Tag Archives: Language

The E of A

As an observer of people and language, and an expert in neither, I enjoy watching the changes that take place in how people identify things.  Over the years we’ve become much more comfortable with acronyms, and the proliferation of texting has made the increase in acronyms even greater.

Acronyms aren’t new, of course.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation has always been the FBI.  The importance of the NAACP’s acronym is so great that they keep the words “Colored People” in their name in order not to mess with those initials.

There has certainly been an “E” (evolution) of “A” (acronyms) over time, and sometimes it is hard to keep up with them.

Kids who are out of control used to be called “wild.”  Over the years that has changed to ADD or ADHD.  We could add a letter to that if a person was considered to be “Type A.”  ADHDA is unpronounceable, but maybe we can buy a vowel so it could be.

The area of sexuality has been in the news a lot over the past, oh, forever, but especially the past year or so.  At one time, people were thought of to be “normal” or homosexual.  Then, as society became more accepting, the term “Gay” became popular, with other people being “straight.”

When I was in college, the acronym “LGB” emerged, covering people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  Sometime between then and now the transvestite community joined in, placing a “T” at the end.

Much more recently – a day I must not have been paying attention – the letter “Q” was added.  I understand that it means “Questioning.” If it were up to me, I’d have picked “U” for undecided, but it clearly wasn’t up to me.

In some respects I think Facebook got it right when they provided the “It’s complicated” option under the category of “relationships.”   The world of gender surely has become complicated.

So, with LGBTQ as the acronym for that “community,” I wonder if there are more letters to come.  There could be an “A” for androgynous, a “D” for disinterested, or an “R” for retired.

Honestly, I have no concern over what people do as individuals or what they decide to call it.  At this stage in my life the acronyms that most concern me are things like CD’s, SSA, IRA, FDIC, NASDAQ, and PSA (prostate specific antigen).

I’ll stay tuned for updates in the world of acronyms, though, so I can pretend to be knowledgeable and on top of things.


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Real Life

There’s an old phrase: “Life imitates art.”  It can be interpreted various ways, but it is odd how sometimes things happen that seem unreal and fictional – or even fanciful.

I remember a Memorial Day weekend when we lived in Duluth.  We were planting our little garden when I noticed it was snowing.  I realized I was planting snow peas at the time.  Not an earthshaking coincidence, but still…

More recently, and far less happily, it was reported that an angry camel bit off a man’s head.  So for all those times when somebody who was being criticized said, “Don’t bite my head off,” we now know if can happen.

Back when we used to cut and bale our own hay, the expression “make hay while the sun shines” took on a literal meaning as storm clouds rolled in when we had another load to finish.  Making hay has other meetings, as does hitting the hay, or a roll in the hay.  None are enhanced by rain, though.

The expression “nothing is sure except for death and taxes” took on new meaning at the VFW fish fry in Stoughton last weekend when we noticed that the placemat had a mortuary and a tax preparation service listed.  For some reason that reminds me of the Archie’s Monuments location that used to be on Highway 26 north of Watertown which also featured miniature golf.  A very interesting combination business.  Watch out for the last hole!

Another tragic example of late: the man who attempted suicide by stripping naked and breaking in to the lions’ area at a zoo.  Throwing someone to the lions is supposed to be a metaphor.  It’s hard to imagine even the most jaded movie script including suicide by lion.

Life has imitated science fiction for many years, from rocket travel to artificial intelligence.  In fact George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” were, I guess, social-science fiction books that speak to thought control (Facebook?) and constant monitoring by the government (cameras everywhere in cities, cell phones being monitored…) 

Life imitates art in good ways too, of course.  It doesn’t often make the news, however. 

I don’t want to make too big a deal out of all this.  Rumor has it that there is a mole hill somewhere that might be made into a mountain, if we’re not careful.


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That Word

                What if I were to write about a word, but never actually use the word?  Why would I do that?  Well, for starters, it is a word that never used to be said in polite company, isn’t allowed on broadcast media, and wouldn’t be allowed in this newspaper.  It isn’t racial or otherwise ethnic, just coarse, crude, and inappropriate.

                It is a word that is, I think, purely slang in nature.  It can be used as a verb, an adjective, an adverb, an exclamation, and any number of utterances, none of which really make any sense nor add anything useful to a conversation.

