Children are experts at uncovering quirks in language use. Most of us, as we get older, become so used to the inconsistencies and the oddball idiomatic expressions that we no longer notice them. Kids, because they haven’t been exposed to as much language, are better at catching seemingly nonsensical turns of phrase, especially in once-common phrases that have faded to only occasional use.
Not long ago I was in a mixed conversation of adults and children when one of the adults used the term “panhandler.” The children had never heard the word before, and we shifted into a brief digression to identify synonyms (“beggar” was put forward, as well as the equally little-known “mendicant“) and speculate on the term’s origin. I knew at least one story, but I didn’t find it satisfying so I decided to dig further.
Let’s go panning (not panhandling) for more
Posted in Language, Things you should know, Words
Tagged beggar, closed compound, compound word, etymology, folk etymoloy, geography, homeless, mendicant, panhandle, panhandler, salient, Texas, Virginia
If you’re a writer or editor or someone who follows the latest developments (such as they are) of the English language, you’ve probably spent time on various grammar and vocabulary and writing advice sites. You’ll know some of the popular ones (Grammar Girl) or the elder statesmen (World Wide Words), or your taste might run to the more specialized (Garner’s LawProse blog) or the eclectic (Language Log). There are literally more than I could list.
You might have encountered some of the eccentric groups, such as the Plain English Campaign (PEC) with its awards for outstandingly bad use. An outfit like that can do some good, although their approach and success are limited (and they’re quite rightfully not without critics).
I sympathize with PEC, as most editors probably do: some of us spend a lot of our time simplifying over-wrought writing, and it’s not always easy convincing an author to stop bloviating and just say what they mean. It ever was and ever will be.
So stop bloviating and get to the point already!
Posted in Culture, Language, Things you should know, Writing
Tagged critical thinking, dead of summer, dead of winter, jargon, legal, legalese, Posner, rhetoric, weasel word
Not too long ago, I found myself writing a quick social media message for a seasonal organization that was shutting down for their off-season: a ski club, which has little or no activity between early April and early September.
The group was going dormant for a few months and a word that naturally came to mind was “hibernation.” In the first draft, something along the lines of “we’ll see you in the Fall, when we emerge from hibernation“ made it to the page.
As soon as I wrote that, I was pretty sure it made no sense. My Latin is exceedingly rusty, but I realized right away that this is a specific seasonal word. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought. ‘”hibernation” means to sleep through the winter.’ It’s right there in the word — hibernate is from the Latin hiberna (winter quarters) or hibernare (to winter — a verb which isn’t much used in modern English). The Latin for ‘winter’ itself is hiems, if you’re curious.
What then, I wondered, is the correct term? Is there an opposite to hibernate…to describe what an animal does when it sleeps for the summer? Before I could even look that up, new questions followed: hibernation seems a natural strategy for an animal to reduce energy use and go dormant when resources are scarce. Are there reasons why an animal might want to sleep through the summer? And are there any such animals? What are they?
You’re dying to know, so click for more.
A reader recently took issue with my long-standing recommendation to avoid the use of the “-st” variants of amid, among, and while (original 2013 post here). Our exchange about it was growing unmanageably long for the comments section, so I’ve gone and turned it into a full post for today.
The reader’s actual question was, essentially:
“is it more appropriate to talk about being amidst people or amongst people?”
All will be answered when you click here
Posted in Culture, Language, Requested, Things you should know, Words, Writing
Tagged affectation, amid, amidst, among, amongst, best practice, between, betwixt, google ngrams, ngrams, pretentious, reddit ngrams, style, unbeknownst, while, whilst
In case you missed it, the big news in writing style this month was an announcement by the AP style book that…
Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a minute. Let’s rethink that. The whole idea of “big news in writing style” seems wrong. Is there ever any “big news” when it comes to writing style?
Click for news, big and small
Posted in Culture, Language, Things you should know
Tagged AP style, big I, capitalization, chicago, generic, GMAU, internet, Interstate, little i, news, noun, proper noun, style, the Internet, web