Author Archives: mark

John McWhorter

McWhorter: English is Not Normal

We have featured linguist extraordinaire John McWhorter here before. We would cite him more, but linguistics, including but not limited to grammar, is not our bag. Lexicide dishes on poor word usage, not bad spelling or conjugations.

But this article, offered up by pastor and good doctor of letters Jim, kinda sorta covers all three:

In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal….

Also:

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it….

Which leads Dr. McWhorter to ask:

Why is our language so eccentric? Just what is this thing we’re speaking, and what happened to make it this way?

He then proceeds on a tiny history lesson, touching on loanwords and couplets, which Lexicide also covered. It’s a great read, whether you love English or loathe it.

English is Not Normal by John McWhorter

Fighting classical illiteracy: a Sisyphean task

At the beginning of the month, I asked Lexicide’s followers this question:

I just read a news story referring to the Sword of Damocles. With the classics taught less and less in schools, do young people know what that is? How about the Augean stables? Achilles’ heel? Pandora’s box? Even “beware Greeks bearing gifts” assumes one knows the belligerents in the Trojan War.

What expressions — classical, Biblical, Shakespearean, etc — do you wonder will one day befuddle contemporary readers?

To my list, readers added Gordian knot, Oedipus complex, and crossing the Rubicon.

But then quite a few readers chafed at the idea one had to be classically read to understand and use these phrases. Surprisingly, the pushback came from a published novelist, a high school English teacher, and a college professor of ancient texts. Others scoffed at my concern, claiming we as a culture might lose the die is cast or the labors of Hercules, yet we gain new signposts such as taking the red pill.

I may just have my nose in the air, but I think knowing the source material makes these references richer and rounder in meaning – meaning which is sometimes lost without knowing the origin. Take sword of Damocles. Typically, writers use it to evoke a situation where danger could arise at any moment. But the reason King Dionysius hung a sword over his throne was to show his subject Damocles how tenuous his position was – that even though he was a great and wealthy king, enemies lurked behind every corner. So it’s not just an illustration of impending danger, but one caused by a station many regard as enviable.

People wash their hands of a problem to absolve themselves of responsibility. But did Pilate’s washing achieve this? (Anyone who recites the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed on Sunday would answer “no!”). And a Sisyphean task is not simply any vexing, annoying job. It’s one you must repeat over and over with nothing to show for it. The image of repeatedly muscling a massive boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down is much more evocative than simply confronting a difficult deliverable.

(Plus, dammit, these stories are just fun. The Aeneid and The Odyssey remain some of the most rousing adventures in print. Without their foundations, Percy Jackson and Wonder Woman, not to mention Lord of the Rings and the Legend of Zelda, wouldn’t have been worth their authors’ attention.)

What say you? Have you ever leveraged your liberal arts education on a masterful literary reference, only to be met with blank stares? If that isn’t cleaning the Augean stables, I don’t know what is.

See also Splitting the baby

Seen in WaPo: “splitting the baby”

Several moderates have privately pined for other options, including a censure vote they know they’re unlikely to get. Others have even considered what one moderate called “splitting the baby”: backing one article of impeachment but not the other to try to show independence from the party.

The Washington Post article is behind a paywall, so here is the MSN reprint for those who aren’t subscribers:

House Democrats brace for some defections among moderates on impeachment of Trump

As we discussed in our article on the phrase, most people use splitting the baby when they really mean splitting the difference. That seems to be the case here, with some politicians trying to have it both ways by voting yes on one impeachment article and no on another.

But wait. You could argue they have an intractable problem and need an unorthodox solution. It is possible their waffling will give Speaker Pelosi pause, possibly prevailing on her to call off impeachment (not likely), or else put enough threat in the air for President Trump to resign (even less likely). Recall that Solomon’s genius was not actually splitting the baby, but threatening to split the baby.

More likely, they know they have two masters to please and want to have it both ways. That being the case, they truly are trying to split the difference, as opposed to bisecting an infant. Good luck in today’s political climate. The one upside? According to the article, these fence-sitters are actually thinking about the impeachment articles. That’s more than most of us are doing.

– Otto E. Mezzo

Ukraine or The Ukraine?

