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

21 March 2021

50+ Troublesome Words and Phrases


Leigh Lundin

My friend/editor Sharon sent me an article titled ’43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make’. I’ve become complacent about these lists– Velma says smug. Most of the usual suspects were there, but to my surprise, I found a couple I hadn’t given thought to.

Unthawing Foreign Relations

One was the word unthaw. I’ve heard others use it without setting off my grammar alarm. I don’t think I’ve used it, but now it’s on my radar. To unthaw literally means to freeze. Yikes!

Emigrate (which I’ve included in the list below with immigrate) requires the preposition ‘from’, although we can optionally include the destination ‘to’. Likewise, immigrate necessitates the preposition ‘to’, although we may choose to include ‘from’. For example,

  • She immigrated to Canada (from Angola).
  • She emigrated from Angola (to Canada).

Nonplussed

I’ve long been nonplussed and dismayed and, yes, gobsmacked that the Oxford English Dictionary insists that silly Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ (surprised) to mean its opposite (unperturbed). In my unscientific polls amongst uneducated citizenry, I’ve met only one person who hit upon the wrong meaning, but admitted he didn’t actually know what the word meant. Chew on that, OED!

juvenile flounder
juvenile flounder © Wikipedia

mature flounder
mature flounder © Wikipedia

Bagging the Question

I attended a Latin school where rhetoric, logic, and debate were taught. One of the trickier concepts to master was ‘beg the question’, which assumes an assertion as fact without laying the foundation for it. I’ve notice more commentators and newscasters using ‘beg the question’ to mean ‘ask the question’, including the acme of academia, the world-renown BBC. Recalling my schoolhood efforts to pin down the original concept, I have some sympathy for those without the benefit of rhetoric, logic, and debate, but I recommend avoiding the phrase altogether. Eschew on that, Miss Arthur!

Prostate

À propos of nothing, my Aunt Rae noted the difference between prostitute and prostrate was the difference between a fallen lady versus one who temporarily lost her balance. And then we have the serious matter of prostate. If nothing else manages to kill a man, his prostate will!

How to Catch a Flounder (without Baited Breath)

Too often when people speak of a person or project that stumbles or sinks, they say it ‘flounders’ (a fish) instead of ‘founders’. This particular fish is unusual. When it’s young, it swims upright like most other fish. But when it matures, it sinks into the bottom, blending in with the sea floor. There it performs a slow-motion magic trick, distorting its own head and body to suit its environment. Its eyes migrate to the new upper surface and its mouth usually twists in the opposite direction. It may look like it’s about to founder, but it’s only a flounder.

