Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Shakespeare's Legacy

                         The Man for All Ages


                               Howard Richler

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most immortal of all writers. It is fitting that the phrase “We all make his praise” is an anagram of William Shakespeare.
Moreover, the “all” in the phrase refers not only to native speakers of English but to all literate people on the planet. Shakespeare’s works have been translated into more than 100 languages and it has been calculated that almost half of the world’s students have studied parts of his oeuvre. Ben Jonson’s comment about Shakespeare in the Preface to the First Folio in 1623, “He was not of an age, but for all time” has been vindicated by time.
Literary critic Harold Bloom titled his tome Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human because Shakespeare “went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we know it.”  Bloom argues that the Bard can be singularly credited for creating the modern person not only in the Western word but throughout all cultures, and he views the Shakespearean characters Hamlet and Falstaff as representing “the inauguration of personality as we have to recognize it.”
Shakespeare’s contribution to our phraseology is ubiquitous. Observe:  We all cite him “without rhyme or reason.” If you are “in a pickle” because you’ve been “eaten out of house and home” by your own “flesh and blood,” or by a “stone-hearted”  “blinking idiot” or by ”strange bedfellows,” you are quoting Shakespeare.  Small wonder you’ve been “hoodwinked” and are “playing fast and loose” and haven’t “slept a wink” and are probably “breathing your last.” Methinks you’ve been “more sinned against than sinning.”  While it may be “cold  comfort,” it’s also a  “foregone conclusion” you are quoting Shakespeare.
The story is told (probably apocryphal) of an adolescent’s response upon seeing a performance of Hamlet stating that the play is “merely a collection of clichés.” Of course when Shakespeare coined expressions such as “brevity is the soul of wit,” “primrose path,” “dog will have its day,” “the lady doth protest too much,” “sweets for the sweet” and “cruel to be kind,” they were newly minted gems.
We sometimes forget because of Shakespeare’s transcendent phraseology that he may also rate as the greatest word creator of all time. To wit, the OED shows that the first evidence of a word is found in his works 1504 times and the first sense of a word appears in his works on 7698 occasions.  Examples of the latter are the verbal use of elbow and cow to mean “jostle” and intimidate” respectively and  admired to mean “praiseworthy “ (especially as previously it had meant “wondered about”. The total of the above two categories exceeds his nearest competitor Chaucer by almost 2000. George Gordon, In Shakespeare’s English congratulations Elizabethan writers for their willingness to use “every form of verbal wealth.”
 Shakespeare was fortunate to live an era when the language was very fluid. Gordon explains that Shakespeare was able to do what he liked with English grammar because it had no fixed rules and he “drew beauty and power from its imperfections.”
Many words were created by the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Arouse first appears in Henry VI, Part II; premeditated was first used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; uncomfortable in Romeo and Juliet; useful and useless in King John and The Rape of Lucrece respectively. Lonely first appears in Coriolanus and reclusive makes its debut in Much Ado About Nothing. Amazement, first found in Titus Andronicus, is one of the first uses of the suffix  -ment to form a noun from a Teutonic verb.
As a language with deep Germanic roots, English had a long tradition of creating new words through compounding, as German still does. Some of the Bard’s contributions here are barefaced, hot-blooded, lackluster, dewdrop, foregone, still-born, and skim-milk.
But if English lacked a word that could enhance his writing, Shakespeare invented it, invariably with a Latin root.  Because many of these words were polysyllabic with a proclivity to sounding mellifluous, Shakespeare employed them to enhance rhythm. For example, frugal comes from the Latin frugalis and is first seen in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I was then frugall in my worth.”  Castigate derives from the Latin castigare (to correct) and makes its stage entry in Titus Andronicus:  “If thou didst put this soure cold habit on to castigate thy pride, ‘twere well.” Courtship is first seen in Love’s Labour’s Lost with the sense of the behaviour befitting the court: “Trim Gallants, full of Courtship and of state.” Besmirch is first seen in Hamlet: “And now no soyle… doth besmirch the virtue of his will.”  Shakespeare also borrowed from other Romance languages. Examples here are bandit crafted from Italian bandito and torture fashioned from the French torturer.
Professor Victor Margolin summed up Shakespeare’s linguistic genius succinctly with this pun:  “Shakespeare was great shakes and without peer.”
Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit was published in April 2016

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brit terms gaining traction in US

