Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for July, 2009


Friday, July 31st, 2009

This past weekend I developed a condition in my left big toe (why don’t we have a special word for it, as we do for thumbs?). This condition involved swelling, a rise in temperature, and a pain as great as I have ever experienced.

The GoutThe odd thing about this odd joint pain is that it was as great when I and my toe were motionless as it when I walked with all my weight on it. It emerged early Sunday night when I was asleep and prevented any further sleep that night. Monday morning I went to the local clinic. The medical assistant who came in to check my temperature and blood pressure before the doctor arrived, looked at my toe and said, “It looks like gout.”
“Gout!??!” Surely you jest! Nobody gets gout any more. That was an almost jocular disease that attacked fat, lazy, rich people who overindulged in rich foods back in the 18th and 19th centuries (see illustration—that’s not me, by the way). You read about it in the novels of that period. Surely middle-class US-ers in the 21st (!) century don’t come down with the gout!

The attending physician came in, looked at the toe and said, “It looks like gout.” “How could I have gout?” I responded. “What causes it?”

“Animal organs, shellfish, and wine,” he replied.

That was the menu for my dinner Saturday night! At last I’ve reached the point where I can enjoy liver patê, lobster, and a glass or two of excellent wine. I have a meal like that once, maybe twice, rarely thrice a month. Now you tell me I have to pay and even greater price for the education of my palate than what the restaurant charged!?

“Gout is not that uncommon,” the doctor told me. “You are not the only person in the world able to afford good food.”

So, what is gout? He explained that uric acid as is normally found in urine, makes its way to the toe joint where it forms crystals in the joint of the big toe. (Are we sure there is not word for it like thumb?)

Wha-a-a-a-t!? What is the connection between urine and—of all the joints in the body—the big toe? Well, rarely other joints are affected. No, no, no! That is not my point. What is the uric acid-big toe connection? Well, researchers are working on that question. All they know is that hyperuricemia, too much uric acid in the bloodstream, leads to gout and gout naturally gravitates to the big toe. That is all we need to know since several drugs cure or control it: colchicine and corticosteroids like prednisone.

After two of the pills prescribed by the attending physician (my doctor was away on vacation), the symptoms vanished—even more quickly than they occurred. Now, I need to reduce my weight by a few pounds, continue my exercise routines, drink plenty of water every day, and avoid overindulging in shellfish, dried beans, anchovies, animal organs (foie gras, patê, haggis!), and drinking too much wine, at least, all at the same time.

Nicknames and Sobriquets

Monday, July 27th, 2009

I was rather taken aback at the response to our recent Good Word nickname. A reader by the rather silky name of Monroe Thomas Clewis admitted, “I have always enjoyed silkier sobriquet as a synonym for the more leathery nickname.”

I must admit material sympathy for Mr. Clewis’s preference. I do think that we have room for both these terms, though. I wouldn’t want to stretch the patience of sobriquet to names like Knucklehead, Stinky, Pusslegut, or even Buck, for that matter. So, I would say that there are both nicknames and sobriquets in this world, and may never the twain collide.

A Canadian reader, Davi McGrew, after buttering me up with an ostensible confession of pleasure in the daily Good Word, tried to tauten my definition of nickname in this way: “It seems to me that Pat, etc. should more properly be acknowledged as diminutives rather than nicknames…of which I have had several myself. If the point was to ‘add something to, or enrich’ [Great approach: pinning me down with a direct quote–DG] then a bald shortening seems besides the point.”

I’m one of the few US-ers who give Canada credit for harboring several clever people, so I am not at all surprised at Davi’s comment—nor his sly argumentational tactics. I fully appreciate them, in fact, even though they leave me unconvinced. Pat as a nickname for Patrick or Patricia could be a “clipping”, i.e. a word the majority of which has been clipped, e.g. Doc for doctor, rep for representative.

I don’t think, though, that I could call it a diminutive, a word that indicates a smaller version, as a napkin was once though to be a smaller version of an apron. English doesn’t sport diminutives any more, just the vestiges of them in words on -kin and a few borrowings from French on -ette, as when the former cigarette was a smaller version of the still current cigar.

Nicknames do sometimes come with diminutives. Billy is more likely applied to a small Bill than a large one; Annie sounds more girlish to me than Anne. In fact, we have lots of these in English: Bobby, Jacky, Johnny. But this is not a consistency in the language. Molly is something quite different from a Moll and I wouldn’t take Leslie all the way down to Lessie.

