Vocabulary, terminology, acronyms, and usage: field notes for 2014 part II

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Steven King


     This year I came across an illuminating post on the Oxford Dictionary blog about the extent to which intensifying adverbs can be legitimately used to pump up adjectives. We’re talking about the use of adverbs in expressions such as “utterly exhausted,” “completely wrong,” and “simply amazed.” According to the author of this post, this dilemma can usually be resolved by determining whether the adjective one is thinking of modifying is a gradable adjective (in other words, has comparative and superlative forms as is the case of hungry, fat, and cold) or an absolute adjective that does not have these forms (such as dead, ballistic, and spherical. After all, “you can’t be rather dead (you either are or you’re not), a batman-and-robin-adverbsmissile isn’t very ballistic, and a basketball isn’t less spherical than a tennis ball.” So far, so good. However, the writer goes on to admit that “sometimes the situation isn’t so cut and dried. There’s a set of adjectives (including perfect, infinite, and unique which fall into both categories, gradable and absolute. These words have a central or original meaning which represents a philosophically or mathematically absolute concept, but they’ve also developed new and less precise meanings”—some of which crept into the language more than a century ago. For instance, the Oxford English dictionary acknowledged that the word “unique” could mean “very remarkable, special, or unusual” as far back as the nineteenth century. In the light of that pedigree, copy editors should think twice before whipping out the red pencil when they are faced with a marketing text pointing out a product’s “truly unique features.”

     The Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua finally decided to include word intranet this year. Better late than never, I suppose.

     The Guardian ran an interesting article about the acronym ISIS this fall. According to the author, “A few years ago, American journalists started referring to the group that was calling itself ‘Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham’ as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), but this acronym has proved to be a poor choice; it suggests that the group’s focus is limited to Iraq and Syria.” The problem seems to stem from an incorrect translation of al-Sham, which the author states does not refer merely to Syria, but rather to the entire Daesh el ConfidencialLevant. The Associated Press subsequently adopted ISIL, replacing the final “S” with the letter “L” to reflect a more precise translation. Nevertheless, in June 2014 the terrorist group in question declared a caliphate and dropped both Iraq and Levant from its name, “making the newly coined ISIL almost instantly obsolete.” In reaction, many British journalists and a few of their American colleagues began to use the term “Islamic State” at the beginning of articles on the subject and employing the truncated acronym Captura de pantalla 2014-12-20 a la(s) 18.57.23“IS” throughout the rest of the text. If this were only a style issue, it would be bad enough. However, a raft of companies that had been using the acronym ISIS are finding themselves forced to either invent new names or commit brand suicide. Belgian chocolatier ISIS has reinvented itself as Libeert and an American company is strongly considering giving its “ISIS” NFC-based payment system a different name. Worst of all, ordinary women named Isis in honor of the Egyptian goddess have been subject to so much flak that one of them has launched a petition to pressure the media to come up with an alternative acronym. Perhaps following John Kerry’s lead, certain newspapers have switched to referring to this Islamic movement as Daesh, which Robert Fisk noted in an interesting article published on December 7 by The Independent, stands for the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”  This acronym is bound to give copy editors endless headaches in 2015.  

     In case this year’s wave of Internet abbreviations passed you by, ICYMI stands for “in case you missed it.”


     The lone entry in the “J” category this year is jargoneer (also known as jargonist according to the Collins Online Dictionary ). As the word suggests, a jargoneer is a user of jargon.


yum_kippers    In 2007 Lucy Knight wrote an article for The New Statesman about being a KIPPER (kids in parents’ pockets eroding retirement savings). After several years of working as a freelance radio producer and writer in the UK, she moved to Lebanon, where she found a job as editor of Time Out Beirut. It seems that “kipper” has moved on as well. Although this acronym appeared on my 2013 list, I’ve included it again as it has taken on a new meaning. Nowadays, it is less frequently bandied about as an acronym for long-suffering parents and more frequently used as a moniker for members of the UK Independence Party.


