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Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

Words Lost in Words

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

We at Lexiteria are in the process of developing a collection of folk etymologies. Along the way we have stumbled over an interesting facet of words that might be called “reverse folk etymology”. Folk etymology is the conversion of a foreign or unfamiliar word into one that is more familiar, such as the conversion of French dormeuse “sleepy (one)” to dormouse and kith and kin to kissing kin. The opposite would be to make a recognizable word unrecognizable.

The following list of words have “lost words” in them, words we no longer see or hear when we speak:

  • sweater (hidden word sweat)
  • business (hidden word busy)
  • atonement (hidden words at one)
  • disease (hidden word ease)
  • necklace (hidden word lace)


We no longer think of sweaters as clothing designed to make us sweat but to simply keep up warm. Business in no longer ‘busy-ness’ and has come to be pronounced [biznis] or even [bidnis]. Atonement is a form of repentence, making up for bad deeds, and not making anything at one with another. The pronunciation of this word makes it clear that it has been reanalyzed as [atonment].

Disease has come to be something much more painful than simple uneasiness or discomfort. But that is the meaning it began with. Finally, Lace worn around the neck is no longer called necklace; necklaces are countable things made of almost anything but lace. Concomitantly, their pronunciation has shfted to blur the word lace: [neklis].

These are examples of two discrete processes. First, semantic drift, the tendency of the meanings of words to drift way from their original meaning over time . The second is the tendency of words to be reanalyzed and pronounced differently over time. The examples above starkly reveal the two critical historical changes that words undergo if they remain in English for centures.

Some of None is Plural

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Lindsey Branch made the following observation about the grammar of Tuesday’s (May 19) Good Word, antidisestablishmentarianism: “In your text on these few ‘longest words’ the comment ‘none have been used…’ should read ‘none has been used ….’ The last I heard was that none is still a singular noun.”

In my opinion it has never been a singular (pro)noun; that is another conceit forced upon writers in the US by editors, the same ones who push “an historical” and “aren’t I“. Editors came to this conclusion when one of them discovered that none was originally not one, an irrelevant fact since it clearly is not that now.

Although all grammarians agree that plural is possible, they also all offer the wrong reason if they offer any at all (e.g. the American Heritage Dictionary). None is plural because it is the negative equivalent of some: “Some were arriving; none were leaving.” As always, I prefer consistency in usage where grammar itself is unclear.

NoneNow, you might argue that none is the negative equivalent of one. It isn’t a strong argument, since it leaves us open to the question, “Well, then, what are the negative equivalents of two, three, four, etc.? Numbers don’t have negative equivalents the way pronouns do. Still, if you feel confortable saying “None is,” that is fine; you have all the editors in the US behind you. Just keep in mind that those of us who say, “None are,” are also perfectly correct. (I generally use the plural because no one confuses the issue in my dialect group—the folks down South with whom I grew up.)

The Gravy-Sauce Confusion

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

There is hardly a pair of words that confuse English-speakers more than gravy and sauce. What are we supposed to call the liquid poured over or under the meat that we eat. The difference between the meanings of these two words is easy to remember.

  • If the liquid is poured over the meat (or certainly if over potatoes), it is gravy;
  • If it is under the meat, it is sauce.

Which reminds me of chopped liver and pâte. Chopped liver is served with meals costing $25 or less; if it comes with a meal that costs over $25, it is pâte (pah-tay). Simple, right? Now we can avoid embarrassing ourselves at high- and low-end restaurants.

S. African Procrastinators Society

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa and I have been corresponding since way back at yourDictionary.com. Today he outdid himself with his response to procrastinate, our Good Word for February 20, 2009. I thought I would just share it with everyone.

“I think you got it wrong – our motto is ‘never put off till tomorrow what you can put off to the next day’. I would ask the gurus at the Procrastinator’s Society for verification, but I have not yet got around to joining. I believe they are doing good work, having recently got around to predicting the outbreak of World War II (which I understand they managed with 100% accuracy). Now if we had been in power at the time, simply subscribing to our other watchword “better never than late” would have completely averted that tragedy.

“A surprising number of gots in that paragraph. Can’t say I like it. But much worse is that American favorite, gotten which—dountless due to television—is steadily gaining ground here in SA. Can’t imagine how such a word could’ve come into being, let alone gotten so prevalent (oops).

“By the way, there is much to be said for putting off buying Christmas presents, and in fact my own experience is totally at odds with the statement ‘seldom have a wide selection to choose from’. The thing to do is the buy from the after Christmas sales and stash them away for the next season. My wife does that, picking things up at sales throughout the year and stashing them in the ‘presents box’, which we then mine as necessary for various occasions at a later time.”

