What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

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Moving words help capture moving story

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing a one-column headline can be challenging. The “hed” writer has to capture the essence of a story in just a few short words. An example is the headline on Libya above, which contains two strong action verbs, reel and escalate, to help summarize the story.

The country of Libya is not physically staggering, which is the literal sense of reel, but normalcy for millions of citizens there certainly is being buffeted by the government’s lethal crackdown on protesters. So, reel, in the sense of shaky uncertainty, is an appropriate word to use.

Escalates, in this sense, means to expand or grow rapidly. It is a back formation from the Americanism escalator, which was once a trademarked name for, of course, a moving staircase. The trademark was taken from elevator and the Italian word scala, which means steps, according to About.com (http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blescalator.htm).

(A back formation is when a word is created when the affix of another is taken away. Two examples are edit from editor and diagnose from diagnosis, according to Webster’s.)

Ironically, escalate has been an American word adopted by the Italians, meaning to intensify, add to or rise, according to mydictionary.net (http://www.mydictionary.net/italian/scala.html).

Look for more action verbs as headline writers continue to encapsulate news updates of people risking their lives for reform. For more details on today’s story on Libya, go to our print edition or e-edition and/or head to www.gjsentinel.com for any breaking news.

Map of Libya courtesy of Wikipedia


Trevor’s trophy harks back to ancient warfare

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, February 21, 2011

Age and cunning beat out youth and skill every time. Not.

At least not in the case of Trevor Bayne, the 20-year-old who is now the youngest driver ever to win the Daytona 500.

On Sunday Bayne held off much more experienced drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., David Ragan and Tony Stewart, to claim the winner’s trophy. In accepting the trophy, he participated in a rite that goes back thousands of years.

Rewarding a winner with a trophy originated in ancient Greek and Roman times, when soldiers would pile up captured weapons and other spoils of war from their enemy to symbolize their victory, according to Webster’s. The Greek word tropaion meant a symbol of an enemy’s defeat.

Bayne alluded to the possibility of having enemies when he joked that one of his competitors might come after him while he slept Sunday night. (Some might now consider him the bane of their existence.) After all, they were also driven to capture a prize with huge symbolism in the racing world: the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

“The Harley J. Earl Trophy is named after famed General Motors car designer Harley Earl. Earl, the second commissioner of NASCAR, was the designer of the Chevrolet Corvette; his Firebird I concept car provides the basis of the automobile that sits atop the trophy,” according to Wikipedia. Wikipedia also explains that the trophy “stands about four feet tall, and five feet wide, and is in the same triangular "tri-oval" shape of Daytona International Speedway.”

It is important to note that Bayne does not get the actual trophy. It is only removed from a museum close to the racetrack to appear in Victory Lane along with each year’s winner. Instead, each year’s winner gets a replica of the trophy,

“The replica trophies weigh 54 pounds (24 kg), and measure 18 inches (460 mm) tall, 22 inches (560 mm) wide and 12 inches (300 mm) deep,” again according to Wikipedia.

After knocking off such fierce competition, Bayne probably doesn’t mind taking a home a knockoff trophy, especially since a $1.46 million paycheck is another part of the spoils of this racing war. To learn more details of his unexpected victory, check out today’s print or e-edition.



A rock and hard decisions

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, February 18, 2011

In the ”hed” above, the word “adamant” is used as an adjective. It means inflexible, unyielding or insistent.

Before looking it up in Webster’s, I would have been inflexible and unyielding in insisting that it is only an adjective. I’d have also been wrong.

The meaning of adamant in ancient times was a “hard stone or other substance that was supposedly unbreakable,” according to Webster’s. In that sense, the word works as a noun.

We could consider a diamond an adamant. Wikipedia notes that “both adamant and diamond derive from the Greek word αδαμας (adamas).” It meant untamable.

A diamond is so hard that it rates a 10 on Mohs’ Scale, a scale a German geologist named--you guessed it!--Mohs created in 1812 to show relative hardness in minerals. (For more details, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohs_scale_of_mineral_hardness.)

We can deduce, then, that the adjective that means unyielding has morphed from a noun meaning an unbreakable stone.

