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Archive for the 'Words in General' Category

09-09-09 and Days Like That

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Cindy Louise Allen, a Facebook friend, posted this question on my ‘wall': “Is there a word for days like today? 09/09/09?”

999Someone else asked the same question a couple of days ago and I haven’t been able to find an answer. At least we know it is not the symbol for the end of the world. Apparently, some have thought that 9/9/9 is, ignoring the slashes, 6/6/6 upside down, 666 being the symbol of Satan and those folks have connected the dots to the end of the world. I can’t see the dots, can find no hard evidence of the existence of Satan, and don’t think he would ignore the 20 that actually stands before the last 09 were I wrong. (I really miss the subjunctive.)

We have one of these days every year, so there should be a word out there somewhere. I haven’t looked all that hard; it is very problematic finding a word from its meaning and this is one I’ve never heard before or at least can’t remember now.

Has anyone else bumped into it?


Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Today we have a guest writer, Wesley (no, not that Wesley, the South African Wesley). He thinks that we need a new word. Judge for yourselves. The test of a word’s mettle is, of course, usage. Let’ see if it catches on. Here is what he says:

There is not a word in this universe that exposes and recognises world class achievements and signifies creative achievement especially in the world of crowdsourcing. This is why ‘springleap’ was coined and is applied to anyone who is able to leap significantly, where an individual shifts from a low point to a high point in his or her career through talent search competitions such as Idols, The Apprentice, Americas Next Top Model, Threadless, etc. So we ask that you help us get this proudly South African initiative out there worldwide. 

The word describes the entrance into the world of talent recognition through gaining exposure from entering a competition to determine a specific outcome. Furthermore a majority vote is then made by a crowdsourcing network or panel of judges for the winner or winners. 

Among those at the forefront offering the platform to springleap are Donald Trump (The Apprentice), Tyra Banks (Americas Next Top Model), Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart (Threadless), Robbo Bennets (Wipe Out), John Boswell (Survivor), Simon Fuller (American Idol), John de Mol (Big Brother) and Dave Broome (The Biggest Loser).

I must admit this word is shorter than “skyrocket to fame”.

Relational & Qualitative Adjectives

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

In an article entitled “Sarah Palin: A Big Gamble for Religious Conservatives” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 2, 2008, 11:00 pm, Steven Waldman, the former national editor of U.S. News & World Report wrote: “After a year’s worth of stories about whether the religious right was ‘dead,’ they now seem to be flexing great muscle, helping to bring about the most antiabortion ticket running on the most antiabortion platform – ever.”

The most antiabortion platform is a grating phrase because a relational adjective is used here as a qualitative adjective. Relational? Qualitative? “You mean there are different kinds of adjectives?” I hear someone asking. In fact, there are about a half dozen different kinds of adjectives which most of us have little difficulty distinguishing and using properly.

A qualitative adjecive is sometimes called a “real” adjective because it has all the possible qualities of an adjective: it can be used in both predicate (the platform is simple) and attributive position (the simple platform), we can derive a noun and an adverb from it (simplicity, simply), and we can compare it (simpler, simplest or more simple, most simple).

A relational adjective is at the other end of the spectrum: it can only be used as an attribute (a naval maneuver). We can’t use relational adjectives in predicate position felicitously (the maneuver is naval), compare them (more, most naval maneuver). This type of adjective is most often derived from nouns without suffixes in English (a city regulation), which makes them relatively easy to spot.

English does have lots of filters for the misuse of vocabulary which make errors like the one mentioned above comprehensible. We understand that more antiabortion doesn’t make sense, so our minds supply the missing semantic pieces, giving us “the strongest antiabortion platform”. So, what’s the big deal? If we can figure out the meaning of the phrases, what is wrong with them?

Well, assuming that we should write as clearly as possible, if we mean the strongest antiabortion platform or the most antiabortionist platform, why not use one of these phrases rather than making the reader do the work for the writer? That way, no rules of grammar are broken, either.

We have to commend Waldman for avoiding the marketing term, pro-life (itself a relational adjective), but we also need to encourage the avoidance of all relational adjectives in the comparative or superlative degree.

One Student Charged with Rioting

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

One of my first blogs was “Life in the Slow Lane“, a short essay on my life in Lewisburg. Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken so soon since this past weekend we had a riot downtown. It was reported in the Sunbury Daily Item this morning (no hurry: news doesn’t go away) under the headline above.

My wife and I were downtown watching the parking meter flags pop up at the time of the riot but somehow missed it. Apparently he didn’t spill over onto Market Street.

My first reading of this headline led me to suspect that maybe a riot had charged up an otherwise lethargic student into really digging into his studies. But, no, he actually was the riot under the Lewisburg criminal code if not under the laws of English grammar.

