Author Archives: mark

The Well-Tempered Lexicon

Apropos and continuing the theme of our last entry, I thought I would cover an archaism – really more a piece of esoterica I encountered recently. My family and I had the pleasure of attending an organ recital in the Wren Chapel (designed by Sir Christopher Wren) in Williamsburg, Virginia. The organist played a piece from Bach’s famous volume The Well-Tempered Clavier and explained what the title meant. To wit, musical temperament refers to the intervals between notes. Whereas modern pianos and organs are tuned to equal temperament (every key plays a note equally higher or lower than its immediate neighbors), Bach preferred instruments that were well-tempered (wohltemperierte). Not everyone agrees what Bach’s well-tempered tuning system was. However, today it refers to a tuning system that compensates for perceived dissonances in the equal tempered tuning.

What Bach did not mean by Well-Tempered Clavier was a harpsichord that was agreeable, which is how most people interpret the title. Some (like myself before this concert) assumed Bach wanted to temper students as a blacksmith tempers steel that through rigor and practice, they would become well-tempered. Now that I know what Bach meant, my assumption seems pretty weak.

This train of thought brings me to another old phrase in dispute: well regulated, as in the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Let’s ignore every fevered argument in support and against the right to keep and bear arms. (Remember, Lexicide is politically agnostic!) Every legal scholar agrees that in 1791, well regulated meant “well disciplined,” “well trained” and “well equipped.” It did not mean “restricted by laws and regulations,” which is how some read it today. So in modern English, the introductory clause would read: “A well trained and ordered Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”

These two examples show how vital it is we remember these older definitions. Language may evolve, but some of us remember the past so the rest of you aren’t condemned to repeat it. You’re welcome.

— Otto E.  Mezzo

On the Origin of Specious Words

Back in the spring, I put out a request on Facebook. I implored readers to submit their favorite English words or phrases whose meanings hinge on an archaic or little-known definition. I was inspired by a mini-uproar over the Church Militant website. While that name sounds belligerent, the concept of the church militant has been part of Christian theology for millennia, as evidenced by the Latinate ordering of noun and adjective. While militant does indeed come from the Latin milites (footsoldier), in the church militant Christian “soldiers” struggle against evil on Earth until they join the church triumphant (Heaven). The vast majority of practicing Christians understand the church militant struggles against temptation, sin, and despair more than political foes. However, the website and organization seem to espouse a different philosophy, and the New York Times never misses a chance to fire a shot in their tireless crusade against violent Christian extremists.

(The best comparison I can make, based on my limited knowledge of Islamic theology, is to jihad. The Times has spent many pixels and type blocks emphasizing that for the majority of Muslims, jihad means a struggle against temptation, sin, and despair, not blowing up buses.)

I used militant as my springboard because Christians understand it (in the context of church militant) as a synonym for “struggle” or “labor.” Once upon a time, this was the secondary definition of the word and except in church militant, that meaning is now dead. Another such word is prove, as in “the exception proves the rule.” No, that aphorism doesn’t mean an exception ratifies the rule  rather, it tests the rule. Read in this manner, the phrase actually makes sense! The outmoded definition also survives in “the proof (read: test) of the pudding is in the eating” and proving ground, a place where machines, munitions, and ideas are tested.

So on to the submissions. David from D.C. wants everyone to know about the word panic. Originating with the Greek god Pan, it used to mean “wild and uncontrolled,” because Pan would sometimes cause herds to stampede. That birthed the phrase panic fear, which eventually shed the second word but retained the whole meaning of an “uncontrollable fear or anxiety.”

Harvard PhD Jeff (yes, we have the most learned readers) offered us an espresso, or as some in the Anglophone world misstate it, expresso. “Expresso” is etymologically correct, as espresso literally translates to “express.” So why is an espresso an “express”? Because it’s made quickly? According to Jeff and other sources, it draws on an older meaning of express: made to order. However, still other sources claim another, obsolete meaning of express: to press out. Considering how espresso is prepared, both theories have merit. By the way, the “press out” meaning is not entirely archaic nursing mothers sometimes need to squeeze their breasts to express milk.

Jeanne submitted begs the question, but in this case begs is more of a mistranslation than an archaic definition. This phrase deserves its own article, and Lex has promised to write one.

