In With The New

February’s nearly over and I usually dedicate a post around this time to review the annual “Banned Words” list, but this year I’ll take a pass. There’s only so much pet-peevishness I can take, and that exercise in public griping drifted over the line from entertaining to annoying several years ago. There’s nothing worth discussing on it this year that hasn’t been covered better elsewhere (but if you’re interested, you’ll find it here).

Instead, I’ll stick with the spirit of my recent posts on Words of the Year (and Part 2) and discuss several interesting words (and ideas) that I encountered over the past year. None of these words was strictly new in 2017, but they were either new to me or I noticed them being used in new ways that deserved attention. I’ve done only superficial research into their deeper origins, so what follows should be taken as incomplete.

Ready for something new? Click here.

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WOTY 2017 (Part 2): “Fake News” All Over Again.

On January 5th, the American Dialect Society announced the results of its voting for Word of the Year (WOTY). They went with fake news which, if you’ve read my previous post, was a choice you might not think I’d approve of. However, if you’ve also read some of my WOTY commentaries from previous years, you might have noticed that I can be won over by a WOTY choice not because of the word itself but by the justification its selectors make. In the case of the ADS and fake news, I have been totally convinced: their justification, supported by a new and accurate definition, is a slam dunk. I was impressed and completely support their choice.

I’ll get to that new definition in a little while (if you don’t have the stamina for my longer play-by-play, you can skip below to this flag: <<<<<>>>>>). On the way there, let’s look at some of the other candidates and winners in the ADS selection contest. The ADS gets its own post in my WOTY wrap-ups because they seem to put a lot more thought into this than most of the others. They not only select an overall WOTY, but they look at a number of sub-categories (which vary from year to year). They have a semi-open nominating policy, which is unscientific but usually produces thought-provoking choices. And votes for candidate words are cast and tallied in real time in a room full of people who are passionate about and deeply interested in our language (even if they don’t take themselves entirely seriously during this process). The WOTY chosen by the ADS is, in many years, the only one really worth taking seriously.

Click for your choice of alternative lies or fact-based reporting

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WOTY 2017 (Part 1): We’re all complicit.

Ah, December. When a young man’s thoughts turn to college bowl games. And when those of us who spend a disproportionate amount of our time in the trenches observing and analyzing this thing we call the English language wonder, “what’s going on with the WOTY for 2017?”

WOTY (word of the year) candidates and ‘winners’ have been floating around since at least October, and those of you who have made it a habit to stop by this site have probably noticed that every year I do the Pokemon thing (“Collect ’em all!“—let’s call this “WOTYmon” from now on) and offer up a quick and far-too-often sarcastic review of what the various WOTY declarers have…declared.

It’s my self-appointed duty, and my Christmas gift to you: I slog through all the nonsense of each year’s WOTY declarations and summarize it, so you don’t have to. Whether you find any value in that or appreciate it, accept this small token. Happy Holidays!

Let’s get to it. Where’s the WOTY? Click here.

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What makes someone an authority on the English language?

A vocabulary slip on my part in a recent post led to an email conversation with long-time reader Steve G., which eventually meandered over to this question.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on the idea, and can offer a short list of the most important criteria: an authority backs up its position with evidence, experience, consensus, and the respect of other experts and authorities. (We could add other factors, but I’ve limited this post to that short list.)

Some languages have official language academies with the mission of keeping the language pure or honest or “consistent with its fundamental principles.” But English has no equivalent of the RAE, the Académie française, or the Accademia della Crusca. There’s no official version of English, no designated English language institute to issue new words or rule on grammatical disputes, and no officially appointed or elected panel of arbiters of correct and incorrect usage.

Yet we have experts (and plenty of them), some commonly acknowledged and others self-appointed. Why give deference to any of them?

Here’s what I think. Since English doesn’t have official arbiters, we also don’t have official manuals stating how to use English. An artificial language—be it Esperanto, or Java or SQL for that matter—can have rigid rules of syntax, with simple and clear guidelines on how the elements of the language (be they letters, words, or sentences) are strung together (into words, sentences, and larger objects) to deliver meaning. There are also rules about things like verb tense, declension, case, and so on. English has plenty of these rules—you’ll instantly look ignorant if you can’t get your noun-verb agreement correct, or if you screw up your plurals—but there’s quite a bit of leeway. These rules don’t have the force of law, but grew out of tradition, consensus, and expedience.

