Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Word Games' Category

Oxymorons are not Antonyms

Tuesday, 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.

Don’t Miss the Giant Egress

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Did you hear about the zoo manager who had trouble getting visitors to leave at closing time. Just before closing, he would put up a large a sign saying “This way to the giant egress.” Curious hordes went that way and, of course, found themselves back out on the street. Nothing misleading about that.

A fête worse than death

Monday, December 13th, 2010

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.”

From Dime Stores to Dollar Stores

Friday, September 17th, 2010

S. H. Kress logoLon Jones just reminded us of one more Southernism not included in our Glossary of Quaint Southernisms: tin sin stow, i.e. a ten-cents store, also called five-and-dimes in their day. In my town of birth and up-bringing, Fayetteville, NC, we had our choice of Kress’sMcCrory’s, or Woolworth’s. Other cities had their Kresge’s, Ben Franklin, Murphy’s, Neisner’s and, no doubt, others. If you are older than 50, you probably had your own favorite.

Lon admitted that both terms are “rather dated” and he is right. This compound word does date Lon for the correlates of the ten-cents stores of the 30s-50s today are the dollar stores, whose name perfectly reflects the 1000% inflation rate since the heyday of the five-and-dimes.

The five-and-dimes kept their prices low by hiring drop-outs and recent high school grads to man (or girl) the counters. When I was in high school, my friends and I quickly learned that the sales personnel in these stores could be rather naive. To identify the naive ones and for a few chuckles, we would go in after school and ask for such mythical items as a No. 3 sky-hook or a 36″ shelf stretcher just to see their reactions.

Some would tell us that these items were out of stock, on order or not. Better yet, some would tell us they weren’t sure about these items and ask that we wait while they checked with the manager.

Well, the manager was brought into these snicker-filled situations one time too many and my friends and I eventually found ourselves on the Kress’s persona non grata list. You might find it odd that a dime-store would have such a list but I’m here to tell you that it was an effective one. My friends and I soon found ourselves escorted out of the store as soon as we set foot through its portals.

Maybe that’s why these stores went out of business: we often dropped in for legitimate purchases of non-mythical items.

More Shenanigans over Henanigans

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Lenn Zonder sent such profound comments on my recent treatment of the Good Word shenanigans that I just have to share them with everyone. Here is his response:

“I was so glad to read your definition of shenanigans and noting that it has nothing to do with the female gender as there is no henanigans.”

“Historectomy used to scare the daylights out of me until I found out it actually should be called a herstorectomy.”

“Seriously, though, you let the Germans off the hook in charting the etymology of shenanigan. I would point out that the second through the sixth letters of this word, H-E-N-A-N, names a large Chinese province on the south bank of the Yellow River. and remember, San Francisco has one of the finest Chinatowns in America.” [A great lead to follow were the word henanigans—REB]

“Also, if you take those same five letters and add a second ‘E’, it spells Heenan, a fine old Irish name. And lord knows the Irish have produced some of the finest practical jokers to have ever walked this earth.”

“Just blowing some smoke up Smoketown Road in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. :-)”

‘Nuff said.

Idioms and Slang

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

We seldom utter a sentence that does not contain an idiom, yet much less than they deserve is written about them. I was reminded by a recent article in the Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal, “Idioms add color to our language“.

So, what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase that cannot be analyzed into separate words but makes sense only as a whole. For example, “Jill flew off the handle when she saw lipstick on Jack’s collar.” Jill, of course, must be a woman here and not the family canary, so she cannot fly. However, taken as a whole, “flew off the handle” simply means “got mad”.

Because they are treated as wholes and cannot be semanticallly analyzed into parts, idioms are stored in the right side of the brains of 98% of us, the side of holistic thinking. (Our knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is located on the left side, the side that analyzes sentences into their parts and relationships.)

At the end of dictionary entries, the major idioms in which the word occurs are listed. At the end of the entry for jump, we find the idiom jump the gun listed as meaning “start too soon”. Under shirt we find give the shirt off one’s back, meaning simply “be generous”.

Idioms should not be confused with metaphorical usage. Idioms are phrases of two or more words. We might think that window of opportunity is an idiom. In fact, though, window may be used in this sense with other nouns, such as a window in a tight schedule or a window in the development of an organism. Here, window is simply being used metaphorically to mean “opening” because, well, windows open. The meaning of window in these cases is not totally removed from the literal meaning of the word.