At this point, loyal reader Anne the English Teacher chimed in with a subject that keeps her up at night words that perhaps we shouldn’t use because of their politically incorrect origins. She started with denigrate (“to blacken”) and wondered why those who are not white supremacists would use such a sinister word. Again, I think this issue deserves its own article. And it will get one.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Timeous

A few days ago, I reported on reader CLG’s (aka Cliggie Smalls) brush with timely used as an adverb. Her friend Elizabeth joined in the rant:

There is a related word of which I have an irrational hatred. It just sounds wrong. I first learned of its existence when I was still working in NY — my idiotic manager used it in a memo and I was convinced she was making it up (or at best, using her automatic Word synonym generator) since she used to have a very strange use of language in general.

That word is timeous. 

Never heard of it? If you’re on the Yankee side of the pond, you probably haven’t. According to the OED, it’s Scottish in origin. And it’s pronounced time-us, kind of like the gland.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Commenter Ruth on Gaertner-Johnston’s blog (to which I referred in the timely article) says of timeous:

I thought you might be interested to know that we use it fairly regularly in formal writing in South Africa (we generally follow the British style of English). The document I’m currently working on reads that my company “requires timeous notification of …” 

Indeed, Merriam-Webster adds South Africa to the short list of localities that employ the word. Please note, though, that timeous is not an alternative to timely as an adverb. Like timelytimeous is an adjective, with timeously being the adverb form.

I encourage you to read all the comments on the Lynn Gaertner-Johnston’s Business Writing article on timely. You will also note that the use of timely as an adverb is archaic, so unless you’re writing writs of marque and reprisal, just knock it off.

— Otto E. Mezzo

See also: Timely

References: http://www.businesswritingblog.com/business_writing/2007/01/timely_or_on_ti.html
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/timeous
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/timely

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Timely (submitted by a reader)

Reader (the Notorious) C.L.G. tagged Otto on a Facebook rant (the only kind that matters):

[Something] that just made me cringe during a meeting: “She was able to get back to me timely.”

She then continues: I…completely refuse to use “timely” as an adverb. It may look like an adverb, but NO, it’s an adjective. NO NO NO NO. “A timely response” is OK. “Responding timely” is NOT OK. (And while it would be fun to say, “Responding timelyly” is not ok, either.)

A future Lexicide editor in the making, no doubt.

Neither Otto nor Lex have ever heard or read timely used as an adverb, and neither had any of CLG’s compatriots. So I looked it up. Bad idea.

I found a 2007 article where Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, flummoxed by the same awkward construction, did the same:

Consulting my American Heritage College Dictionary, I learned that timely is also an adverb meaning “in time” or “opportunely.” 

Merriam-Webster agrees. Timely can be an adverb. But as a wise leader once said, just because one can do a thing, it doesn’t follow that one must do that thing. Please observe Lexicide and Safire’s maxim that if a word usage is ambiguous, choose another word. Promptly, opportunely, and the easily understood on time all work quite nicely.

— Otto E. Mezzo

See also: Timeous, which includes a further admonition that the use of timely as an adverb is archaic and likely to get you laughed at.

References: http://www.businesswritingblog.com/business_writing/2007/01/timely_or_on_ti.html
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/timely

Plural Trouble

I had occasion to use the word agendum recently and it felt good. Here is the sentence:

I have worked as a journalist and a documentarian, and I can attest the worst thing either can do is to approach a story with an agendum*.

The asterisk is there to explain why I used agendum instead of the more commonly seen agenda — namely, it didn’t feel right to write “an agenda.” Most writers don’t have this conundrum because most writers don’t think of agenda as plural, which it is. “What is the agenda for today’s meeting?” is considered correct. “What are the agenda?” just sounds strange. And yet, when it came time to type an agenda, something held me back.

There are several plural words we commonly use as singular: media, data, graffiti, and paparazzi come to mind. Most style guides insist you treat data as plural (“The data show irregularities,” not “The data shows irregularities.”) But honestly, when was the last time you spoke of a datum? For that matter, when have you ever ordered a panino instead of a ham and pesto panini?

How about this one: news? Looks plural to me, and yet we use it as singular “The news is not good.” Like media (as in the news media), news is a collective noun. It suggests a flock of birds or a herd of cattle. And yet, the AP, the New York Times and most news organizations treat news as singular but media as plural. (For the record, they universally treat data, criteria, and agenda also as plural.)

