Dreary Phrases

Art, Language 2009-04-19 01:10

You probably know what it means to “live vicarously through” someone. But do you know what “vicarously” means by itself?

You might know what it means to refer to something’s “consitutent parts.” But do you know what “constituent” (as an adjective) means by itself?

You may know what it means to say “do (X) with impunity.” But do you know what “impunity” means by itself?
Read more »

Systematic Activity to Acquire Knowledge

Science, Language 2009-04-16 01:14

“A scientist, in the broadest sense, refers to any person that engages in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge.”

From the Wikipedia entry for “scientist”

Lookism

Cognition, Language 2009-04-14 10:12

Lookism: the tendency for attractive people to get better treatment from others in nearly all aspects of life.

Idioms

Language 2008-09-06 04:46

While traveling through France this summer, I had the opportunity to brush up on my French-speaking skills. One of my travel companions, who was also in the process of learning the language, commented that French is a more formal language than American English. The distinction isn’t visible in textbook French vs. textbook English. Rather, it can be observed in the way that the native speakers structure their everyday conversation.

French has fewer idioms and less slang. There is generally one way to express any particular phrase, and that way will be used in all situations. For example, I often heard the phrase “Regardez ici” (re-gard-ay ee-see) while traveling. I heard it from tour guides (who were addressing an audience of strangers in a relatively formal setting), from friends addressing each other in conversation, and from little kids calling for their parent’s attention.

Literally translated, this means “Look here.” Although that phrase would be perfectly valid American English, most of us rarely would speak that way, especially among friends. We’d use something more idiomatic, like “Check this out” or “Take a peek at this” or “Didja see this thing?” A foreigner with a very limited grasp of the language would be completely lost trying to follow these phrases. So while “look here” is more practical from a comprehension standpoint, but if you used it, native speakers would think your speech sounded stilted.

Exonumia

Language 2008-07-08 01:06

My favorite new word: exonumia. Now I just need to figure out a way to slip it into casual conversation.

Phrases That Don’t Mean Anything

Language 2008-06-07 04:01

Keep an eye out for filler phrases in your writing and speech. They dilute your message without adding anything. Here’s a few common ones:

  • “so to speak”
  • “in a sense”
  • “at the end of the day”
  • “to be honest”
  • “for all intents and purposes”
  • “without further ado”
  • “at this point in time”
  • “if you will”

None of these phrases really mean anything. How can you tell? By cutting them out of a sentence, the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change:

“The garden out back was, in a sense, Jane’s sanctuary from the world.” → “The garden out back was Jane’s sanctuary from the world.”

“Without further ado, I’m pleased to present tonight’s speaker, John Smith.” → “I’m pleased to present tonight’s speaker, John Smith.”

“We don’t have any more tickets to give away at this point in time.” → “We don’t have any more tickets to give away.”

As always, omitting needless words makes your message more forceful.

Whuffie

Language 2008-03-23 02:43

I use the word whuffie all the time now. The short explanation is: it’s something like karma, respect, money, and community standing, though not exactly any of these things. The long explanation is the entire novel Down And Out In the Magic Kingdom, which I highly recommend.

Omit Needless Laws

Politics, Language 2007-06-13 04:55

“The Lord’s Prayer contains 56 words; the Gettysburg Address, 266; the Ten Commandments, 297; the Declaration of Independence, 300; and a recent US government order setting the price of cabbage, 26,911.

At the state level, over 250,000 bills are introduced each year. And 25,000 pass the legislatures to disappear into the labyrinths of the law.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ignorance of lawmakers apparently is. Our legislators continue to pass thousands of laws that you can’t possibly keep track of. And even if you could, you couldn’t possibly remember how a law might differ from one of our 50 states to another.”

From Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Omit Needless Words

Language 2006-06-27 02:44

Grammar. Is there any single word more likely to evoke a yawn or perhaps a groan? The apparently arbitrary collection of nonsensical rules for sentence construction has long been the bane of every schoolchild. I can only imagine that, 30,000 years ago or so, prehistoric boys clad in animal skins rolled their eyes as their elders drilled rules like “Ugh after Grunt, except before Oogh.”

I, like pretty much everyone else, grew up believing that the rules of grammar were indeed completely arbitrary, existing for no other purpose than to torture children. Not long ago, I decided to put aside my loathing for the subject and finally learn good grammar.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the rules aren’t arbitrary at all. Instead they are carefully assembled to serve a singular purpose: maximizing the effectiveness of human communication.

Woah.
Read more »

Code, the Paragon of Language

Technology, Language 2006-03-23 03:18

Programming languages are, to my mind, the pinicle of language. They are a perfect blend of precision and expressivenses.

What we think of as normal language (spoken and written) tends to be very expressive, but also terribly imprecise. This is especially true of English. It is wonderfully expressive: just a few poetic words can convey great depth of mood or emotion, with many layers of meaning.

But its lack of precision is legendary. Everything from weird gramatical bumps and tangles, to synonyms (two words that mean the same thing), to homonyms (two words that sound or look alike but have different meanings) confounds those learning English as a second language and native speakers alike. Even the grammar is inconsistent and makes it easy to construct highly ambiguous sentences. For example, “He said he would go on Tuesday” (did he say it on Tuesday, or will the travel take place on Tuesday?), or “I don’t like annoying people” (is it people who are annoying that I dislike, or the act of me annoying others?).
Read more »