Monday, June 30, 2008

Actual Headlines

Caribbean Islands Drift to Left

- March Planned For Next August

- Blind Bishop Appointed To See

- Lingerie Shipment Hijacked -- Thief Gives Police The Slip

- L.A. Voters Approve Urban Renewal By Landslide

- Patient At Death's Door--Doctors Pull Him Through

- Latin Course To Be Canceled--No Interest Among Students, Et Al.

- Diaper Market Bottoms Out

- Croupiers On Strike; Management Says: "No Big Deal"

- Stadium Air Conditioning Fails -- Fans Protest

- Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped

- Henshaw Offers Rare Opportunity to Goose Hunters

- Teacher Strikes Idle Kids

- Lawyers Give Poor Free Legal Advice

- Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

- Fund Set Up for Beating Victim's Kin

- Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

- Cancer Society Honors Marlboro Man

- Nicaragua Sets Goal to Wipe Out Literacy

- 20-Year Friendship Ends at Altar

- War Dims Hope For Peace

- If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last A While

- Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

- Half of U.S. High Schools Require Some Study for Graduation

- Blind Woman Gets New Kidney from Dad She Hasn't Seen in Years

- Man is Fatally Slain

- Death Causes Loneliness, Feelings of Isolation

- Defendants Speech Ends in Long Sentence

- Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

- Police Discover Crack in Australia

- Stiff Opposition Expected to Casketless Funeral Plan

- Collegians are Turning to Vegetables

- Scientists to Have Ford's Ear

- Hershey Bars Protest

- County Officials to Talk Rubbish

- Carter Plans Swell Deficit

Sunday, June 29, 2008

“Biophony,” “Performant,” etc. — The Open Dictionary

by Peter Sokolowski
“Biophony,” “performant,” and “donor fatigue”— just a sampling of the creative new words and expressions recently submitted by the public to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. Read on for their definitions…

biophony (noun): the cumulative non-human sound produced by living organisms in a given biome

Example of use: The biophony of every location in nature is unique.

certificant (noun): an individual who has achieved one or more certifications

Example of use: The registration card confirms that the certificant “is a certified Nuclear Medicine Technologist in good standing.”

donor fatigue (noun) : a reduction in the will or ability to donate money to charity due to relentless demand or one’s own financial responsibilities.

Example of use: Many Americans are suffering from donor fatigue with the recent cyclone in Myanmar and the recent earthquake in China.

performant (adjective): performing according to specifications

Example of use: After the code upgrade, the software is now performant.

soapbox (verb): to deliver or proclaim unyielding opinions

Example of use: He has an opinion on everything and is now soapboxing again on topics he knows nothing about.

* * *

When you notice a new word — on the radio, in a book or magazine, or online — and discover that it’s not in the dictionary, then it’s a good candidate for Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. Some words catch on, some don’t. It usually takes a few years for a word to enter the language and be used by many people in many different places. Lexicographers collect the evidence of new words used in print to determine when they are to be entered in the dictionary.

Survey Says: Ignore the Survey

by Robert McHenry
I don’t respond to poll questions. Occasionally someone will call on the telephone, introduce him- or herself as associated with some organization I never heard of – and often saying the name of it so quickly that I can’t quite make it out – and then announce that I’m about to be asked questions about something. I invariably say “No, thanks,” and hang up. I don’t give it away, folks.

While pursuing a business degree – do you ever wonder why we are said to “pursue” a degree, as though it were fleeing in terror, or at least at high speed, like the rabbit at a greyhound race? – I took some marketing course in which we learned about polls and surveys. The readings gave us an inside look at how subjects are chosen, how questions are composed, how the process is conducted. What was clear although never spoken aloud was that these techniques are about equally efficacious in finding what people actually think and finding that they think what pollers want or expect them to. It’s all in the wrist.

Today’s newspaper brings a story that underscores just how useless polls can be. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed 35,000 Americans on their religious beliefs. There’s a wealth of information on religious affiliations, strength of certain beliefs, the relationship between religious belief and political posture, and so on. And there are some puzzling results like this: Of those who identified themselves as atheists, 21 percent said that they believe in God or in some universal spirit, and 6 percent believe in a personal God. Of agnostics, 55 percent believe in God, 14 percent in a personal God. How can that be, you may be wondering?

I’m reminded of the man-in-the-street surveys that Steve Allen used to conduct when he was the host of the “Tonight Show” on television. One election year he asked people if they would vote for a presidential candidate if it could be convincingly demonstrated that he had “scruples.” The pollees were unanimous: They most certainly would not.

