Category Archives: commentary

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.

Unlawful fornicators

Here be false etymologies! (Submit yours!)

Warning: R rated language herein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otto E. Mezzo

*I never do this.

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

 

David and Goliath

David and Goliath by Titian

David and Goliath by Titian

So this headline came up in my news feed:

Yesterday in Maine, David beat Goliath

The story is not important (it’s about grassroots gun rights groups prevailing against billionaire Michael Bloomberg). What stopped me cold was the headline. Let’s recap the original source material.

In 1 Samuel chapter 17, Goliath is the champion of the Philistines, Israel’s mortal enemy. His height is given as “six cubits and a span,” which is almost three meters (or 9 feet 9 inches) tall. Some manuscripts give his height as “four cubits and a span,” which at 6 feet 9 inches/two meters is still impressive. Suffice to say, the man is a beast. He taunts the army of Israel every day, challenging any one of their warriors to single combat. No one bites until David, visiting his older brothers on the front lines, picks up the gauntlet. The plucky shepherd from Bethlehem meets the heavily armored and armed Goliath on the field of battle, equipped with only a sling and five stones. He only needs one. David fells Goliath with one rock to the noggin, then slices off the giant’s head for good measure. Israel wins.

Anyone who’s attended Sunday School, watched Veggie Tales, or grew up in the Western Hemisphere knows this story. Here’s something else everyone knows: David won.

David and Goliath has become such shorthand for the little guy taking on big business/big government/big money, that people forget the outcome of the original battle. Rather than ironic, this headline just reads as “so what?”

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, people are rethinking the idea that David was the underdog. He did have the Almighty on his side, after all. Which is probably why scrappy startups like to think of themselves as David.

Anyhow, we have no beef with David and Goliath as a metaphor for little guy vs. juggernaut. We do take exception to headline writers with no sense of history.

Otto E. Mezzo

References:

http://www.themainewire.com/2016/11/yesterday-maine-david-beat-goliath/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17

http://gladwell.com/david-and-goliath/

http://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/3-things-people-get-wrong-about-david-vs-goliath.html

 

Where have all the verbs gone? (a classic re-run)

In this month’s article, I quote a reader who pointedly asks “Why do people hate verbs?” I thought I would re-post this very early article from January, 2010. As a postscript, my family and I did move out to the country this summer, a culmination of our need to live a more verb-filled existence. – Otto

When I was in college (late 1980s), my roommate had book on his desk — it may have been The Rise and Decline of Nations. The cover always stuck with me. It showed a short, three-step platform similar to the Olympic medal stand, except it read as a staircase with one ascending step, one descending step and one apex. John Bull, the Union Jack hoisted forlornly over one shoulder, was stepping down from the apex. Uncle Sam, Stars and Stripes aloft, occupied the top. A Japanese salaryman, Rising Sun gripped in one hand, was poised on the ascending step. The image stuck with me for two reasons — first, because it’s what everyone assumed would happen in 1988; second, because it didn’t happen. So much for our prognosticative powers.

Today, the American business community still fears its fall from dominance. Millennial executives in casual shirtsleeves wring their hands over whom to watch. Will it be the Chinese? The Koreans? The Brazilians? In my estimation, it doesn’t matter. We are already on the path to inconsequence.

By “we,” I mean American corporations. The evidence of this is American corporate writing.

If words are a window into the soul, then our soul is dead — devoid of life and vigor — devoid of the simple sentence component that signals action, the verb. Have you noticed the straining effort corporate writers exert to avoid verbs? Why write “I uploaded the files using the FTP link you sent me” when you can proffer “File upload complete via FTP link per your instructions”? Even communication with customers has taken on a creepy, computery feel. I just finished a website for a global company who insisted “Please select an item by clicking on link” instead read “All item selections are via description link.” Does that sound clear to you? Does that even sound like you need to do anything? (And what’s with the abuse of the word via?)

2009 was a strange year. Some primal switch flipped in my psyche. It made me yearn for a tough, hardscrabble life where I would wrestle deer to the ground and haul the carcasses back to the cabin. It has made my wife desire a large tract of land to coax unwilling cereal grains and legumes from. We are white-collar urbanites who have never hunted or farmed or even dreamed of it. And we are not alone. More people I talk to at work and elsewhere — computer jockeys, artsy types, account managers — report the same stirring urges. Some zeitgeist is demanding action. Is it our sedentary work and lifestyle? Is it that we as a society are becoming soft, our every desire being serviced as we lounge in comfort? Is it because our institutions — our corporations, banks and governments — are failing us?

Yes to all. America was founded on risk and action. Why do we eliminate the verbs from our writing? Because of fear — fear of offending someone and fear of demanding action. Deleting our verbs means obliterating our essence. “I think, therefore I am,” but also “I am, therefore I act.” So 2010 brings a new manifesto to Lexicide: Resist! Act! Write! In doing so, we can fulfill E. M. Forster’s plea to “Connect! Only Connect!”

Lexicide gone pear-shaped: a snapshot of lousy, crummy words from World War I

A few months, ago, we asked for your favorite words and terms borrowed from the military. Reader Larry shared this Telegraph article with us, which offers up some revealing tidbits about phrases conjured up during the Great War:

Among the list of everyday terms found to have originated or spread from the conflict are cushy, snapshot, bloke, wash out, conk out, blind spot, binge drink and pushing up daisies.

A snapshot was a hastily aimed rifle shot. Lousy actually meant “infested with lice.” (Think about that when you want to quit your lousy job. You’re not an exterminator, are you?) Crummy follows the same pattern, only with crumbs instead of parasites. Binge and cushy reflect the crashing together of cultures in the trenches. Binge was a term apparently restricted to Lancashire, but spread quickly among troops. Cushy comes from khush (the Hindi word for pleasure) and originated with Indian soldiers serving with Britain.

My favorite revelation is the euphemism gone west for dying in battle. In the U.S.A., we talk of a situation going south when everything goes wrong. I don’t know why south is our compass heading for failure, except that south is “down” on a borealocentric map. It could also relate to being sold down the river, which for a slave in the American South meant a harsher life. The river they spoke of was the Mississippi, and downriver was due south.

Going south is a synonym for going pear shaped, which is the preferred term across the pond. Indeed, the Royal Air Force gets the credit for the term, but no one quite knows why. The two best explanations we’ve heard are: pear shaped refers to women, which are bad news; pear shaped refers to a poorly executed aerial loop – not round, not elliptical, but flat at the bottom. I think I’ll take the latter, as I don’t know many women who fancy themselves as troublesome or shaped like a Bartlett.

Sticking with the theme of bad things happening, Anne, our stalwart reader and teacher from North Carolina, added to the conversation thusly:

To “buy the farm,” meaning to die (which then becomes go out of business, cease to function, etc.) was a WWI term. A lot of young rural soldiers joined the army, each planning to use his pay to marry his sweetheart after the war and buy a little farm somewhere. The phrase became a cliché when one or more of them died, and their comrades mourned that perhaps he had bought the farm now (perhaps in heaven?).

As with much slang, dispute exists on the origins of buy the farm. World Wide Words cites Anne’s etymology as one of the more plausible sources. Snopes points out that to buy as a euphemism for dying dates back even further. Hence, to buy the farm means to lay claim to a piece of land – i.e., your grave.

– Otto E. Mezzo

References:
“The trench talk that is now entrenched in the English language,” The Telegraph
“Sold down the river,” Grammarphobia
“Go pear-shaped,” Not One-Off Britishisms
Fraser’s Phrases: “It’s All Gone Pear-Shaped, BBC America
To buy the farm,” World Wide Words
“Buy the Farm,” Snopes.com