What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 132 of 132

Painting a picture using parallelism

By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, July 8, 2010

I don’t always agree with his opinions, but I never quibble with how one national columnist expresses them. George Will is to exacting standards in language the way Lady Gaga is to unbridled statements of fashion.

Will also appreciates others’ command of English. In his column today, he quotes Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Prohibition’s most famous leader was Carry Nation. Okrent describes her as “six-feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.” (Italics added.)


Ouch! If that doesn’t flash a snapshot into our minds, nothing will. Okrent’s description works well for two reasons: specific words and parallelism.

Okrent could have simply said that Nation was tall, strong, ugly and persistent. By painting a word picture, however, he lets us reach the same conclusion in a much more satisfying way.

He also uses parallelism to great effect. Parallelism is the repetition of grammatical structure in phrases or clauses.

Julius Caesar is credited with this example: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Here, the structure is pronoun-verb, repeated twice. (Language purists may frown on the lack of a coordinating conjunction, but let’s leave that debate for another time.)

Starting with the, Okrent uses the structure of definite article-noun-preposition-indefinite article-noun. Yes, he sneaks in prison, which is used as an adjective, but the parallelism is still strong. The way this quotable quote is written enables us first to remember it so that we then can pass it along to others.

Writers’ use of word pictures and parallelism helps us retain what we read, and in the Information Age we need all the memory tricks we can get. No worries. Will and other wordsmiths will always find a way to help us out. We may not always like what they write, but we can always admire how they write.



Dutch p(l)ay their own way

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Finding clever headlines in the sports section is almost always a slam-dunk. Action-packed sports articles must inspire the imaginations of headline writers.

Today’s “Dutch treat” headline plays off an American idiom. An idiom is a phrase that has meaning to native speakers of a language, but it might not have any meaning for foreign speakers. English is rife with idioms.

Linguists say that Dutch treat is an Americanism that dates back to the late 1800s. It means an agreement that each person pays his or her own expenses to go out to eat or attend another social function. From that idiom came the expression, “go Dutch.”

Dutch immigrants to this country must have been a frugal lot.

Flashing forward to 2010, it has to be a delectable treat for the Dutch that their team has fought its way to the World Cup final. We’ll soon see whether the Orangemen can put either Spain or Germany deep in Dutch and return to the Netherlands with soccer’s most coveted victory.


A cartoon for all times?

By Debra Dobbins
Friday, July 2, 2010

R.J. Matson’s political cartoon appeared in The Daily Sentinel on Memorial Day, but it is just as appropriate for Independence Day.

The graphics are simple and symbolic. The flags represent our country while the tombstone honors patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice. The pen and inkwell represent free speech, a right for which our soldiers have always fought.

Matson’s caption adroitly spins the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword," used by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his play "Richelieu" in 1839.

The adage exemplifies metonymy, defined by Webster’s as “a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used in place of another associated with or suggested by it.” So, what Bulwer-Lytton really meant was that words wield more power than warfare.

Other examples of metonymy are the crown for the British monarchy, the press for journalists and the White House for the President.

If this cartoon could have been published in the summer of 1776, readers could hardly be expected to recognize an allusion to a literary work that would not appear for another 63 years. The flags would have to look different, of course. All else, however, could remain the same.

The cartoon’s art and words might well have sustained members of the Second Continental Congress as they hammered out significant differences in deciding whether to break away from the crown. A key figure among them, Thomas Jefferson, might have found the cartoon especially heartening. It was Jefferson who took on the daunting task of drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Our Founding Fathers knew that George Washington’s ragtag army needed moral support along with food, arms and uniforms. Jefferson’s powerful words, though revised by his fellow congressmen, surely gave tired, hungry soldiers impetus to fight on. The Declaration of Independence may not have contained fighting words, but it did contain words for which to fight.

On a hot July day in Philadelphia nearly all of our nation’s founders were finally persuaded to vote in favor of the declaration. As our struggle for freedom then wore on, Washington’s “sword” must have been mighty grateful to Jefferson’s “pen.”


Say what, old chap?

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reading the comics can be humbling.