            With technology advancing at a furious pace and the volume of content stored in the Internet growing exponentially, link rot is becoming a serious problem. People cruising the Internet for information in 2014 found their searches cut short by a record number of 404 Not Found replies.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

     In a March 5, 2013, “Grammar PSA” published on Galleycat.com, Jason Boog backtracked on a position he had taken in 2011 about the acceptability of using the word literally as an intensifier, admitting that it was creeping into respected dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and Oxford English, which had all acknowledged the informal use of the word for this purpose. That same day, Ann Glaviano reminded him in a tweet that literally had been “creeping since 1914” when James Joyce used it in the opening line of “The Dead.” He wasn’t the first distinguished author to take the leap. Fiona McPherson, senior editor of the OED (which supports the use of literally to express emphasis in sentences such as “we were literally killing ourselves laughing”) has been quoted by The Telegraph as saying that Mark Twain used it in this sense in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which contains the line “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.” I recently received a bulletin from GrammarBook.com that not only lamented the use of literally as an intensifier and recommended alternatives such as “virtually, “really,” and actually,” but also cited Mark Twain’s remark “If you see an adverb, kill it” as justification. As this is a legacy site heroically maintained by grammarian Jane Straus’s husband Lester Kauffman since her death in 2011, I’m not sure if it was a repeat of an earlier bulletin written by Jane or a guest contribution, but I found it ironic that Twain would rail against adverbs in general when he had used one so effectively in his most famous and enduring piece of work.


 Captura de pantalla 2014-12-01 a la(s) 00.29.03    In 2012, Carlos Espinosa de los Monteros y Bernaldo de Quirós, the Fourth Marquis of Valtierra, was appointed the first high commissioner of Marca España, a Spanish government initiative designed to polish that country’s image as a national brand. The Permanent Observatory of the Image of Spain is one of its foremost policy instruments. As the English version of its website explains “A series of indicators help project Spain’s image to the world in a discriminated manner.” (I would like to assure you that I had nothing to do with the translation of this site.) Given the difficulty of putting positive spin on the Catalan bid for independence and the never-ending series of cases of corruption cases coming to light throughout Spain by means of an unfunded PR effort (Marca España has never had its own operating budget), it’s easy to see why it has never gained either respect or traction. In any case, the realization is slowly sinking in that PR is no substitute for maintaining a consistently solid reputation over time. In an interview published in El País on November 25, Javier Rodríguez Marcos posed a related question to this year’s Cervantes prizewinner Juan Goytisolo: “In Señas de identidad (published under the title Marks of Identity in English), the novel that you wrote about the Spanish transition of your childhood, you sought to expose the myths of Franco’s Spain. What do you consider to be the myths of today’s Spain?” Goytisolo replied, “The Marca España. Reducing Spain to a national brand and failing to acknowledge the brutal reality of the unemployment and marginalization that this society is suffering. The myth of Spain as a national brand must be dismantled. (. . .) If I were a cartoonist, I’d draw a cartoon of someone on the street stopping to tell an unemployed person who’s sitting on a public bench and asking passersby for handouts that Standard and Poors just raised Spain’s credit rating from A plus to A plus plus. That’s what they’re trying to sell us.”

      Merit goods are those goods or services above and beyond public goods that a given society decides all of its members should have access to regardless of their ability to pay for them. Governments underwrite all or some of the cost of these goods and services (which vary from one country to another) in order to ensure social harmony and avoid the under-consumption that would result if access and distribution were governed exclusively by market forces and the private sector. National defense, environmental protection, and scientific research are examples of public goods. Basic health care, basic education, unemployment insurance, safe drinking water and sanitation, on the other hand, are usually classified as merit goods.

