Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for March, 2009


Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Today we have a guest writer, Wesley (no, not that Wesley, the South African Wesley). He thinks that we need a new word. Judge for yourselves. The test of a word’s mettle is, of course, usage. Let’ see if it catches on. Here is what he says:

There is not a word in this universe that exposes and recognises world class achievements and signifies creative achievement especially in the world of crowdsourcing. This is why ‘springleap’ was coined and is applied to anyone who is able to leap significantly, where an individual shifts from a low point to a high point in his or her career through talent search competitions such as Idols, The Apprentice, Americas Next Top Model, Threadless, etc. So we ask that you help us get this proudly South African initiative out there worldwide. 

The word describes the entrance into the world of talent recognition through gaining exposure from entering a competition to determine a specific outcome. Furthermore a majority vote is then made by a crowdsourcing network or panel of judges for the winner or winners. 

Among those at the forefront offering the platform to springleap are Donald Trump (The Apprentice), Tyra Banks (Americas Next Top Model), Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart (Threadless), Robbo Bennets (Wipe Out), John Boswell (Survivor), Simon Fuller (American Idol), John de Mol (Big Brother) and Dave Broome (The Biggest Loser).

I must admit this word is shorter than “skyrocket to fame”.

Bernie Madoff with our Dough

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Bernie MadoffIt is pretty easy to make jokes from the sound of Russian names in English.  Putin is a joke itself in English. Jackendoff is a rare but real Russian name. (But we don’t go there on this website.) In Russian, Tolstoi means “fat”, so the great author’s name (as I may have mentioned before) can be translated into “Leo Fats”.

The media are having a field day noticing that Bernie Madoff made off with 60 or so billion dollars. Didn’t anyone wonder about the guy’s name for 25 years? You don’t get clues like that very often. What do we need, “Bernie Smakingoff”? Smakingoffwidjadoe? I know. It isn’t funny. That’s his mug shot up there.

And what about Vikram Pandit, the mook who was paid $38.2 million in 2008 alone to destroy CitiGroup, costing its stock to lose 77% of its value. No one thought of flipping the P in his name for the hint?

Whitehouse Slang

Friday, March 20th, 2009

No my Australian friends, this note is not about slang in the Australian outback. It is about some of the slang words introduced to and promoted by the US media by the Bush administration, slang which we still hear and probably will continue hearing for a few more years.

I’m not talking about the Bushisms like, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” I’m talking about what, with remarkable clarity, falls under the rubric of “slang”. Why do I think so?

WhitehouseAccording to my essay, “What is Slang,” “Slang is a code in which one vaguely related or unrelated word or phrase is substituted for a more common one.” It is a set of words that identifies the speaker with a particular social or occupational group, especially a group of youths, but members of a puerile administration fit the pattern just as well.

I suspect whoever dreamed up these terms thought that they were clever marketing terms that would becloud if not completely hide their real meanings. But they really don’t work as long-term additions to the English vocabulary.

The most persistent one as of today is rendition, a slang term for the outsourcing of torture. Of course, the US has never done this before Vice President Cheney decided it the proper course to take. But it is a cover word, as much a euphemism as slang.

Rendition, of course, is the playing of a musical piece in a specific style. It is a noun based on render, though it is seldom as ever used this way. You can render aid, render fat (which may have happened in our off-shore torture chambers), render an opinion, but I’m don’t recall seeing rendition used in any of these senses. Certainly, it doesn’t mean “outsource torture”.

So, rendition, which I only figured out last week it is so opaque, joins the misuse of surge for “reinforcements” and embed for “exclude all but friendly news reporters” in the attempts at slang of the past administration. As I have mentioned before, the most remarkable aspect of this bizarre linguistic episode of the past eight years is the US networks willing complicity in promoting this misuse of English.


Guaranteed Bonuses

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Donnella dropped a note yesterday, writing: “I’m hearing “guaranteed bonus” in the news a lot, referring to the AIG situation. It seems to me an oxymoron. I understand there are legal concerns but the word bonus must have a different meaning in a contract. I’d like to see your take on this.”

It would seem that money-addicts have invaded and taken control of most large US corporations. The compensation packages they have been giving themselves became more and more obscene as the years lumbered by.

Typical large corporation heads started with outlandish salaries plus stock warranties or options but no amount could satisfy the money addicts, so “(guaranteed) bonuses” were added outside salaries, probably to becloud the issue of total compensation. The term “guaranteed bonus” is not an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly”, but simply a contradiction of terms.

We all know what a bonus is: it is additional compensation given for outstanding performance, finishing a project ahead of schedule or overfulfilling a contract. So we can’t know ahead of time that a bonus will be due. However, people whose sole measure of worth and accomplishment is income, need money beyond what stock holders might be willing to endure if their compensation were reported as a lump-sum salary. So, “bonuses” were built into contracts, that is, guaranteed.

