What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 128 of 132

Zits: Biting words

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


Zits: ironic flippancy

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, August 9, 2010

As a mother, I got a laugh out of Zits in last Friday’s paper. I think most parents can appreciate irony.

Webster’s first definition of irony is “the method of humorous or subtly sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of words is their direct opposite of their usual sense.”

Webster’s says that a firehouse burning to the ground is an example of irony. One of my favorites is the saying, “Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans.”

In dramatic irony the audience usually knows something that a character in a book or play does not. The contrast between the two “truths” creates irony.

Buzzle.com gives these examples of dramatic irony from the climax scene of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet:

“Juliet becomes unconscious after drinking the sleeping potion given by Friar Lawrence. Romeo thinks that Juliet is dead, not knowing that she is merely unconscious. He consumes poison and kills himself. Meanwhile Juliet wakes up from slumber and asks Friar Lawrence where Romeo is. To which Lawrence replies he is unaware of Romeo's whereabouts when actually the audience knows that he was present when Romeo kills himself.”

In Zits Jeremy comments on the irony that his mother has flopped to the floor after skidding on one of his flip-flops.

The temptation to add another panel or two to this cartoon is irresistible:

Flipping out over his flippant remark, Jeremy’s mom grounds him. As he skulks away, her parting shot is, “Irony is what happens when you put your foot in your mouth.”


Foolin’ around with synonyms

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, August 5, 2010

A delightful and versatile aspect of English is its vast array of synonyms. Synonyms are words that basically mean the same thing, but often have slightly different shades of meaning. or connotation. Good writers take joy in choosing synonyms with just the right connotations.

The Arizona Star’s David Fitzsimmons must have had a blast in writing his caption for the cartoon above. Let’s look at some of his word choices.

Instead of simply using the word nonsense, he chose tomfoolery, a whimsical word with a rich history. Webster’s says it is derived from “Tom Fool, as in Tom O’Bedlam.” (Webster’s defines bedlam as a shortened form of St. Mary of Bethlehem, which was a psychiatric hospital in London.)

This usage has been around at least since the 1500s. Wikipedia notes that Edgar, a character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, tries to pass himself off as mad Tom O’Bedlam.

Fitzsimmons found another playful synonym for nonsense in shenanigans. This Americanism is an altered form of an Irish word meaning “play the fox," according to Webster’s.

Other great word choices are hypocrite, one who pretends to be something he or she is not, and feigning, a synonym for pretending.

Then there’s the phrase “business as usual.” Used in a negative sense, it suggests that either nothing is getting accomplished or that the process is corrupt.

Fitzsimmons’ artistic skills are admirable, and so is his artful way with words.


A high-handed word?

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, August 5, 2010



"Mandate” dates back to ancient Roman times. According to Webster’s, under Roman law, it was a “commission or contract by which a person undertakes to do something for another.” Webster’s adds that the person was not paid but did have protection against loss.

Its first root “man” stems from the Latin word manus, meaning hand. Its second root “date” comes from the Latin word dare, meaning give. The two roots combined means “to put into someone’s hand.”

Webster’s first definition of mandate is “an authoritative order or command, usually written.”

Words etymologically close to mandate include demand, command and remand.

Three other related words have personal meaning for me this summer as I tackle yard work and home improvement projects. After I whine my way through manual labor under the hot sun, I feel a well-deserved manicure in an air-conditioned beauty salon is nothing short of mandatory.

Some folks consider the mandate requiring individual health insurance a bit, well, high-handed. Check out the editorial below:


A mandate for high-court action

By The Daily Sentinel
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The individual mandate — that controversial provision of the new health care law that requires nearly every individual to have health insurance or pay a fine — suffered two significant setbacks this week.

The mandate is far from dead, however. But the confusion over its status makes it imperative that the U.S. Supreme Court resolve the issue, sooner rather than later.

The individual mandate is a core provision of health care reform. Unless everyone has insurance, we’ll continue to face problems similar to the current situation, in which those with health insurance subsidize those without, as people in the latter group go to emergency rooms that are required by law in most states to treat all comers. Moreover, requiring insurance companies to accept all applicants, regardless of pre-existing conditions, doesn’t work unless they can spread the risk among more people, including the many healthy young folks who now decline to buy insurance.

