Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for October, 2006

Cock-eyed or Cockamamie?

Friday, October 13th, 2006


Cockamamie cockeyedBeth Wolford brought up an interesting word in the e-mail this morning, a word that is remindful of an even more intriguing word. Her question was very straightforward: “Where did the word cock-eyed come from?”
Well, its origin is rather straightforward, too. Cock-eyed (or cockeyed as dictionaries prefer it today) is a relatively new word, first appearing in print in the late 19th century. A cock-eye (or cocked eye) was originally an eye with something wrong with it, an eye that is turned inward or outward, that is out of alignment, off-center in the sense a cocked hat is a hat off-center or out of alignment. (Some people distinguish cross-eyed, when one or both eyes are turned inward, from cock-eyed, when one or both eyes point outward.)

The verb cock means to move something from its usual alignment or kilter, to set it askew, askant or awry.  Its combination with eye in cock-eyed makes eminent sense. If something is out of kilter, it is a little crazy, so the drift of the meaning from a little crazy to completely crazy makes sense, too.  (The process is called ‘semantic expansion’.)

Now, a cock-eyed story can also be a cockamamie story since the both words have firmly assumed the sense of “crazy”. Hmmmm. cockeyed : cockamamie. They must be related, right?

Wrong. In fact, cock-eyed is totally unrelated to cockamamie. As I explained when I wrote up cockamamie as a daily Good Word back on February 24, cockamamie is a corruption of decalcomania “a mania for decals”, a mania—believe it or not—that raged in Victorian England.


Phobia Phobia

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

You scare the daylights out of me!A post on An Entangled Bank recently opined: “I find someone has stuck the Latin sidus, sideris ‘star’ into the sausage machine and created siderophobia ‘fear of stars’. Now not only is there a much more familiar prefix astro-, which happens also to be Greek, but sidero- is Greek for ‘iron’. Siderophobia is a perfectly good word for ‘fear of iron’, but a rotten one for ‘fear of stars’.”

In fact, offending the author of this blog is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is a list of phobias circulating on the Web that unsuspecting folk are citing more and more widely. It originated with the Specific Phobias List at the website of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Edmonton Region, a noble effort to track down all known phobias and catalog those that have been treated.

The original list has its problems. Aside from siderophobia, it contains several silly concoctions, including snakephobia, with English snake tacked onto the Greek noun, gatophobia “fear of cats”, using the Spanish word for cats, and levophobia “fear of things on the left”, based on the Russian or Bulgarian levo “left”. (Actually, to the extent that phobia has become a stand-along noun in English, it may be fair game for English compounding, in which case snakephobia is no worse than snakeskin.)

As this list has passed from one website to another, typos have crept in, so that thassophobia “the fear of sitting” has been replaced by thaasophobia and myophobia, a misspelling of mysophobia “the fear of mice”, currently appears on 207 web pages.

Another problem with the list is the common misspelling of the connector vowel O or E which had to stand between the constituents of a Greek compound (I and U are rarely justified). Since unaccented O and A are pronounced the same in English, a lot of phobias contain an A where the O should be or an O where an E should stand (gynophobia despite the analogy in gynecology).

None of this would interest me except that these errors are spreading across the Web. Now that we all have become publishers, misinformation is out of control. I am developing a phobia for misinformation about words. So I have taken it upon myself to rework the CMHA list and polish it up a bit and upload it to our website at


Wednesday, October 11th, 2006


BoomerangstCNBC recently aired a program entitled Boomerangst about the trials and tribulations of the baby-boomers. For me it was love at first sight of the word boomerangst I love words with multiple analyses and this one is a world-class prize-winner.
The word was not original with the writers at CNBC. It was taken from the title of a wrenching, almost black comedy of a novel by Margo Phillips that was published in 2000. I love the word because, behind the straightforward analysis of this word, boomer-angst, lurks another, even more telling one: boomerang-st. If this word is used to refer to a phenomenon that came back to bite us, it is lexical jewel nonpareil.

I think it could be interpreted in this light. The baby boom after World War II was a key factor in the economic recovery not only of North American, but of Europe and the Far East, as well. American productivity shot up as these men returned to work while at the same time buying cars, buying and furnishing houses, and returning to colleges that made them even more productive.