                                    The Britishisms are coming


                                            Howard Richler

“I think it’s fair to say maybe some point down the line, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is on negotiating with the E.U… The U.K. is going to be at the back of the queue.”
Barack Obama. April 23, 2016
Obama’s use of queue was regarded as suspicious in some British quarters. Was the use of the non-American “queue” a sycophantic attempt to curry favour with the British public? Or even worse, did Obama hire some Brit to write the speech?
Truth be told, Obama has used the term queue previously (instead of “line”) on several occasions which might partially explain why many Republicans don’t believe he was born in the USA. In 2010, in a White House transcript, he stated, “There were several people who were still in the queue who didn’t have a chance to speak prior to breaking, The next year, we have hin saying “Could I just say that Chuck is the only guy who asked two questions  –  so far. So just  when I cut off here, whoever was next in the queue- I’m messing with you Chuck.”  In 2013, POTUS declared “We’ve got to make sure that we have a legal immigration system that doesn’t cause people to sit in the queue for five years, ten years, fifteen years – in some cases, 20 years.”
Actually, there has been an upswing in the usage of British terms in the US for many years, particularly in the northeast. Whereas at one point, employing a British accent was seen as classy nowadays the peppering ones speech with Britishisms in the US is seen as intellectual.
Here are some other examples of Britishisms that have become popular.
bespoke-   Bespoke is often used by Americans to refer to  high-quality items and services.  In the New York city area there are over twenty “bespoke” companies including “Bespoke Books,” “Bespoke Surgical,”  “Bespoke Barber Shop,” “Jasmine Bespoke” and at least one store simply called “Bespoke.” Also, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists over forty active registrations and applications for “bespoke” brand names with the majority of the patents being filed in the past eighteen months. If you have a USA bespoke product or service to offer you better act quickly. One person wanted to use as their web address but as this belonged to Bespoke Software, he had to settle for Bespoke Innovations.
chav- The OED defines chav as, “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”
This term is increasingly being used in probably due to the insidious influence of You Tube videos. Here are two examples stemming from the U.S, that I spotted on the Internet:  “Nah I'm not buying those sneakers man, they are so chavvy.”   Someone from Boston posted the following on a language newsgroup:“Chav is gaining currency as Americans understand that not all British people are posh. Boston/Cambridge is rife with international college students, so it may just be a blip, but I've heard it in a suburban grocery store to refer to some hooligans outside the store.”
kit –When  American science-fiction author John Scalzi wrote on his blog some years ago that the latest IPad  was a “lovely piece of kit,” he was deluged by many followers who thought his using the expression was highly pretentious. Scalzi retorted:  “Apparently being an American, I should have settled on “Dude, this tablet is bananas,” or something else equally comporting with my nation of origin.” This usage appears to be popular with techies and tennis fans who might refer to a player’s “kit,” whose gear might change depending on the surface of the tennis court.
Similarly, the words “toff” and “gobsmacked” are being used much more in the US in recent years. “Toff” is a mildly derogatory term for someone with an aristocratic background or someone who exudes an air of superiority.” During the 2012 presidential campaign is was used by American journalist Daniel Gross who took pains in an article to declare that Mitt Romney was not the “bumbling toff” he was made out to be. “Gobsmacked,” is oft heard these days in North American circles and the person who seems to have popularized the word is singer Susan Boyle whose appearance on Britain's Got Talent in 2009 quickly went viral.

Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in May 2016.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


(This article was first published in May 2016 Lexpert)       

