GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Joshua Green at Boston.com, thank you for coining a wonderfully useful new phrase, the Romney “fog machine”. My first thought was that this is the perfect description for a lot of corporate-speak, not to mention some of the unintelligible blather that comes out of the UN and a few other over-sized organizations.
Here’s Green’s take on Romney: “Taken together, I’ve come to think of these speeches, statements, and dodgy rebuttals as the Romney Fog Machine: a great outpouring of words intended to obscure, rather than clarify, the issue at hand.” Green goes on to point out that this was also Romney’s approach in business. Aha! My corporate-speak idea was right on track.
I don’t know if Green actually minted the term, but googling it comes up only with the physical fog machines; Wikipedia points out that exposure to them should be limited. I suspect Green would agree, for the more ethereal political variety.
(Thanks go to The Browser for pointing out Green’s article)
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – I didn’t know that a cougar is an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man, but now I do, thanks to the new Concise Oxford Dictionary, which keeps us up to date on the language we’re using. Clearly, I lead a dull life, as I haven’t needed to use “sextings”, either (nothing to do with people over 60, like sexagenarians).
CNN sent me scurrying to the OUP (Oxford University Press) blog post on the 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary to see what other gems we’ve recently invented. The Concise Oxford is celebrating its 100th birthday with the new edition.
Even better than finding new words was my discovery of the pleasure of the Oxford Words Blog itself, where I’ve just learned that the word “riot” meant an extravagent lifestyle during its first 100 years, which makes me wonder what “retweet” will mean in 2711.
And then there’s Italy’s contributions to our food vocabulary. And I’m sure the list of phobias will come in handy one of these days, maybe when I have to write about my fear of them. Palms are getting sweaty as a I write, the shakes are coming over me. Oh no! It’s phobophobia, I think!
I think this is not a word, but who wants to argue with the US Senate Finance Committee chairman? Will Scrabble let you use it? “Irrebuttably” is the gem, and I can see how a senator might like the concept that his arguments are so sound they are irrebuttable. But do we need a new word when another one exists, that seems to work well: irrefutable arguments.
Here is his sentence, circa 1998:
“Any individual with a net worth of $500,000 or more (adjusted for inflation) on the date of expatriation or who has an average annual net income tax liability for the five years preceding expatriation of $100,000 or more (adjusted for inflation) is irrebuttably presumed to have expatriated for tax-motivated reasons (except as discussed below), and thereby is subject to tax under section 877 regardless of actual intent.”
It turns out that this is a legal term, and is generally used only in a legal context, but perhaps we could extend its shelf life by adopting it for parental decisions about staying out later (irrebuttably decided . . .) or apartment building laundry policies (it is irrebuttably clear that after 10pm . . .).
Irrebuttable means incapable of being rebutted. Irrefutable may be a synonym, most often couple with the word “evidence”, but it has a gentler feel, doesn’t seem quite the verbal equivalent of a blunt object.
This might explain why Webster’s online dictionary says this: “irrebuttably – Virtually never used adverbial inflection of the rarely used adjective irrebuttable.”
Leave it to the US Senate Finance Committee to find it useful.
(video, The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks) If you’re reading this, you’re probably a word lover like me. We’re an odd bunch, people who get a thrill from dictionaries. Most of us enjoy new words, but many of us, I suspect, have shifted to looking up definitions online more often than in the fat old tomes that were once our only option.
I find myself slightly annoyed, therefore, with Dr Oliver Sacks because in one book alone, he’s given me far too many words to look up. I curl up in fat chairs or my bed to read books like his, extraordinary tales of the neurological oddities people live with on this planet, and I don’t want to turn to a computer screen while I’m doing this. Generally, I can remember two or three words that I don’t know and look them up later, but his latest book, which I’ve just finished, had a word new to me on virtually every page. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much.
The writer’s dilemma: when to use less common words
It raises the old question a student once asked me, “What’s the point of using words people don’t know?” His argument was that the writer was stupid to expect people to look up words when there was a perfectly serviceable batch of easier, more widely used words out there. My argument, as you’ve probably guessed, was that we have a bigger pool of words to allow us to be more precise, more elegant, to better communicate, and that the intelligent reader will hold up his or her end of the bargain and learn new words.
Dear Dr Sacks, I felt a little like my student, annoyed with you while reading The Mind’s Eye, a book I otherwise found wonderful. I have an 18-year-old daughter who has never spoken, but who communicates, and I’ve gained insights from this book that will help me help her. But I had to ignore some words to stay focused.
Writing is a bit like cooking: it’s more interesting if we use spices, but they need to be balanced. I made a soup last week with several wonderful herbs, a good blend I think, but at the last minute I threw in far too many peppercorns. I had to really work, while eating that soup, to find the oregano and thyme and other flavours lurking under those mad little black balls scooting around in the broth.