The Grey Lady, in a characteristic huff of elitism, explains its treatment of media thusly:

The term is often seen doing duty as a singular. But The Times, with a grammatically exacting readership, will keep it plural for now; the singular is medium.

However, those of us in the corporate trenches serve a different readership, one less exacting. If I hammer my students with one rule of writing, it’s this: write to your audience. I had this boom lowered on my own head recently, when I used raison d’être in a meeting. My associates looked at me as if I was from Mars, and I sheepishly explained that raison d’être is French for “reason for being.” Why didn’t I just say “reason for being?” they asked. Yes, why didn’t I? So I could sound superior? What was that about elitism?

So what to do in the business world? I still defend the mantra that words have meaning. However, I also understand the confusion most readers have with collective nouns (see news, above). Data, media, and criteria are still safely defended as plurals, so I recommend holding the line on them. However, agenda is now singular in the corporate world. That’s the way it is; agendum has been lexicided. If your bosses correct you when you correct them on leverage or i.e. vs. e.g. (both have happened to me), I sympathize. However, unless you’re writing for the New York Times readership, discretion is the better part of valor. We all have an agenda. Mine is staying employed.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://archives.cjr.org/language_corner/cultured_plurals.php

Verbal and Diction (spotted at NationalReview.com)

A quick dispatch from Jay Nordlinger on the National Review’s website:

To the passengers sitting in exit rows, a flight attendant — née stewardess — gives a little speech. She ends with, “Are you able and willing to assist in the event of an emergency?” She then says, to each passenger, “I need a verbal yes.”

It’s interesting, this word “verbal.” It used to mean related to speech — written, oral, whatever. Now it seems to mean only oral. The flight attendant means, “You can’t nod your head or something. You have to say the word ‘yes.’” Why doesn’t she say “I need an oral yes”? Probably because the word “oral” has a vulgar connotation.

I’m going to disagree on two counts with Mr. Nordlinger here. First, verbal as a synonym for oral has a long tradition. I myself was involved in a dispute over a verbal agreement (also known as an oral contract — the terms are interchangeable in legalese) in the 1990s. If that’s not venerable enough for you, both Dictionary.com and this fellow cite uses of verbal to mean “spoken” as early as the 1400s. (Perhaps Caxton was called out by our forerunner — Lexycyd, a Rebyuck of ye Eviferashon of WORDS Moft Damnyng.)

Another disagreement — we use oral in many contexts that don’t evoke oral sex (I’m assuming that’s what Mr. Nordlinger meant to say): oral hygieneoral report, and oral history come to mind immediately. However, I concede that where flight attendants are concerned, any tactic to avoid innuendo is a smart one.

But wait! Jay’s not finished with you yet!

I’m reminded of the word “diction.” It used to mean — and surely still means, formally — word choice. Somewhere along the line, it got equated to “elocution” or “enunciation.”

To be sure, the first and formal definition of diction is the choice of words in a verbal composition (hence dictionary!). As with verbal, I suspect the secondary meaning has been with us for some time. At least stewardesses didn’t have to contend with that.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References:
http://www.nationalreview.com/article/444633/obama-play-c-jay-nordlingers-impromptus-2-6-17
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/verbal
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/verbal
https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/is-there-a-difference-between-verbal-and-oral/
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/verbal
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/diction
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/06/cathay-pacific-uniforms_n_5273467.html

How I Learned To Stop Being a Grammar Nazi And Get On With Life (from The Federalist)

 is a self-confessed “grammar nazi.” According to her new article, she got over it for three very good reasons:

  1. Correctness Is Often Not as Correct As You Think

  2. Language Is Alive

  3. Don’t Want to Be a Jerk

Good reasons, if you ask us. We have addressed reason #2 in posts past, and we agree. Our stated reason for defending the canonical meanings of words is so you can avoid looking like an idiot. Take our word for it.

However, Ms. Magness makes a brutal error from the get-go. She’s not just a grammar nazi, but also a usage nazi. “Grammar” is not spelling, syntax, or correct meanings. Yes, we went there. Pin number 3 on us. We don’t mind.

Surety (spotted in the New York Times)

Even since before his inauguration, Mr. Trump’s rise has been characterized by an erosion of surety, bizarre and inscrutable subplots worthy of an airport-bookstore spy thriller, by epistemological questions about what is truth and what is fiction like no time in recent American history.

