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Archive for October, 2006

Apostrophic Memorials

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Sluggo lightly chided me this morning in the Alpha Agora for omitting mention of the spelling Hallowe’en for today’s Good Word, Halloween. I didn’t think it an important issue but then it occurred to me that the terrible spelling system of English does use apostrophes as memorials to language change.

Oh, boy! We aren't pumpkin pies!Halloween, of course, comes from “hallowed even”, even the original noun lurking in evening. The appostrophe was a little memorial that we kept for a while to remind us of the V that once stood there but now has vanished. So far as I know, the fact that Vs, Ws, and Us often become one another and fact that the name of W is represents the sound [w] but is named “double U” is coincidental. However, in Old English V represented both [u] and [v] sounds—which is why a letter made up of two Vs is named “Double U”. The point is that it comes as no surprise that a V would be lost between vowels; it probably became a very weak W along the way but before the apostrophe dropped out, we had a little reminder that it was there.

We see the same reminder in all contractions: could’ve, I’ll, I’d’ve. The apostrophes in these words are like little flags saluting lost sounds of various sorts as unaccented “function” words are honed down to what they will eventually become: suffixes. Right now the full forms are still available and used for emphasis, the difference between “I WOULD HAVE” and “I’d’ve”.

These reductions result not so much from rapid speech, as is often claimed, as from lack of accent. English places one full accent on Noun, Adjective, Adverb, and Verb stems. Function words like auxiliary verbs, prepositions, particles, even pronouns generally are unaccented and tend to fade from hearing and view. One of my favorite function words is the pronoun you, often spelled ya [yuh] or just [y], as in y’all.

I find these reduced words interesting, especially my favorite, y’all which, I am convinced, is already a pronoun in many parts of the South. Here the singular pronoun you has been reduced to its initial consonant and attached to all, itself reduced to unaccented status. Y’all might as well be written yall since its status is exacly that of you in many dialects.

Yall will become officially a pronoun when some venturesome journalist begins using it because they feel at home with it. It won’t sound any worse than “less doughnuts”, “between Fred and I”, or “I’m going, too, aren’t I?” Others, less venturesome but just as comfortable with the pronoun will join in, as they did with these others and, after a few months outraged but futile opposition by the language mavens on the blogs, will pass unnoticed into the vocabulary, leaving you and all behind to fend for themselves.

Latin: An Undead Language

Monday, October 30th, 2006

When I was in high school a half century ago (!), the word was that studying Latin would help you learn other languages in the future. Latin was the language we chose when we couldn’t decide which to study. I was among the lucky one who chose it.

In fact, knowledge of that language only helps you learn other European languages but that turned out to be true. My knowledge of Latin has in fact been quite helpful in learning all the languages I have spoken over the years (5) and the 3-4 others that I read. All of them are European: Romance, Germanic, and Slavic.

Sceptics asked me why I was studying a dead language. The opponents of the idea that Latin helps with other languages were those who chose a currently useful one and considered Latin useful only for doctors and lawyers. Most, I am sure, thought that the dead language Latin would have been buried by now.

But it still lives. The North Andover, Massachusetts newspaper, Eagle, recently published an article about the surprising popularity of Latin in the local high school (click here). It caught my eye because it came out the same day that the BBC News carried a surprising piece on the popularity of Latin in Finland, where the government website has a Latin version click here. Googling Google brought up several other articles on the resurgence of this language, including this one on one of my favorite websites, Education World.

The Latin and its Romance descendants form the basis for Esperanto, an attempt at a common world language that did not favor one country. Latin at one time played this role from the Atlantic to the Middle East. Could it make a comeback? It seems to have come back from the dead.

 

Waking up to the Meaning of “in the Wake of”

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Timothy Knox was reading a tech blog the other day and noted the following citation:

“In wake of Vista [Microsoft’s new operating system], he [Steve Ballmer] says, Microsoft will never again wait five years to upgrade a major product” (ComputerWorld).

Timothy says, “The blog author’s comment was: ‘Uh, gee, ComputerWorld, have you ever seen a boat? Because, the wake comes AFTER the boat goes by. This boat is still in dry dock.’ This is in reference to the fact that Microsoft Windows Vista has yet to ship [so to speak—RB].”

“That got me [Tim] to wondering, have we (the nit-pickers, the grammarians, those who differentiate between reticent and reluctant) lost the battle on ‘in the wake of’? Has the (mis)usage cited in ComputerWorld become the norm, or do most folks still understand that one event can’t be “in the wake of” another until that other event has happened?”

