Archive for Word Up

Whatever that may mean

As though Japanese wasn’t difficult enough as it is:

There are plenty of dead words in languages all over the world, but can the same be said about ghost words? Floating around the murky regions of digitized Unicode values are anywhere between 60 and 100 yürei-moji — literally, “ghost characters” — haunting the Japanese kanji lexicon.

Though academically obscure, these characters’ origins can be understood readily enough by anyone who has mistaken their doctor’s handwriting for chicken scratch (or vice versa, for that matter). All it took was a few unintentional splatters of ink and some poorly rendered photocopies to bewitch people into seeing kanji that, for all we know, should never have existed.

And are these bogus-ish characters being expunged? Not in the least:

Despite another two decades having passed since the discovery of yürei-moji they can all still be generated using standard fonts in most word processors via Unicode input. The reason for this harkens back to the first JIS Kanji Code revision in 1983. These revisions added some new characters, modified roughly 300 kanji to depict simplified forms, and swapped some kanji around as per the request of the education ministry.

Unfortunately, due to the limited functionality of early-1980s computers, these revisions caused massive technical problems with international Unicode compatibility between both Chinese and Korean computers. So, when the 1997 investigation shed some figurative light on these spectral symbols, the JISC decided that it would be far less of a headache to just register the correct kanji in new code and allow the yürei-moji to remain with their original Unicode values, awaiting the day when an overly enthusiastic translator writes an article about them.

And there will always be the reader, mystified by what she’s read, who chooses to follow up her puzzlement with research; it would be unkind to leave her in the dark.


The anfractuosity of it all

“I have never in my life experienced any benefits from having a strong vocabulary,” claims the Friar:

During the school years, polysyllables attracted “donees” for my lunch money but repelled the chicks en masse. When writing for the newspaper, they earned me significant editing. While they were useful in seminary, that’s still a form of academia and is therefore of no value to the real world. In fact, seminary gave me an entirely new realm of vocabulary I can’t use in real life, such as “hypostatic union.” The phrase refers to the Christian understanding of how the divine and human natures of Christ co-relate within one person, but I’m never going to say it in a sermon. Not because other people can’t understand it — but because if I do use it I’ll have to explain it and I’m lazy.

Those of us who did not hear The Calling will look at “hypostatic” and think of something like Discwasher, which is supposed to remove dust, and by inference noise, from phonograph records. (Yes, I have one. Why do you ask?)

The one real thrill of having a passing acquaintance with those ten-dollar words, I think, was that you could watch Firing Line, listen to Buckley spill out unScrabbleable terms like “eleemosynary,” and not roll your eyes.

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Social dudity

Gender-specific? Dude?

Is 'dude' gender-specific?

Clearly, “dude” abides.

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Come on, get farty

A Mental Floss piece on “Innocent Words with Surprisingly Naughty Origins” yielded up this gem:

A partridge is an unremarkable game bird or a living gift that sits in a pear tree, right? Its name should mean something similar to “tasty bird” or “eccentric gift.” Instead, partridge originates from the Greek verb perdesthai, which means “to break wind.” Partridge became the “flatulence bird” because its weight and wing shape cause it to make a low, whirring noise when it takes off, creating a rather unfortunate sound.

The late David Cassidy was not, unfortunately, available for comment.

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Cromulence achieved

And high time, too:

Some of the new adds are here.

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Insist on your right to sound stupid

After all, life is unfair:

If ever you need an example of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” [George W. Bush, written by Michael Gerson], there’s a legitimate Exhibit A.

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Hanger management

I know this feeling entirely too well:

We’ve all been there before. Who hasn’t experienced that awful feeling when you’re starving and then start to get mad that you’re starving? When there are no snacks to be found, hunger and anger collide to form the “hangry” phenomena. I’m sure you’ve used the term to describe your desire for pizza (when there sadly was no pizza) before erupting into a volcano of screams and tears.

Well, “starving” is probably stretching it a bit; it’s not like I look emaciated or anything. That said, that particular hybrid emotion is familiar. And now:

If you’re looking for some academic sources to validate your unsatisfied emotional state, well, look no further. The Oxford English Dictionary has just included the word in their latest update.

You’re kidding, right? You’re not?

Here’s how Head of U.S. Dictionaries, Katherine Connor Martin, explained it in a statement:

“It is only in the 21st century that the word hangry, a blend of hungry and angry used colloquially to mean ‘bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger,’ has entered common use. However, the earliest known evidence for the word dates from 1956, in an unusual article in the psychoanalytic journal American Imago that describes various kinds of deliberate and accidental wordplay.”

