Archive for November, 2008

Malapropism or Homonym Error, Cont.

November 27, 2008

You will recall that, in my most recent posting about homonym troubles,  I observed that a true homonym has a identical sound to another word but a different, perhaps greatly different, denotation or definition.

I also agreed with commenter”Yes, But . . . ” that the confusion recently in a newspaper’s column of “attribute” with “contribute” was not really a homonym error but rather a “malapropism” and that such an error more commonly occurs in spoken than in written or printed English.

It so fortuitously happens that a second recent example of that confusion can be found in the November 26 issue of our “Fayetteville Observer,” in the sports section, in a column by Dan Wiederer.  Now the trick here is sort of like a hypothetical question that, suggested by a certain someone whose name I’ve forgotten, should have been addressed about President Richard M. Nixon’s possible involvement in the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in :  “What did he know, and when did he know it?”

A newspaper reporter, I understand, has a difficult problem in dealing with the colloquial nature of the English language when used by a person who is being interviewed or otherwise quoted. If a witness to a crime says, and the audio record confirms it,  “I didn’t really seed what happened,”  does the reporter and his editor report the “seed” and make the witness seem uneducated and to some readers perhaps ignorant and therefore unreliable, or does the paper change the verb to “seen” and permit the witness to appear better educated in the use of the language that he really is?

In the November 26 instance,  Mr. Wiederer asks a rhetorical question of NC State Wolfpack basketball coach Sidney Lowe about the coach’s new goatee and whether that might be a factor in the team’s recent successes.  Lowe answers,  “I don’t know if I can contribute that to this right here (on my chin), . . . [b]ut maybe that’s something we’ll have to sort out.”

We are clear now that Lowe ought to, were he perhaps an English major like Jim Valvano was, or Joe Paterno is, have said “attribute” rather than “contribute.”

But he didn’t, apparently.  Was Wiederer right in keeping the word as spoken, or ought he have changed it?  Or perhaps he might have corrected Lowe on the spot, thus encouraging him to set an example for many other coaches, present and future, to take heed of.

What’s the deeper issue?

As a student of classical and neoclassical rhetoric, I  subscribe to the notion that correct grammar and usage are not just matters that are set up to annoy and frustrate malefactors, such as a parking ticket might, but that violations unbalance an entire system of checks and balances.  That system, it can be argued, was formed on, and continues to have, a bedrock foundation in ethics. 

That is,  we expect users to observe rhetorical honesty, semantic discipline, and “grammatical” integrity. 

The principles of ethics are relevant in the conduct of communication, which swarms around us via all the diverse media we use or are used by. These principles matter, mightily at times, especially when lies are said, are not refuted, and are repeated.  As history has shown again and again, the lives and welfare of millions of people, or perhaps even just one good person, can be endangered or even ended by such lies.

End of sermon.



Resurgence Of Latin Studies

November 27, 2008

This is a follow-up to my “Small Latin and Less Greek” post of a couple of weeks ago . . . .

The November 17/November 24 issue of U.S. News & World Report (yes, this barnacle of a newsmagazine has dwindled to publishing every two weeks), in a report titled “Latin, Resurrected” by Jessica Calefati, tells of data which confirms reports of growing interest in the study of Latin in public and private schools and in the growth also of students pursuing or majoring in Latin at the college and university level.

Much credit is given to the innovative and devoted teachers of the subject, enough of whom may not soon be available to meet the increasing demand.

The “Harry Potter” movies are also cited as a contributing factor in the increased interest.  I think the entire article can be accessed online at

Non illegimati caborundum!


Are You Sometimes Malapropos?

November 25, 2008

I appreciate the interesting and diverse comments of late on my latest post about homonym errors or, as I termed it, “Homonymania.” 

There is a sense of joy in such discoveries perhaps (if you feel by making such gaffes public, you have somehow contributed to the betterment of proper semantic manners), but there is also sometimes a sense of despair if you keep on finding the same errors in writing or in print media.  “Why won’t they ever learn?”

