Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for January, 2012

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.

Quarreling, Arguing, and Debating

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

We have lost sight of the difference between argue and quarrel so much that we often use them as synonyms of one another. Arguing is reasoning based on facts; quarreling is wrangling angrily over personal preferences using facts or not.

We quarrel from entrenched positions; the winner of a quarrel is whoever shouts loudest. We argue to persuade the person we are talking to, to change their view; the winner is the one who has more of the facts supporting their side. When we quarrel we don’t care for facts. If the person we are quarreling with presents a fact that totally disproves our position, we try to weasel our way around it by not replying to the point or replying with a never-ending series of irrelevant points.

Debate raises the bar another notch. A debate has a referee and names for the logical faults or fallacies debaters make. The most obvious one that we see daily in US politics is the ad hominem “at the person” fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we not only do not address the point, but attack the character of its proponent. When Republicans ague against a Democratic proposal by claiming that Democrats are socialists and communists, they are arguing ad hominen, not arguing with facts, but hoping to divert the debate through guilt by association.

Some of the other names of fallacies found in quarreling and not arguing or debating, are (1) “begging the question”, assuming the proposition being proven in the arument, (2) “circularity”, arguing false relations, e.g. that because y comes later than x, y is caused by x, and (3) “bandwagoning”, arguing that everybody knows x, therefore x must be true.

So long as our politicians argue from unproven and unprovable facts (or outright lie about the facts), and use logical fallacies to divert attention from the points they are trying to make, they are just quarreling. We should stop calling these meetings among candidates debates and call them quarrels. Everything is for show in the primaries, letting the US electorate see who is the best actor, which candidate can best pretend to be intelligent.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

To trip the light fantastic is a playful expression of “to dance”. It originates in several other idiomatic expressions referring to dancing in our not too distant past. A passage in Milton’s poem L’Allegro (1632) goes like this:

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastick toe.”

Milton was, indeed, describing the highly nimble (fantastick) footwork of a jig or some other fast dance. For years after Milton the expression “the light fantastic toe” appeared frequently in literature.

Milton’s concept was apparently an extension of the phrase “tripping it on the toe”, an expression referring to dancing used as far back as Shakespeare himself. In Act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Ariel says:

“Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow [moue].
Do you love me, master? No?

As the years ground by, “toe” was lost and the phrase was smoothed down to “tripping the light fantastic”.

Electile Dysfunction

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Perhaps we should move electile dysfunction from our Sniglets page to the dictionary.

Electile dysfuntion is defined as the inability to decide on a candidate. The peaking of each candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in the polls for one week is a classic symptom of this syndrome. Apparently, the Republicans are having a difficult time deciding who will be their candidate to run against President Obama in November of this year.

Verb Agreement in English

Monday, January 9th, 2012

“Dave” recently wrote:

I just read your article ‘Bad Grammar or Language Change’ and wanted to let you know that I found a grammatical error in your article.

In the sentence ‘the number of suffixes for marking grammatical functions like number, person, tense, are disappearing faster than frogs’, the subject of the sentence is number. This singular noun does not agree with the verb in the sentence are. What is most curious to me is that the subject of nouns and verbs not agreeing is discussed only a few paragraphs above this sentence”.

Thanks for the edit. I have to say, in my own defense, that this is not an uncommon error. It comes from the fact that English speakers are losing their grasp of subject and object due to the loss of case endings. At least that is my opinion.

Kay Bock of the University of Illinois (a former student of mine) disagrees. She is trying to find a grammatical pattern among these mistakes. We coauthored a paper on the subject, where I was asked only to provide data for Russian.

What happens when speakers lose control of the subject – object distinction but not verb agreement? Well, one thing is that they rely on the noun nearest the verb to reflect agreement. That is how I compensated, along with the vast majority of US speakers.

Another way is to resort to semantics: if the subject noun refers to a group, then agreement is plural. If it refers to a single item, singular. That is the British solution. They say things like “the parliament are”, “the team are” but the “player is”, “the lamp is”.

Both these approaches are temporary. We are all waiting for the -s which distinguishes 3rd singular verbs from 3rd plural to fall by the wayside. That will solve everything.

T Between Vowels

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share the discussions I have been enjoying with Good Word readers who write in questions and comments.

Not long ago Jane Quein wrote, “Another often misspelled word or mispronounced word is congratulations. Many people spell is congradulations. I’ve seen it spelled this way on many outdoor signs. Misspelled words drive me crazy!”

Me, too, though I am encouraged by the growing interest in spelling that I mentioned in my first blog, Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee (2006). The misspelling, of course, is wrong. Since we congratulate graduates when they graduate, it is easy to confuse the spelling of the two.

