The Glossary of Useful Words 19: ‘quixotic’

February 25, 2021

Listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning, I heard a song from the musical “Man of La Mancha,” which immediately put me in mind of Don Quixote and the adjective derived therefrom, i. e. ‘quixotic’, pronounced [(ˈ)kwik-¦sä-tik] (unlike the pronunciation of the eponymous hero’s name). This word has fallen into desuetude but deserves to be resurrected in current speech.
Here are the meanings as registered in the OED Online:

  1. Of an action, attribute, idea, etc.: characteristic of or appropriate to Don Quixote; demonstrating or motivated by exaggerated notions of chivalry and romanticism; naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable; (also) unpredictable, capricious, whimsical.
  2. Of a person: resembling Don Quixote; visionary; enthusiastically chivalrous or romantic; naively idealistic; impractical, capricious.

    In our days of the terrible pandemic––which also deserves to be called “pandemonic”––the adjective deriving from Cervantes’ great hero ought to be of great utility.

    MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 18: ‘afflatus’

January 24, 2021

‘Afflatus’ is an originally Latin word, imported into English in the seventeenth century, which is rarely used in contemporary speech or writing, but undeservedly so. Its etymology (according to the OED) is as follows:
Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin afflātus.
Etymology: < classical Latin afflātus emission of breath, breathing on, pestilential or fiery breath, aspiration, breeze or wind, vapour, exhalation, blast of hot air, inspiration, in post-classical Latin also sudden attack of erysipelas (1743)
The contemporary meanings, as registered by several online dictionaries, are:
The communication of supernatural or spiritual knowledge; divine impulse; inspiration, esp.    poetic inspiration. Also: an instance of this.
Inspiration; an impelling mental force acting from within.
divine communication of knowledge.
divine imparting of knowledge or power : supernatural or overmastering impulse
Here is a sentence using the word from an earlier post (May 8, 2009):
“His look of total incomprehension as we descended punctured the afflatus I was feeling at my literary mot juste.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

“Hesitancy” vs. “Hesitation:” The Dominance of Grammatical Structure

January 16, 2021

In contemporary (media) speech, increasingly one hears the word “hesitancy” instead of the traditional “hesitation,” to the point where one almost never hears the latter. The question why has an answer rooted in the derivational history of the two items though their meaning is identical.

“Hesitation” is a deverbal substantive derived from the verb “hesitate” by adding the suffix {-ion} to the verbal root {hesitate-}. “Hesitancy,” on the other hand is deadjectival substantive derived from the adjectival root {hesitant-}. Since both adjectives and substantives are part of the category of nominals, a deadjectival substantive like “hesitancy” has a more immediate semantic force owing to its derivational history––a force missing from a substantive like “hesitation” that is deverbal. In short, the ascendancy of “hesitancy” vs. “hesitation” is to be accounted for by its greater derivational proximity in comparison to its deverbal counterpart.

This is an example that bears out the general analysis of semantic force in language as being invariably rooted in the language’s grammatical structure.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Differences in Speech Styles: Garrulity vs. Taciturnity

January 1, 2021

Y-H-B took the opportunity of celebrating the New Year this morning by having breakfast at his favorite morning eatery, Up for Breakfast, in Manchester Center, Vermont, and was served (as usual) by a very nice, well-spoken fifty-year-old lady who is given to garrulousness. Whenever asked a question, she always answers at great length, going into microscopic detail as to the particulars of the situation she is describing. This habit called to mind the differences in speech styles that are characteristic of all active users of modern languages, including contemporary American English.
The diametrical opposite of garrulousness (also known as loquaciousness or talkativeness) is, of course, taciturnity. Some speakers are habitually give to a linguistic sparsity when it comes to language use, and this is clearly a preference that falls squarely in the domain of speech styles. The predilection for copiousness or its opposite in language use must be tacitly motivated by personality differences and manifests itself consistently in the speech of all language users.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Further to Linguistic Dross in American Media Language

December 17, 2020

There have been several previous posts regarding what Y-H-B has called “linguistic dross” in contemporary American English, especially with reference to media language. One locution that now needs special mention is “let me be (perfectly) clear/to be clear,” heard ad nauseum from persons being interviewed or making public pronouncements.

Of course, one could simply write this particular piece of dross off as an example of needless emphasis, a species of linguistic hypertrophy characteristic of contemporary American speech in all domains. What raises Y-H-B’s hackles everytime he hears it, however, is its undeniable superfluity. What has preceded its appearance in the speech of those who insert it typically requires no clarification at all. In the legal jargon that resorts to Latin this phenomenon is what is called res ipsa loquitur.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

When English Just Won’t Serve, French Comes to the Rescue

December 7, 2020

English has a huge vocabulary, only matched to some extent by French and Japanese (because of all the Sino-Japanese borrowings). However, there are times when English simply won’t suffice, and one must then have recourse to French. Such is the case with an English designation for inconsequential repartee or chit-chat, where French has the word badinage, defined in the OED as follows:

Humorous, witty, or trifling discourse; banter; frivolous or light-hearted raillery. Also: an instance of this; a witticism, a sally.

