Fred DuBose

ONE Word, Not Two

Divorce is suddenly epidemic in Worddom, with couples splitting like crazy. You’d think that no one gets that in English and almost every other language, singles often marry as compound words. A few examples of the happy couples? Armchair, candlestick, figurehead, nutshell, and softball. Many others are hyphenated (e.g., know-how, never-ending, well-being).

Why worry? Because separating compound words sometimes either muddies a sentence or changes its meaning. “With out its after taste, this wine wouldn’t be as impudent” starts a sentence rather bumpily, while the proper “Without its aftertaste, this wine wouldn’t be…” is a smooth ride. And when it comes to meaning, take greenhouse: Split it apart and it says, “a house painted green” rather than “a glass outbuilding used for protecting or cultivating plants.”

Following is an alphabetical list of 50 compound words that are often split apart when they should remain a single unit. And take note: When wondering whether to go with one word or two, just access, key in the word in question, and click Definitions. The result? A page with the word stacked in a long list and hyperlinked to dictionary after dictionary after dictionary — a quick way to learn whether it is single, married, separated, or hyphenated.

  • airbag
  • artwork
  • birthplace
  • brainwash
  • campfire
  • cornerstone
  • dishcloth
  • doormat
  • earache, earlobe
  • fearmongering
  • fundraiser
  • giveaway
  • groundbreaking
  • handcuffs, handout
  • heartbreaking
  • icebreaker
  • inchworm
  • jackhammer
  • jailbait
  • kindhearted
  • kowtow
  • laughingstock
  • lockstep
  • mainstream
  • midair, midday
  • namesake
  • necktie
  • overworked, overpaid, overweight
  • paperweight
  • poorhouse
  • racehorse
  • rainstorm
  • saltwater
  • schoolchild
  • tablecloth
  • topcoat
  • underweight
  • upcountry
  • viewpoint
  • voicemail
  • warlord
  • wrongdoing
  • yardstick
  • yearbook
  • zigzag

FAMOUS, Not Infamous

I’m old enough to be aware of Will Rogers,* so when a youthful guest on a morning TV show cheerily referred to “the infamous Will Rogers” I almost gagged on my granola. Glorying in his authentic Oklahoma cowboy roots, Rogers gained fame far and wide as an entertainer and down-to-earth espouser of humor and wisdom. In other words, he was famous.

Although famous and infamous share six letters, the prefix in- tacked onto the latter word means “not” (only one of this prefix’s uses). Not only that, but infamous is synonymous with notorious. Ask Merriam-Webster:

famous (adj.) known or recognized by many people; having fame

infamous (adj.) well-known for being bad; known for evil acts or crimes

I doubt the pejorative infamous is confused with its more positive parent due to another meaning of -in: do; start, as in inflame. More likely, three-quarters of the word (f-a-m-o-u-s) play hijacker and suggest the two adjectives are one and the same.

*Will Rogers first made his mark as a wryly humorous vaudeville cowboy, and his fame spread as he went on to star in the Ziegfield Follies, make 71 movies (mostly silents), and write a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Fifty-six years after Rogers’ death, Broadway gave him his due with a musical: The Will Rogers Follies, which opened in 1991 and ran for almost 1,000 performances before touring nationwide. The original production won the Tony for Best Musical, and the Best Actor award went to Keith Carradine, who played the title role.

QUASH, not Squash

What a difference an s makes. The sound-alikes quash and squash differ in meaning but almost qualify as kissing cousins. Why? Because both are tinged with the suggestion of rendering something operative, inactive, or useless. They go their separate ways when it comes to the intangible vs. the tangible. Quash is applied to the nonphysical (e.g., court decisions, uprisings), while only something  physical can be squashed (a tomato, a pillow, a big toe).

See the difference for yourself:

quash  1. to surpress or extinguish; 1. to nullify judicially; 3. to void

squash 1. to smash into a flat mass; to flatten or make flatter

Quash predates squash by about a century (mid-1600s vs. mid-1700s), but most Americans impart three meanings to the latter: in its noun form, a gourd vegetable; as a verb, an all-purpose “smash,” whether the smashee is a grape or a revolt. Unless more writers and speakers learn how to separate these two sound-alikes, quash may fall out of use by the end of this century.

GONE, Not Went

The past participle of the verb to gogone — tops the ever-growing Endangered Past Participles list, though run and done are busily vying for No.1.* The likes of the correct “I should have gone an hour earlier” becomes “I should have went an hour earlier” more and more frequently, even from the lips of those boasting two or more advanced degrees.

And gone isn’t the only past participle falling by the wayside. Today it seems hardly anyone under 50 says (or writes) “I really shouldn’t have drunk so much last night,” but instead replaces the proper drunk with the past tense drank  — a grammatical slip sometimes found in respectable publications as well. (How we miss you, Mr. and Ms. Copyeditor!)

What to do about it? If you care enough to get it right, browse a style manual now and then… and, if you feel it necessary, take notes. After all, not all armchair reading need be devoted to novels, nonfiction, and magazines.

*WRONG: “She had ran for office twice before.” RIGHT: “She had run for office twice before.”  WRONG: “He had did that with his pocket knife since he was 7.” RIGHT: “He had done that with his pocket knife since he was 7.” 

The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon ReaderA Novella
Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

The titular reader is Queen Elizabeth II, and I finished this 117-page delight in one sitting, fortified by a few cups of Yorkshire Tea. The novella begins with the Queen’s corgis scampering into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, and Her Majesty herself walking in to retrieve them. This apotheosis of exemplary behavior feels it would be impolite not to borrow a book from the librarian, a Mr. Hutchings — and so falls the first step on a road the Queen never expected to travel.

In his marvelous way, author Alan Bennett (best known outside the UK for his award-winning play The History Boys) parlays the Queen’s first encounter with the librarian (and shelves laden with books for the taking) into an explanation of why the royals rarely settle down and read for pleasure. The excerpt below follows the Queen’s remark to the librarian that she has “never had much time for reading.”

“Though now that one is here I suppose one should borrow a book. Is there anything you would recommend?”

Mr. Hutchings smiled helpfully. “What does Your Majesty like?”

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth, she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticket.’