So there. Next time you’re frustrated because the fridge is empty, at least your plaint is lexicographically approved.

(Via American Digest.)

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Back and forth

By now you know what a palindrome is: it’s a series of letters or of individual words which, when spelled backwards, is identical to the frontward spelling. Bob can tell you about these:

Is it crazy how saying sentences backwards creates backwards sentences saying how crazy it is?

It occurred to a Canadian lad that there is no word for a series of letters that yields up a word in one direction and a wholly different word in the other:

I mean, Martin Gardner came up with the perfectly sensible “semordnilap” for these, but it never, ever caught on.

Hence: “Levidrome.” It’s “-drome,” from Greek dromos, direction, and “Levi,” the kid’s name.

A word from Oxford Dictionaries on this matter:

So why not “levidrome”?

(Via HelloGiggles.)

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Professor Tom Lehrer turned out a number (actual number: 10) of didactic yet hilarious songs for The Electric Company back in the 1970s. Adverbially speaking, this was my favorite:

I went thirty years without hearing this, and hadn’t forgotten a word, though I did get two verses out of order.

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A noun of pronounced fugliness

I guess this is for people who didn’t take enough umbrage at “staycation.”

And the “experience economy”? Oh, please.

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Not a machine-gun repair part

Nancy Friedman describes a knack one really must have to work with English, the word for which is in German: Sprachgefühl. It’s like this:

It means, literally, “a feeling for language” — sprach is related to English “speech,” and fühl to “feel” — and like some other mouth-filling German words (weltanschauung, gemütlichkeit, schadenfreude) seems both slightly untranslatable and immediately, intuitively understandable. With sprachgefühl, you’ve either got it or you don’t.

You probably remember sprach from Richard Strauss.

She quotes Merriam-Webster’s superstar lexicographer (I do love the idea of a “superstar lexicographer,” so please let this be) Kory Stamper:

Sprachgefühl is a slippery eel, the odd buzzing in your brain that tells you that “planting the lettuce” and “planting misinformation” are different uses of “plant,” the eye twitch that tells you that “plans to demo the store” refers not to a friendly instructional stroll on how to shop but to a little exuberance with a sledgehammer.

I have, I think, a smidgen of this characteristic, though likely not enough to make it possible to earn my living with the pen, or for that matter to avoid ending up in the pen.

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Displaced over the millennia

Truth for our times, and theirs:

Probably why I remember Vercingetorix after all these years, but can’t tell you much of anything about Zachary Taylor.

Curiously, what little remains of my conversational Turkish is the set of integers, one through ten, and “Where is the toilet?” (“Tuvalet nerede?”)

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Whatever that may mean

The Car Talk newspaper column continues, and sometimes it throws me for a loop:

The standard trucks, like the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado, are humongous now. And the so-called smaller trucks, like the Chevy Colorado, Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, are simply “big.”

Of those smaller trucks, the Chevy is the most modern, the Tacoma is the most reliable and the Nissan is the most Nissany.

Damning with faint praise, or praising with faint damns? I’m not quite sure what “Nissany” actually means.

I do know one person who has owned two Frontiers in succession. Perhaps I should ask her.

In the meantime, I probably should try to make up adjectives for other auto marques. I plead guilty to using “Bimmeresque” once or twice.

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Effing the ineffable

I picked up a charity compilation a few years back which contained several songs in their “Clean Versions.” Seemed legit: someone willing to put up ten bucks for a Good Cause might not be so willing to hear Bad Words. And besides, it’s not like you can’t hear that stuff everywhere:

[O]veruse has robbed many of our current words of their shock value and power. When every other word is the four-syllable combo that implies the subject is Oedipus in full-on Jocasta-shipping mode, then a user loses the ability to use it to truly insult someone.

This works because it was used only once in 92 minutes, thereby making it unexpected:

(You might not want to crank the volume up at your workplace.)

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Awe, shucks

Remember when “awe” was, well, awesome? Not anymore:

Matched up against all the torrent and cascade of moments though, this genuine awe was rare; it was one of the pearls beyond price, the shining instant of “Ah ha, so that’s what it’s all about.”

Not so today. Today awe is as common as clay. Today all things of man possesses the awe of someness. The movie is awesome. The SmartCar is awesome. The candy bar is awesome. The cheeseburger is awesome. Today it would seem that every slice of tripe spun out of the crap factories of pop culture is awesome even though one note of the 9th Symphony would crush the entire oeuvre of Aerosmith. My morning latte was described by the barista as “awesome” when, like all our cornucopia of crapulous things described as such, it was quite mediocre, thank you.

