Category Archives: words

Posts about endangered words.

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

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

Fighting classical illiteracy: a Sisyphean task

At the beginning of the month, I asked Lexicide’s followers this question:

I just read a news story referring to the Sword of Damocles. With the classics taught less and less in schools, do young people know what that is? How about the Augean stables? Achilles’ heel? Pandora’s box? Even “beware Greeks bearing gifts” assumes one knows the belligerents in the Trojan War.

What expressions — classical, Biblical, Shakespearean, etc — do you wonder will one day befuddle contemporary readers?

To my list, readers added Gordian knot, Oedipus complex, and crossing the Rubicon.

But then quite a few readers chafed at the idea one had to be classically read to understand and use these phrases. Surprisingly, the pushback came from a published novelist, a high school English teacher, and a college professor of ancient texts. Others scoffed at my concern, claiming we as a culture might lose the die is cast or the labors of Hercules, yet we gain new signposts such as taking the red pill.

I may just have my nose in the air, but I think knowing the source material makes these references richer and rounder in meaning – meaning which is sometimes lost without knowing the origin. Take sword of Damocles. Typically, writers use it to evoke a situation where danger could arise at any moment. But the reason King Dionysius hung a sword over his throne was to show his subject Damocles how tenuous his position was – that even though he was a great and wealthy king, enemies lurked behind every corner. So it’s not just an illustration of impending danger, but one caused by a station many regard as enviable.

People wash their hands of a problem to absolve themselves of responsibility. But did Pilate’s washing achieve this? (Anyone who recites the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed on Sunday would answer “no!”). And a Sisyphean task is not simply any vexing, annoying job. It’s one you must repeat over and over with nothing to show for it. The image of repeatedly muscling a massive boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down is much more evocative than simply confronting a difficult deliverable.

(Plus, dammit, these stories are just fun. The Aeneid and The Odyssey remain some of the most rousing adventures in print. Without their foundations, Percy Jackson and Wonder Woman, not to mention Lord of the Rings and the Legend of Zelda, wouldn’t have been worth their authors’ attention.)

What say you? Have you ever leveraged your liberal arts education on a masterful literary reference, only to be met with blank stares? If that isn’t cleaning the Augean stables, I don’t know what is.

See also Splitting the baby

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.