Poll results can be influenced by the wording of questions, by the tone of voice or facial expression of the interviewer, by myriad factors that do not bear on the actual issues at hand. Notoriously, too, people choose their answers to survey questions under the influence of a welter of sometimes conflicting motives. They tend to answer as they think they are expected to and tend to avoid controversial or unpopular positions. Hence the wide differences between pre-election polls and election results, for example.

There are those who just like to mess with the survey. This might account for some of the believing atheists, jolly folks that they are.

And then there would seem to be those who – it must be said – simply don’t know what the heck they are talking about. “Scruples” sounds as though it might be a rather nasty and contagious disease, after all, one that probably causes pustulant irruptions on the skin. Not what we want to see at the inaugural ball, so why take chances?

Too many surveys seem to take no pains to exclude the “eager to speak out but unfortunately clueless” portion of the population or at least to identify it separately in the results. Consequently, those of us who haven’t yet decided to ignore surveys entirely are left with an unknown and unadmitted degree of uncertainty. Word to the wise.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gravy train

Gravy train
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Gravy train (disambiguation).
Look up Gravy train in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

"Gravy train" is an idiomatic expression that is used to refer to any lucrative endeavour.[1]

The word "gravy" by itself was used prior to the invention of the phrase "gravy train" as an interjection of pleasure at something that's easy to do with a great reward, or as an adjective to describe such a situation, à la 'cushy'. An easy task.

In politics, "gravy train" refers to a depraved gorging on luxuries, since someone else foots the bill.
External links and references

Michael Quinion "in the Courier of Connellsville (also in Pennsylvania) in November 1895, almost two decades before the previously oldest known example: Johnston claims that Reuben Nelson and another tall negro were in New Haven the night of the escape and that they broke into the lockup. Johnson further states that the next day Kelson laughingly told him that the New Haven lockup was "a gravy train." "

George Michael's song "Round Here" from the album Patience starts with the line "My daddy got here on the gravy train"[2]

Pink Floyd uses the expression "Gravy Train" in their song "Have A Cigar"[3].
Ian Brown's song 'The Gravy Train' features on his 'Music of the Spheres' album. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on the Simple Life, a guy remarkes, "now girls the gravy train is over with"

1381, from O.Fr. grané (with -n- misread for -u- -- the character used for -v- in medial positions in words in medieval manuscripts) "sauce, stew," probably originally "properly grained, seasoned," from L. granum "grain, seed." Meaning "money easily acquired" first attested 1910; gravy train (1927) was originally railroad slang for a short haul that paid well.

Have a Cigar (Waters) 5:24
Pink Floyd

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar.
You're gonna go far, fly high,
You're never gonna die,
You're gonna make it if you try;
They're gonna love you.
Well I've always had a deep respect,
And I mean that most sincerely.
The band is just fantastic,
that is really what I think.
Oh by the way, which one's Pink?
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy,
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.
We're just knocked out.
We heard about the sell out.
You gotta get an album out.
You owe it to the people.
We're so happy we can hardly count.
Everybody else is just green,
Have you seen the chart?
It's a helluva start,
It could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team.
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy,
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.

Vowel-less words accepted in scrabble

Brrr: The sound of shivering
Crwth: An ancient stringed musical instrument
Cwm: A cirque (a steep-walled mountain basin shaped like half a bowl)
Grr: The sound of a dog
Hm: An interjection expressing assent
Hsh: An interjection used to urge silence
Nth: adjective pertaining to an indefinitely large number
Phpht (pht): An interjection used to express annoyance
Psst (pst): An interjection used to attract someone’s attention
Shh (sh): An interjection used to urge silence
Tch: An interjection expressing vexation or disgust
Tsk: An exclamation of annoyance
Tsktsk: To utter tsk
Tst: An interjection used to urge silence”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Robust and leafy

Q: Excuse me for inflicting my current bugbears – “robust” and “leafy.” Everything is “robust”: speeches, economies, food, campaign itineraries, etc. Very tired! As for "leafy," every time someone is murdered in the suburbs, the news media mention the "leafy streets." In the city, the victim is just murdered. I see this as a putdown – a suggestion that suburbanites are rubes for thinking they’re safe.

A: Where did this infatuation with "robust" come from? I wish I knew. But you're right – it's everywhere. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it comes from (or has a nose of) the world of wine reviewing.

It’s sad to see a sturdy old word like “robust” become wimpy from overuse. When it entered English in the 16th century, it meant (as it does today) strong and hardy.

The adjective began taking on figurative meanings in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, with published references for a “robust title of occupancy,” a “robust language,” and so on.

