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Archive for the 'Words in General' Category

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.

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.