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Archive for the 'Words in General' Category

Grammatical versus Acceptable

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

Doug Schulek-Miller wrote yesterday:

“I was recently confused by something. For all my literate life I’ve believed “Semitic” people to be those of the Middle East, inclusive of Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians—all the folks that used to be citizens of different countries in that area before WW I, and probably Persians [Iranians], too…. Therefore, anti-Semitic relates to being antagonistic to all of the above people, Semitic people.”

Well, first off, Iranians are not Semitic but belong to our family, the Indo-Europeans. Farsi, the language currently spoken in Iran, is written in Arabic script but it is clearly an I-E language related to English.

Doug’s point, though, is correct; many strange quirks lurk in language. Grammatically, anti-Semitic can only mean “against Semitic peoples” but that isn’t the way it is used and using it in this sense would lead to a breakdown in communications. Another example, homophobic grammatically can only mean “fearful of people” or “fearful of sameness”, depending on whether you intend the Latin or Greek homo, but that isn’t the way it is used and restricting the use of this word to its grammatically appropriate senses would lead to confusion.

Linguists make a distinction between what is “grammatical” and what is “acceptable” in speech. It is possible for ungrammatical usages to be accepted, as in these cases, and for grammatical uses to be unacceptable, as in the case of defenestrate meaning “removing windows”, as I recently reported and was criticized for. Errors are made because people don’t realize that they are errors and if everyone joins in agreeably, they become idiomatic forms or phrases.

In fact, most of the funny words in English are ungrammatical but accepted: gobbledygook, stick-to-it-iveness, panjandrum and hundred of other similar words were not generated by the rules of English grammar but by wags playing with those rules. The important point is this: humans make the rules of language so they can break them without going to jail or paying fines. So we do.

The Connotations of ‘Truth’

Monday, June 4th, 2007

Truth is an interesting word because of the religious and philophical depth of its meaning. The 9th commandment (Exodus 20:16) is “Thou shalt not bear falso witness against thy neighbor” and virtually all religious leaders interpret that commandment as a command from God never to lie and to always tell something called “the truth”.

Aside from the fact that truth itself is elusive, not always a bright white spot with clear edges against a black background, this interpretation of truth runs into many problems. The first, of course, is why did God not say, simply and straightforwardly, “Thou shalt not lie”? Why did he command us not to testify falsely and why restrict it to our neighbors?

To clarify the moral connotations of this word, let me propose a hypothetical situation critically involving truth. Let us consider someone who is a deeply devout Dutch Christian living in Amsterdam in 1942 in a house at 265 Prinsengracht Straat. That person has noticed suspicious activity at the house next door, #263 and on several evenings they have noticed people who suspiciously look Jewish entering and leaving the house.

One day this person is presented with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury (assume such existed) investigating the crime of hiding Jews in the city (which was a crime at the time) and after swearing on the Bible which they consider the most sacred object in their life, they are asked whether they have any knowledge of Jews living secretly in the city.

True answer: yes. Lie: No. True answer: the family of Anne Frank dies. Lie: they might survive. Which answer is more likely to send that person to eternal damnation?

Is truth an absolute good or simply a neutral test of the accuracy of statements we make, the morality of which depends on the outcome of telling the truth or manipulating it?

Should we teach our children to always tell the truth, knowing that they are not going to do it for good reason (sometimes the truth unnecessarily hurts people). Less critical situations arise every day in life: is it really better to tell your friend that her outfit is ugly and hurt her feelings than to lie? Should we tell people that they are stupid just because we know they are?

None of us tell the truth in every instance truth becomes an issue. Lying to falsely accuse anyone is bad because the consequences are bad. Lying to save their lives is good because the consequences are good. Telling the truth or not plays no role in morality. That is probably why the 9th Commandment is not, “Thou shalt not lie.”

Visual Malapropisms

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

As I was writing up malapropism this week I came across this sentence on the website of a casino news service:

“Like with any other industry, you will always find a few rotten appeals, but that does not mean a thing about the entire industry that this people took advantage of.” (Online Casino Archives).

It made me think that there may be a distinction we should draw between auditory and visual malapropisms. Appeals hardly sounds at all like apples but when you see it written, your reaction is pretty much the same as when you hear pineapple instead of pinnacle.

Then Lew Jury wrote, complimenting me on my treatment of malaproprism because, “You made my mourning!” That made me think that there is a fine line between a malapropism and a pun, since Lew’s example is obviously intentional. But then I said, this one doesn’t qualify for a malapropism since the two words do not sound similar—they sound identical! But visually they are just similar.

So look out for visual malapropisms paralleling the usual audible ones. Keep in mind, too, that the difference between a malapropism and a pun is that the pun is a form of malapropism in which the spoken word and the intended word both (sort of) fit the context but with wildly varying semantic consequences.

Potamophilous and such

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

The sussurous SusquehannaJim Rodarmel was baffled that he could not find our recent Good Word potamophilous in any contemporary dictionary. He dropped us a line, saying, “It may interest you to know that your own dictionary service yields no results for your word of the day potamophilous. The same goes for the ‘variant’ spelling used in the misspelled MP3 file name potomaphilous.mp3 and the related words potamophile, potomaphile, potamophilia and potomaphilia.”

