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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: meaning, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 13 of 13
1. What do Your Stories Say About You? - Heather Dyer


Last week I did an event at my local library to promote my new children's book The Flying Bedroom. A few children turned up - but a few adults came along as well - some of whom knew me and perhaps were there out of curiosity about the sort of thing I write.
After the event one of them came up to me and said he'd he loved the ideas in The Flying Bedroom- "so many metaphors!" he said, and looked at me knowingly.

"Yes," I said, self-consciously. "I know."

Perhaps this is why I always feel slightly awkward when reading my stories to adults. Like dreams, our stories are full of symbols – and symbols are the way our unconscious sends us messages. You don't have to be a psychiatrist to figure out the issues I’m still resolving – you just have to read my children’s books.
In fact, they say that the people in our dreams aren’t themselves at all – they just represent alternative versions of ourselves. Might the same be said of the characters in our stories? Might Elinor be me?
In one adventure in The Flying Bedroom, Elinor wakes up and is appalled to find herself in bed on centre stage, with an entire audience waiting for her to perform. Insecure? Moi?
In the next adventure, Elinor finds her bedroom stranded on the moon and longs to get back home again, to that blue-green marble on which resides 'everyone she knew and everyone who'd ever been'. Might she be trying to tell me that, despite the fact that I love living alone, I do need people after all?
Is it Elinor or me who says, 'the world is a big place; it seems a shame to stay in one place all your life when there's a world out there waiting to explore'? - then contradicts herself by saying: ‘it's only when you're far from home that you can see how beautiful it is'? And surely it is Elinor – not I – who speaks the line: "I don't want to kiss Prince Charming!"

The intention to reveal our innermost selves is never intentional - but when we make up stories from the heart, it happens regardless. If we try to deny that our stories reveal something about us,  we're like the psychiatrist's patient who is asked to 'write down his dream and bring it in next week to be analysed’. The patient thinks he'll pull the wool over his psychiatrist’s eyes by making something up from scratch, instead. Then, when the psychiatrist analyses the ‘dream’ the patient says, ‘Ha! But it wasn't a dream - I just made it all up.’
And the psychiatrist just smiles and says, 'same difference’.
Do your stories reveal something about you?

0 Comments on What do Your Stories Say About You? - Heather Dyer as of 7/3/2014 3:44:00 AM
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2. Thoughts On The Search For Meaning

Some experiences in life make us all the better for having had them, even if we may not believe that to be the case at the time. Often we may not recognize the goodness or richness inherent in an experience until much later, especially the mentally or physically or emotionally challenging ones.

Maybe that delayed learning is the essence of human adaptation in the face of seemingly unbearable pain or change---letting go when it seems no good can come of it or holding on for dear life to all that seems to have meaning.  And sometimes both of those sentiments are wrapped up in one event, symbolic gesture, touch or sound.  Who hasn't been catapulted decades back at the sound of a few chords from a song or felt tears well up at the sight of a tri-fold American flag presented with the thanks of a grateful nation to a bereaved mother or young widow?

Occasionally we are blessed by the gift of understanding even in the very same moment. Those instant revelations seem to fill our senses to bursting as we struggle to absorb and appreciate the full measure of their meaning on the spot---as a new baby first suckles at its mother's breast or with the exchange of trust when a new driver is given the keys to a car on his or her first solo date.

Perhaps the blessing is surviving those life events to allow understanding to occur in the fullness of time. That is, maybe individual experiences only become more meaningful as we age. Layered one upon another, they seem to make us wiser, stronger, more complete---like the plies and cross plies in plywood or the over-lying layers of fiber glass in a boat hull.

Time allows us to process what has occurred into why it happened in the first place.  In those first few proximate moments, the why often remains hidden, sometimes in plain sight.  Yet it waits to be discovered when our vision has cleared and we are ready to see.

1 Comments on Thoughts On The Search For Meaning, last added: 5/9/2012
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3. Wise Words





WISE WORDS TO LIVE BY
============================================


People say that what we're all seeking in life is a meaning for life.