This kind of inconsequential discourse also comes under the compass of the French word causerie, for which again English has no exact equivalent:

Informal talk or discussion, esp. on literary topics; also, a chatty article or paragraph.

Much of what passes for linguistic behavior these days is to be captured by the French words badinage and causerie, for which there are no good English equivalents. Tant pis!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Buzz Phrases (“in terms of”)

December 4, 2020

Every contemporary adult speaker of American English is sure to know what a “buzzword” is, which is commonly defined (e.g., by Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online)as

1: an important-sounding and often technical word or phrase associated with a special group or activity and used chiefly to impress others;
2: a word enjoying a popular vogue.

However, the adjective ‘buzz’ can also be applied to phrases. Such is the case of the buzz phrase “in terms of,” which is heard ad nauseum by speakers on both sides of the Atlantic instead of “regarding,” “on,” etc. as a way of specifying the domain of whatever verbal material precedes it. Accordingly, one incessantly hears such locutions as “My opinion in terms of that action . . .” instead of the traditional “My opinion regarding/on that action,” etc.

One is tempted to explain this development as yet another instance of American English’s penchant for hypertrophy.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Persistence of a Catachrestic Phrase (*good-paying)

November 17, 2020

In an earlier post (July 2009) I pointed out the incorrectness of the pervasive catachrestic phrase *good-paying for the normative well-paying. Given the fact that in yesterday’s address to the nation President Elect Joseph Biden repeated the mistaken phrase several times (following in his predecessor Barack Obama’s footsteps), it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile repeating my earlier analysis, as follows:

When words or phrases occupy adjacent or overlapping semantic fields, they may begin to interfere with each other in the sense that one contaminates the other, thereby changing usage such that the contaminated version supplants the earlier one.

This has happened recently in the American English catachrestic construction “good-paying job,” which has all but replaced the traditional “well-paying job” (with or without the hyphen). It is a further instance of the usurpation of the adjective/adverb “well” by “good.”

In analyzing how and why this has happened, one must start by comparing the constructions “good job” and “well paid.” The compound adjective “well-paying” is the result of adjectivizing “well paid.” Note that one can say “The job/John is well paid” but not “*The job/John is good paid.” The component “well” is then supplanted by “good,” a result of contamination by “good job.” A good job is now preeminently taken to be a well-paying job: whatever else it may entail, the level of remuneration is primary and is reflected in the change to “good-paying.” So there is an underlying value change that undergirds and motivates the change.

The same may be said of the now ubiquitous “I’m good” for “I’m well” in the speech of persons under a certain age (45?). As possibly in the previous case, “well” is all but avoided when juxtaposed with a human agent because it has been relegated to the meaning field associated with health (cf. the neologism “wellness”). “Feeling good” is evidently not the same as “feeling well” (cf. the difference between “I [don’t]/feel good” and “I [don’t]/feel well). A fillip comes from the extancy of “I don’t feel good about it” but not “*I don’t feel well about it.” Cf. the standard “She paid him well” with the dialectal/nonstandard “She paid him good.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Grasping at Straws

November 6, 2020

As has been pointed out on several occasions, speakers on the media quite often exhibit a less-than-perfect command of their native language––in this case of contemporary American English. This is to be explained by a deficit of reading and of book knowledge generally.

This fact was noted by Y-H-B today on the NPR show “Here and Now,” when an interviewee, a professor of communication at Texas A & M University, uttered the incorrect form “grasping for straws” instead of the normative “grasping at straws,” substituting the preposition for for at.

Imagine a professor of chemistry mistaking silver for gold in designating the abbreviation of the metal. It is practically unthinkable! But not so when it comes to maintaining language standards. One routinely hears mistakes of the most egregious kind emanating from the mouths of speakers of American English, who should know better.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 17: ‘vainglory’

October 31, 2020

For reasons that are hard to identify, certain very useful English words fall into desuetude. Such has been the fate of the word ‘vainglory’, which the Oxford English Dictionary Online defines as follows:

“Glory that is vain, empty, or worthless; inordinate or unwarranted pride in one’s accomplishments or qualities; disposition or tendency to exalt oneself unduly; idle boasting or vaunting.”

In this period just before the Presidential Election in the United States, the candidate who fits the derived adjective ‘vainglorious’ to a T has been heard on all media fulminating and spouting his galimatias to all and sundry audiences. Nomina sunt odiosa.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO