Sunday with Zin: More Apostrophe Stuff!

I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering pages with these uncouth bacilli.

Hello I am Zin and I love apostrophe controversy!

In May Slate published an article with the title: “Are Apostrophes Necessary? Not really, no” and of course that got my attention!

All over the world (at least in England) apostrophes are disappearing! Waterstone’s is now Waterstones! That is what happens when you sell the business out to a conglomerate they will change your name!

Last year I had a lot of fun with the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Gerard ’t Hooft and his Asteroid 9491 when the International Astronomy Union named an asteroid in his honor but turned ’t Hooft into Thooft! I also got the only email I will probably ever get from a Nobel-prize-winning physicist!

I avoid contractions and possessives so I do not need apostrophes unless they are in quotes or titles or names like ‘t Hooft because I am too boring to re-invent spelling but not everyone is so boring!

I did not know the US had an official policy banning apostrophes in street names! But I did not know there even was a United States Board on Geographic Names in the first place! I think it is just wrong to call the mountain Pikes Peak because how do you know if the name is Pike or Pikes without the apostrophe? And I do not understand how Clark’s Mountain in Oregon got an exemption! Martha’s Vineyard was named in the seventeenth century before people had time to worry about such things (and when apostrophes were all new and shiny and just starting to be used for possessives in the first place) so I suppose that is why it is an exception and gets its apostrophe.

There is a whole movement to Kill the Apostrophe! But Apostrophe Protection Society is opposed to that death penalty! The apostrophe even has a theme song! And a book!

The sole purpose in the life cycle of the apostrophe used to be to torture students and give grammar school teachers something to do but now we have better things to teach in fourth grade and students seem to be torturing themselves just fine so maybe that is not a good reason for apostrophes to go on living! The more modern secondary job of the apostrophe is to scare computers but do we really need apostrophes to do that?

I do not think we should be changing punctuation around to make our computers happier though! Or even to make fourth graders happier! I do not think though that it is ok to just not use them and let dont and wouldnt fend for themselves! And what about hell and shell and ill? I still do not think it makes sense to make people figure out if it is Pike or Pikes who discovered the peak (or whatever he did to get it named after him). It is not that hard to learn to use apostrophes or to avoid them if you do not like them!

Maybe everyone should write Zin style and we can forget all about apostrophes!

Sunday with Zin: Literaria – Contranyms

Hello I am Zin and it is time for Contranyms!

For the week of March 18 the Wordsmith “A Word A Day” theme was Contranyms! These are words that have opposite meanings and you just have to know which meaning is meant in a sentence! Sometimes they are called “autoantonyms” and sometimes they are called “antagonyms” and sometimes “contranym” is spelled “contronym” but do not let the charming inconsistency of language that reflects the human mind distract you from the fact that some words mean exactly the opposite of what they mean!

You do not believe me, do you? I will show you:

The word “secrete” is a perfectly fine word and if you come across it in a medical or biology setting it probably means “discharge.” Like the lachrymal glands secrete tears or the stomach secretes digestive acids (I am sorry if this seems disgusting but it is ok it is over now). The word did not start as a verb it started as a noun “secretion” in the middle of the 17th century which is about the time biology and medicine started waking up in the Renaissance! Latin was what all educated people knew back then so it was from the Latin word secretus which means “having been separated” and that makes sense if you think of tears being separated from lachrymal glands. “Secretion” was such a cool word it became a verb!

But what about the other “secrete”? Where has it hidden away?

I think if I am reading my OED correctly that the word “secrete” meaning “to hide away” is a variation of the verb “secret” which was around in the 16th century but quickly went obsolete. I think maybe it did not so much go obsolete as add an “e” and become “secrete” in the same sense!

This is interesting since here is the same word with two meanings and they came from different places except they really have at their heart the Latin root of secretus! This is pretty scary but it is again how language reflects people and people are often contradictory and confused! I think it does kind of make a sort of sense though because if the lachrymal glands secrete tears those tears are kind of hidden from the lachrymal glands yes? You have to really want it though!

So here I was thinking I would have to do a Literaria post on Contranyms when what do you know within a month suddenly Salon reprinted an article from The Week all about Contronyms! I think maybe Judith Herman gets the Wordsmith mailing too!

She includes fourteen words like:

Oversight: to watch over something or to overlook it! This may be why Senate Oversight Committees sometimes overlook when they should be supervising!

Cleave: To cut apart or to cling together! Hint: if you are told to cleave to someone the “to” gives it away and you should not chop them up because you do not “chop to”!

My very favorite contranym: Sanction!

Sanction confused me for decades! Sanctions on countries we get angry at but some sports like skating sanction certain events meaning they are acceptable! The Eiger sanction was a punishment but the President will not sanction use of military force! What is going on here? It is so confusing and I think I was in my 30s before I realized it means both things and you just have to figure out which is meant. Typically the noun version means a punishment, and the verb form means an approval, which could be a way of getting around contranym status since it changes parts of speech but I found out there are verb forms for both.