                                           Why Cool is So Cool
                                                    Howard Richler
When the last century ended, I was somewhat bemused to read in John Ayto’s 20th Century Words, which outlines new words of the past century to find the word “cool” was twice listed: the first time in 1933 adjectively as a term of approval, and in 1953 as a verb to mean to relax as in the expression “cool it.” The reason for my confusion was my knowledge that in fact cool is a very ancient word and there are many references to it in Old English (from the 5th to 11th centuries) with the sense of a senses of calmness of emotions and lack of enthusiasm as well as temperature.
What is surprising about the word cool is its relative constancy in meaning as this is particularly rare in words that have adjectival senses. For example in my book  How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts , I mention that the original sense of careful was “sorrowful”; nice originally meant “foolish” or “stupid”  shrewd also meant “foolish” and initially an enormous appetite was not so much large as “abnormal.” The opposite pattern often occurs when adjectives are endowed with less favourable meanings as with the case of silly that originally meant “blessed” and it connoted being “remarkably good” as late as 1845. The word fulsome is going through a process of amelioration right before our eyes. Until recently, its most common sense was “offensively excessive” but nowadays it is most likely to be employed to mean either “extravagant” or “lavish” and increasingly to mean “full.”
So cool is an anomaly in more or less having the same, albeit multiple senses for well 1000 years. It could mean “dispassionate,” (Chaucer uses it in this sense in a 1440 poem: “Thow thynkist in thyn wit that is full cole”) “audaciously impudent,”  “lukewarm,”  “exhibiting a lack of warmth or affection,” and “not caring about consequences” to name but some of the different flavours of cool.  Abraham Lincoln used cool in this sense in 1860 when he said “That is cool” referring to the intention by secessionists in the South to break up the country. took black jazzmen of the 1930s and 1940s to transform this word into its modern sense as a term of approval. This change may have evolved from a previous slang sense of “shrewd” which itself may have evolved from its “impudent” sense. Cool reached a wider audience after World War II by which time it had acquired a sense of “laid-backness” associated with jazz as well as one of “stylishness.”  On the jazz scene, the word cool first came to be associated with saxophone player Lester “Pres” Young in the early 1940s.  The term made its debut in popular publications in 1948. That year a headline in Life magazine announced, “Bebop: New Jazz School is Led by Trumpeter who is Hot, Cool and Gone” and The New Yorker stated: “The bebop people have a language of their own… Their expressions of approval include ‘cool’.”  That same year music critics started to use cool to describe a particular relaxed form of jazz. For example, a music review in The Bridgeport Telegram announced “Hot jazz is dead. Long live cool jazz!” Probably owing to the term’s endorsement by mainstream media it wasn’t long before cool became a desired state of being for white adolescents. In an article entitled “When ‘Cool’ got Cool,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer relates that a "June 1952 article about teen slang in the St. Joseph, Michigan Herald-Press explained that ‘to be cool’ is the desire of every teen-ager.”
Cool started to lose some of its insouciance by the middle of the 1960s. As the term became overused it lost its sense of an existential awareness that differentiated one from “squares.”  However, in the 1970s it enjoyed a renaissance as people became nostalgic for the perceived simpler times of the 1950s as exemplified by the popularity of the television show Happy Days(1974-1984)  and the movie Grease (1978).
What explains the endurance of cool?  Linguist Donna Jo Napoli believes its appeal lies in the “underspecified” nature that allows it to adjust to many different contexts. I’m not convinced this alone explains its popularity. In his book  Contagion: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger, a  marketting professor at University of Pennsylvania,  posits an interesting theory to explain the success of cool. He says that our senses, such as sight, smell and touch, play a large part in determining which words catch on. As examples, he mentions that the phrases “bright student” and “cold person” are more popular that their equivalents “smart student” or “unfriendly person.”  He also cites the expression “sudden increase” that came into vogue in the 19th century but was superseded by the expression “sharp increase” that started to be used at the start of the 20th century. Words like cool that describe those who are “au courant” are particularly changeable which is why the term “spiffy” from the 1940s and “swell” from the 1950s had a short shelf life.
This appeal to the senses perhaps explains why cool has been hot for two millennia.
Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit was published in May 2016

Monday, May 9, 2016

Mother's Day

(This article appeared in the May 2016  Senior Times)

Feminist organized first Mother's Day in 1908
                       Howard Richler

