Clip ArtHandmade Nesting Dolls

Is the Medium Still the Message?

December 9th, 2015
One of the Good Word editors, Luciano de Oliveira, caught this sentence in the New York Times:
“The particular ‘narrative’ of political journalists tended to emphasize the process dynamics — who’s up, who’s down — in addition to what the media itself are doing.”
Apparently the writer, Mark Leibovich, couldn’t make up as to whether to treat media as a singular mass noun or a plural noun. Most Americans treat media as a singular mass noun these days, though it is actually the plural of medium.
Oh, how I miss the old NYT.

Another ‘Lexical Gracenote’

December 9th, 2015
This morning, when the Good Word was nomophobia, I received a two-part e-mail from my stalwart e-friend, Chris Stewart, of South Africa. I’ve conjoined the two e-mails:
“Surely nomophobia would logically be a fear of numbers?  The reason why I leapt to the conclusion that nomo– should refer to numbers, is that a nomogram is a specific kind of graph whose sole purpose is to derive a numerical value in one unit of measure from two other kinds of numbers. The most commonly found example here is a little nomogram in vehicle logbooks to derive a fuel consumption value.”
“According to Merriam-Webster a nomogram is ‘a graphic representation that consists of several lines marked off to scale and arranged in such a way that by using a straightedge to connect known values on two lines an unknown value can be read at the point of intersection with another line’.”

“I see that nomo from the Greek means ‘law or custom’, which makes sense in the mathematical context too. However, there are other colloquial uses, e.g. the Urban Dictionary, which could alter the whole sense of nomophobia. Tricky! On the other hand, the Wikipedia article is interesting.”

My reply refers to a 2007 entry in this blog, Lady Finger, Lady Birds, and Woolly Bears
Yes, nomogram should mean “fear of numbers” or “fear of names”. However, when it comes to language, what should be is often quite distant from what is, e.g. earwig, lady finger, woolly bear. Actually, homophobia should mean “fear of people” and “fear of sameness”, so why shouldn’t nomophobia mean “fear of being without a cellphone”. People created language; people can determine what the words of their language mean. They have regular means at their disposal, but also irregular ones.
In my 2007 blog I call such phenomena “lexical grace notes”, things we don’t expect but that make language more interesting.

Obama & Putin Talking Turkey

November 25th, 2015

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

November 14th, 2015

One of the Good Word editors, Paul Ogden, came across a collection of quotable quips on the subject of politics which I thought we all might enjoy.

The problem with political jokes is they get elected.
Henry Cate, VII

We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.

If we got one-tenth of what was promised to us in these election speeches,  there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven.
Will Rogers

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.
Nikita Khrushchev

When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become Prime Minister or Premier; I’m beginning to believe it.
Clarence Darrow

Why pay money to have your family tree traced; go into politics and  your opponents will do it for you.
Author unknown

Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel.
John Quinton

Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign  funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.
Oscar Ameringer

I offer my opponents a bargain: if they will stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them.
Adlai Stevenson, campaign speech, 1952

A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.
Tex Guinan

I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.
Charles de Gaulle

Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.
Doug Larson


November 10th, 2015
This morning I received the following e-letter from one of the oldest e-friends of Dr. Goodword, Chris Stewart of South Africa. I thought you might enjoy it, too.
I thought I would raise a little levity and bring in a term commonly used by those interested in the mysterious behavior of our universe. It may be suitable for an April 1 Good Word, except that it is no joke (which would mean those who thought it was, would be fooled).
If one approaches a black hole, then, due to the inverse square law of gravity, one reaches a zone where the gravity gradient is so extreme that solid objects will be torn apart. Were an astronaut to fall into a black hole feet first, the gravitational force at his feet would become much larger than at his head. The net effect of the complex forces (which are dragging not just matter, but space and time from our universe into the black hole) is akin to squeezing out the contents of a toothpaste tube. The result would be for the astronaut to be stretched long and thin like a rubber band, a rather unfavourable irreversible situation from which there is no return.
This process is known as spaghettification, and one who undergoes it is said to have been spaghettified. Doubtless the Spanish Inquisitors would have gladly traded in their racks for a spaghettifier.
I could not find many on-line dictionaries with the word, but there are some. Quite a good explanation can be found at


Laughter in Print

May 10th, 2015

Paul Ogden found this amusing bit of fun about laughter and expressing it in print in the New Yorker: “Hahaha vs. Hehehe“.

The History of English in Maps

April 14th, 2015

Here is an excellent resource on the history of English found by Larry Brady, one of the editors of the Good Word series:

A Computer Story

January 8th, 2015

Larry Brady sent me a picture today, which I pass on to you here. It drove memories to the forefront of my mind. Here they are for all to see.

I once punched these cards in the Psychometric Laboratory at UNC where I did my undergraduate work. I used mispunched cards for class notes, which relieved me of the expense of purchasing 3x5s.

When I found errors in the transcripts I worked from, I corrected them. However, the people who were running the project, not realizing the things I corrected were not only errors but inconsistencies in their own system, required that I stop editing the cards, so I allowed the inconsistencies to pass. They were psychologists after all, not linguists.

That was at a time when the 16k computer required approximately two weeks between jobs for technicians physically to change all the wires, which they did manually. There were no executable software programs in 1956 that could complete that task so easily as they do today.

The Lab received a grant to increase the size of the computer, bringing it up to, I think, 64k. They had to add several rooms to the two-story mansion in which the 16k computer was located to accommodate the upgrade. Remember, back then computers ran on vacuum tubes about the size of my fist, one for each gate (0 or 1).

I came to the office one day to find much consternation. In their grant application they had forgotten to add the air conditioning. As you probably know, vacuum tubes were just fancy light bulbs that produced a lot of heat. The additional air conditioning would take up space equivalent to at least one large new room. I don’t know how they worked that out; I graduated before that problem was resolved.

Intonation and Meaning

December 22nd, 2014

I took phonetics with the late Kenneth Pike at the University of Michigan. Prior to Chomsky, he was the leading linguist in the US because he had the only complete theory of linguistics, which he called “tagmemics”.

I recall in the first session on intonation, he attempted to convince us of the importance of intonation by proving that, when intonation and semantics conflict, we always go with intonation. His example was, “I love you,” which he said with normal intonation to a freshman woman on the front row. Having seen the correct impression on her red face, he then said, “I? Love you?” which we all interpreted with just the opposite meaning. I was convinced.

Loo-Loo’s Back in Town

December 19th, 2014

I just received a third guess about the origin of loo from Chris Stewart, an old e-friend in South Africa. Here is what he proposes:

I am surprised to find that this word first came to print in 1932. I do not know where I came across the following conjecture (or, if you prefer, urban legend), but it was probably my (British) dad.

The Brits & the French have an inextricably entwined history, and the language shows it. The Brits also like to make fun of things, especially the distasteful—and particularly love to parody the airs & graces of the high & mighty.

They thus have a habit of adopting French phrases and (mis)applying them, deliberately or not. In an earlier time (though for all I know, it still happens), when the joys of waterborne sewage were virtually nonexistent, one of the first tasks of the day was to get rid of the “night soil” from the chamberpot under the bed.

One expedient was to simply throw it out of the window. Where land is scarce and thus expensive, it is normal to build up, instead of out. In Europe & England, the result is multi-story dwellings; bedrooms tend not to be on the ground floor. And often in the city there is no front yard; the building is right on the street front.

To spare innocent passers-by the noisome prospects of being showered by night soil disposal, one would call out a warning. One such would be ironic use of the French, Garde de l’eau! “Look out for the water!” The phrase drifted in time from the original high court pronunciation to the common vernacular “gardyloo“.

Once flush toilets became the norm, the loo part persisted by association without the need to retain the warning part.

This all makes sense to me—even if it is a crock of, um, night soil.