Category Archives: commentary

At -ese (A diversion on demonyms)

I always wondered why people and things from China and Japan are Chinese and Japanese, and not, say, Chinan and Japanian. As someone with Chinese ancestry, the word in English always had an exotic ring – a foreign ring. Growing up, none of my contemporaries in Virginia were an -ese. They were French, British, Irish, German, Swedish, Italian, Mexican, or African. Chinese and Japanese stood out, and when you’re a kid, that’s bad.

The suffix -ese still has an alien ring to my ears, which may be why the writers of Star Trek chose Klingonese as the demonym as opposed to Klingonian or Klingonite. Even Portuguese has an otherworldly air, even though it’s a kissing cousin to Spanish. Certainly Togolese and Congolese, which follow no orthographic logic in their formation, describe to me dense, inscrutable people.

But the origins of the suffix ­-ese are not so exotic to European folk. They come to English (as so many words do) from the French ­­-aise. Examples: Lyonnaise, hollandaise, and mayonnaise. No American is going to call mayonnaise exotic.

Thinking of demonyms for people from China brings up a suffix I didn’t cover last time: –man. Chinaman once carried the same neutral color as Englishman or Frenchman, only to gain its offensive tone the more it was spat instead of spoken. As you can see, what’s interesting about Chinaman is that it adds the ­-man suffix to an unmodified place name instead of the descriptor demonym. Chineseman would be more consistent. Of course, this is all before we get to the possible controversies of using “man” to describe both men and women. So a man from Man (the Isle) is a Manxman. But so is a woman from Man.

 Otto E. Mezzo

From StraightNorth.com: 150 Business Jargon Fixes

When business writers resort to business jargon, it’s because they lack the time, creative energy or subject mastery to find a more exact word or phrase. 

No truer words have ever been spoken. While Lexicide has explored the far reaches of English language word usage, we started off decrying lazy, jargony, incorrect business writing. This article sums up 150 of the most common clichés in the workplace. We’ve covered awesome, bleeding edge, epic, evangelist, (most) unique, incentivize, leverage, utilize, and out of pocket. But what made me laugh in this piece was how many of these hoary expressions we use at my workplace. Not a meeting goes by without a deep dive and a granular drill down to mission critical action items at the end of the day.

Enjoy. https://www.straightnorth.com/company/marketing-resources/150-business-jargon-fixes/

On Demonyms (Part II)

In July, we started down the path to demonyms, beginning with your comments. But your comments, they’re only the beginning.

One question a number of commenters asked is “how are demonyms formed?” Why do some place names get -ian, others ­-ese, and still others ­-ish? That’s a good question, and like so many other orthographic oddities in English, the answer is unsatisfying. Basically, because English.

For example, Gary asked where the demonyms Mancunian and Glaswegian (for, respectively, Manchester and Glasgow) came from. Manchester is simple. Its old Roman name was Mancunium. That name was (supposedly) adapted from the native Celtic name for the locale, which was then further Latinized by adding ­-chester, which means “fort.” The suffix ­-chester is sometimes Anglicized -caster, as in place names like Doncaster or Lancaster – there one can see where our word castle derives.

And that’s Latin for you. In fact, this dead language probably has more influence on demonyms than any other. The suffixes –an­ and -ian are Latin. Wait, let’s list as many suffixes as we can:

-an/ian/anian/onion
-ard
-asque/esque
-ene
-egian
-eño
-er
-ese/-aise
-i
-ic
-ish
-ite

Notice something? With two exceptions, every one of those suffixed is Latin-derived. ­­-An and its variants was the most common Roman designator. –I designated tribes (for example, the Helvetii in Switzerland). All the others come from French or Spanish. Except or ­-er and -ite, from German and Greek, respectively.

That brings us back to Glaswegian. The etymology of Glasgow is pretty murky (because Scottish). The best anyone can say is that Glasgow roughly means “the green place.” If that’s the case (and we’re not saying it is), it correlates to Norway (the North place) and Galway (the place those crazy residents call Gaillimhe, because Irish), whose residents are – ready? Norwegians and Galwegians.

