The good folks over at Snopes soundly debunk the oft-repeated story that the popular Chevy Nova sedan did not sell well in Spanish-speaking countries in the 1970’s because “no va” in Spanish means “doesn’t go.” It just wasn’t true. Too bad. It’s a good story.
But here is a true story directly from my own experience.
In the high tech industry, and perhaps others, there is the term “FUD.” It means “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” As in “The competition is trying to spread FUD about our new product.” In fact, I spent many years in high tech never having heard the term. It was only after that big merger that I heard management from the other company use it.
Only recently have I become familiar with the Latino food company FUD. From the first time I saw one of their trucks I thought that was strange name for a food company. Fŭd? Really? So I decided to look them up and see what this was all about. According to Wikipedia, the company name is pronounced fo͞od, not fŭd. And it is in fact an acronym for Fino, Único y Delicioso (Fine, Unique & Delicious). Very much the complete opposite of the tech industry FUD.
A little research can clear up a lot.
Back in 2014 I wrote about the mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric. It recently popped up as the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Word of the Day, so I thought it would be fun to revisit it.
The word was coined by essayist Sylvia Wright in 1954. She admits to having misheard the words to a poem her mother read her. Her mother read:
“They have slain the Earl of Murray, And laid him on the green.”
but she heard “And laid him on the green” as “And Lady Mondegreen.”
She used the phrase in an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, where she said,
The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.
This from the OED entry on the word.
The entry also quotes Stephen Pinker in 1994: “The interesting thing about mondegreens is that the mis-hearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics.”
I’m not sure that those two statements are contradictory. Take Wright’s original mondegreen. It is more interesting than the original in its symmetry, bit it is less plausible. The wife of an Earl is a Countess, not a Lady. Although the daughter of an Earl is a Lady, so had it been his daughter and not his wife that was slain in this mishearing, that would be correct.
A famous mondegreen from rock music is John Fogerty’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise” being heard as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” More interesting and less plausible.
One of my favorite songs from my Claremont cockroach days was England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight.” My mondegreen was hearing “I’m not talking ’bout movin’ in” as “I’m not talking ‘bout no wedding.” Hmmm. In that case I’d say equally interesting and equally plausible.
Mondegreens. ‘Cause they’re fun.
I enjoy getting the newsletter from GrammarBook.com. They recently published a newsletter on autoantonyms. An autoantonym is a word with two opposite meanings. I didn’t particularly like their examples, but the whole thing is here if you’d like to read it.
My favorite autoantonym is “sanction.”
- This is an officially sanctioned 5K rum.
- The FIFA soccer officials were sanctioned.
My late, lovely, lesbian friend Dennise (how’s that for alliteration?) and I shared an office at a company where we were technical writers together. We had a manager who could be rather tightly wound at times, and when Dennise said that she might do something or another, I told her, “You’d better get sanctioning for that or you might be sanctioned.”
I love our English language.
Yes, I know the cartoon below represents something of an overreaction, to say the least, but I do feel this way sometimes.
Misused apostrophes are one thing that make me crazy. When I was laid off from my job in 2014 the outplacement manager wrote in an email that he would put me in touch with his colleague Jenny who is “an expert on resume’s.” Really? This from a business professional. (Jenny was a great outplacement coach, by the way.)
I also hate it when someone uses an abbreviation and doesn’t define it on first use.
Then there are misused capital letters. In an email about a meeting with a fire captain in our community I read, “He is bringing his Engine and a couple of Fire Fighters.” The book I am currently reading is by Lisa Randall, who is both a highly credentialed research scientist and a well-regarded author of popular non-fiction books on science topics. For some reason she insists on capitalizing the words universe and earth. Very strange.
I should probably work on moderating my response to such errors, however.
I delivered this talk at Toastmasters last Thursday. This is the original text I wrote out before delivering the talk with minimal notes.
Hot buttons. We all have our hot buttons. And it’s hard to know what someone’s hot button might be.
But some things ought not to get one’s knickers in a knot, to switch metaphors. For example, dictionaries. Why would people get exercised about dictionaries? You’d be surprised.
I am one of those, in fact, who gets excited about dictionaries.
In the 1960’s there was quite a battle between those who believed in a prescriptive approach to dictionaries and those who believed in a descriptive approach. By the time I have completed my talk today I hope you will understand what dictionary aficionados mean by these two terms, and I hope that you will appreciate that the distinction is not quite as distinct as many of those folks would like you to believe.
In theory a descriptive dictionary tells you how language is used, and a prescriptive dictionary tells you how language should be used. Would it were that simple.
First a little history. The G. & C. Merriam Co. acquired the rights to Noah Webster’s groundbreaking dictionary of American English after his death 1843 and built upon his work. In 1890 they published Webster’s International Dictionary and in 1909 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.
