Sometimes, if you approach a dictionary with a spirit of hypersensitivity and deliberate soft focus, a dimensional shift takes place. At that moment, you sense an underlying air of desperation, smell the coppery odor of nervous perspiration, and see the rimless eyeglasses perched on the lexicographer's nose quivering in futility.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the attempt to define colors. After all, we are asking for the impossible: define something that only the eye can decipher, something ineluctably connected to light waves, but do it by using words exclusively. It's like trying to paint the interior of Plato's cave after the fire has burned out. We might as well attempt to compose music by using the palette of sweet, salt, sour, and bitter.
"Reading at Risk" is one of those hardy perennials, a government survey telling us that in some vital area obesity, pollution, fuel depletion, quality of education, domestic relations things are even worse than we thought. In the category of literacy, the old surveys seemed always to be some variant of "Why Johnny Can't Read." "Reading at Risk" the most recent survey, carried out under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its larger Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the whole conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't for a moment suggest that Johnny Can't Read. The problem is that, now grown, Johnny (though a little less Jane) doesn't much care to read a lot in the way of imaginative writing fiction, poems, plays also known to the survey as literature. For the first time in our history, apparently, less than half the population bothers to read any literature (so defined) at all.
Ask people to name the most consequential inventions of world history, and you'll hear a list probably including the wheel, the telephone, the atomic bomb, the first computing machine. (Comedian Mel Brooks, in his 1960s audio skit "The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man," claimed the greatest invention was Saran Wrap.) What might be missing from the answers, overlooked, is the family of little shapes that your eyes are scanning right now: the letters of the alphabet. For the alphabet was an invention, a spectacularly successful one. Judged on longevity and extent of modern daily use, it compares with the wheel.
We are in the grip of a feverish, frenetic, fervent, frantic, and frenzied presidential campaign that demonstrates why in England people stand for election, but in the United States they run. It's also a time that demonstrates although the classical societies of ancient Greece and Rome have vanished, Greek and Roman thought are very much alive in the parlance of politics.
It comprises 1,888 pages, and defines more than 2,200 distinctly Canadian nouns, adjectives, and verbs in addition to the 145,000 words in the English language.
It provides journalists, students and the common Canadian with the correct terminology when they are hungry for a bismark (a donut) or need to book off (slack off) work for a vacation from the cube farm (an array of office cubicles).
And now the second edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary the country's bestselling lexicon includes definitions for the vernacular used by gays for years, from gaydar to lipstick lesbian, cruisy to civil union.
It has been ninety-three years since Ambrose Bierce published his Devil's Dictionary, a highly subjective word-hoard of cynical definitions he compiled in order to amuse himself. Mr. Bierce's definitions run along these delightfully misanthropic lines:
Absurdityn. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.
But others, too, have dabbled in aphorisms, and for the same purpose (Lichtenberg, Auden, and Schopenhauer come to mind here). So I have decided to try my hand at playing apothegmwright. But with a difference I hope will prove refreshing: I have tried to drop the arch and cynical approach of most impromptu lexicographers and adagists. For some reason that I am powerless to explain, there is always a strong temptation to wax pessimistic and hard-edged when writing alternative definitions for common words. I have not always been able to avoid this siren-call, but then the question is: what style did I propose to adopt instead?
In this installment, I'm going to consider how our clients, the writers, see us and the rules we impose on them. Many editors start their career of helping writers without ever having been professionally edited themselves; some go through their entire careers without ever having that experience. This is a strange handicap for any professional: every doctor eventually gets to learn what it's like to be a patient; lawyers, even if never sued themselves, at least see other lawyers being sued; priests confess their sins like other sinners but editors can go through life without ever experiencing the shock of having their own prose changed by someone else. There is no complete substitute for that experience, but in this installment, I will try to give such unscathed editors some idea of what it's like to be edited, drawn from the memories of a few writers (including me) who've gone through it.
"Well, then," the Cat went on, "you see a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad."
"I call it purring, not growling," said Alice.
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
"Call it what you like," the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, and the advice recommends itself in the case of this political season's favorite distraction. In the midst of a war we seem to be losing, on the brink of an election certain to be the most consequential since (at least) Nixon-McGovern, what do we find ourselves talking about? Gay marriage, of course. Smoldering since the 1996 law named, in vintage Doublespeak, the Defense of Marriage Act, the controversy has recently flamed up into national headlines as gay couples, applying for the one license that has traditionally been the easiest for everyone else to get, have been variously approved, denied, approved and then denied, or denied and then approved. Meanwhile lovers of the Constitution, ever ready to improve upon it, have proposed an amendment, which the president supports, "defining marriage as between a man and a woman."
Werewolves are making a comeback, I hear. The Young Readers section at your local bookstore is no doubt replete with werewolf-haunted volumes, from Harry Potter on down. The idea of a human who becomes a wolf is a very ancient one, and most European languages have a special word for it, from werewolf in English to loup-garou in French, lykanthropos in Greek, and volkodlák in Russian.
1. I hope you can help me. I was told there was a specific word that meant "large, rounded buttocks." Do you know what it is? Paulette Blancard
Yes, I believe I do. And I am more than happy to try to help. There are a couple of words:
Steatopygous (steatopygic) means having an excessive accumulation of fat on one's buttocks. But perhaps it is callipygous (callipygian) that you're looking for, which means having beautifully shaped buttocks (Gk. kallipugos: kalli-, beautiful + puge, buttocks).
Although few people can complain of another's grammatical mistakes with impunity, that is, without revealing their own, we are hopeful that "Grumbling About Grammar" will encourage us all to pay more heed to how the language is used by ourselves as well as by others while bettering our ability to speak and write it.
racial Misused for racist. The suspect, who is white, made a derogatory racial comment against Watson, who is black. USE racist. A city police officer is under internal investigation after being accused of making an inappropriate racial comment. USE racist. Limbaugh quits ESPN after making a racial comment. USE racist. Mr. Howard's resignation was prompted by reports that he made an inappropriate racial comment. USE racist. As appalling as his racial remark was, it is not enough of a reason to destroy a man who has contributed so much to the black community, this university and this state. USE racist.
People once were accused of making racist comments; today, they are as likely, or more than likely, to be accused of racial ones. A racial comment is not necessarily discriminatory or reprehensible; a racist one is. A "derogatory" racial comment might more accurately be called a racist comment; an "inappropriate" racial comment, a racist one; an "appalling" racial remark, a racist one.
We all know far too well how to write everyday English, but few of us know how to write elegant English English that is expressed with music as well as meaning, style as well as substance. The point of this feature is not to suggest that people should try to emulate these examples of elegant English but to show that the language can be written with grace and polish qualities that much contemporary writing is bereft of and could benefit from.
How I envy the novelist!
I imagine him better say her, for it is the women I look to for a parallel I imagine her, then, pruning a rosebush with a large pair of shears, adjusting her spectacles, shuffling about among the teacups, humming, arranging ashtrays or babies, absorbing a slant of light, a fresh edge to the weather, and piercing, with a kind of modest, beautiful X-ray vision, the psychic interiors of her neighbors her neighbors on trains, in the dentist's waiting room, in the corner teashop. To her, this fortunate one, what is there that isn't relevant! Old shoes can be used, doorknobs, air letters, flannel nightgowns, cathedrals, nail varnish, jet planes, rose arbors and budgerigars; little mannerisms the sucking at a tooth, the tugging at a hemline any weird or warty or fine or despicable thing. Not to mention emotions, motivations those rumbling, thunderous shapes. Her business is Time, the way it shoots forward, shunts back, blooms, decays and double-exposes itself. Her business is people in Time. And she, it seems to me, has all the time in the world. She can take a century if she likes, a generation, a whole summer.
Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase indeed, the height of expression a "dimwitticism" is the converse; it is a commonplace remark or phrase. Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight, formulas that we rely on when we are too lazy to express what we think or even to discover how we feel. The more we use them, the more we conform in thought and feeling to everyone else who uses them.
(the) jury is still out Still another way to express not knowing or being undecided, the jury is still out, used figuratively, is as foolish a phrase as it is a meaning. Any sentence in which this dimwitticism is used is sentenced to being forgettable.
Words often ill serve their purpose. When they do their work badly, words militate against us. Poor grammar, sloppy syntax, misused words, misspelled words, and other infelicities of style impede communication and advance only misunderstanding. But there is another, perhaps less well-known, obstacle to effective communication: too many words.
in the normal (ordinary; typical; usual) course of business (events; things)as usual; commonly; customarily; normally; ordinarily; typically; usually; delete. In the ordinary course of events, they wouldn't go to court over something like this. Ordinarily, they wouldn't go to court over something like this. In the normal course of business, the company's segments enter into transactions with one another. Typically, the company's segments enter into transactions with one another. In the normal course of things, it is rare for an island to be hit twice or three times in any one season. Normally, it is rare for an island to be hit twice or three times in any one season. Vesta stated in a news release this week that it will be able to handle the claims in the normal course of business. Vesta stated in a news release this week that it will be able to handle the claims.
Inadequate though they may be, words distinguish us from all other living things. Indeed, our worth is partly in our words. Effective use of language clear writing and speaking is a measure of our humanness. What's more, the more words we know and can correctly use, the broader will be our understanding of self, the keener our acquaintance with humankind.
déclassé (day-klah-SAY) adj. 1. lowered in class, rank, or social position. 2. lacking high station or birth; of inferior social status.
Among the best written, if least read, books are those that we will be featuring each month in "On the Bookshelf." No book club selections, no best-selling authors are likely to be spoken of here. Best-selling authors, of course, are often responsible for the worst written books.
Each ten-question quiz briefly discusses a specific topic, such as history, science, literature, or philosophy. Of course, you are quizzed not on content but on grammar or usage, vocabulary or spelling, punctuation or style.
Vocabula Quiz 6 Topic: Health Level of difficulty: Moderate
The Dimwit's Dictionary — First Edition by Robert Hartwell Fiske
The Vocabula Bookstore Is Now Open.
(click the image to order)
Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight, formulas that we rely on when we are too lazy to express what we think or even to discover how we feel. The Dimwit's Dictionary is a compendium of clichés and other overused words and phrases, and sharp alternatives to them. Price: $18.95