December 30, 2012

The ass and the arse

There's an interesting ambiguity, in America at least, behind what we mean when we call insult someone for being an "ass."  Famously, a Dickens character says "the law is a ass--an idiot."  What sort of an ass is the basis of the character's metaphor?  It is most likely the four-legged beast of burden, not the sitting-end of a person.   Dickens, in a crude mood, would probably have called his nether-end his "arse": this is the British word for the body part because, until the nineteenth century, "ass" was reserved just for the animal.  However, for me the situation is different.  As a modern, urban American I don't have much experience around the animal, the "ass."  An ass is still a stupid person, but the metaphor is anatomical: When I use the word I most likely have the image of the buttocks of a person (or some animal--think how "horse's ass" = "fool") when I call you an "ass"--it's the end without the brains in it, for sure. 

In the nineteenth century (according to spellings in Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang), in Britain and America "arse" began to be pronounced as what would sound to an American like "ahss" or "ass."  The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary says that "arse" became "ass" as a "vulgar and dialect sp[elling] and pronunciation of arse"; other dictionaries aren't too helpful as to the source of the change; certainly the British change at that time of most syllable-end rs to the schwa sound (the vowel in "good") must have had something to do with it.

Etymologically, "ass" the animal and "arse" the body part are very different words.  The word for the animal in Old English was "assa/asse," (masc./fem.) with the alternative "esol" (see also the supplement; Germans still say "Esel").  There's a forest of cognates in the Germanic and Celtic languages that are dealt with in good etymological dictionaries like the OED, C. T. Onions' Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology; they trace the word all the way back to a Sumerian (!) cognate anšu, with the Latin "asinus" as the direct source. 

I'm of course far more interested in where "arse" comes from.  It's Old English, and the standard Old English dictionary Bosworth-Toller supplies the spelling "ears" and various delightful compounds like "ears-ende" for buttocks and "ears-gang" for latrines and their contents.  The Middle English Dictionary has a lengthy and fascinating entry on "ars." The other older Germanic languages had cognates and there's a Greek cognate ὄρσος which evolved into ὄρρος; Eric Partridge's Origins points to a Hittite cognate arraš.  There's apparently a proto-Indo-European cognate as well.

OK.  So what's the difference between an ass and a donkey?  Nothing, apparently (I think Americans, in view of the anatomical "ass," will always say "donkey"); it's a dialect or slang word first recorded in 1785 in George Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

December 24, 2012

"Professionalism" in America

Brian Garner complains in his Dictionary of American Legal Usage about how so many jobs are now said to be done by "professionals"--hairstylists, the "professional military," and so on--as opposed to the traditional three professions of law, medicine and the clergy.  Knowing a trade, or doing something for a living, does not make one a professional--that comes from the intellectual content of one's work.

There's a lot of what I think of as title drift, too: making work seem more sophisticated or, I hope, dignified, by giving old jobs more impressive titles.  Think of the "associates" at stores like Walmart or Target, who aren't associated with the store except as hourly employees.  I've heard employees at such places referred to as "partners," which twists beyond recognition both the commonly understood meaning of "partners"--individuals who jointly engage in some enterprise for the common and, I think, more or less equal betterment of both, or the legal definition of partners as joint owners with personal liability for the debts of the partnership.  The word "clerk" is a very old example of title inflation.  It's connected to the word "cleric," and suggested especially someone who could read and write because such skills were found only rarely outside those of the second estate.  This emphasis on reading and writing means "clerk" no longer signifies someone with a scholarly or religious background, but someone who keeps the books or other records in an establishment--think of clerks of court.  But "clerk" has been extended to people who have no advanced skills at all, particularly to those working at the counter at convenience stores.

Sometimes new names can be made up to enhance a profession.  H. L. Mencken's The American Language reports on National Association of Realtors trademarking the name "Realtor" for their real-estate-agent members (they still own the trademark) and undertakers beautifying themselves with the term "mortician."  It's a joke to call a garbage hauler a "sanitation engineer," but did you know that 9-1-1 dispatchers seem to really be called "public safety telecommunicators?"

December 17, 2012

Your word of the day: publican

"Publicans" in the New Testament are ostracized and hated, and Christ gives them the special attention all the ostracized receive.
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?  (King James Bible, Matthew 9)
Calling the owner of a "public house" or "pub" a publican must be a pun based on the various references to publicans in the Bible.  (By the way: H. L. Mencken in the 1930s, according to The American Language II, thought the American word for pub was "saloon"; in 2012 in America it's almost certainly a "bar.")  In the Greek bible these people were τελῶναι (/telonai/, related to our word "toll") and in Latin, publicani.  They were "tax farmers"--people who extorted from the population a set amount for the Roman government's tax revenue, and kept any surplus for themselves.  "Publican" has been used often as a general term of abuse.