I wonder if this was a byproduct of lowered expectations: if everything is mediocre or worse, yet we need something to extol, it seems almost inevitable that we’d experience some sort of word inflation of this sort.

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I swear

Probably, so do you. And if you’re in the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Government has actually quantified your swearing:

Every swear word in the English language has been ranked in order of offensiveness.

The UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, interviewed more than 200 people across the UK on how offensive they find a vast array of rude and offensive words and insults.

People were asked their opinion on 150 words in total. These included general swear words, words linked to race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, body parts and health conditions, religious insults and sexual references, as well as certain hand gestures.

They were asked to rate words as mild, medium, strong or strongest.

Bloody crap. Sod off. (Mild, mild, and mild.)

(With thanks to Lynn S., who doesn’t talk like this. Much.)

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Such language

It might have been a good idea, but the outcome was predictable:

It was intended to be a lighthearted quest to find the least popular word in the English language, but only a day after it launched, Oxford Dictionaries has ended its search following “severe misuse” of the feature by visitors to their website.

The dictionary publisher had invited users around the world to name their least favourite English word, intending to highlight differences between countries, genders and ages. When it opened for submissions on Thursday, “moist” was an early contender to top lists in the UK, US and Australia. It was later overtaken by “Brexit”, which went on to head the UK’s list, with “British” in third place.

But the #OneWordMap feature has now been closed, with a notice blaming the shutdown on “severe misuse”.

For instance?

The dictionary publisher did not expand on which words had caused the shutdown, saying only that it was “a mixture of swearwords and religiously offensive” vocabulary. Posts on Twitter suggest that some users’ picks for their least favourite words included “Islam” and “Israel”.

Such people need to be embedded — up to the clavicle, anyway — in something moist.

(Via Language Log.)

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It was never F plus three

Persistent stories to the contrary, no English swear words come from acronyms, and there are good reasons for that:

Acronyms are intrinsically euphemistic. They are used to camouflage rude, offensive, or otherwise unendurable things (often just unendurably long).

And if you plan to be rude and offensive, camouflage is more or less beside the point.


Acronyms have only really been used to generate words since the mid-20th century.

Most of our serious swears, including George Carlin’s Heavy Seven, date back many centuries.

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They took a shine to her

From last night’s Academy Award tweetstream:

My first thought, and also my second, was “What the hell ever happened to shone?” I duly consulted Grammarist, which says:

The verb shine has two main definitions: (1) to emit light, and (2) to cause to gleam by polishing. In its first sense, shine traditionally becomes shone in the past tense and as a past participle. In its second sense, shine is traditionally inflected shined. So, for example, we might say, “The sun shone brightly while I shined my shoes.”

Which is about the way I remembered things, until I ran smack-dab into this:

In 21st-century writing, however, the distinction is increasingly fuzzy, and shined is often used where shone would be the traditional inflection. Shone rarely appears in place of shined, though.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go get my shoes shone.

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Words that gladden the heart

Or maybe some place a bit lower down. Francis W. Porretto, linking to this collection of Utterly Romantic verbiage from stage and screen and story, offers a sampling of “well-proven romantic lines that really ought to have been considered” but somehow never seem to be. I’m at least partially sure that “Yes, I do have five large, empty closets. Why do you ask?” would have worked with some women I know.

Allegedly this will draw the attention of the male:

Axe print ad featuring double-jointed therapist

Although I do think it needs the visuals as much as the quotation.

(Yes, I have posted this before.)

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No, not a rapper who’s fallen on hard times. Oddly enough, it’s a word we’re most likely to understand by contemplating its polar opposite.

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It’s an annual darn event

Too late for 2015, but it’ll be back:

One day a year, visitors to the Saishōji Temple in Ashikaga are invited to shed their stoicism and politeness for a night of cathartic cursing. At the akutare matsuri (“rowdiness festival”), also called akutai matsuri (“festival of abusive language”), held annually on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of worshippers make the forty-minute trek up the mountain to the temple, shouting insults and epithets along the way.

Then again, shedding that politeness doesn’t come easy to the Japanese:

Although all potential targets of these insults are fair game, the curses themselves are typically mild, especially by Strong Language standards. The insult of choice is usually “bakayarō!” — loosely translated to “you idiot!”

I’m just imagining how this sort of festival would play in, oh, New Jersey.

