Category Archives: commentary

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

The Spawn of Brexit

We posed another question on Facebook:

Brexit is another hastily-contrived portmanteau, followed, I see, by a theoretical “Grexit.” But what if Germany leaves? Will it be a “Gexit” or “Dexit”? How about the Netherlands or Italy? Here’s your challenge, which will be featured in a Lexicide article: come up with portmanteau “leave” terms for each EU state. No points for “Finnish.”

The responses, like the Brits’ feelings over Brexit, were quick and strong. Erica, a Virginia-based designer, said: Czexit is really easy, but Czecede is fun. (Tom, an LA-based engineer, gleefully called out Czech, please!) Erica continued: Obviously, Latvacate. Goland? Andy, the Floridian pilot contributed Adiostria and Greeced Lightnin’. Gary, a playwright in NYC, offered Italeave, Latervia, and Belgone. Cannady, a NASA technical writer, wondered whence Lithuoutahere, Portugo, and And-out-the-dora before realizing Andorra is not in the EU. Erica came back with Republic of Byeprus, eliciting howls of derision from Otto, who wonders why the EU even admitted Cyprus, which is both geographically and politically of dubious European provenance.

So we had some fun playing with portmanteaux before Scott and Scott, both from Los Angeles and now banned from Lexicide (if I can figure out how), devolved the thread into a pun war involving defunct non-EU European nation-states. Fortunately, Lylah, a regular contributor and news magazine editor, pointed us to this Quartz article, but not before positing Outaly, The Neverlands, and Irelend.

And with that, we now make our Lexit.

Quartz: Possible names for EU exits for all members of the EU

Lexicide: The Portmanteau Word: It’s like a Turducken*!

Lexicide: From Slate.com: Death to “Bridezilla!”

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From The Wall Street Journal: How to Write Like Antonin Scalia

You’re reading that headline and now deciding whether to read an article celebrating the late conservative jurist. Stop deciding and read. Lexicide concerns itself only with words, meanings, and usage. We care not whether you are evangelical, atheist or socialist. We espouse neither utilitarianism nor political correctness. We are opinionated, yes, but only on the aforementioned topics. Besides, we link to this article because of its focus on words and how they change. That words have definitive meaning did inform Scalia’s thinking. On that, we can agree with him.

And besides that aside, the subject of this fascinating piece is not really Justice Scalia, but Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern English Usage. Ah, a man after our heart, and also a linguistic prescriptivist, as Lex and Otto are. Rather than a sourpuss elitist who frowns on “wrong” usage, Garner says of the term: “A correct definition, a more neutral definition, is somebody who thinks value judgments have a place in assessing language.”

Garner interviewed all the Supreme Court Justices, and this article cites not only Scalia’s brush with precision, but also Justices Kagan’s and Sotomayor’s opinions. Although the liberal justices are known for stretching the meanings of words to suit their goals, Scalia’s adherence to originalism has its perils, too. When confronted with a hypothetical passage revolving around nimrods, Scalia insisted that the classical, Biblical definition was the only one known:

When Mr. Garner posed that thought experiment, Justice Scalia reacted with disbelief. “He said, ‘There’s no way that anybody thinks a nimrod is anything other than a hunter.’ I said, ‘Your clerks, believe me,’ ” Mr. Garner recounts. “He called them in, one at a time, and just said, ‘What is a nimrod?’ And they would say things like ‘a dummy, an idiot.’ And he was aghast at this.”

So go the dangers of shifting language. What is a well regulated Militia? One that is sufficiently organized, trained, and equipped (1789 meaning) or one bound by statutory regulations (2016 meaning)?

Anyhow, read. It carries a caution for we prescriptivists that sometimes we can be caught with our robes down – and a story about Justice Kagan citing Zoolander in an opinion. Sorry, Scalia, you just can’t beat that. At least you introduced her to hunting. That makes you both nimrods.

References: http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-write-like-antonin-scalia-1468014582
Definition of Nimrod: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Nimrod

 

 

A disruptive innovation

Disruptive

DISRUPTIVE: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances.” — Wikipedia entry for disruptive innovation

Hype. It’s what keeps me and other marketing folks in bread. But lest you heap all the blame for hype on your marketing department and ad agencies, consider this: the most prolific generator of hype is often the face in the mirror. You claim everything — your business process, your product, you yourself — is unique, bleeding edge, a sea change in the industry. I have attended meetings where executives demand plans to copy a successful competitor, then crow about how they’re going to disrupt the business firmament.