First, let me respond to Timothy’s last question, “Have we lost the battle on in the wake of?” I don’t think so. My impression is that the farther we live from the water the squishier the meaning of this phrase gets but most of us know what it means. Most of us, i.e. the speech nit-pickers (those of us who know a nit is the egg of an original louse) have lost the battle for precise speech, probably 3000 years ago. Careful speakers have been complaining about misuse of language for that long.

However, I think I can see what the ComputerWorld writer was getting at: he is placing Ballmet in the wake of the Vista which has now concluded its development at Microsoft. This writer did something we all do in speaking (but shouldn’t in writing): truncate our phrases. He meant to say, “In wake of the development of Vista, he says, Microsoft will never again wait five years to upgrade a major product”. When we say, “I ran off the road on my way over” we mean “I ran my car off the road on the way over.” “I quit the project” really means “I quit working on the project.” Anyone sensitive to precise speech has heard numerous others.

Of course, this sort of shorthand speech inevitably leads to the sort of avoidable misunderstandings we see in this case, so recognizing the problem for what it is does not excuse it.

A Rip-Snortin’ Knock-Down-Drag-Out Million Dollar Comma Fight

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

 

Objects do not have to be large to be expensive.  Paul Ogden just alerted me to an article in the NY Times on a contractual dispute that centers around a single comma that is worth a million dollars (Canadian).

The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The second comma has the effect of cutting the final condition (“unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party”) off from the definition of the extension period.  If it is not directly related only to the extension period, then it must equally apply to the basic and extension periods.

The issue was brought before Canada’s telecommunication regulators by Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, when Atlantic Canada attempted to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles after the first year in which the contract was in force.  The regulators concluded that the meaning of the sentence is clear and Atlantic Canada need not wait until the extension period to terminate the contract.

I tend to agree but the point is fine enough that someone should make an attempt to discover the intent of the those who negotiated the contract. However, it does make you wonder why companies pay lawyers $350 an hour for a job that a good English teacher would be happy to do for no more than, well, let’s say, $250 an hour.

It is Time for Closure on ‘Closure’

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

 

As we waited for a stoplight on our way to the Bucknell sports complex for our morning workouts, I noticed that one corner of the intersection had been neatly mowed and a fresh pot of dwarf mums sat by the small white cross by the telephone pole there.

My wife and I reminisced about the death of the son of one of our friends and colleagues at Bucknell some 11 years ago at that intersection.  We have noticed this small, private memorial for all those years, of course; the flowers become plastic in the winter, then bloom again naturally every spring.

The image for some reason reminded me of a journalistic term that has steered so many so far off course I am surprised to hear no response to it. The term is closure and here is my response.  

Reporters have mentioned various sorts of acts as acts of closure: watching a the murderer of a loved one executed, finding the body of a loved one after a long search, burial, and other neat and simple finite acts.  The fact is, as we know from our friends’ experience, when you lose someone you love there is nothing approaching an ending of the sense of loss.

The idea that you can’t go on about your life until you see a felon put to death for the death of someone you love is ludicrous. Neither justice nor vengeance is closure nor does either bring it. Burial certainly does not fill the gaping hole a lost loved one leaves in your life—ever. There really isn’t anything psychological for closure to refer to that I can see or otherwise detect. 

My sense is that closure refers to that point at which the media decide they will no longer carry the story. That would explain its origin in the news room.

 

I’m not Reticent about ‘Reticent’

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

 

Both the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries now accept “reluctant” as a meaning of reticent. If we accept this, the very useful distinction between the two words is lost and I am faced with one more subtlety my coconversationalists will miss.

Reticent only means “reluctant to speak” in the rest of the English-speaking world.  It has been misused in the US by people trying to show off vocabularies they have not mastered so long that we are being forced to give up the distinction between this meaning and “reluctant to act”, which we already have in reluctant and hesitant

The -tic-ent in reticent is based on the same root as that in tacit, a stem based on the Latin verb tacere “to be silent”.  We don’t need another synonym for reluctant and hesitant and we do need a verb which means simply “[r]eserved; disinclined to speak freely; given to silence or concealment,” the only definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary.

I am too old to give up the distinction and recommend others maintain it, too. It makes no sense to surrender the subtleties with which the richness of our vocabulary provides us.

 

Another Losing Battle with Euphemisms

Friday, October 20th, 2006

In response to Wednesday’s blog, Lydia Rivlin related this story in her e-mail this morning:

“Your item on insulting words, in which you point out that no sooner are they banned than they are replaced with new coinages, reminds me of an example from the Falklands war.  British soldiers started referring to the very unsophisticated Falklanders as “Bennies”.

Benny was a slow-witted, ill dressed character from a notoriously cheaply produced British soap opera called “Crossroads”.  When the officers heard of this, naturally they forbade any further use of the term Benny whereupon the soldiers switched to calling the locals “S.Bs” [“still Bennies”].

