Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mistakenly racist terms

Q. A friend of mine became upset when I used the phrase “to call a spade a spade.” She says that it’s a vicious racist term. Is she right?

Your friend is dead wrong, and it’s a sign of our hypersensitive times that innocent words are often branded as offensive. Quite bluntly, such a reaction is the product of ignorance.

If you go back to the earliest written version of the saying, you bump up against a Greek satirist named Lucian (2nd century A.D.). To express the idea of speaking bluntly, of calling things what they are, he used the phrase (in his language), “to call a fig a fig and a boat a boat.” So where did the word spade come from?

It’s based on a mistranslation by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus [ca. 1466 - 1536]. In Greek, skaphis is a shovel or spade, and skaphos is a boat, a skiff. He chose the wrong word, and “to call a spade a spade” came into being. In 1539, John Tavener brought Erasmus’ Latin version into English in his Garden of Wysdome: “Whiche call . . . a mattok nothing els but a mattok, and a spade a spade.” A mattock, by the way, is a digging tool with a flat blade set at right angles to the handle. So Tavener was advancing the meaning of the proverb to show that even allied objects should be carefully distinguished. After that, the saying was off and running, and it was used by dozens of writers, eventually dooming it to cliché status.

Spade, the offensive racist term referring to a black person, probably derived from the color of the ace of spades in a deck of cards, and it didn’t attain this meaning until 1928. So only someone who believes that Nostradamus was on top of his game would believe that a phrase in use for almost 2,000 years miraculously foretold an obnoxious slang term of the early 20th century.

The same is true of “a coon’s age.” It refers to the raccoon and the mistaken notion that it lives a very long time. In fact, their maximum longevity is 7.2 years. What does last is coonskin, as Davy Crockett and his cap will testify. There is no racist origin in this phrase whatsoever. Of course, stupid people have used animals as insults for ages, including dogs, but it’s no reflection on this saying.

Finally, there’s niggardly, a term that enraged vocabulary-deprived politicians in Washington a few years back. It means “in a parsimonious or frugal manner,” and it comes from an Old Norse word meaning stingy. The vile and ignominious N-word, rightly held in contempt by educated people, comes from a Latin word meaning black, and has absolutely nothing to do with the adjective niggard.

Twisted minds can take innocent words and images and turn them into an attack, but sometimes the fault is with the listener or reader who, through ignorance, interprets an innocent or unconnected word with verbal assault. This is why I take Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words to heart: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

May 17, 2009

NOTE: It has come to my attention that some British racist organizations have been using this article to justify their twisted practices. They fool no one. ANY word that is used as racist code can, and should be, considered offensive. I remember white police officers in Chicago using the code word citizens to designate African-Americans, as in "the citizens are restless tonight." In any such case, intention vitiates an otherwise innocent word.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Silent Letters

Q. Why is the letter -L- silent in words such as salmon and solder?

In those two cases, the English spelling originally did not have an -l-, so there was no such letter to pronounce. The fish was spelled samoun, and the fusible alloy was spelled soudur. In the 18th century, our friends the hypercorrectionists decided that these and other words should show their Latin origins. Salmo was Latin for the fish, and solidus was Latin for the joining agent, so doesn’t it make perfect sense to graft an -l- into the English words? Not really. The spelling was forcibly changed, but the original pronunciation lived on.

The silent L is often followed by one of 4 letters: D as in could, should, would, and solder; F as in behalf, calf and half; K as in balk, caulk, chalk, stalk, talk, and walk; and M as in balm, calm, embalm, napalm, palm, psalm, qualm, and salmon.

The 18th century meddlers threw in other letters as well as they gave a nod to classical origins. A vivid example is the word dette. It was efficiently phonetic, but they decided that since it came from the Latin debitum, it should have a “b” to acknowledge the origin: debt. Doute was not allowed to stand since in Latin it was dubitum; so it became doubt. And the word subtle reflected the fact that in Latin it was subtilis, so the English sutill had to go.

All this makes about as much sense as bemoaning the fact that humans no longer sport their ancestors’ gills.

Another class of silent letters owes its existence to a quirk of history. In the Middle English period, pronunciation changes began to occur rapidly. Without interference, spelling would have raced to keep up. But in 1474, having set up shop in England, William Caxton printed the first book in English. As he and other printers began to print and sell copies, older versions of spelling were chiseled in stone, and soon there was a serious discrepancy between the way many words were said and the way those words were spelled.

The silent -e- on the end of so many words serves a limited purpose in our day. Some would make more sense as som. But once upon a time (tim), some was pronounced som-eh. So came, done, phone, barge, gone, and a host of other words now carry a largely unneeded letter.

The same thing happened with -kn-. A gentle knight was once a gentleh kanicht. So know, knife, knock, knee, knell, knickers, knit, knob, knot and others of that ilk would have lost that initial -k- if printing hadn’t interfered. And as we just saw with the word knight, the -gh- sequence is often unpronounced, as in ought, taught, drought, dough, and many others.

So we have a dichotomous reality: in some cases, people should have kept their hands off spelling; in other cases, someone should have interfered.

NOTE: reader Bob Hageman points out that today the -E- at the end of a word sometimes designates the preceding vowel as a long vowel, as in name, game, blame, and so on. I stand corrected; that's something I forgot to add. I was singlemindedly thinking about English before the Great Vowel Shift, when short vowels were the norm, and the terminal -E- was pronounced with something close to a schwa sound. On the other hand, today a number of words ending in -E- do not sport long vowels: one, done, gone, none, some, etc.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

You're Fired!

