Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Today’s Words: ultimate, penultimate, antepenultimate

ultimate: last; penultimate: next-to-last; antepenultimate: third from the end. Today — December 23 — is the antepenultimate day before Christmas!

We're all pretty familiar with the prefix ante-, meaning "earlier, prior to," from words like antediluvian, antebellum, antedate, and antecedent. The prefix pen-, meaning "almost," isn't so common; penumbra, for example, means "almost shadow." Antepenultimate, therefore, works out as "prior to almost the last." (This very well could be the antepenultimate blog post of 2009!)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Today’s Word: petard

petard: This word really only survives in the phrase "hoist with his own petard." A petard was a small bomb used by medieval engineers to breach castle walls or bring down drawbridges. It comes from the French word peter, "to break wind, toot, fluff, fart." (So if a Frenchman laughs at you because your name is Peter, now you know why.) JRR Tolkien fans might remember that the Deeping-wall of Helms Deep was opened by a suicidal Uruk-hai toting a petard.

Long before the creation of Middle-Earth, the word petard (indeed, the well-known phrase) appeared at the end of Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet, after he had inadvertently murdered Polonius and had reminded his mother that he was to leave for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows, —
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd, —
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard: and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon . . .

Hoist with his own petard now means, of course, to be injured or killed by one's own schemes. Or maybe it refers to accidentally catching one's pants on fire when lighting one's farts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another Case of Missing Commas

Neil Gaiman tweeted a link this morning to an article at The article is about a budding chemist who apparently liked to dip his chewing gum in citric acid, but on this day accidentally dipped it into some explosive chemical. When he started chewing the gum again, the gum exploded and he died.

The unfortunate Ukrainian is certainly up for a Darwin award, but that isn't why I'm writing about it. What I'm writing about is the summation sentence that appears right below the article's title:

A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off reportedly by exploding chewing gum.

I had to read this sentence three times to figure it out because I didn't know how something could be "blown off reportedly." I assume that what the reporter meant to write was A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off, reportedly by exploding chewing gum. This would be the clinical and unbiased edit that the Telegraph would likely go for. A more cynical reporter might use an em dash instead of a comma, and then maybe italicize, boldface, or all-cap "chewing gum." On the whole, though, a good editor should have completely rewritten the sentence.

Thus the subtlety of the English language and the power of punctuation and formatting of the printed word. Using the exact same words, you can "say" something in different ways. Consider the differences:

  • A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off by exploding chewing gum.
  • A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off — BY EXPLODING CHEWING GUM!
  • A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off by exploding chewing gum.

Not to mention emoticons:

  • A student in Ukraine died :( after his jaw was blown off :o by exploding chewing gum. :P

They say that sarcasm and other forms of emotional expression are difficult to express online in print. But it isn't impossible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All Your Basis Are Belong to Us: Rant from an Exasperated Editor

Can someone please tell me the appeal of the word basis? Specifically the idea of doing something "on an adverbly basis." 

I've been seeing this structure a lot lately — or at least it seems that way — while performing some of my daily editorial duties (not the editorial duties that I perform on a daily basis!). And it's really beginning to bug me. 

Recently, I've "learned" that one can add firewall exceptions "on an as-needed basis" and that one's hard drive should be backed up "at least on a monthly basis." Surely it is much easier to "add firewall exceptions as needed" and to back up a hard drive "at least once a month," or even just "monthly"? I'm not arguing grammaticality here, but style. Certainly there are times when "an adverbly basis" is the best way to go — as an editor, I might let some things be decided "on a case-by-case basis" (though I'd prefer that such things be handled individually.) But overall, on an adverbly basis is wasteful. 

It sounds like the high school student who has already increased the font to 14 points, has set line spacing at 2.5 lines, has widened the margins, but still hasn't made it to the five-page minimum for his history report. Time to fluff up the text needless verbiage! 

William Strunk was on to something when he encouraged his students to "Omit Needless Words"; he just framed it wrong. I think "Be Succinct" is a more helpful direction, and it's a full word shorter! 

Look, writers, I'll make you a deal. If you promise to remember that grammatically correct is not the same thing as well-written, I promise to remember that grammatically incorrect isn't the same thing as badly written.

[Update 12/18/09: As bad as "on an adverbly basis" is, "in an adverbly fashion" is even worse. Just came across the imperative "Give instruction in a step-by-step fashion." Again, grammatically correct but so horribly wrong on every other level. Why wouldn't you just "give step-by-step instructions"?!]

Monday, December 7, 2009

The First Snowclone

December 7, 2009, marks the first snowfall of the season. What better time than now to talk about the phenomenon that gave snowclones their name.

If you don't know, a snowclone is a type of fill-in-the-blank cliche based on a framework of a (usually) well-known phrase. Snowclones have generally become multi-purpose idioms that can be easily shaped to the task at hand. (To find out more about snowclones, and from bona fide linguists, check out some of the links at the end of this post.)

Some of my favorite snowclones are

  • This is your brain on X.
  • There's no crying in X!
  • What Would X Do?

My least favorite is "X and Y and Z, oh my!" simply because it is SOOOOO overused, and each person who uses it thinks they're being witty and original.

But anyway, in each of these snowclones, there's an X (and sometimes other stand-in letters) that gets filled with some other word or phrase. For example, if you Google "This is your brain on", you'll find results that talk about your brain on music, God, Kafka, neurotechnology, and Google. The instant recognition of this fill-in-the-blankedness, as well as the wide variety of forms that come out the other end, is what makes these phrasal structures snowclones.

Snowclones are so called because a couple honest-to-blog linguists (Geoffrey Pullum and Glen Whitman) were discussing arguments based on the supposed number of words that Eskimoes have for snow. If you've never heard the phrase "Eskimoes have N number of words for snow" (pick whatever number for N you want), then you've been living under a rock.

What's invalid (and ridiculous) about these arguments is that people have tried to use word counts to show how language reveals culture. In this case, they argue that Eskimoes have a lot of words for snow because snow is such a big part of their culture and daily life. From this first premise, they argue that either a) if a culture has a lot of words for a single phenomenon, then it must be an important part of the culture, or b) that if a particular phenomenon is really important to a culture, there ought to be a lot of words for it.

To thinking people, this is obviously a ridiculous argument. But if you buy into the argument, it can be a little scary. Think about what that would mean for American culture. What phenomena have we created the most words and phrases for?

Do you see where I'm headed? I'm headed to sex.

Take penises, for example. How many euphemisms, dysphemisms, and idioms can you think of that simply give a name to a penis? Some of them actually differentiate types of penises based on certain characteristics (e.g., third leg and pork sword vs. piddle and weeny), but the majority of them exist simply for the joy of sexual wordplay. Why talk about your penis when you can tell stories about your John Thomas, your wang, your schlong, your trouser snake, your joystick, your bayonet, your beaver cleaver, your pecker, your horn, your love shaft, your tally whacker, or your cock? The list is long, and always growing (rim shot).

Lists of "terms of endearment" for the female anatomy and for the act of copulation are likewise lengthy. My point is that, if you buy into the argument that word counts indicate culture, then you'll likely buy that American culture revolves around sex, and that Americans are thus oversexed monsters. Keep your children at home! Horny strangers are ready to poke the unsuspecting at any second!

Make your own arguments about how oversexed Americans are, but this is simply a bad argument. Eskimoes don't have an inordinate number of words for snow, and even if they did, it isn't a good basis for any arguments about culture.

If you want to find out more about snowclones, you can watch the birth of the word snowclone on Language Log. There's even a Snowclone Database online that logs and discusses the snowclones that people find. And finally, Marks Peters is cataloguing versions of the snowclone "X is the Y of Z" — where Y and Z don't have really have anything to do with each other — that he finds in the wild over at The Rosa Parks of Blogs.

I would ask what your favorite snowclone was, but I know that I'm more likely to get lists of euphemisms for sexual organs. Have at it.

Kurt Vonnegut Goes to Hell

I recently (well, over a month ago) changed apartments. I'm still not entirely unpacked, but I am down to those large boxes in which items were thoughtlessly tossed just to get them packed and out of the old place.
While wading through one of these boxes this weekend, I discovered a paper I had written during my senior year of high school for my Classical Literature class. We had been studying Dante's Inferno, and our assignment then was to choose a famous person, decide which Circle of Hell he or she belonged in, and explain why.

