Posts Tagged ‘language’
Saturday, February 27th, 2016
In prior posts I have suggested simply retiring words or phrases because they are so frequently misused as seriously to call into question their value to convey meaning versus their tendency to invite misinterpretation.
Some words, however, cannot simply be cut from the roster. They represent worthwhile concepts and they are atomic, i.e., irreducible, i.e., they cannot be dumbed down any further, i.e., if you still don’t understand, then you would likely be happier if you stopped reading now. So it’s up to me to explain what these words mean and it’s up to you to get them right. Don’t feel bad. I hear people who pass for professional journalists botch these on a regular basis. They’re getting paid to write or talk and here I am asking you, a schmuck, to get them right for free.
Let us examine cynicism, pessimism and skepticism. Similar to socialism, communism and fascism, these words actually mean different things, feigned (I hope) ignorance of political candidates notwithstanding.
In modern usage, cynicism is the belief that people (especially public figures) are often motivated by self interest rather than by unselfish reasons such as the public good. So, given the following statement:
Political Candidate: If I am elected I will cut taxes on corporate earnings for businesses generating $3 billion or more in annual revenue. These job creators are the cornerstone of our economy and they are committed to fostering a strong middle class.
A cynic might ponder different underlying motivations such as:
Political Candidate: This tax cut will peg that portfolio sitting in my “blind trust”. Oh, and Steff Stockoptions, CEO of HalliBabyMulchCo, totally knows where that Poughkeepsie hooker we double stuffed that time is buried and lately all he does is bitch about how Elon Musk has a bigger summer yacht than he does.
Pessimism is probably the simplest of the set to understand, because pessimists are largely simpletons. They fixate on the worst aspects of a thing or anticipate that the worst outcome will be the one that occurs. Pessimists (similar to their optimist brethren) make for lousy statisticians. Given a 50/50 probability, a pessimist will expect the less attractive prospect to occur 95 percent of the time, which is probably why I find them so tiresome. Generally speaking, pessimists tend to shit all over everything while contributing little or grudging effort toward achieving the preferred outcome.
My experience is that while there is overlap between cynics and pessimists, a lot of cynics (myself included) self-identify as frustrated optimists. It’s funnier that way, because when people’s slavish devotion to their baser impulses is inevitably revealed, the fresh sting and accompanying bitterness felt by the cynic are all the more poignant.
The most neutral of the bunch. All that skeptics demand is evidence, regardless of the popular credence around a topic. They can, however, be a snarky lot.
Credulous Rube: Homeopathy is medically beneficial.
Skeptic: Prove it. And, like Tim Minchin observed, please explain, “whilst [water’s] memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is infinite, it somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it.”
Credulous Rube: The Zika virus was sent by God to punish promiscuity.
Skeptic: Wow, that would make this God fellow a monster, wouldn’t it? Since all bets are off the moment that anyone invokes the supernatural into rational discourse, I won’t ask you to prove anything. But I would like to know what you recommend doing in light of the stated cause (this God monster of yours). It doesn’t seem right for us to pursue treatment or prevention options on account of the wrath and the punishment and all. It feels too much like arguing with a judge after the verdict. Shall we simply wail?
Credulous Rube: Vaccines cause autism.
Skeptic: Prove it. Wait, instead how about you jump up your own ass and die for spreading dangerous misinformation with zero basis in fact to the other credulous rubes, putting at risk the children from whom immunization was withheld in addition to the most frail members of our society. Why not take a day off from propagating this garbage and go to Disneyland? Your contribution to public health is like pantyhose’s contribution to finger banging.
Credulous Rube: The ‘69 Moon landing was faked.
Skeptic: Actually, that one is true. But the set where they shot it was on Mars.
Credulous Rube: Really?
Credulous Rube: Prove it.
Monday, August 17th, 2009
Wednesday, October 15th, 2008
I frequently use the gender-neutral pronoun “hu” on this blog, and in regular speech and correspondence. The word’s creator is an old friend of mine and (in all its simplicity) I set up hupronoun.org for him. Periodically I scan the site’s web logs to look at the volume of traffic, and see what search strings people use to find the site. One unfortunate (but hilarious) discovery I made is that people find the site because they search on “pron” instead of “porn”. In some cases it might actually be an innocent typo, but “pron” (“pr0n”, actually) is Leetspeak for “pornography”, and was conceived to circumvent content filters (previously).
