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Archive for the 'Style & Usage' Category

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.

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.

Train Milk

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Today’s Marketwatch website carries a story that contains the following sentence:

McGill said, “They’re going to ride the train and milk it for all it’s worth.”

How much is train milk worth these days?

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

Are We All Ready for Already?

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dianne Ericson recently questioned the good Doctor’s use of the word all in his treatment of the Good Word already. Here is what she asked:

“In your example today, ‘The children were all ready and bundled up warmly to go caroling on the snowy evening,’ is all really an adjective, or is it an adverb modifying the adjective ready? If it were a discrete adjective, then the sentence would still make sense if the adjective ready were omitted. I’m afraid that doesn’t quite work.”

In this particular sentence all is an adjective modifying children. We can’t say, “The children were all” (unless you are Pennsylvania Dutch, in which case it means “there were no more children”) but we can say “The children were all (ready, gone, happy, reasonable, crying, etc.)”

The oddness of this sentence comes from the fact that all is misplaced. It is an idiosyncrasy of the adjective all that it may be placed in the predicate even though it modifies the subject. “The children were all ready” is synonymous with “All the children are ready.”

We all especially appreciated this note, which Dianne was kind enough to add to her question:

“Thanks for all the wonderful help. Thanks to you, my child has the best vocabulary in her 8th-grade class!”

Your child can compete with Dianne’s daughter if he or she is subscribed to our daily Good Word or Good Word, Jr.

Buckets about Buckets

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Buckets of bucketsMy wife and I just drove past a house in our newest McMansion development and my wife noticed a tree with buckets hanging from its limbs. She asked my opinion as to why someone would want hang buckets from a tree. I didn’t know for sure but immediately set my imagination to the task of resolving the issue with relish on gusto.

  • To symbolize how much money they have?
  • To symbolize how much money the property cost them?
  • In hopes someone would help pay the maintenance costs on the house?
  • Too much chlorine in their tap water?
  • They prefer acid to fluoride in their water?

My immediate association was with the phrase “buckets of money”. As I sat there waiting for her to stop laughing, I wondered why we keep saying “buckets of money” at a time when a bucket of money wouldn’t cover a car payment.

But that led to thinking about bucket in general. I floats almost effortlessly though the catalog of English idioms. “To kick the bucket” led to the “bucket list”, which I’ve heard two people use recently. This is after the Morgan Freeman-Jack Nicholson movie of the same name about two men working their way through a list of things they wish to do before they kick the bucket (die).

That led to sweet remembrances of the British comedy series “Keeping Up Appearances” with Patricia Routledge playing Hyacinth Bucket, who insisted her name be pronounced “bouquet”.

Of course, buckets is a fairly common synonym for lots: buckets of love, buckets of money, buckets of whatever we have lots of. It is a common word that does a yeoman’s work for English and makes us laugh doing it.

Porn in the Slow Lane

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

My favorite newspaper, the Sunbury Daily Item, carried an article with this lead sentence last Friday: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”

This sentence immediately catches the eye because you wonder why middle school students were raising money to purchase porn in the first place. Moreover, didn’t the 57-year-old do us all a favor by stealing the money and keeping porn out of the hands of those children?

Well, reading further we discover that the money was actually being raised for middle school band and chorus activities and that it was the thief who purchased the porn, keeping good and evil in proper alignment. Of course, that is not what the lead sentence says.

The infinitive phrase “to purchase porn videos . . .” in the first sentence is closer to “middle school students” than to “57-year-old Lewiston man” and for that reason goes with the former and not the latter.

Restructuring the sentence to correct it in journalese is a bit difficult and the author probably should have just worked on a different story. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where a passive sentence might work despite the bad reputation this construction has among journalists. “$500 raised by middle school students was stolen by a 57-year-old Lewistown man to purchase porn videos from an Internet site,” is perfectly good English that states the case more clearly.

The active variant would be: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” This variant lets you pack more information about the middle school kids into the sentence but is a tad clunky.

Anyway, the sentence that went to press wrongly stated the facts by misassociating the infinitive phrase, thereby frightening readers with the suggestion that we had somehow swerved into the fast lane in the not-too-distant past.

Phishing, Frenemies, and Smoving

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Tom Bivens just picked up a new nonce word that he thinks may make it into the language. The Web has, in fact, made it easier for (mis)created words to creep into common usage, so he may be right. Here is what Tom wrote:

Smove is not a word yet but it’s about to be. I am hearing it and seeing it in writing more often. It means to smile and move on.”

Of course, it doesn’t mean that to you and me because it isn’t a word in the English vocabulary yet. It is a blend, two words simply smushed together. Blending is popular means of creating new words among reporters, publicists, and marketers, the source of such common blends that did stick as smog and motel. The rules of English create words with prefixes and suffixes, though, since English prefixes and suffixes have been vanishing for centuries, we have had to resort to more radical means of creating neologisms (new words).

I wrote Tom that I’m going to wait for this one. Oddities are like blog, phish, and frenemy) are flooding the language. Now, I’m not a grammar Nazi; I’m willing to accept them if they are forced down my throat. Like these other “words”, Smove is not formed by a rule of the English language but a logical rule that says that smushing two words together smushes their meanings together in understandable ways.

As I told my linguistics students for a couple of decades, we created English so we can do with it what we please. However, there should be some sort of democratic majority behind whatever changes we make and that is what grammatical rules are supposed to form. Nonce words make coagulating such majority support for a word difficult.

A nonce word is a word created for a specific occasion or situation that eventually evaporates leaving no use for the word. The problem with nonce words, aside from their evanescence, is that they have to be wholly memorized. Words like memory chip (actually one compound word), processor, and networks that we use in speaking about computers don’t require any explanation; we pick them up straightway. Someone has to tell us what words like phish, chad, blog, frenemy mean, so they interrupt the flow of conversation and actually hinder communication.

I am grateful to Tom for tipping me off, though. I do like to spot these new creatures before they bite me. My throat is so sore from swallowing so many already, what harm could one more do?

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”.

Perambulating Perambulators

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I’ve been terribly negligent of the Language Blog. My apologies, though I’m afraid the Christmas holidays will not make things any easier. Faye and I are traveling to Colorado where we will be taking the grandchildren out to high tea and their first performance of “The Nutcracker” by the Colorado Ballet.

However, yesterday’s Good Word perambulate brought out such a good story from Eileen Opiolka that I must drop everything and report it. Eileen wrote:

“Today’s good word [perambulate] reminded me of my husband’s first visit to Cambridge’s colleges over 30 years ago. In those days his Latin was stronger than his English, so when he saw the notice “No perambulators”, he docilely decided not to go in. Pity!”

I consider this evidence that a vocabulary too large is as liable to mishap as one too small. Anyway, I presume this incident did not preclude Eileen and her husband to eventually meet and, no double, perambulate many times together.