I chose Kurt Vonnegut, who was and still is one of my favorite writers, and placed him in the Sixth Circle, among the Gluttons. The essay itself is nothing to write home about, but a decent job for a high school senior who thought he was going to be a professional musician. (You can read the whole thing here.) But at the end, whether it was part of the assignment or not (I'm guessing it wasn't), I wrote my own Canto about Dante and Virgil coming across Vonnegut down there. Reading this today, I think it's mostly awesome. I also think that it might be partly plagiarized — if it isn't, I'm even more impressed with the me of 18 years ago. Some of the language, especially in the first half, may have been "borrowed" to some degree from whichever translation we used for class. Certainly the rhyming structure is based on that

No, the rhythm isn't very good. I understood the mechanics of poetry just slightly less back then than I do now, and I don't really understand poetry now. But still . . . when I reread this nearly two decades later, it still excited me. So here it is. If you think it sucks, that's fine. Just don't waste anyone's time commenting about it.
A few quick notes about this. This is extremely based on what I have read about Vonnegut's stint in the army during World War II, and especially on his time as a POW in Dresden when it was firebombed. "The Florence of the Elbe" is what Dresden was called back then.

My guide and I edged closer to the brink
of screaming, for our heads and stomachs churned
because of the most rank and putrid stink

that spewed forth from the level on which we stood.
Greyed and browned slush hailed from the sky
onto shades who, lacking umbrella or hood,

could do naught but turn their heads away
in hopes that their head-backs might catch
the brunt of the eternal storm, and take anguish away.

But anguish did still spring from pale lips
soiled grotesque tints of brown and black from the storm.
These sinner's shades were buried to hips

in thickish waste, wailing and weeping and moaning
their hellish plight. Said I to my Guide:
"What sin is it that brings these shades here groaning

to this wasteland of suffering dolor where forever
must they mix tears with this rain of refuse?"
And he: "These are sinners who never

partook of anything in divinest moderation.
They chose their one material love and pursued it
with all unending hope and aspiration

of yet still more of their superfluity. Never mind
these gluttons." So we turned to continue deeper,
but then I spotted a quaint shade. "How is it I find,

in this most odorous of levels," said I,
"where every breath is filled with eternal anguish,
a single shade whose weary-caked eyes

are not wet with tears; whose mouth moves
not to bemoan its fate, but mumbles softly
to any ears? I do believe he speaks of doves!"

My Guide was astonished. Said he: "Let us meet
this curious shadow." He seemed not to notice
our approach, for he continued, mumbling "Poo-tee-weet?"

Apparently he had just finished his tale, for he raised
his face to us as we were upon him. The vile slush pummeled
his features, but he noticed not as it rolled down his glazed

figure. My guide spoke first: "Who art thou
that denies Hell your grief and scorn?" Spake he:
"I am one whose witty intellect hast bowed

to verbosity, of a sort, for I loved words so much
that I metamorphosed myself into a string of them,
and transferred my identity onto pages into such

fictitions as Billy Pilgrim and Kilgore Trout.
I am the Master of Black Humor." I intoned:
"But how is it that your words come without

a twinge of sorrow or suffering? Do you not smell
the mephitis emanating from this sludge
to which you are interred forever here in Hell?"

Thus he answered: "The effluvium of my prison
is fragrant to my nose when juxtaposed
to my living experiences, for after I had risen

from the Slaughterhouse to see the destruction
wrought upon the Florence of the Elbe by my
supposed allies, I was given German instruction

to exhume the German civilian dead
and pile them high, alternating human flesh
with wood for the pyre. I uncovered

these bodies for two months' time, and not
one day's rest was I given. The bodies soon
decayed, and forth from every foxhole the rot

from decomposition and pain was on all noses.
Hell cannot compete with that two-month tang.
When compared to that, this smells like roses!"

"But do not the sighs and moans of fellow shades
bring tears into your eyes?" Virgil continued.
"I have heard the moanings on European glades,

beautiful hillsides, and sandy beaches, of children wishing
for death to come quick; children with fresh festering wounds,
lacking limbs, bloody immature digits twitching

as life holds no to make them suffer.
Those infants' moans can overpower any
sound in Hell, and have provided my with a buffer

from emotion that might stem from seeing
shades thrown down in muck and mire."
"But surely throughout all this, your being

must still be affected by the icy deluge
forever beating your brow with splashes
of brown and grey, making stains of huge

proportion upon your skull!" "This icy cold
is the wonderful winter following the
fire-storms of a fiery summer of old."

A thought occurred to me, and I could hold
it back not long. I thus exclaimed: "What in
heaven's name is keeping you here in this cold

dank dungeon? How can Hell confine
you without the benefit of your anguish?"
As I uttered these final words, his eyes began to shine,

and hope, ever a stranger here, appeared upon his face,
and he began to arise from the grime
like one reborn, he rose into space

like his very own Harrison Bergeron, dancing to some
unheard tune. My senses overtook me and I
swooned. The shade, free at last, thought I had come

to my end, but showed no sign of woes,
for as I stumbled into the quagmire,
I heard him mutter "So it goes."

But that is not the end of his tale,
for he is free of his prison in circle three,
but forever must be confined to all of Hell.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Today's Word: statusphere

We've all heard of the twitterverse and the blogosphere, but as social media have grown, the different online outlets for self-expression have blurred. Facebook now supports hashtags and retweet-type abbreviations. Your tweets can be automatically sent to your Facebook page, MySpace page, or other social networking page. Third-party Twitter apps like Tweetdeck can now also update your Facebook and MySpace statuses, as well as monitor your friends' updates.

As the lines blur, platform-specific terminology becomes less useful, and more general terms are needed to describe what people are doing online.

Along comes this wonderful neologism, statusphere, to describe the morass of personal updates and information being channeled through social networking sites. Or, as Brian Solis more eloquently puts it, statusphere is "the new ecosystem for sharing, discovering, and publishing updates and micro-sized content that reverberates throughout social networks and syndicated profiles, resulting in a formidable network effect of movement and response."

Brian traces the origin of this term — at least in this context — back to February 7, 2009, but the word statusphere is noted to have appeared in Time magazine way back in mid-1978. Back then, though, it referred to the places where "people of status" lived — like Hollywood, New York, and Nashville.

I'd love to see statusphere take off as a common online term. It's simply a perfect neologism, drawing equally from age-old vocabulary (stratosphere) and new-fangled technology (status updates). I'd love to see it become 2010's Word of the Year (are you listening, lexicographers?), so start using it today!!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Today's Turkey Word: snood

snood: The useless growth that grows on top of a turkey’s beak. A snood is also a bag-like hair net that holds a woman’s hair at the back of her head.

While I was looking for a picture online to illustrate a turkey’s snood, I learned something very important: turkeys are perhaps the ugliest creatures on the face of the earth. It looks like someone forgot to put skin on their heads, and the organs underneath didn’t know when to stop growing. Then there’s the snood; there’s no real use for it, and it looks like it would get in the way when you’re trying to eat.

Of course, the hip turkeys display their snoods in a fashionable way. As do the women.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Today’s Word: euhemerism

euhemerism (you-HE-muhr-izm): the interpretation of myths and mythology as traditional accounts of actual historical persons and events, eponymously named after the 4th century BC Greek mythologist Euhemerus. This is not to be confused with a literal interpretation of mythology — that, say, there was a guy living at the top of mount Olympus who could hurl thunderbolts to Earth and whose daughter sprang forth from his freshly cracked skull. Euhemerism is based on the idea that the stories of the gods and of mythological events are based on the actions of real (and mortal) men and actual natural events, and that these men and events, over time, were deified, and their now exaggerated stories were over time collected and evolved into a complete mythology. At its most basic, euhemerism states that, when it comes to mythology, the line between man and god is not always clear.

There are certain mythologies in American culture that can be viewed euhemistically. The story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, for instance, might be based on an actual event, but because the story serves our cultural mores well, it has taken on a life outside of historical fact. Johnny Appleseed is another story based on fact that has euhemistically become a type of American mythology. You might be able to analyze those old tall tales euhemistically — like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry — but it will be more difficult.

I wonder what stories, years from now, will take on a mythological bent. Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon? The assassination of JFK? The life of Elvis?

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year

When things get busy, blogging time is the first to get cut. But I'm back now, and ready to do some catch-up!

Last week, the lexicographers at the New Oxford American Dictionary announced their Word of the Year for 2009: unfriend, defined as "To remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook." I guess online social networking is here to stay, eh?

The fun part about the WOTY isn't the word itself, but the conversations that it can spark, especially when you look at the other words that were considered but passed over — in this case, hashtag, netbook, sexting, freemium, birther, brown state, green state, tramp stamp, and a number of others (read the OUPBlog post). Which word would you have chosen?

