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Archive for November, 2007

Hard Words are not for Hard Heads

Friday, November 30th, 2007

I didn’t mean to stay away so long but for some curious reason many companies need word lists, word games, and glossaries this month and those who come to us (Lexiteria) have kept me very busy

One of our on-going projects here at Lexiteria is a dictionary of English affixes (prefixes and suffixes) including most Latin and Greek stems. The project is about 2/3 finished. Most of the words are either highly technical scientific terms that we are unfamiliar with or scientific terms we are marginally familiar with, so it is a time-consuming project.

In those giddy moments toward the end of the day, we begin to see potentialities in these words that were never intended by their creators. We even run some highly technical terms as Good Words at alphaDictionary just for fun. For example, when we ran across the medical term oocephalus “person with an egg-shaped head”, it struck me as the same as egghead. The latest example I couldn’t resist is pygalgia “buttocks pain”–pain in the butt. Look for it in December.

This exercise led me to question why we are interested in esoteric words with meanings already served by ordinary words. In science, of course, the purpose is unambiguous communications, so pygalgia was created to refer exclusively to phyical pain in the gluteus maximus. There is little chance that such words will wander away from medical usage and make their way into the sea of colloquial expressions we paddle our lives through.

So why are the rest of us interested in these words at all? Most of us, I would guess, aren’t. However, if you are reading this blog, you are probably among the few overliterate souls who are.

Curiosity is the best reason. Most of us reading this blog are simply fascinated at how words arise, how they are used, and what they tell us about ourselves and our history. Medical terms tell us a lot about Greek while legal terms introduce us to Latin. English is rich with “borrowings” from other languages. Technical terms like these, then, provide us with a kind of low-level language learning and, don’t forget, to know another language is to possess another soul.

Words in the Making: Kinda

Friday, November 9th, 2007

I occasionally receive an e-mail telling me of an exciting new word that the writer has invented and asking how someone goes about getting a word in the dictionary. Once, when I explained that dictionaries generally contain words that are widely used already, I was asked how someone goes about getting his word widely used.

I am surprised at people who think words are properties traded about like books. A dictionary, of course, is a sampling of the words in a language picked out by a single compiler or a committee put together by a publisher. The words are already there.

From time to time henceforth I will examine a word that seems to be coming into being, beginning today with kinda. I think it is time we begin spelling this phrase as a single word even though its origin is the phrase “kind of”. A regional politician was quoted as saying, “…we’re all kind of in the same boat,” in this morning’s Sunbury Daily Item. I had problems digesting “of in” not to mention “all kind” rather than “all kinds”.

Obviously, we cannot analyze “kind of”; it has long since been an idiomatic phrase that must be taken as a whole. As a whole, the phrase means “rather, somewhat”, a meaning wholly unrelated to either kind or of.

But then I would be willing to bet good money (which today excludes dollars) that the congressman didn’t say “kind of” at all but “kinda”. If I am right, the reason he said “kinda” and not “kind of” is because kinda has already become an independent adverb.

Notice that kinda has all the adverbial functions, modifying verbs (She kinda drank too much), adjectives (She looked kinda green), and other adverbs (She toppled over kinda awkwardly). You cannot make an adverb (*kindaly) or noun (*kindaness) out of it. (The asterisk is a linguistic symbol for words that don’t exist.)

So, it may be time to stop thinking of kinda as a misspelling and accept it as what it has become: an independent adverb. It then would have reached the state that friend-like reached when it began being written friendly. It is a normal transition that is going on all the time in languages and passes unnoticed in languages without writing systems. Once words are written though, problems arise since human (writing) habits change even more slowly than do languages.

More Ladyfingers and Woolly Bears

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Yesterday and today even more totally undescriptive names of commonplace things in our lives popped into my mind. There must be a word for such but I have not yet been able to find it. If I don’t, I’ll suggest a neologism to press into that service.

OK, here are more: You wouldn’t want an earwig anywhere near your ear nor a rollmop near your mouth if they were anything near what their names suggest.  If the names of things were that important, people who would never dream of eating dogs would avoid hotdogs with the same fervor.

We never serve wingnuts in our nutbowls nor fry silverfish.  Shooting a real bull’s eye is—ugh! The one on a target has nothing to do with bulls.  And wouldn’t a baked Alaska be a mouthful if it meant what its name describes?

OK, I could go on but I probably made my point Monday. I just added these because of the hidden humor in words we use every day—without thinking.  Wouldn’t English be dull without them?

Ladyfingers, Ladybirds, and Woolly Bears

Monday, November 5th, 2007

LadyfingersWhen my friend Liza (nee) Schlossenberg’s father was 4 years old his mother discovered that she had forgotten to pick up some pastries she needed for a reception she was preparing at home. She gave Liza’s father $1 and told him to go buy a bag of ladyfingers. He returned some time later reporting that the butcher didn’t have any. (Can you imagine what went through his mind on the way to the butcher’s?)

There are some very creative names in English that are not semantically transparent; you have to learn them ‘manually’ in real time. They serve no particular function other than to surprise us and raise a smile now and then when we least expect it.

Over the past five years my hometown of Lewisburg has established a tongue-in-cheek “Woolly Worm Festival”, held in the fall when little creatures begin crawling about. Old Woolly Beartimers claim they can predict the severity of the coming winter on the basis of how thick the woolly coats of the small caterpillars are. They are not even worms but then they aren’t bears, either, yet their actual name remains ‘woolly bears’ throughout most of the English-speaking world despite the Lewisburg Festival’s efforts. The English habit of calling a caterpillar “a bear” results in one of the funniest (mis)nomers in the language. But there are literal minds who don’t like surprises and are ill at ease with the humor of the folk names our ancestors invested our language with.

One final example is the name of the ladybird, the brightest of our little beetles with its bow tie and glistening lacquered coat of red bespeckled with black. Our former Ladybirdpresident, Lyndon Baines Johnson, insisted that, in addition to his daughters (Lynda Bird & Lucy Baines), his wife’s initials should be the same as his (LBJ). Toward this end he called her Ladybird, a name she adopted thinking it, I would imagine, the name of a bird, not a beetle. Yes, we have to be told twice, maybe thrice, that this bird is a beetle but that is not such a tremendous mental feat as should deter us from keeping this scintillating little lexical fluke alive in our conversations.

Names like woolly bear, ladyfinger, and ladybird are lexical gracenotes that adorn our speech. They play no critical role in language—unless you prefer life without decoration. I am very suspicious of the prospects of a life without the unexpected, unbesprinkled with glistening gems of speech that catch our ear and sparkle in our imaginations.