‘No problem,’ said Mr Hutchings.

‘One is a pensioner,” said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.

‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books.’

“Six? Heavens!”

Like the Queen, the reader is taken to places unforeseen, and you’ll happily find yourself bursting out laughing from time to time. You’ll also get a peep at Palace staff high and low and marvel at author Bennett’s dexterity in weaving a tale.

The characters, too, are memorable. Among them are young Norman Seakins, who works in the Palace kitchens and fetches books from the mobile library for the Queen (a wise career move)… Sir Kevin Scatchard, the Queen”s private secretary and introduced by Bennett as “an over-conscientious New Zealander”… and Sir Claude Pollington, who began life a the Palace as a page for the Queen’s father, George V, and is now decrepitude writ large. An intriguing lot indeed!

The novella ends with a delicious surprise, the perfect finale for a book Anglophiles will want to read more than once.

All You Can Eat?

Those of us at Run It By Fred wouldn’t be in this business if we weren’t head over heels for words: their infinite variety, their everyday use and misuse, their often perplexing placement when strung together in sentences. To passionate word nerds, English and its intricacies are like food – and, all the better, the menu is spiced with borrowings from all corners of the world.

In a little exercise to prove the “all corners” point, first note these seven foods: hummus… West African blackeyed peas… chow mein… coq au vin… fettucine Alfredo… paella… yogurt. Now match them to the everyday words bequeathed to English by the tongues of the countries of origin – in corresponding order, sofa (Arabic) … funk (Bantu)… kowtow (Chinese)… intrigue (French)… fiasco (Italian)… macho (Spanish)… and caftan (Turkish). Our vast vocabulary owes much to Latin, Greek, Old German, and Old French, but countless languages have contributed to English’s astonishing scope and color.

 We invite you to join a discussion of the posts in the various blog categories – some praiseful, some peevish… but all, we hope, informative. Or you could simply browse a few and move on. Whatever your choice, find two small plates of appetizers below – first, such matters as pronunciation, euphemism, and word coinage; second, curiosities thrown in mainly for laughs.

The functional

  • When (and why) did so many Americans start pronouncing either as EYE-ther? (Whither Either?)
  • What’s behind the snowballing replacement of die and death with pass and passing? (Don’t Kill Death!)
  • It is fairly well known that the word boycott came from Charles Boycott and mesmerize from the surname of Franz Mesmer, but what are a few other words derived from people’s names? Prepare to be surprised. (Eponym Guy)
  • Did the s sound at the end of the phrase coup de grace just fall off a cliff somewhere? (Coup de What?) On the other hand, why have scads of sentences gained something wholly extraneous: an extraneous it – and in turn, mangled grammar? (Pronounce This!)
  • Why do we sometimes pluralize the word way (“It’s a good ways down the road”), when there’s no reason whatsoever to do so? (What’s Up with Ways vs. Way?)

The just plain fun

  • In the elongated-word stakes, which 45-letter New England lake name is outrun by a North Island of New Zealand hill name by more than a mile? (The 45-Letter Lake)
  • What are some of the most cringe-worthy word manglings that have recently popped up in print, in popular websites, and on radio and television? (Misfires)
  • Which Pennsylvania hamlets have names that would make Hester Prynne* blush? (The Amish Road to Naughty)
  • What’s the word for seeing the face of Jesus in a burnt tortilla or a galloping horse in a cloud? (OMG! It’s Jesus!)

Run It By Fred will keep dishing up treats as fast as we can. Just how many will make their way onto the menu over the coming months and years is up in the air, but our goal is to make them so tempting you’ll find them worth sampling.

*Protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1805 novel The Scarlet Letter

TACK, Not Tact

The verbalization of nouns has been running amok, and even the word tact is currently being verbed when used as a gerund (a verb ending in -ing). Heard recently on the tube: “He had no choice but to start tacting to the center.” In his choice of words, this talking head was in league with the growing number of people who unwittingly confuse tact with tack.

A sailing term, tack means to quickly turn a yacht so that it conforms to the direction of the wind. But it is more often used metaphorically, and by sailors and landlubbers alike:

tack 1. to modify one’s policy or attitude abruptly; 2. to follow a zigzag course

Herewith the definition of the noun the verb tack is most decidedly not:

tact the ability to do or say things without offending other people

Night and day, wouldn’t you say? You betcha, and all the more reason to home in on* the distinction between the verb tack and the similar-sounding noun.

*See HOME, Not Hone

PERCOLATE, Not Perculate

What a difference a letter makes — in this case, in the pronunciation of the 9-letter word percolate. I grew up hearing (and speaking) it as it is spelled: per-coh-late. But of late, per-cue-late is bubbling up from vocal chords countrywide.

I dipped into Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary to see what’s up, thinking the newer voicing may have gained enough ground to earn Alternate Pronunciation status. But both the audible version and the written notation revealed that in the eyes of lexicographers, percolate is “properly” pronounced only as it has been for the past 400-plus years: per-coh-late.

Nevertheless, it is probably only a matter of time until the newer articulation turns up in dictionaries, and possibly supersedes the long-standing one. The world didn’t end when forte morphed from fort to fort-ay; dour from doo-ur to dow-ur; ration from ray-shun to rash-un; flaccid from flak-sid to flas-sid; and innumerable additional words changed not only their pronunciation but also their meaning. When it comes right down to it, how a word is pronounced is a trifle in the 1,600-year evolution of the English language, a tongue that will keep changing as long as humans are around to speak it.

TENET, Not Tenant

“An important tenant of good manners is being a good listener,” said the symposium panelist, after which any English teachers who happened to be in the audience tried their best not pipe up and set the panelist straight. Unwittingly, the misspeaker called to mind a tenant who boards at a finishing school mundanely named Good Manners… and where she fell down the job was confusing tenet — the word she wanted — with tenant, the meaning of which is a thousand miles away:

tenant  1) someone who rents or leases a house, apartment, etc. from a landlord
; 2) a person, business, group, etc., that pays to use another person’s property

tenet  a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true, especially one held in common by members of an organization, movement, or profession

Frankly, the words sound so much alike that a spoken misusage can pass by most ears without notice. But when it comes to the written word, avoid the substitution of tenant for tenet lest you risk eviction from the Good Writers club.

