Category Archives: word sommelier

any more, anymore

Dear word sommelier: When should I use “any more,” and when should I use “anymore”?

If you’re not Canadian or American, you can pretty much avoid this issue and use any more everywhere. But in Canada and the US, we have a merged form, anymore, that has taken on one specific sense and left the others to the old two-word version.

First let’s start with the parts. They’re good old Germanic parts, not borrowed from anywhere else. They’re so old and basic that they have multiple uses. Any can be an adjective (Do you have any idea?) or a pronoun (I don’t have any), but it can also be an adverb, modifying an adjective, and that’s what it is in any more and anymore. More can be a noun (I want more) or an adjective (I want more food) or an adverb (Could you be more specific?). In any more, it can be any of them; in anymore, it’s an adverb.

There are three general areas of meaning that you can use any more in, and anymore is used for just the last one:

Quantity. I don’t want any more. I want fifty dollars, and not any more than that.

Degree. I don’t like this any more than you do. I couldn’t possibly love you any more [than I already do].

Time. I don’t want you anymore. I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore. Do you do it anymore?

You may notice that the examples all have one important thing in common: they’re all negative phrases or negative-option questions. Actually, you can use any more in a positive phrase: Any more than this and we’re in trouble. But in standard English, anymore is always in a negative phrase or a question with a negative option. Not anymore can be paraphrased as not any longer or as no more or no longer.

Note that I said standard English. There are areas where it’s not so uncommon to hear positive anymore in ordinary speech: Anymore, we hold the parties indoors. We can see that for these speakers it has moved out of its place in a whole limiting phrase and has become a synonym for these days or now: We don’t do that anymore > We don’t do that these days; These days we do this > Anymore, we do this. I am not endorsing this usage for standard written English, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see it more mainstream some decades hence. But you should know that it exists. At least for some speakers, anymore is not a one-valence word anymore.

When you are considering serving this word in a sentence, you should pay attention to the rhythm – it trips quickly, not quite as long as any longer but less staid than no more or no longer. It’s a more common and casual usage, too, and is less likely to be seen in formal documents, where you may see wording using phrases such as in previous years and until recent times and prior to the current situation and so forth. There are really many ways to describe the aspect of time, and some of them take quite a bit of time themselves. Probably the most formal – and obviously poetically referential – alternative to not anymore would be nevermore. To get a sense of the difference, imagine Poe writing, “Quoth the raven, ‘Not anymore.’”

Thanks to my colleagues in the Editors’ Association who brought up this issue and helped me clarify my thinking on it.

situated, located

Dear word sommelier: I have several Francophone colleagues who use “situated” rather than “located” everywhere, since the usual French word is “situé(e).” How do I explain the difference to them?

Geez, ask me something easy sometime. This is actually a tricky one because Anglophones tend to use them interchangeably a lot of the time, and in many cases it’s unnecessary stuffing either way:

The washrooms are located on the second floor.

The washrooms are situated on the second floor.

You can argue about which seems better, and it’s a viable argument, and we’re about to talk about it, but you should not overlook the fact that the best way to say that is

The washrooms are on the second floor.

But the question remains what difference it makes when you do use one or the other. And it does make a difference, not so much of denotation but of tone and of expected entailment and context. Each word has echoes of other words and is seen in particular collocations.

Located is often used with centrally, conveniently, ideally, strategically, physically, and abroad; things can be located at, between, close to, in, near, on, outside, within, etc. It’s used, in short, to establish the location – a spot on a map, a set of coordinates. It’s a common word, sometimes used in conversation, often used in stiff business writing and real estate ads.

Locate is also used to mean ‘find the location of’ and ‘put in a location’:

I have located the water fountain in the northwest corner of the garden. [This can mean you found it there or you put it there.]

Situate does not have the ‘find’ meaning; you can only mean one thing when you write

I have situated the water fountain in the northwest corner of the garden.

(In either case, if that’s what you mean, put or placed or installed would also be a viable option.)

Situated is less used in casual conversation, but it also used in the real-estate-ad kind of prose, in collocations with beautifully, delightfully, ideally, picturesquely, pleasantly, well, conveniently, inconveniently, centrally, remotely, and quietly. Notice the emotional tone: situated sits more pleasantly in the mind. And for many users, situated bears the context more in mind. You are located on a spot, but you are situated in a… well, in a situation. Situate also tastes of site (related) and sit (not related).

So when you’re talking about where something is, just as a spot on the map, located works:

Hamtramck is located in Wayne county, Michigan.

But when you’re talking about the context, situated can work well:

Lhasa is situated at the bottom of a small basin in the Himalaya mountains, on the northern bank of the Lhasa river.

You can use located in that sentence as well, but you may find it less natural to use situated in the sentence about Hamtramck, above.

