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Archive for the 'Words in General' Category

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.

Palatalization

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

JR recently sent a comment on my claim that the word perdure is pronounced almost the same as perjure. Here is what he said:

“I have difficulty understanding the correct way to pronounce some words, e.g. that your word perdure is pronounced with a [j] sound in it. At other websites the pronunciation is given with a [d] sound in the word. Which is correct?”

In US English the SOUNDS [dy] and [ty] regularly become [j] and [ch], respectively. That is why picture is pronounced [pikchur] and verdure is pronounce [vurjur] unless they head an accented syllable. It follows that perdure would be pronounced [perjur] by speakers from the US. It is very difficult to pronounce [dyur] that way without slipping into [j].

If these sounds begin an accented syllable, this shift usually does not take place, hence most speakers would keep the [d] sound in dew, duty, and due—unless they drop the [y] in their dialects, i.e. where dew and do are pronounced the same. However, there is a little softening of the [d] even under accent.

This process is called “palatalization” because in pronouncing [d] and [t] (identical sounds except the vocal cords vibrate in pronouncing [d] ), the tongue moves to the center of the mouth, to the palate.

The same thing happens to [g] and [k] in other languages. These sounds move forward to the palate from the back of the mouth. That is why GI and CI are pronounced [j] and [ch] in Italian, e.g. Giovanni, Giuseppe, Luigi and Puccini, fettuccine.

Cool Way to Say “Insensitive”

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Pronunciation: pæ-kê-dêr-mê-tês • Hear it! • Adjective

Meaning: 1. Of, like or related to thick-skinned animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses. 2. Thick skinned, insensitive.

Notes: Well, we all have known that a pachyderm is an elephant since childhood; it should come as no surprise that this word has an adjective. That suffix -at before the -ous is redundant, so you may omit it if you wish: pachydermous is just as good as today’s word—and shorter, if you’re in a hurry. The state of having (abnormally) thick skin?Pachydermia.

In Play: Sometimes thick skin is a good defense mechanism: “I don’t think your referring to him as a burnt-out has-been will offend that pachydermatous old goat!” However, it can also be an indicator of insensitivity: “Donny Brooke is too pachydermatous to enjoy the subtleties of poetry; he wouldn’t enjoy the reading.”

Word History: Today’s Good Word comes to us, via Latin and French, from Greek pakhydermos “thick-skinned”, a compound made up of pakhys “thick” + derma “skin”. Pachys does not show up in many Greek borrowings in English; pachysandra was named for its thick stamens while pachycephalosaurs were named for their thick skulls.Derma, however, appears in many borrowings, including dermal “pertaining to skin”, epidermis “outer layer of skin”, and the study of skin, dermatology. (Today we are grateful to Andrew Shaffer, who magically sends out our Good Words to you daily and whose voice you hear pronouncing this word, for giving us the skinny on this funny word.)

Hems and Mayhem

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Pronunciation: may-hem • Hear it! • Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. (Law) Intentionally maiming a person in order to disable and render them defenseless. 2. Wanton destruction. 3. Havoc, riotous chaos, total disorder.

Notes: Today’s Good Word is a rarity, indeed: an English word pronounced exactly as it is spelled! (Don’t listen to the US dictionaries; always pronounce the [h] in the middle. That’s what it is there for.) Mayhem is a lexical orphan without any related words, though our British cousins have used it as a verb in the past.

In Play: In peacetime, mayhem is, unfortunately, often associated with sporting events: “When the Dinglethwarp Turtledoves defeated the Swollingham Drubbers in the final seconds of the game, mayhem broke out among the fans.” We do hear this word often used hyperbolically, though: “Were I to suggest the company reduce its lunch break from an hour to a half hour, I’m afraid that mayhem might break out on the plant floor.”

Word History: Old French mahaigne “injury, mutilation” becamemahain then mahaim in Anglo-Norman, the French spoken in England after the Norman Conquest (1066). The Normans (so called because they originated in Normandy, France) picked up the word from a nearby Celtic language, Breton, where the word for “maim, mutilate” was mac’hagnañ. English borrowed the Anglo-Norman variantmahaim and developed it in two directions. In one instance the inconvenient H in the middle was dropped, leaving only maim. The other direction retained the H but only after folk etymology converted it into two recognizable English words, may and hem. The new “compound” survived despite its sounding more like the decision of a seamstress than an act of destruction. (In order to avoid any mayhem among our dear subscribers, let us now thank Dr. L. B. Tague for suggesting today’s riot of a Good Word.)

Crucify

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

kru-sə-fai • Hear it!Verb, transitive

Meaning: 1. To execute someone by nailing them to a post with a crossbar to the arms. 2. To punish or berate someone viciously, brutally.

Notes: Unfortunately, this word is so useful it has begotten a large family of words referring to torture and torment. Someone who crucifies in either of the two senses above is a crucifier and the act of crucifying is crucifixion. If excruciating pain represents the extreme in torture, that is because excruciate is based on the same sense of crucifixion. Today Christians throughout the world commemorate the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified, a day now called “Good Friday” in English.

In Play: Aside from Eastertide, we use this word today only in the figurative sense as a hyperbole: “Dad is going to crucify you when he finds out you bent his Bentley!” In fact, we probably overuse it: “Gladys Friday was crucified by the boss in front of the whole office when she arrived at the meeting late.”

Word History: Happy Easter!Proto-Indo-Europeanroot behind crux turns up in many modern Indo-European languages. English crook and crutch share the same origin. Of course, we borrowed crux itself from Latin to refer to the central point of an issue. This sense of crux goes back to a reference to a crossroads at which a decision must be made. The adjective crucial “decisive” reflects this same sense. The F in the Latin verb figere came from an older PIE word dhig- “to fix, set”, which seems to have come to English as dig. The semantic road between these two words is too long to travel in this Good Word entry.