What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 116 of 132

Super-sized words

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, November 5, 2010

Mega is a prefix that means large. It starts out words such as megabytes and megalopolis.

A megabyte is about a million bytes. When computers first came out, most of us considered a megabyte of memory more than we could ever use. Now we generally want at least one gigabyte (1,000 megabytes.) Some people say that soon we'll want even more, so we may decide on storage of one terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes.

Megalopolis comes from two Greek words meaning “great city.” In modern terms Webster's says it is “an extensive, heavily populated continuously urban area, including any number of cities.”

Below are photos of two megalopolises taken by NASA, our country's space agency. The top photo shows the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, which contains a chain of cities from Boston in the north to Washington, DC, in the south. The bottom photo shows a string of cities on the southern tip of Honshu, a major island of Japan.

If you’re wondering how many bytes of memory it took to store these photos, I’m afraid I haven't a clue!

NASA photo courtesy of Wikipedia


Taking a gander at goose and moose

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, November 4, 2010

Two well-composed photos of wildlife in today’s paper prompted this question: The plural of goose is geese, so why isn’t the plural of moose meese? The short answer: setting.

Setting is a literary term meaning both time and place. When we read fiction, we should know a story’s setting. Setting also helps us understand the origins of words. When and where did they come into use?

Goose has the longer and more complicated history of the two words. Webster’s says that it evolved in a roundabout way from the Latin word anser. (We still have the word “anserine,” meaning “of or like a goose, stupid or foolish,” according to Webster’s.)

The Romans brought Latin words into English in two ways: by conquering England and staying there for centuries and also by conquering Germanic and French people who ruled England at various times, too. Goose actually evolved from a Dutch and German word gans, which morphed from anser. It is why we also have gander, the name of a male goose.

Bill Bryson, author of The Mother Tongue, says the plural form of goose was in use during the Old English period in England’s history, which ran from A.D. 450 to 1150. During that time people formed plural words in at least a half dozen ways.

One way was to change the main vowels into different vowels. For example, mouse became mice, foot became feet and tooth became teeth. Eventually the language became easier to learn when most words were simply made into plurals by adding “s” or “es.” Geese, however, was one of the plural forms that did not change.

Moose came into American English much later and in a vastly different environment than Merry Old England. According to Webster’s, moose is an Americanism that was borrowed from the language of the Eastern Abenaki. They lived in the northeastern part of the United States and were part of the Algonquin nation.

Chances are that the Puritans and many other early settlers from across the Atlantic had never seen a moose before. Having no word for it, they took mos from Native Americans and turned it into moose. It’s unclear why its plural is simply moose. Perhaps mooses sounded awkward and the plural of mouse was already mice.

Goose and moose: two short, simple words that demonstrate our language’s long, complex history.



“Wi” I was wrong…

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Smug. That’s how I felt after reading today’s Pickles. Wi-Fi, I thought, is an acronym for wireless fidelity. I congratulated myself on being so tech-literate.

Humble. That’s how I feel now after researching the term. It turns out that Wi-Fi is a play on words from the term hi-fi, an acronym for high fidelity. A marketing firm coined the term for its client, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, the originators of the wireless networking technology. (Now the firm is just known as the Wi-Fi Alliance.)

“The technical term 'IEEE 802.11' has been used interchangeably with Wi-Fi,” according to Wikipedia. I’m glad the Wi-Fi Alliance opted for a term easier to remember.

An acronym, by the way, is a word formed from the first letter or first few letters of a series of words. Radar is a good example. It is created from (ra)dio (d)etecting (a)nd (r)anging.


Killing time’s benefits

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

After she tears her hair out, perhaps Jeremy’s mom can take solace in realizing her son knows what simile is. When he says, “Procrastination is like kryptonite to moms,” he is making a comparison using the terms “like” or “as.” That’s simile.

By mentioning kryptonite, Jeremy is alluding (referring) to something he knows his friend will understand: comic books and movies on Superman, a fictional American icon who has been around since the 1930s.

Kryptonite, an element found on Superman’s home planet, is lethal for the superhero. Bad guy Lex Luther discovers this and occasionally tries to end Superman’s storied career—and life—with it.

Two word parts of “procrastination” hint at its meaning. “Pro” is a word part that means forward, and “crastinus” was a Latin term meaning, “belonging to the morrow,” according to Webster’s. Procrastination means pushing a task forward to another day.

Procrastination is a fault, someone once said, that most people put off trying to correct. For many of us, it is probably worthwhile to heed Ben Franklin’s warning: “You may delay, but time will not."



A courtier of Camelot

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, November 1, 2010

The “lead” (opening sentence) of this article is eloquent (strikingly expressive). It also requires some background knowledge. What’s a courtier? And where’s Camelot?

A courtier is someone who devotes himself to the needs of a king or another ruler. Camelot was a mythical palace overseen by England’s legendary King Arthur. King Arthur was a much-loved ruler who came up with the idea of the Round Table, a more democratic way of decision-making. His story was popularized by the Broadway play “Camelot,” a musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

The term Camelot came to refer to the short but legendary presidency of John F. Kennedy, often just called JFK. Holding office for fewer than three years, Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. The death of our 35th president sent shock waves throughout the nation. People 60 or older most likely remember exactly where they were the day JFK was shot.

Kennedy’s presidency was marked by an optimistic glow. Despite the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis, many Americans felt that the country was in a golden age similar to that of Arthurian times. Significantly aiding that impression was Kennedy’s elegant wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. It was almost as if she were America’s “Queen Guinevere.”

A few weeks after JFK died, his widow told a Life magazine interviewer ”there will never be that Camelot again."

Translated into modern terms, then, the lead could begin as “Of the loyal aides to the president.”

Theodore C. Sorensen witnessed much of America’s Camelot. The rest of the article on this loyal aide appears in our print and/or e-editions.


John F. Kennedy speaking at Rice University
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

Photo courtesy of Wikiquote

Page 116 of 132


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