Because situated carries the idea of context, you can also use it in to call forth the context in a more cogent way:

This sylvan abode is beautifully situated.

You get the idea of its being set in a lovely location surrounded by trees; your imagination likely fills in some more of the picture. Compare that with this:

This sylvan abode is beautifully located.

This seems to mean that the location is beautiful, or that whoever chose where to put it did a nice job. But it’s not quite as idiomatic. Add a bit more and you may see even clearer how situated seems to call forth context:

This sylvan abode is beautifully situated in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

This sylvan abode is beautifully located in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Compare this with the dot-on-the-map approach:

I’m trying to find West Clarksville; I don’t know where it’s located.

I’m trying to find West Clarksville; I don’t know where it’s situated.

Inasmuch as you’d use the second one, you’d probably be talking about the surroundings, not just the coordinates – unless you just felt you should use a word that’s one syllable longer.

There’s one more thing that affects the sense of the two words: situate also carries an echo of situation, which has a much broader range of usage than location:

How did you get me into this situation?

How did you get me into this location?

There’s also the question of the sounds – located has the liquid /l/ and the hard /k/, while situated has a voiceless fricative and affricate hissing and catching – and the rhythm, with located a dactyl and situated two feet of trochaic rhythm. Indeed, you will often make the choice less on the basis of semantics and connotations and more on the basis of where the word is located. Or, rather, where it is situated.

if and when

Dear word sommelier: I have heard that “if and when” is an unnecessary phrase, and that “if” or “when” individually should be sufficient. I read somewhere that using it is a sign of insecurity in a writer, like taking two swords to a fight. But I still see it, and I have to admit I kind of like it in some places. Can you help me?

If is a common enough word. Very common, indeed. It’s a slender word, like the slip betwixt cup and lip, like the narrow chance of something happening, like the gap between train and platform, or between door and frame. It’s like a ligature of fi that has had a falling out or is dancing a reel. But unlike of, it has not experienced any sound changes; we do not say it “iv” or drop the consonant altogether. This is because it is not a preposition, a substitute for noun inflection, leading into a noun phrase; it is a conjunction, leading into a finite verb phrase, which is a weightier thing. It is small, but so much swings on it – between door and frame indeed: it is a hinge.

When is also a common enough word. It, too, expresses contingency, although it does not necessarily express doubt. It is a bit like the wind – partly because it sounds like “wind” and, if you say the wh the old formal way, it whistles hoarsely as an icy gust out of your mouth, but also partly because there will always be wind, it’s just a question of when: if not now, then soon enough.

Either one introduces a subordinate, and generally either one is sufficient, with a different shade in meaning:

If the rooster crows, get up.

When the rooster crows, get up.

If you make coffee, bring me some.

When you make coffee, bring me some.

But then there is this other phrase, if and when:

If and when the rooster crows, get up.

If and when you make coffee, bring me some.

The wind of when bangs the hinged door of if. Banging doors can be annoying. But sometimes they can also be effective.

There is a small argument to be made in its favour logically:

If the rooster crows, get up. (Does not specify that you must get up at that time, just that you must get up at some point.)

If you make coffee, bring me some. (Does not require you to bring me some right when you make it.)

When the rooster crows, get up. (May imply that you should get up at the time the rooster usually crows, even if it doesn’t this time.)

When you make coffee, bring me some. (May be taken as a general directive without implication that you will be making coffee at any particular point in time.)

If and when the rooster crows, get up. (There is some doubt as to whether the rooster will crow, but get up at the occasion, provided it occurs.)

If and when you make coffee, bring me some. (Your making coffee is not a given, but should you do so, bring me some at the time when you do make it.)

There’s no doubt, though, that the real value of the expression is not its logical quality but its emphatic quality and the implications it carries. It doubly specifies, and thus has the insistence and intensity of reiteration. It means there is some doubt as to the eventuality, and perhaps some impatience regarding it. Here are some possible actual paraphrases:

If and when the rooster crows, get up = That bird sure takes its time about crowing and sometimes I don’t think it even does, but make a point of getting out of bed when it finally does. If it doesn’t, well, whatever.

If and when you make coffee, bring me some = At such time as your royal frickin’ highness chooses to put the pot on, don’t forget to bring me a cup before it’s cold.

So you see it adds some extra huff and puff, not just through the f and wh but through the arms-akimbo attitude it expresses. Use it with care. Sometimes you need two swords, but more often you’ll just hurt yourself.

Those who want a bonus round can use the more emphatic and heavily specified expression when, as, and if. The three contingencies really nail it down, and a triad always packs a punch, in rhetoric as in jokes. It’s so strong it is more likely to come after the main clause rather than ahead of it.

