instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Strictly Speaking

Saying What You Mean


A word related to another by identity, or near identity. Therefore synonyms are erythrocytes in the life blood of a thesaurus. Ostensibly an inevitability of the diversity in the root languages of origin, the belief in modular identities can also become limiting, in suggesting that one word is as good as, or interchangeable with another. Almost never is this the case. Almost always, even words with convergent denotations have quite distinct connotations, and connotations are essential in calculating the way that a word will be heard and processed. A good example would be “policeman,” and “cop.” Read More 
Be the first to comment

Please Report to the 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.  Read More 
Be the first to comment



Most is another one of those words that has spread out, amoeba-like, to consume another word or expression that more often applies better. Most is fine if you’re speaking of an unmeasurable quantity, such as attractiveness. Each year People magazine features a cover of the most attractive man alive, but it leaves some wondering, “attractive to whom?”

It is a good question since with each year the most attractive man alive changes.

So when no unit of measure is available for quantity, the word most is serviceable. When an argument can be fortified by reproducible measurements of standard units, the expression greatest number of, or volume greater than all other buildings combined, works better. It shows that you’re thinking about what you say, and not just falling into step with what’s being said. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Mastication During Dinner


Not what you might think. Don’t chew on this one too long, because all is it means is to chew, even if, as with cows, it doesn’t lead to quick swallowing. Mutual mastication would require the presence of an extensive appetizer during osculation, as the latter word does not mean shopping for the right dress for the Oscars.

In order to create an impression of erudition, sports announcers try to stretch their expression using words they think fulfill their intentions. Often they don't. During the Sochi Olympics we were treated to one open mic that gave us, "Wow. The French relay went from austerity to fame!" I think he meant "obscurity." Austerity is a discipline he experienced in vocabulary. Later the same guy said, of the men's bobsled. "Here he makes a mistake, then tries to compound it." I have to wonder if he shouldn't have just stuck with "correct." And in the waning days of the Games, one commentator on (yes) NPR asked if the Russians intended to "dissemble" the venues after the Olympics. Here I'm guessing, "disassemble." At the UN they have simultaneous translation, one language to another. I wonder if there shouldn't be this service for sports events.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

As You Like It, or Not


Like has become the interjection of choice in today’s usage, the crutch sound without which every other sentence seems unable to limp into vocalization and perhaps proof irrefutable the linguists are right, that whatever comes out of mouths and passes lips ultimately depends on the inference and nuance machinery of the listeners.

But the echolalic use of “like” seems in some weird linguistic way to parallel the phenomenon of junk DNA, sitting within a genome as witness to hitchhiker or invading organism that came and saw, but did not conquer. Instead they just hung around to be useless.

Like is one of the junk DNA fragments of language, obligatory to prove that you have been hearing everyone else say like, and glomming on to be trendy, to belong, to disappear in sameness because real expression is too daring, too risky, too individualistic

The frequent use of like suggests that you cannot be liked unless you are using it, and will draw attention to yourself as a snotty egghead commie East coast liberal snob if you manage to connect a working train of thought to its vocal expression without once backpedaling into this word.

Saying like makes you recognizable as a person who doesn’t need to know the difference between like and as, since both produced similes and similes are cool, even if you don’t know that they’re similes any more than you know what synedoche means.

You know, like it’s like I don’t want to be so unlike other people who use like because nobody will hook up with me on Facebook and my life will be over. Everybody on FaceBook will dislike me because I’ve boycotted like and feel, like, you know, isolated and needing a good gun show to break out of it, dude.

It’s likeness we’re seeking, not difference.

If you’re different, I mean, like my God! Or don’t like my God. But at least think of it! Read More 
Be the first to comment

I Mean... You Know?


I have strayed from single words to common expressions, or combinations of words that appear in speech with such frequency that they have become virtually obligatory to entering the conversation, a prerequisite to acceptance. These expressions are the equivalent of passwords provided to guards at a military encampment in order to gain safe access to the shelter of the camp, its food, and its commanders.

Time to think.

Why start with “I mean” unless one’s normal pattern of conversing is to say things that are unmeant, and thereby insincere. And yet to begin with “I mean” communicates the possibility that any utterance made without the introductory words, “I mean” must be taken as insincere, and that unless prefixed by “I mean” the individual is speaking insincerely. And yet again, since the purpose of language is to communicate intended meanings, the use of “I mean” merely creates a larger suspicion that the speaker sometimes, if opening without this parenthetic bookend, is prevaricating, or being insincere.

