Category Archives: words

Posts about endangered words.

Demonyms: the Final Words

I didn’t expect to write five posts on demonyms, but here we must brake the trolley, this time outside the Anglosphere. My aside on growing up Chinese American (as opposed to, say, Chinish or Chinesque American) took me back to the days of Chinese school, those glorious Sunday afternoons spent indoors practicing calligraphy and vocabulary instead of playing kickball or jumping bikes off curbs. In Chinese, we learned, the United States was mei guo (美国), literally “the beautiful country.” Americans are mei guo ren, or “beautiful country people.” I don’t know which Chinese came up with that, but as an American, I am flattered.

Mei Guo written in traditional Chinese script. This is the way I learned to write it.

Also as an American, I’m conflicted, as there are two continents called America, so technically Chileans and El Salvadorans are also American. No other country seems to have the awkward co-opting of an entire continent, much less two. Well, there is Australia, of course, but the country and the continent are synonymous. For the one other nation that takes the name of its continent, South African rolls easily off the tongue in a way that United States of American does not. But non-Americans tell me there’s no cause for angst. Spanish speaking Latin Americans describe residents of the United States as estadounidense. And everyone else in the world just calls us Americans without a second thought. My sister reported that her German freunden used the informal Ami.

Too bad we and the rest of the world don’t pay Deutschlanders the same consideration. No other country’s name (in my limited store of knowledge) is mangled overseas more than Deutschland. The French, Spanish, and Arabs call the country after the Alamanni tribe. The Finns call it Saksa after the Saxons. And the majority of the world, from Anglophones to Hindi speakers to Somalians, derive their designator from the Latin name for the region: Germania. (I have never read that Germans are put off by this, but they should be by the Lakota Sioux, whose word for Germany translates to “bad speaker land.”) Only the Swedes, Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, and Icelanders — interestingly, all linguistic neighbors to Germany — choose to honor the natives’ choice of country name with their own versions of Deutschland.

Wait, there’s one more people who get it right, or try to — the Chinese. Their name for Germany is de guo (德国), which literally translates to “Deutsch country,” but sounds like “land of virtue.” Ausgezeichnet!

 Otto E. Mezzo

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Germany

At -ese (A diversion on demonyms)

I always wondered why people and things from China and Japan are Chinese and Japanese, and not, say, Chinan and Japanian. As someone with Chinese ancestry, the word in English always had an exotic ring – a foreign ring. Growing up, none of my contemporaries in Virginia were an -ese. They were French, British, Irish, German, Swedish, Italian, Mexican, or African. Chinese and Japanese stood out, and when you’re a kid, that’s bad.

The suffix -ese still has an alien ring to my ears, which may be why the writers of Star Trek chose Klingonese as the demonym as opposed to Klingonian or Klingonite. Even Portuguese has an otherworldly air, even though it’s a kissing cousin to Spanish. Certainly Togolese and Congolese, which follow no orthographic logic in their formation, describe to me dense, inscrutable people.

But the origins of the suffix ­-ese are not so exotic to European folk. They come to English (as so many words do) from the French ­­-aise. Examples: Lyonnaise, hollandaise, and mayonnaise. No American is going to call mayonnaise exotic.

Thinking of demonyms for people from China brings up a suffix I didn’t cover last time: –man. Chinaman once carried the same neutral color as Englishman or Frenchman, only to gain its offensive tone the more it was spat instead of spoken. As you can see, what’s interesting about Chinaman is that it adds the ­-man suffix to an unmodified place name instead of the descriptor demonym. Chineseman would be more consistent. Of course, this is all before we get to the possible controversies of using “man” to describe both men and women. So a man from Man (the Isle) is a Manxman. But so is a woman from Man.

 Otto E. Mezzo

On Demonyms, Part C (for Correspondence)

In response to Part 1, I received this message from loyal reader Eddie, who writes:

The post includes my favorite, Liverpudlian. I frequently add a fake -pudlian suffix to identify people from other cities.

