Eternally Vexing Words


The Apathy of a Cow

I have several dictionaries, some at home and some at my office. The one I consult with the greatest satisfaction is The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary of 1989. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (available at a stunning discount at Amazon just now).

I also like the Merriam-Webster website. And one thing I like best is their “Top 10 Lists” feature. Today they presented the “Top 10 Words for Valentine’s Day”—not synonyms for “Valentine’s Day,” but words with special significance on this day of love, romance, and infatuation (three of the words on their list).

These “Top 10 Lists” follow a pattern. The word entry includes by a definition or two. Then there’s an example of the word in use, or a little background about the word—sometimes both. Each word entry is accompanied by a graphic, usually a photograph. This is an interesting element. I often wonder how the picture came to be associated with the particular word they are defining.

What do you suppose are the words most searched for on merriam-webster.com? Well, they have a “Top 10 Most Frequently Searched Words on M-W.com”—of course.

Here’s the list of “eternally vexing words”:

#1: Pretentious

#2: Ubiquitous

#3: Love

#4: Cynical

#5: Apathetic

#6: Conundrum

#7: Albeit

#8: Ambiguous

#9: Integrity

#10: Affect/Effect

Obviously, these words vex for different reasons. Item #10 is a pair of words that are easily confused with each other. Hence the need to consult a dictionary. The meanings for two of the words, “love” and “integrity,” seem clear enough. But maybe they’re looked up because they are words for abstract concepts of traits that matter deeply to us. The rest may simply be words whose meaning is easily forgotten, or words used with remarkable frequency given the comparative minority of English-speakers who actually know what they mean.

I’m intrigued by the choice of graphic for the word “cynical” on this list. The pic choice for “apathetic” is fun-clever. And why they have a photo of three YAs looking at a laptop screen for the word “conundrum” is a conundrum for me.

When learning a list of new words, it can be good practice to use them all together in a few sentences that form a short and coherent paragraph.

For example:

Pretentious people love to sprinkle their conversation with large words—or I should say, with unfamiliar, albeit short, words. The cynical person may note that ambiguous words are ubiquitous among the most pretentious pontificators, who affect apathy about the effect of their speech and, so doing, compromise their integrity. It’s a conundrum.

* * *

For the word enthusiast: If you’ve checked the link for the word “cynical” here, what do you think explains the choice of image to go with that word?

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Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 2


In the previous entry, I introduced the Moleskine, describing its features and plugging it to writers who are on the go or need help with organization. In this entry I explain why I think writers should get comfortable with writing in longhand—a skill that’s required if you’re to make use of what I will now call “The Moleskine method.” Read more of this post

What Is It about Licorice?


I like it. The women in my life (my wife and two daughters) don’t. I’m OK with that, but I don’t get it. For me, “licorice” means licorice, pure and simple. “Black licorice” is redundant. If I offer someone licorice, I’ll say, “Would you like some licorice.” But if someone offers me licorice, it’s possible they mean “the red kind.” So I ask, what kind of “licorice”? It’s almost always “the red kind,” and I usually say, “No. Thank you anyway.” And if I am most sincerely polite, I don’t add, “By the way, that’s not really licorice.”

Experience tells me that Red Vines are the most popular of “the red kind.” That’s what the women in my life keep on hand. I’m on my own to keep a stash of the real thing.

So what’s the real thing? Well, to begin with, it’s black. And—surprise, surprise—one key ingredient is . . . licorice, or licorice extract. The substance is extracted from the root of a plant whose botanical name is Glycyrrhiza glabra. The root is believed to have medicinal uses, but it is most often enjoyed in the confection known as licorice candy.

My friend Lucas says he likes the Goodyear brand, for the ingenuity they’ve demonstrated in making tire rejects into something quasi-edible. Thanks to another friend, Kristel, my current favorite is Australia’s Darrell Lea Traditional Licorice, available at Trader Joe’s. Contrary to popular lore, licorice candy is not necessarily tough to chew. The Darrell Lea brand can be masticated with ease, because the bite-size chunks are soft. It contains no trans fats and is cholesterol-free.

The distinctive taste of real licorice derives from the use of molasses, wheat syrup, and, of course, licorice. But texture is just as important to the quality of the experience. It should be chewy, without sticking to the teeth. Bite-size pieces are the right-size pieces, filling the mouth with flavor that lasts long after the candy has been chewed up and swallowed.

Eating licorice in moderation is one of life’s simple pleasures. And Darrell Lea Traditional Licorice makes my list of Favorite Things.

To participate in an informal poll, let me know if you enjoy licorice (not “the red kind,” but the real thing), and if so, what brand you prefer.

A book about “Licorice”:

Licorice: Webster’s Timeline History 1872-2007

Description: Webster’s bibliographic and event-based timelines are comprehensive in scope, covering virtually all topics, geographic locations and people. They do so from a linguistic point of view, and in the case of this book, the focus is on “Licorice,” including when used in literature (e.g. all authors that might have Licorice in their name). As such, this book represents the largest compilation of timeline events associated with Licorice when it is used in proper noun form. Webster’s timelines cover bibliographic citations, patented inventions, as well as non-conventional and alternative meanings which capture ambiguities in usage. These furthermore cover all parts of speech (possessive, institutional usage, geographic usage) and contexts, including pop culture, the arts, social sciences (linguistics, history, geography, economics, sociology, political science), business, computer science, literature, law, medicine, psychology, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and other physical sciences. This “data dump” results in a comprehensive set of entries for a bibliographic and/or event-based timeline on the proper name Licorice, since editorial decisions to include or exclude events is purely a linguistic process. The resulting entries are used under license or with permission, used under “fair use” conditions, used in agreement with the original authors, or are in the public domain.

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