Ho-hum. Another week slips by; another word gains new meaning.

Meaningless Names

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Robyn Rishe was puzzled by a comment in my treatment of Oscar a few weeks back. She wrote:

“I am puzzled by your comment about today’s word, Oscar, that ‘like all proper nouns, it is a lexical orphan’. When I was in China, people often asked me what my name meant, because in Chinese all names have a meaning. I always assumed that somewhere way back in history, that was true of our names too. Otherwise, what are they? Random sounds?

Oscar“The comparison with Chinese brings up a second point—that you are ethnocentrically speaking of names with a European history only. What does Hillary Clinton’s name mean? Nothing, because it is European? What does Barak Obama’s name mean? I don’t know what its derivation is, but definitely not European. Does it mean something in another language? What does John McCain’s name mean? John goes back at least to Hebrew. Does it have a meaning there?”

The short answer to the question is, no, proper names do not have meaning in the sense common nouns have; they merely refer to objects. To understand this answer, however, we have to understand the difference between a word’s meaning and what it refers to.

When linguists use the term “meaning”, they usually have in mind a class of things, actions, or qualities associated with the word’s sound. Thus bird does not refer to one or two birds that hang around our back yard, but to an open-ended class of avians that differ significantly.

At the end of the 19th century Gottlob Frege demonstrated how the meaning of a word differs from what it refers to, its reference. His examples included the phrases morning star and evening star. These are, of course, two different phrases that have two different meanings. Morning and evening are different words with radically different meanings. However, they refer to the same thing: Venus—not even a star!

Now, if meaning and reference are distinct aspects of a word, then we should find words with meaning but no reference and words with reference but not meaning—at least, that would be ideal. Guess what? We find both.

Words with meaning but nothing to refer to include Martian, ghost, unicorn, gryphon, among many others. Most of us have a mental image of what a ghost is, but there is nothing in the real world for it to point to.

Words with references but no meanings include proper nouns. What is the meaning of Jim? Well, I know which person in my life it refers to but that person is not its meaning. I cannot answer the question, “What does a Jim look like?” “A Jim” makes no sense since Jims do not form a mental class like birds do. I can answer the question, “What does a bird look like?” That is because I have a concept of a class of bird objects.

Now, let’s get back to Oscar. I can answer the question, “What does an Oscar look like?” But my answer will be a description of the statuette, not a description of my Uncle Oscar. That is because Oscar® has become a common noun with the meaning “a statuette awarded for excellence in the motion picture making”. It now has a meaning and a reference, like all common nouns.

One final note for those who have waded this far with me. We should not confuse a word’s etymology with its meaning. The etymology of the name Cooper is that it comes from a word meaning “barrel-maker” and is based on the word hoop. However, “barrel-maker” is not the meaning of the name Cooper today because few if any Coopers make barrels. Cooper is a name without meaning even though it does have an etymology that leads to a word with meaning.

Electile Dysfunction

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

A neologistic sniglet of the 2004 US presidential elections has returned to us.  We wouldn’t suggest adding it to our dictionaries but it is worth remembering:

Electile Dysfunction: The inability to become aroused by any of the choices for president put forth by either party in the 2008 election year.

Thank you Paul Ogden and Chris Stewart.

Gription and Grippiness

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Paula Gray wrote about a year ago that, “[S]everal years ago, my young son coined the word gription, which is now popular in our family. He was complaining that the soles of his athletic shoes were wearing out. The vinyl/plastic soles had become hard and slick. He described them as “not having enough gription anymore.” I suppose it is a combination of grip and traction.”

Indeed, I wrote back to tell her about portmanteau words which we discussed only recently. I also mentioned ideolects, which is the dialect of a single family or even person—yes, dialects can be that small.

However, while visiting my sons and their children over the holidays, my eldest son, Jeff, mentioned that the new tires on his jeep we very grippy, which I took to mean that they had good “gription”. Of course, to the extent grippy works, it implies a whole family of relatives: grippier, grippiest, grippily, and grippiness.

Both these words strike me as legimate and grammatical and I like them because they demonstrate that English is alive, flexible, full of creative opportunities—and fun.

Words in the Making: Kinda

Friday, November 9th, 2007

I occasionally receive an e-mail telling me of an exciting new word that the writer has invented and asking how someone goes about getting a word in the dictionary. Once, when I explained that dictionaries generally contain words that are widely used already, I was asked how someone goes about getting his word widely used.

I am surprised at people who think words are properties traded about like books. A dictionary, of course, is a sampling of the words in a language picked out by a single compiler or a committee put together by a publisher. The words are already there.