CLICHÉD, Not Cliché

We hear it time after time from family, friends, and most of the speakers whose voices waft out over the airwaves:

  • “I didn’t take that tack in the argument because it is so darned cliché.
  • “The way the essay was written was far too cliché for my taste.”

But guess what? This noun properly gets verbed when used as an adjective: clichéd. From Merriam-Webster:

Clichéd  1) marked by or abounding in clichés; 2) hackneyed

In a day when nouns are verbalized right and left (e.g. He gifted her; Primary that hack!; I sandwiched today; She Marilyn Monroed herself for the prom), it’s rather baffling that a noun begging for a verb-to-adjective form stubbornly hangs onto its nounhood in common usage. Yet all it takes to get it right is the addition of a teensy-weensy d.

JIBE, Not Jive

The verb  jibe is ripe for confusion. For one thing, it is a homonym* of gibe, defined as “to deride, taunt, or tease.” For another, the phrase jibe with it is too often misvoiced as jive with. A look at the definitions of jibe and jive tell the tale.

jibe  1) To be in accord; 2) agree

jive  1) to dance to or play jive music; 2) to say foolish or deceptive things

So, when you call up jive to convey that one thing or another squares with something else, you’re actually saying that said thing is either getting down and grooving or indulging in jazzy slang. But don’t feel like the Lone Ranger: A good third of Americans unwittingly supplant jibe with jive, and the jivers may be in the majority by the end of this century.

*To bone up on homonyms, check out Hazardous Homonyms.

WARY, Not Weary

The insertion of an extra letter into a word can make a world of difference when you are speaking — in this case, an e. When this innocuous little vowel is added to wary, the meaning of what you are saying becomes as different as different can be. Herewith the Merriam-Webster definition of a word that is vocally screwed up more and more often:

wary  Not having or showing complete trust in someone or something that could be dangerous or cause trouble

About that e: When added after the initial letter of wary, the word is changed to weary, the meanings of which you well know:

weary 1. Lacking strength, energy, or freshness because of a need for rest or sleep
; 2. Bored or annoyed by something because you have seen it, heard it, done it, etc., many times or for a long time
; 3. Causing you to feel tired

Keep from unwittingly joining the parade of wary-to-weary misspeakers by thinking about the meanings of the word that includes an e, and tossing it aside when you want to say you’re distrustful or fearful of anyone or anything.

HOME, Not Hone

Let us home in on one of the most maddening of malapropisms, born of the replacement of home in the phrase home in on (a precursor of zero in on) with hone.* The original phrase entered the language c.1940, and some three decades later hone reared its wrongheaded head. Not that it isn’t a word, defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as follows:

hone 1. To sharpen or smooth with a whetstone; 2. To make more acute, intense, or effective.

And could the meaning be any farther from the words in the proper phrase? You be the judge:

home in on  To find and move directly toward someone or something

Given the frequent use of hone in on on radio and television, you would think this fallacious term has superseded the phrase that makes perfect sense. But Google Ngram tells us that in print, at least, home in on is holding its own.

Likewise, dictionaries have yet to cite hone in as an alternate form of home in — but for how long? In the Internet age our language is changing more quickly than ever, and those of us whose skin crawls when the essential m is replaced with an n will just have to get used to it. Picky English speakers have swallowed bitter pills for centuries… and though I’ll say home in on till my dying day, I’ll try my best not to let this inevitable (?) interloper drive me over the edge.

*See also Hazardous Homonyms.

Six Shapeshifters

The grouch who is none too pleased to be ambushed by an army of surprise birthday partiers would be gratified to learn that, until the early 1600s, surprise was a military term that meant to attack or assail without warning. Not surprisingly, surprise is hardly the only word to change meanings over time. Following are five more examples, all picked from the ether but indicative of the natural shifts in language over the centuries.

To the American colonists, prestige was a conjuring trick, illusion, or deception (the first sense lives on in prestidigitator: one who practices sleight of hand or magic). Elsewhere, the word hectic — according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “applied to that kind of fever which accompanies consumption [tuberculosis] or other wasting diseases, and is attended by flushed cheeks and hot dry skin”; today, however, it is more synonymous with frenzied, frantic, or chaotic. Then there’s the innocent little adjective nice, whose Middle English meaning gravitated from foolish, stupid, or senseless to wanton, lascivious, or lazy. Nice later settled into one variation or another of precision, exactitude, or refinement, and the modern sense of the word — agreeable or delightful — didn’t render these three meanings obsolete until the late nineteenth century.*

More than a few common words took a hard turn toward the pejorative. For instance, silly went from describing anyone deserving of pity or compassion to meaning weak or frail; speakers and writers later applied it to the poor… and finally to the foolish. But perhaps no adjective took a harder fall than lewd. In Old English it meant lay (non-clergy); in Middle English, unlearned, unlettered, or untaught; and in Modern English, lascivious and unchaste — or, to today’s ear, pornographic, nasty, smutty, or kinky. Cue the interjection My word!

*For more on this rollercoaster of a word, see All About “Nice.”

“Duplicious,” Bill Maher??

Here’s a three-alarm gotcha, Language Police! Soon after the start of the April 17, 2015 broadcast of HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher mangled the pronunciation of a fairly common word. And anyone who doesn’t give a bloody hoot has no reason to read the message I’ve written to Maher in the wake of  his (forgiveable) sin:

“…and Bush had some help from a duplicious vice-president…”

Bill, by no means are you the only internationally-known luminary who perceives an incorrect voicing of a certain word as a standard pronunciation and then adopts it for the long term. (For instance, your fellow teevee star Ari Melber, a regular on MSNBC, bungles coincidnenTALly as coincidenTIONly.) Your mistake? Ripping one of the four syllables out of duplicitous (doo-PLIH-sih-tuhs) and turning the word into duplicious (doo-PLIH-shush, a near-rhyme of delicious). But it goes without saying that you know the word’s meaning: “deceptive in words and action.”

