Category Archives: commentary

Commutation (spotted in the Orange County Register)

“And it’s not just changing work habits to lower commutation stress. Good says certain employers are becoming leery of potential workers who’ll require a long trip to work, fearing burnout from the commutation.”

So this is an article about the justice system, right, and the commutation of sentences. It sounds as if attorneys, corrections officers, and prisoners find the lessening of prison time stressful. Because that’s what commutation means, right?


COMMUTATION: “1. The action or process of commuting a judicial sentence; 1.1 The conversion of a legal obligation or entitlement into another form, e.g. the replacement of an annuity or series of payments by a single payment; 2. The process of commutating an electric current.”  OxfordDictionaries.com


Oh, but as usual, we would be wrong. This article deals with the stress of commuting, as the headline so correctly states:

Southern California commuting ranked as nation’s most stressful

And yet the article uses commutation five times instead of the more widely accepted commute. What gives?

We’ve noted this habit of tacking on additional letters to sound erudite. So now convicted felons, instead of finding their sentences reduced, will be consigned to driving ninety minutes in hellishly slow traffic. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment.

 Otto E. Mezzo

Reference: http://www.ocregister.com/2017/11/06/southern-california-commuting-ranked-as-nations-most-stressful/

The N Word, the C word, and the H word (Guest post)

This month, Lexicide welcomes Lylah M. Alphonse, a longtime reader and Managing Editor for news at U.S. News & World Report. Ms. Alphonse bravely volunteered to tackle niggardly (mentioned last month), along with some other offensive and offensive-sounding-but-actually-inoffensive words.

Way back in late September, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hit back at at U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Rocket Man” insult by cracking open what old-school journalism professors like to think of as The Big Book of Five Dollar Words People Never Really Use in Real Life and finding one that we haven’t heard in a while: dotard.

He lobbed it at Trump via a strong statement that rippled across the media as much for its newsworthiness — it was the first time North Korea had released an official first-person statement from its Dear Leader — as for its word choices. But when Lexicide delved into the definition of dotard, Otto mentioned a word that sparked a tangent in my mind, one that demands further exploration. The word is niggard (in more common use today in its adjective form, niggardly). The tangent: words that sound offensive but have inoffensive etymologies.

The reason why niggardly seems and sounds offensive are obvious*: few people learn the etymology of words and instead engage in inaccurate free-association. (See apropos, bemuse, enervate, under guise of, stagnant, and too many others to mention. — Ed.) The surmised meaning of words change, and ultimately, eventually, language evolves. So niggardly fell out of favor, and the aware among us instead use synonyms like miserly, stingy or meager. Other once-common descriptors (like colored, Mongoloid, Indian giver, chinky-eyed, yellow, and “Free, white and 21”) also fell out of favor, replaced by more-neutral alternatives (like person of color, South Asian, “takes back the gift,” epicanthic, cowardly, and independent, respectively).

Chigger is another example. Is the tiny mite disgusting? Yes. But the word itself? Not so much. Same with jigger (a measure of liquor) and snigger (a snide half-laugh), though chink started out innocent in the 1530s — a split or crack in a fence, say, or in armor — and became a pejorative by 1901. Or rather, an innocent word suddenly found itself with an etymologically unrelated homonym — the earlier chink is derived from chine, a Middle English word which today describes a ravine. The ethnic slur is of course derived from China.

Hysteria also seems like it could be offensive, though few people seem to be offended by it. The word comes from the Latin hystericus, which means “of the womb,” and was once used to describe an ailment that primarily afflicted women. But the characteristics of that ailment — extreme moodiness, volatile emotions, attention-seeking behavior and/or loss of control — are now used to describe men, women, children, and large groups of people in general.

Renege can be mistaken for a racial slur of some sort, but the word — from the Latin negare, “to deny” — has nothing to do with race and everything to do with denial. Ditto chicanery, which comes from the French word chicaner, “to quibble,” and means “trickery,” not “Mexican.” In the Boston area, a popular dessert topping is said to have racist overtones, but there’s nothing remotely racist about the origin of chocolate sprinkles and people still order jimmies on their ice cream.

Lylah M. Alphonse

*We assume it’s obvious, but if you are not familiar with U.S. or U.K. English, maybe it’s not. Niggardly sounds very much like it derives from the racial slur nigger. As Lylah makes clear, it does not, but the epithet has such a long and painful history, even words with similar sounds (like chigger, jigger, snigger, renege, and even Schwarzenegger) have occasionally been regarded with wariness. — The Eds
References:

Hun

After our brief excursion into dotard, Lexicide makes good on our promise to dissect the Huns. And why not? Both Kim Jong Un and Attila trolled the reigning superpowers of the day (Attila with much more success) and viewed themselves as David to Goliath, enervating their opponents with endless impedance. Okay, I’ll stop with the links.

The Huns were nomadic people who roamed the Eurasian steppes, a prairie-like grassland region that stretched all the way to China. The steppes are beautiful, but unforgiving – with few trees, the winds are brutal, and the lack of building material makes settlements impractical. What the steppes did confer on the Huns (and their eastern counterparts, the Mongols) is a toughness of spirit and a mastery of the arts of horsemanship and warfare.

By Ghilarovus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38681091

Another thing the harsh steppe environment incubated in the Huns was a craving for a soft, cushy homeland. That’s right, Attila and his merry band were highly motivated to invade Germany, Greece, and even Gaul because they wanted some living space that wasn’t a bleak, foodless lawn as far as the eye could see. Of course, by occupying Germany, they displaced the Goths and Vandals, who in turn attacked the soft, not-very-tough (by this time) Romans, felling their empire.

