Word of the Month: Mafia

This past month, Home Box Office, or HBO, a US subscription television service began broadcasting the fifth season of The Sopranos. The Emmy-winning series dramatizes the life of a New Jersey organized crime boss, Tony Soprano and his two “families”—his wife and children and his business associates. Unlike earlier mob-dramas like The Godfather, this series does not treat mobsters as men of honor; Tony Soprano is a violent sociopath, a thug who abuses and mistreats those closest to him. The series has earned host of awards and consistently high ratings.

Because of the premiere of what will probably be the penultimate season of the popular series, our word of the month is mafia, n., a criminal organization; originating in Sicily, but with offshoots operating in the United States; from the Italian, probably a back formation from mafioso, a member of the organization, the ultimate etymology is unknown; 1866.

What interests us here is not the violence of the show or even the nude women who dance in Tony’s strip club (being a subscription cable service, HBO is not limited by same broadcast standards of terrestrial television networks), but rather the language of the show. The series is replete with mob jargon and Italian words, usually spoken using the Sicilian-American pronunciation.

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Words of 2003

It seems as if every linguistic group or web site comes up with its own annual list of words of significance for that year. So why should we be any different? What follows is a selection of words that we believe exemplifies and symbolizes 2003. While some of these words and phrases were coined in 2003, most were not. But they all represent some aspect of the past year.

axis of weasel, n., those countries which led opposition to the war in Iraq, especially France and Germany. Interestingly, the phrase was first coined on Usenet 2002 referring to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. In 2003, the term was either picked up or re-coined with the newer meaning. The term is a play on Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Bennifer, n., a 2003 vogue term for celebrity couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

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Annual Foot In Mouth Awards

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been awarded the “Foot in Mouth” prize by Britain’s Plain English Campaign for the most baffling comment by a public figure in the past year. The Campaign is an independent group of some 3,500 members who advocate for clear, easily understood English in public statements and documents.

Each year the campaign gives awards to examples of clear and well-constructed prose, but they also give two awards, the Foot in Mouth and Golden Bull, for impenetrable prose.

Rumsfeld won the award for the following statement, made in a February 2002 news briefing:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

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Word of the Month: Marriage

The issue of gay marriage has been much in the news of late and the topic promises to be a hot-button political issue in the 2004 US presidential election. At issue are the questions of whether and how the state should recognize homosexual unions.Therefore, our word of the month is:

marriage, n., the condition of being husband and wife, since 1975 sometimes applied to same-sex couples. Also applied to the ceremony and celebrations associated with the beginning of such a union. Also applied to other forms of relationship, often with a modifer, e.g., plural marriage. Since c.1400, the word has been applied figuratively to any close union or blending of any two things. The word dates to c.1300 and is from the Anglo-Norman mariage. Ultimately it is from the classical Latin verb maritare, to marry, used to refer to people, animals, and the crossing of grapes in viticulture and the nouns maritus/marita, husband/wife.

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Shame On Martha

Standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in New York City this past month, businesswoman and former director of the New York Stock Exchange Martha Stewart, convicted of lying to federal investigators, asserted her innocence and decried the actions of the prosecutors. In so doing, however, she made what may be a Freudian slip in her use of the word shameful:

Today is a shameful day. It’s shameful for me and my family and for my beloved company and for all its employees and partners. What was a small personal matter came over the...became over the last two years an almost fatal circus event of unprecedented proportions.
—Martha Stewart, 16 July 2004

From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Main Entry: shame·ful
Pronunciation: ‘shAm-f&l
Function: adjective
1 a: bringing shame : DISGRACEFUL b: arousing the feeling of shame
2 archaic: full of the feeling of shame: ASHAMED

Decline of the Dictionary: A Response, by Dave Wilton

Robert Harwell Fiske’s review of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (MW11), is a clear illustration of one of the two views that people have about dictionaries. In Mr. Fiske’s view, Noah Webster came down from the mount with his dictionary inscribed by God on stone tablets. The dictionary is sacred scripture and changing it is heresy. It should not even contain mention of usages deemed improper by an anointed priesthood of prescriptivist grammarians.

The other view holds that a dictionary should be a useful reference, not an icon to be worshipped. It should describe how the language is actually used and provide advice, where appropriate, on matters of grammar and usage.

The first view, if adopted by lexicographers, would rapidly render dictionaries useless. The basic task of a dictionary is to facilitate communication by documenting what words mean. If we only admit into the dictionary words and usages deemed to be proper, we will quickly render significant aspects of our culture unintelligible to others. Dictionaries will rapidly become empty shells of formal prescriptions that bear no relevance to the way we actually speak and write.

