July 10th, 2012

Word I Irrationally Despise

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a grammar or usage rant here at Rose-coloured, the reasons being (a) people hate them and (b) I’ve calmed down. I think the calming was due in large part to my brief stint teaching in high schools a couple years back. There’s nothing like being exposed to young people on a regular basis to convince you you are not as smart as you think you are. Also, the youths do cool stuff with language, and I’ve grown to appreciate it more–just yesterday, I was expounding on how interesting it is when they drop the “m” in random and make it a noun–“That guy is such a rando!” Useful, no?

Also, on the part (a) front, those rants just made me sound bitchy and pedantic, and we could all do with a bit less of that, I think.

Well as I’m doing dissolving my prejudices against certain types of language, there are some things that are technically correct that I still CAN NOT DEAL WITH. Do you have those? Words or turns of phrase that you irrationally despise, though they actually do just fine at conveying what they are meant to convey? I had a colleague who loathed the word “amalogomate” because “it sounds like bugs having sex.” You can’t really argue with that.

My most loathed word is the seemingly innocuous “sip.” I think it sounds disgusting, I think people use it to be fey or sexy, and the alleged sexiness is in itself disgusting, or else because they don’t know how to conjugate the word “drink” (that’s another post, however, the sort of post I don’t write anymore, allegedly). Generally I think “sip” is the worst word in the world. Grr. Blech.

Let’s try to get to the root of the problem. What does “sip” actually mean, anyway–how is it different from “drink”? Well, Canadian Oxford says it meant “to drink in one or more small amounts.” Whereas drink just means any amount. But for practical purposes, in prose writing, is there really any difference between, “He nodded, sipped some coffee, and began to speak,” and “He nodded, drank some coffee, and began to speak”? Well, the first one sounds ickier, but otherwise I feel they are identical. No one is going to think he slammed down the whole cup without the nuance of “sip” are they?

I don’t think I ever liked this word, but I can pinpoint where it all fell apart completely–the use, in a romance novel, of the phrase “sipping kisses.” I believe this is supposed to imply a series of small kisses, but to me it sounds like drinking saliva or somehow liquifying the other’s face. It’s just the worst thing ever. WORST THING EVER.

So what’s your most loathed word?

March 4th, 2011

Fun with the Dictionary

Sometimes I just get these wonderful bolts of connection between words and concepts. I think it’s the upside of sometimes being a little obtuse about things that are obvious. Sometimes a whole series of little obviousnesses elude me for a while, and then build up into this revelation of connectedness–wow! I love how words in English have all these quirky little relationships that probably stem from slang in the 1930s or else migrating tribes in the 1200s, or maybe both. Like, everyone knows one meaning of “cycle” is “to move in circles” and “bi” means “a thing having two” but it’s still fun to think about how “bicycle” means a thing having to things moving in circles. Or maybe you have real hobbies, and don’t find that fun to think about at all.

Here are some more entertaining word connections I have found (all definitions courtesy of my best friend, Canadian Oxford Dictionary)–if you, you know, dig this sort of thing.

catharsis–“1 a release or relieving of emotions…3 Med. purgation
catheternoun Med. a tube for insertion into a body cavity or blood ressel for introducing or removing fluid etc.
cathode raynoun a beam of electrons emitted from the cathode of a high-vacuum tube (RR–the opposite of a cathode being an anode, which does not emit, but instead takes in)

So I looked at the Latin roots, which are all derived from the Greek (well, except “cathode ray,” which I guess is a modern construction), from slightly different roots, but *basically* what I get out of this is that in ancient Greek, the prefix “cath” meant “to get out or emit.” The dictionary isn’t backing me up as strongly as I thought it would, but even if I’m wrong, it’s still a good way to remember which is the cathode and which the anode–it’s the one that’s like catheter that gets things out. Or maybe this never comes up in your life?

Here’s another one:

impertative–1 urgent 2 obligatory 3 commanding, peremptatory
importunetransitive verb solicit (a person) pressingly; beg or demand insistantly
imperiousadjective 1 overbearing, domineering, exacting obedience. 2 urgent, imperative (I’ve actually not heard of that second definition before)

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

imperialadjective 1 characteristic of an empire or comparable sovereign state. 2a of or characteristic of an emperor or empress b supreme in authority

Yes, that’s right, all forms of pushing people around derive (more or less–some of these come from Latin and others from French, so my theory’s slightly imperfect) from imperialism! Down with empire!

Ahem.

Interestingly, my name is in the CanOx, too, but it’s not that good–it just refers to some other Rebecca who is not me, not a general definition of what a Rebecca is:

RebeccaBible the wife of Isaac, mother of Esau and Jacob (Gen. 24-7)

The other spelling, which I’ve always considered a completely different name, is way better:

Rebekahnoun a member of a women’s social and charitable society allied with the Oddfellows

Now that would be cool!

Maybe in a future post, I can spend some time with my other best friend from America, Webster’s Collegiate.

I seriously don’t know what other people do with their time.

February 8th, 2011

Evolution of Language: Really Trying Here

Language is a constant work in progress, shedding antiquated words and usages while growing new ones. One reason I have so much trouble with this concept is that it is my job *not* to accept the newest of the new growth. When you edit formal instructional prose for a living, what’s being said on the street, no matter how popular and well understood, is not really acceptable on page.

At least, that’s my excuse. Another real part of my problem is that I am resistant to change in any form. I like the first thing I find that works, and see no reason to replace it until it becomes impossible not to. I listened to cassette tapes until they were barely available, I have the same furniture I bought in 1998, and I will not be purchasing a cell phone until Bell actually refuses to give me a land line (actually, I think we might be rather close to that last one).

But that doesn’t *exactly* fit my idea of language. I like cool new things if they serve a new purpose, express a new thought: I like slang, idioms, and phonetic spellings that better express how people actually speak. And since people don’t actually speak grammatically, I’m fine with writing dialogue in the choppy, elliptical way most of us actually converse. When something new *does* something new, I like that (ok, cell phones do many things that landlines don’t do, fine. Let’s just admit it: cell phones frighten me.)

What makes me editorially and personally insane is expressing something WE ALREADY HAVE WORDS FOR in a dumber way for no reason. Which is why I continued to repudiate “they” as a gender neutral personal pronoun for so long. It’s fine in quick casual speech, but to insist on making this a formal decision indicates to me, “I cannot spend 10 seconds recasting this sentence into the plural, or a specific example, or deal with a adding six characters with ‘his or her.'” I am snarky about this sort of lack of effort–the fault is not the English language’s.

However, someone recently told me that some trans people prefer to have the pronoun “they” applied to themselves in the singular. And some people don’t, by birth or by choice or by medical intervention, identify in the gender binary. Their lives are probably hard enough without an inappropriate pronoun or, even worse, “it.” Does anyone know if this is actually a common usage in the trans community, or outside it? If it is really being used, I guess it is good that the use of the singular “they” is so common now, that anyone being referred to as such wouldn’t necessarily feel singled-out or condescended to. It’s just something that sometimes gets said. I mean, in most contexts I still hate it, but it’s good to have the option.

October 28th, 2010

Grammar ranting (no, not again!)

Note 1: This post has been edited because, ironically, part of it wasn’t very clear the first time out.
Note 2: I’m not really that obnoxious in restaurants.

I could be accused of ranting about spelling and grammar in this space–I have no choice but to hang my head in shame. I’ve been making resolutions to stop it, to accept that language is fluid and evolving (well, I’m trying, AMT>) but every time I read certain things, I want to get back into the grammar ranting game.

On the weekend, I was thinking about about what sort of post I could write that would, a) help people care to some grammar rules and b) not come off as pretentious and bitchy. And then last night I had this magical dream (did you just stop reading this post? probably). I was eating a nice Italian restaurant called Lemon House (not real, but should be!) and having a really hard time deciding on what to eat. The waiter came over and we spent a long time discussing what I might like. For some reason, once I decided, I asked him, “What is a waiter’s job?” And he responded, “A waiter is your advocate in the kitchen.” (for the record, I got some fancy pizza that was excellent).

