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Words in Flux

The words we’ll examine today highlight the rift between language purists and less-fussy people who just want to get their point across. You probably can guess which side we are on.

Podium  This word might not mean what you think it means. A podium is not a stand with a slanted top for notes or books—that would be a lectern. A podium is a raised area that speakers, performers, or orchestra conductors stand on. People do not stand behind a podium—more likely they are standing on a podium, behind a lectern.

Back in 1989 The Random House College Dictionary got it right, defining podium as a platform. But a mere ten years later, dictionaries had caved. The 1999 Webster’s New World says that podium and lectern are synonymous. The 2016 online American Heritage dictionary lists “platform” first, but its second definition of podium is “a stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.”

The difference between a podium and a lectern is as clear-cut as the difference between a floor and a table. Shouldn’t a dictionary resist muddling these words’ meanings?

Fortuitous  This is a chronically misunderstood word. Purists will not tolerate fortuitous as a synonym for “lucky” or “fortunate.” It simply means “by chance.” True, you could describe winning the lottery as fortuitous, but getting flattened by a runaway truck is also fortuitous.

So let’s haul out the dictionaries again. This time the ’89 Random House cops out, listing “lucky” as the second definition of fortuitous. That is disappointing, considering that just nine years earlier The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language allowed only “happening by accident or chance” and warned that “fortuitous is often confused with fortunate.”

Epitome  Those who use it correctly know it means “a perfect example.” Those who misuse it think it means “an example of perfection.” The epitome of means “the essence of.” But it does not mean “the best” or “the pinnacle.” Denzel Washington is the epitome of cool means that the actor exemplifies coolness. Washington may well be one of the coolest men alive, but that is not what the sentence is saying.

We are pleased to report that even though epitome has been widely misused for years, we have yet to find a dictionary that lists the incorrect meaning. Maybe it’s because the distinction is so subtle.

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Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at 9:30 am


Media Watch

Let’s begin this installment of “Media Watch” with a headline we could do without:

• “Manning and Co. bring in ’da noise”

Did you catch it? Why the apostrophe? It should not be there unless one or more letters are omitted from the front of da (like the missing be in ’cause). That’s not the case; da is a condescending spelling of the, as uttered by a rowdy football fan. It appears that the headline writer added the apostrophe as a wink to the reader, a way of saying, “Of course, I don’t talk like these hooligans.”

• “This ugly episode must be overcome in favor of defeating ours’ and Russia’s mutual enemy.”

Another diseased apostrophe. The possessive pronoun ours never takes an apostrophe, any more than yourshers, or theirs does. But even if we remove it we are still left with the frightful ours mutual enemy. The sentence calls for the possessive adjective our. So make it either our and Russia’s mutual enemy or Russia’s and our mutual enemy.

• “RMJ is an acronym for Recycle My Junk.”

No, RMJ is an initialism. There is a key difference between acronyms and initialisms. If you can say it as a word, as with NASA or ROM, it is an acronym. If you pronounce each letter, as with FBI or RSVP, it is an initialism.

• “His choice is Jackson, whom he said already knows the job.”

Why is it that so many people seem to use whom only where they shouldn’t? Look what happens if we move he said to the back of the sentence: His choice is Jackson, whom already knows the job, he said. Obviously, the right choice is who, the subject of knows—and emphatically not the direct object of said. So make it His choice is Jackson, who he said already knows the job.

• “Ironically, Shakespeare’s greatest literary contemporary died the same day he did.”

The first word should be “Coincidentally.” When something is ironic, it has a grimly humorous or paradoxical twist, as if the universe were playing a wicked practical joke. Thus, it is ironic if a speeding car crashes into a “drive carefully” sign. But where is the irony here? Do not use ironically when referring to an odd or remarkable coincidence, such as two famous writers dying on the same day.

• “Before they fled, he and his mom had a going-away party.”

The article was about a fugitive who had committed quadruple homicide. We understand that we’re living in the Age of Informality, but there is something spectacularly inappropriate about calling a sociopath’s enabler mother “his mom.”