Thanks to the efforts of American Ann Jarvis,
Mother’s Day began as a way of honouring the
sacrifices Mothers made for their children.
After gaining financial support from a Philadelphia
department store owner named John Wanamaker
in May 1908, she organized the first official
Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church
in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, a wellattended
Mother’s Day event was held at one of
Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia. Canada
quickly picked up on its southern neighbour’s
initiative, and inaugurated Mother’s Day in 1909.
Following the success of her first Mother’s Day,
Jarvis, although never married and childless,
resolved to see her holiday added to the calendar
roster. An early feminist, she argued that
American holidays were biased toward male
achievements, so she started a letter writing
campaign to newspapers and politicians urging
the adoption of a special day honouring
motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns and
churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual
holiday, and Jarvis had established the
Mother’s Day International Association to
help promote her cause. Her persistence was
rewarded in 1914 when President Woodrow
Wilson signed a bill establishing the second
Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in the USA.
Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day
as a day of personal celebration between Mothers
and their families. Her version of the day involved
wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting
one’s mother or attending church services. But
once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it
was not long before many mercantile concerns
capitalized on its popularity.
By 1920 Jarvis became so disgusted by the crass
commercialization of the holiday that she urged
people to stop buying Mother’s Day paraphernalia.
She also launched several lawsuits against groups
that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually
spending most of her personal wealth on legal fees.
Jarvis disowned the holiday altogether and, up until
her death in 1948, actively lobbied the government
to have it removed from the American Calendar.
Celebrations of Mothers and motherhood can be
traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who
held festivals in honour of the mother goddesses
Rhea and Cybele. The clearest precedent for modern
Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known
as “Mothering Sunday.” Once a major tradition
in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this
celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was
originally seen as a time when believers would return
to their local “mother church” for a special service.
Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition
changed into a more secular holiday, and children
would present their mothers with flowers
and other gifts. This custom eventually faded in
popularity before merging with the American
Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s. Due to its
religious connections, Mother’s Day in the United
Kingdom still falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent
which this year was celebrated on March 6.
At times, Mother’s Day has also been a date for
launching political or feminist causes. In 1968
Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King,
used Mother’s Day to host a march in support
of underprivileged women and children. In the
1970s women’s groups also used the holiday as
a time to highlight the need for equal rights and
access to childcare.
Perspicacious readers may have noticed that
most languages seem to have a word for Mother
that is either ‘mama’, or has a nasal sound like ‘nana’:
Arabic ahm, Chechen nana, Greek mana, and
Quechua mama. The reason for this was discerned
by pioneering Russian-American linguist Roman
Jakobson. The easiest vowel sound for babies
to utter is ‘ah’ because it can be made without
doing anything with the tongue or lips. And when
babies close their lips, as is done in nursing, this
transforms the ‘ah’ sounds into ‘mahs.’ Of course
the baby isn’t really speaking, but it sounds to
adults as if the baby is addressing someone, most
likely the Mother. Naturally, Mom takes ‘mama’
as meaning her, and when speaking to her baby
refers to herself as ‘mama.’
As Mother’s Day is now celebrated in over forty
countries, let me wish all Mothers a joyous day on
Sunday, May 8, wherever they may dwell.
Howard’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and
Deranged Wit will be launched at Crowley Arts
Centre, 5325 Crowley, May 24. Join Howard
between 6 and 8:30 for refreshments.

