Archive for Word Up

Birdeen

A few years back, I came up with “guanophenia” as a euphemism for the state or condition of being batshit crazy. Multitudes suffer from, or perhaps enjoy, this particular ailment. The problem with that particular neologism, of course, is that the production of guano, per any dictionary you’re likely to find, is not at all limited to bats. For example, my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Eighth Edition, which has been at my side for three decades and more, says that “guano” is “a substance composed chiefly of the excrement of seafowl and used as a fertilizer; also: a similar product (as of fish-cannery waste).” More bird than bat, then. What to do? When in doubt, ask Nancy Friedman:

I once worked for a group of civil engineers who referred to birdshit — an occupational nuisance because it interfered with electrical transmission, or something — by the Irish-sounding euphemism birdeen. I have never seen or heard this circumlocution before or since.

“Birdeen” apparently was a not-so-rare given name in the 1930s: among the first eight items from a Bing search were the obituaries of two women (and one man) named “Birdeen” who passed away in 2014, all born in the early Thirties. But the name existed before the turn of the century. From Fiona Macleod’s The Dominion of Dreams, 1910 edition, written in the 1890s:

They were happy, Isla and Morag. Though both were of Strachurmore of Loch Fyne, they lived at a small hill-farm on the west side of the upper fjord of Loch Long, and within sight of Arrochar, where it sits among its mountains. They could not see the fantastic outline of “The Cobbler,” because of a near hill that shut them off, though from the loch it was visible and almost upon them. But they could watch the mists on Ben Arthur and Ben Maiseach, and when a flying drift of mackerel-sky spread upward from Ben Lomond, that was but a few miles eastward as the crow flies, they could tell of the good weather that was sure.

Before the end of the first year of their marriage, deep happiness came to them. “The Birdeen” was their noon of joy. When the child came, Morag had one regret only, that a boy was not hers, for she longed to see Isla in the child that was his. But Isla was glad, for now he had two dreams in his life: Morag whom he loved more and more, and the little one whom she had borne to him, and was for him a mystery and joy against the dark hours of the dark days that must be.

They named her Eilidh.

Macleod, otherwise known as William Sharp (1855-1905), assumed the pseudonym circa 1893; his widow Elizabeth subsequently compiled, and in some case edited, his works. I still don’t know, however, how this mystical, and presumably airborne, child is connected to the stuff that lands on your windshield 45 seconds after departing the car wash.

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Watson says bite me

Okay, maybe not that specifically — but why the hell not?

Although curse words make up only 0.5% to 0.7% of all of the words we speak, they are rich in nuance and play a variety of roles. Said IBM research scientist Eric Brown, “As humans, we don’t realize just how ambiguous our communication is.”

In 2011 Brown’s team tried to train Jeopardy-winning supercomputer Watson to use more natural-sounding vocabulary by feeding it the entirety of Urban Dictionary. The result was a foul-mouthed machine that learned terms such as “ass hat” and “front butt” but didn’t understand when it was appropriate to use them, once responding to a researcher’s query with “bullshit!” Watson’s failure to distinguish between profanity and polite language meant that Brown’s team had to develop filters to screen out the profanity and eventually ended up wiping Urban Dictionary’s entries from Watson’s memory.

Yeah, but suppose Watson was right? We are awash in bullshit these days.

And “asshat” is a single word. Even Urban Dictionary says so.

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So what’s the big deal?

So this guy is listening to NPR on the weekend, and this draws his attention:

NPR’s Weekend Edition listeners have had enough of sentences that begin with the word so. When asked to nominate the ten most annoying grammar mistakes they’re tired of hearing, starting sentences with so came in at second place!

So what? I mean, really, is this the second-best they can do?

I went and looked up the rest of the Top Ten, and I find it difficult to believe that starting a sentence with so is considered more heinous than the total destruction of the word “literally.”

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By the bewbs of the sorceress

The high temperature yesterday here in the Quarter-Mile-High City was a feeble 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest such “high” ever recorded for this date. “Colder than a witch’s tit,” as the phrase goes. Inevitable question: how, exactly, did we ascertain the temperature inside that poor woman’s brassiere?

