Category Archives: Words

There’s a Word for That: Palinoia

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWe have all heard that timeless adage “practice makes perfect” a hundred times. Well, did you know there is a more sophisticated way of saying it? The word is palinoia: the compulsive repetition of an act, over and over, until  the act is performed perfectly. Think of the athlete training for the Olympics or a pianist practicing a difficult piece of music. The word is pronounced “pa-li-NOY-ah.” The word is derived from the Latin word palinodia which means “repetition” or “singing over again.” So the next time someone shares that old chestnut, turn to them nonchalantly and ask, “Oh, you mean palinoia, don’t you?”

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There’s a Word for That: Euphuism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s one of those words that evokes a double-take: did you say euphemism or euphuism? Is euphuism even a word? Yes – despite spellcheck’s very annoying tendency to autocorrect to “euphemism” euphuism is a seldomly used word that means a very elaborate or roundabout way of speaking or writing. Consider it a fancier way of saying overly wordy.

It’s a fascinating word when you examine its etymology. The word is an eponym (a noun formed after a person), named after the main character from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a romance published in 1578 by English writer and playwright John Lyly. That book was followed by a sequel, Euphues and His England published a year later. There is a specific reason that Lyly chose the name Euphues — it is based on the Greek word euphues, meaning “well-endowed by nature,” which in turn is derived from eu (meaning “well”) and phue (meaning “growth”).

Before prurient adolescent minds get carried away by the word “well-endowed” realize that 16th century writers did not mean its modern slang meaning (“having a large penis” — there, I said it; get over it). Rather, it meant that an individual had many talents. In the case of our friend Euphues, here is a character who didn’t act in porn films due to the aforementioned distinct anatomical feature; instead, he was able to speak in very long, ornate sentences. His speech was also distinctive in that he often spoke in sentences with parallel structure. Here are two examples:

“It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.”

“A sharp sore hath a short cure.”

While most modern readers are quite unfamiliar with Lyly, almost everyone has encountered him — but they just didn’t know it. How is that possible? Lyly was an influence on the greatest dramatist in the English language: William Shakespeare. Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard not only read Lyly, who was the source of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also satirized him in the ornate, fancy speeches of Beatrice and Benedick (yet again, another penis reference) in Much Ado About Nothing, the lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Polonius in the Tragedy of Prince Hamlet. So there.

Related terms are circumlocution, periphrasis, grandiloquence, purple prose, wordy, and sesquipedalian.

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Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
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What Is “Mrs.” Short For?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsMost people know the “Mrs.” is the title (“honorific” or “form of address” in linguistics jargon) used for married women. But what most people don’t know is that “Mrs.” is not an abbreviation of anything. Surprising, but true! It is never spelled out in written form; however, it is spelled out phonetically as “missis,” “missus,” or “missess” when it appears as dialogue. “How can this be?” you ask incredulously. For the answer to this linguistic mystery we need to travel back into time more than six centuries. Hold on tight…

We have arrived in the mid-1400’s, when a married woman is addressed as “mistress,” the feminine form of “master.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the earliest recorded use in 1463. Over time, “mistress” is abbreviated as “Mrs.” Now let’s fast forward 300 years.

Arriving in late 1700s, we discover for reasons that are not entirely clear, that “Mrs.” is no longer pronounced as “mistress” but rather as “missus” — this change is perhaps analogous to the great Vowel Shift of the 14th century. Therefore, in the 18th century, a married woman is introduced as “Missis Jane Smith” rather than as “Mistress Jane Smith.”

Fast forward once again — more than a century later and we discover that the word “missus” becomes a noun. The OED records one of the earliest uses in 1833 by Charles Dickens in a private letter: “Hint this delicately to your Missus.”

Similarly, the title “Ms.” used to address a married or unmarried woman, that was introduced in 1901, does not stand for anything. It is essentially a blend of Mrs. and Miss and pronounced “mizz.” And like “Mrs.” it is never spelled out in written form. The word is used in an article in the Springfield Republican, a newspaper that was founded in 1824 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The relevant passage is: “The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz’, which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

So the next time you are out with a group of people, impress them with this fascinating bit of trivia — ask them “so what is Mrs. an abbreviation for?” However, googling the answer is not permitted. Let’s see how well they do, Missy.

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For further reading: The Oxford English Dictionary
Critical Pronouncing Dictionary by John Walker

https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/02/what-are-mrs-and-ms-short-for/


There’s A Word for That: Sciolist

alex atkins bookshelf wordsRecently, civil rights and environmental advocate Van Jones observed “Today, we live in a world with so much information — but so little wisdom.” [Overtime with Bill Maher, 11.16.18]. No kidding. Each day, people are inundated with wave after wave of information that washes ashore, leaving mile after mile of detritus washed up on the sand. And it just sits there on the surface, waiting to be stepped on or avoided. This amazing amount of information that is — for the most part — not carefully considered, analyzed, or distilled has given rise to the sciolist (from the Latin scio meaning “I know”): a person who exhibits only superficial knowledge without deep understanding, without being able to connect the dots. In short, a lot like the what Jones was referring to: a person with lots of information but no wisdom. Incidentally, the word is pronounced “SIGH oh list.” 

You have probably encountered sciolist at work or in social situations. They are annoying. Even worse, because they  have access to all this information (thanks a lot, Siri and Google!) they consider themselves to be experts. Thus, many sciolists exhibit the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. The individual has a false inflated sense of confidence about their supposed competence. The sciolist is a close cousin of the “know-it-all” who is a little less enlightened, because he or she has less facts, and can only act as if they know everything. Nevertheless, either type, sciolist or know-it-all, is annoying. Sadly, there’s not much you can do about them. Whatever you do, don’t give them attention; lack of attention is their kryptonite. But do take some comfort in the knowledge, which they probably don’t possess, that there is a word for them. Or, alternatively, take some satisfaction in muttering “You’re a wretched sciolist” under your breath and walking away from the conversation.

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The Monument of Language on the Menacing Shore of the Ocean of Gibberish

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Rousseau made the point that writing becomes necessary when speech fails to protect our identity. The written word may be a weak second best to lived experience, but it’s still pretty powerful—our only path to meaning and inner order. I keep being haunted by this phrase of [French poet and philosopher, Paul] Valéry’s: ‘I thought to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.'”

Polish-Born American journalist, writer and literary critic Francine du Plessix Gray (1930-2019) responding to a question from Regina Weinreich, an interviewer from The Paris Review, about French semiologists who see writing as absence rather than presence. Gray began her career as a reporter, then moved to editing, and finally freelance writing. She became a staff writer for The New Yorker in the late 1960s. Subsequently she began her teaching career in the mid 1970s at City College of New York, followed by Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University. She won awards for several books, including Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, andThem: A Memoir of Parents.

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Fo further reading: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2642/francine-du-plessix-gray-the-art-of-fiction-no-96-francine-du-plessix-gray


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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