Category Archives: commentary

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 latter. 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.

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