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Posts Tagged ‘OED’

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.

logorrhea wordle

Logorrhea

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 notice

The only reason you need this is...

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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The recent shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, has sparked off debate on the nature of political rhetoric and to what extent it may or may not have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner. More specifically, discussions have centered on the current perceived trend for popular politicians to use metaphors such as “targeting the opposition,” “taking back the country,” “locking and loading,” and even “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Although the latter was originally attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the issue under fire is whether this type of language can actually encourage people to take violent action.

It’s worth taking a look at the words rhetoric and metaphor just to clear up any confusion between them. The OED defines rhetoric as;

The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.

Rhetoric can be traced back to classical Latin rhētoricē and refers to the art of oratory and public speaking. Further back, the Greek word is ῥητορική, which in turn can be traced to a “rhetor,” one who teaches rhetoric, with the ultimate derivation coming from Attic Greek ἐρῶ) meaning “I shall say.”

On the other hand, metaphor is one of those “figures of speech” that the definition mentions, and turning back to the OED we find the definition as follows:

A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.

Like rhetoric, the word can be traced back via the Latin metaphora to the Greek μεταϕορά that comes from the prefix “meta-” meaning “change or transformation” followed by ϕορά, a form of the verb ϕέρειν, which means “to bear or carry.” So the word literally means something along the lines of “carrying a change.”

So when a politicians and pundits talk about “having their opponents in their crosshairs” or “taking out the opposition,” they are not literally pointing a sniper rifle or shooting someone – they are using a metaphor. And it is the current prevalence – actual or perceived – of this type of hunting metaphor that is being debated.

In the realm of sexual conquests, metaphors involving sports are more prominent. “Getting to first base,” “I’d hit that,” or “I scored last night” are clearly embedded in the sporting arena, and the underlying notion here is that sex is a game on some level or another.

In business, metaphors abound as each management guru seeks to find his or her own unique spin, typically with the aim of selling books, training programs, and raking in obscene amounts of money for personal presentations to the gullible business community.

Recent articles have questioned whether or not the Internet has killed the art of rhetoric. One such article in The Economist’s Johnson blog suggested that sloganeering has trumped rhetoric as the regular mode of discourse in the political arena. My own response was to doubt that the general level of intellectual discourse has ever been as high as it has been imagined to be.

“The Internet hasn’t so much killed rhetoric as amplify the lack of rhetoric that has always been a part of common discourse. And by “common discourse” I mean the level of argument that goes on in an average pub along with a couple of drinks.

“Rhetoric as an art or a skill has, I suggest, never been something the masses have either used or learned, but been restricted to the chattering classes. Simply sit at a bar for 10 minutes and listen to the discussions going on around you and it becomes apparent that the “strength” of an argument seems to depend on factors such as volume (he who shouts loudest is right); personal experience (“My dad smoked until he was 105 so how can it be dangerous?”); TV truthiness (“It was on the Jon Stewart show so it has to be real”); and Internet validity (“All the proof to show that Bush and the Jews caused 911 is open for all to see on the net. Just google it!”)

“Any assumed decline in the standard of rhetoric is predicated on the notion that there was previously a high standard from which to fall. I’m suggesting that the bar was pretty low in the first place. The problem of the Internet is that it (a) acts as a repository for so-called “facts” that are not facts, which in turn form the basis for arguments, and (b) provides a level playing field for all commentators regardless of how valid, accurate, well-researched, or even logical their comments are. A post by an expert such as John McWhorter is as easy to find on the net as one by Joe the Plumber, whose knowledge on a particular subject may be based on a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, fueled by a passion to be heard.

“And there are far more Joe the Plumbers posting to blogs than John McWhorters.”

The Internet itself cannot be “good” or “bad.” What can be “good” and “bad” is content, and there is no magically algorithm that trawls the web checking whether facts are right or wrong. And pre-Internet, being the local one-man conspiracy theorist resulted in a lonely life and possible ridicule, but post-Internet, there is now “safety in numbers” and the one lunatic can now become a feted sage amongst the thousands of no-longer isolated crackpots and weirdos that use the web as a magnifying glass to make their own “truths” seem that much larger.

To paraphrase; when one loony thinks the world will end, he’s mentally ill; when thousands create a website, it’s a tenable hypothesis!

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So the big news in the blogosphere over the past few days has been the mysterious deaths of thousands of birds in Arkansas. The headline Dead Birds Fall From The Sky makes you want to say, “Well, what else would they do?” Estimates of precisely how many have shuffled off their mortal coils seem to run from about 1000 to 5000 and all points in-between. Until some hapless bugger has to go round collecting and tagging the fallen fledglings it seems we have to rely on eye-witness estimates from people who are typically not used to estimating what constitutes a “dead flock.”

But just like a London omnibus, you wait for years to see a road strewn with avian carcasses and then along comes two at once! With the Arkansas avians not yet counted, another 500 birds have been found dead in Louisiana, close to the False River Regional Airport. Really? Close to airplanes? You mean those large, 3000 ton pieces of metal that fly hundreds of miles per hour, causing huge wakes that can suck up, say, birds? Well no shit, Sherlock!

The Arkansas victims appear to have suffered severe trauma, according to specialists, which resulted in internal bleeding and ultimately death. Non-specialists – that is, conspiracy theorists, religious nutcases, paranoid schizophrenics armed with a blog site, and Fox News viewers – prefer to accept the evidence of their own minds and opt for the culprits being any one of the following; God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, or the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.

The one word that crops up in almost all the versions of this story is mystery. And the cause of the birds’ deaths is currently as mysterious as the time at which the next bus will arrive. Both are, as the OED explains, “something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension.”

Curiously, some people take that notion of being “inexplicable” as carte-blanche for making up an explanation that is even more inexplicable than the original event! For them, the notion that, for example, the birds were caught in high velocity storm winds seems so improbable that they prefer to accept that they ran into an invisible UFO. Actually, those folks tend to make it sound more scientific by using the word “cloaked” to describe the UFO, and then go on to use a glut of pseudo-scientific babble to “explain” how cloaking works. And hey, if it works for the Klingon Birds of Prey spaceships, it must be true.

In Ancient Greece, the word μυστήριον is used to describe secret religious ceremonies, the most famous of which is probably those held at Eleusis, some 15 miles northwest of Athens, in honor of the goddess Demeter. Demeter was associated with fertility and harvest, so the Eleusinian Mysteries seem to have been aimed at ensuring that farmers would have a good growing season.

Many years after the mysteries of Ancient Greece  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. In the Sign of Four, Holmes says, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” For solving mysteries, this would seem to be a very useful rule of thumb. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists have reworked this along the lines of, “when you have eliminates the improbable, whatever remains, no matter how impossible, must be the truth.” So in the current bird-death mystery, one theory put forward was that the birds had been damaged during a New Year’s firework display, which is at least a testable hypothesis. However, because it seems very improbable that 5000 birds could be affected by a few fireworks, lots of commentators have eliminated the improbable and taken this as proof for God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, and the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.

It is, of course, probable that no answer will be found. Mysteries happen every day and it’s only because of the way in which the global media can act as a focusing lens for a single incident that we hear about them. Out of the billions of slices of toast made in a month, what are the chances that ONE of them might have a burn pattern that looks a little like the virgin Mary? And if just ONE person gets a picture of this, how easy is it to post this to the world?

Doubtless in a week or so, there will be an official response that provides a reasonable theory as to why, like the ball in Times Square, the birds dropped over the New Year. But equally, those who have already made their minds up will find ways to ignore it and shore up their present erroneous theory. After all, if everybody loves a mystery, then no-one will like a spoil-sport who ruins it.

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“But that’s not a real word because it’s not in the dictionary!”

As we hurtle headlong towards Christmas, and I personally crawl toward my two weeks of vacation time, there are opportunities to play games with friends. My personal preference is to mix games with alcohol – and not because I’m an alcoholic-in-training or a lush[1] but some activities just happen to seem more fun when your sense are mildly impaired.

So after two beers, the first game to play is called “What’s your favorite new word this year?” which is not just the sort of game a bunch of tweed-jacketed, corduroy-trousered, pipe-smoking university types play. No sirree, it’s for anyone who spends any amount of time watching TV and reading The Urban Dictionary.

The folks at the Global Language Monitor group based in Texas publish their top words of the year based on a sampling methodology that includes trawling through millions of words over a 12-month period. This year’s top ten is as follows:

1. spillcam
2. vuvuzela
3. the narrative
4. refudiate
5. guido and guidette
6. deficit
7. snowmagedden (and ‘snowpocalypse’)
8. 3-D
9. shellacking
10. simplexity

You can check out the meanings at the Global Monitor website.

vuvuzela

Meanwhile, the New Oxford American Dictionary published its own list of top words for 2010:

bankster
crowdsourcing
double-dip
gleek
nom nom
refudiate
retweet
tea party
top kill
vuvuzela
webisode

The definitions can be seen at the OUP blog.

When Oxford announced refudiate as word of the year, a common response was one of shock and horror that a word coined in error by the celebrity politician Sarah Palin (celebritition or politebrity anyone?) should be added to the dictionary. And besides, the egregious nature of the error was being rammed home by spell checkers across the world as Microsoft Word and WordPress underlined the word every time it was typed!

refudiate

The truth is that although refudiate became the OUP’s word-of-the-year, it may not make it into the actual Oxford dictionary. That’s because getting into the Oxford is not as simple as inventing a word and e-mailing it to the editors. No, there is a process to becoming a “real word” that you can look up in a book or, as things are now going, online. The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) that came out in September (and yes, I was one of those who had it on order) included a slew of “new” words, such as bromance, Interweb, staycation, and truthiness – all of which still show up as errors in WordPress.

