Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for February, 2007

Of Domes and Domination

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Duomo FlorenceMaureen Koplow yesterday asked: “I was wondering if there’s any connection between the “dom” words, as in dominate, dominion, domicile, domestic, dome, domino, and the Latin word domini.”
Indeed, they are all related. They go back to a Proto-Indo-European root dom- “home, household” which developed semantically in at least two directions. One is toward larger buildings: dôme in French and duomo in Italian mean “cathedral”, i.e. the House of the Lord. Later dôme came to refer to that part of the Italian Duomo in Florence that distinguishes it from lesser buildings. It was at this point that English borrowed it.

The other semantic direction in which this root drifted was that of ownership of a house or household. The adjective, dominus “having a household or estate” went on to refer to the owner of an estate as lord in the original sense of estate owner. From there its sense expanded to the Lord of the universe, Lord in the religious sense.

Dominate goes back to a feudal sense of “owning a household or estate” at a time when those who lived and worked on an estate were dominated by the lord of that estate.

It is amazing how little the form of this root has changed given the immense changes in its meaning since the days of Proto-Indo-European 7-8,000 years ago. (Russian is an exception: dom still means “house” in Russian today.) That initial [d] should have become [t] in Germanic languages. If it did, that version of the root evaporated somewhere between Proto-Indo-European and today.

Still Waxing

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Yesterday’s Good Word, wax (the verb) also set Paul Wertz to thinking. Today he wrote: “How about giving a go to the word as used by fighter pilots “I waxed him and he went down in flames.” meaning “I shot at an enemy aircraft and damaged or destroyed him”. [The word r]efers to significant damage or destruction, nothing minor.”

This is a slang term that hadn’t caught up with the good Doctor. It only occurs a few hundred times on the Web. It is used in sports a lot to indicate a complete defeat and, as Paul points out, indicates “destruction” both literally and figuratively. I did see one bizarre comment that “[he] waxed hiim 2:1”. 2:1 is a waxing?

So where does this new use of wax as a slang term come from? Time to throw our intuitions into the old crystal ball and hope for the best.

All the examples I found by googling and yahooing used the word the way I would use shellac as a verb: “We shellacked them 102 : 56.” Now that would be a shellacking. So what would be worse than a shellacking? To be shellacked, dried, and waxed. My money is on this etymology.

Waxing Sincere

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Our word of the day, wax, reminded Dr. Orrin Davis of a story he once heard about the word sincere, which he shared with me today:

“Evidently, high quality marble has been a favorite kitchen and building material for a long, long time. The highest quality marble, I was told, has few holes. Cheaper marble has many holes and crevices. Therefore, in order to make poor quality, or ‘holey’ marble appear better, the defects were filled with wax, a.k.a [Latin] cere. To be good marble, the stone was ‘without wax’ or ‘sin cere’. With wax was ‘insincere’.”

Actually, the most wide-spread story is that Roman potters would fill cracks in defective pots with wax the same color as the pot and sell the pots as perfect. To convince a customer that a pot was perfect, the potter had to convince him that it was sin cera “without wax”. That has long been established as either an urban myth (or an old wives’ tale, depending on your age and slang generation). Of course, sincere does not mean “without wax” or even “perfect” so the semantic side of this proposed derivation never worked.

Sincere comes to English from Latin sincerus “sound, whole, pure, genuine” via French. Its origin is simply unknown. A possible source would be a Proto-Indo-European compound sem-kero-s “of one growth” based on sem- “same, one” + kero- “to grow”. Although semantics troubles this purely speculative derivation, too, I sincerely believe it is the most likely historical scenario for the development of sincere.

Potamophilous and such

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

The sussurous SusquehannaJim Rodarmel was baffled that he could not find our recent Good Word potamophilous in any contemporary dictionary. He dropped us a line, saying, “It may interest you to know that your own dictionary service yields no results for your word of the day potamophilous. The same goes for the ‘variant’ spelling used in the misspelled MP3 file name potomaphilous.mp3 and the related words potamophile, potomaphile, potamophilia and potomaphilia.”

The ‘related words’ Jim mentions are derived from the misspelling on the sound file. It never occurred to us that readers checked the names of our sound files so we occasionally allowed misspellings originating in the recording studio to stand. That policy has been changed.

Well, you don’t find google or podcast in any dictionary nor truthiness in any except the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the ultimate collection of English words. You do find potamophilous there:

Potamophilous (obs. nonce word)
1827 Brit. Critic I. 474 his public State barge, on the bosom of the Thames, in all the majesty and magnificence of a Fluviatile and Potamophilous Lord Mayor.

It does declare that it is an obsolete ‘nonce’ word. A ‘nonce’ word is one that someone made up and used only once or a few times, never intending for it to ‘stick’. There are lots of those floating around right now so, if we were to launch potamophilous on a new career, it would be running in very popular company.

I decided to run this one because, unlike recent neologisms like google, podcast and blog, it is a properly formed word, assigned the appropriate meaning. I like the way it sounds (better than ‘river-loving’) and think it has a claim to a permanent place in the English vocabulary. Its association with what the Greeks called “river horses” makes it a bit jovial and light-hearted, too.

What’s the Good Word about ‘Good Word’?

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Sorry for the long absence. The Lexiteria has moved its offices to new quarters in the ‘burbs (downtown Smoketown, we like to call it) and, like all my previous moves, it occupied me almost full time. But I’m back again for better or worse. Here goes the first blog from Smoketown Road.

‘Boaz’ recently raised the question of the pedigree of the phrase this website was built on, “the good word”.

In fact, we have thus far been unable to unearth any information on the history of the phrase, “So, what’s the good word?” It was popular back in the 40s and 50s but, like so many other things, it was obliterated by the 60s.

It probably does go back to ‘The Word’ in the biblical sense. But it is now used in the sense of “word of wisdom”, the phrase is a greeting that invites the listener to enlighten the greeter, tell him something he doesn’t know, rather like, “What do you know that I don’t know that would be of use to me?” And, of course, keep it short, as close to one word as you can make it.

This isn’t pure speculation but no more than speculation based on the past and current meanings of the phrase and what we know about human speaking habits. If anyone reading this has any further insights, please share them with “Dr. Goodword”.

Is the PC (political correctness) Movement Running out of Steam?

Monday, February 5th, 2007

The top of the news this evening was a ‘story’ of Senator Joseph Biden offending Senator Barack Obama by calling him ‘articulate’. Those who still promote political correctness now want to enter this word in the PC lexicon. It is purportedly offensive because it implies that the speaker thinks not all African Americans are articulate and that Senator Obama distinguishes himself only to whites because he is perceived to be more like them.

In fact, not all white Americans are articulate—take our president, for example. Not all people are articulate. Articulate is color-blind; it means exactly what all dictionaries claim it means: “well-spoken, clearly expressing oneself” without any pejorative connotation. It is a compliment to whomever it is said to describe. Moreover, it is a quality this website and those like it encourage and (let’s hope, articulately) promote.

That anyone would mistake such a meretricious story for news is well beyond normal comprehension but, in fact, it reflects a growing obsession of the media with embarrassing public figures by misinterpreting their comments. The other ‘news’ today is that in a secret recording obtained surreptitiously from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s website, the governor called one of his political opponents ‘sick’ [sic]. Governor Schwarzenegger, like Senator Biden, immediately apologized.  For what? The opponent immediately replied that he had been called worse. Who hasn’t?

John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore have all recently been similarly accused of making offensive remarks by the media for inane comments that were overinterpreted by media personalities as articulate was today. I am sure that I have missed at least a few.

Notice that the offensive nature of all these terms derives not from the terms themselves, as in the case of the N-word and all the offensive terms for women, but from the presumed motivation of the speaker, something no one knows but the speaker (see first paragraph). The interpretation of the offensiveness of these terms is innately ad hominem.

There was a time when the US media ignored even genuinely offensive comments by public figures and focussed on the relevant issues. Today very few people in the US media are even familiar with the issues (where familiar means having read several books and dozens of articles on the subject). The result has been a rush to yellow journalism, unearthing scandals, embarrassing public officials for no ostensible reason.

The problem is that with 24-hour news and competition from every side, there simply aren’t enough scandals to fill the time and pages. So the media flog a long since dead horse and derive from the exercise nothing more than insipid vapors portrayed as news. In doing so, the media become less and less relevant.

An interesting bit of support for this last claim can be seen in the growth of the number of feature documentaries. I can remember when documentaries were considered boring films shown only in schools. Now, documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth”, “The Corporation”, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”—to mention a few I’ve recently viewed—are receiving feature runs in commercial theaters. Why are they so popular all of a sudden? Because they bring us the news while CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC race to see which can dredge up the most inane event of the day.

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.