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Archive for the 'Words in the News' Category

The Warm and Fuzzy N-Word

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

An old and good friend, Sue Gold, Communications Manager at the Westtown School in Westtown, Pennsylvania, brought to my attention an article in the online Philadelphia Inquirer about a simulated burial of the word nigger staged by the students of the NAACP Philadelphia Youth Council last Saturday.

Americans like to take pills for their woes. It would be wonderful if there were a pill like the word nigger for American racism and all we had to do was to quit saying that word and racism would go away. I have already explained why that is not the case.

The N-word has, in fact, become a term of endearment among many younger African Americans, especially males. The new question is this: if the N-word is so horrible with such a terrible history, how can it become a term of endearment under any circumstances whatever?

It is an interesting sociological fact is that among men, profanity is often used in place of terms of endearment. A real man (who wouldn’t think of eating quiche), would never use such womanly terms of endearment as “you old dear”, “you sweetheart you”, and so forth; these terms are left to the swishy British upper class. If your neck is red and you have at least one deer rifle hanging across the rear window of your pickup truck, you greet your buddies with, “Well, how are you, you old SOB”, “you lucky b—–d”, or worse.

Now that these words have become acceptable among the younger generation and the new profanity is in place, we can predict that the new profanity will shortly provide the new terms of endearment for males who want to prove themselves men. Apparently, that changeover is already occurring.


Quality and Quantity

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Where chimps and pigs meetNPR ran a story on the survival of small shops in France despite the invasion of malls and monster stores like Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. The success of these small shops, according to those interviewed for this story, derives from the fact that small shop owners provide greater quality for which the French are willing to pay higher prices.

It occurred to me that the difference between quality and quantity might deserve a few words in this blog. We haven’t taken a turn at talking about chimpanzees yet but that research is aimed at the distinction between quality and quantity (the language connection).

Those who believe that chimpanzees and other pongids may have the capacity to speak in a language are arguing for a purely quantitative difference between humans and these species. That is to say, both humans and pongids share the same quality, the ability to speak, they only differ in the quantity of words and sentences they can produce.

Those of us who are convinced that humans are the only species with the ability to speak a language, are convinced that the difference between humans and other species is qualitative. That is, humans and pongids are radically different in that one species possesses an ability (quality) that the other does not possess at all.

The NPR program brought up another use of these two concepts. Quality also means “superiority of characteristics or features” and this was the definition Eleanor Beardsley (love that name!) in the NPR piece had in mind. Our European counterparts are far more willing than US citizens to pay extra for quality. We are more interested in quantity and the cheaper the goods the larger the quantity of them we can acquire.

The result is that more and more of us give up our small towns to giants like Walmart who offer low quality goods at low prices. My wife and I avoid them, for we are willing to pay 10-20% more for better quality (such as the absence of poison in our food), chatting with the store owners, and a pleasant stroll down town rather than through a gloomy warehouse the size of downtown. We consider the extra money we pay an investment in the survival of Lewisburg.  Many small towns have not.

We long ago noticed that the business districts in German cities are also surviving the onslaught of malls and super stores because their locations are restricted to the perimeter of the cities. I am sure it is a Europe-wide prejudice that motivates Europeans to fight these corporations by simply preferring quality. I just thought it interesting that the difference boils down to a preference of quality over quantity in the European and US societies.

Counterfeit Toothpaste?

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Are your teeth mushy?If you are like me, the phrase counterfeit toothpaste looks a little odd in the headlines today. Money is usually counterfeit but paintings are forged, not counterfeit. That is probably because of the secret admiration we have for art forgers—they do have artistic talent. So we have different words for fakery depending on the degree of our dislike of a particular type of fake.

As I thought about it, synonyms for counterfeit began to accumulate in my mind; fake, bogus, forged, false, phony, fraudulent, sham, simulated, ersatz are probably just the ones on top.

We even have different words for many counterfeit, forged, and fake objects. Counterfeit hair, for example, is called a wig or a toupee and no one blinks an eye at it. Counterfeit teeth are less common than before but we admit that they are false.

Counterfeit, you might complain, implies deception. True. That is probably why counterfeit crab meat is now spelled krab—to make sure everyone knows that it is not crab meat but fish cleverly shaped and colored for people whose minds ignore their taste buds. However, wigs and false teeth involve deception—harmless deception but deception.

Does anyone remember ersatz coffee? Looks and tastes like coffee, again, if your taste buds are not on speaking terms with your brain. Counterfeit smoke, which can be added to any dish in liquid form, relies on the same disconnect.

Still, counterfeit toothpaste sounds a little odd to me. Counterfeiting money requires more complexity, artistic skill, and inside information than producing bogus toothpaste. Fraudulent, mislabeled, phony strike me as more accurate epithets.

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.

Necessary and Sufficient

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

The Circus of Blabbermouths that currently blend talk shows with political news on US radio and television is succeeding on appeal to the basest human instincts: fear, hatred, and anger.  Since none of these emotions are good, why are secular televangelists like Bill O’Reilly, Russ Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Don Imus, Lou Dobbs successful in promoting these emotions of the weak-minded?

Secular televangelists are blabbermouths with religiously held political convictions, convictions held on faith rather than reason, who portray themselves as reporters.  They succeed in the wake of a widely failing education system and contribute to that failure by teaching belief on faith rather than reason.

Secular televangelism runs on the fuel of necessary arguments. What does that mean, I heard someone think. What is a ‘necessary argument’?

Necessary in the sense I have in mind is a philosophical term for one half of a valid argument. If I show evidence or even proof that [all dope users drank milk as children], I have taken the first of two required steps in proving a causal connection between drinking milk and dope use.  But I haven’t proved that point yet; I’ve merely shown evidence for it. I have made a necessary but not sufficient argument.

In order to produce a complete, or as philosophers call it, a ‘sufficient’ argument, I have to show that [no non-drug user ever drank milk]. That no one can do because it is not a true claim. A necessary and sufficient argument must be based on proof that all and only X is Y.

The anger and mean-spiritedness that serves as the religion of the secular televangelists compose an issue aside from the argument structure they use.  Here I merely want to comment on two important words in philosophy.  An argument is not won by the loudest debater but the one who (1) has factual evidence and (2) necessary AND sufficient arguments.  The US airwaves today are filled with haranguers who base their necessary-only arguments on anecdotal evidence and settle debates by  trying to yell the loudest.

Using these slipshod methods it is easy to prove that white is simply a lighter shade of black. 

Dr. Goodword’s Comment on Paris Hilton

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

paris hiltonMaureen’s twin, Colleen Walsh dropped a line today with this comment:
In today’s news about Paris Hilton being sentenced to jail there was a new word that I have never heard before. Is it a word or a newsman made-up word. He used the word frenemy to describe one of her friends that really is her enemy.”

“Could you explain the origin of hoosegow, which is another name for jail. It looks like Paris will have plenty of time on her hands. I suggest you send her a dictionary so she can improve her language skills while she is incarcerated.”

Well, Maureen, frenemy was originally not a real word but a ‘nonce’ word, a word someone made up on the spot for one-time use only. Because it was useful it stuck around and probably is a real English word. If you are someone’s enemy by definition you cannot be their friend so what the utterer of this word meant was too complicated to get into a single word (fake friend, fair weather friend, etc.) All these phrases are still around, too, but enough people know frenemy now that it has earned a place in the English vocabulary.

The creator of this word simply smushed together the two words that have the two (of the several) meanings he or she wished to express. Smushed words are called ‘blends’ and they only appear in English and only since around the 50s (motel, smog, etc.) Blends are a sort of halfway abbreviation, an abbreviation with too few letters removed. At best it is a rather border-line means of creating new words but many of these do stick so we have to put up with them.

As for hoosegow, just read our Good Word for March 6, 2006 by clicking ‘Good Word’.

At War

Friday, May 11th, 2007

I keep hearing news readers say that the United States is “at war”. I am not sure what they mean by the use of that prepositional phrase. Its meaning must have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.

I can recall being at war in the 40s. The first thing I remember is that Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. The president asked Congress for those declarations without fabricating any evidence of the need for them, and received both from a Congress united behind the effort.

I was in what was called ‘grammar school’ at that time. Being at war meant that I collected dimes from my neighbors, aunts and uncles, pushed them into tiny pockets on a cardboard card until I filled it. My school collected these cards and used them to buy  war bonds (World War II was a ‘pay-as-you-go’ war). On weekends I collected scrap metal to be used in producing bombs and bullets. My father kept a Victory Garden—a garden city folk cultivated to free commercial food for the war effort, to feed our boys who were fighting overseas.

We didn’t have chrome on our cars and ration books limited the number of tires and gallons of gas we could buy. In fact, anything needed for the war effort was rationed: sugar, meat, candy, and shoes are a few I recall. Every family received a book with a page of tear-off stamps for each rationed essential.

Headlights were painted black except for a narrow quarter-inch line across their middle so that they projected beams too small to be spotted from the sky. In fact, I remember the air raid warnings and drills at night, when we had to close the curtains on all windows and cut off all lights except a minimum that allowed us to function.