This is why I love words because they do not sit still and behave but squirm around and you get to figure out ways to live with them anyway!

Sunday with Zin: Portmanteau!

Hello I am Zin and it is time to portmanteau!

It may seem strange that a suitcase has become a literary device but if we break it down step by step it is not so strange!

The word started in France in the sixteenth century as the title for a “court official who carried a prince’s mantle” and was formed from the verb “porter” which is “to carry” and from “manteau” which meant “cloak” so this makes perfect sense so far right?

Very soon it came to mean a case or travelling bag like would be carried on horseback (and sometimes it was very specific about how it opened or where the hinge was but we will just call it a suitcase) so now we have gone from a person to a thing: an idea can not be far behind!

We can blame it on Lewis Carroll! He decided that since the idea of a portmanteau was to pack things together it would also be a good name for a word that packed two words together! In Through the Looking Glasshe made up his own words in Jabberwocky then had Humpty Dumpty explain them to Alice a couple of times:

Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word….
. ..Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).

Word people have been playing with portmanteaus – portmanteaux? Wait we have another problem! What is the plural of portmanteau?

It depends! Some people think that because it is now an English word it should follow the English custom of adding the “s” to make it plural and some think it should be spelled with an “x” to show that they are sophisticated enough to know that in French an –eau ending takes an “x” as the plural! I will confess that I like the “x” but I am not trying to convince anyone that I am sophisticated (because that would be just wrong not to mention futile) or that I know French (though I did take two years in high school but all I remember is how to ask how to get to the library and if it is not straight ahead I will not be able to understand the answer)! I just like exes (x-es? Xs? See how much trouble you can get into thinking about words).

Pop culture and fanfic has taken portmanteaus very seriously in creating names for couples like Billary (remember the Clintons? Come on it was not that long ago!) and the ever-popular Bennifer and it seems Glee fans make a team sport out of this! My favorite is the Puckleberry Finn for the love triangle of Puck, Rachel Berry, and Finn. I finally gave up on Glee but I still like the portmanteau name!

benelux-logoOn a more academic note there has always been Benelux for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemborg which even has a flag though it is not a country! The design even won a Phrase Shift Key Award which seems to have something to do with amateur radio enthusiasts or maybe it is a joke but it is done with such a straight face I can not tell!

What made me pick Portmanteau as the Literary Device of the Day? After all it is pretty common and I wanted to do uncommon words! Well I saw an article by Simon Akam in Slate just the other day railing against Bridezillas and the popularity of “neolexic portmanteaus” which is just a fancy way of saying new words that are portmanteaus and his complaint is that they are not accurate puns since the new first halves of the words do not rhyme with the old first halves! I think he is confusing me! Portmanteaus are not puns! They can be but they do not have to be! So why complain that they are not? But complain he does!

One erudite friend of mine suggests that the current crisis in American wordplay can be traced back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and the subsequent tendency to append any scandal-related noun with the suffix -gate. Before Nixon fell, my friend suggests, “All American puns rhymed perfectly and snappily, as if the whole country were a Cole Porter musical.” While this may not be precisely accurate, it is true that in the United States puns have come in and out of favor over time.

I think he taking up the Andy Rooney mantle of curmudgeonry to complain about this! Oh, wait, that would make him a portmanteau! But only in the sixteenth century!

Sunday with Zin: Literaria – Eggcorns!

Hello I am Zin and I just learned a new literary device: the eggcorn!

I do not think this is strictly speaking a literary device since it is more like a Happy Accident as my idol Bob Ross used to say! It is descriptive of a particular kind of mistake rather than a language tool.

The definition, direct from the A-Word-A-Day:

noun: An erroneous alteration of a word or phrase, by replacing an original word with a similar sounding word, such that the new word or phrase also makes a kind of sense.
For example: “ex-patriot” instead of “expatriate” and “mating name” instead of “maiden name”.

Coined by linguist Geoffrey Pullum (b. 1945) in 2003. From the substitution of the word acorn with eggcorn. Earliest documented use as a name for this phenomenon is from 2003, though the term eggcorn has been found going back as far as 1844, as “egg corn bread” for “acorn bread”.

This week at A-W0rd-A-Day was “Words for Linguistic Errors” and I knew the others like mondegreen and spoonerism but this was a new one! I was very happy to see the “colitis” reference because I spent years back in the days before there was an internet (or for that matter before FM radio was widely used for rock music so you could hear the lyrics better) trying to figure that one out!

When I was a teenager I read a Readers Digest article (yes, I read Readers Digest when I was a teenager, it was what was in the house) that included a long paean to “daunserly light” as sung about in the Star Spangled Banner: “Oh say can you see by the daunserly light…” The author who I do not remember (this was 40 or 45 years ago!) said he knew exactly the quality of that light: it was early dawn, everything was quiet, and the sky was a little pink with morning clouds. That is pretty evocative for something that does not exist!

