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Previously Unpublished Vonnegut Short Story

The LA Times has published "Look at the Birdie" online, apparently a previously unpublished short story by Kurt Vonnegut that was supposed to be part of a collection published by Delacorte Press.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!