Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for May, 2009

Words that Describe and Designate

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

A “news” story that doesn’t seem to want to go away is the search for a new name for the US anti-terrorism activities. The Bush Administration called them “The Global War on Terrorism”, even though it is focused on only two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact makes the expression poorly descriptive; “Binational War on Terrorism” would more accurately describe what we are actually doing.

The problem is that “Global War on Terrorism” (or G-WOT, as it is called in the Pentagon) has become ingrained in the culture in ways that are difficult to undo. Members of the Obama administration prefer the phrase “Overseas Contingency Operations”. This phrase is broader and could include operations other than those against terrorism but for that reason it is vague and descriptive of something few people have a clear picture of.

The problem here is between two functions of words and phrases. Some words and phrases are descriptive, i.e. their meanings fit perfectly their references. Writer means “someone who writes” and is perfectly descriptive in that anyone who writes is a writer. Write means “write” and -er means “someone who”.

Other words, however, are simply designative, i.e. they designate (name) an object without describing it. London, for example, simply designates a city in England without describing it. Proper nouns are all designative: John, Mary, Algernon only designate certain people without describing them, as do words like genius, dolt, cut-up.

“The Global War on Terrorism” is both descriptive and designative. It is a poor description as mentioned above, so calls for a better term. However, as a designation of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it works fine and has worked fine for eight years. Having ensconced itself over that period as the designation of what we are doing in those two countries, it will be very difficult, if at all possible, to replace it.

Words Lost in Words

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

We at Lexiteria are in the process of developing a collection of folk etymologies. Along the way we have stumbled over an interesting facet of words that might be called “reverse folk etymology”. Folk etymology is the conversion of a foreign or unfamiliar word into one that is more familiar, such as the conversion of French dormeuse “sleepy (one)” to dormouse and kith and kin to kissing kin. The opposite would be to make a recognizable word unrecognizable.

The following list of words have “lost words” in them, words we no longer see or hear when we speak:

  • sweater (hidden word sweat)
  • business (hidden word busy)
  • atonement (hidden words at one)
  • disease (hidden word ease)
  • necklace (hidden word lace)


We no longer think of sweaters as clothing designed to make us sweat but to simply keep up warm. Business in no longer ‘busy-ness’ and has come to be pronounced [biznis] or even [bidnis]. Atonement is a form of repentence, making up for bad deeds, and not making anything at one with another. The pronunciation of this word makes it clear that it has been reanalyzed as [atonment].

Disease has come to be something much more painful than simple uneasiness or discomfort. But that is the meaning it began with. Finally, Lace worn around the neck is no longer called necklace; necklaces are countable things made of almost anything but lace. Concomitantly, their pronunciation has shfted to blur the word lace: [neklis].

These are examples of two discrete processes. First, semantic drift, the tendency of the meanings of words to drift way from their original meaning over time . The second is the tendency of words to be reanalyzed and pronounced differently over time. The examples above starkly reveal the two critical historical changes that words undergo if they remain in English for centures.

Some of None is Plural

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Lindsey Branch made the following observation about the grammar of Tuesday’s (May 19) Good Word, antidisestablishmentarianism: “In your text on these few ‘longest words’ the comment ‘none have been used…’ should read ‘none has been used ….’ The last I heard was that none is still a singular noun.”

In my opinion it has never been a singular (pro)noun; that is another conceit forced upon writers in the US by editors, the same ones who push “an historical” and “aren’t I“. Editors came to this conclusion when one of them discovered that none was originally not one, an irrelevant fact since it clearly is not that now.

Although all grammarians agree that plural is possible, they also all offer the wrong reason if they offer any at all (e.g. the American Heritage Dictionary). None is plural because it is the negative equivalent of some: “Some were arriving; none were leaving.” As always, I prefer consistency in usage where grammar itself is unclear.

NoneNow, you might argue that none is the negative equivalent of one. It isn’t a strong argument, since it leaves us open to the question, “Well, then, what are the negative equivalents of two, three, four, etc.? Numbers don’t have negative equivalents the way pronouns do. Still, if you feel confortable saying “None is,” that is fine; you have all the editors in the US behind you. Just keep in mind that those of us who say, “None are,” are also perfectly correct. (I generally use the plural because no one confuses the issue in my dialect group—the folks down South with whom I grew up.)

