The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 30, 2011

The Ambiguity of Important Words

Filed under: English is weird,vocabulary — amba12 @ 2:23 pm

. . . in English, that is.  It’s recently grabbed my attention that English perhaps uniquely leaves its most important words—such as love, work, belief—ambiguous and multivalent.  For example, Greek distinguishes between eros, agape, and philia, and maybe even more, but we use “love” for all three.  Over at Ron Fisher’s new blog The End of Work, we’ve had disagreements that have led to stimulating discussions, because we are using the word “work” simultaneously in so many different senses: effort, drudgery, energy expenditure, employment, calling (“your life’s work”), and more.  And now, in the comments at Ambiance, starting here and resuming here, I’m getting embroiled in a similar discussion about the word “belief.”

How to explain this quality of English?  It’s clear why we don’t have as many words for snow as Eskimos—we lack life-or-death need for such distinctions (and therefore, perhaps, aesthetic delight in them)—but the same cannot be said of love, work, or belief, which, in their many permutations, permeate our entire lives.  Is this a failing of English or, on some deep level, a deliberate choice?  If there is danger and confusion in this ambiguity, there’s also tremendous generative power (look how it can make us rack our brains! what’s more creative—and harder work!—than thinking about things there aren’t ready-made words for?), and also a recognition of deep, if conflicted, relationships among the many phenomena we call love . . . or work . . . or belief.

I would appreciate input from people with knowledge of other languages.  Is English really so unique in this?  If so, is it part of what has made English so hardy and adaptable?

(In Spanish, “I love you” in the romantic sense is often stated, not “Te amo” but “Te quiero”—literally, “I want you.” That at least seems honest!)


July 9, 2010

Coining a Word (Well, Trying To)

Filed under: language evolving,new words,other languages,vocabulary — amba12 @ 6:13 pm

For those who missed it on Twitter, or who didn’t but can stand to think about it a little more, I asked if there was a word for someone who shares your exact birthday — day and year  (someone, that is, who’s not your actual twin) — and if not, whether we could come up with one.

Disclaimer:  of course, you can invent words till you’re blue in the face, but there is no guarantee that any of them has that effanineffable whatchamacallit that will make it catch on.  Catching on is also about context; there are vehicles — certain TV shows and movies; viral videos; disasters, scandals and gaffes — that have the mojo to drive their contents, both words and images, home into the end zone, the Zeitgeist and the vernacular, whether they merit such pawn-queening apotheosis or not.

Ann Althouse was born on the same exact day as Rush Limbaugh.  I was introduced to Jacques, indirectly, because of a guy who I learned only much later was my . . .

connascent, Chicken Little’s good coinage — probably the best so far; or

day-double — my Anglo-Saxon alternative, in turn inspired by Jason (the commenter’s)

birthdaygänger, as in Doppelgänger.

Other suggestions of varying seriousness:

soul sister what Ruth Anne’s father called his connascent, Audrey Hepburn, which made me think of


Mitgeburtstag, Chicken Little’s stab at what the Germans would call it, and

Zeitzwilling (time-twin), mine, ditto;

homonatal, my lame attempt at a temporal version of “homeboy”

star-crossed, star-linked, or star-siblings, from reader_iam, and in the same vein,

ZodiacXerox from the inimitable KngFish.

Co-incident and contemporary were suggested by reader and by @dustbury, respectively, but were deemed too nonspecific.

More suggestions?  I can imagine a compound using natal (conatal?  connatal?  sounds NSFW, somehow) or arrival, f’rinstance, but I can’t come up with one.  Co-arriviste would mean something quite different.

Have at it.  And tell whether you feel a bond with someone you discover was born your same day, or whether it seems like meaningless coincidence.  Also welcome:  examples of famous connascents (Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln!).  And then of course we need a companion word for people who die on the same day (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson).  Comorbid?  No, no.  Conatal and comortal?  Croakmates?  Crap, why is it easier to think of good words for death than birth?

June 11, 2010

Love the Tweeter, Hate the Tweet?

Filed under: language degenerating,language evolving,slang,vocabulary — amba12 @ 12:33 pm

Here’s your chance to do something about it.

Right from the start I felt ridiculous “tweeting” (not so much “twittering,” oddly) and felt it was infantilizing for adults to accept this lingo:  tweeps, twibbons, twibes . . . it’s as if we’ve all become a gene-spliced, lisping cartoon chimera of Elmer Fudd and Tweetie Bird.  According to the piece at the link, many people feel the same way about Facebook’s Botoxed “like” — forcing you to react with the verbal equivalent of a smiley face to, say, a powerfully despairing piece on the oil spill.  (It can be no coincidence that both Tweetie and the smiley face are my least favorite color, yellow.  And why do I hate yellow?  I’ll be Jewish and answer a question with a question*:  why was yellow the color the Nazis chose for the star of David they made the Jews wear?  Huh?)

However, these coinages have a despicable tenacity, like cockroaches in cracks.  They multiply and become ineradicable.  As Ann Althouse once admonished me when I bridled at accepting the word “vlog,” which sounded to me like a Soviet torture.

“Blog,” on the other hand, I adore.  Some people hate it.

The only hope is to coin better ones to begin with.  And in that respect, we’ll win some and lose some.

* Disciple:  Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?

Rabbi:  And why should a Jew not answer a question with a question?

June 10, 2010

How Catastrophe Marks Language

Filed under: language evolving,vocabulary — amba12 @ 1:56 am

Mark Morford writes a playful but ultimately mordant post about the new words gushing into our language from BP’s broken pipe.

What other examples can you think of?  Often events become metaphors, from Waterloo to Watergate.  There’s the silly suffix “-gate” to signify any corruption scandal (as silly as “-burger” to denote any patty of ground meat; “Hamburger” originally means something or someone from Hamburg!).  There’s “Ground Zero,” passing from Hiroshima to Lower Manhattan by way of the eerie misuse “go back to ground zero,” which apparently precedes even square one.  There’s “Obama’s Katrina.”  There’s “a tsunami of” this or that.  Some events are irreducible to metaphors.  D-day is only and always itself.  V-J Day never became vajayay-day.  So “the Holocaust,” although that word, literally “all burned,”  originally meant “a sacrifice consumed by fire” and then any catastrophic blaze.

Other, better examples of marks left on the language by great catastrophes or crises, from Pompeii to Teapot Dome?  Do these words stay, or do they eventually date and fade away?

May 3, 2010

A Thesaurus We Need

Filed under: history of English,vocabulary — amba12 @ 11:10 pm

A notice just appeared on Twitter of the publication of the  expanded second edition of The Thinker’s Thesaurus:  Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words, by Peter E. Meltzer.  It’s the first edition I ever heard of.

To give credit where credit is due, it looks like quite an improvement over regular thesauruses (by the way, can you tell me why this word sounds as if it refers to a large extinct reptile?  is there any etymological — or evolutionary — relationship?  and what would a thesaurus look like roaming alongside a stegosaurus?).  It gives much clearer guidance for finding the synonym with just the fine shading of meaning you’re after, and it will lead the browser to many new, delectable, and useful words, from deep within English and from outside it, such as bashi-bazouk (a disorderly, undisciplined person, from the irregular troops of the Ottoman Empire).  I would have this book on my reference shelf.

That said, I want its opposite even more:  Common Alternatives to Sophisticated Words.  As an editor, I’m forever translating writers’ unnecessary Latinisms back into their Anglo-Saxon equivalents.  Counterparts.  (That’s actually Latin too, but it sounds Anglo-Saxon for some reason.)  Sometimes, of course, a Latinism is just the right word.  “Obfuscate,” for example — one of the best examples I know of a word that does what it says, that is almost onomatopoetic in its self-reflexiveness.  It’s a veritable octopus of a word. cloaking itself in ink.  But more often, writers obfuscate unnecessarily by using Latinisms because they think it makes them sound . . . like sophisticated thinkers instead of common storytellers.  Latinisms have a marvelous precision — they are verbal instruments, calipers, compasses, astrolabes — and they can sound grand or sensuous, like a resplendent ceremony or a Latin lover’s mellifluous murmur gliding into your ear; but they can also sound pompous, fusty, abstract, and bureaucratic, and they usually sound the latter way when they are used for their sound of authority rather than for their sound, or their precise sense.

