Monthly Archives: March 2011

uffish

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Lewis Carroll added a fair few words to the English language in “Jabberwocky.” Several of them are rather imprecisely definable and do not show up in the Oxford English Dictionary. But uffish is in there.

And what, pray tell, does uffish mean? Well, what sense does it give you? I can tell you what it makes me think of first – and I hope I may get away with quoting at moderate length from Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

The carpenter slunk away from Fred Rosewater, too, leaving a copy of The American Investigator behind. Fred went through an elaborate pantomime of ennui, demonstrated to anyone who might be watching that he was a man with absolutely nothing to read, a sleepy man, possibly hung over, and that he was likely to seize any reading matter at all, like a man in a dream.

“Uff, uff, uff,” he yawned. He stretched out his arms, gathered the paper in.

There seemed to be only one other person in the store, the girl behind the lunch counter. “Really, now—” he said to her, “who are the idiots who read this garbage, anyway?”

The girl might have responded truthfully that Fred himself read it from cover to cover every week. But, being an idiot herself, she noticed practically nothing. “Search me,” she said.

It was an unappetizing invitation.

So is uffish this sort of state of drowsy listlessness, feeling maybe a little offish? But, hmm, would that be right for a fellow pursuing a jabberwock? Mightn’t it be better to be more stand-offish?

Well, indeed, that’s what Carroll had in mind. We know this because he said so. He said the word “seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish.” So it’s really, in his mind, a soft-sounding synonym for truculent – the uff not the head hitting a pillow but rather the sound of steam venting.

Or anyway the sound a sudden blast of air – a sudden gust of the ill wind of ill temper, perhaps. This is what the OED has: according to it, uffish is an alternate spelling of huffish, and it has a few examples to back that up. And huffish, which means “arrogant” or “insolent”, comes from huff, which traces back to gusty onomatopoeia and its metaphorical use to characterize a mofette of mood.

So that makes it ufficial: it’s how you puff when you’ve had enuff. And are feeling quite the opposite of the sanguine, somnolescent Mr. Rosewater.

basmati

My wife and I were at a cooking class this evening – well, really a sitting, watching, listening, and eating “class” – and the menu was Indian. There was a rice dish (which the cook called pilaf but her husband, who was giving very interesting historical commentary, called pullao – they’re cognate words for the same thing). Of course the rice used was basmati.

Ah, basmati rice. The name is so obviously richly foreign: it ends in i, after all. It brings to mind Bangalore, Bombay, or maybe Basra, perhaps the blue-berobed Benazir Bhutto or maybe a baiser from Mata Hari. One may imagine being bathed in the steam arising from its warm surface, the /a/ an “ahhh”. Never mind automatic rice cookers and their plasmatic output; this is the base, this is what matters, this is the blessed beauty of good foreign-sounding high-quality rice. Just smell it – how fragrant it is. And look! I’ll tell you, I could see at twenty feet that it was basmati rice, with those long, elegant grains.

But when the cook said basmati, I noticed how she said it. Now, how do you say it? Probably with stress on the second syllable and the s voiced. The cook, being originally from India, said (in her high, always-smiling voice) /ba:s ma ti:/ – that is, with the stress on the first syllable and the s as actually [s], voiceless. She also said the first and last vowels longer than the middle one, which would seem like a matter of course for such a stress pattern in English but is actually a phonemic distinction in Hindi.

The Hindi word bāsmatī means “fragrant”. It’s the name for that kind of rice, because it’s fragrant. I find that the word, pronounced the Hindi way, has a bit of a different feel from the usual English way, in part because of the voiceless [s], which is like a soft hiss of steam, and in part because of the strong “boss” replacing the weak “buzz”. But also because it makes me think of the similar-sounding Russian word посмотри posmotri, which I know only because it’s used in the song “Moskau” by Rammstein. As it happens, while bāsmatī refers to the smell, posmotri means “look!”

sequelæ

In my word tasting note on malamanteau, I wrote, “that gives the benefit of a year’s perspective and the chance to see the sequelae.”

I imagine that might have caused a reader or two to squeal queasily, “Sequelae? Equals what, eh?” Well, the word does betray a certain acquaintance on my part with medical materials, as that’s where you’re most likely to see it.

But, now, can you guess, more or less, what I meant there, and what this word probably means if I speak of “a disease and its sequelae”?

