CNN.com is carrying an op ed piece by me on the way words went in 2010. Click here to read about the new words and new usages that appeared over the course of the year. Tea Party strikes me as the most abused phrase of the year for reasons I lay out in the piece.
Archive for December, 2010
Life in the Slow Lane
Life in the Slow Lane was interrupted again by a mass crime perpetrated in nearby town. (It’s getting closer to Smoketown.) This one brings a new word to our attention.
According to the headline story in the Sunbury Deadly Item this morning, five students from a nearby high school were arrested for a premeditated (first degree) food fighting involving the school’s Christmas dinner. That’s right, this food fight was planned in advance, incurring a tip to school security that prevented further damage and led to swift arrests.
The district superintendent was “angry about the food fight, and that students wasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy.” He might have been less agitated had the gravy been left off—it makes the more stubborn stain.
Students will face a yet-to-be-determined sentence of public service, beginning with mopping up (or hosing down) the cafeteria. Other students with food on their clothes are still being interrogated.
I know this was a serious breech of civility reflecting a level of stupidity alarming for any school. The parents of the alleged participants were appalled, too. That the dinner was in celebration of Christmas only made matters worse (unless, of course, you were one of the food fighters). Still, these kids are not responsible for the degradation of the celebration of Christmas that has occurred in the US over the past decades, so let’s not hold them responsible for that aspect of the incident.
Finally, the word foodfight. The editors of the Daily Item are convinced that this is now one word, so they chose to omit even the hyphen (food-fighting), following the lead of the website foodfighting.com(!) This implies it is derived from a verb, to foodfight. Are we ready for this: I foodfight, you foodfight, he, she, it foodfights. What will the past tense be: He foodfought (a bit yesterday), I suppose. Have they become this accustomed and accepting of food fighting in the fast lane? Zoom on by, please.
In response to my treatment of fête recently, George Kovac commented:
“Hmmm. With all the tedious, obligatory holiday parties this time of year (departmental, church group, school group, office, professional association, volunteer organization, client, vendor, neighbor, the in-law you never liked), I sometimes refer to such an event as a fête worse than death.”
Roger Bullard recently commented on my entry Silly Words in English, writing, “I sometimes use the word sticktoitiveness because for some weird reason, I just can’t think of the word perseverance. It doesn’t come to me when I need it.
I’ve decided to respond in a separate entry because it speaks to an issue that has intrigued me for decades. I had always thought that there was enough for some useful research, but never could gather enough data. Still, I think there is something here worth pursuing.
What do we do when we can’t think of a word? Speech is fast, which is why speaking is the most difficult of the four language proficiencies (reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking). We inevitably come upon words we know we know but can’t retrieve them fast enough to plug into the sentence we are uttering. We have to create a word on the spur of the moment, but how?
I noticed several words that seemed to be “near misses” and thought them the result of such moments. Two words originally caught my attention: hassle and (to) harry, as in harried. Their meanings are almost identical and identical with a far less often heard word, harass. I suspect that the two more common words are words someone uttered when they either could not remember harass, or could not decide which syllable of this word to emphasize, a problem associated with it.
I have a few other words in my files: embroil for embroglio, huffy for haughty, get in someone’s good graces for ingratiate, and kulacks for culottes.
As I say, I have never been able to gather a sufficient corpus of examples or find a way to prove my hypothesis. If it is true, however, it offers an explanation of folk etymology, since most of these examples seem to associate the meaning of the original word with words that are more common, more ‘Englishy’, the definition of folk etymology. Someone (or many) cannot remember how to write French m’aider “help me”, so they write what they remember: may day.
We do make errors when we speak, usually corrected quickly. But what if we simply can’t find the word but must continue speaking? Wouldn’t we try to utter a word with a similar sound that suggests the meaning we are getting at? Failing that, we would resort to something more desperate, like creating a word from a phrase like sticktoitiveness, as Roger claims to have done. No final conclusion here, but the issue is intriguing.