Showing posts with label words. Show all posts
Showing posts with label words. Show all posts

19 April 2017

I don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means



by Robert Lopresti

Not long ago I had an embarrassing moment.  I discovered that the word erstwhile means former.  You may think: well, he's easily embarrassed if that bothers him.  The problem is that I had managed to get to the age of mumbly-mumble thinking it meant alleged.

In one of my stories about Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer, I said:
Discovering he was using a word he couldn’t define annoyed him, like a carpenter opening his tool box and finding a gadget he didn’t recognize.

Exactly.  I agree with myself completely. I wondered if anyone else had the same experience so I asked my Facebook friends, and got an earful.  Here are some of their examples of words that fooled them.
Toothsome means delicious not toothy.


Nauseous does not mean nauseated.

I used to use venal to mean generally nasty or snide, when it really means to commit crime for money.

For years I thought svelte meant the opposite of what it really means.

 Livid? I always thought it meant flushed red, but it means pale.


Querulous means whiny. I always thought it was about being picky, or a fuddy-duddy.

Enervate. Thought it was kin to energize.

I used to think hoi polloi meant the snooty upper crust. Then I learned some Greek...

How the heck can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?


Noisome means stinky, not loud.

I used to have a boss that referred to a very crowded space as fulsome.  It means over-the-top flattery.  When she  referred to a fulsome audience I winced.

 Georgette Heyer, in Black Sheep, uses sallow and swarthy interchangeably several times to describe the leading man's complexion (which was swarthy, not sallow).

I tend to mix up chartreuse and puce.

Rather than saying self-deprecating, I'd been using self-depreciating for years. 

dearth

secular

sanguine

obviate 

Although I knew what it meant I always read hyperbole as hyper bowl and couldn't figure out what that meant.


I was an adult before I realized pinochle was pee-nuckle - a card game I used to play with my father - and not some unknown card game pronounced. pin-o-ch-lee.

I was in college before an English teacher told me that AP-ruh-PO and apropos were the same word.

Rob again now: While I was writing this I got an email from someone who said he was "vehemently in favor of" something or other.  I didn't know that was possible.  I knew vehement meant forceful, emphatic, but I thought it was inherently negative.  I regret my erstwhile (ha!) misunderstanding.

So, confession is good for the soul.  What words have you misunderstood all your life?



25 May 2016

String Too Short To Save

David Edgerley Gates

The phrase in the title above comes from a book by Donald Hall, a New England writer. The way I remember his telling the story, he was going through his late grandmother's effects, and in one of the kitchen drawers he found a small box she'd labeled String Too Short To Be Saved.

Writers collect a lot of string too short to save. Turns of phrase, or odd usage, esoteric jargon, peculiar job titles, vocabulary notes, code words and covernames. I still tear stuff out of the newspaper. For example, a passing reference to a CIA black site in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit - in the Baltimore SUN, this past Friday. I used to have boxes and boxes of old clippings, some of which I tried to organize, chronology, subject matter, at least some context or frame of reference, but I had to give up. I couldn't remember why I'd cut half of it out.

Books are different. You usually remember why you bought them. Then again, you can't always nail down exactly where you stubbed your toe on something. Omar Bradley came down with a bad cold, in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge. Homely little detail, or maybe more than that, if it clouded his judgement. But where did I see it? Must have been Antony Beevor's recent Ardennes book. I'm sure of it. I'm scouring the pages, and drawing a blank. Not a good sign, if you want to keep your facts straight.

Something sparks a train of thought. Maybe it's not a direct association, maybe it's at right angles, and the process isn't necessarily linear. As the circuits open, you move further away from your start point, and you might not be able to retrace your steps. You lose the trail of bread crumbs. Somewhere in these thickets of mixed metaphor, that original spark that switched on your lights falls by the wayside, or loses its significance. This works both forward and back, or doesn't in fact work at all. You unravel the train of thought, but not all the way back to Point A, or perhaps you happen on Point A in a different context, and you can no longer spin out the fabulous consequences. Your synapses are damp squibs.

This is perhaps related to the Ideas-versus-Execution algorithm ("Ideas are easy, execution is hard"), in the sense that there's a lot of sweat equity involved, or you might say inspiration chances to visit when you've been working for it, when you're in the zone. I was thinking more along the lines of the ethereal, as opposed to Applied Research - not solving an immediate and practical problem, but released from orbit. Whole narratives can be imagined, and with absolute clarity. Whether they ever get written or not is another story, but it wouldn't be from failure of nerve.