      Microplay is a word coined by The Guardian to describe a series of short videos that newspaper has produced in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre. The project draws upon the aesthetics and sensibilities of theatre to explore “key areas of Guardian coverage” in a fresh new way. Tired of funny cat videos? Take a five-minute serious theater break.

    estorninos starlings murmuraciones Anyone who has ever seen a murmuration of starlings will remember the experience for the rest of his or her life. Late this fall, I had the great good fortune of witnessing this spectacle while out for a walk in Zaragoza’s Parque Grande José Antonio la Bordeta. Flocks of starlings converge and form “murmurations” during the fall and winter months before collectively choosing a place to roost for the night. What leaves one totally breathless is the aeronautical precision with which the birds carry out these operations. According to scientists who have studied the phenomenon, their incredible precision can be attributed to “the near-instantaneous signal processing [that] occurs when each starling simultaneously copies the movement of every other bird in the flock.” However, even the most advanced algorithmic models that researchers have come up fall short of explaining the lightning-fast communication mechanisms that allow the starlings to pull off these incredible maneuvers.

     As one of my most delightful clients is a Netherlands-based company, I didn’t twice before clicking on a link contained in a message I received this month about the Van Dale Dictionary’s picks for top words of the year in Dutch. One was moestuinsocialisme (vegetable garden socialism), a term that surfaced in response to a government minister’s comment that home gardening was one way by which hard-put senior citizens could make ends meet. Another word on the Van Dale list that I would have included in part I of this year’s field notes had I noticed it earlier was dagobertducktaks (literally “Scrooge McDuck tax”), a popular nickname for the 56% “level-four” income tax bracket for Dutch taxpayers who declare a yearly income higher than €56,531.


udacity-nanodegrees     Nanodegree was the last term to make it onto this year’s list. Companies in the tech sector such as AT&T are teaming up with Udacity to offer tailor-made intensive online courses that will ostensibly prepare candidates to compete for front-end web developer, full stack web developer, data analyst, and ¡iOS developer jobs. Udacity’s pay-as-you-go programs will cost approximately 200 USD a month. The company projects that students who devote between ten and twenty hours a week to their career path curriculum should be able to finish the entire course in anywhere between six and twelve months. Although AT&T has stated that it will offer paid internships to 100 of the top graduates from these programs, Udacity isn’t promising prospective students the moon until first round results are in. Columbia University professor Fiona M. Hollands observes in a related article in The New York Times that although the majority of people currently signing up for MOOCS are college-trained professionals taking advantage of a novel form of continuing education rather than “the needy of the world,” highly specific technical courses could provide young people who can’t afford a higher education with a great opportunity. “We still need rounded people, which you can’t get through mini-certificate courses,” she states. “But we also have an economy to run here.”

Nora Lancaster as Hermione

Nora Lancaster as Hermione

      Nayward and nayword both caught my eye as I followed Shakespeare and His World, a delightful online course offered by the University of Warwick through Future Learn. In The Winter’s Tale, it is used to express the opposite of “towards” in Hermione’s line to Leontes “And I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying, Howe’er you lean to th’ nayward.” Merriam-Webster deems nayword as obsolete and defines it as “the negative view”. Although it was a synonym for byword in Shakespeare’s time, he used it in the sense of password in a scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor in which Master Slender assures Anne Page “Ay, forsooth; I have spoke with her and we have a nayword how to know one another.” It strikes me as a shame that two such wonderfully melodic words have disappeared from the English vocabulary. When all is said and done, the “naywords” that Slender so blithely divulges to Ann Page (“mum” and “budget”) are no  sillier than the secret passwords we invent today.

     Non-refoulement may be an unfamiliar term to anyone who does not follow migration and immigration law. This principle, which was originally established in the 1995 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, concerns the conditions under which a refugee may be expelled from a host country. According to Article 33 of this convention, “no Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The same article states that “The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.” As noted in a Wikipedia entry devoted to the subject, “Unlike political asylum, which applies to those who can prove a well-grounded fear of persecution based on membership in a social group or class of persons, non-refoulement refers to the generic repatriation of people, generally refugees into war zones and other disaster areas.” In Spanish, non-refoulement is generally translated as no devolución.  


