Child’s Play

Whether it’s the special treats, presents, traditions, videos of cats climbing Christmas trees, or the shiny tinselly delight of it all, the collective winter holiday season can bring out the child in us. Which made me think of a bunch of childlike and childish words for being in a state of newness, where we are wet behind the ears and smell faintly of talcum powder and New Car.

  1. Childlike: An adult who has not lost his or her innocent sense of wonder at the world. Think Dr. Seuss, Mr. Rogers, or Robin Williams off his meds.
  2. Childish: A more negative connotation, drawing up references to “childish behavior” discouraged by parents, such as pouting and selfishness, or how some adults act. Especially on reality television programs or on Black Friday.
  3. Juvenile: From Latin. On the surface, this word refers to “one who is youthful.” It has also taken on the negative connotation of juvenile or immature behavior. Especially on reality television programs or Black Friday.
  4. Neophyte: From the Greek words meaning “newly planted”, first recorded use 1590. Has a bit more sophisticated ring than “newbie.” Does not refer to any of Keanu Reeves’ battle scenes from The Matrix. Sorry. I know how badly you want it to.
  5. Noob or N00b: From the world of online gaming and internet forum slang, short for “newbie” but used in a more derisive fashion. Say, a newbie who refuses to learn the rules of a group, blusters around obnoxiously pretending they know what they’re doing but ends up wiping out your landing party with an enchanted hand grenade.
  6. Green: From Old English, meaning young or raw, also gullible. Greenhorn (a young buck, elk, ram or other horned beast just sprouting his horns) is another variant, a slang term applied to a newly arrived member of a group who hasn’t yet learned the secret handshake. As in, “That greenhorn thought Dr. Seuss made house calls.”
  7. Novice: One Latin form of this word, novicius, was used in reference to newly acquired slaves. Odd that it’s also used to describe someone in a religious order. Coincidence? Discuss.
  8. Apprentice: from Old French, “one who is learning.” Perhaps Donald Trump could apprentice to someone who has some humility, and maybe hair styling experience.
  9. Amateur: “One who has a taste for (something)” from French and Latin. Amateurish is an entirely different matter. Even if you are an amateur, you want to avoid looking amateurish. Context is also important here. While amateur athletes are revered, amateur brain surgeons are shunned.
  10. Tyro: From Middle Latin, meaning “young soldier or recruit.” Not to be confused with “Tyra,” which according to the Urban Dictionary, means to throw a tantrum if things don’t go your way. You know, like a child. But not “childlike.”

One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

Listen to the news sometime. I mean, really listen, beyond the sound bytes, hairstyles, and the cringe-worthy way some of them pronounce “often” and “inundated.” Or that one American network that thinks we’re so stupid, a world map graphic is now used to show where each news story is occurring, even those in large US cities. Try to catch the way anchors, correspondents, and political officials pronounce the names of countries. Take note of the adjectives used to describe potentially inflammatory individuals, situations, or groups. It’s really fascinating. Can you imagine the groupthink that went into those decisions? I see a bunch of suits in a room, bandying about various phrases, cringing in anticipation of the angry letters they might get if certain terms are used. It’s lead to some interesting tweaks of the English lexicon.

For instance, my Journalism 101 professor, who looked exactly like J. Jonah Jameson, said the word “try” is a big tip-off to media bias. As in, “The president tried to rally foreign leaders to get behind his peace agreement.” Meaning, “Our editorial slant is that we disapprove of the president and hope his flawed, imprudent agreement fails.”

But that’s old news. With a 24-hour news cycle, who has time for subtlety?

How newscasters and politicians pronounce the names of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries is also a clue. The late Peter Jennings, Canadian by birth, suddenly became Latino when he had to say “Nicaragua” or “Ecuador.” It’s silly, really, a politically correct nod to our neighbors to the south, whom I’m sure are lovely people, but probably wouldn’t mind if we pronounced their countries’ names with our American accents. Do you hear that on the BBC? I don’t think so. Listen now, as President Obama pronounces “Pakistan.” PAH-ki-stahn. Are you guessing that news outlets rooting for his failure probably doesn’t pronounce it that way?

Certain terms are also buzzwords pointing to editorial slant. Remember Ronald Reagan? (Google it, kids.) Remember his dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras? This band of fighters resisted the Sandinista government that took control after dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown in 1979. Taking a cue from the French Resistance in World War II, the contras were called “freedom fighters” by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The contras themselves preferred to be known as “commandos.” And I’m pretty sure the Sandinistas (and those on the American left who supported them) didn’t call the Contras “freedom fighters.” Probably more along the lines of “rebel scum.”

The US media had a little tussle with itself after 9/11, about the use of “terrorist,” an emotionally charged word that was often applied indiscriminately to refer to people who weren’t “actual” terrorists. This led to terms like “enemy combatant,” which the Obama Administration dissed in 2009.