You'll also find in the OUPBlog post two lists of "Notable Word Clusters." The longer of the two lists catalogues neologisms based on Obama, including Obamamama, Obamanomics, and Obamalicious. The other list touches on something I wrote about recently: Twitter-related vocabulary. Some of the common ones are in there — retweet, tweetup, twitterati — but my favorite is one I haven't heard often enough: twitterhea.

And no, no one really wants to know what you eat at every meal.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Today's Word: nonplussed

nonplussed (or nonplused): Flummoxed to the point of inaction. "At the debate, Eric's references to Freudian physiology, ichthyological anthropology, and mythological proctology left Joan nonplussed; she spoke not a word during the two minutes alloted for her rebuttal."

Nonplussed is one of those words that throws people off because it uses a common prefix — which points us toward understanding — at the head of an uncommon word. We hear of people being nonplussed, but rarely do we hear of people being plussed. Along the same lines, you've probably been nonchalant at times, but have you ever been called chalant? I've been incorrigible before, but no one has ever mentioned those times when I've been corrigible. You know indubitable facts, but have you ever wondered about something dubitable?

Nonchalant, incorrigible, and indubitable are used often enough in conversation and in print that, in general, we understand what they mean without having to analyze the different parts of the word. We understand them as stand-alone words, not as words altered by prefixes. Nonplussed isn't so well-used, and is misused often enough to muddy the waters even more.

(An aside: I wonder which is more often misused: nonplussed or comprised?)

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, nonplussed comes from the Latin non- "not" and plus "more." So you might think of nonplussed as meaning "not being able to do anymore." The derivation doesn't really explain how the idea of perplexity (or flummoxity) entered into the meaning, though.

What nonplussed ought to mean: Not added together, as in this sentence, which might appear on an epoxy dispenser: "The epoxide and polyamide should remain nonplussed until right before you're ready to start binding items together permanently."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Small Changes, and Possibly Big Ones

There comes a time in every blogger's life when he or she must reevaluate the purpose, format, and success of his or her blog.

It isn't that time for me yet.

There also comes a time in every blogger's life when he or she goes back to the beginning, evaluating his or her growth as a writer and as a person, as revealed by his or her public musings.

It isn't that time yet, either.

There come a number of times in every blogger's life when there is tedious or boring work to be avoided, when procrastination becomes a lifesaving tool. That time is now.

So, in lieu of doing actual productive work, I've begun making changes here at Logophilius. The first is to create a more focused blog roll. On the right, in the Word Wide Web section, you'll find links to other linguablogs that you might find enjoyable or otherwise edifying.

Please share your favorite word-related blogs in the comments section. (English-only, please, though some of the Engrish blogs might make it up there.) I won't put every one of them in my blogroll because, of course, some blogs are better than others. Some of them are wonderful; some just suck. (Note: This is not an invitation to evaluated the quality of Logophilius, though I won't stop you if you want to heap praise upon me.) I reserve the right to evaluate a blog's suckitude based on my own criteria and to omit from the blogroll any blogs that fall below a certain suckiness threshold.

Also, in the days and weeks to come, and as other work needs to be avoided, I plan to revamp the look of Logophilius with a new template, new color scheme (puce anyone?), and new image. And who knows what else I'll decide to futz with?

Defining Optimism and Pessimism

Kin Hubbard said that "an optimist is a fellow who believes what's going to be will be postponed." Oscar Wilde defined a pessimist as "one who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both." To Jean Rostand, "My pessimism goes to the point of suspecting the sincerity of the pessimists."

And of course, there's the old saying that the optimist sees a half-full glass,and the pessimist sees a half-empty glass.The true pessimist, though, dwells on the fact that, eventually, he's going to have to clean the glass.

We all know -- or at least think we do -- optimistic and pessimistic people. But how do you define optimism and pessimism to fit in with your world view? How can you tell an optimist from a pessimist? And which is closer to realism?

I await the wit and wisdom of the cybermasses.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Oh Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

I am constantly surprised by the fact that I can still be constantly surprised by the things I find on the Internet. I have two interesting things to share today.

The first is the blog "My First Dictionary," where you'll find 1950s-era illustrations for words combined with example sentences that you hope you never see in an actual children's illustrated dictionary. It's a fun little creative blog that you ought to frequent. I love this blog so much, I 'm adding it to my blogroll.

The second is what I reference in the title of this post. I was Stumbling around the Internet the other day, and I landed on the Wikipedia entry for, believe it or not "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." This, says William J. Rappaport, is a grammatical and complete sentence that illustrates the use of homonyms and homophones.

The meaning of the sentence relies on these definitions:

  • Capital-B Buffalo refers to the city of Buffalo, NY. In the three instances it's used in this sentence, it is used as a descriptor for a noun, aka an adjective.
  • One of the lowercase-b buffaloes refers to the animal. The author uses buffalo as a plural noun, like moose and sheep, in place of the more common buffaloes.
  • Lowercase-b buffalo is also used as a verb to mean "to bully, confuse, deceive, or intimidate."

Here is the same sentence with indication of how each word is being used:

Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.

Wikipedia offers a few clarifications of the meaning of the sentence; this is the one that makes the most sense to me. Replacing bison for the animal buffalo, and bully for the verb buffalo, the new sentence looks like this:

Buffalo bison Buffalo bison bully bully Buffalo bison.


The Buffalo bison that Buffalo bison bully also bully Buffalo bison.

You can read the Wikipedia article for more info and clarification.

Not one to just absorb information, especially when it relates to wordplay, I immediately began racking my brain to come up with another (and hopefully better) example of this type of sentence. It isn't easy. the best I've come up with, so far, is to turn

Harrison Ford battles infighting among the Star Wars cast.


Star Wars star wars Star Wars star wars.


Mechanical movie shark head talks about the statements made by backup mechanical movie shark head.


Jaws jaws jaws Jaws jaws jaws.

All right, that one's a stretch. Here's one along the same lines:

The squat squatting squatter squats squat squatter's squat.

Got anything better? (If you want to cheat, see Wikipedia's List of linguistic example sentences.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Word of the Year (from Webster's New World Dictionaries): distracted driving

Every year, many dictionary publishers announce their own word of the year. Often, the chosen word (as well as the runners-up) is a fairly new coinage that just has the ring of newness to it — words like locavore, overshare, blogging, and podcasting, that simple weren't around a decade ago. This year, though, the lexicographers at Webster's New World Dictionary have chosen as word of the year a two-word phrase whose constituent parts have been around for centuries, so it doesn't seem so new.

This year's WOTY winner, distracted driving, has seen increased use of late as courts deal with the legalities of accidents (and accidental deaths) caused by drivers' inattentiveness while they attempt to drive while texting, talking on cell phones, or watching DVDs.

Runners-up for word of the year are

  • cloud computing: common computer operations performed and stored on the Internet instead of on one's own computer
  • go viral: to become extremely popular, without the budget outlay that goes along with it, because hoi polloi shares your creation with friends, who share with more friends, ad inifinitum.
  • netbook: a small laptop computer designed to be used primarily with the Internet
  • wallet biopsy: the examination of a patient's ability to pay before any medical service is provided
  • wrap rage: the outrage and exasperation of struggling to open an impenetrable blister pack or cardboard box to get at the contents

You can find the announcement and a brief video on the Webster's New World Word of the Year site (which, you guessed it, isn't updated very often).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Previously Unpublished Vonnegut Short Story

The LA Times has published "Look at the Birdie" online, apparently a previously unpublished short story by Kurt Vonnegut that was supposed to be part of a collection published by Delacorte Press. In the beginning, it sounds like the setup for a joke; by the end, though, it sounds like something Neil Gaiman could have written. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Today's Word: discommode

discommode: To bother or inconvenience. It comes from the same place as accommodate, but it has that lovely dis- hooked onto the front of it.

I'm certainly discommoded right now. There seems to be a hole in my checking account, because the money is pouring out of it like Angels fans at the bottom of the eighth inning. The weird part is that the bills are coming due (or are already past due), so that can't be the source of my financial woes, can it?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dictionary Day: Thanks, Wordnik, for Hapax Legomenon

Today is Dictionary Day, Noah Webster's birthday. This seems like a great day for a logophile like me to bring you all sorts of great, obscure words. But I'm too friggin' busy. 

Thankfully, the good people at Wordnik, in celebration of this frabjous day, are posting (and tweeting) a great word about words every hour, all day long. So I'm going to let them do the work for me. I suggest you click on the link and check them out.

The word that really caught my attention and pushed me toward redirecting you to Wordnik was hapax legomenon, which, according to Wordnik, is a word or form that appears only once in the recorded corpus of a given language. I'd give you an example, but if I were to use a hapax legomenon that I've heard here, it would cease to be a hapax legomenon, wouldn't it?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

From Climate Change to Language Change

The word green is getting a lot of exercise these days. Sure, it's been used for a long time to indicate all sorts of things —enviousness, underripeness, inexperience, and of course the reflection of light at around the 510 nanometer range.

But these days, green has been commandeered by environmentalists.

Look around and you'll see green everything. Green cleaning products, green building materials, green energy, green cars (of all colors), and other types of green technologies are all a part of what is now called green living.

It's inescapable. Environmentalism has had as much impact on our language as we've had on our planet, both for good and ill.

For the last three years, the New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen its Word of the Year from the language of environmentalism. Their WotY, starting in 2006, were carbon neutral, locavore, and hypermiling, all words related to saving the environment.

The prefixes eco- and bio-, too, have found their way into new words in ways not even considered three decades ago. We now have ecotourism, biofuels, ecoterrorism, bioethics, and ecohacking to describe acts geared toward minimizing humans' negative impact on the environment. In some cases, old words are finding new life in the global conversation about the environment. For example, biomass, biodiversity, and ecosystem were once considered scientific jargon, spoken primarily by specialists. Today, no one would think twice about these terms appearing in, say, a presidential address.

The language of climate change itself has been changing, too. Do you remember the greenhouse effect? That '80s buzzword predicting doom and gloom for our planet? The greenhouse effect is still there, but you don't hear about it all that much anymore. Why? Because it only tells you a cause; it doesn't reveal the effect that will lead to action. (Plus, people like me were just tired of hearing it all the time.) The greenhouse effect gave rise to global warming, which, although it didn't sound like such a bad idea in the middle of January, does reveal a frightening effect.

But the changes in our ecosystem aren't limited to rising temperatures. Short- and long-term weather patterns have been changing all over the world, so global warming has been replaced by climate change to describe our impact on the planet.

The rate of language change seems to be keeping pace with the rate of technological change — which makes sense when you think about it. As new technologies are created and scientific mysteries are solved, we need new words to describe what they are, what they do, and how they affect us. (Could this lead linguists to a Moore's Law of language? Or is there already one?)

But as scary as global climate change is, the fun part, as a logophile, is ruminating on the future of enviro-speak. How will we be talking about environmental issues ten, twenty years from now? Will we be reading glogs, "green blogs"? How will we describe breakthroughs in the recycling and repurposing of our most harmful pollutants? As new technologies develop, what words or affixes will we use to describe machines or processes that go beyond carbon neutrality to actually result in a net gain for the environment? Will the phrase global climate change further evolve into a new term? And will that term be broader or more specific?

What do you think?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Annoying Word Poll? Whatever.

So the big* news in words today is that a new poll from Marist College puts the word whatever at the top of the list of the most annoying phrases. You can check out the final numbers here, where you'll also find that whatever was competing with the phrases anyway, you know, it is what it is, and at the end of the day.

The results are also broken down by demographics. Although the demographic breakdown can be interesting, don't forget that this table does not show or prove any link between word choice and any of the demographics shown. The fact that, of the people questioned, the college grads found the phrase you know more annoying than the non-college grads did doesn't really say anything about a connection between word choice and having a college degree. There likely are some studies out there that attempt to find links between word choice and sex, education, socioeconomic status, age, etc., though. I'll leave it to you to look for such research, if you're interested.

As usual, people have been trying apply the results of this poll to the American public at large ('Whatever' is most annoying word: Word irks half of America), but only 938 people were questioned. I certainly wasn't questioned. I couldn't find (quickly enough, at least) the information about exactly what this study's sample population was asked. If they were given only these five phrases to choose from, then I don't think this poll really tells us anything.

Personally, I don't recall having heard it is what it is or at the end of the day even once in the last month. (Well, I did hear "at the end of the day" on my Les Misérables soundtrack — but that isn't really what they're talking about here.) Of the five choices, whatever probably would have been my choice, but it's really only mildly annoying.

For me (and for a number of people posting comments about this around the Internet), the most annoying phrase is the use of like as a filler. I abhor verbal fillers in general, from um and uh to y'see and y'know what I'm sayin', but like sits at the top. I'm not going to claim that it causes me physical pain or threaten bodily injury to myself or to others — like some of the commenters in the "LIKE THIS IS LIKE THE LIKE BEST LIKE LANGUAGE LIKE EVER" Facebook group — but I certainly am turned off by the overuse of like. Turned off in the sense that I no longer want to listen to what that person has to say.

I suppose the larger question is how we get people to stop using it. As with everything, it starts with the parents. My mother (who taught high school English for nearly 30 years) never let me get away with using like when I was young. If I were to say, "I'm going to, like, watch TV,"she'd call me on it: "Are you going to like watch TV, or are you going to actually watch TV." It wasn't brow-beating; it wasn't hostile. But it was effective — not only to curb my misuse of this filler, but also to get me to (as too few people do) actually listen to the words that were coming out of my mouth.

Which I guess is the whole lesson of this poll. Word might not have the power to cause physical harm to a person — leave that for the sticks and stones — but the words you say do have an effect on how those around you respond to you. If you, like, just don't, like, understand why no one, like, listens to you, maybe it's because you aren't listening to yourself?

* big in the sense that a lot of people are talking and writing about it, not in the sense that it has any great importance.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Today's Word: psephology

psephology: The study of elections. How I never heard this word in December of 2000 I'll never know.

So the question is how one becomes a psephologist. I suppose you start off studying either poli-sci or history and then go a little nuts looking at election numbers. Pretty soon, you become "the election guy." Next thing you know . . . RING! RING! It's CBS on the phone! They want you to explain how W could possibly have won a second election!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Today's Word: Pyrrhonism

Pyrrhonism: The doctrine that all knowledge is uncertain, that you can't trust anything you think you know. More commonly used today simply to indicate extreme skepticism. Pyrrhonism comes from the doctrines of Pyrrho the Skeptic, a Greek thinker from the third and fourth century BC.

If you need an adjective, use Pyrrhonic, not (as I mistakenly have done) Pyrrhic. A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that comes at too great a cost, not a victory whose winners can be doubted. Pyrrhic (as a lowercase common noun) is also a measure of meter in writing indicating a metrical foot made up of two short or unaccented syllables.

Monday, September 28, 2009

William Safire: 1929-2009

Columnist, speech-writer, Pulitzer Prize winner, and fellow logophile William Safire died Sunday. Word lovers had strong opinions both for and against Safire's continuing work and proclamations in the area of language, but regardless of how one felt, his words and ideas were worth reading. And still are.
I'm not an autograph hound; I don't place much value in the signature of a famous person. In my life, I've owned only two autographed items. The first was a recording of the Indianpolis Symphony Orchestra autographed by then-conductor Raymond Leppard; I donated it to a silent auction to raise money for the Indiana Wind Symphony a few years back. The second is a copy of William Safire On Language that my mother somehow managed to get personally signed by the author. It still sits on my shelf with Bill Bryson, Constance Hale, Lynne Truss, Charles Harrington Elster, Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and many others. And it'll be there for quite a while.

[Update . . . er . . . apology, 10/5/09: My memory must be going. I wasn't at home when I wrote this post, and I made some mistakes. I do have a copy of Safire's On Language, but it's the book right next to it, Richard Lederer's Adventures of a Verbivore, that's autographed. By Richard Lederer, not William Safire. And as far as I know, Richard Lederer is still alive. ]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Today's Word: gralloch

gralloch: To disembowel a deer. It comes from the Gaelic word graeleach, intestines. "David spent the entire day hunting with his father and having a great time, right up until it came time to gralloch their prize. It was at that moment that David became a vegetarian."

Don't confuse this with uxoricide, mariticide, or infanticide, which could all be the result of the disembowelling of a dear.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Today's Word: palinoia (it doesn't mean what you want it to mean)

palinoia: Compulsive repetition of an act until it is done perfectly. I know, you want it to mean constantly worrying that Sarah Palin might be elected President (more aptly referred to as stygiophobia) or to refer to that odd and discomforting feeling that the person you're talking to voted Republican in '08 because of Sarah Palin (idiophobia?). But that isn't what it means.

Musicians in particular can benefit from palinoia, as they practice and practice until they can play a piece in their sleep (would that be somniphony?). Palinoia can be horrid when it involves other people, though. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, was known as a perfectionist when it came to directing. There's a scene in Gold Rush in which a character (not played by Charlie Chaplin) is so hungry and poor that he is forced to eat his own shoe. The edible shoe was made from black licorice, so he actually could eat it. I remember hearing once that Chaplin did retake after retake to get the scene just perfect, and that poor actor had to eat something like twelve licorice shoes that day. Makes me cringe just to think about it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Today's Word: kakistocracy

kakistocracy: Government run by the worst citizens. I'll leave it to you to debate/decide exactly what constitutes "the worst citizens." 

I originally was going to say that I wish I had found this word during the Bush administration, but I don't think that's fair. Even while those in government were tripping over their tongues and vomiting on diplomats, the United States was still better-run than a number of other places I'd never like to visit, much less be a citizen of. Think Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, North Korea, South Africa during Apartheid. I'd take another four years of W over any of those governments. 

I'm worried, though, that if our representatives continue with their squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease outlook on their constituencies, our de jure democracy could easily become a de facto kakistocracy. Don't know what I'm talking about? Check out this video taken at the recent march on Washington. (I'll post my opinions about these scary idiots on my other blog, Soluble Fish, soon.) 

Someone actually snapped up the domain, though it hasn't been updated for quite some time — if the source code is to be believed, it hasn't been updated since 2003. (Is he still paying for that URL and the web hosting?)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Today's (Morbid) Word: noyade

noyade: Mass execution by drowning. Jean-Baptiste Carrier was sent by the National Convention to Nantes in 1793 to put down a revolt of citizens opposed to the French revolution. Carrier was known for his cruelty, and he didn't disappoint. Guillotining was one of his more humane methods of execution; he is also known to have lined up prisoners and had them shot — one by one.

Carrier also pioneered the process of the noyade, also known as "Carrier's Vertical Deportation," in which as many as 150 prisoners were locked into the hold of a ship which was then scuttled in the Loire, drowning all aboard. The word comes from the French verb noyer, meaning "to drown." Some sources estimate that as many as 32,000 people were "deported" in this manner.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Today's Word: nepenthe

nepenthe (nee PEN thee): Any drug that causes forgetfulness. "I was sure someone had slipped me a nepenthe Friday night when I awoke Saturday morning in a strange house, spooning with Andy Dick in a waterbed while Steve Buscemi drew us in caricature from a chair in the corner. The last thing I remembered was asking the guy at Home Depot where the insulation was."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Parliamentary Name-Calling

Have you ever found yourself in the company of an idiot but been at a loss for a good term of abuse? Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating never found himself in such a situation. Perusing his verbal lashings can help you find just the right words to tell off that gutless spiv who cut you off in traffic. Check out the post at Language Log:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Twacking Twitter's Twinfluence on Votwabulary

I'm extremely new to Twitter (so new, in fact, that when I tweet a link to this blog entry, it likely won't show up in anyone's tweet stream), but I'm finding that it's a fascinating look into pop culture. Over the last two days, I've spent way too much time finding out about the Twitterverse and what people are doing in it.

I've noticed, as you probably have, that as people interact with Twitter and build new Twitter apps, a common occurrence is to name something by taking a "regular" word and changing it so that it begins with tw. Some of them, like words that already start with T, W, or TR, are obvious and flow right off the tongue. For example, Twackle, Twanslate (discontinued), Twetris, Twhirl, Twazzup, and Twipestry (though Twapestry would make more sense — was it already taken?). Others are made from words that start with other letters, but they still make sense starting with TW — perhaps it's because of the type of vowel sound in that first syllable or because the original word doesn't have many sound-alikes, so starting it with TW won't create any confusion. Some of these are Tweeteorology, Twootball, and Twurfer (for meatspace, not cyberspace, surfers).

Still others are just huge stretches to fit the idea into the now established form. These I hate: Twitspect (for respect), Twitsumé (for resumé; Twesumé, though still gross, is slightly better, no?), Twuoted (for quoted) and Twesents (for presents). The worst abuse, though a good account to follow if you like this sort of thing, is Twrivia. That's right, Twrivia, not the more obvious Twivia. (Again, I'll just assume that someone else snagged up Twivia earlier.)

And a few groups, like Dwigger (discontinued) and Qwitter, went another (and in my opinion more interesting) way.

I'm all for wordplay — I wouldn't maintain a blog like this if I weren't — but there is certainly a point at which witty and innovative turns into uncreative and tired. I think we've passed that point. From the way some of these are being discontinued for lack of use, I can only hope that, like the -licious suffix that was so popular a while back, the fad of twitterizing (or just twizing?) words will soon pass, and only the greats will remain.

But in spite of my poo-pooing, I do think this is a good sign. I think this shows that a lot of people (dare I hope most?) enjoy wordplay. People do seem to intrinsically understand that, from portmanteaux and mondegreens to spoonerisms and simply alliteration, the flexibility of the English language makes it more than just a means of communication; it can actually be entertainment.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Translation Catch-22

I don't really know what to say about this. I'd really love it if someone could explain what the sign really says.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Today's Word: sacerdotal

sacerdotal: Of or relating to the priesthood. In Spanish, el sacerdote means "the priest." Maybe I'm just tired, but sacerdotal is a difficult word to put into a funny sentence.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

RavenBlack's Random Surrealism Generator

This is a neat little word-related Web toy I found (by Stumbling through the Internet) over at It randomly generates Mad Lib–like surrealistic phrases. Every time you refresh the page, you get a new phrase.
RavenBlack is offering the code up for free. There's a general generator and generators for Shakespeare, Genesis, and computer error codes — all completely bonkers, of course. And all customizable.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Today's Word: stentorian

stentorian: Loud. Very, very loud. Usually referring to the volume of one's voice. In Greek mythology, Stentor was a Greek herald with a powerful voice. He is mentioned in Homer's The Iliad; here is an excerpt from the Samuel Butler translation (with thanks to Project Gutenberg):

When they [Minerva and Juno, a.k.a. Athena and Hera] came to the part where the bravest and most in number were gathered about mighty Diomed, fighting like lions or wild boars of great strength and endurance, there Juno stood still and raised a shout like that of brazen-voiced Stentor, whose cry was as loud as that of fifty men together. "Argives," she cried; "shame on cowardly creatures, brave in semblance only; as long as Achilles was fighting, if his spear was so deadly that the Trojans dared not show themselves outside the Dardanian gates, but now they sally far from the city and fight even at your ships."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

This book never made it onto my "to read" list, but while I was at the library helping my elder son find a good book, I pulled this off the shelf. I read the first paragraph and was hooked. Check it out:

It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

How could I not continue reading a story with such an outrageous setting?

And I wasn't disappointed. I'm not sure whether The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is satire, allegory, or parable, but it's obvious that Saunders has something to say about power, confidence, and human nature, and maybe even a little about literary tools, in this George-Orwell-meets-Dr.-Seuss novella. The story, like the characters, is simple. Phil, an Outer Hornerite who was shunned by Carol, an Inner Hornerite, draws upon the sense of Outer Hornerite national pride to first tax the Inner Hornerites into nothingness, and ultimately to eliminate the Inner Hornerites completely.

Phil's political doublespeak is both inscrutable and shockingly familiar:

"My people!" he shouted in the stentorian voice. "I shall speak now of us! Who are we? We are an articulate people, yet a people of few words. We feel deeply, yet refrain from embarrassing displays of emotion. Though firm, we are never too firm, though we love fun, we never have fun in a silly way that makes us appear ridiculous, unless that is our intent. Our national coloration, though varied, is consistent. Everything about us is as it should be, for example, we can be excessive, when excess is called for, and yet, even in our excess, we show good taste, although never is our taste so super-refined as to seem precious. Even the extent to which we are moderate, except when we have decided to be immoderately moderate, or even shockingly flamboyant, at which time our flamboyance is truly breathtaking in a really startling way, and when we decide to make mistakes, our mistakes are as big and grand and irrevocable as any nation's colossal errors, and when we decide to deny our mistakes, we sound just as if we were telling the truth, and when we decide to admit our errors, we do so in a way that is truly moving in its extreme frankness!"

Throughout this read, I tried to pin down a particular political figure that Phil represented, starting with George W. Bush, through Karl Rove, Bush Sr., and even Ken Starr. Eventually, I decided that they all applied, as well as a number of others.

Saunder's story is both poignant and outrageous, right up to the deus ex machina (which is literally both deus and machina) conclusion. This is a great airplane book, and a great little publication to leave somewhere for someone else to find and enjoy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Beck, Racism, and the Importance of Commas

Apparently, some advertisers (33 at last count) have started pulling their spots from Glenn Beck's show on the Fox network after he said that President Obama is a racist "with a deep-seated hatred for white people." In a surprising twist, even after his network tried to distance itself from his remarks, Beck himself did not and used his radio show to tell why he actually believes that. You can find out more about the whole story via Yahoo.

