squanderlust

Why do I so enjoy writing these word tastings? Partly it is because I enjoy writing and I enjoy an audience. But partly it is because I have a lexicographic wanderlust – and, for that matter, an encyclopedic wanderlust. When I was a child, I would often pull out a volume of our World Book Encyclopedia and look up something that had caught my fancy, and from there I would wander through other entries. (I operate on a need-to-know basis: I need to know everything.) This wanderlust – which I have by no means lost; indeed, the internet has greatly facilitated it – may seem a wanton acquisitiveness, a noetic cupidity, and I won’t say it’s not, but it’s another thing too: an excellent way of wasting time.

I am much better than I should be at wasting time. It’s not that I have more of it than anyone else (though I do use less of it for sleep than I should); it’s just that I have an aversion to using every last moment in some pointedly productive fashion. I must use some of it frivolously, distractedly; I must fritter it away pursuing my latest intellectual dipsomania. I must squander time, in fact. Not that time spent looking up facts is always wasted, but let me tell you, I do waste a lot of time I could be using to do important things.

It could be worse. It could be money. Imagine having a need to waste money. I know some people do. Indeed, many people who find themselves with quite a lot of it seem quite avid in seeking ways to dispose of it recklessly. It’s both a way of proving to oneself that one has it, and an attempt to rectify the unaccustomed situation by reducing the excess.

Some people also, finding themselves endowed with fame, respect, responsibility, reputation, what have you, react similarly: they do spectacularly ill-judged things. A person who has everything shoplifts an item of little consequence and is caught. A movie star or politician practically goes out of his way to arrange liaisons that will be looked on very dimly by much of the populace. A beloved singer develops an excessive liking for intoxicants and has a nasty mishap.

Squanderlust. They – and, in my temporal way, I too – have squanderlust.

I didn’t invent this word. I found it while not wasting my time: I was, in fact, doing actual linguistic research. But not on this word; I just happened to see it. And I knew I had to taste it.

The word is not new; it has been around at least since 1935. But it is not often used. The Oxford English Dictionary has three citations, and the first two are to do with politicians (in their official roles, going on sprees with tax dollars). The third, from Time magazine, July 18, 1977, is this: “No longer the ultimate expression of corporate and personal squanderlust, the private plane is now a ubiquitous … means of air travel to smaller cities.”

So squanderlust is, of course, money (or time, or reputation, or whatever) spent in large quantity on things not worth the expense. It is buying an item that is far surplus to any reasonable requirement (and perhaps even unsuited to it): a Lamborghini just for picking up the groceries; five hundred dollars on a pair of jeans; a beautiful piece of quality equipment one doesn’t even know how to use; four times as much food as is required for an event.

But then, considering our ways as a society – overloading ourselves with unnecessary luxuries that we really only think we need, acquiring many things entirely surplus to requirement just because they make us feel good, wasting untold amounts of food – do we not all have some measure of squanderlust? The waste that makes us comfortable in our bounty? Or are we simply so numb and heedless we don’t even enjoy our squandering?

Who let that word into the dictionary?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Every so often, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will release a list of words recently added to one of their dictionaries, and many people become grouchy at what they see as awful — or even fake — intrusions that have somehow been bootlegged into the hallowed halls of the official lexicon. You may even agree that they are right to be leery of such items as bae, selfie stick, lolcat, subtweet _and acquihire, all recently added to Oxford. The role of the dictionary is to be a signpost, after all, not a weathercock that flips with each language fad that blows through.

Fair enough: We look to the dictionary to know what the accepted words and meanings are. If we want to know what some asinine adolescent thinks should be a word, or thinks an existing word should mean, we go to Urban Dictionary, which is the great graffitied bathroom wall of the language. But when you put up a signpost, it has to point to the actual correct way to the destination, not to where you think they should have put the destination or the road to it. It also has to be updated with new signs when new towns or subdivisions are built. You might want to go to one of them, after all — just as you might want to know exactly what all those young people mean when they say, “My bae subtweeted me with a lolcat.” Where else than a dictionary will you find out? (You don’t want to ask one of those youths. They will just roll their eyes at you.)

A dictionary needn’t include every passing bit of slang that sprouts in the morning and withers in the afternoon, of course. A word has to have some staying power; it has to be well attested in published texts. Which means that you, dear readers, are the real bouncers at the language pub. As editor Sarah Grey told editors at the recent EAC conference, paraphrasing lexicographers Kory Stamper, Ben Zimmer and Steve Kleinedler, “If you’re waiting for dictionaries to say a word is OK, you should know that they’re waiting for you to start using it.”

It is always a judgment call, of course, as the good people at Oxford tell us. Some words don’t last as long as we think they will. Weblog is already archaic, shortened down to blog, and it has been a long time since anyone other than my father said zowie or anyone other than Prince Philip said gadzooks. But others have more staying power. As Ammon Shea tells us, a century ago Merriam-Webster’s Third Collegiate Dictionary added a large number of slang words, which some saw as disgraceful weeds in the language. Among them were several words that likely passed without remark in my opening paragraph — grouchy, awful (meaning bad), fake, bootleg and leery — along with bouncer, pub and many more.

honest

I was listening to The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham this evening, and it reminded me of a review I read of it when it came out back in 1996. The reviewer praised it for its honesty.