And now, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has journalists scratching their heads again. Some outlets debated the use of “whistleblower,” and if Assange is truly thus. The New York Times now calls WikiLeaks an “antisecrecy group.” Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden call him a terrorist. So now, one man’s terrorist is another man’s antisecrecy advocate. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

What euphemisms have you heard rolling off the tongues of those on the news? How do you think we should pronounce Pakistan? Join the discussion!

Sling A Little Slang

I’ve always loved listening to the music of language, especially those words and phrases outside the tidy boundaries of Merriam-Webster. Somewhere in the Exurban Dictionary of my brain, I filed them away, the associated gray matter swelling with each new person I met and each new place I visited. Here are some of my favorite slang expressions:

1. Slide it, Earl
I first heard this from an old boyfriend who came from the pseudo-Appalachia of way-upstate New York. He said it when someone-usually someone behind the wheel of a pickup with a gun rack on the back window and a dog riding in the cab-was driving too slowly for his taste. He didn’t outright say he’d invented the phrase, but strongly led me to believe so. (Hey, I was young and gullible.) Not only had I adopted the phrase, but after he disappeared from my life, other future boyfriends picked it up from me like a nasty, embarrassing rash. Which annoyed me. What annoyed me even more? While watching an old episode of Match Game on the Game Show Network recently, Gene Rayburn gestured to the manually-operated bonus round answer board and said, “Slide it, Earl!” Feh! I’ve been HAD.

2. Half a bubble off plumb
Ah, this has a beautiful sound, just kind of rolls off the tongue, which is the best thing about great slang. This is a wonderful phrase for someone or something that isn’t quite right, albeit probably in a good way. As in, “My aunt’s half a bubble off plumb, but that quirkiness is probably what I love most about her.”

3. Sea change.
This came to me via an uncle, who was actually not an uncle but one of those friends of the family my parents insisted we call “uncle.” We were having a political discussion and he said something like, “To get that kind of legislation passed, we’ll have to see a real sea change in Congress.” He couldn’t believe I’d never heard the term before. Apparently, according to his explanation, people in the pre-aviation days, seeking relief from a broken heart, consumptive illness or other assorted shattered dreams, would board an ocean liner for Europe, hoping their bad humors would dissolve in the Atlantic. Hence, sea change. Or it could have been from Shakespeare. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to.

Early in my advertising career, a colleague coached me on how to quote jobs. We were working on one for a particularly obnoxious, petty nickel-and-dimer (speaking of slang). “And then, of course,” she said, “We add the five percent PITA tax.” As in “pain in the ass.” When I went client side, I was particularly conscious of not needing this tax added to my jobs.

5. Buzzkill
Another word I love for the sound. I can just hear a mosquito being vaporized in a lamp. Which is also, for the mosquito, anyway, a real buzzkill.

6. Grok
I love this word, as it encompasses so many activities at once. Coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1961 sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, it means understanding something all in one gulp. Or, from the novel:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed-to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science-and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

Unfortunately, this word is slipping out of favor and, at times, is being replaced with the unctuous, camera-ready “aha moment.”

7. Frack (original series), Frak (reimagined series)
One of my favorite words ever coined, this was a Battlestar Galactica writer’s way of getting away with a juicy expletive on television networks that frowned upon juicy expletives. Frak is currently bobbling into over- and mis-use. Please help me save “frak” by using it as judiciously as you would any other f-bomb. Thanks. And thank you to the environmentalists of New York State, for another definition of this slang term: “Frack” is short for hydrofracking, or hydrofracturing, a potentially water-table-contaminating way of fracturing sedimentary rock to extract natural gas. To which many of my fellow New Yorkers respond, “No fracking way.”

8. Spiffanilla
I think I made this up. Means, roughly, “awesome.” Please feel free to correct me if, say, an old boyfriend copped it from a game show.

What are your favorite slang words or expressions?

(Thank you, Plinky people, for today’s prompt, “What’s your favorite slang word?”)


Unlike the purity that the French desire to retain in their language (au revoir, le hamburger), American English is a dirtier affair: a living, breathing organism that adapts to changes in times and styles. Dictionaries, even the stodgier names, regularly add new words and phrases that hit the big time, and eventually phase out unused, obscure ones to rescue shelters like this. Also, we see annual lists of words and phrases that grate on us like nails on a blackboard, such as refudiate, epic fail and viral.

I like and hate this about my native tongue. I like the fluidity of our daily conversations, the LMAO moments of our melting pot. But I’m apprehensive about what our collective shorthand will do to our cultural communication skills. Will we graduate class after class of students who can’t master the art of the complete sentence? Already, I see it creeping into the workplace. My husband, once looking to hire a web designer, received an inquiry written completely in incomplete text-message-speak. “Ready when u r,” would not be too far off the mark. This dude’s first contact with a potential employer was tapped out as casually as the text he just sent his girlfriend.