Wait, Otto, that makes no sense. For your analog to mean anything, Glasgow should be Glasway. It’s not.

Did I mention they were Scottish?

 Otto E. Mezzo

P.S. Yes, I will wrap this up next month.

 

 

Hey Girl

Fact: 90% of those who use “cognitive” guilty of 0% cognition

Big news broke today: Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong film deliberately omits the planting of the US flag on the Sea of Tranquility. But that fact itself is not the news. It’s Gosling’s quotation:

“So I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero… I’m Canadian, so might have cognitive bias.” 

Unlike Gosling, I am not a psychologist. No, I don’t know if the former Mouseketeer is one either, but he must be, because not many outside the psychology field have occasion to speak of cognitive biases, which, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, are defined as:

Systematic pattern[s] of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.

Whatever that means. Here’s a better definition from Chegg.com (an online textbook site):

Mistake[s] in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.

What a cognitive bias is not is a preference, affinity, or plain old bias based on your nationality. But why admit bias when cognitive bias sounds so much more high-minded?

Lex, who works in bioinformatics (and who studied artifical intelligence and neuroscience) also complained to me about the way his colleagues use cognitive dissonance. No, his colleagues are not brain scientists or behavioral therapists. They’re programmers. And no, they don’t mean the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. (That’s a little better, Wikipedia.) Here’s what they mean:

Want to experience cognitive dissonance? Try reading George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” while visiting Catalonia. (Macomb Daily)

However, when a heuristic fails and the player’s character dies, they experience cognitive dissonance between what they thought was going to happen and what actually happened. For a Fortnite player, this may be because they were hit by a sniper in what they thought was a secret hiding spot. (The Guardian)

Hey, that one’s relevant and all. Look, kids!

Or this one, from Jezebel, titled My Pussy Is on a Journey of Self-Discovery (yes, it’s SFW):

The cognitive dissonance created by her freshly shorn bod supporting an Elizabethan neck ruff made of soft fur is gone. 

So just as cognitive bias is just a fancy word for biascognitive dissonance is a high-falutin’ way of saying dissonance, or to put it in even more prosaic terms, Whoa! Didn’t expect that!

But you should. Studies show 90% of people you meet think their vocabulary is more learned than it really is. And that’s a fact.

See also: Impedance mismatch

 Otto E. Mezzo, suggested by Lex

P.S.: Yes, I know I promised to elaborate on demonyms this month. Enjoy the cognitive dissonance.

References (lots of ’em!):

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2018/08/29/first-man-neil-armstrong-film-fails-fly-flag-us-patriotism/

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

https://www.chegg.com/homework-help/definitions/cognitive-bias-13

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

https://www.macombdaily.com/opinion/sleepwalking-into-nationalism/article_cecfa7e8-292a-5989-8089-000b32226519.html

https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/aug/29/why-cant-people-stop-playing-fortnite

https://jezebel.com/my-pussy-is-on-a-journey-of-self-discovery-1828703930

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

On Demonyms (Part 1)

I asked my social media friends, “What are your favorite demonyms?” I expected at least one person to ask for a definition – alas, no one afforded me the opportunity to lord my superiority. Curse you, Google.

Just in case you don’t know, and because I’m champing (not chomping) at the bit to tell you, a demonym is the descriptive word designating where one is from. American for someone from America, Chinese for a resident of China, Irish for a citizen of Ireland and so on. Why are some demonyms formed with -an, others with ­-ese, and yet others with –ish? That we will explore in next month’s article.

For now, here are your responses, bad jokes and all.

Manhattanite Gary of course went straight for the UK irregulars: Mancunian and Glaswegian. The suffixes –nian and –wegian are not typical. But they’re also not singular. More next month.

Bostonian (Massachussetian?) and occasional guest writer Lylah proffered Accidental – someone from Accident, Maryland, which prompted me to ask if someone from Truth or Consequences was a Consequential (or maybe Truthful?). No word on what the residents of Intercourse are called.

Floridian Andy went full-on irregular and pointed out Canuck and Hoosier have zero orthographic connection to Canada and Indiana. Why? he wondered. Why do the children cry?