Even so, there is a reasoned argument to be made about the constitutionality of the individual mandate. That’s why a number of attorneys general, including Colorado’s John Suthers, have joined in a lawsuit challenging whether it’s constitutional. Other states have taken on the issue individually, and on Monday, a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling on Virginia’s challenge to the individual mandate.

Judge Henry Hudson rejected a request from the Obama administration to simply dismiss the Virginia case. In doing so, Hudson hinted at his views on the issue.

The administration and others argue the mandate is valid under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. But Hudson said that claim, “literally forges new ground and extends Commerce Clause power beyond its current high watermark.”

That statement represents the view of a single federal judge. A much broader referendum on the individual mandate occurred in Missouri Tuesday, where 71 percent of voters who cast ballots supported a measure that would supposedly nullify the individual mandate in Missouri when Obamacare takes effect.

Colorado could see its own version of the Missouri measure this November. On Friday, the Golden-based Independence Institute turned in more than 130,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment that would block national health care reform in Colorado.

However, because states don’t have the authority to overrule acts of Congress, the Missouri vote is seen as largely symbolic. Even so, they indicate continuing public anger at the health care reform bill passed by Congress this year. A variety of recent polls suggest solid majorities of Americans now oppose the health care bill.

It’s not hard to understand why. The 2,000-plus pages of the health care bill contain much that is problematic. The anticipated cost — although disputed — is a legitimate cause for concern. For instance, the federal government’s Medicare actuary estimated the bill would have a total cost to the federal budget of $251 billion over the next nine years.

There are also some innovative provisions in the bill that may well bring costs down — a multitude of pilot programs that test new ways of delivering services and containing costs.

But the individual mandate remains at the heart of the health care bill. With public opinion and at least one legal ruling against the mandate, it behooves the Supreme Court to take up the issue quickly so the country can determine how to move forward on health care reform.


Context matters

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A vital reading skill is the ability to understand context. Knowing the meaning of this simple word helps us build vocabulary. Context means the words around a specific word that help the reader understand its meaning.

A good example is found in Dana Isham’s letter to the editor today. Check out her first paragraph:

As I read this, I had to pause over the word Nostradamus. It was not entirely unfamiliar. Surely, in some college course somewhere, I had seen his name before, but I couldn’t dredge up specific details about the man.

Luckily, the writer provided context clues for me to get an idea of why his name was used. She linked the name to “crystal ball,” which is used to predict, and soon after she actually used the verb “predict.“

So…within the context of the sentence, I deduced that Nostradamus must have been famous for predictions. A quick check of Wikipedia confirmed that he was a “reputed seer who published collections of prophecies that have since become famous worldwide.” Wikipedia states that the Frenchman’s book Les Propheties (The Prophecies) first appeared in print in 1555.

In the rest of her letter (see below) the writer uses a phrase also originating in France: laissez-faire. In this case, using context clues is a bit more complex. The reader must read and understand the entire letter to deduce that laissez-faire must mean a hands-off approach. Sure enough, Webster’s defines it as the “practice of letting people act without interference or direction.”

To explain the origin of this phrase, Wikipedia uses an anecdote found in J. Turgot's "Eloge de Vincent de Gournay," written in 1759. During a meeting between the French finance minister and a group of French businessmen, the finance minister reputedly inquired how the government could help the merchants. The merchants’ leader retorted, “Laissez-nous faire." That translates as “Let us do it.”

Understanding context is important for another reason. If words are lifted out of context, they can be spun into something the original speaker or writer did not intend.

Consider, for example, the recent headlines on Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee who lost her job because a blogger posted some of her remarks in a public speech without necessary context. The edited remarks made her look racist, and there was an immediate outcry.

  file photo of Shirley Sherrod

When the full story emerged, her boss apologized and offered her a different job. President Obama also called to apologize. She is still considering whether to accept a new position, but has decided to sue Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who chose to ignore context.

Context matters…both for building vocabulary and for ensuring fairness. 



Here's the rest of Isham's letter:


Page 128 of 132


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