It does have a logical justification; the addition of as means ‘do it in the same time span rather than simply starting at that time’. But what it really means is that there is a possibility the occasion will arise, and the act discussed is strongly and imperatively attached to the occasion. So:

Get up when, as, and if the rooster crows = Provided that dumb bird shoots off its beak, take its crowing as a signal to arise, and be on your feet by the time it’s done its racket.

I would not recommend telling someone to bring you coffee when, as, and if they make some, because you don’t really want them to bring it to you as they’re making it.

The real punch of this phrase, though, is captured in this quote from The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash, which is where I first encountered it:

She always wears this little red hat. And last night, Dumbo Hopkinson says to her: “Snookie, you gonna wear that little red hat all your life?” And she giggles and says: “Well, I hope not, Dumbo! I’m gonna give it to some handsome fella – when, as and if!”

In other words, only when, not just on the possibility; only as, not just on the promise (and also not any later); and only if, which means it might not happen at all… take that as a challenge.

So keep that in mind – when, as, and if you ever use it.

around, about, approximately

Dear word sommelier: I recently read an article on the AMA Insider about usage of around, about, and approximately. The author counsels people to reserve around for casual contexts and to prefer approximately almost all of the time in technical or formal writing. And the author says that approximately is the most precise and around the least. Is it really that clear-cut?

The author is, without naming it, discussing what linguists call register – variation in style of English usage according to context. He (or she) is quite right that around, about, and approximately bring with them a generally decreasing amount of casualness (respectively) when used in their interchangeable sense.

Now, that casualness is the tone of the utterance, but presenting something with a casual tone also connotes a casual attitude towards the topic. I think if we were to look at usages of the three words, we would probably find that the degree of precision they communicate mathematically is actually pretty much identical – for any given user, “about 3:00,” “around 3:00,” and “approximately 3:00” will likely indicate pretty much the same time span. (I do lack hard data for this assertion, however; this is my unscientific observation. It’s worth a real study.) It’s really the level of concern communicated about precision that varies – a more casual usage conveys a more casual attitude. Also, about is the most standard option, and is thus more plain-vanilla than the other two. If about is ordinary daily-wear clothes, approximately is like putting on a suit with a tie, and around more like putting on your comfy old jeans with rips and frays.

So let’s look at what the different words tend to convey in comparative usage:

“I’ll be there at around three o’clock”: I’ll get there between 2:50 and 3:10, and I don’t consider it a matter of great concern exactly where in there I arrive.

“I’ll be there at about three o’clock”: I’ll get there between 2:50 and 3:10, and I perhaps consider it a matter of courtesy to try to look like I’ve made an effort to arrive close to 3:00.

“I’ll be there at approximately three o’clock”: I’m trying to sound technical and impressive. I’ll get there between 2:50 and 3:10, and I want you to know that whatever time I arrive, it will be within the time period I specified; therefore, you may consider me punctual and scrupulous as long as I do not arrive outside of that time frame.

Let’s try some more:

“That’s about right.” In my estimation, that is pretty much right – close enough, at least. It may in fact even be precisely right.

“That’s around right.” I don’t think anyone would likely even say this; if they did, the hearer might not be sure of the meaning at first, thanks to the different meanings available for around.

“That’s approximately right.” That is not precisely right, and I want you to be aware that while it is within a not unreasonable margin of error of right, it could be more accurate.

“In any given week, approximately 175,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health issues.” This is a formal report, and we want you to take these numbers as authoritative; our estimates are rounded to tidy numbers because it’s not feasible to get exact figures on this, but you can assume that the real figure is likely within 5,000 of this.

“In any given week, about 175,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health issues.” This is an article in a magazine or newspaper, and we want you to know that we have this number that is not precise but is reckoned to be within something like 5,000 of the real number.

“In any given week, around 175,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health issues.” This is an article in a tone that is intended to be friendly and readable, and we want you to understand that this number is not precise – it may be off by as much as 5,000 or so – but it’s suitable for giving you an impression and so we can get away with using it.

“Mom, we’re heading out now, but I’ll be back in around an hour.” Don’t fret if we’re running late, because we’re not that concerned, but it’s likely going to be an hour plus (or maybe minus) 15 minutes.

“Mom, we’re heading out now, but I’ll be back in about an hour.” I’m making you a promise, but not a precise one; I could be up to 15 minutes late (or early).

“Mom, we’re heading out now, but I’ll be back in approximately an hour.” I want you to know that I’m paying attention to the time, but there are other factors that cannot be perfectly foreseen that may delay (or accelerate) or return by up to 15 minutes, and you can’t start tapping your watch in 61 minutes because I have told you this is not a precise prediction.

The thing to remember (aside from that words are known by the company they keep) is that every utterance always takes part in a definition of the circumstance, the relation of the speaker and hearer, and their attitudes towards each other and towards the circumstance and topic. (This is why people who defend rudeness with “I’m just being honest” are lying to you and to themselves. They could communicate the same information with greater respect for the other person. They just want to convey contempt and get away with it.)

So if you use around in a technical document, it will always seem like an injection of lightness or unconcern, a bit of a hand-wave. That has its place, but one has to be careful. On the other hand, using approximately in casual conversation is also potentially humorous due to its insistence on sounding responsible, but in any context it conveys that you’re covering your butt. As to about, it’s not especially technical but it’s not explicitly anything else either.

sofa, couch

Dear word sommelier: I notice that in your note on chesterfield you used sofa and couch interchangeably. Isn’t there a difference?

Of course there’s a difference. Sofa has two syllables and four letters and is soft, with just two voiceless fricatives at the front of the mouth and a round vowel (“ohhhh” like a sound you might make sinking into a plush sofa), and it has overtones of sol-fa and soda and perhaps Sufi and suffer and so far and shofar and maybe even loofahCouch, on the other hand, has one less syllable and one more letter, but just three phonemes – of which two are compound: a diphthong and an affricate. It is a harder word, to be sure, with its voiceless stop onset and its voiceless affricate ending. But somehow that doesn’t seem to bother the people who sit on couches – not even the echo of ouch or the taste of crunch and catch and cow and crutch…

Words are, as I have said many times, known by the company they keep. But these two words actually have very similar collocations – here’s what gives for them: sofa: adj asleep, comfortable, sectional, plush, living-room, Victorian, sagging, convertible; noun chair, room, table, living, cushion, leather, bed, back, arm, pillow; verb sit, lie, sleep, watch, lay, fall, lean, settle, seat, face; couch: adj asleep, comfortable, living-room, comfy, overstuffed, lumpy, sagging, upholstered; noun room, potato, chair, living, leather, back, arm, cushion, TV, bed; verb sit, sleep, lie, lay, fall, settle, lean, seat, face, sprawl.

Mind you, they do keep some different company socially. You can’t draw a nice isogloss for them – a line on a map that shows roughly where people stop using one word and start using the other, like with soda and pop (and, in the southern US, generic coke). The divider, inasmuch as there is one, is more one of social set. People whose lives are softer seem to like sofa better. If you see the play Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare (or watch the movie made from it, starring Will Smith, Donald Sutherland, and Stockard Channing), you will see a scene in which a rich kid who went to prep schools is teaching a poor black kid how to fit into the rich social set, and one point he makes is that the piece of furniture is not a couch, it’s a sofa.

Not that it’s as tidy as that. Many people use both, depending on context or whim, even if they prefer one to the other (usually couch to sofa). If they want to emphasize the softness or sound somehow more high-class, they might go with sofa. Or they might associate one word or another with some particular person or social set from their own lives. Each word is couched differently for each person.

Oh, yes, couch has a verb, too, which sofa does not. In fact, it has a much wider set of uses, noun and verb. It shows up in many contexts where something is lying or set together or into another thing. Which is reasonable enough, given its etymology. You very likely know that French se coucher means “go to bed” or “lie down”. A couch is not simply something you sit on; it’s something you can lie on – like the psychoanalyst’s couch, not sofa. So you see that there are these extra little collocations that show up farther back.

Oh, yeah: that’s where the French coucher comes from, by the way. Latin collocare. Meaning “put in its proper place” or “lay with” (not “lie with” – that comes with the French).

And sofa? It comes from Arabic. You may have seen, in real life or in pictures, an Arabic room furnished with a low platform on which is laid a carpet or carpets and various cushions for sitting or reclining on. That is what Arabic ṣoffah refers to, that platform and its cushy furnishings.

And the different denotations? Don’t they refer to different things? Well, the analyst’s couch has only a half back and one arm (or head end), and that matches a particular type that can be distinguished from a sofa with its full back and arms. But in actual common usage, especially in North America, one simply can’t draw a neat distinction, not even a fuzzy-bordered distinction like between cup and mug. You just have to go by feel and whim. You know what effect you would get by saying sofa potato instead of couch potato; go from there.

fortune, chance

Dear word sommelier: At a recent graduation ceremony I attended, a speaker referred to “fortune and chance.” Aren’t they the same thing?

A person could be forgiven for thinking the two words are merely synonyms. After all, if we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of fortune includes the word chance and vice-versa. But there are greater nuances. As I’ve often said, words are known by the company they keep. So let us have a look in another Oxford book, Oxford Collocations

Fortune has made an interesting trail from its transparent origin, the Latin word fortuna – which is related to fors “chance” and ferre “bear” (verb). Do you recognize the Latin phrase “O Fortuna”? It’s the opening words of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the song descants on fortune, which is visualized as a wheel, carrying people up high and casting them down. This is where we get Wheel of Fortune from.

