What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 130 of 132


Four fitting words

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.
 

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A magical word

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

 

Muggle is a term that British author J.K. Rowling coined to describe ordinary people with no magical powers, as opposed to the wizards in her Harry Potter books. Muggles are often a hapless lot, bewildered by the magical events they witness.

Wikipedia quotes Rowling as saying that she made the word from mug. Mug, according to Wikipedia, is “an English term for someone who is easily fooled.”

Muggle is a fine example of how new words flow first into our common speech and then into our common writing. Will muggle make it into future dictionaries? Given the legions of Harry Potter fans worldwide, it stands an excellent chance of doing just that. No magic required.

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Delicately speaking

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It’s the bare truth: What makes the Frank & Earnest comic strip funny today is the euphemism “birthday suit.” Fortunately, not all of one character’s expansive birthday suit is on display.

A euphemism is a polite or positive way of expressing something. Its first two letters, eu, mean good or well.

As a child, I was brainwashed with euphemisms. I was taught to say, “It’s snowin’ down South” if a friend’s slip was showing. I thought it was daring to say pregnant instead of “in the family way.” Someone with cancer had “the big C.” When someone died, he or she “passed away.” (Our pastor always gave a eulogy.)

In some ways, though, we used plain language. My parents bought used cars, never “pre-owned vehicles.” The man who cleaned my high school was a janitor, not a “custodian,” but everyone still respected him. Students did not get “held back.” They flunked a grade.

Euphemisms can be polite, but they can also deceive. Governments can use them to conceal reality, such as when a war is termed a “police action.” In Hitler’s Germany the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" became horrifying doublespeak for the torture and murder of millions of Jews. Their deaths could not remotely be considered euthanasia. Many died—in their birthday suits--in gas chambers.

The English poet Alexander Pope noted that for every virtue there is a vice. While euphemisms can sound humorous and/or virtuous, it is important to understand what they really mean.
 

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Vanity, thy name is Narcissus

By Debra Dobbins
Monday, July 19, 2010

David Brooks’ commentary on Mel Gibson’s inflated ego ran with the headline above on Sunday.

The word narcissism comes from Greek mythology. Ancient Greeks told numerous stories, or myths, to explain occurrences in nature. When the sun rose, for example, Phaethon, the sun god, was beginning another chariot ride across the sky. In stormy weather, Zeus, god above all, was hurling thunderbolts in yet another temper-fit.

After seeing reflections in a spring, the Greeks devised the story of Narcissus, a handsome but egotistic youth who was condemned to staring at his own reflection for the rest of his days. In the water Narcissus saw the face of his beloved, but his attempts to reach him and speak to him were in vain.

Legend has it that when Narcissus died, a white flower in the lily family grew where he had been. The flower still bears his name.

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A timeless allusion

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, July 16, 2010

If Ebenezer Scrooge were a real man living in our fair burg, he’d read the Business page of The Daily Sentinel.

Today this penurious entrepreneur would have noted the headline: “Ghost of Christmas future” with a wry smile. The headline alludes to one of the ghosts who visit him in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.

Published in 1843, “A Christmas Carol” gave us the word Scrooge, meaning a miserly misanthrope. And, yes, Scrooge is capitalized in Webster’s.

Millions of us who studied this classic tale in school remember that Scrooge has a change of heart and a change of ways. At the story’s end, he realizes that loving ties to family and friends are the best assets anyone can have.

We can thank Carl Barks for helping keep Scrooge in our language. According to Wikipedia, Barks created the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck, or Uncle Scrooge, in 1947, and countless kids around the world have read of his misadventures. We can also thank Jim Carrey, who lent his voice to Scrooge in Disney’s 2009 film version of the story.

Now that Scrooge has been in our lexicon for 167 years, let’s hope that he lasts for centuries to come. The English language would be poorer without him.
 

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