Wednesday, September 28, 2011

“Ironic,” Isn’t It?


John from Newberry asked if there is a punctuation mark to signify irony. On air, I focused on what a writer shouldn’t use, and that is quotation marks. To write something such as, My, what a “clever” remark, can best be characterized as smarmy, heavy-handed, and tacky. They’re like air quotes: the first time I saw Steve Martin use them, I chuckled; since then, I roll my eyes.


Off air, some down and dirty research showed that there have been attempts to invent an irony pointer. My feeling is that if you need to be whacked upside the head to recognize irony, you should switch to lighter reading.


At any rate, in 1899, French poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed a point d'ironie that would signal that a statement was ironic; he was later joined by Hervé Bazin. Alcanter proposed placing a question mark facing backward at the end of a sentence to declare the presence of irony. He seems to have lifted the mark from an earlier source, 16th century British printer, Henry Denham.


However, Denham wasn’t concerned with missed irony. He focused on an equally unenlightened group of readers: people who couldn’t recognize a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question doesn’t require an answer; it is directive rather than genuinely inquisitive. What responsible adult wouldn’t help a child in trouble? would be an example.


In our day, a man from Washington, Michigan, is selling a typographical mark to install on your computer. He calls it the SarcMark. It looks something like the at mark @, but upside down and enclosing a dot. He’s asking $1.99. A spokesman for the firm was quoted as saying that this is not a frivolous enterprise. For instance, it would help deaf people recognize irony in closed captions. Perhaps. But if you are hearing-enabled and you need a prompt to recognize irony, you have a problem between your ears.


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


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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Don’t Eat the Confetti


Listener Jim Dalyrimple wrote, “The word ‘confect’ intrigues me. Lots of languages use a similar word, ‘confet’, to mean candy. I've often wondered (having nothing better to do, apparently) how that relates to the word ‘confetti’, but I'm too lazy to look it up and figure it out for myself.”


Jim is referring to my blog of September 10, 2011. The word confect, meaning to build up or make ready, was the subject. Jim is correct about the candy bit: all of these words owe their existence to the Latin conficere. Spellings over the centuries and across various languages varied even though they are all first cousins. In Middle English, it was confyt; in Old French, we find confit; finally, in Shakespeare’s day, English settled on comfit.


It is a sweetmeat made of some fruit, seed, or root (such as ginger), and preserved with sugar. It’s usually round or oval in shape, and biting into it reveals the hidden core. Confetti is the plural for the Italian word for comfit, confetto. It became customary to throw imitation comfits at the bride and groom or at visiting dignitaries as a sign of celebration.


At first, the imitation comfits were three-dimensional. Often made of plaster, they would smash open and cover the participants in white powder. Eventually—probably as a matter of economy—they were constructed of two-dimensional paper punch-outs.

Sidebar: Historic Foods: sugarplums and comfits


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

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gym


Roger asked about the gym, as in gym class. It’s an abbreviation for gymnasium, and it’s been around since 1871. Gymnasium comes from a Greek word meaning “to train or exercise naked.” That’s enough to make me want to enroll in the Y.

The combining form gymno- is a particularly useful component in the vocabulary used in Botany, Biology, and Zoology. It carries the meaning bare or devoid of. Some examples are

  • gymnanthous: having naked flowers, devoid of both calyx and corolla.
  • gymnetrous: having a naked or smooth belly; applied to those fishes which have no anal fins.
  • gymnopterous: having naked wings, without hairs or scales.
  • gymnomonoˈspermous: having the seeds single and naked.
  • gymnorhinal: having naked or unfeathered nostrils.


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

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Spel Chek


My wife and I ate at the Hofbrau in Interlochen after attending another wonderful concert by the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, a fantastically good orchestra considering the relatively small size of the city.

As luck would have it, my seat was facing a wall decorated with posters from various breweries. One from Stella Artois caught my eye:

Pleasently bitter with a refreshing finish – its drinkability creates a unique taste verses other European lagers.”

