Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Talk About Your Wedding Showers!

That torrential rain we were supposed to get never quite materialized. As the afternoon turned beautiful, though, I was reminded of the South African term for when the sun is shining while it's still raining: monkey's wedding. It may be adapted from the Portuguese term for same, which translates as "vixen's wedding," or a Zulu term that literally means "wedding for monkeys." Encarta has another explanation. What's interesting is that so many different languages describe this meterological phenomenon in terms of unlikely pairings: in Arabic, "the rats are getting married"; in Bulgarian, it's bears who're tying the knot; in northern India, it's jackals. In Greece, a sunshower means that "poor people are getting married." There are quite a few other colorful terms like these. Which have you heard?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Today's Word: Stilliform

Lots of talk here in sunny San Diego about heavy rain on the way. I'm reminded of one of the most beautiful words in the English language: stilliform, or "drop-shaped." It's from Latin stilla, "drop," and a relative of the drippy words distill (to "drip down") and instill, "to put in drop by drop" -- or as the OED puts it, "To introduce (some immaterial principle, notion, feeling, or quality) little by little into the mind, soul, heart, etc.; to cause to enter by degrees; to infuse slowly or gradually; to insinuate." I love stilliform partly because those long, thin letters -- the t-i-l-l-i-f in the middle -- look kind of, well, drippy. (Or am I a drip for loving a word for the shape of its letters?)

Friday, February 24, 2006

El Programa de Los Mas GEEK del Mundo

We couldn't have said it better ourselves! Thanks, Monica!

Life is Just A Bowl of Back-Formations

As I said, strictly speaking, the word kudos, or "glory," is singular. Over time, those unfamiliar with its Greek root mistook it for a plural, leading to what's called a "back-formation"-- in this case, kudo.

Kudo may raise some folks' linguistic hackles, but two other respectable words arose this way. In Middle English, pease (as in "pease-porridge hot") served as both the singular and plural for those little green things, deriving from the Greek word for same, pison. Many people assumed, therefore, that the singular of pease must be pea. Something similar happened when Anglo-Norman cherise wandered into Middle English. Many assumed cherise was plural, and therefore one of these tangy fruits must be a cherry.

Why I Didn't Say "A Big Kudo to Our Quizzicist"

The reason I didn't offer a great big kudo to our deserving Quizzicist is this: Not long ago, there was no such thing as a kudo. Our word kudos was lifted directly from Greek, where kudos means "magical glory." Later, English speakers sometimes mistook kudos as a plural, forming kudo as the singular. These days only the biggest sticklers insist on sticking to the original singular, kudos. Call me old-fashioned, but I like nodding to the original Greek here, and will lavish kudos on you if you do, too. More in the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster, which disagrees with me. What do you think?

Kudos to Our Quizzicist

Permit me to kvell about "A Way with Words" Quizzicist Greg Pliska. (If you caught last week's show about Shakespeare, you'll recall Greg's funny puzzle about the Bard's lesser-known rival, William Snakespeare.) Besides being a clever quiz concoctor, Greg's also a musician and conductor who does musical arranging for the highly regarded band, HEM. Last week Greg & Co. performed at Lincoln Center, and The New York Times raved about it the next day. Way to go, Greg!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Today's Word: Quincunx

You knew there had to be a word for the pattern of five objects arranged like the dots on the "5" side on dice, didn't you? It's quincunx (KWIN-kunks), from the Latin for "five-twelfths." As crossword fanatics know, an as was a coin of ancient Rome. Another Roman coin, the quincunx, was worth five-twelfths that much, and bore that five-dot pattern. Quincunx is from Latin quinque, "five" and uncia, "twelfth" (a relative of English inch), and applies to anything so arranged.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bursting Into Tears Yet?

Recently a listener described rushing through the Louvre to meet a friend, when out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a painting. She stopped dead in her tracks, slowly turned to face it, and promptly burst into tears. Thirty years later, she was wondering if there's a term for that. So we discussed the Stendhal syndrome, an intense physical and psychological response to art.