But how did the reviewer know?

Honest is a term of high praise for a performer. It basically means “He/she is doing or saying things that I, or most people, would hesitate to do because they would show me, or them, in a bad light or make me, or them, unwontedly vulnerable.”

Here, have a look at an example: “The Ten Most Brutally Honest Songwriters.” These songwriters are disclosing personal details, talking about things one simply doesn’t normally talk about.

Well, heck. One doesn’t normally sing, either.

I don’t doubt that many songwriters who are praised for honesty really are being truthful about details of their lives and feelings. But, in general, how do we know? How do we know that they’re telling the truth and not just making up things for better effect? They’re performers, and the point of performance is not what you feel, it’s what your audience feels.

Which is why the saying goes, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Actually, there are many different versions of the saying; Quote Investigator has traced its origins back to actors Celeste Holm and Ed Nelson.) If people could always tell when someone was being honest, life would be different. So different.

There are cases where we can evaluate more surely whether they’re honest. I don’t mean instances where a performer is singing “honestly” about something that can be documented not possibly to have happened. I mean the even more nebulous kind of “honesty,” a kind that was very popular 15 years ago and still shows up: the band sound like they’re recording it in a public washroom while their lead singer unloads a vicious case of diarrhea (and is also suffering from a Biblical bout of catarrh). So true! So like real life! So bare and raw and unprocessed! So unlike, say, Madonna, who is clearly heavily produced in a million-dollar studio!

Except that the Folding Bowels Band (or whoever) is also in a million-dollar studio, processed and produced, but pretending not to be. And, incidentally, is it more honest to expect people to pay for a technically highly competent performance or for one that your neighbour’s shaky adolescent squawks out in the shower? I think you’re making a more honest living – delivering expected quality for money paid – in the former case, though I must admit that if people really (for whatever reason) prefer the trans-tracheal evisceration sound, then yes indeedy, it is more honest to give it to them. De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

But what, exactly, do we even mean by honest, really? A lot of time it’s in the line of “Dude was on. Dude was onner than anyone else. Dude was onnest!” Id est, it’s a plain term of approbation for a virtuous character or performance. We say it to honour someone. And why not? Honour (or, rather, honor, the Latin original without that dishonest pseudo-classical intrusive u that I, as a Canadian, refuse to relinquish) is the etymon; its derivative honestus (which came to us by way of Middle French) means ‘deserving honour; honourable; fine; top rank; doubleplusgood; meritorious of utmost respect’.

It just happens that we esteem highly – and (whether justifiably or not) associate with people of high station – truthfulness: a correspondence between what the person appears to intend and what the person actually turns out to intend. But we used the word honest as a more general approbation for nearly a century (in the 1300s) before starting to use it specifically to mean ‘truthful; not cheating’, and we still use it sometimes in more general sense to mean ‘respectable’ without specifically referring to lack of deceit.

But here is where we run into an issue with using it for performers – actors, singers, painters (a painting is a performance too, though the movement has stopped before you get to see it), so on. We turn to aesthetic performances in order to connect with things that expand our experience without actually involving us in real-world consequences. We want a vicarious experience, a fantasy. Even if it’s not a fantasy for the performers (as in a documentary), it is one for us, our reflexive responses no more imminently significant than the refreshing fear we feel standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower. We may want to have a sense that what we are seeing truly expands our grasp of the world in some way and doesn’t just comfort us – that it’s honest and not escapist – but our experience of it is not more honest, in the sense we think of today, than a roller coaster is an honest experience of a car crash.

We want well-faked honesty. We want not honest but Heston, a great thundering Moses leading us across the gap in a rearing Red Sea between our enslavement in reality and the promised land of truer (but non-damaging) understanding and experience. We want a performance that is honest only in that it delivers to us what we are paying for: a stirring deception.

craven

When I was a child, and there were cigarette vending machines in various places, one of the names I saw on them (along with Players and du Maurier) was Craven A. If you were cravin’ a cigarette, you might well buy a pack of those. It seemed to me an odd name for cigarettes, like a name for a bird perhaps (a bird kicking the habit? “Quoth the craven, ‘Nevermore’”) or an large cave (a cavernous one, in fact). The v in the word could make a person think of a V-neck sweater, perhaps with a cravat tucked into it.

When I first saw the word craven as an adjective, it naturally made me think of the cigarettes. I knew that it didn’t refer to them – more to some cringing person craving protection – but once I learned its meaning it did make me wonder why anyone would name cigarettes for cowardice.

It turns out that the cigarettes are named after the Third Earl of Craven. The earl in turn is so named because the surname of the First Earl of Craven was Craven, and that surname comes from a place in West Yorkshire, which seems to have come from a Celtic word meaning ‘garlic’. The cigarettes do not taste of garlic, I assume, but I am sure they leave a more lasting scent in room, on clothes, and in breath.