We're always open to accident. I don't outline, as it happens, I'm a pantser, but writers who work from outlines are just as ready to slip the leash. One habit I do have is coming up with a title, first. It helps me shape or define or feel my way into the story. I don't get working without the title, funny as that might seem, when I'm often in the dark about where the story's going or how to get there, or even what it's about. I don't work from a concept, and very rarely from the end backwards (as Conan Doyle admitted he did), but somehow, being able to give the unformed narrative a name makes it cohere for me.

Many people, and not just writers, used to keep what was called a Commonplace Book, not a diary or a journal, but a place to jot down random things that struck your fancy, like a quotation that caught your attention, or a fragment of overheard dialogue, or something otherwise borrowed. It was a kind of yard sale.

The moral is to always write stuff down. You might not remember why, or whether you had an immediate use for it, but taking note of it lodges it in your mind, and maybe some while later, when you turn it to the light, it reminds you why you bent down to pick it up.

02 July 2014

Use your words! Or don't...

by Robert Lopresti 


"But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you."  -T.S. Eliot.

I've been jotting down words and phrases in my notebook lately, mostly uses that are new to me.  I asked a few people for language that has been bumping in their ears, and added them to my list.  Tell me what you think.

It's a thing.  One day I asked my wife "When did thing become a thing?"  Oddly enough she knew exactly what I meant.  The phrase comes up most often as "Is that a thing?" And it has two meanings: Does that exist? and Has that become popular/a trend?  Ben Yagoda was able to find it used on TV in 2001 in an episode of That Seventies Show (not meaning that It dates back to the seventies, of course).  And naturally there is a website that allows you to pontificate on whether something is a thing or not.

Because grammar.  I had a hell of a time finding an article about this, largely because I didn't know what to look for.  Or should I say "Because ignorance?"  The proper term is apparently "propositional because," and it means a blog-friendly language abbreviation, the word "because" followed by a word or short phrase.  It happens because Internet.  And because attention span. 

What I couldn't find is a discussion of the way I see the expression used most often, which is as a snarky dismissal of the arguments of someone you disagree with. 

Of course, some people insist that gay marriage must be forbidden, because religion.

Our opponents feel they must violate our constitutional rights to own guns, because Columbine.


I mentioned this to my son-in-law recently and he told me it was an example of a snowclone.  So...

What the hell is a snowclone?  Glad you asked.  It is a neologism created by Glen Whitman when  Geoffrey Pullam  asked for a term for "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers."

Let me see if I can make that clearer.  You take a phrase in common usage (especially one that has some pop culture cachet to it) and you substitute a word or two to create a new phrase.  I actually wrote about one here.   Remember Gil Scott-Heron's great song "The Revolution WIll Not Be Televised?"  Well, a quick look at the Internet informed me that:
The revolution will not be blogged
The revolution will not be webcast
The revolution will not be digitized
The revolution will not be effectively distributed
The revolution will not be sexualized
The revolution will not be plagiarized
The revolution will not be satirized
The revolution will not be copyrighted

Many more but you get the idea. 

Curated.  I'm pretty neutral on the ones above, but this one bugs me.  I keep running into stores whose merchandise is "curated."  It has become to furnishings what "artisanal" is to bread.

Whataboutery.  This one, on the other hand, I love.  I saw it once and immediately looked it up on the web.  Apparently it comes from Britain.  The Wiktionary gives it two related  meanings:

  1. Protesting at hypocrisy; responding to criticism by accusing one's opponent of similar or worse faults.
  2. Protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.
I'll offer a third slight variation:
      3. Protesting self-centeredness; refusing to take a complaint seriously because someone somewhere has it worse.  ("There are children starving in China...")

What follows are a list of things people have been doing to ideas lately. Most of them were reported by my friend and fellow librarian, Marian Alexander.

  • Interrogating
  • Privileging 
  • Unpicking
  • Parsing
  • Honoring

Please tell me what you think of these terms, and the other ones that bug or amuse you.  As for me, I'm done.  Because bed.

29 April 2014

Cutting Edge

by David Dean

I've been in a writing slump for several months now.  The following narrative may account for this unwelcome condition:

Certain phrases get used a lot.  They tend to go in and out of fashion with the passage of time and different generations, then pop up again.  "Cutting Edge" is one such phrase.  Others are "Groundbreaking", and "Edgy".  There are many more, and I'm sure you can think of them without my help.  Lately, specifically in the case of the aforementioned examples, I've been left wondering what they hell they actually mean.

What caused this seismic tremor within my consciousness was an event that I was wholly unprepared for--Miley Cyrus grew up.  I was happily ignorant of this important, and "groundbreaking," event until a typical morning some months ago.  In fact, I was only vaguely aware that such a person actually existed.  I think I had been under the impression that she was a character on a popular sitcom.   