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can make them better.

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the all-time record.”
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other adjectives I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects immigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare him say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flaunting the system.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “It fell a tenth of an inch short of the record” (all-time record is a pleonasm).
  2. “It’s complete trash, garbage—there are other nouns I’d like to use.”
  3. “One of the suspects emigrated from Syria.”
  4. “How dare he say that?”
  5. “He and his company are flouting the system.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, at 3:19 pm


You Lost Me After “Feb”

Feb-yoo-ary. Febber-ary. Feb-wary. Can’t anyone around here say “feb-roo-ary”?

It’s time to revisit dissimilation, the labored linguistic theory that purports to explain why so many of us don’t say February’s two r’s. The online American Heritage dictionary has the following usage note at “February”: “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.”

Translation: the second r in February makes people mispronounce the first r.

My first reaction was that some intellectuals with too much time on their hands had come up with a fancy term for slovenly speech. Isn’t dissimilation merely an erudite synonym for tongue-twister? I’m not quite ready to buy all this “phonological process” business; the simple truth is that people generally are hurried speakers, and saying words like February takes a little extra care.

Here are some other hard-to-enunciate dissimilation words:

Asterisk  The second s gets dropped, and we are left with the icky “aster-ick.”

Candidate  People say the first two syllables as if they were saying “Canada.”

Hierarchy  You often hear “high-arky,” with the er slurred. We should aim “higher.”

Prerogative  I bet most people think this word is spelled “perogative,” because that’s typically what you hear. Only careful speakers say the first r: pre-rahg-ative.

Minutiae  Here’s a word no one says right. The traditional pronunciation, believe it or not, is min-OO-she-ee or min-YOO-she-ee. Good luck with that. I’ve never heard anything but “min-oo-sha,” because “sha” is a whole lot easier than saying two long-e syllables, one right after the other

*                                          *                                          *                                          *                                        *

I’ve put in enough time on this odd little topic to observe that dissimilation has a flip side. I’m calling it “impulsive echoing”: the tendency to irrationally add similar sounds within words, despite their spelling. Check these out:

Ouija board  If you are American, either you or someone you know says “wee-jee.” The standard pronunciation is WEE-ja. How does ja become “jee” unless impulsive echoing is real?

Cummerbund  Look at that spelling and then tell me why so many speakers add a phantom b: “cumber-bund.”

Pundit  I’ve heard seasoned public figures—hello, Hillary Clinton—say “pundint.”

Whirlwind  I’ve also heard veteran TV journalists—hello, Wolf Blitzer—say “world wind.”

Sherbet  That’s how you spell it, all right. What happens when the people who add a second r and say “sher-bert” meet the people who drop the first r in February?

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, at 11:26 am


Pleonasms Are a Bit Much

The term pleonasm comes from pleonazein, a Greek word that means “more than enough.” When you use a pleonasm, you are repeating yourself.

The jolly man was happy is a pleonasm: The man was happy says the same thing without the unnecessary addition of “jolly.”

Serious writers want to make their point with a minimum of fuss and clutter. Nothing says fuss and clutter like an ill-advised pleonasm, which can come across as long-winded, pompous, ignorant, laughable, or any combination thereof.

Some pleonasms are obvious (true fact, free gift), others are less noticeable (pick and choose, young boy). They hide in our writing, then jump out and jeer at us for not catching them when we had the chance.

Here is a selection of pleonasms from a variety of sources:

PIN number  PIN is an acronym for “personal identification number.” So a PIN number is a personal identification number number.

“Woman arrested after verbal argument”  The creator of this headline forgot that all arguments are verbal.

“GED graduation begins with unexpected surprise”  Is it a surprise if it’s expected?

“Tips from a self-confessed project management nerd”  Too bad the author of this post wasn’t also a language nerd: self-confessed is a classic pleonasm.

“I’m trying to decide whether or not someone’s worth dating”  Delete “or not” and you’ve said the same thing.