50+ Often Misused Words and Non-Words

Confused Words
    Words in the left column of this first group aren’t necessarily wrong. They bear review because they’re often confused with those in the right column.
adopt (take up, take on, assume) adapt (change to meet conditions)
adverse (unfavorable) averse (opposed to)
bemused (confused) amused (entertained)
disinterested (impartial) uninterested (uncaring)
enormity (evil, wickedness) enormous (huge)
flounder (a fish) founder (break down, sink)
i.e. (id est: that is) e.g. (exempli gratia: for example)
infer (deduce) imply (intimate)
inflammable (burnable) nonflammable (not burnable)
jive (dance, talk) jibe (match)
literally (actually) figuratively (metaphorically)
nauseous (sickening) nauseated (sickened)
prostrate (prone) prostate (gland)
review (examine, reassess) revue (theatrical entertainment)
sympathy (understanding) empathy (intuiting another’s feelings)
trooper (soldier, state police) trouper (persist uncomplainingly)
under way (moving along, travelling) under weigh (lifting anchor)
Apostrophes
  • Never use apostrophes for pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, its.
  • Omit apostrophes in collective proper nouns such as family names, as in “the Kennedys”.
  • Either use double apostrophes or omit them altogether for nouns that might be confused. “She dotted her ‘i’s and crossed her ‘t’s.” Alternatively, “The third measure of the musical score contained three Gs and an A.
  • Omit apostrophes when specifying an era such as a century or decade. “The most popular song of 1929 was Makin' Whoopee and 1930’s was ‘In the Mood’, but ‘Over the Rainbow’ topped the 1930s.”
its (possessive) it's (contraction: it is)
Smith’s (possessive) Smiths (collective noun)
VIPs (plural) ‘A’s and ‘B’s (plural)
1960’s (possessive) 1960s (era, decade)
Redundancy
    These phrases concern superfluous wording, excess verbiage that add nothing and dull their sentences. I’ve probably used “tenth-year anniversary” without realizing it.
first-year anniversary ✘ first anniversary
hot water heater ✘ water heater
red in color ✘ red
large in size ✘ large
political in nature ✘ political
Prepositional Requirements
    Discussed above, these two words require certain prepositions. Emigrate implies leaving one’s country and generally requires ‘from’, especially if ‘to’ is present. Immigrate implies entering a new residency and requires the target ‘to’, particularly if ‘from’ appears. Some uses require no prepositions at all: “He plans to emigrate.”
emigrated to ✘ emigrated from
immigrate from ✘ immigrate to
Incorrect Usage
    The following common nonsensical words and incorrect phrases include misspellings and misunderstandings. That said, many of us would like to apply “nipped in the butt” from time to time.
baited breath ✘ bated breath
boldface lie ✘ baldface lie
chalk full ✘ chock full
chock it up ✘ chalk it up
could care less ✘ couldn’t care less
dark-complected ✘ dark-complexioned
deep-seeded ✘ deep-seated
do diligence ✘ due diligence
expresso ✘ espresso
extract revenge ✘ exact revenge
free reign ✘ free rein
honed in on ✘ homed in on
irregardless ✘ regardless
jerry-rigged ✘ jury-rigged
make due ✘ make do
mute issue/point/question ✘ moot
nip in the butt ✘ nip in the bud
peak my interest ✘ pique my interest
per say ✘ per se
perview ✘ purview
piece of mind ✘ peace of mind
shoe-in ✘ shoo-in
should of, would of ✘ should have, would have
slight of hand ✘ sleight of hand
sneak peak ✘ sneak peek
through the ringer ✘ through the wringer
tie me over ✘ tide me over
tow the line ✘ toe the line
unthaw ✘ thaw
wet the appetite ✘ whet the appetite
worse comes to worse ✘ worse comes to worst

Do you find any of these troublesome?

What addition would you make?

22 November 2020

100 Words


Leigh Lundin

Both Sharon and ABA happened to send articles about old and little used words. That set off research into other candidates that might prove useful in historical stories and even insert playfulness or elocution (there’s a word not heard anymore) in ordinary writing.

Following is a random selection. A few, such as those beginning with ‘fiddle’, I wouldn’t miss outside an English cosy.

Worry not. I don’t expect you to look up each entry. If you hover your mouse over a word, you should see its meaning.

accouchement cordwainer gallivant pantywaist
affright coxcomb glabriety peregrinate
appetency cutpurse gobsmacked persnickety
avaunt d’accord gyve picaroon
balderdash davenport habiliment poppycock
baloney delate hoodwink ragamuffin
bamboozled discombobulated hotrod rapscallion
barnstormer disport hullabaloo rigmarole
bejeebers doohicky humbug shenanigans
beldam éclaircissement jalopy skedaddle
bijoux egads jargogle skewwhiff
bloomers facinorous kerfuffle sweeting
bodkin fainéant kibosh tenterhooks
brabble farthing knave thingamebob
britches feminal knickknack thingamyjig
bruit fiddle-dee-dee knucklehead thunderation
buttonhook fiddle-faddle lollygag tomfoolery
caterwauling fiddlesticks lurdan trigon
catawampus fizgig magdalen varlet
chesterfield flabbergasted malarkey whatchamacallit
churchkey flibberty-jibbit malapert whatsit
codger flim-flam moxie whosemegadget
concoction flummoxed nimrod willy-nilly
confuzzled frore nincompoop wishywashy
contumely fuddy-duddy numbskull yclept

The word ‘nimrod’ has lost its original Biblical meaning, that of a sharpshooter or an outstanding hunter. It’s now used as an insult. A young acquaintance succinctly explained, “a numnutz.”

