Recently in the Specific Words Category


| 1 Comment

The other day, Mary Anne linked to an article that claimed that the new gender-neutral title “Mx” was being officially added to the OED. I'm not linking to that article because it turned out, alas, that it had based that claim on a Sunday Times article that only said the OED was considering adding it. So as far as I can tell, it's not in the OED yet.

But in comments on Mary Anne's post, a couple of people indicated that they didn't see a need for the new title, so I wrote up some thoughts about it, and I figured I might as well post those thoughts as a blog entry.

When we were first deciding on policies for the Strange Horizons fiction department, we decided not to use titles in addressing correspondence to submitters; instead, we decided to use their full names. One reason I was in favor of that policy was that I went to a college founded by Quakers, and the not-using-titles thing rubbed off on me. But another reason, probably the biggest one for me, was that picking an honorific meant making assumptions about the submitter's gender given no information other than their name. A significant percentage of submitters had names that weren't obviously gendered (and even commonly-gendered names are no guarantee), so using “Mr” or “Ms” had a significant chance of being wrong.

And although I do like the address-the-person-by-full-name approach, if “Mx” had been widely known and understood at the time, I might well have been interested in using that, as a form of nongendered respectful address.

Relatedly, a few organizations that I donate to have started to require that donors specify a title when they donate. I currently can't do that without specifying my gender (or lying about my doctoral status), and I don't feel that my gender is any business of theirs. If I could specify “Mx,” I would. Same with my favorite hotel, where despite my complaints they still won't let me reserve a room online without specifying my gender.

More generally: In our society, there are lots of times when people use titles to refer to other people. Under most of those circumstances, gender is completely irrelevant, and yet most of the time we can't use a title without tying gender to it.

So I wholeheartedly support the use of “Mx.”

In the 1970s, a lot of people railed against the awful new title “Ms.” They presumably felt it was perfectly reasonable to require a woman to specify her marital status if she wanted to be addressed respectfully. Today, we no longer feel the need to specify marital status in titles for women (we never did in titles for men), but we still seem to consider it ordinary and reasonable to require binary gender. I'm hoping that forty years from now, “Mx” will be as ordinary and unobjectionable as “Ms” is today.

(PS: I'm using the term “title” here as a synonym for “honorific”; I'm not thrilled with either term in this context, but they seem to be the standard terms.)


| No Comments

Half the people on my Facebook friends list have linked to an article by Megan Garber in the Atlantic titled “English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet,” about the growing use of the word because in the structure “because noun,” as in “because Internet” or “because FEELINGS” or “because Science!”

That article draws on a bunch of other recent articles from the linguistoblogosphere, including one by Stan Carey that goes into more detail and provides more links. The Atlantic also provides a cute followup by Alexis Madrigal categorizing becauses, which roundaboutly reminds me of an old column of mine, “Matt Brocchini Explains It All to You”; also of Jay and Elliott's Universal Explainer.

Anyway, I think the linguists' observations about because+noun are interesting (let's not call it “because-noun,” because confusing!), but so far I haven't seen anyone talk about it specifically as a shortening of the phrase “because of,” which seems to me to be the most likely derivation. It's expanded beyond that by now; in some contexts it can be thought of as short for “because that is” or “because I like” or all sorts of other things. But I think it's closer in structure to a shortened form of “because of” than to (for example) a shortened version of “because, hey,” which was one linguist's suggestion for an earlier similar construction.

Most disappointing spam of the day


Spam subject line:

Strange 11-Letter Word That Doubles Your Metabolism

Wow! A strange word, a long word, and a word that has an effect on the real world, all in one! Just my kind of thing!

Sadly, the message body didn't explicitly refer to words at all. Very disappointing.

(It did contain the word “biochemistry” in quotation marks, but as far as I can tell that's twelve letters long and not especially strange.)

So if any of you happen to know a strange 11-letter word that doubles your (or anyone else's) metabolism, could you post it in comments here? Thanks.

