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 Kakistocracy.org, 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: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1732

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.