Category Archives: sightings

Egregious examples of vocabulary under assault in the mainstream media and elsewhere.

About that classical literacy…

Earlier this year, I bemoaned Western civilization’s ignorance of our cultural signposts (the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek and Roman myths and history). Behold, I give you the Leader of the Free World.

In the midst of the 2020 coronavirus epidemic, White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted this doctored image and macro text as the President faces criticism on his response.

“Who knows what this means…”? Clearly not this Wharton graduate.

Read also: https://theweek.com/speedreads/900761/trump-retweets-white-house-photo-fiddling-says-doesnt-know-what-means

The Atlantic: Corporate Buzzwords Are How Workers Pretend to Be Adults

Lex and I launched Lexicide 11 years ago to grouse about corporate buzzwords — particularly those that changed the meaning of existing words and thus killed the original word (hence our coinage “lexicide”).

Alas, corporate-speak is still with us. And this excellent Atlantic article lays out the reason why. Using words wrongly is a shibboleth, a sort of pidgin that lets everyone in the office know you’re one of them. It’s all for show, of course, as this paragraph makes clear:

The fact that buzzwords are a joke even to many of the people who rely on them suggests that work, and its language, is a kind of pretense. And speaking the language of work reminds people that they’re pretending. Graeber remembers the first time he and all his high-school friends shook hands, as kind of a gag. It became a recurring joke, as in “Oh, this is what adults do.” “I think people in these offices are permanently caught at that moment,” he says. We’re forever “closing the loop” on things because of a vague notion that this is what adults do.

Or as the anthropologist David Graeber says elsewhere in the article, “[A]ll-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything.”

Which circles back to Lex’s and my original pain point. Corporate writers and speakers really are pretending. They pretend they are experts in a subject, they pretend they care, and they certainly pretend they know what certain words mean. Whether from insecurity or con-artistry, it’s clear most of us in the business world are frauds, and corporate language is our sleight of hand.

Which is likely why no one cares they are misusing words. If it’s all a game of make-believe, then it doesn’t matter. More on that in the next article…

— Otto E. Mezzo

John McWhorter

McWhorter: English is Not Normal

We have featured linguist extraordinaire John McWhorter here before. We would cite him more, but linguistics, including but not limited to grammar, is not our bag. Lexicide dishes on poor word usage, not bad spelling or conjugations.

But this article, offered up by pastor and good doctor of letters Jim, kinda sorta covers all three:

In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal….

Also:

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it….

Which leads Dr. McWhorter to ask:

Why is our language so eccentric? Just what is this thing we’re speaking, and what happened to make it this way?

He then proceeds on a tiny history lesson, touching on loanwords and couplets, which Lexicide also covered. It’s a great read, whether you love English or loathe it.

English is Not Normal by John McWhorter

Seen in WaPo: “splitting the baby”

Several moderates have privately pined for other options, including a censure vote they know they’re unlikely to get. Others have even considered what one moderate called “splitting the baby”: backing one article of impeachment but not the other to try to show independence from the party.

The Washington Post article is behind a paywall, so here is the MSN reprint for those who aren’t subscribers:

House Democrats brace for some defections among moderates on impeachment of Trump

As we discussed in our article on the phrase, most people use splitting the baby when they really mean splitting the difference. That seems to be the case here, with some politicians trying to have it both ways by voting yes on one impeachment article and no on another.

But wait. You could argue they have an intractable problem and need an unorthodox solution. It is possible their waffling will give Speaker Pelosi pause, possibly prevailing on her to call off impeachment (not likely), or else put enough threat in the air for President Trump to resign (even less likely). Recall that Solomon’s genius was not actually splitting the baby, but threatening to split the baby.

More likely, they know they have two masters to please and want to have it both ways. That being the case, they truly are trying to split the difference, as opposed to bisecting an infant. Good luck in today’s political climate. The one upside? According to the article, these fence-sitters are actually thinking about the impeachment articles. That’s more than most of us are doing.

– Otto E. Mezzo

Ukraine or The Ukraine?

Last month, we addressed which Latin spelling you should use: Kyiv or Kiev. Both have shown up in the U.S. press a lot more since the city figures large in a certain inquiry. One other linguistic bagatelle that makes an appearance amidst the political maneuverings is what to call Kyiv‘s country. Is it The Ukraine or simply Ukraine?

This question interests me since I studied Russian in college. What’s interesting is the Russian language (and the Ukranian language for that matter) lacks both indefinite and definite articles, so “The Ukraine” is an impossible construction.

What is possible in Russian is using the spatial preposition на as opposed to в. While many articles on the subject simplify the two by defining на as “on” and в as “in”, this is not strictly accurate. You use the preposition на (pronounced “na”) when speaking of general place concepts (“He is на concert. She is на market.”). The word на is also used for compass directions (“You will find polar bears на the North.”). To designate a physical place with real borders, Russians use в (pronounced “v”). This applies to all cities and states (“I live в Moscow. You studied в The United States.”).

