Archives For Dictionary

Not Wholly Contemptible

April 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

cornwallisEveryone loves a compliment. Allow me to rephrase that. Most people appreciate a sincere compliment when it is genuinely flattering.

Actually, “flattering” isn’t a good word choice here. Flattery has a bad rep. The way it’s currently used, it hints of exaggeration and manipulation.

So let’s return to the concept of “compliments” in general. Most, we know, are welcome. It’s nice to have someone tell us we did a commendable job or had a good idea.

Then there are those less sincere “compliments” that require a bit of intelligence or wit to offer. The go by different names, but are commonly referred to as “left-handed compliments” or “backhanded compliments.”

This type of statement might sound on its surface like a compliment, but includes an element that undermines the praise. The Urban Dictionary offers the following example:

“Boy, you’re pretty hot . . . for a fat (or skinny) chick!”

Now, that is nothing but an insult. And it’s an insult of the crassest variety. One that demands no wit at all.

The British, on the other hand, are often capable of offering highly refined backhanded compliments.

I just came across a delightful one, delivered by the commander of the King’s forces during America’s War of Independence. What makes this exquisite is that it was offered in the wake of the general’s defeat at the close of the war.

When finally brought to heel at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis reported, “I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and Soldiers killed or wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.”

You can read more about the context for that statement in an excellent article about the American legacy of “citizen soldiers” published in Hallowed Ground magazine. This excellent journal is published by the Civil War Trust, which works diligently to preserve battlefields from the Civil War. They have recently expanded those efforts to include the Revolutionary War.

C.S. Lewis & Compliments

Lewis included backhanded compliments in his fictional works. Two simple examples follow. The first is found in The Screwtape Letters, where the tempter frequently commends the skill of God (“the Enemy”) in redeeming the lost.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.

Here is an offhanded compliment that Lewis places on the lips of Prince Corin in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is asked where Queen Susan is, on the eve of a battle and he responds like a typical young boy (which he still is at the time). He praises the martial spirit of her sister, Queen Lucy, who is a young adult at this point in the series.

At Cair Paravel. She’s not like Lucy [her sister who is in the ranks of the archers], you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to wars, though she is an excellent archer. (The Horse and His Boy).

The late Bruce Edwards described how C.S. Lewis offered H.G. Wells a backhanded compliment. He did so by following the structure of Wells’ works, but devoting them to a vastly different philosophical purpose.

In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Lewis adapted the general plot outline from H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon in order to tell an essentially anti-Wellsian tale. In Perelandra, Lewis pays a similar backhanded compliment to the man he admired as a speculative writer, but not as a philosopher.

The broad narrative structure of Perelandra resembles another novel by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). . . . In Wells’s novel, this narrative outline provides the basis of a quasi-Marxist fable about effete bourgeoisie and surly proletariat. In Lewis’s hands, a similar story structure tells a very different tale, one in which the ultimate battles are not economic and political, but rather cosmic and spiritual. (C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet).

Compliments: the Good & the Bad

Lewis’ use of Wells’ science fiction template was not meant to slight him. It was actually a tribute. Likewise, in the examples from his fiction, Lewis is simply representing (effectively) the attitudes of the speakers.

Returning for a moment to the abject General Cornwall, we recognize as well the grudging nature of his praise of the enemy. They were certainly rabble—possessing no great military skill, in his estimation. Yet, in terms of bringing the army of the greatest power in the world at that time to its surrender, “they are not wholly contemptible.”

And that, when it came to winning the war, apparently proved quite sufficient.

Pet Names

July 14, 2015 — 5 Comments

hypocorismHow many hypocorisms do you have? Which of them are your favorites? Are there any you would sooner never hear again?

I subscribe to one of those “word of the day” emails sent by services such as dictionary.com or thefreedictionary.com.

The truth is, more often than not I’m already familiar with the word they choose to define each day. However, when something hits me out of the proverbial blue—I am amazed and pause to ponder its meaning, history, and reasons why I may never have crossed its path before. (I imagine this behavior is widely replicated among word lovers.)

“Hypocorism” is one of those surprises. It had no place in my lexicon, although the concept of “pet names that are bestowed with affection” is something my family and I have always practiced.

I grew up being called Robbie, and as a young adolescent told my family I preferred to go by Rob. Rob is probably verbal shorthand for Robert, but Robbie is definitely hypocoristic. It is amusing to me that my beloved grandmother never ceased to call me Robbie—even though every precious letter I received from her while serving in the military far from home began, “Dear Robert.”