Everything I need to know I learned freshman year in college, in two basic courses called Hum 6 and Nat Sci 5.  (Hum for Humanities.)  Hum 6 was a course on how to read, how to use yourself as an instrument, how to watch yourself react and then pinpoint what it was in the text that got that rise out of you, and — if deliberately done — how the writer did it.  I don’t remember whether it was the lecturer or our section head, a graduate student, who pointed out the gloriously mixed archaeology of its history embedded in the English language.  There was the Anglo-Saxon layer, the church Latin layer, then the Norman French layer — Latinate too, but lightened, aerated like a soufflé, less about fate and law than court and gesture —  each with its own very different quality and effects.  Whoever it was showed us how conscious Shakespeare was of those different resources and how meta-consciously he sometimes deployed them:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

I also cannot remember who it was (Strunk and White?) who drilled into me that as a general rule it was better, more honest, to use short, blunt, Anglo-Saxon words than Latinate ones, the coiling lingo of lawyers.  That’s basic, not advanced, advice; the right word is not always an Anglo-Saxon one, and it would be a poor, bare language that did not have any of Latin’s purple and gold.  It’s the variation and contrast — the hybrid vigor — that makes English so mighty.

I wish I had kept a list of examples from my editing work of when the use of a Latin word seemed to be putting on an obfuscating mask, or insecure airs.  But I haven’t, so I will add examples to this post as I come across them.  If you have any favorite pairs of Latin and Anglo-Saxon words with roughly the same meaning, please put them in the comments and talk a bit about the different worlds evoked by each word.  Among other things, it strikes me that politics, as discussed here, penetrates even here.

September 4, 2009

What An Awesome Idea!

Filed under: vocabulary — amba12 @ 3:39 pm

Each year hundreds of words are dropped from the English language.

Old words, wise words, hard-working words. . . .

Today, everything we write is communicated by only 7,000 words.  [Yikes!!]

You can change all that.  Help save the words!

Specifically, save them by adopting them.  You can adopt as many as you want; you will then have brought them back to life, because they’ll be living in the household of your vocabulary and you won’t be able to resist using them, even showing them off.  Maybe you can even leave them to someone in your will, so they don’t die with you.

BRILLIANT idea — and from guess who(m):  Oxford Dictionaries, the Burke’s Peerage of all words, even those in the potter’s fields.  Beautifully designed website, too — though the flash (which works like a charm) demands Gutenberg-era patience while it loads.  It’s worth the wait.

You could adopt “prandicle,” a small meal (well, no you couldn’t — it’s mine now), or “sparsile,” a lonely star not included in any constellation.  (Got that one too.  Go find your own — and tell me what it is.)  Hundreds, thousands of words are right there on the homepage (that’s what takes so long to load), each graced with its own personality of script or typeface, scanned by a moving frame that allows you to click at random or pick one, meet it face to face, and learn its meaning.  Adopting = addictive!  You get a certificate of adoption, on which you vow to use your word, and you can order a T-shirt emblazoned with it.  You will soon be the Mia Farrow, the Madonna, the Angelina Jolie of orphaned words!  And the Imelda Marcos of T-shirts!

When I have more time I’ll research and link to the history of this project, which must be a joy to behold.

In the words of Save the Words:  “Word up!  Use them before we lose them!”

Hat tip:  writer niece, @rachmonroe

(A small p.s.:  Save the Words has a Word-a-Day feature.  This should be taken in addition to, not instead of, the classic A Word A Day.  Anu Garg’s site is simple and low-tech, but be not seduced by sizzle alone.  It’s finally the words that count, and what they do inside your head that’s the first and best magic technology.)

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