The ‘related words’ Jim mentions are derived from the misspelling on the sound file. It never occurred to us that readers checked the names of our sound files so we occasionally allowed misspellings originating in the recording studio to stand. That policy has been changed.

Well, you don’t find google or podcast in any dictionary nor truthiness in any except the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the ultimate collection of English words. You do find potamophilous there:

Potamophilous (obs. nonce word)
1827 Brit. Critic I. 474 Rowed..in his public State barge, on the bosom of the Thames, in all the majesty and magnificence of a Fluviatile and Potamophilous Lord Mayor.

It does declare that it is an obsolete ‘nonce’ word. A ‘nonce’ word is one that someone made up and used only once or a few times, never intending for it to ‘stick’. There are lots of those floating around right now so, if we were to launch potamophilous on a new career, it would be running in very popular company.

I decided to run this one because, unlike recent neologisms like google, podcast and blog, it is a properly formed word, assigned the appropriate meaning. I like the way it sounds (better than ‘river-loving’) and think it has a claim to a permanent place in the English vocabulary. Its association with what the Greeks called “river horses” makes it a bit jovial and light-hearted, too.

Do-gooders and Good-doers

Friday, January 19th, 2007

I could never understand how a word like do-gooder could be pejorative. I would like to think of myself as someone who does good and find that attitude laudable rather than pejorative. Only WordNet, compiled by the Princeton psychologist, George Miller, allows a positive take on this word:

  • American Heritage: “A naive idealist who supports philanthropic or humanitarian causes or reforms.”
  • Encarta: “[S]omebody who sincerely tries to help others, but whose actions may be unwelcome.”
  • Merriam-Webster: “[A]n earnest often naive humanitarian or reformer.”
  • Oxford English: “A well-meaning, active, but unrealistic philanthropist or reformer; one who tries to do good.”
  • WordNet: “[S]omeone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and to social reforms.”

I’m sure I am missing something here but I have always been of the opinion that supporting philanthropic and humanitarian causes, and sincerely trying to help others are neither naive nor unrealistic. This leads me to suspect that the pejorative sense of do-gooder is that he or she is someone who is undertaking an altruistic or philanthropic venture that threatens the writer or those to whom the writer is beholden.

Otherwise, a do-gooder would be called by a regular English compound, good-doer, antonym of evildoer (since the head of a compound comes last in Modern English). But guess what? Although all dictionaries have room for evildoer, good-doer is not found in any of them.

I must suspect that the US media has had a hand in this, given their proclivity for bad event and all but complete disinterest in good and happy ones. But, alas, I have no proof, so I have to leave the issue an open question. We do know, however, that language reflects cultural attitudes (racism and sexism is easy to spot in English and other languages). Another slivver of evidence that the deck is culturally stacked against the Forces of Good in this country.

Yet Again on ‘How Many Words?’

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Last week I discussed the impossibility of even estimating the number of words in a language. Today I discovered an old (1998) CBC News article on the longest dictionary every written (click here) Consisisting of 40 volumes, it took 147 years to compile, edit, proof-read, and publish. It documents Dutch and Flemish (a dialect of Dutch) words dating back to 1500. By the time it was finished, it was already 29 years out of date.

This is an excellent example of the failure of dictionaries to account for all the words in a language. A dictionary is only someone’s sample of the words in a language. No matter how many people you put on the committee to compile a dictionary, you will only get those words the members of the committee have heard or read.

So why not do a Wiktionary, like the Wikipedia, allow everyone speaking the language to put in whatever they think is a good word, their opinion of its forms, part of speech, definitions, usage, etc? Forget editing and proofreading.

The result it then that of the Urban Dictionary with dozens of definitions for each word and the compilers arguing among themselves as to which is the correct one. Can you vote on which is correct? If the majority say that “ain’t” is a good word, is it then?

The best approach is to enjoy languages and the words in them, appreciate the creativity that brings more new words to the surface each day than any one person can master, and forget statistics. Language and statistics get along like oil and water.

How Many Words in English?

Friday, January 5th, 2007

I raised an important point about language in yesterday’s blog (the topic of which I promised never to mention again). In it I raised the issue of “potential words” and linked it to my article on “How Many Words are in English?”

InfinityAs I say in the article, this question really doesn’t make sense for several reasons but the main reason is that not all words are real things. Let’s compare the question to the question, “How many sentences are there in English?” No one asks that question because we create sentences “on the fly”, as they say in geekish, so that there is no way to count them. Moreover, sentences are composed of words which may be rearranged in near infinite ways.

Sentences may contain an infinite number of subordinate clauses:

This is the maiden all forlorn, that milked the cow with the crumpled horn, that tossed the dog, that worried the cat, that killed the rat, that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built.

This sentence continues for four more verses where it ends perfectly arbitrarily for it could go on forever.