Bonus Word: Izzard

You may know the letter Z as ‘zee’ or ‘zed’, but once upon a time as early as 1726, Z was called ‘izzard’.  Samuel Johnson featured the word izzard in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. The expression “A to izzard” means “from beginning to end.”

Bonus Word: Trumpery

Trumpery is defined as (adj) showy but worthless, attractive but of little value or use; delusive or shallow; (n) practices or beliefs superficially or visually appealing but of little real value or worth.

16 August 2020

Professional Tips – The Deadwords


graphic of the word 'deadword'

Facts and Artifacts

Deadwords, like deadwood, take up space but offer little useful. In the negative space graphic above, your eye thinks it sees a word or two that aren’t there. Deadwords introduce noise, dim and distracting dreck that shouldn’t be there. Authors want to move from empty words to more powerful, robust, descriptive writing.

I find it useful to review deadwords and weak words, those bits that clutter writing and dull the senses. I manage to avoid the usual suspects, e.g, some, very, nice, etc, but not so well at others appearing on recent lists: as, like, then, and so on. My bad habits need reminders. Professional colleagues know these tips, but beginning writers might find some of the following useful.

As mentioned before, I know no other crime writers in Central Florida– most are too sensible to congregate in a coronavirus hotspot. Without fellow mystery enthusiasts, I exchange editing with local romance writers. (Hi, Haboob and Sharon.) Whew! I bet my instruction in anatomy is more fun than most mystery authors.

Romancing the Own

Haboob drew my attention to a word not in the list below, ‘own’, as in ‘my own writing’. I used it everywhere– his own, her own, their own instead of simple his, hers, and theirs. In ordinary conversation, I seem to use it as an intensive, an unnecessary one. While that guy Shakespeare got away with, “To thine own self be true,” ‘own’ sucks the lifeblood out of my sentences.

In turn, I found the words ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’ cropping up far too often in the ladies’ romance works. They have good reason– the thesaurus suffers from a paucity of alternative non-technical words. Consider:
She breathed in his scent. Her breath stopped when his fingertips traced her bare skin.
Other than the words ‘pant’ and ‘wheeze’ (Feel the romance!) what substitutes can they use?
She aspirated into her lungs the molecules of his scent. Her inhalation and exhalation respiration terminated when…
Nahh… What’s a girl writer to do? (Leave brilliant suggestions in the comments so I can look like a genius at the next editing session.)

In the following list, I’m not including verbal tics and the clichés in current conversations, such as store clerk acknowledgements, “Perfect,” instead of “Thank you.”

Deadwords
actually/basically/virtually
almost
as
awesome/amazing
awful/awfully
bad
be/is/are/was/were/will be
beautiful
big
down/up on/in
feel/think
fine
good/great
(have) got
happy
interesting
just
kinda/sorta
like
literally
little/small
look/see/saw
(a) lot
most/mostly/much
nearly
nice
of course
often
one of
quite
rather
really
seem
so
some/somewhat/somehow
start/begin to
that
then
totally/absolutely
used to
very
well

Notes:

Many words made the list because they’re weak or indefinite. Further to this…
Down/Up, on/in/into
This refers to extraneous coupling of prepositions. “She climbed up into the attic before descending down into the depths of the basement.” Simply: “She climbed into the attic before descending into the depths of the basement.”
Quite, rather
Victoria and Edwardian literature dominated our home library, so both ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ sound normal to my ears, but virtually no one else’s. *delete*
See, saw, look, think, feel
“When she began to look at some of his writing, she felt certain words could weaken sentences, but she couldn’s see how to find a solution.” Simply: “When she looked at his writing, certain words weakened sentences, but she couldn’s find a solution.”
It/there, is/was/were/will be
“There are many examples in literature,” can be reworded “Examples abound in literature.” Jane Austen came up with the cleverest opening line in romance literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She pulled it off. Me, I should stick to basics.
Shakespeare, Jane Austen… who knew where this was headed! Colorful writing… did we achieve it?

graphic of the word 'word'



John Floyd would be proud of a SleuthSayer coining a compound— ‘deadword’.