And this image helped construct fortune as something that was not simply chance but fate. You can go to a fortune teller to see if you will be fortunate in life; you can go out to try your fortune or seek your fortune or make your fortune. Your fortune, originally, is your lot as represented by your standing in life; of course, from that it’s a small step to the sense “money, wealth” – because that’s generally how one makes one’s fortune.

So make your fortune and, even moreso, make a fortune now refer to riches. You can amass a fortune or build up a fortune, or you can inherit a fortune if someone leaves you a fortune. And Fortune is a magazine about money, which means about business; if you are on the Fortune 500 you have it made. It? Your fortune. Just as long as you do not encounter some unfortunate misfortune and suffer a reversal of fortunes as your company’s fortunes rise and fall and otherwise fluctuate, causing you to lose your fortune. You want fame and fortune; you do not want to be, as Shakespeare’s Romeo was, fortune’s fool.

Chance, on the other hand, has as a word been changed more by time and tide; it came by way of French from Latin cadentia “falling” (noun), from cadere “fall” – hmm, bear vs. fall. It is how things fall out, how the chips fall, how it all falls into place. But no one will tell your chance in the same way as they tell your fortune.

No, chance is typically purely stochastic, aleatory; we have games of chance. There may be a slight chance, perhaps a million-to-one chance, of winning, but you’ll chance it (note the verb form; fortune does not exist as a verb). You may succeed through sheer chance, but you’ll do what it takes to boost your chances, and you certainly don’t want to spoil your chance. But take your chance – you don’t want to lose your chance. Chance is opportunity. But not fully controllable; there is always an element of chance.

At the same time, chance can be subject to the decision of a person: Is there a chance you could – ? You can give someone a fighting chance or a sporting chance; there’s a fair chance you might even give them a second chance. After all, they deserve a chance; given a chance, they’ll jump at the chance if you’ll just take a chance on them.

If you look at the trees on Visual Thesaurus, you will see that chance has rather more connections – it is used more, generally – but while both words connect to a sense of “an unknown or unpredictable phenomenon that causes an event to result one way rather than another”, fortune also connects to a similar node but with positive outcome specified (as does luck), and to one for “your overall circumstances or condition in life”, and to one for wealth or prosperity. Chance, on the other hand, connects with possibilities, opportunities, threats, and measures of likelihood – plus the several senses of the verb: taking risks, happening upon something, occurring randomly.

Of these two words, then, fortune seems to be the banker in the bowtie, and chance the ragamuffin in the po’ boy cap. You get some of the feel of that, too, in the shapes of the words on the page and perhaps in their sound and feel. Fortune starts with that soft, lofty f; it moves to a smooth liquid /r/ and then breaks into a second syllable that has more of a bite and sound of coins to it. But that bite and sound of coins – the voiceless alveopalatal affricate, /tʃ/ “ch”, followed by a softer ring of a nasal /n/ – is what you get front and centre with chance, without the softening extra syllable to start with, but with a full-value vowel and an extra fricative /s/ at the end to leave off with a hiss, more strident than the soft opening /f/ in fortune.

Test all this out, sense, sound, feel. Swap the words in a few phrases. Obviously you do not amass a chance or look for fame and chance, but do you say your chances rise and fall or that you’ve had a reversal of chance? And you don’t take your fortune on games of fortune (though cards can be used for chance or fortune); you don’t talk about an element of fortune; obviously you don’t give someone a second fortune. And it would be odd indeed to say “Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer fortunes.” Or, on the other hand, to try to win on Wheel of Chance. ABBA may have made a fortune with “Take a Chance on Me,” but they wouldn’t have made a chance with “Take a Fortune on Me.”

mantle, mantel

Dear word sommelier: Is it mantel or mantle of responsibility? Are mantle and mantel two words or one, anyway?

The answer to your second question is “Yes.”

Mantle and mantel are now treated as two words – indeed, Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, calls them “very different”. I think that’s a bit much; the words themselves are identical in pronunciation and have only the merest variation in spelling, akin to the difference between metre and meter. And originally mantle was just a variant spelling of mantel – which was a word for a cloak or overcoat. It just happens that a structure around a fireplace is similar enough to a cloak to borrow the name, but different enough for the name to diverge… just slightly. And the result is a mantel block. I mean mental block.

The structure around a fireplace first gained the name mantle – or mantel; the spelling was not differentiated then – in the 1500s. It’s also called a mantelpiece, and the projecting shelf above the fireplace, which is so often now called just the mantel, is also known as the mantel shelf. (Here’s a tie-in to yesterday’s tasting of mondegreen: in “Don’t Pass Me By,” by the Beatles, I used to hear “I hear the clock a-ticking on the mantel shelf” as “…on the magic shelf.”)

