Category Archives: Words

There’s A Word for That: Torschlusspanik

alex atkins bookshelf wordsYou have to love the German  language. It has a single word for just about any idea that other languages, like English for example, requires several words — or sentences — to express or define the concept. Take this harsh-sounding, mouthful of a word: torchlusspanik (pronounced “TURSH luss pan ik”). Literally translated, it means “gate-shut panic” or  “fear of the gate shutting.” What a great metaphor. Thus, its more general meaning is: the sense of fear or anxiety, particularly by someone who is middle-aged, due to the profound realization that time is running out to achieve important life goals or seize great opportunities. It is a far more interesting term to describe what is commonly known as the “mid-life crisis.” The feeling is sometimes referred to as the “male menopause syndrome.”

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Adventures in Rhetoric: Adianoeta

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEver used an adianoeta in your writing or speech? The adianoeta is a wonderfully witty rhetorical device. A hint to its meaning is found in its etymology. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek adianoetos, meaning “unintelligible” or “not understanding.” Thus, an adianoeta is an expression that has two meanings, one obvious (often complimentary), and one that is subtle (the exact opposite of the first meaning). Or expressed another way, the adianoeta has two meanings: one that is literal and another that is ironic. Consider it a literary variation of that amazingly annoying puzzle that went viral in 2018: do you hear “yanny” or “laurel”? (And the follow-up question: does anyone really give a shit?) Unlike that useless puzzle, an adianoeta packs a real punch which explains why it is most often used in paying someone a clever back-handed compliment. Incidentally, the word adianoeta is pronounced: ay DEE ah no eta. Let’s take a look at some classic examples of an adionoeta:

You’ll be lucky if you can get this person to work for you.

Brilliant! Initially, the sentence sounds like a compliment, meaning: you would be fortunate to have this wonderful person working for you. Hire this person! However, if you ponder it for a moment, you realize it also carries a devious secondary meaning, as an insult, meaning: you would be lucky if you can get this lazy person to do any work. Don’t hire this person!

Another classic adianoeta occurred during a famous exchange between Clare Booth Brokaw, a writer and politician, and Dorothy Parker, a writer and satirist. Sometime in the 1920s, while holding a door open for Parker, Luce said:

Age before beauty.

The initial meaning of this is that older, wiser people should be given precedence over younger, less experienced people. But at the same time, the phrase means, let the older and uglier person go ahead of the beautiful person. Parker, who was known for her caustic wit, immediately understood the second meaning, and without missing a beat, replied, “Pearls before swine.” Touché!

A related term is a double entendre (from the French double, meaning “double,” and entendre, meaning “to hear” or “to understand). Both the adianoeta and double entendre have, ahem, double meaning. However in a double entendre, the secondary meaning is generally conveyed by puns and is sexual as opposed to being ironic.

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There’s a Word for That: Agathokakological

atkins-bookshelf-wordsWhen you dive into the incredible 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary and open Volume I (A-Bazouki), you come across this wonderful word: agathokakological, an adjective meaning “containing both good and evil.” A perfect word for modern times, no? The word was first used by English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843), one of England’s Poet Laureates, in 1843: “For indeed upon the agathokakological globe there are opposite qualities always to be found.” The word, which the OED identifies as a nonce word, is derived from the Ancient Greek agathos (meaning “good”) and kakos (meaning “bad”). The word is a real mouthful; it is pronounced “a gath o CAC o la ji kel.” Despite the fact that the dichotomy of good and evil is so common in religion, philosophy, and psychology, the word agathokakological is rarely used in those contexts. Go figure. So the next time a discussion of good and evil comes up, use the word nonchalantly to impress your friends and help bring the word into the mainstream. #agathokakological

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Words Invented by Book Lovers 2

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBook Depository, a London-based online bookseller founded by a former Amazon employee (and now owned by Amazon), recently borrowed a page from Powell’s Books, based in Portland Oregon. (While Book Depository offers more than 18 million books, Powell’s is the real deal — it is the world’s largest brick-and-mortar independent bookstore with an inventory of more than a million new and used books. It is truly the book lover’s Mecca.) Book Depository was inspired by “Readerly Terms” featured on Powell’s Books’ blog. Readerly terms are witty made-up words (neologisms, to be precise) and phrases related to reading that are submitted by book lovers. Correspondingly, Book Depository created a series of bookmarks featuring neologisms that only a book lover would truly appreciate. Here are the words invented by the book lovers who work at Book Depository.

readlaxing: An enjoyable, relaxing moment when you sit down to read your book.

bookphoria: The feeling of great excitement when you receive a book you ordered.

motionblurb: Reading a book while on the move.

plotplash: That warm, cozy feeling when you get lost in a book on a dull rainy day.

novelicious: When you take that first sip of your chosen beverage and begin the journey of a new book.