In fairness to Sacks, who came to my attention with his wonderful “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, many of these words are probably familiar to the medical world. One way writers can handle specialty-specific words is to make their meaning clear in the sentence, which Sacks often does admirably, particularly in the first part of the book. Example: “Mimesis, the deliberate and conscious representation of scenes, thoughts, feelings, intentions and so on, by mime and action, seems to be a specifically human achievement, like language (and perhaps music).”
The danger to the writer is that the text will stop flowing, weighted down by definitions.
If the story is strong enough, we’re pulled along by it and don’t realize the dictionary work is being done for us by the writer: “Yet he was surprised to find, as a nurse reminded him, that he could still write, even though he could not read; the medical term, she said, was ‘alexia sine agraphia.’ Howard was incredulous—surely reading and writing went together; how could he lose one but not the other?”
Sacks seems, as the book progresses, to be pulled more sharply into his subject matter, almost appearing to forget the reader at times in his haste to better understand his own subject matter. There is a good explanation for this, and in the end I forgive him his bonanza of big words. Oliver Sacks has eye cancer and has lost vision on one side, so when he explores the difficult world of his patients, he now includes himself.
There is a level of intimacy here that was not in his previous books, and we discover a writer whose vocabulary is far richer than most people’s.
I had to look up one word in these sentences, but it was worth the trouble because I learned something I didn’t know, and this is why I read. “As early as three months, infants are learning to narrow their model of ‘faces’ to those they are frequently exposed to,” writes Sacks, referring to research by Olivier Pascalis . “The implications of this work for humans are profound. To a Chinese baby brought up in his own ethnic environment, Caucasian faces may all, relatively, ‘look the same’, and vice versa. One prosopagnosic acquaintance, born and raised in China, went to Oxford as a student and has lived for decades in the United States. Nonethless, he tells me, ‘European faces are the most difficult—they all look the same to me.’”
I had a very good teacher when I was 12 who instilled in me and many of my classmates a love of looking up words. That sounds odd if you’ve never been tagged by this particular passion, but dictionaries can be great fun, even for those of us who are not regular crossword players. And once you’ve caught the bug you don’t lose it. I still love paper dictionaries, a sign my age, but I think online ones are a great thing because their links actively encourage you to continue your pursuit of new information.
We had a beautiful tall wooden stand at the front of the classroom with a monstrously heavy dictionary that must have made a dent in this teacher’s budget, and at the end of every day she would have one of us open it and find a new word, any word, read it aloud and then we would try to come up with sentences using it. Any sentences. The goal was to stretch our minds a little at the dull end of the day, spark a bit of creativity and have some fun. We were often silly, but it usually took us off in new directions, since we would discuss the examples given in the dictionary, and look up unrelated information if the examples struck our fancy.
I just read a wonderful obituary in the Economist with a word that is new for me: armamentarium. The author’s sentence:
“It also marked the moment when maths began to slip away from being part of the armamentarium of any educated person and towards the dizzyingly abstruse field it has become today.”
Here’s the main definition from Princeton’s wordnetweb:
“the collection of equipment and methods used in the practice of medicine”
Merriam-Webster defines it more broadly:
“a collection of resources available or utilized for an undertaking or field of activity; especially : the equipment, methods, and pharmaceuticals used in medicine”
And then wordsdomination, a crossword dictionary, jumps in with these two before mentioning the doctor’s black bag:
- “Armamentarium” is the third studio album by German melodic death metal band Neaera. Encyclopaedia Metallum – Neaera – Armamentarium: “Armamentarium (album) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, en.wikipedia.org
- Visual Armamentarium: pictures of roman military equipment. — “The Roman Hideout – Visual Armamentarium”, romanhideout.com
So I’ve been off reading about melodic death metal music and how it differs from death metal, and I’ve been looking at Roman military equipment. All of this because someone writing about mathematics and fractals kept me reading and tossed a word at me that I didn’t know.
Heloise is a hintologist
At the risk of spilling her secrets, I am going to share one with you: our New to Geneva? Me too! blog writer, Laila Rodriguez, is cleaning house. Wait – there really is a link to language here.
I decided to offer her a helping hand, from a safe distance, and sent her the URL to Heloise’s home page. Hints from Heloise was a book my mother always kept handy, in Iowa in the US in the 1960s. When she visited me in Switzerland once, she brought her tattered copy and gave it to me. It seemed like a kind of coals to Newcastle gift, given Switzerland’s reputation for cleanliness and tidiness, but maybe she thought her daughter had not yet mastered the art of cleaning.
One of the most worn pages, and I remembered this particular Heloise hint clearly, was how to lift melted wax from a carpet. I’m not sure why we needed this so often, except maybe my mother ran more risks than she should have. She loved candles, and she had children, and they don’t always mix well.