     “Yes but . . . ” writes, “I keep seeing phase/faze errors in newspapers. Drives me batty!”

[Sidebar: Well, how about horde/hoard?  I brought to the attention of blog readers this question from an “Observer” Staff Blog, part of which appeared in the November 19 newspaper:  “Like to horde coupons?” Well, folks there don’t seem to be paying this blog site much attention. Here is, less than a week later, a sentence in the “Business” section that is part of a story on the attempt to reopen a downtown parking lot:  “Hoards of protests from merchants followed the City Council’s decision.”  Look here.  Look now.    According to my college dictionary: “Horde  n. A large group or crowd > nomadic Mongol tribe > Old Turkic origin”  “Hoard n. A hidden found or supply stored for future use, a cache > Old English origin”]

        Back to a comment from “Yes but . . . .”:  “On what planet are contribute and attribute homonyms [this relates to my earlier blog posting]?”  The writer is correct: these are not precise homonyms at all.  We should better classify them as “malapropisms.”  A ludicrous example of such would be referring to the Yeti as “an abdominal snowman.”

And, I would assert, there are distinct differences here, particularly in this sense:  a homonym error is only detectable in print [since orthography is the key], whereas a malapropism is most often spoken, since the speaker is fairly likely to be illiterate or nearly so–and also more likely to be unfamiliar with the differences in similar sounding words or phrases.  [The term “malapropism” developed from a character prone to these mishaps,  Mrs. Malaprop, in a comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, “The Rivals” (1775).]

        Some characters on TV are apt to come up with malapropisms, particularly if they are created as “backwoods” or “hillbilly” types.  An example: Jed Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies,”  who memorably talked about “shooting some golfs.”

        It is often true also that those with little education or literacy will have trouble with medical terms.  We’ve probably all heard of “Old Timer’s Disease.”   Dr. Dean Edell, a radio talk show doctor, has developed quite a list of these,  including this from a woman who had been diagnosed with female problems, saying and believing that she had a case of “fireballs of the Eucharist,” instead, of course, “fibroids of the uterus.”

        But even the relatively well-educated can sometimes confuse similar sounding words. One of my colleagues at UNCP attended a student production one evening and ran into one of his students. She seemed quite taken by the experience of seeing the play, observing to Rudy that she had in high school thought about joining a student organization open to all aspiring “lesbians.” She, of course, had meant to say, “thespians.” [Thespis was the name for the legendary first dramatist of Ancient Greece. And the other word, by the way, also has its origins in ancient Greek language and mythology.]

        I had the pleasure of instructing several nurses, some of middle age,  in an evening English Composition course many years ago at then-PSU.  One of these, a bright and devoted student, told me that she had told her teenagae daughter that she did not known what a “gerbil” was until she had taken this course.  She meant, of course, or so I believe, “gerund,” which is a verb form (either a present participle or an infinitive) acting as a noun, as in the familiar quotation, “Living well is the best revenge.”

Let’s hear from you! Or more accurately, let’s see something from you!


More Homonymania!

November 19, 2008

I don’t go out just looking for homonym errors in “the press.”  They just seem to jump out at me from dark corners of columns and reports.

Here are two more and very recent ones indeed:

From Monday November 17, in a column written by an occasional (attributor or contributor)?  As follows:  “Many, no doubt would contribute it [a decline in the writer’s listening skills] to age.”

From Wednesday November 19 (today) in a blurb about the 2009 Ace Hardward Coupon Calendar on the first inside page of the “Local State” section:  “Like to horde coupons?”

Two more examples to bolster a possible petition to both Microsoft and Corel asking for the development of a homonym checker!

Can you both identify and explain the homonym error in these two examples?


Stan Knick: One of the Best

November 18, 2008

You may be reading this after reading my “Sandspur” column of November 19.

To sum it up:  In that essay I drew a connection between Socratic philosophy and the practice of offering verbal appeciation for those who do well in their assigned tasks, crafts, or professions.