I have lived in Greensboro for a couple of years and still have no idea what the proper demonym for city residents is. So I call them Greensburgers. I also like to use -villain (not -villian) for residents of -villes.

As we discussed last month, many demonyms derive from ancient place names. The pool in Liverpool is from the Old English for pool or (cognate coming!) puddle. Another example gets folks scratching their heads is Haligonian. Not so dense when you realize Halifax is derived from halig faex, Latin for “holy hair.” Only, it turns out that’s a folk etymology. But the demonym stuck.

As I responded to Eddie, “-burgers” is etymologically appropriate for -boro, -borough, -burg, and -burgh demonyms, since they all mean “city” and a burger is a “resident of a city.” Villain, interestingly, is also derived from a word for “city” (French ville), but its actual meaning is “someone from the sticks,” or more accurately, a villanus (farmhand) who worked on a villa.* I don’t know who decided to equate hearty country yokels with villainy, but hey – I don’t make the rules.

Eddie continues:

For places with City in the name (Elizabeth City, NC; Ocean City, MD, etc.), Citizen has a much nicer ring than Citian, in my opinion.

That brings up a good question: what do you call someone from Oklahoma City? If Eddie had his way, they would be Oklahoma Citizens. But seriously, what are they called?

 Otto E. Mezzo

* Villas could be stately plantations, around which villages grew, hence ville (city).

From StraightNorth.com: 150 Business Jargon Fixes

When business writers resort to business jargon, it’s because they lack the time, creative energy or subject mastery to find a more exact word or phrase. 

No truer words have ever been spoken. While Lexicide has explored the far reaches of English language word usage, we started off decrying lazy, jargony, incorrect business writing. This article sums up 150 of the most common clichés in the workplace. We’ve covered awesome, bleeding edge, epic, evangelist, (most) unique, incentivize, leverage, utilize, and out of pocket. But what made me laugh in this piece was how many of these hoary expressions we use at my workplace. Not a meeting goes by without a deep dive and a granular drill down to mission critical action items at the end of the day.

Enjoy. https://www.straightnorth.com/company/marketing-resources/150-business-jargon-fixes/

On Demonyms (Part II)

In July, we started down the path to demonyms, beginning with your comments. But your comments, they’re only the beginning.

One question a number of commenters asked is “how are demonyms formed?” Why do some place names get -ian, others ­-ese, and still others ­-ish? That’s a good question, and like so many other orthographic oddities in English, the answer is unsatisfying. Basically, because English.

For example, Gary asked where the demonyms Mancunian and Glaswegian (for, respectively, Manchester and Glasgow) came from. Manchester is simple. Its old Roman name was Mancunium. That name was (supposedly) adapted from the native Celtic name for the locale, which was then further Latinized by adding ­-chester, which means “fort.” The suffix ­-chester is sometimes Anglicized -caster, as in place names like Doncaster or Lancaster – there one can see where our word castle derives.

And that’s Latin for you. In fact, this dead language probably has more influence on demonyms than any other. The suffixes –an­ and -ian are Latin. Wait, let’s list as many suffixes as we can:

-an/ian/anian/onion
-ard
-asque/esque
-ene
-egian
-eño
-er
-ese/-aise
-i
-ic
-ish
-ite

Notice something? With two exceptions, every one of those suffixed is Latin-derived. ­­-An and its variants was the most common Roman designator. –I designated tribes (for example, the Helvetii in Switzerland). All the others come from French or Spanish. Except or ­-er and -ite, from German and Greek, respectively.

That brings us back to Glaswegian. The etymology of Glasgow is pretty murky (because Scottish). The best anyone can say is that Glasgow roughly means “the green place.” If that’s the case (and we’re not saying it is), it correlates to Norway (the North place) and Galway (the place those crazy residents call Gaillimhe, because Irish), whose residents are – ready? Norwegians and Galwegians.