Saturday, April 30, 2016


1301-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes inaudible ostentation  
1302-Discern the convergent words:   fly-passion-cup   soup-fat-garden     milk-oil-shell-   
1303-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes an exterior way 
1304-Discern the convergent words    court-kick-rat    ass-jacket-kick cock-blue-hood
1305-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a baroque expiator   
1306-Discern the convergent words    blue-meridian-less    crack-start-god   blade-pad-cold
1307-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a love affair in a northern Italian city  
1308-Discern the convergent words shell-digger-up   shell-mattress-man    shell-wing-chest 
1309-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a flow of refugees out of Syria   
1310-Discern the convergent words   hot-butter-beach    lab-dip-dark   seeds-juice-salad
1311-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a lousy movie
1312- Discern the convergent words lens-let-limit     ball-wedding-tea   sport-sack-sugar
1313-Name a 2 word anagrammatic question that challenges the notion that winter weather is getting warmer
1314-Discern the convergent words glass-mom-lily    late-oil-apple   colony-pelt
1315-What do these words have in common? swastika-aryan-musk
1316-Discern the convergent words    dry-cocktail-vodka  arm-store-man   dog-sauce-pepper
1317-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes porcine muscle
1318-Discern the convergent words   river-dry-guard   reading-face-beach    canal-less-app
1319-What do these words have in common? continent-emirate-finale   
1320-Discern the convergent words     headed-ion-red  pit-flicker-bane  ding-sausage-wild 
1321-What do these words have in common?   feta-firedamp-microramanmeter-sobriety    
1322-Discern the convergent words   elbow-sticky-cap    root-soup-stick      smart-jar-cutter
1323-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that could describe one of the functions of Facebook    
1324-Discern the convergent words islands-wharf-yellow      dog-head-ma  worm-out-sea
1325-What do these words have in common   useless-slavery-cashew  
1326-Discern the convergent words    acid-long-a      acid-tolerate-flat     acid-language-tied
1327-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes the least annoying bug   
1328-Discern the convergent words     box-trade-boxing      poodle-over-I    patterns-peasant-bypass
1329-What do these words have in common?    jai alai-Izarra-Euskarian
1330-Discern the convergent words     mental-urine-flying      pot-hip-bald   golden-sugar-led
1331-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes  an eternity
1332-Discern the convergent words    toy-skirt-cut        cat-pit-wooly   round-cock-yellow
1333-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a  type of boat   
1334-Discern the convergent words speed-carbon-see  apple-up-nut   moon-chart-hole
1335-What do these words have in common?     rainforest-diabetes-carpentry
1336-Discern the convergent words      man-monkey-mum     jet-Irish-pace   corn-oil-bit
1337-Name a 5 word palindromic phrase that means Star of Cosby Show didn’t try this herb.
1338-Discern the convergent words   hold-hole-holy    ups-an-kicks     chop-fat-pie
1339-What do these words have in common?    serendipity-denim-badminton 
1340-Discern the convergent words    pie-rose-pirates   pulling-pin-chest    a-off-breaking
1341-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a royal glower  
1342-Discern the convergent words     lice-license-running    lily-mom-shark     hawk-yellow-feed
1343-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes a weaker regime
1344-Discern the convergent words     crew-flower-framework   identify-gold-cooking    or-fire-bar
1345-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that describes a nervous twitch that manifests itself in an urban environment  
1346-Discern the convergent words    spot-sour-garlic   pot-moon-brown    cake-salmon-burger
1347-What do these words have in common?      ammonia-salary-salad           
1348-Discern the convergent words    bread-butter-breath     case-wing-hard       mar-dry-be
1349-What do these words have in common?    auspicious-augur-halcyon
1350-Discern the convergent words     long-chair-dis     long-hold-a     long-do-ball
1351-What do these words have in common?     astral-disaster-consider
1352-Discern the convergent words     rice-ban-sugar   brief-bay-state   hatch-prize- trap  
1353-What do these words have in common?     wheels-crown-bottle-suits  
1354-Discern the convergent words   entry-cavil-us    pack-lab-her    ford-phoenix-ugly
1355-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means see the opposite 
1356-Discern the convergent words    beat-stern-half     beat-take-by   beat-sing-eye
1357-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means change warning signal 
1358-Discern the convergent words     garter-oil-eyes    up-pit-pea         pin-wood-ring
1359-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means besmirches progeny of Gaia + Uranus   
1360-Discern the convergent words    drum-talking-lights     drum-app-wig   drum-tight-alive
1361-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means keep the obstinate  
1362-Discern the convergent words    hard-hair-high   ability-monkey-long   free-kick-strap
1363-What do these words have in common?   choked-isthmal-galore-enlarge
1364-Discern the convergent words     raw-chutzpah-gas   orange-sport-young  ascending-cancer-semi
1365-What do these words have in common?   penicillin-orchid-testify-avocado
1366-Discern the convergent words   pro-tail-in     around-comeback-ding   computer-trap-church
1367-What do these words have in common?      business-wit-writing 
1368-Discern the convergent words     church-mighty-trap    wild-ground-tied   antelope-for-pin
1369-What do these words have in common?       amok-orangutan-cassowary
1370-Discern the convergent words    singing-dry-cut    gay-dive-broken     pink-shut-contact
1371-What do these words have in common?   wad-polo-slam 
1372-Discern the convergent words    it-an-by    out-punch-sea     west-disc-past
1373-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes couples in a particular world capital 
1374-Discern the convergent words    coo-tongue-rod   Christmas-blue-cap    up-pink-betting
1375-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes Indonesian upheavals    
1376-Discern the convergent words     holy-Indian-bar    on-mobile-bar    house-out-word 
1377-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes an African ballet dancer     
1378-Discern the convergent words    ate-Sunday-beach    guard-loud-dart    turn-pony-ox
1379-What do these words have in common?   mulligatawny-catamaran-anaconda-beriberi
1380-Discern the convergent words    ox-pays-fat    glad-sore-evil   biter-bracelet-deep  
1381-What do these words have in common?   debonair- pedigree-jeopardy 
1382-Discern the convergent words      road-rock-away   bowl-fuzz-state      brandy-pie-age
1383-What do these words have in common?      fizzle-partridge-petard  
1384-Discern the convergent words    board-micro-silicon     board-money-winner      board-whiz-say
1385-What do these words have in common?       apricot-tariff-carat
1386-Discern the convergent words    fox-cock-dove   off-fountain-office   ion-bow-rest
1387-What do these words have in common?         jungle-juggernaut-bandanna
1388-Discern the convergent words    cut-clearing-white     cut-pin-oil    cut-split-fat
1389-What do these words have in common?         ailed-inure-ford
1390-Discern the convergent words    code-western-tubing   revolution-duck-bowl    town-boiled-head
1391-What do these words have in common?       meter-corner-roster
1392-Discern the convergent words    manhandle-nee-print    paint-bowl-roll      less-wrenching-rot
1393-What do these words have in common?      pouting-align- gland
1394-Discern the convergent words    chef-French-shop     shrimp-bar-hour     blond-bee-pot
1395-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that could describe someone born in Kolkatta but residing in Molenbeek
1396-Discern the convergent words    ping-up-pink    rein-hit-rust   rain-in-bra
1397-What do these placenames have in common?      Honduras- Nice-England-Fargo-Lahore-Chad
1398-Discern the convergent words    can-copy-go     angel-tiger-tank   berry-cap-skin
1399-What do these words have in common?      cereal-pander-tantalize
1400-Discern the convergent words    end-leg-damage       ice-board-cheap    old-on-her 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


