Monday, August 20, 2007

Vocabulary Rant

I was visiting a forum today on which I'm a semi-regular contributor when I was attacked for using the word "erudite." That was my only offence and, according to the reaction of the poster, it was a grave offence indeed. To which I ask: why? Why should my vocabulary be the source of consternation to someone so wholly unconnected to me?

My last post notwithstanding, I love words. They are both my work and my hobby. I love neologisms, whether they're just for fun (e.g. "dinosaur blog") or put into actual use in the language (e.g. "netiquette"). I love precise words (why say "second last" when you can say "penultimate"?). I love word origins (did you know that Shakespeare coined over 1700 words currently in use in the English language?). I love colloquialisms, especially context-dependent ones such as "Macgyverism" or "grassy-knollism." I love creative spellings that horrify many linguists (such as "grrls" and "boyz"). Sometimes I love to write as formally as someone from a Jane Austen novel. At other times I like playing fast and loose with my dangling participles, indulging in run-on sentences and starting my sentences with such no-no words as "and" and "but." Why any of this should offend someone else is incomprehensible to me.

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If I had a friend whose big hobby was... let's say football, a sport which I know very little about except that the big trophy in Canada is the Grey Cup... I think. If my friend spoke about football using proper football terminology, I would probably have little idea of what was being said. But I would not assume that my friend was (a) trying to flaunt their knowledge and/or (b) trying to belittle me for lack of same. I would simply acknowledge that this was a subject that they were passionate and knowledgeable about but was of little interest to me.

So why do people react so differently when that hobby is language? Why do some people take it so personally? I like my vocabulary. I like to expand my vocabulary. I like to use it or not use it as I choose. And those choices have nothing to do with anyone else. I just like words, dammit. And to those individuals who have a chip on their shoulder about that, I say get over it already.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Dinosaur Blog

I realize it's been a while since I posted last. I've been alternating between being sick and busy. And while my brain still isn't quite functional enough to come up with anything witty or brilliant at the moment, I thought I would shift over one of my posts from my personal blog because I think it fits this blog better...

Originally posted 3.09.2005 on Limes with Orange

Dinosaur Blog \'dI-n&-"sor 'blŏg\, noun: 1. An out-of-date method of informing a large audience about current events; 2. Newspaper.

Etymology: an amusing new retronym* courtesy of the comic strip Non Sequitur.



*Retronym \'ret-r&-"nim\, noun: 1. A new word or phrase coined for an old object or concept whose original name became used for something else, or was no longer unique (Wikipedia); 2. An adjective-noun pairing generated by a change in the meaning of the base noun, usually as a result of technological advance (Fun with Words).

When asked for an example of a retronym, "Original Star Trek" usually leaps to mind. Which was, of course, simply "Star Trek" before all the various spin-offs. Other (non sci-fi geek) examples include "silent movie" and "acoustic guitar."

And I've noticed that the electronic age has resulted in an increasing number of retronyms (often unflattering). Such as "snail mail," a term coined after the advent of e-mail and generally preferred over the less derogatory options of "land mail" or "paper mail."

Warning: abstruse linguistic tangent ahead...

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As I write this, I notice that although "dinosaur blog" fits the first definition of retronym, it doesn't fit the second. The base noun ("blog") hasn't simply changed its meaning, the word itself is completely modern. So what do you call it when you take a word created for a modern object or concept and apply it to something older? Like someone referring to an abacus as a "non-electronic calculator." Hmm, that doesn't really work since the word calculator just means "one that calculates" and need not refer to something electronic. What about if someone referred to a play as a "live movie" (not that I've ever heard of such a thing, but I'm blanking on any good examples)?

Is it still a retronym?

It is named retroactively, which is the spirit of the word. But it doesn't fit that second definition, since plays existed long before movies were invented. But what would be the opposite of a retronym? Pronym (as in retroactive vs. proactive)? Anteronym (retrograde vs. anterograde)? Unfortunately, I can find no such terms amongst my "nym" words: synonym, antonym, homonym, acronym, pseudonym. Or the slightly less common patronym (a name derived from the name of one's father) or eponym (a name from which another name or word is derived). Not to mention the even less familiar metonym (a word substituted for another with which it is associated), bacronym (the reverse of producing an acronym), etc.

Conclusion of Tangent: Unless someone points me in the direction of another "nym" word that I've overlooked, or thinks I should list "anteronym" on the Wiktionary List of Protologisms, I guess I'll go with my first instinct and call "dinosaur blog" a retronym.

But I've let my inner amateur etymologist ramble on for far too long. Time to go finish last weekend's cryptic crossword in Canada's own national dinosaur blog: The Globe & Mail.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Inglish

Originally posted 9.04.2004 on Limes with Orange

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead--
For goodness' sake don't call it "deed"!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose
Just look them up--and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart--
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!
I'd mastered it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn't learned at fifty-five.

by T.S. Watt (1954)

I was reminded of this poem today while reading "Inglish (iz a tuf languaj to spel)" in the September edition of Saturday Night magazine [update May 30, 2007: this magazine is no longer in publication]. It's about the spelling reform movement that promotes simplification of the English spelling system to better reflect the phonetics of the language. My knee-jerk reaction was to reject reformation out of hand. The three arguments that I subsequently formulated to support my reaction were:

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(1) The proper spelling of a word can give you an idea of its origins, which can help you figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

(2) What about all of the existing printed matter? Will future generations taught spelling-reformed English be able to understand anything written in pre-reform English?

(3) With all of the dialects within the English language, whose phonetics would we use? I'm thinking that British spelling reform would look far different from American spelling reform.

Well, all of these points were mentioned in the article to some degree. Apparently my first point is proof of my intellectual elitism. Hmm... an uncomfortable, but possibly accurate, assessment. So let's put that one aside for now. The second and third points were acknowledged as obstacles to spelling reform. But apparently there are far more people than you might think trying to overcome these challenges. So maybe someday spelling reform advocates, such as the Simplified Spelling Society, will have answers to those questions that will satisfy even me. But I'm not holding my breath.

Ironic Epilogue: It was with a certain amount of embarrassment and amusement that I found myself reflecting on my strongly held opinions against spelling reform while I was working on my cryptic crossword and realized that I hadn't the faintest idea of how to spell "rutabaga" [the plural of which was the answer to "Turnips in a sack one put in furrows (9)"].

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Weirdgrrl

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1 part shy intellectual, 1 part edgy chick, 1 part sophisticated woman, 1 part mental patient (after all, sanity is a type of conformity)... what's your mix?