Tag Archives: dictionary

Mining for competence

From time to time I ask you to indulge my curiosity about a matter of language, especially when I’m stumped.

Recently, you helped me with “one of the more” versus “one of the most,” though no one cited an authoritative source as I had hoped. It seems many of us know how an idea should be expressed in words, but we don’t always know why. I like to know why.

Here’s another one that has had me stumped for years, decades actually; I just never bothered to drill into it.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I began to wonder what the difference was between nouns ending in “ence” and those ending in “ency.”

A leadership phrase swept the corporate world decades ago: “core competency.” All through the ’80s and ’90s, the company for which I worked kept tens of thousands of employees busy perfecting and touting our core competencies. I wondered then what the difference was between competency and competence.

Lately, I’ve wondered about the other “ence” nouns: resilience, dependence, independence, even interdependence. They all have “ency” alternatives.

The question of the day is: Are there specific instances in which “ence” is correct but “ency” is not and vice versa?

Generally speaking, the answer isn’t easy to find, not for me, anyway. When you consult a dictionary, the answer is no.

My first sweep through a dictionary revealed that, in most cases, one is an alternate use, or more or less common use, of the other. In other words, they mean the same thing.

I wasn’t going to take that at face value. There had to be nuances beneath.

Not surprisingly, there are esoteric distinctions. For example, dependence is a term specific to the fields of mathematics and science.

As I often do when I go a-hunting for the truth and don’t find it in the dictionaries or stylebooks, I poke my head into an online chat. After a long night of peeking and poking, I came closer to gleaning the differences.

The “ence” noun pertains to a state of being: of being competent, dependent, independent, resilient. The “ency” form suggests a degree of that state, based on specific attributes.

For example, competence is the ability to perform a task, while competency is the knowledge, skills and abilities that distinguish superior performer from an average one.

Resilience is the ability of something to return to its original condition after being stretched or compressed, while resiliency is the physical (or mental) property that enables something or someone to return to its original condition.

Am I drawing an accurate conclusion or just searching for absolute truth where none exists?

Once again, your opinion is welcome, and your sources even more so.

Perhaps I just need a crash course in mining.

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Mother matters

Two of my favorite sitcoms this season are The Middle on ABC and Raising Hope on Fox. Perhaps it’s because they’re as real life as can be, especially when it comes to the mother roles. I also like ABC’s Modern Family and NBC’s Parenthood because they reflect the humorous imperfections alive in families.

This morning I pulled the Parade magazine out of the cellophaned supplements and smiled to find featured the four mothers on these shows. In “The Mom Squad,” the actresses playing popular TV mothers give their takes on motherhood.

Whether or not you’re a mother, I think you’ll see a little bit of yourself in one or more of the characters the actresses portray. I know I did.

“A type A anxious mother . . . a little nuts, a little stubborn.”

“She likes to eat. She likes to drink. She loves her kid, but she’s not focused on being the World’s Greatest Mom . . . She’s not reading the mommy blogs, but she has this gooey center.”

“Works because her family needs the money. But in other ways she’s a lot like Lucy in I Love Lucy—she freaks out about stuff, tries to overcontrol situations, and does harebrained things. And her husband is this calming, sensible force who says, ‘Let’s chill.’”

“A stay-at-home mom, but the kids are getting older and she’s trying to work out who she is now that they don’t need her so much.”

(Another favorite quote from the article is one in which actress Martha Plimpton describes the twins who play her granddaughter on Raising Hope. She says, “the little fat behind the neck is like a fine foie gras.”)

So which modern TV mother are you? Or maybe you’re more of a traditional TV mother like June Cleaver or Edith Bunker. Or a mod 1960s or ‘70s mother like Samantha Stevens or Shirley Partridge. Which one do you wish you were and why?

While we’re on the subject, notice I said TV “mother,” and not “mom.” I have a little peeve about this and what better day to air it than on the eve of Mother’s Day? Notice it’s not Mom’s Day. Mom is a name. Mom is not a noun. In my view, someone is not a mom. She’s a working mother, a stay-at-home mother, a single mother or simply, a mother. Madison Avenue is the worst offender, often producing ad copy that says a product is “preferred by moms.” (Such a claim is also backward for this day and age.)

Some dictionaries have acquiesced a bit, but most define “mom” as informal for “mother.”

In my opinion, it’s all right to refer to “my Mom,” but to use “mom” to refer to any woman with children is sloppy speech. Same goes for “dad.”

Why? Because I said so.


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Pretty it up

Call me one lucky word nymph. I say how much I love words and how they’re used and people send give me their treasured dictionaries. I say how I much I love SweeTarts and people think of me when they see the candies in stores. I publicly fear coming up dry and people send me suggestions for topics.

I received many blessings this Easter, including SweeTarts and other goodies. One gift is something you and I will be able to enjoy together in weeks and months to come.

Get ready to enjoy picks from Hugh Rawson’s A Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk: Being a Compilation of Linguistic Fig Leaves and Verbal Flourishes for Artful Users of the English Language, a treasure that came my way thanks to a very special Easter Bunny.

I’ve wanted to write about euphemisms for some time; in fact, I noticed that I had jotted it down on a pad where I park blog ideas, just before I received the book. I had been separating euphemisms from political correctness in my mind in hopes of sharing some subtleties. I’ll do this later, after I’ve had time to delve into 312 pages of euphemisms A to Z. Already I’ve come upon some gems. Doubletalk merits its own discussion altogether. It’s an art often disparagingly attributed to politicians but made famous by comedic greats Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar. Or maybe that’s doublespeak. I’ll look into that.

This dictionary might be my favorite yet; I see great utility. There’s another one out there that looks interesting: A Dictionary of Euphemisms: How Not To Say What You Mean by R.W. Holder, which could be of value to those practicing in the field of crisis communications.

While I’m at work on this, what are some of your favorite euphemisms?

(So far, mine might be “embroider the truth.”)

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Much ado

It makes me sad when I hear a really interesting word, begin to adopt it into my own vocabulary and then, nearly overnight, hear it thrown about willy-nilly, having lost its distinctive meaning.

This makes me think about the first girls to wear Ugg boots. I still don’t own any because, by the time I became aware of them, they had already saturated the fashion scene and were being worn in places where they have no use, such as at formal events or in the desert Southwest.  There’s a narrow window in which to enjoy something novel before it’s over- or mis-used.

We were watching a morning news program yesterday, a story about a Tacoma, Washington, boy having been sent home from school for wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. The Seattle-based reporter ended the piece, naming the incident a “kerfuffle.” I said to my husband, “I love that word, ‘kerfuffle.’” Just then, our local news anchor said, “I love that word, ‘kerfuffle.’”  The horse is out of the barn.

“Kerfuffle” isn’t a new word and, from what I understand, the British adapted the Scottish “cerfuffle” and made it theirs long ago. It’s just that we don’t hear it all that often. It’s fancy and delicate and best saved for special occasions, much like Grandmother’s white lace tablecloth.

Whereas “kerfuffle” has long referred to commotion, fuss, brouhaha or misunderstanding, it seems many are using it almost euphemistically, to trivialize more heated or violent incidents. One literary blog elaborates.

Other words describing social conflict have evolved over time.

I remember studying the word “altercation” for a vocabulary test in grade school. The definition I memorized was “a wordy quarrel.” Webster’s defines it as a “noisy argument.” News writers and broadcasters now use “altercation” to describe a fist fight, even an incident involving gunfire. They also describe a barroom brawl as a “melee,” a term that has typically referred to combat situations.

As we’ve observed here lately, there is a place for language evolution, though I’m sad to see distinctive words become watered down through overuse. Perhaps there’s also a place for Grandma’s lace tablecloth for Tuesday’s hamburgers; just don’t get ketchup on it.

I missed the Uggs boat and, clearly, my new favorite word is aboard a train that has left the station.

It’s just a simple observation. I won’t make a kerfuffle out of it.


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Morpheme drip

On October 15, National Dictionary Day Eve, I came out with my confessions of being a dictionary dweeb. Since then I have received a variety of dictionaries from some thoughtful readers. One day soon, we will get into A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which I received from a reader in Alaska (make of that what you may; we’ll need to see if “refudiate” is listed).

In the 10/15 post, I recalled the first dictionary I ever had, The Harcourt Brace School Dictionary, which I used in the fourth through sixth grades. I thought I had it around here somewhere but it was not be found among my childhood artifacts. I will say it again, I loved that dictionary. And yesterday I discovered that everything I know about grammar, spelling and word usage came from that primer. Which explains a lot.

My mother sent me the old dictionary for my birthday. It still smells the same as it did in 1970.

It seems that, when I went on to junior high, I passed the Harcourt Brace on to my younger brother, who wrote his name in it three times, along with a phone number and a note that said, “If not home, call back in 2 or 3 hours.”

Prior to that I had doodled all over the cover and inside pages. My friends had scribbled,  Monica loves XXX, several times, and I had crossed out all the XXXes. There were small illustrations near some of the definitions, where I had written the names of people I didn’t like. One illustration is of a peccary and, even today, I couldn’t have told you what a peccary is without consulting the definition: either of two wild animals of tropical America, like pigs with sharp tusks. I won’t say whose name I wrote under that.

The real nuggets are found on the first 65 pages, before the definitions of words beginning with A.

Pronunciation keys, spelling charts, abbreviations, basic dictionary skills, age-appropriate etymologies, parts of speech, idioms, they’re all in there, along with a section on Spotting the Troublemakers. There are sections on variant spellings and pronunciations, regional pronunciations and British and American spellings.

It’s good to know that during these years, I wasn’t spending all my time reading Tiger Beat and pinning Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy posters up on my walls.

So class, who can tell me what inflectional forms are? The inflectional forms of a word are forms changed by adding a morpheme. What’s a morpheme? I need a refresher myself. I can’t even make out Wikipedia’s explanation. Expect a post on morphemes soon. Perhaps you’d like to write it.

