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Posts Tagged ‘Word Usage

They flouted their disregard for the laws concerning proper disposal of hazardous waste.

Oh, he’s just playing politics. He’s flaunting the state’s constitution to push a political agenda, but what he’s trying to do won’t hold up under legal scrutiny.

In the examples shown above, flouted should be flaunted, and flaunting should be flouting.

Recently I’ve run across these and many similar misuses of the words “flout” and “flaunt” in print, online and on the radio. It seems as though a lot of people have only a fuzzy idea of the difference between flout and flaunt, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to talk about them.

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Flout

Flout

Unfortunately, dogs can't read ... This one enjoys taking a stroll at Kerrycroy near a sign that states “No dogs.” Where is the dog’s rule-flouting owner? (Click image for source and credit)

To flout is to ignore or defy authority, or to treat laws with contemptuous disregard and scorn. It can also mean to mock or insult someone, or treat someone with contempt.

Brazen defiance and deliberate offense are contained in the notion of flout. If someone chooses to flout a rule or law or social convention, for example, their act shows a certain brash arrogance toward others. Why? Because to flout is to challenge and to affront, all while in the act of making one’s disdain plainly evident.

You can see, then, that the sentence beginning with “they flouted their disregard …” makes no sense, because it means the people in question ignored their disregard or treated it with contempt. By contrast, the correct word, flaunted, means they proudly or ostentatiously displayed their disregard in front of others in a way that indicated they mocked the laws.

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Flaunt

Flaunt

Do you flaunt what you’ve got to inspire envy in others? (Click image for source and credit)

To flaunt means to ostentatiously display oneself or something, or to parade in a showy and public way, often with the intent to inspire envy in others.

Flaunt contains an element of strut and swagger, of grandstanding and shameless spectacle. Those who flaunt engage in a theatrical, flashy exhibition that is intended to impress others in some dramatic way.

Consider the sentence that opens with “he’s flaunting the state’s constitution ….” In that case, the rest of the sentence indicates that the politician in question is not trying to show off or pretentiously parade any part of the constitution to his advantage. Rather, by attempting to defy or ignore it in order to further his agenda, he is flouting the state’s constitution.

Writers, readers and listeners, are you among those who have been flouting when you should flaunt, and vice versa? If so, maybe now is the time to draw a clear distinction between the two in your own mind, and then do your part to stop the epidemic of misuse of flaunt and flout.

Talkback: Have you found examples of misuses of flout and flaunt? Do you have any favorites? Now is your chance to weigh in on this topic and share your insights, anecdotes and stories by leaving comments. Thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas

Semantics: The Meaning of Words

Let’s untangle the meanings of “nauseous” and “nauseated” without having a cat fight. They share the same root word, but have different meanings. (Click here for image credit and source.)

Lately I’ve been spotting many misuses of nauseous and nauseated, which is unsettling, to say the least. And also kind of humorous.

While the two words both stem from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, they have different meanings.

The careful writer makes a distinction between them.

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Nauseous

Something that is nauseous causes nausea.

For example, if you smell a nauseous odor, it makes you feel sick to your stomach.

You can also use the word figuratively to mean sickening, disgusting, or loathsome. For example, a nauseous idea or statement is one that disgusts you.

A perfectly fine synonym for nauseous is nauseating.

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Nauseated

If something makes you feel sick to your stomach, you are nauseated.

Figuratively, the word can also be used to mean you feel sickened or disgusted.

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Common Misuse

The most common misuse seems to be something similar to this: “I feel nauseous,” which actually means: “I feel I make other people sick to their stomachs.”

Hey, could be. But probably the speaker means to say: “I feel nauseated,” meaning: “I feel sick to my stomach.”

Now it’s your turn: Has the misuse of these two words caught your eye? Do you have any examples to share with us? Thanks for leaving a comment!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Weasel Words

How do you respond to weasel words? Do you find them useful, annoying, or deliberately misleading? (Click image for credit and source)

Ah, weasel words.

People often use weasel-speak in business to create the impression that they have said something important, meaningful and to the point when, in fact, their claims are ambiguous, their assertions little more than assumptions, and their statements vague and misleading.

When you hear weasel-speak, don’t you just want to raise your eyebrows in alarm and mutter What sesquipedalian tergiversation!

Here are a few common weasel phrases as examples:

Studies show …

The vast majority …

People say …

Critics claim …

There is evidence that …

Experience shows …

If you use such phrases, you can avoid weaseldom in one of two ways:

  • Substitute the exact figures, names or details in place of the weasel phrase in the body of the text.
  • Use footnotes or appendices in which you give exact figures, details, names, places, and so on.

Notice that the key idea in both suggestions is the same: Prefer language that is concrete, factual, specific and detailed. Substantiate all claims. Provide supporting evidence for all assertions. Avoid the clutter of bureaucratic phrases. Simpler language almost always communicates better.

You can also use what is known as the “general-concrete” pattern. In this method of writing, general and abstract statements are followed by a concrete case. Use specific examples, illustrations and detailed explanations to get your exact point across to your readers. Don’t just present concepts and sweeping generalities. Clarify each one with a concrete case, specific figures, or detailed examples to convey what you mean and help prevent weasel-speak from creeping into your writing.

Now let’s take the example weasel phrases above and remove the smoke screens. The following examples banish the empty weasel words and restore substance and specificity:

Two studies, the 2003 Hirt Report on Nicotine Use and the 2007 CDC Mortality Rates Report, show …

89 percent of respondents said …

People we interviewed agreed that …. Here is a list of their names and departments …

The movie critics of the following newspapers claim … (provide the names of the papers and critics)

The 26 supporting studies we cite in the appendix offer evidence that …

Based on the self-reported experience of the following 10 people … (give their names, describe each person’s experience in detail, and how each person’s experience supports your point)

Oh, it’s so easy, isn’t it? A little weasel here, another slithery weasel there, and before you know it, clear, substantive speech can find itself on the slippery slope to puffery, devoid of all real content.

To help you maintain sense and meaning in your writing, here is a list of handy resources I think you will enjoy:

Now it’s your turn: What weasel phrases do you dislike the most? How do you avoid using weasel words? Please share your thoughts in the comments – thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Metaphor: The Open Road

Can we imagine any part of our life without using a metaphor? Do we need metaphors to create meaning? (Click image for credit and source)

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All is connected, all is real, and all is metaphor.

Do you think this statement is true?

Recently I ran across a website of metaphor examples. According to its author, the site is based on the idea that metaphorical relationships can be considered to be “universal” in scope: a sort of Rosetta Stone between disciplines, if you will.

A related view is that metaphors provide a set of tools to compare two (seemingly) unlike things that are alike in at least one important way. Pick the tool of your choice – simile, analogy, personification, and others – and use it to explore and better understand the unknowns.

Then there’s this definition: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea … Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance.”

And what of visual metaphorsCognitive metaphors? Root metaphors?

If you follow some of the links in this post, you will see that metaphors of all kinds appear to be an indispensable key to understanding as well as creating our reality. They also allow us to connect to other forms of reality and to live beyond the boundaries of our own space.

Could we write, or communicate in any way, without metaphors?

Can you think of any aspect of your life that is metaphor-free?

If you were deprived of all metaphors, could you exist?

Do you think humans are responsible for creating metaphors, or do we just notice all the connections around us and attempt to describe their interfaces and correspondences?

In a recent post titled Language: The Government Wants Your Metaphors, I discussed IARPA’s Metaphor Program, which seeks to “exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture” in order to “characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

Although analytically and intellectually admirable, at least as a mathematical construct, such a project may ultimately prove too daunting to be practicable, because what metaphors say is so complex, interlocking and interrelated that it seems quite a challenge to untangle all the possible meanings and connections. And never mind that all of those qualities are dynamic.

If, as some suggest, metaphors are the foundation of our conceptual systems, then apparently we require them in order to think and act.

And if we can only understand or experience one thing in terms of another, that is, by using metaphors, then what don’t metaphors say?

Now it’s your turn: Do you think metaphors are the engine of communication? Could language itself be construed as a form of metaphor for life? Without communication of all kinds would life exist? Thanks for leaving your comments!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Meet two of my pet peeves in word usage: trooper and trouper

I am currently on a linguistic rampage about how to distinguish one from the other, because lately I’ve noticed an outbreak of misuse and misunderstanding involving these two words. Whenever I come across such an unfortunate lapse, it causes me to raise one eyebrow in dismay while staring at the offending noun through gimlet eyes.

The guilty know who they are (or, worse, maybe not).

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Trooper - State Police

Are you a trooper? (Click image for credit and source)

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troop

Troop refers to a throng, crowd, herd or group. For example:

  • a troop of State Police officers
  • a troop (group) of friends
  • a troop (flock) of birds

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trooper

Trooper typically designates a member of a military unit or a police force, or a member of a Girl Scout or Boy Scout troop.

Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary lists the following as examples of troopers:

  • enlisted cavalryman
  • paratrooper or soldier
  • mounted policeman
  • one of a body of State police, usually using motorized vehicles
  • Girl Scout or Boy Scout

By extension, “to be a real trooper” has come to mean “to show bravery and courage, especially in the face of adversity while on duty.”

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Trouper - Member of a Theatrical Company

Are you a trouper? (Click image for credit and source)

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troupe

Troupe refers to a company or group of performers on the stage: a company of actors and actresses; a theatrical troupe.

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trouper

Trouper typically designates someone who is a member of a troupe, that is, an actor or an actress who belongs to a particular acting company.

By extension, “to be a real trouper” has come to mean knowing “the show must go on,” whatever it takes. Thus, a “real trouper” is a professional you can count on to help achieve the group’s goal, especially when the going gets rough. “Real troupers” will come through for you, no matter what, because they are committed, reliable and tenacious.

Once more then: Are you a trooper or a trouper?

Now it’s your turn: What are your pet “word pair” peeves? What sorts of homonymic misusage get under your skin, prompting you to think that civilization is irreversibly in decline? What confusions of meaning goad you into reaching for your red pen? What sorts of linguistic pratfalls provoke your inner editor to sally forth? Tell all in your comments – thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Make a Metaphor

Are metaphors cultural memes? Do they say something about your culture, or just you? (Click image for credit and source.)

Did you know your tax dollars will soon be hard at work mining massive amounts of text?

It seems that Uncle Sam’s spy researchers are building “software sieves” that will be able to parse automatically what English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish speakers say and write, and pluck out the metaphors lurking in their streams of words.

The Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Activity (IARPA) wants to analyze and evaluate how people use metaphors, and then map that usage to their worldview, beliefs and mindset.

IARPA describes the Metaphor Program this way in a synopsis on its website:

“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture … performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text … the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

One fascinating aspect of the project is that IARPA sees metaphors as representing a general cultural mindset or worldview, rather than merely an individual’s expression of personal beliefs or attitudes.

This is interesting, because although it might be true that metaphors can influence your beliefs or how you perceive other people, events and issues, it is no doubt equally true that the arrows of influence can fly in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you can change your culture, even if only a little, by how you use language. Creativity and originality, anyone?

At any given moment, does your use of metaphors represent you, the individual, engaged in expressing your own ideas, which might run counter to those dominant in your culture or group? Or you, the “member of a culture” who merely echoes the received thematic mindset and attitudes associated with your kind?

And how could an outsider, a third-party someone (or software application) truly make that distinction with any accuracy?

As Alexis Madrigal points out in his superb article in The Atlantic: “[T]his project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people … The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think.”

Alright, then. What do the following metaphors say about Americans – not you as “an American,” mind you, but “Americans”? Because one implication (or perhaps, better: assumption) of the project appears to be that we are each more or less cultural cogs than we are individuals and, therefore, our use of metaphors shows “the consciousness of a people,” which tidily presumes we all agree on what a given metaphor means and only apply it to agreed-upon contexts and situations. Some American metaphors for your consideration:

That’s as American as motherhood and apple pie.

