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Fun: Lookalikes

September 26th, 2012

Julie Dunn surprised us with this note today:

Andrew Shaffer“Your Andrew Shaffer looks a lot like the new guy, Nicholas David, on Ceelo’s team on The Voice (see picture on the left). Nicholas DavidI was searching for online dictionaries to show my classes for a reliable sources lesson when I saw the picture of Andrew on your About Us page.”

Is it just the beard? Whatever. If you must look like someone, better to look like someone famous (I always say).

Of Desnorolators and Other Things

September 23rd, 2012

My wife and I returned the favor to our 7-year-old granddaughter, Abigail, and did a “sleepover” with her and her sister. Their parents wanted to attend a concert which would run late and, from their perspective, what we were doing was mundane baby-sitting.

When we arrived the first topic to come up was my legendary snoring. I explained that we had both brought our c-paps, a medical device intended to prevent sleep apnia, but which doubles as a snore preventer. Abigail apparently didn’t know the word “c-pap”, for she immediately responded, “Did you bring your desnorolators?”

Desnorolators? How did she, indeed, how could she come up with that word? We totally understood her, told her, “Yes, we did,” and watched the event pass quickly into family legend. We all agreed that the word she had just concocted was far more fanciful and memorable than c-pap. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this word pronounced c-pak.

Upon closer examination we can see that Abigail did a remarkable job of word formation. She knew that the prefix de- meant “not” and that the suffix -at(e) was a suffix that converts nouns to verbs. She knew the suffix -or converts verbs to personal nouns. She also got them in the right order. The only slip she made was to build a Latinate derivation from a Germanic verb, snore. But since she does not speak Latin we can forgive her that error.

Children are learning machines, particularly when it comes to language. But such complex lexical constructions should be well beyond the capabilites of a 7-year-old.

Attending to the Problem of ‘Attendee’

September 21st, 2012

Aubrey Waddy dropped me a line right after the Good Word mentor appeared. Here is the gist of our conversation:

“Thanks for the daily exploration and today’s word, mentor: good fun as usual. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad as a boy, in English I hasten to add, and they were great adventures; I’d forgotten Mentor.”

“Your use of the word advisee, however, prompts me to ask whether you can address the abominable word attendee. I pedantically make a point of using attender, but it’s a lost cause.”

This confusion is a result of the two different meanings of attend: “to take care of” (intransitive) and “to go to” (transitive). There is an old tendency in English to use (1) -ee (standee, devotee, retiree) and (2) -ant (congregantclaimant, and applicant) as the personal (agentive) suffixes for intransitive verbs, words that cannot take a direct object in some sense. The suffix -er at one time applied only to transitive verbs like drinker, eater, player, words that can take a direct object.

Notice, however, I say ‘tendency’ not ‘rule”, for the tendency is dying out now in favor of a general suffix -er: runner, swimmer, walker. This probably relates to the difficulty in keeping transitive and intransitive verbs straight. Run, swim, walk may all now be used transitively, as to run the course, swim the river, walk the dog.

Now, getting back to attendee. Someone who attends to someone might be called an attendee but for whatever reason attendant seems to be preferred, probably because this word is a borrowing from French. To attend a meeting, however, implies a transitive verb, suggesting attender the correct form. So you are right in claiming that attender is more appropriate than attendee; in fact, I see no room for attendee under any guise with its current meaning.

But don’t expect a change any time soon; this word is too firmly embedded in the vocabulaty now.

Fun

September 18th, 2012

Fun becomes more tiring the older you get.

An Urban Legend Blasted to Smithereens

September 9th, 2012

I received the following e-mail recently:

“Your origin of the word smithereens I believe is in error as is also the different one shown at Wickipedia. When I was taking physics at school in the 1930′s, I was taught that early in the nineteenth century a physicist by the name of Smith thought he had discovered the smallest possible particle, which he called the ‘smithereen’, which I think proved to be the molecule.”

Forgive the delay in responding; we have been unusually busy since the first of the year and just completed a difficult job that took us from the first of the year until last week to complete.

The first problem your theory faces is that for it to work, the physicist would have had to have been named “Smithers”. That would require but a minor change in your theory. However, the history of your explanation presents a greater problem.

In point of fact, molecules were being discussed by Descartes already in the seventeenth century, so the report that someone named Smith (or Smithers) discovered the smallest particle in the nineteenth century does not fit the historical facts. The word molecule was available in French since at least the early seventeenth century. The first published instance of the word in English traces back to 1674, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m afraid the story you picked up in your physics class is just another urban legend introduced by a dilettante etymologist in the past. The general rule to follow is this: if the etymology is obvious, it is probably an urban legend. Words change very rapidly over time and are seldom subject to simple analysis.

Tmesis

September 4th, 2012

I received a question from Jerrel de Kok today which I thought might interest those following this blog. First, let me apologize from my long silence. Lexiteria, the parent company of alphaDictionary, has been working on a large order for highly customized frequency lists for 25 languages from Google. It has taken over my life for the past year but today I am happy to announce it is completed.

Now for the question:

Do you have a service where I could enter a definition and get the appropriate word to use? The situation that got me thinking about this is as follows. I got an email from a service member and in it was contained the expression; ‘WAAA-FRIEKING-HOOOO!’ I would think the English language has a word describing the interjection of one word into the middle of another.