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What goes (somewhat) around

It seems unlikely that the Fisker Karma failed in the marketplace because of its name, but you have to wonder about Henrik Fisker’s future prospects:

Karma is a Sanskrit word that translates literally to “action” or “fate”; in Hinduism and Buddhism it signifies (per Collins English Dictionary) “the principle of retributive justice” or (per American Heritage Dictionary) “the totality of a person’s actions and conduct during successive incarnations.” Bad actions lead to reincarnation in a lower order of being; good actions lead to rebirth in the higher orders.

In other words, if in a past life (say, 2011) you manufactured an unpopular car, in the next life (say, 2015) you are unlikely to prosper.

Meanwhile, China’s Wanxiang Group, which acquired the rights to the car, will restart production next year (maybe) under the Elux brand name. Maybe they can do something with it. So far, Maximum Bob Lutz hasn’t:

During Fisker’s Congressional investigation and plant shutdown, Lutz and his jet-fighter-flying partner, Gilbert Villarreal, had 20 Karma gliders waiting for a transplant and 100 orders. Lutz also said he had Karma owners interested in converting their cars to Destinos so they wouldn’t become “boat anchors.” Production was supposed to start last fall, although when we asked today, VL said it was “still working out the details” and would not comment further. The VL Destino comes with either the Corvette Stingray’s LT1 450-hp V-8 or the old ZR1’s 638-hp supercharged V-8, offering shoppers a choice of a six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.

For “today,” read “20 February 2014.” Later that year, VL Automotive merged with WM Greentech. The renamed WM Destino remains vaporware, albeit really fast and expensive vaporware. Whatever cards Wanxiang may be holding, they’re being held close to the corporate vest. As for Fisker himself, we haven’t heard a word.

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Oh, interjection

As we have long known, verbing weirds language. Name expert Nancy Friedman has been collecting examples of such weirding for many years, and this week she blew the lid off two unnecessarily verbed nouns in a piece called “Let’s Family! Let’s Museum!”

Let’s don’t and say we did.

Still, if verbing nouns adds weirdness, what happens when you verb adjectives?

Something to listen to while you think it over:

It used to be, no words could come between us.

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The audience is unfazed

I mean, it’s not too often I trot out something like this:

I learned that word several decades ago, and never anticipated that I’d ever get a chance to use it. But opportunity knocked, then ran around the corner and bashed in a window, so I couldn’t very well pass it up.

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Haircut 101

“Haircut,” in the financial-crisis sense, sounds cheery, especially when you consider the reality of the matter:

Haircut. It sounds so droll; you can imagine a sharp banker in a fine suit cocking an eyebrow and sighing about someone having to take a haircut, when the truth of the matter is someone dragged to a stump and made to put his head in the blood of the last guy they brought up on stage. Hold still, it’ll be easier for you. The correct metaphor would probably be “have several layers of skin removed by rubbing a hot brick all over the body,” but it would seem as if there’s something unfortunate going on.

Why, everyone has a haircut, eventually.

And with it, probate. Probably.

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Relax and jill out

The last time we checked in with the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, they’d come up with a term to replace “hymen”: “slidkrans,” which has the advantage of not meaning “membrane.”

That was five years ago. And it’s not like the RFSU has had nothing to do since then:

Last year, Swedish Association for Sexuality Education announced it was holding a poll to find a new word for the act as an important step in establishing equality for the sexes. Now, from more than 1,200 suggestions, the winner has emerged as “Klittra,” a combination of Clitoris and Glitter.

Guys, of course, have been holding their polls for years. Or something like that.

But what about further afield? The reaction to the story in the English-speaking world suggests that there isn’t currently a suitable term for female masturbation in English, and the concept and etymology of the Swedish term make it a perfect candidate to fill a void that is just as pressing in English as it is in Swedish.

So don’t be surprised to see Klittra make the move across languages in the next few years and establish itself as the world’s universal term for what is, after all, a universal act.

Mulva (or was it Dolores?) was not available for comment.

(With thanks to Nancy Friedman.)

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Rhymes with “duckie”

Nancy Friedman introduces us to the Yuccie:

Yuccie: A Young Urban Creative, as defined and described by David Infante, “a 26-year-old writer who lives in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn,” in an article for Mashable published on June 10. Infante calls yuccies “a slice of Generation Y, borne [sic] of suburban comfort, indoctrinated with the transcendent power of education, and infected by the conviction that not only do we deserve to pursue our dreams; we should profit from them.”

There’s just this one problem:

“I am the yuccie,” Infante writes. “And it sounds sort of, well, yucky.”

Perhaps not everyone’s education has been equally transcendent.

“Yuppie,” the antecedent to “yuccie,” was occasionally truncated to “yup.” Let’s hope this doesn’t happen to “yuccie.”

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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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