Wait, Otto, that makes no sense. For your analog to mean anything, Glasgow should be Glasway. It’s not.

Did I mention they were Scottish?

 Otto E. Mezzo

P.S. Yes, I will wrap this up next month.

 

 

Hey Girl

Fact: 90% of those who use “cognitive” guilty of 0% cognition

Big news broke today: Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong film deliberately omits the planting of the US flag on the Sea of Tranquility. But that fact itself is not the news. It’s Gosling’s quotation:

“So I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero… I’m Canadian, so might have cognitive bias.” 

Unlike Gosling, I am not a psychologist. No, I don’t know if the former Mouseketeer is one either, but he must be, because not many outside the psychology field have occasion to speak of cognitive biases, which, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, are defined as:

Systematic pattern[s] of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.

Whatever that means. Here’s a better definition from Chegg.com (an online textbook site):

Mistake[s] in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.

What a cognitive bias is not is a preference, affinity, or plain old bias based on your nationality. But why admit bias when cognitive bias sounds so much more high-minded?

Lex, who works in bioinformatics (and who studied artifical intelligence and neuroscience) also complained to me about the way his colleagues use cognitive dissonance. No, his colleagues are not brain scientists or behavioral therapists. They’re programmers. And no, they don’t mean the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. (That’s a little better, Wikipedia.) Here’s what they mean:

Want to experience cognitive dissonance? Try reading George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” while visiting Catalonia. (Macomb Daily)

However, when a heuristic fails and the player’s character dies, they experience cognitive dissonance between what they thought was going to happen and what actually happened. For a Fortnite player, this may be because they were hit by a sniper in what they thought was a secret hiding spot. (The Guardian)

Hey, that one’s relevant and all. Look, kids!

Or this one, from Jezebel, titled My Pussy Is on a Journey of Self-Discovery (yes, it’s SFW):

The cognitive dissonance created by her freshly shorn bod supporting an Elizabethan neck ruff made of soft fur is gone. 

So just as cognitive bias is just a fancy word for biascognitive dissonance is a high-falutin’ way of saying dissonance, or to put it in even more prosaic terms, Whoa! Didn’t expect that!

But you should. Studies show 90% of people you meet think their vocabulary is more learned than it really is. And that’s a fact.

See also: Impedance mismatch

 Otto E. Mezzo, suggested by Lex

P.S.: Yes, I know I promised to elaborate on demonyms this month. Enjoy the cognitive dissonance.

References (lots of ’em!):

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2018/08/29/first-man-neil-armstrong-film-fails-fly-flag-us-patriotism/

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

https://www.chegg.com/homework-help/definitions/cognitive-bias-13

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

https://www.macombdaily.com/opinion/sleepwalking-into-nationalism/article_cecfa7e8-292a-5989-8089-000b32226519.html

https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/aug/29/why-cant-people-stop-playing-fortnite

https://jezebel.com/my-pussy-is-on-a-journey-of-self-discovery-1828703930

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

On Demonyms (Part 1)

I asked my social media friends, “What are your favorite demonyms?” I expected at least one person to ask for a definition – alas, no one afforded me the opportunity to lord my superiority. Curse you, Google.

Just in case you don’t know, and because I’m champing (not chomping) at the bit to tell you, a demonym is the descriptive word designating where one is from. American for someone from America, Chinese for a resident of China, Irish for a citizen of Ireland and so on. Why are some demonyms formed with -an, others with ­-ese, and yet others with –ish? That we will explore in next month’s article.

For now, here are your responses, bad jokes and all.

Manhattanite Gary of course went straight for the UK irregulars: Mancunian and Glaswegian. The suffixes –nian and –wegian are not typical. But they’re also not singular. More next month.

