Saturday, May 30, 2009

Let’s Face It


A news item last week mentioned that Sidharth Chand from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, was one of the favorites in this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. Last year, Sid missed the word "prosopopoeia" -- a rhetorical device by which an imaginary, absent, or dead person is represented as speaking or acting.

The -prosop- root shows up in a number of interesting words. I believe that one of the first times I encountered it was in Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. There, he discussed a case of prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.

The root comes from the Greek προσοπον, face. Here are some of the words based upon it.

aprosopia: absence or imperfect development of the face

prosopalgia: neuralgia affecting the face

Prosopis: prickly trees and shrubs so named because their flowers were thought to resemble a face

prosopography: description of an individual’s life by presenting the various faces/aspects he or she displayed over time

prosopolepsy: partiality or undue favour shown towards a particular person, or towards people of a particular class, rank, etc.

prosopology: the study of facial features

prosopon: any one of the three Persons of the Trinity, especially regarded in terms of outward appearance or manifestation


SIDEBAR: prosopagnosia



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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Monger


A listener asked about the word monger, a once-useful word that seems to have fallen out of favor.

It was used in Old English, though with a different spelling. It appears in a royal charter issued by Aethelwulf, who died in 858. The word came to Old English from the Latin mango, a salesman — in Rome, especially one who sold slaves.

It was often used in compounds that designated the goods handled: cheesemonger, costermonger (apples/fruit), fishmonger, fleshmonger, haymonger, ironmonger, etc. In time, it was applied in an extended sense. From the 16th century on, that sense was often derogatory: ceremony-monger, fashion-monger, news-monger, scandal-monger, war-monger, whore-monger, etc.

Before the word went out of fashion, it was a popular way of forming nonce-words: holy water mongers (Bale), superstition-monger (Twain), hero-monger (The Academy), conference-monger (Shaw), etc.

The word seems to be popular in the names of comic book characters: Fear Monger, Destiny Monger, Spirit Monger, Iron Monger, etc.



Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Saturday, May 23, 2009

In A Manner of Speaking


The English Renaissance, like the earlier Italian Renaissance, turned to Latin and Greek works for inspiration and to those languages for vocabulary expansion.

Among other things, elegant public oratory became a goal, and terms were needed to distinguish shades and styles of presentation. Shoddy oratory was roundly derided, and early English dictionaries, which were often little more than Latin-to-English compilations, were filled with rhetorical terms.

• Using high-sounding or pompous language was termed altiloquent, grandiloquent, and magniloquent. When the words outweighed the thought, the speaker was largiloquent and multiloquent.

• To be ambiloquent or flexiloquent was to use ambiguous and doubtful expressions. It was much preferable to be breviloquent, pauciloquent, or planiloquent — to use plain and measured language.

• To speak in a sweet and pleasing manner (perhaps even using flattery) was to be blandiloquent, dulciloquent, melliloquent, or suaviloquent.

• Those who spoke with a forked tongue were fallaciloquent, mendaciloquent, and versutiloquent.

• To speak learnedly was dociloquent; to speak foolishly was stultiloquent.

• To be profaniloquent was to speak of profane, worldly issues; to be sanctiloquent was to speak of holy and worthy things.

• The speaker who made himself the center of the universe was superbiloquent and vaniloquent. If what he said was also devoid of substance, he was inaniloquent.

• The blesiloquent spoke with a stammer, the dentiloquent spoke through clenched teeth, and the tardiloquent spoke so slowly that the audience invariably fell asleep.

• The fatiloquent spoke prophetically, the gaudiloquent promoted joyfulness, and the somniloquent had to fall back on the “I’m not responsible for what I say when I dream” plea — the spousal last line of defense.


SIDEBAR: Thomas Blount, Glossographia

SIDEBAR: Nathan Bailey, An universal etymological English dictionary
Link

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Memory -- mnesia


Memorial Day (formerly Decoration Day) was established by proclamation of General John Logan on May 5, 1868, to honor those who had died in the American Civil War. After World War I, attention shifted to American soldiers lost in any war.

Memory is invoked to honor their supreme sacrifice and to recall the adage that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

This solemn holiday aside, there are a few words with built-in memory. Let’s review some of them. In all cases, I’ve selected words based on the root mnesia, Greek for memory.

• amnesia: loss of memory [a = privative]


• automnesia: spontaneous revival of memories of an earlier condition of life [auto = self]


• cryptomnesia: submerged or subliminal memory of events forgotten by the supraliminal self [crypto = hidden]


• ecmnesia: loss of memory with regard to the events of a particular period [ec = out]


• hypermnesia: unusual power of memory [hyper = beyond]


• paramnesia: memory that is unreal, illusory, or distorted, especially the phenomenon of déjà vu [para = beyond]


• promnesia: the illusory memory of having experienced something before; déjà vu [pro = before in time]


SIDEBAR: Memory Improvement


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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cant


Norm from Cadillac asked about the word cant as it is used by the lumber industry. It turns out that a cant is a log that is squared on two or more sides and is intended to be sawed further.

The log is first debarked; then the rounded slab or outside portion of the log is cut off. The remaining square or rectangular portion of the log is called a cant. Planks and boards are then cut from the cant.

The word cant is also used in forestry. There, it is a portion, share, or parcel of a wooded area.