Not to be a nitpicker, but here’s a case where spelling matters in promoting a sense of competency, trustworthiness, and professionalism. I deliberately ordered another brand of beer as a silent protest. It reminds me of a sign that I saw in a local deli identifying muscle salad. There was no way in hell I was going to pay for that.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists 202 words ending in –antly and 300 words ending in –ently. The message is clear: always consult a dictionary before committing something to print.

Verses comes from verse, a form derived from the Latin vertere, to turn, because the writer turns to begin another line. Versus comes from a Latin word meaning against.


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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Confect


The September 10, 2011, edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a verb that you don’t commonly see. It appeared in an article by Edward Kosner about books timed to appear during the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (A Decade After). Here is the sentence:

“Pureeing their own research with published sources, Mr. Summers and Ms. Swan confect a circumstantial case involving protection money paid by members of the huge [Saudi] royal family to keep bin Laden’s terrorism outside the kingdom’s borders, intercession by Saudi cultural agents—likely spies—to help two of the hijackers in California, and stonewalling by Saudi intelligence after the attack.”

The context makes it clear that confect is a synonym for piece together or assemble. It is the participial stem of the Latin conficĕre to put together, make up, prepare, or complete.

Shades of meaning listed in the Oxford English Dictionary include

  • To put together, mix, compound (ingredients).
  • To prepare or make up by the combination of various ingredients; to compound.
  • To prepare for use as a relish or delicacy; to make into a comfit or confection; to preserve, pickle.
  • To prepare (food) for digestion or assimilation; to digest.
  • To make (out of the materials).

Related words include confection, confectionary/confectionery, and confectioner.


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

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Harrowing Experience


Jim from Charlevoix asked about the origin of the cliché, a harrowing experience.

The harrow was an early agricultural tool designed to break up clods of earth, turn the soil over, extirpate roots and weeds, and generally prepare the ground for planting. It was a heavy wooden or metal frame set with iron teeth and dragged by an ox or work horse—later, by a tractor.

By extension, a harrowing experience was one that caused great distress and emotional laceration, something that tore you up emotionally.

Harrow was also used as the name of a hinge, as a cricket term, as a synonym for castration, as the name of a defensive gate, as a gold-mining separation device, and as a diagonal arrangement of soldiers or birds in flight.


SIDEBAR: The Harrowing of Hell


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Monday, September 05, 2011

Michiganian or Michigander?


Wilma McQueen wrote, “My question is about the use of Michiganders for Michiganians. When I was in the eighth grade we were taught we are Michiganians, not ganders. It stuck with me, and I do hear some use the term Michiganians to rhyme with Canadians, but, alas, I also hear too many who call us Michiganders, even radio personalities.”

Sounds like a gentle swipe at me or my co-host, Ron Jolly. But that’s O.K. The reality is that there is no official, sanctioned name. Like you, Wilma, the Michigan Historical Center tends to favor Michiganians, and it has appeared in their publications since the 1870s.

Resch Strategies, a Lansing-based public relations and communications consulting firm, conducted a poll on this very question. Michigan voters favored Michigander by a margin of 58% to 12%. Of the remaining 20% of responders, 7% said they use both, 11% said neither (Michiganite), and an apathetic 12% said they didn’t know and didn’t care. In addition, the poll revealed a geographical component: in all areas of the state, Michigander is the preferred term.

Michigander had an interesting origin. In 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln used the word in a speech lambasting Lewis Cass, former governor of Michigan, who was running as a Democratic presidential candidate. The word was a blend of Michigan and gander, implying that Cass was as silly as a goose.

So a word that started as a political insult is now the favored word to describe where we live.


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

Check out Mike's program-based books here:
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Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now.

There is a collection of podcasts. Go to wtcmradio.com and click on Podcasts. Scroll down The Ron Jolly Show to find the Words to the Wise audio button.

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