Anyway, these words do show us how we can find some of the most uncommon behavior in the commonest of our speech habits.

Black and White and Gray (Grey)

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

As the racism begins to boil to the surface of US politics again, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my brother-in-law on my last visit to North Carolina. I am, of course, the black sheep of the family, voting for the Obama in the last election. My brother-in-law, living in a sea of Republicans in rural NC, rather than avoid discussing politics with me, brought up the point, “Well, Obama’s as much white as he is black, isn’t he?”

My brother-in-law’s perspective may be spreading; witness the fact that North Carolina voted for Obama in the 2008 elections. On the surface, the remark makes clear that racism remains a real if fading political factor in the US. What interests me, though, is a deeper, more subtle semantic question at issue here: Why is a person who is half white and half black, black? Why is Halle Berry the first “African American” female actor to receive an Academy Award? Why is President Obama a black president? Where is the logic here?

So it is in the US: if you are any part African American, you are African American. If you have just a few drops of African blood in you and you call yourself white, you are “passing” for white, the word passing implying deception. Why is a person who is 1/16 African and 15/16 European deceiving people that he or she is  white? You can only get 1/16 whiter. Why isn’t a person who is 1/16 white and 15/16 black, “passing” for black? In other words, why doesn’t the majority win in determining race as it does in determining elections?

I always taught my students that the language we speak does not determine our attitudes; however, our attitudes are reflected in how we speak. The definitions of black and white in US politics tell a sad tale of how we still think of the races in the US. So what is president Obama? Simple. He is a man.

Top Language Blogs of 2009

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I know, I know—I haven’t been around for a week. In that week, though, I’ve finished The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English and sent it out for editing. There is yet a possibility that we may get it out by the end of August, so keep an eye out for the announcement.

In the meantime, remember all the good stuff you’ve read here in the past and vote for us at the Lexiphile website, which is running a “Best Language Websites of 2009” contest. The page is here, just click this and look for “Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog” in the list.

Pejorative Words for Women

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Stephen Greenfield, a creative photographer in Cleveland, Tennesee yesterday came to the good Doctor with this problem:

“I’m trying to sort out what a male lover is called (not gigolo, boy toy, or pool boy) that corresponds to the feminine mistress, simply a female lover seen by a married man—not a kept woman, merely a woman a married man sees from time to time, sex just being a part of the equation.”

“What is the term when a married woman has an unmarried male lover? Geez, you would think that might have been settled long ago, but my research turns up nothing except debates about what is a mistress and long, dry dissertations written from a woman’s point-of-view of glass-ceilings, power, money, you name it, and they all claim it.”

The male lexical counterpart of mistress is master. Notice how this word has not developed in the same direction as mistress. Why not?

If I haven’t written on this topic before, I’ve discussed it for 30 years in my introductory linguistic courses. The fact of the matter is, English and most other Indo-European languages contains FAR more pejorative terms for women than for men. Notice that even two of the words for “lover” that Stephen cites, boy toy and pool boy, reflect pejoratively on the women who have them more so than on the toys and boys themselves. Gigolo is the exception because it refers to deceitful, unreliable men.

Let’s begin with a few relatively clean pejorative surrogates for woman: bimbo, cow, clothes-horse, crone, dog, fishwife, floozy, frump, hag, harlot, harpy, hussy, milf, moll, nag, prude, shrew, siren, skirt, spinster, tart, temptress, wench, witch, working girl. Prejudice against women is a flagrant characteristic of the English vocabulary.

There is no comparable list of pejorative words referring exclusively to men (i.e. not referring equally to men and women) that rivals this list. Of course, we can easily build a comparable list of pejoratives referring to homosexual men. However, they are accused precisely of being feminine by homosexophobes. This has long been an argument of the existence of a strongly male-dominated society.

Given this fact of English, why would we need a word referring to a male lover other than lover? Again, notice that a male lover is something to be admired unpejoratively while the pale penumbra of shame always hovers over the female lover.

Happy Fourth All

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

I’m trying to finish The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English while keeping up with the site, creating word lists, and managing translation jobs. I haven’t had much time to write blogs but I do have one for tomorrow. For today, let me just say, “Happy Fourth to All”, and recommend our Good Word for today, Yankee.