Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for June, 2011

How Many Meanings of “UP”?

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Up, up, upLou Ann Freeman finally sent me a really funny essay about the many meanings of the word “up”, so I’ll take the opportunity to write up my thoughts on this subject. It was on my agenda the year I retired from academia, but I never quite found time to look up up. You may very well be among the very first to understand exactly how it operates.

To get us started, here is the beginning of the essay that Lou Ann sent:

  • “People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.
  • To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP  is  special.
  • And this is confusing:  A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.
  • We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP   at night.
  • We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!”

Well, no, we aren’t. It is true that up has several functions. It can be an adverb, as when prices go up. I can be a preposition as when the monkey goes up the flagpole. It is a verb when we up the ante.  Finally, it can be a verbal particle, which is quite different from a preposition, though most prepositions server double duty as a verbal particle.

So, what is a verbal particle? English uses verbal particles the way other Indo-European languages use prefixes.  The English verb chase out corresponds to the German hinausjagen made up of the prefix hinaus “out” + jagen “to chase”. In Russian gnat’ means “to chase” and “chase out” = vygnat’ with the prefix vy- “out”.

So out in chase out is a verbal particle, predictable by the fact that it does not require an object and moves around freely in a sentence: “I chased the cat out” or “I chased out the cat.” The verbal particle up behaves similarly: “I dressed up the cat” or “I dressed the cat up.”

Since particles behave like prefixes and suffixes in other languages, it means that they are not real words but function words, words that represent grammatical categories, like past tense, plural, and comparative. Up the verbal particle expresses the perfect aspect, a verb category that indicates a completed action. It is very consistent in this expression.

In most cases, it can be translated as “completely” for this adverb indicates the absolute completion of an action. So the difference between opening a store and opening it up a can, let’s say, is the fact that the can has been completely opened. A drain that is clogged up is one that is completely clogged. (A clogged drain might still let some water pass.) If you dress, you put on clothes but if you dress up, you are completely dressed, that is, as best you can be dressed.

Before I finish up, let me say this: I enjoyed Lou Ann’s essay; the writer brought up about as much humor from this misconception as may be found there. However, when properly used, language is very consistent. It is about 2-3% irregular but, considering the species that uses it, that is a modest deviation.  Up is not one of the irregularities.

Where are the Editors?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The Wall Street Journal’s free website, Marketwatch, declared on the front page June 28, 2011 that the price of gold had fallen below $1500 a barrel. The next day an article entitled, “Whose better are fighting credit card fraud?” popped up.

This raises the question: Where are the editors? Things like this didn’t happen in the past century. Today we find not only typos like these cropping up more and more frequently, but factually false claims arising and being discussed as though they had some legitimate news-worthiness.

Why would any TV channel persist in carrying comments by Michele Bachmann that

  • John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa
  • That the founding fathers fought hard against slavery when many owned slaves
  • That the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired in Concord, New Hampshire
  • That significant numbers of the members of Congress are anti-American?

These claims reflect an astounding ignorance of the nation Bachmann ostensibly wishes to preside over—unless she is just running another scampaign. In the past century people like Bachmann never ran for president because they could not get any coverage on TV or in the newspapers because of editors.

News in the US, unfortunately, has been converted into entertainment like sports (note the end-zone dancing after a touchdown in football). But I long for the day when news organizations operated like the Washington Post described in All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Nothing was printed in their investigation of Richard Nixon that wasn’t verified by at least one second source and what was printed was edited for spelling, grammar, and accuracy.

Of course, Bernstein’s and Woodward’s investigation ran a little deeper than investigations today: they were investigating what politicians were doing, not just what they were saying.

Campaigns and Scampaigns

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

A word that has been floating around for a few years caught my attention when it was applied to election campaigns. I don’t like to promote blends like scam + campaign as a means of expanding the vocabulary because they are not a part of the grammar of English. But this one works so well I can’t resist the temptation.

The word apparently originated in the advertising business and referred to fake advertising campaigns for nonexistent products that were submitted for ad-of-the-year awards.

Now the word seems to apply equally well to political campaigns like that of Donald Trump, campaigns with ostensibly ulterior motives, such as to promote a TV series, or to increase book sales, commercial visibility or income in general.

In politics the scampaign is very, very new, so it is difficult to separate the scampaigns from the campaigns. I suspect the distinction will become clearer as time passes.

Empretzeling Oneself

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

I just received a comment on self-empretzelment from Dr. Margie Sved:

“I would have thought self-empretzeltment meant something a contortionist would do!!”

In fact, her interpretation works for me. The current meaning should have come from the one she mentions as a metaphorical (figurative) usage and semantically it does.

It is not uncommon for a derived word to appear historically before its semantic predecessor, so it would be possible for a word like uninsightfulness, say, to be used before anyone uses uninsightful. The longer word would come directly from its stem, insightful, prior to uninsightful arising from the same stem.

Happens all the time.

Osculating Fans

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Sally Colby just shared a funny experience she had with the verb osculate that I thought should be shared with you all:

“I’ll never forget going to a department store to purchase a fan about 30 years ago. The (very young) sales girl showed us the features of various fans, including one she really liked.

‘This one is great,’ she said. ‘It works standing still, or it can osculate.’

It was hard not to laugh, but I sure chuckled in the car on the way home.”

Of course, you must mind your nose.

Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, Alumnae

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Probably half the words in English were borrowed from Latin or its descendants, French, Italian, and Spanish. Today English is hardly recognizable for the Germanic language it is, cousin to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

Originally, the plural forms of Latin nouns were borrowed along with the singular forms, so that the plural of abacus was abaci, of cactus, cacti. As time passed, however, that has changed in bewildering ways.

Abacuses and cactuses have all but totally replaced cacti and abaci, and foci is used as a plural of focus only in academic institutions. All dictionaries now list the plurals of callus and sinus as calluses and sinuses as the only options.

On the other side of the coin, most speakers don’t even know that agenda and media are, in historical fact, the plurals of agendum and medium. (Radio is one medium.) More and more I hear “a phenomena” presumably spoken by people who don’t know that the singular is phenomenon.

Gigi Marino, Editor of the Bucknell Magazine tells me she is weary of reading “I am an alumni” in letters to her office. The plural of the Latin word for “pupil”, alumnus, has not changed and is not even in the process of changing. The plural of this word is not optional but only alumni. It is the plural, not the singular. “I am an alumnus,” is the only way to express the singular sense of this word.

I suspect the reason for the plural of this word taking over the singular is the awkwardness of the expected change, alumni > alumnuses. No matter, the only plural for this word is alumni.

One final note. Not only did English borrow the Latin word for “pupil” as its word for “alumnus”, it borrowed the feminine forms: alumna and plural alumnae, pronounced [ahlumnee] to refer to female alums. Again, alumnae is the only plural form of alumna.

So, what if we are talking about several graduates, some men, some women? The general rule in Latin and all related languages is that in the general form covering both genders is the masculine. So alumni may refer to several male graduates or a mixture of male and female graduates. Also, if you are not sure whether the alum is male or female, alumnus is the general term to use. (This a grammatical rule that has nothing to do with sexism, by the way.)