From time to time henceforth I will examine a word that seems to be coming into being, beginning today with kinda. I think it is time we begin spelling this phrase as a single word even though its origin is the phrase “kind of”. A regional politician was quoted as saying, “…we’re all kind of in the same boat,” in this morning’s Sunbury Daily Item. I had problems digesting “of in” not to mention “all kind” rather than “all kinds”.

Obviously, we cannot analyze “kind of”; it has long since been an idiomatic phrase that must be taken as a whole. As a whole, the phrase means “rather, somewhat”, a meaning wholly unrelated to either kind or of.

But then I would be willing to bet good money (which today excludes dollars) that the congressman didn’t say “kind of” at all but “kinda”. If I am right, the reason he said “kinda” and not “kind of” is because kinda has already become an independent adverb.

Notice that kinda has all the adverbial functions, modifying verbs (She kinda drank too much), adjectives (She looked kinda green), and other adverbs (She toppled over kinda awkwardly). You cannot make an adverb (*kindaly) or noun (*kindaness) out of it. (The asterisk is a linguistic symbol for words that don’t exist.)

So, it may be time to stop thinking of kinda as a misspelling and accept it as what it has become: an independent adverb. It then would have reached the state that friend-like reached when it began being written friendly. It is a normal transition that is going on all the time in languages and passes unnoticed in languages without writing systems. Once words are written though, problems arise since human (writing) habits change even more slowly than do languages.

The Foppish Inro

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Foppish inroAmy Frits just joined our happy congregation of Good Word subscribers (now over 30,000 strong). When she suggested her first two Good Words, she included the story behind them which I think bears repeating (with her permission, of course). Here is her letter, slightly edited:

Two more words that readers might enjoy: inro and foppish.

My eldest child (who is now 20) found these two words in the dictionary one boring day:
     inro = a Japanese box worn on the waist
     foppish = foolish or silly

He walked around school telling kids who rubbed him the wrong way to “stick it in your foppish inro!”

The teachers thought he meant something bad, and so reproached him for saying it. He simply told them to look it up (an idea that apparently had not occurred to them). They discovered that it was not bad at all: “stick it in your silly Japanese box.”

We still laugh about it. The teachers were not happy.

Words change attitudes—even lives. [Dr. Goodword]


Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

I think it was in J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter that the word jeechet first appeared in print. It has always fascinated me because it is clearly one single word phonologically (a phonological word is easily defined as a series of linguistic sounds bearing a single accent). However, this ‘word’ corresponds to an entire four-word sentence!

Now, before you say that this is not a word but just the result of lazy speakers slurring their speech, let me assure you that linguists can track every single change from the sentence to the word using common rules of English phonology, i.e. rules that occur widely elsewhere and throughout the language. Here they are for your amusement and edification.

The first rule is that function words (monosyllabic pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions, etc.) like did are rarely accented except for emphasis which is irrelevant here. The second rule is that unaccented vowels occurring before the accented syllable like the [i] here are regularly dropped in English, e.g. p’lice for police, s’pose for suppose. Since did is unaccented, it attaches to [you] for accent and the [i] then disappears, giving us
ddyou eat yet
However, since English (unlike Italian, for instance) does not tolerate double consonants, [dd] regularly reduces to [d] resulting in
dyou eat yet

Since you is another function word, it isn’t accented either and is regularly reduced to where [ê] represents a schwa, pronounced, roughly, [uh] dyê eat yet. However, since it is not accented, it must attach to the following word for accent, giving us
dyêeat yet
The only accent in this sentence is on eat which means that the vowel [ê] is now an unaccented vowel preceding the accented one and so falls to the ax of the second rule mentioned above, resulting in
dyeat yet

Next, the combination [dy] regularly reduces to [j] and [ty] to [ch], e.g. mature [mêtyur > [mêchur] and picture [piktyur] > [pikchur]. Since the accent is on eat in this sentence, both the [dj] and [ty] are subject to this rule, which reduces our sentence further to
pronounced [djeechet]. Of course, the sound [j] is a combination of [d] + [zh], the sound of the Z in azure. This makes the [d] redunant, giving us

One reason we can’t determine the number of words in a language is because a phonological word (the sound part) does not always directly correspond to a semantic word (the meaning). According to Dr. Language at (also me), “I would have” comprises 3 distinct sounds and meanings but “I’d’ve” is a single two-syllable phonological word that matches the same three meanings—one word or three?

Speaking a language involves a complex set of mental activities in different parts of the brain each of which follows its own rules. The output of these rules are plotted onto the input of others in ways linguistics is still exploring. One of the most remarkable aspects of language is the surprising variety of rules and interaction of rules that the brain must carry out in order for us to express ourselves and be understood.

No other ‘word’ in the English language exemplifies the labrynthine nature of the levels of grammatical rules and their interactions better than jeechet.