Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for July, 2007

Apocalypto Now

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Mayan glyphI finally saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, months after putting together the prep page for that movie. It is certainly a film I will see again. As you might expect, I am convinced that the language in which an adventure is spun is an integral part of that adventure and plays a defining role in it. Filming this motion picture entirely in a Mayan language without compromising the quality of the acting was a monumental accomplishment equal to that of filming The Passion of Christ in Aramaic.

Culture and language are inseparable. In fact, the culture of a people is laid out in terms of the language: the way that people think, the art and music, the law, the education, up-bringing are all defined to some degree by language. Language is, after all, the basis of self-expression and communication in any culture.

While it is true you miss subtleties wound up in the differences between languages reading subtitles, you lose even more if the movie is shot from a translation or a script in the viewer’s language. This is because gestures, posture, facial expressions are all unique to the language being spoken.

My major criticism is that the plot of the movie is just a programmatic US chase sequence: bad guys and good guys chase each other until one catches up with the other, then the No. 2 bad guy and No. 2 good guy clash. If the No. 2 bad guy survives, the No. 1 good guy has to kill him and the No. 1 good guy. When all the bad guys are dead, the chase is over.

I’ve seen this scenario so many times in US movies I retch every time it begins to unfold. If cars are involved, the chase inevitably includes the destruction of some small cart or stand that provides a living for some poor family that elicits more sympathy from me than any of the participants in the chase.

This would be a flaccid plot for a movie in a contemporary setting but this is a movie about people in a much more primitive setting where life was little more than one chase after another. This movie is about a major chase in the life of a Mayan village. So I’m impressed that the courage and cleverness displayed by the leading characters is authentic.

Since I am woefully unaware of the Mayan culture, particularly of that time, it is difficult to judge the acting but, based on what I know of other jungle cultures, it seems to be excellent. Of course, since Mel Gibson directs this movie, expect gore and guts; however, it is not overdone as I felt it was in The Passion of Christ.

The Kitten Caboodle

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Kitten caboodleSeveral readers have written in response to our discussion of caboodle reminding us of the reanalysis of the phrase “kit and caboodle” as “kitten caboodle”.  ‘Reanalysis’ means that the words in a phrase are incorrectly separated (misanalyzed) and reanalyzed as a different phrase.  This results from mishearing or unfamiliarity with the spelling of the phrase.

Children are very likely to reanalyze phrases they have never heard before.  It was a child who reported learning a song about some cross-eyed bear named “Gladly” in Sunday School when the teacher thought she was teaching the hymn, “Gladly, the Cross I’d Bear”.  We have immortialized some of the best in our “In Church” section of the Out of the Mouths of Babes pages (click here).

Lew Jury reported “kitten caboodle” and Alan Janesh reminded me of “for all intensive purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes”.  Superman, of course, despised being “taken for granite”.  Better learn how to spell these phrases properly: it isn’t just a “doggy-dog world” out there (dog-eat-dog world) and spelling is mission critical if you wish to be taken seriously.

My favorite reanalysis of all time, however, turned up in a freshman composition collected by a colleague in the English Department at Bucknell, Mardy Mumford, when I was teaching there.  The author of this piece accused someone of having a “devil-make-hair” (devil-may-care) attitude.

A Recurring Use of ‘Occurring’

Friday, July 20th, 2007

Alyce Guinn today raised the following question about a new usage slipping into North American speech:

“There seems to be a new word, or a modification of an old word in use these days. It is occuring. I remember it used to be reoccurring. That meant that something that had happened was happening again. How can something occur and then when it happens again still be occuring?”

This is an interesting question. Of course, reoccurring is completely redundant given the existence of recur, so let’s rephrase the question to whether recurring is necessary.

Occur means “to happen once”; to recur is to happen again or happen many times. Obviously, we need these two words since their meanings are different.

Once you add -ing to them, however, the difference in meaning at least partially disappears. Why? The suffix -ing converts the verb into a present participle which designates an on-going action. Now, on-going action can be action in progress (a growing fear) or one that is repeated (pounding headache). So, when you add -ing to occur, the result is a form of the verb that refers to an action in progress or a repeated action, which is the same meaning as recurring, for example, a (currently) occurring pain or a (continually) occurring pain.

Even though occurring has both meanings, however, it is not a good idea to use this word in both because of possible confusion. Since we have recurring and since it has only one of the meanings occurring has, it is better to use occurring in reference to an action in progress and recurring for repeated actions.