Last month, we addressed which Latin spelling you should use: Kyiv or Kiev. Both have shown up in the U.S. press a lot more since the city figures large in a certain inquiry. One other linguistic bagatelle that makes an appearance amidst the political maneuverings is what to call Kyiv‘s country. Is it The Ukraine or simply Ukraine?

This question interests me since I studied Russian in college. What’s interesting is the Russian language (and the Ukranian language for that matter) lacks both indefinite and definite articles, so “The Ukraine” is an impossible construction.

What is possible in Russian is using the spatial preposition на as opposed to в. While many articles on the subject simplify the two by defining на as “on” and в as “in”, this is not strictly accurate. You use the preposition на (pronounced “na”) when speaking of general place concepts (“He is на concert. She is на market.”). The word на is also used for compass directions (“You will find polar bears на the North.”). To designate a physical place with real borders, Russians use в (pronounced “v”). This applies to all cities and states (“I live в Moscow. You studied в The United States.”).

Except Ukraine. During the Cold War The Kremlin would often speak of going на Ukraine, as if it were a concept, not a real place with real history. Ukranians know this, and they don’t like it. What does на have to do with The? Somehow when this diminishing made its way to English, it manifested itself in the definite article.

(Nina Jankowicz, who provided the very helpful pronunciation guide on Kyiv, has a parallel take on “The Ukraine“. Read her explanation here.)

As an aside, the whole linguistic journey from на украине to The Ukraine is very strange, and I have no idea who to blame. Several other countries use names that start with The, although these are either plural descriptors (The United States of America, The Netherlands) or archaic references to regions rather than sovereign states (The Sudan, The Congo). The one exception is The Gambia, or The Republic of The Gambia, as it is more formally known. Another observation: French (the other foreign language I know) routinely inserts the definite article in front of country names, which is why you say “Vive la France!” instead of “Vive France!

Anyhow, if the Foreign Policy article I cited is credible, “The Ukraine” is not only incorrect, but also offensive to the Ukranians. If you want to keep your Ukranian friends and business contacts, don’t say or write it.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

References:
foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/05/ukraine-name-insult-war-russia-geography/(opens in a new tab)
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-ukraine/2019/09/26/9c32e3be-dfcd-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html

Chicken Kyiv and Beijing Duck

Like most Americans, I have followed the impeachment inquiry against President Trump with some interest – some, but not much. (Does that make me disinterested? Never!) What has caught my eye was the Latin alphabet transliteration Kyiv for the Ukranian capital city. What gives? I thought it was Kiev.

This calls to mind the shift I had to make with Beijing. For much of my 20th century childhood, we referred to China’s capital city as Peking, only for the more “correct” transliteration of Beijing to creep into learned circles in the late 1980s. While we might reasonably blame careless Western hearing for the “mistake,” the spelling Peking comes courtesy of the imperial postal service, as do the legacy place names Chungking, Nanking, and Tsingtao, all of which are preserved in the names of dishes, institutions, and beer. The People’s Republic of China established the Pinyin Romanization Beijing in 1958, so it only took thirty-odd years to filter out to the West.

Another place name I had to re-learn: Mumbai. The Indian megalopolis was officially Bombay until 1995, a name immortalized in a brand of gin, a Police song, and the nickname Bollywood. The Indian government changed the English spelling to better reflect the native pronunciation and shed vestiges of the colonial past. (For those of you who followed my demonym series, a resident of Mumbai is a Mumbaikar.)

So Kyiv or Kiev? CNN favors Kiev while FoxNews hews to Kyiv. The New York Times seems to go back and forth. The Washington Post is firmly in Kyiv’s camp, and even provides this handy guide to the “correct” pronunciation of the name, the correctness depending on whether you prefer the modern Ukranian pronunciation (Київ, pronounced like this) or the Russian Киев, which is a lot easier for Anglophones and will undoubtedly persist in Chicken Kiev and The Great Gate of Kiev (both Russian creations). But like Bombay, Kiev is a scar from an imperial past, one that even persisted beyond the czars – Stalin killed roughly ten million Ukranians in the Holodomor. Understandably, the newly independent Ukraine preferred the world use their city name rather than the Russian version, and made it official in 1995. I think I’ll go with the Ukranians on this one. I may even try out the authentic pronunciation (I’m used to stares by now).