Many of you have since have since asked about that painting. It's "The Burial of Atala" by French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). The Art Institute of Chicago, which is exhibiting the painting through April, says Girodet based it on a popular 19th century novel about an American Indian woman, Atala, who converts to Christianity. Later, she:
frees the Indian brave Chactas from his enemies and finds refuge with him in the cave of the religious hermit Father Aubry. Having consecrated herself to God, Atala takes poison when she fears that she is falling in love with Chactas. After her death, the brave vows to become Christian himself.
Wow. Well, have a closer look, and tell me what you think.

Ancora Imparo: Another Learning Experience

I love this Italian phrase attributed to Michelangelo. I mean, how great is it that toward the end of his life, one of the world's most brilliant artists would say, "I am still learning"?

So there I was on the plane yesterday, thumbing through SkyMall magazine, when I came across a plaque with those very words for sale! The ad copy: "Made in a small studio in Ireland, plaque is hand-cast in resin covered in a layer of bronze. Arrives ready to hang." And all for the low, low price of just $79.95!

I have an even better idea: type these words into your computer, make them your screensaver, then send me $59.95. You just saved $20! Learn something new every day, eh?

Today's Word: Hypallage

On our latest show, we discussed hypallage (hye-PAL-uh-jee), a.k.a. "the transferred epithet," which occurs when a modifier's misplaced or misapplied, as in a worrying development. (The development isn't actually doing the worrying--someone else is.)

Garner's Modern American Usage has more examples, including feminine napkin. (Technically, the napkin's not feminine--—that is, you can't turn it over like a puppy and check to see.)

On a flight yesterday, I ran into an another example. A sign in the lavatory read: airsick bags. Gee, I hope not!

Hypallage's often used for rhetorical effect. Merriam-Webster calls it "an interchange of two elements in a phrase or sentence from a more logical to a less logical relationship"-- as in "a mind is a terrible thing to waste," when you really mean to say is "to waste a mind is a terrible thing."

So I'm not all that worried by the phrase a worrying (as opposed to a worrisome) development. ButI leaned away from those airsick bags just in case.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Today's Word: Quidnunc

From Latin quid nunc -- literally, "What now?"--this term was first recorded in English in 1709. A quidnunc is "a nosy person or busybody," as in: "Who knew we'd be moving in next door to such a quidnunc?" Then there's the woefully underused word quidnunckery, which means "curiosity, love of news or gossip." May your quidnunckery keep you coming back for more!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

So Listen to Our Yiddish Show, Already!

You may not speak Yiddish, but if you've ever schmoozed, or called someone a klutz, or kibitzed about something while noshing, then you know at least a bissel -- that is, "a little."

We had a blast with this week's show, which features my interview with Yiddish translator Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods -- a book that's very funny but also intellectually chewy and enlightening. Check out Wex's website, scroll halfway down, then come back and tell me: Who says word nerds aren't sexy?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Today's Word: Osculate

All this talk about kissing reminds me of another great word: osculate. It means "to kiss" -- or as the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully puts it: "to salute with contact of the lips." It's from the Latin verb osculare, which means the same thing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

One More Thing About Kisses

One more thing about today's NY Times mention of Latin basia, or "kisses." I suspect that for many Latin students reading that article, Catullus' Carmen 5 sprang to mind. Here's a partial translation by Rudy Negenborn:
. . . Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
Sounds like a plan to me! (Treat yourself to audio of the whole thing in Latin here.)

More About That Article on Kissing

That New York Times piece on kissing also asserts:

The German language has words for 30 different kinds of kisses, including nachküssen, which is defined as a kiss "making up for kisses that have been omitted."

I haven’t looked into this, but it's worth noting that linguists have debunked similar claims about other languages (like Eskimos having X number of words for “snow” and the assertion that the Irish lack a word for “sex”). So take such things with grain of salt.

Speaking of salt, one more tidbit from the NYT article:

(The Germans are also said to have coined the inexplicable phrase "A kiss without a beard is like an egg without salt.")