Bruised Olives

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Bruised olivesCarolyn Blacknall was curious about the machine that bruises olives mentioned in our recent Good Word ratatouille: “I was reading your definition of ratatouille, and I saw ‘bruising olives’. What is ‘bruising olives’ and why is it done? You mentioned the tudicula ‘a machine for bruising olives.'”

Bruising or squeezing olives loosens the flesh from the pits so that the pits are easily removed. The process is called ‘bruising’. This is done before pressing the oil out of the olives to prevent bits of pit from getting in the oil. It is also an ideal way of removing the pit for stuffing.

Old and New Idiots

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Lisa Cain sent a very articulate and eloquent reply to our Good Word idiot which I thought others would appreciate. Here it is in toto:

Dear Dr. Goodword,

One more bit of information/ advice about the word “idiot”. The self-advocacy community, which includes individuals with developmental and cognitive challenges, takes EXTREME umbrage at the use of this word.Their displeasure stems from the same feelings of discrimination and second class citizenship that motivated the African American community and many others to stand up and vocalize their discontent.

In the same way that language usage changes down through time – which is what makes it so interesting, don’t you think? – the use of this word (and other disparaging terms to describe individuals with cognitive difficulties) is quickly slipping into the category of “politically incorrect”, and hopefully into the historical records of our language.

I haven’t seen you do so before, but it would be nice if you would publish a caveat to this goodword that explains the above to a larger audience – your readers.

Lisa Cain


Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment and your concern. Let me assure you: I share it. However, I decided that omitting the definition you refer to altogether would resolve it. Still, I did add the caveat that the word is considered offensive and should be avoided.

I no longer consider this a word to refer to people with developmental problems and so prefer simply to omit that meaning. It doesn’t exist for me. To continue using it and then warning others not to, struck me as inconsistent. Besides, telling someone not to do something usually encourages them to at least try it.

I can recall correcting my children when they referred to what we then called the mentally retarded, as retards. I was not the only one concerned, so the school system chose a euphemism, those requiring special education. Then I had to chide my children for referring to each other as speds. As I have mentioned before, taboo words are replaced by euphemisms which become taboo words which are replaced by taboo words which are replaced . . . ad infinitum. (Click here for more on the subject.)

However, “idiot” is also used harmlessly as a colloquial word that use to refer to ourselves and others when we do stupid things: “What an idiot, I have been!” is not uncommon. I see nothing wrong with this usage so long as we continue to do stupid things from time to time.

Anger Inducement Therapy

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

A friend of mine has convinced her husband that he needs anger management therapy. Anger management has become a major catchphrase, probably one of the many terms introduced by the medical and pharmaceutical industry to convince us that we need their products and services. This one has become so popular that Jack Nicholson has made a movie about it.

I have some linguistic qualms about this popular term. The first is its redundancy. Anger in the legal system is now called “snapping” or, more technically, “temporary insanity”. We have lawyers and the occasional jury who think that perfectly normal people can, in the midst of a perfectly normal day, “snap”, become temporarily insane, kill someone, then snap back to normality, never to be susceptible to “snapping” again.

There may be some truth to this but until several years ago, snapping was losing control of your temper and was considered normal if uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. So my first suggestion would be to change anger management to snap management just to avoid the proliferation of synonyms.

But returning to my friend’s case, I have to wonder why we don’t offer anger inducement therapy, since the reason my friend snaps is an overly demanding wife who would drive the Pope crazy. It is funny how phrases like anger management focus our attention on one interpretation of a problem while allowing other aspects of the same problem to slip into the shadows. Maybe not so funny.

Generally, when someone loses their temper it is because someone else irritates them. Whether the fit of anger is disproportionate to the inducement of it or vice versa is a matter of degree but the focus of the therapy should be equally on both the anger or the inducement thereof. If both is offered, we need a term for anger inducement alongside anger managment. I suggest “anger inducement”.

Anger inducement therapists would make a fortune in Washington, DC.

Linguistic Soy Sauce

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Soy beansNPR this morning had a piece on the cooperation of Greenpeace and the Cargill Corporation in attempting to slow the rate of deforestation in the Amazon basin. The major problem they are focusing on is land clearance for raising “soy”. I think I have heard this usage before but everyone interviewed on this show used it, making me acutely aware of the change for the first time.

What change? Well, if we say that we raise soy, we are categorizing soy beans as a grass or grain. We raise soy as we raise wheat, barley, or parsley. Soy, however, is a bean, a legume, which is why until rather recently why we referred to it as “soy beans”. Along the way, the two words were combined as a compound, soybean then, apparently, simplified to just soy.

