What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 7 of 126

RSVP Post Script

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In his book, The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson notes: “[T]he French do not use … R.S.V.P. for répondez s’il vous plait. (Instead they write: ‘Prière de répondre.’) “

It looks as if Zoe — and her parents — may need to know this.


RSVP not de rigueur

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I just snagged a coworker in the hallway and asked coworker whether that person is planning on attending a book club meeting tonight at my home. Coworker replied in the affirmative. (Coworker will remain anonymous because I do not wish to embarrass coworker for not sending me a gilt-engraved RSVP, delivered on a silver platter by a white-gloved butler, or at least a footman.)

Other book club members have sent IMs and/or emails, letting me know whether they can attend. Along with accosting my coworker, those forms of communication are fine with me for such an event. I don’t need a formal RSVP, and I have a perfectly good reason. If I don’t know an exact count of attendees, I can overbuy wine and appetizers and then happily consume the leftovers. I do realize, of course, that instead of going to waste, they’ll go to my waist, but ‘tis the season for overindulging, after all. I’ll make an early New Year’s rez to hit the gym more often.

Yes, as noted in a Dear Annie letter on 6B today, RSVP means “please respond.” More precisely, it means “respond, if you please,” which is a direct translation from répondez s’il vous plait. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase came into English from French around 1845.

Illustration special to the Sentinel


The power of one

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hurrah! Modifiers such as “really” or “very” were not placed in front of the word “unique” in the quote above.

In strict usage, “unique” is an absolute. Something or somebody is unique … or not. Not kind of, not sort of, not rather.

That’s because the word comes from the Latin “unicus ‘single, sole,’ from unus ‘one,’” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The meaning "’forming the only one of its kind’ is attested from 1610s,” the dictionary adds.

The quote above contains a bit of irony about not being just a number. If you are unique, you are a number. You’re singular. You’re a solo act. You are the power of one. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education in her country, is an inspiring example of that power.

Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Martha Graham eloquently expressed the idea of the power of one when she noted, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.” (Source: brainyquotes.com)

Malala Yousafzai in the Oval Office
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Martha Graham by Yousuf Karsh (1948)
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia



A sea monster of biblical proportions

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, November 14, 2013

In the modern sense used in the headline above, “leviathan” means something that is powerful or huge. Concluding his letter to the editor about his concerns over Obamacare, Alan Metcalfe refers to “a leviathan state consuming and controlling one-sixth of an economy already on the ropes.”

“Leviathan” comes to English from a Hebrew word and is found in the Old Testament. The book of Job lengthily describes it as a terrifying sea monster with flames shooting from its mouth.

According to Webster’s, the leviathan “was variously thought of as either a reptile or a whale.”

The complete description of the leviathan in Chapter 41 of Job can be found at http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+41&version=NI

"Destruction of Leviathan”
1865 engraving by Gustave Doré
Photo of engraving courtesy of Wikipedia



A complementary compliment

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An immediate reaction to clue 41 across in today’s crossword puzzle could be, “Who’s Yang and what nice thing did he or she say?” Discerning readers, though, will note there is no “i” in the second word, so it does not mean praise.

“Complement” and “compliment” started out from the same Latin word, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Both words wend their way back to the Latin word, “complere ‘to complete’" the dictionary notes, adding that the word had to do with the “notion of ‘complete the obligations of politeness.’” Perhaps in ancient Rome one’s manners were considered incomplete if one did not routinely sing the praises of others.

In the sense used in the clue above, “complement” means a complete set. Another of its meanings is “that which completes or brings to perfection,” according to Webster’s. For example, home decorators frequently use “complement” to describe painting one wall in a different color than the other walls in a room; the color must be of a hue that helps complete the aesthetics of the room. Car manufacturers are careful to ensure the colors in the interiors of their vehicles complement the colors of the exteriors.

Speaking of automobiles, here’s a tidbit about Seattle businessman Craig McCaw, who has been quite successful in the cellular phone industry. In 2012 he was able to fork over $35 million for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, according to Bloomberg News. The car was first built for British race driver Stirling Moss, according to the same source.

McCaw apparently does not believe he is entirely a self-made man. On Brainyquotes.com he is quoted as saying, ” I think the way I look at things gives me a different perspective. I'm most valuable when I work with a team of bright people who complement my weaknesses with their strengths.”

So, there you have it: a complementary compliment.

Page 7 of 126


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