2 More: Disinterested and Uninterested

Standard

I’m not sure when it happened, but “disinterested” has come to mean the same thing as “uninterested.” Oddly, at least according to this, that was what it originally meant anyways. This is wild speculation, but I think that at least some of the shift comes from a sense that people have that the prefix dis- is more powerful or makes you sound smarter than the prefix un- (dis- is from Latin, while un- is from Middle English*).

I don’t really care about whether one meaning for “disinterested” is right, or whether using it to mean “uninterested” is a mistake, but I will point out that it is a useful distinction to keep in mind. You might want a disinterested reader, but you almost definitely don’t want an uninterested one.

* “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones…” -George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

Vexillology

Standard

A newish word (created in the late 1950s) for an old subject, and possibly a new topic of discussion on this blog, vexillogogy is the study of flags.

It is also an example of words that are half latin/half greek hybrids. Other examples include meritocracy, homosexuality, television, metadata, and sociopath. There’s a long list on Wikipedia, because of course there is, and it is not limited to Greek/Latin mash-ups. Er, hybrids. Although almost every example on the list is a Greek/Latin example. I haven’t checked that entire list though, so the ordinary caveats about things on the internet apply.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red & Blue Fishes

Standard

The word “fish” has a strange feature: while the word is singular and plural, there is an alternative plural, “fishes,” which is used to refer to more than one type of fish. So, “I own a fish,” “I own lots of fish,” and “I own fishes” can all be correct. Thus “all the fish in the sea” means each and every fish, while “all the fishes in the sea” means all the different types of fish.

English has a bunch of words where the singular and plural are the same (especially animal words, like “moose,” though I’ve never read a thorough explanation for that).Other examples are “cannon,” “species,” and “Euro”* (as in the currency; “bitcoin” is also used as a plural.)

One note about the Euro is that as I understand it, the intention was for “Euro” to be the plural, and that is the official position of the EU, but there is widespread use of “Euros” in languages where plurals are ordinarily formed by adding an “s.” There’s even a Wikipedia entry on this.

Proprietary Eponym

Standard

A “proprietary eponym” is a word that began as a brand name, but has come to mean the generic product (also called a “generic trademark,” apparently.)

Some of these are obvious and well-known, like rollerblade for in-line skate, kleenex for tissue, and xerox for photocopier, but I didn’t know until just know that heroin is also a proprietary eponym.

I’m also not sure just how embarrassed we should be that we need a word or phrase for this. At least a little, I would think.

Wednesday Mountweazel: Esquivalence

Standard

When I started this blog, I assumed that most of what I would write about words that only sort of exist would be making fun of them (see, e.g., mentee). This is different. This word is great. “Esquivalence” means willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities. But only sorta. Because “esquivalence” is a copyright trap (sometimes called a “mountweazel“). It was added to a dictionary so that if it were copied, the editors of the first dictionary would know that their work was being stolen (there was a similar thing in a copyright case in the United States, involving phone numbers, although there are parts of that case’s holding that have never made much sense to me.)

But “esquivalence” is great. And if you really want to kill some time, follow the wikipedia links on trap street.

And/or

Standard

Frequently used by people (and lawyers) who can’t be bothered to learn the difference between “and” and “or,” “and/or” is unacceptable. It is a way to avoid the harder job of actually thinking through the meaning of the sentence. Seriously, put on your grown-up pants and figure out if the statement logically requires “and” or “or”. See what I did there?

Question Begging

Standard

Others have addressed this topic before, in places with way more reach than this blog (like the New York Times. Ken Jennings wrote a bit about this a while back. So did Grammar Girl. There is even this.) So I’m not sure how much good this will do, but this one just annoys me too much not to write about.

The phrase “begs the question” is commonly used to mean “leads one to ask.” Even by people who should know better or by writers whose editors should know better. (e.g.here and here).  That is not really what it means. Or at least: that is not what it originally meant. This post is not about prescriptivism. “Begging a question” is when the supposed answer to a question assumes the contested fact or premise that the question is asking about. For some examples, try this and this). 

The first problem with the newer use is that it is a form of cliche or dead metaphor. It sounds evocative, like the statements already made are pleading with you to ask the next question. But like all etiolated phrases, it is really a weak placeholder for a more precise, original, or interesting use of language. It is an elision of more rigorous thought or explanation.

The second problem with this use is that it obscures the original fallacy. And it’s an important fallacy to be aware of, because it’s a common rhetorical trick, especially favored by politicians, as a way of shutting off argument, shifting the frame of an argument to one more favorable to them, or obscuring the lack of evidence to support a proposition.

Quasi- & Pseudo-

Standard

Often used interchangeably as prefixes, but there’s an important difference: “quasi-” means “almost,” and “pseudo-” means “fake.” A more interesting discussion might be the differences in how “pseudo” and “faux” are used, which is a little more complicated.

To see the difference between “quasi-” and “pseudo-,” consider the difference between a quasi-experiment and pseudoscience.