Thursday, June 19, 2008


I was recently tempted to use ensconced as a synonym for entrenched. If you've followed the links, you know how foolish I feel. Entrenched is more an embattled, impervious state of being, whereas ensconced is a pleasant little settled situation. Protection is involved, but, I don't know, it just doesn't seem as ugly.

I like that word, ensconced. It makes me think of scones. There should probably be a more astute observation here, but the whole skull, defensive, protecting, candle-holding etymology just didn't do a lot for me. But scones, entirely unrelated to sconces in any form of diction whatsoever, are much more satisfying. Not so much verbally. They're just really yummy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Trailer Park

Dear Wordsmith,

Why do people say movie "trailer" instead of "preview" nowadays?

And why do they call it a trailer? Wouldn't that indicate something AFTER the movie. I didn't look this up in the dictionary because I figured they would give me the definition of the kind of house some people live in.


Curious & confused

Well, C&C (love your music factory, by the way), I did some searching, and the adventure revealed many wonderful things. I'll try to tackle them in order.

1. Ironically enough, very few people actually say "nowadays" nowadays.

2. Even more ironically, the term trailer actually dates back to 1912, according to the Straight Dope. So it is by no means a neologism, although it is more recent than the initial use of the term nowadays, which debuted in the 14th Century.

3. They were originally called trailers because they were shown at the end of films. It didn't take long for the folks to figure out they were much more effective when shown before viewers left the theater . . . marketing genius at work.

4. For whatever reason, it took forever for people to stop calling them trailers. Since forever has not yet run its course, people are still calling them trailers.

5. I believe there is a word for any word or phrase that remains in use even after waving goodbye to its etymological validity. Expressions like "dialing" or "hanging up" a phone still persist even though it is rare for either one to be done literally. I remember reading this term and discussing it at length, but an extensive search has yielded no fruit.

6. The search did, however, bring me back to the word retronym, which is a term for words that are forced into existence by developments beyond their control. Terms like "acoustic guitar" or "wireless remote" or "manual transmission" all came into being because the redundancy has vanished. For instance, had five more such films never been made, no one ever would have uttered the words "Rocky One." But alas. Alack. There were many more Rocky's, and thus many more reasons to place the retronymic roman numeral uno after the Oscar-worthy Rocky. I remember this word in connection with the yet-to-be-relocated word mentioned in number 5, because both retronym and my verbal John Doe became the main topics of the unforgettable discussion about the apparently quite forgettable word.

7. Arggh.

Well, C-squared, I hope that helps clarify things for you. Unfortunately, I am more deeply mired in confusion than ever.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ode to Ellipses

Oh, dear ellipses with your three evenly spaced points, you finisher of unfinished thoughts, you beautiful little . . .

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


In trivia I recently explored the word kudos to discern whether it could exist in the singular. My M-W posse didn't fail me, giving a lengthy explanation on the back formation of the singular version, kudo. In that lovely little treatise, they alluded to the fact that the words cherry and pea are singular backformations of Greek words that look plural in English. Unfortunately, neither of their definitions yielded any hearty etymological fruit. So I had to search elsewhere for the full scoop.

I imagine other people might have dissimilar reactions (or none at all), but I love this about the English language. We just make up stuff, but we do it so brazenly, yet artfully. So-called grammar Nazis will protest at the slightest departure from the so-called standards, but a true linguist will exploit the tiniest loophole to cook up new verbal recipes in this melting pot of a language. Yesterday's grammatical affront becomes tomorrow's literary haute cuisine. Yummy. (Which, I just learned, finds its etymological roots in yum-yum.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Say, Say, Say

Why is it, I wondered, that naysayers say "nay," but soothsayers don't say "sooth"? If either of the two were going to be contrary, I would expect it to be the naysayer, wouldn't you?

So I decided to search. As it turns out, soothe actually comes from the Middle English word for verify, which comes from the Old English word for truth. So, according to their marketing, soothsayers at least claim to be truth tellers, presumably being people who tell the truth about the future. Be that as it may . . . or as it may be in the future, this left me more confused about the word soothe. I mean, come on, do people who soothe really tell the truth?

I would expect a soothsayer to be just as reliable (if not more) in matters of fact as someone who just plain soothes. When you see someone in need of soothing, is your first thought, "Hey, just tell them the truth"? No. Because you know there's nothing soothing about "Yes, you are a loser," or "No, it's not the jeans' fault that you look fat," or "I don't know why she broke up with you. There are so very many reasons, all of which I assume would have been obvious to her when she first met you." Sure, you can use truth to soothe, because lies are so often the reason behind our distress . . . but the act of soothing is usually more strongly associated with telling people what they want to hear than with telling them the plain-faced truth.

