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.