A loving, lackadaisical dad
Two words we don’t hear often enough have each appeared more than once this week, on my radar: the low-energy lackadaisical and the high-energy brouhaha.
“Lackadaisical” was used by a son at his father’s large 60th birthday party to describe Dad’s parenting approach, which the son, born in the mid-1970s, said he only fully appreciated for what it was once he had his own small child. “Laid-back” was the term Roger’s (not his real name) friends used to describe him in the 1970s, a time when despite fatherhood he went off to India for weeks on end. Untroubled and unfettered, as we saw him. Lackadaisical conjures up images of someone who is dreamy, languorous, his attention perhaps elsewhere.
The kids turned out just fine, as the son, a much stricter father with his own small child, hastened to tell the birthday party crowd. The day after the party, taking a plane home from southern Spain where it was held, I was reading Jane Smiley’s novel A Life and she used it to describe one of her characters.
Palin’s penchant for creating a brouhaha
Thanks to Sarah Palin, we get to hear brouhaha mentioned this week on American political web pages, where she comes in for heavy criticism, followed promptly by heavy defense, for her use of the term blood libel.
Brouhaha is a word that I’ve always associated with bubbling cauldrons, but when I looked for its origins it seems I have this wrong. At it simplest level the word is defined as a stir, an uproar (wiktionary), but WordNet defines it as “a confused disturbance far greater than its cause merits.” It once had more negative connotations than it does today, when it is often used to describe the “noisy clamourous response to a stimulus, produced by a crowd” (bookrags).
A synonym is hubbub, but the emphasis here is somewhat more on the noise itself, perhaps with fewer negative connotations, and it is more often used to describe physical rather than metaphorical noise: a hubbub on the web over Palin’s words doesn’t quite work.
Hubbub’s origins make for a nice story on the Free Dictionary, which suggests that it is “likely that a certain English contempt resides in the adoption of the word hubbub from a Celtic source, which is probably related to ub ub ubub, a Scots Gaelic interjection expressing contempt, or to abu, an ancient Irish war cry”.
The guesses about the origins of brouhaha are mostly unconvincing, ranging from old Hebrew for “welcome” to Spanish for “bull-baiting”, akin to “bravo”, or an exclamation made by the devil in old French dramas. The Free Dictionary buys the devil’s tale, saying it from French, “of imitative origin”. Merriam-Webster says its first known use was 1890, but doesn’t tell us where or how it was used.
I prefer my (and some others’) onomatopoeia explanation, the sound of the babbling, bubbling crowd, a kind of soup of incoherent voices.
“Onomatopoeia”, by the way, should be in every spelling bee. Hardly anyone remembers off the bat how to spell it correctly, I suspect. Another commonly mistake is to misplace or leave out the “u” in “languor”, used above, especially when it drifts into “languorous”.
I read a sentence three times today before I realized what bothered me about it. This is one of those subtle not-quite-right word problems, the difference in usage between requisite and required. The sentence read “about 25 states have the economic requisites” needed to build a system.
There are two problems here. The word requisite can be used as a noun, but it means a necessity, something that is absolutely necessary, indispensable, according to the Free Dictionary. This is stronger than a requirement, which in the sample sentence above is the sense, so requirement is a better word.
The second problem is that while requisite can be used as a noun, it is more commonly used as an adjective, as in this example from Your Dictionary:
“Students wishing to take such units must be able to demonstrate that they have the requisite linguistic competence.”
Many people will be familiar with a cousin noun, pre-requisites, from reading university catalogues.
Karl Marx offers a fine example of requisite as a noun: “The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.”
The newspaper editor (that’s me) hovers over words with an intensity that the writer can’t afford, faced with deadlines and the need to focus on the story’s content. As a result, we editors sometimes feel slightly guilty taking a sledgehammer to writers’ words that are not incorrect but that have a whiff of imprecision. I came across one such word this morning, when my colleague Sean wrote that a civil war had “wrecked” a country’s economy. The implication is that the economy might have remained intact without that particular wrecking ball.
The war, and we’re talking about Côte d’Ivoire here, followed several politically messy years that led to most foreign aid disappearing as the new millennium arrived. The country is rich in cocoa and palm oil, among other products, but its economy was being dismantled well before the civil war arrived in late 2000. I remember travelling through Ghana in late 1998 and taking a long bus nearly to the Ivoirian border for a couple days there on a business trip, only to be refused entry at the last minute because racially-fuelled disputes had just shut down several government offices. The economy has begun to find its feet again, sinc3 2006, but with oil and gas overtaking cocoa bean production, political stability is far from guaranteed.
“Wrecked” is a powerful word, meaning ruin and destroy, as are its synonyms, judging by the collection Thesauras.com offers us. It includes these, for a start:
bash, batter, break, capsize, crack up, crash, cripple, dash, decimate, demolish, devastate, disable, do in, efface, founder, impair, injure, mangle, mar, mess up*, pile up, put out of commission, ravage, raze, run aground, sabotage, scuttle, shatter, shipwreck, sink, smash, smash up.
I preferred “battered”, no less powerful, but it means strike and damage: we tend to use it more often in situations where the instrument that is doing the damage is adding to existing damage, or where the damage is done in a series of repeated thrusts.