When I woke up, I knew the dream was about editors. Editors are readers’ advocate with the writers–they try to get good stories for readers the same way waiters try to get good food for hungry people. Really good editors take what the writer *wants* to say, and tries to help the reader understand–by removing excess words, replacing ambiguous phrases, tightening structure, and correcting errors. Editors also word towards “felicity”–work that sounds good and pleasing to the ear. But the definition of “felicity” is best left to the debate between the writers and eds themselves.

My point is, most editorial work is not about telling writers they are “wrong,” but helping writers get their ideas to readers in a way that will be understood and appreciated by the most people possible.

Which is why certain language “mistakes” can probably allowed to stand–though it kills me, spelling “all right” as “alright” probably confuses no one. Other sorts of error, though, I’m going to keep right on ranting about, because no matter how common they get, they still impede meaning.

Like what, Rebecca? is what I know you are asking.

Like using the posessive pronoun to modify a singular noun when a plural is meant. I don’t even know why people do this–typing that “s” is not that exhausting. It’s sadly common, and the results can be really baffling. Like this:

“I can’t stand that hipster couple. They both always park their car right over the sidewalk.”

So–was that hipster couple sharing a car, and whoever is driving it consistently parked over the sidewalk? Then the sentence above is correct. However, if a very common error has been made, there were two cars–each individually parked over the sidewalk by one person each (I think this is where the erroneous idea takes hold) but definitely plural in the sentence above.

In this particular case, you could eventually say “who cares? People are so mean to hipsters” unless you are a bi-law officer, in which case you could go look at the sidewalk and count the cars. But my point (eh?) is that if 10 pages later, the two hipsters have a head-on collision with each other, the reader has been prevented from making a clear picture in her head, and worse, drawn out of whatever the writer wants her to think about (evil hipsters) to wonder, “I thought they had only one car?” which in fact the number of cars shouldn’t matter at all.

This is a very small issue, but it’s only small when you make yourself perfectly clear, so the reader doesn’t think of herself as reading grammar, just a story.

Thank you, magic dream waiter.

May 29th, 2010

Admission

After yesterday’s “I’m right about everything” rant, I came across this in a story of mine that had unaccountably been rejected by yet another magazine: “undulant wave.” What does undulant mean? Why, wavelike, of course. So, what I meant apparently was “wavelike wave.” The generous editors sent me a bunch of feedback on pacing and dialogue, but I think we all know why this one was really rejected.

Ugh.

April 19th, 2010

Workshop #7: Grammar

Workshop #7 was actually mainly about Images and Imagist poems, as I think I mentioned somewhere earlier, but we actually covered lots of other ground. Although it is really outside of my purview as the creative-writing person, I snuck in a grammar lesson. I really really want them to stop smudging stellar work with dumb grammar mistakes. I also want to put my foot down with the kids who say they are not “good” at grammar.

I think so many of these rules are like learning the multiplication tables or the provincial capitals–either you had a good teacher in grade 3 who made you memorize them, or you didn’t… The teacher I’m working with certainly does give some excellent grammar lessons, but the kids seem to have a deficit of years. You can get by in conversation a lot of the time–maybe always, depending on what career you choose–just by listening to how others talk and emmulating them, without knowing most of the rules of grammar. But it is much much harder to get written grammar in this way, especially for kids who don’t read except one forced. Lovely as it is to get self-righteous and say that reading for pleasure is a gift and parents just have to show kids blah blah blah, it doesn’t always happen. This is also an issue for kids who grow in homes where English is not the first language. They might hear tonnes of very erudite conversation, read books and watch high-end tv (or they might not), but if it’s not in English, it’s not helping them with their grammar.

So schools don’t teach grammar (I guess I can’t generalize, but mine certainly didn’t and I don’t know anyone else who learned English grammar in a systematic manner–do you?), and kids don’t always have the opportunity to pick it up elsewhere, and I end up with bright, engaged, insightful students who write things like, “She weared her prettiest dress,” and were genuinely startled to find out the past tense of “to lie down” is “to lay down.”