It turns out, I discovered on Heloise’s site, that yesterday’s solution is not today’s:
“Candle Wax on Carpet
THEN: Towel and iron
NOW: Ice and a metal pan
Put ice cubes into a metal pan. Place it right on top of the candle wax until the wax is frozen solid. With a small hammer, hit the wax to break it up. Pick up the pieces. Then apply dry-cleaning solvent on a clean cloth to remove any leftover residue.”
I also just learned that one of the options for getting rid of foot odour is to wash, dry and then soak your feet in vinegar for five minutes at night. I wonder what the local football and rugby clubs will think if we buy them jugs of vinegar instead of beer or wine.
Back to Laila. I was startled to see that the modern, 21st century Heloise has a job title. She is a hintologist, a new word for me. And then I realized how lucky we are to have our very own, excellent hintologist, Laila, who gives you great hints about living life a little better in Geneva.
I could not find any dictionaries with the word, so here I offer you my own definition for hintologist:
1) someone who provides practical hints and tips to make your life easier
2) someone who follows in the footsteps of Heloise the first.
The people at ITU, the United Nations telecommunications organization, have given us a new word: “cyberpeace.” ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, speaking at World Telecom in Geneva, Switzerland, defined it as “cyberpeace, where nations collaborate in a global cybersecurity framework based on enlightened self-interest.”
The source of curious idioms is always game for speculation. National Public Radio points to a new book out, written by Jag Bhalla and published by the National Geographic Society, called I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears. Whether or not the author’s favourite idioms suffer in translation, most of us won’t know, for most of the idioms, but they certainly are fun in English.
Meanwhile, in truly original English, we have Sarah Palin’s iquitarod – and no, it’s not one of her offspring but a new word coined to describe Sarah Palin’s decision not to finish her term as governor of Alaska. Dog days for Republicans in Alaska?
Thanks go to Ben Schott over at Schott’s Vocab, a blog at the New York Times, for pointing out this fine new word, which he heard about on Geoffrey Dunn’s blog on the Huffington Post, which Dunn heard about from his 14-year-old daughter (by now we can say this is buzz), who saw it on Twitter, where it was the hit joke at a Fourth of July (US Independence Day) party. Dunn’s post on Sarah Palin’s resignation is the best entertainment I’ve had this morning. The NPR interviews with interested Republicans speculating about why she resigned is also worth a read.
Trying to find the origin of “buzz” as something other than what’s done by bees and Avon sales reps in the 1950s, when doorbells became popular. No success so far.
And just in case you’ve never wondered when and by whom the doorbell was invented, here’s what Answers.com (The name is Henry: Joseph Henry) has to say about it. Why it took another century for such a dinger to become popular leaves me puzzled, but optimistic for all those other bright ideas entrepreneurs have.
CNN carries a story about the world’s millionth word in English and three things surprised me: first, that we have only a million words and second that the word is one I’ve been kicking around for a few years, but it’s just been registered. Third: it has a space in the middle of it, so doesn’t that make it two words? The newbie (which is not a word) is web 2.0.
The new word has been declared by Paul JJ Payack’s Global Language Monitor, a web site that uses mathematical formulas to decide when words have reached the stage where they can be registered for his word count. According to CNN he’s become “something of a pariah” in the word field because of his approach to counting new words.
I think his project is interesting, although I’m not convinced of the usefulness of it, but he’s not the only person doing work of dubious usefulness on this planet.
What I do like about it is that he includes words only once they make sense globally: “Words must make sense in at least 60 percent of the world to be official, he said. And they must make sense to different communities of people,” writes CNN. His argument that English is a global language is backed up by his word coutning project.
But this still gives us only about one-quarter of a word per person, given the estimated 375 million native English speakers, a number is at least double (some say tripled or more) if you include people who speak English as a second language.
I’m a little disappointed, as I have assumed there were enough words to go around, one for each of us.
Definition, from the counters: “Web 2.0 is a technical term meaning the next generation of World Wide Web products and services. It has crossed from technical jargon into far wider circulation in the last six months.”
We’ve almost become blasé about massive amounts of money: figures that would have seemed remarkable are now taken almost in stride. What’s the difference between $195 million and $2 billion, when your own bank account balance has three figures and no m’s or b’s to plump it out, I hear increasingly.
All the more startling then to see the oh so British BBC doing that very American thing and write that “The US has announced details of a plan to buy up to $1 trillion . . . worth of toxic assets.” Trillion? That truly massive sum that was once called a thousand billion?
Now I know for sure we’re having an economic crisis, if I still had doubts.
An aside – out of curiosity I did a very imperfect quick search and it seems that “trillion” was reserved on the BBC for references to science or to indicate silly and imprecise amounts, until about 2007. “Trillion” has only come into its own since the start of 2009, in relation to money. The BBC now appears to consider it an acceptable word.
The amount of money is another matter. What’s after a trillion, in case we need it?