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Archive for the 'Words in General' Category

The Origin of ‘Con Artist’

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

My old South African e-friend Chris Stewart sent me the following e-mail this morning.

On the way in this morning, I was listening to a BBC program on sociology and the subject of “con men” (confidence tricksters) came up. To my surprise it was asserted that in this context, “con” was not a contraction of “confidence trickster”, but derived from the nautical term [meaning “steer (a ship)”].

Having grown up on the sea, this sense of “to steer” resonates well, but my attempt to verify this has been for naught. I am guessing that the average English-speaking person of today would know the term only from the likes of Startrek (Captain Kirk: “You have the con, Mr. Spock.”) Perhaps you can elucidate?

My response:

I lost confidence in the BBC news when it offered two appearances of my former partner at yourDictionary.com to discuss his precise (to the minute) prediction of when the English vocabulary would have its millionth word.

The Dallas Morning Star reporter who did the same story telephoned me and I told him that the prediction was completely fraudulent, so they published my comment with two or three others who shared the same opinion, along with the story.

My former partner was a clever marketer and he knew that people thought you could count the number of words in a language despite the evidence against this presumption. He even put up an article next to my article at yourDictionary.com claiming that I was wrong, you can count the number of words in a language at any given moment, which he conveniently provided. His article was linked to ten times more pages than mine.

Whomever you heard on the BBC is dead wrong. Con is an Americanism and all dictionaries, US and UK, trace it back to “confidence game”. That includes the OED, which I trust much farther than BBC when it comes to the English language.

Asterisms and Constellations

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Chris Steward of South Africa sent a comment on our Good Word constellation that I thought we all might benefit from:

I did not know that strew was related, though it makes poetic sense.

There are precisely 88 internationally-recognised modern constellations identified by the IAU, who have sole mandate for such naming.

There is another word, ‘asterism’, which denotes an “informal” constellation, i.e. a group of stars in some recognizable pattern named for convenience in discussion. There are a host of asterisms, as well as archaic constellations from various cultures (which I suppose are now asterisms, too, since their fall from grace).

An obvious asterism would be Orion’s belt, otherwise known as die drie konings “the three kings”. Also prominent and well known worldwide are the Pleides, known informally as “the Seven Sisters” (Subaru in Japanese) even though the cluster contains many more than seven stars. In the southern hemisphere, we have the constellation Crux (the famous Southern Cross), and the asterism of the False Cross (which neophytes typically confuse with Crux). These two can easily be distinguished by the fact that the asterism of “the Pointers” helps to highlight the true cross, whereas the false cross has no such neighbour. Another would be the Teapot, which is a subset of Sagittarius.

Some asterisms are too small or too faint to the naked eye for them to be commonly known, but are readily identified with optical assistance and many are well known in, um, the constellation of astronomical observers. The Coathanger is a prime example. There is even a beautiful triangle-within-a-triangle known as the “Stargate” (after the TV series).

Spaghettification

Friday, December 11th, 2015
Here is a note from Christ Stewart that I received last month which I simply pass on here for those who are interested in such things.
I thought I would raise a little levity and bring in a term commonly used by those interested in the mysterious behavior of our universe. It may be suitable for an April 1 Good Word, except that it is no joke (which would mean those who thought it was, would be fooled).
If one approaches a black hole, then due to the inverse square law of gravity, one reaches a zone where the gravity gradient is so extreme that solid objects will be torn apart. Were an astronaut to fall into a black hole feet first, the gravitational force at his feet would become much larger than at his head. The net effect of the complex forces (which are dragging not just matter, but space and time from our universe into the black hole) is akin to squeezing out the contents of a toothpaste tube. The result would be for the astronaut to be stretched long and thin like a rubber band, a rather unfavourable irreversible situation from which there is no return.
This process is known as spaghettification, and one who undergoes it is said to have been spaghettified. Doubtless modern Spanish Inquisitors would gladly trade in their racks for a spaghettifier.
I could not find many on-line dictionaries with the word, but there are some. Quite a good explanation can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghettification
–Chris Stewart

Binky

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

• binky •

Pronunciation: bing-kee • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: Love my binky1. Security blanked or a favorite stuffed animal that soothes and offers comfort to a baby. Something babies must cling to in order to get to sleep. 2. A pacifier (US &: Canada), dummy (UK), soother (elsewhere). 3. A bunny pronk, a high hop of joy for a rabbit.