December 16, 2012

By any other name...

I just heard an NPR announcer mention Japan's "conservative Liberal Democratic" party.  I confess I don't know what makes a Japanese political party more or less conservative; but at least in Britain they do you a favor and call their right-of-center party "Conservatives" and their left-of-center party "Liberal" (the Lib-Dems; I haven't forgotten Labor, for most of the 20th century the leftist party).  Canada and Australia also have self-evidently named parties, which is nice for us less-informed foreign observers.  The Germans have "Christian Democrats" and "Social Democrats," which at least hint at the party's ideological bases.

I suppose that having a name paradoxically opposed to one's place on the ideological spectrum allows Japan's Liberal Democratic political party to hedge its bets and change its points of view.  Why else do America's mainstream parties have names that are content-free (like much of our political debate); "Democratic" and "Republican?"  Parties in the United States have often had empty names.  Surely some party names hinted at their members' beliefs, as with the Federalists and the Populists.  (The Wikipedia pages concern themselves with terminology.)  But who can tell from the name what a "Democratic-Republican" stood for?

Having empty names like Democratic and Republican and the Japanese "Liberal Democratic" makes it much easier to attach ideologies to a specific name.  I think Americans often, in very casual discussion, call left-wing ideas generally "Democratic" and right-wing ones "Republican"; since the 1960s this is where both parties have fallen along the ideological spectrum, and these positions are now pretty ossified.  For instance--even I find it jarring to think of people named  "Democrats" (in Japan) being called "conservative"; it's just not how my political terminology works.  

November 26, 2012

The suffix "-bonics"

Justice J. Michael Eakin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has used the term "legalbonics," which he described in 2012 as content-free comments or "stupid" objections.  The justice called clumsy legal writing "legalbonics" in 2009 as well, perhaps referring to what is normally called legalese.  (Pennsylvania Bar Institute, Legal Writing for the 21st Century).  A 2005, anonymous cite for "legalbonics" is here.

The suffix "-bonics" must be from the dimly remembered "Ebonics" controversy of the 1990s--a proposal that schools reach out to black children by giving lessons in the children's putative style of English, named from "ebony" + "phonics."  From this, "-bonics" has been taken jocularly to denote "a way of speaking."  I have found a few instances of the use of bonics from the era, meaning 1) some local dialect ("Bubba-bonics"1 in Citrus County, Florida) or 2) some disparaged false dialect (Newt-bonics2; Pol-bonics3 [half-Polish English]; hick-bonics4).

Most striking about legalbonics (coming from a public figure like Justice Eakin) is that today it's a little bit non-politically-correct.  Grouping black English in with clumsy legal writing ignores the insistence of many linguists that black English has its own consistent grammar and other features.  Using "-bonics" is meant to evoke the Ebonics controversy and righteous indignation about teaching black English, as in the 1990s quotes footnoted below.  However, it's hard to imagine Judge Eakin is evoking that in lectures to lawyers--there may be some continuing, oral use of the "-bonics" idea that's hard to find on the internet, and that has become a regular vocabulary item for bad or confused English.

For a grammar grinch like me--better, a lexicon-grinch--most striking is the peculiar creation of a suffix.  "Ebonics" really has the suffix "-ics"; the "-on-s" of "ebony" and of "phonics" were creatively (or lamely) lined up.    "Phonics" (from the Greek φωνή "sound of the voice" + "-ics," from -ικός, denoting a noun) is the source of the "-ics" suffix.  The coiners of "legalbonics" and other terms are create a new "-bonics" suffix for (bleh) comic effect.

1. Greg Hamilton, "Hey Bubba, whut chew think a' dis Ebonics nonsense?" St. Petersburg Times Jan. 5, 1997, 2.
2. George J. Wilberg, Letter to the Editor, Newsweek, March 3, 1997, 12.
3. Mary McGrory, "The GOP's Newt-bonics," Washington Post, Dec. 29, 1996, C1.
4. Kenneth Li, "Hick Meets Sick," Daily News [New York], May 4, 1997, 42.

