Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for July, 2008

Whence ‘Dork’?

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Victoria Leonard responded to my claim that dork is a “concocted” word in my essaylet on the word slang with the following comment:

Hi. In today’s Good Word, you say that “dork” is completely concocted. Not so. It comes from Science Fiction fandom. A good fannish dictionary will tell you that it is short for “doorknob,” and refers to a person having the personality of one.

First, let me say that I love Victoria’s creative vocabulary: fandom, fannish, etc. These are perfectly good, unconcocted derivations. We will have to do dork in the Good Word series someday to compensate for these usages alone. I am also impressed with the creativity of the etymological explanation.

However, that said, I remained convinced that dork is a concted word. In fact, Victoria’s explanation describes a perfect process of “concoction”. Taking a word more or less at random, removing random letters from it, and assigning a more or less random meaning to it is not what we would call a “derived” word. Word-formation rules are fairly rigid, involve prefixes and suffixes, and leave speakers with little if any latitude in applying them. Keep in mind that in the 60s dork referred to the male, well, you know, whachamacallit. Only in the 70s did its meaning slide over to “dolt”, so it was concocted well before the meaning necessary to Victoria’s hypothesis came along.

This explanation reminds me of the urban myth that posh originated as an acronym for “port out starboard home” when our British ancestors were sailing to India. Rarely are words created by playing with letters since only a minority of languages even have writing systems. Those words that are created this way seldom survive. Only recently have words like sonar, radar, laser stuck and the reason they succeeded is because they sound like regular nouns made from verbs. In fact, some people are beginning to say “to lase” rather than “to laser”, showing the powerful influence of regular rules on irregularly created words.

Passionately Patient Patients

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Mary Cooke recently raised the following question:

My great aunt fractured her hip and some ligaments. I advised her that it would require patience on her part, since this will take a long while to heal, before she can return to her usual active lifestyle.”

My question is this: Was the term patient (the one for whom a physician is caring) coined because that virtue is needed by those injured or ill until the body recovers?”

My answer is: We have to go back farther than Modern English to find the connection between these homonyms. Both the adjective and noun patient trace their ancestry back to Latin pati “to undergo (some action), endure, suffer”.

The English words came from patiens, patientis “undergoing, enduring”, the present participle of this verb. So, a patient was originally and, I suppose, still is to some extent, someone who undergoes some action, who suffers it in the sense of tolerating and surviving it. The adjective has a very similar meaning, for a patient person is someone who tolerates and survives what is done to them.

A side note: the past participle of pati is passus “suffered”, from which the noun passio(n) “suffering” is derived. English originally borrowed this word in its Latin sense. This explains the phrase “The Passion of Christ”, referring to Christ’s suffering on the cross and the title of Mel Gibson’s remarkable motion picture about Christ. Passion is also a grand example of how much the meanings of words change with the passage of time.

The Hoity-Toity and Hoi Polloi

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Joy Jalosi sent this comment in yesterday in response to our Good Word peon “Dear Dr. Beard, Regarding peon: I always thought hoi-polloi meant UPPER-, not LOWER CLASS.”

One of the most common errors humans make in speaking and writing their language is to switch antonyms. How often have you heard people say things like this: “It’s too hot . . . I mean, cold, in here,” or: “I just love that black . . . I mean, white dress of hers.” Some of these switches stick, too, for cold and scald developed from the same Proto-Indo-European word, as did English black and French blanc “white”.

Joy probably has attached the wrong meaning to this word  because most of the people she talks to make the same slip of the ear, too. The tendency to switch antonyms is aggravated in this case by the fact that hoi polloi sounds much like hoity-toity, which is a slur referring to the upper classes. In Greek, however, hoi means “the” and polloi means “many”, the source of the English prefix poly-. In English hoi polloi clearly means “the masses”.

Hoi polloi raises another question. I once participated in a debate with several readers in the wake of the Good Word hoi polloi over whether we need the word the with hoi polloi. It seemed redundant to them given the fact that hoi already means “the”. However, since I was writing in English when I used the phrase, the meaning of the Greek phrase was irrelevant. Hoi polloi in English means something like “the (unwashed) masses” today.

