Tag Archives: vocabulary

Don’t panic

Language has a way of enticing even the smartest of speakers to succumb to sloppiness, prompting misuses to spin out of control. Inspired by one too many examples, I offer today’s friendly reminder.

A rule of thumb:

Hilarious – good.
Hysterical – bad.

Perhaps that’s oversimplifying things a bit, but it serves as a helpful reminder that each word has its own distinctive meaning.

With common misuse, the distinction has grown more subtle.

“Hysterical” and “hilarious” are not interchangeable. Yes, online dictionaries have added one as a synonym of the other in recent times, but I’m not buying it.

As a matter of instruction, “hysterical” means to be in emotional shock. Some of its most common synonyms include: irrational, panic-stricken, jumpy, nervous and anxious.

People often describe movies or books or television shows or comedians as hysterical; therein lies the danger.

I suppose it could be accurate to describe a movie as hysterical. That is, if hysteria is a predominant theme. Theoretically, Titanic could be called hysterical, but it certainly is not hilarious.

One might call a comedian hysterical. He might be funny, hilarious, in fact, but is he shrieking uncontrollably? Ben Stein, for example, can be hilarious, but he is never hysterical.

When something is extremely funny, it is hilarious. Full of hilarity. When a person is extremely funny, she is hilarious. If she is having a hissy fit, she is hysterical. Remember, hissy derives from hysteria.

I could say that I found something so hilarious that I became hysterical. But it is I who was hysterical, not the thing that I found hilarious.

There’s the lesson for today. Your homework: Keep an ear out for one week and report back on how often you hear hysterical misused. Extra credit: Correct the offenders and hope they take it in good spirit and don’t become hysterical.

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Gavotte words?

Do you ever think about—really think about—where we get our vocabulary words?

They come from an endless variety of places. There are the ones we were forced to learn in school, the ones we read in books and looked up, the ones we heard smart people use and adopted as our own. There are the ones our parents wrote on cards and made us study in the small room of the house.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still collecting vocabulary words. From time to time I spotlight my favorite ones in this space. Right next to the song lyrics.

Only recently have I thought about the words I learned in my adolescent years as a radio junkie. One day last week, while in the car, I remembered the first time I ever heard the word invincible. I wonder if you learned it from the same source.

If you’re about my age, and you grew up listening to Top 40 hits of the 60s and 70s, you too might have learned invincible from Helen Reddy. “I am strong, I am invincible, I am wom-a-a-a-n.”

I’m making an effort now to listen more closely and nostalgically to the oldies so I can build the list.

I had never heard of a funeral pyre until 1967, when The Doors sang, “and our love become a funeral pyre,” which I confess I thought was funeral parlor; it makes about as much sense, not to mention the lack of subject-verb agreement. Leon Russell came along in 1972 with “I’m up on a tight wire, flanked by life and the funeral pyre.”  I still didn’t know what a pyre was but I liked the song and, looking back, it’s pretty darn poetic.

Let’s skip over pompatus, because it’s been overdone and everyone knows pompatus isn’t really a word. Next?

Again in 1972, I learned a word that I couldn’t imagine ever using, but it caught my attention when Carly Simon sang, “You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.” I think I did try to look up gavotte as a curious 12-year-old, and have been looking for the right opportunity to use it ever since. It was also in  “You’re So Vain” that I first heard of Saratoga.

In 1973, I first heard the word espionage. Anyone remember where? It’s obscure, I know. “He’s a mastermind in the ways of espionage.” All these years later, I still know all the words  to “Uneasy Rider” by Charlie Daniels (from which I also first heard of John Birch and Mario Andretti).

I know there are more. Can we keep this going?

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Music

Super heroine

I’m a little ashamed to admit, I recently watched cartoons in the middle of the afternoon.

Even as a child, I never had any interest in cartoons or comics about superheroes. I always found them boring and unable to relate to. Maybe there just weren’t any particular superpowers that inspired me.