South Asia


Before I met Mary Anne, I had never heard the term “South Asia.” And I keep running into white Americans who either aren't familiar with the term or misinterpret it, so I thought it was worth posting about.

Like most of the other white Americans who get confused by the term, I had heard the term ”Southeast Asia” many times, usually in reference to Vietnam and/or Cambodia. But the only other term for an Asian region that I was familiar with was just “Asia,” which I had usually heard used to refer to China and Japan, though sometimes also some other countries in the region. I didn't think of India as being part of Asia-the-region at all, although I knew it was part of Asia-the-continent. (And I had heard the term “Asia Minor,” but (a) thought of that as kind of old-fashioned, and (b) thought it meant India, whereas I now see that it refers to a part of Turkey.)

When I first heard Mary Anne refer to “South Asia,” I was really confused. I thought she was referring to Southeast Asia, and I had never heard India or Sri Lanka grouped into Southeast Asia.

But I was just wrong about what she meant; South Asia is a different region from Southeast Asia. Here's Wikipedia on South Asia:

Different sources vary in their statements of which nations are part of the region. For example, according to the United Nations geographical region classification, Southern Asia comprises the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. However, the United Nations notes that the "assignment of countries or areas to specific groupings is for statistical convenience and does not imply any assumption regarding political or other affiliation of countries or territories." By some definitions, some of those nations are not part of the region, and by some definitions, Burma and Tibet are also included in the region. . . .

(I'm cheating here; Wikipedia says that partly because I just edited it to say that. But I believe it to be accurate; the changes I made were to bring the article into agreement with the cited sources. See the Wikipedia article for links, and see the article's Talk page for extensive argument about whether various of those countries should be included in the definition.)

In the US, the common use of the term “South Asia” appears to generally include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and sometimes Afghanistan and/or the Maldives. But as noted in Wikipedia, there's a fair bit of variation among definitions. And definitions elsewhere may vary even further. Definitions of regions often carry a great deal of political and cultural weight; it's not my intent in this entry to provide a definitive definition of the term, because I don't believe there is one.

Instead, my goal in this entry is to make clear, to people like me who weren't aware of it, that “South Asia” means something different from “Southeast Asia.”

(By the way, note that the UN uses the term “Southern Asia,” but I never hear people call the region that; I always hear “South Asia” from people in the US whose ancestors come from that region.)

The other related term that white Americans sometimes get tripped up on is “East Asia.” That term, too, has multiple definitions, but generally includes China and Japan, among others, and does not generally include Vietnam or Cambodia or any of the South Asian nations.

(Originally wrote this in February 2012, but didn't post it 'til now.)

Fancy words from the NY Times

| No Comments

Interesting blog entry from the New York Times about the words that readers look up most often using their website's dictionary function; there's a list of the top 50, arranged in order by number of lookups per article.

I know all the words on the list, but it's a nice list of cool and interesting words. The top three most-looked-up words, for example, were panegyric, immiscible, and Manichean.

slow clap

| No Comments

The thing I find fascinating about the phrase “slow clap” is that it's used to refer to two different things that are near-opposites in meaning.

On the one hand, there's what TV Tropes calls the Slow Clap, wherein someone starts clapping slowly, the whole crowd gradually joins in as the pace quickens, and it ends with wild applause from everyone.

On the other hand, there's what TV Tropes calls Sarcastic Clapping, wherein someone (usually one person) claps slowly and sarcastically.

TV Tropes gives the two things different names, but the illustrative quote at the beginning of the Sarcastic Clapping entry uses the phrase “slow clap.”

Urban Dictionary demonstrates the same contrasting usages of the term.

This wouldn't normally be particularly notable. There are lots of things that are said or done sarcastically to mean the opposite of the surface meaning.

But the reason I'm posting about it, and posting here in my words/language blog rather than elsewhere, is that recently I've seen the phrase used fairly often on the Internet. And it's often unclear which of the two meanings the writer intends.

