Category Archives: sightings

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

NPR: Only 3% of Hispanics use Latinx. 76% haven’t even heard the term.

And just like clockwork, the same day we published our jeremiad on Latinx, out comes this NPR story:

‘Hispanic,’ ‘Latino,’ Or ‘Latinx’? Survey Says …

According to the story, only 3% of Hispanic Americans surveyed use the term Latinx to describe themselves. As we reported yesterday, most Chicanos (how’s that for a flashback?) prefer Hispanic. But the true preference is to be called by their actual national origin (or their family’s national origin): Mexican-American, Salvadoran-American, and so on. That is, when they refer to it at all.

Why even have a catch-all term like Hispanic or, in my case, Asian? (Incidentally, both groups have historically been classified as White. More on that another time.) When uppity Euro-Americans call me out for being a “hyphenated American,” I remind them I didn’t ask to be distinguished by the national origins of my ancestors. If not for government forms or worrying if the Asian designation would deny my son admission to college, I might never have occasion to use the term. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The NPR story also seems surprised Latinx hasn’t caught on after 20 years. Considering the term was the province of academics, we are not the least bit shocked. The man and woman on the street doesn’t care what advanced degree holders think, at least when it comes to language. The clunky, overthought attempt at inclusivity that is Latinx not only has no history, you can’t spell it (some have tried LatinX) and you sure as heck can’t say it.

 Otto E. Mezzo

Latinx

We don’t like linguistic flights of fancy. (If you’re surprised by that, you haven’t been following us. Hey, you can rectify that right now!) Words made-up on the fly, erroneous words made canon, incorrect usages legitimized—these rankle us and we make no apologies for that. No, we’re not really prescriptivists. We think English is better off without an Académie anglais (irony, folks!). But we also think it would be better off if people used words in ways most people understand. Penultimate has only one definition, and yet people are afraid to use it for fear of being misconstrued. The only fear we should have is the fear of being shunned from polite society, of being denied meat and drink, for, say, using solvency to mean “solving cases.”

We also don’t like wading into political waters. We are proud of our political stances and make no apologies for them, either. But we’ve found Americans get overly invested in politics-as-identity, to the point that the weight of an opinion, analysis, or scientific finding is determined solely by the author’s politics (at least in the reader’s mind). We think this is a sign of feeble thinking. If William Safire declares surety means “guarantee” instead of “certainty,” it carries the same weight as if Noam Chomsky says it. (Except that Safire is dead. Details.)

Two months ago, we covered the (somewhat) political minefield of Black vs black (and also white vs White), as put forth by. We ended up agreeing with Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s thesis. How about Latinx?

How about it. Behold, an October, 2019, statement from then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

And then…

Liberalism’s Latinx ProblemThe New York Times

Progressives, Hispanics are not ‘Latinx.’ Stop trying to Anglicize our Spanish language – USA Today

Warren Turns Back on ‘Latinx’ in Major Campaign Departure – Washington Free Beacon

While I had read Latinx in print, Elizabeth Warren was the first person I’d heard pronounce the word. Or try to. I know many of us were jarred hearing “Latinecks.” Maybe we were expecting “Latinks” Like minx or Manx.

Yes, kitty, it doesn’t sound right to us either. Maybe that’s because it’s a clunky, unnatural construction made up simply to avoid an age-old “problem”—gendered language.

This is not the first time English speakers have tried to navigate this. In ancient Greek, Αδελφοι (adelphoi) means “brothers”, but can also encompass “brothers and sisters.” If there are 999 women in a room and one man, you would address them as Αδελφοι. Some progressive Bible translations try to get around this by substituting “believers” or “people,” but this negates the familial model St. Paul and others are encouraging the early church to adopt. The English Standard Version goes, in my estimation, too far back in the other direction, sticking to “brothers” even when context makes it clear women are present.

So that’s the needle Latinx tries to thread. And clearly whoever came up with the term was wearing asbestos work gloves while doing it. Spanish speakers have never had a problem understanding Latinos includes women, and Mr. Sopo even goes so far as to accuse Warren of Anglicizing his language. I would agree with him, except English doesn’t mangle words with a misplaced X, either. Oh wait.

How The Letter “X” Creates More Gender-Neutral Language

Rory Gory, Teen Vogue contributor extraordinaire aside, does any modern English speaker use Mx. or womxn? Apart from the gender politics of those words, how do you pronounce them? Are they even useful? I agree with (and have addressed) the usefulness of Ms., and clearly the majority of Anglophones take the same view. Time will be the judge of Mx. and its ilk. As for Latinx, even Senator Warren has abandoned it:

Otto E. Mezzo

P.S. Most Latinos prefer “Hispanic” anyway.

https://medium.com/@ThinkNowTweets/progressive-latino-pollster-trust-me-latinos-do-not-identify-with-latinx-63229adebcea

UPDATE: Well well, this very day comes this insightful report from NPR.

Straw Man

A straw man dummy impaled by arrows

STRAW MAN: “An intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.” – Oxford English Dictionary

STRAW MAN PROPOSAL: “A straw-man proposal is a brainstormed simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion of its disadvantages and to provoke the generation of new and better proposals.” – Wikipedia

When I first entered the corporate world, I heard many terms that had established meanings in business (sometimes due to wrong usage) which contradicted established definitions (see postmortem) or were so uncommon I confused them with similar words (see incent). I’ve been dealing with straw man proposals for some time now, but when I first heard it, I wanted to shout, “AW HELL NAW! DEATH TO LOGICAL FALLACIES!” But decorum and experience with business jargon stayed my tongue. And my career is the better for it.

That young marketing director had only encountered straw man fallacies—the debate tactic where you substitute an easy-to-defeat alternative for your opponent’s thesis. From recent coronavirus-centered (of course) news:

As the fall winds on, the teacher unions risk being seen as tone-deaf given the expectations for other essential employees—especially if Trump loses his re-election bid, robbing the union leaders of their familiar straw man.

“Are Teachers Unions Overplaying Their Hands?” The Dispatch, July 31, 2020

Political agnosticism aside, Donald Trump is pretty much the perfect straw man. Somewhere there is a tweet of his that is reckless, boorish, and topical enough for your argument. But chances are it will also be a non-sequitur, which is another logical fallacy altogether. Attacking “evil” Trump instead of the issue at hand is a straw man fallacy, just as to Trump’s supporters, the hypocrisy of the mainstream media, the UN, and House Democrats also serve as convenient straw men.

The term straw man proposal originates from the same source—namely, a dummy used for melee practice. While the fallacy accuses one of choosing the easily-won battle (as a great warrior said, “boards don’t hit back”), the proposal purposely sets up a weak proposal to find the flaws. Or more often, the term is used to describe a first draft the team is supposed to dissect. I guess straw man sounds more learned.

Straw man proposal as a term has some venerability, so I can let this one slide. Considering how uneducated most college graduates are on logical fallacies (evidenced by the absolutely worthless arguments I’ve encountered), there probably won’t be much confusion with the other straw man. Good thing they don’t hit back.

– Otto E. Mezzo

References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man_proposal
https://thedispatch.com/p/are-teachers-unions-overplaying-their

Black and White

Language changes. (If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a Lexicide.com.) And when language changes, it brings with it upheavals and gnashing of teeth. (Like what you read in 90% of our articles.) Most of the time, it’s because the shift is born of ignorance or caprice. Other times, though, more is at stake.

Now, as in every other time in history, the United States of America grapples with racial hatred. We are far from alone in this, and even though the streets of Minneapolis, Chicago, and Atlanta are on fire as I write, this is not the worst it’s been. I feel it’s important to keep that perspective. Americans did one time literally go to war over the status of Black Americans.

And there it is: Black. Not colored, negro, Negro, Afro-American, African-American or person of color. A recent article by Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that is as it should be. The NYU professor of philosophy and law wrote a June 18 article in The Atlantic titled The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black that made many excellent points.

Black pride was not one of them. He writes:

What complicates things is that, as a rule, capitalizing a word doesn’t convey elevation: We don’t rank Masonite over mahogany. 

Then:

A good reason to capitalize the racial designation “black,” then, is precisely that black, in this sense, is not a natural category but a social one—a collective identity—with a particular history. (“Race is psychology, not biology” is a formulation Du Bois once offered.) What’s more, the very label “black” plays a role in generating that identity.

In other words, Black when referring to a group of people carries meaning beyond skin color. In fact, Appiah leads the article by citing examples of “whites” with darker skin than certain “blacks.” Which reminded me of this exchange:

As loyal Lexicide readers know, Lex and I are empiricists; we believe the ordinary meaning of words is what matters. This is the position millions of boring, workaday people take. An apple is a fruit, hysteria is an unreasonable panic, blackmail is a crime of extortion. The man on the street cares not about the essential components of the word apple, nor does he recoil at the sexist origins of hysteria or equate blackmail exclusively with dark-skinned people. However, we do recognize that what you call groups of people matters. Because words matter. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a Lexicide.com.

So why Black and not African-American, which is/was the most recent designator? Appiah argues that not all Black people are descended from Africans. A better argument, to me, is it’s not how Blacks refer to themselves. I’m not Black, but that is how every one of my friends, colleagues, and bosses who is refers to him or herself, no exceptions.

As a side note, Oriental or Chinese was how my family and like folk referred to ourselves well into the eighties. Now we’re Asian. It’s short, easily understood, and horribly imprecise.

Or is it? Sure, a Turk or Russian is also an Asian. But when Americans speak of Asians, everyone knows they mean people of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese, or Singaporean descent. Now, we include Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis in there. That makes Asians kind of like pornography. Maybe you can’t define them, but you know ’em when you see ’em. And because others see us that way, we share a certain cultural experience as Asian Americans.

Likewise, anyone who has brown skin and tightly curled hair, regardless of whether their forefathers hailed from Senegal or Barbados, knows what it is to be Black. You are treated as Black, and other Blacks treat you as Black. Framed that way, Black is not an empirical signifier of a shade, but a linguistic container holding a whole universe of shared experience. It’s the perfect answer to the contention that Barack Obama isn’t our first Black president because he has just as much European blood as African. That’s true, but did his peers treat him as white? Does any person of color? No. That’s not a judgment, just a fact. If there were some condition that gave a 100% Anglo-Saxon dark skin, she would be Black, because that’s the orbit she would occupy in society.

“The point of the capital letter, then, isn’t to elevate; it’s to situate,” writes Appiah. And that’s why he argues also for White to be capitalized.

One reason that the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger prefers to capitalize the names of races is, she explains, “to highlight the artificiality of race,” by contrast to the seeming naturalness of color. A larger argument lurks here: Racial identities were not discovered but created, she’s reminding us, and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.

In other words, Black and White are not the same as green and red; they are not endemic to nature. And while there are definitive genetic differences between groups of people, these words refer not to genes, but to a host of expectations, reputations, and qualities—some fair, some not, some self-imposed, others conferred unwillingly upon us.

I might also address (reluctantly) the complaint that what you call Black people changes so much, why, I don’t know what the politically correct word is! Yes, it’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund and Black Lives Matter. What of it? A woman (or man) who marries and wishes to change her name is afforded the courtesy of her new name without argument. If White people decided they liked European-American or Bob, they can have it with no complaints from me.

Since I am a plain language advocate, I did not expect much from this essay. But the arguments Dr. Appiah makes are thought-provoking and logically airtight. And in the end, he is right.

Otto E. Mezzo

Uncertainty in certain times

You position at the company is in review as part of a potential downsizing effort and we are informing you it is not necessary.

A friend received this alarming email recently — because coronavirus lockdowns are not irritating enough. And this layoff notice is indeed irritating. Not because my friend lost his job (although that blows), but because of the wimpy, watery construction of this notice.

Now, I gladly repeat here that Lexicide is not a grammar site. But we do embrace clarity, and that is one of the reasons we urge you to choose the right word, not the one that will sow confusion. This email is confusion writ large.

We get it. You don’t want to feel bad. You want to protect your own feelings. Any jury would find this sort of self-preservation ample grounds to acquit you on the charge of atrocious writing, right?