So I actually knew about eggcorns a long time ago, I just never knew they had a name!

You can get daily emails from A-Word-A-Day with interesting words too! It is free! And they do not pester you with other things. I also get the OED Word of the Day, it is a lot of fun too! Sometimes they will be very common words but usually they come up with things like pogonotomy or pant-hoot.

By the way there is no such thing as a malamanteau (™ Randall Monroe of xkcd) but I think there should be!

Sunday with Zin: Euphony

Hello I am Zin and you never know where devices will take you!

What do you think is the most beautiful English word? Love? Money? Mellifluous?

How about cellar-door?

No, I am not crazy! Well, of course I am, but not about this! Cellar-door (and we will allow it as a single hyphenated word to keep things simple) is often cited as the best example of euphony which is the Device of the Day: when words have a pleasing sound!

My search for euphony led to an "On Language" column "Cellar Door” by Grant Barrett from February 11, 2010, and to the cellar-door. It seems this is a famous decision, to name this unassuming phrase the fairest of them all, and a dubious one at that! At least I think so! But they are talking about purely sound, not meaning!

Mr. Barrett in his wonderful article traces the history of the rise of cellar-door to its position of prominence. And it takes some peculiar turns: from H. L. Mencken in 1920 to Dorothy Parker in 1932 to J. R. R. Tolkien in 1955 to the 2001 movie Donnie Darko where a teacher tells Donnie (a crazy teenager with a psychotic imaginary rabbit friend):

This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful.”

But what famous linguist said this????

No one! The earliest reference Barrett found was a 1903 novel, Gee-Boy by Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper:

He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.

Now wait just a minute here: does this mean that truly brilliant people like Mencken and Parker and Tolkien have been taking the word of a fictional Italian savant? Or did Cooper take it from a source that has been lost to history? I can not even find any information about Mr. (or Dr.? I do not wish to be rude or improper but I do not know!) Hooper, other than a number of editions of Shakespearean plays he edited in the early 20th century! Maybe he made the whole thing up as a joke!

I suppose we will have to wait until we find a cellar-door portal to another time dimension! Until then, the Cellar Door Theatre Company in London will have to keep the flame alive!

Sunday with Zin: Literaria, Part 1

Hello I am Zin and I have been left to my own Literary Devices!

I am very Aristotelian! I like classifications! Organization! That may seem strange because
I seem so disorganized but I am fond of little boxes and spaces where everything fits even if those boxes and spaces are of odd shapes and live in alternate dimensions!

So of course I love literary terms! All those categories! Each nicely defined! And Latinate (or Greekinate) names for them all! I have talked about apostrophe quite a bit in connection with my Second Person Study (which is not all mine any more, sigh) but there are so many more to have fun with!

I was inspired to do this now by several things. First: in December Jeff Rose on Zoetrope wrote a humorous story that mentioned a character reading a fictional “French’s Tongue-In-Cheek Guide To Literary Devices” and I so want him to write this Guide, sort of like Ambrose Bierce and his Devil’s Dictionary but for Literary Devices! Jeff is a very funny writer!

Then just a couple of days ago, my flash-idol Randall Brown posted about his favorite literary device, aralipsis, on I did not even know there was a word for this structure! Then I discovered there is another word for it, paralipsis so imagine! I now have two words for something I never knew had even one name before!

So I thought, I need to bone up on my Literary Devices! I used to know a lot of them but that was a long time ago and I have forgotten. You can follow along! Impress your friends with words like Adynaton and Metonymy! Sure everyone knows about hyperbole and verisimilitude, but have they heard of Hapax legomenon? In fact I will start there!

Hapax legomenon is not really a literary device! I started the Second Person Study with a story that was not in second person , so I will start here with what is actually a description, not a tool, and I may include other literary terms that are not devices in this Literaria category! Maybe my Aristotelianism needs some fine-tuning! A hapax legomenon is means a word that is only used once in the whole record of a language, or sometimes in the entire body of work or an author, or even in a single text. So it is what would be the tiniest word you get when you do a Wordle! It is a big deal to those who investigate dead languages because the best way to discover the meaning of a word is to see it used in different ways and a hapax does not let you do that! The phrase itself is from the Greek and literally means “a thing said once.”

We must, each of us for himself, decide what in it represents the best in usage–and what is merely a corruption that has become more or less widespread or is, indeed, a mere hapax legomenon..

— John Simon, Paradigms Lost

It also happens to be the title of the Swarthmore College Classics Journal, a book of poetry by Ivan Argüelles, and several blogs. It is too bad I will not be adopting any more cats because I think it would make a wonderful pet name!

If you have a favorite literary term let me know and I will be sure to include it!