I’ve been poking around for the source of the witch connection. Sadly, I have to report there isn’t much of one. Aside from the “witch marks” that were supposedly assumed to be (how’s that for vague?) cold and numb, searched for during the days of Matthew Hopkins, what’s so cold about a witch’s tit, really? Jonathon Green in the Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) dates “colder than a witch’s tit” (also “titty”) to the 1930s. Related phrases in that same entry, about “weather, very cold,” are “colder than a nun’s snatch” (1950s) and “colder than a welldigger’s butt” (the same). Those last two are cited as US in origin. (I wonder what US speakers have against nuns that UK speakers don’t?)

Regarding that “witch’s tit/teat” phrase, Bruce Kahl explains that it’s ultimately “just a vivid metaphor, like ‘hotter than the hinges of hell’.” He does explain the process of hunting for witch marks, though. The problem with trying to connect cold weather to witches’ tits is that, well, there’s no real connection to be found.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair; hover through the fog and filthy air,” intoned the Weird Sisters in the Scottish play. No direct reference to temperature; but it sure as hell doesn’t sound warm.

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Fleek’s in

Are you baffled by “fleek”? I am, and I am not alone in my bafflement:

For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past few months, there is a term, “on fleek,” that has been around since at least 2003, but which caught like wildfire on social media after June 21, 2014, when Vine user Peaches Monroe made a video declaring her eyebrows “on fleek.”

Since then, the apparently non-compositional phrase on fleek has been wildly popular, and has generated the usual discussion: both declarations that it is literally the worst and “should die,” and heated debates about what exactly on fleek even means. People seem to be divided on the question of whether it’s synonymous with “on point.” There is also a great deal of disagreement as to what can and cannot be on fleek, with “eyebrows” now the prototype against which things are measured.

For the moment, I’m figuring that “fleek” is half “flake” and half “fluke.”

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Before you even get to mood

First you must establish the voice:

But the absolute best of us don’t even have to mention donuts at all:

Color me awed.

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PDA

When I was in school, back in the Old Silurian times, they hadn’t come up with the term “Public Display of Affection,” probably because we wouldn’t dare do such things in class. I remember the siblings discussing it, so it apparently filtered in during the 1970s. Truth be told, I’m not sure if my own negative reaction to the concept is based on some sort of devotion to order — or on sour grapes, inasmuch as I was never in a position to engage in such a thing myself.

Aw, heck, let’s put it as flatly as possible:

I’m not the prudiest prude who ever pruded, but seriously, it’s GROSS to be trying to teach and out of the corner of your eye see two people practically feeling each other up.

Especially two people who, if pressed, will argue that they’re actual adults despite their teenage-crush mutual fondle session.

And while I’ve seen “prude” turned into an adjective before, this is the first time I can remember seeing it verbed.

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Either oar

Apocryphal picture of Shit CreekThe paddle dealer portrayed here is probably enhanced by Photoshop — what isn’t these days? — but there is, in fact, a television series called Schitt’s Creek:

The series stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as Johnny and Moira Rose, a wealthy couple who are forced, after losing all their money, to rebuild their lives in their only remaining asset: the small town of Schitt’s Creek, which they once purchased as a joke.

Even more à propos, Chris Elliott is in this show, playing a descendant of the original Schitts.

And apparently the phrase “shit creek” is old enough to have this sort of history, as Nancy Friedman reports:

Shit creek or shit’s creek (“an unpleasant situation or awkward predicament”) is no shitty-come-lately, according to the OED. “Up shit creek” first appeared in print in 1868 in no less august a publication than the Annual Reports of the (U.S.) Secretary of War: “Our men put old Lincoln up Shit creek, and we’ll put old Dill up.”

Who knew? But this is the part that gets me. From that Wikipedia piece:

Schitt’s Creek is a Canadian television sitcom which premiered on CBC Television on January 13, 2015… On January 12, 2015, CBC renewed the show for a second season.

Renewed the day before first airing! Now that’s confidence. (In the States, Schitt’s Creek debuted Tuesday on Pop, which used to be TVGN.)