I mentioned Dr. Stanley G. Knick, who has been Director of the Native American Resource Center since his arrival on the UNCP campus in 1986m and my compliment to him in a recent E-mail after I read on the “University Newswire” about the successful completion of the third of eight planned half-hour documentary videos on the eight most prominent tribes in North Carolina.

Dr. Knick, my friend Stan,  has been exemplary in a number of ways in his practice of anthropology, achaeology, and issues in Native American health care and tribal cultural practices, most notably among those populations in North Carolina and in Robeson County.

Stan has never flagged or faltered in addressing himself to the professional ethics and in observing the appropriate research protocol, both of which are expected, even demanded, of those who have become anthropologists and archaeologists.  His role has often been more closely scrutinized by local Native American tribal members and leaders because of the potential resentment that could, because he is a Caucasian raised in Texas and working among non-Caucasians,  compromise his position and his  professional standing by being negligent or arrogant.

What is most revealing about his success in avoiding the losing respect and appreciation for his work is his being inducted in 1986, ten years after coming to Pembroke,  as an Honorary Member of the Lumbee Tribe.  To Stan, I would be certain, this is more significant than if he were presented the “Order of the Long Leaf Pine” by the Governor of North Carolina.

I worked most closely with Stan in the Fall Semester of 1992, when he agreed to become one of the Sonnet Recitalists in an on-campus and community outreach program sponsored by the “Friends of the Library of Pembroke State University” (of which I was then President, as well as the developer of the program and its moderator, both in an on-campus event and in evening events at the Robeson County Public Library and the Scotland County Public Library) and the North Carolina Humanities Council, which provided funding.

Sometime after Stan had agreed to be one of the performers and a suggestion or two had been given him as to possible sonnets to choose from, he called me with an intriguing question:  “Could I,” he asked,” write a sonnet myself to perform?”  After a brief discussion and a couple of questions,  I said to Stan,  “Let’s get together and talk this over.”  We did, I could see that Stan was committed to doing this, and I was sure that he would do very well, both in the writing of his sonnet, and in the delivery of it. 

And he did, following the conventions of the Italian or Petrarchan form.  And here it is now, available to anyone in the world who has access to the Internet.  Interest in the field of archaeology may be useful but certainly not required:

     In every field where artifacts are found —

     where recent men have strained with mule and plow

     to urge a living from the quiet ground,

     where archaeologists like me go now

     to hunt elusive sherd and arrowhead,

     to reconstruct the lives of ancient souls    

     whose bodies have for centuries been dead,

     to glimpse their world in broken bits of bowls —

     In all these fields I sense a presence there:

     a subtle eloquence, a tender feel,

     a certain human tension in the air

     that cannot be explained,  but still to me is real.

     I search the soil; I shift through sand and loam.

     In every field I feel I’m coming home.

As a delver in another field, I should also acknowledge the excellent work Stan did as a columnist for a community newspaper when he wrote for years “Along the Robeson Trail” for “The Carolina Indian Voice.”


Pet Peeves: “Weasel Words” And Such As That

November 17, 2008

        We thinking and rational (for the most part) members of “homo sapiens” [nice Latin phrase, what?] who are fluent speakers and writers of the English language will at times become seriously aggrieved by usages that curdle our whey and toss us off our tuffets.

       Many “Yankee” immigrants to the South frequently make a big mistake in cultural acceptance by identifying unusual usages and complaining about them.  To that sort of criticism some might, like the waitress Flo in a TV sitcom a number of years, say,  “Well, kiss my grits!”

        I mostly enjoy the flavor and the sounds of dialect variations. However, there are a few misused and overused phrases that irritate me every time I see or hear them in mass advertising or elsewhere:

        (1)  In real estate ads a house out somewhere in the boondocks is excitedly described as “just minutes away” [from bigger and better things, no doubt].  Well, some news here: “minutes” can mean two or it can mean twenty or it can mean one hundred and twenty.

     (2)  The newspaper reporter writes, sympathetically, that the couple he is featuring in an interview is “living on a fixed income.”  Well, some more news here:  a “fixed income” can mean 200 bucks a week but it can also refer to $10,000 bucks a week.