I usually see it in a comment on a blog entry or similar posting. The entirety of the comment is usually “Slow clap” or “Slow. Clap.”

I suspect that in most such cases, the commenter doesn't realize that there are two opposite things that the comment could mean. And to be fair, in some cases it's pretty clear; for example, if someone posts about some wonderful awesome thing that someone has done, then probably a “slow clap” comment indicates actual applause rather than sarcastic applause.

I suppose this is arguably just one more example, among thousands, of the difficulties of detecting sarcasm in written communication. But it seems different to me.

Perhaps because in movies and TV shows, if a single person does a slow clap, it's almost always the sarcastic kind. So if one commenter writes “slow clap,” the mental image I get is not of a crowd of people starting to applaud slowly and then picking up the tempo.

Also, the reason that the positive kind of slow clap starts out slow is generally that the audience is (for example) hesitant or chagrined or uncertain, or sometimes embarrassed on the applaudee's behalf. So it's not the “slow” part of it that's an accolade. So it seems odd to me to say “slow clap” rather than just “applause” in a comment that's intended to be positive; the slow clap tends to suggest to me that the clappers start out with some reservations. Otherwise it would be just a regular clap.

Anyway, I'm not trying to be prescriptivist about this; clearly, people do use the written phrase “slow clap” to indicate approval. So this entry isn't meant to criticize that usage, but rather to document it, because it surprised me when I started seeing it.

metumpsychosis (sic)

| No Comments

The other day, while doing some editing, I came across the word “psychopomp,” which obliquely reminded me of an incident from high school. Possibly earlier, but I think it was in my high school Humanities class, which might as well have been called Dead White Males 101, or Welcome to the Canon of Great Western European Art.

Early in the semester, maybe even on the first day, the teacher wrote the word METUMPSYCHOSIS on the board (yes, spelled with a U), and asked us what it meant.

Various kids may have given jokey answers, but nobody knew. I knew I had seen the word before, but wasn't sure what it meant.

When we were done guessing, she told us that it was meaningless, a nonsense word that she had made up. I think she was making some kind of pedagogical point, maybe about the value of admitting ignorance? I'm not sure.

I was confused—I was sure I had seen the word before. But I didn't know where.

It wasn't until some time later that I re-encountered the word “metempsychosis.” (With no U.) It is, of course, a perfectly good word with a respected and ancient lineage. It means “transmigration of the soul,” and the term has been used by writers from Kipling to Joyce (speaking of dead white males) to Pynchon.

Whenever this incident comes to mind, I wonder all over again: what would the teacher have said if one of us had known the word? Would she have told us that this was a different (and made-up) word because it had a U in it? (But if so, then why didn't she mention the real word/spelling to us?) Or did she not know the actual word?

Anyway. A mystery without an answer; I'm not sure which teacher it was, I don't know if she's still alive, and I doubt she would remember the incident. But I do wonder occasionally what she had in mind.

First Lady

| No Comments

I always thought that the phrase “First Lady” meant, by definition, the wife of the head of state; in particular, in the US, that it specifically meant the wife of the US President.

But during a visit to the Vermont Marble Museum a couple months ago, in a hall of busts of Presidents, I saw an explanatory card that mentioned that during Buchanan's Presidency, since he was unmarried, his niece Harriet Lane was the First Lady.

I couldn't figure out what that meant, since again I thought the definition of the term was “President's wife.”

But it turns out that the term has, at least sometimes, more generally been used to mean (among other things) “hostess of the White House”; and Ms. Lane is not the only unmarried woman to have served in that office.

In particular, the bit of that Wikipedia article that I find most surprising is the notion that Chelsea Clinton served as “Acting First Lady” during the two-week period between Hillary Clinton's swearing-in as Senator and Bill Clinton's leaving office as President.

