Tuesday, June 12, 2012


(This article first appeared in the June issue of the legal magazine Lexpert.)


Semantic Skunking


Howard Richler

If my Lexpert editor gives me fulsome praise should I be a)bemused, b)disinterested or


Lexicographer Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage states that “when a

word undergoes a marked change from one use to another – a phrase that might take ten

years or a hundred- it's likely to be the subject of dispute.” He adds that “a word is most

hotly disputed in the middle of the process: any use of it is likely to distract some

readers.” A good example of this process is the word “fulsome.” Until recently this

word's dominant meaning was “offensively excessive” but increasingly it is used by

many erudite people, even Bay Street attorneys, to mean “extravagant.” Garner

characterizes such a disputed word as “skunked” and as best avoided. Hence, although

there might be some ancient pedant who believes that “egregious” should still mean

remarkably good as it literally means in Latin, “above the flock,” the fact remains that it

has not been used in a positive sense since 1845. Ergo, by Garner's dictum, egregious

would not qualify as a skunked word.

The reality, of what qualifies as a “skunked” word is not as clear-cut as Garner


Can anyone say definitively when a word has been “skunked”? Garner includes in his

list of skunked words, “decimate” and “hopefully” whereas I, and many others, regard

the use of “decimate” to mean “kill one-tenth and the exclusive use of “hopefully” to

mean only “in a hopeful manner” and not “one hopes,” to be hopelessly moribund.

Some prescriptive language commentators decry the use of “jejune” to mean “childish”

and point out that change in meaning stemmed from the mistaken belief that the word

stemmed from the French word for “young” jeune and the Latin juvenus.

Notwithstanding this mistaken belief, dictionaries accept “childish” as one of the meanings of “jejune.” Similarly, some language purists argue that the word “dilemma''

should only be used to refer to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives and not a

plight or predicament, but most dictionaries allow for this latter sense.

Also, we must acknowledge that some usages that might not be acceptable in British

English are acceptable in North American English. Examples of such are the verbs

careen” and “aggravate.” The former (notwithstanding that it should be “career”) is

common in North America English just as using aggravate to mean “annoy” is well

established in both Canada and the USA. Relative to the use of aggravate to mean

annoy,” Wynford Hicks advises in Quite Literally, “Use with care since purists

disapprove of the second {annoy} usage.” The reality, however, is that this usage has

been entrenched in North America for many decades.

And who is to be the final arbiter as to what qualifies as proper English? According to

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries “infer”

means the same as “imply,” “peruse” means not only to “examine carefully” but to “read

over in a casual manner,” “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as

impartial,” “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” and “bemused” can

mean “mildly amused” as well as “bewildered.” I do not agree with all these laissez-

faire attitudes. For example, I believe the distinction between disinterested and

uninterested is important and, I use enormity only to mean “wickedness” not “size.”

This being said, I believe that when an overwhelming majority of people use a word in a

certain way, (80% to 90% I believe constitutes an overwhelming majority) that we must

recognize the newer sense of the word, notwithstanding that an erudite minority regard it

as “wrong.” On the other hand, when the newer sense of a word is not entrenched I

believe we should be loath to accept it. For example, many people use “non-plussed” to

mean “unfazed” rather than “perplexed,” but since this newer usage is found currently in

no more than one-half of cases, I propose that at least for the moment it should be

avoided lest your meaning be misunderstood.

Recently deceased language commentator William Safire started out as a rigid

prescriptivist but even he acknowledged in his book In Love With Norma Loquendi that

the masses represent the final arbiter of language: “The rules laid down by elites are to

be respected, but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will

work its will..When the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma

Loquendi - the everyday voice of the native speaker - is the heroine who changes the

order and raises a new standard.”


Howard's next book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious

semantic shifts is being published by Ronsdale Press in Spring 2013.


A cross-cultural analysis of bondage in marriage


Howard Richler

Ever since cavemen stopped dragging away unwilling partners by the hair, marriage has been a knotty situation. For example, the climax of a Hindu ceremony arrives when the garments of the bride and groom are tied together and, bound in this manner, the knotted couple walk round a holy fire. Chinese Buddhists revere the deity Yue-laoum who unites all predestined couples with a silken cord insuring that the union will be consummated. Since 1275, “tying the knot” has also been a symbol at weddings in England. Traditionally, the ribbons in a bridal bouquet would be knotted as a symbol of the solemn bond of marriage. John Ray, a 17th century naturalist quipped, “He had tied a knot with his tongue he can’t untie with his teeth.” It seems to me that Ray was equating bonding with bondage.