We’ve already noted the key aspect of a hypocorism. It is a name expressing endearment, not disrespect. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it is not embarrassing. Many people bestow pet names on their loved ones that are best shared only with family.

Some pet names are simply silly. Two of my granddaughters often call me “Bumpa.” That is not a reference to any lumpiness on my part, but to the way the eldest of them began pronouncing “Grandpa” when she was oh so tiny. It was cute, special, and passed on to her younger sister, at first through aural osmosis . . . and later through conscious affection.

C.S. Lewis’ family members were enthusiastic practitioners of hypocorism.

One of the things that new students of Lewis often find confusing is his own name. The fact that he was known to family and friends as “Jack” begs the question of the source of that name. The story, though oft told, remains quite entertaining.

The initial version of Lewis’ adopted name was Jacksie. Lewis loved dogs, and his stepson Douglas Gresham writes that Jacksie was one of these childhood animals.

When he was a small boy, he didn’t like the name [Clive] and soon changed it to “Jacksie” by simply refusing to answer to anything else. It was actually because of a small dog that he was fond of that he picked the name Jacksie, which was what the dog was called. It was run over (probably by a horse and cart as there were almost no cars at the time and place where he was a child), and Jack, as he later became known, just took the name for himself. (Jack’s Life)

I have shared in the past how Lewis’ brother Warnie [Warren] related the event.

Then, in the course of one holiday, my brother made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking “Clive”, and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.”

He stuck to this next day and thereafter, refusing to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack. So to his family and his intimate friends, he was Jack for life: and Jack he will be for the rest of this book.

Lewis’ life was filled with other hypocorisms. One of the most curious was the nick name “Minto,” given to Janie Moore. Mrs. Moore and her daughter were supported in his home by Lewis after her son Paddy had been killed in WWI. The two men had pledged that if only one survived, he would care for the other’s widowed parent. Lewis kept that promise.

As you reflect on the pet names that you share with those you love, you are in good company. An affectionate hypocorism is a truly precious gift.

Imitating Animals

March 31, 2015 — 4 Comments

bearsHave you ever imitated a bear? Perhaps not intentionally. Still, if you are typical, you may do so routinely.

And it’s all because of your acnestis.

When I first saw the word, I thought it might be some recently coined term to address a semi-serious subject. But, the word is neither new, nor is the dilemma it describes exaggerated.

From the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.

ACNESTIS, n.

That part of the spine in quadrupeds which extends from the metaphrenon, between the shoulder blades, to the loins; which the animal cannot reach to scratch.*

While most human beings may not replicate bears’ behavior with trees, it is not uncommon to seek relief from a handy doorjamb.

Scratching that unreachable epicenter of that infernal itch has motivated the creation of a variety of tools. Yet none of these instruments can match the sheer relief offered by a sturdy doorway. I doubt I am alone, or excessively ursine, for believing that.

It could be worse, of course. At least people (most of them) don’t follow the example of dogs. We’ve all seen how they use the excuse of scratching their backs, to justify picking up unsavory scents while they wriggle around on the ground.

Descending to Subhuman Levels

Emulating animals has implications extending far beyond physical considerations. It is one thing to share a mutual appreciation for scratching one’s acnestis. Quite another to echo their baser natures.

In one of his letters, the Apostle Peter considers the fate of false prophets. After describing the damnation of fallen angels, he writes about those who teach deceitful doctrines. “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed . . .” (2 Peter 2:12, ESV).

The following passage from the Psalms reveals how even the righteous are not immune to behaving like animals. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you [God]. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. . . . My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:21-23, 26, ESV).

God’s word is filled with allusions to bestial behaviors. One of the most literal is found in the example of the humiliation of the great King Nebuchadnezzar. You can read it here, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

What Distinguishes Us from the Beasts?

C.S. Lewis describes how being a true human being differentiates us from animals. We share physical natures and numerous biological similarities. But we are far more. Lewis explores this in The Abolition of Man, which begins with the chapter “Men Without Chests.”

This image of lacking a “chest” actually refers to a classical reference for the part of a person where our character or virtue resides.

The excerpt below addresses how the enlightened or morally educated individual is capable of transcending the slavery of animals to their fleshly nature.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’

The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.

The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

It is wise, I believe, for every man and woman to devote themselves to the health and of their own heart and purpose—that which makes us human.

In doing so, we will still share some of the basic behaviors of the animal world about us, such as being plagued by our acnestis . . . but the choices that direct the course of our lives will no longer be dictated solely by carnal instincts.

And such growth, my friends, will make us each day, a little bit more human.