I've never gone to one, but perhaps that is the secret of a successful soothsaying business: tell the people the future they want to hear. And maybe that is the mystery behind this strange etymology. Naysayers will claim to tell you the truth about soothsayers and those soothed by them: it is not the etymology of soothe that is in question, it is our understanding of truth.

In summary, soothsayers say what soothlisteners want to hear, while naysayers say nay to the idea that soothsayers tell the truth, because all a naysayer really wants to hear is that the truth that soothes is not truth at all, and in that dark corner of skepticism, the naysayer is in fact soothed by saying nay to the soothsayers who soothe with what could not be truth, thus completing the ironic circle of the soothing nays and the naying soothe.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I had a theory; actually, more of an invention. I wanted to explain the history of the word cheesy. I wondered if it could have originated from the smile-inducing practice of portrait photographers who ask their subjects to say, "Cheese!" in the absence of genuine happiness. So cheesy grew to become synonymous with fabricated emotion, questionable quality, artificially manufactured moments.

Unfortunately, the real meaning is just shabby or cheap, inferior in quality. It pretty much undermines the whole motivation behind the etymology search. M-W gave me no explanation of the history, but I think I'm giving up. If you discover something more, please let me know.

Friday, April 18, 2008


This is a close relative of the last post, but it's one root that spawns all sorts of words. The root itself, however, didn't quite make it into the English language.

You can regress. You can digress. You can progress. You can even aggress. So if there is any justice in the lexical world, you should be able to gress. But according to Merriam-Webster, I gress not.

The root is in the Latin gradir, which means to go or to step. It's where we get the word grade. So why can't you get gressing instead of getting going? Why can't you gress in something instead of stepping in it? It just wasn't meant to be.

So the root of aggressive turned out to be passive? Typical.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Advertent Is a Word, Too

What's with the love for inadvertently, people? Advertently is a word, too, you know. You know a word doesn't get used much when the first couple pages of Google results are online dictionaries. That's the type of neglect advertently has to live with, day in and day out . . . only 83,000 results all told. Heck, the blogger spellcheck function doesn't even recognize it (I'm really giving the thing a workout with this post, by the way).

I wonder if we expect it to be one of those false roots. There's no such word as sidious to describe people with good intentions (which are neither the opposite of tentions nor inner tentions). Whelmed really just means "so overwhelmed, you temporarily lack the strength to add the over." Exhausted people aren't formerly hausted. And if you're not distraught, you aren't traught, you're just . . . fine. Advertently means what you'd expect it to mean. So why not use it?

From now on, I will advertently use advertently at least once a day. Perhaps someday you will join me, and the world will be as one. Just agine the possibilities.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Musical Double Prepositions

I love it (and by "love it," I mean I kinda hate it a little bit) when people try too hard to be grammatically correct by introducing a grammar mistake that sounds snooty even though it's wrong. The classic is the personal pronoun subjective instead of the objective in a compound situation (She opened up a can on Rufus and I). But there's one that shows up, for some reason, in song. To avoid ending their sentence (or the lyrical phrase) with a preposition, they introduce the preposition earlier . . . but they still use it at the end anyway. Here are two that bug me:

John Mellencamp, "Small Town"

"Now I cannot forget from where it is that I come from." Most lyrics sheets will deny the song actually says that, but I've listened to it over and over . . . he definitely sings "from" twice. The preposition is so nice, he said it twice. He doesn't even say it in a snooty way, but it's still a bit silly. Then there's a better musician, even if he's not a superior grammarian . . .

Paul McCartney, "Live and Let Die"

"But in this ever changing world in which we live in . . . " Now that preposition is so nice, he said it thrice. But only one of them is extraneous. I guess you could say poetic license allows for the occasional scenario in which it's okay to use a double preposition in.

Monday, April 7, 2008


Onomatopoeia is one of my favorite words. It just sounds so sweet when you say it, which is perfect for a word that means to come up with a word for a sound by imitating the sound itself. Whoosh. Bam. Kaching. Slurp. Sizzle. Crackle. The art of coming up with those words is called onomatopoeia . . . isn't that beautiful? I've always thought so.

What I didn't know, though, was the etymology behind the word. Its greco-latin root means to make a name. In fact, poet is just another word for maker. How that came to be associated with someone who writes rhyming or flowery or free verse rather than someone who just goes prose is beyond me, but I guess it's fitting.

Back to onomatopoeia. Making names. You could say that Sawyer on Lost is an onomatopoet, since he's always making up nicknames for people. You could say that anyone who makes a name for themselves becomes onomatopoetic by doing so.