In the Floor for Discussion

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Here is an interesting question that arrived today from Dwaine Byrd of Detroit:

“I consider myself to have a fairly decent mastery of the English language, but living in the Detroit area, though raised in the South, I hear an occasional giggle when I use a term that is typically heard south of the Mason-Dixon. One of the terms I have a very hard time getting past is ‘in the floor’. I am told that it should be ‘on the floor’, which I perfectly understand and don’t argue at all. However, down home, ‘in the floor’ is very common and understood. I suppose it would be akin to getting in the bed at night to go to sleep. One doesn’t get ‘on the bed’, he gets in it. And when I take my clothes off, I put them ‘in the floor’.”

“You know, after proofreading this, it sounds a lot stranger than it actually is, but is ‘in the floor’ as common as I had always supposed it to be? Or is this term just completely taboo?”

Well, I’m from rural North Carolina, which is pretty far south and an area where turns of phrase pretty alien to Yankees are commonplace (see my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms for a sampling). However, I’ve never heard this phrase before either from North Carolinians nor from people I know from elsewhere in the South.

Of course, that fact does not deter a proud former academic like myself from expressing an opinion. I have talked about dialects several times in this blog and I may have even mentioned idiolects, dialects that are constrained to a very small area, even to a single family or person. I think that is what we are dealing with here.

In and on have an interesting relationship which I might even look into some day. While Dwaine doesn’t sleep on the bed, he does, I’ll bet, sit on it. Saying that something is “in the floor” suggests that it is logically located there. In this case, if something was dropped out of place on the floor, I would expect “on the floor”. 

But I’ll bet this is not the case in Dwaine’s idiolect. I would guess that it is simply idiomatic, in a category of oddities like the use by New Yorkers of “standing on line” rather than “in line”. Why do they do that? Probably someone of prominence, an immigré no doubt, used this expression a long time ago and, despite its going against the grain of linguistic intuition, it stuck. If so, then there is no explanation. It is there for the same unreason we call a long, fat pastry a ladyfinger and a fuzzy caterpillar a wooly bear (more on this).

You shouldn’t be embarrassed, Dwaine. This little phrase helps distinguish you from the crowd. That isn’t bad. However, if it is too much for you to handle, you might try hanging your clothes up when you go to bed. That way you won’t have to use the phrase and I’m sure someone in your family will appreciate it.

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Jesus on National Prayer Day

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Ignoring “National Prayer Day” reflects the seriousness of President Obama’s Christianity. It is at moments like this that I like to review what Jesus of Nazareth has to say about prayer beginning in Matthew 6:5:

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

This passage is followed by the sample prayer Jesus provided for us, the Lord’s Prayer, which he admonishes us to use as a guide and never repeat (“But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking”).

So, Jesus of Nazareth apparently considers those who participate in such activities “hypocrites” and “heathens” and he stands foursquare, unequivocally and unalterably opposed to the promotional efforts behind National Prayer Day—even as he opposes school and open church prayer.

Something to pray about.

Why Swine Flu Now?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Throughout most of my life people around me have been saying that we would have a black president when pigs fly. Well, we have one now and guess what? Swine flu. (Thank you Paul Ogden for passing it along.)

Why is W Called ‘Double U’?

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Do you ever wonder about the names of letters? Generally, they are straightforward: A is ay, B is bee, C is see, and so on. But there is one very peculiar name: W = Double U. Did you ever wonder why?

The letters U is a fairly modern innovation. In Rome it was often carved as V to avoid the difficult-to-carve rounded bottom.  Even in Old English manuscripts you see it drawn this way.  So V years ago was a U named “you” (or “ewe”).  So, if you put two of these together, as in W, what do you get? Right.

The interesting thing about the sounds these three letters, U, V, and W, represent, is that one often morphs into one of the others over time. The sounds [u] and [w] (nothing but lip-puckering) are essentially the vowel and consonant variation of the same linguistic sound (phoneme), so that periodically you will find old typesetting with no W, so that west is spelled uest and woman, uoman.