Category Archives: sightings

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

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.

Surety (spotted in the New York Times)

Even since before his inauguration, Mr. Trump’s rise has been characterized by an erosion of surety, bizarre and inscrutable subplots worthy of an airport-bookstore spy thriller, by epistemological questions about what is truth and what is fiction like no time in recent American history.

By the ghost of William Safire, what a paragraphInscrutable, epistemological… so much for writing to a sixth grade reading level.

We haven’t reported a sighting recently (not that there haven’t been any), so here it is, writ large: surety, which we covered four years ago. Why the Gray Lady did not choose the more certain certainty we cannot say. Perhaps they wanted to suggest Trump is eroding the guarantee past Presidents have made for stability and security. Not that he ran on any such thing.

As noted in our articlesurety can mean “certainty,” but since it has other meanings where certainty does not – well, let’s just say that erodes the surety that readers will cotton the writer’s meaning.

Otto E. Mezzo

References: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/trumps-presidency-upends-familiar-story-lines.html?_r=0

Surety

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

 

Call Center Spelling Alphabets, or Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I recently had to read my VIN (not VIN number) to an insurance call center representative. The conversation couldn’t have been more painful:

Me: Ready? One-H-N

Rep: N as in Nancy?

Me: Yes. One-H-N-C

Rep: C as in cat?

Me (starting over): Yes. One Hotel November Charlie

Rep: I’m sorry. WHAT?

Yes, frustrated with clarifying each and every letter, I resorted to the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, believing it to be universally understood. Wrong again. You doubt me? How many of these code words have you used?

nato-codewords

Unless you fly planes or are eligible for veteran’s benefits, your answer is likely none. Here are code words I have heard tossed about amidst the hold music:

call-center-aplhabet

So I wondered: where do call center reps and other civilians come up with their spelling alphabets? Is it random, as so often seems to be the case? It certainly isn’t informed by the military’s version, of which only the seldom-used Victor and X-ray appear.

The answer appears to come from the Thin Blue Call Center. Compare the ad hoc call center alphabet with the LAPD’s standardized spelling alphabet:

police

Now we see a pattern emerging. Most of the names, plus boy, seem to have translated into the non-public safety sphere, likely due to the abundance of cop shows and folks who have volunteered with firefighting units and rescue squads. The LAPD alphabet, while not wholly universal, at least boasts the benefit of brevity: Nora is much shorter than November, Union beats Uniform, and, at least in the United States, Queen is more recognizable than Quebec (which must be pronounced KAY-BEC).

But other problems persist: ball and Paul for B and P don’t work – they are too easily confused. The other problem is instant recognition. If one struggles to think of a code word for a letter, then that person will not decode code words quickly, leading to endless repeatings and correctings.

That’s why I like having a standardized spelling alphabet at my fingertips. However, unless everyone understands your standard, the result is one big Charlie Foxtrot.

Oscar Tango Tango Oscar

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_phonetic_alphabet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LAPD_radio_alphabet

https://www.policeone.com/communications/articles/222829006-The-police-alphabet-an-important-language-for-LEOs/

 

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

 

Bigly

As I mentioned before, Lexicide strives to maintain political agnosticism. However, we’re more than ready to pounce on any figure, left or right, who mangles the English language. At the time of this writing, no one accumulates more press for his malapropisms than Donald J. Trump. While Hillary Clinton eviscerates “deplorables” and Gary Johnson wonders what’s “a lepo” (and he’s not the only one), Trump has peppered his speech with odd and incorrect usage from the beginning of his campaign, referring to the “Department of Environmental” and the Biblical book of “Two Corinthians”.

One of his most-repeated malapropisms is bigly. Or is it (a malapropism, I mean)? October surprise! It’s actually a real word, according to Dictionary.com.

bigly

 

 

 

 

 

 

It means exactly what you think it means. So score one for the Donald’s adverb usage. At least he doesn’t insist on feeling badly. Oh, wait. Never mind.

– Otto E. Mezzo

P.S. As to whether Trump said bigly or big league during the last debate, we could care less. Ask the Washington Post.

(The) Ask

In the course of a week, I heard ask used as a noun five separate times:

The ask is to get us the breakdown of sales by category in two weeks.

I know it’s a really big ask, but once we have the data, we can move forward.

The team will meet on Thursday and get back to you with a list of asks.

I asked Lexicide’s readers what they thought of this trend. A sampling of their responses shows the diversity of their opinions:ask-fb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good question. Why do people hate verbs?

Ask as a noun is not a true lexicide. The noun form has not killed the (proper) verb form, nor has it deleted requestdesire, or behest from the language. What it has eliminated is the imperative mood (“Please get us the breakdown of sales.”), which, as we know, is verboten in the corporate world.

Thoughts, opinions, asks? Comment here or on our Facebook page.

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