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A chance comment from a colleague sparked an interesting — to me, at least! — discussion of meaning and intent and sexism. The whole thing started when they made a throwaway comment about the general uselessness of the diversity and equality training courses were required to do. I suggested that, being white and male and straight and privileged, their view might be at odds with someone to whom these things did not apply.

In order to support their claim of uselessness, they moved on to something they considered to be an absurd example of sort of thinking embodied by the course: the idea that the word "woman" should be preferred over "lady", because some women found the latter term to be offensive. Their argument was that lady was more polite than woman and that, because they didn't use it with the intent to offend, taking offence was unreasonable.

I didn't agree and pointed out that lady has an archaic feel and, thanks to its historical use, condescending overtones that woman lacks — also, as I could have said but didn't, the only time a lot of people use the word is in association with a public lavatory! I also noted that regardless of the speaker's intentions, the interpretation of a particular term lies with the listener making it possible to come out with something unintentionally sexist, hence the value of courses that help you put yourself in the mindset of others and realise why they might find certain terms unacceptable.

(As an aside, wikipedia subsequently confirmed my suspicion that the woman/lady split is something of a class shibboleth: historically, those with a higher social status were content to use the term "woman" with those lower down the ladder insisting on "lady")

Personally, I reckon it's best to use person and third person plural pronouns wherever possible. It works well in the majority of cases, where the gender of the subject doesn't matter. But occasionally I'll catch myself saying something like, "You can understand why people might find the term babe patronising and condescending..." and have to go back and add a clarifying, "You can understand why women might..."
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I've noticed that I've got a new favourite word: moribund. I'm not sure where it came from but it certainly seems to captures the current spirit of things...
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In this morning's Point of View on R4 Lisa Jardine contrasted the instant art of email with the more considered practice of letter writing, citing Virginia Woolf's correspondence with Ben Nicholson as evidence. But what struck me that letters allow more time for consideration than email, although they almost certainly do. Rather, I was taken with the slippery and imperfect nature of the epistolary conversation: if even an acknowledged master of language like Woolf can fail to get her point across, can dash off an offensive missive that causes (possibly) unintended upset to the recipient, well, what hope is there for the rest of us?
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Today's word of the day is echt, which apparently means genuine or authentic. Kudos to Pater and his knowledge of Yiddish for pointing me towards the correct definition.
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Pleasant lunch with an occasional Visitor from Elsewhere. I say lunch, but none of us actually ate anything; rather we simply slurped down soft drinks before going our various ways.

In other news, whilst skimming through something online, I spotted a particularly appealing typo du jour: "...which indicates an immanent battery replacement."
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My on-going marathon Criminal Minds session appears to have distorted my normal word use patterns. Today's top phrases, phrases that I feel I've uttered every five minutes without fail, include:
  • Oh dear God...
  • Jesus!
  • Whoa!
  • People don't really think things like that, do they?
  • Surely not...

And yes, the irony of an atheist invoking God in moments of surprise is not lost me. I blame my overly religious schooling.

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I'd planned to spent today installing a number of incremental patches. That is, patches that need to be layered on top of each other. Patches I'd been in the habit of calling cumulative. Because they accumulate on the system.

But I was mildly startled when a colleage confidentally told me that the patches weren't cumulative. My mind raced. Had I been wrong? Was I suddenly able to skip hours of tedious work? Not a bit of it. The patches, he told me, were not cumulative because they didn't combine all the previous sets of fixes. When I objected to this absurd use of language, I was informed that it was standard IBM-speak:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

Well. Quite.

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Inspired by a debate about whether one of the crossword setters was right to rhyme "crooks" with "crux" — answer: not in my cut glass world! — today's Guardian letters page collects some wonderful little anecdotes about pronunciations and misunderstandings, including this gem from Richard Dawkins:

Sir Vivian Fuchs, the Antarctic explorer, was lecturing in a Yorkshire town hall, and was introduced by the mayor as "Sir Vivian Fucks". Embarrassed, Sir Vivian whispered: "Er, actually, my name is Fuchs." "Ay lad, I know, but I couldn't say that in pooblic could I?"

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When, exactly, did computers stop being computers and become IT? As in, "Would you like to use the IT?", rather than, "Would you like to use the computer?"

A modern example of U and non-U, perhaps?
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I spoke too soon. As an organisation, we may not be eccentric enough to require an SCO dress code, but we are uniquely strange in our own little way. Thus, when I noticed someone pottering around with a ferret tucked under one arm, I made a point of not noticing and just added one to the overall weirdness count for the day and carried on as normal...
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Catching up on the latest on Crooked Timber, my eye was caught by this, on the philosophy of idleness:

What is missed is the distinction between doing nothing and doing something that is, from the point of view of work, conspicuously profitless – like philosophy, or walking a lobster. ‘Idleness’, applied to Socrates or Nerval, is a careless, inaccurate term of abuse, a tactical refusal to acknowledge what distinguishes the doer of nothing from the doer of something seemingly pointless. It seems to me that, when we shave off mere laziness, on one side, and various forms of active strangeness, on the other, you reduce the category of true Idleness, positive not-working, to a relatively small, hard core of soft indolence. You have to limit your cases to philosophers of Idleness.

