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The Glossary of Useful Words 5: ‘captious’

A slightly judgmental or emotionally-tinged adjective meaning “quick to find fault” is the word ‘captious’, which one does not encounter these days in either speech or writing but is useful withal when intending to go beyond the simple word ‘punctilious’. Its origin (according to the OED Online) and definitions are as follows:

Etymology: < French captieux or Latin captiōsus fallacious, sophistical, < captiōn-em (see caption n.).

  1. Apt to catch or take one in; fitted to ensnare or perplex in argument; designed to entrap or entangle by subtlety; fallacious, sophistical.
  2. Apt to catch at faults or take exception to actions; disposed to find fault, cavil, or raise objections; fault-finding, cavilling, carping.

In the Age of Irrationality, perhaps it is not altogether blameworthy to be captious, when the polar alternative is never to criticize despite having good reasons to do so.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Mispronunciation of Wimbledon

The All England Lawn Tennis Championships are played every year around this time at Wimbledon, a district of southwest London. Since the broadcast media are constantly giving updates on the scores, the word Wimbledon is unavoidably in the air, often mispronounced by speakers of American English with a [t] instead of the correct [d] for the orthographic d. The cause of this frequent mispronunciation is as follows.

Intervocalic /d/ and /t/ in American English are typically indistinguishable, being rendered phonetically as the alveolar flap [ɾ], which makes minimal pairs like bitter and bidder sound the same. In an unstressed syllable the /d/ of Wimbledon––even though not intervocalic––can sound indistinguishable from an alveolar flap to an American ear and hence identified with [t] rather than [d] despite the clear evidence of orthography. This is the origin of the mistake.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Gossary of Useful Words 4: ‘perfervid’

While the word fervid is known to every literate speaker of English, its prefixed congener perfervid is not part of many speakers’ vocabulary––but should be withal. The intensity of meaning added by the prefix per- results in the definition ‘very fervid; ardent, impassioned’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online), annotated as follows:

Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin perfervidus.

Etymology: < post-classical Latin perfervidus (chiefly in the phrase perfervidum ingenium Scotorum the impassioned genius of the Scots, founded on G. Buchanan’s Scotorum praefervida ingenia ( Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582) xvi. li.)) < classical Latin per- per- prefix + fervidus fervid adj. Compare earlier praefervid adj.

The prefix per– is glossed by the OED in the following manner:

  1. Forming words with the sense ‘thoroughly, perfectly, extremely, very’: with adjectives and adverbs, as classical Latin peracūtus very sharp, peracute adj., perdīligēns very diligent, perdiligent adj., post-classical Latin perfervidus, perfervid adj., etc. Formerly also in English with derived nouns (or their analogues), in sense ‘very great’, ‘extreme’: see e.g. perdiligence n., peradvertence n.

Notionally, the utility of this word can be reckoned to be heightened by the digital revolution and a popular culture that regards anything lacking perfervidity in its espousal (alas!) as less than authentic.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Structuralism as a Theory of Language in the Light of Peircean Pragmaticism

Many of the posts on this blog are written from the perspective of a non-philosopher interested in developing a Peircean theory of language for the twenty-first century. For readers who share an appetite for this sort of thing, perhaps it would be apposite at this point to flesh out some of the suppositions that underly this perspective, as follows.

The essential concept of structuralism, whether applied to physics or linguistics or anthropology, is that of invariance under transformation. This makes theory, following Peirce’s whole philosophy and his pragmaticism in particular, the rationalized explication of  variety: “[U]nderlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits …. In so far as evolution follows a law, the law or habit, instead of being a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity, is growth from difformity to uniformity. But the chance divergences from laws are perpetually acting to increase the variety of the world, and are checked by a sort of natural selection and otherwise … , so that the general result may be described as ‘organized heterogeneity,’ or, better, rationalized variety” (Collected Papers, 6.101). Or, translating law and habit into the appropriate phenomenological category: “Thirdness … is an essential ingredient of reality” (The Essential Peirce,  2:345).

Once we properly understand structuralism not as the putatively debunked epistemology that originated in Geneva with Saussure, but rather as the revised, essentially correct version originating with Jakobson in Prague and Hjelmslev in Copenhagen, we can recognize the patterning of Thirdness and Secondness in language––the so-called “passkey semiotic”––for what it is. Consequently, the fundamental notion of alternation between basic form and contextual variant becomes understandable as immanent in theory, and not merely a construct or an artifact of description. The importance of this notion cannot be overestimated.

A child learning its native language, for instance, is exactly in the same position as an analyst. It has to determine which linguistic form is basic, and which is a contextual variant. Take a simple example from English, that of the voiceless stops.

English voiceless (actually, tense) stops are aspirated when they are word-initial or begin a stressed syllable, as in pen, ten, Ken. They are unaspirated when immediately following word-initial s, as in spun, stun, skunk. After an s elsewhere in a word they are normally unaspirated as well, except when the cluster is heteromorphemic and the stop belongs to an unbound morpheme; cf. dis[t]end vs. dis[t]aste. Word-final voiceless stops are optionally aspirate.

This variation makes aspiration non-distinctive (non-phonemic) in English, unlike, say, in Ancient Greek or Hindi, where aspirated stops change the meaning of words by comparison with items that have their unaspirated counterparts ceteris paribus.

