Category Archives: Words, phrases & expressions

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

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

Trump’s use of the word “invasion” has eerie precedent

    

As The Week reported last week: “Since January, President Trump’s re-election campaign has posted more than 2,000 Facebook ads focusing on immigration that use the word “invasion,” the New York Times reported. He also used the word “invasion” in several tweets regarding immigrants at the border. Trump’s word choice is in the spotlight following Saturday’s massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which left at least 22 people dead. The suspect is believed to have written an online screed ahead of the attack, declaring it “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Data from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic communications firm tracking 2020 presidential candidates’ digital advertising, shows that since late March, Trump has spent an estimated $1.25 million on Facebook ads about immigration.”

Donald Trump isn’t the only world leader who has used the words “invasion” and “invaders” with political (and malevolent) intent. As Lynne Tyrrell explained yesterday in The Guardian: A 1992 speech by Rwandan political leader Leon Mugesera is widely considered to have launched genocidal mobilization in Rwanda. Mugesera repeatedly called Rwanda’s Tutsis “invaders”. Like Trump, who recently said that four Democratic congresswomen should go back to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Mugesera said that the Tutsi “invaders” should be sent back to where they came from: “I am telling you that your home is in Ethiopia, that we will send you by the Nyabarongo so you can get there quickly.” The Nyabaraongo river runs to the Nile. After steady repetition of this rhetoric, the river grew clogged with Tutsi bodies during the genocide. Sending them back to Ethiopia, literally. Words became horrific action.”

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Lay, Lady, Lay (or Lie?)

Joan Llimona: Woman Lying Down / Wikimedia Commons

“Lay, lady, lay,” sang Bob Dylan back in 1969. “Lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile”

Would Dylan have been more correct to write “Lie, lady, lie“? It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? And we might have thought from the first few words that it was a song about deceit or infidelity. But it might have been more technically correct, vocabulary-wise …

Lay and lie are similar, but they don’t officially mean the same thing. (And we’re talking here about the “making horizontal” and “setting down” senses of these words – not the telling fibs or porkie pies kind of lie or lying. That’s another story altogether.) What makes things really confusing about lay and lie is that they mean different things and have different uses in the present tense, but one serves as the past tense of the other. OK, now you’re really confused. Take it away, Oxford Dictionaries: you explain it quite well. (And Glosso has thrown in some edits and examples to make it even clearer.) Continue reading