     (3)  Why do the weather reports, in the newspaper or elsewhere, refer to precipitation measurements in relationship to what is judged to be “normal” when “average” is much more accurate?  If the “normal” is estimated to be ten inches during the month of June in that clime and those ten inches all fall in a three-hour period, I would see nothing “normal” in that situation.  Would you?

     (4) Back to the real estate ad business:  how many times have you seen an ad tout a house as having “a unique floor plan”?  Well, what good is that if the main hallway is four feet wide and forty feet long? That is certainly “unique” but quite certainly not likely to be desirable.

     (5)  Here’s another overused and abused “weasel” phrase in sales ads:  a product is described as being offered at “a fraction of its original cost.”  Another revelation here:  “fraction” can refer to one-tenth, but it also can refer to something like 99/100. Definitely an illustration of somebody’s trying to sell the sizzle but not the steak.

     (6) A final quibble:  as the BCS selections and the conference championships get closer in the NCAA football season (this also applies to any other sport), the commentators and the gurus are prone to say this about any and sometimes it seems every team that comes up for discussion:  “They control their own destiny.”  What I would like to know is, who else could do so?  The officials? The fans? The media, maybe?  To end with another trite and overused expression,  “Give me a break!”  And let me find Andy Rooney. . . .


Small Latin and Less Greek?

November 11, 2008

    I have some time ago mentioned in my blog that I felt the single most valuable course I had in the public schools of Kansas was the year of Latin I I had from Mrs. Hazlitt at Blue Rapids High School.

   Somewhere I still have the text for that course.  Inscribed on the inside front page is this legend:

“Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be. First it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.”  I don’t know where I got that little couplet, but it has stayed with me all these years as well as has part of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”:  Mica, mica, parva stella.  I also recall that students in this class put on a short, very short, skit in Latin for our fellow students:  It involved Christopher Columbus’s appeal to Queen Isabella for financial support for this exploration of the “New World.”  Mostly what I recall is the differences between the structure of Latin and that of English and the number of Latin words I learned that have cognates in English.

    Today it is often felt that Latin has no place in our American culture.  The British must feel the same way, for they have, according to an AP story that was published in the local paper last week a campaign going among local councils which seeks to eradicate Latin phrases and expressions from their written communications.

      Well, limeys, you might as well seek to eliminate Santa Claus from Christmas.

      Not only are hundreds of commonly used words in English derived directly from Latin, but hundreds more (as a result of the Norman Conquest in 1066) come from French, a “Romance Language” which spun off from the Latin of the Caesars hundreds of years earlier.

         These British councils argue that even widely used Latin phrases and expressions could be replaced by English-language equivalents.  I say to that:  “Hoohaw!Show me.”

     Here are some Latin phrases that you probably recognize and that relate to fundamental parts of our governance and its entities or our common history:  “e pluribus unum,”  “semper fidelis,”  “semper paratus,”  “sic semper tyrannis,” “pro bono publico,” “ante bellum,” and “post bellum.”

Here are some more common expressions that you will likely recognize.  You might ask yourself, “How would an English equivalent serve the purpose better?”‘

carpe diem     status quo     bona fide      adeste fidelis

quid pro quo      post mortem     ave atque vale    in vitro

cum laude     sub rosa     magnum opus     ex post facto

requiescat in pace

How many of these do you recognize and could use in a sentence?  Which one has an English equivalent with the same initial letters and which actually is shorter?

Finally, to explain my title.  In 1623, in a poem included in the “First Folio,”  the first collection of Shakespeare’s writings,  his contemporary Ben Jonson contributed an ode titled “To the Memory of My Beloved Master,  Mr. William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us.”  In this ode, which included such compliments as “Star of Poets,”  “Sweet Swan of Avon,” and “monument without a tomb,”  Jonson observed that Shakespeare was a great poet though he “had small Latin and less Greek.” 

