with portmanteaux before Scott and Scott, both from Los Angeles and now banned from Lexicide (if I can figure out how), devolved the thread into a pun war involving defunct non-EU European nation-states. Fortunately, Lylah, a regular contributor and news magazine editor, pointed us to this Quartz article, but not before positing Outaly, The Neverlands, and Irelend.

And with that, we now make our Lexit.

Quartz: Possible names for EU exits for all members of the EU

Lexicide: The Portmanteau Word: It’s like a Turducken*!

Lexicide: From Slate.com: Death to “Bridezilla!”

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Scalia

From The Wall Street Journal: How to Write Like Antonin Scalia

You’re reading that headline and now deciding whether to read an article celebrating the late conservative jurist. Stop deciding and read. Lexicide concerns itself only with words, meanings, and usage. We care not whether you are evangelical, atheist or socialist. We espouse neither utilitarianism nor political correctness. We are opinionated, yes, but only on the aforementioned topics. Besides, we link to this article because of its focus on words and how they change. That words have definitive meaning did inform Scalia’s thinking. On that, we can agree with him.

And besides that aside, the subject of this fascinating piece is not really Justice Scalia, but Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern English Usage. Ah, a man after our heart, and also a linguistic prescriptivist, as Lex and Otto are. Rather than a sourpuss elitist who frowns on “wrong” usage, Garner says of the term: “A correct definition, a more neutral definition, is somebody who thinks value judgments have a place in assessing language.”

Garner interviewed all the Supreme Court Justices, and this article cites not only Scalia’s brush with precision, but also Justices Kagan’s and Sotomayor’s opinions. Although the liberal justices are known for stretching the meanings of words to suit their goals, Scalia’s adherence to originalism has its perils, too. When confronted with a hypothetical passage revolving around nimrods, Scalia insisted that the classical, Biblical definition was the only one known:

When Mr. Garner posed that thought experiment, Justice Scalia reacted with disbelief. “He said, ‘There’s no way that anybody thinks a nimrod is anything other than a hunter.’ I said, ‘Your clerks, believe me,’ ” Mr. Garner recounts. “He called them in, one at a time, and just said, ‘What is a nimrod?’ And they would say things like ‘a dummy, an idiot.’ And he was aghast at this.”

So go the dangers of shifting language. What is a well regulated Militia? One that is sufficiently organized, trained, and equipped (1789 meaning) or one bound by statutory regulations (2016 meaning)?

Anyhow, read. It carries a caution for we prescriptivists that sometimes we can be caught with our robes down – and a story about Justice Kagan citing Zoolander in an opinion. Sorry, Scalia, you just can’t beat that. At least you introduced her to hunting. That makes you both nimrods.

References: http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-write-like-antonin-scalia-1468014582
Definition of Nimrod: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Nimrod

 

 

Drill sergeant

Lexicide troops answer the call to arms! Hooah!

I WANT YOUR INPUT. I’m looking for technology or business terms borrowed from military, police, or public safety – for example, jailbreak or firewall. Any others?

So asked Otto last month on Facebook. The response was fulsome, awesome, a veritable boom. So rather than bore you with a lot of military history (that comes later), let’s recount what our esteemed readers had to say.

Lylah from Boston, a news magazine editor, was first out of the gate with SNAFU, FUBAR, squared away, hurry up and wait, and mandatory fun.

Brett, an airline pilot who served in the US Air Force, offered mission creep. As an IT project manager, we often spoke of requirements creep, the tendency of clients to add project requirements after the estimate and timelines have been set.

Scott, a filmmaker from LA, mentioned blowback, which is a ballistics term. Andy, another pilot, understandably was wary of catching flak.

Ron from Virginia offered up Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, to which I would add Charlie Foxtrot, a phrase I use all too often to describe my projects.

John, who grew up in a Navy family, uses ventilate, assume room temperature, collateral damage, and friendly fire, lock and load, and all hands on deck in civilian contexts.

Ross from peace-loving Portland, is not averse to going ballistic, following marching orders, or falling on his sword. Okay, he is averse to that last one.

Spencer, who works in criminal justice, reminds us that Murphy’s Law originated at Edwards Air Force Base (that etymology is disputed), and that deadline originally meant a line beyond which guards would shoot prisoners to prevent them from escaping. Most sources trace the word and the practice to the American Civil War. Journalists, take note.