The word comes originally from Latin mantellum “cloak” by way of French (its modern French cognate is manteau). It had entered English by the Old English period (back when years still had only three digits); its first meaning was “loose sleevless cloak”, which, as it happens, is what it means now too (I find the shapes of m and n somewhat reminiscent, and the warmth of their sound suggestive, but, then, I’m looking for it).

From that it has gained a number of extended and metaphorical uses. For instance, since a position of authority or responsibility is commonly conceptualized as something one puts on, something that covers one, it is often seen as a mantel. Oops, that’s mantle now, as in mantle of responsibility. The spelling shifted starting in the 1700s, presumably by analogy with other words spelled with le (crumble, ramble, prattle, tattle, disgruntle, little, bottle, and so on). But the distinction is not universally preserved, and some dictionaries recognize mantle as an alternative spelling for mantel.

So, when we dismantle these two “very different” words, we see that they are really the same word, with one part reversed; and when we uncloak them (perhaps take off the magic cloak?), we discover they are long-separated twins, or maybe even just different personalities of the same word. One diverged in sense, the other in form. (It’s sort of like the letters u and v – originally there was a vowel, written v; it came to have a consonant version, and for some time they were both written as v or as the variant shape u; finally the one took the new form u and the other took the new sound /v/.) Oh, and yes, dismantle is dis plus mantle; first it meant “uncloak”, and later, from that, “take apart”.

That’s a fun thought to have if you’re dismantling a mantel, taking the shelf apart piece by piece – or the mantelpiece apart shelf by shelf. Why would you do that? Perhaps because it was your responsibility. Or maybe you just need to replace it with a more ornamental one, one with more sentimental value, perhaps suited for display of a cheese board (Emmental?), perhaps to present a small instrument (fiddle? mandolin?) or a little bottle (a mickey mantel?).

ill-starred disaster

Dear word sommelier: I just read the phrase “an ill-starred disaster.” That’s redundant, isn’t it?

Ah, this is a question not simply of linguistics and etymology but, as it happens, of one’s metaphysics and world-view as well.

As you evidently know, but others may not, disaster comes from dis “bad, ill, adverse” plus aster, from Latin astrum, from Greek ἄστρον astron, “star”; a disaster was originally not any old bad accident but specifically one attributed to a bad aspect of a star (although one could contend that pretty much any major mischance was, in the Europe of centuries past, typically attributed to a bad celestial influence; in case you’ve forgotten the extent to which the stars were thought to have a role in everything – not without input from human action, to be sure – go back and look at Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or perhaps read E.M.W. Tillyard’s excellent small book The Elizabethan World Picture; similar views were common throughout the continent). If you look in the OED’s entry on disaster, it suggests that you compare English ill-starred.

So, in origin, a disaster was by definition ill-starred, and vice-versa. But, now, tell me, is that how you use these terms and hear them today?

I could ask first whether you consider all disasters to be due to the operations of the stars. You very likely will say no, since you probably don’t hold so tightly to astrology and you must be honest and admit that disaster is today used to mean “calamity, catastrophe, cluster-f***, etc.” and not specifically “unfortunate occurrence due to adverse celestial effect”. Words often drift from their original meaning, as I mentioned yesterday in rile (see the comments too).

More loosely, since ill-starred could be said to be an allusive way of saying ill-fated, do you consider disasters all to be the operation of fate or acts of God? If you do, there may be a job waiting for you in the claims department of an insurance company. But you likely believe in human error as a cause of many a disaster, and in definable if unpredictable forces – plate tectonics, for instance – as the cause of many others. Given that, specification of a disaster as “ill-starred” would set it apart from disasters that had causes other than ineffable fate.

And you likewise may hold that things may be ill-starred without being disasters per se – for instance, Romeo and Juliet, being star-crossed lovers, were ill-starred, but not everyone would classify adolescent love suicides in the category “disasters” (“bad things”, yes, but disaster, travelling often nowadays with natural, tends to be thought of as involving mass destruction of real estate – or else a really bad outcome for a social event).

However, if you don’t believe in the existence of anything that anyone could in any way call “fate”, then is there still a distinction to be made? If you use ill-starred to mean “a thing that shouldn’t have happened but did”, which is pretty much the meaning available for those who hold no truck with fate or celestial influence, then isn’t a disaster automatically something you’d call ill-starred, like calling water wet?

One could make that argument, but one would risk overlooking all the other effects of lexical entries besides those of paraphrasable definitions. For instance, one might say that a disaster is automatically upsetting, and that dammit expresses being upset, and that therefore “This is a disaster, dammit” should be edited down to “This is a disaster.” Yet can you honestly say that there is no difference in what is expressed about the speaker’s attitude between one and the other?