Settling down in front of the television with my coffee and bowl of porridge, I found myself swept up into a debate that was hotly raging on the "Today Show."  Robin had left it on as she prepared to dress for work.  If only she hadn't.

Over the next several minutes, my bloodshot orbs were treated to footage of a scantily clad young woman grinding against various persons and stuffed animals, while using a large, foam finger in a lascivious manner.  I was informed that she was "twerking".  She may have been singing, as well, I'm not sure.  Apparently, she had appeared on a music program the previous evening and set the world afire!

While I was still pondering the stuffed animal imagery, trying to grasp its deeper significance, the staff of the show discussed the merits and meaning of young Miley's performance.  "I was in."  This is another currently popular phrase, though I may be misusing it.  Riveted by the cultural upheaval occurring before my very eyes, I was treated to the spectacle of seemingly mature adults (the men were wearing suits) tossing words like "cutting edge," and "edgy," at one another like soapy loofas.  Experts on music and Hollywood were interviewed, as well!  This was important!  My oatmeal went cold.

This was no "flash in the pan," either.  The rest of the broadcast day (which is now endless) carried the debate to other networks and cable outlets.  More experts were consulted.  Some pronounced it "performance art."  Others pooh-poohed this as weak-minded, insisting that we had collectively witnessed the "coming out" of Miley's long-suppressed sexuality.  I felt torn and didn't know which way to go on this issue.  Words failed me, adjectives became stuck in my throat.  Until I came to terms with this phenomenon (also a very popular word when describing celebrities), I could not consider myself a modern man.  No one "had my back."

In my defense, my only experience with performance art such as Miley's, had been confined to bachelor party outings.  Of course, my role when patronizing these "gentlemen's clubs" was always to be the voice of restraint.  "Anyone for a cup of coffee?" I might suggest, when the drinking got a little out of hand.  Or, "Hey, save some of those ones for the poor box, boys!"  Many of the dancers (or performance artists, if you will) were very cutting edge.  And though it pains me to say it, there were some who could have given Miley a run for her money and left her in the dust. 

Fortunately for me, the furor over this very important issue faded before any reporters made it to my front door and demanded my opinion.  I remain happily obscure, if still trying to come to terms with what has happened.  Now, when I see a book or movie review that features those much sullied descriptors, I back quietly away--the book remains on the shelf, the film unseen.  How can I risk it?  What if that "edgy" new thriller features a giant foam finger as the killer's calling card, or that "groundbreaking" film has people "twerking" all over the place?  What if all these overused adjectives actually mask yet another tired, hackneyed rehash of what's been done before and better?

It's enough to make me beat the stuffing out of some huge teddy bear.

Fortunately, since I wrote this piece, Skidmore College has added a new course to their curriculum: The Sociology of Miley Cyrus".  It was about time someone did.            





 

          

01 December 2013

Professional Tips: Empty Words

by Leigh Lundin

As I grew more proficient at writing and heeded advice not to be overly wordy, especially with modifiers, I began to notice a few words that could be deleted, changing the sentence's meaning little or none at all. Pardon these exaggerated examples:
I certainly somewhat quite like M&Ms, mostly just the red ones.
Translation: I like red M&Ms.
She was very upset that her car somehow couldn't get any traction.
Translation: She was upset her car couldn't get traction.
Somehow they ambled about, very much as if cows, dumb as ever, could ever think.
Translation: The cows ambled dumbly, not as if they could think.
Empty Words

I began to think of these as 'empty words', hollow modifiers with little meaning. Granted, 'very' and 'really' act as intensives, but how useful are they? That question "How useful" is a key that can be applied to any modifier, but for 'empty words', the answer is often: "not at all."

If you say, "He buttered a certain slice of toast," does its particularity matter to the reader? If the answer's no, then the word does nothing but consume space and time– it only slows the story.

As I worked, I compiled a list of empty words and added to it adverbs of marginal utility.

Empty Words

about
any
certain
certainly
ever
just
many
mostly
much
quite
rather
really
so
some
somehow
somewhat
that
very


The word 'that' is a special case. The word can be used as an adverb, a pronoun, a determiner, and a conjunction. We're primarily interested in the conjunction, but the adverb is worth a glance:

Adverb form: Jackson wasn't that drunk.
Conjunction: She said that she was sick.

Inspect the adverbial form of 'that' with an eye toward modifying. Use the conjunction only for clarity to set off confusing clauses, but otherwise avoid it. Deleting 'that' in the second sentence doesn't change the meaning at all.

