The Wall Street Journal has an article about the lack of apostrophes in US place names titled "Theres a Question Mark Hanging Over the Apostrophes Future." (Reading this makes me apoplectic.)
The U.S., in fact, is the only country with an apostrophe-eradication policy. The program took off when President Benjamin Harrison set up the Board on Geographic Names in 1890. By one board estimate, it has scrubbed 250,000 apostrophes from federal maps. The states mostly—but not always—bow to its wishes.
An apostrophe, the argument goes, implies private ownership of a public place. When names appear on maps, "they change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities," the names committee explains in its statement of "Principles, Policies and Procedures."
His first major endeavor in this field, beginning in 1976, was a seven-year effort to clarify the origin of shyster. After he had begun his research, Roger Mohovich of the New-York Historical Society drew his attention to newspaper articles in 1843 about the Tombs, the city prison. Editor Mike Walsh denounced scammers who took prisoners’ money by pretending to be lawyers who would get them out. One of the scammers who actually knew something about the law disparaged his rivals by calling them shisers, British criminal slang for worthless people. (It comes ultimately from the German word for excrement.) Walsh misheard it as shiseters, and a new word was born.
In day-to-day talk, I enjoy calling people—even non-attorneys—shysters. Now I can do it with the confidence that "shyster" doesn't just mean "bad lawyer," it means shithead in general.
Last week, if you'll remember, the Associated Press issued a style memo saying that AP style, which is used by copy editors for the AP and publications nationwide, "generally... uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages," and only uses "husband" or "wife" with attribution or in a quote.
The following entry was added today to the AP Stylebook Online and also will appear in the new print edition and Stylebook Mobile, published in the spring:
husband, wife Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.
"The AP has never had a Stylebook entry on the question of the usage of husband and wife," said AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes. "All the previous conversation was in the absence of such a formal entry. This lays down clear and simple usage. After reviewing existing practice, we are formalizing 'husband, wife' as an entry."
It shouldn't have been a question in the first place, but good on them for coming around.
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.”
Two things: One, we are Chicago Manual all the way, and we regularly graffiti other newspapers' alleyways with snide comments about the Oxford comma. Two, that "4" should really have been spelled out (i.e., "four"), both because it's less than 10 and because it is the first word of a headline. Or is that part of the joke, Onion? To torture the copy editors who read the article?
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, a slapstick was "a device consisting of two sticks fastened together so as to slap loudly when a clown or actor hits somebody with it, or to make a sound-effect offstage."
According to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was also used to intimate intimidate children. From a 1907 story in a weekly magazine: "The special officer in the gallery, armed with a ‘slap-stick’, the customary weapon in American theatre galleries, made himself very officious amongst the small boys."
The most intriguing OED citation comes from a 1950 newspaper article: "The 50-year-old clown... said that when he bent over another funnyman accidentally hit him with the wrong side of a slap-stick. He explained that a slap-stick contains a blank ·38-caliber cartridge on one side to make a bang."
Would you like to read 11 of the meanest-ever book reviews by notoriously vicious Michiko Kakutani, a woman who (reportedly) made David Foster Wallace cry? The Huffington Post provides. A brief list of adverbs: Overwhelmingly, cruelly, curiously, clumsily (twice!), implausibly, absurdly. Also, lest we forget (not an adverb but still funny after all this time): L-l-l-l-l-l-limn.
I decided to take a Zumba class the other day, with no prior knowledge of what it was exactly. I discovered that it was mom friendly aerobic-dance fusion, and in the hour-long class of pumped-up music played, I only recognized one song: Beyonce's "Countdown" because one of my roommates has been playing it incessantly. The only line I ever catch in the lyrics is "Me and my boof, and my boof boot riding." Boof Boof? I asked my Beyonce-loving roomate what that meant, and she texted me "a Boof Boof is your Boof." Feeling dissatisfied with that answer and instead of actually listening to the song more, I conducted an informal text poll to determine what some of my friends and acquaintances thought it was:
"insincere talk," 1709, earlier it was slang for "whining of beggars" (1640s), from a verb in this sense (1560s), from O.N.Fr. canter (O.Fr. chanter) "to sing, chant," from L. cantare, frequentative of canere "to sing" (see chant). Sense in English developed after 1680 to mean the jargon of criminals and vagabonds, thence applied contemptuously by any sect or school to the phraseology of its rival.
The OED tracks "cant" to the 1300s and 1400s when it served all kinds of noun-verb-adjective duties: an edge, a brink, a musical sound, begging, an auction, a share or division, a trick or illusion, lively and hale, to apportion, to mend, etc.
