David L. Hoof

Strictly Speaking

Toxic Usage: Poisoned Expression

August 25, 2014

Tags: toxic, poison, usage, expression, meaning, defintion, words, meanings, precision in intent

TOXIC

Here’s another legitimate, specific and limiting word that has been hijacked into misuse, simply because it is so short, punchy and evokes immediate fear and dread in listeners. Since news programs thrive on creating anxiety, they are unlikely to be scolded into correction, even when they are dead wrong. Misuse makes them wrong, and many toxins will make them dead. But a toxin is a poison that is evolved by natural selection in certain predators (snakes, scorpions, wasps, bees, ants, fish, lizards and spiders, plants, bushes, fruits and mushrooms) with one of two purposes: (1) either to incapacitate its prey, or (2) to make it inedible to animals inclined to prey on, and eat, it. If the substance, like phosgene gas, has not evolved by natural selection, it is not a toxin, and therefore cannot, by definition, be toxic. It can be poisonous, deadly, lethal and any number of other fairly applicable adjectives

But toxic?

Not on your life. In terms of communicating vital information, the narrowest and most exact application of a word is the most useful in evoking a correct meaning, and in seeking the appropriate remedy to a problem.

In writing contracts, lawyers use exact, commonly understood words to create a set of agreements between parties, one that the courts can easily interpret and on which they can consistently rule. In law, at least, a word cannot be claimed to mean one thing to one party and another to another party. If you’re puzzled as to what use should be applied where toxin does not, it’s poison.

Please Report to the Podium?

April 4, 2014

Tags: core vocabulary, words, meanings, denotation, podium, lecture, speech, communication

PODIUM


Podium means literally footing, or step up and corresponds to a slightly raised platform giving speakers, an advantage in being heard while projecting their voices over the heads of the crowd. It comes from the same root word as podiatrist, or foot doctor. Properly applied it does not mean counter, as those in airline lounges, where passengers are asked to report to the podium, and looking around, find no podium.

The counters passing themselves off as podiums (or podia) are not set on a slightly raised platform. Nor can a speaker on a stage be asked to take the podium, as he or she is already on the podium, left only the opportunity of advancing to the lectern, or speaker’s stand,. This is usually a rectilinear stand with a titled top for papers and a microphone for audio pick-up. Even modern speakers, afraid to seem overly educated, might prefer asking a speaker to come to the microphone, in that the microphone is actually still unconfusingly a microphone.

The problem with the expansion of meanings in words like podium is that they gradually eliminate previously common and more distinctive words from use. Pity, that. Only words that are narrowly distinctive facilitate clear understanding immediately. If, per the trend, the core vocabulary continues to shrink, the end point will be the time when one size fits all. So any noun will be called a “thing” and another object in the same space will be “the other thing,” even when there are many things to be confused. The sole benefit would be to improve consensus. All could agree on a thing that is unbounded by denotation.





Nebulous

March 14, 2014

Tags: nebulous, malapropisms, words, meanings, the power of language, Winston Churchill, wit

NEBULOUS

Being members of a linguistic species, words provide ample opportunity to trip over one’s tongue, particularly if an individual is caught in the unblinking public eye of the media while providing a seemingly glib response that becomes an instantaneously and universally embarrassing faux pas. The first rule is always think before you speak. Second to this is to be certain that you understand that meaning or meanings of the words that you speak.

Winston Churchill memorably recommended that it is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. It is perhaps his second wittiest saying. Wittiest by far is when Churchill was approached by a liberal adversary in seemingly indemnifying female form, who said, “If you were my husband, sir, I would give you poison,” to which Churchill instantly responded (without as much as exhaling from his execrable cigar), “If you were my wife, madam, I would take it.”

Proving that where great wit has been cultivated by class, education and repartee, even excusing Churchill being half American, leaves the conclusion that with practiced tongues, gaffes are rare and trips rarer yet.

Pity the poor instantly famous astronaut and future President of American Airlines when asked, “Mr. Borman, how do you see the future of NASA.” Blinded by Klieg lights and unaware that he was playing out a Warholian moment, Borman responded, “I see the future of NASA as extremely nebulous.”

Star-crossed with words, Borman was probably alluding to nebulae, which as interstellar objects are brilliant clouds of gas, often remnants of supernovae, hatching places and nurseries of new stars, many of which will form solar systems, and – known only recently with great confidence – many of which will have earth-like planets circling them in orbits known as the Goldilocks zone, far enough from their star to resist incinerating radiation, close enough to keep water liquid, a condition most favorable to life as we know it. And so, Borman the star-seeker, seeking Earthly stardom like any normal person thrust into the blaze of fame, burned up after re-entry, thinking that a word meant one thing, while failing to know that it was another: a zone or place of confusion and disorder, a place sometimes brilliant but on deeper contemplation, a source of bafflement as to its origins, purpose and ultimate destiny. The kind of organization that would push on after Challenger and Columbia is, arguably, producing lots of confusion and hot gas in Congressional hearings.

And you wonder how American Airlines got into its tailspin. Houston, we have a problem. It’s not just a southern accent and you can’t solve it with an ap on your i-phone, because it deals with words and their meanings, and precious few people use words corresponding to their meanings any more. As words once familiar and correctly applied in former ages become recycled, often they are reduced to no more than noises.

Sometimes a flash of misuse creates a brilliant and unforgettable linguistic blooper. The reason why this phenomenon continues to increase in frequency as we boldly go where no one has gone before may come down to Captain Kirk’s message to Scottie after the Enterprise has warped forward in time to see what planet Earth has become in the 23rd century: “Beam me up, Scottie. There’s no intelligent life down here.”


Selected Works

suspense mystery
For every emerging independent woman today, men can be little better than annoying at best and downright monstrous at worst. A creation of a stolen NSA computer program, Fiona Halloran is launched into the present to assist faltering novelist Andy Delaney capture the market that has evaded him, the one for and about women. But there’s an emerging risk: increasing personal danger to them both. This doesn’t stop when they finish his latest novel, Babes & Bastards. It just spills over to the next best seller in a series starring Fiona Halloran, Nun No More. Look for it soon in a bookstore near you.
In the dying Montana town of Sanctuary, helf-Crow Deputy Redfawn Kravitz relentlessly tracks the killer of Senate candidate Jeb Holloway, who then starts picking off the best suspects, one-by-one.
Using only sounds as clues, a blind man must locate his six-year-old niece before kidnappers kill her.
historical mystery
Just before Oktoberfest in 1931, Adolf Hitler's niece and secret lover is found dead in a locked room in the Fuhrer's Munich flat. Pressured by the Nazis, the police rule it a suicide, but evidence suggests a cold blooded execution. If the killer can be outed, widespread outrage will thwart a maniac's rush to power.
Satire
A cheated wife goes way overboard to get revenge on - and a fair settlement from -- her uberrich husband, with terrifyingly hysterical results.
literary mystery
Little Gods is prep school noir, like A Separate Peace as if it were written by Alfred Hitchcock.
action adventure
A clandestine biowar attack on America reduces society to medieval chaos.
Fiction
Approaching Christmas, a winter blizzard locks Chicago in snow. Among its residents, retired FBI poisons expert Tad Lindholm is a haunted man. Haunted by his past, haunted by his recently dead lover Yvette, haunted by the long shadows of too many empty booze bottles, haunted by depression, and tempted by an arsenal of deadly doses to end it all. At the same time, he is trapped by lingering suspicions that he alone synthesized the traceless toxins responsible for recent deaths. Numb with stubbornness, encircled by intersecting mysteries, Lindholm pursues the real killers among his enemies, only to discover an unimaginably personal betrayal.