Saddle up.

Let’s roll.

It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.

The best defense is a good offense.

He’s wearing cement booties and sleeping with the fishes.

A stitch in time saves nine.

He made it by the skin of his teeth.

May the force be with you.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Sow the seeds of progress.

They’re in default mode.

And those examples represent just “we the people” inventing and using common, every-day metaphors. What of those created by great writers, poets, scientists and thinkers?

Read any of Shakespeare’s works, say, or Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. What do the metaphors in those works say about their authors and their respective cultures?

For example, should the meaning(s) of Neruda’s metaphors be understood as saying something about the consciousness of the culture to which he belongs? And what, exactly, would that be? Do Neruda’s readers interpret his metaphors in the same way he does? If they repeat one of his metaphors, do they merely pass along the original (Neruda’s) meaning, or modify it, re-shape it, alter it and re-cast it to fit their own thinking, experiences and intent?

Let me tangentially note that many writers and editors (and readers, too) would call cultural metaphors, such as the examples in the list above, boring and unimaginative platitudes, or tired figures of speech, or hackneyed phrases, and frown on using them. Cultural metaphors are not, by definition, very original.

But do they capture the consciousness of an entire people? The truth of an entire culture?

Do they show how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world?

I think even attempting to build such a cultural-linguistic knowledge database that possesses the slimmest margin of accuracy will prove to be an extraordinarily challenging, complex, very long-term undertaking. The research will have to focus, in part, on word relationships, frames, logics, structures, processing rules, cognitive linguistics, syntactics, pragmatics, semantics, morphologies of various sorts, linguistic biases, permutations and combinations, probabilities, literal versus figurative speech, and … on and on it goes.

Language is a living substance. It is one of the outward expressions of the functioning brain. In essence, this project seeks to build a sort of linguistic Fast Fourier Transform to ingest the metaphorical statements of hundreds of millions of functioning brains and convert them into patterns that show the worldview, the consciousness, and the beliefs of their respective cultures.

What are the odds of such a project producing anything coherent, much less generating accurate, usable, actionable intelligence or insight?

If you view metaphors as cultural memes, you would do well to remember that a culture is a living organism, a society of minds in which ideas and thoughts constantly arise, emerge, evolve, transform, grow, replicate, mutate, decline, and die. Although the metaphors of any given time might mirror something about an individual as well as societal life, and vice versa, what is it?

The Metaphor Program promises to be great fun. This is one of the yummiest projects I’ve heard of in a long time.

What do you think of it? Do you feel like circling the wagons and hunkering down, or are you raring to saddle up and head out to join the effort and offer your metaphors to your country?

To help you decide, you might find it useful to read: What Do Metaphors Say?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about the government poking around in your metaphors? Do you think such a project can capture the ceaseless realtime exchange of information between individuals and their culture, decode the meanings encrypted in metaphors, and interpret them in accurate and useful ways? Do you even like metaphors? Do you use them?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

The "At" Symbol

The "At" Symbol

How many times a day do you see or use the @ symbol? Think of all the emails you send and receive each day. If you are on social websites such as Twitter, how often do you use an @ symbol to link to or refer to another user?

Each day, millions of people directly or indirectly use the @ symbol on the Internet and in emails. The @ symbol has become one of the icons of our age.

How did this symbol achieve such importance?

Just as all words have a past, symbols do too. Their origins may be murky or fully verifiable. Their path from the past to our time may be a pure, clean arc of a single meaning or usage or, instead, perhaps a meandering, sketchy tale of multiple meanings and dodgy stopovers in many countries, fields and professions. Rare is the word or symbol that arrives on our doorstep without baggage.

And so it is with the @ symbol. Where exactly did it originate? And why?  It seems to be of deliciously obscure provenance. Although no one has entirely solved the “whodunit” or offered proof beyond all doubt, there are several contenders. Here are two.

It Was the Scribes, They Claim

In one camp, there are those linguists who argue that it all started with Latin scribes around the 6th or 7th centuries CE. It seems those scribes might have intended to create a shortcut for the Latin word ad, which means at or to, in order to decrease their number of pen strokes.

Combining the two letters in such an elegant way, with the upstroke of the “d” curving gracefully up to the left and then all the way around the plump little apple-shaped body of the “a,” satisfied the scribes’ requirements in one pen stroke and in a visually appealing manner.

Now, it might seem odd to us today to shorten such a small word, but in fact the Latin word ad was very frequently used in manuscripts, just as its English counterpart is widely used today in various media. So while ad is a short word, its rate of usage apparently made it a candidate for compression (nor, by the way, was it the only word shortened into a symbol).

And note the words scribe and manuscript. The few people who were literate and could write at that time used quill pens, or something similar, which they had to dip often into a well of ink. Write, dip, drip, fix. Try repeating that eight or more hours a day.

Since the printing press would not be invented for many centuries yet, the scribes had to painstakingly hand-write every letter of every word in every document, which would have given new meaning to the concept of “production” when someone wanted to publish a book: “You want how many copies!??”

If you had been one of those scribes, laboriously copying out manuscripts, wouldn’t you also have wanted to find a way to reduce the number of pen strokes per word? Especially for common, frequently used words?

No, No, It Was All About Commerce

Another top theory of origin among linguists is that traders, merchants and others involved in commerce in the 18th century CE developed the @ symbol to denote price per unit.

For example, if you saw a sign that read Apples @ 10¢, it meant the apples were 10¢ each. So if you bought eight apples, the total bill would be 80¢.

But not so fast. In 2000, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University (Italy), named Giorgio Stabile, apparently discovered 14th-century documents that used the @ symbol to denote a measure of quantity, the amphora, a word of Greek origin meaning jar. Merchants of the day used the amphora, a standard-size container, to carry wine and grain. According to professor Stabile, the form of the symbol derived from the uppercase “A” embellished with the florid Florentine script, and the meaning of “at the price of” stemmed from its association with the amphora. In this scenario, the @ nicely conflates the “a” at the beginning of amphora and the idea of the price of a standard measure.

Other theories about commercial origins abound, some placing the invention of @ in the Italian Renaissance, or giving credit to the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Arabs, the Greeks, or the Norman French.

Naturally, there are those who say that this commercial usage of the symbol is all well and good, whenever it actually began, but that business was just borrowing, updating and recycling what the Latin scribes had created.

In any case, the symbol’s place in commerce and business was solidified when it appeared as a standard key on typewriters of the 1880s.

The Rise to Email Phenomenon

When Ray Tomlinson developed the first electronic mail system in 1972, he needed a way to separate the user’s name from the machine and domain names. Because the character could not appear in any name, he could not select a letter or a number. And if the character could also indicate the user’s location, wouldn’t that be optimal?

Legend has it that Mr. Tomlinson perused his keyboard, a Model 33 Teletype. In a stroke of insight and perhaps genius, he decided to go with the @ symbol, which duly appeared in the first electronic mail message he sent.

In that first, single message address, the idea of “user name at location name,” encoded by Mr. Tomlinson as “username@locationname,” became established as the standard for electronic mail.

As email and Internet systems developed, the fortunes of the @ symbol rose along with them. Today, although the symbol is known by many names around the world, it stands as the most recognized emblem of email systems and social media, worldwide.

Want More Information about the @ Symbol?

If you are intrigued by the history of the @ symbol and would like to know more, be sure to check out these sites: Webopedia, Wikipedia and AtSymbol.

To listen to a fascinating podcast about the @ symbol, originally broadcast by Studio 360 on August 13, 2010, on National Public Radio, go to Studio 360 episodes for August 13 and scroll down the page to the title Design for the Real World: @Elizabeth Lexleigh   LexPower  The Write Ideas


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