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?

Acronym Crazy


There’s an acronym for everything. Well, almost everything. Acronym Finder has a database of over 200,000 acronyms, many of which serve multiple purposes. And the list is growing—TLIG. (Yes, I made that up . . . IMTU.)

The funny thing about acronyms is that they attract logophobes (people who dread words) and logophiles (people who love words). GF. (That’s “go figure.”) And since logophobes and logophiles are very different creatures, it would be unwise to adopt the acronym “LP” for both. Besides, LP is already taken.

Acronyms do come in handy. Often they are easier to say or remember than the phrases they abbreviate. Those that have a standard use are considered words in their own right, with their own entries in the main catalog of any good dictionary. The ideal acronym is pronounceable: NATO, AIDS, UNESCO. But a host of second-class acronyms aren’t pronounceable, even though we forget that they aren’t—for example, BBC, KGB, and DVD. An unpronounceable acronym achieves a kind of elite status when its written form is no longer accompanied by periods after each letter. So U.S.A. has by now been elevated to USA. Acronyms that are both pronounceable and normally written in lower case letters are truly special; they look like they’ve always been words: laser, radar, and snafu come readily to mind (if you happen to be consulting the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., for its entry on “acronym”).

Some of the most familiar acronyms stand for phrases that many people can’t recollect, or never even knew, as suggested by the following hypothetical, but easily imagined, conversation.

Ed: I work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Fred: Never heard of it.

Ed: Have you heard of NASA?

Fred: Of course. Why do you ask?

By now you’re probably wondering, “Is the word ‘acronym’ an acronym for anything?” The answer is yes, sort of. There are two reasons for the qualification. First, “acronym” is a word in its own right, and was before it was “acronymized” (which, I stipulate, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable). This is a case of reverse acronymization, you might say. Second, there isn’t much demand for the acronym “acronym.” But there are some smarty-pants uses of “acronym” as an acronym. For these, check out Acronym Finder.

Acronym Finder isn’t just fun and games. If you ever forget what “ATM” stands for, and you have an urge to close that memory loop, AF is the tool to turn to. Be careful what you ask for, though. I blithely entered my name: D-O-U-G. Turns out this is an acronym with a single definition: “Dumb Old Utility Guy.” Maybe this blog post proves the point.

[Footnote: "Acronym" is not to be confused with "anacronym." "Anacronym" isn't a word, but it should be. In my own private lexicon it means "a word or phrase that has become obsolete." Some acronyms are so popular that the words or phrases they represent are, in precisely this sense, anacronyms.]

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