Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for April, 2010

Farewell, Southern Accents?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Bekki just dropped of this note:

Rebel-Yankee flagsThat’s too funny! I just took the Advanced Yankee VS Dixie test and it said that I am 1% Dixie. I grew up in Richmind, Virginia, the capital of the South. Still, with a father from Conetticut and a mother from a different country completely, I guess it’s not that unusual.

Well, Bekki, first let a North Carolinian correct your geography: Richmond is the capital of Virginia. Any city claiming the title of “Capital of the South” would have to be located a bit deeper in the South.

More to your point, our Rebel-Yankee and Advanced Rebel-Yankee Tests can only reflect how you speak, not where you live. In fact, as the years roll by, its accuracy may be fading.

My sisters in North Carolina just equipped themselves with Skype and we are talking with each other more frequently. The remarkable thing is that my sisters’ southern accent is still quite remarkable but their grandchildren–all of them–speak with no identifiable accent, which is to say, just like TV personalities.

If you are young, you may be in that first generation of Southerners who have lost their regional identity as expressed by regional dialects. Television and radio, combined with the growing migration from North to South, is eroding the most noticeable cultural difference between the two regions. I fear that in another 20 years, the Rebel-Yankee Tests may be irrelevant.

Incentive: An Incendiary Word?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

I’m having to adjust the Word History of a recent Good Word, incentive, as a result of a note from Monika Freund of Germany. My word history went thus:

“Incentive comes from Late Latin incentivus “singing a tune, inciting”, from incinere “to sound off”. This verb is made up of in-, an intensifier prefix + canere “to sing”. The Latin stem can- also underlies the noun, carmen “song, poem” which, after French worked its magic on it, emerged as charme, a word we borrowed less the silent [e]. In the Germanic languages the same root came up as Hahn, still the German word for that fowl singer, the rooster. The feminine of this word, Henne, shares the same ancestor as English hen.”

Monika wrote: “I don’t think incentive has anything to do with incincere “to sing”. It must be derived from incendere, which means “to set on fire to, to encourage”. In German you also say “Man feuert jemanden an “You set someone on fire (with a special treat etc).” Indeed, in English we say “to set a fire under him/her” in the sense of incentivizing them.

I should have mentioned that the meaning of the word was probably influenced by incendere “to set afire” but my etymology is correct. The English word comes from Latin incentivus “setting to music”; the correlate adjective from incendere is incensivus, also borrowed by English as insensive “fiery, tending to inflame, inciting”.

The metaphor in the case of incentive was by analogy of setting passive words to music to make them move. However, many etymologists do believe the shift in meaning was influenced by the sense of incendere, a note I should have added to my Word History.

Back to Back-to-Back

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Actually, I’m not coming back to this funny little idiom, I just thought the title was catchy and, if you are reading this, it would seem to have worked.

Of course, idioms like “back to back” cannot be analyzed but must be taken at face value (so to speak). However, I did try to imagine how eight episodes of “Murder She Wrote” could be shown “back to back” as was announced sometimes in the not too awfully distant past on some television channel I occasionally peruse.

As I visualized these episodes, the first would have to be played forward, the second backward for them to be shown back-to-back. This means that episode two and three would be shown face to face–if anyone was still watching after number two was shown backward. Episodes three and four could then be shown back to back again.

Of course, I should be writing this idiom with hyphens, “back-to-back”, as do the dictionaries. “Back to back” without hyphens would mean literally “back to back”, as to stand back to back before stepping off ten paces in a duel.

We could avoid all this confusion with another phrase, face to back, but no one seems to be using this expression. We need it. That is the way bands march and people sit in auditoriums. Why isn’t it around? Let’s start using it. That’ll teach them.


Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Chris Stewart, a long-time e-friend from South Africa just pointed out that we have a new element that craves naming:

“See this New York Times article…. I propose to call this new element Superunobtanium, a name that speaks for itself and which I believe to be quite apposite considering only 6 atoms of the stuff have ever existed on this planet. However, there seems to be a committee of fuddy-duddies tasked with naming these things in commemoration of people who had nothing to do with their discovery and I imagine they would frown on such an eminently sensible appellation.”

Unobtanium, of course, is a fictitious element used by physicists and engineers in thought experiments pertaining to devices that cannot be produced because the material they require is “unobtainable”. It is also behind all the squabbles in the 3-D semi-cartoon movie Avatar. It has the unusual superproperty of having exactly the properties required by the use to which it is put.

Chris is one of those techies who would be in constant need of both these elements. I am one of those non-techies who can only pull my jaw back up and wonder at the discussion. I would much rather discuss the far more critical issue of whether unobtanium should be spelled with an I or not: unobtanium or unobtainium? I think the former looks much more impressive. The Grand Panjandrum of Fuddy-Duddidom has spoken.

Armed Threats in the Slow Lane

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Slow-lane officers in my hometown defused a dangerous situation which, no doubt and unfortunately, will be repeated elsewhere as the demand for more arms on our streets continues to rise. The Sunbury Daily Item reported Thursday that an armed gunman entered the Lewisburg courthouse insulting the local constabulary and threatening to rob a bank. (No doubt he intended to ask directions to one, too.)

Sheriff Ernie Ritter reported, “We made sure the area around the situation was safe, and then we began to move in,” Ritter said. “We assisted the man to the ground without incident and found a .45 Springfield Armory handgun with multiple magazines on him.”

Exactly why the man wanted to be on the ground was not made clear but then we in the slow lane can live with fuzzy details. Protection from himself, no doubt, was high on his mind. The important thing is that the man was neither thrown nor wrestled to the ground but merely assisted there. The reponse was the helpful, more Samaritanical and, hence, more appropriate to the simple and gentler life we are accustomed to here in the Slow Lane.


Wednesday, April 7th, 2010


I occasionally refer to reduplication in the word histories of my Good Words and Steve Parris has asked that I elaborate on it. Since it will require work on my part that I would prefer not to reduplicate (so to speak) in the future, I thought it better to share it with everyone.

Languages that use affixes (prefixes, suffixes, infixes) generally attach predefined affixes to the stems of words. In English, suffixes include -er, -ed, -ing, and the everpresent -s. They are spelled the same way—or vary slightly in predictable ways—when they are added to a stem: paintpaint-er, paint-ing, paint-s.

Some languages simply reduplicate the entire word as an affix. In Chinese, ren means “person” while renren means “everyone”. In Malay rumah means “house” while rumah-rumah means “houses”. Wiki in Hawaiian means “fast” while wiki-wiki means “very fast”, much like red, red rose means “a very red rose” in English.

Some languages, however, reduplicate prefixes, suffixes, and infixes from letters (or sounds) in each stem, so that they vary greatly from stem to stem. Ancient Greek, for example, had a prefix which we could symbolize as Ce-, where the capital C represents the first consonant of any Greek verb to which it is attached. This prefix marked the perfective aspect, indicating the absolute completion of the action named by the verb. In that language we find the following words:

bio- “live”:   be-biō-k- (bebiōk-) “have lived”
game- “marry”:  ge-gamē-k- (gegamēk-) “have married”
ly- “unfasten”:  le-lŷk (lelŷk-) “have unfastened”

In other words, the initial consonant of this prefix “reduplicates” the first consonant of the stem to which it is attached. In the Tsimshian language, spoken by a native American people on the West Coast of the US, the plural is formed by adding the prefix Cik- where, again, the C will be whatever consonant occurs initially on the stem to which it is attached:

dasx “squirrel”:  dik-dasx “squirrels”
seyp “bone”:  sip-seyp “bones”
yexł “spit”:  yip-yexł (yipyexł) “spits”

That is what “reduplication” is: copying a letter or two from the stem into a prefix or suffix that is added to it.