Tag Archives: English

Fun with words: Update your dictionary

Photograph by Henry Lim.

There are too many fascinating words in English that don’t get used very often.  Our vocabulary tends to be limited to the scope of our daily lives, and the mundane exchanges of forgettable pleasantry that pass for typical conversation.  If the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow, English has a billion permutations of how to talk about snow in a workplace elevator.  Still, our language is full of tricks and tropes that allow us to use these same old words in exciting new ways.  You’ve probably used many of these without realizing what you were doing (or writing) at the time.  But much as a famous technology company would assure you that “there’s an app for that,” in English, there’s a word for that as well.  These are some of my favourites, and I hope they shall find greater use in the future:

  • Portmanteau – From French for “carry your coat,” this is a word that originates as the combination of two separate words in order to describe something new, like how combining smoke and fog gives you smog.  Some popular examples include breathalyzer, jazzercise, soundscape, televangelist, bromance, and, regrettably, bootylicious.
  • Mondegreen – Refer to my previous post on misheard lyrics – this is the term for those.  It was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, referring to a 17th Century poem called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” in which a stanza reads:  “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.”  Wright heard the latter phrase as “And Lady Mondegreen.”  The key to a true mondegreen, according to Wright, is that the misinterpretation must improve upon the original; hence, my father’s (in)famous misreading of Hall & Oates’ “The woman is wild, ooh” as “Poobulasquaooh” probably doesn’t count.  (See also:  “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”)
  • Anacoluthon – Familiar, if not immediately, to any man in trouble with his wife, this is the term for a phrase where the grammar is broken.  “It was just a – I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry.”
  • Apophasia – Politicians love this one, for it lets them slag their opponents without seeming like they’re doing so on purpose.  This is when you say you’re not going to mention something but end up insinuating it anyway.  Ronald Reagan used it to great effect in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale when he said after being challenged that he was too old to be President, “I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Or “You know, it’s not true, all that stuff they say about Phil being a lying, sleazy, unprincipled, back-stabbing, philanderous, greedy old opportunistic horse thief.”
  • Mumpsimus – Anyone who insists on saying “nucular” is guilty of this grammatical offense – the term for a habit adhered to obstinately, no matter how many times evidence shows it to be in error.  It comes from a story about a monk who mispronounced part of the Latin Eucharist and refused to change it to the correct version because he’d been doing it his own way for forty years.
  • Paraprosdokian – I just learned this one yesterday and I’ve saved the best for last.  This is where the second part of a sentence unexpectedly causes you to reinterpret the first part.  You could almost call it the Groucho Marx, as he was a master of it:  “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening – unfortunately, this wasn’t it.”  Or the other famous quote, usually interpreted to be said by or about Winston Churchill depending on where you read it:  “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

There you have it – six fun terms to expand your vocabulary – not that they’re likely to help when you’re stuck in that elevator on a snowy day.  Perhaps “anacoluthon” might spring to mind the next time you find yourself struggling for words in a difficult situation.  You could even try to relax the tension of the moment by pointing it out to your sparring partner.  I disavow myself of all legal responsibility therefor should you then get summarily punched in the face.

P.S. Thanks to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge for its customary assistance.

Fun with words: Fry’s Theorem

As regular readers know, I love the peculiarities – the quirks, as it were, of the English language.  Because to me, English is a bottomless trove of enigmas, a linguistic vein to be mined in endless permutations.  Creatively, it remains an invaluable resource, for if you are ever short on inspiration, you need only dive into its well to uncover a fresh helping of treasure.  Do not fear that bane known as writer’s block.  English will always be there when you need her.  Finding the creative impetus again can begin with something as small as the shape of a single word.

Glance if you will at the following sentence.  “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”  I borrowed it from a classic episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a sketch involving Stephen and Hugh discussing the infinite capacity and flexibility of English.  Just ponder for a second the absurdity of that phrase and how it could only belong to the Queen’s grand old tongue.  Keeping in mind of course that other languages can be arranged in their own nonsensical combinations, Fry’s main argument – delivered in his unique style – is that because of the dexterity of English, one can speak such absurdities in the certainty that they have never been uttered before by anyone in the history of language itself.  Language is capable of so much more than we realize.  Much like the oft-repeated factoid that humans only use 10% of their brains, in our regular conversations we use only a fraction of language’s potential.  No wonder why dialogue with one another can often feel so stilted, so underwhelming.  Our reluctance to exploit the potential of language to its greatest extent is one of our many failings.  Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how we converse with each other, and whether we are truly saying all we can say.  Quite possibly, those word-a-day calendars are really on to something.