Nonce Words

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

One of the enjoyable pastimes in human experience that has exploded with the onset of Web communities is the creation of nonce words. A nonce word is a word that someone makes up for a specific occasion or situation without any hope that it will become part of the general or even specialized English vocabulary. A recent new word (neologism) added to Webster’s New World Dictionary is youthanasia, which is defined as “the focus on remaining youthful that possesses many Americans and Europeans”.

The web is flooded with nonce words: they are easy to create and amusing and surprising because they sound like real words but their meanings are often connotations (associations, implcations) rather than denotations (actual meanings).

“Connotations without denotations?” you might rightly ask. Yes, I think that is the correct characterization of these creations. Cyberchondriac, another new addition to the same dictionary, is supposed to be a person who thinks he is sick because his symptoms turn up on a Web page. It was created by replacing the hypo- in hypochondriac, with cyber-, which has become a synonym for “the Web”.

Now the real meaning of cyberchondriac should be “stomach governor”, for kybernan means “to govern” in Greek while chondria is a Latin word meaning “stomach”. Granted cyber- is an English combining form meaning “network, Web”, we could squeeze the meaning “Web-stomach person” out of cyberchondriac. These are the possible denotions (meanings) that may be derived from the meanings of the word’s components.

However, because the word was created to resemble hypochrondriac, the meaning of cyberchrondriac carries the connotation of that word, hence “a hypochondriac who surfs the web”. If this word has the meaning or denotation mentioned above, that meaning must be memorized and put to use by a large portion of the English-speaking community.

Occasionally a nonceword becomes a model for many other such words, so that one of its constitutuents becomes an active means of creating a word family. This has happened to cyber- Here is a mere handful of words created by inserting or replacing another stem with cyber-: cyberspace, cybersex, cyberspace, cybernaut, cyberphobia, cybersquatter, Cyberia, cybercop, cyberart, cybercafe, cybercash, cybercrime, cyberculture, cyberlaw.

Once this occurs, the component becomes an affix or, in this case, a “combining form”, similar to the myriad of combining forms from Latin and Greek, such as cardi(o)-, cerebr(o)-, -crat, and the like.

However, nothing in the short history of cyberchondria or youthanasia suggest that they are any more than passing jokes that have not yet earned their admission to any dictionary.

Clichés and Idioms

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Someone (probably Paul Ogden) last month sent me a link to an article by Robert Fulford in the National Post of Canada called, “Are Clichés the Achille’s Heel of Language?” He comes to no conclusion (some clichés are bad; others are OK) but it opened the door to a question I have long pondered: “Why do literary critics and grammarians write so much about clichés but never mention idioms?

What are most often called clichés are, in fact, idioms. For example, if you enter “cat” into the amateurish Cliche-Finder website, the following idioms are produced:

rain cats and dogs
there’s more than one way to skin a cat
let the cat out of the bag
fat cat

These are not clichés but idioms. An idiom is a phrase that is a metaphor of the meaning intended, as cats and dogs really means “heavily, intensely”, while skin a cat in the second example simple mean “do anything”. The entire phrase fly off the handle means “to get angry” while to climb the walls means “to be extremely frustrated”.

These are idioms, phrases that cannot be interpreted word for word and each is, in fact, treated as though it were a single word. Unlike actual words, idioms are stored in the right side of our brain, the side that does holistic thinking. Right-brain thought interprets the world in terms of whole things rather than breaking them down into their individual components for interpretation. That is how we process idioms: pretty much the same way as we process individual words.

Clichés are, as any good dictionary will tell you, trite, overused expressions like sprawling epic, minor quibble, penetrating insight, emotional roller-coaster, mentioned in Fulford’s article. These are not idioms with one meaning, but rather analyzable phrases comprising individual words bundled together. The problem with them is that they are overused when other word combinations are possible, combinations that express more subtle semantic variations.

Clichés are turns of phrase that were original when first used but which have subsequently become boring and wooden, if not stilted. They need to be replaced by fresher metaphors: a hurricane of emotions for emotional rollercoaster, a petty quibble for minor quibble, an eye-opening insight for penetrating insight (or something better).

We could just as well say, expansive epic, broad epic, awkwardly oversized epic, and so on. In each case the phrase’s meaning is changed only by the meaning of the replacement adjective while the meaning of epic remains unchanged. By making such changes in different contexts, however, we achieve a higher level of subtlely and expressiveness.

We do not have this flexibility with idioms. We cannot adjust “fly off the handle” to “fly off the frying pan” or “leap off the handle” and still retain the reference to losing our temper. Unike those of the cliché, the meanings of idioms are tamper-proof.