National legislators may feel they are encountering unbreakable substances as they try to carve into our country’s debt. Speaker John Boehner insists that Republicans will push through spending cuts in Congress, but a front-page story in yesterday’s paper notes that even he is conflicted about what to fund and what not to fund. (“Obama, GOP freshmen win fight to cancel $450M for jet program”)

While lawmakers know that cost-cutting will likely create hardships, they also fear that doing nothing will create a mountain of debt that cannot be broken up. In that way, they are truly between the proverbial rock and a hard spot.

As noted yesterday, below are synonyms for fight:

“To engage in a quarrel: argue, bicker, contend, dispute, quarrel, quibble, spat, squabble, tiff, wrangle, hassle, tangle. To strive in opposition: battle, combat, contend, duel, struggle, tilt, war, wrestle. A physical conflict involving two or more: fistfight, fisticuffs, scrap, scuffle, tussle, rumble. A discussion, often heated, in which a difference of opinion is expressed: altercation, argument, bicker, clash, contention, controversy, debate, difficulty, disagreement, dispute, polemic, quarrel, run-in, spat, squabble, tiff, word, wrangle, hassle, rhubarb, tangle. “ -- Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus


Fighting words

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, February 17, 2011

These wrestlers aren’t the only ones in a fight to win. Today’s front page contains plenty of fighting words, though in various shades of meaning. Check out the highlighted headlines below to see what I mean.

A “fight” has arisen between the owners of the Fruita Health Club and Fruita’s city council over a new community center. The owners of the health club claim that the city of Fruita has taken business away from them by including a fitness center within the community center. A headline writer puckishly summarized this dispute as “a fit over staying fit.”

At the bottom right of the front page is a story is about a man who was asked to leave the local IRS office because he had a dog with him. Claiming that his sidekick is a service dog, the man eventually gained entry—along with the dog.

This story’s headline starts out with “Spat leads to debate.” The word “spat” means a “brief, petty quarrel,” according to Webster’s. “Debate” is a fight of another sort, a civilized one that uses words.

The simple subject in reporter Amy Hamilton’s first sentence is “dust-up.” This word is a synonym for fight. We have to think about its connotation, or shade or meaning, though. It means a minor fight, hardly on the scale of the War on Terror.

To the right of that story is the headline: Obama, GOP freshmen win fight to cancel $450M for jet program.

Here, fight once again means debate. Republicans in the House of Representatives were divided as to whether they should vote to cut funding for a jet program. In the end, those who wanted the cut got their wishes.

At the top right of the front page is this headline: Lawsuit claims negligence in death of racer.

This story is about a lawsuit filed by the parents of a nine-year-old girl who died while go-kart racing last August. A lawsuit is filed when people seek justice from other people over alleged wrongdoing. In a lawsuit, the fight is also carried out mostly with words. Lawyers for both sides will argue the case in a civil court, using the history of the incident as they see it. Then a judge or a jury will decide which side in the case is correct.

“Fight” has become an all-purpose word to describe different types of conflict, ranging from minor arguments to physical scuffles to full-blown wars.

If we were to use any one of these news reports as a basis for a short story or novel, we would label them external conflict, or conflict that is happening between individuals, or groups of people.

Right now, I have an internal conflict as to how to end this blog entry. Should I give more synonyms for “fight” or should I let you find them in your dictionary? Hmmm, tough decision, but I’ll compromise. I’ll invite you to look some up, and tomorrow I’ll list others that I know. Phew! Internal conflict resolved.



Bittersweet word can get under our skin

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To understand the word “poignant,” it helps to think about our five senses: smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing.

Webster’s says that the first meanings of poignant are “sharp or pungent to the smell, or, formerly, the taste” and “keenly affecting the other senses.”

Poignant comes from the Latin word pungere, meaning to prick. That helps us understand other definitions given by Webster’s: “sharply painful to the feelings; painful [and] evoking pity, compassion, etc.; emotionally touching or moving [and] sharp, biting, penetrating, pointed.”

For an example of a poignant news story, refer to the WIAW blog entry for Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010.


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