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Archive for the 'Language & Culture' Category

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.

Osculating Fans

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Sally Colby just shared a funny experience she had with the verb osculate that I thought should be shared with you all:

“I’ll never forget going to a department store to purchase a fan about 30 years ago. The (very young) sales girl showed us the features of various fans, including one she really liked.

‘This one is great,’ she said. ‘It works standing still, or it can osculate.’

It was hard not to laugh, but I sure chuckled in the car on the way home.”

Of course, you must mind your nose.

Conversation with a Granddaughter

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

My wife and I skyped our grandchildren in Colorado Sunday and I had a stunning conversation with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Laurel.

I started with a joke I hoped would not go over her head. I told her that we had a squirrel in our attic. She asked what it was doing there. I said that it was looking for me because I’m nuts and squirrels love nuts. I was right—she didn’t laugh. Her comment was, “They’re just homophones.”

Amazingly, she was right: the adjective nuts and the plural of nut are just that, homophones, two different words that sound alike much like piece and peace or sow and sew.  I was impressed first by the fact that this concept, which I taught to  college students for 35 years, is being taught in a Boulder, Colorado elementary school. But I was more impressed that an seven-year-old girl could not only remember the concept, but could use it to identify homophonic pairs from the speech zipping past her ears.

Deeply impressed by this mental feat and her willingness to sit still and converse with me, I boldly asked what else she was doing in school. She told me that her class was writing poems. Again, not bad for second grade. She even agreed to recite one that she remembered: “I’m not happy today because I did not play.”

I told her how much her verse impressed me, how much I loved poetry, and offered her what I considered a grandfatherly suggestive one of my own: “My thinking is muddy because I did not study.” I’m sure now its suggestiveness was so obvious as to offend her. She told me that it sounded like a haiku! She wasn’t sure, though, because she did not have time to count the syllables. (Haiku generally contain 17 syllables in Japanese, though English haiku is usually shorter.)

Was I accidentally telling the truth all those times I claimed that my grandchildren are smarter than average? I think it is true that children are growing up in a culturally richer environment than my generation grew up in. The public school she attends is obviously an excellent one. But now I’m thinking: could there be a linguistic gene? How else could I hold a conversation with a seven-year-old in MY highly specialized language?

May Day in Germany

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

In response to our Good Word May Day, Monika Freund sent me her remembrances of another European May Day custom that persisted to the late 50s:

On April 30 all the bachelors of a village came together in the local pub and auctioned all the girls off: the one who made the highest bid (later redeemed in beer) was allowed to set a May tree,  meaning, a young man who wanted to date a girl would decorate a young birch tree with ribbons and put it into the front garden of her parents’ home.

He was then allowed to come for Sunday Kaffeetafel all May. The girl who got the highest bid of all became “May Queen” and the highest bidder was “May King”. If a boy from a neighboring village wanted to set a tree, he had to buy himself a place at the pub event at the rate of four crates of beer.

Don’t be Camp at Camp

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

My treatment of the adjective camp obviously caught Doug Schulek-Miller off guard. I thought his reaction worth sharing:

My children go to camp in the summer (and there is nothing homosexual  or kitsch about them!)

  • I made a camp in the forest when we stayed outdoors.
  • I camped on my neighbour’s doorstep so that I wouldn’t miss him.

I am confused, as I understand you will likely get a lot of other responses like this despite noting that you are talking an adjectival sense.

Apoplectically yours,

The same word reminded Harry Murphy how folks down East in Maine use the noun camp a bit different from the way it is used farther south:

Your recent description of “camp” as an adjective neglected “camp” as a noun.  As an expatriate from Maine, I prefer to think of “camp” as a noun.

In his “Maine Lingo”, John Gould defines “camp” this way:  “CAMP:  The general word in Maine for a wilderness dwelling, no matter how elegant.  It can be a one-room log cabin or the sumptuous retreat of land-owning executives.  Not always, but in many instances Mainers will use ‘camp’ for a building others would call a cottage.  ‘Going to camp’ does not mean tenting out in Maine, but moving to the cottage on the lake or in the  woods for the season, or for a vacation.”

‘Going camp’ to me means dressing tacky, so Maineiacs should be careful not to drop the “to” in ‘Going to camp’ when talking to out-of-staters.

I didn’t include all the other meanings of camp in my treatment because I wanted all my readers to finish reading it in a day.


Thursday, April 21st, 2011

kru-sə-fai • Hear it!Verb, transitive

Meaning: 1. To execute someone by nailing them to a post with a crossbar to the arms. 2. To punish or berate someone viciously, brutally.