For those of you who don’t read Lexicide regularly, or for those who don’t understand the rules of English (but I repeat myself), the problem in this alleged dismissal notice is an uncertain antecedent. An antecedent is the noun to which a pronoun* refers — e.g.; manager in the sentence “My manager knows he is an idiot.” In the email, it’s unclear whether it refers to position, the review itself, or even the downsizing effort. For a brief moment, my friend wondered if perhaps his firm had decided against staff cuts. Maddening. A simple re-ordering of this sentence would have helped:

As part of our downsizing effort, we reviewed your position and determined it was not necessary.

Still horrible, but at least it leaves no room for confusion. But it does commit the sin of using a verb — the company actually reviewed the position instead of the job miraculously finding itself in review. Verbs imply agency and action, and corporate folk like to think of bad things just happening instead of people causing them to happen. (“The gun went off,” “The knife went in.”)

Another problem I have with the way this company fired my friend is saying his position was unnecessary. It may well be true, but come on. They’re one shade away from saying my friend, with all his skills and experience, was unnecessary. Why not just call him redundant?

I have a revelation for companies and managers. People (employees, customers, partners, and the like) appreciate clear, direct statements. I know of no instance where someone has sued over a forthright termination. In fact, dodgy layoffs cause way more problems for companies than direct ones.

The problem, as I allude to above, is people want to protect themselves rather than serve their audience. To put it another way, they are selfish. To communicate clearly is to serve others. The tools are there for us to use: grammar, word choice, medium. In uncertain times, these tools provide us with certainty in communication. Use them.

— Otto E. Mezzo

*Antecedents are not always nouns. They can be verbs (Belinda uses bad grammar, just like Ralph does.), adjectives (Andrew Lloyd Weber is pretentious, which everyone knows.), and so on. But in those cases, the referring words are called pro-verbs, pro-adjectives, and so on.

Reference: https://dot.la/bird-layoffs-meeting-story-2645612465.html

The Chinese word for “crisis” is an opportunity to stop clichés before they happen

How’s your daily life dealing with the Chinese virus? No, I’m not talking about the Wuhan virus, SARS-CoV-2, novel coronavirus, or whatever name you choose based on your political leanings. I’m talking about the viral spread of this notion that the Chinese — those clever sages of the East! — so craftily see “opportunity” in every crisis.

Don’t know this one? For you millennials, the observation is that

“In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.”

— John F. Kennedy

https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/life-of-john-f-kennedy/john-f-kennedy-quotations#C

Kennedy apparently cited this notion aplenty. In fact, he gets the “credit” for popularizing this idea, repeated ad nauseam by business leaders and politicians of all political persuasions.

You can see the appeal of this linguistic construction. If those inscrutable scholars of the Orient can see a chance for success in bankruptcy, earthquakes, and global pandemics, you can too! Remember, business leaders! Twenty years in prison for wire fraud is not the end — it’s an opportunity.

Only, of course, it’s not true.

Here are the traditional characters for wei ji. (The simplified form is at the top of the article.)

While wei (the first character) does mean dangerous, ji does not mean opportunity. By itself, it means… nothing. The confusion (willful or otherwise) comes from ji being a component of ji hui (机会), the actual Chinese word for opportunity.

So this idea is as inaccurate as the canard that apropos and appropriate are the same word because they share similar sounding syllables, or the one that gives you license to use stagnant and static interchangeably because the first three letters are the same.

It’s a useful cliché in a uniquely American way. It’s relentlessly optimistic. It’s positive and forward-looking. But it’s still a cliché, just like everything people cite from Art of War. And fortunately, it’s a cliché that seems to have fallen from favor — not, I suspect, from overuse, but rather from the relentless fact-checking, Twitter-canceling, and fears of “cultural appropriation” one risks by publishing this trope.

Which I suppose is for the better. I fully expected blog posts and podcasts rallying the business world to see the opportunity in this current crisis. But whether from pessimism, political correctness, or wariness of clichés, no one seems to be peddling it.

Oh wait.

Inc.: How to Find Opportunity Within a Crisis

Otto E. Mezzo

For an amazingly thorough linguistic takedown of weiji, this is the article you’re looking for: http://pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html

References:
https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/life-of-john-f-kennedy/john-f-kennedy-quotations#C
https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/18/AR2007011801881.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004330.html
https://www.inc.com/maya-hu-chan/how-to-find-opportunity-within-a-crisis.html

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.

— 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