I am not opposed to language change but I am uncomfortable, as I have said many times before, with linguistic inconsistency. So, unless we want to talk about raising lima, string, navy, black-eyed and snap, I think we should stick to calling soy beans soy beans.

Ever Wonder what a Wonder is?

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Pyramids or spacecraft?At 7:07.07 AM GMT today (7/7/07) the all New Seven Wonders of the World was announced in Lisbon.  The selection of the new seven wonders has been made democratically this time, by 20 million people with access to a computer and nothing more useful to do.  I think it is time to introduce the word wikiwonder because any list, dictionary, or encyclopedia written by people regardless of qualification, interest, or inclination is bound to be as unreliable as the Wikipedia. In fact, the top 20 New Seven Wonders of the World show even greater symptoms of wiki-itis than does the Wikipedia.

Clearly most voters are unclear about not only the meaning of the word wonder but the word new, as well! Among the leading contenders today (July 6) are the pyramids of Giza, the Roman coliseum, Machu Picchu,  Easter Island, and the Athenian Acropolis.  Even the Great Wall of China has seen better days. Now, I can stretch the meaning of new with the best of them but I cannot stretch it this far.  If these are new wonders, what are the wonders of the ancient world?

So, at least we are getting wonders right, right? Let’s examine a few. The Roman coliseum is in ruins. The same applies to Machu Picchu and the Acropolis. Easter Island is a collection of crude monoliths my 3-year-old granddaughter could draw, carved out of stone no one knows when by a people no one knows anything about. Wonders or a wikiwonders? How would you distinguish new wonders from ruined wonders?

Actually, the creators of this overhyped quest meant a new list of seven ANCIENT wonders? Well, that’s different, then, isn’t it?

OK, bigmouth, I hear you muttering; if we wanted a real list of new wonders, what would a real new wonder be? Well, not all wonders are architectural according to the dictionaries. The very fact that 20 million people from around the world can vote on one issue should suggest something wonderful involved in the voting itself.

What about the computer?  What about the World Wide Web? What are they—chopped liver? Have we already forgotten those spaceships that made it to the Moon, zipped around Mars and Jupiter? Or do we think Mickey Mouse with the help of Huey, Dewey, and Louie could have built them?

If you want architecture, shouldn’t Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao make the top 20? The Singapore Changi Airport came out of the largest single development project in world history. It is right up there with the pyrimids even adjusting for differences in technology. And so far my list has been guided by size; what if we considered beauty? Wouldn’t the collected works of Picasso or Dali qualify? Am I the only one in awe of Mozart and Beethoven?

Lists are fun if compiled intelligently by experts who give long, deep, and considered thought to the task. Lists flipped off the tops of skulls regardless of their content are inevitably silly. (Did I mention the problem of vote-rigging?)

Advocacy of a Usage of ‘Advocate’

Friday, July 6th, 2007

The mysterious JBR wrote today: “My biggest fight with committee people that I am involved with is the use of the word ‘advocate.’ One advocates a position, not for or against it. Yet one can be an advocate for or against something.  I even hear lawyers, who should know better, misuse the word.”

An advocate for or against something? I don’t know what an ‘advocate against something’ would be. An advocate by definition is someone who publicly supports someone or something.  How can you support not supporting something? That would be opposing it.

I would say, ‘She is an advocate of clean air’. Neither ‘for’ nor ‘against’ goes with ‘advocate’ the noun or the verb. If you are against it, you oppose it.

Admittedly, we hear ‘advocate for’ and ‘advocate against’ enough that we are becoming comfortable with these phrases—too comfortable, in fact. Let’s get back in contact with the meaning of this word.

Origin of the Word ‘Hamburger’

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

 Happy Fourth of July!In the 13th and 14th centuries Turkic tribes known as Tatars roamed across the plains of what today is Russia. They were known for chopping meat (probably because it was tough), mixing it with spices, and eating it raw. This idea gravitated to the German town of Hamburg, which became famous for its beefsteak Tatar, ground beef served with onions and spices without benefit of the flame. When this ‘Hamburg steak’ reached the US, it was generally served cooked. The term Hamburger steak first appeared in the January 5, 1889 edition of the Walla Walla (Washington) Union. The steak was soon dropped but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the word cheeseburger appeared and by 1939 hamburger had been shortened to burger. At that point, a flood of compounds with this new word began to appear: fishburger, turkeyburger, baconburger, and so on and on and on. (Today’s word is courtesy of Dr. Goodword, himself a Lewisburger celebrating our nation’s birth today in his hometown, Lewisburg, PA, USA.)