_____

* I realize Noah Webster limited his definition to quadrupeds, but today it has been expanded to aptly apply to all of us who suffer from this curse.

dictionary 1Most “word people” like dictionaries. Some writers go so far as to love dictionaries, but I don’t wish to quibble about where one rests on the affection spectrum in terms of these repositories of words.

This guy, though, has to be pegged on the extreme (idolatry) end of the meter. Ammon Shea wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages after having done just that. The Oxford English Dictionary, you may know, comprises 25 volumes, and Shea warns that reading it at such a rapid pace took a toll on his eyesight. It’s not surprising, that he admits he is not your typical reader.

One could say that I collect word books, since by last count I have about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries. . . . I do not collect these words because I want to impress friends and colleagues with my erudition. . . .

My friends know that I read dictionaries for fun, and have come to accept this proclivity with relative good grace, but they are not terribly interested in or impressed by my word collection.

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier advised his fellow poets to read the dictionary. No better way to enrich one’s language, he claimed, although he also read cook books, almanacs and the like. In fact, his biographer offered this fascinating observation.

He found pleasure in the most indifferent novels, as he did in books of the highest philosophical conceptions, and in works of pure science. He was devoured with the desire to learn, and said: “No conception is so poor, no twaddle so detestable that it cannot teach us something by which we may profit.”

C.S. Lewis indicated that so-called “definitions” offered outside the ordinances of the dictionary must be approached warily. “When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust” (Studies in Words). He offers a very sensible reason for such precautions.

It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote. The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism.

Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so (Studies in Words).

Dictionaries are, of course, their own genre. Lectionaries, collections of words and meanings, are different than any other type of written composition. For example, glossaries may draw together specialized vocabulary—say for medical or theological purposes—but by their very nature they are not intended to blaze any new literary pathways.

There is, invariably, an exception to this rule. Some “dictionaries” are creative exercises. They are works of fiction, and some are entertaining indeed.

The most famous of these satirical works is Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book). The volume is not expressly irreverent, although people of faith will encounter some offensive examples in its pages. However, a number of the entries are brilliant.

Kilt

  1. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Rank

  1. Relative elevation in the scale of human worth.

He held at court a rank so high

That other noblemen asked why.

“Because,” ’twas answered, “others lack

His skill to scratch the royal back.”

Emancipation

  1. A bondman’s change from the tyranny of another to the despotism of himself.

He was a slave: at word he went and came;

     His iron collar cut him to the bone.

Then Liberty erased his owner’s name,

     Tightened the rivets and inscribed his own.

Goose

  1. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird’s intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an “author,” there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl’s thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable: many are found to have only trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.

Another Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert, composed his Dictionary of Received Ideas, which found humor in peculiarities of common understandings.

Absinthe

Extra-violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouin.

Archimedes

On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what it is.

Omega

Second letter of the Greek alphabet. [Note: this would only apply to biblically literate societies.]

The earliest such example of a satirical dictionary was that by the Persian writer Nezam od-Din Ubeydollah Zâkâni. I have not located a copy of his 14th century lexicon, but it apparently includes entries that are still understandable in our modern world.

Thought

What uselessly makes people ill.

Orator

A donkey.

Word lovers can easily get caught up in conversations like this. In fact, I’m certain more than one Mere Inkling reader has contemplated compiling their own creative dictionary! It’s not an insurmountable project, since it’s accomplished one word at a time.

_____

For those desiring to create their own dictionary “entries” such as the one that graces the top of this blog, there a free meme generator you can use online. Available here, it’s a fun little tool. It’s also suitable for creating a little self-deprecating humor.

dictionary 2

Obstreperous Language

September 15, 2013 — 12 Comments

obstreperous

© Stella Belikiewicz and used by permission.

Despite my many shortcomings, I do “pride” myself on possessing a rather considerable vocabulary. My 97th percentile score of the GRE* reinforced my impression that I knew a lot about words.

One technique which has increased my vocabulary is to never let an unknown word pass by without making an effort to learn its meaning. This is simple when I’m working at the computer. If I’m unsure of a definition, I immediately look it up in an online dictionary such as this.

Very rarely do I “guess” at a meaning, based upon its context. This mainly occurs if I’m listening to the radio while I’m driving, and I don’t have recourse to a dictionary. Even then I try to impress the new word on my memory so that I can research it when I return home.

The word in this column’s title motivated me to discuss the importance of accurately understanding word definitions. When I encountered “obstreperous,” it rang vague bells of recollection. And, I was able to discern the word’s general meaning from the context of the article. While some readers of Mere Inkling are already familiar with its meaning—and perhaps use it in daily conversations—allow me to share the context in which I encountered it.

I was reading an article in a military journal about the “battle over ballistic missiles” which was fought inside the Air Force as the manned-bombers-only mindset had to be breached so the United States could advance into the ICBM age. The champions of the two positions were two successive Air Force Chiefs of Staff, Thomas White and Curtis LeMay.

White struggled with how to control the obstreperous LeMay. He knew he didn’t have the political power to force LeMay out, nor could he outwait his [Strategic Air Command] chief. LeMay received his fourth star in 1951 at age 44, which made him the youngest four-star U.S. general since Ulysses S. Grant.**

I’m rarely content with possessing an amorphous definition of a word, so I looked it up. My general impressions of its meaning were confirmed, and I added another word to my personal vocabulary. (The fact that I may never use it beyond its appearance in this post is irrelevant.) Here’s the dictionary entry:

ob·strep·er·ous [uhb-strep-er-uhs]

adjective

1. resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly.

2. noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children.

Parents give their children a precious gift by encouraging the growth of their own vocabularies. In the pre-computer days, we had a dictionary not far away when we had dinner, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to find its way to the table during our conversations.

Consciously adding new words to our vocabulary is a skill especially vital to writers.

C.S. Lewis wrote about how common usage of familiar words requires no contextual definition. However, he warns of the danger of accepting subjective “definitions” offered outside the context of credible dictionaries.

When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust. It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote.

The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so. . . .

The word wit will illustrate this. We . . . find old critics giving definitions of it which are contradicted not only by other evidence but out of the critics’ own mouths. Off their guard they can be caught using it in the very sense their definition was contrived to exclude.

A student who should read the critical debate of the seventeenth century on wit under the impression that what the critics say they mean by wit is always, or often, what they really mean by wit would end in total bewilderment.

He must understand that such definitions are purely tactical. They are attempts to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word. You can see the same “war of positions” going on today.

A certain type of writer begins “The essence of poetry is” or “All vulgarity may be defined as,” and then produces a definition which no one ever thought of since the world began, which conforms to no one’s actual usage, and which he himself will probably have forgotten by the end of the month. (Studies in Words)

I find it rather fitting to include this passage from Lewis, with its martial imagery, in a column inspired by a description of a surly advocate of massive nuclear bombing as the best deterrence of World War III.

Writers, particularly those attempting to be persuasive, are wise to ponder Lewis’ wise counsel. We cannot surrender the battlefield to those who would revise the clear and historic meanings of words in an effort “to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word.”

_____

* The Graduate Record Exam is a standardized test used as part of the admission process for many university graduate programs in the United States. We won’t be discussing my mathematics score here . . .

** If the source article interests you, you can read it at Air Force Magazine.

The artwork above is copyrighted by its creator, Stella Belikiewicz, and used with her permission.

Allow me to once again display my grammatical ignorance. I was reading an online book review and the author used lots of multisyllabic words. (That’s something I actually enjoy.) But then he went and threw in one of those words I had to rush to dictionary.com to define. (That’s another thing I love—learning new words.)

Naturally, I could partially decipher the definition from the context. However, whenever I have a dictionary within reach, that shortcut doesn’t satisfy me.

In this case, the word was anacolutha, the plural form of anacoluthon. It is defined as “a construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as ‘It makes me so—I just get angry.’” Well, we can all agree that is not a good sentence; it’s a fine example of what a writer should avoid.

Not all grammar rules make sense. Take for example the notion that one cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Some of us literally had our knuckles rapped for scribbling such grammatical “obscenities.” While it’s true that you can avoid using prepositions in this manner, it’s not the great sin we were taught it was. In his Letters to an American Lady, C.S. Lewis writes:

[Regarding] a sentence ending with a preposition. The silly “rule” against it was invented by Dryden. I think he disliked it only because you can’t do it in either French or Latin which he thought more “polite” languages than English.

Well, isn’t that an interesting historical note to become aware of?

But, back to anacolutha . . . let’s see if it’s difficult for a trained pen to sever the ties of logic, and compose this sort of literary construction.

Reepicheep was a great swordsman who, “a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse” was his creed.

Frodo pondered his options while—the Nazgûl loathed bathing more than once each fortnight.

Wow, that’s a lot harder than it looks. If you can think of better examples (not difficult, I’m sure), feel free to share them in a comment! But only write them here, and don’t allow any anacolutha to slip into your real writing!