But all the profit generated by the baby-boomers (I could do an article on this word, too) is, in fact, now boomeranging as we struggle with ways to meet our social security obligations to them. They are beginning to come out of the workplace and, as a result of the even greater productivity created by computers and robots, the are being replaced by fewer and fewer workers expected to shoulder the cost of their (the baby-boomers’) social security.

Because of its dual analysis, boomerangst can be used: (1) to indicate the angst of the baby-boomers in a weak job market and (2) the nation’s angst at the social security problem. In fact, because the two templates of this word merge, it is difficult to separate the two senses. Congratulations, Margo Phillips, for an intriguing entry, however ephemeral, in the English vocabulary.



Tuesday, October 10th, 2006


Joy Aloisi recently asked me to explain the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. I am sure a lot of nonlinguists have wondered about the same thing so it occurred to me that I might do a short note about this distinction here that I can refer to in the future.

The problem in explaining this difference is that you have to know two other grammatical functions in order to understand this one: Subject and Object. The subject is usually the first noun or noun phrase in a sentence, the thing that the sentence is about. In the sentence John ran, John is the subject. In the sentence, The big girl in the ragged jeans left, The big girl in the ragged jeans is the subject. John and the big girl are what their respective sentences are about.

John and the big girl . . . are the subjects because that is their relationship to the verbs in their respective sentences (ran and left). “Subject” and “Objects” are relationships to the verb. So what is the “Object”?

The Object of a sentence is the noun that refers to something that the subject does something to. In the sentence, John bit the dog, John, again, is the Subject and the dog is the Object. In the sentence Sarah sipped the soda, the soda is the Object.

Now, if you know what Subjects and Objects are, you are in a position to understand what transitive and intransitive verbs are. All verbs in English have Subjects. You can’t say simply Rains in English (you can in Russian) because all verbs demand a Subject in English. The default Subject in English is it, so we have to say It rains or (is raining).

Objects are different, however. A few verbs MUST have Objects, e.g. devour and interject: you can’t say Mabel devoured or Fred interjected without an Object somewhere in the sentence. These verbs are strictly transitive.

Other verbs CANNOT have Objects. You cannot, for example, arise anything; something just arises. You can’t inquire anything; you just inquire or inquire about something (prepositional phrase). These verbs are strictly intransitive and intransitive verbs are often associated with a particular type of prepositional phrase that behaves a lot like an Object.

Other verbs may or may not have Objects. So you can just walk or you can walk the dog, you can just eat or you can eat supper. These verbs are ambitransitive: transitive when they have a direct object, intransitive when they do not.

This is all there is to it—well, the basics anyway.


Why do Differnt Veterns Talk Diffrent from other Vetrens?

Friday, October 6th, 2006


Pardon my English but Susanne Taylor raised an interesting issue in her e-mail to me today, one that catches the attention of most US English speakers at some point in their lives.  She asked that veteran and veterinarian be added to our Most Often Mispronounced Words list.

The problem with taking this step is that it isn’t clear that these words are mispronounced, just syncopated differently in different parts of the English-speaking world.  All English speakers drop unaccented syllables in fast speech but most do so in regular patterns. Throughout most of the US, when either of the sequences [ere] or [era] occurs, and neither vowel is accented, speakers syncopate (drop) the first [e], so that veteran sounds like vetren, different like diffrent, several like sevral.

In Texas and the Southwest, however, the second [e] is regularly dropped in these words so that they sound like vetern, differnt, and severl. 

The point is, wherever you grew up, the fast-speech pronunciation is regular, so it is difficult to call it mispronunciation; rather, we are dealing here with just a variation in the rules for fast speech. It is often difficult to draw a line between correct and incorrect grammar. The sure sign of a grammatical rule at play, however, is consistency like this. 



The Pretext of Pretexting

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006


Bonnie Seely raised an interesting question in response to our recent Good Word pretexting about words in yesterday’s e-mail. Bonnie wrote: “If the below is the definition of pretext, then what is a false pretext? Wouldn’t any pretext be “false” in intent?”

The definition of pretext that she sent along is this: “Obtaining secret or private information by pretending to be someone eligible to see that information; in other words, giving a fictitious identity (pretext) to obtain restrictive information.”

Bonnie’s point is that the phrase “false pretext” which has become a cliche in the language is redundant; we only need pretext. She is in a prestigious boat for no one less than Noam Chomsky raised a similar point several decades ago.