I am into good grammar, but I’m not fanatical about it–I roll my eyes when the grocer advertises “fresh” fish, but c’mon, do I know how to fillet a pickerel? He has his knowledge base and I have mine, and as long as we can understand each other, I don’t see myself as being in the position to make further demands. Chefs can’t make me stop putting barbeque sauce on my salad, and personal trainers can’t stop me from over-emphasizing cardio in my workouts, and fashion designers can’t make me stop wearing those turquoise fishnets I bought for $3 and which don’t fit…we can’t all be experts in everything, and sometimes, we don’t even want to be.

I am in favour of good grammar the way I am in favour of good etiquette–not as an end in itself, or as a stick to beat people with, but as a means of facilitating clear communication and conveying respect to the reader/person you are speaking to. Setting the table neatly shows care for your dinner guest’s ease and pleasure of dining. Yes, he could probably have gone and found a fork in the kitchen, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and yes, you do know what I mean when I say “I teared it open”, but it’s just that much more confusing, difficult, and less fun.

In class last week, I told the kids, “No one ever won a Nobel Prize for grammar”: it’s just a tool to get your point across. But they really need to get the tool–it makes their (good) work so inaccessible when I have to puzzle over when it takes place because the tenses are inconsistent, or who did what because the pronouns don’t match. I told them also that grammar is *not* a smart/dumb issue–if you’ve had less exposure to it, you know less, and it’s annoying that you have to make up for that, but all they need to do is sit down and memorize this stuff. Unfortunately, if they don’t bother, they will *look* dumb–I hope it wasn’t inappropriate to use that phrase with my students. Grammatical errors, being mainly simple and easily avoided if you just memorize the rules, look like they are made by dumb people when, in fact, they are mainly made by lazy people.

And then we did a bunch of conjugations and they had to copy things down off the board and everything–it was way old school. I hope it helped. I really think that good grammar will make their lives a lot easier–on resumes and cover letters, on school papers, work emails–people respect good grammar, because reading it is a lot easier than reading garbled stuff, and clean writing conveys respect for the reader.

All that said, in my little heart, I love language rules and am always eager to learn a new one, and to discuss and debate their usefulness and implications. I could talk your ear off about transitive and intransitive verbs, a topic very few people know about and yet very few people get it wrong in everyday writings. I don’t get to be smug, despite my copyediting classes and fervent adherence to the Chicago Manual of Style–I make tonnes of sloppy mistakes on this blog (as you likely well know) and in many other scarier places. The trick is not to just know a lot of stuff about grammar, but to know enough grammar to make clear all the other stuff you know.

RR

April 8th, 2010

Slackers and singles

Final set of votes on weird word variations are in–I’ll add mine in now and also the reason I’ve asked the questions. These were a bit more pointed than the others, I guess.


1) What is the piece of furniture you put your folded-up clothes into?
5 said “dresser,” 2 “chest of drawers,” and no one said “bureau.” I say “dresser,” too–I just thought everyone else said bureau and I was in the minority. I guess I just have a complex. Actually, this question was not particularly pointed.

2) What did you call the badass kids at your high school that just hung out smoking all day and never seemed to go inside the school?
1 for “stoner,” 1 for “slacker,” 1 for “kids in the smoke pit” and 2 didn’t even have a name for this. No one said the term that was common at my school, which was “skids.” I know, not very nice, and yet somehow clever because it sounds like “kids” only more messed up. I thought this was a local term, but I heard a Toronto girl use it the other day and thought maybe it was everywhere. But no?

3) And a reversed question: how do you define the word “single” as related to romantic relationships (as opposed to ice-cream cones or whathaveyou)? All 4 of the voters, plus me, define the term as some variation on “not in a relationship of any committed nature,” Mark even going so far as to say, “Not to be confused with unmarried.” But that’s synchronicity is perhaps because all the voters are in approximately the same age range–I think I have found a generation discrepancy!

It all started a few weeks ago, when I read Sex and the Single Girl, which is, FYI, a really fun read, and slightly shocking both in showing how much things have changed (women were assumed to derive little fulfillment from work, not to be able to travel alone, and to want to kill themselves if they weren’t married by 25) and how much they haven’t (women who live alone are still regularly asked, “And do you really even bother to cook when it’s just…you?” Correct answer: “No, I just get canned goods. I find if I just tip the can over my upturned mouth while standing on a piece of newspaper, there’s almost no cleanup. More time for weeping!”)