In truth, even for those who don’t believe in fate or astrology, ill-starred brings an image of either a certain inevitability or a particular conjunction of adverse forces. It also, of course, has the flavour of ill, which can seem a bit green at the gills and which, along with being popular in youthful use lately (ever since the Beastie Boys, really), has rhymes with chill, kill, spill, etc., and a certain similarity to eww. And there is the flavour of star, which has an éclat, a flash and bang, or at least a little twinkle. Don’t miss those double letters in the spelling, either, sort of like the motion lines of a cartoon object entering a collision.

Disaster, for its part, has its own flavour, and although it has similarities with ill-starred (the s t r hint at the fact that aster and star are cognate way back), its sound has more in common with catastrophe (even though that’s not a cognate word). You also get a feel of blast, cast, disturb, and perhaps zaps – less likely sister and Zoroaster, which have resemblances in form but not in sense.

And don’t forget the different effect the length and rhythm of the phrase will have. “This is a disaster” is a simple declaration; “This is an ill-starred disaster” is much more epic and solemn, not only because it’s longer (and more rhythmic) but because it’s more literary-seeming. It says as much about the speaker as about what’s being spoken about. After all, how often do you even hear ill-starred these days? Surely you wouldn’t want to delete it when you actually do see it, would you? That would almost seem to be tempting fate…

key, crucial, pivotal

Dear word sommelier: Today @BloombergStyle tweeted, “Key is vague as a modifier. Adjectives such as crucial and pivotal are more precise.” My question is just, “What?”

A valid question. Why is key supposed to be vague? What would make crucial and pivotal more precise? Have I missed something somehow all these years of being a professional word person? Or am I encountering yet another hoary prejudice of which I have heretofore managed to remain innocent? Or what?

Certainly key seems more popular right now as a modifier, especially in business writing (and we know how many language sticklers have a hate-on for business English – not without some justification, assuredly). It’s a nice, short word, and it carries an image of a key that opens a door – perhaps a golden key, something of value, something shiny. You readily read of a key role, a key question, key players, key issues, key elements, key factors, and so on (I’m getting these frequent collocations from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The keystone is the most important stone, and when you “set the tone” for something you “set the key.” Plus it’s a short word, two sounds and three letters, an explosion of air from the tongue tight at the palate.

So it’s easy to see why key would be popular, and overuse can dilute effect; we also see it a lot in more workaday terms like keyword. But that doesn’t make the word itself imprecise; it just means that it is sometimes used imprecisely. One may as readily use crucial and pivotal imprecisely. Perhaps @BloombergStyle dislikes it in part because it’s in origin a noun, not a “proper” adjective. I’m also tempted to wonder whether its plain Anglo-Saxon source counts against it.

Crucial certainly seems more dramatic, and if greater drama is what you want then it will be more precise (but if it’s not then it won’t be). The mouth screws up tight and puckers out as you say it, the tongue crushing air against the palate, and you can almost express excruciation just with the sound and vocal gesture. Its sense comes from Latin crucem “cross” with the idea of being at a crossroads, a decision point: something that’s crucial is deciding. Nowadays we would probably view it more as meaning “absolutely necessary” – something you can’t do without, as opposed to being merely important. We may speak of a crucial role, a crucial question, a crucial part, a crucial point, a crucial moment, a crucial factor – notice more singulars than for key: this indicates that crucial signifies greater importance. Key things may be multiple; crucial ones are more likely to be singular.

Pivotal has a clearer image because its original reference is still plain in the word: pivot, a word we got from French and French got from we’re not entirely sure where. This is a tidier word, starting and ending with stops, and with a possibly ambisyllabic /v/ right in the middle – which, in written form, even looks like it could be a pivot. Something that is pivotal is clearly something on which everything turns: a pivotal role (seriously, role is the most common collocation for each of these words in the COCA), a pivotal moment, a pivotal point, a pivotal player, a pivotal figure. Again, singular: pivots always come one at a time.

So key may seem vaguer to @BloombergStyle, but that may just be because it indicates something important but not as important. But that’s not the same thing as vague. It’s not at all precise to say something was hot when it was just warm, for instance.