Notes: Unfortunately, this word is so useful it has begotten a large family of words referring to torture and torment. Someone who crucifies in either of the two senses above is a crucifier and the act of crucifying is crucifixion. If excruciating pain represents the extreme in torture, that is because excruciate is based on the same sense of crucifixion. Today Christians throughout the world commemorate the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified, a day now called “Good Friday” in English.

In Play: Aside from Eastertide, we use this word today only in the figurative sense as a hyperbole: “Dad is going to crucify you when he finds out you bent his Bentley!” In fact, we probably overuse it: “Gladys Friday was crucified by the boss in front of the whole office when she arrived at the meeting late.”

Word History: Happy Easter!Proto-Indo-Europeanroot behind crux turns up in many modern Indo-European languages. English crook and crutch share the same origin. Of course, we borrowed crux itself from Latin to refer to the central point of an issue. This sense of crux goes back to a reference to a crossroads at which a decision must be made. The adjective crucial “decisive” reflects this same sense. The F in the Latin verb figere came from an older PIE word dhig- “to fix, set”, which seems to have come to English as dig. The semantic road between these two words is too long to travel in this Good Word entry.

Passover and Easter

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover, a Jewish holiday beginning on the 14th of Nisan at sundown and continuing for eight days, from April 18 to April 26 in 2011 by the Gregorian Calendar. It commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

Star of DavidThe highlight of the celebration of Pesach is the Seder, a special supper held on the first night or the first two nights of Pesach. All of the food has meaning: only unleavened matzo (flat bread) is eaten and green vegetables are dipped in a vinegar or salty water to symbolize the suffering of the Jews crossing the desert. Children recite passages and answer questions to show that they have learned the significance of Pesach that they will pass on to their children.

The Haggadah is the story of the Exodus from Egypt which everyone at the Seder table reads. The story of the Exodus is told four ways, each emphasizing a different aspect of the Exodus and its importance for the Jewish people. According to the synoptic gospels, the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper that Jesus attended was a traditional Seder. The Book of John places it the day before the Seder, on the day of the slaughter of the sacrificial lamb.

Pesach is Hebrew pesaH “Passover” from the verb pasaH “to pass over”. Pasch “Passover, Easter” is the Aramaic variant of the same Semitic root. Jesus presumably spoke Aramaic, so this word became the origin of the word for Easter in most European languages: French Pâques, Spanish Pascua, Portuguese Páscoa, Italian Pasqua, Swedish Påsk, and Russian Paskha. This is perhaps the closest linguistic link between Judaism and Christianity. Those of us here at The Lexiteria and alphaDictionary hope the homes of all our Jewish friends are filled with peace and love during this Pesach season. Easter is just around the corner.

Indians and Eskimos

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

My recent commentary on was immediately criticized for my use of the term “Indians” to refer to North American Indians. I am not concerned since I have mentioned before the futility of hoping that by changing the name of something, we will cure all problems associated with it.

While language reflects the way we think (hence the substantial Word History in all our daily Good Words), it does not control the way we think, let alone behave. The native and immigrant Americans of European origin have done and continue to do great injustices to the American Indians throughout the Americas. However, changing the names of the victims does not end that injustice or the prejudices that lead to it.

I particularly avoid the term “Native American” since, well, I’m a native American, a native North American, to be exact, just as I am a native North Carolinian. The word native is based on the Latin past participle natus “born” and refers to where someone is born. A native American is someone who was born in America, nothing more. Capitalizing the phrase does not change its meaning nor the guilt felt by the more sensitive native Americans whose ancestry goes back to Europe.

We went through this with the word Eskimo, when some liberal linguist learned that it meant “blubber-eater” in a neighboring Indian language, and hence all Eskimos should be offended by it. Well, to the Eskimos of Alaska, none of whom spoke the offending language, Eskimo meant “Eskimo”, nothing more. It carried no pejorative connotation and they, in fact, preferred it to words like Inuit which means “person” in their native language. Well, yes, of course they are people. So are we, but we don’t call ourselves Persons to distinguish ourselves from Canadians and Mexicans.

Most North American Indians refer to themselves as Indians. The new Smithsonian Museum dedicated to their culture and history is the National Museum of the American Indian after seeking the advice of recently informed linguists, several of whom work there. Many other state and local museums are similarly named. True, we know now that the American Indians did not come from India, leading some to feel it necessary to add the epithet American to Indian when referring to them by their heritage, but American Indians are (American) Indians, and that is what distinguishes them from the cultures and histories of other native Americans.

Yours Truly on CNN

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Beard on is carrying an op ed piece by me on the way words went in 2010. Click here to read about the new words and new usages that appeared over the course of the year. Tea Party strikes me as the most abused phrase of the year for reasons I lay out in the piece.