Except Ukraine. During the Cold War The Kremlin would often speak of going на Ukraine, as if it were a concept, not a real place with real history. Ukranians know this, and they don’t like it. What does на have to do with The? Somehow when this diminishing made its way to English, it manifested itself in the definite article.

(Nina Jankowicz, who provided the very helpful pronunciation guide on Kyiv, has a parallel take on “The Ukraine“. Read her explanation here.)

As an aside, the whole linguistic journey from на украине to The Ukraine is very strange, and I have no idea who to blame. Several other countries use names that start with The, although these are either plural descriptors (The United States of America, The Netherlands) or archaic references to regions rather than sovereign states (The Sudan, The Congo). The one exception is The Gambia, or The Republic of The Gambia, as it is more formally known. Another observation: French (the other foreign language I know) routinely inserts the definite article in front of country names, which is why you say “Vive la France!” instead of “Vive France!

Anyhow, if the Foreign Policy article I cited is credible, “The Ukraine” is not only incorrect, but also offensive to the Ukranians. If you want to keep your Ukranian friends and business contacts, don’t say or write it.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

References:
foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/05/ukraine-name-insult-war-russia-geography/(opens in a new tab)
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-ukraine/2019/09/26/9c32e3be-dfcd-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html

Chicken Kyiv and Beijing Duck

Like most Americans, I have followed the impeachment inquiry against President Trump with some interest – some, but not much. (Does that make me disinterested? Never!) What has caught my eye was the Latin alphabet transliteration Kyiv for the Ukranian capital city. What gives? I thought it was Kiev.

This calls to mind the shift I had to make with Beijing. For much of my 20th century childhood, we referred to China’s capital city as Peking, only for the more “correct” transliteration of Beijing to creep into learned circles in the late 1980s. While we might reasonably blame careless Western hearing for the “mistake,” the spelling Peking comes courtesy of the imperial postal service, as do the legacy place names Chungking, Nanking, and Tsingtao, all of which are preserved in the names of dishes, institutions, and beer. The People’s Republic of China established the Pinyin Romanization Beijing in 1958, so it only took thirty-odd years to filter out to the West.

Another place name I had to re-learn: Mumbai. The Indian megalopolis was officially Bombay until 1995, a name immortalized in a brand of gin, a Police song, and the nickname Bollywood. The Indian government changed the English spelling to better reflect the native pronunciation and shed vestiges of the colonial past. (For those of you who followed my demonym series, a resident of Mumbai is a Mumbaikar.)

So Kyiv or Kiev? CNN favors Kiev while FoxNews hews to Kyiv. The New York Times seems to go back and forth. The Washington Post is firmly in Kyiv’s camp, and even provides this handy guide to the “correct” pronunciation of the name, the correctness depending on whether you prefer the modern Ukranian pronunciation (Київ, pronounced like this) or the Russian Киев, which is a lot easier for Anglophones and will undoubtedly persist in Chicken Kiev and The Great Gate of Kiev (both Russian creations). But like Bombay, Kiev is a scar from an imperial past, one that even persisted beyond the czars – Stalin killed roughly ten million Ukranians in the Holodomor. Understandably, the newly independent Ukraine preferred the world use their city name rather than the Russian version, and made it official in 1995. I think I’ll go with the Ukranians on this one. I may even try out the authentic pronunciation (I’m used to stares by now).

But by all means, order your Chicken Kiev. Unless you’re trying to lose those Thanksgiving pounds. In which case you should also wave off the Crab Yangon.

References:
https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/18/politics/david-holmes-to-testify-thursday/index.html
https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sondland-bursts-the-perfect-bubble
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/ambassador-ukraine-corruption-acid-impeachment.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/ambassador-ukraine-corruption-acid-impeachment.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/us/politics/kiev-pronunciation.html

Whoa or Woah? (From WSJ)

The Wall Street Journal thought this was earth-shaking enough to publish a whole article on:

Tales of ‘Woah’ Have Oldsters Saying ‘Whoa’

For Benjamin Hall, there is only one way to spell the word “whoa.” And it’s not in the dictionary.

Mr. Hall, a 16-year-old high school junior from Huntsville, Texas, spells out w-o-a-h in social media posts or text messages to friends when he wants to convey surprise or amazement. He doesn’t care that most dictionaries list only whoa as the proper spelling.

In fact, for Mr. Hall, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who write woah, and “old people.”

“W-h-o-a, that just doesn’t make sense,” he says. He compared it to using the word icebox instead of refrigerator. “It makes me think of older teachers. It just comes off as a little odd.”