Something’s wrong here. I’ve worked for myself and pitched jobs. I’ve worked for others and hired freelancers. But I don’t recall a single cover letter or e-mail to or from a potential employer that was worded so lackadaisically. (Now, there’s a word worth keeping.)

Maybe this was an isolated incident, and I’m being too hard on the class of 2011. After all, the only constant in this world is change. Who am I to even think I can hold back the advancing glacial foot of the English language? Perhaps some had bemoaned the introduction of movies, radio, and television as the death knell of civilized culture, as I rail against thumb-typing and strange acronyms now.

We survived early technology. We survived cartoon violence and Watergate. We survived Benny Hill, Wham! and Vanilla Ice. I have a feeling we’ll survive this current shift in our cultural paradigm.

After all, old expressions have their way of hanging on and easing us into the future. For every three sparkly new words entered into the Urban Dictionary, only one is jettisoned. We still say “dial” the phone even though we no longer have dials on our phones. We “cc” colleagues who may never have seen carbon paper. Collections of published music are still called “albums” even they may only exist as electronic files. Who knows? One day we might still “drive” cars that require little more than coordinate programming. Or “type” e-mails and blog posts (as I often do) by dictating into our computers. It will be a fascinating world. Although I do hope we continue talking to each other with our mouths, and not just with our thumbs.

Word up.

More Words We Love To Hate

According to a recent Marist College poll of over a thousand American adults, “whatever” was chosen as the most annoying word or phrase for the second year in a row. “Like” came in right behind it. Other irksome terms included “you know what I mean,” “to tell you the truth,” and “actually.”

Actually, to tell you the truth, I’m in complete agreement. Word One and Word Two are simply irritating space holders; our current versions of “uh” and “um.” “Actually” says nothing. “To tell you the truth” makes me think the speaker or writer normally doesn’t tell the truth, but is choosing to do so now.

Oh, now they’ve done it. They’ve fired up this grammar geek’s engine of irritation. Now I’ll have to add my personal language pet peeves that flab up your work and generally make what could be lean, mean writing a fluffy, obtuse mess.

1. In order to

Tell me, why is this flitter of words necessary? Consider this sentence:  “In order to get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first.”

Why not: “To get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first.” You get double the bang for your grammar buck; lose a couple words and make a clearer sentence. Or simply rewrite the whole sucker: “We had to tranquilize the cat to get her into her carrier.” Done.

2. It is what it is

This was cute for a while, but is now way past its expiration date. It’s back there with the green goo that used to be ricotta cheese. Its current use as a kind of verbal shrug has ruined what was once a brilliantly simple tenet of Zen philosophy. Thanks a heap.

3. Rain event

Have you noticed this creeping into our weather forecasts? As in, “We’re expecting a rain event to slowly move into the Northeast.” Why can’t it just rain? Or is that not technical-sounding enough to justify all those whiz-bang graphics?

4. At the end of the day

What, “when all is said and done” isn’t good enough for you? (Seriously, that sucks, too.) This tired phrase needs to be retired. What if we tailor this throwaway phrase into something more specific, depending on the situation? In politics, one could say, “When we finish digging through the mess the previous administration left behind.” Or, in the case of any PR nightmare, “When we figure out who’s to blame.”

5. On a daily basis

Another useless chunks of words. Comedy writers seem to like this one. As in, “While I appreciate the occasional romp through a dumpster, it’s not something I enjoy on a daily basis.” The rhythm is kind of nice, but the tune’s been played.

6. Often

Did I miss the announcement that we are now supposed to pronounce the “t”? Maybe I was, like, somewhere else at the time. Maybe I was researching the history of the word and its storied pronunciation past. Before the 17th century, according to Random House, the “t” was pronounced. Then it was gradually dropped by well-educated English speakers, American and British, and is now considered the preferred pronunciation. Sometimes contemporary speakers have added the “t” in a misguided attempt to sound erudite, which, at least in my opinion, makes you sound like you’re trying too hard. After all, we don’t pronounce the “t” in soften, fasten, listen, or glisten. But as more of us say “AWF-tin” and become accustomed to hearing it, it may sneak its way back into favor. Please stop. Friends don’t let friends sound stupid.

7. Ad experience

I saw this recently on a commercial break, I was shown three alternative images and asked, “Which ad experience would you prefer?” Unfortunately, there was no option for “None, thank you.” But… “Ad experience”? If I’m seeing an ad, aren’t I already experiencing it?

8. Completely destroyed

This is one of my favorite phrases to hate, and one still used by many otherwise literate journalists. “Destroyed” is… destroyed. Done. Finito. No more. The building is a pile of rubble; call in the backhoes. “Completely” is redundant. And there is no “partially destroyed” just as there is no “partially pregnant.”

What are your favorite irksome phrases and groan-worthy words? And how do you pronounce “often”?