It's about the French press's linguistic reaction to an incident in the Tour de France, when someone scattered tacks on the road and British cyclist Bradley Wiggins sportingly stopped to let his delayed competitors catch up. But the most interesting stuff comes later in the piece:
Few people read dictionaries cover to cover, and you get rather odd looks if you do. Lately, in the course of researching a new book on the lost words of the English language, I’ve been devouring them, and it’s astonishing how much they can teach you about the lives of others.
For example, histories of the Second World War will tell you all about a soldier’s experience of D-Day, but you must remember the old adage that war is 1 per cent terror and 99 per cent boredom. If you want to know what a soldier’s life was really like in the Forties, pick up a dictionary of Services slang. Most of the words have nothing to do with fighting: they’re to do with gossiping, making tea, and waiting around. There were furphies (gossip started in the lavatories), and elsan gen (gossip so obviously false it was fit only to be flushed down an Elsan lavatory). There was duff gen, pukka gen, and the gen king (who knew all the gossip). Only very occasionally do you get even the faintest hint of death and glory.
Still, if it is death you want, you should turn to dictionaries of cant – the thieves’ and highwaymen’s slang of the 17th and 18th centuries. At a time when hanging was the punishment for even petty crime, highwaymen had a thousand euphemisms for the place they might end up. When the trapdoor opened they were left “dancing on nothing”, a dawn execution was “having a hearty-choke and caper sauce for breakfast”, where the caper again refers to the twitching feet of the hanged man. You also get fascinating glimpses into their sex lives: the number of terms and fine distinctions between different types of prostitute is enough to make a cinqasept [French slang for visiting one's mistress in the late afternoon] seem positively tame...
[In] 19th-century Roxburgh, they had a single word – sprunt – meaning to run after girls among the haystacks after dark.
Roxburgh was in Scotland... I wonder if "sprunt" somehow derives from "sprint after cunt"? It's linguistically possible—"sprint" was around in the 19th century and the OED has traced "cunt" to a 1230 compendium of street names in London, including "Gropecuntelane," which sounds like a lively street on a 13th-century Saturday night.
Hot dog. The OED cites the first usage in 1892: "The ‘hot dog’ was quickly inserted in a gash in a roll, a dash of mustard also splashed on to the ‘dog’ with a piece of flat whittled stick, and the order was fulfilled." Etymonline.com says the name "is said to echo a 19th century suspicion (occasionally justified) that sausages contained dog meat."
Liberty. That one's easy—comes from the Latin liber, or "free." It is, of course, related to "liberal," which has been deployed as praise and as pejorative over the centuries, but first appeared in the mid-14th century to mean "selfless" and "noble" and "abundant."
As Ambrose Bierce wrote in his Devil's Dictionary: "Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."
The OED cites the first usage as a 1384 translation from 2 Corinthians: "Forsooth where is the spirit of God, there is liberte."
Fireworks. The OED points to the first usages, in the first years of the 1600s, as broad: military, pyrotechnic, and even "tobacco smoking." But Etymonline.org says about "fire": "PIE [Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor to languages as diverse as Celtic, English, Sanskrit, and Kurdish] apparently had two roots for fire: *paewr- and *egni- (cf. L. ignis). The former was 'inanimate,' referring to fire as a substance, and the latter was 'animate,' referring to it as a living force." Fire is alive!
America. You know this story—the navigator Amerigo Vespucci and all that. But where did "Amerigo" come from? Etymonline.com says: "The name Amerigo is Germanic, said to derive from Goth. Amalrich, lit. 'work-ruler.'" The origins of our national name are surprisingly boring. (Or, for the Marxists in the house, unsurprisingly labor-oriented.)
Freedom. Our liberty comes from Latin, but our freedom comes from the Old English freodom, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European prijos, meaning "dear" or "beloved."
Etymonline.com says of prijos: "The primary sense seems to have been 'beloved, friend, to love'; which in some languages (notably German and Celtic) developed also a sense of 'free,' perhaps from the terms 'beloved' or 'friend' being applied to the free members of one's clan, as opposed to slaves..."
The state can't give you free speech, and the state can't take it away. You're born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free...
This BBC piece on the controversy (imagine that all British-like, con-TRAH-versy) surrounding "baby boxes" (public receptacles in which one can deposit a baby) is mostly straightforward:
Boxes where parents can leave an unwanted baby, common in medieval Europe, have been making a comeback over the last 10 years. Supporters say a heated box, monitored by nurses, is better for babies than abandonment on the street—but the UN says it violates the rights of the child.
Then it ends on this gem of a paragraph:
There is no clear right or wrong in this. It is an argument between well-meaning people. The one voice never heard is that of the mother who walks the path with the baby she bore secretly hours earlier, to return without the bundle. Her tears can barely be imagined.
Either way, pro ("the warmth is safe and reassuring") or con ("The baby hatch is so anonymous, and so removed from the availability of counselling, that it creates a damage and a danger to the mother and child."), who doesn't want to read a letter that begins "Dear Mother of a foundling"? A good use of 10 minutes on a rainy afternoon.