November 19, 2012

"Folks" and folksiness

From the early years of the George W. Bush administration I’ve been hearing public speakers refer to others as “folks”—to sound more genuine, informal, democratic, maybe even American.   Paula Broadwell, the now-famous paramour of General David Petraeus started a lecture on her book with the following:

Before we get started I’d like to see how many veterans there are in the room, so I know I who I’m facing. Okay, well, first of all, thank you for all of your service and I know we might have a few folks that belong to Team Red White and Blue as well, are there any folks from this veterans’ support organization?  A couple of folks, okay great, thanks for coming.
Where one would usually say “people” or “individuals,” and then “anyone,” Broadwell gets in touch with her audience by using folks.  This is a folksy (that is, common-man, rural, simple) trope that Bush seems to have initiated—how else might a wealthy grandson of a senator-and-son of a CIA director/congressman show his natural small-town, everyday tendencies?  President Obama seems to have picked it up too.  I’m sure that we can multiply more and more political figures use of “folks.”  I wish I had saved a comment I once saw, sent to the IRS by a tax accountant on behalf of a large corporation, objecting to a new tax regulation in the name of “folks.”

The folksy use of “folks” seems like a newish innovation--maybe a Bush-era innovation.  The plural is an American innovation, recognized before the American Civil War in Noah Webster’s great dictionary.  He notes (s.v. “folk”) that 

“Originally and properly it had no plural, being a collective noun ; but in modern use, in America, it has lost its singular number, and we hear it only in the plural.  It is a colloquial word, not admissible into elegant style.”
In the definition: 

1. People in general, or any part of them without distinction.  What do folks say respecting the war?  Men love to talk about the affairs of other folks.
2. Certain people, discriminated from others, as old folks and young folks.  So we say, sick folks ; poor folks ; proud folks.” (The 1848 printing of the 1845 edition.)

In the authorities collected in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage there “folks” are typically referred to either as rural types, or in Webster’s definition, people in general or  “certain people, discriminated from others” sense.  There’s no indication that “folks” is used in the sense of particular citizens who might have particular, individual experiences, as Broadwell uses it and as Bush and Obama do. 

So these sources don't seem to indicate the politically valuable type of folksiness that Bush and Obama have tried to evoke, and with which they have infected other politically-minded people.  It strikes me as a very recent innovation.  My main objection to this use of "folks" is that it’s simply not genuine—it’s an attempt to inject some average-ness, some common-ness,  some unassuming-ness into the speech of persons who are definitely not average or common or normal.

November 9, 2012

October 23, 2012

Business philosophy

I can't resist reporting on one of the most-true statements I have ever heard (although I'm not very well-read in philosophy).  The recorded message on the phone line at my insurance company, CIGNA, told me, "Your unique individuality is what makes you you." 

October 18, 2012

Office bullshit

Before the days of "synergies," "solutions," "leveraging," and "skill sets" there was plenty of office bullshit.

I've been doing some research on the history of commercial correspondence--letter-writing in the days before phone calls, faxes, and the telex--and have found many instances of "favor" to mean "letter."  It occurs especially in the locution "your favor(s)," as in "We beg to acknowledge receipt of your favor of May 24th . . ." as late as 1912 (Eleanora Banks, Correct Business and Legal Forms).  OED finds "favor" meaning "letter" as early as 1645, and by the time its letter F came out in 1895 OED editors labeled it "Now, at least in England, confined to commercial correspondence."  However, simultaneous American authorities label it "hackneyed" (Edward Hall Gardner, Effective Business Letters (1920); (Hotchkiss and Burnett, Advanced Business Correspondence (1920)).  The clunking respectfulness of "favor" could be made even more absurd:

"Gentlemen--We are in receipt of your esteemed favor of the 17th, ordering five car-loads of our best pine . . ." (O. R. Palmer, Type-Writing and Business Correspondence, 1891).

An example of another common feature from these old books: " Your favor of the 3d inst. is at hand, and we are surprised to learn that the books forwarded February 11th, by freight, have not been received.” (Thomas R. Browne and Edmond C. Browne, Miscellaneous Correspondence: Commercial and Legal Forms (Part I, 1907), p. 3.)   "Inst." ("instant") refers to a letter of the third day of the month in which the response is written; "your favor of the 3d ult." or "ultimo" would refer to a letter of the preceding month.

September 6, 2012

Your word of the day: "Spermologer"

Came across this one in my fitful studies of Greek. While St. Paul preaches in Athens the local philosophers taunt him and ask, "What might this spermologos [σπερμολόγος] be wanting to say?" (Acts 17:18).  The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon shows the word is a combination of sperma (σπέρμα) for "seed" and logos (λόγος), a noun from the verb legō (λέγω), in one sense "to pick up."   "Spermologos" originally meant some bird that pecked for seeds, but applied disparagingly to a person it means he is a "babbler," in Liddell's and Scott's translation.  So "What might this babbler be wanting to say?" taunt the Epicureans and the Stoics in the Agora.  But you can Paul a "spermologer," and the word shows up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

June 7, 2012

Squinch: a false etymology on Wikipedia

There's a couple instances of false etymologies on Wikipedia.  If something on Wikipedia looks too exotic or interesting to be true, it probably is.  Grant Barrett on "A Way With Words" pointed out that "homie" and "homeboy" are nineteenth-century black slang.  He had more than once changed the Wikipedia page "Homeboy" to reflect this, and each time others had changed it back to a false etymology: that homeboy came from homo or homme or hombre.

I discovered what looks like a false etymology in the Wikipedia article "Squinch."  A squinch is an architectural member that was an early (Byzantine?) solution to the problem of stacking an octagonal or a round dome on a square, four-walled structure: create four squinches, or little bridges at the corners of the walls, set at 45-degree angles to the walls.  The dome can sit on these, as well as the center-points of the four walls.  The Wikipedia article thinks squinch comes from a Persian word "pronounced 'sekonj.'"  "Persian, huh?" I thought.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to the French escoinson, meaning "from an angle" and via the English word "scuncheon." 

Can anyone out there explain the reasoning behind the Persian-word claim?

May 16, 2012

A verb "to diary"

I haven't been able to find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, or in any of my American dictionaries.  I came across correspondence at work where someone in Britain suggested the letter's recipient "diary for" a certain future date.  According to this post, it means to put a note in your diary.  Does anyone know if this is business jargon?

April 4, 2012

Pronouncing "permit"

Here's something that makes my skin crawl.  I have noticed many people pronouncing the noun "permit" with the stress on the second syllable, /per-MIT/: "Can I get a per-MIT to do this?"  I believe that it's /PER-mit/ and dictionaries agree with me, although some list /per-MIT/ as a secondary pronunciation.  Everyone thinks the verb is the one pronounced /per-MIT/.  So saying "the city gave me a /per-MIT/" sounds wrong.

A change in stress occurs in other noun-verb homographs--compare the noun /PRO-duce/ to the verb /pro-DUCE/.   As with "produce," the noun usually stresses the first syllable, and the verb the second syllable.  Here's a good list. This change in stress carries over to the nominalized form of the verb--/pro-DUC-tion/ is a noun that comes from the /pro-DUCE/, not the verb noun /PRO-duce/.  Whence we get second syllable stresses in /per-MIT-ting/ and in /per-MIS-sion/, the noun form of the verb /per-MIT/.

Curiously, there seems to be another series.  A government's procedure for issuing a (noun) /PER-mit/ is called the /PER-mitting/ process; in making a verbal gerund out of the noun, it ignores the second-syllable stress the verb typically gets.   So we now have /PER-mitting/ as well as /per-MIT-ting/.

Of course, this latter series won't exist if you pronounce the noun /per-MIT/.  By the way, I can't tell if per-MIT is a regionalism, and I've exhausted the dictionaries on the reference shelf at the New York Public Library.

March 21, 2012


I wrote about "viz." first, because I think it's the most interesting of the "...that is," substitutes.  "I.e." is the only one most people should use these days, although I think spelling out "that is" or "I mean to say" is better style than using a Latin abbreviation.  ("I.e." is from id est, "that is".)  Use "i.e." to introduce a rephrasing, clarification, enumeration, etc. of what has just been said.

Modern authorities say not to italicize "i.e.," even though it's in a foreign language--it's been naturalized into English after centuries of use. Don't put spaces within it.  It is always proceeded by a comma, but not necessarily  followed by one.  This is up to you, as long as you are consistent in your writing.  This is in contrast to "that is," which is usually going to be proceeded by and followed by a comma.

March 15, 2012


I recently investigated the mysteries of "viz.," "sc.," "i.e.," and "e.g."  First, I'd advise against using any of these in your formal writing--they are shortcuts, and are best used as time-savers and space-savers when necessary in technical writing or very informal writing.  Use the spelled-out, plain English words I suggest below.  Future posts will cover "i.e." and "e.g."

