Monday, August 30, 2010

I heard the news today…oh boy

Publishers are meant to be unseen and unheard. It isn't often that one makes the news, but today was an important day for wordies. Major news outlets are reporting that Nigel Portwood of Oxford University Press thinks the third edition of the full-length Oxford English Dictionary, only 25 percent complete, may never go to press.

The OED has gone high-tech. The definitive compendium of the language went digital at in 2000. How's that for a millennial event? It is updated quarterly and is about as jazzy as a dictionary can be. Much as I would like to dip into it, it is accessed by subscription only and that costs nearly $300 a year. I suppose I could afford that if I diverted my ice cream budget to the cause, but I buy a half-gallon of Blue Bell at a time, not with one annual bill.

Okay, not many people have the 20-volume second-edition OED on their bookshelves, and the shorter versions that comprise the bulk of the press's dictionary product line will continue to be printed and sold…for now. But I can see the writing on the wall—the moving finger writes and, having written, uploads to the Internet.

Convenience and cost will trump nostalgia, and they should. Good dictionaries now are available to anyone with a computer, and that is a good thing. But there will be no flipping through pages and hitting at random on wonderful new words. Not to mention no cartons of vanilla, peach or pralines and cream in the freezer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

When words jump off the page…into the mouth

Language lives on two planes—spoken and written. Written language bears little relationship to the way people speak. If I were saying what I have just written, I would say something like "We don't talk the way we write." (Come to think of it, that's better.)

When the two planes cross, sometimes the result is a blunder, perhaps not on the scale of the streams crossing in Ghostbusters, but embarrassing, nonetheless. It happens when, in conversation, you finally bring out a word that you may have read many times but have never heard anyone say. How many blushes I could have been spared if I had just looked up the pronunciation of a "book word" before allowing it to come out in public.

Many, many years ago, when I learned a little about economics, I could discuss some of the tenets of the Keynesian school of thought quite creditably. Unfortunately, I called it key-NEE-zhun. I had no idea that John Maynard Keynes pronounced his name "canes," and so was happily showing my ignorance every time I spoke about it.

A much more up-to-date example was a former co-worker, a film buff, who told me about a bye-AH-pic he had seen. I stared at him quite a while before I realized he was talking about a biopic. I have to admit that when first encountering that word in print, I had to think hard about what that might mean. And the co-worker who told me about a drink that involved "carraca" has, I'm afraid, changed forever how I think about curaçao (although, come to that, I hardly ever think about curaçao).

"Dour" is a word that sometimes tempts readers to pop it into a conversation (or sermon, as I heard it most recently mispronounced). Most Americans, it seems, decide, on no evidence whatever, that it must rhyme with "sour." But no, "dour" is probably of Scots derivation and properly rhymes with "tour."

The examples of bungled book words are plentiful—the financial advisor on TV who talked about a "harbinger of recovery," only he gave the harbinger a hard "g", the narrator of a crime documentary who talked of the criminals' cachet—he wasn't really admiring the ne'er-do-wells, what he meant was "cache" (pronounced "cash"), not cachet. I put "often" with the "t" pronounced in this category, as well.

I outwitted myself on a book word, as I recently discovered. In reading, I had always pronounced "trope" as "troh-pee," on the assumption that it was Greek in origin and all syllables would count, as in "calliope." So when I heard a TV talking head say "trohp," I laughed and shook my head. Until I consulted the dictionary, that is. It is from the Greek, through Latin, but the root word is "tropos." Our "trope" is just a shortening of the original and the talking head was right. Darn it.

Why had I never looked it up? And I thought John Maynard Keynes had taught me my lesson.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fun with Latin

There's nothing like Latin to express high-flown ideas or attempt to impress listeners with one's sense of superiority. Most of the high-falutin' words in English are derived from Latin. Many ordinary words are, as well, but there is a cultural divide in English etymology (which comes from Greek through Latin).

An interesting explanation of this phenomenon comes from Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe. English society in the time period of the novel was sharply divided between the Anglo-Saxon peasantry and the Norman-French ruling class (remember 1066 and all that*?). The animals that the peasants raised were called cows (Old English cü), but the food that ended up on the nobility's trenchers was beef (Middle French boef, from Latin bos).

The Norman Latinate influence was important, but so was the fact of medieval life that the language of the learned was Latin. Even into the 20th century, Latin was the lingua franca (Latin through Italian) of church and law. For centuries, scholars routinely have gone to Latin or Greek to create words to express new ideas.