A minute or two later, you remarked, “I think Dick Cheney IS doo-PLIH shush,” confirming that this wasn’t a one-off misstep on your part. But it would be easy to make amends, Bill: While most words surfaced many centuries ago, this one is only twice as old as you as of April 2015, having been first recorded in 1928. So why not lift duplicitous from its etymological crib, cuddle it, and promise its stolen syllable as a present for its 87th birthday? After all, in linguistical terms 90 is the is new 2.

A Partial Boner

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in a press conference broadcast on January 5, 2015:

 “It’s just part and partial of the president’s goals…”

Uh-oh, Mr. Earnest. That would be part and parcel, an idiom on the wane but not yet on its deathbed. It is hardly unusual to come across this old phrase in print or hear it pop up in everyday speech – for instance, in a sentence like  “After-school practice sessions are part and parcel of playing high school football.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of parcel is “a part, portion, or division of anything (material or immaterial),” followed by several closely-related definitions of the word, one being “a package.” Other dictionaries follow suit, some adding to the package def “especially one sent by mail.” Josh, you’re probably thinking “What the hey? You mean the two P-words of the phrase essentially mean the same thing?” Yes, but only for the sake of emphasis, which puts part and parcel in the company of longstanding idioms such as each and every, hue and cry,* and cease and desist.

“Parcel” Then and Now

I’ll be honest, Earnest, and admit your malapropism isn’t all that surprising: The use of part and parcel has slowly declined since the nineteenth century… and as of this writing, you are only 37 years old. (The idiom itself is ancient by comparison, having originated in the early 1500s and peaked in the mid-eighteenth century.) Therefore, if the bonering/bloopering/botching of partial for parcel in both print and speech is any indication, you are in league with a great number of your peers.

Middle English speaker Geoffrey Chaucer used parcel in the sense of “portion” when he wrote in The Complaint Unto Pity (1368), “What nedeth to shewe parcel of my peyne?” (Translation: “What need to show a portion of my efforts?”). Today the “package” sense (first recorded use, 1562), has superseded the “portion” meaning. Yet the latter sense survives in a verb: parcel out, used when giving, sending, or delivering anything piecemeal rather than all at once.

*Only two meanings of hue made their way into the twenty-first century: 1) “a color, or a shade thereof”; and 2) “kind or type.” The three-letter word, from Old French hu (“outcry”), dates from the late 1500s and described the noise made by posses of ersatz town criers as they pursued criminals and raised the alarm. After the word fell from everyday use, it was revived in the 1700s as “a public outcry” — a meaning that lives on in the idiom hue and cry.

A Pretty Penny – NOT!

Reporter on ABC World News Tonight, January 3, 2015:

The meters may change in the future, but parking here in Sycamore will still cost only a pretty penny.

Many folks utter an oxymoron* and don’t realize it, nor probably care. Yet wild-eyed Wordies are waiting to jump all over ’em. For all that, journalists who have earned national exposure should know better – and a prime example follows.

The scene: Sycamore, Illinois, a town some 70 miles west of Chicago. The subject: Parking that costs the same as it did when Harry S. Truman was president: a penny for 12 minutes. (The parking meters themselves also date from way back when.) The perpetrator: a male broadcast journalist whose name I didn’t catch – and just as well, since his glaring misuse of a common idiom cost him a good bit of credibility. He assumed the adjective pretty in a pretty penny, a phrase dating back to the 1500s, takes the sense of “attractive” or “pleasant”… but it actually takes the sense of “substantially” or “considerably,” as in “He’s a pretty strong guy.” Therefore, the reporter unwittingly turned a pretty penny into an oxymoron, given that it is a synonym for expensive, pricey, and costly (think “That new dress must have cost her a pretty penny!”).

Or could I be making a mountain out of a molehill? (FYI, an idiom that has been around since the mid-1600s.) If you think there’s no reason for me to get my knickers in a knot (c.1968), please do not hesitate to let me know – or, to use another commonly used penny idiom, a penny for your thoughts (mid-1700s).

*Oxymoron = paired words whose meanings are contradictory – e.g., “true myth,” “apathetic interest,” and “serious joke.”

Latin For All Occasions

Latin for All Occasions

Lingua Latina Occasionibus Omnibus
Henry Beard
Villard Books, 1990; Second Edition (paperback), 2004

In 1990 National Lampoon magazine co-founder Henry Beard dished up a Roman feast’s-worth of laughs with this book. And in About the Author he wryly explains why he undertook the task, speaking of himself in third person: “He is happy to have an opportunity to make some use of his knowledge of a language that really hasn’t been all that helpful over the the years, except for the time he suddenly realized that the thing he was about to order from a restaurant menu in Rome looked an awful lot like the Latin word for eel.” (The book sold so well a sequel soon followed: Latin for Even More Occasions.) So why not have some fun with the language* of Ancient Rome, especially if you waded through Latin lessons in your schooldays?

In the right company, tossing out an everyday comment or complaint or query in Latin may get you a laugh… but only rarissime (very rarely): Overusing an old-as-the-hills language will quickly old. These two books are obviously tailor made for enjoying a laugh-a-minute browse in a comfy chair, and the dozen examples that follow will give you a taste of the author’s approach.

  • Apudne te vel me?  “Your place or mine?”
  • Heus, hic nos omnes in agmine sunt!  “Hey! Were all in line here!”
  • Di! Ecce hora! Uxor mea me necabit!  “God, look at the time! My wife will kill me!”
  • Id imperfectum manet dum confectum exit.  “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
  • Quanta mora volatui fiet?  “How long will the flight be delayed?”
  • Quanto putas mihi stare hoc horologium manuale?  “How much do you think I paid for this watch?”
  • Braccae tuae aperiuntur.  “Your fly is open.”
  • Tuis iube meis dicere.  “Have your people talk to my people.”
  • Non alor sed umor est qui nobis incommodat.  “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
  • In tabulario donationem feci.  “I gave at the office ”
  • Purgamentum init, exit purgamentum.  “Garbage in, garbage out.”
  • Spectaculum carissimum est Periculum.  “My favorite show is Jeopardy.”

More to Like (Ad Amandum)

Not everything is so short ’n’ sweet. In the first book you’ll learn how to write an all-purpose postcard message, an all-purpose voicemail greeting, and more. In Latin for Even More Occasions, the General Latin chapter includes a chain letter in Latin, an all-purpose bedtime story, and even a note to Santa Claus (Sancte Nocholas).

Almost all English in these books is matched with its Latin equivalent, from the title page, copyright page, and the table of contents to About the Author (De Scriptore). The initial book’s twelve chapters run from Conversational Latin (Lingua Latina Conlocutioni) to Formal Latin (Lingua Latina Ritibus), with Tactical Latin, Sensual Latin, Gastronomical Latin, and seven other chapters in between. The sequel’s chapters take a more targeted (if decidedly tongue-in-cheek) approach and include Sports-Fanatical Latin, Pop-Cultural Latin, Commercial Latin, Convivial Latin, and eight others.

Dipping into Beard’s books also enables you to pick up a few Latin words or rub the rust off any Latin you studied back in the day – a nice bonus. Labra lege (read my lips): The books are not only funny but very much worth your while.

*The Middle English word language came from the Latin lingua (tongue) – but by way of France. Lingua took the French pronunciation (and spelling) langue, which evolved into the Anglo-French langage and, finally, language (first recorded use, fourteenth century).

Hip(pie) Flip-Flop

Ari Melber, guest on All in with Chris Hayes, on June 10, 2014:

“They used to say, ’Don’t trust anyone over forty…’”

 Whoa, whippersnapper! You were ten years off. As someone who graduated from college on the cusp of the Summer of Love (1967, when the deliciously smoky notes of The Doors’ Light My Fire wafted from transistor radios), I recoil at the thought that we budding counter-culturists could’ve even imagined turning forty. Hence the real byword: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”

The Coiner

Though often credited to hippie prankster Abbie Hoffman, the phrase was coined by the lesser-known Jack Weinberg, a grad student at UC–Berkeley and a key figure in the incident that sparked the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. The date was October 1, 1964, when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were in full swing and a ban of on-campus political activity at Berkeley was in place, But Weinberg took a chance: As head of the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he set up a tableful of pamphlets on the racial oppression he had recently observed in the Deep South.

In raced the campus cops, and Weinberg sat in a police car for 36 hours and watched as some 30,000 protesters listened to speeches and sang “We Shall Overcome.” (To no one’s surprise, the protestor-friendly police officers kept him fed and comfortable for the duration.) If the movement was a cause célèbre to some and an utter disgrace to others, it caught the nation’s attention and made the Berkeley protests a model for campus demonstrations countrywide.

But back to the “don’t trust” meme.* Years later, Weinberg revealed how he happened to come up with it:

I was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who kept asking me who was “really” behind the student action, implying we were being directed by Communists or some other sinister group. I told him we had a saying in the movement that we didn’t trust anyone over thirty—a way of telling the guy to back off, and that no one was pulling our strings.

A San Francisco Chronicle columnist was to first to publicize Weinberg’s coinage, and newspapers across the country were quick to pick up on what seemed a rallying cry for young Americans catching the hippie/pro-social justice/anti-war train. But time marched on, and by the 1980s the defiant phrase had fallen by the wayside. And Jack Weinberg? He moved from memberships (and advocacy for) labor unions to a job with Greenpeace to one with the Environmental Health Fund to environmental consulting in developing countries. And in April 2014 he entered his 75th year. (The math: 75 = 30 x 2.5.)

* The Free Speech Movement is older than the word meme, first seen in The Selfish Gene (1976), by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Said Dawkins, ‘We need a name for… a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’.” Today’s dictionaries define Dawkins’s word as “a term, idea, or element of social behavior passed on through a culture, especially by imitation.”

Two Ways to Fall

Alex Wagner on Alex Wagner NOW, MSNBC, on May 21, 2014:

What are some of the pratfalls for Republicans in these hearings?”

Sometimes more than a few members of the U.S. House of Representatives remind us of a bad vaudeville act, but we can be fairly certain that no more than a handful have had the misfortune to “slip and fall onto the buttocks” – the definition of pratfall. The word is applied metaphorically to a humiliating mishap or danger, but even this doesn’t excuse Ms. Witt from confusing it with the one she meant: pitfall. Malapropism* alert!

Pitfall has a good five centuries on pratfall, which came into use only in the 1930s. It orginally referred to an animal- or human-capturing pit flimsily covered or camouflaged (a kind of shoveled-out trap and snare.) Today we use pitfall to mean “a hidden or barely perceived problem or danger” And doesn’t that put it close enough to the metaphorical meaning of pratfall to let Ms. Wagner off the hook? Not really. Precision in word usage** is something anyone who strives to be well-spoken should take very seriously, and that goes twice for people in the broadcasting field.

 *See also Malapropisms: Here to Stay?

**See also To Be Precise…

An A-POPE-strophe, Please!

Headline in the May 5, 2014, edition of the Seattle Times:

Pope sex-abuse panel highlights accountability

A long stay in a mountain cabin has cut me off from world and national news. So it wasn’t surprising that when this visitor to the Pacific Northwest opened the Seattle Times, a headline on page A-5 stopped him (i.e., me) short. Did it mean Pope Francis had been sexually abused? Or, perhaps, that the panel’s focus was on the abuse of every Pope since St. Peter?

It meant nothing of the sort, of course. But the headline serves as a lesson in the vital importance of a certain punctuation mark: the apostrophe. When a fruit stand advertises Apple’s and Pear’s we know exactly what’s for sale. Not so with this apostropheless Pope. Insert ’s after the e, and it becomes clear that a panel assembled at the behest of Pope Francis “highlights accountability” – a blessed relief, so to speak, for yours truly and any other news junkies playing catch-up.

Emily Post on Accents

In the mid-1880s the distinguished architect Bruce Price designed the plan for Tuxedo Park, New York, which would serve as a model for high-end gated communities built around lakes. (This village of thoroughbreds also lent its name to the formal piece of attire known as the tuxedo.) Some 40 years later Price’s daughter Emily wrote America’s first bestselling book of etiquette under her married name: Emily Post. Etiquette, with the subtitle “In Society, In Business, In Politics, and at Home,”* was published in 1922, and the rest is history. Happily, in her guide to better living (no matter one’s background) Mrs. Post held forth on the word usage, pronunciation, and accents considered “proper” at the dawn on the Roaring Twenties.