   The use of orgasm as a verb in The Guardian caught my eye in early December. “My boyfriend rarely orgasms when we have sex” was the attention-getting title of one of series of articles that the newspaper recently ran on sexual healing. At first I was sure that the distraught reader making the statement had erred in using this word as a verb, but when I looked orgasm up in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, I stood corrected: such usage dates back to at least 1972.


            After living for more than a decade in a country where average folks don’t tote guns, I had to look up the term open carry in order to really understand what the writer of a news article about a children’s book titled My Parents Open Carry was referring to. This link will tell you everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about the concept as well as the various differing definitions of “plain sight,” “loaded weapon,” and “preemption” in this context.

     The big news at this year’s annual meeting of the American Copy Editors Society was the decision of the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to accept the use of over as a substitute for “more than” when dealing with numbers. Apart from prescriptivists, who took this relaxation of traditional rules as a sign of the decline and fall of English as we know it, most writers and editors seem to have welcomed the change.

    In November, Irish editor Stan Carey posted a well-researched article on the MacMillan Dictionary blog about the much-maligned word overall in which he defended its judicious use as “both as an adjective meaning ‘considering something as a whole, rather than its details or different aspects of it’ (the overall result), and as an adverb—usually a sentence adverb—meaning ‘when everything is considered, counted, or included (They were pleased overall).” I’m a faithful follower of Carey’s own blog, Sentence First, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in English language and usage.

overshare 1     Chambers English Dictionary, which bills itself as “the dictionary of choice for crossword solvers, Scrabble © fans and wordgame enthusiasts,” has chosen overshare as its word of the year. To overshare is “to be unacceptably forthcoming with information about one’s personal life.”

     In my more wistful moments this year, I longed for some authority to revive the long-lost English word overmorrow. It would be so nice to have an alternative to “the day after tomorrow” when translating pasada mañana. Unfortunately, the 1913 edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary was the last to recognize this useful word.


      How pernicious is the passive voice in writing? The only bit of negative feedback I received during 2014 was a request from one client to convert a few sentences from passive to active voice (which I did right away). I would say that about five percent of the queries I send to authors every year are about the possibility of improving a sentence by rephrasing it in the active voice. UCLA Physics Professor Bob Cousins has compiled a primer for his students that looks at the passive/active dilemma from almost every possible angle. He even offers unwary academic writers a five-point “self-protection” plan that starts with what he refers to as “the cut-it-off-at-the-pass technique”: “As soon as you pick the subject of a sentence, supply it with a verb that makes it do something. Never mind about the rest of the sentence; first get the verb. If you don’t write it in the passive voice, you won’t have to change it.” According to him, the passive voice should only be used as a last resort, but he does supply a long list of situations in which the passive voice actually works the best. The author of a post on the Poynter News University website passive voicerather unkindly refers to the passive voice as “the vampire voice,” claiming that the “passive voice can drain a headline’s energy because it requires more time to process and understand. The brain automatically flips passive construction into the structure it is hard-wired to process: subject-verb-object.” The writer of the post backs up this assertion with the following very cogent reasoning: “Passive voice runs the risk of sending a subtle message of importance or prominence unsupported by the facts. For example, one study found that men who read passive-voiced stories about violence against women – e.g., “a woman was raped yesterday” – tend to assign less responsibility to the rapist.” However, not every sentence calls for a focus on the perpetrator of an act (who, in any case, may not be identifiable). What is more, in April 2014, researchers at Cornell University’s Neurosyntax Imaging Laboratory published the findings of an interesting study that refutes the Poynter U claim. According to a Cornell University News Bureau press release (republished in full on Dennis Baron’s The Web of Language website) the findings of this new study show that “the human brain is 031104_cartoon400hardwired to prefer the passive voice,” and has “a definite predilection for passive constructions.” Cornell researchers Elaine Bao Weiss and W. Strang-Ng were surprised by the outcome of their study. Bao Weiss muses that, “Generations of writers have been advised to prefer the active to the passive, but that’s not how the brain works.” She thinks that these findings might explain “why writers have to be told over and over to prefer the active” and wryly notes that “even experts like Strunk and White and George Orwell use the passive voice when telling writers to use the active,” providing this example from page 24 of Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style: “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made more lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” Although the Cornell press release reported that many of the attendees of this year’s conference of the American Copy Editors Society were skeptical about these findings, it also noted that others such as E. W. Gilman, a member of MIT’s biolexicology group, “was cautiously optimistic.” According to this researcher, “These findings reinforce recent evidence from palaeohistory and go a long way to explaining some aspects of human behavior that have previously been resistant to analysis. If these data on passive preferentiality can be borne out, then I think we have some important clues into the connections between language and mind.”

