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Strictly Speaking

Word Origins: When things aren't what they're called.


The most common use of this word refers to an armored assault vehicle driven by tracks and topped by a rotating gun turret. Almost no one remembers that the application of the word was the British code applied to a machine that appeared capable of delivering potable, nonpoisoned water to the trenches in World War I. But its intent was never that. It was designed and operated as a war machine to break the deadlock and futility of deadlocked front lines, an indestructible, terrifying vehicle with murderous firepower, and also a shield for advancing infantry.

Certain vestiges of the original meaning of tank as a reservoir of water remain. During the 1950s, nylon racing suits used by swimmers were called tank suits. Eventually, the reference of tank to a form containing water became so rare that elevated municipal water tanks became referred to as water towers, although the contained water is in a tank at the top.

Some believe that getting tanked is being so drunk that it seems a tank has run over them. More likely, if any relationship to tanks exist, it's probably because with car's we "fill up the tank." With beer. Which is served in tankards. Least desirable is a tank driver who's tanked.

Few today even question why it is that we refer to mechanized war machine as a tank. This may be taken, and fairly, as an index of indifference, to a lack in curiosity in the past. Perhaps if the code name for the war machine under development had been eggplant, people would be more puzzled as to how we reached the Abrams M-1 Eggplant. Or perhaps no one would have found this absurd incongruity hard to swallow. Read More 
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Instant Neologisms


The first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Sputnik initiated both the space race, accelerated the arms race, and became, overnight, a household English word that brought fear of Russian missile attack. Since this orbiting device nearly turned the Cold War hot and ended civilization, it might be the kind of trivia that we are inclined to remember. Here’s a bit of fun. If you’re between twenty and thirty years of age, place a bet with a friend before you arrive at a party. Bet him or her ten cents per minute for every minute of ersatz conversation that the word Sputnik will not be spoken. Its absence will be strange for a mere word once so frightful that it nearly destroyed everything. Read More 
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In 1960, with the blessing of Websters’ Third International Dictionary, words like copacetic, which originally meant excellent, or fine, gained full linguistic legitimacy. Prior to 1960, dictionaries prefaced the definition of copacetic by “slang” or “substandard.”

The older dictionaries were not being judgmental, as some believe. They simply understood that word usage in spoken language continues to be a socioeconomic distinction. Well spoken people who chose their words carefully, and, like Einstein, think slowly, are generally better educated, more capable and, more likely to rise in influence than those who are content to succumb to the temptations of changing usage in order to be more broadly embraced socially.

A few steps up the socioeconomic ladder would leave copacetic in the dust by deploying “superb,” which is broadly understood, whereas “ineffable,” while a perfectly good word, risks losing many listeners in the thicket of their own limitations. Read More 
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A Tribute to Proper Pronunciation


Commonly mispronounced KEEMO-THERAPY, this word is defined as the slow intravenous administration of chemicals,( a word that is commonly, and correctly, pronounced KHEMICALS) usually as a treatment for broadly distributed cancers like leukemia, which is usually correctly pronounced LOO-KEEM-MEEA. Since the mispronunciation of chemotherapy is not commonly recognized, a shrug of the shoulder and a guess that the KEEM sound has been transplanted from leukemia to chemotherapy in that chemotherapy is the treatment of choice for leukemia might have some contextual appeal.

Unluckily, as Lyndon Johnson once said in his folksy way, that dog don’t hunt. If the terrible truth were known, it would be that once upon a long ago and still present time in certain European countries, the pronunciation of their word for chemical kicks off with KEEM, as in in the research journal Inorganica Chimica Acta. For these tongues, the KEEMO-THERAPY pronunciation of chemotherapy is a correct and familiar sound. For Americans, it is about as unnatural as conscripting Sputnik as a contraceptive device.

Anything in any variety of the English language refers to chemicals would begin with CHEM, ergo, KHEMO-THERAPY, unless you’re seeking to have KEEMICALS infused. But searching back and forth in the medicine cabinet looking for KEEMICALS would be as fruitful as seeking a panacea for all cancers.
Or for the precious relief of middling intelligence, you can start being the little genius brave enough to shout out that the emperor of usage has no clothes. Just be certain that you’re fewer than ten years old. Because in adults all forms of heresy against convention are punished, first by a dip in the village pond, then by pillorying, after that ostracization and, if you fail to learn that nobody is interested in change – even if you’re right – they will castrate and crucify you before burning your intestines in the town square.

About your only escape in civilizations where as Will Durant noted, “tradition sanctifies absurdity,” is to be bold in registering for those college courses, where you can say chemistry with full justice to its true phonemes, and even – bold new word! chemical engineering. But with a caution. Never tell your grocer that you don’t want any chemicals, just organic ingredients.

Organic ingredients are made of naturally occurring biochemicals. They’re like English Leather that way. If you ate nothing chemical, you would eat nothing at all, and there’s nothing like an undernourished immune system to invite leukemia, which would – nonetheless, in America, praise God and country – not require you to consume anything “chemical.” They will fool you with phonics and explain that it really is cheemical.  Read More 
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