A Fortune Cookie? With Footnotes?

A couple of days ago, I had a dream that probably only an editor can truly appreciate. So I made this image to share. Enjoy!

I dreamed I opened a fortune cookie, and the fortune had footnotes!

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What does “anodyne” mean? It’s really not very exciting.

Bland. Dull. Boring. Insipid.

Those are some of the synonyms listed in one dictionary for “anodyne.”

Are you familiar with that word: anodyne? It’s certainly been getting a lot more use lately. Why is that? The word has been around for a long time (since the first half of the 16th century, as both a noun and an adjective, according to the OED), with the primary meaning of ‘something that soothes pain’ (either physical or psychological). It was always
uncommon, but use steadily dropped across the 20th century (as determined using Google Ngrams).

Anodyne seems to have taken on a slightly different meaning in modern use, more along the lines of “harmless.” Collins Dictionary supplied the synonyms listed above, and in 2007 the OED included an additional draft definition, which is worth giving here in full: “Unlikely to provoke a strong response; innocuous, inoffensive; vapid, bland.” They date the first use of this sense to 1933 (but skip more than 40 years for the next example, which might be meaningful but could signify absolutely nothing).

Anodyne recently seems to have gone from being one of those words you could—quite literally—go a couple of years without encountering to one that you can hardly avoid on a weekly basis. Over the past few months, I’ve heard it used in speech almost regularly and have come across at least one print use (without looking for it). In a sure sign that something is viral (I’ve been infected!), I caught myself using the word a couple of weeks ago. While anodyne is, of course, a perfectly good word, I can’t remember ever having a pressing need to use it. But I’d caught the bug. (In my defense, I used it correctly and the context was appropriate.)

This kind of uptick in popularity does seem to spread like an infection, affecting more and more victims over a greater and greater area. Fortunately, when this sort of outbreak happens with language, it rarely causes any harm. Whether the fever runs it course, or we collectively develop immunity, or the epidemic continues to rage, no one is really going to

Every once in awhile a word like this comes along and the source of the contagion (to stick with the infection idea) is clear: it’s the media.* We can’t blame all such outbreaks on the media, but the sudden popularity of an unusual word is often the result of journalists, commentators, columnists, or others with a broadcast forum, who hear an unusual word, decide that it has some cachet in the moment, and then repeat it. Before you know it, it seems like every talking head is dropping that word into their own speech or writing. You know this is true: I’ve noticed similar word trends in the past and you probably have, too. For instance, a few years ago every financial journalist and commentator under the sun seemed to be using the word “tranche.” In very little time, all sorts of non-financial speakers were also using it (often incorrectly). “Curate” (frequently used without regard to accuracy) is also a word that’s reached infectious levels over the past few years. Another that I’ve got my eye on is “weaponize” (which might be overused, but seems to usually be used correctly—as long as you view it as a metaphor rather than literally). Tranche has largely faded back into obscurity, but curate seems likely to retain its new prominence; if I had to place bets on the others mentioned here, I’d guess that weaponize will stick around but that anodyne will recede again before long.

I say that about anodyne in part because the meaning doesn’t seem to be agreed upon by those who use it. Take a look, for example, at the four sample sentences given on that Collins page linked above (about halfway down the page). They lack context, but I challenge you to nail down an unambiguous meaning in any of those cases. This murkiness can’t be explained by the fact that Collins selects examples using an algorithm, with no editorial review: those examples were pulled from literate publications (three from the Sunday Times) and show how the word is actually used in the wild. (Merriam-Webster has more solid—and more up-to-date—examples.)

When a post on this site focuses on contemporary usage of a word, I often give a little advice on how or when or why to use it. That advice is heavily opinionated, but based on careful observation and personal impressions. For anodyne, I see no good reason to say “don’t use it.” Go ahead: it’s a good addition to any English speaker’s vocabulary and it has
the potential to liven up your speech and, especially, your writing. However, I suggest using it judiciously. It’s not a word you want to use too often, and it’s definitely going to work better in some situations (political writing, for example) and with some audiences (readers who are familiar with current events and debates) than others. I would also suggest that context is important, since the word today has two related but not identical meanings. Make sure when you roll this one out that it’s clear when you mean “easing pain” and just as clear when you mean “dull.”

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* I have used the convenient shorthand concept of “the media” in this post to save space. But it’s not an idea I’m very comfortable with. The way this concept is used in contemporary America is extremely sloppy. It’s frequently political, often inflammatory, and more often than not incorrect. I hope you’ll forgive my leaning on the term in this case.

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“Do these genes make me look fat?” Maybe. Or maybe it’s the obesogens.

If you have a weight problem and you think it’s not entirely your fault, there might be something to that belief. Researchers have identified a number of substances that might act on organisms, including humans, in ways that cause them to gain weight above and beyond what would be “normal” for their biology. This idea has critics, but it’s supporters cite a growing body of evidence in favor of it. And they’ve got a label for any substance that acts biologically to cause an animal to gain weight: obesogen.

The term obesogen is gaining acceptance in specialized circles (and has occasionally made its way into more accessible venues), but it’s still very new. All sources seem to agree that it was first used in a 2006 article in the journal Endocrinology by Felix Grün and Bruce Blumberg. Their contention was that some chemicals not natural to the body, specifically certain persistent organic pollutants, can inappropriately act on receptors at the cellular level. This can in turn trigger reactions that interfere with normal metabolism, and those changes ultimately promote obesity. The authors were careful to note that the mechanisms leading to obesity are complex and that further research into the existence of obesogens (or obesogenic compounds) is needed, but they made a good case.

The idea of an obesogen had been around for some years before 2006, but Grün and Blumberg seem to be the first to put a name to it in print. Some sources on the web imply that others should get some credit for this term—and, in fact, uses of “obesogenic” as an adjective have been found as far back as 1983 (Merriam-Webster asserts 1970, but provides no citation). It’s interesting (but not unprecedented) that usage allowed for the description of a process more than two decades before it advanced to applying a generic noun to specific (and hypothesized) compounds. As has often been pointed out in other contexts, “you can’t patent an idea.” Grün and Blumberg took the extra step and deserve credit, until and unless an earlier citation turns up. (As an aside, Blumberg noted in a recent article that they didn’t set out to discover obesogens; they were researching something else, but the concept explained an effect they were seeing.)

Obesogen is still new enough that not everyone has encountered the term and some use it cautiously. Even last year, a publication as up-to-date as Science News still put the word in quotation marks to denote novelty. In 2018, the word has suddenly seen a lot more use and has made it’s way into the public eye. There’s less controversy today over the idea that obesogens exist and act as theorized, but there’s more over the suggestion that the effect of obesogens might be passed from parents to their offspring. This enters the world of epigenetics, which is beyond the coverage this simple post can offer.

The construction of the word obesogen is straightforward. It has two parts, obese and  gen, “fat” and “making.” Obese (and obesity) entered the English language in the early 17th century, from Latin through French. It strikes me as slightly unusual in that it’s a word that has become more technical in recent decades—many words drift in the other direction, starting out as specialized terms and becoming less precise over time.

Gen is ultimately from a Greek root (the same as in genesis, homogeneous, and oxygen). The literal meaning is closer to “to be born” or “to become,” but modern usage shifts that slightly to “causing” or “giving birth to.” It was first used in the context of chemistry in the late 1700s and has since spread to many scientific fields.

You’re probably familiar with at least a few other words that use a similar -gen form (often as -ogen or -agen) . A carcinogen (1853) is a substance that causes cancer. A mutagen (1946) is something that causes mutations. A pathogen (1880) causes disease. Those readily come to mind, and there are many others. I’ve included the dates for first known use for each of these to show that there’s no clear pattern to which form comes first, the noun or the adjective: carcinogenic (1916), mutagenic (1946), pathogenic (1850). Counting obesogen (2006) / obesogenic (1983), two of these pairs evolved in one direction, one in the other, and one pair arrived together.

One of the characteristics that marks a language as a “living language” is that its users continually create new words. English has no trouble qualifying by that criteria: the Oxford English Dictionary adds well over 1,000 words to its catalog every year, while some sources have estimated that more than 5,000 new words are created annually. A great, short article on how new words come into existence can be found here.

As long as English is alive, we’ll keep seeing the creation of new words like obesogen…and I’ll always have something to blog about!

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Great minds think alike…?
Obesogen” came to my attention through the September, 2017, Science News article linked above.* I had picked it out as the topic for this month’s post some weeks back, and as I was finalizing this draft noticed that The Guardian beat me to the punch: they named it their word of the week only a few days ago. I hope you find my post on the word more informative than their superficial take.

*…Or so I thought. The super, super careful regular reader of this blog will note that more than five years ago I mentioned obesogenic in the 2012 WOTY summary post (February,  2013). But it went in one ear and out the other at the time and I was only reminded of that post when it came up as related to this one while selecting tags.

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Thou Shalt Not Use “Shall”

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that a large chunk of my work in recent years has been for law firms. When you work in that domain you have a lot of exposure to “legalese,” both in the common derogatory sense (legal writing meant to obscure) and the non-judgmental sense (the everyday use of specific jargon within that particular industry).

Not all legal writing is bad (see: Judge Posner), but you don’t have to read too many decisions to get a sense of how bad some of it can be. Too often there are unnecessarily long sentence structures; convoluted chains of reference to previous precedent; and a self-conscious and deliberate use of words and syntax that would be considered obsolete or archaic in any other context.

One of those words is “shall.” Shall has been effectively extinct in popular usage for decades, but it continues to live on in legal usage.

Or does it?

Click to face this verbal zombie

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Asportation: Unnecessary Wordiness…or a Retronym in Process?

It’s been a while since I’ve done a vocabulary post on a legal word (surprising, considering that a good chunk of my recent work has been for law firms; that’s been so successful that I’ll soon be offering a new service specifically for legal clients).

In the past, I’ve covered a few unusual words that appear in legal contexts (and issues of legalese; see: usufruct, burglarious, this, and this). Today, let’s look at “asportation.” It’s not about aspiration or transportation; airports or teleportation; perspiration or trainspotting.

Take a deep breath, then click here.

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