Bostonian (Massachussetian?) and occasional guest writer Lylah proffered Accidental – someone from Accident, Maryland, which prompted me to ask if someone from Truth or Consequences was a Consequential (or maybe Truthful?). No word on what the residents of Intercourse are called.

Floridian Andy went full-on irregular and pointed out Canuck and Hoosier have zero orthographic connection to Canada and Indiana. Why? he wondered. Why do the children cry?

Roanoker Billy tried to steer us into a galaxy far, far away by offering up Tatooiner, although I wondered if he was referring to the Tunisian locale (spelled Tatouine) where the Star Wars scenes were filmed. Andy took the bait, but I shut that down before all geekdom exploded, noting that fictional demonyms almost always follow established rules (Klingonese, Andorrian, Corellian).

So Andy got back down to Earth with Earthlings. Virginian Jan chimed in with Québécoise, and Ilene loves Yooper (someone from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) and Liverpudlian. Being a Jaxson herself, it’s no wonder Ilene gravitates to irregular demonyms.

Former North Carolinian Jeff got us back to reality with Durhamite, highlighting another common suffix. Los Angeleno Scott concluded by lamenting there is no good demonym for someone from Connecticut. Considering that’s where he grew up, he should know.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Update: Ilene reminded me she is not a Jaxson (someone from Jacksonville, Florida), but a Saint Augustinian.

Sticks, Stones, and Words that Hurt (maybe)

More than a year ago, faithful reader Anne the English Teacher suggested we tackle words with sinister origins – she started with denigrate, a word meaning to “criticize unfairly; disparage” (Oxford). The origin of the word is clear:

Late Middle English (in the sense ‘blacken, make dark’): from Latin denigrat- ‘blackened’, from the verb denigrare, from de- ‘away, completely’ + nigrare (from niger ‘black’). (Oxford)

Anne’s concern is that the very word denigrates black (that is, African-descended) people by associating their skin color and racial signifier with impolite behavior. It goes without saying this can be a problem when it comes to black:

Europeans called Africa “The Dark Continent” for years, partially for its impenetrable geography, but also because of its dark-skinned denizens. That epithet lingered on well into the 20th century – the Busch Gardens African-themed park in Tampa went by The Dark Continent until the 1990s. Whether you think of darkness or blackness as evil or simply mysterious, the association is one of otherness, something to be wary of.

Could the same argument be made for white? Whitewash can be a negative word, as can whiteout. I think it’s safe to say, though, that these two words don’t make European-descended people shudder when they think of a sudden snowstorm.

But do black people shudder when they hear denigrate, considering most English speakers don’t know the origin? By the same token, do women recoil at hysteria or southpaws when they read the word sinister in my opening paragraph? I think there’s a reason that these words continue on with little controversy (outside college campuses), where an equally innocent word like niggardly does not.

Guest writer Lylah Alphonse and Otto advised against using the word, even if the former head of the NAACP didn’t have a problem with it. (“You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding,” he said, earning Julian Bond a Lexicide Lifetime Achievement Award.) Even though it sounds like a racial slur, niggard is not – it’s not even etymologically derived from the Latin for “black.” However, I reflexively shudder when I hear it, as I do when I hear chink used to mean a break or flaw, even though I know it’s meant innocently.

But denigrate, hysterical, and sinister don’t seem to stoke the same disgust in decent folk as established slurs or even words that sound likes slurs. Then again, it’s questionable whether most people of color get upset when they hear blackguard, blackmail, or blackball. I’m Chinese-American, and while I’m not cool with Yellow Peril or yellowface, I don’t think twice about yellow journalism or yellow-bellied. But that’s me.

Anne and Spike Lee make a good point, one that Lexicide cleaves to – words have meanings, and the meanings mean something. If you’re the sort who refuses to use black mark in a sentence, maybe you should wave off denigrate, even if its origin was not meant as a slam against black-skinned people. Ultimately, Safire’s maxim (“Never use a word sure to sow confusion.”) and the advertising copywriter’s axiom to “know your audience” should reign supreme.