"Viz." is an abbreviation of the Latin videlicet, which abbreviates videre licet--"one may read."  John Aubrey uses the word "viz." many times in this 1898 edition of Brief Lives (1696).  I'll use this book to illustrate the two situations in which "viz." is typically used:

1) to enumerate the members of a group just referred to:
"They consist of severall stately trees of the like groweth and heighth, viz. elme, chestnut, beach, hornbeame . . . " (pp. 79-80).

"When these verses were made she had three children by Sir George Kenelme, who are there mentioned, viz. Kenelme, George and John" (p. 231).
2) to reiterate more clearly something already said:
"His deepest divinity is where a man would least expect it: viz. in his Colloquies in a Dialogue between a Butcher and Fishmonger . . . " (p. 249).

This commonly used differentiation is based on the original Fowler's Modern English Usage.  "Viz." was used where you, as a modern writer, should use "namely," "that is to say," or even (if you're in a jovial mood) "to wit."  Another solution is not to use any word at all.  At the top of the last paragraph I might have written ". . . is typically used in two situations, viz. . . ."  but I omitted it.  I got a more succinct, better-flowing sentence.

Some usage notes if you take the plunge: Viz. isn't italicized, or capitalized; put a period after the z; put a comma before it; do not follow it with a comma.

"I.e.," and "e.g." are soon to come!

Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926) and R.W. Burchfield's The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996) are useful sources, as is the Wikipedia page.

March 13, 2012


Here's a word I had only ever heard used once or twice, "mazuma."  Instead of saying "gelt" or "shekels," other words we've adopted jokily into English to mean "money," use "mazuma" or "mazooma."  Mazuma is the Yiddish word for cash or a ready amount; gelt is money or gold; shekelim were biblical units of weight and currency.

March 10, 2012

Rhymes with orange; rhymes with purple

It's hard to think of exact rhymes for these two color words.

According to this very nifty webpage from the Oxford English Dictionary people, there is a word in English that rhymes with "orange": "sporange."  "Sporange" is cited as a 19th-century word for "sporangium," a plant's spore case.  This (not that funny, I'm sorry) TV clip notes as well a place called Blorenge in Wales and the surname Gorringe.

Rhyming with "purple" is a lot more productive:
  • There's "curple," which OED calls a "phonetic corruption of curper." A curper is "a leathern strap buckled to the back of the saddle and passing under the horse's tail, to prevent the saddle from slipping forwards."
  • "Chirpal," a variant spelling of the Australian aborigine language Djirbal.
  • "Hurple," a Scottish word meaning to limp or walk lamely.
  • I suggest "Ashurnasirpal," the Anglicization of the name of at least two Assyrian kings, Aššur-nāṣir-apli (in Assyrian pronounced roughly /ashoor-natsir-aplee/)
  • Finally, the OED lists a single instance of "stirpal" as the adjectival form of "stirp," or branch or scion of a family.  Bryan Garner's Dictionary of American Legal Usage suggests the correct adjective is "stirpital" and cites a number of instances.
 Can you think of any others?  I hope this helps in your next poem.

March 1, 2012

Wen: a lost word?

Just saw someone looking on the internet at Wen shampoo, and I am reminded that a wen is a nasty skin growth or excrescence (although perhaps Wen Jiabao might beg to differ).  There's a famous story about how the Chevy Nova did poorly in Hispanophone countries because no va = "it doesn't go."

February 24, 2012

Spelling and punctuation of academic degree terms

I'm publishing an article shortly (if all goes well) about the history of the "J.D.," the law degree.  I've had to work out a system to refer to and punctuate the words for these degrees.  The bachelor's, master's and doctor's degrees are difficult for a writer to pluralize and to make into possessives. This is primarily because those words end in  -'s.  I've worked out an itty-bitty style guide for them.  A style guide helps my style be, at least, consistent.  (Below, I follow the convention of using an asterisk to refer to a non-existent or incorrect form.

General remarks:

There are six ways to refer to degrees in a sentence in modern writing.  With:
  • their letter abbreviations (B.A.), 
  • the spelled out, English or Latin degree name along with the word "degree": bachelor of arts degree, the degree of master of arts, juris doctor degree
  • the spelled out, English or Latin degree name without the word "degree"
  • one of three possessive (or genitive) -case single words, with or without the word "degree": bachelor's or bachelor's degree, master's or master's degree, doctor's or doctor's degree
  • using an -ate noun: baccalaureate (never *"bachelorate," apparently a non-word), doctorate or, rarely, masterate.  (The word "masterate" is listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as "chiefly N[ew] Z[ealand]," the only time I remember ever seeing it is in an American reference from the 1937 Proceedings of the American Association of Law Schools.) 
  • using baccalaureate or doctorate as an adjective, immediately followed by the word "degree."