The first OED citation for the word used in a culinary sense is from a 1961 magazine article that refers to (you guessed it) wine: “There are also Spanish and Portuguese wines that go well with strongly flavoured food. The robust Spanish Chablis, the Rioja Burgundy, and the Portuguese Vila Real are examples.”

We got the word “robust” from the Latin robustus, meaning strong, hardy, or made of oak, which brings us to your second bugbear.

I'm sad to hear that you feel "leafy" is now being used as a slap at the suburbs. The word “leaf” itself is very, very old, dating from around the year 850, according to the OED. In fact the Old English of the first citation is so old that it would look like gibberish to most readers of this blog.

The adjective “leafy” first appeared in the mid-1500s. Here’s a 1697 citation from Dryden: “Soft Whispers run along the leafy Woods.” Nothing pejorative about that! What's not to like about leaves (aside from having to rake them in the autumn)?

Much or many noodles

Q: My mother and I have a running bet ($50 is at stake). Which is correct: "much" noodles or "many" noodles? I say "many" and she says "much." I hope you can settle this.

A: An interesting question! And a lot depends on whether “noodles” is singular or plural.

If you think of it as a pasta dish, the word is singular. So you can say, “Noodles is my favorite dish,” though I’d prefer “My favorite dish is noodles.”

If you think of “noodles” as ribbon-shaped pieces of pasta, the word is plural. So you can say, “The noodles are going to be ready in six minutes.”

Now on to the specifics of your question. The adjective “much” refers to a lot of something (singular) while the adjective “many” refers to a lot of things (plural).

If you think of “noodles” as a bunch of those ribbon-shaped things, you can say, “My diet won’t let me eat many noodles.” On the other hand, if you think of “noodles” as a pasta dish, you can say, “I left over much of the noodles.”

If you use “much” with a plural word (like “noodles”) that’s acting in a singular way, you have to put “of the” between them. But you don’t need “of the” if you use “much” with a singular collective noun that acts in a plural way: “I left over much pasta.”

So, you win, but your mom comes in a close second. Maybe you should split the $50 and take each other out to dinner!

Catcher in the wry

Q: I’m curious about an expression that’s recently caught my eye: “a rye wit." I can't find anything in my dictionary on the word “rye” beyond its use as a noun for a grain, a whiskey, or a male gypsy. Am I misspelling it?

A: The adjective you want is spelled "wry." The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as meaning "dryly or obliquely humorous; sardonic, ironic."

Oddly, though, the word wasn't used in precisely this way until the 20th century. The OED's first citation for this meaning is from Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1928): "He smiles with a wry amusement for a second."

Previously, a "wry" smile was one made with a facial expression of distaste or dislike. But the adjective was used in different senses when it first entered English in the 16th century. It originally meant bent or twisted or distorted from the straight and narrow.

The adjective can be traced to a very old and mostly obsolete verb from old Germanic sources: "wry," first used in the 800s. It originally meant to turn or wend, and later to swerve or turn aside or twist. This is where we get the adjective and adverb "awry," as in "Everything went awry."

Some other words believed to be related are "writhe," "wrist," "wrench," and "wriggle."

The word "rye" (the food grain) has been traced all the way back to the year 725! We get it from Old Norse.

Grotty or grotesque?

Q: Perhaps this is a shot in the dark, but I wonder if you have any information on the use of the word “grotesque” in the mid-19th century in reference to a costume or a “fancy dress.” I'm doing research on a series of masquerades in Brooklyn during the Civil War, and newspapers of the day often use the term “grotesque.” Does it just mean elaborate, strange, and operatic? Or might there be a more specific connotation? Any thoughts would be very welcome.

A: The word "grotesque" (as both a noun and an adjective) got its start in the 16th century. It literally meant "grotto style" (as in "grotto-esque"), and comes from the style of painting on the walls of grottoes (once a popular term for the ruins of ancient Roman buildings that had been excavated).

That sense of the word is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: "A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers."

Works of art done in this style were called "grotesques," and were sometimes referred to in the Italian form, grottesco (singular) or grotteschi (plural).

The Restoration poet Sir William Davenant wrote many court masques. In his Works (about 1668) is a piece called simply "Masque" that has the line: "And in the midst was placed a large compartiment composed of Groteske work."

A little later, the meaning was widened to include representations that were so elaborate as to be distorted or unnatural. And eventually the word came to be used not just for artworks, but also for anything fantastical or wildly ornamental.

One of the later meanings common in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the OED, was "ludicrous from incongruity; fantastically absurd."