I don't think that's what we're reallyseeking.


I think that what we're seeking is anexperience of being alive...
~ Joseph Campbell

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4. Politician: Compliment or Curse?

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the connotations of the word “politician”.

I like to revel in my own ignorance. This is admittedly not a very difficult thing to do – I am constantly discovering things that I don’t know. These previously unfound things are interesting, and I am glad to learn of them, but the real joy comes in discovering not just something new, but rather something old that I’ve been wrong about for years.

I was given a chance to find out how wrong I was about something recently when a woman with the splendidly improbable name of Kiwi Carlisle wrote to me about one of her pet peeves: “politicians who feel it’s appropriate to insult one another by using the word “politician“.” In wondering why they would so describe their opponent she asks “Are they stupid, deluded by their advisers, or simply hypocritical?” In the hopes of finding out which of the three it was I began looking though some dictionaries.

My assumption, based on absolutely nothing aside of the vague yet powerful feeling I often have that tells me that I am right about something, was that politician is a word that formerly described a noble, patrician sort of fellow, and that this word has recently been actively debased by people who are intentionally misusing it as a description. I may not disagree with the notion that politicians are inherently worthy of contempt, but I was fairly sure that this particular insult was a recent addition to the definition. I was, of course, completely wrong in my assumption.

According to the OED, the earliest use of politician is defined as: “1. a. A schemer or plotter; a shrewd, sagacious, or crafty person. In later use also (esp. U.S. derogatory, influenced by sense A. 2b): a self-interested manipulator, whose behaviour is likened to that of a professional politician.” The first citation is from George Whetstone’s 1586 The English Myrror.

The OED does provide a number of other senses for the word, and when we arrive at 2b we find the one that I think most people commonly draw to mind when asked what a politician is: “A person who is keenly interested in practical politics, or who engages in party politics or political strife; now spec. one who is professionally involved in politics as the holder of or a candidate for an elected office.” But even under this definition there is a note that states “In the 17th and 18th centuries, usually with opprobrious overtones.”

Given that the OED stated that this word was derogatory especially in the U.S. I thought to look in some of the dictionaries and reference works that deal specifically with American usage. I turned first to Mitford Mathews’ grand and magisterial A Dictionary of Americanisms, one of the greatest works on that subject. It was no help at all, providing no definition for politician other than “the white-eyed vireo” (which is a type of bird). However, the other American dictionaries I looked at (The Century, Worcester’s, and a few 19th century Webster’s) all seemed to list the word with some pejorative connotation.

I then reasoned that this word was initially considered derogatory, but had gone through some magic amelioration and come to now usually describe a well-respected member of our country’s elite. After all, don’t we often hear of children wanting to grow up to be the nation’s president? And isn’t the president just another politician? A quick glance at Mencken’s American Language set me straight on that: “From Shakespeare onward, to be sure, there have been Englishmen who have sneered at the politician, but the term is still used across the water in a perfectly respectful manner to indicate a more or less dignified statesman. In this country it means only a party manipulator, a member of a professionally dishonest and dishonorable class.”

Every current dictionary that I looked in makes mention of the word politician having negative meaning, although it seems to no longer be the primary meaning in any of them. Based on this I’m now of the opinion that it has always been a somewhat dirty word, but is less so now than before; and furthermore is, as are so many words, in a state of flux.

I love watching words change meaning like this, and I find endless enjoyment in the immutable mutability of language. I was talking about the shifts in the meaning of politician with my girlfriend Alix, and she wondered aloud what terms of opprobrium we use now might in a hundred years time have changed to mean something less offensive than they do now. I remarked that I found it odd that children would want to grow up to occupy the position at the pinnacle of Mencken’s professionally dishonest and dishonorable class and Alix responded “Just think, maybe one day our great-grandchildren will aspire to grow up to be the Jackass of the United States of America.”

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1 Comments on Politician: Compliment or Curse?, last added: 9/28/2008
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5. Honest – Podictionary Word of the Day

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When I married my wife I made her an honest woman.

Does that mean she was dishonest before?

