What's in a Word?
Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel
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:
By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
What is an oxymoron? Webster’s says it is “a figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory terms are combined” and provides these examples: thunderous silence and sweet sorrow. A popular oxymoron during the Vietnam War was military intelligence.
In the letter below, the writer says medical marijuana is an oxymoron because users want marijuana to get high and not to treat illnesses.
Who are oxymorons? Here’s a hint: They are students in a college that one of our presidents attended for two years.
Yes, you guessed the right man: President Obama. He was enrolled in Occidental College in Los Angeles from 1979 to 1981 before transferring to Columbia University.
Students at Occidental, also known as “Oxy,” waggishly call themselves oxymorons.
So there you have it. The leader of the free world was once an oxymoron. How’s that for a contradiction?
By Debra Dobbins
Monday, August 2, 2010
In quite a few countries the name Dave has been the rave for centuries, but in its formal form: David.
We have all heard of the victory of young David, armed only with a sling, over the giant Goliath. According to www.behindthename.com, David went to become a great Israeli king who ruled in the 10th century BC.
His name comes from a Hebrew word meaning beloved. Other time-honored names have specific meaning, too. Peter means rock. Alex means defender of men.
Donna means pretty, and Margaret means pearl. According to Webster’s, Mary stems all the way back to an ancient Aramaic word meaning rebellion, and Elizabeth comes from a Hebrew word meaning God is (my) oath.
Surnames can have special significance, as well. People with the last name Miller can likely trace their genealogical roots to someone who ran a mill. Those with the last name Carlson, Peterson or Paulson know that someone way back in their family lineage was named Carl, Peter or Paul.
The significance of one’s name is worthy of reflection. Even we are simply named for Aunt Grace (pleasing quality) or Grampa Frank (a free man), our names have personal significance within our families, and there are often honored memories attached to them.
These days it seems that parents are coming up with more and more nontraditional names, everything from Archer to Zanadu. It’s fair to consider, though, that someday these new names will be considered traditional. With each name choice, families reflect the history of mankind and/or write a new notation in it.
By Debra Dobbins
Friday, July 30, 2010
As I scanned the paper today, I had a close call. A sports headline on page B3 read “Not getting board.” Some clever graphic artist made sure the hed’s type grazed the iconic mane of the Flying Tomato.
I don’t follow sports much, but even I know that the Flying Tomato is Shaun White, the legendary snowboarder who took gold in the halfpipe at the Vancouver Olympics last February.
If I hadn’t known, I would have risen up in righteous indignation and complained that “board” should have been spelled “bored,” as in losing interest. I can just picture the incredulous looks from our editorial staffers at that point. To save face, I would have had to divulge what rock I’ve been hiding under all these years.
“Board” and “bored” are examples of homophones, words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. English is overrun with them. Common examples are hear, here; meat, meet; to, two, too; and their, they’re, there. (The root homo, by the way, means same, and the root phone means sound.)
The headline writer assumed that readers would understand the play on words. Luckily for me, this time I did. Once football season rolls around, I’ll be back under that rock.
By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, July 29, 2010
“Make it snappy and make it fit” is the injunction that headline writers follow. The “hed” over today’s irrigation story rises to the challenge.
Good headline writers use literary techniques to grab our attention. Here, the writer employed three techniques in just four fitting words.
The writer used two words starting with “I” to make the headline alliterative. (See entry for July 13 for more on alliteration.)
The writer used parallelism by using a noun and a verb and then repeating that grammatical structure. The use of two words with the suffix “tion” further strengthens the parallelism. (See July 8 entry.)
The writer also managed to create not one but two internal rhymes with “irrigation” and “irritations” and “dries” and “rise.”
Such techniques appeal to our inner ears. Our teachers taught us not to subvocalize as we read, which means saying words softly to ourselves, but we subconsciously hear, and appreciate, the sounds anyway.
It’s challenging to write a hed that summarizes a story in a mandated length. When someone can write just four words that encapsulate a story and contain so many literary techniques, it’s downright masterful.