I wanted more feedback on this, so I asked some of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for their off-the-top-of-the-head evaluation of the differences between these three words, leaving the dictionary on the shelf. Here are some of their responses:

crucial: very very important all by itself.
key:  the most important of a bunch of important ones.
pivotal: similar to key, except the less important concepts surround it; “key” they seem more like they’re in a hierarchy.
—Rosemary Tanner

key = it matters; this is important but not necessarily as much as the following
crucial  = it matters especially, it is critical to (for example) something happening or not happening
pivotal = crucial/critical but using the image of the pivot point, it is the factor/concept/assertion/etc. that could cause a change in direction, taking this path over that path, etc.
—Laura Edlund

“Key” and “crucial” are the most synonymous – both meaning “essential” – but “pivotal” of course also implies a moment of change or a feature that changes the way the entire context can be understood.
—Aaron Dalton

Key: important, but could be one of many. A key concept, another key concept… A key piece of evidence is important, but you wouldn’t lose the case by mucking it up.
Crucial: stronger than key and bordering on unique. An entire case may rest on a crucial piece of evidence.
Pivotal: something that changes the game/situation/direction.
—Paul Cipywnyk

key – one of the most important items
crucial – not to be overlooked, above all others
pivotal – having a bearing on outcome, associated with desired results
—Carolyn Wilker

We see some general trends here, especially as regards the hierarchy of importance and the imagery of pivotal, but on the other hand there’s not complete agreement either. And these are highly literate people who work with words all the time. So consider the effect the choice will have on the average reader (who will most certainly not be looking at a dictionary either): probably a fairly impressionistic one, determined in part by prosodic and phonaesthetic factors and strongly by current patterns of use. (As I’ve said many times, words are known by the company they keep.) I’m not arguing against maintaining certain distinctions of sense, but always be aware of what your readers will be aware of.

And, now, is key less precise? Or is it just more often used imprecisely? It does seem a little milder in tone, but that’s a different matter. I’d say @BloombergStyle is a little off-key here, myself.

reticent, reluctant

Dear word sommelier: When should I use reticent and when reluctant?

I’m a little, um, hesitant to wade into one like this, because this gets to be one of those pedantics-versus-the-universe points. Not that there’s a whole lot of debate over reluctant, mind you – though there is a little specification of sense that some may stipulate. But reticent is one of those words that some people will use as a net to catch you with if you so much as offer a penny for their thoughts – or even if you don’t.

There is, of course, a difference in the feel of the words that will always have some effect, whether you’re a semantic stickler or not. They are similar-looking words, re____nt; one has tice where the other has lucta, both with a t and a c, so the difference in look is mainly i and e versus lu and a. The feel of the sound is more different. The rhythm, for starts, is a dactyl in reticent and an amphibrach in reluctant; ironically, the vowel in re is (or may be) “long” in the word where it’s unstressed but not in the word where it’s stressed. More to the heart of the matter, reticent stays on the tip of the tongue, a little more tentative and delicate with the /tɪs/; in reluctant the mouth is locked up with a clucking coarticulation after the lick: /lʌkt/.

There’s also the relative frequency of the words. Reticent is a much less commonly used word than reluctant. That makes it a pricier word – used when people want to sound more erudite, impressive, what have you. It’s also a newer word by a couple of centuries; it first showed up in the early 1800s, while reluctant has been around since the early 1600s.

Both come from Latin, naturally: the re at the beginning is the same, meaning “back” or similar things, and the [a/e]nt is a present participle ending. The root difference is in the occupant of the space for re____nt. In reluctant, it’s luctari, “fight”. Originally, to be reluctant was to actively resist something; there’s a verb, reluct, which doesn’t get used now, at least in part because now we view reluctance as more of a passive resistance or even simple hesitation. It might be as little as not truly believing you’ve lucked into something – for instance, if you’re reluctant to believe that the person calling telling you you’ve won a cruise vacation is on the up and up. I’d like to think the effect of the tongue backing away in the luc adds to that sense, but of course I have no data for that.

In reticent, on the other hand, the root is tacere “be silent” (compare French Tais-toi! “Shut up!”/”Be quiet!”). The original use, and the one still preferred by those who make it their business to prefer such things, is closer to “taciturn” than to “hesitant” or “resistant”: it means “disinclined to express personal thoughts and feelings; the opposite of loquacious”. It stands alone: “Herb was reticent.” (That’s a quote from MAD magazine. Yes it is.) But you may often see reticent used to mean, well, “reluctant” – the same sense of “reluctant” as we use today, often taking an infinitive complement: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.”

That last quote, by the way, comes from 1875. This usage, which undeniably uses it to mean what there’s already another word to mean, but with the added air of elevation, erudition, or plain misplaced prissiness, has been around much too long and is much too well established to eradicate. That doesn’t mean you have to use it, of course; you’re perfectly within your rights to reserve reticent for what you wish pedants would be. But if you are not reluctant to use it as a shiny substitute for “reluctant”, just be aware that there may be a semantic retiarius ready to cast a net of condemnation without so much as one red cent in payment for their liberally expressed conservatism.

Thanks to Stan Backs for suggesting reticent. A retiarius, by the way, is a gladiator who uses a net.