Usually these days people think of an honest person as one who doesn’t lie or cheat on their expense claims but when the word honest came into the language 700 years ago it had a slightly different meaning.

rba1_36Someone who was honest was someone who held an honorable position.

This is the meaning honest brought with it from French where it had appeared a thousand years ago from Latin.

Suddenly the phrase “make an honest woman of her” makes sense, she is entering the honorable state of marriage.

The “honorable” meaning has now gone out of the word honest but in Shakespeare’s time both meanings were in use, and although he doesn’t use the phrase with respect to marriage, he does use the term “honest woman” several times and with both the “honorable” and “not-dishonest” meanings.

It was thirteen years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 that the “to make an honest woman of” phrase first appeared in literature.

Another more recent phrase is “honest injun”—as schoolboys might say when swearing that they aren’t exaggerating about something.

This usage dates first from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer in 1876.  Sources differ in their speculation on where this phrase came from.

Certainly injun means a “North American Indian” but while the Oxford English Dictionary thinks the phrase refers to secure promises made by Indians, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says early settlers referred to themselves as honest injuns in contrast to the dishonesty they felt the Indians displayed.

Finally, Hugh Rawson in his book Wicked Words feels the phrase used to be used derisively, meaning someone who was an honest injun wasn’t honest at all.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

0 Comments on Honest – Podictionary Word of the Day as of 1/8/2009 6:57:00 PM
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6. Meaning and Health

Cassie, Publicity

Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College. Henry Biller is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Rhode Island. Their new book, Hope in the Age of Anxiety, is a look at how we can be happy and healthy in a world filled with economic collapse, natural disasters, poverty, and the constant threat of terrorism. In this excerpt, they look at how finding meaning can positively affect your health.

What is meaning in life? Many lengthy philosophical essays have been written on this topic, but one of the most compelling descriptions can be found in a pithy five-page article written by philosopher Robert Baird. In Meaning in Life: Created or Discovered, Baird reduced the meaning-making process to three essential life tasks: cultivating depth and quality in your relationships, committing yourself to projects and goals, and fashioning stories that place your life in an ultimate context. Note that, once again, the big things in life come down to attachment, mastery, and survival, or in other words, hope. Perhaps this is why theologian Emil Brunner proclaimed: “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.”

Meaning in life is both a destination and a vehicle. As a destination, a meaningful life can be viewed as a desired end state or goal: every human being has a need to lead a life that makes sense to him or her on a personal level. As a vehicle, meaning making can pave the way to better health: being fully engaged in the flow of life and having a deep sense of purpose can make you more resistant to illness and extend your life. In both senses, the personal meaning in one’s life, like a potentially effective exercise program, usually requires some adjustment if it is to be sustained over time, and for many, that adjustment includes the incorporation of established traditions such as religious faith. But regardless, the meaning that one finds in life supports health because it solidifies hope.

Meaning as a health destination. Meaning is hardly a luxury item for a social animal endowed with prominent frontal lobes and a keen sense of future survival. Meaning is basic to human life. No amount of money or power can take its place. If these earthly gains sufficed, we would never see many of those who have them in spades destroy themselves with drugs, eating disorders, or other self-destructive behaviors. Horace Greeley put it well, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident . . . riches take wings.”

Meaning as a vehicle to better health. Individuals infused with meaning are well anchored. They have strong relationships, a potent sense of mastery, and an unwavering sense of purpose. In short, they are brimming with hope. What are the health benefits of such deep centeredness? Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed that those of his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz who were able to sustain some sense of purpose were less likely to succumb to illness. More than even food or medical care, a meaning-oriented outlook preserved the immune systems of these survivors.

Psychologist Carol Ryff has been among those who believe that meaning and purpose in life reduces allostatic load, the wear and tear of biological reactivity to stress. To the extent that spiritual beliefs impart meaning, this may be why high religious involvement tends to be associated with fewer cardiovascular crises and greater longevity. In a sense, the meaning-centered individual is less likely to be tossed adrift by what Shakespeare dubbed the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Ryff and her colleagues tested the meaning hypothesis by studying 134 women, ages 61 to 91. They assessed both hedonic (joy and happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (meaning and purpose). Greater meaning and purpose, rather than more joy and happiness, emerged as the better health predictor. Specifically, those who reported greater eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines as well as higher levels of HDL (”good” cholesterol). They also had a healthier body mass index.

The ability to derive meaning is also important for those already diagnosed with a serious illness. Denise Bowes of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and her colleagues conducted detailed interviews of nine women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “Hope” and “finding meaning” were the two most important factors that determined perceived well-being. As one woman put it, “If you don’t have hope, then you don’t have anything really.”

The role of meaning as an illness buffer seems to be especially important for older individuals. One of us (A. S.), in collaboration with psychologist David McClelland, explored the impact of derived meaning, chronic illness, and age on reported morale in 80 younger (25 to 40) and 80 older (65 to 80) adults. The findings were fascinating. Older individuals were better able to derive meaning from experiences with illness than their younger counterparts. In addition, despite reporting twice as many chronic illnesses as the younger group, the older adults had significantly higher levels of morale. What accounted for this surprising finding? It appeared to be derived meaning. Among older adults, meaning was the strongest predictor of morale, exceeding by a factor of ten to one both the importance of age and the number or severity of chronic illnesses.

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7. Five Whacky Words From Binkdonk’s Dictionary

Serious Word “age”

I love words.  They are fun, they come in all kinds of languages, you can rhyme them, say them for nothing, say them quietly or loudly or even not at all and, best of all, they are easy to exploit.  One word can have several meanings, and if you add  extra letters to them, they can mean even more.

One of my very favourite things, as a matter of fact, is to play the “age” game, I add those three letters to random words to see if it works.  Sometimes the “g” is soft, as in “massage”, and sometimes it is a hard “g” like the word “message”.  The words may end up as nouns or as verbs and once in a while you can turn a noun into a verb or vice versa.   Usually the hard “g” turns it into a noun type of word and the soft makes it a bit more verb “ish”.  

Bless is a good one, “blessage”  (hard “g”) is a word I use when someone sneezes, it means “bless you” in Binkdonk’s dictionary. 

Burp is interesting because it uses both types of “g”.  “Burpage” (soft “g”), is what you do with gassy infant.  Burpage (hard “g”) is usually what happens after guzzling a carbonated beverage much too fast.

Fail;  not what anybody wants to do, however, “failage” (hard “g”) happens when tests are not studied for or when there is a lack of focus and intent in whatever is attempted (nothing that some serious planning cannot overcome). 

Spank is my favourite! “Spankage”, (soft “g”)  is reminiscent of a spanking that relaxes you, it even sounds like it when said in a soft voice.  On the other hand, “spankage” (hard “g”) is what you get when you don’t obey.

Whip, as unlikely as it seems, makes sense.  “Whippage”, is what you get when going through dense forest undergrowth at any kind of rapid pace.  Especially if the person ahead of you is just letting the branches fling back at you.  Try to go first, in order  to prevent this calamity from happening to you .   

Oh! The possibilities are endless. There is also the option of changing the meanings of words that already have the “age” suffix.  Just by making it hard or soft. 

Do be careful with the soft “g’s” in case it sounds too pretentious but have fun and really enjoy that sound as it slides out of your mouth.

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8. Five Whacky Words From Binkdonk’s Dictionary

Serious Word “age”

I love words.  They are fun, they come in all kinds of languages, you can rhyme them, say them for nothing, say them quietly or loudly or even not at all and, best of all, they are easy to exploit.  One word can have several meanings, and if you add  extra letters to them, they can mean even more.

One of my very favourite things, as a matter of fact, is to play the “age” game, I add those three letters to random words to see if it works.  Sometimes the “g” is soft, as in “massage”, and sometimes it is a hard “g” like the word “message”.  The words may end up as nouns or as verbs and once in a while you can turn a noun into a verb or vice versa.   Usually the hard “g” turns it into a noun type of word and the soft makes it a bit more verb “ish”.  

Bless is a good one, “blessage”  (hard “g”) is a word I use when someone sneezes, it means “bless you” in Binkdonk’s dictionary. 

Burp is interesting because it uses both types of “g”.  “Burpage” (soft “g”), is what you do with gassy infant.  Burpage (hard “g”) is usually what happens after guzzling a carbonated beverage much too fast.

Fail;  not what anybody wants to do, however, “failage” (hard “g”) happens when tests are not studied for or when there is a lack of focus and intent in whatever is attempted (nothing that some serious planning cannot overcome). 

Spank is my favourite! “Spankage”, (soft “g”)  is reminiscent of a spanking that relaxes you, it even sounds like it when said in a soft voice.  On the other hand, “spankage” (hard “g”) is what you get when you don’t obey.

Whip, as unlikely as it seems, makes sense.  “Whippage”, is what you get when going through dense forest undergrowth at any kind of rapid pace.  Especially if the person ahead of you is just letting the branches fling back at you.  Try to go first, in order  to prevent this calamity from happening to you .   

Oh! The possibilities are endless. There is also the option of changing the meanings of words that already have the “age” suffix.  Just by making it hard or soft. 

Do be careful with the soft “g’s” in case it sounds too pretentious but have fun and really enjoy that sound as it slides out of your mouth.

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9. You might be a writer if...

Have you ever asked the question, "Yes, but...what do they really mean?"

Everybody has asked that at least once, right?

But, do you find yourself asking it a lot? Wondering what the true meaning is behind any conversation? Certain there must be a hidden meaning, if only you could find it?

You might be a writer if...you think everyone speaks in code.

At first, I thought this side effect of writing stemmed from the hazardous amount of rejection we writers expose ourselves to. Example: promising rejection letters that include a phrase or two about how the writer could make the manuscript better. They are so heartening. They mean, we are sooooooo close. But then, how close? And how could I really make it better? And why, suddenly, do the well-meaning editor's words seem like a code?

And then I'm off on a tangent dissecting, resectioning, imbueing, inferring, laboring without pause to get to what the editor really meant. Because it's hidden in there somewhere. It can't possibly be on the surface for all to see.

Because what my characters say never is. How could it be. Readers would never stand for it. They don't want idle chitchat. Fillers. Uh's and um's. Beating around the bush. They want code. They want puzzles. They want to get lost in a story and have to do some deciphering. They want a little fun! So we authors stylize, hide, weigh, infer, encode. We encode! Because everyone is doing it.

I think.

Maybe. 

Oh, what do they really mean?

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10. Criminals database


Stylized 3D illustration regarding automation of data about criminals using a computer database.

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11. Sandman


mattwileyART

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12. Lite Beer and Donuts, or, Does Spelling Reform Have a Chance?

anatoly.jpg

By Anatoly Liberman

At the beginning of June, on the technological campus of Coventry University the British Simplified Spelling Society, now called Spelling Society, with Simplified expunged from the title, celebrated its centennial (centenary). As the theme of the conference the organizers suggested “The Cost of English Spelling.” The society and its ally the American Literacy Council were founded at the peak of public interest in spelling reform. Between 1908 and 2008 many edifying publications came out, and some of the best linguists on both sides of the Atlantic showed the weakness of the arguments repeated again and again by the opponents of the reform. However, a century passed, and despite all those activities English spelling has undergone only a few cosmetic changes (like hyphenation in American English), so that there is nothing to celebrate. And yet there may be a glimmer of hope.

The cost of teaching English spelling is enormous. The money spent on drilling the most nonsensical rules in any modern European language and on remedial courses could have fed and educated a continent. (I have the statistics but will skip the numbers.) Although Spelling Society has lost the game, the world at large has not won it. The establishment refused to institute changes, and, as a result, speakers (native, immigrant, and foreign, both young and old) have become less proficient in reading and writing than ever. Now we are dealing with several generations of the illiterate offspring of illiterate parents.