Without rigid official grammar manuals, English adopts by default the authority of style guides—unofficial handbooks that describe what’s best and explain why. Instead of strictures detailing how the language works, we instead get advice and suggestions (with the occasional proscription) and—in the better cases—examples and models to follow.

Fair enough, you say. There’s no government language agency in London or Cambridge or Washington, DC, to tell me what I can and can’t do. So who are those people in Oxford and Chicago who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell me what I can and can’t do? Who died and made them keepers of the language?

Again, a fair enough question. But let’s turn it around: if you moved into a new house and your electrician told you that he needed to re-wire your main panel, you wouldn’t ask him who died and made him keeper of electricity. If your doctor told you that your cholesterol was too high, you needed to lose 5 pounds, and you weren’t getting enough sleep, you wouldn’t ask her who died and made her the keeper of healthcare.

You would accept their analyses, their conclusions, their professional judgment (a judgement is, after all, a special kind of informed opinion). Why? For many reasons, some having to do with education, training, and certification, but others having to do with their practical experience doing that job, built on a long tradition of formal and informal education and accumulated knowledge.

Who said that doctor deserves to be a doctor? The school where she earned her degree. Well, who gave that school the right? An accrediting body. Yes, but who gave them that right? Well…we can keep going deeper and deeper, but what you’ll find in most professions is that there’s some kind of body that at some point in history was created when the members of that profession made an effort to hold themselves to rigid standards and drive out the underqualified amateurs and quacks. Some of these groups go back centuries, others are quite new, but they have that in common: they needed a way to formalize their standards and build outsiders’ confidence in the profession.

For language authorities, the idea is the same, although the implementation isn’t. Professional users of language have all sorts of associations and societies: the Writers Guild of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Modern Language Association, and AWP, to name a few of very many. They have different focuses: screenwriting, travel writing, teaching, and so on. (I’ve been a member of different groups but am a current member of only the Editorial Freelancers Association).

But membership in these groups is not particularly stringent. You can’t join the AMA without a recognized medical degree, get into the ABA without verified licensing, or become a voting member of IEEE without proper accreditation or demonstrated competence. In many cases, however, you can join a writers’ association with little or no
fuss. Even when there are higher bars, these organizations have no actual power when it comes to what you can and can’t do professionally: the medical profession has ways to stop unqualified doctors from practicing, but anyone can write and publish a book, no matter how much of an affront the content is to readable English.

How does an individual or organization become an accepted authority on English? The same way one becomes an authority on anything: through education, training, practice, dedication, an adherence to professional standards, and a demonstrated record of quality work. The only real difference is that “the profession of English” has no accrediting body. There’s no shortage of professional associations, but few of them make any claim to being arbiters of “good English.”

If I were to ask you who you accept as an authority for English spelling, grammar, punctuation, and so on, you would probably rattle off names from a short list, including Strunk & White, OED, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage. If I tweaked the question a
little—who would you cite for best practices?—and gave you time to think, you might throw out the names of some respected institutions and successful authors: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood. We’ll disagree on specifics, but not the general idea: we’re all willing to trust institutions with a long history of integrity and individuals with an acknowledged expertise in the language.

You might spot a weakness in my case. ‘My eighth grade English teacher had 30 years experience, but I’ve had to unlearn almost everything he taught me.’ Or ‘That author has sold 100 million copies, but educated critics agree that some of the writing is near gibberish. Why should I trust advice from that source?

Which gets us back to the real criteria for expertise: evidence. None of the authorities I’ve
mentioned, regardless of how long they’ve been around or how well-regarded they are, should stand if they tell you what to do but don’t back it up with evidence.

When it comes to English usage, this means that an authority can’t say ‘Do it this way.‘ An authority must say ‘Do it this way, because of this. Here are examples.’ All good authorities do this.

The best will go further: ‘Here is an example of it done wrong: note the difference. Here is further historical support for this recommendation. Here are summaries of what other authorities have said on this point.

And, by the way: an authority does not have to be ancient and well-known to be trustworthy. Some have been around for ages: OED, Strunk & White, Fowler. But there are perfectly good modern authorities who can be trusted because they provide consistently good advice supported by solid evidence: Garner, Language Log, Grammar Girl. There are numerous authorities you might not have heard of, but which have earned their reputations by providing both solid advice and advice that is solidly supported.

Should you consider me an authority? I don’t presume that you will. But if you follow this recommendation and require that every authority provide good evidence before you accept its advice, then you’re likely to always choose good authorities that deserve your respect. The overall quality of contemporary English will have risen, if ever so slightly, and you will (I can only hope) have improved your critical thinking ability. That’s more than enough for me.

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Blacklist vs Blackball

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” – Groucho Marx

Blacklist or blackball? Which term is correct in which context and why?

I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of misuse and confusion with these two terms recently. I’ve noticed this problem occasionally before, but it’s been more frequent and more obvious over the past couple of months, specifically when one term or the other is used in relation to the “scandal” around some players taking a knee, staying in the locker room, or otherwise expressing an opinion during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games (the “scare quotes” ought to indicate where I stand on this issue, but if you need it spelled out: there’s a reason the First Amendment comes first and isn’t tucked into a footnote).

Many reports have discussed or otherwise commented on Colin Kaepernick being “blackballed” by NFL owners and management since he got the whole thing started in August of 2016. Putting aside the politics, is that interpretation correct: has he been blackballed and, if so, what does that mean?

The simple answer is noHe hasn’t been blackballed. He’s been blacklisted. An uninformed person might assume that these terms mean the same thing, but they do not.

Accuracy and precision are often critical when using words, and these two terms are no exception. The difference between blackball and blacklist, as Twain said, might be the difference between lightning and lightning bug (or, if you prefer, the difference between a ham sandwich and Hamtramck). When you use (or encounter) either word, you should understand what it means.

Blacklisting sort of sounds like what it is: someone, somewhere, is keeping a list. Historically, a blacklist is a list of individuals, organizations, or even entire countries that some entity finds undesirable, for whatever reason. It might be due to a legitimate concern: a blacklist of known criminals, for instance, or of countries with an unacceptable level of government corruption. But blacklists are just as often used for discrimination on social or ideological grounds.

The most infamous example is the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and ’50s, a shameful incident in American history when many actors, screenwriters, directors, and others were barred from working because of their political beliefs, largely based on innuendo and paranoia. Does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s what seems to have happened with Kaepernick (who drew no attention to his protest and, in his direct statements, offered no disrespect: this was attributed to him by others). The fact that no NFL team will sign him, even though many observers are of the opinion that he is demonstrably better than some current NFL quarterbacks, suggests that he has been blacklisted.

It is necessary to note that a blacklist does not have to physically exist for someone to be blacklisted: the entire process can be informal, occurring only by word of mouth, or by wink and nod, or by tacit complicity. It’s a matter of intent and outcome. The concept of a blacklist is probably as old as human society itself; as a specific phrase in English, the OED dates it as far back as 1624 as a noun (with variable shades of meaning) and 1837 as a verb.

This is different from being blackballed. The term blackball comes from a process by which any existing member of a group has the power to prevent a new member from joining. This is not a “the majority rules” process, but a veto power: in a club of 100, if only one existing member blackballs a potential member, that candidate will be rejected. (In practice, organizations that use a blackball method usually require at least two black balls, but the principle is the same.) OED offers examples of blackball (in the correct context) as a noun back to 1550 and a verb to 1765.

While Groucho Marx was not blacklisted, one must assume that he would have blackballed himself, if ever given the opportunity.*

Kaepernick often appears to be on an NFL blacklist of one, but similar blacklisting has been noted in professional sports in the past (note that this particular article misuses blackball over blacklist in its headline).

For what it’s worth, I’ve found incorrect uses of blackball for blacklist going back several decades. People have probably been making this error for as long as the two terms have coexisted. That doesn’t make the usage acceptable, only persistent. When you have the opportunity to use one of these terms, be sure to choose the correct one.

= = = = =

* The Groucho quote used here deserves a few more words. Some sources attribute it to Groucho, but many regurgitate the debunked notion that it stems from an idea in Freud (a mistake in turn attributed to a Woody Allen film).

The sentiment is sometimes attributed to a line in The Forsyte Saga (1922), but the term is not used and a careful reader will conclude that the context is different: the character the line describes enjoys being curmudgeonly and disagreeable at the expense of his fellow club members; he feels no compunction about associating with them or adhering to club norms, and continues to view his membership as valuable.

Groucho’s general sentiment was not original: Abraham Lincoln wrote something similar in 1838. But regardless of the ultimate origin, Groucho honed the comedic use of this line and popularized it, and deserves full credit for the modern formulation.

An exhaustive look at variants of Groucho’s usage can be found here.

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