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This guy’s the limit

Erin Palette talks about guys, and she means to include herself:

One guy is always male. (Which isn’t surprising, since Guy has been a man’s name for over a thousand years.) Therefore it follows that if someone says “It’s a guy thing” or “Guys’ night out” you know with 100% certainty that said guys are male.

But I have seen a woman address a group made up entirely of women with “Hi guys!” in which case those guys are now 100% female. However, even though a group of women can be called “guys”, I have never seen that group subdivided such that one woman would be a “guy”, regardless of how logical that might be.

This isn’t exactly egalitarian: except in very specific circumstances, groups of men are not referred to as “girls.” Still, it’s an interesting evolution of the language:

Many women feel that the word “mankind” is sexist when used to refer to all humanity, but I have yet to see any woman seriously object to “guys” even when used in nearly the same way.

I don’t really have a point to this other than Huh. A distinctly gendered noun has become a gender-neutral collective through cultural drift.

Now I wonder what the non-binary among us would think about this.

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A grade-A typo

Ben Zimmer, examining newspapers’ use of a common synonym for excreta, turned up this presumed typographical error in the San Jose Evening News for the 18th of May, 1916:

Clip from San Jose paper 1916: Austrian Construction Engineer on Roanoke Perished When Shit Went Down

Isn’t that when this sort of thing usually happens?

Well, not in this case, says Zimmer: “Go down in the sense of “happen” is dated to 1946 by OED and the slang dictionaries,” thirty years too late to have made the San Jose paper.

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Several words you can say on the Internet

I have to think the late George Carlin would have been delighted to see the arrival of Strong Language, a blog written by word experts about the seven words Carlin contended (in 1972, anyway) could never, ever be said on television, and many, many more.

One recent entry is by Nancy Friedman, on the second word in Carlin’s list:

Piss is a pretty old word in English: late 13th century, from similar words in French and Latin, according to the OED; it’s generally assumed to be onomatopoetic. For centuries it was regarded as informal but not especially naughty; in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013), Melissa Mohr notes that the King James Version of the Old Testament includes “him that pisseth against the wall” (1 Kings 14:10) and “the men … may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss” (2 Kings 18:27). (My Masoretic text, from the Jewish Publication Society of America, primly substitutes “water” for “piss” in the latter passage.)

And while you’ve been able to say “piss” on television for many years now, at least in the United Kingdom — British comics from Python on down have long told fellow troupe members, or hecklers, to piss off — it’s seldom that you see the word in an ad in The New Yorker. Friedman has, and she has a scan of it in that article.

Before you ask: yes, the site has an overview of the entire canonical Carlin list. Given its subject matter, you’d have to figure this was mandatory at some point.

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Some perfectly cromulent lexicography

Michael Adams has a cameo in this Oxford Dictionaries blog:

Embiggening is the sort of word you make up from scratch when you’re lacking the edumacation to know that enlarge already exists, and edumacation is the sort of word you use if you also use embiggening. The infix -ma- is a Homerism, and it’s productive — metabomalism, pantomamime, macamadamia, saxomaphone — in words that already have too many syllables for Homer to handle. He hears and reanalyzes them in a rock-a-bye nursery rhyme rhythm. For all of Homer’s verbal pyromatechnics, however, Ned Flanders is the series’ king of indiddlyfixing.

(Via Fark.)

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Manitoba in February is colder than this

It is often said that the most versatile word in the English language, despite its utter lack of suitability for polite conversation, has only four letters, the first of which is an F. I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s a word that I’m not particularly uncomfortable overusing.

That said, a ridiculous idea popped into my head yesterday: how hard would it be to come up with a complete 30-item Jeopardy! board in which every single correct question contained some variation of that word? You couldn’t actually play it, of course: apart from taste considerations, any player who demonstrated enough smarts to get on the show in the first place would figure out the pattern about halfway through the second answer, and then it would simply be a Fastest On The Buzzer game. Still, there’s that whole versatility thing, which occurred to me while I was reading some unfortunate prognostication for next week that included the dreaded phrase “polar vortex,” a term describing a condition some people apparently believe simply did not exist before 2013. (“These individuals are dumber than this.”)