A Meeting of alphaDictionary Minds

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Paul and BobOver the 12 years I have developed this website, from the Web of Online Dictionaries, through and on to, one of the greatest joys has been meeting logophiles of like mind around the world. I use the term “mind” literally, since the Internet community is a community of minds, as I’m sure you are well aware, stripped of all the psychological and social  accoutrements of traditional acquaintanceships. 
One of my oldest Internet friends is Paul Ogden. Paul has edited my Good Words two years now and even touches up the blog from time to time (including this one). He lives in Tel Aviv but at the beginning of this month he visited the States and stopped by for a visit. We stayed up into the wee hours talking language and continued from breakfast to lunch the next day. We were two old friends of 9 years who simply had never seen each other before. Minds matched, all other aspects of physical acquaintance slipped deftly into place.

Paul’s visit illuminated for me the delightful notion that a community has bloomed around alphaDictionary. It is a community connected by this blog, the Alpha Agora, and the e-mail system, a community of minds fascinated with the world of words. This is a reward in a class all its own.

A New Function for the Suffix -en?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Returning to the topic of gifts from US Southerners to the English language I was writing on a few weeks ago (click here if you missed it), let me mention, perhaps, another one. Southerners are often chided for using young’ns for kids or children. The fact of the matter is, however, that except for the substitution of this expression for kids, it is a form found in many dialects of English.

Young’n represents a reduction of the adjective young plus the pronoun (not the number) one, that is, young one. This form has already been assimilated into the indefinite pronouns someone and anyone, suggesting that they do not have full lexical status in English, that is to say, on the level of cat, dog or rain. Rather, the pronoun one, as in “One must always be civil, mustn’t one?” is a grammatical morpheme, a function word.

The contraction of a function word like one with another word is often the first step in the conversion of that function word to an affix (prefix or suffix). Such conversions are slow transitions that take hundreds of years and it is always difficult to draw a line at an exact point when the independent or reduced word becomes an affix.

I think we have already passed that point in the southern US states and in other dialectal areas where this contraction occurs. I think so because of the consistency in the addition of this contraction to adjectives: “(Give me the) big’n, little’n, red’n,” and so on are just as common in those dialects as young’n.

This conversion is encouraged by the fact that English already has a suffix -en pronounced exactly the same way as the -‘n in young’n, etc. It is a little used affix found in a few outmoded adjectives such as wooden, woolen, and golden, and a handful of past participles like driven, written, and proven.

I am suggesting that young’n is on its way to become a regular noun youngen and that in the dialects of the southern US states a rule adding -en to adjectives making them nouns may already be in the grammar. Only time will tell if this change will spread as the addition of yall to the list of personal pronouns (click here for that blog).

Site News: Records Set

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

We just past the 150,000-piece mark of spam spammers have attempted to spam us with—a milestone I would prefer not to have passed.  This does not include the 10-12 pieces a week that make it through and I have to delete manually, just those caught by our spam-catcher, Akismet.

Another milestone we passed in the month of June was the half-million unique visitor mark. This past month alphaDictionary was accessed by 527,340 distinct “sites” or IP addresses, which is about as close as we can get to counting unique visitors. But this figure does not take into account the 20,000 subscribers who receive our daily Good Word and Good Word, Jr, so we should have safely crossed the 500,000 threshold of unique visitors.  We are on schedule to repeat this performance in July, despite the drop-off around July 4.

This blog is one of our most widely frequented sites, so I thank all of you who visit—especially those who catch and report errors.

There are other interesting things to do with language on the site, though, so I hope everyone reading this will check them out. We have just put up a page of resources on the language of Jesus, Aramaic, and we are about to put up what I think will be the first resource on rhyming compounds, including a discussion of them and 150 or so examples.  The best place to look for serious comments on language is Dr. Language’s Office. You can get there from the link at the top of each page. The best place for games, jokes and other fun, is our fun page: