The Wordnik Five Favorites Review: How to Not Write Bad, by Ben Yagoda

Here at Wordnik we’re all about lists and favorites, so when we review books, we do what we love best: list our favorites.

Today we’re looking at a terrific new book from Ben Yagoda, one of our favorite language bloggers: HOW TO NOT WRITE BAD: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. As the title suggests, Yagoda focuses on not how to write well but how to write less badly. After all, “you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.” You have to write “good-enough” before you can even attempt to write like David Foster Wallace.

We liked a lot of things about this book. Here are some of our “five favorites.”

Five favorite terms

bromide

“I imagine the write-what-you-know bromide is mocked because it implies, or seems to imply, that you’re required to write about what you’ve already learned or experienced at the time you sit down at the keyboard.”

A bromide is “a commonplace remark or notion; a platitude,” or “a tiresome person; a bore.” This comes from the chemical sense of the word, “a binary compound of bromine with another element, such as silver,” which was used as a sedative, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Dickens Fallacy

“You could call it the Dickens Fallacy: somehow, we all seem to have an ingrained sense that we’re being paid by the word.”

British writer Charles Dickens was actually paid in installments, not by the word, but the idea of a Dickens Fallacy vividly illustrates some people’s penchant for wordiness. Yagoda’s examples – a verbose sentence followed by his more pared-down version – are helpful in demonstrating not only why concise is better, but how to get there.

frisson

“If I happen to be writing about unfortunate digestive conditions, I can put down diarrea and then diarhea and finally diarrhea – getting a frisson of pleasure from seeing the last one absent of a squiggly red line.”

Frisson is one of our favorite words. It means “a moment of intense excitement; a shudder,” and comes from the Old French fricon, “a trembling.” We also loved Yagoda’s advice about not relying too heavily on spell-check, that it’s “anything but a cure-all and actually can make things worse.” In other words, sometimes spell-check simply won’t help.

gueulade, la

“Gustave Flaubert, renowned as one of the great all-time stylists, used what he called la gueulade: that is, ‘the shouting test.’ He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and, yes, shout what he had written.”

Yagoda suggests reading aloud what you’ve written to catch wordiness, repetition, and “sentences that peter out with a whimper, not a bang.” We’ve tried it, and it works.

skunked words

“The trouble is, like the language itself, the corpus of skunked words is always changing.”

Skunked words are those that were once considered “ignorant, illiterate, unacceptable, etc.,” but have become, by frequent usage, generally accepted. For instance, chomp at the bit was once champ at the bit, stomping ground was stamping ground, and pompom was pompon.

Five questions we had answered by this book

  • How do we convince comma-happy people to stop using so many commas?
  • What do we tell people who insist that ending a sentence in preposition is wrong (and often go through grammatical gymnastics to avoid it)?
  • Why is using “like” okay (sometimes)?
  • How do we make a sentence start strong and end strong?
  • Why do too many prepositions make a sentence seem weak?

Five words we’d use to describe this book

Useful. How to Not Write Bad is as useful for beginners as for seasoned pros.

Entertaining. One of our favorite lines from the book:

As for sound, students tend to insert commas at places where they would pause in speaking the sentence. This has about the same reliability as the rhythm method for birth control.

Another:

Sitting in class or dancing at a bar, the bra performed well. . .Though slightly pricey, your breasts will thank you.

We’ll never think of dangling modifiers the same way again.

Clear. Yagoda takes his own advice and writes in a clear, concise, and conversational way.

Example-ful. We at Wordnik love examples, and How to Not Write Bad has plenty of them, which do a great job of illuminating Yagoda’s points.

Memorable. Yagoda’s advice for not just correct but strong writing will stay with us for a long time, and we’ll be sure to return to the book for a periodic refresher.

Word Soup: James Joyce

This Saturday, June 16 is Bloomsday, an annual celebration of Irish writer James Joyce and his novel, Ulysses.

Want to join the festivities? Follow in Leopold Bloom’s footsteps and take a walking tour of Dublin. Learn about the Irish capital through an app that “maps the locations of James Joyce’s modernist novel.” Attend a readathon with “more than one hundred Irish writers [reading] consecutively over 28 hours,” or listen to BBC Radio 4’s “five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the novel.” Read Ulysses in its entirety (finally) at the Irish National Library. Or just enjoy this roundup of ten of our favorite Ulyssesean and Joycean words.

honorificabilitudinitatibus

“Like John o’Gaunt his name is dear to him, as dear as the coat and crest he toadied for, on a bend sable a spear or steeled argent, honorificabilitudinitatibus, dearer than his glory of greatest shakescene in the country.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Honorificabilitudinitatibus means “the state of being able to achieve honors.” According to World Wide Words, Joyce borrowed it from Shakespeare, “who in turn borrowed it from Latin”:

I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

Love’s Labor Lost

But Shakespeare didn’t coin the word. Its first appearance, “in the form honōrificābilitūdo” was “in a charter of 1187 and as honōrificābilitūdinitās in a work by the Italian Albertinus Mussatus about 1300.” The word was also used “by Dante and Rabelais and turns up in an anonymous Scots work of 1548, The Complaynt of Scotland.”

inwit

“Speaking to me. They wash and tub and scrub. Agenbite of inwit. Conscience. Yet here’s a spot.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Inwit, meaning “inward knowledge; understanding; conscience,” was coined in the 13th century, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and comes from in plus wit. World Wide Words goes on to say that the word “had gone out of the language around the middle of the fifteenth century” and “would have remained a historical curiosity had not Joyce and a few other writers of his time found something in it that was worth the risk of puzzling his readers.”

The phrase agenbite of inwit echoes Ayenbite of Inwyt, a Middle English “confessional prose work.” Ayenbite or agenbite is “literally ‘again-bite’, a literal translation of the Latin word meaning ‘remorse’,” says World Wide Words.

monomyth

“At the carryfour with awlus plawshus, their happy-ass cloudious! And then and too the trivials! And their bivouac! And his monomyth! Ah ho! Say no more about it! I’m sorry! I saw. I’m sorry! I’m sorry to say I saw!”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Monomyth, a word that Joyce coined, is “a cyclical journey or quest undertaken by a mythical hero,” and today is most famously applied to Joseph Campbell’s concept in his writings about heroes, stories, and myth.

Mr. Right

“Be sure now and write to me. And I’ll write to you. Now won’t you? Molly and Josie Powell. Till Mr Right comes along, then meet once in a blue moon.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Mr. Right refers to “a perfect, ideal or suitable mate or husband,” and, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, first appeared in Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. However, we found Mr. Right in this context (not as someone’s name) in what appears to be a song from around 1826:

Mr. Right! Mr. Right!
Oh, sweet Mr. Right!
The girls find they’re wrong when they find Mr. Right
There’s some love the young, and the young love the old,
There’s some love for love, and some love for gold.
Many Pretty young girls get hold of a fright,
And all their excuse is – I’ve found Mr. Right.

If anyone has any additional information on the origin of Mr. Right, let us know!

poppysmic

“Florry whispers to her. Whispering lovewords murmur, liplapping loudly, poppysmic plopslop.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Poppysmic refers to the sound “produced by smacking the lips.” The word comes from the Latin poppysma, says World Wide Words. The Romans used the word to refer to “a kind of lip-smacking, clucking noise that signified satisfaction and approval, especially during lovemaking,” and that “in French, it referred to the tongue-clicking tsk-tsk sound that riders use to encourage their mounts.”

pud

“For your own good, you understand, for the man who lifts his pud to a woman is saving the way for kindness.”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

A pud is a “a paw; fist; hand,” but is also apparently meant as slang for penis, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Pud is short for pudding, which originally referred to “minced meat, or blood, properly seasoned, stuffed into an intestine, and cooked by boiling,” also known as sausage. Pudding gained the slang sense of penis in 1719.

quark

“— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Quark is a nonsense word that Joyce coined in his novel, Finnegans Wake. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, applied quark to “any of a group of six elementary particles having electric charges of a magnitude one-third or two-thirds that of the electron, regarded as constituents of all hadrons.”

schlep

“Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

While Joyce didn’t coin the word schlep, which comes from Yiddish shlepn, “to drag, pull,” its first known appearance in English seems to have been in Ulysses.

Ulysses

“In ‘Ulysses,’ Joyce follows Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman, around Dublin through the course of one day in 1904 – June 16, a date that is now annually celebrated by Joyce scholars and admirers as ‘Bloomsday.’”

Herbert Mitgang, “Joyce Typescript Moves to Texas,” The New York Times, June 16, 1990

Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, in Greek mythology, “the king of Ithaca, a leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, who reached home after ten years of wandering.” The Odyssey and Odysseus gave us odyssey, “an extended adventurous voyage or trip”, or “an intellectual or spiritual quest.”

Ulysses contract

“The new paper takes precommitment strategies much further, advocating, for example, a ‘Ulysses contract’ — or a ‘commitment memorandum’ that spells out what to do when the markets move 25 percent up or down.”

Jeff Sommer, “The Benefits of Telling the Ugly Truth,” The New York Times, April 30, 2011

A Ulysses contract, says The Wall Street Journal, is a promise

not to act hastily in volatile markets. Just as Ulysses had his crew tie him down so he could resist the Sirens’ deadly song, Prof. Benartzi…would have investors promise not to overreact to sharp market moves in either direction.

Erin McKean says that Ulysses’s wife, Penelope, “also lends her name to a number of objects, including Penelope canvas (used for needlework), and to the verb penelopize, ‘to pull work apart to do it over again, in order to gain time.’”

Still jonesing for more Ulysses words? Check out this list and this one, and for more nonsense words like quark, check out this one.

Elementary, My Dear Wordnik! Mystery Words

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man behind Sherlock Holmes. To celebrate (and console ourselves over the end of the second season of the Masterpiece Mystery series), we’ve rounded up some words about mysteries and mystery solvers.

The word detective, which came about in the early 1800s, was originally short for detective police. Detective is the adjectival form of detect, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to uncover.” Tec is an abbreviation of detective that originated in 1879.

The origin of sleuth is less direct. The word, which has Old Norse origins, came about in the 13th century, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and meant “track or trail of a person.” This sense of sleuth gave us sleuthhound, a kind of bloodhound, which gained the figurative meaning of “keen investigator” in 1849. In 1872, this sense of sleuthhound was shortened to sleuth.

Hawkshaw is American English slang and comes from the “name of the detective in ‘The Ticket-of-Leave Man,'” a 19th century British play. (A ticket of leave, in case you were wondering, is “a license or permit given to a convict, or prisoner of the crown, to go at large, and to labor for himself before the expiration of his sentence.”) Snoop, another synonym for detective, gained its mystery-solving meaning around 1891. It originally meant “to go about in a prying or sneaking way” and probably comes from the Dutch snoepen, “to eat on the sly.”

While the character Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, it wasn’t until 1903 that sherlock came to mean “detective” in general. The phrase no shit, Sherlock, said when someone is being obvious, seems to have gained popularity in the 1980s. However, we did find a mention in a 1976 book, No Bugles, No Drums.

Gumshoe originated around 1906, and comes from “the rubber-soled shoes [detectives] wore,” perhaps because they allow the wearer “to move about stealthily.” Dick meaning detective “is recorded from 1908, perhaps as a shortened variant of detective.” Shamus, slang for a police officer or private investigator, may come from the Hebrew shamash, “servant,” referring to the “sexton of a synagogue,” and influenced by the Irish name Seamus, or James, “a typical name for an Irish cop.”

A skip tracer specializes in “finding people who have attempted to disappear,” with the idea of tracing someone who has skipped town. We couldn’t find an origin, though we did spot this mention in a newspaper article from 1930 about lexicographers and slang expressions: “Of course, I know without being told what a stick-up artist is, even tho yesterday I did not know what a skip-tracer was.

Finally, private eye was first recorded around 1938, according to World Wide Words, and is “a pun derived from private investigator, via the abbreviations PI and private I.”

Usually where there’s a detective, there’s a mystery. Mystery in the sense of ‘detective story’ was first recorded in 1908. The word originally referred to ancient religious rites such as “purifications, sacrificial offerings, processions, songs, dances, dramatic performances, and the like” before it came to mean anything “of which the meaning, explanation, or cause is not known, and which awakens curiosity or inspires awe.”

A whodunit is “a story dealing with a crime and its solution,” while a howdunit focuses not on who committed the crime but how the crime was committed. Similar is a howdhecatchem, also known as an inverted detective story, which reveals the crime and perpetrator in the beginning, then focuses on how the perpetrator was caught by the crime-solver. In a locked room mystery, the crime is “committed under apparently impossible circumstances,” involving a “crime scene that no intruder could have entered or left, e.g., a locked room.” A procedural is so-called because it involves a sequence of technical details or procedures.

Hard-boiled meaning “callous” came about around 1886. The origin of the hard-boiled detective is unclear although we did find this citation in a 1925 issue of Collier’s Magazine. Hard-boiled fiction, which gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, is “ distinguished by the unsentimental portrayal of violence and sometimes sex.” Noir is a type of crime literature that features “tough, cynical characters and bleak settings,” and is short for the French roman noir, literally “black novel,” a type of gothic fiction.

In cozy mysteries, or cozies, “sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” The crime-solvers are “nearly always amateurs. . .and frequently women” who are “well-educated, intuitive, and often hold jobs (caterer, innkeeper, librarian, teacher, dog trainer, shop owner, reporter) that bring them into constant contact with other residents of their town and the surrounding region.” The blog Traditional Mysteries does a great job researching the origin of the term, tracing it back to the early 1960s. The term may come from tea cozy.

For even more mystery words, check out this list of snoops, some perponyms, and these words noir.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by timofeia]

Summer Reading

Happy summer solstice, everyone!  To celebrate this official first day of summer, we’re offering some reading recommendations, some new, some classic, all jam-packed with word goodness.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be, read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, which focuses on one prolific contributor (the “madman” of the title), or for a whole history of the OED, Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you’re interested in lexicographical founding fathers, you might like the classic The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, as well as the recently released The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, by Joshua Kendall.

More keen on deciphering dictionaries? Then try How to Read a Word, in which historical lexicographer Elizabeth Knowlesoffers clear guidance on how to explore the various aspects of words,” including “pronunciation, spelling, date of first use, etymology, regional distribution, and meaning, all spiced with intriguing examples.”  To hone your writing skills, check out How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.  If presentation skills are your concern, then Jerry Weisman’s Presentations in Action: 80 Memorable Presentation Lessons from the Masters might help.

If you don’t like language “sticklers,” you might like You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, by Economist correspondent Robert Lane Greene. Greene asserts that “language is about communication rather than just rules and that debates about language and its rules are often really about politics.”

Slang your thang?  Check out The First Dictionary of Slang, 1699, first published in the 17th century and reissued this past October.  The dictionary was “the first work dedicated to slang words and their meanings,” and was “aimed to educate the more polite classes in the language and, consequently, the methods of thieves and vagabonds, protecting the innocent from cant speakers and their activities.” (If you really want to go all-out, try the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green.)

In the realm of language history, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way examines the origins of English, English dialects, spelling reform, prescriptive grammar, and swearing.  In The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, available October 2011, Henry Hitchings “examines the present state of the conflict [of the English language], its history, and its future,” where the ideas of “proper usage” came from, and “grammar rules, regional accents, swearing, spelling, dictionaries, political correctness, and the role of electronic media in reshaping language.”

If you can’t wait till October, take a look at Hitchings’ 2008 book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, which plays up the “acquisitiveness of English” and its propensity for collecting words from “more than 350 other languages.” The book “has a wide sweep, from pre-Roman Britain to online communities.”

Available this August is John McWhorter’s What Language Is: And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be. The linguist examines languages of all types, from “vanishing languages spoken by a few hundred people to major tongues like Chinese,” and “how languages across the globe. . .originate, evolve, multiply, and divide.”  Meanwhile, in On The Death and Life of Languages, Claude Hagège focuses on vanishing or dying languages, how they die, and how they can be revitalized.

In her recent Boston Globe column, Erin McKean talked about “nevers” and Mardy Grothe’s collection of quotations, Neverisms: A Quotation Lover’s Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget (as in, “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” “Never let a crisis go to waste,” “Never ruin an apology with an excuse”).

Finally, if novels are more up your alley, you might like The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan, which tells the story of a broken heart through dictionary definitions (“I, n. Me without anyone else”); as well as Milorad Pavic’s The Dictionary of the Khazars. Originally written in Serbo-Croatian, the novel “purports to be the historical record of the Khazars, a fictional Indo-European tribe that vanished in the 10th century.”  The entries are alphabetical but “can be perused at random, read start to finish or back to front.”  As well, two different versions are available, “designated ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and differing by only 15 lines.”

For a list of these books, see below.  Happy summer reading!

Biographies

Dictionaries

History

How To

Quotations

Fiction

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cover of Pocket Posh Word Power
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The Audio Cyclopedia

vacuum tube schematicI used to work at the Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography, in a basement office within sight of where Alvin was built. The basement held another, less-heralded marvel: the free table. Whenever a lab was overhauled or a grad student moved on, they’d cull their detritus and dump it on the free table. Part of the pinko ethos that infects academia, no doubt, but a wonderful thing.

Usual fare ran toward outdated WordPerfect manuals, but you would sometimes find a collection of neatly piled Pyrex labware with a note saying “slightly contaminated.” Or a broken oscilloscope. Or five cartons of Hollerith cards. Pretty great to a technostalgic pack rat.

I especially loved finding specialized reference books. They’re usually de facto dictionaries, but the words are in situ, being put to good use as they’re being defined. One of my favorite free table gimmes was just such a book: The Audio Cyclopedia*, by Howard M. Tremaine. Probably bought in the seventies by someone working on sonar or recording whale songs, it’s a 1,700 page compendium of recording technology, in excruciating detail and with a weird Jeopardy! pose-everything-as-a-question prose style.

It is an absolutely tremendous source of of technicalese and audio industry terms of art, so yesterday I finally started a list I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time: Audio Argot, inspired by the Audio Cyclopedia. Please contribute, it’s an open list. Anything audio related fits the bill, I think—words needn’t come specifically from the Cyclopedia, but for those that do I’ll add a citation. Here’s the list.

* It seems to still be in demand. My scavenged copy is the 2nd edition, first published in 1969; the first edition was published in 1959 and it is not cheap.

Wordnik word of the day: frisket

Today’s word of the day is frisket. We chose it because it’s fun to say, even though the meaning is a bit of printer’s jargon. It rhymes with biscuit and brisket. The Century Dictionary defines frisket as “a thin framework of iron hinged to the top of the tympan of a hand-press. For use, a sheet of paper is stretched and pasted over the frisket, and from this paper spaces are cut out to permit contact between the type and the sheet to be printed, which it serves to hold in place when the frisket is folded down upon the tympan, and to keep clean in the parts not printed.” If you want to learn more about old-fashioned printing, we recommend Practical Printing: A Handbook of the Art of Typography by John Southward.

galley-press
A galley press.Image from Practical Printing: A Handbook of the Art of Typography by John Southward.