Yesterday I checked into a hotel, switched on the television and flipped through a few channels. I stopped at PBS, where Word Girl was just coming on. Does anyone know Word Girl?

Sure, it’s a little hokey, as something that might be spoofed on Saturday Night Live. But the premise was enough to draw me in.

Word Girl is a 10-year-old super-powered alien who apprehends villains in her quest to educate her following of 6-to 12-year olds to “power up with power words.” From what I gather, she also likes to ask kids what their favorite words are. What’s not to like?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve become out of touch with children’s programming that I’m unfamiliar, so I apologize for crawling out from under a rock. Apparently, World Girl has been on the world scene for about five years, launched as a spinoff of another children’s program. Each episode features a couple of 11-minute segments, each focused on two words. Yesterday’s words were “tangent,” “imitate,” “confident” and “zest.” Then there’s a little game show style quiz at the end that reinforces that day’s vocab.

There’s a lot of action in this show, as is normal when heroes face villains, which might explain why parents in some countries reject Word Girl as violent. She is syndicated, dubbed and, in some cases, re-named in many countries around the world.

What I like is that the dialogue is very adult. In addition to the featured vocabulary words, lots of big words are thrown around, in context but without explanation. So if your kid isn’t watching Washington Week, she’ll still pick up some heady language from PBS, without the monosyllables and child-centered tones of Barney and Mister Rogers. I wish the wee heroine didn’t have such a piercingly high voice. If I’d invented Word Girl, I’d have cast a more sophisticated voice into the animated role.

Another tidbit I learned while researching my new superhero is that a Halloween costume is available. I wonder if it comes in Big Word Girl sizes.

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Don’t go it alone

As I woke up again on the West Coast this morning, with nary an idea for what to say today, I received a comment from a reader and fellow WordPress blogger, Olga, who teaches English in Russia.

Olga said, “I’d be interested in your opinion as a Word Nymph on learning foreign languages by oneself,” and pointed me to her post on the same subject. I scrolled through a few more e-mail messages that came in overnight. There was a piece of spam, with the subject heading, “Want to learn a new language fast? This contained a link that would not open. But Olga and this spammer got me thinking.

In her post, Olga converses with her reader, Yulia, about the pros and cons of teaching oneself a second, or third or fourth, language. This dialogue is quite interesting, especially as it takes place in English between two non-native speakers, who both write English extremely well. But that’s not the point.

I once learned Spanish, but it took me four years attending a university—and time studying in Spain—to do it. Lack of practice over 30 years has placed me closer to the starting line that I’d like.

As Yulia points out, it’s possible to learn the fundamentals of grammar and sentence structure from a book, but pronunciation is more difficult to learn in isolation. We need to hear words pronounced, we need to practice our pronunciation in the presence of others. Tapes can be helpful, but digital media don’t converse. It is in conversing that we learn.

It’s not that teaching oneself can’t be done. I know that because my son taught himself Italian at age 10. Of course, he didn’t become fluent; his goal was to be able to read a menu and order his own meals while on vacation with us in Tuscany. He had received a pocket-sized workbook for Christmas, took it to school and studied it every afternoon in after school care, while sitting in a corner alone. At least that’s what his day care providers told me. Indeed, when we arrived in Italy the following July, he had amassed an impressive vocabulary of practical words and phrases. Even though he learned in a vacuum, his pronunciation was pretty good as well and he exercised his new skill with confidence.

Likewise, my father is in the process 0f teaching himself Spanish. When he began thinking about retirement, he decided this was something he ought to do. (I was voting for his learning the computer).

My father is making good progress, but he would do well to perfect his pronunciation through practice, something he is doing right now, in fact.

I believe strongly that learning—learning almost anything—best happens in community. Ideas can’t be exchanged in even a hundred years of solitude and, while it is possible to read a book, or listen to or mimic tapes, it is in the conversing that learning a language happens.

Based on my experience, I’d recommend taking a class, forming a study group, seeking out kindred spirits and doing it together. Support one another, exchange ideas, draw each other out of your shells.

And, take it from me, a little sangria never hurts.