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Decline of the Dictionary, The, by Robert Hartwell Fiske

This article, and the response that follows, originally appeared in the pages of The Vocabula Review and is reprinted here with permission. Fiske is the editor of The Vocabula Review, which can be found at http://www.vocabula.com.

The new slang-filled eleventh edition of “America’s Best-Selling Dictionary,” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Frederick C. Mish, editor in chief), does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster’s Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously. “Laxicographers” all, the Merriam-Webster staff reminds us that dictionaries merely record how people use the language, not how it ought to be used. Some dictionaries, and certainly this new Merriam-Webster, actually promote illiteracy.

Several years ago, the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary ("America’s Favorite Dictionary") caused a stir by deciding to include four-letter words in their product. Since the marketing strategy of including swear words has now been adopted by all dictionary makers, Merriam-Webster, apparently not knowing how else to distinguish its dictionary from competing ones that erode its marketing share, has decided to include a spate of slang words in its eleventh edition. There’s nothing wrong with trying to distinguish their product, of course, but when it means tampering with the English language — by including idiotic slang and apparently omitting more useful words—it’s reprehensible.

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Word of the Month: Nautical

Two weeks ago the movie Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe, opened in theaters across the United States. The movie, based on the popular series of novels by Patrick O’Brian, is about the fictional adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend physician and spy Dr. Stephen Maturin. They sail together aboard the HMS Surprise, taking on Napoleon’s Navy and engaging in all sorts of adventures on the high seas.

O’Brian’s books and the movie they inspired are very faithful to details about life, including language, aboard ship in the age of sail. It is swashbuckling adventure to be sure, but pretty good history as well. Because the movie, which took in over $25 million at the US box office during its first weekend, will engender questions and enthusiasm for the language of the sea, our word of the month is:

nautical, adj., relating to sailing, ships, sailors, or the sea, 1552. The English word is adopted from the Middle French nautique, which is from the Latin nauticus, which in turn is from the Greek word for sailor.

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Book Review: The Grouchy Grammarian, by Thomas Parrish

Regular readers of A Way With Words know that I have little tolerance for those that arbitrarily declare their own styles and preferences to be grammatically “correct.” As a result, most grammar manuals do not fair well in these pages. But Thomas Parrish has written a grammar book that does not do this. He recognizes that usage trumps personal preference and that there is a difference between quality, aesthetically pleasing prose and prose that is grammatically correct.

Parrish does this with a rather fun conceit. He creates the character of the “Grouchy Grammarian,” supposedly an old friend of Parrish. Parrish plays Boswell to the fictional grouch’s Johnson, recording his observations and opinions. As a result the book is more fun than many sterile grammar manuals and allows Parrish to create a balance between the traditional enmity between descriptivist and prescriptivist positions. The Grouch grudgingly concedes, for example, that the distinction between healthful and healthy has largely disappeared.

The core of the book consists of examples from current media (newspapers and magazines, mostly, with some television quotes included) of questionable or poor usages. Parrish’s Grouch laments such forms as the reason why… (redundant, why is inherent in reason), misuses of between and among (contrary to popular belief, between is not limited to two parties, but expresses a type of relationship), and misuse of subject-verb agreement. The examples are largely negative ones, hence the book’s subtitle of A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better.

While Parrish’s conceit of the Grouch makes for better reading than most grammar manuals, it does limit the book’s utility. Because it is not organized alphabetically, the book is less useful as a reference. Modeled more on Strunk & White’s classic, it is much longer than that predecessor, making it too unwieldy for reference use. It is not a substitute for a good usage manual.

But still, if one enjoys reading books about grammar and usage (and frankly there are more of us that do than care to admit it), this is a diverting and entertaining read.

Softcover, 186 pp, John Wiley & Sons, 2002, ISBN: 0965730964, $19.95

Dept. of Legal Affairs: Intellectual Property, Part 2: Trademark

In this two-part article, we examine the two types of intellectual property that relate to language, copyright and trademark. There are two other types of intellectual property, patent and trade secrets, that apply to physical inventions and commercial business information.

The point of intellectual property laws is to encourage the advancement of the art, science, and commerce by giving the creators of original works, ideas, and products a limited period within which they can exercise exclusive control over their works and derive profit from them.

In this second of two parts, we examine the concept of trademark and its effect on the language. We often hear of companies trademarking words and phrases, claiming them for their own. But can they do this, either realistically or legally? Can Fox News prevent someone (Al Franken, for instance) from using the phrase fair and balanced? Can Microsoft limit your use of the word windows? If you are named McDonald, can the McDonalds Corporation limit your ability to use your own name in your business? And how do trademark rights differ from copyright? There are many myths and misunderstandings regarding the concept of trademark; we hope to clear some of these up with this article.

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