Category Archives: words

Posts about endangered words.

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.

Definition of Nimrod:



Lexicide troops answer the call to arms! Hooah!

I WANT YOUR INPUT. I’m looking for technology or business terms borrowed from military, police, or public safety – for example, jailbreak or firewall. Any others?

So asked Otto last month on Facebook. The response was fulsome, awesome, a veritable boom. So rather than bore you with a lot of military history (that comes later), let’s recount what our esteemed readers had to say.

Lylah from Boston, a news magazine editor, was first out of the gate with SNAFU, FUBAR, squared away, hurry up and wait, and mandatory fun.

Brett, an airline pilot who served in the US Air Force, offered mission creep. As an IT project manager, we often spoke of requirements creep, the tendency of clients to add project requirements after the estimate and timelines have been set.

Scott, a filmmaker from LA, mentioned blowback, which is a ballistics term. Andy, another pilot, understandably was wary of catching flak.

Ron from Virginia offered up Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, to which I would add Charlie Foxtrot, a phrase I use all too often to describe my projects.

John, who grew up in a Navy family, uses ventilate, assume room temperature, collateral damage, and friendly fire, lock and load, and all hands on deck in civilian contexts.

Ross from peace-loving Portland, is not averse to going ballistic, following marching orders, or falling on his sword. Okay, he is averse to that last one.

Spencer, who works in criminal justice, reminds us that Murphy’s Law originated at Edwards Air Force Base (that etymology is disputed), and that deadline originally meant a line beyond which guards would shoot prisoners to prevent them from escaping. Most sources trace the word and the practice to the American Civil War. Journalists, take note.

Monica chimed in with AWOL and rallying the troops. Helen, a mild-mannered designer and web developer, contributed magazine, drive-by (as in a stealth download), and Trojan Horse. Of magazine (once a term for a building or room where gunpowder and arms were kept, now commonly a device in a gun that holds ammunition), Helen writes: “This term began somewhere in the 80s with disk magazines and morphed to diskmags used for floppy disks. Later in the 90s, it became CD magazines.”

More to come. So like our new Facebook page, keep your powder dry and Bravo Zulu to all of you who volunteered words!

A disruptive innovation


DISRUPTIVE: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances.” — Wikipedia entry for disruptive innovation

Hype. It’s what keeps me and other marketing folks in bread. But lest you heap all the blame for hype on your marketing department and ad agencies, consider this: the most prolific generator of hype is often the face in the mirror. You claim everything — your business process, your product, you yourself — is unique, bleeding edge, a sea change in the industry. I have attended meetings where executives demand plans to copy a successful competitor, then crow about how they’re going to disrupt the business firmament.

I suppose if you’re an early adopter of some disruptive innovation, you could lay claim to being a disruptor. The trouble is, everyone claims to be a disruptor. And Harvard Business Review has a problem with that:

In our experience, too many people who speak of “disruption” have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do. Many researchers, writers, and consultants use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.

Okay, this is a word site, not a business blog, so I’ll let you read up on what truly makes a disruptive model here, here, and here. The purpose of Lexicide is to showcase misuses of the word, such as this one:

Customer disdain for this ‘innovative and disruptive’ business model is only growing

Notice how carefully the quote avoids calling the subscription lingerie service a disruptive innovation. However, I’m sure Adore Me’s stakeholders were peeing in their panties with delight at the disruptive appellation. Ha. Anyone who lived through the Columbia House Record Club years knows how old the pay-each-month-because-you-forgot-to-cancel model is. Disruptive, my ass.

And anyhow, as the linked articles lay out, disruptive is not just plain old innovation. Like stakeholder and long tail, it has a specific, narrowly-defined business definition. Not that that will stop anyone from misusing the word.

Maybe it’s time we really disrupted the works. We could translate all our Powerpoint slides into Urdu. We could circulate all memos on cuneiform tablets. Or we could just correct our colleagues when they misuse words. Now that’s disruption I can support.

Otto E. Mezzo


Flounder or Founder?

FLOUNDER: “1. to struggle to move or obtain footing, thrash about wildly;  2. to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.” –

FOUNDER: “1. (Of a ship) fill with water and sink: six drowned when the yacht foundered off the Florida coast1.1 (Of a plan or undertaking) fail or break down, typically as a result of a particular problem or setback: the talks foundered on the issue of reform.” –

Mozambique is floundering amid corruption and conflict –The Economist
Occidental Petroleum Is a Buy, Even as Its Peers Flounder” –The
The American Buffet Restaurant Is Floundering” –

Given the two definitions above, which of these headlines is correct? None of them? Fair enough. All of them? Mm-okay, perhaps. You could give the last headline the benefit of a pun, since it discusses food. The case would be stronger if the topic was seafood and not buffet restaurants, where flounder (the fish) is not ubiquitous. But whatever.