From the NYT's Draft blog, an article that won my heart when, in the first paragraph, it used the words "bibliomancy" and "malapropism" and then made a Princess Bride reference. It also contains the phrases "lexical dark matter" and "laggard lexicographers." It's a good read and a good reminder that dictionaries are meant to reflect language, not the other way round.
Scholars recently analyzed more than five million digitized books, about 4 percent of all the books ever printed. Publishing their findings in Science, the researchers discovered that, by their estimation, "52 percent of the English lexicon—the majority of the words used in English books—consists of lexical 'dark matter' undocumented in standard references."
Also: "Since editors at most traditional dictionaries won’t include a word until they see published evidence of its use, holding off on using a word just because it’s not in the dictionary can actually delay its inclusion."
And that concludes our daily word nerdery. You're welcome.
The New Yorker asked which one single word should be eradicated from English, and lots of people answered. Some popular candidates:
· literally (we should keep this one, but misuse should be punishable by death; we recently got a pitch for a story that said, "The conference was literally mind blowing"—um, NO, BUT TOO BAD IT WASN'T) · actually (should also be kept, but people should cease overuse [cough PAUL CONSTANT cough]) · awesome (again, overused, and almost always used outside its real meaning, but doesn't it always make you feel good—maybe a little dumb, but good?) · moist (a perenially unfavorite and amply discussed at the link above)
The winner/loser is after the jump (in case the post at the link is too long for you to read—it's at the end of it).
fun (n.) "diversion, amusement," 1727, earlier "a cheat, trick" (c.1700), from verb fun (1680s) "to cheat, hoax," of uncertain origin, probably a variant of M.E. fonnen "befool" (c.1400; see fond). Stigmatized by Johnson as "a low cant word." Older sense is preserved in phrase to make fun of (1737) and funny money "counterfeit bills" (1938, though this may be more for the sake of the rhyme).
Here, according to Google, is where you can have "fun" in Seattle:
If you're having trouble having fun, you might try the suggestions on this list of "how to have fun." Step four is: "Use a time-planning tool to plan activities for different days."
Our man in Thailand (formerly known as our man in Vietnam) sent a photo of a newspaper ad that contained a word I hadn't seen before: orchiectomy.
So how did "orchid" and "testicles" get so close? Bam!
1845, introduced by John Lindley in "School Botanty," from Mod.L. Orchideæ (Linnaeus), the plant's family name, from L. orchis, a kind of orchid, from Gk. orkhis (gen. orkheos) "orchid," lit. "testicle," from PIE *orghi-, the standard root for "testicle" (cf. Avestan erezi "testicles," Arm. orjik, M.Ir. uirgge, Ir. uirge "testicle," Lith. erzilas "stallion"). The plant so called because of the shape of its root. Earlier in English in Latin form, orchis (1560s), and in M.E. it was ballockwort (c.1300; see ballocks). Marred by extraneous -d- in attempt to extract the Latin stem.
There is, of course, the whole scientific-political debate about whether certain people should be regarded as "slower" and "behind" or simply differently abled. But there's a linguistic reason, too—lots of insulting nouns in the English language end with -ard. Again, from the Online Etymological Dictionary:
-ard also -art, from O.Fr. -ard, -art, from Ger. -hard, -hart "hardy," forming the second element in many personal names, often used as an intensifier, but in M.H.G. and Du. used as a pejorative element in common nouns, and thus passing into M.E. in bastard, coward, blaffard ("one who stammers"), etc. It thus became a living element in English, e.g. buzzard, drunkard.
Obviously, this isn't the case with inanimate nouns like "custard" and "mustard"—but it tends to work with words that describe people. "Dastard" came along in the 15th century to mean "one who is lazy or dull," probably from a marriage of daze plus -ard. "Drunkard" (originally "droncarde") came along in the 1500s from a similar marriage of drunk plus -ard, and so on.
The Broadway Blue Moon Burgers is the newest of three locations in a locally owned mini-chain, and it feels slick enough for the mall, but not repellently prefab. The motto is right on the front door: "Helping people feel good about bad choices, its what we do." They may not be great with punctuation, but...
There is one seemingly obvious, indisputable mistake, and another thing that is arguably wrong (and at least suboptimal). To what is the world coming?!*
*I am aware that the grammatical dictate leading to this twisted construction is a matter of some debate. It's a joke! Thanks!
Language is possible due to a number of cognitive and physical characteristics that are unique to humans but none of which that are unique to language. Coming together they make language possible. But the fundamental building block of language is community. Humans are a social species more than any other, and in order to build a community, which for some reason humans have to do in order to live, we have to solve the communication problem. Language is the tool that was invented to solve that problem.
