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Evolution or …?

Today we’ll home in on three examples of the English language’s capriciousness.

Self-deprecating  Few contemporary writers would hesitate to use self-deprecating to describe someone who is refreshingly humble. But the term’s wide acceptance is yet another triumph of the slobs over the snobs.

Technically, the correct term is self-depreciating. Although deprecate and depreciate appear almost identical, these words have different roots, and different meanings as well. Traditionally, to deprecate is to disapprove of or denounce. To depreciate is to devalue or downgrade. Because the two words are easily confused, most dictionaries caved forty or fifty years ago and started listing them as synonymous.

Why did self-deprecating prevail when self-depreciating is the right choice? Possibly because deprecating sounds mysterious and swanky.

It’s not as much fun to use depreciating, with its unwieldy extra syllable. It’s a dreary word that evokes decline and obsolescence.

Momentarily  Since the mid-seventeenth century, momentarily has meant “for a moment.” But in the twentieth century, casual speakers and writers started using it to mean “in a moment.” This johnny-come-lately meaning of momentarily has caught up with and maybe overtaken the traditional meaning.

There is quite a difference between for a moment and in a moment when you think about it. Most travelers are heartened when they hear “Passengers’ baggage will arrive momentarily.” But this announcement could be stressful news to traveling language sticklers—they might take it to mean that their arriving luggage will disappear after only a few seconds.

So why say something like Let’s speak momentarily and risk being misinterpreted? The solution is to drop momentarily and instead say either Let’s speak soon or Let’s have a short talk.

Presently  This word has changed meanings more than once since its arrival in the fourteenth century. At first it meant now. But today careful speakers and writers use it to mean “in the near future.” Others use it in its original sense. The 2014 edition of Webster’s New World lists both “in a little while; soon” and “at present; now: a usage still objected to by some.”

We recommend that you avoid this fussy word. If you tell a houseful of ravenous guests, “We are serving dinner presently,” many will think you mean right now and start elbowing their way to the front of the line.

Good alternative: “We are serving dinner soon.”
Not so good alternative: “We are serving dinner momentarily.”

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Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at 10:13 am


Stengelese Spoken Here

The long and winding big-league baseball season started this week. Every year at this time we profile a baseball immortal who is equally celebrated for his unorthodox language skills. The choice this year is Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel (1890-1975), who at the age of fifty-eight became manager of the mighty New York Yankees and took them to ten World Series in twelve years.

Casey Stengel broke into the major leagues in 1912 and played for fourteen seasons. He later said, “I had many years that I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill.”

As player and manager, Casey was for decades baseball’s class clown—but a lot of snooty Yankees fans thought he was a no-class clown and opposed his hiring. They weren’t alone. Boston sportswriter Dave Egan’s reaction to the new manager: “The Yankees have now been mathematically eliminated from the 1949 pennant race.”

Instead, Stengel guided the Bronx Bombers to five straight World Series championships (1949-53), a baseball record that may never be broken.

Casey spoke a dialect of English called “Stengelese,” utterances that concealed nuggets of wisdom in a dense matrix of dizzying gibberish. “Stengelese was mostly a public act,” said sportswriter Maury Allen. “He double-talked in part to diffuse pinpoint questions.” An extreme example: “He’s the perdotious quotient of the qualificatilus.”

Stengel seasoned his speech with trademark words and phrases, one favorite being “at the present time,” which he’d drop in anywhere: “Most people my age are dead at the present time.” He also found creative ways to use “fairly,” as in: “This club plays better baseball now. Some of them look fairly alert.”

Some Stengelese could be harsh. On a player’s lack of potential: “He’s only twenty years old and with a good chance in ten years of being thirty.” On another player’s batting prowess: “He couldn’t hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane.” On managing twenty-five men successfully: “Keep the five guys who hate you from the five who are undecided.”