This ambiguity points to the lack of precision most of us exercise in our writing and speaking. I suspect most of us mean founder when we use flounder. A foundering vessel is a sinking ship, just as Mozambique, Occidental’s peers, and the American buffet are going under. One could argue (and many writers do) that these subjects are also “acting clumsily,” which I grant. But is that the ultimate meaning you wish to convey?

You see the difference here. We have railed against this dastardly type of imprecision in the past, and despite the charming way in which we’ve done it, our pleas continue to fall on deaf ears. Maybe an analogy will help:

              Josephine took her test and failed.       Josephine took her test and flailed.

Which one of these usages is correct? Both make semantic sense. But if you want to convey that Josephine is incompetent, then failed is the word you seek. The mental of image of Josephine flailing (thrashing about uncontrollably) may invoke a lack of skill, but it does not convey the simple concept of not passing a test. It may be that Josephine waved her arms and legs about erratically, then completed the test with aplomb. Josephine may have tested in stillness, focused with great intensity, but simply didn’t know the material. Failing does not necessarily include flailing, and flailing is not always followed by failing. That analogy is a close one, for fail and flail are synonyms for founder and flounder, respectively. Their spellings are even separated by a lone L.

No, I won’t repeat my “words have meaning” litany. Use whatever word you want. I know you will anyway. Allow me one word of caution. Interchanging the verb forms of founder and flounder is (mostly) harmless. Calling your company founder a bottom-feeding flatfish, on the other hand, may cause your career to flail.

– Otto E. Mezzo

P.S.: Because I know some of you will point this out, I will cite this note on the Merriam-Webster site:

Despite the fact that flounder is a relatively common English verb, its origins in the language remain obscure. It is thought that it may be an alteration of an older verb, founder. To founder is to become disabled, to give way or collapse, or to come to grief or fail. In the case of a waterborne vessel, to founder is to sink. The oldest of these senses of founder, “to become disabled,” was also used, particularly in reference to a horse and its rider, for the act of stumbling violently or collapsing. It may have been this sense of founder that, some 200 years later, appeared in altered form as flounder in the sense of “to stumble.”



An evangelist composing a blog post

An evangelist composing a blog post

EVANGELIST: “(1) A person who seeks to convert others to the Christian faith, especially by public preaching; (1.1) A layperson engaged in Christian missionary work; (1.2) A zealous advocate of something: he is an evangelist of junk bonds.” –

Last month, Lexicide explored the follies of platform atheism, so for balance’s sake, February’s word is evangelist. This is not really a lexicide, as a technology evangelist is actually a “bringer of good news,” at least in the eyes of his employer.

That’s what evangelist means, from the Greek eu (good) + angelion (messenger, the same root that gives us angel), which is why it was originally applied to the writers of the four Gospels (literally, god-spell, Old English for “good news”). Apple coined the term and gave the title to Mike Boich and Guy Kawasaki. Soon, every forward-thinking company had its evangelist, which explains (or signifies) the religious fervor with which companies worship their brands.

What’s interesting to us is the construction of Oxford Dictionaries’ definition above. Not only is secular evangelism acknowledged as a lexical child of Christian evangelism, but one can be an evangelist for things of questionable worth (in this case, junk bonds).

Don’t hold your breath for companies to create an office of dysvangelism, however – that would be quite a heresy. Perhaps one day, corporations will have creeds instead of mission statements. In the meantime, our evangelists are going and making customers of all markets. It’s how you earn the Great Commission, you know.

Otto E. Mezzo

Spotted on the web: [Platform] Atheist

We have criticized agnostic as a synonym for disinterested, and if you disagree, you should read our article. True agnostics can be thoughtful and dedicated to their philosophy, so it’s a tad insulting to imply they just don’t care. My atheist friends might be even more offended that their belief is not only equated with agnosticism, but also with the same carelessness.

Platform AtheistNow, I know many people think agnosticism and atheism are the same, and to be sure, there is a term that covers both under one areligious umbrella: freethinker. But in case you didn’t know, an atheist (Greek a+theos = without god/gods) definitively rejects divinity, whereas an agnostic declares divinity is beyond our knowing. So an atheist is committed to a worldview — theoretically as committed as a good Christian, Jew, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian.

In that light, being platform atheistic is not the same as being platform agnostic. While an atheist may not evangelize for a specific platform or method, she has a hard opinion, even if that opinion is no platform exists. You see the problem here. Not believing in God doesn’t halt your software development. Good luck if you eschew all operating systems.

So our opinion is this malapropism arises out of the (ignorant) confusion betwixt atheism and agnosticism. Or perhaps from the religious fervor with which some developers hew to their chosen platform. This comment on the thread seems to comport with the atheist’s view of the faithful:

Platform Atheist2

Just don’t blindly use words unless you know what they mean!