I can't find any 19th-century citations in the OED for “grotesque” that specifically mention costume or fancy-dress balls.

But I did find this reference from an 1860 book or publication (don't know which) called Heads & Hats: "The women wore absurdly high coiffures; and the men vied with them in their height, if not in their grotesqueness."

And here's one from Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (published in 1863): "You can conceive nothing more grotesque than the Sunday trim of the poor people." She probably meant something like "absurdly overdone."

And the OED has a couple of 19th-century references to the use of "grotesque" as a noun meaning a clown or buffoon.

Oxford didn't pick up many of its early citations from popular sources like newspapers and broadsides, unfortunately. So it may have missed this sense of "grotesque" as applied to exaggeratedly fanciful or elaborate costumes.

The big Webster's New International Dictionary (unabridged 2d ed.), from the 1950s, has some interesting comments on the meaning of "grotesque." An excerpt:

"The grotesque is distinguished from the ugly in that it affords a positive aesthetic satisfaction. The ugly is the opposite of the beautiful; the grotesque is the complement of physical beauty representing in the material world a distortion of aesthetic relations."

Things changed a lot in the following 10 years. During the Beatlemania era, "grotty" (formed from "grotesque") became a slang word meaning disgusting, ugly, or just plain bad.

Talking the talk

Q: If you give a talk with no audience participation, are you giving a monologue or a discourse?

A: I wouldn't use either word.

"Monologue," according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), would imply a dramatic soliloquy, a series of comic stories or jokes delivered by a comedian, a performance by a single actor, or a long speech given by a windbag who's monopolizing a conversation.

And "discourse" doesn't have to mean a talk by one person. It can be a conversation, a long discussion, or simply verbal expression in speech or writing.

How about a "lecture" or perhaps even a "talk"?

The noun “talk,” by the way, comes from talu, the Old English word for “tale.” That, in turn, comes from an even older Old English word, tellan, which gave us the verb “tell.”

Ambi and amphi

Q: I was on a hike in Manhattan with the Urban Rangers and had a dispute about the word “amphibian.” I said “amphi” means both, so an amphibian is comfortable on land and water. Another hiker insisted “ambi” (as in “ambidextrous”) means both, so “amphi” couldn’t. I dropped the subject, since I wanted to hear the guide discuss the geology of Inwood Hill Park. An interesting note: Fordham in the Bronx has a lot of gneiss and Inwood Hill a lot of schist. Or, as the guide put it, “Fordham is gneiss, but Manhattan is full of schist.”

A: Thanks for the interesting geology lesson.

As for "ambi" and "amphi," the two of them are Latin prefixes meaning both, around (that is, both sides), or about. They're derived from the Greek prefix amphi, which has the same meanings.

So, for example, "amphibian" means having two kinds existence, and "ambidextrous" means able to use both hands with equal ease.

Interestingly, the first citation for “amphibian” in the OED, from 1637, uses the term in a figurative way to refer to some doubtful characters in ancient Rome: “A certaine Amphibian brood, sprung out of the stem of the Neronian tyranny.” The term wasn’t used for reptiles until the mid-19th century.

The first published reference for “ambidextrous,” from 1646, is a comment about “ambi-dextrous and left handed men.”

Dude the obscure

Q: A few of my friends and I wondered if you could address this question: Where did the word "dude" come from? When did people start using it in everyday language to refer to either a woman or a man? Thanks!

A: "Dude," meaning a swell or a fop or a dandy (in other words, an overdressed, showy person), originated in the US in the latter part of the 19th century.

Its first appearance in writing, as far as we know, was in an 1877 letter by the artist Frederick Remington: "Don't send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes." This is according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

"The etymology is a mystery," according to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. But Partridge suggests it may be from the word "dud" (a weakling or a useless person), with some influence by the word "attitude."

It's also been suggested that "dude" may have come from "Yankee Doodle." Or perhaps the use of "duds" to mean clothes could play a part. After all, to "dude up" was to dress up. A "dude wrangler" was a cowboy on a "dude ranch" who entertained the "dude" tourists.

At any rate, "dude" has changed a lot over the years, and in more modern times has shed its pejorative beginnings.

A 1993 addition to the Oxford English Dictionary has nine citations since 1918 for “dude” in the sense of “any man who catches the attention in some way; a fellow or chap, a guy. Hence also approvingly, esp. (through Black English) applied to a member of one’s own circle or group.”

These days the word is generally used to refer to a male person, though the plural "dudes" has been used on college campuses to refer to people of both sexes, much the way "guys" is sometimes used today.

I hope this sheds a little light, dude!