...one of the best definitions of human communication I have come across was made by a man who entered linguistics by way of a book that many believe was authored by a supernatural and super-powerful ape, the Bible. Daniel Everett, the man in question, began with something that deserves derision (learn the language of a Brazilian tribe for the purpose of translating a book about an all-knowing ape) and ended up with something that deserves consideration: A strong argument against Noam Chomsky's universal grammar—Indeed, "with indirection find direction." Everett, however, is a figure under heavy fire for reasons that do not seem unreasonable.
Counterintuitively, it may have originated from a world meaning lower-class—the Dutch heiden, "rustic, uncivilized man," which was related to heathen. The first usage in the OED is from 1668, describing what sounds like an orgy for widows: "The Widows I observ'd . . Chanting and Jigging to every Tune they heard, and all upon the Hoyty-Toyty like mad Wenches of Fifteen."
also hoity toity, 1660s, "riotous behavior," from earlier highty tighty "frolicsome, flighty," perhaps an alteration and reduplication of dial. hoyting "acting the hoyden, romping" (1590s), see hoyden. Sense of "haughty" first recorded late 1800s, probably on similarity of sound.
Maybe it just goes to show that in the old days, the peasants had more fun. And when the landlords started having more fun—and looking down their noses at their renters/peasants—the word switched to them.
Snopes says that the popular etymology—haut toit, French for "high roof"—is false.
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr "stingy," from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg "close, careful," Ger. genau "precise, exact"), and to O.E. hneaw "stingy, niggardly," which did not survive in Middle English.
As a theater critic, I regularly see old plays where "niggardly" is spoken innocently enough—but its first two syllables always snag my ear like a fishhook. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his 2006 article "The Pernicious Effect of Banning Words":
It was while giving a speech in Washington, to a very international audience, about the British theft of the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon. I described the attitude of the current British authorities as "niggardly." Nobody said anything, but I privately resolved—having felt the word hanging in the air a bit—to say "parsimonious" from then on. That's up to me, though... Hatred will always find a way, and will certainly always be able to outpace linguistic correctness.
In 1999, an aide to D.C. mayor Anthony Williams had to resign for using "niggardly" in a conversation about the city budget, which seems absurd. Using "niggardly" these days might be ill-advised—it's technically innocent, but it does snag the ear and distracts from clear communication, which is the whole point of careful word choice—but it shouldn't be a firing offense.
A new novel by Heidi Julavits just arrived at the office, which reminded me of the disservice she did to the English language back in 2003, with her bleating, hand-wringing essay about the insidious evils of a thing called "snark," a "disorder" irreverent humor that was "infiltrating" the writing world:
... I don’t know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications...
At the time the essay was published (and during the heated debates that followed it) I thought: "Poor Heidi. She thinks it matters whether she understands what a critic does or doesn't believe. While some people are hostile for hostility's sake or witty for wit's sake—and I fail to see the problem with the latter—could it be that she and certain critics just disagree about what deserves hostility? And it seems embarrassingly self-centered to take simple disagreements, blow them out of proportion, and diagnose them as some cultural 'disorder.'"
I thought the word would have its faddish moment and then disappear (maybe once some of those delicate flowers, so easily bruised by this "snark" business, aged a little and toughened up). But no. The word has stuck around like a mope, and become a conveniently lazy way of dismissing sharp criticism by staking out an ill-defined moral high ground.
And that's the most insidious thing about this word "snark"—the implication that it is a character flaw, a moral failing. If I criticize X and you respond by calling me "snarky," you're not saying I'm wrong about X. You're simply dodging the argument while slipping in an ad hominem attack.
I find lists like this fascinating. Hugo Lindgren, now editor of the New York Times Magazine, inherited a list of words, titled simply "Words We Don't Say," from his predecessor at a previous job. It's a list of words that the former editor "found annoying and didn’t want used in his magazine." For example, alphabetically:
AUTHORED BIGS (meaning “prominent people”) BISTRO (okay in restaurant reviews, but sparingly) BOAST (meaning “have”) CELEB COMELY COMFORT FOOD DUO DON (meaning “put on”) DUBBED EATERY
We do not have a physical list like this in our office, but they exist in editors' heads. For example, our managing editor, Bethany Jean Clement, is opposed to virtually all uses of the word "moniker." I would second that (but less ferociously), and include from the above list "dubbed" and "boast." We've had recent editing discussions about the use of the simple-but-sometimes-necessary word "great" in reviews (some people are pro, some are con).
The post containing the list asked readers which words annoyed them, and Lindgren went ahead and printed a list of all of them and hung that in his office below some skull-and-crossbones symbols for good measure. I love knowing other people's word-related pet peeves ("pet peeve" is one of mine, actually). I have a feeling quite a few people are adding "snowpocalypse" to theirs right now.