Posts Tagged ‘COCA’

One of my favorite classic guitar solos from the 70’s has to be Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption from the 1978 eponymous first album Van Halen. It’s classic status was confirmed in 2009 when it was included as one of the tracks on the Guitar Hero: Van Halen video game, allowing a whole new generation of air guitarists to pretend to be Eddie. And just a year earlier, Guitar Magazine named it the 2nd greatest guitar solo of all time, bested only by Jimmy Page’s Stairway to Heaven.

In the same year that the song Eruption was released, the UK R&B band called Eruption has their biggest hit with the song, I Can’t Stand the Rain, which reached #5 in the UK charts and #18 on the US Billboard charts.

An eruption is characterized by some type of “breaking forth,” and is most often used in reference to a volcanic eruption, which is “the ejection of solid or liquid matter by a volcano, of hot water from a geyser, etc.” (OED).

In contrast, the word irruption is the opposite and defined by the OED as;

The action of bursting or breaking in; a violent entry, inroad, incursion, or invasion, esp. of a hostile force or tribe.

The inward motion as opposed to the outward is what makes the difference between the words, although they are both pronounced the same.

The first appearance in print of the word is in Heinrich Bullinger’s 1577 page turner, Fiftie godlie and learned sermons, in the quote;

In that hurlie burlie and irruption made by the barbarous people.

It can be traced back to the Latin irruptionem, a noun of action derived from the verb irrumpere, which means “to break into,” and it can be furthered analyzed as the prefix ir– meaning “into” and rumpere, “to break.” Contrast this with eruption, which has the same base verb, rumpere, but the prefix e– means “out.”

The Latin rumpere is the base of a number of other English words, including abrupt (ab– prefix meaning “off,”‘ so “to break off”), route (a way or a course, from the Latin phrase via rupta or “broken way”), and rupture (a break or a tear).

By the 20th century, the word had taken on a special meaning in relation to zoology, namely to refer to;

An abrupt local increase in the numbers of a species of animals.

Thus, in A.L. Thompson’s 1936 book entitled Bird Migration, we see;

Apart from all the categories of annual movements, there are movements which occur at irregular intervals in the form of invasions or irruptions… In the spring of certain years the birds have ‘irrupted’ in large numbers.

It’s in the birding world that irruption seems to be used most frequently. However, the decline in its general usage seems to have been started in the mid 1800’s and even the Corpus of Contemporary American English only offers 27 instances between 1990 and 2012.

History of the word irruption

“Irruption” 1810-2009

As a final comment, it’s worth mentioning that even Mark Twain got the words eruption and irruption mixed up. In Life on the Mississippi (1883) he used the phrase, “A firmament-obliterating irruption of profanity,” and in the context, it would seem that he meant an “eruption of profanity.”

Happens to the best of ’em, I guess.

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logorrhea /ˌlɒgə’riːə/

What’s the point of having a love of words and then avoid using them just because other people might not understand? I’m all for clarity in communication, and adapting your mode of discourse to accommodate the presumed needs of your audience is simply being polite. But in general, if we were all to decide only to use words we thought other folks understood, we’d be back to “Me Tarzan, you Jane” before you can say “Book burning.”

In fact, I suggest that logophiles (lovers of words) should see it as their duty to make sure that that as many words as possible get a regular airing so as to prevent their becoming a mere †word (the dagger symbol is used in dictionaries to mark “obsolete” word).

As an aside, if you haven’t checked out the Oxford Dictionaries’ Save the Words site, you’re missing a treat. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@etyman) will know that I occasionally run a “Save the Words Week” where I provide the etymology for interesting but rare or obsolete words such as nubivagant (moving through clouds, from Latin “nubivagus” < “nubes”=cloud + “vagari”=to roam + “-ant”=adjective-forming suffix) and veprecous (full of prickly shrubs or bushes, from Latin “veprecosus” < “vepres”=brier or bramble bush).

The danger, of course, is that your listeners may decide you’re just a smart ass and begin to avoid talking to you. In some cases, this may be a good thing. But if you use the more esoteric words sparingly, in a reasonable context, and with a sense of humor, then it can make life just a little more interesting.

