The Glossary of Useful Words 24: ‘cachinnate’

March 16, 2024

Laughter is an almost unique human behavior/trait that is denoted in every language by a verb and its coordinate substantive. Some languages have at least two such verbs, the first being the neutral descriptor and the second describing the action to a higher degree. Thus Russian (Y-H-B’s native language) has the neutral verb smejat’sja but also the verb xoxotat’ ‘laugh uproariously’.
In English we also have a verb of the second type, cachinnate, which is largely unknown to the general speaking public. The two agentive substantives derived therefrom are cachinnator (male) and cachinnatrix (female), neither of which are in general use. They are very handy, nevertheless, as was proved to me this morning when I visited my Saturday Stammlokal for breakfast, The Little Rooster Café, in Manchester Center, Vermont. One of the servers, a woman named Michelle, who cachinnates habitually, did so several times today, and I was moved to say to her, “you’re quite a cachinnatrix!” At which she looked at me dumbfoundedly.


The Voiding of Literal Meaning through Overuse (‘absolutely’)

March 10, 2024

Certain words in all languages lose their original or literal meaning through overuse. In contemporary American English no word meets this definition more closely than absolutely, which has become simply a vocable used for emphasis or affirmation, replacing words like yes, right, or such phrases as “you can say that again.” Another such word is great, as when a waitress asked a customer in my Sunday Stammlokal, Up for Breakfast, whether he would like a regular coffee rather than a flavored one, and he answered, “That would be great!”

As has been registered here before, absolutely as a habitual emphatic or affirmative is yet another example of American English’s tropism toward overstatement (i.e., linguistic hypertrophy). Tant pis!


The Glossary of Useful Words 23: ‘supererogatory’

February 3, 2024

The word superfluous is used all the time in speech and writing and can hardly be deemed superfluous. However, there is a synonym—namely, “supererogatory,”—which is hardly ever used but is actually very useful. Here is how it is defined in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary Online:
1a:of, relating to, or characterized by supererogation
b:observed or performed to an extent not enjoined or required
2: that can be dispensed with:superfluous, nonessential

Next time I introduce myself as a substitute teacher to a class at Burr and Burton Academy as “Dr. S.,” I will be sure to add “as in supererogatory!”


Reluctant, Not Reticent

January 26, 2024


In contemporary American speech, especially in the media, one now frequently hears the word reticent used where the speaker means reluctant. Here are the first definitions of these words as registered in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary Online:

Reluctant : hesitant from or as if from dislike, doubt, fear, or scruple : feeling or showing aversion, hesitation, or unwillingness

Reticent: inclined to keep silent or uncommunicative : given to reserve in speech

It is obvious that these two words are being confused because of the identity of the beginnings of their written forms and the semantic closeness of their meanings, but reluctance and reticence are not identical (“reticent” necessarily involves speech), hence the presence of error when “reticent” is used instead of “reluctance”.


Anosognosia and Political Speak

September 24, 2023

It is well-known that politicians––especially American members of the species––have an annoying habit of repeating themselves endlessly. One of the phrases that they utter redundantly for emphasis is “Let me be clear” as a way of introducing their brand of political speak. President Joe Biden is particularly guilty of this infelicity.

But the question arises: when is an American politician ever “clear?” Obfuscation is in their blood. So is anosognosia (= lack of self-awareness).


Do Books Have a Fate? (Apropos of The Speaking Self)

August 24, 2023

Since the 2nd edition of The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage appeared in print under the Springer Nature imprimatur, Y-H-B has often wondered whether his very expensive book has reached the wide audience it deserves by its sui generis character as a usage manual. The blog on which the book is based ( currently has over three hundred subscribers (including 292 RSS feeds), which constitutes palpable testimony of its global spread, but the typical lack of comments on its posts does not furnish any assurance as to its impact.

All the same, I remain proud of what I have accomplished in print and remain hopeful that the high price of the published book will not remain an insuperable obstacle to its assuming its rightful place among specimens of its genre.


The New All-Purpose Referencer (“in terms of”)

August 14, 2023

In contemporary English of all stripes, one constantly hears speakers using the phrase “in terms of” instead of “with regard to” (or equivalent items) whenever they wish to indicate the reference of whatever vocables precede this phrase, e.g. “We think (that) in terms of Jim we should hold off.”

To a purist like Y-H-B, such utterances seem ungrammatical, but the current norm in statu nascendi not only allows them but welcomes them. Whatever floats your boat!


Mind-Set: A Noisome Buzzword

August 6, 2023

In an interview just heard on CNN, the former Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, uttered the buzzword “mind-set” at least three times in the same sentence. He did not know, one must presume, that this compound is actually a loan translation of the Latin forma mentis ‘form of mind/mentality’. The word forma is important because it is not to be translated by the English ‘set’ but by ‘form’. Nevertheless, this buzzword has established itself irrefragably in current speech and is to be heard emanating from the mouths of the most variegated speakers ad nauseam.


Is There Room for Chance in Language Change?

July 23, 2023

While chance or “spontaneous variation” has a role to play in Darwinian theory, we can safely say that there is none in language change. Whenever languages change, they do so because something in the context is accountable for the change.

It is another matter when it comes to timing. A context may be conducible to a change, yet no change need occur, which means that changes are spontaneous when first introduced. Whether such spontaneous variations are propagated and continue to exist over time is another matter. Every change must be taken up by the language community en gros in order to perdure.

Very often, language being figurative at its core, something linguistic comes into being because of metaphorical innovation but need not be taken up by speakers at large. Such, for instance, is the currently popular compound in English, game-changer. This word is applied in popular speech to just about every situation that can be described as a fundamental change in circumstances. The transferred use of the component game testifies to the conceptualization by its users of every possible situation as something resembling a game. The fundamental meaning of this word necessarily involves the concept of “play,” which then means that speakers who resort to this compound are inherently taking every life-situation as a game. In the case of American speakers this is further evidence that we/they construe everything in life as being (at least potentially) less than serious.


Country–Who? Animacy Triumphant

July 19, 2023

In an item posted here eight years ago, “The Tension between Grammar and Praxis,” Y-H-B pointed to the increasing tendency in public speech to replace the inanimate demonstrative which with the animate who when referring to entities behind which stood human actors or collectives.

In a TV clip on CNN today, this tendency was once again demonstrated when the current AID Administrator, Samantha Power, was recorded as saying “the countries who” during an interview in Africa.

Coming from a sometime college professor with advanced degrees, this strikes Y-H-B as a particularly flagrant example of the mistake’s current expansion throughout contemporary speech. Errare humanum est.