At least the battle for the Falkland Islands went better for the British than their battle with “Benny”.  Euphemisms have never lost a battle and never will.  They outnumber all the armies of all the countries on planet Earth.  Forget about it!

The most ridiculous aspect of taking them on in the first place is that even if they could be defeated, their defeat would have no effect on the attitude that spawns them.

Destroy all Taboo Words and their Euphemisms!

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Susan Lister, who teaches Spanish out in California, is always sending me interesting ideas about language to ponder. This morning I found a quotation from the semanticist, Mario Pei, in a note from her:

“The trouble with taboo words and their replacements is that the replacement quickly tends to develop its own taboo, whereupon it, too, has to be replaced. Objections to taboos and euphemisms are of no avail whatsoever. Both constitute a definite part of usage, and both will continue, presumably, as long as language (any language) exists.” Mario Pei, “Problems of Semantics,” in Language Today: A Survey of Current Linguistic Thought 59, 72, ed. by Mario Pei, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1967.

The comment might seem obvious but it reminded me of a TV news interview I did last year on which I was asked to comment on the banning of the word Bruce in a high school in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area. Did I hear you ask, “Why Bruce?”

The high school administration had introduced a language code that prohibited N-word and all its synonyms. The kids in the high school simply created a new euphemism not on the list by commonizing the name (making it, essentially, a bruce) of an Afro-American kid who had recently graduated. They then went blithely on their racist way.

The administration of that high school had been unwittingly dragged into the struggle against taboo words and so, once it was informed of the new replacement, the administration promptly banned it, seeing no other face-saving alternative.

I asked the interviewer if he had heard the euphemism for bruce. He said, “No,” so I told him it should have emeged already but the the end of the week it will be in place.

Where will it all end? I told the interviewer that a high school administration can chase euphemisms for taboo words to the ends of the Earth. For as surely as the Earth has no end, there is no end to the words in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 240,000 likely replacement candidates but it is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, speakers can create new words any time they wish and they do.

I also mentioned that it makes no difference whether racial slurs are banned. Removing the word for an attitude has no effect on the attitude. Removing the attitude, however, does remove the taboo words associated with it. Words only alert us to the attitudes; they do no control them.

Demure or Demur?

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

We just published and aired a comparison of two words that are often confused but receive little press: demure and demur.  The difference of the final “silent” E is critical not only to the pronunciation but to the meanings of these two words. Demure is pronounced [de-myure] while demur is pronounced [duh-murr]. Big difference there.

Demure, of course, is an adjective meaning, roughly, “coyly shy”.  If someone asks you whether you know something about a topic on which you happen to be an expert, a demure reply is appropriate: “Do you know anything about words?”  “A little,” would be a demure reply from a lexicographer or lexicologist. 

The verb means to show reluctance in doing something, to hold back or hesitate in an open-ended fashion. You would (I hope) demur from sharing the password to your online bank account with anyone. 

I exemplified the disparity between this word and demur with a comment about one of my favorite co-diners, Cherry Pitt: “Cherry Pitt demurred from the offer of a second dessert, waiting until asked a second time, at which point she demurely accepted.”  

It just occurred to me that the difference between a lexicographer and a lexicologist might make an interesting note.  I won’t devote a whole essay to the topic but just say here that a lexicographer is someone who compiles dictionaries while a lexicologist is someone who scientifically (linguistically) studies the nature of words in the mental lexicon.  I spent about 40 years of my life doing the latter before becoming a lexicographer here at The Lexiteria. 

 

Affect, Effect, Influence

Monday, October 16th, 2006

 

The question of when to use effect and when, affect, came up today.  Since I have already dealt with this confusion in a past Good Word (see effect by clicking here), I won’t rehash it here.  However, it reminded me of another distinction that often goes unnoticed.

Over the last half of my 35-year teaching stint at Bucknell, the question of my influence over the thinking of students periodically emerged.  It became a rather vital question in the 60s and 70s and led to my thinking through the issue. 

By the end of the 70s I was telling my students that my intention was not to influence them but to affect them.  I was being paid to have some impact on their thoughts and abilities but I tried to avoid conveying my prejudices to them. (Indeed, I try to avoid prejudices in the first place.)

It seems to me that the verb influence implies prejudice in a way affect does not. To affect the thinking of someone, you either have a good or bad effect on it but you do not (necessarily) prejudice it. To influence an election is to tilt it one way or ther other; to affect it is to improve or undermine the process itself, not skewing it in any direction.

The distinction here is subtle and often overlooked but it is a good distinction for careful speakers and writers to work with.