December 17, 2015 by libroshombre
“Mea culpa,” or “my fault,” is probably my favorite Latin phrase; at least I use it the most. This came to mind while reading a quote from Maxim Gorky, “The most beautiful words in the English language are ‘not guilty’.” Mea culpas come in two flavors: nouns, used as acknowledgments of guilt, and interjections, or exclamations, as in, “I told you it’s never windy here in the winter? Mea culpa!” It can be uttered sincerely or snarkily, but not simply as an excuse.
Librarians are exposed to more information than they can retain, but they generally know where to look. Some of us are less retentive than others, and mea culpa came in handy recently when I was asked how many words are in a novel and had no answer off the cuff. Now I do. According to WritersDigest.com, “speaking broadly, you can have as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words … When it dips below 80K, it might be perceived as too short – not giving the reader enough … going over 100K is all right, but not by much … passing 100K in words count means a more expensive book to produce – hence agents’ and editors’ aversion to such lengths.” A 2012 Huffington Post article by Gabe Habash said, “According to Amazon’s great Text Stats feature, the median length for all books is about 64,000 words … ‘Brave New World’s 64,531 word count landed in the exact center of all books.”
Sometimes there seem to be too many words running around, and when their meanings shift, as in “nonpluss,” it leaves me nonplussed. “Nonplussed” comes from the Latin phrase “non plus,” meaning “not more, no further.” OxfordDictionaries.com says, “In standard use, nonplussed means ‘surprised and confused’ … In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’ – more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning.”
Another tradition in December is the naming of the “Word of the Year” by various lexicographical outfits. For example, OxfordDictionaries.com named “:-)” as its 2015 word-of-the-year. Officially called the “Face with Tears of Joy,” 🙂 is an emoji, a Japanese word made from “e” (picture), and “moji,” (letter). Oxford University Press’s analysis of frequency and usage statistics found that 🙂 was “the most used emoji globally in 2015. In 2014it represented 4% of all emojis used in the UK and 9% in the US, but a year later it rose to 20% and 17% respectively. Moreover, usage of the word “emoji” itself also tripled this year.
“So what?” Well, “so” is a term many people are tired of. In exploring how “so” is used, a recent DailyWritingtTips article explained that it’s a “discourse marker” an expression “coined in the 1960s to describe ‘a word or phrase whose function is to organize discourse into segments and situate a clause, sentence, etc., within a larger context.” Examples include, “well,” “I see,”“you know,” “actually,” and even “mea culpa.” They can initiate discourse (“So, what’s up?”), mark a shift in topic or activity (“So, now what?”), begin an explanation (“So, I was walking down the street.”), and help buy time to think of what to say.
Using “so” in conversation’s one thing, but in formal communications it’s problematic. Hunter Thurman, a business consultant,” says “so” should be avoided because it insults your audience, undermines your credibility, and makes you seem uncomfortable.
Solid discourse markers were necessary for featured entertainment at rowdy barbarian feasts, and shouting “Hwaet!” got the attention of drunken warriors in the Dark Ages. “Beowulf,” the oldest English language poem, begins “Hwaet! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, beod-cyninga, brym gerfrunon, hu da aebelingas ellen fremedon!” Or “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings!” Recently scholars pointed out that there were no exclamation points when Beowulf was written 1,000-1,300 years ago. So in 1999 Seamus Heaney translation’s, he begins with “So. The spear-Danes in days gone by sand the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.”
There’s no need for hwaeting at the library, where, in the words of the Roman playwright Plautus, it’s better to “celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words.”