(The Blog)

And now for a few words about words (and many other things)...

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Entries in English (11)


After all, it is called the mother tongue...

Happy Mother's Day all. While everyone is busy appreciating all that mom has done for them, I take a look at how much our language—that is, our mother tongue—also owes to dear “mother,” in my newest Book Riot column:

...There’s Mother Nature, Mother Goose, motherboard, mother lode, mother-of-pearl, and, thanks to Saddam Hussein’s popularization of an Arabic expression, “the mother of all [relevant noun!]”

But there are also a number of wonderful words out there that owe their existence to “mother,” though you may never know it to look at them. (Not that “mother” is looking for any credit or gratitude. Sigh.) Here are just a few...

Read the whole thing. And then share it with your mom.


At Least You Speak Like You’re Well Read: From Literature to Lexicon 

What’s in a name? Or a common expression? Or, for that matter, so many of the seemingly mundane words and phrases we use every day? We don’t often give a good deal of thought to such questions, and even if we did, we’d probably be surprised by just how much of what we say we owe to what someone else once wrote.

The truth is, literature has taught us how to talk, insofar as it has given us many wonderful ways to express ourselves, clarify our thoughts, and illustrate moments in a poetic way that others can easily understand. Sure, we all love to quote things from books, like the trademark passages of certain characters or famous first lines (second lines, not so much).

But I’m not talking (only) about quotes or idioms or allusions (“Achilles’ heel,” anyone?) or even clichés, but turns of phrase that are so much a part of how we communicate that they are used too much to be considered overused, and the origins of which we have long since forgotten, if we had ever considered them at all.

I mean, have you Googled “common phrases from Shakespeare” lately? (What, this isn’t how you spend your weekends?)

The Bard is, of course, credited with poetic phrasings like “All’s well that ends well” (great title…), but is more or less just as responsible for “all of a sudden” and many other expressions you might have used today or sometime this week: “sorry sight,” “foregone conclusion,” “as luck would have it,” “one fell swoop,” “fancy free,” “pure as the driven snow,” “high time,” “charmed life,” “lie low,” “send him packing,” “in a pickle,” “foul play” (and “fair play”), “wild goose chase,” “love is blind,” and “good riddance,” among dozens of others. So even in the most casual conversation, you’ll have a chance to reveal, humbly, that you are exceedingly well read.*

* The very phrase “exceedingly well read” first appeared in print (after appearing on stage) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1.

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Friends With Words With Friends

Ah, Words with Friends: the addictive touchscreen bastardization of Scrabble that is now so popular that even the most (only?) talented member of the Baldwin family would rather get kicked off a plane than surrender his chance at instant triple-word-score gratification. It is not so much a test of what words you know—even the hard-copy version of Scrabble requires a working knowledge of words on the official Scrabble list—but how well you can make letters fit.

That Alec Baldwin is a handsome man. And he loves him some Words With Friends.It’s annoying for those of us who pride ourselves on the words we already understand. The way the game is designed allows for what I’ll call “soft cheating.” It’s not quite the same as consulting one of the many, uh, helpful sites that can tell you the highest-point word possible in any situation. But the built-in trial-and-error function—there’s no penalty for placing a non-word other than being made to try again—allows you to play your letters until you hit on an acceptable word, which is an all likelihood a word you’ve never seen before (or you would have guessed it in the first place, no?).

But ultimately, I’ve come to embrace “Words with Friends,” not as a test of vocabulary, but as an opportunity to expand it. If not for WWF,* I would likely still not know words like “toxemia” (the presence of toxins in the blood), “quale" (the quality of a thing), or for that matter “ai” (a three-toed sloth).

*Not to be confused with the WWF,** without which I would likely not know words like “sleeper hold” or “Hulkamania.”

**Not to be confused with the WWF, without which I would likely not know words like “endangered species” and “giant panda.” Okay, I probably would.

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Don't Be So Literal! (Okay, I'm Trying...)

With all apologies to the Kindle, iPad, Nook, and even the Itty Bitty Book Light, the best literary devices available to English readers and writers are still the metaphor, analogy, simile and the like. They are what make language interesting, breathing life into the most common of words and revealing patterns in the way we think as societies and individuals, as well as the way we use language to engage, influence, and even manipulate. It’s what makes the literal into literature; in almost every example of the literary form throughout history, from the Good Book to The Great Gatsby and beyond, the exact meaning is but one interpretation (and, depending on who you are or who you are talking to, not necessarily the correct one).

But when it comes to my own everyday writing, I’ll admit that I have been one of those “usage literalists” that self-proclaimed “veteran drudge” (and former head of the Baltimore Sun copy desk) John McIntyre addressed this week on his blog, “You Don’t Say”. As an editor—both of other people’s work, and especially of my own—I get almost giddy when I spot an “over” or “under” before a number and relish changing it to the more precise “more than” or “less than.” I mean, come on—“over” and “under” refer to spatial not quantitative relationships.* Am I right, people?

*Though, somehow, it’s never occurred to me** that the sports-betting line known as the “Over/Under” should therefore really be called the “More Than/Less Than.”

**Until just now.

McIntyre’s post sent me to some self-reflecting. Am I sometimes being “absurd,” as the respected former English professor and author of Common Errors in English Usage Paul Brians would have it? Is the problem really the use of language or my own relationship to it? Is it the words? Or is it me?

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Words, Football, Nuclear War, and the Delightful Rediscovery of Don DeLillo

If you're like me, you've found two ways to consistently and satisfyingly occupy a fall Sunday:

  1. Exploring the vagaries of the English language, particularly in terms of its evolution in literature and daily use in society
  2. Watching football

These, of course, are not as unrelated as they may at first seem. Anyone with a working knowledge of English who also watches sports on TV with the sound turned up, can derive hours of frustration* from the constant recycling of phrases that don’t really mean what they are intended to mean and the use of qualifiers such as “obviously” and “literally” for situations that are anything but. (For example, “adversity” is not necessarily “a state of hardship or affliction” or “a calamitous event;” it is facing third-and-long, down by four, with only three minutes to go.)

*Or joy. Fortunately, someone has gone to the trouble of creating a searchable sports cliché database. If you're a sports fan who somehow also enjoys seeing the language abused, it's worth a lookthough you may not derive as many minutes of meaningless fun from it as I did.

That said, I love many of the words that certain gifted writers use when writing about sports and even the language of sports. I have, for example, been a longtime devotee of sportswriter/author Joe Posnanski, from his (relatively recent) days at the Kansas City Star onto his current stint as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where he recently touched on the fact that “football has an argot all its own.” And while I have never before taken book recommendations from the SI letters section, this suggestion from a Mr. Robert Kelley of Iowa City, IA, caught my attention:

Fans of Posnanski's column might want to consult Don DeLillo's 1972 novel, End Zone, which dramatizes the complicated relationship between ordinary language and football jargon.

This intrigued me, because I have long considered my inability to connect with DeLillo’s prose to be a personal failing. I mean, how, when a friend first pushed a copy of it on me in college, could I possibly have not liked White Noise?*

*Here’s how: I didn’t.

But maybe I had not eased myself in. After all, as I was to find out, End Zone, DeLillo’s second novel, would come to be considered his “most accessible,” in which he tries out some of the themes that would dominate his later works, but with a—for me—more enjoyable, disturbingly comic approach.

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