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Archive for the 'Words in General' Category


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.

You will Rue the Taste of Rue

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011
RUE: Verb, transitive

Meaning: 1. To regret, to feel sorry about. 2. To repent, to be penitent or do penitence for (now rare).

Notes: The adjective to today’s Good Word is rueful “penitent, regretful”, which comes with an adverb, ruefully, and a noun ruefullness. These forms bear witness to this word’s being an authentic English noun and not a borrowed one. Despite the fact that anyone nibbling the highly bitter semitoxic rue plant, the noun rue is unrelated to today’s verb.

In Play: Today’s Good Word delivers the same punch as regret but in a smaller, more sophisticated package: “Will Doolittle came to rue forgetting the street where his French girlfriend lived—Rue LaRue in Paris.” Ruefulness often stalks the workplace: “After five years with no raise or promotion, Clarence Sales began to rue the day he came to work for Hiram Cheep.”

Word History: Today’s Good Word, as mentioned above, is a genuine English word. It comes from Old English hreowan “make sorry, grieve”. The origin of that word is open to question, but the initial H on the Old English word suggests it comes from a Proto-Indo-European word beginning on KR. Russian has a word krushit’ “to shatter, crush” that may come from the same source. It clearly thrived among the Germanic languages, for German Reue “repentance” and Dutch rouwen “to mourn” are clearly cousins. The rue plant got its name from Latin ruta “rue”, which in turn came from Greek rhyte, at which point the historical trail comes to an abrupt halt.

Passover and Easter

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover, a Jewish holiday beginning on the 14th of Nisan at sundown and continuing for eight days, from April 18 to April 26 in 2011 by the Gregorian Calendar. It commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

Star of DavidThe highlight of the celebration of Pesach is the Seder, a special supper held on the first night or the first two nights of Pesach. All of the food has meaning: only unleavened matzo (flat bread) is eaten and green vegetables are dipped in a vinegar or salty water to symbolize the suffering of the Jews crossing the desert. Children recite passages and answer questions to show that they have learned the significance of Pesach that they will pass on to their children.

The Haggadah is the story of the Exodus from Egypt which everyone at the Seder table reads. The story of the Exodus is told four ways, each emphasizing a different aspect of the Exodus and its importance for the Jewish people. According to the synoptic gospels, the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper that Jesus attended was a traditional Seder. The Book of John places it the day before the Seder, on the day of the slaughter of the sacrificial lamb.

Pesach is Hebrew pesaH “Passover” from the verb pasaH “to pass over”. Pasch “Passover, Easter” is the Aramaic variant of the same Semitic root. Jesus presumably spoke Aramaic, so this word became the origin of the word for Easter in most European languages: French Pâques, Spanish Pascua, Portuguese Páscoa, Italian Pasqua, Swedish Påsk, and Russian Paskha. This is perhaps the closest linguistic link between Judaism and Christianity. Those of us here at The Lexiteria and alphaDictionary hope the homes of all our Jewish friends are filled with peace and love during this Pesach season. Easter is just around the corner.

Umlauts and Diereses

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Jeremy Wheeler and Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer have so far caught what they consider an oversight in our recent Good Word sprachgefuhl. In that writeup I claim that this word is sometimes spelled with an umlaut over the U, which is to say, Sprachgefühl, and explained umlaut as a synonym of dieresis. Although the two are generally used interchangeably, there is reason to maintain a distinction based not on the two dots themselves, but how they are used.

Dieresis comes from the Greek word for “split” and, before English began borrowing words from Modern German, it was used only to refer to an umlaut placed over the second of two successive vowels to indicate that both are pronounced, as in the case of naïve Chloë, Noël, Aïda.

Of course, this alternate spelling is now rare in English and other diacritics serve the same or a very similar purpose. In fiancé, attaché, cliché, communiqué it is the acute that tells us the vowel is pronounced. So the plot, as plots are wont to do, thickens.

I assume the people who named the diacritics did the best they could with what they had to work with. Since we have no word for German Umlaut in English, I still think it reasonable if not preferable to use dieresis for the two dots, regardless of their function.

We do not distinguish between other diacritics on the basis of their use, so far as I recall. Why make an exception here? My use of dieresis followed modern trend of referring only to the two dots placed over some vowels for whatever reason.

Why Gender?

Monday, May 10th, 2010

David Kelley of the Bucknell Electrical Engineering Department just dropped a note that I thought worth sharing with the world. Here is what he asked and how I answered.

I enjoyed reading Sam Alcorn’s ‘Ask the Experts‘ profile of you that has just recently appeared on Bucknell’s web site. There is an aspect of language that has puzzled me for 25 years. I have never found a satisfyingly complete answer to my question, so I thought I would ‘ask the expert’.