What other words should they add to this series?

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For further reading:

Word of the Year 2018

alex atkins bookshelf words“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. Each year, editors of major dictionaries review the stats on their respective websites to spot dramatic spikes in word lookups to determine which words capture the interest of the public. They develop a list and then debate which one merits the distinction of “word of the year.”

For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries selected toxic. Toxic is defined as “(1) poisonous, (2) relating to or caused by poison, or (3) very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.” The editors explain their rationale for choosing this word: “In 2018, toxic added many strings to its poisoned bow becoming an intoxicating descriptor for the year’s most talked about topics. It is the sheer scope of its application, as found by our research, that made toxic the stand-out choice for the Word of the Year title. Our data shows that, along with a 45% rise in the number of times it has been looked up on [online dictionary], over the last year the word toxic has been used in an array of contexts, both in its literal and more metaphorical senses.” The contexts include, in order of frequency: chemical, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae, air. Words that made the shortlist included: gaslighting, incel, techlash, gammon, big dick energy, cakes, overtourism, and orbiting.

For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster selected justice. Justice is defined as “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” The editors justify their selection: “The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.” Words that made the shortlist included: nationalism, pansexual, lodestar, epiphany, feckless, laurel, pissant, respect, maverick, and excelsior.

For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of selected misinformation. Misinformation is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” The editors point out the difference between two related words: “The meaning of misinformation is often conflated with that of disinformation. However, the two are not interchangeable. Disinformation means ‘deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.’ So, the difference between misinformationand disinformation comes down to intent… Further confusing the issue is the fact that a piece of disinformation can ultimately become misinformation. It all depends on who’s sharing it and why. For example, if a politician strategically spreads information that they know to be false in the form of articles, photos, memes, etc., that’s disinformation. When an individual sees this disinformation, believes it, and then shares it, that’s misinformation.” The editors explain why they selected misinformation: “While the word misinformation has been around since the late 1500s, the nature of how information spreads has gone through drastic transformations over the last decade with the rise of social media. For most individuals on social media, fact-checking is an afterthought, if it is a thought at all, and misinformation thrives. This year, we saw technology platforms grapple with the role they play in the spread of misinformation.” The editors cite several specific examples: Cambridge Anayltica’s work on Facebook to influence Brexit and 2016 U.S. Presidential election; fake political ads on Facebook, Facebook’s allowing postings by Holocaust deniers, and impact of Facebook and WhatsApp on the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar. Words that made the shortlist included: representation, self-made, and backlash. This year, the editors also listed a number of terms associated with misinformation, their word of the year: disinformation, post-truth, fake news, bubble, filter bubble, echo chamber, confirmation bias, implicit bias, influencer, gatekeeper, homophily.

For 2018 Word of the Year, Bookshelf has selected complicit (and by extension the noun form, complicity, the state of being complicit). Complicit is defined as “(1) choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; (2) having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” One is reminded of the famous quote attributed to Irish political philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or consider an even more dramatic quote attributed to Dante Alighieri, who wrote the famous epic poem The Inferno: “The hottest [or darkest] places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Collusion, defined as “a secret agreement for an illegal purpose,” is a synonym for the first meaning of complicity; however, collusion (being very specific about an illegal act) is not synonymous with the secondary meaning of complicity (being very general — being involved on some level with wrongdoing, such as knowing about it, but not being the chief perpetrator).

Just look at any of the major news stories from the past year and you will distinctly see that ogre, complicity, rearing its ugly head in each case. In all of these narratives, one person (or several people) who should know better could have spoken up and either stopped or exposed the wrongdoing; however, for whatever reason, they chose to remain silent — they chose to be complicit. Want specifics? For your consideration, think of the executives at several entertainment companies who looked the other way while high profile, powerful individuals sexually abused and/or harassed subordinates over decades. Think of elected officials in Congress who looked the other way while President Trump degraded the integrity of the office of the President, eroded the institutions of bipartisan government, recklessly attacked the press calling the fourth estate “the enemy of the people,” destroyed the concept of “truth” by consistently lying (The Washington Post has kept track of them: as of this writing Trump has made 7,644 false or misleading claims, averaging about ten a day), and commanded his sycophantic, obdurate appointees to throw out key regulations and laws that protect most Americans on several fronts (dismantling the EPA, attempting to eliminate affordable healthcare, repeal of consumer protection rights, shocking treatment of immigrants, reducing taxes only for the upper class, eliminating debt relief for students defrauded by for-profit colleges… the list goes on), not to mention all the findings of complicity coming to light as a result of the Mueller investigation. Think of the bishops and priests at the highest level of the Catholic Church that looked the other way while priests sexually abused thousands of innocent young boys and girls over several decades. Think of the university leaders that looked the other way while coaches or doctors sexually abused young athletes. Think of the executives at the most powerful social media companies who looked the other way while hackers and data-mining companies influenced Brexit as well as the U.S. 2016 Presidential and 2018 mid-term elections.