Then, about two weeks after I read it, I realized, that book wasn’t about “single” girls at all. It was about girls in long- and short-term relationships with men they weren’t married to. When I brought this issue to my mother, she said yes, that the single women were the unmarried ones, at least to her generation. So apparently I am single in that conception of the word, which is not likely to play very well within my non-legally-binding but certainly real relationship. Ahem.

So now we know–words are slippery, and will betray us at the slightest variant definition. This has been a most fascinating exercise, bloggy friends. Thank you for playing along.

RR

April 5th, 2010

The last of the word surveys

Ok, I’m going to stop doing this soon, because it is sort of addictive and I fear this becoming the Weird Word Variations blog. But y’all are very interesting, you know, and I keep coming up with new things I want to ask.

These are the results of the last round of questions, posted here. You should really go to that link and read all the crazy comments, because I wasn’t able to adequately quantify the discussion, nor most of the bonus questions. But here’s the gist of it:

1) What do you call the evening meal? The midday meal? Does that ever change? For what reason?

People mainly only answered the first part of the question, so I’ll just post stats for that: 2 said dinner, two said supper, 4 said either of the above, and 1 said tea (yay, uniqueness!)
2) What do you call the garment you wear between the shower and getting dressed?
3 people call it a housecoat, 4 say bathrobe, 1 says dressing gown, and 1 declines to answer.

3) What do you call knocking on the door then running away (as a joke, not a failure of nerve)? This is interesting, because I hadn’t heard of this (at least, not as a defined concept deserving of a name) but only one other person said the same. 1 said knock-a-door-run, 4 said Nicky-Nicky-Nine-Doors, 2 said Knock-Knock-Ginger (which is also a pretty good band), and 1 said knock-door-run-fast, which sounds more like instructions than anything.
4) What do you call catching a ride while on roller skates/blades by hanging onto the back of someone’s car/truck? 2 said bumper-hitching, 1 said skitching, 1 car-surfing and 4, including me, were baffled and terrified and didn’t know this was a concept.
And the final set of questions–there weren’t going to be anymore, but then I had a bunch more weird conversations (such is my life), inspiring these:
1) What is the piece of furniture you put your folded-up clothes into?
2) What did you call the badass kids at your high school that just hung out smoking all day and never seemed to go inside the school? (some might construe the answers to this question as offensive–feel free to say “what other people called them/us is…”)
3) And a reversed question: how do you define the word “single” as related to romantic relationships (as opposed to ice-cream cones or whathaveyou)? I am not talking about weird-tension, when-should-we-change-our-Facebook-status question, but an actual black-and-white definition. I always thought there was only one, but apparently there’s at least two!
Good night, weird lovelies!
RR

March 30th, 2010

Survey says

Well, as usual, y’all are fascinating. I had about 16 people answer these questions, so let us remember that these findings are in no way scientific, especially since some of the answers don’t add up since people gave more than one response (both equally valid if they say them both, says I!) But fascinating, absolutely. I’ll run through the answers and in doing so give you mine–I think then you’ll see why I’m asking these questions in the first place.

1) You have a car, your friend does not, you are both going to the same place, and you would like to be helpful–what do you say to him/her?

13 people offered some variation on “Would you like a ride?” while only 3 mentioned what I usually say, which is “Would you like a lift?” (actually, what I really say is, “Could you give me a lift?” since I don’t have a car). I always felt I’d gotten the lift thing wrong, because what’s common in my little town is “Would you like a drive?” I thought maybe it was a rural thing, but in the survey, the lone respondent who used it was an urban Maritimer, so who knows?

2) What is that piece of terry you use to clean yourself in the shower/bath called? (although if Salinger can’t solve this one, maybe I can’t either)

Washcloth got 10 votes, beating out facecloth, which got only 6. I am thrilled–I am a washclother who thought she was outnumbered, but I was wrong! I am disappointed not to see washrag appearing in the survey at all; my suspicions that JD Salinger made it up are probably sadly justified.

3) What do you call a number of houses all designed, built and sold by the same company, on a set of streets where only such houses exist?

