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Archive for the 'Language & Culture' Category

Of Desnorolators and Other Things

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My wife and I returned the favor to our 7-year-old granddaughter, Abigail, and did a “sleepover” with her and her sister. Their parents wanted to attend a concert which would run late and, from their perspective, what we were doing was mundane baby-sitting.

When we arrived the first topic to come up was my legendary snoring. I explained that we had both brought our c-paps, a medical device intended to prevent sleep apnia, but which doubles as a snore preventer. Abigail apparently didn’t know the word “c-pap”, for she immediately responded, “Did you bring your desnorolators?”

Desnorolators? How did she, indeed, how could she come up with that word? We totally understood her, told her, “Yes, we did,” and watched the event pass quickly into family legend. We all agreed that the word she had just concocted was far more fanciful and memorable than c-pap. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this word pronounced c-pak.

Upon closer examination we can see that Abigail did a remarkable job of word formation. She knew that the prefix de- meant “not” and that the suffix -at(e) was a suffix that converts nouns to verbs. She knew the suffix -or converts verbs to personal nouns. She also got them in the right order. The only slip she made was to build a Latinate derivation from a Germanic verb, snore. But since she does not speak Latin we can forgive her that error.

Children are learning machines, particularly when it comes to language. But such complex lexical constructions should be well beyond the capabilites of a 7-year-old.

Hy-wire is a Haywire Name for a Car

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I was reminded of this incident by a suggestion that we make haywire a Good Word from Albert Skiles. (Keep an eye open for this word soon in our series.)

When I was at yourDictionary.com back in 2002, we received a telephone call from the GM marketing department. They were interested in buying commercial names for their cars. We agreed and sold them seven (which, to my knowledge, were never used).

Then they called us back to ask us for help naming their new experimental car. It was a hydrogen fuel cell car with electronic stearing, braking, and acceleration. It had four motors, one on each wheel. They had temporarily named it the Hy-wire, combining hydrogen and (drive by) wire. We contributed four names to this project.

When we didn’t hear from them for a month, we called, and they told us that they had decided to stay with the name they had already chosen, the Hy-wire. That name, we were told, was the product of the 11-year-old daughter of the vice president in charge of naming.

I wrote an e-mail back to our contact, saying that if they came out with that name, only the employees at GM would use it. The general public would call it the Haywire.

Moreover, it was a bad idea to mention wire, since potential customers would picture a wire coming out of the roof that plugged into an electrical outlet. This was at the time that GM and all other automakers had stopped making electric cars and were collecting them all and grinding them in to bits and pieces because sales had never caught on.

Finally, I pointed out the fact that a high-wire act was an extremely dangerous act, exactly the connotation that they should avoid. This is not the impression to be given potential buyers, given the fact that this was a new kind of car that runs on hydrogen, a fuel the general public knew little about.

I never received a reply to my e-mail. You may read more about the Hy-wire here. Hy-wire is the worst commercial name I have even encountered. Worse even than the California pool servicing company called Poolife.

Baby Sign Language

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

It has become quite popular to teach babies to speak in American sign before they can speak orally. I’ve looked at several website promoting this activity, and none of them explain one thing. The process of teaching sign language to children is to repeat the word while showing the baby how to shape the sign with their hands.

The question naturally arises, if babies do not know a word, how can they recognize it and associate it with a sign?

Early in his distinguished career, Noam Chomsky wrote that comprehension is just the reverse of speaking. He never went into detail, probably because he soon discovered it isn’t true.

Comprehension far outpaces speech production. Even in adults, we recognize far more words than we can use in speech. Babies learn to comprehend far sooner than they can train the musculature of their speech tracts. The problem with tot speak is that they are unable to pronounce the large store of vocabulary that they can recognize.

I’m reminded of a funny story told by a famous semanticist. Her husband was sitting in the living room reading the paper when their 2-year-old daughter came in and said, “I want tootie”. Her father replied, “When I finish reading the paper, I will get you a ‘tootie'”. The child angrily retorted, “No! No want ‘tootie’. Want tootie!” She got her father’s attention, for he asked, “Do you want a cookie or not?” To which the child replied, “Yes. Tootie. I want tootie.”