Let us end the year with some hope. For that we turn to Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who delivered a speech to the German Bundestag on January 27, 1998. The quotation gained greater recognition when Bauer included these lines in a speech to the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust on January, 26, 2000. Bauer said, “I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” So let us not forget that commandment in 2019 and beyond “thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” Expressed another way, help your fellow man or woman — don’t be complicit when you see that they are being harmed in some way.

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Unusual Names Parents Choose For Their Children

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWhen it comes to choosing names for children, parents can politely endure suggestions from meddlesome relatives or consult baby name books with more than 100,000 names — either way, it can be a daunting task. For the most part, parents choose traditional names over unusual or unconventional names — you know the ones, when you wonder “what were the parents thinking?” Speaking of unconventional names, a story that is making the rounds today is titled “Southwest Gate Agent Mocks 5-Year-Old Girl’s Name” about a girl named Abcde (pronounced “AB city”). According to the Social Security Administration, out of more than 74 million children living in the U.S., only 328 girls share that same name. But we digress — choosing a conventional name makes a lot of sense in light of the extensive research on the significant impact that a name has on a child’s life. Research, beginning in the late 1940s to the early 2000s confirms that a name really matters. Specifically, a name can influence what grades a child will earn, where they attend college, choice of profession, where they will be hired, whom they will marry, and where they will live. Serious stuff. Researchers explain this phenomenon as the implicit-egotism effect: that individuals are drawn to things and people that resemble them. In short, similarities attract. Recent research by economists has focused on another effect: name signaling. The crucial question is not “what is the name?” but rather “what signal does the name send?” In other words, what characteristics or values does the name imply? In those studies, individuals with “white-sounding” names (like Emily or Thomas) were most likely to be hired over candidates with “black-sounding” names (like Lakisha or Jamal).

Since naming babies is such serious business, some countries feel compelled to weigh in on the matter. In a 2013 article on baby-naming policies, NPR reported: “Some countries, such as France, have somewhat relaxed once-strict policies that required only government-approved names (many of which either appear in the Bible or are culturally entrenched). Many nations still require baby names to indicate gender (Germany) or to be easily read by a computer scanner (China), as CNN reported in 2010. And it remains common for many governments to give at least a cursory review, to ensure that the parents aren’t potentially sabotaging their child by choosing a profane or demeaning name, or one that might otherwise be an unfair burden to the child.”

Retired editor Larry Ashmead, who worked at Simon and Schuster and Doubleday, has always been fascinated by names. In his very entertaining book, Bertha Venation, Ashmead shares his wonderful collection of funny and strange names of real people. Here are some of the unusual first names he has found over the years:






















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For further reading: Betha Venation by Larry Ashmead

Types of Anagrams

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAn anagram is one of the most popular forms of word play that recombines all the letters of a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase. For example, “inch” is an anagram of “chin.” The anagram, of course, is at the heart of board games like Scrabble, Clabbers, Boggle, and Bananagrams and puzzles like Jumble and Cryptic Crosswords. But did you know that anagram mists have actually coined specific words for specific types of anagrams? So if you want to show off your word scrambling skills, here are the various types of anagrams.

ambigram: an anagram that is ambiguously the opposite of the original phrase
Example: the nuclear regulatory commission = your rules clone atomic nightmares

antigram: an anagram that is the antonym of the original word or phrase
Examples: violence = nice love; fluster = restful; Santa = Satan; united = untied

pairagram: an anagram where the words are linked in meaning or form a sentence
Examples: Elvis = lives; dormitory = dirty room; the Morse code = here come the dots

semordnilap: an anagram that is the reverse spelling of a word that spells a real word (the reverse spelling of palindromes)
Examples: desserts = stressed; diaper = repaid

synanagram: an anagram that is a synonym of the original word
Examples: angered = enraged; statement = testament; evil = vile

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For further reading: The Game of Words by Willard Espy
Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature by C. C. Tombaugh edited and annotated by Martin Gardner
A Word of Day by Anu Garg
Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities by Chris Cole
The Dictionary of Wordplay by Dave Morice

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