Housing development got 6 votes, subdivision got 8, and cookie-cutter homes got 2. Seriously? I didn’t know about these until I went to high school in the suburbs, where these are everywhere and people call them surveys–I assumed the surbanites know of which they speak and have called them that ever since. Although it didn’t occur to me until right now that that word must have something to do with the work of a surveyor in laying out the land plots. Interesting! Also interesting to hear from August that these sorts of uniform residental/commerical villages don’t exist where he comes from. I thought the concept, if not the term, was universal!

4) You have left something at your place of employment–express this in a sentence.

Landslide: 14 votes for variations on “I left it at work,” only one for “I left it at the office,” and none at all for my hometown locution, “I left it at my work.” No idea where that possessive comes from, but since “at work” isn’t really grammatical either, I’m not willing to disown it.

5) Long thin beans that you can eat in the pod–what are the green ones called? What are the yellow ones called?

The green ones are relatively straightforward–13 votes for green beans,1 for beans, and 1 for snow peas (which is a different vegetable entirely where I come from).

Some confusion here with the yellow ones, including several people who declined to vote because they hadn’t heard of them or simply refused to discuss them. From those who participated, 2 votes for yellow green beans (which RR dislikes), another single vote for beans, 5 votes for yellow beans (fine), and only one other vote for what the Rosenblum family calls them, which is wax beans. I have no idea why we call them that, and the other vote is from a Franco-Manitoban, who says its definitely not a French thing. So really we’re no further along than we were before. But you sort of knew this survey was a waste of time before we started, now, didn’t you? Really.

6) What do you call the nipple-shaped plastic thing you put in a baby’s mouth to stop him or her from crying?

Pacifier (what I call it) got 6 votes, soother got 10 (and I do think this is more common in Canada). There were also a couple votes for family/nonsense variations, which are sweet.

7) What are your geographical origins that might impact your diction?

People answered from all over, which made me happy just because it was interesting for me! Thanks for participating in my reindeer games!

This survery brought up a few bonus questions in the comment section and in conversations. If you aren’t bored with this project yet, feel free to discuss:

1) What do you call the evening meal? The midday meal? Does that ever change? For what reason?

2) What do you call the garment you wear between the shower and getting dressed?

3) What do you knocking on the door then running away (as a joke, not a failure of nerve)?

4) What do you call catching a ride while on roller skates/blades by hanging onto the back of someone’s car/truck?

RR

March 28th, 2010

Whatdyacallit?: survey

Different people often have different names for the same things. Sometimes the reason for this is regional, sometimes I cannot figure it out at all. I am fascinated by this, maybe because I was raised in one region by parents from another, so I kept noticing what people said when it was different from what I said. Anyway, I thought I would survey you, gentle blog readers, on a few things that always stick out to me. Please note that this is no way a studious, well-thought-out survey, nor am I planning on doing anything with the results other than finding them interesting (do you notice how nervous it makes me that an actual professional linguist reads this blog?) Note also, to avoid giving any bias as to how *I* would say things, the questions below are somewhat grammatically weird. And finally, I know I’ve already bugged a few people in blogland about this–it’s one of my pet subjects! Sorry for the repeat, guys.

1) You have a car, your friend does not, you are both going to the same place, and you would like to be helpful–what do you say to him/her?

2) What is that piece of terry you use to clean yourself in the shower/bath called? (although if Salinger can’t solve this one, maybe I can’t either)

3) What do you call a number of houses all designed, built and sold by the same company, on a set of streets where only such houses exist?

4) You have left something at your place of employment–express this in a sentence.

5) Long thin beans that you can eat in the pod–what are the green ones called? What are the yellow ones called?

6) What do you call the nipple-shaped plastic thing you put in a baby’s mouth to stop him or her from crying?

7) What are your geographical origins that might impact your diction? (for example, RR is from Southern Ontario, but her parents are from Brooklyn/Los Angeles, and because of the position of the tv antenna, most of the tv she watched growing up was from Buffalo)

If you feel like answering in the comments, or on your own blog and sending me a link, you will have made a humble nosy girl very happy. I’ll post my answers in a little while, so as not to taint the sample (ha!)

RR

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