Although it is refreshing to see that a talking head didn't immediately go into Infinite Apology mode after being called on a controversial remark, it's sad that the issue he (or anyone) has chosen to stand behind is calling our President a racist. Personally, I think the word racist has been overused and misused so much over the last couple decades that it no longer really means the same thing that it meant, say, 25 years ago.
The Internet's ability to bring together people from all over the world in a raceless, classless way may have something to do with that.

Calling someone a racist today, it seems to me, is approximately the same as calling someone a communist back in the 50s. It's used to shame, to shock, and to denounce without actually holding any inherently important information. Not that I think that racism has disappeared. We can only dream. But people have cried racist so often and so flippantly that it no longer rallies the villagers like it ought to.

But that isn't the crux of what I wanted to bring up here on Logophilius. What struck me is a quote from UPS spokesman Rich Hallabran. He stated that UPS had temporarily stopped buying ad space on the Fox network as a whole, not just from Beck's show and not (necessarily) because of Beck's remarks. But he said it in an odd way -- or the AP reporters who heard him wrote it in an odd way. According to the Yahoo report, Hallabran said that the decision to pull commercials "should not be interpreted as we are permanently withdrawing our advertising from Fox." I had to read this statement three times before it made sense.

The phrase "should not be interpreted as" is pretty common. (It yields over 17.5 million hits on Google.) It's normally used in the structure "X should not be interpreted as Y," meaning that, upon reading X, you might interpret X to mean or cause Y, but you shouldn't do that. For example, here are a smattering of selections from the first page of Google hits
  • Survey Suggests Results of Election Should Not Be Interpreted As A Tax Revolt
  • The Auchentoshan content located on this Auchentoshan Site should not be interpreted as financial or investment advice...
  • Association should not be interpreted as causation without additional evidence.
  • References to other mutual funds should not be interpreted as an offer of these securities
So when I read that UPS's decision "should not be interpreted as. . . ," I was expecting something like "should not be interpreted as an official stance on Beck's comments." I was thrown (at least twice) when something completely different, and seemingly ungrammatical, appeared in its place: " . . . should not be interpreted as [we are permanently withdrawing our advertising from Fox]."

I realized that this statement was probably read aloud and not put in print, so at first I figured that the AP reporters had perhaps left out some false starts, or an uh or um as Hallabran collected his thoughts in the middle of a sentence. With that in mind, the statement meant exactly the opposite of what he was trying to say, to wit, that we shouldn't think that UPS's current actions mean that they are permanently withdrawing advertising from Fox. In fact, they are pulling their advertising from Fox. What he was trying to say is that you shouldn't interpret -- apparently at all -- because they had made a separate decision to permanently withdraw advertising from Fox.

If I had written the statement, I would have used because instead of as. In my limited exposure to legalese, though, I sense a hesitancy to use the word because in any legal document. I presume because because implies a direct causal relationship between an act and its (alleged) result, whereas as can be interpreted as (ba-dump bump) indicating simultaneity, and not necessarily causality. That's just a guess, though.

At any rate, if Hallabran wanted to stick with as, all this statement needed was a simple little comma: "...should not be interpreted, as we are permanently withdrawing our advertising from Fox." Amazing how a little smudge like that can clear things up so quickly.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What's Your Favorite Word?

I'm not sure most people really have a favorite word, or have even considered the idea of having a favorite word. To many, words are just tools, and having a favorite word would be like having a favorite size of wood screw. (Not that a person couldn't have a favorite size of wood screw. But as a musician, logophile, and male who is more apt to use the phrase wood screw to refer to an eighteenth-century sexual device, the idea of having a favorite size of one seems somewhat ludicrous.)

But hey, if you find this blog interesting, then you're probably the type to have a favorite word.

My first favorite word was phantasmagoric (dream-like), which I heard for the first time in fourth or fifth grade when we were reading Edgar Allan Poe. I seem to be attracted to words with -asm in them; they're all fun to say. Try it. Repeat after me: "The orgasmic spasms were phantasmagoric, but set off my asthma." See? Isn't that fun?

So phantasmagoric was my favorite word all through middle and high school. In college, I discovered and fell in love with sesquipedalian (literally, a foot and a half long, but normally used in reference to lengthy words). Sesquipedalian is a great word because it's self-referential, like susurrous and multisyllabic. It's really hard to work the word into a sentence in everyday conversation, though.

My elder son, who just started fifth grade, says that his favorite word is onomatapoeia. I think the fact that he even has a favorite word shows that we're raising him right. Onomatapoeia is up there in my top ten, too, for its outstanding use of vowels. (And here I'm talking about vowel letters, not vowel sounds.) Not only do the vowels outnumber the consonants two-to-one, but you don't often see four consecutive vowels in a word. (Queue, queuing, and homoiousian are the only ones that come to mind right now.)

Currently, my favorite word is slubberdegullion. I think I like it so because, even though there aren't really any recognizable affixes or common etymological cues to latch onto to figure out what it means, the various parts of the word are close enough to other, recognizable word to understand that calling someone a slubberdegullion isn't a compliment. It almost contains slob, slobber, bird egg, degrease, and onion.

A few of my other favorite words:

  • tintinnabulation
  • exsanguinate
  • bailiwick
  • snort
  • ovoviviparous
  • sacerdotal
  • mugwump

Do you have a favorite word? What is it and why?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Today's Word: ichor

ichor: In Greek mythology, ichor is the blood of the gods, or rather, what flows through the veins of the gods like blood but that isn't actually blood, because gods are too cool to have regular old blood.

"Forgetting that he was immortal, and in a long fit of depression, Hephaestus slit both his wrists. He watched the ichor flow for three centuries before coming to his senses and returning to work."

From ooo! to ew!

These days, ichor refers to a thin, watery discharge that might trickle from a wound. How the mighty have fallen!

"Forgetting that he was mortal, and in a fit of boredom, Hugh began sawing at the skin on his wrist with a plastic knife. After three minutes, he had only managed a half-inch slit tinged by ichor before the pain drove the boredom away and he returned to work."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Today's Words: bigamy, monogamy

bigamy, monogamy: To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: Bigamy is having one wife too many; monogamy is the same thing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Today's Word: unctuous

unctuous: Physically, unctuous means oily or greasy. It comes from the same etymological source as unguent, which is an ointment or salve. Metaphorically, unctuous describes a person who uses "oily" smooth speech. The definition in Webster's New World Dictionary (4th Edition) is so well-written that I'll just quote it here: "characterized by a smug, smooth pretense of spiritual feeling, fervor, or earnestness, as in seeking to persuade; too oily in speech or manner."

(I don't often come along a dictionary definition that I actually enjoy reading. They're often dry and formulaic —"of or pertaining to X," "in a Y manner" — and it's easy to forget sometimes that there are real people, lexicographers, with different levels of creativity, eloquence, and flair behind each definition in a dictionary. Perhaps the alliteration in this definition is what brings it out. It is certainly written in such a way that it could be easily read alound unctuously.)

Anyway, back to the word unctuous: The Fonz had unctuous hair. Pimply teenagers have unctuous faces. Televangelists use their unctuous soliloquies as a lubricant to slide money from the wallets of the lonely and uncertain into their own pocketbooks.

It's a great word to remember during Scrabble, if you ever end up with three U's on your tray.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Today's Word: ergasiophobia

ergasiophobia: Fear of or aversion to work. I've taken the last week off of work for one last hurrah with my boys before the school year starts. I'm discovering that I'm not as ergasiophobic as I thought I was. It's driving me nuts getting so little done with my days.

Ergasiophobia does sound like a great reason to call in sick some morning, though. "I can't come in today. My ergasiophobia is acting up." Fortunately, to treat ergasiophobia, one can now fill prescriptions through the mail. Just use Netflix.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Today's word: anthropoglot

anthropoglot: An animal capable of mimicking human speech, like some parrots, some cockatoos, and Paula Abdul.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Today’s Word: cocksmanship

cocksmanship: Surely this word has been around for a while, but I just heard it today in the 1976 movie Network. If swordsmanship is how well a man handles his sword, and penmanship is how well a man manipulates his pen, then cocksmanship is, well, you get the idea. It's a perfectly usable and fun word for a topic that one probably shouldn't be talking about anyway.

Joey "Three Legs" Manolo had long hoped for career in the adult entertainment industry, but his cocksmanship just wasn't strong enough to land him a lead role.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye is a powerful book. It's a beautiful book, in the way that Picasso's La Guernica is a beautiful painting. It doesn't have a happy ending; it has a real ending.