So that’s it, right? The Huns became the modern-day Germans, hence the Nazis as Huns. Er, not so schnell. What became of the Hunnic people is the subject of considerable debate, with quite a few ethnic groups (the Bulgars, the Magyars, the Chuvash, but notably not the Prussian Germans) claiming Hunnic ancestry. But it was Kaiser Wilhelm II who first drew the comparison of the Germans to the Huns. Speaking for Germany (a member of the Eight Nation Alliance) during the Boxer Rebellion, he warned:

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II mit ein tödlich Stache


“Just as a thousand years ago, the Huns under Attila won a reputation of might that lives on in legends, so may the name of Germany in China, such that no Chinaman will even again dare so much as to look askance at a German.”


 

All righty then. Germans = Huns. You don’t think this comparison will come back to bite the German nation, do you?

Jawohl. When the Great War began fourteen years later, it didn’t take the Brits, French, and the Americans (who all stood by Germany against China as co-members of the Eight Nation Alliance) long to drag out the bloodthirsty Huns as an analog to the equally savage Germans. FDR and Churchill upped the ante during World War II, with the silver-tongued Prime Minister of Great Britain describing the German army as “the dull, drilled, docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.”

The Huns are always good for a scare, so maybe that’s as Hitler wanted it. Except that his Aryan policy would have excluded this Mongolian-Turkic-Slavic people. Which just goes to show how complicated history – and ethnic slurs – can be.

 Otto E. Mezzo

References:

https://www.ancient.eu/Huns/

http://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/the_history_of_rome/2012/03/index.html

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

Word With a Past: How Did Germany Become the Hun?

 

Dotard

DOTARD: “An old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.” – OxfordDictionaries.com

It’s not every day the interwebz lights up with word talk. Leave it to the North Korean dictator and his, um, sparring partner in the U.S. to change that:

“I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire…” – Kim Jong Un, September 22, 2017

The dotard he referred to was, of course, U.S. President Donald J. Trump. But what is a dotard? everyone asked.

Everyone except us. According to this Washington Post takedown of the word, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Tolkein were fond (if not doting) of dotard. Lex and Otto, while not in our dotage, are very fond of archaic words, so we were surprised to learn dotard is considered past its prime.

Dote’s primary definition is “be extremely and uncritically fond of,” with its secondary, archaic meaning listed as “Be silly or feeble-minded, especially as a result of old age.” (Oxford again). So a dotard is one who dotes (secondary definition). Strange? Not when you consider:

Drunkard

Dullard

Wizard

Niggard

The first two are plain. A wizard was not originally a sorcerer, but a “wise-ard” (Hold your jokes, please, lest Merlin turn you into a newt). And a niggard is someone who niggles over money – a miser. Yes, the word is pronounced like it looks, so you’d do well to avoid using it.

Probably the most common “ard” word is also one shrouded in mystery. According to Bill Bryson’s excellent The Mother Tongue, sweetheart began life as sweetard, only to be back-formed later. The jury is out on this one, as it is with coward, which, while it looks like someone who cows, is more likely derived from cauda, Latin for tail.

But why did North Korea’s supposed god-man pull out such an off word? Blame the Hermit Kingdom’s hermitry. According to the AP, the Korean Central News Agency translated the Korean word for “crazy old man” to the English dotard. Why not the more current “codger,” “coot,” or “lunatic”?

Said one expert, “They’re using very old Korean-English dictionaries.”

— Otto E. Mezzo

References:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dotard

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dote

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/21/a-short-history-of-the-word-dotard-which-north-korea-called-trump/?utm_term=.5211647977a7

https://apnews.com/c2d919f8a5864d838e638d88ac5e8569/North-Korean-leader-Kim-called-Trump-a-what

You’re doing it wrong. One easy tip to reading your dictionary.

A reader referred us to this article, which goes beyond the title “Why ‘Woke’ Was Added to the Dictionary” and deep into its subtitle, “You’re thinking about the dictionary all wrong, lexicographers say.”

It’s the age-old debate about art – is its purpose to reflect culture or to shape it? Is a dictionary’s job to provide a reference to existing words or to subtly guide the language? Lest you think the answer is obvious, think of how the inclusion of a word validates its use. Maybe the controversy over woke is not so much a battle over slang or venerable use. It may have as much to do with its recent ubiquity in elevating progressives and their ideas (and by extension, belittling people and stances that are not woke). If woke doesn’t get a place in the dictionary, the thinking goes, criticisms that one is not woke are invalid.

That debate points to a deeper conflict – one over authority. As the article makes clear, it’s dictionary authors themselves who have painted their vocation as one of authority, even as they insist they are merely historians. The article adds that “as a result of this reputation, lexicographers get pushback every time new words are added, especially when it comes to slang or words having to do with race, ethnicity, sex, or bigotry.” Of course. In today’s universe, we are the authority (in our own minds, at least), so we attack everyone who challenges that authority – especially other actual authorities. Artists, politicians, and America’s Founding Fathers are not immune from our purges. Why should dictionaries be?

So before this commentary accretes a word count higher than the article it’s about, let us close with Lexicide’s credo on the shifting body of English words. It’s the same conclusion reached by the article’s author – namely, “the masses are the real authority on language and humble dictionary makers are the recorders and researchers of what’s already going on.

True, and the masses are so often wrong. But no matter. They are the final word.

— Otto E.  Mezzo

h/t Brian

Reference: https://theoutline.com/post/1827/oxford-english-dictionary-added-woke

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

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

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.