The Latin sources of the degrees have to be shown so I can emphasize that each degree is a singular noun.  The B.A. is the "Bachelor of Arts," a translation of the Latin A.B., "Artium Baccalaureus".  M.A., Master of Arts, is from A.M., "Artium Magister," and Ph.D., "doctor of philosophy," is "Philosophiae Doctor."  "Baccalaureus," "Magister" and "Doctor" are all singular, so the degrees should be single in English, too.  *"Bachelors," *"masters" and *"doctors" are incorrect.    The style guide:

1) Capitalization:

The abbreviations of the degrees are generally capitalized according to Latin-abbreviations rules: for instance, B.A., M.A., M.D., J.D.  There seem to be three types of three-letter abbreviations, which you need to be alert for.  The first has three capital letters and two periods, as LL.D. (legum doctor or doctor of laws) and LL.M. (legum magister or master of laws).  The second has two capitals and two periods, as in Ph.D. philosophiae doctor)) and M.Ed. (master's in education, abbreviated according to the Latin rule).  The third and final abbreviations have three capitals and three periods, and typically abbreviate English titles, as in M.P.H. (master's in public health).  Degrees with even more letters exist, and you can extrapolate from these rules.

Don't put a space after any intermediate period in these abbreviations.

Spelled-out degrees:

When used in general terms, as in I want to get a master's degree, or the bachelor of science, there is no capitalization. If you refer to specifically to the degree offered at a university, as one would in promotional materials, capitalization is permissible: Georgetown offers a Master of Laws (or Master of Laws degree) in Taxation.

2) Pluralization:

The easiest and best way to pluralize is to include the word "degree," as in B.A. degrees or bachelor's degrees.  If you are using the abbreviations, you may pluralize as follows: B.A.s, J.D.s, etc., with no apostrophe before the s

Do not try to pluralize the one-word forms bachelor's or master's.  There's just no way to do this comfortably.

3) Possessives:

It's easy to add -'s to the word "degree" (or -' to an existing plural) to make a possessive, as in the bachelor's degree's value is undoubted.  You can add -'s to abbreviations as well, i.e., the M.A.'s value or two M.A.s' value.

You almost certainly can't put the one-word degrees "bachelor's," "master's" or "doctor's" into the possessive, any more than you can pluralize them, because the spelling problem of doubling the apostrophe, or apostrophe-s, is too ungainly.

4) You can refer to individuals by the degrees they possess.

Individuals can be referred metonymically as a Ph.D. or a J.D., but it seems much less natural to say, for lower-level degrees, "my son is a B.A." You can also say for holders of doctorates Bob is a doctor of law or Bob is a doctor of philosophy.

You may say Bob has . . . or Bob earned . . . any of the degrees.

5) Punctuation at the end of a sentence.

At the end of a sentence, do not put an extra period after the final period of an abbreviation.

I hope this style guide helps you in your writing!

February 21, 2012

Pronouncing "-ough"

In standard English the word-ending "-ough" is pronounced in eight different ways in common English words:

1. /oh/ as in "though"
2. /aw/ as in "bought" or "ought"
3. /oo/ as in "through"
4. /ow/ as in "bough" or "slough" (this means a muddy ditch or miry hole)
5. /uff/ as in "enough" "slough" (a verb meaning to shed one's skin, or the related noun)
6. /off/ as in "cough"
7. /up/ as in "hiccough", although I would spell it "hiccup"
8. /uh/ as in some British pronunciations of "borough" and "thorough" (/buruh/ and /thuruh/, where Americas would end with /oh/)

There's a few others:

9. /ahhk/ or perhaps
10. /ahhg/: George G. Vasey's 1862 Classical English Spelling-Book suggests these two unusual ones for the dog called a "shough" (or "shock")--"These Curs are much set by with Ladys, who . . . trim of all the hair of their hinder parts."* There's no pronunciation for this word in my big dictionaries, but alternative spellings suggest two, reading as /shock/ or /showg/.

As well as "shough," a few more are suggested in Jeff Aronson's sidebar, "When I Use a Word, Ough Ough," British Medical Journal (July 20, 2002), p. 160:

11. /ug/ in "oughly," an archaic spelling of "ugly"

12. /ok/, in certain Scottish words like "hough" and "lough," and

13. /ookh/ (with the glottal ending of "loch" or "ach"), as in "sough" (in one of its homonyms, a rushing or murmuring sound) or "through-stane" (the stone or a slab over a tomb).