But by all means, order your Chicken Kiev. Unless you’re trying to lose those Thanksgiving pounds. In which case you should also wave off the Crab Yangon.

References:
https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/18/politics/david-holmes-to-testify-thursday/index.html
https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sondland-bursts-the-perfect-bubble
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/ambassador-ukraine-corruption-acid-impeachment.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/ambassador-ukraine-corruption-acid-impeachment.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/us/politics/kiev-pronunciation.html

Saunter

Saunter

SAUNTER: “(verb) walk in a slow, relaxed manner; (noun) a leisurely stroll. Origin: Late Middle English (in the sense ‘to muse, wonder’): of unknown origin. The current sense dates from the mid 17th century.” – Oxford English Dictionary

Recently a friend posted a meme with a supposed quote from John Muir:

I don’t like the word hike. I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

Now, I immediately suspected: 1) John Muir never said such a thing; 2) the whole etymology was codswallop. Why? Because these clever word origins never pan out. Never.

Crapper was not named for Thomas Crapper. Posh is not an acronym for Port Out Starboard Home; neither does one tip To Insure Promptness. (We covered these and other too-clever-to-be-true etymologies in another article.)

This presumed genesis of saunter takes the cake, though. It’s not only clever and makes too fine a story, it also ratifies and bolsters the sharer’s inner desires, as does the attribution to John Muir.  

As it turns out, the originator (possibly) of this faux-meaning is the equally venerable Henry David Thoreau. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau elevates the saunterers not because nature is a holy place, but because they are purposefully aimless and without a home. In fact, he adds:

Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.

Again, this is a bit too precious, and one author posits Thoreau was hitting back at Adam Smith’s objection to sauntering, which to the economist signified aimlessness and a lack of industry.

As OED mentions, the actual origin of the word is more prosaic, possibly derived from santren, a Middle English word meaning “to daydream.” No one knows where that word came from, but the Online Etymology Dictionary cites one “absurd speculation”: the French word s’aventurer, meaning “to take risks.” Again, this sounds way too cute, and the site archly adds the OED finds this “unlikely.”

Now this is in no way a true lexicide. No one we’ve encountered uses saunter to mean anything but “walking leisurely.” Whether that’s good or bad depends on whether you hew closer to Smith or Thoreau’s attitude on life. If you think of yourself simpatico with John Muir, then saunter away. But don’t try to convince us the word has religious meaning.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

References:
http://lexicide.com/here-were-false-etymologies-only-a-year-late/ https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/06/walking/304674/ https://www.etymonline.com/word/saunter

Whoa or Woah? (From WSJ)

The Wall Street Journal thought this was earth-shaking enough to publish a whole article on:

Tales of ‘Woah’ Have Oldsters Saying ‘Whoa’

For Benjamin Hall, there is only one way to spell the word “whoa.” And it’s not in the dictionary.

Mr. Hall, a 16-year-old high school junior from Huntsville, Texas, spells out w-o-a-h in social media posts or text messages to friends when he wants to convey surprise or amazement. He doesn’t care that most dictionaries list only whoa as the proper spelling.

In fact, for Mr. Hall, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who write woah, and “old people.”

“W-h-o-a, that just doesn’t make sense,” he says. He compared it to using the word icebox instead of refrigerator. “It makes me think of older teachers. It just comes off as a little odd.”

For what it’s worth, my two teenagers think WOAH is illiterate. “It’s clearly WHOA,” they say. Then again, we live around horses.

Leverage, revisited

Our partner company leverages outside technical resources to support their initiatives…

The ability to leverage their global retail fulfillment offering…

We believe that a best-of-breed approach that leverages our IT tools will offer the most flexibility to meet long-term global expansion plans.

We leverage our best practices at our partner facilities. 

I am officially over leverage.

I had to edit a document containing the above passages today, and I am less sure than ever what leverage actually means. In 2009, I lamented how people use the word as a flowery substitute for “use.” Now, I’m not sure.