02 February 2020

When Opposites Repel


Leigh Lundin
Contronyms

Recently, we brought you an outrageous example of those Brexit colonialists claiming North Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ to mean ‘unperturbed’ rather than ‘confused surprise’. Hmmph.

Thus nonplussed, I brought in the legendary James Lincoln Warren to sort out the word ‘belie’ in the same article. Today, we hope to render you further nonplussed with a list of forty dastardly contronyms, words with opposite meanings. Let’s have at it.

The ⇆ Glossary

belie
The subject gives lie to the object; the object gives lie to the subject.
bill
Having money (currency); owing money or seeking money owed.
bolt
To flee; to hold together.
bound
Head toward a destination, restrained from heading anywhere.
buckle
To fasten or join together; to collapse under pressure.
citation
Praising an act; issuing summons for an illegal act.
cleave
To adhere together; to split apart.
clip
To fasten together with a paperclip; to detach with shears.
consult
To seek advice; to give advice.
custom
A common practice; a unique bespoke item.
dust
To apply a fine power; to remove fine powder.
either
One or the other; both (original meaning; i.e, surrounded on either side).
enjoin
To order someone to act; to prohibit someone from acting.
fast
Firmly fixed, unmovable; unattached and able to move quickly.
finished
Completed; wrecked, destroyed.
founder
Creation (company, city); destruction (sink, go lame, fail).
garnish
To add or enhance (foods); to seize or withhold (wages).
handicap
An advantage to equalize (golf); disadvantage rendering equality difficult.
lease
To rent property; to offer property for rent.
leave
To remove oneself from a location; to be left behind in a location.
left
Departed; remained behind.
literally
Precisely and concretely; figuratively (through misuse).
model
Original upon which others are based; a copy.
off
Not operating (i.e, lights went off); operating (alarm went off).
original
A fresh idea; an old notion.
out
Visible (stars are out); invisible (lights are out).
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
Overseeing Lookout Mountain
© courtesy Town of
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
overlook
See to; fail to see.
refrain
To repeat an action; to not perform an action at all.
peruse
To skim; to read carefully (original meaning).
ravel
To separate; to become entangled.
rent
To lease; to offer property for lease.
sanction
To approve an act; to punish an act.
screen
To hide, obscure; to show (a film).
seed
To add seed (to a lawn); to remove seed (from a melon).
strike
To hit; to not hit (a baseball).
transparent
Invisible; obvious.
trim
To add (decorations). to remove (hair).
variety
A particular type; many types.
wear
To endure; to deteriorate.
weather
To withstand or endure; to be worn away.
Note: I have not included word combinations and phrases such as ‘back up’, ‘hold up’, ‘go off’, ‘out of’, ‘throw out’, and ‘wound up’ that can imply their own opposites.

Confused? My job’s complete. Can you think of others?

17 November 2019

Plussed (or Non)


Belie – An Ambidextrous Word

Last week I found myself using ‘belie’ in a story. A check for nuances compelled to look it up. Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole.

In the following, let’s use common English sentence structure:
    subject verb object

A sentence might read,
    A belies B.
    Her eyes belied her motives.

I had assumed belie implied (A) put the lie to (B), the subject is true and the object is false. Surely the verb exhibited a grammatical positive and negative polarity.

Not that simple, said my New Oxford American Dictionary. It offered examples both ways. In other words, sometimes (A) was true and sometimes it wasn’t. Polarity wasn’t constant.

Example 1   A ⇉ B
Example 2   B ⇉ A
Her cruelty belies her kind words.
His smile belies his viciousness.
    B is false (the object).
    A is false (the subject).

Logic (to me) says the subject (A) gives lie to or proves false (B). My beloved 3-volume OED long ago became landfill, so I turned to half a dozen internet dictionaries. A search turned up similar conflicting results. They all agreed about disagreement: Sometimes the subject made a liar of the object and sometimes the object made a liar of the subject.