The Oxford English Dictionary often traces words with these spellings to Middle English or Old English words that ending in the letter ȝ or "yogh," that sounded like /y/ or something like the ending in Scottish "loch."

* Randle Holme, The academy of armory; or, A storehouse of armory and blazon · 1st edition, 1688

February 4, 2012

"Mirror," "reflect" and "reverse"

I stumbled across an interesting usage phenomenon with the verbs "to mirror" and "to reflect." Mirrors and reflections return the opposite of the original image or object--think of "mirror-writing" (writing from right to left, and forming letters backwards) or the evil Mirror Universe (Star Trek's counterpart of our own, which apparently is the "good" universe).  However, "to mirror" or "reflect" something mean being its identical copy or image. There's no change in polarity, as when you actually look in the mirror.  Maybe your left hand seems to be your right hand when you stand before a mirror in the real world; but when things are figuratively mirrored they go in the same direction. One of the examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is
1992    Economist 4 Jan. 54/3   McKinsey reckons a shortage of hard currency‥means that the east German car boom is unlikely to be mirrored anywhere else in Eastern Europe.
If a country in Eastern Europe were to mirror the German boom, its car production would also increase; but if you looked at a graph of the German boom in a mirror, production would of course seem to go in the direction of decrease.  This limited conception of what a mirror really does, copying but not reversing, seems very natural to me. The same phenomenon occurs when we use the word "reflect"--if trend or concept x reflects trend or concept y, it will move in the same direction as y.  To show movement in an opposite direction, we would say that x "reverses" y.  I might also use "inverts," "flips" or "spins"--but a "mirror" or "reflection" analogy would not be appropriate.  An ontological curiosity, for your delectation.

January 20, 2012

"Strikingly dark": A euphemism for "Jewish?"

I discovered an interesting euphemism for "Jew" (Jew-phemism?), "strikingly dark," in Six Crises, Richard Nixon's 1962 book (Nixon Lib. ed. 1991) about episodes from his political career.

Some background as to why anyone needed a euphemism for "Jew": In the twentieth century (in its first half, certainly) some people shied away from referring to Jews as "Jews." Instead they would use one of the words more properly denoting the people of the Bible, "Hebrews" or "Israelites."  Think of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, a parallel to the YMC--(Christian)--A.   H.L. Mencken discusses euphemisms for "Jew" in the second edition (1921) of The American Language.  He thinks the  sensitivity stems from the opprobrious use of the "Jew" as a noun generically to mean "money-lender"; and as a verb meaning "to drive a hard bargain."  Supplement One (1945, p. 613) to Mencken's fourth edition makes the same observation, although noting that by 1945 "Jew" and "Jewish" were used much less warily by those whom the words properly denoted. When used as an adjective, as in "Jew boy" or in "Jew-usurer" (from Jane Eyre), the word is definitely opprobrious.1  Use of the word "Jew" as an attack is not necessarily gone today--read Google's statement about the use of the word "Jew," primarily by anti-Semitic websites, available here.    Finally, I suppose someone predisposed against Jewish people would as soon sneer "Jew" as speak it.   

For "strikingly dark":Chapter One of Six Crises discusses Richard Nixon's career-making investigation of Alger Hiss, an accused Communist and accused spy for the Soviets.  Hiss tells Nixon about Esther, the wife of his main accuser Whittaker Chambers, during a Congressional hearing.

[Hiss:] "She was a rather strikingly dark person.  Very strikingly dark."
. . . I [Nixon] had seen Esther Chambers and she was indeed strikingly dark.  (p. 28)

It seems Esther must be Jewish--her given name is an indicator, and because of the obviously Jewish name of her Brooklynite nephew, Nathan Levine (p. 50).  Wikipedia says her maiden name was "Shemitz."  And it seems Hiss and Nixon intend to identify her by a salient characteristic, looking Jewish.  But they describe her not as a Jew, but by the poetic euphemism of being "strikingly dark."

I've never heard "strikingly dark" used in this way, and can't find anything on the interwebs other than the Hiss testimony that uses it to mean "Jewish." (The locution seems common enough in other contexts.)  Any thoughts?

1. See also R.W. Burchfield, Fowler's Modern English Usage (3d ed. 1996), s.v. "Jew." 

January 17, 2012

What if Wikipedia stayed off?