All we can do to eliminate repetitious idioms from our speech and writing is to avoid them altogether. But avoiding idioms renders language lifeless and academic if not lexically prudish. Idioms are the curve balls of language that shape its character.

We have a separate category of jokes based on the potential literal interpretation of idioms (The flies in our kitchen are so frustrated they are climbing the walls). We play with them every day in other ways, as well. Idioms are, in fact, unavoidable in any written or spoken language that is alive. Long live idioms!


Monday, November 17th, 2008

The closing days of the recent presidential election in the US saw the odd emergence of words referring to old ideologies of centuries past: socialism, communism, and capitalism. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and abandoned its bizarre ideology of coerced socialism and China has mollified their version of it without collapsing, the US may be the last country that continues to harm to itself in the avoidance of 18th and 19th century ideologies.

An ideology is a set of doctrines or beliefs about the correct way in which a society should run and people should behave. Ideologies may be rigid or flexible but we have seen that those that have remained rigid tend to fail. This happened with both the rigid socialism and capitalism of the 20th century.

The US has looked at the world as a battleground of ideologies since World War II: democracy against dictatorship, capitalism against socialism. European nations have long since abandoned the fear of these ideologies, more and more ignoring them. Other nations have created societies intended to generate the greatest benefit for all, blending the workable bits and pieces of any ideology.  The result has been the fall into irrelevance of the ideologies themselves.

One of the hopes President-elect Obama brings with him is that the US will cease to harm itself out of fear for words referring to anachronistic ideologies.  The sound of these words thumping to the ground during the closing days of the campaign is a promising prelude to clear, intelligent policy based on good ideas rather than fear of now empty words referring to ideologies intended for social conditions of the 19th-century.

Change or Reform?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

McCain-ObamaAn interesting development has arisen in the two political campaigns in the United States. Senator Barack Obama has been running a campaign on the platform of bringing change to the US government. Senator McCain has recently shifted the focus of his campaign to reform. The difference in meaning of these two words, change and reform, could be critical to the decision reached in the November presidential election.

Change means to shift to something different but reform means to improve on what is already in place. Senator McCain has been a consistent supporter of deregulation, privatization, and the war in Iraq, policies Senator Obama promises to end outright. The term reform suggests that McCain wishes to continue with these policies but with, as Governor Palin recently put it, some “shakin and fixin”.

I find the distinction reflected in the careful choices of these words interesting.


The Earmarks on Pork Barrels

Monday, September 15th, 2008

So what are earmarks, anyway? We hear more and more about them as the presidential election in the US rolls on. No, they are not how to tell if a politician is fooling around with another man or woman. Earmarks are projects funded by the state or federal government in a specific district, usually at the bequest of the congressman representing that district. An earmarked project may be a good or bad one; presumably most are good.

The word today is being used as a synonym for a pork-barrel project, a wasteful if not useless federally or state funded project. Male and female congressmen sometimes use their committee appointments to add “fat” to the federal budget via projects that benefit few people and cost much tax-payer money. These projects are referred to by the mass noun pork, known for its high fat content, or pork barrel.

Some national candidates are running on a ticket of reducing or ending earmarks. The latter means ending all state or federally funded projects for specific districts. Since the function of a member of the House of Representatives is to represent his or her district, ending or even unreasonably reducing legitimate earmarks to a district would be poor representation. Not a good idea. We need to remind ourselves of the distinction between earmarks and pork barrel projects.

The Hoity-Toity and Hoi Polloi

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Joy Jalosi sent this comment in yesterday in response to our Good Word peon “Dear Dr. Beard, Regarding peon: I always thought hoi-polloi meant UPPER-, not LOWER CLASS.”

One of the most common errors humans make in speaking and writing their language is to switch antonyms. How often have you heard people say things like this: “It’s too hot . . . I mean, cold, in here,” or: “I just love that black . . . I mean, white dress of hers.” Some of these switches stick, too, for cold and scald developed from the same Proto-Indo-European word, as did English black and French blanc “white”.

Joy probably has attached the wrong meaning to this word  because most of the people she talks to make the same slip of the ear, too. The tendency to switch antonyms is aggravated in this case by the fact that hoi polloi sounds much like hoity-toity, which is a slur referring to the upper classes. In Greek, however, hoi means “the” and polloi means “many”, the source of the English prefix poly-. In English hoi polloi clearly means “the masses”.

Hoi polloi raises another question. I once participated in a debate with several readers in the wake of the Good Word hoi polloi over whether we need the word the with hoi polloi. It seemed redundant to them given the fact that hoi already means “the”. However, since I was writing in English when I used the phrase, the meaning of the Greek phrase was irrelevant. Hoi polloi in English means something like “the (unwashed) masses” today.