“So blind he can’t see”  This is a line from “Drink Up and Go Home,” a country song from the fifties. It’s supposed to be poignant, but the pleonasm is a distraction.

“I’m told you are a very clever genius”  Attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, American movie mogul (1879-1974).

Some pleonasms are used intentionally, for emphasis. An exasperated mother tells her unruly child, “Never, ever do that again!” Few parents would second-guess that “ever.” A jilted lover writes to his sweetheart that she has left him “utterly devastated.” The poor man is swept up in the trauma and drama of rejection. Who would be so peevish as to inform him that, technically, “devastated” by itself gets the point across?

In A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage Cornelia and Bergen Evans defend purposeful pleonasms: “A man who never said an unnecessary word would say very little during a long life and would not be pleasant company … In writing, as in conversation, an economical use of words is not always what we want.”

However, we think the Evanses would agree that a mindless redundancy is not ever what we want.

 

Pop Quiz

The sentences below contain pleonasms. Which words or phrases could be removed with no change in meaning? (Example: the word true in true fact is superfluous.) Our answers are below.

  1. Too late the soldiers realized that they were surrounded on all sides.
  2. Randy wore a big smile on his face.
  3. When we saw the final results, we were all in shock.
  4. We were given a grand tour of the capitol building.
  5. Rachelle has been appointed to the post of director of information.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. on all sides
  2. on his face
  3. final
  4. building
  5. to the post of

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Posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, at 2:38 pm


That’s nyooz to me

Pronunciation changes gradually through the years—that’s evolution, and nothing could be more natural.

But nowadays, if an influential public figure goes on TV or the Internet and says a word wrong, millions of people hear it, and the mispronunciation may gain an undeserved legitimacy. That isn’t evolution, it’s weeds taking over a rose garden. Virtually overnight, a word’s long-established pronunciation can be upended because some big shot misspoke. Examples of widespread mispronunciations for which we blame the media include alleged, camaraderie, controversial, divisive, homage … we could go on.

We recognize that with language the majority rules, but it’s frustrating to realize that those who don’t know or care much about words ultimately decide how they’re spoken.

So here is another installment in our series of pronunciation columns. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

News  Don’t say nooze; it’s nyooz (rhymes with fuse).

Era  The er should sound like ear. Say EAR-a, not AIR-a.

Dais  It’s a raised platform for speakers (the human kind). The right way to say it is DAY-iss, but you often hear DYE-iss.

Dalai Lama  DAH-lye LA-ma is the pronunciation unanimously accepted by our office dictionaries, which span the last seventy-five years. The ai in Dalai is pronounced like the first syllable in aisle or the last syllable in samurai. Avoid “Dolly Lama”—that second in Dalai was not just thrown in arbitrarily.

Daiquiri  More trouble with ai. In the 1959 British film Our Man in Havana a character orders a DYKE-er-ee, and our 1966 Random House dictionary prefers that pronunciation. But for years now, Americans have said DACK-a-ree. Even so, the American Heritage online dictionary still lists DYKE-er-ee. Maybe the best bet is to order a mai tai.

Guillotine  Despite the oft-heard GEE-uh-teen, this word is traditionally pronounced GILL-uh-teen. In the early 19th century, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language called for the l’s to be pronounced. Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary also insists on saying the l’s. GEE-uh-teen as an alternative is a relatively recent trend.

Electoral  We’re right in the middle of an important election season, and soon we’ll be hearing semiliterate media types saying ee-lec-TOR-ul. Well, don’t be like them. The word is properly pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable. The 1999 Webster’s New World and the 2006 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language list only ee-LEC-ter-ul. However, it is our sad duty to report that the latest edition of each now lists ee-lec-TOR-ul as an alternative. Why is something acceptable now if it wasn’t all right ten years ago?

The moral: When it comes to correct pronunciation, a new dictionary might not be the first place you want to look.

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Posted on Monday, January 18, 2016, at 7:23 pm