Chomsky’s point was that derived words are semantically unpredictable and so the sort of derivation rules that I spent my life developing are not feasible. Obviously, I had to respond and in doing so, made an interesting discovery about the relation between adjectives like false and nouns like pretext.

Chomsky’s examples included readable book and drinkable wine. He claimed in these cases that readable does not mean “capable of being read” and drinkable does not mean “capable of being drunk”. I argued that, in fact, they mean precisely that if we know an important fact about phrases like this: that redundancy is commonplace in language and it serves a purpose.

In fact, readable book does mean that the book is capable of being read. The first question should have been, “Why would anyone even utter this phrase since being able to be read is part of the definition of book?” Books are published ONLY to be read and wine is made ONLY to be drunk.

So readable book actually means “a capable of being read capable of being read thing”. “Capable of being read” is semantically redundant in this phrase, even though you only see it once in readable. So what does language do with redundancy like this?

Well, it interprets it as intensification. Look at the phrase a red, red rose, which we say all the time. What is the difference between a red rose and a red, red one? The latter is the equivalent of a VERY red rose. The redness is intensified by the repetition of the sense of red.

I claim that readable book reflects the same rule of semantics because book is defined (very roughly) as “an object with pages to be read“. Adding readable to its description makes a book doubly capable of being read. If a book is doubly capable of being read, following the example of the red, red rose, it should be a VERY readable book. This seems to the case. (Notice that a readable scribble does not carry this meaning since scribbles are not necessarily created to be read.)

I still find it fascinating to examine phrases like this and the differences between, say, drinkable water and drinkable wine (not all water can be drunk), a playable hand in cards and a playable piano. In every case, if the noun by definition is only meant for the quality or process of the derived adjective, the semantic result is intensification because, I would argue, that sense is redundantly duplicated.

Wow! I hope I didn’t wander too far into the mysteries of semantics. Let me just conclude, then, by asking, “Where does this bring us?” Well, I think that it brings us to where we began: false pretext. This is a permissible phrase if we mean a VERY false pretext, since “false” is built into the meaning of pretext itself. I know that most people do not use it that way but it could be used to emphasize the fact that the falseness was especially intentional.

If this idea interests you, keep an eye on my office at alphaDictionary (the Reference Shelf), where I will be depositing a short essay on this theme shortly.


The Definition of WMD

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006

The cost of our current war on terrorism is approaching $350 billion. By comparison, the Korean War cost about $430 billion and the Vietnam War, about $600 billion in current dollars. An interesting difference is that we are financing this war with debt, much of which comes from Communist China, our enemy in the Korean War.

The motivation for this investment is the War on Terrorism with a particular focus on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This was brought to my rambling mind by the slaying of 5 innocent little girls yesterday just down the road from me just outside Quarryville, PA.

More perspective: over the past 10 years 72 children and adults, mostly children, have been shot to death in US schools and 101 injured. Overall, the number of people killed with handguns in 2003, the last date for which complete records are avaiilable, approached 30,000, including:

  • 16,907 suicides (56% of all U.S gun deaths),
  • 11,920 homicides (40% of all U.S gun deaths),
  • 730 unintentional shootings (3% of all U.S gun deaths),
  • 347 from legal intervention and 232 from undetermined intent (1% of all U.S gun deaths combined).

—CDC National Center for Health Statistics mortality report online, 2006.

The homicide rate alone exceeds the number of people who perished in the disasters of 9/11. Shouldn’t this count as terrorism? That would make the handgun a WMD and, considering the fact that the figures above are annual figures, should “handguns” not be included in any definition of WMD?

Couldn’t we find a billion or two somewhere—here or in China—to reduce the number of handguns floating around the US?

Of course, I am not just musing about semantic consistency. I have lived the majority of my life among the Amish and Mennonites. They have helped me build my house—in fact, they built the original structure 160 years ago. Every Satuday morning I hear the horse of one family clopping by the front of my house. They helped us raise our children, feed them, clothe them and in the history of this county (Union), none have ever spent a night in the local jail.

The Amish and Mennonites are the gentlest of creatures who take the incredibly difficult task Jesus Christ set before us, “turn the other cheek”, literally. And they have survived. Terrorism against them, I find especially heinous, and I don’t know why. My heart goes out to them and their families. It is the worst situation for a linguist: when words are useless, no matter how carefully chosen and shaped.