However, if you come under attack and are accused of using “verbal diarrhea,” you should cease the chance to provide an education of about the link between diarrhea and logorrhea, a fairly recently coined word but well worth tossing into a conversation.

The first written use of the word logorrhea was in James Baldwin’s 1902 Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology where he defined it as;

…the excessive flow of words, a common symptom in cases of mania.

This places it in the field of pathology, so was seen as an illness. In 1907, a mention in the Daily Chronicle supports this medical connotation where we find, “In the case of a man suffering from the insanity known as logorrhea the ideas come rapidly tumbling over each other.”

Like many words, it gradually shifted from being a tightly defined medical word to a more loosely applied general word to describe the behavior of anyone who is significantly verbose. In 1970, a review in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper had this to say about a book;

We are left with a tedious tale of complicated intrigues written by an author suffering from acute logorrhoea

In the same year, we can see logorrhea still being used as a psychiatric term, but it also appears to have developed a synonym; tachylogia. The OED doesn’t have tachylogia as an entry but it’s clearly derived from the Greek ταχύς  meaning “swift” or “fast,” and λόγος  meaning “speech” or “word.” Apart from the 1970 mention in the OED, I was unable to find any earlier written references, with both the Corpus of Historical American English and British National Corpus being spectacularly devoid of examples.

The λόγος element of logorrhea is the same as that of tachylogia and the Greek ῥοία part means “flow” or “stream,” which is clearly descriptive of the rapid stream of words associated with the condition.

Which is where the link to diarrhea comes in. The Greek διαρρεῖν means “to flow through,” and the OED defines diarrhea as;

A disorder consisting in the too frequent evacuation of too fluid fæces, sometimes attended with griping pains

The double use of the word “too” here might be stylistically suspect but it certainly highlights the sense of excess that comes from a bout of diarrhea.

Diarrhea is older than logorrhea, being first recorded in 1398 in John Trevisa’s best-selling pot-boiler Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum. OK, so I might be exaggerating a little as regards the excitement generated by the book but I’m guessing that this is the first time in months since it got a mention. I’ll be honest and say I’ve never read it, and that I have no desire to do so. However, I think it’s important to give a shout out now and again for dead 14th century writers who clearly put a lot of effort into scribing parchments.

So when logorrhea was coined, it’s not unreasonable to assume that it was influenced by the word diarrhea, and hence there is this relationship between the two. And what’s even more exciting is that you can also use this fact to respond to someone who accuses you of not only being a smart ass but “talking shit,” as you can now say “Funny you should say that but did you know…?”

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Some weeks back as one of my tweets as @etyman I called BS on the word game changer and officially declared it a candidate for Cliché of the Year, 2011. I know, I don’t have much clout when it comes to “declaring” things, but then again, I also have nothing to lose if it turns out to be “favorite word of the year.”

Can I be first to officially declare “game changer” as “Cliché of the Year?” Apparently now anything new is a “game changer.” Bah, humbug! (April 5th, 11:40 am EST)

The word seems to have reached that critical mass needed to catapult it from “descriptive” to “mildly annoying” and then “for the love of God, Montresor!” I’m not suggesting capital punishment for users of the phrase – well, not yet anyway – but forcing users to eat a bar of soap might be one option.

A quick ghit count shows 3,240,000 results for the exact phrase “game changer,” which is depressingly about 900 times more than “Etyman” but less than “Charlie Sheen,” who comes in with a staggering 58,900,000 mentions, eclipsing such do-nothings as Mother Teresa (4,980,000) and Martin Luther King (23,500,000). Celebrity, it seems, has nothing to do with actions.

The Corpus of Historical American English has an entry for game changer that appears in the Chicago Tribune of 1995. In an article that covered the development of oil industries in Cuba, we find;

In the Obama administration, Cuba’s oil development is likely to be seen as an issue for the future. Says a senior State Department official, ” If it’s a game changer it’s not going to be a game changer for a while.

In one of his On Language pieces for the New York Times, William Safire refers to a Washington Post article baseball reference:

Singleton hit his game-changer… fair by eight yards.

In the same piece, Safire says that Ben Zimmer had tracked it back to 1930 and a discussion about changing the game of bridge: “Seldom are the game-changers idle.”