Those two languages would have been studied by all gentlemen to the manner born and also to aspiring professionals in a variety of careers.  Since Shakespeare had only studied formally at the “Grammar School” in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon, he would have been regarded by the more privileged Jonson to have been deprived of a desirable education.  

There are rare schools today in our country which offer the kind of education that Jonson might have had.  Eugene T. Maleska, who became the Crossword Puzzle Editor of “The New York Times,”  studied Latin for eight years and Greek for three.  And there is still a school in New England called “Boston Latin.”

     I often regret that, while I did study French for three years in college and German for three semesters, I did not have more lengthy instruction in Latin and no formal instruction at all in Classical Greek.  I would have benefited greatly, as would you.


Homonymania Continues to Run Amok

November 3, 2008

From time to time I delve into my file of “Boners and Bloopers” to review some writing problems I’ve found in print that involve confusing one word with another, most often homonyms,  words which are alike or nearly alike in sound but different in meaning and in spelling.

Here are four examples which appeared in recent times in the local press.  The only change I’ve made is to correct the spelling of the word in question. Your chore is to discover the word that was used erroneously and post it in the “Comments” area of this Blog:

1.  From a sports column dealing with the history of the University of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the ACC because of too high standards for entrance for student eligibility (minimum of 800 required on the SAT):  “The ACC’s refusal to support [AD and Coach Paul] Dietzel’s efforts to lessen those standards was a major reason the Gamecocks left.”

2.  In reference to a hypothetical physical conflict on the high school football field:  “You have two teams getting together at midfield after a game and instead of shaking hands, they start whaling away on each other.”

3.  In a story about gang conflict in school settings, a high school principal is quoted as saying,  ‘”We try to be as proactive as possible,’  he said. ‘We try to counsel kids as much as possible.'”

4.  From a report on a recent NFL game between the Patriots and the Broncos:  “‘The main focus was to really play a complementary game — special teams, offense and defense. And I think we did that tonight,’ Moss said.”

You might justify the choices you would offer as suggestions, if you are so inclined.  What the considerable variety and quantity of these transgressions might suggest is that word processing programs ought perhaps to be equipped with homonym checkers.


Correction to Previous Post

November 3, 2008

That title should have read “Writers of Fiction.”


Ten Commandments for Writers or Fiction

November 3, 2008

           Are we hiding somewhere in our desk drawers or in a “Word” or “WordPerfect” document or on a CD the novel that we once started or perhaps have almost completed?

        If only we had an agent like those of Scott Turow, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, or Joyce Carol Oates, we would be well on our way to fame and fortune.  Or would we?

       It is a rare writer, perhaps most often a reporter in “real life,”  who has not aspired to the status of having written “The Great American” novel.   But perhaps that writer ought to be more aware of the morass of rejections and disappointments that will rise to thwart the dreams and the ambitions of this writer.  The personal history of J. K. Rowling would be a very adequate forewarning.

   Maybe he or she would have more success working up a lengthy biographical memoir.

           In any event, the writer who aspires to popularity and at least a decent income (not discounting the possible good will and satisfaction that might derive from self-publishing) will need to work with an agent or agents,  publishing houses, editors, and so on before seeing his or her work in print and for distribution and sale.

         Nancy Kress, writing in Writer’s Digest in 1996, offered these ten commandments for aspiring writers (I’m not including her “sidebars” appended to these commandments):

I.  Put Thy Work First – Not the Market

II. Thou Shalt Not Take the Names of Thy Editor, Publisher, or Agent in Vain

III. Keep Sacred Thy Work Schedule

IV.  Honor Thy Readers

V.  Thou Shalt Not Kill as an Unnecessary Plot Device

VI.  Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery as an Unnecessary Plot Device

VII. Thou Shalt Not Steal Too Much [including from yourself]

VIII. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Characters

IX.  Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Editor’s Job

X.  Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Fellow Writer’s Goods

There are many guides, workshops, reference books, and so on for aspiring writers.  And Writer’s Digest continues to be a great source to find and use such resources.