What's in a Word?
Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel
By Debra Dobbins
Monday, August 16, 2010
“Conundrum” is a word worth knowing.
In its broad sense, it means a problem to be solved or a mystery. As noted in last Saturday’s story on 3B, the Buffs’ coach has the problem of deciding which of two talented quarterbacks will start games this season.
Webster’s first definition, though, is much more precise. It’s “a riddle whose answer contains a pun.”
Webster’s gives this example: “What’s the difference between a jeweler and a jailer?” Answer: “One sells watches and the other watches cells.”
Dictionary.com provides another example, one near and dear to my heart:
“What is black and white and read all over?” Yes, you guessed it: “a newspaper.”
If you find words in a newspaper that are conundrums to you, it’s almost always worth your time to look them up or try to figure out their meanings from their context--the words around them. (See Aug. 4th entry.)
When learning new words becomes habitual, reading becomes less of a conundrum and more of a pleasure.
By Debra Dobbins
Friday, August 13, 2010
Lady Gaga brought down the house last Friday night at Lollapalooza in Grant Park in Chicago. (Yes, that’s the same park in which President Obama delivered his acceptance speech in 2008.) Considering her scaled-down, yet over-the-top performance, it was fitting that she appeared at this venue.
The word “lollapalooza” means “something or someone very striking or unusual,” according to Webster’s. It is an Americanism, a word coined in America and sometimes exported to the rest of the world.
If you riffle through a dictionary, you will see hundreds of words preceded by a star. The star indicates that the word is an Americanism.
Perhaps the Americanism that has been most exported to the rest of the world is OK. According to Webster’s, “The term was coined in a Boston newspaper in 1839 as an abbreviation of the comic misspelling oll korrekt and was subsequently popularized as the name of a political club supporting President Martin Van Buren, who was nicknamed Old Kinderhook from his birthplace.”
You could be anywhere from Mumbai to Mozambique, and a taxi driver will understand the word OK. Thanks to satellite radio and TV, the driver may even be able to hum a few Lady Gaga tunes. Getting him to understand “lollapalooza” could be trickier....
By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Good headline writers could be formidable Scrabble players.
To successfully write headlines or excel at the popular board game, a person must have an extensive vocabulary that includes an arsenal of short words. Hard-core Scrabble players know, for instance, that if their last four tiles are the letters u-e-z-b, they can create zebu. It means an ox native to Asia and some parts of Africa.
One of our hed writers (who could likely trounce Scrabble opponents sans merci) came up with redux in the headline above. Webster’s definition of redux is “brought back, revived, restored, etc.” Words such as this come in amazingly handy when a writer must squeeze a lot of information into a short line.
The headline above summarizes the editorial’s observation that the GOP’s Scott Tipton will once again face Democrat John Salazar in a bid for a Congressional seat after a similar contest in 2006. In early November we’ll know who has scrambled to the top.
The editorial appears below.
By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
“Down to the wire” is an idiomatic expression that comes from horse racing. Long before we wired our world to enable us to capture every muscle twitch on InstaCam, a racetrack would have the old-fashioned kind of wire strung above the finish line to help spectators determine which horse placed first in a nose-to-nose finish.
The expression broadened over the years to mean any tight race.
Dan Maes has edged out Scott McInniss in the Republican primary bid for governor, so we can say the race went right down to the wire. Whether Maes remains the GOP’s choice is a “horse of a different color,” or an entirely different matter.
Meanwhile, Ken Buck could be considered somewhat of a “dark horse candidate.” He’s emerged victorious in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate over frontrunner Jane Norton. A dark horse candidate is one who is not initially favored to win.
This phrase also comes from racing. It means an unknown horse that is hard to place a wager on because bettors are uncertain about its capabilities.
As politicians head into the general election, we can only hope that each winner will use plenty of “horse sense“ in meeting the needs of Coloradoans.
By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Jeremy’s feisty, fed-up mom can chalk up yet another developmental milestone for her son. He now understands sarcasm.
Webster’s says that sarcasm comes from a Greek word that meant “to tear flesh like dogs, speak bitterly.”
In training to become a teacher, I learned not to use sarcasm with children. First and foremost, sarcasm teeters on the edge of rudeness or downright cruelty. Second, experts in child development say that children do not have sufficient language skills to recognize a speaker’s intent behind his or her words.
The ability to understand sarcasm must click on with the onset of teen hormones, because adolescents not only understand it, they often use this form of verbal jousting to great effect. Luckily for Jeremy, his mom knows how to lob back one-liners. Through her loving rebukes, he will probably learn when the use of sarcasm is OK and when it is not.
Webster’s gives some synonyms of the adjective sarcastic that are worth knowing:
Caustic – “implies a cutting, biting, or stinging wit or sarcasm [a caustic tongue]”
Sardonic – “implies sneering or mocking bitterness in a person, or, more often, in his expression, remarks, etc. [a sardonic smile]”
Satirical – “implies as its purpose the exposing or the attacking of the vices, follies, stupidities, etc. of others and connotes the use of ridicule, sarcasm”
According to Wikipedia, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift as an example of a satirical novel. Swift, an Irish author in the early 1700s, satirized human nature and also took a few jabs at the English court of King George I.
NBC’s Saturday Night Live is one modern-day answer to Gulliver’s Travels. Since 1975, its satirical comedy sketches have skewered politicians, the rich and/or the (in)famous. It’s a popular show for adolescents of all ages. Perhaps SNL should get at least part credit when teens such as Jeremy become experts in sarcasm.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia