Monday, January 25, 2010

Today’s Word: lethologica

lethologica: the inability to come up with the right word. If you have lethologica, you'll never remember lethologica when it's the exact word you need.

If you're going to write your own vows for your wedding, make sure you write them down and give them to your best man or maid of honor. I wrote some great vows for my wedding, full of symbolism, imagery, and and poetry, and spent the week before the wedding memorizing them. When the wedding day came around, and it came time to say my vows, I remembered the first word, and then was struck by lethologica. A long pause ensued. I didn't have the future me there to make sure I had given the vows had written to my best man, so I was on my own. I eventually remembered the final parts of the vows and had to go with that. The abbreviated vows weren't nearly as awesome.

After the ceremony, people attributed the pause to my being overcome with emotion. Although that was technically true — if you consider stage fright, then embarrassment, then disbelief at my own inabilities emotions — it was really just a case of underpreparation and overconfidence.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Today’s Word: quiddity

quiddity: Something's essence — it's whatness. Also the name of the mythic living sea in Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show and Everville. "No matter how many sitcoms and low-budget movies he's cast in, Billy Ray Cyrus's quiddity is not acting."

Maybe it's because I saw it in The Great and Secret Show long before I learned that it was a "real" word, but quiddity has a unique calming effect on me that no other word has. I just love to say it. "Quiddity."

The Great and Secret Show really hooked me on Clive Barker way back in the early '90s. I've always been a serial monogamist when it comes to books, so I went on to read (in no order) Imajica, Sacrament, Galilee, Coldheart Canyon, Cabal, and Everville. I remember one gaffe in Galilee that disturbed me and gave me pause. It was a simple grammatical error, but it was made by a character who had devoted his centuries-long life to recording the history of his family. That is, he had devoted his life to writing, and writing well, and made a simple grammatical error. It didn't match up.

Coldheart Canyon was the last one I read, and it left me with a cold heart (ba-dum bum). Aside from an arousing, surreal, supernatural sex scene, it simply wasn't a good book. Barker was on his way down, in my eyes. I think he's come out with a few books since then, but I'm just not interested.

I don't remember when it was, but my first exposure to Neil Gaiman was Good Omens, which he wrote with Terry Pratchett. I loved this book. I tried other Terry Pratchett books, but they weren't for me. But I did like Neil Gaiman's stuff, and he's only gotten better, and now he's one of my favorite authors. With American Gods, the Sandman comics, big-screen movies, small-screen miniseries (Neverwhere), the death of Batman, and numerous awards, Neil Gaiman is what Clive Barker could have been. Neil Gaiman's quiddity is storytelling, and he's a master.

Friday, January 8, 2010

2010 Word-Choice Resolutions

I’m not a big fan of new year’s resolutions. In fact, I’ve had the same single resolution for at least the least three years: To not break my new year’s resolution. (And I still haven’t!)
But this year, I figure I ought to try to better myself and my relationships with other people. And since most of my interactions with people are through language, I figure that’s a good (and by good I mean easy) place to start. So this year I’m resolving to pay more attention to the words I choose every day.

Ten Words I Will Try to Use More Often in 2010

  • Embiggen: Homer Simpson’s d’oh has made it into a few reputable dictionaries in the recent past, but I don’t think this other Simpsonism is yet widely accepted by lexicographers. I hope that if I can get more people to use embiggen, by using it often myself, we can jump that hurdle and get it in a dictionary or two.
  • Indubitably: This is so much more interesting than a simple “yes,” or even an “absolutely.” Plus, in speech, indubitably can be further improved by altering one’s voice. Saying indubitably like Alfred Hitchcock can carry some gravitas; saying it like Cookie Monster carries more gravy.
  • Ridonkulous: This is just fun to say. Plus, it’s useful when you want to piss off language purists.
  • Chutzpah: Chutzpah has more chutzpah than gumption has gumption or guts has guts. And it feels like a more joyous word — you can’t say it while you’re frowning.
  • Ennui: Weariness and dissatisfaction — the perfect word to describe so much of my life. I may begin insisting that people address me as Ennui the Eighth.
  • Nonplussed: It’s about time people started to use this word correctly and more often, and I can lead by example.
  • Slubberdegullion: Currently one of my favorite words, which is reason enough to use it more often.
  • Simplicity: I must use this word often and always keep it in mind. It will be the key to my economic health this year.
  • Zippy: Sherlock Holmes has elementary, JJ Walker has dyn-o-mite, and Fessig the Sicilian has inconceivable! I’m claiming zippy as my catchword.

Ten Words I Will Avoid (or Continue to Avoid) Using in 2010

  • Utilize: I already avoid this and will continue to do so. Stop utilizing things and start using them!
  • Chillax: I’m just not the kind of guy who can pull this word off in casual conversation, especially since I never chill, and I rarely relax. For me, chillax is just ridonkulous.
  • Google (as a verb): Google pissed me off when it released Sidewiki, and I haven’t been too thrilled with some of the other branches I’ve seen them trying to grow. Consequently, I’m using Google less and less for my Internet searches. So I will avoid the verb google for both practical and political reasons.
  • Neat: What a dull, lifeless, noncommittal word. When a person tells you that something you did was neat, they’re really just being nice. It wasn’t outstanding, nor awesome, nor impressive, nor unbelievable, nor astounding. It was just neat.
  • Cool: See neat.
  • Bailiwick: I use this word entirely too often. I need to replace it with words like demesne, domain, realm, sphere, doghouse, and so on.
  • Crap: Simply not descriptive enough. Besides, so much stuff around here is crap that using the word is redundant.
  • Fillers of all types: I’ve managed to purge the useless “like” from my side of conversations, but I can still use some work ridding my speech of uhs, ums, and wikiwikiwikis.
  • Obamalogisms: If you ever hear me say obamanation, obamacare, obamamama, obamify, or any other words of this ilk, please slap me. Hard.
Those of you who took some of the more advanced mathematics classes in school might notice that neither of these lists contains ten words. Help me complete this list: What words should I avoid or use more often, and why?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Quick Trip to the Bookstore