Over the years this daughter of the Gilded Age would change with the times, and since her death in 1960 her descendants have done so as well (the 18th Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette came out in 2011). As the hundredth anniversary of the 620-page book that would eventually put Mrs. Post’s face on a postage stamp nears,** the following excerpt from its first edition should be of interest to word lovers far and wide — so herewith half a page from the “Words, Phrases and Pronunciation” chapter of that hefty tome, revealing Post’s perception of various American accents:

Traits of pronunciation which are typical of whole sections of the country, or accents inherited from European parents must not be confused with crude pronunciations that have their origin in illiteracy. A gentleman of Irish blood may have a brogue as rich as a plum cake, or another’s accent be soft Southern or flat New England, or rolling Western; and to each of these the utterance of the others may sound too flat, too soft, too harsh, too refined, or drawled, or clipped short, but not uncultivated.

The New York ear, which ought to be fairly unbiased since the New York accent is a composite of all accents. English women chirrup and twitter. But the beautifully modulated, clear-clipped enunciation of an Englishman, one who can move his jaw and not swallow his words whole, comes as near to perfection in English as the Comédie Française comes to perfection in French.

The Boston accent is very crisp and in places suggestive of the best English, but the vowels are so curiously flattened that the pitch has a saltless affect. There is no rhyming word as flat as they way they say heart—“haht.” And bone and coat —“bawn,” “cawt,” to rhyme with awe!

Then South, there is too much sugar… Every one’s mouth seems full of it, with I turned into “ah” and every staccato a drawl. But the voices are full of sweetness and music unknown north of the Potomac.

The same chapter includes sections headed “How to Cultivate Agreeable Speech” and “Phrases to Avoid in Good Society”—and you can be sure that a few more bon mots from a woman whose advice was directed as much to the average American as the privileged few will pop up again in this website for Wordies.

*In the next few editions the subtitle was “The Blue Book of Social Usage,” and the book was often spoken of as such.

**In 1950 Pageant magazine’s list of  “The Most Powerful Women in America” ranked Emily Post second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, and in 1990 Life magazine put her among “The Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” But the unpretentious Mrs. Post never let such plaudits go to her head. In Emily Post, biographer Laura Claridge wrote,“From the frequency with which she retold the story, Emily’s keenest pleasure would still have to come from the statistic citing Etiquette second only to the Bible as the book most stolen from public libraries, an honor it would hold through the end of the twentieth century.”

Reste Vrai Français

Reste vrai Français means “remains real French,” here referring to unmistakably French words borrowed by English but still intact to the letter. Two prime specimens: prime and specimen. Additional examples of the countless words most of us would never know are pure French include combat, intelligence, machine, portraitsecret, and wagon.

Writers of English eventually stripped the words of their diacritical marks,* though some survived for one reason or another. Take the word cliché, which would be pronounced kleesh sans its accent aigu (aigu = acute) .That being said, a full accounting of French borrowings whose spellings stayed the same (sans and accent included) would run on for miles – which explains why the following list is confined to selected terms of two or more words. Read on, mes amis.