One of the greatest tricks of the comedian is to find situations where an idiom may, in fact, be analyzed, leaving the listener in a quandary—does the comic intend the idiom or the literal meaning? In an episode of the TV series Mash, hearing that a soldier has been dishonrably discharged, Hawk-eye asked, “Why? Was he rotten to the corps?” Now, when you hear this, it sounds identical to the idiom “rotten to the core”, which means simply to be extermely bad. Which did Hawk-eye mean, corps or core?

On our Punny Pages, we have many examples like this: She criticized my apartment, so I knocked her flat. The humor in this rides on the interpretation of knock as well as the ambiguity of flat. Flat may be an adjective meaning, well, “flat” or it can be noun meaning “apartment”. Knock means, literally, “to hit, strike” but it has an idiomatic sense, totally removed from the literal sense, of “to criticize”. To literally knock someone flat is to knock them down, hit them hard enough that they fall to the floor. However, in the idiomatic sense, to knock a flat means “to criticize an apartment”. (Great joke if you just laugh and don’t analyze it.)

The last example is based on the idiomatic meaning of a verb. As you can see, words with idiomatic meanings may also be slang. In fact, many consider idiomatic phrases slang and slang dictionaries usually contain idioms as well as slang. I remain unconvinced that the two are one and the same, however. Knock in the sense of “criticize” may be both slang and idiomatic, but many if not most idiomatic phrases may be used where slang would be avoided. Fly off the handle, go overboard, jump the gun are all OK in situations where we would not want to use gussied up, gum shoe, the pokey. However, there is overlap and the issue is not a settled one.

The important point is simply that a string of words may be a logical sentence or an illogical one which is still meaningful if the string is memorized along with a single meaning as a whole. When we are aware of this distinction and listen carefully to each other, life can be much funnier.

Flipping out over ‘Flip-Flop’

Monday, October 1st, 2007

We heard a lot about flip-flopping during the last presidential campaign. I had hoped it had run its course but I’ve heard it a few times recently in the current pre-pre-preliminary campaign for the presidency of the United States so I feel I have to vent a little on the subject before I do ‘flip out’.

First, it is a child’s word, a rhyme compound like roly-poly, piggly-wiggly, willy-nilly, in a rhyme class with clip-clop and hip-hop. It isn’t a serious word; you don’t read it in scholarly journals.

Flip-flop is a pejorative term for “change your mind” or “reconsider”, something intelligent people often do when new or fresh information about an issue comes to their attention. The worse thing a leader, political or otherwise, can do is to remain adamant on a point despite the fact that new evidence indicates that his or her position is wrong. At least it is bad if the objective is taking the right postion on issues.

If someone in known to change their position for political reasons, then that fact should be drawn out and presented in detail. Changing one’s mind in general, however, is not a bad thing.

Flippety-flop, flippety-flopSo, using terms like flip-flop in a debate can be an admission that the target of the epithet is flexible in their thinking, that their thinking is based on best evidence and, as that evidence changes, so does the thinking of the flip-flopper. Flip-flop is a term of ridicule, to often used by debaters who have no argument or rebuttal. There is nothing wrong in flip-flopping if the evidence flip-flops—or if the flip-flopper’s thinking matures with experience.

So, let’s all keep in mind that flip-flopping is a pejorative term for mental flexibility, something those who used this word so extensively in the last presidential election do, in fact, seem to lack. Let’s hope that this word will be used in the future exclusively to refer to thongs of the feet such as those pictured above.

Happy Punctuation Day!

Monday, September 24th, 2007

I am back from my foray into France, the land where everyone loves pain and a drink of water makes you say, “Oh!” It is a land where champs are flat and ordinary though everyone’s beau is good-looking. Hands are the main thing there. In France all pets are stinkers though the cats are rather chatty. You have to rue the streets even though everyone lives in chateaus for a personne is noone at all.

ApostropheHappy National Punctuation Day all! Apparently we do not celebrate Punctuation Day the way we celebrate Labor Day—by avoiding any hint of it. I am not sure what one does on National Punctuation Day; I am at my usual labors.  You can read more about it here.