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Château de prétense

I take some risks in raising today’s topic.

First, I fear I may offend readers who take their wine language seriously. Second, I may reveal too much about how little I really know about it.

I enjoy wine. I have a fairly sharp palate that can distinguish among varietals and detect flavors to a reasonable degree. I know what I like and what I don’t and, generally, which wines go well with what foods.

This said, I tread lightly into the language of wine. This might be because I have not been exposed to the business of wine.

I’ve never set foot in a vineyard, never taken a winery tour. I went to a tasting once. In 1982.

Restaurant tasting menus are a rare indulgence, as much for the dining as for the descriptions of the wine pairings. I trust a sommelier and find the pairings are always suitable. The real entertainment, though, comes in his or her descriptions of the wine. Keeping a straight face during the performance is always a challenge. I almost had to excuse myself at Babbo in New York when the sommelier assured us that the wine wouldn’t bully our mushrooms.

Once I was having dinner with a friend at Zaytinya, which had just opened in Washington, D.C. The server had recommended a wine to go with our meal. She said, “I think you’ll find it approachable.” I had to turn my head so that I could roll my eyes.

We ordered this approachable wine and, when the server began to open it, the cork broke off in the bottle. My friend said, “I guess it’s not so approachable.” Our server was not amused.

Call me a bumpkin or call me a cynic, but call me up to here with ridiculous wine descriptions.

One of my favorite pokes at pretension comes from the movie Sideways. On a trip to Napa Valley with a friend, wine aficionado Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, sips, closes his eyes, plugs one ear and observes, “There’s the faintest soupçon of asparagus and just a flutter of Edam cheese.” (Impressive. I’d need at least 20 minutes to detect asparagus in my wine.)

Coco Krumme wrote a piece for Slate this week, separating expensive wines from inexpensive ones based on the language used to describe them. This sent me on an oenophilic cyber-journey, where I tried—honestly I did—to gain an understanding and appreciation of wine language.

But I stumbled upon a host of nouns and adjectives that I found a little hard to swallow.

I understand tannins. I understand finish. I’m willing to accept personality. But, while asparagus and Edam cheese, I hope, are satirical, any food stuffs beyond fruit or maybe chocolate are just silly. Tones of underbrush, animal or briar? Not particularly approachable.

Then, there are the adjectives. In an effort to be an earnest student, I consulted E. Robert Parker’s wine glossary.

Angular?  A wine that lacks roundness. Duuuuh.

Chewy, brawny and spiny? I think not.

Care to decant your favorite bogus wine descriptions?

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Food, Movies, Television and Radio, Rants and Raves

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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Sentimental greeting

How long have you had your current voice mail greeting?

I just realized we have had the same greeting on our home phone for 15 years. Isn’t it about time we changed it?

There are three distinct and definitive reasons we should. One, it mentions Monica, Marty and Joseph. Joseph hasn’t lived here since 2006. Two, Joseph hasn’t been called Joseph since 1995. Three, the greeting contains a grammatical error.

It says, “You’ve almost reached Monica, Marty and Joseph but since you didn’t, leave us a message…” the word “since” is incorrect here. The correct word is “because.” I knew that but, as many are prone to doing, I continue to fall into sloppy habits. Guilty as charged.

“Since” is often used interchangeably with “because,” but not correctly. “Since” relates to the time passed from one period of time to another:  He has been chairman of the board since 1995. I have not seen him since Saturday.

Still, I am sentimental about the greeting. It’s the first greeting I recorded after getting voice mail service through the phone company, replacing the old fashioned answering machine.

Back when we had the old machine, we used to change our greeting often, tailoring it for the season or current events. Now, I just can’t do it.

There’s no way to preserve for posterity this greeting that served us well for 15 years, poor word choice and all. Plus, I can’t imagine representing our family any way but Monica, Marty and Joseph. Joseph is Joe and Joe is gone. No one leaves him messages at this number any longer.

I’d love your suggestions for a new greeting, since—er, because—I am facing a mental and emotional block.

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