It is only by taking such variation for what it is, i. e., the working out of Thirdness in the context of Secondness,  that we can we understand what Peirce had in mind with his version of Pragmatism.

The use by Peirce of the form “rationalized” (rather than “rational”) as a modifier of “variety” in the quotation above should be taken advisedly. This use of the participial form, with its adversion to process, should serve as a caveat that when Peirce talks about “objective idealism,” what he ought to have said is “objectified idealism.” This slight grammatical change puts the meaning of the phrase (and the doctrine!) in a whole new––and completely acceptable––light.

Because he was a practicing scientist in the modern sense, Peirce is the one great philosopher who escapes my definition of a philosopher as someone who only solves problems of his own devising. This also makes him a proto-structuralist (a structuralist avant la lettre).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 3: ‘platitudinous’

Although the substantive platitude is in common use, one almost never hears or reads its derived adjective platitudinous ‘characterized by platitudes; full of platitudes; (of a person) that utters or writes platitudes’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online). The latter is a very useful item to have in one’s active vocabulary, since so much of what passes for meaningful in modern life and thought is at bottom banal, flat, and patently platitudinous.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion Revisited (Hiroshima)

In an earlier post (“Japanese Prosody and Its Distortion in English,” March 19, 2011) the peculiarities of the Japanese suprasegmental system of pitch affecting vowels was outlined, and the distortions English speakers tend to introduce in rendering Japanese vocables was sketched. With the city of Hiroshima in the news these days in connection with President Barack Obama’s visit there, it might be useful to subject this toponym to some prosodic scrutiny.

The word is a compound consisting of the elements hiro(i) ‘wide’ and shima ‘island’. The toponym has low pitch on the initial syllable and high pitch on the remaining syllables, with the high pitch on the final syllable automatically being transferred to the vowel of any particle that follows it, hence, for instance, the phrase Hiroshima ga ‘Hiroshima is’ bearing high pitch on the particle ga.

Since it is stress, not pitch, that is distinctive in English, native speakers of English typically put the accent on one of either the second or the penultimate syllable, i. e., Hiróshima or Hiroshíma.

Judging by what one hears on the BBC World Service, British speakers favor the first variant, American the second. Thus, Britishers interpret the word as a typical English quadrisyllable (like hegémony or chirópody), whereas Americans interpret it as a compound, putting secondary stress on the first element and primary stress on the second.

 MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 2: ‘importune’

Literate speakers of American English are likely to have the word importunate ‘troublesomely urgent: unreasonably solicitous: overly persistent in request or demand’ (Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online) in their passive vocabulary at least, but perhaps not the related verb importune ‘to press or urge with frequent or unreasonable requests or troublesome persistence; to annoy, worry, trouble’ (ibid.). It is interesting to note that the verbal form of this word comes in both transitive and intransitive meanings.

None of the word’s synonyms has the insistence or the annoying character of the action connoted by importune, in parallel to its related adjective importunate. Both words deserve to be kept at the ready in the linguistic arsenal of speakers (and writers) who wish to give their utterances that special fillip when called for.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 1: ‘meretricious’

This is to inaugurate a new series of posts on Language Lore featuring words from the rich store of English vocabulary that are not in common use but are of particular usefulness withal. Such a word is ‘meretricious’, glossed as follows by The Oxford English Dictionary Online:

Etymology: < classical Latin meretrīcius ( < meretrīc- , meretrīx  meretrix n. + -ius , suffix forming adjectives) + -ous suffix.

1. Of, relating to, or befitting a prostitute; having the character of a prostitute. Obs. (arch. in later use).

2. Alluring by false show; showily or superficially attractive but having in reality no value or integrity.

In the Age of Depravity––which is the one that we are living through in the twenty-first century in the United States––this word is particularly apt because the digital revolution has tended to subvert and level all value hierarchies such that something superficially attractive or seemingly meritorious––i. e., meretricious––can blind people to its true status. All one needs to be convinced of the validity of this assertion is to heighten one’s awareness to the category of meretriciousness whenever claims for true merit are advanced for things and ideas in our Umwelt.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

‘Before’, Not ‘In Front of’

One constantly hears speakers of American English confusing the word ‘before’ in the transferred spatial sense (e.g., “appear before the court”) with the phrase ‘in front of”, substituting the latter for the former. This is a gross stylistic error that goes against a long normative tradition and should be expunged. It doubtless stems from diminishing experience with written texts and constant exposure to speakers with a less-than-normative command of their native language.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Shunning the First-Person Pronoun: Onomastic Reference to Oneself

In these days of incessant broadcasting of US primary candidates’ utterances, it is not unusual to hear them referring to themselves with their full names rather than the first-person pronoun “I.” Bernard Sanders does this habitually, but he is not alone.

While this linguistic quirk may at first blush seem like a distancing device, it is actually a rhetorical trait of speakers who wish to arrogate to themselves a measure of self-dignification. To refer to oneself by one’s full name rather than the pronoun “I” tends to elevate the ontological status of the speaker by making him/her unique, whereas the use of the first-person pronoun always has a leveling effect, since “I” only and always refers to the speaking subject, a reference that is purely deictic, hence flattened in content because of its second-order (i. e., context-dependent, derivative) status.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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