Roanoker Billy tried to steer us into a galaxy far, far away by offering up Tatooiner, although I wondered if he was referring to the Tunisian locale (spelled Tatouine) where the Star Wars scenes were filmed. Andy took the bait, but I shut that down before all geekdom exploded, noting that fictional demonyms almost always follow established rules (Klingonese, Andorrian, Corellian).

So Andy got back down to Earth with Earthlings. Virginian Jan chimed in with Québécoise, and Ilene loves Yooper (someone from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) and Liverpudlian. Being a Jaxson herself, it’s no wonder Ilene gravitates to irregular demonyms.

Former North Carolinian Jeff got us back to reality with Durhamite, highlighting another common suffix. Los Angeleno Scott concluded by lamenting there is no good demonym for someone from Connecticut. Considering that’s where he grew up, he should know.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Update: Ilene reminded me she is not a Jaxson (someone from Jacksonville, Florida), but a Saint Augustinian.

Sticks, Stones, and Words that Hurt (maybe)

More than a year ago, faithful reader Anne the English Teacher suggested we tackle words with sinister origins – she started with denigrate, a word meaning to “criticize unfairly; disparage” (Oxford). The origin of the word is clear:

Late Middle English (in the sense ‘blacken, make dark’): from Latin denigrat- ‘blackened’, from the verb denigrare, from de- ‘away, completely’ + nigrare (from niger ‘black’). (Oxford)

Anne’s concern is that the very word denigrates black (that is, African-descended) people by associating their skin color and racial signifier with impolite behavior. It goes without saying this can be a problem when it comes to black:

Europeans called Africa “The Dark Continent” for years, partially for its impenetrable geography, but also because of its dark-skinned denizens. That epithet lingered on well into the 20th century – the Busch Gardens African-themed park in Tampa went by The Dark Continent until the 1990s. Whether you think of darkness or blackness as evil or simply mysterious, the association is one of otherness, something to be wary of.

Could the same argument be made for white? Whitewash can be a negative word, as can whiteout. I think it’s safe to say, though, that these two words don’t make European-descended people shudder when they think of a sudden snowstorm.

But do black people shudder when they hear denigrate, considering most English speakers don’t know the origin? By the same token, do women recoil at hysteria or southpaws when they read the word sinister in my opening paragraph? I think there’s a reason that these words continue on with little controversy (outside college campuses), where an equally innocent word like niggardly does not.

Guest writer Lylah Alphonse and Otto advised against using the word, even if the former head of the NAACP didn’t have a problem with it. (“You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding,” he said, earning Julian Bond a Lexicide Lifetime Achievement Award.) Even though it sounds like a racial slur, niggard is not – it’s not even etymologically derived from the Latin for “black.” However, I reflexively shudder when I hear it, as I do when I hear chink used to mean a break or flaw, even though I know it’s meant innocently.

But denigrate, hysterical, and sinister don’t seem to stoke the same disgust in decent folk as established slurs or even words that sound likes slurs. Then again, it’s questionable whether most people of color get upset when they hear blackguard, blackmail, or blackball. I’m Chinese-American, and while I’m not cool with Yellow Peril or yellowface, I don’t think twice about yellow journalism or yellow-bellied. But that’s me.

Anne and Spike Lee make a good point, one that Lexicide cleaves to – words have meanings, and the meanings mean something. If you’re the sort who refuses to use black mark in a sentence, maybe you should wave off denigrate, even if its origin was not meant as a slam against black-skinned people. Ultimately, Safire’s maxim (“Never use a word sure to sow confusion.”) and the advertising copywriter’s axiom to “know your audience” should reign supreme.

Otto E. Mezzo

See also Lylah Alphonse’s Lexicide article, which is about words that people think are offensive but are not, sort of the mirror image of this article.

Reference: Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, 1992

Forte

A while back (four years ago, actually!), we covered two words that describe one’s strengths: bailiwick and wheelhouse. We recently had a request to address another synonym: forte.

Forte? No one uses that one wrong. Ah, our intrepid reader said, but everyone pronounces it wrong.

Does Lexicide cover mispronunciations? I thought we only cited misuses, and certainly never misspellings (unless they led to or were the fruit of bad usage). Oh, what the heck. It’s a slow month.