Does anyone know why (or have a good theory for why) gender developed in most of the world’s (or at least Europe’s) major languages? I know French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, and I know German adds “neuter” to the list. Even more intriguing to me is why English, which is derived from German and has borrowed heavily from French and Latin, has lost the classification of nouns by gender.

David, thank you for your note. I’m happy that you enjoyed Sam’s interview with me; I was pleased with it myself.

We should keep in mind that we are not looking for logical reasons for gender, so the question “why?” begs the question. Gender exists for grammatical reasons alone and our mental grammar has its own rules. Grammar interacts with other mental processes but it should not be confused with them: it is an independent human mental faculty with rules of its own.

That said, gender is actually a category of the lexicon, out mental vocabulary, the dictionary of words we have in our heads. Grammar, the rules for organizing words in sentences, works together with lexicon to bridge our minds and the real world. Their job is to provide a speedy means of the expressing ideas about the real world to others out there. The first step in this process is to categorize everything.

Just as we have semantic (conceptual) categories like animal, vegetable, bodies of water, countries, we have lexical categories that group words so that they may be quickly grasped and understood in speech: gender, number, person. These categories are usually reflected in the dress of words, the suffixes, prefixes, endings, that they bear. Gender is one of those categories, a category with two or three members, usually masculine and feminine, but also neuter in some languages.

Now, remember that the lexical categories have to do with words, not semantic categories. The names “masculine” and “feminine” are therefore misleading for they also refer to the semantic categories of males and females. Masculine and feminine nouns are not limited to males and females. The word for table in Russian, stol, is masculine while la table in French is feminine. As I hope is obvious to all, tables have no semantic gender at all. Moreover, in Russian, the words for “uncle”, “judge”, “daddy”, and all male nicknames are feminine and the word for “girl” in German, Mädchen, is neuter.

Lexical gender, then, is an arbitrary set of classes and all nouns must belong to one of them. There is a tendency to associate semantic categories with lexical categories because of the confusion between the two that led to the names “masculine” and “feminine” for the lexical categories. Still, speakers have to memorize which class a noun belongs to just as they memorize each word’s meaning.

Languages that have gender also have agreement. This means that when a noun is used with an adjective or verb in those languages, that adjective and verb must bear an indicator (suffix or prefix) associated with the class of the noun. This helps the mind of the listener keep up with which adjective and which verb goes with which noun in complex sentences that have multiple adjectives and verbs. This is generally the purpose of lexical categories and, as you can see, it is purely grammatical, not semantic or logical.

The relation is not logical because languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no prefixes or suffixes, no gender, no agreement yet speakers and listeners have no trouble processing these languages. English historically has been moving away from gender-agreement to the Chinese and Vietnamese model. We use only a handful of affixes now and there is evidence that they are losing their grip.

Why? No one knows. Clearly gender and agreement are not required of a functioning language; they just come and go for the arbitrary “reasons” of language alone, reasons linguists have not yet been able to establish.

Maths, Aftermaths, and Foremaths

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Donald Schark discovered a new word recently and wrote in about it. Words are “discovered” in other words, and this one is quite a surprise to me. Donald wrote:

“I am reading an author who wrote of people facing the math and aftermath of their decisions. I have never heard math used before without the prefix, so I checked Webster. Math is from the AS “mowing.” Why is such a useful word in disuse? It certainly applies to those who are currently suffering the math of war or the latest earthquake.”

Indeed, the sense of “mowing” has shifted to “a disasterous event”, since this is what is implied today by aftermath. It implies another compound, too, namely foremath, as the foremath of an earthquake or sunami. Much is being written about that now as we try to forecast these events. The foremath of hurricanes, we now know, is long, tumultuous, and filled with evidence about the storm itself.

I will run this word as a Good Word soon no matter what the research turns up simply because of the excitement at discovering a new word. I felt the same way when I found ease in disease and busy in business., and at one in atonement. Finding words inside words we take for granted everyday is an exciting experience—whether those around me realize it or not.

The Subtleties of English Words

Friday, January 15th, 2010

David Stevens commented on the Good Word cataclysm by noting that calamity is in with those [words = catastrophe, cataclysm] also, but probably connotes less than a catastrophe.”

He is right. My response is that I am always amazed at the subtle differences in words of the same semantic category available to careful speakers. In this case we can find a long continuum of words that indicate increasing intensity of problems: problem < trouble < calamity < catastrophe < disaster < cataclysm.

There may be other words that we could insert in this continuum but we find such continua in words expressing almost every category of variable concepts.

If iff is a Word, I’m a . . .

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Roanne Butier recently brought this questioni to my attention:

“The Scrabble dictionary contains the “word” iff. They say it’s a conjunction meaning “if and only if”. That makes no sense to me. If you speak a sentence using iff, no one could tell if you mean if or iff. You could only use it in writing. I can’t believe it’s really a word. Your comments please.”