The notion that a word isn’t a “real” word until it appears in “the dictionary” is common enough. Of course, which dictionary is THE dictionary is always up for grabs. For me, a word is solid if it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is either the 20-volume version I have stacked up in my library or the latest online version, released just a couple of weeks ago. I’ll also use the NOAD because that can offer some words of American origin that don’t appear in the OED, and The Merriam-Webster dictionary, again both hard copy and online.

But what happens if a word is not in any of these dictionaries but appears to be in circulation across the Interweb? Well, I always recommend The Urban Dictionary for two reasons: The first is that it is a consumer-driven project that can respond very quickly to new coinages – even if 95% of them disappear in a few years; and the second is that it a damn good laugh!

You can also fall back on good old-fashioned language detection work – a sort of “linguistic CSI” for language geeks. As an example, how about the word apodyopsis, defined by the Urban Dictionary as;

The act of mentally undressing someone

Over at another online dictionary, the fascinating Sex-Lexis sexual dictionary, we can find a similar definition, although a little more is added;

The erotic fantasizing of women undressing; imagining women naked; undressing women mentally

When you’re faced with a word with which you’re unfamiliar, it’s worth trying to think of a similar word – one that either looks the same, sound the same, or both. In this case, I first thought of the words apocalyse and apocryphal, both of which have the apo- part.

The former means “an uncovering” or “revealing” and comes from the Greek ἀπο, which means “from,” followed by καλύπτειν meaning “to cover.” In the case of apocryphal, it refers to “being of questionable authority,” and the sense of ἀπο here is “away” along with κρυπτός meaning “hidden.”

Going back to the OED and the Merriam-Webster, scanning through the apo- words turns up apodyterium, which is defined as;

The apartment in which clothes were deposited by those who were preparing for the bath or palæstra; hence gen. a dressing-room, a robing-room.

Ah, so now we’re closing in. The first part of the word, ἀποδύειν, apparently means “to put off or undress,” and note that our ἀπο is still there – the “off” piece. And if the apody- bit means “take off,” what’s the -opsis part all about?

An Apodyterium - Alam-Tadema, 1886

Well, thinking again of similar looking and/or sounding words, surely the words optic and optician spring to mind, and we know that optical means “in reference to the eyes and seeing.” With this piece of the puzzle now in place, we can now understand that the word derives from the Greek and means, in a literal sense, to take of or undress using the eyes or vision.

This little bit of detective work helps us to understand the derivation and ultimate roots of the word, but still doesn’t tell us when it first appeared. To do this, surfing the Internet can be extremely useful. With apodyopsis, there are references to it in terms of the definition, but none specifically to its origin. Even the wonderful corpora of Mark Davies at the Brigham Young University failed to turn up any occurrences of the word.

The furthest back I could trace it was to something called The Grandiloquent Dictionary, which is the creation of physicist Christopher Bird, who says he wrote it as an online collection of rare and obscure words in 1998. Sadly, Bird simply defines the word but gives no origin date or source.

apodyopsis

So what we are left with is a word constructed from Greek but with no date of origin and no extensive use. If people were to begin using the word with some frequency, and also over a long period of time, it might find its way into a dictionary. However, for now it’s one of those limbo words that has enough usage to make it visible but not enough to warrant an entry in a dictionary.

And as long as someone, somewhere thinks it’s a word, then it is!

 
Wordle: apodyopsis - etymology

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When the stars are in alignment and things seem to come together at a special point, it’s fun. Nothing wrong with fun. Especially when you hit a significant birthday – such as 50.

I don’t feel 50. I don’t feel like I thought I should feel at 50. I remember when my dad was 50 and I thought, “Wow, my dad’s old.” But now I’ve hit the half century, I still feel much younger.

To help me get over the psychological hump – and although I can’t do anything to stop me becoming 50, I don’t have to like it – my wife bought me a new toy: The complete 20-volume Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Not a dictionary; the dictionary.

Russell and the OED

Russell and the OED

My previously beloved two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has now become my cherished and admired backup, giving way to the heady, seductive passion that oozes from my latest acquisition.

What better way celebrate the arrival of the new mistress than creating a blog that will allow me to talk about words and language. I can share my lexical explorations or answer vexing etymological questions. Note that this is different from entomological questions, which are about things that bug you.

It’s worth pointing out that I am not much taller than the stacked OED. I probably also weigh less.

So come back each week and check out what’s new. If you have suggestions, simply leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to help.

Oh, and the word aalii? It’s “a bushy shrub, Dodonaea viscosa, of Australia, Hawaii, Africa, and tropical America, having sticky foliage.” I don’t intend to start at “A” and work my way through to “Z” but it’s not a bad word with which to start.

Aalii

Aalii

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