What word does this word look most like? Sequel, of course. And that’s no non-sequitur; it follows the pattern because it follows. Sequelæ (note my extra-fancy use of the æ digraph) is just the plural of sequela, which is a word borrowed unaltered from Latin, while sequel is the same word passed through French and then anglicized. Not that they mean exactly the same thing now. Both have to do with following – sequela comes from sequi “follow” – but sequela was borrowed straight from Latin because it comes from a context in which Latin terminology persists: medicine.

So a sequela is a medical condition that results from a previous medical condition. And, from that, more generally, it’s a consequence. (Oo – note that word: consequence. What do you see in it? A sequ at the heart: con + sequence, and sequence also traces back to sequi.) So I could have said consequences rather than sequelae. But consequences is a common word, and it’s used enough to have acquired a certain stern-parent tone to it (plus the association with truth or consequences). Sequelæ is an uncommon word in most contexts, and so it has that polished gleam of a sharp new surgical instrument, one that you may not know the exact function of but that sure looks like it could do something and not make a mess of it. To the less-familiar reader, it has a more neutral tone; to the more-familiar reader, it gives a rather dry-wit comparison to diseases.

As an added bonus, it has that flash of a pensive moue that comes when saying a qu. It also has a certain uncertainty of pronunciation. I tend to want to say it as though it were ecclesiastical Latin, with the last two vowels as [e] (as in “lay”, roughly). But the great old British tradition of Latin pronunciation has flavoured the more official version of this word, so that those two vowels are both [i] (as in “machine”), making it like “squealy” with a catch between the first two consonants, or like “sick wheelie” (a stunt that may have its own sequelae).

E.g., this kind of thing, etc.

A point of uncertainty for many: when you have something listing examples, do you use etc. with e.g.? For example,

requirements for baking a cake (e.g., eggs, flour, sugar, etc.)

The answer:  use one or the other (or neither – see below), but not both. Each of them indicates you’re seeing a subset: e.g. translates (roughly) to “for example”, and etc. translates to “and more” or “and others”.

Faced with a sentence that uses both, I generally drop the etc., although in some contexts I’ll drop the e.g. And in some contexts I’ll use for example or for instance in place of e.g., or and more or and so on in place of etc. (I will not, of course, have for instance, flour, eggs, sugar, and so on, for the same reason as given above: you only need one – otherwise you’re saying and so on is an instance or example.)

When deciding which to drop, note that etc. may seem more hand-waving dismissive (as may and so on) and e.g. more high-toned or business-y; also, e.g. declares from the outset that the list is not exhaustive, whereas etc. waits until the end to show that there’s more, so there’s a difference in the flow of the argument.

Another thing to pay attention to is whether the list is definite or possible members of a set. Generally, you will find that etc. tends more to imply that the things listed are all definite members of a fixed set, whereas e.g. is more able to allow possible members of a set. Compare:

Choose some music you like (e.g., Pet Shop Boys, Metallica, Beethoven).

Choose some music you like (Pet Shop Boys, Metallica, Beethoven, etc.).

The second is more likely to imply that you like all three of the artists listed, whereas the first tends more to allow that they’re just examples of music you might like.

And if we look back at the cakes, we can try both:

requirements for baking a cake (e.g., eggs, flour, sugar)

requirements for baking a cake (eggs, flour, sugar, etc.)

The first allows that you might bake a cake without one or more of the items listed, whereas the second tends to imply that they’re all requisites.

Oh, and what about i.e.? That’s from Latin for “that is”, and it means you’re presenting not an example – not a subset – but an amplification or restatement. Let’s look at our examples:

Choose some music you like (i.e., Pet Shop Boys, Metallica, Beethoven).

requirements for baking a cake (i.e., eggs, flour, sugar)

In the first case, it’s saying that those three are the music you like and the music you’re going to choose, and none other in addition. This is possible but unlikely. In the second case, it’s saying that you need nothing other than eggs, flour, and sugar to bake a cake. Heh… you try that and tell me how it comes out.

If you want to be less prissy, i.e. can be replaced by in other words. Also, there’s nothing in the logic of a sentence to keep you from using i.e. with etc., but it’s sloppy writing – better just to use e.g. and no etc. Oh, and often you can drop it altogether:

He named the three hottest women in film in his opinion (Cate Blanchett, Rosamund Pike, and Lucy Liu).

chatterati

This word has nothing to do with Chattanooga (except for inasmuch as it probably has some chatterati in it, as would any town big enough to have a TV station) or anyone named Chatterton or Chatterjee (allowing that someone of either name may be a member of the chatterati). No, it’s a blend made through forcing an Anglo-Saxon verb (chatter) onto a Latin-derived pseudomorpheme (-erati, the ending of literati). It’s like a fish tied to a fowl – or perhaps like some cross-breed between the one and the other.