Only mathematicians and the philosophers of logic use iff. It is not a word but an abbreviation of the phrase you quoted used only in formal logic: if and only if. As you can see, it comprises the first two letters and the final letter of the phrase.

Iff should be allowed as a Scrabble word only to the extent abbreviations are allowed. I don’t think they are. Words have pronunciations and this one doesn’t in the sense that no one pronounces it [if]; it is used only in writing. When logicians use it in speech, they always say, “if and only if”.

Improving Conversational Skills

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Marnie Kaur recently raised a question I’ve heard many times before. This time I will share my thoughts on it with everyone within eyeshot of this blog.

I have always been fascinated by words. Having never had the chance to study them I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on being able to converse with the best of them. Regards, Marnie.

Conversation is an art, which means it requires practice. To become an excellent conversationalist, you must converse with excellent conversationalists. The best conversationalists tend to be people who read a lot, thereby developing a large vocabulary that they can use to make subtle distinctions that other well-read people pick up.

Repetition plays some role in learning. That is why we repeat our Good Words so many times in our essaylets. We always give two or three examples, play with the words creatively, and repeat them in discussing their derivational history—even in our acknowledgment to the people who suggest them.

However, human learning is more complex than repetition. Sometimes we can hear a word a hundred times and never remember it, as kids often exhibit a problem remembering “no” no matter how many times it is repeated. Other times we hear or read a word once and never forget it: once is usually enough for a kid to remember “candy” the rest of his or her life. 

Reading is the starting point for vocabulary building. My students often asked me what they could do to improve their spelling. I always told them that there is only one way: read more. Reading builds our word recognition or comprehension but does not bear directly on conversational skills.

We have a far larger vocabulary in our memory than we can actively use. This is another way of saying that we comprehend far more words than we can use in speech. However, the passive and active levels are connected, so the larger our passive vocabulary, the large our active vocabulary becomes. Our active or spoken vocabulary trickles down from our passive or comprehensional vocabulary. (For ages I thought this was the “trickle down” theory.)

Every language has four aspects familiar to every language teacher: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) comprehension, and (4) speaking, ordered here from easiest to most difficult. That’s right: reading any language is far easier than speaking it. Actively using grammatical skills and vocabulary on the fly is by far more difficult that slowly reading the words on a printed page, where we may reread them and mulling them over as long as we wish. In conversation we don’t have time for all that.

Still, language written by clever writers contains a larger vocabulary more sensitively deployed than even the writer can use in speaking. If we read a lot, remembering the words that stick out, examining them closely as we do in our Good Words, that passive vocabulary eventuallly meanders into our speech. It is therefore the best way to improve spelling and the best if not only starting point for improved conversational skills.

Polysemy: Adding More Meanings

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa has been thinking long and deep about words this week and the result has been short e-mail essays that raise interesting issues that should be shared. Here is another comment from Chris:

Over the weekend I was in an idle moment pondering two unrelated yet somehow connected things. The first was how different words are adopted in different countries to denote the same thing (e.g. you would say hood and trunk to describe parts of your car, whereas I would call them the bonnet and boot). The second is how sometimes the shortest words have the widest variety of usages.”

The word tap sprang to mind as being a rich example, though I guess you would call it a faucet [up North but spigot down South--RB]. It is marvellous how English has adopted myriad words in order to be able on the one hand to precisely describe exquisite nuances, obfuscate, aggrandise or wax poetic, and on the other to be terse, concise and to the point. Plus, it is impressively economical in being able to reuse words to such an extent.”

The linguistic phenomenon is that the most commonly used words tend to change more slowly than infrequently used words. The most frequently used words tend to be short, like come, have, go, and all have several meanings as well as several irregular forms, e.g. go: go, goes, went, gone. Tap has a pretty straightforward set of forms but a wide range of meanings as a noun and a verb.

English once had a rich set of prefixes and suffixes which helped create new words out of old. Most of those have, for reasons we have yet to fathom, been lost. English is becoming more and more like Chinese, which has not prefixes or suffixes. This means that we simply add new senses to old words, senses that are only discernable in context.

The part of the computer that stores data is simply called memory since we no longer use the location suffix -ery (otherwise it would be a datary or informationery). The electronic connection between two web pages is called a link, even though it bears no resemblance to a chain. Highly complex systems of transistors are called chips because the originally were small.

You would think that we would reach a point of overload when we could barely understand each other because each word has so many meanings. But we seem to do OK because, when a problem emerges, we simply to go another language and copy a word from its lexicon. As I have said many times before in the histories of the Good Words, English is a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas of world languages, hauling in any word it needs, often “borrowing” the same word several times over the course of its development, giving each variant a distinct meaning. 

So maybe the accumulation of meanings on words without prefixes and suffixes to distinguish those meanings, forces us onto the bounding lexical main.