Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Words in the News' Category

The Origin of ‘Con Artist’

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

My old South African e-friend Chris Stewart sent me the following e-mail this morning.

On the way in this morning, I was listening to a BBC program on sociology and the subject of “con men” (confidence tricksters) came up. To my surprise it was asserted that in this context, “con” was not a contraction of “confidence trickster”, but derived from the nautical term [meaning “steer (a ship)”].

Having grown up on the sea, this sense of “to steer” resonates well, but my attempt to verify this has been for naught. I am guessing that the average English-speaking person of today would know the term only from the likes of Startrek (Captain Kirk: “You have the con, Mr. Spock.”) Perhaps you can elucidate?

My response:

I lost confidence in the BBC news when it offered two appearances of my former partner at to discuss his precise (to the minute) prediction of when the English vocabulary would have its millionth word.

The Dallas Morning Star reporter who did the same story telephoned me and I told him that the prediction was completely fraudulent, so they published my comment with two or three others who shared the same opinion, along with the story.

My former partner was a clever marketer and he knew that people thought you could count the number of words in a language despite the evidence against this presumption. He even put up an article next to my article at claiming that I was wrong, you can count the number of words in a language at any given moment, which he conveniently provided. His article was linked to ten times more pages than mine.

Whomever you heard on the BBC is dead wrong. Con is an Americanism and all dictionaries, US and UK, trace it back to “confidence game”. That includes the OED, which I trust much farther than BBC when it comes to the English language.

Obama & Putin Talking Turkey

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Rocket Surgeons?

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Tonight on the news, state Senator Stacey Campfield of Tennesee mixed his metaphors remarkably when he said, ‘We aren’t asking the kid to be a rocket surgeon, we are just asking . . . .”  He failed to make the choice between rocket scientists and brain surgeons quickly enough. Senator Campfield was defending his bill to tie a family’s welfare payments to the grades its children make in school.


Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Printable Version

Pronunciation: -lên-tayn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A loved one to whom a special card of love is sent on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14. 2 The card itself or some other gift given on St. Valentine’s Day to someone beloved.

Notes: The day celebrating love remains a proper noun, St. Valentine’s Day or Saint Valentine’s Day. The noun valentine, as defined above, has long since become a common noun. The verb valentine, once used to describe birds serenading a prospective mate, has fallen by the wayside. The same is true, alas, of the blend Valentide, made from valentine and tide in the spirit of Christmastide. So we are left to send valentines to our valentines on St. Valentine’s Day.

In Play: May today be a lovely day.A Valentine’s Day present is shortened to just valentine these days: “That thoughtful guy, Amos, gave his wife a red lawnmower for a valentine.” Since this word is so closely associated with St. Valentine’s Day, the range of its possible uses is limited. Its association with the courtship of birds (See History), though, suggests we might revive the verb in figurative expressions like this one: “Fenwick seems to have valentined Maudy into marrying him.”

Word History: February 14 was originally a Roman feast day celebrating the beginning of the mating season of birds (hence the association with love). Chaucer was still aware of this for, in Parliament of Foules (1381), he wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” (For this was on Saint Valentine’s day when every bird comes there to choose his mate). The celebratory day somehow became associated with a saint named Valentine in the 3rd century, a priest and physician killed during the persecution of Christians by Claudius II. The connection between the two remains murky. (May everyone reading this be loved by someone special today.)

Dr. Goodword,

Where are the Editors?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The Wall Street Journal’s free website, Marketwatch, declared on the front page June 28, 2011 that the price of gold had fallen below $1500 a barrel. The next day an article entitled, “Whose better are fighting credit card fraud?” popped up.

This raises the question: Where are the editors? Things like this didn’t happen in the past century. Today we find not only typos like these cropping up more and more frequently, but factually false claims arising and being discussed as though they had some legitimate news-worthiness.

Why would any TV channel persist in carrying comments by Michele Bachmann that

  • John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa
  • That the founding fathers fought hard against slavery when many owned slaves
  • That the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired in Concord, New Hampshire
  • That significant numbers of the members of Congress are anti-American?

These claims reflect an astounding ignorance of the nation Bachmann ostensibly wishes to preside over—unless she is just running another scampaign. In the past century people like Bachmann never ran for president because they could not get any coverage on TV or in the newspapers because of editors.

News in the US, unfortunately, has been converted into entertainment like sports (note the end-zone dancing after a touchdown in football). But I long for the day when news organizations operated like the Washington Post described in All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Nothing was printed in their investigation of Richard Nixon that wasn’t verified by at least one second source and what was printed was edited for spelling, grammar, and accuracy.