Well, we know chatter. Originally it’s what magpies do – and other fast-vocalizing birds too, at first including those that are now said to twitter. Now we more often talk of people chattering – as the OED puts it so nicely, “Of human beings: To talk rapidly, incessantly, and with more sound than sense.” And there’s more than enough of that when politics is the news of the day. There’s a whole chattering class, as they are often called, prattling in their rat-a-tat fashion, a bit like woodpeckers except that it’s their heads that are the wood and they’re pecking at each other. They strive to read the entrails that will foretell the future, but really they’re just eating each other’s chitterlings.

As to literati, it means in origin “the literate people”, but now that literacy is nearly universal, it means “the highly literate people”. It has a taste of an elite – a sort of illuminati, but not secret and not necessarily pulling the reins of power. So it’s a nice base for adding, for instance, glitter to make glitterati, “the glittering stars of fashionable society” (often pursused by paparazzi) – or, more recent, chatter to make chatterati, “the chattering class”. These words have a hardness of feel, possibly brittle but also possible as untriturable as a diamond. At the very least, the words suggest the clicking of teeth as jaws rattle on.

The chattering class, in their modishness and striving to be au courant, seem naturally to foster lexical syncretism. Another word for the same set is the commentariat – a term that, like chatterati, first showed up in the 1990s; it’s a merger of commentary with proletariat (it also smacks of secretariat).

But now political commentary is not just the preserve of television talking heads, audibly rattling out their sound and fury in a human teletype patter. Blogs are an important source of political information and opinion (inasmuch as there is such a thing as an important source of political opinion – politics and its commentary suffer from a surfeit of opinion and a deficiency of fact), so now we also have the bloggerati. Which is an especially amusing word morphologically, as it involves two mid-morpheme clippings – the -erati one, but also the blog one, since blog is short for weblog, a compound of web and log. On the other hand, its voiced stops give it a kind of bluntness and dullness that make it a less appealing word.

But the real problem with blogs (I’m being sarcastic, by the way, when I say “problem”) is that they allow expression of thought, fact, and insight in depth (they don’t enforce it, but it’s possible). Ack! Who wants that? Isn’t it much better to get it in short, quick bursts, limited to 140 characters? OK, yes, some of those 140 characters can be a link to a lengthy article. But the premise is really that one can say something useful, something valuable, in 140 characters (or fewer) – short bursts of chattering, of twittering: discourse gone to the birds. Naturally, those who chatter on Twitter – in particular on popular current topics – are lately called the twitterati.

tergiversation

When an election looms, the talking heads go into overtime. Forget concision; these moving mouths will not give terse conversation, returning instead many a turgid verse, a sort of – if not terrorization – torporization, through saturating reverberations of treatises verging on the vertiginous. All the sound and fury… signifying nothing. And then, of course, there are the politicians.

You thought I was talking about politicians? When was the last time you got to hear anything they said at length? The news media insist on clipping anything a politician has to say down to a mere sentence fragment, reserving for themselves (and their pet chatterati) the right to pontificate and speculate at inordinate length. And in their inevitably inane analyses, one of the prime crimes decried is tergiversation.

Is that hypocritical? In a way, though not necessarily for the reason that one might imagine. Tergiversation is not – however it may sound – a question of going on at great length. Rather, it can mean “turning one’s back on a cause one had espoused” – changing your position on something – or “being evasive or deliberately ambiguous”. It comes from Latin tergum “back” and vertere “turn”. (And in the second sense, the use of tergiversation can be an example of tergiversation if you feel confident your audience won’t know what it means.)

So when a politician speaks and knows he (or she) will be quoted in brief snippets, the politician is not in a position of being able to say anything substantial, may not be in a position of being able to say something clear, and in fact in many cases is not even in a position of being able to say something true, since a bare statement on something in which the necessary background is not supplied can be lacking information that can’t be assumed and without which the statement simply can’t be understood correctly. (The late Richard Feynman does a great job in explaining this at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMFPe-DwULM.) But watch out if a politician tries to avoid giving a misleadingly simplistic statement! The moment they try to avoid being unnecessarily simplistic, they get jumped on for not being clear. Imagine if someone said to you “Express to me the foundational principles of general relativity in one syllable” or “How can you make the economy work better by raising taxes – yes or no?”

So in that sense the news media are creating the very ambiguity and misleadingness they decry: a politician has a choice between saying something misleadingly simplistic or saying something that seems vague and evasive. But meanwhile, the chatterati will criticize a politician for taking this or that position – but will also impugn a politician who changes his position on something! So tergiversation of that sort is in its absence enjoined, but in its presence decried.

But, oh, no, the chatterati are generally not guilty of tergiversation themselves per se. They do, however, participate in the inanition of political discourse (which means they are emptying it and starving it of nutrition), especially in their strongly tactics-oriented discourse (as though it were another sports league).

But enough excoriation. How do you like the taste of this word? It stays rather nicely near the tip of the tongue, straying only at r (and only if you say it rather than eliding it in the typically British manner). It has that common nominalizing ending, ation, giving it just a slightly more intellectual tinge. Its stress pattern is out of phase with its morphemes, a 3+2 beat. And its letters present many anagram opportunities. I like tergi > tiger + versat > starve + ion. We can also make (among others) griever station, Sir Vegetation, o a virgin street, and nor give it a rest.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting tergiversation (back in July 2009).

malamanteau

Nearly a year ago, Roberto De Vido sent me a link to an article from the Boston Globe about a new word – a rather fun and useful new word – and the bit of a kerfuffle it had created. It’s taken me a while to get to this suggestion – I have older ones still waiting too – but that gives the benefit of a year’s perspective and the chance to see the sequelae.

It all started with this comic from the great geek strip xkcd: xkcd.com/739/ . The strip (for those not disposed to click through) shows a Wikipedia page for the word malamanteau. The definition is “A malamanteau is a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism.” The caption is “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?”

But the word wasn’t in Wikipedia. Yet. (Actually, Wiktionary would be the more appropriate place for an entry on a word.) The word was not being used for the very first time in the strip, but nearly. So, naturally, as the Boston Globe article recounted, the word was quickly added to Urban Dictionary and Wordnik – and, of course, to Wikipedia. And just as quickly removed from Wikipedia. Though not without generating a lot of debate between Wikipedia editors, mainly about whether it was a real word and whether it was notable.

Now, notable – there’s a word Wikipedia really likes. One thing you need to be aware of with regard to Wikipedia editors is that they are not like editors of, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. They did not get the job due to expertise. Actually, it’s not a job at all; it’s a volunteer position. And anyone can join in the fray. But the ones who tend to prevail are the ones who put the most time and energy into it. Unfortunately, this means that it attracts a disproportionate portion of crankish no-lifers who want to be important and to set the rules in their own little corner of the universe. And the “information wants to be free” ethos that is the supposed founding spirit of Wikipedia is strongly subject to the itchy delete fingers of high-school-not-yet-grads and chronic career jumping beans, who, rather than letting information be free, will spike an article if, in their Napoleonic estimation, it’s not “notable”.

This is not, of course, to say that all Wikipedia editors and contributors are dweebs with an exaggerated sense of the ambit of their own knowledge. And indeed, Wikipedia is a very useful source of information, though one forgets at one’s peril that it cannot be assumed to be as reliable as expert-reviewed material. The point at hand here, though, is if you look for malamanteau in Wikipedia now, you will only find a reference to it in the article on xkcd – as “a stunt word.” You won’t find it at all on Wiktionary, which will instead direct you to malamante, which (perhaps fittingly) is Esperanto for “hatingly” or “hatefully”.

No fear if you want to find it elsewhere, though. It gets about 14,000 hits on Google. It’s still in Urban Dictionary, Wordnik, and assorted other sites that are not subject to the same ethos as Wikipedia. The question, though, is whether Wikipedia is right. Is it – like, for instance, floccinaucinihilipilification – a stunt word, one that is never really used in earnest for its denotative value? May one thereby floccinaucinihilipilificate it?

Well, before xkcd used it, it had already been used (not much, though) as a blend of malapropism and portmanteau. And it’s still useful – it’s by far the tidiest way to refer to words such as misunderstimate, refudiate, insinuendo, bewilderness, flustrated, ambiviolent, and misconscrewed (it up). So it has clear value as a word. It fills a gap neatly. It’s a nice malamute to add to the dog team on the linguistic sled of meaning. It’s reasonably mellifluous – nasals and a liquid, and an alternation between the lips and the tip of the tongue.

And it has a very good chance of sticking in the language due to the notoriety given it not just by the comic but, perhaps more importantly, by the insta-smite response it got on Wikipedia. In effect, by the very act of declaring the word not notable, those who did so helped to make it notable. In their flustrated attempts to refudiate it, they misunderstimated it; they misconscrewed it up and now they’re just in the bewilderness. And without even the mot juste.