Bonding, however, ocurs in other marriage rituals. Before my daughter Jennifer was married some years ago in a traditional Jewish ceremony, a ketuvah marriage contract was signed by the couple and witnessed by two friends. This contract is ordained by Talmudic law and according to some authorities dates back to Biblical times.The ketuvah, written in Aramaic, details the husband's obligations to his wife: food, clothing, dwelling and pleasure. It also creates a lien on all his property (there is even a reference to the shirt from the husband’s back) to pay her a sum of money and support should he (OY VAY!) divorce her, or predecease her. The document has the standing of a legally binding agreement that in many countries is enforceable by secular law.

In the marriage ceremony itself, Jennifer and her spouse Noah repeated their vows underneath a chuppah, a Hebrew word which means canopy. The chuppah is a decorated piece of cloth held aloft as a symbolic home for the new couple. With so many terms from Hebrew and Yiddish being recorded in the OED, I wasn’t totally surprised to find an entry for the word chuppah. What was surprising, however, was the first citation of the word coming from George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda.
Noah intoned to Jennifer these Hebrew words: Harei at mikudeshet li, b'taba'at zo k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael which translates as “Behold, you are consecrated to me by this token according to the laws/traditions of Moses and Israel.” In turn, Jennifer announced to the throng, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li “I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine.”

I remember cringing at the wedding when an inebriated relative asked me if I was comfortable in my penguin suit. This lexicographically-challenged chap was obviously not aware that the tuxedo’s origin is not tied to a puny penguin but to a wild wolf. A tuxedo is so named because in 1890, the dress code at the local country club in Tuxedo Park, 65 kilometers from New York City, dictated that gentlemen wear a tailless dinner jacket at most nightly affairs. This was known as a tuxedo coat until matching trousers were added to the ensemble which came to be known as a tuxedo. The connection to the wolf does not relate to the lasciviousness of these posh men but rather to the manner in which Tuxedo Park acquired its name. The P’tuksit were a subtribe of the Delawares who lived along the western shore of the Hudson River and the name literally means “round-footed, an allusion to the wolf. In the 18th century American settlers gave the name of the P’tuksit, anglicized as Tuxedo, to a village in southeastern New York and by 1880 Tuxedo Park on the shore of Tuxedo Lake became a fashionable resort of the very wealthy.

Let me conclude by hoping that all of this summer's brides and grooms are bound together in happiness.

Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic

shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press next Spring.


Friday, June 8, 2012


26- What do the words caucus-skunk-squash have in common?

27-What do the word acronym, flowery, praising, simplicity have in common?

28-What do the word cares, needles, princes, timelines have in common?

29-What do the words aching,attribution,deliverance,monoselenide have in common?

30-Name another word that starts with an F and ends UCK?

31-What do Austin-Sausalito- San Antonio have in common?

32-What European city is found in the heart of this defunct European country?

33 Nam ea Russian diver, a tennis star and a former QB whose surnames are anagrams?

34-Name a country with a string of 3 consecutive letters in the alphabet?

35-What country is an angram of prison age?

36-Name 2 states that feature 2 professional sports teams whose names are colors?

37-Which entertainer’s last name is the past tense of a synonym for his first name?

38-Name a former ballplayer whose surname is an anagram to a country in eastern Europe?

39-Name an NBA star whose surname is an anagram to a large African city?

40 What celebrity's full name is an anagram to nerd amid late tv ?

41-What member of the Clinton Cabinet's surname is an anagram to a European country?

42- What former movie star;s full name is an anagram to deliberated ?

43-What singer's name is an anagram to general?

44-How do turn new door into one word?

45-What do these words have in common? appeasement,arpeggio,bedchamber, fortunately

46-What do the following places have in common? :Belarus, Iraq, Malawi,United Arab Emirates

47-What Montreall suburb is anagram for this South American resident?

48-Name Middle East city that is an anagram to this designation for an Israeli?

49 F-What country is an anagram of “lizard newts?”

50-What do the words anime-noninates have in common?