Monica chimed in with AWOL and rallying the troops. Helen, a mild-mannered designer and web developer, contributed magazine, drive-by (as in a stealth download), and Trojan Horse. Of magazine (once a term for a building or room where gunpowder and arms were kept, now commonly a device in a gun that holds ammunition), Helen writes: “This term began somewhere in the 80s with disk magazines and morphed to diskmags used for floppy disks. Later in the 90s, it became CD magazines.”

More to come. So like our new Facebook page, keep your powder dry and Bravo Zulu to all of you who volunteered words!

Crain’s: Repackaged old ideas aren’t disruptive tech

Apropos our latest entry, here is another author who refuses to bestow the disruptive label on Uber:

The actual tech innovations that these companies claim aren’t so disruptive or impossible to imitate that their “legacy” competitors couldn’t use them. In fact, they do.

Mr. Bershidsky is right that Uber is not disruptive in the Harvard Business Review sense. However, I will grant that many industry watchers find Uber the company’s success unexpected, which is a different kind of disruption to their livelihoods.

http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20160513/OPINION/160519895/repackaged-old-ideas-arent-disruptive-tech

A disruptive innovation

Disruptive

DISRUPTIVE: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances.” — Wikipedia entry for disruptive innovation

Hype. It’s what keeps me and other marketing folks in bread. But lest you heap all the blame for hype on your marketing department and ad agencies, consider this: the most prolific generator of hype is often the face in the mirror. You claim everything — your business process, your product, you yourself — is unique, bleeding edge, a sea change in the industry. I have attended meetings where executives demand plans to copy a successful competitor, then crow about how they’re going to disrupt the business firmament.

I suppose if you’re an early adopter of some disruptive innovation, you could lay claim to being a disruptor. The trouble is, everyone claims to be a disruptor. And Harvard Business Review has a problem with that:

In our experience, too many people who speak of “disruption” have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do. Many researchers, writers, and consultants use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.

Okay, this is a word site, not a business blog, so I’ll let you read up on what truly makes a disruptive model here, here, and here. The purpose of Lexicide is to showcase misuses of the word, such as this one:

Customer disdain for this ‘innovative and disruptive’ business model is only growing

Notice how carefully the quote avoids calling the subscription lingerie service a disruptive innovation. However, I’m sure Adore Me’s stakeholders were peeing in their panties with delight at the disruptive appellation. Ha. Anyone who lived through the Columbia House Record Club years knows how old the pay-each-month-because-you-forgot-to-cancel model is. Disruptive, my ass.

And anyhow, as the linked articles lay out, disruptive is not just plain old innovation. Like stakeholder and long tail, it has a specific, narrowly-defined business definition. Not that that will stop anyone from misusing the word.

Maybe it’s time we really disrupted the works. We could translate all our Powerpoint slides into Urdu. We could circulate all memos on cuneiform tablets. Or we could just correct our colleagues when they misuse words. Now that’s disruption I can support.

Otto E. Mezzo

References:
https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation
http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/01/economist-explains-15
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_innovation
http://finance.yahoo.com/news/customer-disdain-innovative-disruptive-business-000200667.html

Amphibious

Ambiguous headline makes debut

Lexicide reader Helen sent me this newspaper headline, which dates back to June, 2015. I can think of several words one might confuse with ambidextrous: ambivalent, ambiguous, even ambivert, The headline word the East Oregonian editor chose is not one of them.

Here’s some barely suppressed schadenfreude from the Daily News.

And here is the East Oregonian mea culpa.

– Otto E. Mezzo

P.S.: In case you wonder, amphi (Greek) and ambi (Latin) are indeed cognates. Both mean “double,” “both,” or “two” (amphi+biosdouble life, ambi+dexter = “both hands right”)

Business News Daily: Buzzwords (and two awful portmanteaux) you “need to know”

Lumbergh

Back in October, we compiled a list of our most-loved/hated portmanteau words. Recently, Business News Daily published this list of “10 Business Buzzwords You Need to Know.” Aside from the stylistic no-no of starting the headline with a numeral, we also take issue with the notion that anyone needs to know these buzzwords. Especially when these buzzwords include recrutainment and wantrepreneur. Urgh. Sometimes, ignorance is indeed bliss.

Reference: http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/3657-business-buzzwords.html#sthash.y02sUXbQ.dpuf

Flounder Founder

Flounder or Founder?