The current euphemism for them is retention bonuses, under the assumption that without them, an executive would move on to another company. A retention bonus actually sounds more like a bribe. Now, the absurdity of bribing the total failures at AIG to stay and continue undoing the company seems to escape those who tender this argument.

The argument goes on: only those who led AIG into its mess have the skills and knowledge to lead it out of its mess. It strikes me that these people are far more likely to make mistakes of the same magnitude leading the company back toward solvency that they made leading it flatly into insolvency. Maybe logic has changed since I was an undergraduate.

In all probability, if bonuses returned to what the word means, stock options were curtailed, and salaries were reasonable, large corporations would fare much better. Why? Because fewer money addicts and more people with a long-term commitment to the company would apply for executive positions. People who are as smart and experienced as the current executives of AIG are not hard to find—many are sitting right there in the company now.

Building a net worth of $100 million would still be possible, but only as a result of continuing excellence in management over a significant period. A $50 million per year compensation package and $150 severance payment regardless of performance discourages any commitment to a company beyond the first year.

The newly defined bonuses in the obscenely high compensation packages for corporate executives are therefore bad capitalism. They play to only the basest motivation toward excellence, the one that attracts money addicts. Moreover, without complex compensation packages, we would need far fewer absurd euphemisms like “retention bonus” to becloud the discussion of corporate leadership.

100 Funniest Words Book Signing

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

100 funniest wordsI hadn’t planned to be this delinquent at the blog again but the weekend was complicated by the book signing. None of my academic book publishers offered a signing opportunity or a book publishing party—that isn’t part of their marketing strategy. However, when Murrie A. Zlotziver of the Page After Page bookstore in Lewisburg asked me to do one, I saw it as a new experience and accepted. I was not disappointed.

It was more of a social event when the majority of my friends came and chatted me about their favorite funny words, what makes words funny, etc. At 5:30 we moved the party to the house and opened the champagne.  The party went on way past the 7:30 deadline and was equally as enjoyable, despite losing a few people to the library auction, which began at 7:30. (I donated a signed copy of the book.)

Anyway, I’m back and will have a few more things to say this week.

Dictionary of the Future?

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

The VisuWords website may offer a glimpse of dictionaries of the future. It extends the technology of The Visual Thesaurus by using different designs and color codes for different types of relations–and is a dictionary rather than a thesaurus with meanings added.  Synonyms are automatically available since the relationships are semantic rather than alphabetical.

All that is missing is the integrated grammar with the different forms of the words, e.g. drive, drove, driven, driving, something less important for English than other languages which have 30-40 verb forms, some regular, some not.

Anyway, it is fun to play with and dream about. Maybe we’ll bring it to alphaDictionary since the source is open.

Words Hidden in Words

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Yesterday Martin Kirk raised this issue:

“I am trying to find out whether there is a word to describe the written linguistic situation where a word is unintentionally misspelled, resulting in another correct word which makes sense in the context but is the opposite of that intended in an ironic way, e.g. cease the opportunity instead of seize the opportunity or relive the pain instead of relieve the pain.”

“I have quries this with the Oxford Dictionary Press‘s ‘question line’ and they suggest that I am describing a malapropism. I do not agreee withn this. Have you any better sugestions.”

I can think of a couple of points in this connection. First, however, remember that languages are spoken or signed. Writing is a superficial attempt at symbolizing what is spoken. Fewer than 2000 of the world’s approximately 6700 languages and dialects have functioning writing systems. While writing has some effect on language change (adding the T in the pronunciation of often), it is marginal to the point of being trivial.

The question, then, resolves to one of whether mispronunciation leads to permanent language change. The mispronunciation of courtesy led to curtsy and, if you follow our Good Word series, you know that ornery was once a mispronunciation of ordinary. These words are examples of phonological reduction, very common in language; we see it all the time in contractions.

This process is not usually referred to as malapropism, which is usually the mispronunciation of a word so that it sounds like another, e.g. a fire distinguisher or a wolf in cheap clothing. My favorite was actually written in a freshman thesis at Bucknell some years ago: a devil-make-hair attitude.

The words you mention (relive – relieve, seize – cease) are only accidentally similar and are wholly unrelated derivationally and historically. The only similar normal historical change I know of is a change in pronunciation that leads to the loss of the relationship of a derivation to its base or origin. I call them words with hidden words within them for lack of a term and they seem to have caught only my eye (or, more properly, ear).

I’m thinking now of words like disease which today is unrelated semantically to ease, the word it was derived from. No one out of the cloth associates atonement with its origin, the phrase at one. We don’t think of business as simply the activity of being busy any more.

So far as I know, I’m the only one writing about such words and I haven’t named them yet. What do you think we should call them?