The baseball lifestyle, with its constant travel and unsupervised free time, has ended many a promising career, but Stengel came to believe in players who could hold their liquor: “I have found that ones who drink milk shakes don’t win many ball games.” “We are in such a slump that even the ones that are drinking aren’t hitting.” “Look at him. He don’t smoke. He don’t drink. He don’t chase women. And he don’t win.”

In 1958, Stengel appeared before Senator Estes Kefauver’s U.S. Senate subcommittee on baseball’s antitrust status. Here is one exchange:

Kefauver: I was asking you, sir, why it is that baseball wants this bill passed.

Stengel: I would say I would not know, but would say the reason why they would want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest paid ball sport that has gone into baseball and from the baseball angle. I am not going to speak of any other sport. I am not here to argue about other sports. I am in the baseball business. It has been run cleaner than any business that was ever put out in the 100 years at the present time. I am not speaking about television or I am not speaking about income that comes into the ball parks. You have to take that off. I don’t know too much about it. I say the ballplayers have a better advancement at the present time.

That’s quite an oration. Most of us would have quit talking after the first seven words.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at 11:16 am


Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy

Pronouncing words correctly helps convince listeners that you know what you’re talking about.

By correct pronunciation, we mean words as you’d hear them enunciated at formal occasions: a lecture by an English scholar, say, or a first-rate production of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill.

To settle pronunciation disputes, we recommend an old dictionary. New ones are fine, but having access to an old one minimizes the intrusion of trendy (mis)pronunciations.

Also, those serious about their diction might want to pick up a copy of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster, who says in the book’s introduction: “I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary.”

Here are ten familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.

Alleged  It must come as a shock to those in the media, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It is pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Envelope  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.

Controversial  Four syllables, not five. Say
contra-VER-shul, not contra-VER-see-ul.

Camaraderie  It’s a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Forte  When the word refers to a specialty or area of expertise (math is his forte), this is a one-syllable word pronounced fort. Most people mistakenly say for-tay. That pronunciation is only correct as a musical term. When forte is pronounced FOR-tay it means “loudly.”

Short-lived  This is not the lived of She lived well. The is long; short-lived rhymes with thrived.

Schism  It’s pronounced sizzum. The 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists no alternative pronunciation. You rarely hear this word, but when you do, it’s generally pronounced skizzum, a pronunciation that, in Elster’s words, “arose out of ignorance.”

Integral  Why do so many people say in-tra-gul, despite the spelling? Make it IN-ta-grul.

Homage  A reviewer called a film “a homage to motherhood.” The critic wisely did not write “an homage,” knowing that the h is sounded. This word has spun out of control in the twenty-first century. Its traditional pronunciation is HOMM-ij. But then AHM-ij gained a foothold, and it went downhill from there. Now, just about all one hears is oh-MAHZH, an oh-so-precious pronunciation that was virtually nonexistent in English until late in the twentieth century.

Pronunciation  As the spelling indicates, it’s pronounced pra-nun-see-AY-shun. Too many careless speakers say pra-nown-see-AY-shun.

Most words have been around longer than any of us have. Pronouncing them properly is showing respect for our elders.

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Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015, at 7:18 am


Media Watch

Here is another batch of fizzles and fumbles from dailies and periodicals.

• Headline for an editorial: “Let he who is without spin.” It’s clever, it’s glib, it’s … a disaster.

It’s supposed to be a twist on a well-known biblical verse, but that verse is routinely misquoted. Many people believe it goes like this: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Here is the actual quotation from the Gospel of John: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Note the wording: “let him.” That’s because “let he” is almost grammatically impossible. (No one would claim that Marie Antoinette said, “Let they eat cake.”)

• “Fear, borne of national security hysteria, can threaten Americans’ rights.” Either replace “borne” with “born” or, depending on how you interpret the sentence, replace “of” with “by.”

To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean “to be created”: ideas are born the moment we think of them.

To be borne is to be carried, transmitted, or tolerated: a mosquito-borne diseasecharges borne equally by the payer and the receiver. When you see borne of, the writer almost certainly meant born of. You are far more likely to see born of or borne by than borne of in a correct sentence.