But that's a contentious usage; the talk page for that article makes clear that some people vehemently disagree with it.

And nowhere else on the web is the phrase “Acting First Lady” applied to Chelsea Clinton. (Except other pages that quote the Wikipedia article; you can filter them out of a Google search by looking for pages that don't contain the unusual phrase “during the fortnight”.)

For example, a CNN article from August, 2000, implicitly distinguishes between the “first lady” (by whom they clearly mean Hillary Clinton) and the “first daughter [having] filled in” as hostess and as Bill Clinton's travel companion and source of moral support.

Still, regardless of the specific question of whether Chelsea Clinton can be said to have actually been a First Lady, it's nonetheless clear that the term has in the past, on occasion, been applied to women who were not married to the President.

By the way, the Wikipedia article on First Lady provides slightly more information about the use of the term outside of the US.

burka, hijab, niqab, chadri, etc

| No Comments

Nice post from last month at HotCoffeeMississippi about various names for Islam forms of modest dress, including all the ones in the title of this entry.

The BBC provides a set of illustrations for some such terms, though it doesn't provide as much context or cultural information as the abovelinked entry.


| 1 Comment

The other morning, as I was waking up, it occurred to me that I pretty much never hear the word "nix," but I do occasionally hear the Pig Latin word "ixnay." Usually in the construction "ixnay on the [something in Pig Latin]." Like: "ixnay on the alkingtay."

I wondered whether "ixnay" is becoming an English word in its own right. Although come to think of it, I don't think I often encounter it in a non-Pig Latin context (like *"ixnay on the talking"), which seems to suggest it's not widely considered valid English.

And then I wondered whether people do still use "ixnay," or whether I've just seen it so much in older books that I think of it as common.

Anyway, I made a mental note to write an entry about this at some point, and then forgot about it.

And then a couple hours later, I came across the then-latest strip of the webcomic Darths & Droids, which used the "ixnay" construction.

And the strip's forum topic included some discussion of exactly my questions. And several of the commenters there said they've been known to use "nix" sometimes.

Also, MW11 doesn't list "ixnay" as a valid English word.

Anyway, partly I'm posting 'cause I think it's an interesting topic, but partly just because I was amused by the coincidence.

Three pirate lasses

| No Comments

It occurred to me recently to wonder about the derivation of the word "cutlass."

Turns out it's from Middle French "coutel," meaning knife, which ultimately derives from Latin "culter," meaning knife or plowshare. (! Had no idea that one word meant both things.)

And the "lass" part appears to be a Middle French augmentative suffix. So I gather that the Middle French "coutelas" basically meant "big knife."

Which made me wonder about another piratical term: "windlass." Which turns out to derive from Norse "vindāss," in which the "āss" part means "pole." So it's a winding-pole.

Kind of neat that the two lasses are etymologically distinct from each other as well as from the word "lass."

As well as, of course, from that third pirate-related lass, the spyglass.

island of misfit toys

| 1 Comment

I don't think I had ever heard of the Island of Misfit Toys before a couple of months ago, when it figured prominently in an anti-iPhone Verizon commercial.

Which would normally be more a matter of my lack of pop-culture knowledge than something relevant to words or language. Except that the phrase seems to be suddenly becoming a popular metaphor.

I saw it in two different news stories during one week a couple weeks ago. I didn't record the first, but the second is a New York Times article, "The Fall and Rise of Media," which says (about job loss in traditional media) "That carnage has left behind an island of misfit toys."

It's possible this has always been used as a metaphor, ever since the Rudolph TV special was broadcast in 1964, and I just didn't notice it until I had a referent to pin it to. But I see that a direct-to-video movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, was released in 2001, and has been aired annually on ABC since December of 2006, so I'm speculating that that's led to increased awareness of the Island. I don't have time to track the phrase further, but I suspect use of the metaphor has gone way up in the past three years.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Specific Words category.

Spam is the previous category.

Speech/Spoken is the next category.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04