Yet “I mean” is at best uneconomical. Junk phrase. Tribal noise.

As a more economic alternative, why not just say what you mean without prefix?
After what is claimed to be meant is uttered, there comes the closing bookend, “you know?" Not offered as a genuine interrogative, which would require a pause expecting a response, “you know” is often thrown down more like a gauntlet, as if to challenge the audience to disagree, or as a means of asserting that no other conclusion is possible from the assertions bookended between “I mean” and “you know.”

“You know,” could be better acquitted as respectful conversation if it were used the way that the Japanese use the same phrase in their speech. In Japanese it is slipped in at the end of a train of thought as, “You know?” Then there is, after and during eye contact, waiting for the listener to nod or shake their head. Disagreement is possible. The course of conversation can be diverted, or a point returned to with Richard Feynman’s famous, “How well do you know that fact?” Or, “Isn’t it equally true that...”

Here’s the distinction. The purpose of tribal noise is concealment, to melt in and be accepted. The purpose of language is communication and exchange of ideas. Progress depends upon the understanding of words with well grounded meaning, or interpretations that leap cultural hurdles to clarify parochial similes. An example of this latter intent would be the United Nations interpreter who made the English phrase “Like carrying coal to Newcastle,” into the Arab equivalent, “Like carrying sand to the Sahara.” She did not translate, word-for-word, but her choice better communicated the intentions of the English delegates to Arab ears. She did not add either “I mean,” or “you know.” The pace of simultaneous translation does not afford the luxury of meaningless excess.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

Junk Words, Part 2

No social advantage is conferred by learning words that few understand. In a completely modern sense, even in crowds involving an expanding demographic, the ability to belong, or to be invited or accepted into the tribe, depends upon avoiding the primatological stigma of seeming to be the Other.

Currently, the conversational range of familiar tribal noise is extremely narrow. As in nature, when the diversity of DNA within a species narrows, the possibility of mass extinction increases. Approaching this asymptote, the din of tribal noise rises. Any words beyond a familiar and narrow range become shibboleths. In ancient societies, the use of shibboleths could lead to stoning. Now they are more likely to result in stonewalling.

Never before in human history have so many serious problems needed such thoughtful consideration. The proper use of the right words is key to understanding. And understanding is bedrock to blazing a trail that leads out of the thicket of complexity into clear plans and thoughtful commitments. Meaning is not necessarily guaranteed by sticking to simple words or short sentences, however clearly a speaker may have intended them. Consider, for example:

Ship sails today.

Three simple, broadly understood words. One sentence. But not even the punctuation reveals the speaker’s intent. Is the sentence an imperative, and order commanding the commitment of a commodity, sails, to a process, shipment? Or is the sentence declarative, providing information on a dock, that a ship, like the Titanic, will weigh anchor and voyage to a destination? Often context rushes to the rescue, but if “Ship sails today” were the only message beamed to extraterrestrial intelligence, what would the receivers make of it, even if we provided them pictures of a ship and a sail?

The problem with junk words is both that their frequency creates confusion while diminishing the intended signal. Today one may speak at great length and never communicate anything close to deep meaning. Even on as august a source as NPR radio, a guest and her host used the word “incredible” an incredible nine times in two minutes. For want of the ability to tap the correct word in order to discuss and describe, the retreat to a much repeated hyperbole acquitted the discussion of the customary burden of serious communication.

A need is rapidly developing for the intervention of a crucial lexicographic remedial program, because, in incontrovertible truth – as the super storm Sandy of 2012 proved – there is not an app for everything. And to restrict one’s attention, time and even belief that your i-phone will rescue you from a flooding basement is dangerously delirious thinking. At such moments, it matters not at all that you have five thousand Friends across every nation on Earth (upper case E means the planet, lower case e means dirt). What you need at such moments is one real first responder who understands one simple word: “Help!”

In some essential respect, as tribal noise inundates modern conversation, this book is a desperate cry to rescue the language from an onrushing flood of meaninglessness. It seeks those readers who are able to understand the cry for help, trusting that without them, entropy will put meaning to rout. Read More 
Be the first to comment