The story proper begins like this: Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. It only gets worse from there.

I think the reason Toni Morrison has been so successful, the reason she earned her Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, is because her writing somehow manages to combine polar opposites without collapsing into itself. She writes about the worst of us, the vilest acts, the evilest desires, the proverbial underbelly of humanity, but she does it with so much beauty and eloquence that we don't realize what we've swallowed until it's down. It's crême brulée and Drano. It's road kill martinis. It's the Mona Lisa painted in poop.

I know that there's a CliffsNotes for this book, but I certainly hope no one tries to teach this in high school. Not because of the language, or because of the descriptions of sex, or for anything like that. I just don't think that someone in high school would know how to react to it. Frankly, and I know this sounds strange, I don't think a virgin should read this novel. Unless you understand what sex can do to you, how it can change you, you can't really understand some of the reactions. You can't really understand what the worst parts of this story are, or understand why they're so horrible.

This is a book for adults. This is a book for a parent, or a parent-to-be. Especially if you have a daughter.

There is an interesting typographical tool in The Bluest Eye. To be honest, I didn't even notice it until I was halfway through the book: some of the text is fully justified, but some of it is left justified with a ragged right. I haven't taken the time to go back and study it closer, but I imagine that the more descriptive text is justified, while the narrative text if ragged right. If you pick up The Bluest Eye, keep an eye out for the typography. Also notice when Morrison switches between first and third person, another useful device to focus the storyline.

And if you get a copy that includes an afterword that Toni Morrison wrote in 1993, read the afterword first.

[Almost?] Onomatapoeia: cracking knuckles

It occurred to me today, while I was thinking about alliteration, that the phrase "cracking knuckles" is wonderfully onomatapoeic. All those wonderful K sounds mimic the actual sounds of the cracking knuckles themselves.

Of course, crack (the sound, not the splittage or the illicit drug) is already a bonafide onomatapoeia, so "cracking knuckles" is, I guess, just an extension of that characteristic. Saying it in a steady, accented rhythm really brings out the sounds, too: KRAK-KING-NUK-KULLS

This is all just simply observation. Language is fun.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In the Words of JK Rowling

In honor today’s release of the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

harry: To force to move along by constant harassing, or generally to constantly harass or torment.

potter: Someone who makes pots and pottery.

Hermione: The only daughter of Menelaus and Helen. While they were, uh, busy with the Trojan War, Hermione was raised by her aunt Clytemnestra.

Granger: A member of the national fraternal organization, the Grange, made up primarily of farmers.

Ron: Okay, so Ron and Ronald are both just boys names. I couldn’t just leave him out!

weasely: Resembling a weasel in some characteristic(s).(All right, you got me: It’s Ron Weasley, not Ron Weasely...)

And, just for kicks,

mundungus: Bad-smelling tobacco.

fletcher: A person who makes arrows.

  "For the love of Hermione!" shouted Ron, getting a snootful of the mundungus emanating from the clay pipe held in the teeth of his roommate George, a weasely, out-of-work potter with a habit of smoking so-called "antique tobacco" while working at his potter's wheel. "What is that horrible smell?!"

  "That, my friend, is 150-year-old, home-grown tobacco from the farm of an old Granger out of Iowa," replied Geroge, "and I do believe you've harried me quite enough about my most noble of cardiovascular pursuits.”

  "You’re mental, you are!"

Monday, July 13, 2009

Today's Word: verbigerate

verbigerate: To repeat a word or phrase, often unconsciously, over and over again. The word like is a common (and annoying) source of verbigeration. There are two known treatments for chronic verbigeration: (1) intense introspection, by which one actually listens to what one says and actively attempts to curb one's verbigeratorial shortcomings; and (2) glossectomy, the surgical removal of the tongue.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A New Site for Logophilius

This morning, I moved my Web site off of Geocities and onto my new domain,

I registered the domain and bought some space on GoDaddy's servers. They advertised a nice monthly price for Web hosting and gave me a discount on the domain registration for getting it and the hosting at the same time. Unexpectedly, even though GoDaddy shows you a monthly rate, they don't take monthly payments — I had to pay it all up front. Not exactly a bait and switch, but, as I said, unexpected.

Still, I'm excited about the new site!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

About Toni Morrison

After finishing Cormc McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (a review is on its way), I picked up Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. This is my first adventure into Toni Morrison's work, but already I see that her veneration as a great writer — as well as her Nobel Prize in Literature — is well-deserved. Toni Morrison's writing is just like the perfect woman: the perfect balance of eloquence and profanity, of femininity and grit. When I came across the following text, the opening of the "Winter" section, I just had to read it twice, and thought it worthy to share as an example of great writing. I wish I could write like this:

My daddy's face is a study. Winter moves into it and presides there. His eyes become a cliff of snow threatening to avalanche; his eyebrows bend like black limbs of leafless trees. His skin takes on the pale, cheerless yellow of winter sun; for a jaw he has the edges of a snowbound field dotted with stubble; his high forehead is the frozen sweep of the Erie, hiding currents of gelid thoughts that eddy in darkness. Wolf killer turned hawk fighter, he worked night and day to keep one from the door and the other from under the windowsills. A Vulcan guarding the flames, he gives us instructions about which doors to keep closed or opened for proper distribution of heat, lays kindling by, discusses qualities of coal, and teaches us how to rake, feed, and bank the fire. And he will not unrazor his lips until spring.

When it comes to reading literature, I've been somewhat of a serial monogamist since the sixth grade, latching on to an author and swallowing whole whatever parts of his library I could get my teeth on. First, there was John Bellairs, then Robin Cook, a relatively brief tryst with Stephen King, then Douglas Adams, Clive Barker, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, William Burroughs, and most recently Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman. Toni Morrison may be my next long-term literary relationship.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Today’s Word: xylophagous/xylophage

xylophagous/xylophage: No, it doesn't mean someone who eats xylophones; a xylophage is something that feeds on or in wood, such as termites. No porn jokes, please.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

An Okay Kurt Vonnegut Resource

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite authors — one of my favorite people — is fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut. I've already read everything by him and a lot of things about him, so I really didn't have a great need to look for further resources about his life and works. I can't even remember now how I stumbled upon (maybe through Stumble Upon), but stumble I did.

The site hasn't been updated in quite a while (Vonnegut's death hasn't been registered there yet), but since Vonnegut didn't write a whole lot in the last decade of his life, that doesn't leave a lot of holes in his coverage. For Vonnegut lovers like myself, this is a good place to find some of his lesser-known writings and commencement addresses, as well as the standard biographical and bibliographical info.

Perhaps if the owner of VonnegutWeb starts to see more traffic, he'll feel the urge to update it. (Or give it to me?)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Today's Word: stroganoff

stroganoff: A culinary term denoting that a food has been prepared with sour cream, onions, mushrooms, and noodles, though I can't be positive that the noodles are mandatory. I've only ever heard it applied to beef stroganoff, but would love to hear if you've eaten anything else that has been "stroganoffed."

The culinary term is believed to named after Sergei Stroganov, a Russian aristocrat, founder of the Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry in 1825, and governor general of Moscow in 1859 and 1860. (Maybe one of you older language lovers can tell me whether beef stroganoff had a "more patriotic" name during the Red Scare?)

I post this not because I think you'll be interested in beef stroganoff (though it is a nice little bit of trivia), but because of my recent experience with beef stroganoff — specifically generic beef stroganoff made with ground beef and flat pasta. This is the generic, boxed version of the Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff, which is itself a genericized, box version of real beef stroganoff made with strips of yummy steak.

Anyway, I whipped up a batch of doubly generic, boxed beef stroganoff the other day and was struck by how disgusting it looked. It's papier maché with meat. I thought to myself that this might be the most disgusting-looking food on the planet.

A couple days later I discovered my error. The one food that looks even more disgusting than generic beef stroganoff is leftover beef stroganoff. Somehow, the second time around, it not only looked bad but was completely inedible.

Oh yeah. Beef stroganoff is also the punch line to the horrible joke, "What do you call a masturbating bull?"

Monday, June 22, 2009

Today's List: Top Ten Words that Almost Rhyme with Orange

A great list for all you budding poets out there:
  • old hinge
  • strange
  • phalanges
  • beluga
  • courage
  • incorrigible
  • fornicate
  • Galapagos
  • G.I. Joe
  • Florence Henderson
You can thank me later.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Douglas Adams and the Meaning of Liff

I was probably in the seventh or eighth grade when I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and fell in love with Douglas Adams. Since then, I've read everything he's written. Well…with one exception.