I pride myself on understanding British-English, that curious language that periodically surfaces in America even though the last redcoat sailed home centuries ago. BE is actually alive and well, in a dizzying array of dialects, on some islands across the big pond.

Since I correspond with several friends in England, I like to suss out British expressions. Language snob that I am, I say biscuits for cookies and b-o-o-o-t for trunk.

Two recent Get Fuzzy comic strips, however, stymied me. Here’s the first, published June 23 in The Daily Sentinel:

Perhaps you, too, missed the meaning of a word here or there. After checking out peevish.co.uk/slang/n.htm, I came up with a translation of Mac’s dialogue:

Panel One: Hello, boys! (Cheers is also used as a toast, but you knew that, didn't you?)

Panel Two: All right, Bucky….

Panel Four: Nonsense! Are you joking? Don’t be an idiot! Look at your teeth. You are Bucky!

Panel Five: Matter straightened out. Time for a good meal.

Panel Four is where BE gets particularly tricky. How could the clause “have a deek at your Newtons” possibly mean ”look at your teeth”?

The citizens of Manchester know. To them, it’s just a bit of rhyming slang.

This type of slang has been “popular since the mid-nineteenth century,” writes Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, English and How It Got That Way.

Bryson uses these examples to explain how rhyming slang works: “titfer means “hat”; originally it was tit-for-tat equals hat. Tom means “jewelry.” It’s short for tomfoolery equals jewelry.”

Got the logic? Then the word Newtons makes perfect sense because it is derived from Newton Heath, a district in Manchester, England. Righteo? Or does this usage remain as clear as English tea laden with milk and sugar?

One final tip: Bryson says that the word that rhymes is almost always dropped. Go figure.

Got the hang of it all now? Try deciphering the strip that ran June 24:


How’d ya do? There was no rhyming slang to suss out, but a historical reference instead. Here’s an answer key for Bucky’s dialogue:

Panel One: I’m well pleased, thanks.

Panel Two: There’s nothing wrong with Bucky. I suppose I was just worn out. I mean, I’m fully outfitted for it, aren’t I? Like Mac says, have a look at my teeth.

A cautionary note: Since the word for “worn out” (starts with a k) has an earthy connotation, it is not deemed appropriate for a lady to use.

Panel Three: What are you talking about? Don’t be a fool!


Phew! I’m absolutely knack worn out. After so much work translating just two comic strips, I still must be a BE wannabe. Ah, well. Humility is good for one’s soul.

My only consolation is that others seem to get confused, too. According to the Peevish website, shuft, or shufti, comes from the Arabic sufti, meaning have you seen? Bryson, though, claims that shufti comes from India.

Whatever, as we Yanks like to say. I hope you’ll have a shuft at my next entry, dedicated to a rebellion against our nearly incomprehensible allies across the big pond.


The $64 Question

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The $64 Question: What’s in a word?

I know, I know: consonants, vowels and syllables, but there can be much more. For starters, we can appreciate its various definitions and understand the meaning of each of its parts.

What’s a word’s history?

An English word often hints at the lives of ancient, faraway people. Why? English is actually a hodgepodge of languages, resulting mainly from centuries-old invasions of the British Isles and the mingling of highly diverse cultures in North America.

What’s an example?

Consider, if you will, the final word of the “flag” (newspaper jargon for name) of our fair city’s daily broadsheet. Sentinel comes from a Latin word meaning to feel or sense. It now means someone who guards a group (by using his or her senses, of course). Sentinel is an apt word for a newspaper dedicated to guarding citizens’ First Amendment rights.

What’s my line?

A retired literacy teacher, I’m the Sentinel’s Newspapers in Education coordinator. I wallow in linguistic bliss here, because I get to interact with professionals who love words, too. That love shows up in their clever headlines, concise articles, witty columns and effective ads. With any luck, that love will also show up in my small corner of the blogosphere.

What’s my hope?

As I write about words found in The Daily Sentinel/GJSentinel.com, I hope that our mother tongue will intrigue you, too. If you’re intrigued enough to comment, I’d be ever so chuffed. Yes, that’s a hint to expect a word or two soon on the vagaries of British-English….

   The Daily Sentinel has “flown its flag” since 1893.

Page 132 of 132


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