Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Words in the News' Category


Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Chris Stewart, a long-time e-friend from South Africa just pointed out that we have a new element that craves naming:

“See this New York Times article…. I propose to call this new element Superunobtanium, a name that speaks for itself and which I believe to be quite apposite considering only 6 atoms of the stuff have ever existed on this planet. However, there seems to be a committee of fuddy-duddies tasked with naming these things in commemoration of people who had nothing to do with their discovery and I imagine they would frown on such an eminently sensible appellation.”

Unobtanium, of course, is a fictitious element used by physicists and engineers in thought experiments pertaining to devices that cannot be produced because the material they require is “unobtainable”. It is also behind all the squabbles in the 3-D semi-cartoon movie Avatar. It has the unusual superproperty of having exactly the properties required by the use to which it is put.

Chris is one of those techies who would be in constant need of both these elements. I am one of those non-techies who can only pull my jaw back up and wonder at the discussion. I would much rather discuss the far more critical issue of whether unobtanium should be spelled with an I or not: unobtanium or unobtainium? I think the former looks much more impressive. The Grand Panjandrum of Fuddy-Duddidom has spoken.

Armed Threats in the Slow Lane

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Slow-lane officers in my hometown defused a dangerous situation which, no doubt and unfortunately, will be repeated elsewhere as the demand for more arms on our streets continues to rise. The Sunbury Daily Item reported Thursday that an armed gunman entered the Lewisburg courthouse insulting the local constabulary and threatening to rob a bank. (No doubt he intended to ask directions to one, too.)

Sheriff Ernie Ritter reported, “We made sure the area around the situation was safe, and then we began to move in,” Ritter said. “We assisted the man to the ground without incident and found a .45 Springfield Armory handgun with multiple magazines on him.”

Exactly why the man wanted to be on the ground was not made clear but then we in the slow lane can live with fuzzy details. Protection from himself, no doubt, was high on his mind. The important thing is that the man was neither thrown nor wrestled to the ground but merely assisted there. The reponse was the helpful, more Samaritanical and, hence, more appropriate to the simple and gentler life we are accustomed to here in the Slow Lane.

Phishing, Frenemies, and Smoving

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Tom Bivens just picked up a new nonce word that he thinks may make it into the language. The Web has, in fact, made it easier for (mis)created words to creep into common usage, so he may be right. Here is what Tom wrote:

Smove is not a word yet but it’s about to be. I am hearing it and seeing it in writing more often. It means to smile and move on.”

Of course, it doesn’t mean that to you and me because it isn’t a word in the English vocabulary yet. It is a blend, two words simply smushed together. Blending is popular means of creating new words among reporters, publicists, and marketers, the source of such common blends that did stick as smog and motel. The rules of English create words with prefixes and suffixes, though, since English prefixes and suffixes have been vanishing for centuries, we have had to resort to more radical means of creating neologisms (new words).

I wrote Tom that I’m going to wait for this one. Oddities are like blog, phish, and frenemy) are flooding the language. Now, I’m not a grammar Nazi; I’m willing to accept them if they are forced down my throat. Like these other “words”, Smove is not formed by a rule of the English language but a logical rule that says that smushing two words together smushes their meanings together in understandable ways.

As I told my linguistics students for a couple of decades, we created English so we can do with it what we please. However, there should be some sort of democratic majority behind whatever changes we make and that is what grammatical rules are supposed to form. Nonce words make coagulating such majority support for a word difficult.

A nonce word is a word created for a specific occasion or situation that eventually evaporates leaving no use for the word. The problem with nonce words, aside from their evanescence, is that they have to be wholly memorized. Words like memory chip (actually one compound word), processor, and networks that we use in speaking about computers don’t require any explanation; we pick them up straightway. Someone has to tell us what words like phish, chad, blog, frenemy mean, so they interrupt the flow of conversation and actually hinder communication.

I am grateful to Tom for tipping me off, though. I do like to spot these new creatures before they bite me. My throat is so sore from swallowing so many already, what harm could one more do?