Otto E. Mezzo

See also Lylah Alphonse’s Lexicide article, which is about words that people think are offensive but are not, sort of the mirror image of this article.

Reference: Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, 1992

Forte

A while back (four years ago, actually!), we covered two words that describe one’s strengths: bailiwick and wheelhouse. We recently had a request to address another synonym: forte.

Forte? No one uses that one wrong. Ah, our intrepid reader said, but everyone pronounces it wrong.

Does Lexicide cover mispronunciations? I thought we only cited misuses, and certainly never misspellings (unless they led to or were the fruit of bad usage). Oh, what the heck. It’s a slow month.

So how does one pronounce forte, meaning strength (as in “haughty finger-wagging is my forte.”) The word is derived from French, which also gives us fortForte is the feminine form of “strong,” and it’s pronounced the same as the masculine, with a silent T and sounding similar to the number following three.

But this being English, that will never do. No one expects us to say “Pedantry is my foooorrr.” Should I then pronounce it “fort”? Closer, but not quite exactement.

Confronted with this quandary, most Anglophones take to borrowing the Italian pronunciation: “for-tay,” no doubt channeling childhood piano lessons. Only in music forte means “loud” rather than “strong.” This is confusing, n’est-ce pas?

The best explanation is that “for-tay” is a linguistic hypercorrection. English speakers see a final e on a French word and assume it’s pronounced “ay,” as if it had an accent aigu like consommé. Forte has no such accent, but neither does cache, meaning a hidden stash, yet many Americans hypercorrect it to “cashay.”

Only now we’re back to the commencement and a pedant’s dilemma: pronounce forte incorrectly and be wrong or pronounce it properly and be misunderstood. Given Safire’s maxim, I fear we have to throw our chapeau in with the first option. Hey, at least we ugly Americans attempt to give foreign loan words their due pronunciation, even if we fail. The British don’t even bother.

— Otto É. Mezzo

Discomfit and Discomfort

I asked our 40 or so followers on Facebook this question:

DISCOMFIT what does it mean? (Don’t look it up.)

We got the typical smartenheimer responses:

It’s when you just can’t quite find the right position setting for the cushy recliner you’re sitting in. 

It’s a portmanteau for the formerly ubiquitous disco ombré outfit, aka a “doo”.

When a guy from Brooklyn is ordering French food. “I’ll have discomfit, not dat one.”

Causes discomfort, and doesn’t really fit, but I’m gonna make it fit? Like that cute pair of shoes I have…. Or my skinny jeans…

To make uncomfortable in a general sense. Or was I supposed to remark with a witty faux-guess?

Thank you, Marianne. Yes, most people think discomfit is the same as discomfort, and they’re sorta kinda right.


DISCOMFIT: “Make (someone) feel uneasy or embarrassed.”  Oxford English Dictionary

DISCOMFORT: “Make (someone) feel anxious or embarrassed.”  — Oxford English Dictionary


So why do we have two words that mean roughly the same thing, and are they cognates?

The answers: because English is just weird that way, and no.

Discomfort comes from the French desconforter, which literally means “to rob of comfort, to dishearten.”

Discomfit also comes from the French desconfit, meaning “take apart.” In Middle English, discomfit originally meant “to defeat in battle.” Now it refers to taking one’s spirits apart as opposed to severing limbs.

Scott (the wiseacre who offered the Brooklyn “definition”) wasn’t too far off, then, because discomfit does indeed share an origin with confit. The French confire means “to preserve or assemble” (hence des-confire meaning “disassemble”) and gives rise not only to confit the food preparation, but also to confection.

So while discomfort and discomfit are not related, discomfit and confection are etymological cousins. That suggests all manner of word-geek coping strategies, since embarrassment is only a few cognates away from cake! (Also being torn apart in battle, but we’ll ignore that.)

— Otto E. Mezzo