What is clear is that although it’s use may not be further back than the 1930’s, it’s certainly hit its stride over the past two years. The excellent  Corpus of Contemporary American English shows the following number of examples:

2003 – 3 examples
2004 – 0 examples
2005 – 0 examples
2006 – 1 examples
2007 – 7 example
2008 – 26 examples
2009 – 16 examples
2010 – 13 examples
2011 – 7 examples

From 2008 onwards we can see a significant increase in the use of game changer in comments about politics, electric cars, lasers, Iran, vaccines, and even stuffing on corn bread! OK, I know you’re curious so here’s the corn bread piece taken from the CBS Early Show on November 26th, 2009:

HARRY-SMITH: I’ve nibbling on this stuffing all morning and I have to say I never had it with the corn bread before and that is a game changer.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Really, really —
RUSS-MITCHELL: Really. I got to try that.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Yeah. And — and I tell you, once you — once you put a little bit of the broth on it, you get this really great consistency. Okay?

When stuffing on corn bread is a game changer, I think you need look no further for evidence that a cliché is at hand!

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Just yesterday, I received a tweet with a link to an article about the culture of whales. No, that wasn’t a misspelling of “Wales” but a reference to those huge, blubbery mammals that produce exotic whoops and whistles in order to communicate with one another. I say “communicate” because I’m not one of those linguists who believe that “talking” is the right way to describe what whales do.

Bees are able to do quirky little dances in order to communicate – without the New Jersey fist-pumping element – but you’d have to be very flexible with your definitions to describe is as a conversation. The bees can transmit data about distance and direction but there’s no “Hey dude, did you hear about Ralph getting a guest spot on ‘Springer’ and stinging some trailer park chick in the ass?”

Of course, this doesn’t stop some people from wanting to claim that such communication activities are evidence of an underlying intelligence and consciousness that is close to being human. At the top of the wacko food chain are the self-proclaimed “Pet Psychics” who are not as dumb as the people who believe them, and who are smart enough to get paid by gullible pet owners for spouting total crap (“Fido tells me he is unhappy, and that switching to a premium doggy chow would enhance his self-esteem.”)

In the case of the whales, the story originally comes from a 2001 scholarly article (and for “scholarly” read “we got paid to do this from a grant”) that’s entitled Culture in whales and dolphins by Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead[1]. The more recent revival of the story makes an appearance in the online publication, The Daily Galaxy, where the following gem of hyperbole appears when the author talks about how whale songs have changed:

Why did the song change? It’s not clear, but what is clear is that whales have a sophisticated culture. And who knows, it may be a culture that provides them with the tools to outlive that of homo sapiens. The fact that they took the opposite revolutionary route of human’s by going from land to sea 50 million years ago was a stroke of genius. After all, this the water planet.

“Sophisticated culture?” “Outlive homo sapiens?” “Stroke of genius?” As far as I can remember, it was Melville who wrote Moby Dick, and not Moby Dick who wrote “Melville.” And in the great list of the cultural contributions of whales, I suppose sucking krill is their most significant achievement. Apart from the egregiously erroneous notion that somehow the whales sat down and thought, “Gee guys, let’s not evolve legs and stick around in the water instead,” the paragraph practically defines the word hyperbole for us.

Here’s how the OED defines it:

A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.

Alas for some speakers – and writers – hyperbole IS intended to be understood literally.

The word comes from the Greek, ύπερβολή, meaning excess or exaggeration, and is made up from ύπέρ = over and βάλλειν = to throw. Sometimes an example of hyperbole seems more like it should mean “throw up” rather than “throw over.”

One of the earliest uses in English is by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), a famous English figure who is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church. In his enthrallingly titled A dyaloge wherin he treatyd dyvers maters as of the veneration and worshyp of ymagys from 1529, he writes, “By a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” The spelling variation here probably a French influence.

In 1653, another More decided to enhance the word by sticking an “-ism” suffix one. Henry More (1614-1687) was an English philosopher and born in Grantham, the same town as Britain’s first Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He spent most of his life teaching at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and during that time wrote An antidote against atheisme, which included the comment, “Nor is there anything here of Hyperbolism or high-flown Language.”

