Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for February, 2010

Taking ‘Tea Party’ Back

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Eloise blowing raspberries at political tea-partiersMy wife loves nothing more than outfitting our grand- daughters (and, more recently, grandson) and taking them out to tea when we visit them in Denver. In fact, on our last visit her birthday party was a tea party with both our sons and their families at the lovely House of Commons tea shop in downtown Denver. It was a huge affair attended by all, even three-month-old Eloise (seen at the left in her special tea-party dress blowing raspberries at anyone who would sully the expression “tea party” with politics).

The term “tea party” already has a pleasant, totally apolitical meaning that has been around for centuries. Our founding fathers used it in jest in referring to their very specific political attack as “The Boston Tea Party”. The use was a joke in good taste and the use of the word “tea” was relevant.

The term is now being sullied by corporate forces having nothing whatsoever to do with tea, nothing to do with the independence of the United States, and with undertones of skullduggery that the tender thoughts of kindness and civility associated with tea parties do not deserve.

I know this is a lone voice in the wilderness and after the midterm elections the misuse of this breath of lexical and social loveliness will probably fade from the air waves. However, I wish to engage the same rights of free speech as the political “Tea Partiers” claim and register my dismay at the corruption of this innocent expression of social civility that raises such fond memories for most of us.

Phishing, Frenemies, and Smoving

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Tom Bivens just picked up a new nonce word that he thinks may make it into the language. The Web has, in fact, made it easier for (mis)created words to creep into common usage, so he may be right. Here is what Tom wrote:

Smove is not a word yet but it’s about to be. I am hearing it and seeing it in writing more often. It means to smile and move on.”

Of course, it doesn’t mean that to you and me because it isn’t a word in the English vocabulary yet. It is a blend, two words simply smushed together. Blending is popular means of creating new words among reporters, publicists, and marketers, the source of such common blends that did stick as smog and motel. The rules of English create words with prefixes and suffixes, though, since English prefixes and suffixes have been vanishing for centuries, we have had to resort to more radical means of creating neologisms (new words).

I wrote Tom that I’m going to wait for this one. Oddities are like blog, phish, and frenemy) are flooding the language. Now, I’m not a grammar Nazi; I’m willing to accept them if they are forced down my throat. Like these other “words”, Smove is not formed by a rule of the English language but a logical rule that says that smushing two words together smushes their meanings together in understandable ways.

As I told my linguistics students for a couple of decades, we created English so we can do with it what we please. However, there should be some sort of democratic majority behind whatever changes we make and that is what grammatical rules are supposed to form. Nonce words make coagulating such majority support for a word difficult.

A nonce word is a word created for a specific occasion or situation that eventually evaporates leaving no use for the word. The problem with nonce words, aside from their evanescence, is that they have to be wholly memorized. Words like memory chip (actually one compound word), processor, and networks that we use in speaking about computers don’t require any explanation; we pick them up straightway. Someone has to tell us what words like phish, chad, blog, frenemy mean, so they interrupt the flow of conversation and actually hinder communication.

I am grateful to Tom for tipping me off, though. I do like to spot these new creatures before they bite me. My throat is so sore from swallowing so many already, what harm could one more do?

Squalid Fish Scales

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Andrea wrote a few days ago in reference to our Good Word squalid the following:

“In response to the squalid Good Word: the minute I read in your text that squalare meant meant ‘to be covered with a rough, scaly layer, be coated with dirt, be filthy,’ I thought of scales and wondered whether the concept “squalid” is related to fish scales. [This] would also make sense because of the identical word for a large fish in Latin squalus and filthy. So not that fish become stinky, but that being covered in scales when you are a fish and to be so dirty that you are scaly (when a person) are similar.”

In fact, I can mentally picture a squalid house falling apart like fish scales fall from a fish, so I am in sympathy with Andrea’s connection. In fact, I tried to suggest that without committing myself to a firm connection since I could find no etymologist who would agree with me.

The problem is that if this were the case (and I believe the similarities too close for it not to be), it was the case before Latin developed from other Italic languages and we have no record of words that are ambiguous between “scaly” and “squalid”. So we have to rest on “in all probability”. That is as far as even I have courage to wander.

A Blizzard-like Storm

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

The local newspaper carried this headline today: “Blizzard-like Storm Coming!” I’ve been trying to figure out what to expect all morning. How much like a blizzard must a snow storm be in order to be an actual blizzard?

A blizzard, of course, is a heavy snow storm with high winds. Will we be having heavy snow with little or no wind? Or a heavy wind with little or no snow? Would that, too, be a “blizzard-like” storm.

The two parts of the word blizzard are not equal: a blizzard is a kind of snow storm, so snow, unfortunately, will be at the bottom of whatever we receive tomorrow.

The accompanying article confirms this, unfortunately. Wind clearly will be playing little or no role in the heavy snow the blizzard-like storm will drop on top of the aftermath of the last blizzard-like storm.

I can’t complain, though: we have had a relatively mild winter up to this point.

Limning the History of Limnology

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Kim Churchman responded to my treatment of limn with the following comment. I’ll bet it occurred to others, as well:

“About limn: doesn’t limnology mean the study of lakes? How does that fit with your definition of limn?

The answer is straightforward: in no way at all. Yes, the word limne means “lake” in Greek and, I think, Latin, too. But English limn comes from Latin lumen “light”, after good working over down through the ages.

Remember that English has been hauling words out of Latin for centuries. The words borrowed in earlier centuries underwent all the changes English has gone through since Old English. Limnology is a recent addition, only since lakes became a focus of scientific study.