Clip ArtHandmade Nesting Dolls

Archive for the 'Words in General' Category

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.



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

“Lie” (falsehood) 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 false 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 you know to be 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 will likely 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 since 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 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.