A storm-battered coast may be as hard hit as one wrecked by a hurricane, but the implication of the first is that continual lashes from a storm did the damage rather than a giant wallop being given by a hurricane. To say that a woman has been battered by her husband implies it’s been an ongoing process, while a wrecked marriage implies the finality of the last big hit by a wrecking ball, rather than the slow disintegration of a dying relationship.
But nuances of words and the final choice are to some extent subjective, and writers will often disagree.
Getting a word’s basic definition right is not subjective, however. Here is a pair of words that are cousins, but they don’t have the same meaning or use:
from The Free Dictionary
transitive verb1. To cause the destruction of in or as if in a collision.2. To dismantle or raze; tear down.3. To cause to undergo ruin or disaster.
wreaktransitive verb, wreaked, wreak·ing, wreaks1. To inflict (vengeance or punishment) upon a person.2. To express or gratify (anger, malevolence, or resentment); vent.3. To bring about; cause: wreak havoc.4. Archaic To take vengeance for; avenge.Usage Note: Wreak is sometimes confused with wreck, perhaps because the wreaking of damage may leave a wreck: The storm wreaked (not wrecked ) havoc along the coast. The past tense and past participle of wreak is wreaked, not wrought, which is an alternative past tense and past participle of work.
We had one of those multicultural, confusing breakfast conversations at my house this morning, where despite years of living together our different cultural backgrounds suddenly kicked in. I wondered aloud if ambassador at large was the same as ambassador-at-large and we agreed it isn’t, saying the first means someone is on the lam. My British husband wondered what that meant so I looked it up and read out that it’s related to lam it, as in beat it.
He looked even more baffled. We’re in the world of American slang from the 1930s, the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and if you haven’t yet read their work, rush to do so, to fill the gap in your education. Chandler, astonishingly, given the language of his fiction, was born in Chicago but grew up in the UK. Their stories and novels are often referred to as hard-boiled detective novels, a genre which became popular in the 1920s and grew strongly in the 1930s, with a major impact on Hollywood.
For some great examples of Chandler lines, read the collection of Chandlerisms on Robert Moss’s site (great writing lessons in these one-liners).
Back to the ambassador: if he’s at large, it means he’s on the run, as in running away from something, possibly the cops. If he’s an ambassador-at-large, he’s not in trouble with the law, but rather a roving ambassador who’s been given the highest diplomatic ranking of his country, a true honour.
The extra “c” in climactic and arctic cause confusion for many people, but the problem is not quite the same. I just came across climactic in a text about climate change, where the right word should be climatic. The two exist:
climactic, the most exciting and important (from Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary)
climatic, relating to climate (from the Free Dictionary)
The race’s climactic moment was when South African prodigy Zola Budd tripped American favourite Mary Decker.
That tricky little “c” in Arctic and arctic (see WordNetWeb, Princeton) is one you just have to remember: artic is not a word, although it is an acronym used by several groups, including the Art Institute of Chicago. Polar bears love the Arctic Circle, and that’s all there is to it. It gets a capital “A” if you’re referring to the place, but lower case if you mean icy cold, as in an arctic wind.
The havoc they wreak or wreaked or wrought? For some reason the word havoc loves to snuggle up to the words wreak and wrought, and since Iceland’s now-famous volcano has been causing havoc, I’ve seen wreak and wrought far more than is normal. Both are correct.
So what’s the difference? Wrought has a nice gothic touch to it, I think, which seems to suit dragon-breathing works of nature. Wreak/wreaked is more common. The sense of the two words as verbs is now generally considered the same, with wrought sometimes thought of as the past tense of wreak. The first definition for both is generally “work”.
They didn’t start out together, with wrought once having a clearer sense of worked, while wreak is often used to mean cause, to bring about.
Examples of use:
Volcano wreaking havoc on science meetings, Science Magazine
The volcanic ash cloud that wrought havoc . . ., Metro.co.uk
I am going to point a finger, a skinny one, at the latest buzz phrase: “fat finger syndrome.” You mean to type “m” and oops, you hit “b” and that million dollar order to sell is suddenly a billion. Next thing you know the Dow Jones market is crashing, and you don’t really want to tell your boss that it was a typo. And to be honest, chances are good you weren’t too clear on the difference.
This could be fiction, but according to US financial media reports, rumours in New York are swirling that someone at Citi Bank was hit by fat finger syndrome, which caused a dramatic fall in the Dow Jones average Thursday afternoon 6 May.
I have a sneaking suspicion they simply weren’t paying attention because one of the most common writers’ mistakes I see is muddling million and billion.
Here they are, in case you’re nervous about numbers and in the closet about it:
million = 1,000,000
billion = 1,000,000,000
trillion = 1,000,000,000,000
Are they going to bed together? Getting down and tight and cozy to bust drug types? Sorry about that, CNN headline writer, but we don’t generally embed with someone or something. We embed something, for example a video if we’re visiting YouTube and want to put it on our own site. Or things get embedded, such as painful slivers in our thumbs when we get too close to roses.
Here is the headline: “US says agents won’t embed with Mexican police”. I read the article, prepared to snicker at yet another bureaucrat trying to sound fancy and ending up sounding silly. I think in this case it’s CNN that’s to blame for an unfortunate headline embedded in an otherwise interesting story.