Punctuation is, of course, very important to language. The most famous proof is the sentence, “A woman without her man is nothing”, which some English teacher is purported to have written on an unsuspecting blackboard, asking that the class punctuate it correctly. The men all punctuated it thus: “A woman, without her man, is nothing”. The women wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing”.

A more interesting example was given years ago by my phonetics teacher at the University of Michigan, Kenneth Pike. He offered the simple sentence, “I love you,” pointing out that the intonation (and, by extention, the punctuation) can reverse the meaning: “I? Love you?”

So don’t stop at watching your Ps and Qs; watch your punctuation, too.

Yes, we had a wonderful cruise down the Rhône from Beaune (a wonderful discovery) to Arles, then spending 4 days in Aix (where all married women are ex-wives), sallying out from there to Le Baux and other monuments worth seeing. It is good to be back home, too.

Words as Things

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

I have a paper that I have read at several semi-professional venues called, “But There are no Such Things as Words”. It argues that words are intangible parts of a system that come and go, are created and disintegrate according to rules, in ways that make them uncountable. (I expressed a similar sentiment in “How Many Words are in English?“)

The recent surge (to use a military term) in lexical creations, like boomerangst, crackberry, politicide, and on and on and on would seem to test my position beyond its breaking point. I don’t think it does, though. I think that the Internet has made something new possible that leaves that impression but is misleading.

What has happened is that it is now possible for everyone with an Internet connection to not only talk with words but to talk about words. Words have become talking points, not just tools for talking. How many times have you ever discussed the words have or table or calm. It is a very rare occurrence. We use these words without thinking about them.

Now, another question: how many times have you used words like boomerangst (one of my favorites), crackberry, politicide, even truthiness without thinking about them while speaking to someone. Another rare occurrence. These are words we talk about; they are works of creative art, not the output of any rule of English.

English word formation rules produce words like googler from the new verb to google. They can (and have) produced truthiness from the regular word formation truthy generated from the noun truth in the sense of “containing or similar to truth”. All of these forms are automatically available when a new word enters the lexicon. If we picked up a new verb, blurk, blurking, blurker, blurkable, etc. are automatically “there”, available.

Another aspect of rule-generated words is that they are generated unconsciously. The blurk forms above come out of our mouths without thought, without losing our train of thought. The new generation of words, mostly sniglets are consciously created to amuse. This is why we talk about them more than we talk with them. If you know what blurk means, no one has to tell you what blurkability means. Someone has to tell what crackberry means and then it is funny.

The point I think I have arrived at is that words, which originally were communications tools, have become playthings. They have been that for a while among an elite group of intellectuals but now the entire cyberworld is infected. We are lucky to have Rich Hall’s term sniglets to separate these playthings from the real workhorses of language, words.

Surging to War, Reporters Embedded

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

The Bush administration’s marketing department has been particulary weak at warspeak. It first came up with the term embed to express the military’s new control over the press (the first victim of war is truth). At normal conversational speed it is difficult to distinguish “reporter embedded with the 1st Division” from “reporter in bed with the 1st Division.” Intentional or not, the US media quickly absorbed the term and are now trying to understand  how Bush could have so misled us into believing Iraq possessed WMDs.

Now, troop buildup has been replaced by troop surge, no doubt because the political marketers think surge is more powerful and positive than buildup (or increase or expansion). The association is with a power surge that fries your electronic equipment if you use no surge protector. Tsunamis bring a surge of water that is even more destructive. Of course, any of us can experience a surge of energy that helps us get the job done. Maybe that is what the master marketeers have in mind.

What the marketeers have failed to do is come up with a terminology that demonizes the enemy. In World War II the Germans were the Jerries (we still use that term in the word jerrican) and the Japanese were the Japs. They were depicted as devils in all the war propaganda.

The clarity of that war did not carry over to the Vietnam war since the enemy and the “friendlies” looked alike (the enemy didn’t always wear uniforms). Some of our guys over there called them slopes but that slur didn’t take at home. 

Islamofascist is much too long and has no devilish image associated with it. We see Osama bin Laden but he is a Saudi and looks like too many other Middle Easterners. This makes it difficult to understand what we and our beds are surging toward and why.

Running a war without support let alone participation of the population at large has historically been a losing proposition in this country. But if we lose in Iraq, as we did in Vietnam, we may be able to chalk the loss up to marketing—or even reduce it to a matter of vocabulary.