What's in a Word?
Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel
By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
If the words in this headline are unfamiliar, reading the subhead helps us guess their meaning:
Using the context clues in the subhead, we can infer (logically guess) that diminutive dynamos are small but powerful football players. We can test our inference by reading the story. Sure enough, it provides details on Danny Woodhead, not quite 5-foot-8, and Darren Sproles, 5-foot-6, whose outstanding performances make them dynamite in small packages for their teams. (Check out the print edition or e-edition for the entire story.)
Dynamos, or powerful people, dominate other fields, too. For example, many people consider Bill Gates a dynamo in the computer world, Bruce Springstein a dynamo in the music world and Hillary Clinton a dynamo in the diplomatic world.
A dynamo also means “a generator that produces direct current with the use of a commutator,” according to Wikipedia. Webster's says that the word stems from the Greek word dynamis, which means power.
How many other synonyms for diminutive can you think of? Check Friday’s blog for a few more.
By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Giving someone the cold shoulder means to snub him or turn away from him. In this case, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf froze out head coach Brad Childress by firing him. Was Wilf’s decision cold-hearted? You may read the story in our print edition or e-edition and decide for yourself.
Through the centuries folks have claimed that this phrase came from the practice of giving an unwanted visitor the cold shoulder of mutton, rather than freshly cooked, hot meat given to guests enjoying a warmer welcome. According to several sources, though, this explanation may simply stem from folk tales. Scholars who like to delve into the history of words cannot find much proof that such cold cuts really existed.
What is documented is the use of the phrase by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish playwright, poet and historic novelist. According to Wikipedia, the phrase first showed up in Scott’s The Antiquary, a gothic novel written in 1816. Here’s a quote from page 69:
"Ye may mind that the Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther—at least it wasna seen fartha; but at the lang run it brak out into such downright violence that Miss Neville was even fain to seek refuge at Knockwinnock castle with Sir Arthur's leddy, wha (God sain her) was then wi' the living."
Wikipedia says that Scott again used the phrase both in a later novel and in a letter he sent to an editor. Scott’s spelling of “cold shoulder” did not survive over time, but the meaning of his phrase did.
Some people contend that “cold shoulder” is a cliché, an expression that is overused. (See yesterday’s blog entry.) I say we retain it to help us remember how to drop a hint in our modern, over-connected world. Who knows? If some of our Facebook “friends” appear on our doorsteps someday, we may have to feed them.
Sir Walter Scott
From Project Gutenberg's The Modern Scottish Minstrel, Volume I
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia
Cliches I hate
Cute as a button (The vast majority of buttons cannot be called cute.)
Slept like a log (Logs may rest on the ground, but they don’t sleep.)
Thinking outside of the box (It’s used so much that it now reflects thinking inside the box.)
Cliches I love
Cat got your tongue (Sorry, but the phrase brings up a Jules Feiffer kind of image for me.)
Knee-high to a grasshopper (Maybe this one’s overused because folks such as I love its whimsy.)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (I’ll concede that the grammar is bad, but the advice is wise. I would add: Don’t buy the latest version and toss the first one into a landfill.)
By Debra Dobbins
Monday, November 22, 2010
The cartoon above plays on a statement by a famous pop artist. Writing for the catalogue of an exhibition of his art in Stockholm in 1968, Andy Warhol said, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
His words are often misquoted or paraphrased, but what has remained in our collective consciousness is the phrase “15 minutes of fame.” It is somewhat of a cliché (cle SHAY), a phrase or saying that is overused.
A cliché, however, can come in handy. Because most of us recognize it, it becomes linguistic shorthand. We can blithely blaze from one cliché to another, confident that we’re making ourselves understood … just not in an imaginative way.
Cartoonists have been poking fun at clichés for quite some time. Consider the cartoon, “Our Three-Volume Novel at a Glance," by Priestman Atkinson. He produced it for the Punch Almanack for 1885, according to Wikipedia. Wikipedia further explains: “This is a jocular look at some clichéd expressions which were overused in the popular literature of the time. It contains absurd literalistic interpretations of a number of conventional metaphors, accompanied by some outrageous visual puns.”
Cartoon courtesy of Wikipedia
How many clichés do you know? I’ll list some that I either love or hate tomorrow.
By Debra Dobbins
Friday, November 19, 2010
Almost every time I read a mention of Harry Potter, I flash back to a hot day in July 10 years ago. My son and I made a detour en route to the Seattle airport on July 8, 2000. That was the day Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, and he wanted to read it on the plane ride back to Colorado.
My cousin kindly stopped at a bookstore to grant him his wish. In the store I decided that one copy simply wouldn’t be enough. I also wanted to dive back into Harry’s magical world, so I bought two. Reading the book side-by-side with my son in the friendly, pre-911 skies is one of my favorite memories.
Today I was surprised to see the teaser “Penultimate Potter” at the top of The Daily Sentinel. Penultimate means next to the last, and I was sure that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the seventh and last novel in J.K. Rowling’s series.
Glancing at the words below this tease, I realized that the use of penultimate actually did make sense. Producers of the movie version of the final Potter book split it into two parts; the first one is premiering now and the final part will take over the big screen next July.
So, there’s no need to cry into our butterbeer just yet. We Potterites get to anticipate still more cinematic magic.
By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Prolific means fruitful or producing a great deal of something. It is often used to describe writers who turn out many books. In this case, it means that Denver’s Kyle Orton and the San Diego Chargers’ Philip Rivers are likely to provide plenty of high-flying action when their teams meet next Monday.
Check out today’s print or e-edition for the rest of the story.