In the list of his works in the front of some of his books, I'd keep seeing the title The Meaning of Liff. I always kept an eye out for it in bookstores, and I'd try card catalogs and, later, library databases trying to find this book and see what it's all about. Eventually, I gave up looking and started reading Neil Gaiman.

Anyway, thanks to my old friend Dolph for pointing out that The Meaning of Liff is available for free (and in need of a good proofreading) online. I don't know that it's legally available for free, so follow the previous link at your own peril: the ghost of Douglas Adams may come back and start hiding your towels, dropping your cufflinks behind the refrigerator, or teaching your disgruntled parrot some sailor lingo.

From the intro on the Web page, The Meaning of Liff appears to be Pseudodictionary-like collection of definitions for common elements of life and living it assigned to placenames found on signposts, especially throughout the United Kingdom. Many of the definitions are quite useful for concisely referring to something that doesn't currently have a "real" definition. For example, I'm a skilled alltamist and kalamist, I once limerigged my leg so hard in college that I was in an air cast for three weeks, and I'm a horrible abinger (though I don't own a cheese grater).

Other definitions are a little too specialized for general usage, though all definitions are perfectly brisbane. Check it out! Is it worth reading from start to finish? Yesnaby!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Today's Word: mugwump

mugwump: In the late 19th century, mugwump was a disparaging term for New York Republicans who supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election. It stems from an Algonquin term for a "person of importance" — a high muckety-muck.

The epithet was supposedly given by Charles Anderson Dana, editor of the New York Sun, who claimed that the party-crossing Republicans had their "mug" on one side of the fence and their "wump" on the other.

More recently, William Burroughs commandeered the term for his own purposes. From Naked Lunch:

On stools covered in white satin sit naked Mugwumps sucking translucent, colored syrups through alabaster straws. Mugwumps have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets. Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients. These creatures secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism. . . . Addicts of Mugwump fluid are known as Reptiles. A number of these flow over chairs with their flexible bones and black-pink flesh. A fan of green cartilage covered with hollow, erectile hairs through which the Reptiles absorb the fluid sprouts from behind each ear. The fans, which move from time to time touched by invisible currents, serve also some form of communication known only to the Reptiles.

During the biennial Panics when the raw, pealed Dream Police storm the City, the Mugwumps take refuge in the deepest crevices of the wall, sealing themselves in clay cubicles and remain for weeks in biostasis. In those days of grey terror the Reptiles dart about faster and faster, scream past each other at supersonic speed, their flexible skulls flapping in black winds of insect agony.

The Dream Police disintegrate in globs of rotten ectoplasm swept away by an old junky, coughing and spitting in the sick morning. The Mugwump Man comes with alabaster jars of fluid and the Reptiles get smoothed out.

The air is once again still and clear as glycerine.

In David Cronenberg's movie adaptation of Naked Lunch, the Mugwump's "erect penises" sprout not from between the legs, but from the top of the head. Here's a picture of William Burroughs with a movie mugwump.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Misquoted: Palin and the Exploitation of Mirrors

Found in an online article from the NBC Bay Area News. In quoting Sarah Palin's hockey-mask-mom letter to David Letterman — concerning some jokes that Dave made about Sarah and her daughters visiting New York — the Web site printed this as part of her letter:

"…acceptance of inappropriate sexual comments about an underage girl, who could be anyone's daughter, contributes to the atrociously high rate of sexual exploitation of mirrors by older men who use and abuse others."

I could go on about the fact that every underage girl is someone's daughter, making Palin's "who could be anyone's daughter" statement redundant, or I could rant about the ridiculous idea that listening to or telling a bad joke contributes to child molestation (in the same way that glimpsing Janet Jackson's nipple can emotionally scar a child for life?), but I don't have time. I'm too busy prying the mirrors from the ceiling over my bed.

Today's Word: puisne

puisne: Of a lower rank; an associate justice as distinguished from a chief justice. Before you hurt yourself trying to figure out how to pronounce it, here's a little help: it's French. From the old French puis (after) + (born), it literally, or at least originally, designated someone born after someone else, hence younger. Puis is pronounced "pyoo."


Got the pronunciation yet? It's pronounced puny. In fact, puny and puisne come from exactly the same place etymologically. Of course, you can't refer to someone as puny in any official discourse without sounding unprofessional and egotistic, but referring to your underlings as puisne, well, that just makes you well-educated and intellectual.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Today's Word: prevaricate

prevaricate: Not what happens right before you varicate. To prevaricate means to sidestep the truth, either through doublespeak and misdirection or through outright lies. Politicians have for a long time been the top candidates for the epithet prevaricator, but more recently, big business CEOs and CFOs have been gaining ground on legislators, though they're more likely to be called a host of other things before prevaricator makes it to the list.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Today's Word: schlemiel

schlemiel: A Yiddish term for a bungling, gullible idiot. "That schlemiel just put a $500 check in the mail and is now anxiously awaiting word from the Nigerian prince who needed the money." Schlemiel is identified in the Talmud with a prince who met an unfortunate end.

Don't be a schlemiel!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wikipedia 1, Journalism 0

So here's the story: Oscar-winning French composer Maurice Jarre died on March 28. Soon after he heard about it, a media student in Dublin created a too-good-to-be-true but totally fabricated quotation and added it to Maurice Jarre's Wikipedia entry just to see what would happen.

Here's the quotation: "One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear." It was designed to be a great quotation to put in an obituary, too good to pass up.

The quotation didn't stay on Wikipedia for long. It appeared without an attribution, and Wikipedia's mass of volunteer editors checked it out and quickly removed it. But not quickly enough to keep dozens of blogs and newspaper Web sites, including the UK's The Guardian, from reprinting the fake quote.

A definite warning about trusting everything you see in Wikipedia. You can read more about it here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Today's Word: malapropism (or just malaprop)

malapropism: The French had a phrase, mal à propos, meaning inappropriate or in an inopportune way. That has entered the English language all scrunched up as malapropos. In his 1775 play The Rivals, Richard Sheridan introduced a character by the name of Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Malaprop, always trying to sound well-educated and in control, wasn't the brightest crayon in the box — she would misuse words in ridiculous and hilarious ways. For example,

"She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile."
"I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small."

So now a malapropism is this sort of ridiculous and often

hilarious misuse of words, often in an attempt to sound more intelligent or well-bred than one actually is.

My vote for today's Mrs. Malaprop is Michael Scott on The Office. Take a close listen next Thursday — they slip malapropisms in surreptitiously, just to see if you're paying attention.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Today's Word: rebus, and a bonus word!

rebus: A riddle consisting of pictures of objects and symbols whose phonetic or alphabetic parts combine into a representation of a word or phrase. For example:

pilcrow: That double-stemmed backward P symbol used (most often in proofreading and editing) to indicate the end of a paragraph and the beginning of a new one. Or, more succinctly, the symbol in the above rebus. Wired magazine sometimes uses the pilcrow character (in a lighter color) to mark the end of a paragraph without actually breaking to a new line. A great space-saver.

One thing I don't understand about the pilcrow: Why doesn't the word appear in either Webster's New World Dictionary or Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Making a Change in Your Writing

There's nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence:

When Donald discovered that his images were to be scrutinized by his son's fourth-grade class, he made a change to them to eliminate some of the more erotic imagery.

Nothing technically wrong with this sentence, but stuff like this gets me every time. To make a change to means the same thing as to alter. You know what else means to alter? To change.

Sixteen times out of seventeen, the make, a, and to in the phrase make a change to simply serve no purpose other than to fill space. And the text usually flows more smoothly and eloquently without them. Isn't it nicer to change your outlook than to make a change to your outlook? Isn't it more economical to change the budget than to make a change to the budget? Wouldn't you rather change the way you write instead of making a change in the way you write?

I think it's grammatically accurate but unnecessarily verbose phrases like this that led Strunk and White to their controversial codification, "Omit needless words." (The controversy, of course, centers on two ideas: (a) what exactly does needless mean in this context; and (2) is this "rule" to be followed in every case, to the extreme end, wielding the red pen like a Sith lightsaber in the Jedi library?)

I'm sure, with a little thought you can come up with perfect examples of when to make a change to is preferable to to change. I won't argue that. But generally, in your writing and editing, this phrase can be routinely squelched.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

With Apologies from Webster's Dictionary

A recent fun little romp through changes in the dictionary, brought to you by MadTV:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Today's Word: velocipede

velocipede: Any light vehicle propelled by the user's feet. A useful word that covers not only bicycles and tricycles, but big wheels, toy cars, scooters, skateboards, and the Flintstone's car.