By the ghost of William Safire, what a paragraphInscrutable, epistemological… so much for writing to a sixth grade reading level.

We haven’t reported a sighting recently (not that there haven’t been any), so here it is, writ large: surety, which we covered four years ago. Why the Gray Lady did not choose the more certain certainty we cannot say. Perhaps they wanted to suggest Trump is eroding the guarantee past Presidents have made for stability and security. Not that he ran on any such thing.

As noted in our articlesurety can mean “certainty,” but since it has other meanings where certainty does not – well, let’s just say that erodes the surety that readers will cotton the writer’s meaning.

Otto E. Mezzo

References: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/trumps-presidency-upends-familiar-story-lines.html?_r=0

Surety

Unlawful fornicators

Here be false etymologies! (Submit yours!)

Warning: R rated language herein

So there I was, sitting in my favorite coffee shop working, when it came: the inevitable “couple monologue.” You know the kind – the man pontificating on some topic for which he retains deep and complete knowledge, the woman listening and nodding politely*:

“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge! That’s where FUCK comes from!”

I rolled my eyes and put on my headphones. The only thing worse than talking loudly in a quiet space is talking loudly about things you have no knowledge of. I thought that this false etymology, like the myth of the flat Earth, had been debunked the world over. But no, there it was, sullying my café americano with both obscenity and ignorance.

The word fuck likely comes from some long-dead root word, since other Germanic languages have cognates: fukka (Norwegian); focka (Swedish); ficken (German); and fokken (Dutch). This etymology is not the only contender, but the acronym (sometimes explained as Fornication Under the Consent of the King) one is universally rejected by word nerds worldwide.

But silly trees can yield good fruit. This conversation got me thinking: what are your favorite false etymologies?  They can be folk etymologies, back-formations, urban legends, whatever. Leave a comment here or on our Facebook page. Surprise us!

Oh, and speaking of surprises, while it’s typically the fellow mansplaining, in this case it was the lady. Don’t Assume Modern Nitwits!

Otto E. Mezzo

*I never do this.

References: https://solongasitswords.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/on-the-origin-of-fuck/
http://www.snopes.com/language/acronyms/fuck.asp
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuck

 

Call Center Spelling Alphabets, or Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I recently had to read my VIN (not VIN number) to an insurance call center representative. The conversation couldn’t have been more painful:

Me: Ready? One-H-N

Rep: N as in Nancy?

Me: Yes. One-H-N-C

Rep: C as in cat?

Me (starting over): Yes. One Hotel November Charlie

Rep: I’m sorry. WHAT?

Yes, frustrated with clarifying each and every letter, I resorted to the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, believing it to be universally understood. Wrong again. You doubt me? How many of these code words have you used?

nato-codewords

Unless you fly planes or are eligible for veteran’s benefits, your answer is likely none. Here are code words I have heard tossed about amidst the hold music:

call-center-aplhabet

So I wondered: where do call center reps and other civilians come up with their spelling alphabets? Is it random, as so often seems to be the case? It certainly isn’t informed by the military’s version, of which only the seldom-used Victor and X-ray appear.

The answer appears to come from the Thin Blue Call Center. Compare the ad hoc call center alphabet with the LAPD’s standardized spelling alphabet:

police

Now we see a pattern emerging. Most of the names, plus boy, seem to have translated into the non-public safety sphere, likely due to the abundance of cop shows and folks who have volunteered with firefighting units and rescue squads. The LAPD alphabet, while not wholly universal, at least boasts the benefit of brevity: Nora is much shorter than November, Union beats Uniform, and, at least in the United States, Queen is more recognizable than Quebec (which must be pronounced KAY-BEC).

But other problems persist: ball and Paul for B and P don’t work – they are too easily confused. The other problem is instant recognition. If one struggles to think of a code word for a letter, then that person will not decode code words quickly, leading to endless repeatings and correctings.

That’s why I like having a standardized spelling alphabet at my fingertips. However, unless everyone understands your standard, the result is one big Charlie Foxtrot.

Oscar Tango Tango Oscar

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_phonetic_alphabet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LAPD_radio_alphabet

https://www.policeone.com/communications/articles/222829006-The-police-alphabet-an-important-language-for-LEOs/