Of course, Bernstein’s and Woodward’s investigation ran a little deeper than investigations today: they were investigating what politicians were doing, not just what they were saying.

Campaigns and Scampaigns

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

A word that has been floating around for a few years caught my attention when it was applied to election campaigns. I don’t like to promote blends like scam + campaign as a means of expanding the vocabulary because they are not a part of the grammar of English. But this one works so well I can’t resist the temptation.

The word apparently originated in the advertising business and referred to fake advertising campaigns for nonexistent products that were submitted for ad-of-the-year awards.

Now the word seems to apply equally well to political campaigns like that of Donald Trump, campaigns with ostensibly ulterior motives, such as to promote a TV series, or to increase book sales, commercial visibility or income in general.

In politics the scampaign is very, very new, so it is difficult to separate the scampaigns from the campaigns. I suspect the distinction will become clearer as time passes.

What does ‘Frack’ Mean?

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Fracking has been creeping into the news for the past few months, so I decided it was time to bring it up on the website. To frack is to fracture the rock surrounding a well to increase the flow of oil, gas, or other useful fluid by forcing some liquid under high pressure into cracks already there.

We should be careful not to confuse fracking with fragging, shooting one’s own officer during war and reporting the incident as death from enemy fire. That was a problem in the Vietnam War but does not seem to be one in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Interest in the gas reserves in the US has risen precipitously recently with the application of fracking, which allows profitable amounts of gas to be extracted from shale. Arkansas, however, where the practice is well under way, has suffered 800 earthquakes in the past six months and evidence points to the fracking in that state as the cause of them.

Fracking has been around since the 40s. It has been used widely by oil drillers. How many earthquakes it has precipitated—if any—is unknown, at least to the general public. If you are interested in where the word came from, you might be interested in the Good Word writeup.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Today’s Good Word is pandemonium, brought up by the current pandemonium on Tahrir Square in Cairo. While editing this word, Paul Ogden, my friend and editor in Israel, had these thoughts, which struck me as worthy of being shared.

Tahrir means “liberation” in Arabic. It’s related to Hebrew herut “freedom”, the original name of Menachem Begin’s party. Hebrew has another related word, shikhrur whose meaning lies somewhere between “independence” and “liberation”.

There is also a big Turkish newspaper called Hurriyet, a word no doubt adopted by the Ottomans from Arabic. Finally, there’s also a big Turkish newspaper called Cumhurryet, which means “Republic”. It was evidently also lifted from Arabic, because the full name of Libya is something like Jamhuuriya al-Libya. (C is pronoounced in Turkish as J in English and Libyan.)

Lame Ducks of Washington

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Now that we have a few lame ducks down in Washington, I thought this peculiar phrase worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” is a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. In this context, the expression has taken on a slightly different meaning, a congress controlled by a party that loses that control at the end of the year. In this sense we have a lame duck House but not a lame duck senate.

The word more generally refers to people finishing their last term at some position, knowing they will soon be replaced. But this expression probably originates on the high seas as British naval slang referring to a disabled ship or a ship damaged at sea. The term duck makes more sense in this context.

If this is correct, then the term migrated from naval slang to financial slang, referring to a bankrupt investor or an investor in default of his debt at the exchange. At the stock exchange there are bulls, bears, and lame ducks, people who can not raise the liquidity to invest in any market.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics where it is used mostly today. It is available outside politics, though, in reference to any thing or person who is disabled in any way. The American Heritage dictionary says that it may refer to “an ineffective person; a weakling.”

Litotes in Kansas

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Dee Scrogin caught this line in an article about capping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the Wichita Eagle (May 27, 2010) and wondered if it were not an example of litotes, the Good Word for May 22, 2010:

“So far, ‘top kill’ isn’t failing to plug oil leak”

Dee wrote, “I wonder if this is an example of litotes which you discussed recently? (5/22) I’d never heard the word but found it interesting about a double negative appealing to the positive. I enjoy your daily word; a friend, Ed Garvin, recommended you.”

Indeed, “isn’t failing” is a perfect example of litotes since “not” is built into the word “fail” = “not succeed”. You do not have to see the two negations as in “not uncommon” to make a litotes. So long as two words imply negation, they are litotic.The implication in this phrase is that top kill isn’t failing but isn’t succeeding, either. This is the expected effect of litotes.