A Blizzard-like Storm

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

The local newspaper carried this headline today: “Blizzard-like Storm Coming!” I’ve been trying to figure out what to expect all morning. How much like a blizzard must a snow storm be in order to be an actual blizzard?

A blizzard, of course, is a heavy snow storm with high winds. Will we be having heavy snow with little or no wind? Or a heavy wind with little or no snow? Would that, too, be a “blizzard-like” storm.

The two parts of the word blizzard are not equal: a blizzard is a kind of snow storm, so snow, unfortunately, will be at the bottom of whatever we receive tomorrow.

The accompanying article confirms this, unfortunately. Wind clearly will be playing little or no role in the heavy snow the blizzard-like storm will drop on top of the aftermath of the last blizzard-like storm.

I can’t complain, though: we have had a relatively mild winter up to this point.

Upskirting: Sex in the Slow Lane

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

The Sunbury Daily Item this morning reported the arrest of an out-of-state visitor in the Susquehanna Mall for upskirting. (The online edition changed the headline so as not to unintentionally encourage its readership). Upskirting, according to the Deadly Item (as it is fondly called by those of us who adore it), is bending over to take a digital photograph up a lady’s skirt (or a naughty girl’s, for that matter). Given the length of skirts these days, I have difficulty visualizing this, since either the man is something of a contortionist or the skirts involved were very short.

The important point, however, is that the perp is from out of state, Missouri, to be exact. Readers in that state should be on guard! Another important point—aside from the one on this guy’s head—is that upskirting is not yet listed among the crimes in Pennsylvania, so the district attorney has to decide whether the actual crime is disorderly conduct or harrassment, neither of which carry stern penalties.

Here at alphaDictionary, of course, we are more interested in the fact that this new verb has reached the area. To upskirt, according to the Urban Dictionary, has been around since 2006, along with the misuse of photographic cell phones itself. Since the verb to skirt means “to go around, circumvent”, I would have expected to upskirt to mean “to circumvent by raising to a higher level”, as to upskirt an insult with a compliment to the insulter. Apparently, that is not the case.

Anyway, this brave new step into sexual perversion and the vocabulary it shleps with it has us all talking in appropriately hushed tones here in centrally isolated Lewisburg. Who knows where it will lead to next: peeking at girls in bikinis at the beach, no doubt. What’s the world coming to?

Why Swine Flu Now?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Throughout most of my life people around me have been saying that we would have a black president when pigs fly. Well, we have one now and guess what? Swine flu. (Thank you Paul Ogden for passing it along.)

Bernie Madoff with our Dough

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Bernie MadoffIt is pretty easy to make jokes from the sound of Russian names in English.  Putin is a joke itself in English. Jackendoff is a rare but real Russian name. (But we don’t go there on this website.) In Russian, Tolstoi means “fat”, so the great author’s name (as I may have mentioned before) can be translated into “Leo Fats”.

The media are having a field day noticing that Bernie Madoff made off with 60 or so billion dollars. Didn’t anyone wonder about the guy’s name for 25 years? You don’t get clues like that very often. What do we need, “Bernie Smakingoff”? Smakingoffwidjadoe? I know. It isn’t funny. That’s his mug shot up there.

And what about Vikram Pandit, the mook who was paid $38.2 million in 2008 alone to destroy CitiGroup, costing its stock to lose 77% of its value. No one thought of flipping the P in his name for the hint?

Guaranteed Bonuses

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Donnella dropped a note yesterday, writing: “I’m hearing “guaranteed bonus” in the news a lot, referring to the AIG situation. It seems to me an oxymoron. I understand there are legal concerns but the word bonus must have a different meaning in a contract. I’d like to see your take on this.”

It would seem that money-addicts have invaded and taken control of most large US corporations. The compensation packages they have been giving themselves became more and more obscene as the years lumbered by.

Typical large corporation heads started with outlandish salaries plus stock warranties or options but no amount could satisfy the money addicts, so “(guaranteed) bonuses” were added outside salaries, probably to becloud the issue of total compensation. The term “guaranteed bonus” is not an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly”, but simply a contradiction of terms.