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Lest we become urban rubes

At the risk of stirring the good Mr. Webster to spin in his grave, I thought today we might observe his birthday—and National Dictionary Day—with a visit to a more unconventional resource, the online Urban Dictionary.

Given that the Urban Dictionary exercises very few quality standards, I realize this might offend lexicographic purists. Even so, for the sake of balance, we might consider it beneficial, while remaining true to our values, to also remain current with the popular language and slang of our times.

I perused a sampling of the definitions contained within the online Urban Dictionary and immediately came upon one I related to. Post block syndrome (PBS): Similar to writer’s block, only in the context of social networking sites. Unable to come up with post-worthy content.

Here are a few more I found amusing:

Pre-festive: The state of premature holiday celebration by means of decorations, singing, or costume. You might say my blog post of yesterday was pre-festive.

Tongue typo:  What happens when you know perfectly well what you want to say but it comes out wrong. Not to be confused with a tongue taco, the ability to twist one’s tongue into the shape of a taco shell.

Auto incorrect: When the auto-correct feature on your iPhone tries to correct your spelling, but instead changes it to words that just don’t make sense with what you’re typing.

Lap flaps: The flaps found inside magazines that fall out onto your lap.

Finally, here’s one that went over my head for years. My son says it sometimes when we’re talking (or, I suppose, when I’m talking). That’s crazy: The perfect response when you haven’t been listening at all. It works whether the other person has been saying something funny, or sad, or infuriating, or boring….

Well, those are just half a dozen of 5 million definitions contained in the Urban Dictionary. If you have a few spare minutes after properly fêting Noah Webster, check it out. Or go in and add a definition of your own. That’s allowed. Obviously.

Please remember, Word Nymph doesn’t post on Sundays. She’ll be overcoming a bad case of PBS. See you Monday (maybe).

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Confessions of a dictionary dweeb

Allow me to be the first to wish you a Happy Dictionary Day Eve.

Yes, tomorrow is National Dictionary Day, the occasion on which we celebrate the birthday of American lexicographer Noah Webster. I’m giving you advance notice so you’ll have a chance to buy all your Dictionary Day decorations before the party stores run out.

Noah Webster was born October 16, 1758, on a farm in West Hartford, Connecticut. At age 15, he entered Yale College, graduated in 1778 and later studied law. He also fought in the American Revolution.

Having learned mostly from text books produced in England, Noah believed American students should learn from American text books.  In 1783, he wrote his own textbook, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which was used for more than 100 years in U.S. schools. It is believed Benjamin Franklin used this book to teach his granddaughter to read.

In 1806, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first truly American dictionary. He then wrote his famous An American Dictionary of the English Language, for which he learned 26 languages.

There is so much more to know about Noah Webster. I encourage you to devote part of your Saturday to learning more about him.

You already know I like dictionaries. Here on the blog we’ve taken lessons from The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate and A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Somewhere I have the first dictionary I remember owning. It was a big fat Harcourt Brace that I was required to purchase in fourth grade, the first year I attended public school. I loved that dictionary. Here in my office I have a two-volume Funk & Wagnalls. I am not so sure I even own a Webster; I have gotten so accustomed to looking up words online.

In college, before the board games Pictionary or Dictionary Dabble were invented, we played our own version. One person would choose an obscure word at random from the dictionary, write down the definition on a slip of paper, while the other players made up their own definitions and wrote those on slips of paper. The person who was “it” would read all the definitions aloud and the group would try and guess the real definition. Good times.

Okay, so I’m a dictionary geek. I’m the one you’ll see camping out at the party store, buying up all the Word of the Day toilet paper.

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To finish out Word Nymph’s Enhance Your Vocabulary Week, the following word has been plucked from one of her favorite sources, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich.

Friday’s, and our final, selection is:

Brummagem: cheap and showy but inferior and worthless.

Can you use it in a sentence three times today? If so, it’s yours.

There are still more good words from The Highly Selective Dictionary than time allows me to share this week. So if you see new words sprinkled into future posts, don’t think me bombastic, just look them up–and use them three times.

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After reflecting on the importance of vocabulary enhancement, Word Nymph has declared this Enhance Your Vocabulary Week.

She has consulted one of her favorite sources, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich and is pleased to share Thursday’s selection, which has two definitions:

Maenad:  1. a riotous or frenzied woman; 2. a Bacchante–a priestess of Bacchus–in classical mythology, the god of wine

Can you use it in a sentence three times today? If so, it’s yours.  If you have a little time, or if mythology strikes your fancy, look up maenad and see how the two definitions come together. How did they come up with this stuff?

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After reflecting on the importance of vocabulary enhancement, Word Nymph has declared this Enhance Your Vocabulary Week.

She has consulted one of her favorite sources, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich and is pleased to share Wednesday’s selection: 

Steatopygia:  Excessive development of fat on the buttocks, especially of women

Can you use it in a sentence three times today? If so, it’s yours.

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