                The word has shock value, which is why many comedians, who are not confident in being funny in other ways, use the word often, because audiences who are uncomfortable with what they are hearing tend to laugh, like when somebody burps (or makes other body noises) in church.

                Shows on the pay TV channels enjoy using this word as one of the reasons to charge people to subscribe to their services, in addition to showing various body parts from time to time.  The Fox TV program “Mad TV” did a parody of “The Sopranos” as if it had been edited for broadcast TV.  Of course, with that word removed the scenes hopped around like a flip book, and each show was ten minutes long.

                Plenty of otherwise decent people feel perfectly fine about using the word on Facebook and other internet postings.  In fact, there’s a very good science education site that uses that word in its name, for reasons that completely escape me.  More than once I’ve thought of sharing something very interesting from that site, but haven’t, since I’m uncomfortable passing something along with that word on it.

                Am I a prude?  Maybe a little, gosh darn it.  Mostly, I think that incivility has its roots in language, even if it is used innocently.  But we have enough linguistic tools at our disposal without using the nuclear option, don’t we?  After all, if I call someone an idiot, do I really need to say what kind of idiot that person is? 

                Anyway, it’s food for thought.  And, if you still don’t know what word I’m referring to, good for you!


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Word Antiques

I’m not always that happy about change happening, but it would be foolish to think it can be stopped. Even Amish people ride in cars, though they still won’t drive them. At least not yet. For better or worse, change happens constantly, and – ironically — that will never change.

When things change, sometimes the words of the past remain, or evolve into new meanings. Automobiles are replete with such examples. Unwieldy old cars required the driver to use gloves to turn the starting crank and such, so the little box in our cars is called the “glove compartment.” Anybody have gloves in yours?

The “trunk” is named after the location where an actual trunk would be lashed to a vehicle. And, the bottom of a car is called the “under-carriage.” I would hardly refer to my car as being a carriage.

The kitchen is another place for older language. My parents sometimes called our refrigerator an “icebox,” because when they were young, the iceman came(th) and they put ice in the box where the food was. A “stove” is really a “range,” but the word stove comes from the wooden cook stove that both warmed the kitchen and cooked the food. The word “pantry” originally meant where the bread is kept, not the place we keep our pants. A lot of older people call “aluminum foil” “tin foil,” which preceded the modern aluminum product before World War II.

In communications, things have really changed. The idea of “dialing a phone” goes back to the rotary dial, which has all but disappeared. Even “touching” the numbers isn’t required the way it was on a “Touch-tone” phone if you use voice commands. And, if you were to ask someone to define a “phone” now, the function of speaking with someone would probably not be in the top five functions they use, behind texting, looking at Facebook and Twitter, taking pictures, and listening to music.

Also, the term “hang-up” comes from physically hanging the telephone receiver on the phone’s cradle. These days we should say “disconnect.”

Sending a “fax” is now almost obsolete, along with the word, which is short for sending a telephone facsimile. “Typing” something implies a typewriter is involved, but few of them are still in use. Only multi-part government forms calling for carbon copies require typewriters. Speaking of keyboards, you can tell someone’s age if they use the term “return” for the key that says “enter” on computer keyboards.

I don’t pretend that I’ve kept up with all the changes, and I also confess that I use a lot of words that don’t make any sense any more. I’ll hang-up the phone and type for the rest of my life, no matter what you want to call it.

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Write or Rong Words

While at the columnist’s conference in our nation’s capital earlier this past summer, one of the workshops was about writing sensitively about race and culture. The panelists were four very experienced and knowledgeable writers, all African American.

They provided some good insights into some of the unintended messages writers might send by not being aware of, or sensitive to hot-button words and phrases. It was a good panel, and much of what was shared made sense to me. Surely, communicating ideas in a respectful manner can only improve how we perceive each other.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the topic of sensitive language, and wondering if it’s possible to be sensitive and sensible. I recalled the brouhaha that occurred when a legislator used the word “niggardly,” which means being a cheapskate, and has nothing to do with the “N word.” He was forced to apologize, not for what the word meant, but for what people with limited vocabulary thought it meant. Would I have chosen that word? Probably not. But, it is a good word.

Color seems to be a minefield. In South Africa, before their democratization, people were considered to be “white” or “non-white.” I’m not sure how that worked for people who were mostly Caucasian, or people from Asia, but it applied both to how people were described and what rights and freedoms they had.