The point of this story is that the little girl could perfectly well understand the word cookie and thought she was pronouncing it correctly. She could even tell her father was mispronouncing . But her vocal organs lagged behind her ears in development and she didn’t realize that she was mispronouncing it.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

To trip the light fantastic is a playful expression of “to dance”. It originates in several other idiomatic expressions referring to dancing in our not too distant past. A passage in Milton’s poem L’Allegro (1632) goes like this:

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastick toe.”

Milton was, indeed, describing the highly nimble (fantastick) footwork of a jig or some other fast dance. For years after Milton the expression “the light fantastic toe” appeared frequently in literature.

Milton’s concept was apparently an extension of the phrase “tripping it on the toe”, an expression referring to dancing used as far back as Shakespeare himself. In Act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Ariel says:

“Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow [moue].
Do you love me, master? No?

As the years ground by, “toe” was lost and the phrase was smoothed down to “tripping the light fantastic”.

Let’s Hash Out ‘Hashmark’

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Joan Gerbereux recently sent this intriguing question to me:

“Would you discuss hash tag? I don’t know if it’s one or two words, what it means, or how the ‘pound sign’ became something else. Do you?”

It is a word with the symbol # in front of it, used especially in microblogging to identify or search for subjects or on Twitter to denote the subject of a post. It is a blend of hash sign and tag. Hast sign is probably a mispronunciation of hatch sign. To hatch something is to score it or engrave lines in it. The meaning probably originated in “crosshatch”.

I’m not sure when the pound sign or number sign became a hash sign or mark. A hash-mark during World War II meant the symbol of rank, worn on the left sleeve of enlisted men. This sense arose in the 40s.

This symbol (#) was called the pound sign only in the US; £ was the pound sign elsewhere. It emerged in the 20s but didn’t last long in general speech (or writing). Can you remember seeing 10# standing for “10 pounds”? It seems to have become a specialized technical symbol.

The Mega Mickle Mess

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Eileen Opiolka wrote today:

“The reason I wanted to contact you today is the entry mega which refers to the word mickle and gives it as a Scottish word for “much”. Here in Scotland we say “many a mickle makes a muckle”, i.e. mickle means a small amount and muckle, a large amount. I’d be interested to find out what Dr. Goodword thinks.”

“Many thanks for your website, which is always interesting.”

Eileen, many thanks for your appreciation of the website and your interesting question. Here is what I think.

In Scotland today mickle is known mostly from the idiom you quote: “many a mickle makes a muckle”. The idiom was originally: “many a little (also pickle) makes a mickle”. The form “many a mickle makes a muckle” arises from a misapprehension that, rather than being variants of the same word, mickle and muckle have opposite meanings, the former representing a small amount and the latter a large amount. This is a false assumption.

It doesn’t matter mickle since both mickle and muckle are being shamelessly gobbled up by the hounds of history.

On the Origins of ‘Snob’

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Several readers have called me to task for my etymology of the word snob. It is purely speculative and I no doubt should have added a bit more to that point.

Barbara Kelly wrote in the Alpha Agora:

I had always understood that “snob” came from “sine nobilitate”, that is “without nobility”. The story I recall is that births were recorded with these abbreviations: “nob” for nobility and “s.nob” for non-nobles. A “snob” then was someone who had pretensions of nobility. I did not see this mentioned as a possibility.

Loek Hopstaken wrote to me directly:

Somehow I always thought that ‘snob’ was an abbreviation of ‘sine nobilitate’, or ‘without a noble title’. An ancient European habit: entered in a guest book when the person in question was no Lord, Duke, King or Count. Snob then would indicate a person who isn’t a registered nobleman but desperately wants to be one. [Someone who] belongs to this social class, has studied their behaviour yet doesn’t really know how to make it natural and comes across as a fake.

In fact, what we do know about this word is that it did arise in the 18th century and originally referred to shoemakers. No one has any idea why. Later, in Cambridge, it came to refer to shopkeepers in general and was a was used as a put-down used by students there in referring to the townspeople.

What happened after that is anybody’s guess; however, I find it hard to believe that it was not influenced by some word referring to the nose, given all the semantics relating noses and snootery in English: to stick one’s nose in the air, snotty, and the like. For that reason I played with these ostensible parallels.