Realistically, though, one has to wonder if we are an evolutionary downslope when it comes to how we speak to one another.  Slang is a far-too-easy layman’s recourse when our brain’s thesaurus fails to measure up.  Textspeak is another, and to a linguist like Stephen Fry must represent a true collapse of imagination, his well-documented love of technology to the contrary.  Ultimately the best approach on an individual basis is to set a good example, and hope that others may rise to the challenge.  Very likely some may dismiss this as elitism or worse, snobbery.  Whether or not they do is no reason why we shouldn’t still try to raise the game.  Xenophobia, or more precisely the fear of strangers’ reactions, certainly isn’t, in my mind, a compelling argument against it.

You may have noticed, if you are reading astutely, a particular quirk with this post, and you’re invited to submit your best guess as to what it is in the comments.  Zillions of imaginary happy points to the winner!

An aggravating post

As I’ve discussed before, language, and particularly the English language, is in continuous motion.  While I’m all in favour of conjuring new words and phrases as our little rock spins silently around its mother sun, I’m not so keen on the ongoing mangling of the lexicon we already have.  What is most frustrating is how much of this misuse becomes societally acceptable and adopted into common parlance.  One grating example, timely with the summer Olympics unfolding in London later this year, is the transformation of the word “medal” into a verb.  As in, “the Canadian team is poised to medal in the fifth race,” when the proper phrasing would be “the Canadian team is poised to win a medal in the fifth race.”  I first encountered this malapropism during the broadcast of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and, though it was pointed out at the time as incorrect, to my chagrin “medal-as-a-verb” managed to infect all subsequent television coverage of Olympic events.  I can’t quite figure out why this usage arose – were the colour commentators simply too lazy to say two syllables, “win a,” or was it a conscious decision to remove the element of competition from this, you know, athletic competition?  Like how they now always say “And the Oscar goes to,” instead of “And the winner is,” because being nominated alone is supposedly enough of a win.  (Tell that to the runner-up in every election in history.)  The endgame of this will be, of course, the use of the individual medal colours as verbs.  “Schmidt silvered in the downhill yesterday, this is a disappointment from when he golded four years ago.”  So the bronzer I buy at the drugstore will, apparently, now help me win Olympic third-place medals.  Perhaps – if I’m competing on Jersey Shore.

I’m really not that much of a grammatical Puritan.  In fact if you go back and read through these 55 posts so far you’re likely to find plenty of split infinitives, dangling modifiers, lapses of British versus American English and even the occasional occurrence of E. Henry Thripshaw’s disease (Google it).  But if there’s a common thread running through everything I write, it is my desire for us to do better as a species – to always aim for the greatest heights.  If we fall short, it shouldn’t be because we didn’t try hard enough.  Which is why the lazy use of language infuriates me – it’s the sign of an unengaged intellect.  I’m not talking about slang, that’s a different category altogether.  I’m more concerned with writing and dramatic presentations that are full of amateur mistakes, from people who should know better.  Few cinematic experiences are as disappointing as watching accomplished Shakespearean performers reciting dialogue that is just plain wrong.  The 90’s Star Trek shows were horrific offenders in this regard.  One episode of The Next Generation had a scene where Captain Picard was talking about the Borg and he said something along the lines of “their entire existence was centered around acquiring cultures and technology.”  Centered around.  So many shows make this mistake.  You can’t center around something.  You can center on it, but not around it.  But even that doesn’t compare to the most egregiously misused word, one that causes my blood pressure to rise several points every time it emerges, like sandpaper against skin, from an actor’s mouth:  Aggravating.

You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with that?  That guy who cut me off on the highway this morning was really aggravating.  My co-worker forgetting to refill the photocopier really aggravates me.”  For the love of Oscar Wilde, no!  What you mean to say is irritating.  Aggravating means to exacerbate, to make something worse, like, “Eating hot peppers aggravates my heartburn.”  If bad drivers or your co-worker’s laziness are getting up your back, it’s irritating you.  I suspect what has happened is that people have latched onto the “gra..ting” part of aggravating and confused it with grating, resulting in this strange substitution of one word for the other.  And, like “medal-as-a-verb,” “aggravating-as-irritating” seems to be finding more and more societal acceptance.  I hear it from the mouths of colleagues, superiors, friends, and in almost all of my favourite TV programs.  I daresay it’s almost a lost cause at this point – but I’m doing my part to try and reclaim its proper meaning, without being that guy who’s smugly correcting everyone else’s grammar.  Otherwise, all the irritation I feel at the misuse of aggravation and its variations will be fruitless stress, and there are much bigger things to worry about.