  • aide-de-camp (aid duh camp) A military officer who assists another high-ranking officer. “In 1960 the future general Norman Schwarzkopf was stationed in Germany, where he served as aide-de-camp to the commanding general.”
  • art deco (art deh-KOH) A popular design style of the 1920s and 1930s, characterized by bold outlines and geometric or zigzag forms.  “Rockefeller Center, the centerpiece of Midtown Manhattan, is a triumph of art deco design.”
  • avant-garde (ah-vahnt gard) Experimental ideas, especially in the arts, or the originators of such ideas. “Among the Russian avant-garde painters of the early 20th century were  Kandinsky, Rodchenko, and Malevich.”
  • bon vivant (bawn vee-VAWNT) A person who relishes fine food and drink and the social whirl. “Julian is a bon vivant who never met a cocktail party, soiree, banquet, fete, ball, or orgy he didn’t like.”
  • bric-a-brac (brick-uh-brack) A collection of curios of ornamental or sentimental value. “The growing collection of bric-a-brac on Susie’s mantelpiece began to look like little more than clutter.”
  • carte blanche (cart BLAHNCHE; translates as “blank document.”) Permission to do something in any way one chooses, without interference. “The Carringtons give carte blanche to Jean Paul, the chef they hire for their New Year’s Eve galas.”
  • c’est la vie  (say la vee) That’s life – the French equivalent of the Spanish Que será, será. “Looks like I may have to enroll in Lowbrough U now that I know the Ivies don’t want me — but hey: c’est la vie.”
  • cinema verité  (cinema ver-ih-TAY; “truth cinema”) French-born documentary genre known for its unsparing depiction of real life.  “Fredierck Wiseman’s Titicut Follies is a wrenching cinema verité tour of a hospital for the criminally insane.”
  • coup de grace** (koo duh GRAHSS) A lethal blow delivered as an act of mercy; figuratively, a final or decisive act. “The chairman’s firing of the perennially miserable Perkins was seen as a welcome coup de grace.”
  • cul-de-sac (cull duh sack) A street or passage closed at one end; figuratively, a course of action leading nowhere. “Much to their frustration, many climate change activists in red states found themselves in a political cul-de-sac.”
  • deja vu (DAYZJ-ah voo; translates as “already seen.”) Perceiving a new situation as one perceived before. “When I click on cable news I get deja vu, given their obsession with covering hot stories every six ways from Sunday.”
  • de rigueur  (duh-ree-GURR). An idea, action, or choice thought of as a must. “In the Seventies, avocado-colored refrigerators and ranges were de rigueur in millions of suburban homes.”
  • double entendre (doob-luh ahn-TAHND-re, with the ending –re barely pronounced.) A word or expression understandable in two ways, one with sexual overtones. “A nudist colony is the ideal place for men and women to go and air their differences.”
  • enfant terrible (ahn-fahnt teh-REEB-luh,with the final syllable barely voiced.) A young go-getter who does things in ways shockingly different from the norm. “When Spike Jonze did his thing, he shook up the film world as its latest enfant terrible.”
  • en masse (ahn mass). All together; in a body or as a whole. “As the rhapsodic music washed over the crowd, the concertgoers lifted their arms en masse and began to sway.”
  • esprit de corps (ess-PREE duh-core) Enthusiastic devotion to a group one belongs to. “When Skip joined Wind Farmers for World Peace he had the kind of esprit de corps that inspired us all to work harder.”
  • fait accompli  (fate ah-cohm-PLEE) Something already accomplished or done, usually irreversibly. “I pleaded with Lucinda to take me back, but she made it clear our breakup was a fait accompli.”
  • femme fatale  (fem fah-TAL; in French, fum fuh-TAL) A comely, seductive woman who ultimately brings disaster to  any man with whom she becomes involved. “In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest may rank as the scariest femme fatale in film.”
  • fin de siècle (fan duh see-ECK-luh, with the n of fin barely pronounced.) Noun and adjective applied to the end of a century (especially the nineteenth), connoting a period of degeneration concurrent with new life in art, culture, and society. “The book is a fin-de-siecle Catcher in the Rye, albeit with a clever Millennials-friendly slant.”
  • idée fixe  (ee-day feex) An idea that preoccupies the mind to an unusual degree, especially for a long period. “Dorothy’s idèe fixe was that daughter Hayleigh’s beauty pageant win was the first step toward Hollywood stardom.”
  • joie de vivre (zzhwah duh veev-ruh, with the ruh at the end  barely pronounced.) Unbridled enjoyment of life “You can say this about my friend Meredith: Her joie de vivre was positively contagious.”
  • laissez-faire (less-ay fair) An economic policy allowing businesses to operate without government interference; in a larger sense, freedom of choice and action. “When it comes to public pot-smoking, Woody has a laissez-faire attitude.”
  • ménage à trois (may-NAHNJ ah twah) A threesome of the sexual sort. Buck and Sally had an itch for a ménage à trois, and their friend Jaqueline was more than happy to scratch it.”
  • noblesse oblige (no-bless oh-BLEEGE) The idea that those of high rank or wealth should act with personal or monetary generosity toward  those less privileged.  “Captain Bloodworthy’s lineage brought with it a sense of noblesse oblige.”
  • nom de plume (nohm duh PLOOM) Pen name. “Mississippi steamboat culture and lingo inspired Missouri-born Samuel Langhorne Clemens to choose Mark Twain as his  nom de plume.”
  • objet d’art (OHB-zjay dahr) An object of both artistic and monetary value. “The latest tabletop objet d’art my neighbor Elizabeth acquired was a crystal obelisk from Tiffany’s.”
  • par excellence  (par ex-cel-AHNCE) The best of a kind; preeminent. “Deborah and Ray seem to be all thumbs with anything electronic, but they are home decorators par excellence.”
  • pièce de résistance (pee-ess duh RAY-zis-TAHNCE) Originally applied to the most excellent dish of a meal but now used more broadly. “The novel was riveting from the start, but the pièce de résistance was the twist within a twist at the end.”
  • raison d’etre (RAY-zohn det-ruh, with the n of raison and the –re of d’etre barely pronounced.) Reason or justification for existence. “Sometimes I think Delli’s raison d’etre is to trash the current occupant the White House.”
  • risqué (rihs-KAY) Sexually suggestive; off-color. “When Trey came upon RIBF’s Cool Place Names menu he got a kick out of a Newfoundland town named Dildo, yet his girlfriend Pam found the post too risqué.”
  • roman à clef  (roh-MAHN ah clay; translates “novel with a key.”) A novel disguising real people or events therein.“Don’t you think Tom Wolfe’s potboiler set in Atlanta was something of a roman à clef?”
  • savoir-faire (sav-wah fair) A polished assurance in social situations; translates as “know-how.”) “Edward had the savoir-faire to charm the socks off Jeanette while paying no mind Marguerite’s insults.”
  • tête-à-tête A (tett-ah-tett; translates as “head-to-head.”) A private converstion between two people. “Just so you know, Dan and I had a little tête-a-tête before taking our concerns to Mr. Bigbritches.”

 *Among the rare exceptions are fin de siècle, menage à trois, and tête-à-tête, often seen with their marks intact. As a devotee of the language of La Belle France, I confess to using the appropriate diacritical marks when writing a French word or phrase.

 **See also Coup de What?


For Bettor or Worse

From a column by Gail Collins in The New York Times of March 6, 2014:

“…Adelson claims he’s propelled by a moral standard, which apparently involves saving betters from losing money…”

The word betters is a noun all right, one meaning “those more worthy than others in a particular group.” But people who place bets are bettors. And what’cha wanna bet this boner was the work of the electronic mosquito known as AutoCorrect, and not Ms. Collins’s fault? While it is likely that the word in question was written as betters back when spelling had yet to be standardized, bettors has taken the o in standard British (and later, American) English since the early 1600s.

Some similar nouns are spelled both ways, with either -er or -or as the suffix. One that comes to mind is adviser/adviser. Though no eyebrows will be raised when the two spellings are used interchangeably, as a rule an adviser merely gives advice on occasion: “Carl has been my friend and adviser for many years.” An advisor, on the other hand, generally makes her living by giving advice: “JoAnn was recently hired as Marketing Advisor for Buy and Large, Inc.”

To Be Precise…

Most words have a number of synonyms – e.g., prudent is closely akin to wise – but many writers and speakers throw synonymous words around with abandon. Prudent is generally is used interchangeably with wise, but a dictionary check of the varying senses of these two words will show that prudent carries a hint of “shrewd.” Fine point? Yes, but fine points are fundamental not only to a sound vocabulary but also to better writing and speaking.

The enemy of precision is a variation on the vogue word: what I call a “vacuum word” – an old friend that’s been around forever but all of a sudden starts suctioning up synonyms. Take the word address. Time was when we addressed an envelope or an audience. Now we “address” a question, a task, a difference of opinion, and so on, ad nauseam. Might there be more clarity of purpose if we were to variously study (learn about), scrutinize (study more carefully), analyze (examine from every angle), confront (challenge), sort out (untangle), or fix (solve) a problem or situation, be it benign or critical? The same goes for empower, which too easily takes the place of delegate, authorize, commission, invest, enable, and permit.