As a verb, the word is rare. Philosopher John Locke uses it as such in the comment “Your poor solitary verger who suffers here under the deep winter of frost and snow: I do not hyperbole in the case” (Letter to E. Masham, April 29th, 1698). But other than that, there appear to be no other instances readily available. It is more frequent (but maybe only just) when it appears as the form hyperbolize. It appears in a letter of 1599 in the sentence “Will you hyperbolize aboue S. Gregorie, who is contented to marshall the foure generall Councels?” and in the “-ing” form in 1619 in Martin Fotherby’s gripping Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels; “Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels.”

The Corpus of Contemporary American cites only three examples in recent history; one from Men’s Health magazine in 1996, one from a National Public Radio interview of 2004, and one from an academic article in 2005. So not exactly a form that trips of the tongue at cocktail parties.

Interestingly, as an adjective, you might expect it to be hyperbolic, but in this form, it means “Of, belonging to, or of the form or nature of a hyperbola.” The OED recognizes hyperbolical as meaning “Of the nature of, involving, or using hyperbole; exaggerated, extravagant.” The sense of the word is clearly important in determining the form of the adjective.

Meanwhile, the Welsh can take comfort in the observation that when I typed “the language and culture of whales” into the Google search engine, the top returned reference was to the Wikipedia page for Wales. Seems that the culture of the land and people is still infinitely more important than that of corpulent cetaceans. Or is that just hyperbole?


[1] , L. and Whitehead, H. 2001. Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(2): 309-382 Abstract PDF.

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Earlier this year in March, on Neal Horsley was arrested for “making terroristic threats” against Elton John. The New York Daily News ran the story from The Associated Press using the word terroristic in the headline. Now sometimes you hear a word and think that it is in some sense “wrong,” which leads to you not liking it. That’s the effect terroristic has on me. Why, even the WordPress spell checker tells me it’s wrong. On the other hand, Microsoft Word, on the other hand, has no problem letting it go and so maybe I am being a little harsh in wanting to deny the poor word some form of existence.

Yet it feels odd. When I hear that someone, “made a terroristic threat,” I want to argue that “made a terror threat” would work just as well. Or even “made a terrorist threat” wouldn’t be a bad thing.

So why does it feel so weird? Why am I having such a hard time accepting it? Is it just too new and I’m too old?

Well, according to the OED, the word makes an appearance back in 1850 in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume XXVIII, p. 407, where we find “This was the Government styled ‘terroristical’ by the Austrians!” Twenty-five years later, in his gripping pot-boiler, Gaii institutionum juris civilis commentarii, Edward Poste wrote, “This terroristic law… was not abrogated till the time of Justinian.”

Notice that the words are used both attributively and predicatively, so the word really seems to be a fair and flexible adjective, able to skip around like any other happy little descriptor. And in 1972, the word appears as a regular “-ly” adverb in an April edition of Economic and Political Weekly, based in Mumbai;

Consisting almost exclusively of guerilla squads, they [sc. the Naxals] moved secretively and acted terroristically.

Adjective to adverb. Well, that pretty much wraps it up for my original notion that it isn’t a word, when in fact it has been around since the mid-19th century and has behaved like a regular adjective.

The uncertainty about the reality of the word may come from frequency – or lack thereof. And when it comes to frequency of a word, there are a number of sources I tap into. On this occasion, I opted for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a splendid online resource for those of us who are not full-time academics with access to specialized (and often expensive) databases. It’s based at Brigham Young University and is one of six created by Professor Mark Davies. Adjectives like monumental and herculean spring to mind when describing the amount of time and effort that has clearly gone into these corpora, which may seem cliched but in this case apposite.

One of the valuable features of the COCA is the ability to be able to search for a word’s frequency by part of speech. My original discomfort with terroristic was because I believed that terror and terrorist could quite happily be used as adjectives preceding threat without the need for a “new” one. So using COCA, I tracked down the relative frequencies of use of the three possible phrases; terror threat, terroristic threat, and terrorist threat.


See how low terroristic scores? Pretty pathetic really. It’s no surprise that it sounds “odd” because statistically it is! Take a look at how it stacks up against terror and terrorist in total i.e. as all parts of speech:

TERROR: 11,999

So although I turned out to be wrong – and I really, really thought terroristic was a newly coined error word – at least I got a lesson on how much the frequency of a word plays in its being accepted as a real word.

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