And you know, both these weather-related examples work just as well with the, um, S-word.

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800 years ago today

Something I found while looking for something else:

The Siege of Sinope in 1214 was a successful siege and capture of Sinope by the Seljuq Turks under their Sultan, Kaykaus I (r. 1211–1220). Sinope was an important port city on the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey, at the time held by the Empire of Trebizond, one of the Byzantine Greek successor states formed after the Fourth Crusade. The siege is described in some detail by the near-contemporary Seljuq chronicler Ibn Bibi. The Trapezuntine emperor Alexios I (r. 1204–1222) led an army to raise it, but was defeated and captured, and the city surrendered on 1 November.

I knew that Sinope — today’s Sinop, a nifty little town of 35,000 on the Black Sea, occupies that same space — had changed hands several times over the years, though I hadn’t paid much attention to the details, and the last time I dug around for anything was when I was actually there, forty years ago.

What opened my eyes, though, was the demonym for persons from Trebizond: “Trapezuntine.” I felt briefly abashed for not knowing this. (It’s from the Latin “Trapezus,” which I am told was adapted from ancient Greek.) The Trapezuntine empire expired in 1461 at the hands of Mehmed II of the Ottomans; the surviving city of Trabzon, a place I had a chance to visit but didn’t, was its capital.

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Translation airier

There are enough examples of this phenomenon, I think, to declare a metalaw about it:

Given that there are a couple of thousand somewhat-widely-spoken languages, and (say) 500 somewhat embarrassing words or short phrases in each one of them, there’s a pretty good chance that any randomly-chosen brand name will turn out to be uncomfortably close in sound to something that means “snot” or “trashcan” or whatever in at least one of them.

One example given, from a reader:

I used to live in Moscow, where everyone has long been amused that Ikea chose to name a line of wine glasses “svalka”. свалка can either mean a garbage dump or a dumpster.

Although “svalka” means “coolness” in Swedish.

From my own archives, 2003:

The Buick LaCrosse sedan/sport/utility/whatever vehicle, replacement for the aged Regal, will be sold in Canada, but not with that name.

To us, “lacrosse” is a sport played on a field with sticks. To the Québécois, apparently, it’s a solo act, practiced often in the bathroom, rumored to cause hair growth on one’s palms and/or blindness.

So it was the “Allure” through 2010 or so, when Buick decided the hell with it, this is the LaCrosse, and we’re going to sell it that way. And come to think of it, the Regal didn’t stay dead, either.

(Via Nancy Friedman.)

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It’s a proper noun

Derpy HoovesPejman Yousefzadeh performs the useful task of ragging on Paul Krugman, as raggable an egghead as exists in our time, and while I applaud such activity in general, Yousefzadeh chose to close the raggage with this observation:

Nota bene: If the word “derpy” could be excised from our vocabulary, no one would be more pleased than me.

I would be somewhat distraught at the loss, if only because “Nameless Pegasus No. [whatever]” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. If Krugman happens to misuse it on occasion, well, this is almost certainly true of several other words he uses, including “of,” “several” and “other”: one does not rise to such heady heights without risking oxygen deficiency — or maybe just strabismus.

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Benzifying man

In the November issue, Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson describes their tested Mercedes-Benz C400 4Matic as “solid and Benzily secure.” As adverbification of an automotive marque goes, this is pretty euphonious: “Benzily, Benzily, Benzily, Benzily, life is but a dream,” especially if you can pony up $61,755, which is E-Class money, for a spiffed up C-Class. And besides, anyone with road experience in an older Mercedes — even I, who had only a few minutes in a Seventies-vintage 240D with acceleration at the lawn-tractor level — knows the feeling of being Benzily secure: it’s like having a bank vault around you.

Still, what I care about here is the word itself. While the Mercedes half of the name is long and inflexible, Benz enters into compounds nearly as avidly as oxygen: already I’m contemplating the FWD demi-lux buggy coming from Daimler, which will also be sold by Infiniti as the Q30 after, I assume, serious deBenzification.