All I can say is de gustibus non est disputandum. But I love the idea of a word that means “making up for kisses that have been omitted,” and plan to start using it immediately.

See? I Told You Learning Latin is Sexy!

Interesting article about kissing in today’s New York Times. Writer Joshua Foer notes that the ancient Romans distinguished among three kinds of kisses:

the friendly oscula, the loving basia and the passionate suavia.
Another Latin kiss-word he didn’t mention: morsiuncula, a kind of kiss that involves “biting with the lips.” (This last word is a linguistic relative of the English term for that “bite” you might feel later if you're now regretting that kiss: remorse.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Feeling Blogged Down?

A very funny audio commentary on the joys and perils of blogging, from nature artist and writer Julie Zickefoose. I had a driveway moment while listening to it on NPR today. Her blog's fun, too.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Seeing Seeing Double?

The other day on the show we discussed words with consecutive sets of double letters. A caller pointed out that bookkeeper has three sets. My co-host noted that subbookkeeper has four. Arthur Salazar just emailed to suggest a word with an even longer string of double letters -- a word that denotes "people who maintain the small spaces where masked mammals live in the zoo." Says Arthur: "They are called raccoonnookkeepers."

Okay, so it's not in a dictionary, but it's pretty great. Can anybody top that one?

Friday, February 10, 2006

How Do You Spell "Embarrassing"?

Who can blame poor Sara Beckman and her parents of Washoe County, Nevada for being f-u-r-i-o-u-s? From the Reno Gazette-Journal:
Parents of an O'Brien Middle School eighth-grader are demanding an instant replay of the Washoe County Spelling Bee after their daughter was eliminated despite spelling a word correctly.

"I'm a momma bear with her bear claws out," Cindy Beckman said. "Spellers and academic children don't get all the accolades that the sports kids do. This is one of their few chances to shine, to get attention and look what happens."

It now appears that, under threat of a lawsuit, the parties have reached a compromise. The larger question, though, is this: What good are spelling bees, anyway? If kids are going to put all that energy and effort into rote memorization, why not have them memorize something truly useful--like Latin words? (Just imagine how much better those kids would do on their SATs!)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Today's Word: Macarize

A language-loving pal in New York just wrote to say that she'd just found this blog and wanted to macarize me.

Not that I'm paranoid, but I assumed that she was yet another of the Mac users in my life who keep nagging me to ditch my beloved IBM Thinkpad and come on over to their side. (You know who you are!)

Turns out that macarize has been around since at least the early 1800s, and means "congratulate." The OED says macarize originally meant "to account or call (a person, etc.) happy or blessed." Seeing that, I was smacking (smackerizing?) my forehead for not guessing this word's Greek origin. Macarize is from makarizein, the root of the word that appears repeatedly in the Greek text of the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the peacemakers," etc.)

Anyway, I'd like to macarize Randy Hecht for introducing me to a new word. But until they make a Mac-compatible version of the OED on CD-ROM, I'm not letting go of my Thinkpad.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Cruciverbalist Fills Us In

Some 60 million of us do it at least once a week. Marc Romano gets anxious if he doesn't do it at least once a day. I'm talking, of course, about solving crossword puzzles. (What'd you think I meant?)

Marc's new book, Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession, is about his wild and crazy adventures in the world of competitive crossworld puzzling. It's a great read. Recently, Marc stopped filling in squares long enough to fill us in about what it's like to compete with fellow crossword fanatics at a national tournament -- right down to hearing the "termitelike sound of hundreds of No. 2 pencils scratching on paper." You can hear my chat with Marc here.

Today's Word: Perendinate

The other day I heard from a listener named Lenore from Cambridge, Wisconsin. Of course, it was hard to resist opening her email, considering that the message header read: “I had the radio on but wasn’t listening.”

(Gee, thanks, Lenore! We’re flattered. No, really.)