Q. I read on the internet that fired, meaning dismissed from a job (he was fired) came about in the 18th century when landowners burned down tenants' houses rather than pay taxes on occupied land.

A. The internet probably has more language myths than realities, and this is one of them. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that fired in this sense is American slang. It means "To turn (anyone) out of a place; to eject or expel forcibly; to dismiss or discharge peremptorily; to reject (a picture sent in for exhibition). Frequently with out."

1885: "If the practice is persisted in, then pupils should be fired out."
1887: "Postmaster Breed says the next time such a thing occurs he will fire the offender bodily."

The context here suggests firing from a cannon rather than torching a house. Discharge shares the same duality: it refers to firing a gun and firing someone from a job.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fewer vs. Less

Q. The store where I shop has two signs next to each other at the checkout counter: "12 items or less" and "12 items or fewer." What's going on?

A. Sounds like an insecure manager to me. The general rule for the difference between less and few/fewer is this: (1) Use few/fewer to describe things that can be counted—
fewer cigarettes, fewer cars, fewer jobs. (2) Use less to describe things that cannot be counted—less smoking, less traffic, less employment. So “12 items or fewer” is correct.
However, to be fair, in idiomatic English—and more and more in formal usage—less is being used with a plural noun denoting time, amount, or distance: There are less than two minutes to play in the game; She makes less than $40,000 a year; We have less than three miles to go. In other words, sometimes separate, countable elements (which would therefore need the word fewer) are treated as an unbroken unit and the word less is then acceptable. Until the dust settles, play it safe and follow the rules in paragraph one.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Mike's Bibliography

On the Lamb in a Doggy Dog World: At Play with the English Language (Arbutus Press, 2006)
ISBN-13: 978-0-9766104-9-6

Words to the Wise: A Lighthearted Look at the English Language (Arbutus Press, 2004)
ISBN 0-9665316-8-X

The Word Parts Dictionary (McFarland & Co., 2000)
ISBN: 0-7864-0819-7

Words! A Vocabulary Power Workbook (Harcourt Brace, 1996)
ISBN: 0-15-502570-8

Handbook for Basic Writers (Prentice-Hall, 1991) Co-author, Nancy Sheehan
ISBN: 0-13-381898-5

Workbook for Basic Writers (Prentice-Hall, 1991) Co-author, Nancy Sheehan
ISBN: 0-13-381948-5

The Cry of the Jackal (Avalon Books, 1991)
ISBN: 0-8034-8879-3

In the Shadow of the Bear (Avalon Books, 1990)
ISBN: 0-8034-8838-6

In northern Michigan, listen to Mike's Tuesday morning program about the English language on WTCM, Talk Radio AM 580, from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m.

Bracket Your Parentheses

Q. When should I use brackets and when parentheses in writing reports?

A. Brackets are the square enclosure marks inserted by a second writer to signal corrections, interposed comments, explanatory notes, or translations that were not in the original text.
Parentheses are the rounded enclosure marks used primarily to signal definitions, examples, and other remarks by the original writer of the text. Use parentheses sparingly. (Too many of them indicate that you are getting wordy and drifting away from the main point; you certainly don't want to be guilty of that.)

Helpful Hint: Enclosing the word sic, meaning thus, in brackets [sic] is a way of signaling to the reader, "Don't blame me for the misspelling or factual error; that's the way I found it in the original."

Lorem ipsum: say what?

Q. I'm getting married later this year, and the shop which will print our invitations gave me a book of typeface samples. Over and over, some kind of foreign phrase shows up as an illustration. I've copied it to send to you: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipscing elit, diam nonnumy eiusmod tempor incidunt ut labore et dolo. What language is this, and what does it say?

A. First of all, congratulations on your impending wedding. I trust that your printer will allow you to substitute your own names and information for the Latin sample. This is a printer's custom which goes back hundreds of years. Some unknown typesetter took a portion of Cicero's de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Purposes of Good & Evil), scrambled the sentences a bit, and started using it as text for a type sample book. The line now is jumbled into nonsense, but the original sentence from which it came spoke about the fact that no one pursues pain directly because it is desirable; it is always a by-product or consequence of some other pursuit.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Deceased D

Q. I saw a sign in a fast-food joint which promised tasty French fry potatoes. Is that right?

A. Hmmm….what happened to the -d in Mickey D? It's wrong; the correct spelling is fried. I'm beginning to see this error in many places, often connected with food for some strange reason. Recent sightings include hot butter popcorn (buttered), cream spinach (creamed), a use car (used), can corn (canned), and distinguish writers (distinguished). Sadly, that last one was on a university web site.
These are all adjectives formed from regular verbs, specifically from the past participle. Usually, they describe persons or things which are receivers of an action or process, and what they have received is basically completed. Something was done to them and they are changed. The -d ending adjective tells what kinds of persons or things they have become as a result of what happened to them. Consider the matter sign, seal, and deliver.

Monday, May 22, 2006


Kakistocracy is defined as government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens. Since this is a blog about language, I won't take time to point a finger; you know who you are. The kakist- segment is the superlative form of the Greek word kakos, bad. The -cracy combining form comes from the Greek kratia, strength or power.

Normally, the -kak- letter combination is rendered as -cac-. We find it spelled that way in the words cacophony (harsh sound) and cacography (wretched handwriting).

An allied form of government is ochlocracy, mob rule. It is based on the Greek word okhlos, crowd, mob, multitude.
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