However, T is pronounced like a D in a wide range of English words, like writer (= rider), plotting (= plodding), and metal (= medal or meddle). These two consonants are identical except for the fact when we pronounce D, we vibrate our vocal cords but not when we pronounce T. (Actually, we also toss out a puff of air with the T but that is a moot issue here.)

Now, all vowels in English are voiced. You cannot pronounce a vowel without vibrating your vocal cords. This means that when a voiceless T occurs between vowels, we have to rev up our vocal cords, quickly shut them down for the split second it takes to pronounce T, then rev them up for the next vowel. That is a lot of double-clutching in the throat. Most English speakers do not bother, which means the vowels and the T are all voiced but voicing the T makes it a D.

That brings us to congrATUlate. It is one of those words with T between two vowels. So it is perfectly normal to pronounce this word with a D sound replacing the T. This same phenomenon is audible in the words mentioned above, words like writer and rider, plotting and plodding, metal and medal. Say “She is a plodding writer” to someone then ask them what “she” does—write or ride? How does “she” do it—straightforwardly or plottingly?

Let’s Hash Out ‘Hashmark’

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Joan Gerbereux recently sent this intriguing question to me:

“Would you discuss hash tag? I don’t know if it’s one or two words, what it means, or how the ‘pound sign’ became something else. Do you?”

It is a word with the symbol # in front of it, used especially in microblogging to identify or search for subjects or on Twitter to denote the subject of a post. It is a blend of hash sign and tag. Hast sign is probably a mispronunciation of hatch sign. To hatch something is to score it or engrave lines in it. The meaning probably originated in “crosshatch”.

I’m not sure when the pound sign or number sign became a hash sign or mark. A hash-mark during World War II meant the symbol of rank, worn on the left sleeve of enlisted men. This sense arose in the 40s.

This symbol (#) was called the pound sign only in the US; £ was the pound sign elsewhere. It emerged in the 20s but didn’t last long in general speech (or writing). Can you remember seeing 10# standing for “10 pounds”? It seems to have become a specialized technical symbol.

Recovered from a Stroke: Part IV

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

I suppose I have had enough time to collect my thoughts about my stroke. Although my motto has been, “Never look back,” I think this might be an exception to the rule. I have had an experience that I am trying not to have affect my life, but I did bring a few articles out of the experience.

I experienced aphasia. After teaching about it for 30 years or so, I finally now know first hand the frustration that accompanies it.

Surgery left me suffering from echolalia, the inability to originate speech but only repeat what I heard. Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are located in the left hemisphere, the hemisphere affected by my stroke. They control what I call ‘morphemes’ and ‘lexemes’, respectively in my morphological theory, Lexeme-Morpheme Base Morphology. Morphemes are what others call ‘functioin words’ plus affixes; lexemes are the stems of words.

The test for area of the brain is whether I recalled the grammatical morpheme (or just ‘morphemes’ in my lexeme-morpheme based theory). I tried to say the personal pronouns—they were there. I next tried using the verbal suffixes, -s, -ing, and -ed and, if I tried, I could find them and express them. The stroke was a first-hand, up-close test of my theory. I was out of the theoretical realm and in the clinical.

I could still use idioms, ‘climbing the wall’, ‘left holding the bag’, ‘fly off the handle’ for they are stored in the right hemisphere, which was unaffected either by my bleed or by surgery. But I couldn’t construct sentences from their parts, lexemes and morphemes. Slowly but surely this ability returned to me. I was lucky.

Second, it seemed that many more people cared for me than I had imagined. I’m a recluse, sitting behind my computer monitor seven days a week. I know more people around the world than in Lewisburg. My lovely wife of 50 years, Faye, was there throughout each and every day with me and some nights. But I was impressed by the visits from friends, neighbors, and employees. Sometimes five or six at the time. It was wonderful.

Finally, it struck me how much a human being knows and how much we lose each time one dies. Although I was never near death (that I know of), I gave it a lot of thought. I try to write out much of what I know and publish it at But I carry so much more in my head. Some are trivial, passwords, accounts, how to pay bills, when the house needs painting, the gutters need cleaning, and so on and so forth. But others are insights that I have accumulated, examined, sorted, and stored over the course of my life. I shudder to think how many that might be.

But other things are not written down: my knowledge of politics, philosophy, economics, literature, art, and music. I taught a course on these subjects as pertain to the old USSR. I actually workied my way through high school and college playing jazz piano, right when jazz was turning into rock and roll. My wife keeps urging me to write the editor of the local newpaper about my views of US politics and economics. I’m writing at a desk that I built after coming up from a kitchen I designed (twice) and built.

I guess I could sum up the experience by saying that it heightened my appreciation of myself, my body and mind, and those of others.