One can play this game all day long. Complain about the indifferent Lincoln product line? You’ve just called for increased — or maybe decreased — Forditude. Quality problems with the ATS and CTS sedans can be traced to Cadillaxity. And if the two of you were getting jiggy in a Tahoe … well, never mind.

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Three Fs, anyway

And it’s not like you won’t figure it out on your own:

As the young folks say, well played.

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Ahead of the game

Which is where you want to be at all times, right? A helpful hint from Tam:

You might note that the first three letters of “preparedness” are “PRE”. You know, Latin for “before”, “in front of”, “ahead of”. This is not a coincidence. The whole notion of preparedness is that when unexpected stuff happens, you have already taken steps to deal with it. It’s the opposite of running to the store for bread and milk because the weatherman said it was going to snow; you don’t need to do that, because you already have bread and milk. (Or if you’re really a hardcore prepper, sacks of grain and a cow, I suppose.)

Still, some people gotta have their French toast.

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You might even call it ruptive

The dis- prefix, says Dictionary.com, is “a Latin prefix meaning ‘apart,’ ‘asunder,’ ‘away,’ ‘utterly,’ or having a privative, negative, or reversing force.” This is almost, but not quite, the opposite of ad-, and most of the dis- words I know sound funny with dis- thus replaced. In some cases, it’s more sensible to remove dis- entirely, as in the case of “disestablish.”

But can you be combobulated? (Or “accombobulated”?) Apparently combobulation is something you have to lose before you can gain:

Taking off your shoes and pulling out your laptop at airport security may leave you feeling discombobulated.

The Mitchell International Airport staff has set up some chairs and a sign just past one of the security checkpoints to help you out. They’ve labeled it the “recombobulation area.”

I can deal with that.

(Plucked from a listserv; the sender was Bryan Doe, who actually reads this stuff now and then.)

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Too silly; didn’t click

Grammar Girl has decided that the semicolon that bisects “tl;dr” is in fact ironic:

Semicolons appear in long, complex sentences — they’re a hallmark of writing that would likely earn the tl;dr label. I can’t think of another acronym or initialism that includes a semicolon (or any other punctuation mark), so whoever included the first semicolon in tl;dr was bucking abbreviation conventions. He or she took an abbreviation meant to endorse brevity and made it longer and more complex by adding a semicolon.

And furthermore:

Some people have speculated that programmers put the semicolon there because some programming languages end lines with semicolons. Others have pointed out that using the semicolon is grammatically correct because if you were to write tl;dr as a sentence, it is two clauses that could be properly joined by a semicolon. But, if you view the semicolon as a symbol of long, perhaps pedantic writing, it would be funny to include the semicolon in the barb you’re directing at writers of such works—ironic because it’s the opposite of what you would expect in an abbreviation.

Although “too long; didn’t read” seems to lack something, complete sentence-wise.

Still, it’s true, you don’t see punctuation in most such constructions, except for the exclamation point — see, for instance, OMGWTFBBQ!!1!

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A fool such as I

An operation called Grandiloquent Word of the Day came up with this polysyllabic portmanteau:

tibuloconcupiscent

A Facebook friend was kind enough to paste this on my wall, suggesting that it was right up my alley. I argued that “I’m just as interested in watching her take them off.” And besides, ZZ Top has already described this phenomenon more than adequately.

Morley, a famed British brand since 1795, was rebooted in 2011, though today they manufacture men’s wear only.

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Metaphor, when the idiots prate

A lot of words have fallen into desuetude over the years, such as, well, “desuetude”; the Friar proposes to bring back their concepts, if not the words themselves, in the manner of the Children of Tama. Try this out for size:

Instead of saying, for example, “ultracrepidarian,” which is supposed to mean “someone who gives opinions on subjects they know nothing about,” we might say, “Chris Matthews, his mouth open.”

It’s a shame that term fell into disuse, inasmuch as we now find ourselves with a surfeit of such individuals.

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Iconically free, or something

In all probability, the Virginia Assembly will not enact this measure in 2014:

The English Language Integrity Act: Makes it a class 6 felony to do any of the following: (1) use the word “iconic” when what is meant is that something is “familiar”; (2) use the word “literally” to describe something figurative (“I was so mad my head literally exploded”; (3) use “as far as” when “as for” is needed (“as far as Miley Cyrus, I think she’s a tramp”); (4) advertise a product as “free” if the consumer must purchase another product to get it. Reference to a product as a “free gift” shall bring a minimum sentence of five years.