It does, indeed, Jerrel, though you might have trouble pronouncing it: “tmesis”. You might prefer the old fashioned linguistic term “sandwich word”, since the interloping word is sandwiched in between the first and second part of the matrix word. The interloper is usually vulgar: abso-damn-lutely, far-freaking-out, kanga-bloody-roos.

They are not always vulgar, however, as any-old-how, what-place-soever, and a-whole-nother demonstrate. The misanalysis of the latter matrix word is giving rise to a new word in some dialects.

Sandwich terms are speech flourishes we use in order to maximally emphasize a word. Most linguists would not consider them a legitimate part of English grammar.

My Favorite Dictionaries

March 27th, 2012

Here is a question I often receive: “What is or are your top choices for an English dictionary? I’d much appreciate hearing from you!”

That one is easy. My favorite hard-copy dictionary is the American Heritage Dictionary. It is the easiest to read and understand and it has extended etymoloties. None of the online versions of this work carries the etymologies by Calvert Watkins of Harvard. Of course, I use the Oxford English Dictionary but the best version of it is now on line (www.oed.com) and by subscription only.

The most comprehensive dictionary on line is www.thefreedictionary.com. I used it recently in updating our English frequency list and it consistently had words in it that others did not. It also contains Wikipedia articles on some of the more arcane words, but that is OK: it saves a separate search.

Others I use include yourDictionary.com, which I founded. It now apparently has the exclusive rights to Webster’s New World Dictionary by Wiley Publishers. It, too, has the American Heritage Dictionary as a secondary source though, as with the Yahoo version of AHD, it does not carry the excellent etymologies by Calvert Watkins.

For etymologies I rely on Etymonline by Douglas Harper, just up the road from me in Pennsylvania. This etymological dictionary is great for Romance language borrowings. For native English terms the Oxford English Dictionary is still the best online source. I use other hard-copy etymological dictionaries in my library but they are mostly in foreign languages.

The Easiest Dental Sounds [th] > [t]

March 17th, 2012

Rudy Marinacci recently wrote:

“I enjoyed your ‘How is a Hippo like a Feather‘ article and chart very much. Could you tell me why my mother and her brother, both from Southern Italy (Reggio Calabria) could not pronounce ‘th’ and said tin iunstead of thin and tick, not thick?”

Sure can. It is because [th] is more difficult to pronounce than other English linguistic sounds. It is an “interdental” sound, which means the tongue goes between the teeth to pronounce it. It is relatively more difficult to get your tongue in between your teeth and out again before the following vowel.

The pronunciation of [t] is not that far away. It is a dental, which means the tongue goes to just behind the upper teeth to pronounce it. Much easier. The tongue remains where it is in pronouncing all other linguistic sounds (phonemes): behind the teeth. This is why people from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Deep South make the same sound change.

There is another problem your mother faces: she gets no help from Italian. This is because there simply is no [th] in Italian. In fact, this sound does not appear in any Romance languages. (Diego is right about the difference between English [th] and the Spanish dental fricative.)

Don’t worry about your mother’s pronunciation. As I said above, people from Brooklyn, Queens, and throughout the rural regions of the South (where I come from) face the same problem. She is in the company of native speakers of English around the world.

The Best Ways to Build Vocabulary

March 15th, 2012

James Van Hoof recently wrote:

“Earlier this morning, I listened to a podcast of Dr. Katherine Albrecht interviewing you recently on her radio show. I enjoyed listening to your comments and insights on the subject of words and language!”

“In the past I’ve attempted, without success, to identify a book or other resource that is effective in assisting one in expanding one’s vocabulary. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on how to expand one’s vocabulary and or a resource that would be of value in assisting one in doing this.”

It is a fair question, one that I have been asked many times by students who want to build vocabularies and spell the words in them correctly. I offered the same reponse to Mr. Van Hoof as I offered them

I have three sure-fire ways of increasing your vocabulary:

  1. Read
  2. Read more.
  3. Read even more.

Our active vocabularies are unconscious and the only way to reach them is by reading or talking to people with large vocabularies. Memorizing lists of words simply does not work because all that work is conscious. You may pick up one or two words that way, but for massively building your vocabulary, reading is your best bet.

Read novels written by intelligent authors. Read some poetry, too. Poets like to show off their vocabularies.

Oxymorons are not Antonyms

March 13th, 2012

Stuart Gordon recently wrote:

“I dont think all your examples are oxymorons: Still moving is not. “Still” has two meanings but its meaning in this example is not “to be not moving”. Like wise hot chili. Chili is not the same as the homophone chilly. These are plays on homonyms.”

Thanks for your comment. In fact, all oxymorons are polysemous: one or both words have other meanings.

It affects the classic oxymoron, jumbo shrimp. Jumbo here means simply “large” and shrimp means here, well, “shrimp”, too, as well as “small person”. This applies across the board to almost every oxymoron in our list:

  • civil war
  • divorce court
  • irate patient
  • long shorts
  • holy hell

Civil means simply “in one country” in the first of these, not simply “civil”. Court means here “court” and not “engage in courtship”. “Patient in irate patient is, of course, the noun patient and not the adjective. Shorts are pants, not the adjective and holy hell is an exclamation. This may be the only one that was intentional. Exclamations are, after all, meaningless. They serve to express our attitude toward something.

We wouldn’t use oxymorons if they absolutely contradicted themselves; it would lead to too much confusion. There has to be a sensible interpretation of all of them.

We post these oxymorons because they are fun. We say them without thinking and it is fun to take stock in them. They are posted under our “Laughing Stock”, after all.