FLOUNDER: “1. to struggle to move or obtain footing, thrash about wildly;  2. to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.” – Merriam-Webster.com

FOUNDER: “1. (Of a ship) fill with water and sink: six drowned when the yacht foundered off the Florida coast1.1 (Of a plan or undertaking) fail or break down, typically as a result of a particular problem or setback: the talks foundered on the issue of reform.” – OxfordDictionaries.com

Mozambique is floundering amid corruption and conflict –The Economist
Occidental Petroleum Is a Buy, Even as Its Peers Flounder” –The Street.com
The American Buffet Restaurant Is Floundering” –Eater.com

Given the two definitions above, which of these headlines is correct? None of them? Fair enough. All of them? Mm-okay, perhaps. You could give the last headline the benefit of a pun, since it discusses food. The case would be stronger if the topic was seafood and not buffet restaurants, where flounder (the fish) is not ubiquitous. But whatever.

This ambiguity points to the lack of precision most of us exercise in our writing and speaking. I suspect most of us mean founder when we use flounder. A foundering vessel is a sinking ship, just as Mozambique, Occidental’s peers, and the American buffet are going under. One could argue (and many writers do) that these subjects are also “acting clumsily,” which I grant. But is that the ultimate meaning you wish to convey?

You see the difference here. We have railed against this dastardly type of imprecision in the past, and despite the charming way in which we’ve done it, our pleas continue to fall on deaf ears. Maybe an analogy will help:

              Josephine took her test and failed.       Josephine took her test and flailed.

Which one of these usages is correct? Both make semantic sense. But if you want to convey that Josephine is incompetent, then failed is the word you seek. The mental of image of Josephine flailing (thrashing about uncontrollably) may invoke a lack of skill, but it does not convey the simple concept of not passing a test. It may be that Josephine waved her arms and legs about erratically, then completed the test with aplomb. Josephine may have tested in stillness, focused with great intensity, but simply didn’t know the material. Failing does not necessarily include flailing, and flailing is not always followed by failing. That analogy is a close one, for fail and flail are synonyms for founder and flounder, respectively. Their spellings are even separated by a lone L.

No, I won’t repeat my “words have meaning” litany. Use whatever word you want. I know you will anyway. Allow me one word of caution. Interchanging the verb forms of founder and flounder is (mostly) harmless. Calling your company founder a bottom-feeding flatfish, on the other hand, may cause your career to flail.

– Otto E. Mezzo

P.S.: Because I know some of you will point this out, I will cite this note on the Merriam-Webster site:

Despite the fact that flounder is a relatively common English verb, its origins in the language remain obscure. It is thought that it may be an alteration of an older verb, founder. To founder is to become disabled, to give way or collapse, or to come to grief or fail. In the case of a waterborne vessel, to founder is to sink. The oldest of these senses of founder, “to become disabled,” was also used, particularly in reference to a horse and its rider, for the act of stumbling violently or collapsing. It may have been this sense of founder that, some 200 years later, appeared in altered form as flounder in the sense of “to stumble.”

References:
http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21695203-scandals-and-setbacks-gas-and-fishing-industries-darken-mood-mozambique
http://realmoney.thestreet.com/articles/03/23/2016/occidental-petroleum-buy-even-its-peers-flounder
http://www.eater.com/2016/3/8/11179780/hometown-buffet-files-for-bankruptcy

Evangelist

An evangelist composing a blog post

An evangelist composing a blog post

EVANGELIST: “(1) A person who seeks to convert others to the Christian faith, especially by public preaching; (1.1) A layperson engaged in Christian missionary work; (1.2) A zealous advocate of something: he is an evangelist of junk bonds.” – OxfordDictionaries.com

Last month, Lexicide explored the follies of platform atheism, so for balance’s sake, February’s word is evangelist. This is not really a lexicide, as a technology evangelist is actually a “bringer of good news,” at least in the eyes of his employer.

That’s what evangelist means, from the Greek eu (good) + angelion (messenger, the same root that gives us angel), which is why it was originally applied to the writers of the four Gospels (literally, god-spell, Old English for “good news”). Apple coined the term and gave the title to Mike Boich and Guy Kawasaki. Soon, every forward-thinking company had its evangelist, which explains (or signifies) the religious fervor with which companies worship their brands.

What’s interesting to us is the construction of Oxford Dictionaries’ definition above. Not only is secular evangelism acknowledged as a lexical child of Christian evangelism, but one can be an evangelist for things of questionable worth (in this case, junk bonds).

Don’t hold your breath for companies to create an office of dysvangelism, however – that would be quite a heresy. Perhaps one day, corporations will have creeds instead of mission statements. In the meantime, our evangelists are going and making customers of all markets. It’s how you earn the Great Commission, you know.

Otto E. Mezzo