June 15, 2018 by libroshombre
My parents were children of the Great Depression, and, consequently, so was the vocabulary I inherited, complete with “mazuma” (money), “rubberneck” (gawk), “ixnay” (Pig Latin for “nix,” meaning “don’t”), and I certainly knew that Ub Iwerks, the genius behind Betty Boop cartoons, was one of the nation’s greatest animators. However, most of the other words in Daniel Riccuito’s “The Depression Alphabet Primer,” a small tome I acquired recently, were new to me. For example, “scrub the onions” was “a more humble way of saying ‘tickle the ivories,” “un-huh” meant “in love,” and a “hot squat” was an electric chair.”
While our language has so very many words with uniquely discrete meanings, it’s marvelously flexible but also amazing that anyone every masters it. “Commonly Confused Words,” an old DailyWritingTips.com article, recently re-emerged on my desk that differentiated between “infer” and “imply,” “disinterested” and “uninterested,” and a personal bug-a-boo, “capitol” and “capital.” For the record, “ ‘imply’ means ‘suggest,’ while ‘infer’ means to draw a conclusion by reasoning”; “ ‘uninterested’ indicates simple lack of interest, while ‘disinterested’ connotes a lack of self-interest in a matter to be decided”; and a “capitols” are building that are seats of government and capital is “the chief city in a country or state.”
Figuring out the meanings and uses of new words is especially tough for beginners. The local Guys and Gals Read programs use very recent, heavily illustrated chapter books and graphic novels, because low-level readers are able to use the pictures to figure out what words mean, and the vocabulary in graphic novels are usually two or more grade levels above the intended audience. The point of Guys and Gals Read is to show the kids books that are simply fun to read, by and donating copies of brand new books to the school libraries the programs attract advanced readers, too.
Recalling words’ correct meanings challenges even grown-up advanced readers. In “14 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do,” an Inc.com article by Minda Setlin proffered a passel of commonly misunderstood terms. “Bemuse” is often used in place of “amuse” or “amused-at-some-else’s-foolishness,” but quoting word guru Anu Garg, Setlin said, “To bemuse is to bewilder or confuse. It has nothing to do with amuse.” “Enormity” means “outrageous or serious,” and not “enormous” … “To flounder is to move clumsily, and to founder is to sink,” and “to matriculate” means “to enroll,” not “to graduate.” And the most incorrectly over-used of them all, “irony,” means “a contradiction between an expression and an action.” During my youth, when my mom yelled, “Stop shouting,” she did so ironically.
My Possible Fodder for the Column” file is saturated with little-known and amusing words I’ve never been able to work in, such as the ironic “breviloquence” (speaking briefly), ” breviloquence’s opposite: “gish gallop” (a debating strategy for “overwhelming one’s opponent with as many arguments as possible, without regard for accuracy or strength of the arguments”), and “uberty” (abundance,fruitfulness).
Some words of similar meanings are hard to distinguish. Consider the first maxim offered in “Integrating Reading and Writing for College Success: 10 Maxims for Developmental Students” by the PearsonEd.com website: “Students build confidence in their ability to read and write by reading and writing.” Is it a maxim (“a short pithy statement expressing a general truth”), an epigram (“a pithy saying or remark expressing an idea in a clever and amusing way”), a bromide (“a trite and unoriginal idea”), or an adage (“a short statement expressing a general truth”)? Or an epigram, platitude, byword, proverb, or saw?
Or make up your own term for it. Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day website held a “tosspot word” contest recently to combine a verb with an object to create a new word. A “tosspot,” for example, is a drunkard. The entries weren’t very compelling, with the winners including “scoffpunk” (“one who displays contempt for punctuation, such as using quotations for emphasis”), and “swirlpate” ) a bald man vainly using combovers”). My preference is reading words instead of coining them; that’s why you’ll find me at the library being a pageturner.