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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

Is Intonation Iconic?

Every language has differences in intonation of utterances depending on the latter’s content and purport. The basic divide is between questions and statements, hence interrogative intonation is invariably different from declarative intonation, although a relatively new phenomenon in American English––Valley-girl patois ––tends to usurp the declarative mode by substituting the interrogative at the end of every clause, including sentence-final.

In languages as disparate as Russian, Japanese, and English (to name just three that happen to be Y-H-B’s native languages) interrogative intonation comports a rise that is lacking in declarative intonation, and this suprasegmental feature can be understood as an icon of the difference in meaning between the two types of clauses or sentences uttered with these two intonations. Interrogatives always come with a rise in the voice, whether or not attended by a minimal fall, whereas declaratives always lack this rise even though they may have a perceptible but non-significant fall across the final portion of the utterance. Final position in the clause, sentence, or utterance is decisive for interrogative meaning except where the rise occurs on interrogative words (like ‘how’, why’, ‘when’) that come before final position.

The intonational universal determining rises and falls has to do with how all languages construe questions. The obligatory rise in interrogatives is an icon of the unsettled state of questions vis-à-vis statements: the former figuratively “hang in the air” (cf. R висят в воздухе), whereas the latter are “grounded.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Fear of Linguistic Indirection: British ‘if you like’

Regular readers of this blog may remember mentions of British ‘if you like’ by comparison with American ‘if you will’ as phrases used by speakers to warn addressees about (or implicitly apologize for the use of) a proximate figurative expression, as if figuration in speech were somehow a transgression of linguistic protocol. (In that connection, readers are directed to the PDF available on this blog, entitled “Wimp English,” which analyzes the use of “if you will” in American English; and is, curiously, the most oft-downloaded item on the list of PDFs [according to Webalizer].

The use of these phrases in the two varieties of contemporary English speech is not uniform. Whereas ‘if you will’ has declined on this side of the Atlantic, the incidence of ‘if you like’ across the pond is more frequent than ever (judging by BBC World Service broadcasts). One can only conclude that the British, among their other linguistic mannerisms, are more sensitive than Americans to the possibility of saying anything that their interlocutors might deem non-U or inappropriately idiosyncratic.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Meaning Is Not ‘In the Head’

Meaning is a perennial problem in the philosophy of mind but seems to pose no problem for language users and linguists alike. The latter locate it as residing ‘in the head’ of speakers, and language seems to facilitate this view. However, on closer inspection, and when we compare how different languages use words to mean the same thing (synonymy), we become convinced that meaning is all around us, and words in different languages have different ways of carving out a specific meaning from the semantic universe that surrounds us in the world, differing from the physical environment only by mode of embodiment.

Y-H-B was reminded of these considerations when hearing the English word tie on the radio used to designate a match or contest where there is no winner and an equal score and translating it mentally into its Russian equivalent ничья (nich’ya). The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives as the primary meaning ‘that with which anything is tied; a cord, band, or the like, used for fastening something; a knot, noose, or ligature; a natural formation of this kind, a ligament’. The notion of being inextricably bound to each other is then implemented figuratively to give the meaning ‘equality between two or more competitors or the sides in a match or contest; a match in which this occurs, a drawn match; a dead heat’.

The Russian word ничья by contrast utilizes a different concept, literally that of ‘belonging to no one’, i. e., ‘[victory] belongs to no one’. Both the English and the Russian words denote exactly the same thing but do so in different modes of figuration. The semantic web in which the words are embedded is the same, but the construal in the two languages gives linguistic expression to that embeddedness in two entirely different ways that end up meaning the same thing nonetheless.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Epidemic of Verbal Misgovernment

With the rise of the internet and mass communications has come the establishment of (American) English as the world’s lingua franca. This development has necessarily been accompanied by imperfect learning, which means that grammatical normativity has suffered, perhaps nowhere more noticeably than in the matter of verbal government, specifically the use of the correct postposition after verbs.

For instance, even native speakers of American English are now constantly heard confusing the phrases “ask (a question) of” with “put (a question) to,” substituting the postposition to for of after ask. The media universe is rife with such mistakes, which linguists are prone to identify with analogy as a cause. One can see, of course, why to seems more “natural,” given its use in other constructions involving directionality and the indirect objects of certain verbs, but correct usage is not just an arbitrary or slavish adherence to traditional rules of grammar but the bedrock of the felicitous expression of thought. Its raison d’être has a cognitive dimension that goes beyond language as a cultural phenomenon.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Does the Gorilla’s Avoirdupois Matter?

A quite common idiomatic expression in contemporary American speech is “the 600-/800-/900-/1,000-pound gorilla in the room,” which is used to mean “a very large issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but nobody wants to talk about. Perhaps a sore spot, perhaps politically incorrect, or perhaps a political hot potato, it’s something that no one wants to touch with a ten foot pole” (as defined by the Urban Dictionary). Interestingly enough, the expression started life with the word elephant instead of gorilla , i. e. “(pink) elephant in the room.” Because of its gigantism an elephant’s weight is much harder to specify than that of a gorilla, so the change of animal can be explained by the desire of the speaker to indicate just how large the undiscussed but relevant issue actually is in context.

Speaking of weight, although the variability of the beast’s poundage in the contemporary version may have something to do with the figurative force the user wishes to impart to the hidden but significant considerations at stake in discourse, this consideration is less likely than that of the sheer bulk of the animal. Ultimately, a gorilla in the public imagination looms large––especially in a room!––regardless of avoirdupois, hence the instability of its linguistic designation.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 7 (Authenticity)

All of us––but especially Americans, because of our history as a nation of immigrants––have a drive for authenticity in our lives, in our experience and use of language, as well as in other aspects of our daily existence. This was exemplified yet again this morning when Y-H-B descended to the laundry room in his Manhattan apartment building for his weekly wash and encountered the sole other visitor, a man in his sixties who asked Y-H-B for help with the new machines that had just been installed.

What was remarkable about this gentlemen (for Y-H-B, at least) was his impeccably authentic New York accent, with all the correct vowels and intonations and the thorough r-lessness (elision of the liquid /r/) in all the right contexts. What a joy to hear this historically pristine speech, this rarely encountered exemplum of linguistic tradition!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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