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

Leverage, revisited

Our partner company leverages outside technical resources to support their initiatives…

The ability to leverage their global retail fulfillment offering…

We believe that a best-of-breed approach that leverages our IT tools will offer the most flexibility to meet long-term global expansion plans.

We leverage our best practices at our partner facilities. 

I am officially over leverage.

I had to edit a document containing the above passages today, and I am less sure than ever what leverage actually means. In 2009, I lamented how people use the word as a flowery substitute for “use.” Now, I’m not sure.

It sounds like something is happening beyond simple use or deployment. But what? How does a best-of-breed approach relate to a technology stack? At some point, I start to wonder if my colleagues are really just stringing buzzwords together.

I did a quick search to see if other writers are as bothered as I am. They are, although seemingly more because leverage is more properly a noun, not a verb:

Plain old lever still has its uses as a verb. As for leverage as a noun, advantage can replace it in most figurative contexts.

All these entries insist the verb form is lever, not leverage.

Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?

The title says it all.

I’ve chosen ‘leverage’ to appear in the title of a blog about clear business communication, its use as a verb being symbolic of the obfuscation, dissembling and cleverly disguised cluelessness that passes for much corporate speak these days.

Wow. A whole blog devoted to exposing the fraud that is leverage.

I don’t care much that leverage crosses the mythical line separating noun from verb. Many words, from Shakespeare’s time and before, have identified first as nouns, then verbs. (More concerning is the illiterate trend of verbs becoming nouns – words like ask and spend.)

What Lexicide cares about are words used carelessly and stupidly. I spend hours each day writing and editing. Why would I want to waste my workday spitting out vapid buzzwords when I could offer sentences that make an impact on readers (or, in modern parlance, impact readers)? Here at Lexicide, we’ve offered a few theories. My new favored hypothesis is just that people are idiots. I think marketing god Seth Godin says it best:

The more you say leverage, the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.

— Otto E. Mezzo

NPR: Our Language Is Evolving, ‘Because Internet’

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/31/747020219/our-language-is-evolving-because-internet

Friend, reader, and prolific writer Christina shared this article, an interview with linguist Gretchen McCulloch on her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. It’s well worth reading, and piques my interest in the book. Some takeaways:

On LOL

There’s a difference between how these different groups use “LOL” … the acronym which initially stood for “laughing out loud.” And if you talk to people in some of these older generations who are, you know, have been using the Internet for 20 years but came online in a less social space, they see it: OK, here’s an acronym; they’re told it is an acronym; it must mean “laughing out loud.” … And for the youngest group of people, there’s no literal meaning left to LOL at all.

How the period gains new meaning

… [I]n an informal context, you don’t need the period anymore to distinguish between one sentence or one phrase and the next because you’re just going to hit “send” in a chat context… But the problem is if you say “OK, sounds good.” — and you add that note of seriousness — now you’ve got positive words and serious punctuation, and the clash between them is what creates that sense of passive aggression.

Who cares about internet grammar?

If we analyze the language on the Internet, we can analyze so many different types of languages, so many different ways of talking and get a bigger picture of what it means to be a person — rather than just what it means to be the type of person who writes a book.

Lexicide has touched on the shifting meaning of LOL and other words, and I find McCulloch’s whole exploration fascinating. I have heard that we learn more about street-level societies from graffiti than from official records. Many ancient (and modern) cultures keep no records of events unflattering to the ruling class, and the volume of words generated by common people (in receipts, letters, and diaries) would provide a richer, fuller picture of, say, the Roman empire — if we could read Vulgar Latin.

The snob in me disdains the devolution of language due to texting and email. But there’s linguistic gold in them thar hills. What does it say about us that we find periods passive aggressive in their finality? Or that we curate mistakes to look more like they came from a typewriter than a phone? It’s these fascinating questions that keep us publishing Lexicide.

Otto E. Mezzo

Iconic

ICONIC: “1. of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an icon; 2a. widely recognized and well-established (an iconic brand name); 2b. widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence.” – Merriam-Webster.com

According to NPR, this is “one of the most iconic signs in the national memory.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no memory (national or otherwise) of this sign or phrase. I’d bet if you were born after 1870, neither do you. What NPR probably meant was that this sign was widespread, ubiquitous, or omnipresent at one time. Sure, the writer was proffering the thesis that ethnic prejudice is so ingrained in the American mind that we (Americans) hold signs like this up as national icons. But, sorry, we don’t. And that’s a very good thing.

What makes something iconic? Apropos the 50th Anniversary of the first moon landing, this image (and it must be an image, an icon) qualifies as iconic:

This one, too.

Of course, this one.

And this one.

Don’t think so? Metro disagrees, calling Molly-Mae’s hairstyle from the “Love Island” TV show iconic. Yes, I had to look up the show, and not just because I’m a Yank (well, partly). The show first aired in 2015, and Molly-Mae is a contestant on the current season, so I suppose now thirty days is all that’s required for something to become iconic.

In the world of entertainment, a thing doesn’t have to be widely known to be iconic. I’ve seen Bill Bixby’s ripped shirt from “The Incredible Hulk” TV show, the stiletto heel from Single White Female, and the Glock from John Wick 2 all called iconic. The Ocarina of Time may be a big deal to Zelda fans, but it’s a stretch to call something in a rarefied universe iconic. If gamers want to know how that feels, try imagining your great-aunt Edith’s knitting circle cooing over her iconic Afghan squares.

Everyone just stop. None of these examples are seared into the collective consciousness like the moon landing, V-J Day, or Tiananmen Square. Or the Kaaba or Calvary or the Colossus of Rhodes. Molly-Mae’s hair may be arresting, unusual, or instantly recognizable (please don’t call it unique), but until the image echoes throughout time, it can’t rightly be iconic. Icons outlive their culture – they endure. Which is why “No Irish Need Apply” will never be iconic.

– Otto E. Mezzo

References:

http://www.npr.org/2019/07/16/742000247/with-latest-nativist-rhetoric-trump-takes-america-back-to-where-it-came-from

Dictionary.com: Is mistress offensive?

https://www.dictionary.com/e/mistress-and-other-words-that-have-no-male-counterpart/

Mistress is a problematic word in so many ways. First is in its abbreviation, Mrs. No, I don’t have a problem with women using the title* (nor if they prefer Ms., as my own wife does). But whereas Mr. is pronounced “mister”, Mrs. carries the elided pronunciation “missus”. If you are writing dialog in a script, the general rule is to spell abbreviations, symbols, and numerals out (Elm Street instead of Elm St., sixty-seven dollars instead of $67). How do you do that with Mrs.? Because “missus” is not a word, the generally accepted solution is to simply write Mrs.

Dictionary.com also asks if the very word mistress is offensive or sexist. The site agrees with Huffington Post and the Associated Press that it is:

Referring to someone as a mistress may seem more acceptable if there were a similar term we could apply to men, but there isn’t quite one.

However, we could apply the same logic to why a writer should use the word mistress – because there really isn’t another good word for the person in question. Adulterer, while technically accurate, is too sanctimonious, homewrecker too judgmental, and lover too literary (as Dictionary.com admits). Mistress is a word we all understand to mean “the woman with whom a man has an affair.” I’m not sure the “kept” implication is still there in 2019. But I get the objection. If a woman takes a male lover who’s not her husband, what is he called? Mister or master obviously don’t work. Gigolo has other connotations. Courtier? Consort?

The AP just chucks out the words and suggests you re-write the sentence. But the beauty of English words is how they pack whole thoughts into a short construction of letters. Bezos’ mistress tells you everything you need to know without resorting to the passive “Sanchez and Bezos were romantically involved.” Likewise, actress reads more smoothly than female actor, or actor (female), as I expect the Oscar will one day be renamed. To be clear, I call all my women thespian friends actors. There is no difference between what they do on stage or in front of the camera and what their male castmates do. Actress belongs in the same dustbin as poetess, huntress, and baxter (a female bake-ster). I do have a special place in my heart for editrix, but have never worked up the nerve to call any of my women editors that, since they could fire me. When I was a teenager, waitress was still in common use. After a brief flirtation with waitron, waiter for both men and women seems to have won the day. Except there is that musical on Broadway.

To be continued.

– Otto E. Mezzo

*No, Mrs. need not be followed by the husband’s name. Emily Post says so:
https://emilypost.com/advice/the-mrs-question/

Demonyms: Citizens’ Arrest

Back in October, I asked what one called residents of Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Atlantic City, etc. This is because Reader Eddie suggested they should be Citizens, as in Oklahoma Citizens, and so on. As is typical of my readership, I got a lot of smart-alecky responses to my serious inquiry (“Okies, Mormons, vagrants”) but no sober, informed data.

That’s because I didn’t consult Wikipedia (the ever-reliable font of sober, informed data!). Turns out there is an entire article called List of adjectivals and demonyms for citiesHuzzah!

Rummaging through the list, you’ll find someone from Carson City is a Carsonite (since the city was founded on silver mines, I find the mineral-oriented “ite” suffix appropriate). A Kansas City resident is a Kansas Citian (blech). Oklahoma City is home to Oklahoma Cityans (double blech), and SLC supports its population of Salt Lakers. Atlantic City is not relevant enough to be on this list, apparently.

A couple of interesting demonyms show their colors here. I did not know people from Buenos Aires are Porteños. Ho Chi Minh City dwellers still call themselves Saigoners or Saigonese, and if you hail from Mexico City, you are thankfully not a Mexico Cityan, but a Capitalino.

And sorry, Eddie. The uniform demonym for ville (Nashville, Louisville, even Seville) is villian, not villain.

Retro (a retrospective on retrograde)

RETRO: “Imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past.” – Oxford English Dictionary

Reader David Elliot commented on last month’s article:

I understood the term ‘retro’ as we use it in English coming to us from the French adjective ‘rétrograde’ originally, used as a shortened bit of slang in the 60s.

I believe that’s the earliest use in English vernacular and commercial copy to mean throwback or vintage (not its academic or scientific use).

So, that makes the Mossberg mark that much more precise.

D.E. is right on the time frame. Almost all authorities date retro to 1960s France, with common usage in English booming in the early 1970s. But here sources diverge as to whether retro derives from rétrograde, as he cites, or rétrospectif. Merriam-Webster favors rétrospectif whereas the OED (Lexicide’s go-to source) throws its beret in with rétrograde. Two French dictionaries cite rétrospectif as the source.

Rétrospectif is directly equivalent to the English retrospective (“looking back”), so that etymology makes sense. I wondered, however, if rétrograde carries the same negative color as its English counterpart. Here’s where I consulted with French teacher Erin, who in turn contacted one of her French amis. She replied: “C’est négatif et obscurantiste.”

There aren’t many words we don’t know at Lexicide, but obscurantist (in English) definitely drove us to the dictionary. (Obscurantism is “the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known,” according to Oxford.) So oui, rétrograde is just as much of an insult in the francosphere as it is the anglosphere.

Reader Andy also commented on retrograde and retro:

It’s funny how “retro” has become a word unto itself. It’s not merely a descriptive prefix, or an abbreviation for “retrograde,” but it seems to specifically refer to style or design, and it carries a positive (or at least nostalgic) connotation.

It’s also oddly specific. Nobody would refer to Conestoga wagons or Gregorian chant as “retro,” though they come from earlier times. It seems to me that “retro” refers to the zeitgeist of Americana in the 1950s through perhaps the 1980s, though I expect this will expand as the population ages. “Retro” needs to have occurred within living memory and needs to have been part of a pop-culture movement that has definitely ended, AND has since been re-imagined or mythologized.

Having studied philosophy in college, we’re not surprise Andy latched on to this. Of course, retro is not pinned to a specific era, but to nostalgia, and one can’t be nostalgic over things one didn’t live through. The Wikipedia article offers a good summary on retro’s origins and future.

– Otto E. Mezzo