It sounds like something is happening beyond simple use or deployment. But what? How does a best-of-breed approach relate to a technology stack? At some point, I start to wonder if my colleagues are really just stringing buzzwords together.

I did a quick search to see if other writers are as bothered as I am. They are, although seemingly more because leverage is more properly a noun, not a verb:

Plain old lever still has its uses as a verb. As for leverage as a noun, advantage can replace it in most figurative contexts.

All these entries insist the verb form is lever, not leverage.

Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?

The title says it all.

I’ve chosen ‘leverage’ to appear in the title of a blog about clear business communication, its use as a verb being symbolic of the obfuscation, dissembling and cleverly disguised cluelessness that passes for much corporate speak these days.

Wow. A whole blog devoted to exposing the fraud that is leverage.

I don’t care much that leverage crosses the mythical line separating noun from verb. Many words, from Shakespeare’s time and before, have identified first as nouns, then verbs. (More concerning is the illiterate trend of verbs becoming nouns – words like ask and spend.)

What Lexicide cares about are words used carelessly and stupidly. I spend hours each day writing and editing. Why would I want to waste my workday spitting out vapid buzzwords when I could offer sentences that make an impact on readers (or, in modern parlance, impact readers)? Here at Lexicide, we’ve offered a few theories. My new favored hypothesis is just that people are idiots. I think marketing god Seth Godin says it best:

The more you say leverage, the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Demonyms, according to the U.S. government

A friend sent me this:

These are the official state demonyms according to the U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual. The government has a reputation for being inefficient, wasteful, and obstructionist. But orthographically incompetent?

My first question is why an Alaska resident is Alaskan but an Alabama denizen is Alabamian. Shouldn’t it be Alabaman? Likewise Floridan?

At least they know what Florida residents call themselves (Floridian). That’s more courtesy than Michiganders get, being assigned the clunky Michiganian as an adjective. But the real sin is “Hawaii resident“! Does that even count as a demonym? A million-and-a-half Hawaiians would disagree.

The one upside to this egregious abuse of state pride is it answers an important question, one we posed in our first demonym-themed article: What do you call someone from Connecticut? We’re sorry we asked.

On Demonyms, Part 1
On Demonyms, Part II
On Demonyms, Part C
A Demonym diversion
Demonyms, the final words
Demonyms, one more final word

NPR: Our Language Is Evolving, ‘Because Internet’

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/31/747020219/our-language-is-evolving-because-internet

Friend, reader, and prolific writer Christina shared this article, an interview with linguist Gretchen McCulloch on her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. It’s well worth reading, and piques my interest in the book. Some takeaways:

On LOL

There’s a difference between how these different groups use “LOL” … the acronym which initially stood for “laughing out loud.” And if you talk to people in some of these older generations who are, you know, have been using the Internet for 20 years but came online in a less social space, they see it: OK, here’s an acronym; they’re told it is an acronym; it must mean “laughing out loud.” … And for the youngest group of people, there’s no literal meaning left to LOL at all.

How the period gains new meaning

… [I]n an informal context, you don’t need the period anymore to distinguish between one sentence or one phrase and the next because you’re just going to hit “send” in a chat context… But the problem is if you say “OK, sounds good.” — and you add that note of seriousness — now you’ve got positive words and serious punctuation, and the clash between them is what creates that sense of passive aggression.

Who cares about internet grammar?

If we analyze the language on the Internet, we can analyze so many different types of languages, so many different ways of talking and get a bigger picture of what it means to be a person — rather than just what it means to be the type of person who writes a book.

Lexicide has touched on the shifting meaning of LOL and other words, and I find McCulloch’s whole exploration fascinating. I have heard that we learn more about street-level societies from graffiti than from official records. Many ancient (and modern) cultures keep no records of events unflattering to the ruling class, and the volume of words generated by common people (in receipts, letters, and diaries) would provide a richer, fuller picture of, say, the Roman empire — if we could read Vulgar Latin.

The snob in me disdains the devolution of language due to texting and email. But there’s linguistic gold in them thar hills. What does it say about us that we find periods passive aggressive in their finality? Or that we curate mistakes to look more like they came from a typewriter than a phone? It’s these fascinating questions that keep us publishing Lexicide.

Otto E. Mezzo