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 deepdive and a granulardrill down to mission critical action items at the end of the day.
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:
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.
“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.
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)
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.
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.
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 fort. Forte 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 likeconsommé. 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 commencementand 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.
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.)
High school English teacher Anne was the first one to spot it (after Otto), buried within the limerick on enormity:
Of the subject of semantic upheaval
Some critics would make it illegal
They think that enormity
Is a verbal deformity
When its meaning is aught but “great evil”
Of course, we applaud Merriam-Webster.com’s valiant attempt to educate folks that enormity does not mean “great size,” but “great evil” (only 11 ½ years after Lexicide.com’s valiant attempt)! However, aught does not mean “nothing” or “zero.” In fact, it means the opposite – see Merriam-Webster.com’s own entry above.
So read correctly, the limerick says enormity means anything but “great evil,” which of course is not what the author intended. It is true that many writers use aught as a synonym for “zero,” most commonly in numerical measurements (for example, “double aught” buckshot), years (“the flood of aught four”), or sometimes both – the cartridge G.I.s fired during both World Wars is designated .30-’06, read “thirty-aught six,” a .30 caliber round adopted in 1906.
But if aught doesn’t mean “zero,” why do we use it that way when the term we really want is naught. Brits often use naught as a synonym for the null digit, and even Yanks pulls it out as a stand-in for “nothing” (“It was all for naught!”). According to most sources, aught may have stemmed from someone mishearing “a naught” as “an aught.” This sort of thing happens frequently and even has its own name – metanalysis.
But that doesn’t erase the existence of aught, a word understood to mean “anything” or “something” in Samuel Johnson’s time. So once again, Lexicide must embrace Safire’s maxim: never use a word to sow confusion, however unintentional. Aught has two accepted meanings, antonyms of each other. Naught has but one. Use naught.
You attract more ants with honey than vinegar, so the saying goes. And as my kids will tell you, you can get more likes with humor than finger-wagging (a lesson we at Lexicide have yet to learn). Reader Eddie shared this amusing (not bemusing) set of mnemonic limericks from Merriam-Webster. In addition to bemuse, they cover unique, enormity, and incentivize, all Lexicide veterans.
As long-time readers know, from time to time I vent my spleen on the misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” Every day, someone on TV or radio gets it wrong…. So for the umpteenth time, “begging the question” involves assuming a premise — usually the premise in dispute — is true. It does not mean to raise a question.
Ever since our first article, I promised to address begging the question, whose persistent misuse always irritated me. Nine(!) years later, the article remained unwritten, so I gather this was Otto’s not-very-subtle hint it was time for me to put up or shut up. Fair enough.
Except Mr. Goldberg pretty much did my work for me. In fact, he provides some examples of begging the question. My favorite (because it’s current and trendy):
Everyone’s eating Tide pods, because eating Tide pods is the hot new craze.
YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.
ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.
In other words, Lindsay Lohan is newsworthy because she’s all over the news. Some other excellent examples can be found here.
So that begs the question (ha!) whence this misunderstanding comes? As Otto alluded to in a previous article, it’s a bad translation — in this case, of petitio principii, Latin for “assuming the starting point.” but petitio can also be translated as “begging” or “petitioning.” I can’t find evidence that this mistranslation is responsible for the misuse of the phrase, but it makes sense. “Asking for the question” is literally what the illiterate do when they beg the question. Here’s an example from three hours ago, on BBC.com:
Permanent toilets will be built along 40 routes where there is limited access to facilities… AA president Edmund King said the investment was “welcome relief” but it “begs the question about facilities for their passengers”.
As you can see, many have covered this incorrect usage. There’s even a whole website devoted to it! So I’ll leave you the links, along with my plea to beg the question correctly forthwith. After all, the world needs fewer lexicides and more logical fallacies.
P.S.: The Los Angeles Times has a likely culprit for the proliferation of begging the question‘s lexicide. From a January 25, 2018 column:
Years ago I wrote in this space that I don’t recall ever hearing someone use “beg the question” to mean “raise the question.”…
… Lately I hear “beg the question” every week or two, and it’s always used to mean “raise the question.” All of a sudden, it seems this usage is everywhere.
What changed? Easy. I started watching television news.