            (The Following Article first appeared in the April 2016  Lexpert)
              Politics Hijacks Words
                       Howard Richler

As we North Americans have been barraged by political verbiage over the last two years, I am reminded of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s quip that “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”  Actually, von Clausewitz may have reversed the categories as several terms found in politics were found originally in the military arena. For example, both campaign and rally acquired military senses in the 17th century and political ones only in the 19th century.
We see an interplay with politics in other domains. Take religion, specifically Catholicism as two common political terms were born in the Vatican. Propaganda comes from the Latin phrase Congregation du propaganda fide, “Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” founded in 1622 by a committee of Cardinals responsible for foreign missions during the papacy of Gregory XV. It is in the 19th century that the word acquired its political sense of the systematic dissemination of information, often in a biased sense. And if you find political nepotism as unsavoury as propaganda, again there is a papal connection. It seems that some of the early Popes liked to bestow special favours upon their nephews, (as well as their illegitimate sons) and in Latin the word for nephew is nepos. By the 19th century the word was broadened to refer to conferring unfair preferment to friends or those within ones sphere of influence. Also, in the 17th century, the word charisma, oft applied to political leaders, had a strictly theological application and referred to the free gift of God’s grace. The modern sense of the magnetic appeal of someone only arose in the 1940s.
The language of politics has borrowed from other disciplines. Cynics will not be shocked to discover that a political term has been hijacked from the domain of piracy. I refer to the word filibuster which derives from the Dutch vrijbuiter which combines the word vrij, “free” and bueter, “plunderer.” Originally, filibuster referred to pirates who pillaged the colonies in the Spanish West Indies during the 17th century. However, in the middle of the 19th century bands of adventurers organized expeditions from the United States, in violation of international law, for the purpose of revolutionizing certain states in Central America and the West Indies. By the end of the 19th century, the word came to refer to long-winded U.S. Senators whose obstructive practices were seen as akin to the havoc created by marauding pirates; they effectively hijacked the agenda of the Senate.
The term caucus in North America refers to the members of a legislative assembly that belong to a particular party. Most etymologists believe that the word was adapted from the Algonquin Caw-cawaassough, which means “counsellor.” The Algonquin word was recorded in a journal by Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame in the early part of the 17th century with the sense of one who advises or encourages. Caucus first surfaced in New England in the early part of the 18th century and was virtually unknown in British English until the 1870s when it became a popular political buzzword.
Recently, the electoral district Sarnia-Lambton in Ontario became the champion bellwether riding in Canada having voted for the winning part in every election since 1963. Both of these italicized words have a political sense that is restricted mostly to Canada. Originally, a bellwether designated the head sheep of a flock whose prize for leadership was having a bell hung around its neck  - wether is a term for a male sheep or castrated ram.   By the 1930s the sense of “indicating a trend” emerged. The electoral sense of riding, however, is not a Canadian coinage but rather one has to look to Yorkshire, England for the provenance. Until 1974, Yorkshire was divided into three ridings and the word riding came into English in the 15th century from Old Norse thrithjungr, which originally was rendered riding in English as trithing.
While the word hustings is now used almost exclusively to refer to the rounds of political activity during an election, its origin was quite different. As early as the 11th century it was rendered singular as husting which literally means “house thing” with thing referring to a council meeting. Over time, it referred specifically to the court of law in the Guildhall of London. It was only in the 20th century that it acquired the modern sense of electioneering.
And finally, the current sense of poll as in “going to the polls” arose only in the 17th century. The source of the word is its literal meaning “head” and this was its sense starting in the 13th century. One way of counting votes in an election is by counting heads as seen in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in 1607 when Coriolanus states “We are the greater poll, and in true fear they gave us our demands.”