Fat Words

Not long ago, I came across a list of 'fat words', sort of weasel words used as 'grey noise' in conversations, e.g: "Generally, I don't believe in politics and often I almost nearly always refuse to discuss it."

Many words in these lists can be used legitimately, but they often find themselves employed in writing or dialogue where they add dead weight to stories and drag them to a crawl. I added the word 'hopefully' to the existing list as another common 'filler'.

Be wary of other kinds of padding such as big in size or red in color. Santa is simply big and red.

Fat Words

almost
especially
frequently
generally
mostly
nearly
often
usually
hopefully


It's difficult to write this article without using the words I complain about! What are your most annoying empty words and fat phrases?

The ƒ Word

One obvious word doesn't appear on these lists. More often than not, swear words are part of conversational 'grey noise'. But they're sometimes used as intensives, and the way they're used can reveal character– or lack of character.

I've long wanted to use a conversation from long ago, but I haven't come across the right story for it. I won't confess which line I spoke in the conversation that went like this:

"I ƒ-ing missed you."
"And vice versa!"

24 October 2013

A Question of Grammar

by Eve Fisher

In the course of a misspent life, I've noticed that words are tricky things. Slippery. Even though most people think they know exactly what words mean, what a passage means, what this SAYS - well, maybe not. There are two main reasons for this:

(1) We all interpret everything we read, hear, or say through the filter of our own separate minds, and we can never QUITE get across what is in our minds.

EXAMPLE: I taught (briefly) a creative writing class, and the first exercise I did was say words, and have everyone write down the image it conjured in their minds. Then we compared images. "Apple" was represented by Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, the Apple record logo and, of course, the computer. So much for precision in language - choosing the exact word that everyone will understand the same way...

(2) The actual grammar of language, learned as infants, coded almost into our DNA, leads to far more ambiguity than anyone ever talks about.

I have a lot of examples for the second one, which I personally think is very important. Some of it comes from when I put myself through undergraduate school by teaching ESL classes. I taught Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican students, and in the course of teaching them English, I learned a lot about my language, their languages, language in general.

English has the largest vocabulary on the planet, because we have incorporated, adopted, and stolen words from every culture we've run across. This gives us a huge array of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives to choose from. So many, that foreign students often got fed up. Just take a look at Roget's Thesaurus some time to understand why.

English has an obsession with time. Most languages make do with simple present, simple past, simple future, conditional past/conditional future (woulda/coulda/shoulda), and the imperfect past (the way things USED to be). English laughs at that simplicity, and slices and dices time until we swim like a fish in a multi-dimensional chronology that we take for granted. The prime example is that English (as far as I know) is the only language with three - count them, THREE - present tenses: I do. I do that often. I am doing it right now. I eat. I eat here often. I am eating. Drove students crazy, and they usually just stuck to the simple present, because they could never figure out the others.

But English is sweet when it comes to nouns, because we don't gender them. ALL our nouns are gender-free. The book; the chair; the woman; the man. All European languages, of course, decline nouns (changing the end depending on where it stands in the sentence) and they also gender nouns - they are male, female, and (sometimes) neuter. What this means is that the pronoun you use after you use the noun must match the gender of the noun. This is a piece of cake in English: I took the book to the library, where I gave it to the librarian. But in French, it would be I took the (male) book to the library, where I gave HIM to the librarian. Well, what's the big whoop about that, you might ask? Allow me to provide an example where changing the pronoun changes the meaning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5, King James Version)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu, et la Parole était Dieu. Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et rien de ce qui a été fait n'a été fait sans elle. En elle était la vie, et la vie était la lumière des hommes. La lumière luit dans les ténèbres, et les ténèbres ne l'ont point reçue. (John 1:1-5, Louis Segond version)

Or, to translate it literally from French to English [my emphasis added], "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. SHE was in the beginning with God. All things were made by HER, and nothing of what was made was made without HER. In HER was the life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not receive HER."

A slight difference. With implications. For one thing (aside from all questions of faith or Catholic doctrine) I think it helps explain the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and the concept (later doctrine) of Mary as Mediatrix of all the graces.

On a lighter note, my favorite example of differences in translation:

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (KJV, Matt. 5:5)
"Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!" (Louis Segon, MAtt. 5:5)
Let me assure you, les debonnaires are not the meek... they are the good-natured, the easy going. THEY will inherit the earth, at least in France!

Pronouns matter; words matter; grammar matters. Think about that the next time you read a Maigret, or a Steig Larsson - or the next time someone tells you, "just do what it says."


PS:  By the way, the fact that all of the quotes above are from the Bible is in no way deliberate - it's just that the Bible has about the only books that I've read both in French & English.  Almost all the other books that I have read in French, I have only read in French.