What if Wikipedia stayed "off"?  Where will so many of us go to do our research when we have to do real legwork to find sources and answers?

Wikipedia and other websites are going to be "blacked out" on Wednesday to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). While many of the other sites that are threatening to make themselves unavailable on Wednesday aren't educationally valuable as far as I can tell (the Washington Post mentions Reddit and Failblog), Wikipedia does contain lots of valuable information.  I've always been bothered by what people think is the main virtue of Wikipedia (after its comprehensiveness and the price, $0), the broad-based and essentially anonymous base of writers for the online encyclopedia.  Wikipedia believes that inaccuracy in an article, whether stemming from a writer's ignorance or a writer's bad faith, will be corrected by other contributors.  I've always been skeptical that an uncredentialed and anonymous person from who-knows-where could present entirely accurate and complete articles; but it does seem like Wikipedia is more free of vandalism than one might expect from a web page "that anyone can edit."  And I don't recall recently finding huge, honking errors in articles that I've read on subjects where I am knowledgeable enough to notice such errors.

But what really bugs me is that people, especially children and older students, may be using Wikipedia to do their basic research or even all their research.  The growing neglect of printed sources could lead to forgetting why printed sources are so valuable: rather than relying on yet another anonymous Wikipedia contributor to check a contributor's work, publishers have their own experts, people with public reputation, who edit the materials that a writer submits.  The writers are not anonymous, but credentialed.  The vetting process is not anonymous, but is instead done by people a reader must necessarily trust over the anonymous Wikipedian, who has no reputation at all.  The gatekeepers to the city of knowledge that Wikipedia is trying to get around are essential to the process of transmitting information.

This is because the presence of such gatekeepers is the triumph of the past few hundred years of scholarship and professional publishing--we can all rely on printed resources to give us an impartial view of the state of a science, history, or some other subject.  I know that it's only as impartial a view as the current state of research makes possible.  The printed sources are not perfect--but they are perfect in the sense of being the product of the best method we have, that is, knowledgeable and vetted gatekeepers each providing an edited sum of his knowledge.  And the fact that the sources cost money is just fine--knowledge about any given subject isn't free--it takes man-hours and travel time and the costs of pencil and paper.  People should acknowledge that what they're learning is important enough to pay for.

And maybe it's not for the best that every bit of knowledge can be at a young person's fingers at the speed of light!  For one thing, the ease of figuring out how old Harrison Ford is or what the average snowfall in Moscow is leads people to be rude--let's interrupt our humans-only conversation about Moscow to find out some fact on the computer or the Iphone!  More importantly, the ease of getting to an answer makes it even easier for a reader, especially one not an experienced researcher, to assume that he's gotten the whole answer.  To assume that there's not a different point of view out there, or some facet of a subject that Wikipedia has missed.  I don't think that a print source necessarily protects against this naivete or this laziness--but when you go to the library shelf to get a book, it's much harder to ignore all the alternative sources that are right there next to the first source you've chosen.

So . . . if Wikipedia stayed "off" for a little while, perhaps people would be forced to reconsider their faith in a single, essentially anonymous source.  They might branch out and look for other sources, websites or even books, that they like as well or even better.  They might better appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a society where there is so much reliable, expensive information right at our fingertips; and they might better appreciate the effort, discipline and tact that go into providing good information.

And maybe when I wake up tomorrow I'll marshal some evidence for any of the things I've written here.

January 4, 2012

Professorial authority

My last post dealt with poor taste, and I ran into even poorer taste yesterday in the New York Times (William Yardley, "Bulk's Not Just In Bulkhead, So Coast Guard Steps In," Jan. 1, 2012). The article deals with the impressive increase in weight of the average American--the Coast Guard's Assumed Average Weight Per Person used to calculate passenger vessel capacity is now 185 pounds, up from 160 pounds in the 1960s (page 1, col. 3 of this link).

For color, the reporter included this paragraph, in parentheses:
“Some fine examples of what we’re talking about just went down the stairs,” said William H. Matchett, a retired English professor at the University of Washington, lifting an eye from Henry James’s “The Golden Bowl” to nod toward some formidable passengers on the Wenatchee recently. “But this is a big boat.”
A gratuitous quote from an English professor making fun of fat people!  Here's Matchett's biography and his oeuvre.  Matchett is not mentioned again, and I can't find any evidence that he's an expert on anything about ferries or fatties.  William Yardley, you are snooty!