The result is that more than half of English words are drawn from Latin. That is misleading, though, because so many of those are $20 words that are rarely used. Ordinary words—house, day, dog, cloud, dirt, man, floor—are usually Germanic. When we speak plainly, we are speaking 21st century Anglo-Saxon. And it is no accident that in former, more polite days, profanity was delicately referred to as an Anglo-Saxonism. When we refer to it we speak Latin—profanity from Latin profanitas. When we commit it—fill in your own favorite—we are pure Anglo-Saxon.

I have always enjoyed Latin-derived words and phrases that sound great tripping off the tongue. In college, I yearned for a T-shirt with a wonderful phrase I learned in biology or anthropology—"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." It was not that I advocated that since-discredited view that human embryos go through stages that reflect evolution of species, it's just that it was fun to say.

Later I found the luminous phrase "immanentize the eschaton." I actually came upon this gem again in a column by Jonah Goldberg just last week—"When we try to create heaven on earth, we are immanentizing the eschaton." That's pretty much the definition.

Even when you know what these phrases mean, it isn't in the sense that you understand simple English, like "get out" or "I'm hungry." You have to peer around those words to the meaning, rather than the words disappearing into meaning, as with simple words. That's why they are fun! Go ahead, roll them around on your tongue. See what I mean?

*1066 and All That is a small book satirizing/mangling English history. The subtitle is A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember: including 103 good things, 5 bad kings and 2 genuine dates.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a misnomer!

Another nice, well-brought-up word that has strayed from the straight and narrow in recent years is "misnomer." It started hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes and running with the wrong crowd, and before we knew it, "misnomer" had lost its real meaning.

I can't remember the last time I heard this word used correctly. No, when "misnomer" goes out in public nowadays, it's taking the place of "misconception" or "misapprehension." Though wearing a disguise, "misnomer," in perfect irony, acts out its true identity—a misnomer is a wrong name.

Here's the difference between "misnomer" and "misconception": It is a misconception (a wrong idea) that sitting in a draft will cause one to catch a cold. The "American Civil War" is a misnomer—the bloody conflict was far from "civil."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oh, the enormity of it all

Listening to talk radio while driving round town, I heard a discussion on the news from the Gulf oil spill, particularly the story of where the oil has gone. One chap offered that you have to compare the gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf waters with the "enormity of the ocean." This is at least the third time recently I have heard someone say much the same thing in this context—the enormity of the Gulf, the enormity of the earth's seas.

I'd like to gently remind anyone tempted to say something along these lines that "enormity" does not mean "enormousness." Consulting holy writ—the OED—one finds the definition as "extreme wickedness" or "an act of extreme wickedness."

Yes, I know. Words change through usage. Entropy cannot be reversed. "So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day." No doubt someday "enormity" will be accepted fully as the noun form of "enormous." But for now let's resist. Let's keep a little bit of gold tucked away in our vocabularies as long as we can.

When you stand on a seashore, by all means feel the vastness, the immensity, the utter enormousness of the ocean. Just please do not commit a linguistic enormity.

[Today's literary reference is to Robert Frost.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kindling a love of reading

A reader (thanks, Cindy!) sent this observation:

Woe is me! This was on the front page of Houston paper - "E-book sales pass hardcovers on Amazon. Some think paper variety may go way of dead trees."

As I sit and share books with my granddaughter daily, hoping she will cultivate a love for the written word, stories like this break my heart. I know we live in age of technology and that her world looks very different from mine, but there is still room for page turning!

There are many who feel the same way. Will real, bound books become one with Nineveh and Tyre*? Maybe so. I do not yet own a Kindle or Nook, but I am intrigued. If I did much traveling I would definitely snag one. The newest Kindle says it will hold 3,500 books. That would get you through the longest airport layover.

The prices, beyond the initial investment in an e-reader, hover between the cost of a typical mass-market paperback and a hardback. A title in the Hamish Macbeth mystery series is $10.99. A current bestseller is $2 more. A little pricier than I would expect for relieving the publisher of printing and shipping costs, but not bad and certainly convenient.

But give up real books altogether? Hmm. I get most books I read from the library. That's FREE, an important feature to a cheapskate. If real books go away, will libraries lend e-books? The Nook's advertisements boast that its owners will be able to lend books, so maybe so. The real test is "Can I read in the bathtub?" So far, neither the Kindle or Nook is saying it's safe for the bubble bath.

On the other hand, Cindy's concern for children's books resonated with me. Surely this will be the actually printed word's last stand. Could a Nook reproduce Dr. Seuss's illustrations? What would Kindle do with "Anno's Counting Book" which had no words at all? Of course, the iPad looks fully capable of handling "Hop on Pop" and "The Poky Little Puppy."

The bottom line is the bottom line. If people continue to buy books, they will continue to be printed. The future is in our hands.

*Obscure English literature reference, a la P.G. Wodehouse. See "Recessional" by Rudyard Kipling.