In our country we have had the most trouble coming to a consensus on how we refer to people whose forebears were removed from Africa and brought here against their will. “Negro” was once an appropriate term. Now it is not. “Afro-American” was in vogue in the ‘60s but the longer version, “African American,” is more typical today. “Black” is still okay, I think. “Colored people” was once fine, but not now, though “people of color” is the favored term, though it brings in other minority groups as well. So, the words “people” and “colored” can go from not okay to okay by re-ordering the words and adding “of.”

Actually, the NAACP has the word “colored” in their name. I guess they had a lot of letterhead printed, and didn’t want to change it. Same for the United Negro College Fund.

South of our border, there are a lot of people – many of whom have crossed the border by now – and we tend to group them by the fact that they speak Spanish. They are mostly not of Spanish descent, but we call them “Hispanic.” People from Chile and Guatemala have little in common with people from Mexico or Puerto Rico, other than language, but we call them all “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

When we get into the delicate topic of how Hispanic immigrants get here, it is considered insensitive to call people who crossed the border illegally “illegal.” “Undocumented” is preferred. To me, “undocumented” means that I lost my driver’s license, not that I entered a country without permission, but that’s just me.

The term “Orientals” is very passé, with “Asians” being the new correct name. Asia is huge, though, including people in India all the way to China and beyond. Then there are “Pacific Islanders” who populate the Philippines, Hawaii, etc.

And, we have “Native Americans” now where we once had “Indians.” I’m fine with either name. And, to be honest, I’m fine with all of the names above. I don’t think it is right to focus on someone’s ethnicity or culture, but there are times when it is useful to have group names to identify people. Intermarriage may ultimately make all this a moot point, or at least complicate it. I’ve heard people use the term “ethnically ambiguous” applied to fashion models of mixed race. Maybe that will become the dominant category someday.

If you get right down to it, some people like to be insulting, some people are, perhaps, overly-sensitive about being insulted, and some people are under-sensitive about the words they choose. I guess the best strategy is to try to be sensitive, and to give people the benefit of the doubt when they aren’t.

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Ists and Isms

The other day I was pondering how and why certain words are chosen to represent certain groups and behaviors. For example, are we Deerfield-ites and Cambridgians, or Deerfieldians and Cambridge-ites?

More to my point, though, are words like writers, editors, and teachers, but also words like escapists, rapists, and artists. Who decides who gets the “er” or the “ist?” Escaper sounds like that could work. Arters doesn’t right at all.

Groups we don’t like, like rapists, facists, racists, communists, and sexists get the same suffix as artists. So do capitalists and socialists.

But people who see homosexuals the way sexists see women are called homophobes. It’s interesting that out of all the “ists,” people in that category get a suffix that says they are afraid of homosexuals. I guess some people who are troubled by homosexuality may be afraid of gays and lesbians, but I’m not sure all of them are.

Using that strategy, sexists would be called female-aphobes, and communists would be called freedom-aphobes. If anything, people of color who are afraid of whites might be correctly considered race-aphobes, given the improving, but historically unfair treatment they’ve received.

And, we could probably coin the term “hetro-aphobes” to refer to homosexuals who don’t like straight people. I honestly haven’t met any, but they may exist.

Some terms are confusing. A naturalist likes nature, while a naturist goes au natural. Vegetarians eat vegetables. Humanitarians don’t eat humans, fortunately, and veterinarians don’t eat veterans, except in very rare cases.

In my lifetime, we’ve all become more aware of the power of words. Non-sexist language has turned firemen into firefighters, policemen into police officers, mailmen into letter carriers, and manhole covers into utility access portals, or something.

As a father of two daughters, I’m glad that they saw fighting fires and crime as career options, and not something for men only. But I also know that word choices can cause a slant in perception. For example, a capitalist sounds less friendly than someone involved in free enterprise, and that the terms pro-choice and pro-life are attributed to opposite sides in the dispute, but do not have opposite meanings.

In an era when the world of technology has commandeered words like icon, friend, tweet, like, mouse, cursor, hash, and tag, it may be tempting to become cavalier about how we use words. I guess it’s always struck me that words really are important, and that we owe it to others to use words in a fair and clear way, and owe it to ourselves to question the use of words that misrepresent.

For now, I’m going to continue to be a write-ist, and avoid being a naturist, at least until it is much warmer.

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