FTW, here are some of my recent favorite search strings from hupronoun.org:
- female pron
- gymnastics pron
- beautiful pron
- to young for pron
- flexible pron
- folk pron
- older women pron
- pron jobs for male
I scan my own web logs, too, because I find it fascinating to learn how people found me, and to speculate on what they actually were looking for. It’s also interesting to view in aggregate the span of subject matter I’ve covered over the years. Some of my favorite search strings from the last year:
Happy memories all.
Sunday, October 12th, 2008
Okay, so I’m going to get this out of my system in one throw. While I have no intention of turning this blog into an Andy Rooney-esque, pedantic rant about word misuse, I nevertheless have bile to purge:
“Disinterested” means “a neutral party.” It’s a legal term and, like many legal terms, it sounds fancy, so those putting on airs seem drawn to it like a Senator to an airport lavatory. “Uninterested” by comparison, means, um, not interested. As in, “I am uninterested in watching the video of your colonoscopy, Bob.”
“Presently” means “in the immediate future,” as in, “Lady Funbody will be down presently, sir. May I take your hat?” It does not mean “now”, as in, “Thank you, but it’s presently covering my erection.”
“Actionable”. Another legal term. It means “affording grounds for legal action.” This one pains me particularly, since it has been assimilated into corporate-speak (meaning that I have to listen to it every day) and twisted to mean “realistic to execute,” as in, “Our strategy to enhance shareholder value has actionable objectives.” If you worked for Enron then it’s applicable. Otherwise, just stop.
“Begging the question”. This term describes a specific logical fallacy (in Latin, petitio principii). Unless you’re using it in that context, just say “inviting the question” instead. I recommend practicing this in front a mirror, reinforced with head slaps, for as long as necessary.
“Imply” versus “infer”. To imply is to suggest indirectly. To infer is to form a conclusion. However, the transposition of these terms is frequently hilarious, so feel free to continue.
“Literally”. Come on. We all know what “literally” means. So when you say, “I was literally slaughtered in that meeting,” I can only infer (see what I did there?) that you are a tease.
To respond preemptively to the useless argument that language evolves, and therefore if the majority of a given population uses a word in a particular way then that usage becomes correct – stop. You fail. Language does and should evolve. We require new words to describe new concepts and things. Trotting out this argument to excuse plain ignorance, however, is pure postmodern laziness, and people who do so should be bred for food.
Monday, August 25th, 2008
Okay, so this kind of sucks. A fellow named Jeff Deck, founder of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), quit his job at MIT and went with his friend Benjamin Herson on a cross-country journey to correct typos on public signage:
What started as a wacky, quixotic adventure, covered by NPR, the Chicago Tribune and others, went South, or, rather, Southwest, in a hurry. On March 28th, Jeff and Benjamin corrected typographical errors on a 60-year-old, hand-painted sign at the Grand Canyon National Park (corrections not depicted):
Christopher A. Smith, a National Park Service agent (so much more respectful than Cactus Fuzz or Tree Pig), stated in an affidavit that investigators discovered that Deck and Herson were responsible via Deck’s own blog, which chronicled their exploits. Deck and Herson pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year’s probation, during which they are banned from entering national parks, or modifying public signs. They were also ordered to pay $3,035 to repair the sign.
Having a mild obsession with signage myself (previously, previously, previously), I salute Jeff and Benjamin’s philosophy and mission, but I wonder if they feel, in hindsight, that they crossed a line. Jeff’s blog is currently dark, only stating, “Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come,” but there is still a gallery depicting some of their accomplishments.
Whether or not one has a problem with what they did depends on how one determines the value of a thing. One might argue that the sign in question has intrinsic value as art, whereas a restaurant sign with movable letters does not. The woman who painted the sign was Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the architect of the Watch Tower that the sign describes.
One could also argue that certain typos make documents unique, such as is the case with the numerous typesetting errors that gave rise to some highly collectible (and amusing) editions of the Bible, or the typos in the United States Constitution.
Wednesday, July 9th, 2008
We’ll get to mondegreens, I promise.
I previously wrote that I collect mixed metaphors. I recently added another to my trophy case when a colleague told me that he did not want to be the one “crucified at the stake.” Holy crap, son, if you are crucified at the stake, you are having a seriously bad day.
I already knew of one cousin to the mixed metaphor – the malapropism, after Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, in turn after the French phrase mal à propos, which translates to “inappropriate”, or “ill-suited”. One of my favorites is in Romeo and Juliet, wherein the Nurse, desiring conference with Romeo, says:
If you be he, sir, I desire some confidence with you.
To which Benvolio (Romeo’s pal) says, aside:
She will indite him to some supper.