Now, words comprise morphemes, parts of words with meaning: amuse is a morpheme. -Ing is a morpheme that may be attached to amuse, giving amusing. Un- may be attached to that word, giving unamusing, an adjective from which the adverb unamusingly may be derived.

From unamusingly we don’t seem to have any where to go, so infinitely long words seem impossible in English. English is a language with a dearth of affixes (prefixes and suffixes)—only about 36, most of which are seldom used. Eskimo languages, however, have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 affixes and words in those languages get very long.

Even in affix-poor English, there are word constructions that suggest infinite extension. Let’s start with nation from which we can derive an adjective national. Now there is a verbal suffix -ize which attaches to any word ending on -al. Guess how you get a noun from verbs on -ize: right, the suffix -ation, which puts us right back where we were with nation, doesn’t it? So why not nationalizational, setting us up for nationalizationalize, a process which could go on forever.

But, I hear you whining, these words don’t mean anything! In fact, they do. The problem is—well, there are two problems. The first is that once we get past nationalizational we don’t have anything in real life for all the other derivations to refer to. But that isn’t English’s fault; the fact remains, this derivation could go on forever if its outputs were necessary. In fact, I’m not sure what the sentence in “This is the House that Jack Built” refers to, either.

The reason is the second problem: the human brain. The human brain can process only a limited amount of information in one chunk, whether that chunk be a sentence or word. We can process longer sentences better than long words, apparently, but Eskimoes process words as long as English sentences, so that may be simply a matter of practice.

The biggest reason no one can ever answer the question, “How many words are there in English”, is because most grammatically possible words in English are potential, created when needed on the fly by using the rules of lexical grammar. Even if we could spell out all those rules (and I know most of them) and could predict their output, it would not help because certain combinations of rules, as we saw above, create an infinite number of infinitely long words.

To me this aspect of English is far, far more surprising, fascinating, intriguing than a hard number for the English vocabulary. I don’t know why anyone would even be curious as to what such a number would be. I am infinitely uninterested in it.

Is ‘than’ More a Conjunction than a Preposition?

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden) complained about the use of the objective case with than in our rendition of aborigine for Thursday’s (December 7, 2006) Good Word. The offending passaage reads, “…Europeans generally colonize areas inhabited by nations less advanced than them.”  Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I feel that I must place my neck publicly on the grammar-rule chopping block.  Here goes.

If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with English grammar.

The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences , translated by James Sandford 1569:165 “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.

This is not an uncommon practice, in fact. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (before, as), even prepositional phrases (instead, alongside).

The British try to keep than as a pure conjunction but the examples in the OED, drawn from various sources over the centuries, show, not even they can resist this fairly recent change. I see nothing wrong with using than as a preposition, given the motley origins and histories of prepositions in English.

Demure or Demur?

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

We just published and aired a comparison of two words that are often confused but receive little press: demure and demur.  The difference of the final “silent” E is critical not only to the pronunciation but to the meanings of these two words. Demure is pronounced [de-myure] while demur is pronounced [duh-murr]. Big difference there.

Demure, of course, is an adjective meaning, roughly, “coyly shy”.  If someone asks you whether you know something about a topic on which you happen to be an expert, a demure reply is appropriate: “Do you know anything about words?”  “A little,” would be a demure reply from a lexicographer or lexicologist. 

The verb means to show reluctance in doing something, to hold back or hesitate in an open-ended fashion. You would (I hope) demur from sharing the password to your online bank account with anyone. 

I exemplified the disparity between this word and demur with a comment about one of my favorite co-diners, Cherry Pitt: “Cherry Pitt demurred from the offer of a second dessert, waiting until asked a second time, at which point she demurely accepted.”  

It just occurred to me that the difference between a lexicographer and a lexicologist might make an interesting note.  I won’t devote a whole essay to the topic but just say here that a lexicographer is someone who compiles dictionaries while a lexicologist is someone who scientifically (linguistically) studies the nature of words in the mental lexicon.  I spent about 40 years of my life doing the latter before becoming a lexicographer here at The Lexiteria. 


Affect, Effect, Influence

Monday, October 16th, 2006


The question of when to use effect and when, affect, came up today.  Since I have already dealt with this confusion in a past Good Word (see effect by clicking here), I won’t rehash it here.  However, it reminded me of another distinction that often goes unnoticed.

Over the last half of my 35-year teaching stint at Bucknell, the question of my influence over the thinking of students periodically emerged.  It became a rather vital question in the 60s and 70s and led to my thinking through the issue. 

By the end of the 70s I was telling my students that my intention was not to influence them but to affect them.  I was being paid to have some impact on their thoughts and abilities but I tried to avoid conveying my prejudices to them. (Indeed, I try to avoid prejudices in the first place.)

It seems to me that the verb influence implies prejudice in a way affect does not. To affect the thinking of someone, you either have a good or bad effect on it but you do not (necessarily) prejudice it. To influence an election is to tilt it one way or ther other; to affect it is to improve or undermine the process itself, not skewing it in any direction.

The distinction here is subtle and often overlooked but it is a good distinction for careful speakers and writers to work with.