For what it’s worth, my two teenagers think WOAH is illiterate. “It’s clearly WHOA,” they say. Then again, we live around horses.

Leverage, revisited

Our partner company leverages outside technical resources to support their initiatives…

The ability to leverage their global retail fulfillment offering…

We believe that a best-of-breed approach that leverages our IT tools will offer the most flexibility to meet long-term global expansion plans.

We leverage our best practices at our partner facilities. 

I am officially over leverage.

I had to edit a document containing the above passages today, and I am less sure than ever what leverage actually means. In 2009, I lamented how people use the word as a flowery substitute for “use.” Now, I’m not sure.

It sounds like something is happening beyond simple use or deployment. But what? How does a best-of-breed approach relate to a technology stack? At some point, I start to wonder if my colleagues are really just stringing buzzwords together.

I did a quick search to see if other writers are as bothered as I am. They are, although seemingly more because leverage is more properly a noun, not a verb:

Plain old lever still has its uses as a verb. As for leverage as a noun, advantage can replace it in most figurative contexts.

All these entries insist the verb form is lever, not leverage.

Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?

The title says it all.

I’ve chosen ‘leverage’ to appear in the title of a blog about clear business communication, its use as a verb being symbolic of the obfuscation, dissembling and cleverly disguised cluelessness that passes for much corporate speak these days.

Wow. A whole blog devoted to exposing the fraud that is leverage.

I don’t care much that leverage crosses the mythical line separating noun from verb. Many words, from Shakespeare’s time and before, have identified first as nouns, then verbs. (More concerning is the illiterate trend of verbs becoming nouns – words like ask and spend.)

What Lexicide cares about are words used carelessly and stupidly. I spend hours each day writing and editing. Why would I want to waste my workday spitting out vapid buzzwords when I could offer sentences that make an impact on readers (or, in modern parlance, impact readers)? Here at Lexicide, we’ve offered a few theories. My new favored hypothesis is just that people are idiots. I think marketing god Seth Godin says it best:

The more you say leverage, the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Demonyms, according to the U.S. government

A friend sent me this:

These are the official state demonyms according to the U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual. The government has a reputation for being inefficient, wasteful, and obstructionist. But orthographically incompetent?

My first question is why an Alaska resident is Alaskan but an Alabama denizen is Alabamian. Shouldn’t it be Alabaman? Likewise Floridan?

At least they know what Florida residents call themselves (Floridian). That’s more courtesy than Michiganders get, being assigned the clunky Michiganian as an adjective. But the real sin is “Hawaii resident“! Does that even count as a demonym? A million-and-a-half Hawaiians would disagree.

The one upside to this egregious abuse of state pride is it answers an important question, one we posed in our first demonym-themed article: What do you call someone from Connecticut? We’re sorry we asked.

On Demonyms, Part 1
On Demonyms, Part II
On Demonyms, Part C
A Demonym diversion
Demonyms, the final words
Demonyms, one more final word

NPR: Our Language Is Evolving, ‘Because Internet’

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/31/747020219/our-language-is-evolving-because-internet

Friend, reader, and prolific writer Christina shared this article, an interview with linguist Gretchen McCulloch on her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. It’s well worth reading, and piques my interest in the book. Some takeaways:

On LOL

There’s a difference between how these different groups use “LOL” … the acronym which initially stood for “laughing out loud.” And if you talk to people in some of these older generations who are, you know, have been using the Internet for 20 years but came online in a less social space, they see it: OK, here’s an acronym; they’re told it is an acronym; it must mean “laughing out loud.” … And for the youngest group of people, there’s no literal meaning left to LOL at all.

How the period gains new meaning

… [I]n an informal context, you don’t need the period anymore to distinguish between one sentence or one phrase and the next because you’re just going to hit “send” in a chat context… But the problem is if you say “OK, sounds good.” — and you add that note of seriousness — now you’ve got positive words and serious punctuation, and the clash between them is what creates that sense of passive aggression.

Who cares about internet grammar?

If we analyze the language on the Internet, we can analyze so many different types of languages, so many different ways of talking and get a bigger picture of what it means to be a person — rather than just what it means to be the type of person who writes a book.

Lexicide has touched on the shifting meaning of LOL and other words, and I find McCulloch’s whole exploration fascinating. I have heard that we learn more about street-level societies from graffiti than from official records. Many ancient (and modern) cultures keep no records of events unflattering to the ruling class, and the volume of words generated by common people (in receipts, letters, and diaries) would provide a richer, fuller picture of, say, the Roman empire — if we could read Vulgar Latin.

The snob in me disdains the devolution of language due to texting and email. But there’s linguistic gold in them thar hills. What does it say about us that we find periods passive aggressive in their finality? Or that we curate mistakes to look more like they came from a typewriter than a phone? It’s these fascinating questions that keep us publishing Lexicide.

Otto E. Mezzo