Particularly delightfully, it led to my discovery of the wonderful word, cunctation, which I now plan on using whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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Despite attempts to substitute twit for twat in Jacqueline Wilson's latest, the former is a deeply unsatisfactory replacement. And not because the second has misogynist overtones the first lacks, but rather because the the former lacks the open vowel of the latter — something that sadly restricts the amount of venom that can be injected into the word.
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Having largely shaken off yesterday's indisposition, I've spent my day tucked up with my books. As a result, I became intrigued by the following bits of Latin:

  • Mordax - biting, prone to biting
  • Relictus - left behind, a thing left behind
  • Calidris - a knot

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Here's a slightly tendentious quote from a Guardian comment post that I rather liked:

As Green MEP Caroline Lucas succinctly put it when addressing the London Climate Action rally in December 2007: "A vegan driving a 4x4 generates fewer climate-changing gases than a meat-eater on a bicycle."

Which makes me think: both "meat-eater" and the more socially acceptable "carnivore" sound like they might make great pejorative terms. I think that, from now on, they're going to become my standard words for people I don't agree with.

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Today's Guardian Review featured simply divine essay by James Meek on the wonders and delights that resulted when:

... I resolved that I wouldn't pretend to myself any more that I knew what a word meant when I didn't, or that the context was enough to understand it, or that I'd find out what a word meant one day, but not today. I would set my rudder against the prevailing attitude, which is that anyone who doesn't know a word we use is a fool, and anyone who uses a word we don't know is a snob. I'd look the words up then and there, and write the meaning down. I might even learn them; so help me, I might even use them, although I doubt I shall live long enough to work "banausic" and "threnody" into the same sentence (Margaret Boerner of Villanova University: it is you and your website that I refer to).

Particular interesting is the way that Meek's list of unknown words formed a negative image of his own background. Had he been a scientist — he admits to having been a literature student — I doubt he'd have had any difficulty telling his abscissa from his albedo. And had he been a philosopher of science or a student of architecture, I doubt he'd have left spandrels — although he gets kudos for mentioning squinches, always my favourite form of corbelling — out of his final paragraph, a coruscating cascade of architectural argot:

Sometimes, when you look at a building through the eyes of a writer, it is right to to be urged to see the caryatids, the loggia, the narthex, the parterre, the pilasters, the squinches; sometimes it is better to read "house" or "cathedral", and be left to construct the rest yourself.

Pure joy from start to finish.

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Skimming through this article, I happened across a completely wonderful old word for coffee: settle-brain. Here it is in context in The Women's Petition Against Coffee from 1674:

Only a Pimp to the Tavern, a relishing soop preparative to a fresh debauch: For when people have swill'd themelves with a morning draught of more Ale than brewers horse can carry, hither they come for a pennyworth of Settle-brain... and after an hours impertinent Chat, begin to consider a bottle of Claret would do excellent well before Dinner; whereupon to the Bush they all march together, till every one of them is Drunk as a Drum, and then back again to the Coffee-House to drink themselves sober."

I also love the term "drunk as a drum", but not quite as much as I love settle-brain which I now plan to use on every possible occasion.

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In a review of Deborah Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?, Steven Poole comments:

In the end, the most economical disproof of big theories about innate differences in language-use is that things are actually the opposite way round in other cultures. The men of the village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea prize indirect and subtle speech, while the women practise a form of highly abusive monologue called a Kros. As Cameron comments: "In Gray's terms, Gapun would seem to be a place where men are from Venus and women are from Mars." She is to be applauded for having resisted the temptation to conclude that [John] Gray is from Uranus.

I'm definitely adding this to my ever-growing to-read list.

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This posting, about the question authors would most like to be asked, amused me. I particularly liked Umberto Eco's response:

Umberto Eco, is this a question? Yes.

Very Eco.

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I encountered a particularly wonderful homonym at the coffee bar today. It said something like:

Please put a lid on your takeaway coffee to avoid spills and scolds [sic]

I love it. It's almost a homonym and almost a synonym, but not quite. It was the most wholly delightful thing I saw all day.

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Embroiled in my current reading, I was amused by a description of one of the characters as a catamount:

catamount: a medium-sized or large wild cat, esp. a cougar. From cat of the mountain.

I suspect the word for which the author was striving was catamite, which certainly seems better suited to circumstances of the scene:

catamite: a boy kept for homosexual practices. From the latin, catamitus.

I suppose it's just possible that the actual word was the intended one, but somehow I doubt it. Maybe it was just that the author's dictionary was exceptionally prudish and failed to include the desired word — rather like the LJ dictionary, in fact...


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