At that point, I needed to deploy the big guns.

James Lincoln Warren
The legendary
James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.

James’ house, a full-scale reproduction of the HMS Hotspur, contains a brass spyglass and a sixteenth century oak podium with the complete Oxford English Dictionary. At least that’s how I imagine it because I’m envious.

James kindly looked up belie for me and lo, it was as lesser dictionaries indicated. Belie cuts both ways. It doesn’t observe polarity. Sometimes the subject is true, sometimes the object.

James said no context beyond the contrast between the subject and object is necessary for them to be easily understood. Which is capable of deception?

Such amorphism disturbs me a bit. Offhand, I can’t think of another word in which, say, the subject sometimes trumps the object and other times the opposite can happen.

Nonplussed – or Not

Once upon a time in the New Oxford American Dictionary, I stumbled upon the following note:
In standard use, ‘nonplussed’ means ‘surprised and confused’: The hostility of the new neighbor's refusal left Mrs. Walker nonplussed.

In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’— more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning: Hoping to disguise his confusion, he tried to appear nonplussed.

This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. Although commonly encountered, this modern use of nonplussed is not considered part of standard English, and is better replaced by unperturbed, unruffled, unfazed, or composed.
Never, ever had I heard the second ‘American’ meaning. I conducted a local poll of four dozen or so people. Out of nearly fifty responses, only one thought the second might be valid, but self-admittedly from a verbal standpoint, the word nonplussed was ‘not in his wheelhouse’.

I would have argued the point with Oxford, but I wondered if they had fallen victim to what I think of as the Wikipedia Effect or the Google Effect. If you watch Wikipedia, sometimes public content and wording depends on the loudest, most intimidating bully in the room. Higher level editors can often work these issues out, but when the bully is a higher level editor, the point becomes moot– or deleted along with embarrassing history.

If you haven’t experienced the Google Effect, imagine your long-time neighborhood suddenly called a name you never heard of. You enquire: whence did this come into existence? A van driver might hold the key.

Google Street View Mapping Vehicle + Dalek
Google Street View Mapping Vehicle
The Google Effect refers to Google mapping. You may have seen their vehicles driving the streets. Early versions featured cameras on roof-mounted tripods like Disney World used for its old Circle-Vision theatre in TomorrowLand. The latest cars recently spotted in Winter Park are driven by Daleks.

It turns out Google occasionally didn’t know how to name an area. If they couldn’t find a listing, worker bees exercised various options. Sometimes they asked a random resident, “What do you call this place?” Reportedly one label emerged from an erroneous realtor’s sign. It appears the new name for my old neighborhood came from an obscure street a few feet long called Fairview Shores.

In my selective sampling, all of my victims understood the standard meaning of ‘nonplussed’, except for the unsure guy who didn’t use the word at all. I’d like to ask Oxford how they came up with such a notice? What region in this vast country stands accused of this heresy?

An image sticks in my head, one of Oxford University sending a bored post-grad student to New York to document language abominations. He spends his research time in bars and picking up dates on West End Avenue.

Then on 42nd street, he invites for a romantic rendezvous a certain lady, called ‘Bam-Bam’ by her friends and another name entirely by the NYPD. When she sharply turns him down, he says, “You don’t have to act so negative.”

“I’m not negative, I’m non-plussed,” she replies, whereupon he pulls out his 80p Marks & Spencer notebook and starts jotting a new entry.

That’s how it happened. I’m sure of it.



Curious note: During the impeachment hearings, Fox or one of the righter outlets flashed a headline: Dems Seek Heresy Evidence. I’m nonplussed.

15 February 2018

Older Than You Think


"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  


Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
(Wikipedia)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
Wikipedia)
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:


"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  


PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

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?