Truth be told, a good vocabulary has more to do with understanding and appreciating the differences in synonymous words as it does with the number of words stashed in your brain – the reason it’s smart to renew your acquaintance with the dictionary.

“Wrong Pick” Patrol

As winter wanes, I just heard something in a weather report that bears repeating – but as a wordie’s DO NOT. And it gave me an idea: Anytime my ear catches a sort-of synonym that doesn’t make the grade, turn it into a little lesson of its own.

Herewith Exhibit A:

“So far, Chicago has had 22 days below zero and a barrage of broken pipes.”

The noun barrage carries the connotation of swift and forceful motion, and for good reason. Over the course of the twentieth century its definition expanded from “a line of close-set artillery fire to screen and protect friendly troops” to “a vigorous or rapid outpouring or projection of many things at once.” But pipes simply break and just sit there. A more precise pick for the weather reporter would have been glut, plethora, surfeit, or the subtly “pipey” overflow.

Hello, Vogue Word!

The wild card in our vocabulary is the vogue word, also known as the buzzword* – a word or term that pops up out of nowhere and catches on. Two examples? The aforementioned wild card and buzzword.

Words have come and gone ever since Old English (the language of Beowulf) morphed into Middle English (whence came Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and Middle English into Modern English (nurtured in its infancy by Shakespeare). But in an age of instant communication, vogue words and phrases can catch fire in a matter of weeks, burn brightly for a while, and then flicker out. Remember downsizing and at the end of the day?

Unlike voracious vacuum words (see To Be Precise…), vogue words are essentially harmless. In fact, many that have arrived over the years are welcome additions to the language:

  •  1920s–‘30s  superstar, T-shirt, teenage, bootleg
  • 1940s–‘50s  brainstorm, pinup, baby boomer, junk mail
  • 1960s–‘70s  miniskirt, workaholic, centerfold, fast food
  •  1980s–‘90s  infotainment, blog, spin, politically correct
  •   2000–present  podcast, bling, truthiness, crowdfund

 *See also Buzzword Bulletin

Vocabulary: To Build or Not to Build?

The human body’s storage room for words is Broca’s area, found in the brain’s left frontal lobe near the inferior frontal gyrus. Thousands upon thousands of words, terms, phrases, idiomatic expressions, and figures of speech are stashed here, and if you so choose you can add scores or hundreds more – maybe specimens such as garrulous, chimera, mnemonic, oeuvre, Broca’s area, and inferior frontal gyrus.* But will expanding your vocabulary pay off?

It depends on how you define “pay.” Newfound words won’t fatten your wallet, ease a cold, or help you find that missing sock, but they can come in quite handy. Therefore, look up any unfamiliar words you stumble upon – prepossessing, perhaps, or antediluvian or salubrious or schadenfreude.** Learning new words or terms, their different senses, and their origins…

  • Helps you convey what you wish to say more precisely
  • Sharpens your reading comprehension – no small reward
  • Opens windows onto history. Discovering nicotine was named for Jean Nicot (the French diplomat who introduced tobacco to his countrymen) or volt for Count Alessandro Volt (the Italian physicist who invented the electrochemical battery) may pique your curiosity and lead you down intriguing pathways. (For additional examples of this kind, see Eponym Guy.)
  • Gives you an edge in word games and on Jeopardy!  (think big!)

Adding heft to your vocabulary is as simple as consulting vocabulary-builder websites or the dictionary. And if you decide to go this route, try not to shilly-shally (v. slang derived from shall I; To show hesitation or lack of decisiveness).

*garrulous = annoyingly talkative • chimera = fantasy; illusion • mnemonic = a memory aid • oeuvre = body of work of a writer, artist, or composer • Broca’s area = the brain’s speech production center, discovered by French neuroanatomist Pierre Paul Broca in 1861 • [inferior frontal] gyrus = convoluted fold between fissures in the cortex of the brain

**prepossessing = good-looking; appealing • antediluvian = of the period before the great flood described in the Bible; prehistoric; outmoded salubrious = favorable to health or well-being • schadenfreude = pleasure derived from the misfortune of others

Euphemize This! Or Don’t

The best English teachers will tell you that to “be direct” is to make a point clearly and concisely, both in writing and in speech. Still, directness always leaves room for euphemism, defined as the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend. Words and terms like laid off or let go for fired, portly or heavy-set for fat, and intimacy or lovemaking for sexual intercourse are part and parcel of our language.

Other euphemisms aren’t so much the stuff of polite discourse as words meant to aggrandize or fool, and it is these you will do well to avoid. Just because a TV station cuts to a message instead of a commercial and a car dealer shines up a used car by calling it pre-owned doesn’t mean you should adopt such terms. Also be wary of euphemisms amounting to doublespeak – expressions designed to disguise hard realities or flat-out deceive; herewith three blatant examples: enhanced interrogation for torture; misspeak for lie; and voter ID for voter suppression.


You’ll also be wise to shun euphemisms that cross the line from polite to mealymouthed. You speak candidly (and to lots of folks, refreshingly) when you discard the word landfill for dump; adult entertainment for pornography; the golden years for old age; and overindulge for get drunk. Remember, though, that circumstances and situations often come into play. You should by no means excise death and die from your vocabulary, but be sure to speak the language of bereaved family members if they use pass away, depart, expire, or similar wording.*

*See also Don’t Kill Death!


A Momentary Slip

Remark by CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver, January 12, 2014:

Gates’s library is filled with military momentums.

All of us find ourselves uttering the wrong word on occasion, the kind of lapse frequently called a “brain fart” (a neologism that blew in around 1980). The estimable reporter Rita Braver’s turn came during an interview of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on the eve of the publication of his book Duty. The intended word was memento, and the only thing it has in common with momentum is the date of both words’ first recorded use in English – c. 1600.

Memento – defined as “something kept as a reminder of a person, place, or thing” – comes from Middle English by way of meminisse, the Latin word for “remember.” Momentum, meaning “movement,” is Latin through and through. Among the words derived from momentum is moment, and any notice of Ms. Braver’s mildly embarrassing moment (embarrassing only in that it was broadcast on national TV) was momentary at the most.