words about words

I love Radiolab’s podcasts, and I especially love this one. I’ve listened to it several times, and each time it fills me with a sense of just how crucial language is. I suspect that at least part of my fascination with language stems from the fact that my brother, who is a low-functioning autistic and really cool person, doesn’t speak or write. David’s quite eloquent with body language, though, and his circle of family and friends has learned to read it pretty well. I sometimes think about all the things that must be going through his mind that we’ll never know and wonder if his brain lets him think in ways we can’t.

David can understand all the things we say to him, though, and even taught himself to read without our realizing it. So he’s by no means without language, unlike some of the people you’ll hear about in this highly recommended hour-long Radiolab podcast called “Words.” Enjoy!

We meet a woman who taught a 27-year-old man the first words of his life, hear a firsthand account of what it feels like to have the language center of your brain wiped out by a stroke, and retrace the birth of a brand new language 30 years ago. (description from the Radiolab website)

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Writative

by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Writ’ative, a. inclined to write as an author.

Word in the Wild: Vicki used pencils to put up her hair so that she could write at any time whatsoever. She wrote while riding the bus, wrote in her dreams, wrote her own vows, and wrote with the alphabet noodles in her soup. She once tried to go a whole day without writing but inadvertently wrote a journal entry about how hard it was. Vicki is, hands down, the most writative person I’ve ever met.

The OED‘s definition of writative stresses that a writative person doesn’t simply write a lot, but is actually addicted to writing, impelled to put words to paper. I think this is an addiction well worth pursuing.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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The Great Typo Hunt

by Heather

Recommended Read

Deck, Jeff and Benjamin D. Herson. The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World One Correction at a Time. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010. [ISBN-13: 978-0-307-59108-1]

So what do you do if you want to change the world and your superpower is a knowledge of grammar? If you’re Jeff Deck, you climb in your car; kit yourself out with chalk, markers, correction fluid, and a cowboy hat; and offer to fix people’s typos from sea to shining sea.

I wondered when I first opened this book if I was going to be following the adventures of a prescriptivist finger wagger trying to regain an imagined golden era of English by chiding and correcting the harried sign makers of the retail world. That didn’t sound like a very fun book to me. So I was happy to find that my fears were unfounded. Luckily Jeff Deck’s editing background means that while he knows his style guides, spelling conventions and grammar rules, he also knows that the these styles and spellings and rules vary from one time and place to another. His goal from the outset is to correct only those errors that are clearly mistakes and leave other variations alone.

Here's a typo I caught and released back into the wild.

So he and a series of stalwart co-correctors travel thousands of kilometres, tracing a circuit around the United States and ultimately finding a total of 437 typos* and correcting 236 of them, some by stealth, some with enthusiastic help, and some while vaguely hostile shopkeepers look on.

[click to continue…]

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Quodlibet

by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Quod’libet, n. a nice point for discussion.

Word in the Wild: Their discussion came to a standstill after Monique’s shocking confession, and the party goers looked desperately about for someone to save them from the conversational vacuum that followed. Lucky for them, Punam was in attendance and saved them all by tossing out a fascinating quodlibet.

The word quodlibet comes from Latin and means “whatever you please.” (Quod = what and libet = it pleases.)

And while The Vest-Pocket Dictionary gives us this colloquial use of the term quodlibet, the OED defines it as a specifically academic excercise wherein a student must answer any question an audience member wishes to ask about a particular field of study (which sounds a lot like a modern-day comprehensive exam).

Interestingly, the meaning of this word changes altogether should you add an s: according to The Vest-Pocket Dictionary a quodlibets is a confused or disconnected collection. And according to the OED a quodlibet (without the s) can also be a quibbling point of argument or a musical composition containing more than one melody.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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Pleonastic

by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Pleonas’tic, adj. containing unnecessary words.

Word in the Wild: Say what you will about Aunt Vera’s cell phone addiction, but I still prefer her 140-character texts to all the pleonastic emails she used to send.

The OED says this word dates back to 1776, but the noun pleonasm, meaning the use of too many words, goes all the way back to 1610.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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Recommended Read

Bartlett, Allison Hoover. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. [ISBN-13: 978-0-14-3116824-9]

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is the story of John Charles Gilkey, an inveterate rare-book thief; Ken Sanders, the rare-book dealer and bibliodick determined to catch him; and Allison Hoover Bartlett, the objective journalist who finds herself mesmerized by the dance between these two book lovers.

Who among us can enter a bookstore and leave empty-handed? I know it happens sometimes—it’s even happened to me once or twice—but it takes more than a little willpower to pull it off. What happens, though, if you just don’t have that willpower or the inclination to find it? And what if the shops you enter contain really beautiful rare books, books like the first trade edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit with a price tag of $15,000?

Well, if you’re John Gilkey, you steal them.

“[Ken Sanders] estimates that from the end of 1999 to the beginning of 2003, John Gilkey stole about $100,000 worth of books from dealers around the country. In the past decade, no other thief has been anywhere near that prolific. What was even more unusual, though, was that none of the items Gilkey stole later showed up for sale on the Internet or at any other public venue. It was this […] and the fact that some of the books he stole were not very valuable, that had Sanders convinced that he actually stole for love.” —Bartlett

Still, lots of us love books and manage not to steal $100,000 worth of them, so what makes Gilkey different? Bartlett asks that very question in this fascinating book, and I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy (via legal means) to find out how she solves that mystery.

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Looking for more literary high jinks and mystery? Here are a couple more recommendations for your reading list:

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

 

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Gonna catch a big one!

For as long as I can remember I’ve been completely fascinated by lexicography. I remember the second time* I went sans parents to the big mall in the city where I grew up… I was in seventh grade and I had saved up $20.00 for the outing. I had to hang on to half my money for the movie my friend Sue and I were going to see, and I was determined to get something fantastic with the other half.

We wandered around the whole place (probably twice), killing time before the show. Luckily she was as bookish as I was and didn’t mind spending a large chunk of that time in the bookstore. I don’t remember what she took home that day, but I bought an Oxford dictionary. It was totally awesome. (It was also the 1980s.) It was 4″ x 6″ with a 3″ spine, and I just knew it was chockablock with words I’d never met. We leafed through it in the theatre, waiting for the show to start, and I kept meandering through it in the years to come. I’m sure I looked up the occasional word, but that dictionary was something I read more for pleasure than for reference.

And I suspect that as a reader of this blog you’re also more than a little interested in dictionaries and the art of compiling them, so I thought I’d share this excellent TED talk with you. In it Erin McKean shares her passion for lexicography.

“When you think about words, you can make beautiful expressions from very humble parts. Lexicography is really about material science. We are studying the tolerances of the materials that you use to build the structure of your expressions, your speeches and your writing.” —Erin McKean

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*My first unchaperoned mall outing also resulted in a bookish purchase: The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It certainly sounded fancy and cultured, and it was handsomely bound (probably in leatheresque vinyl or something) with gilt-edged pages. How could I resist?

Sue and I divvied up the characters in Romeo & Juliet and performed the play (to the best of our hilariously limited abilities) in my room when we got home. I’m not sure we understood most of it, but we did have fun. And even when the plays were too hard for me, I did like the sonnets a lot.

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Elinguid

by Heather

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Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Well, it’s been a diuturnity since I last posted, but the radio silence is finally over. I’ve finished my publishing program (woo hoo!), and I’m glad to be blogging again. So without further ado here’s this week’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary, which is all about radio silence.

Elin′guid, adj. unable to speak.

Word in the Wild: By the end of Morag’s pitch detailing how the company could recoup costs by training the rats in the basement to run the photocopy machines, the CEO was positively elinguid.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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Bibliomania

by Heather

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Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Biblioma′nia, n. a rage for curious books.

Word in the Wild: Recent studies show that readers of the Word Blog suffer disproportionately from bibliomania.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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