In the building trade, cant is used in combination with other words to signify beveled surfaces or corners that do not meet at a 90 degree angle. There is a cant floor, a cant frame, cant molding, cant railing, and a cant ceiling — the kind of sloped ceiling that you would find in an attic.

Cant is also applied to language, and it has gone through many permutations. It has meant an intonation or accent, the whining tone of a street beggar, technical jargon, provincial dialect, vulgar slang, a pet phrase, and affected language that implies piety that is not actually present.

SIDEBAR: The Wood Explorer glossary


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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blossom


I live near an extensive cherry orchard, and the trees are beginning to show gorgeous, fragrant blossoms. A blossom is a flower that grows on any plant, appearing prior to the seed or fruit. It comes from an Old English word that probably tracks back to the Latin flos and then transmuted into blos.

Blossom is strongly connected to the Old English word bloom, although bloom does not anticipate future seed or fruit as blossom does. It hovers more in the realm of culminating beauty.

There are a few words that contain hidden blossoms.

• anthesis: full bloom

• effloresce: to burst forth into flowers

• exanthema: an erupting rash, as if blossoming

• estivation: internal arrangement of a flower bud before bursting into blossom

• xeranthemum: a Mediterranean plant that translates as “dry blossom”


SIDEBAR: Growing cherry trees


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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Happy Mother’s Day


icon by Dona Sheehan


Even though Mother’s Day is a modern construct, the sentiment behind it is laudable. The impact that loving mothers have on society is incalculable and can’t be celebrated enough. In their honor, let’s take a look at some words pregnant with motherhood.

alma mater: bounteous mother. Originally applied by the Romans to several goddesses, and later transferred to universities and schools, which were supposed to nurture their students.

dura mater: hard mother, from Arabic words representing a strong relationship. The dense, tough, outermost membranous envelope of the brain and spinal cord.

materfamilias: family mother. The female head of a family or household.

matricide: mother murder. A person who kills his or her mother; the act itself.

matrix: maternal womb, source. A supporting or enclosing structure; rectangular array or lattice; global network.

matroclinous: mother-leaning. Resembling the female parent more closely than the male.

matronymic/metronymic: mother name. A personal or family name derived from that of a mother or other female ancestor.

metropolis: mother city. The seat or see of a metropolitan bishop; a major city.
Link

SIDEBAR: Quotes about mothers


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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

“Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”


. . . “Why, it looks like the backstroke, Sir.”


Waitspeak touched an audience nerve last week. It seems that waiters and waitresses annoy their clientele more than they suspect. For instance, Bev from Leland wrote about servers approaching her table and asking, “How is everything tasting?” Bev thought that combination sounded odd.

It seems to me that it’s a blend of “How is everything?” and “How does everything taste?” I don’t know when the strange blend occurred. I did read a comment on the web that said, “When a server asks me, ‘how is everything tasting,’ I say I’m not sure because I haven’t tasted the napkin or the tablecloth yet.”

“You still working on that?” bothers other people. A standard response seems to be, “I’m eating, not working.”

Then there’s, “If you need anything, my name is Charles.” I always want to ask, “And if I don’t need anything, what’s your name?”

Some listeners expanded the range to include retail stores. One of the least favorites is, “I can help who’s next.” What grates here is that a relative pronoun (who) is being used as the object of the verb help. For transparency, the wording should be, “I can help the person who’s next.” Relative pronouns need antecedents.

This could be solved by turning who into an interrogative pronoun: “Who’s next?” Evidently, some people think that this is too blunt or impolite. They could switch to “Next, please” to soften the blow and to use words more greenly.

To be fair, there may simply be a compression of wording at play, though it still sounds strange. Language Log points out that fused relatives were common in Shakespeare’s time, though they are rare in ours. One example appears in Othello when Iago says,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

SIDEBAR: Language Log on “I can help who’s next.”



Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Ubiquitous PRE-


from David: I heard an advertisement on WTCM-AM-580 that asked the listener to "pre-register." Being of stout belly and thinning mind, I didn't know what to do before I register. I believe the term should be "register in advance". Two commercials later, the station ran a commercial for a funeral home that recommended "preplanning". If I sit down with the funeral staff and make arraignments before I die, am I not "planning" or "planning in advance"?



I remember George Carlin railing against the PRE- epidemic in his book Brain Droppings. Since then, the prefix has crept into words so often that they now appear in dictionaries.

Once upon a time, the "before" concept applied to the word directly attached. Therefore, to prescreen a film was a ridiculous concept; you simply screened it, not screened it before you screened it. To preregister for a class was unthinkable; you must already have registered, so why go through the motions again? To preorder a book was insane; you simply ordered it.

The change in use, I believe, was that the "before" concept shifted to something outside the word itself. To prescreen now meant to screen a film before the general public saw it. To preplan was to plan your funeral before you even felt sick, let alone discovered that you were dying. To pretest was to test the student before letting her sign up for the class. To preorder a book was to order it before the publication date. And to preboard a plane, something that causes many a purist’s teeth to chatter, now means to board before the passengers without special needs.

I wouldn't have endorsed the new use back when it began because of the redundancy factor, but that is now irrelevant. These things are already in place. If you divorce the pre- from the word to which it is attached, as I illustrated above, it makes it all a bit more palatable. But using “in advance,” as you suggest, is a logical and incontrovertible alternative, and it has much to recommend it.

SIDEBAR: Merriam-Webster Online



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