A large portion of the movies produced in Hollywood were about the war and supported the war effort. In fact, Hollywood produced many movies solely for the war effort: to promote war bonds, conservation on the home front, vigilance for spies. Many of the new songs of the time were about the war and the servicemen fighting it: Over There, Wild Blue Yonder, You’re in the Army Now. Real music with patriotic words.

Women over here took over the jobs left vacant by our boys over there. I can recall the first woman I ever saw wearing “britches”, as my mother called slacks disapprovingly. The woman wearing those britches was holding down a man’s job. High school and college girls were active in the USO Clubs that provided whole-hearted wholesome entertainment for our boys on leave. Our president, FDR, the Congress, and the country were solidly behind every aspect of the war effort.

Does this sound like where we are today? Or has the phrase ‘at war’ changed dramatically?

Living in Spoiled Areas

Friday, May 4th, 2007

At lunch I heard a news reader on TV answer the question, “What is your favorite place that you would like to return to on vacation” with “Machu Pichu, because the whole area is so unspoiled.”

Although I’ve heard the phrase “unspoiled area” many times before, this time it caught my attention for some reason. We all love to spend vacations in unspoiled areas. Why? Well, obviously to get away from spoiled areas, such as the places where we work and live.

This strikes me as an odd way to think of our homes and hometowns—spoiled. Spolied by what or whom? Well, since an unspoiled area is usually one with little or no population or pollution, the spoilers must be us. How could we even imply that this magnificant, technologically advanced society in which we live is spoiled?

What is lurking there in the backs of our minds? Does it tell us anything about ourselves?

Joke of the Day: Freedom of the Press

Monday, April 16th, 2007

The most important lesson of the circus over Don Imus’s racial slur is the clarity it brings to who controls the US media. According to the reports I heard, the managers at NBC News and CBS Radio were trying to decide how to handle the situation until advertisers began to cancel. That settled the matter. What Imus said was of secondary importance at best—indeed, he was hired to make outrageous statements; the crucial issue was that the people who pay are upset.

I taught Russian and Soviet history for 20 years back in the bad old days when most Soviet news came from Pravda “Truth” and Izvestia “News”. The going joke in the USSR at the time was that there was no Truth in the “News” and no News in the “Truth”. I made the point that freedom of the press was encumbered in both countries by advertisers: the major difference between censorship in the USSR and in the US was that in the USSR there was only one advertiser, the Communist Party.

I think the point was very near the truth. Over the recent decades the focus of the US media has continually narrowed. News that reflects critically on minorities and women has been notably muted and news that reflects badly on large corporations has been eliminated completely. One of the greatest scandals of the past century, the Enron catastrophe, was discovered by government authorities and only reported when they announced it. Ditto Tyco, Worldcom, and similar disgraces.

The only object of criticism left to the US media is the government. When the goverment discovered a decade or so ago that corporations were defrauding it by charging outlandish prices for ash trays and hammers, the press immediatley attacked the government for wasteful spending. No news organization pursued the issue into the fraudulent corporations. Those corporations continue to determine what we can and cannot hear or see in the US.

The good news is the Internet and the Web. The reason mainstream media are moving to greater and greater extremes is that they are losing not only credibility but viewers and listeners to growing competition especially from the medium you are reading right now. However unreliable the Web may be for news, at least it is not controlled by corporations who add unseen taxes to the products we buy and use that money to leverage their view of the world on the mainstream media.

Big Brother is and always has been Corporate America and the Internet shows us what genuine free speech is, warts and all.

Deciders and Decision-Makers

Friday, April 13th, 2007

I often come to words in the news long after they are in the news (the price of thinking things through before writing). Today I had a stray thought about our president’s reference to himself as a decider rather than a decision-maker. (Don’t ask why this word popped in my head while I was working out.)

Last April, almost a year ago today, Mr. Bush declared, “But I’m the decider and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense” The issue here is: What is wrong with decider? Someone who rides is a rider, someone who fights is a fighter, someone who plods is a plodder. So why is someone who decides a decision-maker? And why is decider funny?

The answer—I think—is sociolinguistic. We all make decisions every day and in that sense we are all deciders. That sense is trivial, so trivial we never use the word although it is a perfectly legitimate word found in most dictionaries. The word is used mostly in sports for a play that decides the final score and the winner.

The only sense in which this word is really needed is to refer to someone who regularly decides for other people and that person is usually in such an august managerial position that a trivial word will not do. Instead of using decided to refer to such panjandra, we go to the phrase, “make decisions”, and use the nominalization of that phrase: decision-maker.

The president’s use of decider, then, was funny because it trivialized what he was talking about: his own role as a decision-maker for the nation. Maybe you already knew that. I just figured it out this morning.