Since the end of the Second World War life in the West has changed dramatically, partly for the better, partly for the worse. Today more than ever in the recent history of our civilization popular culture has the ascendancy over “high” culture. It is not only our age that witnesses the triumph of popular (low) culture: such is the law of all social development. If it were otherwise, we would still be wearing wigs and using declensions and conjugations of the type known from Latin. In language this trend can be observed in both big things and small. For example, the swift substitution of -s for -th (comes for cometh, and the like) signified the encroachment of vulgar speech on the time-honored literary norm. In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff’s boon companions use this ending. Even the Authorized Version of the Bible was unable to suppress this novelty. Today no one cometh and no one goeth.

In recent memory (George Babington Macaulay would have said within the memory of men still living) jeans with a prefabricated rent at the knee became fashionable and more expensive than elegant and unimpaired trousers (pants). The vilest language is allowed in songs, on the screen, and in printed production, whereas in 1908 one could not pronounce the words pregnant and underwear with women around. Highbrows made careers explaining to the eager public the profound goals of the hippies and the surpassing value of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Bras and ties were abolished along with other signs of bourgeois hypocrisy. Only our orthography stands like an impregnable rock in this ocean of change. But the “masses” did not remain indifferent to the preservation of this last relic of the past, and here I come to the subject of the moral cost inflicted on learners by conservative English spelling.

The first point on the list can be called serene resignation. When provoked by the most egregious misspellings in students’ papers, I chide the culprits gently (ever so gently), the answer usually is: “Oh, I know, I am an awful speller.” It is sad to teach people who have never taken geography at school or are, to quote one of my listeners, “lost in space and time” on hearing the word crusades, but the pilot will take passengers to their destination without asking them for directions, and the Middle Ages ended before we were born. In contrast, one has to write something all the time. Yet our orthography is such that people are happy to admit that they are dummies. A state-sponsored inferiority complex is a rather high moral cost for sticking to antiquated spelling.

Point two is the opposite of the previous one. The world in which college graduates are unable to distinguish between principle and principal and think that the past tense of lead is lead has produced its ugly antidote, namely the spelling bee. The contestants cram hundreds of useless words and come away empty-handed because in the last tour they may miss bogatyr “a Russian epic warrior” (the word is not in the memory of my computer). Wouldn’t it have been more profitable to read Russian fairy tales rather than wasting the brain cells on the words one will never see or use? It is an open secret that the most ambitious parents hire coaches to prepare their children for collecting bitter spelling honey. Prestige and prizes are involved in this losing game.

The masses, as I said, have been reduced to the state of blissful illiteracy and will support spelling reform. They have already abbreviated everything. University is simply U. I teach at the U. of M. (University of Minnesota), students in Salt Late City go to the U. of U. (the University of Utah), and if u (= you) want to move south, hire a truck with the sign “U Haul” (that is, “You Haul”) and go there (their) real quick. U Haul to the U. of U., jingling all the way! Text messaging (called texting in British English) and so-called emotics follow the same route. BRB “be right back” cannot be misspelled. Ads vacillate between two extremes: they play on fake nostalgia and invite us to visit their “shoppe,” as in good “olde” times, but also offer lite beer and donuts (curiously, dictionaries now recognize donut as a variant of doughnut—a revolution from below). Simplified spelling is with us, unless you have noticed it. If Spelling Society succeeds in harnessing the energy of popular culture and steers clear of its excesses, it may eventually turn the tide.

However, there is a fly in the ointment. The reformers have always tried to achieve all at once, forgetting the fact that educated people are averse to rapid shakeups of spelling. Any reform that writes giv and hav on its banner is doomed to failure: it will be rejected unanimously by the left and right. Initial changes should be almost surreptitious: first persuade the powers that be (I have no idea where, in the absence of language academies, such powers hide) to abolish the difference between till and until, spell and dispel. Then remove k- in knob and knock (but retain it in know, to preserve its union with acknowledge). Get rid of c in scythe, as well as in excellent, acquaint, and their likes. Dispense with final -b in dumb (pretend that it is a back formation of dummy) but retain it in numb and thumb because of their weakly sensed affinity with nimble and thimble. It is only the underhand “donut way” that may guarantee success: chip away at one word after another. The process will take several decades, if not longer, but, once people agree that change is needed, they will allow the reformers to introduce proksimity, telephone, and perhaps even krazy (not a Romance word!) and wipe out the difference between descendent and descendant.