My Liberal Arts degree is totally paying off…
A silly malaprop joke goes:
Jack was home from college for the holidays. One day he asked his less educated mother if he could tell her a narrative. His mother, not being used to such big words, asked him the meaning of ‘narrative’.
“A narrative is a tale,” Jack said.
That night, when going to bed, Jack asked his mother if she might extinguish the light. She wanted to know the meaning of ‘extinguish’.
“To put out,” Jack said.
A few days later Jack’s mother was giving a party at their home, and the cat wandered into the room. Jack’s mother raised her voice and said confidently, “Jack, take the cat by the narrative and extinguish him.”
Today I learned that the mixed metaphor has another cousin – the mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric or common phrase. Sylvia Wright coined the term in the 1954 essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”, in which she recounts a childhood memory of being read the ballad of “The Bonnie Earl O’ Murray”. One stanza of the ballad goes:
Ye Highlands, and ye Lawlands
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And layd him on the green.
Young Sylvia heard:
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh, where have you been?
They have slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
We’ve all done this, or heard someone do it. The two most commonly known mondegreens seem to be from:
Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, wherein:
‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky
‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy
…which is, appropriately, the title of a book devoted to the subject of misheard lyrics.
And from the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds:
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes
The girl with colitis goes by
My current personal favorite is from Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, wherein:
There’s a bad moon on the rise
…is transformed into:
There’s a bathroom on the right
The site kissthisguy.com is the definitive repository, and columnist Jon Caroll has written seminal works on the subject, although he is breathtakingly guilty of using snowclones.
My rule with mixed metaphors, malapropisms and (now) mondegreens remains the same: in order to add one to my personal collection, I have to catch it “in the wild.” And while second-hand reports don’t count, a friend recently shared with me a lovely mixed metaphor from her own collection:
Don’t even get into that bag of worms.
Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008
The American Family Association is a fundamentalist Christian activist organization that is a convenient one-stop-shop for everything that I hate about religion. Their One News Now web site (yellow to the point of being jaundiced) has, or had, a filter that automagically replaced instances of the word “gay” with “homosexual” in stories reprinted from sources like the Associated Press.
This recently led to a clbuttic bit of self-pwnage with respect to an AP article about Tyson Gay winning the 100 meter semifinal in the Olympic trials:
Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Tyson Homosexual easily won his semifinal for the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and seemed to save something for the final later Sunday.
One News Now since removed the filter, but not before People for the American Way got the screenshot.
By way of justification for the filter, Fred Jackson, the news director of One News Now, explained that:
[The word ‘gay’] has been co-opted by a particular group of people.
Not that the AFA hates fags or anything, as their FAQ makes quite clear:
The same Holy Bible that calls us to reject sin, calls us to love our neighbor. It is that love that motivates us to expose the misrepresentation of the radical homosexual agenda and stop its spread though our culture. AFA has sponsored several events reaching out to homosexuals and letting them know there is love and healing at the Cross of Christ.
So that’s good. It’s good to love. If the song That’s Amore has anything to teach us, it’s that:
Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay
Like a homosexual tarantella.
Tuesday, June 24th, 2008
Either the letter store was all out of apostrophes, or this dry cleaner is attempting the seldom-used past present imperfect subjunctive tense.
Monday, April 7th, 2008
Shopping for midget porn the other day, I came across an e-commerce site offering “Discrete Shipping”.
A Google search on “Discrete Shipping” (over 63,000 results) suggests the problem is not isolated (but hilarious).
As a committed pedant, I thought I would take this opportunity to explain the difference between “discreet” and “discrete”, and even offer a mnemonic trick for remembering the difference.
Discreet – having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech (Merriam-Webster Online), as in, “Max Mosley failed to keep his Nazi-themed orgy discreet.”
Discrete – distinct, constituting a separate entity or part (Princeton WordNet), as in, “The five prostitutes that Max Mosley engaged for his Nazi-themed orgy were from five discrete agencies.”
So, taken literally, “discrete shipping” would mean that if I ordered three midget porn DVDs, they would arrive in three separate packages.
I’m glad that I didn’t order jelly beans.
The mnemonic trick is simple. Look at the “e”s in each spelling. Notice how the “e”s in “discrete” are separate, or discrete.
Isn’t learning fun?
Tuesday, January 15th, 2008
I’ve been trying to coin a term for this for years, only to find it perfectly defined on Urban Dictionary:
Meanderthal – People who wander around aimlessly and always seem to get in your way in stores and supermarkets, chatting on their cell phones and paying no attention to their surroundings.
I would have been here ten minutes earlier if I hadn’t been stuck behind that meanderthal.