Why should we care? Let's face it, you're here because you need help. Don't ask why.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Or Is It Laurel?

I always get confused between hearty and hardy. If you follow the links, you really don't need me to explain the difference. What makes telling "bold, brazen, or robust" from "unrestrained, healthy, or vigorous" so difficult is that the words and their meanings are somewhat similar. Even more confusing is the fact that hearty is also a noun (as in, "Ahoy, me hearties!") although given the definitions, I would have thought it would have been hardies. But Hardies are boys, not mateys. It's so hard to keep up. But I'll give a hearty effort to being hardy.

Also . . . Addison had an addition to . . . or an edition of his own diction addiction. He says that lowways are when you don't go on the highway. I couldn't bear to argue. Or could I not bare to argue? Darn it all.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure, Only Dorkier

I actually like reading the dictionary. It's quite well written. As a father of a four-year-old inquisitor, I know how hard it is to put a word's meaning into words without actually using the word itself. In case you can't tell by the numerous links on this blog, Merriam-Webster is my favorite to read.

I don't read it cover to cover, though. I read it like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I look up the meaning of one word only to find another fascinating word in the definition. So I look that one up and find a word I don't even know. Then I see that word has a related word in its etymology that simply must be looked up for its etymology. It's quite fun in a "what would Nancy Drew do if using words incorrectly were a crime" kind of way.

Tonight, I looked up repartee only to find that A) I had spelled it wrong, B) it demanded none of the accents ague I thought were necessary, and C) it had four possible pronunciations. Then I was caught off guard by the word adroitness. Then I discovered a phonetic mark I didn't know the meaning of, and that led me down a useless rabbit trail. But I was also interested to know that dexterous was a synonym of adroit, because I thought dexterity was more of a physical thing. But, as it turns out, its primary meaning is more about having a quick mind than having fast fingers.

I could go on, and sometimes I do. But I stopped at dexterous. I can't wait to start reading again tomorrow to see how this bad boy ends.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It Really Is

I just found out that suavity is a real word. That's awesome.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ether Or

No, that's not a typo. Today's topic is the word ether and it's adjectival counterpart, ethereal. In what may prove to be the last etymological discussion in my so-called office, we were actually discussing the fleeting nature of such discussions and how an online forum would establish a permanence our groundbreaking discoveries had always lacked. Our nerdy word conversations now had the chance to survive for posterity instead of, as my friend put it, disappearing into the ether.

I immediately got excited in a word-nerd way, because I had been on the verge of describing the exchanges as ethereal, and I finally realized the connection of the two words. But I had to admit, I didn't really understand the phrase "disappear into the ether." I've heard it used, but I was always a bit confused as to how the chemical ether would be involved in anything's disappearance, other than someone who was knocked out by it and kidnapped.

Ether, as explained to me, has an interesting history. People used to think it was the chemical that constituted the upper reaches of space. So when something disappeared into the ether, it dissipated or evaporated into the soaring gulfs of the atmosphere. And something ethereal has a heavenly or immaterial quality. And whenever I do these dictionary scavenger hunts, the search always leads me to words I never intended to peruse. This time, it was rarefied, a beautifully ethereal word in it's own right.

Good night, now. I'm a dork.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Yes, I Am Nauseous

I don't know exactly why I chose this as the premiere post on this blog about words and their use. I just know that it was one of the first word-meaning issues I can remember affecting me. Someone told me that the statement "I feel nauseous" did not mean what I thought it meant. Being nauseous at the time, I didn't appreciate the additional burden of confusion. What else could nauseous mean than that I felt like I was about to blow chunks?

I think I eventually got an explanation, although the person who called me on this so-called verbal violation seemed to enjoy my multi-symptom breakdown and thus delayed his version of the truth. The basic idea was, nauseous describes something that induces nausea. Nauseated is someone afflicted with nausea. And I believed this myth for two decades.

Until I looked it up. And I must tell you, that is all I do. I get word meanings wrong all the time. I regularly bungle grammar rules. If I am an expert at anything it is my expert obsession with looking up rules and definitions I have forgotten or do not know.

Anyway, I love the fact that Merriam Webster's Dictionary provides a thorough rebuttal of the "you're not nauseous, you're nauseated" lexical legend. It's like the big brother who comes to your defense against the obnoxious bully. Except you, your brother, and the bully are all big dorky nerds. Still, it's a comfort.

From here on out, I'll probably only add to this blog when I come across a word or rule I don't know or any linguistic irony or anomoly of interest to me. I'd also like to open it up to discuss particularly hairy issues of grammar and usage. We'll see. For now, I'm out.

And no, I'm not actually nauseous at the moment. I'm just a dork.