So far, so good.
But Webster’s Third New International Dictionary was published in 1961. Not only is 52 years a long time, but the concept of Webster’s Third was very different from its predecessors. Many people did not like what they saw.
Before Webster’s Third many American dictionaries were a hodge-podge of information. As David Skinner said in his book The Story of Ain’t, a dictionary might include an international directory of history’s big shots, every character in Western literature, epithets and literary allusions, and misinformed rules of grammar that have no basis in actual usage. Skinner’s words, not mine.
But Webster’s Third editor Philip Gove wanted a reference that described word usage, again to quote Skinner, in all of its spoken variety. That was Gove’s guiding principle behind Webster’s Third. He wanted a descriptive dictionary.
When Webster’s Third was published people were aghast that it included the word ain’t. The furor was made worse by Merriam-Webster’s own PR department which in a press release proudly pointed out that the dictionary included that word. It failed to state that there was a usage note that read: “disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech.”
Press release aside, Webster’s Third quickly gained a bad reputation in various circles. Ain’t was simply the poster child for the purists representing all of the so-called ‘nonstandard” words in Webster’s Third.
James Parton at the publishing house American Heritage considered buying the Merriam-Webster company so he could right those wrongs. That never happened, but American Heritage did publish its own dictionary in 1969 in conjunction with Houghton Mifflin. American Heritage represented itself, or at least was represented as, the prescriptive alternative to the Webster descriptive approach. That is, it was said, American Heritage described how words should be used.
To be sure, the American Heritage Dictionary called out usage notes much more visibly than Webster’s Third. They even developed a usage panel, which voted on the acceptability of the usage of certain words. For example, the traditional meaning of the word hopefully is “in a hopeful manner.” The first chapter of Paul Theroux’s trailblazing travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar is entitled “Traveling Hopefully.” Today we frequently use the word in the sense of “Hopefully the traffic will not be too bad tomorrow.” American Heritage will tell you what percentage of the usage panel considers the second usage acceptable. The current edition of the American Heritage, the fifth, which is available online and as an iOS app in addition to print, tells us that in 1999 the second usage was acceptable to 34 percent of the usage panel, while in 2012 63 percent accepted it.
I have to admit that I have been an American Heritage partisan since it came out. During the eight or so years I sold books for B. Dalton you could see my influence in the sales reports of the various stores I worked at or managed, as American Heritage sales increased in those stores at the expense of the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate.
So, American Heritage is the good prescriptive dictionary and Merriam-Webster dictionaries are the bad descriptive dictionaries, right?
Well no. Not really.
Remember that Webster’s Third did include that usage note on ain’t. The current Merriam-Webster dictionary online has a very long usage note about the word ain’t and describes how it is often used for emphasis in informal journalistic writing.
As for American Heritage, when author Steven Pinker asked the current editor how the team decided what goes into the dictionary, he said, “We pay attention to the way people use language.” That’s it. Sounds much like Gove’s philosophy, doesn’t it?
So, really, the whole descriptive – prescriptive debate is much ado about nothing.
The bottom line: find yourself a dictionary that you like and use it when you need to. Or, if you’re a word nerd like me, bookmark multiple online dictionaries in your Web browser and refer to them frequently.
Punctuation is important. It is a topic I have written about before. It matters not only in the case of written prose, but in other forms of communication as well. The sign below is in the window of a local Chinese restaurant, which in fact we really like.
To convey what they want to convey there should be a hyphen or comma between the words miles and minimum. Or better, move minimum down to the next line. As it stands the sign strangely suggests that you have to live more than five miles from the restaurant to get delivery.
This photo caption in the Los Angeles Times some months back caught my attention.
I was a bit surprised that the Times style guide allowed the use of summit as a verb. So I checked my three standard dictionary references to see what they had to say. In fact, all three of them have an entry for summit as a verb. American Heritage and Oxford Dictionaries Online say the verb can be both transitive and intransitive. Merriam-Webster only lists an intransitive form.
This, in fact, is the normal progression of language: towards simplification. “…helps wounded veterans summit the world’s tallest mountains” works perfectly fine and conveys the message clearly. Why say “…helps wounded veterans reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountains” when the simpler form works?
I remember being startled back in the 1970’s when my roommate said that someone “had suicided.” Not because of the act, but because of her use of suicide as a verb. But the principle is the same. Once again, all three of my dictionaries include suicide as a verb.
In one of his lectures on language from The Great Courses, linguist John McWhorter uses the analogy of someone trying to sweep back the ocean as the tide comes in. It is a losing effort. Language is going to change.
This is not to say that we should not maintain standards in grammar, spelling, syntax, and style. We should. At the same time, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge the fact that language does change.