Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for April, 2008

The Fate of Rapeseed Oil

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Bottle of canola oilOccasionally, the associations of a word become more powerful than its meaning. The history of rapeseed oil provides a glorious illustration of this fact.
The oil from the rape, a variety of turnip, has been in use since the 13th century. It was used as a lubricant called simply rape-oil until the mid 20th century. During World War II it was widely used as a lubricant for steam engines in ships.

Over the centuries, however, several words have merged into the spelling of rape, including one referring to  the administrative districts of Sussex, England, a usage that continued until the end of the 19th century. Another, referring to the refuse of wine-making came from French râpe “grape stalk” from Old French rasper “to scrape”, source of English rasp.

The verb (from Latin rapere “to seize”, the origin of English raptor) orginally simply meant “to force”, as in The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope. However, as it made its grimy way to its current meaning, all the homophones of the verb receded into the shadows.

The oil of the rape (from Latin rapa “turnip”, Rübe in German), however, was discovered to be low in cholesterol by Canadians after World War II, and they developed a type that was not only fit but healthy for human consumption. By the middle of the 20th century, however, marketing this oil even as “rapeseed oil”, was out of the question due to the new overbearing sense of the verb. Call in the marketers.

The result was that a new name was created for this very healthy oil from the phrase “Can(ada) o(il,) l(ow) a(cid)”, which is to say, canola.

Superdelegates? (2nd edition)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

The US press is dredging up a word from the early 80s and using it in a new, suggestive sense in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers. Political leaders who attend the Democratic Convention with a single, uncommitted vote are now called superdelegates in the broadcast media. 

The implication of this term, raised first in the early 80s but seldom used since, is that these leaders have more power at a political convention than rank-and-file members of the party. Actually, a superdelegate is simply an elected official with one vote that is uncommitted prior to the convention—unless he or she has endorsed a candidate.

So why do we need this term this year (2008) and with a new, misleading sense?

The press has decided that it prefers Senator Obama for the Democratic Party nomination and, according to CMPA’s 2008 ElectionNewsWatch Project, has been giving him consistently more positive coverage than Senator Clinton. Recently, all the networks began announcing that Senator Obama had, in fact, won the primary race and have been openly appealing to Senator Clinton to resign from the race, making the job of the press easier.

The last hurdle the press must overcome is the Democratic Convention in Denver this summer. How can the press be sure that party leaders do exercise their prerogative to choose Ms. Clinton as the party candidate? After all, neither candidate has enough delegates to win the nomination; the primary is a virtual tie.

Well, one tack would be to attach a new epithet which might intimidate party leaders in case they decide to make such a move. That word is superdelegate, now used in the media in ways suggesting it refers to someone who has more votes than he or she deserves. Look out for an increase in the usage of this aspersive term as the Convention convenes this summer.

Why does the press prefer Mr. Obama so passionately as to flagrantly attempt to undermine Senator Clinton? Former President Clinton visited Lewisburg recently and suggested that it was because his wife is old news and the Press wants someone new to write about. My guess would be that the press is tired of looking for skeletons in Ms. Clinton’s closet and have greater hopes of digging up something that would embarrass Mr. Obama. He is the greater unknown.

Mr. Clinton also thinks that his wife represents a demographic that the press doesn’t understand: people who struggle to pay for their mortgage, send their kids to college, and pay their medical bills. “People at the networks don’t have to worry about these things,” he opined, “They are of no concern to network producers.”

Whatever the reason, we have another lexical toxin with which to tarnish those brave enough to enter the US political process.

Edited, updated May 26, 2008


Saturday, April 12th, 2008

I received this comment last week: “I was just listening to a cellphone product review on the CNET website, and the speaker, a guy in his early 30’s, ended every statement about the phones features with “up-talk”. I find this speech habit to be extremely annoying. In general i thought it was indicative of younger speakers, but they seem to be getting older and older – i guess i am too for that matter. I guess that once everyone my age is dead, everyone will be doing it and nobody will be annoyed, know what I’m saying?”

I see no reason to be upset by “uptalk”: it has been around since before the states were united. It is the common intonational means of indicating the end of a clause in Irish English.  All English speakers from Ireland and other parts north of England use this intonational marker—some parts of Scotland, too. 

It is more common in the south of the US because dialects there tend to be more conservative, preserving various aspects that settlers brought with them from the old country.

But it is nothing to be offended at. Different languages and different dialects have different means of intonationally marking clauses, sentences, and questions.  This one has been around for centuries—at least.

Winning and Losing

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

In the US, we often hear that there are winners and losers. Loser may be the worse pejorative term that is not considered profanity in US English.  My question today is this: Have we lost the meaning of win and lose in the United States. There is no question that the talking heads in the media have.

Before the 1994 Olympics, the ex-husband of a figure-skating competitor, Tonya Harding, hired someone to club the knee of another competitor, Nancy Kerrigan after practice.  I will discuss what competition has come to mean in the US another time.  The point I wish to make today is that Nancy recovered, skated in the Olympics and took second place after Ukrainian Oksana Baiul.  What I recall is the first question asked Kerrigan after she took the silver medal: “Nancy, how does it feel to lose?”

Now, Nancy had just demonstrated herself to be the second best figure-skater on the face of the Earth. In what conceivable sense had she lost?

The incident put into perspective the “fifth-down” football game between Colorado and Missouri. In 1990 Colorado University “won” a game on a fifth down play that judges allowed to stand under the misguided assumption that the referees are always right even when they are blatantly demonstrably wrong.  (Maybe we should examine sportsmanship at some point, too.)

These two instances teach us the difference between having the highest score and winning. In the Colorado-Missouri game, Colorado had the highest score officially but in every sense of the word they lost.  Nancy Kerrigan, although she did not have the greatest number of points, clearly won in every sense of that word. Silver medals in the Olympics are not assigned by a lottery; you have to win those, too.

Win does not mean “be the best” and lose does not mean “be the worst” as these terms are used in the US media. If you win the lottery, you just get it. If you win someone’s support, you just persuade them. Elsewhere, however, win means to achieve something through excellence above that of the competition. Notice this leaves plenty of room for excellence among those the press likes to call “losers”. 

Misogyny and the US Elections

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Senator Hillary ClintonScott McDonald dropped a note today protesting our use of misogyny in reference to US voters’ attitude toward Senator Clinton and other women in public office. The offending example in today’s Good Word is: “Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the 2008 presidential elections may test the misogyny in US society.” Scott thinks:

“Today’s word misogyny is misrepresented in your example, much like the misuse of homophobia to describe any and all disapproval of homosexuality. These are words used loosely when they have a very specific meaning.”

To say, ‘I hate Clinton, Clinton is a woman; therefore, I hate women’ is a faulty syllogism, just as saying is, ‘You dislike this person, they are homosexual; therefore, you are a homophobe.'”

I actually agree with Scott in that the example might lead back to a faulty assumption; however, the statement applies more broadly to all the possible reasons people might avoid voting for Senator Clinton and I still think that misogyny is a major one. I even adulterated the sentence with a cautionary may: “may test the misogyny in US society”. The point of the example was simply to show how the word is normally used and I may have let this sentence’s topicality overwhlem my control of deductive logic.

The logic here does reek of guilt by association in that we are encouraged to assume that if Obama has any African blood in him and we oppose him, it is because of his African ancestry. If Senator Clinton is a woman and we oppose her, it is because of her femininity. In both cases there is no logical, let alone causative, relation between the two factors.  I certainly think above the range of the talking heads on US TV who use this mislogic with such passion night after night.