As far as this bill goes, I think it has literally no chance of passage.

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Future idiom

I have always been fascinated by the unexpected paths this language has taken over the past several centuries, and how some terminology has survived long past the actual objects it describes: we may not know what a petard is, but we’re damned sure we don’t want to be hoist on, or with, it.

Now Shakespeare wrote Hamlet back around 1600. Is there anything that happened during my lifetime that could produce an idiom which might engage readers — assuming there will still be readers — in 2400?

I’m thinking there’s at least one possible candidate:

Seriously. I’d bet there won’t be knobs of any sort in 2400 — the first blow already has been struck — but the decimal system as we know it will remain, and 11 will always be just a little bit beyond it. We’re already practically to the point where you can talk about turning something up to 11 without having to explain it at all: the idiom is just that handy. Four hundred years from now, when the last Marshall stack is tucked away in the corner of a Museum of Curiosities, there will still be things that go to 11.

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Hardly ineffable

It’s always F-bomb time somewhere:

The site FBomb.co maps in real time whenever the F-word is dropped on Twitter. America and Britain are leaders in cursing online, according to the interactive map, with New Yorkers tagged as the biggest offenders.

Thanks to its creator Martin Gingras, a junior at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, the map not only tracks the F-bombs as they happen, but also features pins that can be clicked to see a tweet and who tweeted it. On Twitter, @FBomb_co retweets random tweets that make up the map.

There are days when I suspect it’s retweeting my entire timeline.

In the time it took me to type this and paste that, about 40 effers were lofted into the Twittersphere. While the tweets are not identified by specific location — all you get is the map — they do include the entire text (with links, if present, though not directly clickable) and the username.

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Cleaving to sanctions, literally

Roger has literally had it up to here with “literally”:

When Webster and other dictionaries announced that the second definition of the word “literally” means “figuratively” — “My head literally exploded” — I had some difficulty with that. Still I tried to shoehorn this new meaning into my vocabulary. Alas, I have failed.

There’s only one honest alternative left:

So while using literally to mean figuratively may be OK (for some), what do I use when I REALLY, REALLY mean literally? How can I make this clear to the reader/listener?

Therefore, I must sadly conclude that the word “literally” has been rendered useless to me. If it doesn’t mean one thing, but rather the thing OR its opposite, then it doesn’t mean anything at all.

Thus, I must purge it from my vocabulary — literally. And by “literally,” I mean the first, original meaning of the term.

While we’re at it, let’s move away from “democracy,” which in 2013 means absolute rule by a self-selected aristocracy via manipulation of 50.1 percent of the electorate, and from “upgrade,” which in 2013 means “whatever we feel like foisting off on you miserable whining users, so shut up and click Agree to the EULA.”

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That sort of goes without saying

This is what happens when lexicographers look up from their work:

Perhaps this was a training class?

(She is, after all, a Dread Descriptivist. Not that this is at all relevant.)

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Why bring this up?

Morgan Freeberg has a neologism for us:

A regurgication is an education dealing entirely with either muscle-memory, memorized verbiage, memorized glossary entries, foreign language accents, or anything else that is entirely separated from command of the topical concepts. Accomplished scholars who have fulfilled all the requirements of their regurgication will be able to reliably pass entrance exams, questionnaires and interviews, so long as none of these challenges demand too much by way of what’s called “thinking on your feet.” But they won’t be able to detect contradictions in the material, nor will they be able to respond intelligently to someone else who has found such a contradiction.

Some things, of course, you have to memorize: think “multiplication tables.” (You can’t assume we’ll always have calculators handy.) But if I’ve escaped this particular form of miseducation, it’s simply because I have had the useful combination of decent recall and the ability to reword stuff more or less on the fly.

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A worthy neologism

Scarcely a day goes by that I can’t find some use for this term:

Just imagine that emphasis is added on the appropriate word, because Twitter doesn’t know how.

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