— Otto E. Mezzo

Screencraft: 50 Words and Phrases that Screenwriters Get Wrong

One of the Lexicide staff writers used to work in Hollywood as a script reader. No, don’t applaud. It’s a terribly unglamorous job, he says. (Okay, fine, it was me.) Assistants at large agencies and production companies look for any way to eliminate scripts in their tall stacks of submissions. One easy trick is to trash any screenplay that bears a misspelled word or incorrect punctuation mark — or maybe one of these malapropisms. Lexicide is proud to have covered mute pointshoe inand case and point. I would add change tact, which seems to carry the same crunky justification as free reign (“You’re letting the person have control, like a monarch, and you have to be tactful to change direction!”).

Inspired, I am now throwing out all memos or communications that misuse one or more of these phrases. Or if it doesn’t grab my interest in the first five pages. Come to think of it, what works for Hollywood would be a boom for corporations! Er, I mean boon.

Read the article:

The Portmanteau Word: It’s like a Turducken*!

You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

English is the world’s language, and it’s easy to see why. Maybe it’s British colonialism or American exceptionalism, but the way I see it, English is supreme because it’s so accommodating.** We have no Academy Anglaise shutting down innovation and forbidding loanwords. As a result, English is alive and vibrant, but it also festers with unorthodox orthography (courtesy of these foreign loanwords) and bad ideas gone horribly wrong.

No bad ideas

Among these “ideas” are portmanteau words. Such creations are especially rife in the world of marketing, because creativity is our job, I guess. For example, we’ve given birth to infomercial and infotainment, to which Lex has added irritainment (his own personal handiwork). Likewise, we have advertorial (I’ve written many of these), which is an advertisement masquerading as a feature article. Imagine my surprise to encounter badvertising —bad advertising. I think. Users of the word can’t quite agree what it means. If you’re going to encourage the free market, you’ll have to put up with periodic chaos:

Smarketing — but shouldn’t all marketing be smart marketing?

Threepeat — is still a repeat, thank you.

Permalancer — a permanent freelancer is still a freelancer. (By the way, a created word that doesn’t attempt to be a pun is a neolexic portmanteau.)

Decruiting — because we enjoyed rightsizing so much.

Cremains — cremated remains are also called “ashes,” a word that doesn’t invoke the callousness and fallen stomach this word does. Matt from Virginia (a journalist, not an undertaker), offered this word and comments, “It strikes me as one of those jargon terms that ought to remain in the shop and not be used with clients, and yet it is.”

Any formation with man (mansplain, mancriminate, manspreading) we’ve covered the idiocy of murse, meggings, and mandals. I concede the man words have an edge of misandry which makes them both telling and funny.

Any formation with mom — Stephanie also-from-Virginia writes: “Last night I heard one that made me cringe. Momager. It was in reference to Kris Jenner, which I think made it even more painful.” Agreed. More positive is momtrepreneur, but again, it’s redundant. Isn’t entrepreneur sufficient?

Sometimes, though, the coal vein produces diamonds. Three we like:

Procrasturbation — suggested by Erik in California. Since this is a family-friendly site, I’m going to assume it involves putting off productive work by navel-gazing.

Blamestorming — No explanation needed.

Portmanteau — Lewis Carroll created the lexical meaning, but he didn’t create the word. It already existed in English to describe a suitcase for clothing, made by combining the French porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak) in other words, portmanteau is itself a portmanteau. Now that’s meta. Cue Xzibit!

— Otto E. Mezzo

*Because I used the word, here is a turducken.

**English is by no means the king of compound words. That distinction likely goes to German (and also Dutch), which has no beef about stringing together endless trains of words to create new ones. For example: Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz — literally “bovine-flesh-labeling-over-watching-on-give-over-carrying-out-law” describes a “law delegating beef label monitoring.”

Pleonasm, or How to Fake It

PLEONASM (/ˈplənæzəm/, from Greek πλεονασμός pleonasmos from πλέον pleon “more, too much”) is the use of more words or parts of words than is necessary for clear expression: examples are black darkness, or burning fire, or A malignant cancer is a pleonasm for a neoplasm. Such redundancy is, by traditional rhetorical criteria, a manifestation of tautology. – Wikipedia entry for pleonasm

I learned a new word today. If you know me, that’s no small thing. The word is pleonasm, proffered by Facebook friend Crys. She writes:

Why has it become so trendy for people to use double negatives? Ooh, it grinds my gears when people say/write things like “reply back”!!!!!
feeling annoyed. 

Then continues: Also on my naughty list are pleonasmsincluding, but not limited to: reduce down, raise up, safe haven, & burning fire.#WORDNERD

Crys, I know you read this blog regularly (and if you don’t, I’m pretending you do), as I see you name-checking some previous entries. In addition to your examples, we’ve called out frozen tundrasalsa sauce, please R.S.V.P., and La Brea Tar Pits. But I never knew these tautologies had a designation. So a big Lexicide thank you!

Now, let’s return to faking erudition by using redundant phrases – and annoying Crys!

See also: Redundant, Repetitious and Redundant