We all know what a bonus is: it is additional compensation given for outstanding performance, finishing a project ahead of schedule or overfulfilling a contract. So we can’t know ahead of time that a bonus will be due. However, people whose sole measure of worth and accomplishment is income, need money beyond what stock holders might be willing to endure if their compensation were reported as a lump-sum salary. So, “bonuses” were built into contracts, that is, guaranteed.

The current euphemism for them is retention bonuses, under the assumption that without them, an executive would move on to another company. A retention bonus actually sounds more like a bribe. Now, the absurdity of bribing the total failures at AIG to stay and continue undoing the company seems to escape those who tender this argument.

The argument goes on: only those who led AIG into its mess have the skills and knowledge to lead it out of its mess. It strikes me that these people are far more likely to make mistakes of the same magnitude leading the company back toward solvency that they made leading it flatly into insolvency. Maybe logic has changed since I was an undergraduate.

In all probability, if bonuses returned to what the word means, stock options were curtailed, and salaries were reasonable, large corporations would fare much better. Why? Because fewer money addicts and more people with a long-term commitment to the company would apply for executive positions. People who are as smart and experienced as the current executives of AIG are not hard to find—many are sitting right there in the company now.

Building a net worth of $100 million would still be possible, but only as a result of continuing excellence in management over a significant period. A $50 million per year compensation package and $150 severance payment regardless of performance discourages any commitment to a company beyond the first year.

The newly defined bonuses in the obscenely high compensation packages for corporate executives are therefore bad capitalism. They play to only the basest motivation toward excellence, the one that attracts money addicts. Moreover, without complex compensation packages, we would need far fewer absurd euphemisms like “retention bonus” to becloud the discussion of corporate leadership.

The Linguists on PBS

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Sorry I didn’t get this out earlier. Watch PBS tonight (February 26, 200) for what promises to be an interesting program on dying languages.

The Linguists

Thursday, February 26, 2009 10 – 11:00 pm – PBS

This special chronicles the race of two scientists—David Harrison and Greg Anderson—to document languages on the verge of extinction. In Siberia, India and Bolivia, the linguists confront head-on the very forces silencing languages: racism, humiliation and violent economic unrest. Their journey takes them deep into the heart of the cultures, revealing communities at risk when a language dies. (CC, Stereo, HD, 5.1)

Searching for Obama in his Name

Monday, October 20th, 2008

President Barack ObamaThe Republican presidential campaign seems to be attempting to raise fears of an Obama presidency by references to his names. His middle name, Hussein, is an easy key to associate with Sadam Hussein, so long as no one remembers King Hussein of Jordan, long one of our strongest supporters.

Senator Obama’s first name, however, is far more interesting if wholly and totally unrelated to his character and presidential campaign. My friend Paul Ogden did a little basic research on this name. The results were so fascinating that I couldn’t resist doing a bit on my own and reporting the results here.

The basic Semitic (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew) meaning of barak is “blessing”. It is a word that appears in the Old Testament more than 300 times. But did you know about the ancient Semitic tradition of sealing a successful business deal or other negotiation with an exchange of gifts, called al-baraka “the blessing” in Arabic.

The Spaniards adopted the practice during the Moorish Period of their history, referring to the gift with the Arabic word, which became albaroque in Spanish. This word then appeared in Ango-Norman (French spoken in England) as abrocour and brocour which, by folk etymology, eventually became broker, something we would hope any US president would be good at. Diamond brokers around the world today seal their deals with a handshake and proclaiming mazel and brocha “luck and a blessing”, brocha being a variant of barak(a).

One of the best brokers in US history was Bernard Baruch, who later became one of the most trusted advisors of President Franklin Roosevelt, the last president called upon to save the US from a financial crisis. Baruch means “blessed” and is the past passive participle of baraka “to bless”. (Baruch is famous for saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)

The Semitic root of baraka is brk. (In the Semitic languages, the various forms of word are created by changing the vowels in the root.) We find the same the word in the last name of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Many linguists think that brk descended from krb. If so, Barak is also related to the source of the English word cherub, about as far away from a terrorist as we can get.