Actually, Lenore said some very nice things about “A Way with Words,” so Lenore, you’re forgiven for briefly turning your attention to something else while our show was on. I’m assuming it was a some kind of dire emergency, and the worst of it has now passed, so that you can get back to more important things, like emailing your friendly neighborhood Verbivores.

Anyway, Lenore wanted to find out the word I’d mentioned that means “to put off until the day after tomorrow.” That word is perendinate.

I suspect that most first-year Latin students get a little thrill when they learn the Latin word cras, which means “tomorrow.” Once you see that word, it’s easy to see how we get the word procrastinate, which literally means "to put off until tomorrow."

The word perendinate, however, goes procrastinate one better. As the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, "perendinate" means to "put off something until the day after tomorrow." It's from the Latin perendie -- literally, "on the day after tomorrow."

Btw, Lenore, I would have answered your email before now, but I’ve been dreadfully busy perendinating.

"It'll Never Be Seen on a Galloping Horse"

The other day a caller reminded us of one of the most wonderfully liberating expressions in all of the English language: It'’ll never be seen on a galloping horse.

This caller told us that her mother used to say this whenever she was talking about something that "wasn't perfect, but was good enough."” It seems this phrase is popular among quilters in particular. (As in, "Maybe my stitches don't match up perfectly, but doggone it, they're good enough!")

It's a great expression, isn't it? There's the wonderful, galloping rhythm of it -- and then there's the delicious hyperbole. Of course you wouldn't see whatever it is on a galloping horse! A nice lesson in keeping one's perspective, no?

Several listeners have since called and emailed us with variations of this phrase. Kelly from San Diego had heard it as you can't see dust on a galloping filly. Patrick called from Madison, Wisconsin to report that in his native Ireland, the expression is: A blind man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. (Another vivid version I've seen: A blind man running for his life wouldn'’t see it.)

In any case, the next time I'm tempted to overwork something I'm writing, I'm going to make myself think of galloping horses and move on. Which is why I'’m hitting the "“post"” button right now.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Today's Word: Poculation

Here's one you don't hear very often: poculation. Pronounced "pock-yew-LAY-shun," it means "the drinking of wine or other intoxicating brews." It's from the Latin poculari, which means to frequent the cup," from poculum, "cup."

Something tells me there's going to be a poculation explosion tomorrow, just about the time the Super Bowl comes on.

So, Listen to Us on NPR already!

Now you can download "A Way with Words," the show about language that I co-host with the uber-verbivorous Richard Lederer, as a podcast from National Public Radio. It's sort of like NPR's "Car Talk," only our listeners call in with questions about language -- word origins, grammar, slang, word puzzles, pronunciation, idioms, regionalisms, and bloopers. Our show also features interviews with some of the most interesting authors and language experts who're making news in the world of words.

You'll find our show at NPR's podcast page. There you can also get a suitable-for-printing-out-and-framing photo of the two of us -- provided, that is, that you have a 5 mm x 5 mm frame.

For more about "A Way with Words," visit our home station in San Diego, KPBS-FM.

Blogorrhea for Logophiles and Logorrhea for Blogophiles . . .

This is the place to find blogorrhea for logophiles and logorrhea for blogophiles. That's a nice example of chiasmus, a picturesque literary term inspired by the "X" shape of the Greek letter "chi." More about it here.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Oy! She's Kvetching Again!

If you're sick of phrases like "leveraging our repurposeable mindshare," you may enjoy the kvetching I've been doing about corporatespeak in various media outlets lately, namely here and here.

And don't get me started on the overuse of that otherwise weighty word, gravitas!

OK, I'll bite. What's an Ort?

I was hoping you'd ask!

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ort this way:

"A fragment of food left over from a meal; fodder left by cattle; a refuse scrap; leavings. Usu. in pl. Also fig.: a fragment, esp. of wisdom, wit, knowledge, etc."

That' s pretty much what you'll find here -- leftovers from my ruminations about a variety of topics.

I look forward to hearing yours, too.

Here goes . . .

Lights, camera, action . . .