Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

The Island of Misused and Abused Words

March 16, 2010

Alan Sokal

Burl Ives

Misused Words–Dastardly, Dilemma, Prodigal, Abominable

Dastardly (it means cowardly, not detestable)

I think we all know who the culprit is on this one: Daffy Duck has been alternating this term of disparagement with the word despicable for phonetic effect for years, confusing generations of American youngsters.

Dilemma (it means a situation requiring a decision between two equally undesirable alternatives, not merely a situation requiring a painful resolution)

As with so many other ills that afflict our society, I blame Dr. Laura for this one. The McTherapy Maven and her callers abuse this word on a daily basis.

Prodigal (it means profligate, not reckless or rebellious)

We tend to think of the biblical Prodigal Son in terms of his wayward foolishness rather than his extravagance, which is probably why the word is often incorrectly used to describe a rogue rather than a spendthrift.

Abominable (it means loathsome or disagreeable, not monstrous)

We can trace this common linguistic blunder to an unlikely perpetrator, the avuncular actor and folksinger Burl Ives. That’s right, his masterful annual narration of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer conditioned millions of Americans to forever link the words abominable and snowman.

Abused Words–Heuristic, Ontological, Semiotic

Thanks to the heroic efforts of Alan Sokal, Katha Pollitt, Stephen Katz and other brave souls, the Emperor’s Clothes are now visible and the literary abomination know as postmodernism (or post-structuralism) is finally being driven from the halls of academia. But I’m afraid that the many casualties of this wretched interregnum include three undeserving victims: Heuristic (serving to point out, stimulating further investigation), Ontological (relating to the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such) and semiotic (pertaining to signs/symbols).

Sadly, these three fine words have been reduced to mere markers indicating oncoming highfalutin literary gibberish like this absurd sentence by Roy Bhaskar that Stephen Katz discovered:


Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal—of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideisticfoundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psychosomatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacywithin its ontic dual; of the analytic….

Katz humorously points out that, “The sentence contains 55 more words, but is harder to follow after this point.”

by Richard W. Bray

Cool is a cool word

September 3, 2009

cool word

Cool is a cool word. It is extremely elastic (twenty-eight definitions in dictionary.com), but I’m more impressed with its staying power.

The Urban Dictionary has 128 definitions for the word cool, including:

#5. An adjective referring to something that is very good, stylish, or otherwise positive. It is among the most common slang terms used in today’s world.

#16. Perhaps the ultimate slang word.

#32. [A] word that can be used by everyone, young and old and not sound weird, too modern or used [exclusively] by any certain race.

The amazing thing about the word cool is its linguistic longevity. Synonyms for cool (definition #5, very good, stylish, or otherwise positive) have come upon the scene with great speed and regularity over the last fifty plus years. This is probably because coolness has a strong element of exclusivity. As soon as the old and uninitiated latch onto the latest word for cool, it’s not cool anymore, and a new word will quickly emerge to take its place. Here is a partial list of words for cool which have come and gone over the last several decades (in no particular order):

Groovy, neat, hip, def, phat, heavy, bitchin, awesome, swell, sick, wicked, fresh, radical, gnarly, hunky dory, stupid, keen, radical, dope, sweet, fly, key, live, chill, tight, excellent, boss, dandy, hunky dory…

All of these words, usually sooner rather than later, have fallen by the wayside. But not so for cool, which inexplicably lives on and on.

by Richard W. Bray