I suppose if you’re an early adopter of some disruptive innovation, you could lay claim to being a disruptor. The trouble is, everyone claims to be a disruptor. And Harvard Business Review has a problem with that:

In our experience, too many people who speak of “disruption” have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do. Many researchers, writers, and consultants use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.

Okay, this is a word site, not a business blog, so I’ll let you read up on what truly makes a disruptive model here, here, and here. The purpose of Lexicide is to showcase misuses of the word, such as this one:

Customer disdain for this ‘innovative and disruptive’ business model is only growing

Notice how carefully the quote avoids calling the subscription lingerie service a disruptive innovation. However, I’m sure Adore Me’s stakeholders were peeing in their panties with delight at the disruptive appellation. Ha. Anyone who lived through the Columbia House Record Club years knows how old the pay-each-month-because-you-forgot-to-cancel model is. Disruptive, my ass.

And anyhow, as the linked articles lay out, disruptive is not just plain old innovation. Like stakeholder and long tail, it has a specific, narrowly-defined business definition. Not that that will stop anyone from misusing the word.

Maybe it’s time we really disrupted the works. We could translate all our Powerpoint slides into Urdu. We could circulate all memos on cuneiform tablets. Or we could just correct our colleagues when they misuse words. Now that’s disruption I can support.

Otto E. Mezzo

References:
https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation
http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/01/economist-explains-15
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_innovation
http://finance.yahoo.com/news/customer-disdain-innovative-disruptive-business-000200667.html

Ambiguous headline makes debut

Lexicide reader Helen sent me this newspaper headline, which dates back to June, 2015. I can think of several words one might confuse with ambidextrous: ambivalent, ambiguous, even ambivert, The headline word the East Oregonian editor chose is not one of them.

Here’s some barely suppressed schadenfreude from the Daily News.

And here is the East Oregonian mea culpa.

– Otto E. Mezzo

P.S.: In case you wonder, amphi (Greek) and ambi (Latin) are indeed cognates. Both mean “double,” “both,” or “two” (amphi+biosdouble life, ambi+dexter = “both hands right”)

Spotted on the web: [Platform] Atheist

We have criticized agnostic as a synonym for disinterested, and if you disagree, you should read our article. True agnostics can be thoughtful and dedicated to their philosophy, so it’s a tad insulting to imply they just don’t care. My atheist friends might be even more offended that their belief is not only equated with agnosticism, but also with the same carelessness.

Platform AtheistNow, I know many people think agnosticism and atheism are the same, and to be sure, there is a term that covers both under one areligious umbrella: freethinker. But in case you didn’t know, an atheist (Greek a+theos = without god/gods) definitively rejects divinity, whereas an agnostic declares divinity is beyond our knowing. So an atheist is committed to a worldview — theoretically as committed as a good Christian, Jew, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian.

In that light, being platform atheistic is not the same as being platform agnostic. While an atheist may not evangelize for a specific platform or method, she has a hard opinion, even if that opinion is no platform exists. You see the problem here. Not believing in God doesn’t halt your software development. Good luck if you eschew all operating systems.

So our opinion is this malapropism arises out of the (ignorant) confusion betwixt atheism and agnosticism. Or perhaps from the religious fervor with which some developers hew to their chosen platform. This comment on the thread seems to comport with the atheist’s view of the faithful:

Platform Atheist2

Just don’t blindly use words unless you know what they mean!

— Otto E. Mezzo

Screencraft: 50 Words and Phrases that Screenwriters Get Wrong

One of the Lexicide staff writers used to work in Hollywood as a script reader. No, don’t applaud. It’s a terribly unglamorous job, he says. (Okay, fine, it was me.) Assistants at large agencies and production companies look for any way to eliminate scripts in their tall stacks of submissions. One easy trick is to trash any screenplay that bears a misspelled word or incorrect punctuation mark — or maybe one of these malapropisms. Lexicide is proud to have covered mute pointshoe inand case and point. I would add change tact, which seems to carry the same crunky justification as free reign (“You’re letting the person have control, like a monarch, and you have to be tactful to change direction!”).

Inspired, I am now throwing out all memos or communications that misuse one or more of these phrases. Or if it doesn’t grab my interest in the first five pages. Come to think of it, what works for Hollywood would be a boom for corporations! Er, I mean boon.

Read the article: https://screencraft.org/2015/12/03/50-words-and-phrases-that-screenwriters-get-wrong/