Notes: Today’s Good Word may be two words: one referring to a pacifier, the other referring to a security toy or blanket. You’ll have to read the Word History to find out why. Remember to change the Y to an I in the plural: binkies.

In Play: Because the word is used as a commercial name for a popular pacifier, many people know only this meaning: “What happened to the baby’s binky? He didn’t swallow it, did he?” We needn’t stretch the sense of this word far to apply it more broadly: “Martin must have his coffee in his favorite cup, his ‘binky’. I would be surprised if he didn’t sleep with it.”

Word History: Two sources have been proposed for Binky: (1) the commercial name for a pacifier manufactured by Playtex® and (2) a baby’s pronunciation of blanket. According to Paul Ogden’s research, binky first appeared in print in 1944 and Playtex came into existence only in 1947, so we can’t give Playtex® the credit. We simply don’t know how binky came to be associated with pacifiers. Blanket is from Old French blanchet “white flannel cloth”, a diminutive of blanc “white”. Old French apparently borrowed this word from a Germanic language. Proto-Germanic had a word blangkaz “shine, dazzle”, which came to be German blank “shining, clean”. This same word turned out in English as bleachblanch and blank. (We now offer a blanket ‘thank you’ to Eric Berntson, who proposed today’s Good Word in the Alpha Agora.)

The Best Ways to Build Vocabulary

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

James Van Hoof recently wrote:

“Earlier this morning, I listened to a podcast of Dr. Katherine Albrecht interviewing you recently on her radio show. I enjoyed listening to your comments and insights on the subject of words and language!”

“In the past I’ve attempted, without success, to identify a book or other resource that is effective in assisting one in expanding one’s vocabulary. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on how to expand one’s vocabulary and or a resource that would be of value in assisting one in doing this.”

It is a fair question, one that I have been asked many times by students who want to build vocabularies and spell the words in them correctly. I offered the same reponse to Mr. Van Hoof as I offered them

I have three sure-fire ways of increasing your vocabulary:

  1. Read
  2. Read more.
  3. Read even more.

Our active vocabularies are unconscious and the only way to reach them is by reading or talking to people with large vocabularies. Memorizing lists of words simply does not work because all that work is conscious. You may pick up one or two words that way, but for massively building your vocabulary, reading is your best bet.

Read novels written by intelligent authors. Read some poetry, too. Poets like to show off their vocabularies.

OED: On English Borrowing

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries, bringing the total to 180,976. Subtracting the archaic words leaves us with about 133,826 current words.

Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter, adjectives, and about a seventh, verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

Only 25% of the words in the English language are of native origin. Here is a list of the languages from which most of the remainder were borrowed from.

  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%

Of course, the OED, like all dictionaries, is just a sampling of the English lexical treasure, chosen by the editorial staff. As I have shown elsewere, the words of a language cannot be counted. However, the percentages are telling testimony of the English obsession with borrowing. (Source: the OED itself, of course.)

Valentine

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Printable Version

Pronunciation: -lên-tayn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A loved one to whom a special card of love is sent on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14. 2 The card itself or some other gift given on St. Valentine’s Day to someone beloved.

Notes: The day celebrating love remains a proper noun, St. Valentine’s Day or Saint Valentine’s Day. The noun valentine, as defined above, has long since become a common noun. The verb valentine, once used to describe birds serenading a prospective mate, has fallen by the wayside. The same is true, alas, of the blend Valentide, made from valentine and tide in the spirit of Christmastide. So we are left to send valentines to our valentines on St. Valentine’s Day.

In Play: May today be a lovely day.A Valentine’s Day present is shortened to just valentine these days: “That thoughtful guy, Amos, gave his wife a red lawnmower for a valentine.” Since this word is so closely associated with St. Valentine’s Day, the range of its possible uses is limited. Its association with the courtship of birds (See History), though, suggests we might revive the verb in figurative expressions like this one: “Fenwick seems to have valentined Maudy into marrying him.”