Perhaps the proposed electoral reform in Canada or the election this year in the U.S. will afford some marauding politician the opportunity to hijack other words.

Richler’s book Wordplay:Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in April 2016.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


The Word of the Year isn’t even a word
Howard Richler

What’s a word? Of course, what qualifies as a word lexicographically has always been somewhat problematic. For example, we can’t assume that just because a word is found in one dictionary that it will be listed in others. For example, Merriam Webster includes confuzzled, “Confused and puzzled at the same of producing neologisms,” chillax, “Chill out/relax, hang out with friends”; gription, “The purchase gained by friction”; and lingweenie, “A person incapable of producing neologisms,” but none of these entries are found in the OED.
On the other hand, the lists athame, “a double-edged knife used OED for ritual purposes in Wicca and other neo-pagan movements”; chav, “a young person characterized by brash and loutish behaviour”; Enviropig, “a genetically modified variety of pig that is able to digest phytic acid producing manure with a reduced content and hence environmental impact”  and studerite, “an arsenic-rich variety of tetrahedrite,” but these entries aren’t to be found in Merriam Websters’ Third New International Dictionary.
It would appear judging by recent decisions that a word can be anything that is said or expressed in any manner whatsoever.  For example, in its inaugural 1990 contest, the American Dialect Society (ADS) voted bushlips, “insincere political rhetoric,” as its word of the year, yet to my knowledge, no dictionary has ever included this term. In 2014, the ADS’s word of the year wasn’t even a word as we understand the term. The winner was the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. (Hashtag was the ADS word of the year in 2012.)  ADS spokesperson Ben Zimmer said that “although #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”
Given the Oxford Dictionaries choice of word of the year for 2015, the definition of a word is becoming even more confuzzled, for the “word” that won is not  a word at all, but rather a pictograph:. 😂. Officially called the “Face with Tears of Joy” this pictograph is an emoji which is defined by the OED as “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communications.” Emojis have been around since the late 1990s, but 2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely.
This year Oxford University Press have partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emojis across the world, and 😂 was chosen as “word” of the year because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified that it comprised 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.  In an interview, Casper Grothwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries said that an emoji was selected as “word” of the year because it highlights how we have become a visually-obsessed culture.
Emoji is a loanword from Japanese and marries e, “picture,” with moji, “letter, character.” It marries e, “picture,” with moji, “letter, character.” Its similarity to the English word emoticon has probably enhanced its popularity; however, the resemblance is totally accidental as emoticon blends emotion and icon. Like it or not, emojis are no longer the preserve of those who tweet or texters, and have been embraced by many as a nuanced form of expression that transcends language barriers. For example, in August 2015 Hillary Clinton tweeted, ‘How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” (We’ll forgive her for not using “fewer.”)
By the way, probably to assuage old fogeys such as me who aren’t totally enamored by picture words, Oxford Dictionaries did have some more conventional words as candidates for 2015’s “word of the year.” They included:  ad blocker, “a piece of software designed to prevent ads from appearing on a web page”;  Brexit, “a term for the potential or hypothetical  exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union”(from British +exit); Dark Web, “World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software; allowing users and website operators to remain untraceable or anonymous”; on fleek,  “extremely good, attractive or stylish” ( apparently an arbitrary formation popularized in a 2014 video post on the social media service Vine by  adolescent Kayla Newman, a.k.a., Peaches Monroee); lumbersexual, “a young urban male who cultivates an appearance and style of dress typified by a beard and checked shirt suggestive of a rugged, outdoor lifestyle”; refugee, “a person forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster”; sharing economy, “an economic  system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either for free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet”; they (singular), “used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.”
Personally, I won’t be shedding tears of joy over the selection of a pictograph as word of the year. I guess I’m just not on fleek. And just how do those at Oxford who chose this image as “word” of the year propose to list it their dictionaries?
Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in March 2016.