I needed to get out of the apartment this afternoon, so I took a quick trip to the nearest bookstore, where these three things happened:

  1. I bought a "Bad Cats" calendar. I always buy my calendars after the new year at half off or better. An assortment of calendars were still available: a couple for Twilight; a stack of exotic or cute animals calendars; the Maxim, SI Swimsuit Issue, and Playboy Lingerie calendars, which wouldn't go over well at work; and some calendars featuring movies I haven't seen and don't want to. "Bad Cats" (no relation to the Broadway musical) seemed the best of the bunch for my tastes.
  2. I rolled my eyes when I found that they're still shelving Neal Stephenson's novels in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. What does it take to land in Literature?
  3. Found a stack of the Peter Aykroyd rendition of The Canterbury Tales displayed prominently in the World History section. Chaucer, meanwhile, is shelved in Literature.
  4. I flipped through a copy of The Lexicographer's Dilemma. I had put it on my Christmas wish list, and now I want it even more. But I pay full price for very few things these days, and I didn't want to drop $26 on it today. I guess that's the cash-strapped bibliophile's dilemma.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book Review: 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form by Dom Sagolla

(Please see disclosure at the end.)

Dom Sagolla was one of the digital doctors who helped deliver Twitter into the light, and was himself Twitter user #9. Dom’s 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form isn’t a how-to book — you presumably understand or can figure out how to create a Twitter account and how the interface works — but is instead a what-to book, and at times a why-to book. It was written to help steer you toward clarity, creativity, insight, and above all brevity in your short-form writing.

Some people have avoided Twitter altogether, denouncing it as a big waste of time. On the whole, these people have bought into the misconception that Twitter is simply a hangout for naive exhibitionists and mouth-breathing stalkers — those who post every occurrence in their dull lives (“Sitting on porch eating sandwich.”) and those who prey upon the too-open, too-trusting children wasting time on the Internet.
Anyone who has ever used Twitter knows that this simply isn’t the case. In 140 Characters, Dom dispels the fearful myths about Twitter, makes the case for the utility of Twitter and short-form writing, outlines what Twitter is, and sketches out what it could become.

The back cover of this book states that “What Strunk and White’s Elements of Style did for traditional media, 140 Characters does for the social media revolution happening today.” I don’t think this is a fair comparison. Elements of Style is, at its heart, a rule book, based on the linguistic beliefs, preferences, and foibles of its authors. EoS is supposed to show you what it means to “write well,” or at least what the authors believe “writing well” means. In the word-loving world, EoS is the fence that divides two authorial camps: either you love it or you hate it.

On the other hand, I don’t think 140 Characters will create as much controversy. Sagolla doesn’t create a set of “rules” to follow if you want to make it in the Twitterverse. Sure, there are some “rules” sprinkled in there — don’t overuse the exclamation point, customize your avatar, don’t proclaim yourself an expert — but so many of these are about what you tweet about, not how you tweet it. It isn’t about “the right way” to assemble 140 characters; it’s about finding your voice and your style within this small space.

Peppered throughout the book are, from Dom and from other Twitter users, words of wisdom, of idiocy, of inspiration, and of downright silliness. Dom inserts some of his favorite Twitter posts throughout the book to punctuate the ideas at hand. For example, after a paragraph about “[a]cronyms, Wiki-speak, leetspeak, and other nerdy frameworks,” you’ll find this tweet: “Zen and the Art of Prefixing Your Title with ‘Zen and the Art of’,” complete with the URL where you can find the original tweet (in this case, Or, in a section about being safe on Twitter, specifically about doing a “vanity search” to see what people are saying about you, you’ll find these words of Twitter wisdom: “A search in time saves nine.” (

The tweets in this book range from poignant to confusing, but there are some real humdingers in there. And they make for great browsing when you’re still standing in the bookstore wondering if you should buy.

Dom’s writing style — part Ernest Hemingway, part Dale Carnegie — is obviously influenced by his time on Twitter. His points are simple. His sentences are generally short. He gets right to the point, avoiding loquacity. (I guess it would be ironic for him to write this book any other way.) His ideas and observations are both simple and insightful, although he does at times stray into hyperbole, like when he follows the simply profound statement, “Become a better writer because one day you will need it.” with this:
We are heading toward a revolution, the effect of which will be to irrevocably change composition as we know it, to reshape it, to redefine words. As in the European Renaissance, or the American Revolution, we form small societies that transcend nation and corporation. Our societies bring us comfort, haven, news from the outside, word of the resistance.
It’s a bit much to equate Twitter with the Renaissance or the American Revolution, but this shows that Dom really is passionate about the future of Twitter, and of the short form in general. Plus, he knows his stuff.

Dom Sagolla is passionate about Twitter, he knows what he’s talking about, and he can write clearly. What more could you want from an author?

So if you got a bookstore gift card for Christmas, you could do worse than spending it on 140 Characters, regardless of whether your Twitter user number is only two digits long or you still haven’t decide whether it’s worth it to even sign up. And because it is a small book that is divided up into still smaller sections, it makes for great bathroom reading.

Just don’t tweet while you’re there.

Disclosure: 140 Characters was published by John Wiley & Sons, who is also my employer. I played no part in the publication of this book, and I am receiving nothing in return for writing about it here.