Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for September, 2012

Fun: Lookalikes

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Julie Dunn surprised us with this note today:

Andrew Shaffer“Your Andrew Shaffer looks a lot like the new guy, Nicholas David, on Ceelo’s team on The Voice (see picture on the left). Nicholas DavidI was searching for online dictionaries to show my classes for a reliable sources lesson when I saw the picture of Andrew on your About Us page.”

Is it just the beard? Whatever. If you must look like someone, better to look like someone famous (I always say).

Of Desnorolators and Other Things

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My wife and I returned the favor to our 7-year-old granddaughter, Abigail, and did a “sleepover” with her and her sister. Their parents wanted to attend a concert which would run late and, from their perspective, what we were doing was mundane baby-sitting.

When we arrived the first topic to come up was my legendary snoring. I explained that we had both brought our c-paps, a medical device intended to prevent sleep apnia, but which doubles as a snore preventer. Abigail apparently didn’t know the word “c-pap”, for she immediately responded, “Did you bring your desnorolators?”

Desnorolators? How did she, indeed, how could she come up with that word? We totally understood her, told her, “Yes, we did,” and watched the event pass quickly into family legend. We all agreed that the word she had just concocted was far more fanciful and memorable than c-pap. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this word pronounced c-pak.

Upon closer examination we can see that Abigail did a remarkable job of word formation. She knew that the prefix de- meant “not” and that the suffix -at(e) was a suffix that converts nouns to verbs. She knew the suffix -or converts verbs to personal nouns. She also got them in the right order. The only slip she made was to build a Latinate derivation from a Germanic verb, snore. But since she does not speak Latin we can forgive her that error.

Children are learning machines, particularly when it comes to language. But such complex lexical constructions should be well beyond the capabilites of a 7-year-old.

Attending to the Problem of ‘Attendee’

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Aubrey Waddy dropped me a line right after the Good Word mentor appeared. Here is the gist of our conversation:

“Thanks for the daily exploration and today’s word, mentor: good fun as usual. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad as a boy, in English I hasten to add, and they were great adventures; I’d forgotten Mentor.”

“Your use of the word advisee, however, prompts me to ask whether you can address the abominable word attendee. I pedantically make a point of using attender, but it’s a lost cause.”

This confusion is a result of the two different meanings of attend: “to take care of” (intransitive) and “to go to” (transitive). There is an old tendency in English to use (1) -ee (standee, devotee, retiree) and (2) -ant (congregantclaimant, and applicant) as the personal (agentive) suffixes for intransitive verbs, words that cannot take a direct object in some sense. The suffix -er at one time applied only to transitive verbs like drinker, eater, player, words that can take a direct object.

Notice, however, I say ‘tendency’ not ‘rule”, for the tendency is dying out now in favor of a general suffix -er: runner, swimmer, walker. This probably relates to the difficulty in keeping transitive and intransitive verbs straight. Run, swim, walk may all now be used transitively, as to run the course, swim the river, walk the dog.

Now, getting back to attendee. Someone who attends to someone might be called an attendee but for whatever reason attendant seems to be preferred, probably because this word is a borrowing from French. To attend a meeting, however, implies a transitive verb, suggesting attender the correct form. So you are right in claiming that attender is more appropriate than attendee; in fact, I see no room for attendee under any guise with its current meaning.

But don’t expect a change any time soon; this word is too firmly embedded in the vocabulaty now.


Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Fun becomes more tiring the older you get.

An Urban Legend Blasted to Smithereens

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

I received the following e-mail recently:

“Your origin of the word smithereens I believe is in error as is also the different one shown at Wickipedia. When I was taking physics at school in the 1930’s, I was taught that early in the nineteenth century a physicist by the name of Smith thought he had discovered the smallest possible particle, which he called the ‘smithereen’, which I think proved to be the molecule.”

Forgive the delay in responding; we have been unusually busy since the first of the year and just completed a difficult job that took us from the first of the year until last week to complete.

The first problem your theory faces is that for it to work, the physicist would have had to have been named “Smithers”. That would require but a minor change in your theory. However, the history of your explanation presents a greater problem.

In point of fact, molecules were being discussed by Descartes already in the seventeenth century, so the report that someone named Smith (or Smithers) discovered the smallest particle in the nineteenth century does not fit the historical facts. The word molecule was available in French since at least the early seventeenth century. The first published instance of the word in English traces back to 1674, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m afraid the story you picked up in your physics class is just another urban legend introduced by a dilettante etymologist in the past. The general rule to follow is this: if the etymology is obvious, it is probably an urban legend. Words change very rapidly over time and are seldom subject to simple analysis.


Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

I received a question from Jerrel de Kok today which I thought might interest those following this blog. First, let me apologize from my long silence. Lexiteria, the parent company of alphaDictionary, has been working on a large order for highly customized frequency lists for 25 languages from Google. It has taken over my life for the past year but today I am happy to announce it is completed.

Now for the question:

Do you have a service where I could enter a definition and get the appropriate word to use? The situation that got me thinking about this is as follows. I got an email from a service member and in it was contained the expression; ‘WAAA-FRIEKING-HOOOO!’ I would think the English language has a word describing the interjection of one word into the middle of another.

It does, indeed, Jerrel, though you might have trouble pronouncing it: “tmesis”. You might prefer the old fashioned linguistic term “sandwich word”, since the interloping word is sandwiched in between the first and second part of the matrix word. The interloper is usually vulgar: abso-damn-lutely, far-freaking-out, kanga-bloody-roos.

They are not always vulgar, however, as any-old-how, what-place-soever, and a-whole-nother demonstrate. The misanalysis of the latter matrix word is giving rise to a new word in some dialects.

Sandwich terms are speech flourishes we use in order to maximally emphasize a word. Most linguists would not consider them a legitimate part of English grammar.