Choate, couth and cognito

gruntled

Originally posted in 2015.

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Disingenuous seems to be the word of the week at 21C: we’re all at pains to avoid seeming or being it in our work as publicists. But as one of my more literary colleagues pointed out: why don’t we use the word ingenuous* more often — i.e. without the “dis-” in front of it? Is there even such a word, and does it mean the opposite of disingenuous? (See below to find out.) And are there other words like this whose obvious opposites don’t seem to exist? Continue reading

I think you mean the opposite …

Glosso’s last post was about words that don’t sound like what they actually mean (at least not to me); an example is prosaic, which I think sounds quite poetic, but means – in a general sense – commonplace or unromantic. But that doesn’t mean I use it wrongly; it just sounds wrong. Today we’re looking at ten words that are commonly used to mean the opposite of what they really (or historically) mean. I’m sure you can think of others; please add them in the comments section below. Continue reading

Words that sound like their own antonyms

Do you ever get that jarring feeling when a word sounds as though it should actually mean the opposite – or at least something very different? Three words that always make me stumble mentally are “prosaic”, “urbane”, and “bucolic”. To me, “prosaic” has a poetic, imaginative quality, perhaps because of my optimistic view of language and prose being generally artistic. “Urbane” sounds to me more like what “prosaic” actually means: straightforward, matter-of-fact, unimaginative. Is it because the second half of the word makes me think of banal? The heavy, earthy sound of that weighted second syllable (which itself has ruinous implications) doesn’t quite evoke that lofty sophistication it’s meant to denote. And isn’t “bucolic” the ugliest and most inappropriate way of describing a scene of rustic idyll  – conjuring up instead (in my mind, anyway) images of phlegm and disease? Perhaps it’s the back end of the word again: colic. Or its similarity to “bubonic”, which exists only to describe the worst plague in human history.

Can you think of other words that have been lumbered with fake identities but still manage to masquerade their way successfully through conversation and literature?

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“Anniversary”: years in a word

Originally posted in August 2011.

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It seems an opportune moment, as we approach a significant date that history will never forget, to look at the meaning and derivation of the word “anniversary” — a word that will be on everyone’s lips over the coming weeks and days. It’s a word that many feel the need to qualify – wrongly – with the word “year”, even though the notion of year is inherent in the definition of the word itself. Do a Google news search on the phrase “10-year anniversary”, and hundreds if not thousands of results come up, none of them really correct. Continue reading

A fortune known as Bunny

Originally posted in May 2011.

Following up on my earlier post about misused em dashes, here’s a good example of a situation in which a couple of those dashes might have come in handy.

An article published in today’s New York Times about former presidential candidate John Edwards facing criminal charges ( you can read it here) includes a poorly-worded and badly-punctuated sentence that bestows a nickname on a million-dollar fortune:

“Investigators have said that the money came from two top donors — Rachel Mellon, the heiress to the Mellon fortune known as Bunny, and Fred Baron, Mr. Edwards’s finance chairman, who died in 2008.”

A more careful copy-editor would have corrected the punctuation to make the sentence read as follows:

“Investigators have said that the money came from two top donors: Rachel Mellon, the heiress — known as Bunny — to the Mellon fortune, and Fred Baron, Mr. Edwards’s finance chairman, who died in 2008.”

Or more simply — and avoiding the em dashes altogether by using a well-understood practice of indicating monikers — the sentence could have placed the offending nickname in quotation marks between Ms. Mellon’s first and last names. Poor — or rather rich — Bunny.

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I’ll take that with a side of small words …

Originally posted in April 2011.

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It’s probably a cultural thing. With our need to please everyone and to offend no-one (at least not overtly or publicly), not to assume anything nor to presume – God forbid – any sort of familiarity or intimacy, to clarify, to tiptoe around the subject, and to mind our Ps and Qs, we Brits love to pile on the words. Mainly little ones. Our colleagues across the ocean are all about being direct: what you hear is what you get.

“Please, if you would be so kind, would it be possible to have a sandwich with some pastrami and some rye bread, if that’s OK? Thank you,” whispers the red-faced Englishman in the queue at the deli counter.

“Gimme a pastrami on rye!” yells the Yank.

In most examples of usage differences, it’s the Brits who add the extra words:  an article here, a pronoun there, a qualifier, a conjunction, a polite plea — oh just anything to soften the brutality of that bare utterance.

Americans are known to look after their mouths more carefully than do their counterparts across the Atlantic, so perhaps it’s in the spirit of lingual thriftiness that they’re always on the look-out for an opportunity to save a syllable. “The exhibit opens April 15,” they say, shortening the exhibition to one of its components, taking out the “on”, and skipping all the laborious date embellishments that Brits prefer to add (“it actually opens on the 16th of April”). “That’s two hundred fifty-three bucks!”, they exclaim, while we surreptitiously slide a conjunction in between the numbers. “Enjoy!” they command, removing the object of anticipated pleasure – or its pronoun. “Write me” doesn’t mean you have to spell out a two-letter word.  “He took it in stride” leaves no Yank guessing: “Whose stride”? Hell, they even save a whole syllable by removing that tiny “i” from the name of our planet’s most abundant metal … (But don’t let’s get started on letter-dropping here.)

So, why then is every American willing to expend that extra ounce of oral energy when they refer to themselves receiving (but not dispensing) treatment in their temples of healing? Along with the Brits — who admittedly have to venture a little outside their comfort zones in these instances, Yanks are usually content with article-less descriptions of their locations, deployments or confinements when they’re “at sea”, “in jail” or “at school”. But the moment an American becomes a patient, she is in THE hospital” (unlike her British counterpart who’s as happy in hospital as she is in prison).

Both their attending physicians need a definite article where they work, though. Just to avoid any confusion.

 

To prorogue or not to prorogue

King Charles I at his trial in 1649

There are two words screaming from today’s British headlines: prorogation and prorogue. “MPs pledge to form alternative parliament in case of prorogation.” “Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is preparing to ask Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue or suspend the UK Parliament from September until mid-October.” You’re probably wondering — as I am — what on earth prorogue means, and where that word comes from.  Continue reading

The language of sex: come one, cum all!

Originally posted in 2013, and then updated last year when it came back into the news … 

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Update: The censored cake … With the word “cum” back in the news today, Glossophilia is happy to republish one of its most popular posts.

The censored cake / Facebook

 

KamaSutra

*  *  Warning: contains strong language *  * Language advisory: viewer discretion advised * *

I was watching Masters of Sex the other night on Showtime, and it struck me that Masters and Johnson were using the word come a lot. And they weren’t meaning the opposite of go. (It didn’t escape my notice that they also seemed to be coming a lot — but that’s another story…) I know these ground-breaking sex researchers of the 1950s and ’60s were famously ahead of their time, but not in their word choices — and their use of this particular piece of sexual terminology sounded weirdly anachronistic to me. I really thought that this word “come” was a more modern invention… Continue reading

Forever blowing bubbles

Originally posted in May 2011.

“For ever”: these two words, when used together, are so poetic and so laden with meaning. In their definitiveness they conjure up the most extreme notions and emotions of the human condition: eternities of love, of despair, of hope, of estrangement, of desire, of determination, of life itself and even the hereafter. The words can’t be used lightly, whether they’re whispered or declared in the context of a single mortal lifespan or the unfathomable eternity of the universe; their meaning carries a certain gravitas in terms of time and intention. “I will stay here for ever” has no ambiguity about it. The OED defines the expression “for ever” as “for all future time” – or, more colloquially, “for a long time”. But put those two little words together, and here’s where the Americans and the Brits part company. Continue reading