What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 127 of 132


By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, August 19, 2010

I’m visiting area schools today, so there’s just time to define two words appearing in today’s Frank & Earnest comic strip.

Ka-ching - an imitation of the sound made by a cash register, according to

Mantra - taken from Hinduism, it is a “hymn or portion of text … chanted or intoned as an incantation or prayer,“ according to Webster’s

By the way, "ka-ching" is an example of onomatopoeia.  That is when a word imitates a sound.  Other examples include buzz and tinkle.


Light reading for a desert isle

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

If I were stranded on a desert isle with only one book, I would want a dictionary.

The dictionary contains thousands of stories. Each story is found in the etymology that is placed in double brackets right after the listing of the word’s part of speech. The etymology explains a word’s origin and development.

Case in point: Consider the use of egregious in one of today’s editorials (reproduced below).

I already knew that egregious means very bad, but I didn’t know that it is linked to gregarious, which means sociable.

How could a word with a bad connotation (shade of meaning) be linked to one with a good connotation? The answer lies within double brackets.

Both words date back to the Latin word grex, which meant a flock or a herd, according to Webster’s. Grex was later expanded to gregis.

When I looked up egregious, I was directed to gregarious. I flipped the pages over to it, grumbling a bit because I already knew its meaning.

I became glad I took the time. Armed with the knowledge of both words’ origin, I began to see their connection.

A gregarious, or sociable, person enjoys the company of others and therefore wants to live in and be accepted in “flocks” or “herds.” Put in modern terms, a flock or herd means society.

On the other hand, someone who has committed an egregious error may be excluded from a flock or herd. When our predecessors added the prefix “e”, which means out, to a root word meaning flock or herd, they created a word that originally meant separated from the herd. Put in modern terms, then, an egregious error is one that involves the risk of ejection from one’s social circles.

To learn other words related to egregious and gregarious, check out:

With just a dictionary, I could probably while away the hours on a desert isle for quite some time. Being gregarious, though, I’d eventually spell out HELP in the sand. With some willpower, I’d refrain from adding the word’s part of speech, etymology, definition and synonyms.



A false step

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Make no mistake about it; context clues help us understand words. (See Aug. 4 entry.)

In today’s Born Loser we can get a sense of what the French phrase faux pas means, because both men use a general synonym, mistake, in their dialogue. (Using a synonym is one way that a writer provides a context clue.)

More precisely, Webster’s says the word means, “a social blunder; error in etiquette; tactless act or remark.”

The phrase has been in our language since 1676, according to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It is pronounced “foe paw” and literally means false step.

When I worked in marketing communications, my firm had a major, somewhat hotheaded client who always pronounced the phrase “foo paw.” I gritted my teeth but said nothing. Correcting him, I feared, would be a false step in advancing my career.

Now, however, for the record, Mr. Ex-Client, wherever you are, it’s "FOE paw."



A word worth puzzling out

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.



An apt venue for an American star

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....




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