Our staff prefers born of in the instance cited. Fear is born of—springs from or is created by—hysteria.

• “The criteria for a permit is whether the business is compatible with the impacted neighborhood.”

“The criteria is” is ungrammatical; there is no such thing as one criteria. Criteria is the plural of criteriona standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. So make it “One of the criteria for a permit is …”

But we aren’t done yet. Do not say “impacted neighborhood” when you mean “affected neighborhood.” As a verb, impact is constantly misused, and affect is almost always the remedy. To impact means “to pack tightly together,” as in an impacted tooth. That is not what the sentence is saying about this particular neighborhood.

• “She did not specify his exit date or what lead to his decision.” Make it “what led to his decision.”

Budding writers are increasingly using lead instead of led as the past tense of the verb to lead. There are three reasons for this confusion. First, lead reminds us of read, and everyone knows that the past tense of the verb to read is read. Second, the word lead, when it refers to a metal, is pronounced led, just like the past tense of the verb to lead. And third, they don’t drill spelling in schools the way they used to.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. “One thing they didn’t find were bullet casings.”
2. “Were either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, less than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have came into contact.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “One thing they didn’t find was bullet casings.”
2. “Was either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at its wits’ end.” OR “His family are at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, fewer than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have come into contact.”


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Posted on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, at 3:23 pm


Are Two r‘s One Too Many?

Here we are, in the month that’s hard to spell and harder to pronounce. Every year I grit my teeth listening to the bizarre ways people mangle “February.” The culprit is that first r. Most people just ignore it and say “Feb-yoo-ary.”

The 2006 American Heritage dictionary has a “Usage Note” at “February” that made my brain squirm the first time I read it: “the variant pronunciation [Feb-yoo-ary] … is quite common in educated speech and is generally considered acceptable. The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Oh, I grumbled. Now I’m expected to believe that a blatant mispronunciation is not simply
sloppy—no, don’t you see, it’s a phonological process, dear boy.

This is the kind of thing that gives scholarship a bad name. At least that was my initial reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe “Feb-roo-ary” is the way to go, but there might be more to this dissimilation business than I originally recognized. Take a look at other instances …

Library  Just about every schoolchild who ever lived has said “lie-berry,” and some say it well into their teens. The similarity of this word to February can’t be overlooked.

Roller coaster   I have heard sane adults say they went on the “rolly coaster.”

Kindergarten  Come on, admit it, you or someone you know says “kin-dee-garten.” You’re as likely to hear it from parents as from kin-dee-gartners themselves.

Peripheral  It’s quite common to hear things like, “When I was a young player, I learned to use my periph-ee-al vision.”

All four of the previous examples are words in which the r’s cause the difficulty. But other consonants can create similar problems …

Probably  A lot of, uh, dissimilators pronounce it “prob-lee.”

Et cetera (etc.)  Many smart, educated people botch, er, dissimilate the first t, and say “eck settera” rather than “et.”

I don’t know if the next two examples count as “textbook” dissimilation, but a curious thing happens with certain double-c’s:

Succinct  Everyone says “suh-sinkt.” When was the last time you heard someone correctly pronounce it “suk-sinkt”? Well, why else are there two c’s? You don’t say “secede” when you mean succeed.

Flaccid  Again, most people overlook one of those c’s. The widespread mispronunciation is “flassid”; the correct pronunciation is “flaxid.”

But I’ve been saving the best for last. Can anyone explain the silent c in Connecticut? All I’ve been able to dig up is that the state got its name from quinnitukqut, a Mohican word meaning “beside the long tidal river.” So where does the second c in Connecticut come from? Note that it’s quinnitukqut, not quinnictukqut.

Maybe, when nobody was looking, some prankster, perhaps one of the ringleaders of Dissimilation Theory, sneaked in that middle c, daring anyone to pronounce it.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2015, at 3:45 pm