Synonyms or not?

rogersgeorge on May 30th, 2012

In German, if you change the prefix to a word, especially a verb, you get a completely different word. Brauchen means “need,” but gebrauchen means “buy.” English is less rigorous. Lots of times we add a prefix or suffix to a word and get the same meaning. I think we want to say the word more strongly, so we add a random syllable someplace. Today I’ll remind you of a few of them, and make the better choice bold. Perhaps you can add to the list.

Flammable and inflammable. I have a comic for this one:

I wonder who those two guys are.

The comments on this comic are funny, too.

Preventive and preventative. The latter is generally considered low class.

Valuable and invaluable. I suppose the latter literally means “having a value that can’t be calculated,” but we have the perfectly good word “priceless” for that.

Regardless and irregardless. Never use “irregardless”! It’ll peg you as semi-literate in an instant, and you’ll become an object of derision by curmudgeons everwhere.

Caregiver and caretaker. These two are synonyms when they refer to someone who deals with the elderly. I think “caregiver” is a result of marketing efforts in the elder-care industry, and I think the word does have nicer connotations than caretaker, which can also apply to animals and gardens. You’re a caretaker, not a caregiver, at the zoo.

Burn up and burn down. Okay, there’s a distinction here if you care to make it. “Burn up” means completely consumed by fire, and “burn down” refers to a structure such as a house. “Burned up” is more general.

Titled and entitled. Here’s an example of two words that have separate meanings in different contexts. Titled can mean you’re a Duke or something like that, and entitled can mean you have permission to possess something. But when you refer to the name of a book, you should say the book is titled Thus and So.

Okay—your turn what are your favorite meaningless prefixes and suffixes?

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The right word and the almost right word

rogersgeorge on May 28th, 2012

Mark Twain is famous for comparing the right and almost right words to lightning and a lightning bug. Here’s a comic that makes the same point. Hubert is Abby s pet mammal of some kind, Abby works in a hospital, not that it matters.  Hubert’s inanity drives me up a wall sometimes.

Mel Henze is the writer.

Here’s a link to the strip. Hubert and Abby.

Counting with letters

rogersgeorge on May 18th, 2012

The numerals we use were popularized in Europe by Leonardo Fibonacci. We have some evidence (in the form of a date on a sign on a coal mine or something mundane like that) that our numerals were known in Europe before 1202, but Fibonacci generally gets the credit for popularizing them. Here’s a cleaned-up chart of the originals:

They used the number of angles in the figures as a mnemonic

Before that, we had Roman Numerals, of course, but what did we use to count with before the Romans? We used letters.

Before I tell you how that works, I must mention numerology. Numerology is the practice of assigning numerical values to letters, counting up the sum, and looking for interesting patterns in the numbers you get. The most common way nowadays it to assign the values 1 through 26 to the letters of the English alphabet. Numerologists manipulate results pretty much at will; consequently you can prove anything you like with numerology if you work at it. It’s a bunch of hokum. I even figured out how to prove that I, your humble curmudgeon, am the antichrist! Ask me how and I’ll tell you. It’s all very clear, and completely bogus.

Since at least the Greeks and the Hebrews actually did use letters (other groups had a pile of other systems), you can assign a numerical value to a word. When the Greeks were actually counting, they put a mark at the corner of the letter to show that it was being used as a numeral. But they didn’t go from 1 to 26 (okay, 24) in assigning the values. First, here’s a Greek alphabet.

Lowercase letters came later

Numbers, like musical terms and place names, tends to be conservative linguistically, and that leads to a monkey wrench. Between epsilon and zeta, when you’re counting, you have to insert an obsolete letter called a digamma. The digamma looks like a capital F, and it stands for six. Keep counting, and you get to iota standing for ten. Kappa is 20, not eleven. Lambda is 30, and so on, until you get to the next monkey wrench between pi and rho. In goes another obsolete letter, qof, which looks like a lollipop, and it stands for 90. Hence, rho is 100. Sigma is 200, and so on. I don’t know of a letter for 900, and they used a word for a thousand, related to our word myriad. So if you want to say you have 23 sheep, you would use kappa gamma with a mark after the two letters.

Obviously, with a system like this you can assign values to actual Greek words pretty easily. Look up the numerical values and add them up. It’s from this practice that we get the expression “the number of a name.”

And having used that expression, I have to bring up the book of Revelation and the number of the beast. What I described above is how you get to the infamous 666. You have a few problems figuring out who he is, though.

  • It’s easy to get from a word to a number, but hard to get from a number to a word. Try it.
  • What language do you use? Classical Greek? Modern Greek? Hebrew? Latin? Aramaic? Italian? King James English? Whatever language the beast speaks?
  • What name do you use? First name? Title? Whole name? Last name? Maybe his secret name. How about nickname? Or the name his opponents call him?

Obviously it’s going to be hard to figure out who the guy is in advance, and plenty of people have figured out plenty of ways to assign 666 to a lot of famous folks enemies. My recommendation: make it into a party game. Use something like the Greek method on the English alphabet, and assign people their numbers accordingly. Make up some rules, such as the higher your number the more intelligent (or some other desirable characteristic) you are. Perhaps the closer your numbers are, the more compatible, and you can add the number of your pet’s name to bring your numbers closer together. Married people who have the same last name would be very compatible.

The sky’s the limit.

An example of why you should know your readership

rogersgeorge on May 15th, 2012

—Because if you don’t, you can be misunderstood. Here’s a passage from a recent Wired blog post that mentions the issue of misunderstanding because of incongruent definitions.

Science, like most other specialties, has its own language (in fact, it probably has about as many languages as there are specializations). Most of the time, this doesn’t make much of a difference, but there are cases where that language has a namespace collision with the vernacular.

To give a concrete example, if you talk to a scientist for long enough, you’ll probably hear about a half-dozen things that he or she “believes.” For a scientist, that’s shorthand for “there is strong evidence or a compelling theoretical reason to think that.” But it sounds awkward to a lot of people, given that belief is commonly viewed as accepting something without evidence. As any of the writers here can attest, we ruthlessly purge the use of “believe” from our science content specifically to avoid this confusion.

It’s interesting to me that and ostensibly technical publication feels the need (correctly, I believe) to avoid a word that a non-technical reader is likely to misunderstand. The rule in technical writing is that if the reader misunderstands, the problem is with the writing. And yes, I know that some people are idiots.

This diagram is titled "Sources of belief."

More writing rules

rogersgeorge on May 12th, 2012

These rules are from a fellow I had never heard of, David Ogilvy. I found these on a site called Brain Pickings, in an article by Maria Popova.  The site is pretty interesting—go check it out. Here’s the list of writing rules:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
6. Check your quotations.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

I put in a link to the book in rule 1. If you click the link and buy the book, I’ll get a pittance from Amazon. If you go Brain Pickings and click their link, they’ll get the pittance.

Be careful with rule 2—people talk messily, and good writing is a product of reflection. I wonder if my word “pretentiousism” fits in rule 4. Rule 5: Mr. Ogilvy was writing in a business memo context, I think. I can’t imagine that he would be against books, plays, and complete instructions. Rule 6 is just plain being responsible. You can generalize rule 7 to anything you write. That fish poem I wrote a couple posts back went through a good twenty revisions over at least four days. I like rule 10. Not being there in person one a minor problem of distributed teams: We can’t go stand over someone who is slow to respond.

David Ogilvy