16 September 2016

Bouchercon Word Find


My column this week is scheduled right in the middle of Bouchercon, and while my goal originally was to post something direct from New Orleans—breaking news! fun photos! insider anecdotes about the mystery world's stars!—I realized quickly that I probably wouldn't get to the computer often or easily or....
So instead, posted in advance, here's a fun little game in honor of the event: an old-fashioned word find!

Featured here are the guests of honor, the various awards given out throughout the weekend, and a sprinkling of other mystery terms—including the name of one of the best blogs in the business. Do know that the clues appear vertically, horizontally, diagonally, and both forwards and backwards.

Whether you're in New Orleans or not, I hope you'll enjoy!


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.

15 March 2015

Professional Tips– Homophones (mostly)


by Leigh Lundin

In editing for others, I occasionally come across words that slip in when no one’s looking. Some of these are accidental– gremlins are bound to lurk in any author’s sizeable draft. These particular persons know eyes have sight, not site, but in the frenzied throes of creation, the fingers do the talking.

One of these writers mentioned she struggles with ‘which’. I misinterpreted it to mean the which/that conundrum I battle with, whereas she struggles with which/whom (which hadn’t occurred to me).

We’ve talked about word usage before, but I began to wonder if new writers might find a recap useful. Following are a few homophones (mostly) I’ve encountered while editing.

adapt/adopt


They adopted a new code of conduct adapted from the Boy Scout Law.
‘Adapt’ means to make an object suitable by adjusting or modifying. ‘Adopt’ means to assume, take up, take on, or make use of. In parts of the English-speaking world, the two are nearly homophones.

farther/further

The further you advance your training, the farther you’ll travel. Even the dictionary hedges, but consider yourself on solid ground if you use ‘farther’ for physical distances and ‘further’ otherwise. “You won’t go far” couldn’t be further from the truth.

fewer/less

Fewer people means less tax. Although Wikipedia and Wiktionary sneer at the distinction, if you switch the two determiners in the previous sentence, you may hear the difference. I user ‘fewer’ with items I can count, but recently I came across the rule that ‘fewer’ should be used with plural nouns and ‘less’ with singular nouns.

flaunt/flout

He flaunted his arrogance when he flouted the law. Flaunt means to show off or wantonly display. Flout means to openly defy rules or convention.

A flounder is an odd fish. When young, it swims upright, but as it matures, it lies flat in offshore shallows, often perfectly mimicking the ocean bed. The most curious aspect is that in adulthood, a flounder’s eyes migrate atop its new topside and in some members, its mouth shifts to the opposite side, which has led to some wits calling it the ‘Picasso fish’.
founder/flounder

As the ship foundered in the shallows, the sailor floundered helplessly. Similarly: The company foundered as its executives floundered. Here again, the dictionary appears to have adapted to misuse and conflated the words. The OED suggests “perhaps a blend of founder and blunder, or perhaps symbolic, fl- frequently beginning words connected with swift or sudden movement.” This makes it difficult to establish a firm rule, but consider it safe to use ‘founder’ for anything sinking, whether a ship, company, or institutional policy.

lay/lie

Lay down your book, lie back, and say “Now I lay me down to sleep…” This is a pair I know how to use but find difficult to explain. Many find they’re confused because not only is ‘lay’ a present tense, transitive verb meaning to set or place something, but it’s also the past tense of the intransitive verb ‘lie’ meaning to recline or assume a prone or supine posture on a surface. With all the emphasis about positioning, it becomes doubly confusing when talking about the lie of the land or that Orlando lies north of Miami. Never mind, substitute sensible words like sit and set. No, wait…

nauseous/nauseated

Her nauseous manner nauseated me ad nauseam. Yep, the word ‘nauseous’ means sickening, so be careful when you say you’re nauseous. You probably mean you’re sickened or nauseated.

site/sight

The surveyor sighted the transit along the construction site. ‘Site’, either web or physical, refers to places, whereas ‘sight’ refers to vision… but you know that.

Further Reading

Some time back, ABA had sent an email of forty often misused combinations that traces back to an article by business writer Jeff Haden. Likely you use most if not all correctly, but sometimes it’s helpful to have refreshers.

See you next week!

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.