Necessity has taught us to recycle all kinds of products. Pubs have gone smoke free. We are saving energy, albeit on a small scale. People do all such things, for they realize that they either comply or perish. There is no joy in raising children who know that they are dum(b) and see no means of improving their status. Nor do we want all words being reduced to capital letters. WBA (it will be awful). Investing money in teaching English spelling as it exists will have the same effect that investing millions in Soviet collective and state farms had. But drawing on the experience of that country, we should beware of repeating its other mistake. Post-communist reformers preached that one cannot jump over a chasm in two steps: democracy, market, and privatization—all overnight. A jump indeed presupposes a single effort. But why not build a bridge over a chasm? If spelling reform becomes reality, the English speaking world will emerge from a dark cell into dazzling daylight. This can be accomplished only by passing through many intermediate stages. Lite beer and donuts are the right sustenance on this way.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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13. Uppity-up

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the word “uppity”.

Last week a member of the House of Representatives, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, created a stir when he used the word uppity in conjunction with Michelle and Barack Obama. As reported in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Westmoreland said “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks they’re uppity.”

The remark has drawn wide-spread coverage, and no small amount of condemnation from people who are of the opinion that uppity is what has been delicately termed ‘a racially-tinged’ word. Westmoreland himself has staked out the rather bold position that it is possible to have lived in the South for some five decades and not be aware of the potentially offensive meaning of this word, and offers his own ostensible ignorance as proof of this.

The question of whether the Representative from Georgia is or is not lying has been written about in many other places, as has the question of what would be the appropriate response from the Senator from Illinois or his wife; so have all the other questions of propriety of social discourse, and I’ll not mention them further. What I find interesting is just how difficult it is to really capture the nuance and breadth of a word such as uppity in the dictionary.

It appears to be widely acknowledged that the word has connotations of racism, at least as it was applied to the Obamas. Indeed, much of the commentary has focused on the fact that it would be surprising (or hard to believe) that Westmoreland did not know that he was using a racist turn of phrase. And yet a brief check of several contemporary general dictionaries (the OED, Merriam-Webster, the Encarta) and we find that none of them include this information in their definitions, or in a usage note.

So how should a dictionary address such an issue? It seems like an unwieldy solution to suggest that it could specify that such a word should be used with caution under some narrowly defined set of circumstances (such as ‘may be perceived as insensitive or racist when used in a disparaging sense by a Caucasian speaker referring to a non-Caucasian person or group’). And yet it also seems undeniable that it is in fact used this way, if not by Westmoreland than definitely by others.

One way to address this would be to show the connotations of the word through its use in citations, as the OED does with so much of our vocabulary. But although the OED provides nine examples of uppity being used, from 1880 through 1982, only one of them shows the word being used in an obviously racist sense. And some other dictionaries do not provide such examples at all (such as the American Heritage online dictionary, which has a citation taken from a New York Times article from 1981, which says that some members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet thought that Alexander Haig “was getting a little uppity and needed to be slapped down” – no one will read that as being racially tinged).

I wonder if there is a limit on how well a dictionary can really capture the nuance of a language in such circumstances. Especially when one bears in mind that Senator Obama’s running mate, Senator Biden, was similarly taken to task for his use of the words clean and articulate some months ago. I don’t know whether they were intended as implicit slights (what reason is there to think that a well-respected senator would be anything but clean or articulate?), but I can see how it would be possible – and yet I’ve not found a dictionary that documents that these specific words are sometimes used thusly.

It is interesting to me that, Westmoreland’s protestations aside, uppity falls into the category of words of which we can say that we “just know” what they mean, without their being defined in a reference work. It exists with an unwritten social definition, and I cannot help but imagine what other words have come and gone through the last few hundred years, unremarked upon by dictionaries past, yet implicitly understood by the speakers of the language.

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