Like the many other mysteries of English, including why incense can be thought of as calming, while to be incensed is to be utterly outraged.  Then again, that’s what the ad wizards live for.  “Feeling incensed?  Try incense!”

May your day be free of irritation and “aggravation.”

Fun with words: Embiggened English

Last year, when that cunning polyglot Sarah Palin was castigated for her invented word “refudiate,” she invoked Shakespeare and the perpetual evolution of the English language.  While the Bard might execute the expected cemetery gymnastics in being compared to a person who never met a present-tense verb she couldn’t wrest of its “g,” the Barracuda was, to her credit, quite savvy in her assessment of our mother tongue.  Admittedly my opinion is biased given that apart from some passable conversational French, it’s the only language with which I’m intimately familiar, but I find the almost infinite permutations of “the Queen’s” fascinating.  Dialects, accents, patois, cant, slang, rhyming slang, textspeak (editor’s note:  vomit), jargon, technobabble, profanity, and the notion that a person from back-street Glasgow and one from Texas would never be able to understand one another despite using all the same words.  Particularly the profanity.  The great Stephen Fry recently tweeted what has become my new favourite:  “Bollocks arse wank and tittypoo.”  Try it sometime when you’ve just bashed your thumb with a hammer.  To quote The King’s Speech, it flows trippingly from the tongue.

It doesn’t have to be countries developing their own variations on English.  New lexicons spring up amongst even individuals.  As a relationship develops, partners formulate their own code and refine terms that are of use only to them.  Married friends of mine say “Icarus” to alert each other when their child is verging on a tantrum – justified props for the classical reference to the guy who flew too close to the sun on wax wings.  My own better half and I have conjured a host of phrases that are nonsensical to outsiders but capture with craftsman-like precision the very substance of the entity being described, in a relaxed, familiar manner that lets us know just what the other is thinking and feeling at that moment.  I present for your entertainment then, a sampling of our forays into etymology, and trust that you will not come away thinking us insane.  Pronunciation guide added where appropriate.

  • Bluhcky: BLUH-kee (adjective):  Descriptive for inclement weather, particularly that which is a combination of cold, damp/raining, fog or gray.  “It’s a really bluhcky day out today.”
  • Boogloo (noun):  Our cat’s covered bed, which resembles a small igloo, and thus a portmanteau of that and boo-boo-kitty“The cat is asleep in her boogloo.”  An additional note here is that boo- can be used as a prefix for any number of objects that relate to the cat:  Boo-bits (her food), boo-box (where her food goes when she’s done with it), boo-barf (the occasional unfortunate hairball).
  • Burnippy:  BRR-nippy (adjective):  Descriptive of a state of extreme cold.  “It’s supposed to be really burnippy tomorrow.”
  • Dirters (noun):  Portmanteau of dirty and unders, i.e. underwear, used to refer to any form of laundry that needs attention.  “Don’t leave your dirters on the bedroom floor.”
  • Frabjabbits (noun):  Exclamation to be used in situations deemed unfortunate, similar to “goshdarnit.”  “That local sports team lost again.  Oh, frabjabbits.”
  • Poobulasquaooh: POO-buh-lah-squah-ooh (???):  Placeholder for any song lyric that defies comprehension.  This is my father’s interpretation of a hastily delivered, slightly obscure line from Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” which actually goes “The woman is wild, ooh.”
  • Shmorgee-borgee (noun):  A meal consisting of a random assemblage of whatever food happens to be available, usually leftovers.  “We have lots of chicken and veggies and stuff so let’s just have a shmorgee-borgee tonight.”  An obvious if Swedish Chef-ized variation on “smorgasbord.”
  • Showeriffic (adjective):  Descriptive for how one feels after a warm, cleansing and satisfying shower, especially if one was particularly dirty and/or sweaty going in.  “That shower with the sixteen jets is just showeriffic.”
  • Snorfly (adjective)/The Snorfles (noun):  The state of feeling congested due to a cold or persistent allergies.  “Cleaning up that cat hair gave me the snorfles” or “I feel all snorfly after being out in the rain.”

What can I say, they require less spitting and hacking than Klingon.  Seriously though, just try slipping a few of these into your next conversation and let me know about the blank stares you get back.  But don’t tell me you don’t have your own mini-dictionary of words and phrases just for you and yours.  It’s how we personalize a flexible, slightly weathered old horse we’ve all been sharing since Beowulf – how to make a little piece of English, a very common good, our very own.  Sounds pretty cromulent to me.