Both readers are correct, of course, in implying that I should have made my speculation clearer and I will clear that up later today. Also, I am collecting false etymologies like the one Loek and Barbara came across. So far I have only the examples for posh (Port Out Starboard Homeward), golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden), gaudy is an eponym of Antoni Gaudi, and this one. If you can think of any others, please let me know. I would like to have at least ten before posting them.

Splunking with the Sono-thing

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

My wife and I recently took a pair of our grandchildren to visit one of the many large caves in Pennsylvania and was guided by a young girl who hoped to graduate from high school next year and go on to college.

Hopefully, she will take the opportunity to work on her vocabulary in her senior year. In explaining how bats can live in the cave when all the lights are out, she asserted that they possess “that sono-thing”. Close but no cigar.

She then told us that there were other rooms in the cave that are not open to the paying public. One was recently discovered by Penn State students as they were “splunking”. She then added, “Splunking is crawling around in a cave. Not everyone knows that word.” Indeed, I didn’t, though I use spelunking from time to time.

A year from now she will be voting.

Who is an American?

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Gordon Precious, one of our Canadian subscribers, today wrote on a subject that constantly arises in writing the alphaDictionary website and the Good Words. Here is what he wrote:

On the subject of “Yankee” (July 3, 2011, Dr. Goodword), and with Canada’s national day, “Canada Day”, having just past on July 1st, (celebrating our 144th birthday. The United States of America is about to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, (its 235th, I believe), it seems an appropriate time for me to raise an old question and slight grievance:

“Why do not the citizens of the United States of America have a singular, just appellation for themselves?”

Ever since I attended public school, here in Canada, over 80 years ago, I have considered myself to be an Old Glory“American”, inasmuch as I live in America – North America to be exact. I find that the citizens of Mexico, Central and South America also consider themselves “American”. It is quite common to see a sign on a storefront in Guatemala, Columbia, Chile, etc., “Compañía de Plomería Americano”, which is, of course, “American Plumbing Company”, but has no connection with the U.S.A.

It is my contention that the citizens of the United States of America have unwittingly usurped the name “American” from the rest of us Americans.

I would like the citizens of the United States of America to find, and develop the use of, a specific name for their nationality, as have the citizens of every other country of which I can think.

I generally agree and try to use awkward phrases like “people of the US” or “those of us in the US” instead of “American” whenever I can think of it. They are all awkward, though.

The problem is obvious to all: we have a queer name for a country. It is easy to call those from Canada Canadians, those from Mexico Mexicans, and those from Guatemala Guatemalans. But there is no word derivable from “The United States of America” in the same vein unless, of course, we take the last word in this phrase, “America”, and use Americans.

We might try building a word from an acronym, USans or USAsians. I’m sure these sound as bad to everyone else as they do to me. United Statesians not only sounds atrocious but is grossly ungrammatical. The best solution is the one we seem to have chosen, the one mentioned above, using the last word in the phrase, Americans.

I wouldn’t call such a selection “usurpation” of the term from other American nations, however. Using the same word to refer to the US and the Americas is simply another instance of polysemy, a word with more than one meaning. I personally think that, outside scientific terminology, there are no words with only one meaning, take for example cooler (noun and adjective), dresser (furniture and person), air (for breathing, for singing).

Nations generally do have distinct names that distinguish any one from the others. However, we even get polysemy among the names of nations: Turkey, China, Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, and Jamaica are a few. We also find it among the personal nouns: Danish (pastry), Dutch (uncle), and Indian are a few of those. The fact that American falls into this category should not offend our neighbors in the other Americas.

So, I see no offense in the word America having referring to two geographical entities. All of the alternatives are worse.

Empretzeling Oneself

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

I just received a comment on self-empretzelment from Dr. Margie Sved:

“I would have thought self-empretzeltment meant something a contortionist would do!!”

In fact, her interpretation works for me. The current meaning should have come from the one she mentions as a metaphorical (figurative) usage and semantically it does.

It is not uncommon for a derived word to appear historically before its semantic predecessor, so it would be possible for a word like uninsightfulness, say, to be used before anyone uses uninsightful. The longer word would come directly from its stem, insightful, prior to uninsightful arising from the same stem.

Happens all the time.