But while the cigarettes are not afraid of being smoked, craven people are. Smoked, or beaten, or crushed. A craven was originally someone who was defeated, utterly crushed, and who admitted being crushed; it likely comes from an old French word meaning ‘crush’ (compare modern French crevé ‘burst, worn out’; it is only coincidence that it is reminiscent of vaincre ‘defeat, vanquish’). It thence signified a fearful, pusillanimous person, one who cries out and cringes. And so it came to mean a coward, self-confessed or at least known as such. (Coward, by the way, is another English surname that does not mean what it looks like it means; its original bearers were cowherds.)

There will ever be those who shrink from the slightest shadow. There will also be those who are always craving attention but cannot stand scrutiny, who seek glory but seek it behind a cover. We should be wary of such craven images… If once we cave in to them, if we mistake craven voracity for veracity, we must learn to say “Nevermore,” lest we let ourselves in for such horrors as the craven avoid (or Wes Craven creates).

pre-empt

“Tonight’s episode has been pre-empted.” Pre-empted! How peremptory! Is it cancelled or just postponed? Wait – pre-emption is postponement? Well, that’s preposterous.

And yet there you have it. We may be tempted to think it unkempt, and perhaps a sign of contempt, for a third party to attempt to exempt itself from the usual rules and schedules. But broadcast schedules, like so many others, tend to follow the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules. If someone has the money or the power, they can bump you or gazump you. They can even buy the spot before you get a chance at it.

Which is what pre-empt means. Its source (via French) is Latin prae ‘before’ and emptio ‘purchase’. Its first sense is ‘purchase a property before it is offered to another party’. Its use in broadcast started from ‘buy a time slot to keep others from using it’ and progressed to ‘cancel a planned broadcast in order to give the time to something else’ (generally something that’s worth more money, or at least will get more interest, which is largely the same thing).

Now it can be used in an even broader sense if you’re careful about it. One could raise a certain topic in conversation to pre-empt discussion of another topic; one could use a certain political manoeuvre to pre-empt a decision or action. But if you’re tempted to pre-empt, do be aware that it may provoke resemptment. I mean resentment. If your pre-emptees have enough gumption, at the resumption of business as usual – or even before it – you may in turn be gazumped or otherwise thumped. So caveat pre-emptor.

 

Different sounds that we think are the same sound (but others don’t)

My latest article for The Week is on sound distinctions that other languages make but we don’t. Some of these are things that even linguistics students don’t notice until they’re pointed out. It includes a video!

The subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching

 

awry

If even the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley, you can well imagine how often and how badly the chaotic gallimaufry and salmagundi that is English spelling goes awry. I’m sure you and your coworkers have often been misled onto a pronunciation sideroad. The epitome of this would be some biopic or miniseries where the heroine, on a moped, seeks out the best sundried tomatoes, and finds that infrared light works best (or perhaps her story predates that). What is needed is a kind of orthographic clerestory to let some light in, or a sewer to stitch the spelling together, or at least a blast on a conch so that you would be wary… rather than awry.

Really. Raise your hand if you thought once – perhaps for a long time – that awry was pronounced “aw-ree.” Raise the other hand if, once you realized it’s a plus wry, you thought it was just you making the mistake.

Both hands raised? Congratulations. You have now surrendered to English spelling. Join the club. Words that are often misread because their parts are misconstrued are called, by some people, misles; some years ago, some people on a forum (alt.english.usage) compiled a “misle list.”

Awry is one of the worst of the set for a few reasons: 1) we don’t often form new words with a-, and when we do we typically put a hyphen after the a; 2) aw is a common spelling pair; 3) -ry is a plausible word ending (a search on that word ending in the OED online produces “around 8800 results in 7648 entries”); 4) wry is itself a problematic word, thanks to the silent w (it was not always silent, but it’s been centuries since anyone said the w – don’t be fooled by the fact that your lips round when you say the “r”; they always do that in English with “r”). A medical condition most formally known as torticollis is also called wry neck (because your neck goes awry); “rye neck” hits in Google slightly outnumber “wry neck” hits (though many of them are for a place in New Jersey called Rye Neck).

Wry, anyway, is a very old English word; its earliest form was a verb for moving, going, or turning (it may be related to wriggle), and then for going astray or turning aside. From that it came to be an adjective and adverb meaning ‘twisted, contorted, distorted, deflected, etc.’ Its modern-day use relates mainly to the attitude conveyed by a wry smile, and I must confess I find wry humour exceedingly appealing. But give it the a- that shows up in aright, awrong, ahead, aside, and so on, and you have a similar kind of adjective and adverb.

So it makes sense, historically. But because our pronunciation has changed while our spelling has persisted, it catches the unwary. Aw, such is always the story. English spelling is as it is because people are greedy, lazy snobs. Best to make a wry smile, say “Tha’s a’righ’,” and move on to the next turn.

Thanks to @TheLingSpace for mentioning this word.