So how does one pronounce forte, meaning strength (as in “haughty finger-wagging is my forte.”) The word is derived from French, which also gives us fortForte is the feminine form of “strong,” and it’s pronounced the same as the masculine, with a silent T and sounding similar to the number following three.

But this being English, that will never do. No one expects us to say “Pedantry is my foooorrr.” Should I then pronounce it “fort”? Closer, but not quite exactement.

Confronted with this quandary, most Anglophones take to borrowing the Italian pronunciation: “for-tay,” no doubt channeling childhood piano lessons. Only in music forte means “loud” rather than “strong.” This is confusing, n’est-ce pas?

The best explanation is that “for-tay” is a linguistic hypercorrection. English speakers see a final e on a French word and assume it’s pronounced “ay,” as if it had an accent aigu like consommé. Forte has no such accent, but neither does cache, meaning a hidden stash, yet many Americans hypercorrect it to “cashay.”

Only now we’re back to the commencement and a pedant’s dilemma: pronounce forte incorrectly and be wrong or pronounce it properly and be misunderstood. Given Safire’s maxim, I fear we have to throw our chapeau in with the first option. Hey, at least we ugly Americans attempt to give foreign loan words their due pronunciation, even if we fail. The British don’t even bother.

— Otto É. Mezzo

Oh look. Usage Limericks (at Merriam-Webster.com)

You attract more ants with honey than vinegar, so the saying goes. And as my kids will tell you, you can get more likes with humor than finger-wagging (a lesson we at Lexicide have yet to learn). Reader Eddie shared this amusing (not bemusing) set of mnemonic limericks from Merriam-Webster. In addition to bemuse, they cover unique, enormity, and incentivizeall Lexicide veterans.

We Made You a Bunch of Usage Limericks. You’re Welcome.

But not all is right here in PedantiaYes, the article contains a usage error itself. Did you spot it?

 Otto E. Mezzo

Begging the question (h/t to Jonah Goldberg)

Yesterday, Otto sent me this excerpt from Jonah Goldberg’s G-file:

As long-time readers know, from time to time I vent my spleen on the misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” Every day, someone on TV or radio gets it wrong…. So for the umpteenth time, “begging the question” involves assuming a premise — usually the premise in dispute — is true. It does not mean to raise a question.

Ever since our first article, I promised to address begging the questionwhose persistent misuse always irritated me. Nine(!) years later, the article remained unwritten, so I gather this was Otto’s not-very-subtle hint it was time for me to put up or shut up. Fair enough.

Except Mr. Goldberg pretty much did my work for me. In fact, he provides some examples of begging the question. My favorite (because it’s current and trendy):

Everyone’s eating Tide pods, because eating Tide pods is the hot new craze.

Another one I like, this one from Grammarist:

Freedom of speech is important because people should be able to speak freely.

And my favorite, from the New York Times:

YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.

In other words, Lindsay Lohan is newsworthy because she’s all over the news. Some other excellent examples can be found here.

So that begs the question (ha!) whence this misunderstanding comes? As Otto alluded to in a previous article, it’s a bad translation in this case, of petitio principii, Latin for “assuming the starting point.” but petitio can also be translated as “begging” or “petitioning.” I can’t find evidence that this mistranslation is responsible for the misuse of the phrase, but it makes sense. “Asking for the question” is literally what the illiterate do when they beg the question. Here’s an example from three hours ago, on BBC.com:

Permanent toilets will be built along 40 routes where there is limited access to facilities… AA president Edmund King said the investment was “welcome relief” but it “begs the question about facilities for their passengers”.

As you can see, many have covered this incorrect usage. There’s even a whole website devoted to it! So I’ll leave you the links, along with my plea to beg the question correctly forthwith. After all, the world needs fewer lexicides and more logical fallacies.

— Lex

P.S.: The Los Angeles Times has a likely culprit for the proliferation of begging the question‘s lexicide. From a January 25, 2018 column:

Years ago I wrote in this space that I don’t recall ever hearing someone use “beg the question” to mean “raise the question.”…

… Lately I hear “beg the question” every week or two, and it’s always used to mean “raise the question.” All of a sudden, it seems this usage is everywhere.

What changed? Easy. I started watching television news.

References:

Jonah Goldberg’s G File at National Review: http://www.nationalreview.com/g-file/456069/conservatives-political-center-gravity-space-between-us

http://begthequestion.info/

Grammarist: http://grammarist.com/rhetoric/begging-the-question-fallacy/

New York Timeshttps://afterdeadline.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/25/begging-the-question-again/

Examples from Texas State’s Philosophy Department:   http://www.txstate.edu/philosophy/resources/fallacy-definitions/Begging-the-Question.html

“Mayor of London to spend £6m on toilets for bus drivers”, BBC News, 13 February 2018:   http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-43048596

Grammar Girl: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/begs-the-question-update?page=1

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

http://www.latimes.com/socal/burbank-leader/opinion/tn-blr-me-aword-20180125-story.html

Here were false etymologies (only a year late)

Facebook. It’s for old people, so my teenaged son tells me. It’s so senior-oriented, in fact, it offers a feature called Memories. See what you posted one year ago, two years ago, ten years ago – because of course you don’t remember. I SAID, “YOU DON’T REMEMBER!”

But sometimes Memory Lane is a great place to be. Last January, I solicited suggestions for your favorite false etymologies – backronyms, folk etymologies, etc. Well, I never got any, so I let the issue drop (and nursed no hurt feelings, I swear). But I shouldn’t have, because while no one commented on the website or on Lexicide’s Facebook page, quite a few of you added comments on my personal MyFace page. Thanks to Memories, they came back to me last week!

Let’s start with D.C. Dave, who offered up two false etymologies linked to people: nasty and crap. Nasty supposedly originated with political cartoonist Thomas Nast (who invented the Republican elephant and Democrat donkey, in addition to the caricature of Uncle Sam we know so well). Not true – the word long pre-dated the 1800s, when Nast employed his cutting, nasty wit. Likewise, crap comes to us from the Dutch krappe, not the toilets promoted by Thomas Crapper.

Dave also pointed out that butterfly is in no way a confusion of flutter-by. Thanks to L.A. Scott for reminding us this transposition of initial consonants is called a Spoonerism in honor of the Revered William Spooner, its most famous practitioner.

L.A. Scott then noted that Azusa does not derive from “Everything from A to Z in the USA.” While that was a promotional phrase used by the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the name comes from an ancient Amerindian place name. (Scott also claimed “his heart broke when [he] found out it was a retcon.” Here’s a tissue, Scott.)

Philly-based writer and frequent contributor Andrew had a slew for us: tip from “To Insure Promptness” (heard that one), posh from “Port Out Starboard Home” (also heard that one), and E. J. Korvette from Eight Jewish KORean war VETs. I had never heard of E. J. Korvette or the folk etymology, but Wikipedia and Snopes pointed me in the right direction.

Riffing off Azusa, Andrew also chimed in that Yreka, California, did not originate with the word BAKERY read in reverse, Mark Twain’s claim notwithstanding. Also that 2001: A Space Odyssey’s* HAL 9000 was not so named because the letters HAL directly precede IBM by one alphabet space. I had heard that one and it never made sense. If HAL is the descendant of IBM, shouldn’t it be the JCN 9000? Anyway, HAL is a contraction of Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. That comes straight from Arthur C. Clarke. Take it up with him.

To finish, Airworthy Andy the Floridian pilot reminded Christians and non-Christians alike that IHS never stood for “In His Steps” or “In His Service,” as some claim (the Him being Jesus of Nazareth). The Christogram IHS long pre-dates modern English anyhow – the early Christians used IHS as a shortened form of Jesus’ Greek name, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (S being the Latin form of the Greek letter sigma). And yes, this is likely where the blasphemous utterance “Jesus H. Christ” originates.

So our thanks for all your contributions, only a year late. Ah, Memories!

– Otto E. Mezzo

*Does it seem weird to write about the events in 2001: A Space Odyssey in the past tense, since 2001 is, like, seventeen years ago? Yes. Yes, it is.