Word History: February 14 was originally a Roman feast day celebrating the beginning of the mating season of birds (hence the association with love). Chaucer was still aware of this for, in Parliament of Foules (1381), he wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” (For this was on Saint Valentine’s day when every bird comes there to choose his mate). The celebratory day somehow became associated with a saint named Valentine in the 3rd century, a priest and physician killed during the persecution of Christians by Claudius II. The connection between the two remains murky. (May everyone reading this be loved by someone special today.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

Who is an American?

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Gordon Precious, one of our Canadian subscribers, today wrote on a subject that constantly arises in writing the alphaDictionary website and the Good Words. Here is what he wrote:

On the subject of “Yankee” (July 3, 2011, Dr. Goodword), and with Canada’s national day, “Canada Day”, having just past on July 1st, (celebrating our 144th birthday. The United States of America is about to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, (its 235th, I believe), it seems an appropriate time for me to raise an old question and slight grievance:

“Why do not the citizens of the United States of America have a singular, just appellation for themselves?”

Ever since I attended public school, here in Canada, over 80 years ago, I have considered myself to be an Old Glory“American”, inasmuch as I live in America – North America to be exact. I find that the citizens of Mexico, Central and South America also consider themselves “American”. It is quite common to see a sign on a storefront in Guatemala, Columbia, Chile, etc., “Compañía de Plomería Americano”, which is, of course, “American Plumbing Company”, but has no connection with the U.S.A.

It is my contention that the citizens of the United States of America have unwittingly usurped the name “American” from the rest of us Americans.

I would like the citizens of the United States of America to find, and develop the use of, a specific name for their nationality, as have the citizens of every other country of which I can think.

I generally agree and try to use awkward phrases like “people of the US” or “those of us in the US” instead of “American” whenever I can think of it. They are all awkward, though.

The problem is obvious to all: we have a queer name for a country. It is easy to call those from Canada Canadians, those from Mexico Mexicans, and those from Guatemala Guatemalans. But there is no word derivable from “The United States of America” in the same vein unless, of course, we take the last word in this phrase, “America”, and use Americans.

We might try building a word from an acronym, USans or USAsians. I’m sure these sound as bad to everyone else as they do to me. United Statesians not only sounds atrocious but is grossly ungrammatical. The best solution is the one we seem to have chosen, the one mentioned above, using the last word in the phrase, Americans.

I wouldn’t call such a selection “usurpation” of the term from other American nations, however. Using the same word to refer to the US and the Americas is simply another instance of polysemy, a word with more than one meaning. I personally think that, outside scientific terminology, there are no words with only one meaning, take for example cooler (noun and adjective), dresser (furniture and person), air (for breathing, for singing).

Nations generally do have distinct names that distinguish any one from the others. However, we even get polysemy among the names of nations: Turkey, China, Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, and Jamaica are a few. We also find it among the personal nouns: Danish (pastry), Dutch (uncle), and Indian are a few of those. The fact that American falls into this category should not offend our neighbors in the other Americas.

So, I see no offense in the word America having referring to two geographical entities. All of the alternatives are worse.

Campaigns and Scampaigns

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

A word that has been floating around for a few years caught my attention when it was applied to election campaigns. I don’t like to promote blends like scam + campaign as a means of expanding the vocabulary because they are not a part of the grammar of English. But this one works so well I can’t resist the temptation.

The word apparently originated in the advertising business and referred to fake advertising campaigns for nonexistent products that were submitted for ad-of-the-year awards.

Now the word seems to apply equally well to political campaigns like that of Donald Trump, campaigns with ostensibly ulterior motives, such as to promote a TV series, or to increase book sales, commercial visibility or income in general.

In politics the scampaign is very, very new, so it is difficult to separate the scampaigns from the campaigns. I suspect the distinction will become clearer as time passes.

Osculating Fans

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Sally Colby just shared a funny experience she had with the verb osculate that I thought should be shared with you all:

“I’ll never forget going to a department store to purchase a fan about 30 years ago. The (very young) sales girl showed us the features of various fans, including one she really liked.

‘This one is great,’ she said. ‘It works standing still, or it can osculate.’

It was hard not to laugh, but I sure chuckled in the car on the way home.”

Of course, you must mind your nose.