31 December 2012

Five Red Herrings IV

by Robert Lopresti 

1.  Scientists find cure for writer's block

Well, not really.  But my advice to anyone struggling for an idea: go to this collection of photographs captured by the Google Street View cameras.  Pick one at random, and write an explanation of what you are seeing, and what happened next.  Extra credit: start with one photo and finish with another.


2.  Word needed

There are wonderful terms for certain quirky errors of speech: spoonerisms, maleprops, mondegreens.  I suggest we need one for the weirdities that autocorrect and spellchecks occasionally throw our way.  Maybe: malcorrects?  For instance, I had a tough police chief unholster his gun.  Microsoft word suggested that he might upholster his gun instead.  Gave me a whole new insight into the guy.

3.  Rube Goldberg meets John Dillinger

If you don't read Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine website (and why not?) you probably missed this feature from Cracked Magazine: The Six Most Needlessly Overcomplicated Crimes Ever Planned.  Reminds me of a dream I had once about breaking a man out of prison by filling a fast food restaurant with Jell-o.  No, I have no idea how that was supposed to work.

4.  Her Little Corner

And while I am plugging websites I hope you are all reading Sandra Seamans' My Little Corner.  Not only intelligent commentary on the mystery field, but a great source of marketing information.


5. A glorious opportunity



Are you a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society?  Free to join.  All you have to do is subscribe to the list.  Join by the end of the year (that is, TODAY) and you can vote on the Derringer Award nominees in a few months.  Think of the power!  The glory!  The chance to read some really good stories.  Cheers.

22 August 2012

The Name Is Familiar

by Robert Lopresti

I recently stumbled over a book in our library called WORD PEOPLE, by Nancy Caldwell Sorel.  The first thing you are likely to notice about the book is that the illustrations are by her husband, the great cartoonist  Edward Sorel.

It is a book about eponyms, people whose names became words.  I was intrigued by how many of them are related to crime.  Some of them will probably be familiar to you, others not, so try to guess them before you read the definition.  I’ll start with the easiest.

Joseph Guillotin – He did not invent the world’s fastest haircut machine; he merely popularized it in France just as a whole lot of people were about to get de-lifed..  Dr Guillotin noted that noblemen were executed by sword, while peasants were hung, and suggested that it would be both more egalitarian and more merciful if all convicted criminals were decapitated.  The first guillotine was a bargain at 300 francs, plus another 20 for a bag to catch the head..


Sir Robert Peel -  Founder of the London police force, gave us the word Bobby.

Henry Deringer – Inventer of the banjo.  Just kidding.  His small gun was so popular that fakes were made in lifetime, including French guns called Derringer, a name that seems to have stuck better than his own.

Captain Charles C. Boycott – Agent for English landlords in Ireland.  Irish leader Charles Parnell said of such people “leave him strictly alone!”  People refused to work for Boycott, or even sell him food.  He and his family had to flee.  Interestingly enough, years after the reform laws the Irish had demanded were passed, Boycott returned to Dublin on a visit, where he was recognized and cheered.  People wanted him to know it had been nothing personal.   

Colonel William Lynch.  According to no less an authority than Edgar Allan Poe, the colonel started a vigilante gang in Pittsylvania, Virginia in 1780, thus giving rise to lynch law, and later to the verb.

William Burke – Irishman of Burke and Hare fame, They killed people in Edinburgh in order to sell their bodies to a medical school for autopsies.  To burke is to smother.

E.C. Bentley – This mystery writer’s middle name was Clerihew, the handle he hung on a form of poetry he created: a quatrain about a person, whose name is the first line.  For example:
E.C. Bentley
To put it gently
Earned no disgrace
With Trent’s Last Case

James Granger -  Never heard this one, but it is fascinating.  Granger was a British clergyman with a rather horrible idea.  His Biographical History of England had no illustrations.  Instead the reader was encouraged to buy OTHER books and slice them up to illustrate your copy of his book.  To grangerize means to mutilate one book in order to create another, ie. I personally prefer Monsieur Guillotin’s contribution.

And here’s one that didn’t make Sorel’s book (possibly because the word is trademarked!) but which I use from time to time.  I’ll bet Dale recognizes it, if no one else does:

Frank Shepard – in 1873 he invented Shepard’s Adhesive Annotations, which allowed attorneys to slap changes or revisions to laws and court cases directly on the page that contained them.  Today lawyers still shepardize  cases by checking Shepard’s Citations or competing services to see if legal opinions have been overruled or otherwise altered.

And here are a few more from the book you might not have thought of as eponyms: quisling, mesmerize, cardigan, derby, sideburn, silhouette, and dunce.