     A recent article in the online Columbia Journalism Review contained a link to a very full stopsinteresting Poynter.org article about patchwriting. If you write but are not familiar with this term, please keep reading. The Poynter piece focuses on the work of Rebecca Moore Howard, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University who has carried out an in-depth study on plagiarism. Poynter article author Kelly McBride reports Howard as saying that “patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing. Rather than copying a statement word for word the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself” (or himself as the case may be). Do I ever come across sections of patchwriting in documents I’m translating and copyediting? Yes, and when I do, I query the author and ask how he or she would like to handle the matter. McBride’s short analysis of what an editor’s superiors at Columbia University’s Columbia Spectator deemed to be too similar to material previously published in the New Yorker illustrates how fine the line between picking up a few ideas from another writer and actually stealing his or her words really is.

     I’m happy to say that The Guardian has made an about-face regarding its treatment of proper nouns. The newspaper’s style guide now includes the entry: “In the case of proper nouns, we now follow the spelling used in the relevant local variety of English (normally British, American or Australian). Examples: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Defense, Labor Day, One World Trade Center, Australian Labor party.” Guardian editors used to localize spelling of certain proper names for its British readership (styling, for example, the above-mentioned Centers of Disease Control and Prevention as Centres of Disease Control and Prevention while leaving the spelling of others such as “Pearl Harbor” and the film title “The Color Purple” unaltered). The daily’s announcement of the change states that it was “driven by the growing realisation that it can appear insulting or demeaning to Guardian readers outside the UK to see their government bodies rendered in lowercase when we do not do the same for British ones.” As the world’s third most read digital daily, The Guardian is a key reference for terminology and style.

     When I saw that the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua had decided to add the word precuela (a Spanish loan word inspired by prequel) this year, I had a strong urge to sit down and have a good cry, but there it is, hot on the heels of secuela, which originally only referred to the consequences or after effect of something in Spanish but has recently also been accepted as the equivalent of the English word sequel.

Pablo Iglesias

Pablo Iglesias

   The year 2014 marked the meteoric rise of Podemos, a new leftwing party modeled on the Greek Syriza party that is challenging the political status quo in Spain. Its media-savvy founder Pablo Iglesias Turrión, whose rallying cry is “Heaven is not taken by consensus; it is taken by assault,” has captured the imagination of large numbers of middle and working class Spaniards tired of being on the short end of the economic stick and has put the country’s mainstream social and industrial elite on the defensive. Vincenzo Scarpetta of Open Europe labels parties such as Syriza and Podemos “shadow Eurosceptics,” noting their plans run counter to the requisites of membership in the Eurozone. However, to judge from its most recently released economic platform, Podemos appears to have at least temporarily abandoned its assault on heaven in favor of an alignment with other, more moderate, leftist political movements.

      Pharmacovigilance was another word that came up in my work this year. Defined by the World Health Organization as “the science and activities relating to the detection, assessment, understanding and prevention of adverse effects or any other drug-related problem,” pharmacovigilance is a complicated field with its own very specific vocabulary.

PB     According to the Stockholm Resilence Centre, “in 2009 a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists identified and quantified a set a of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.” Five years on, we are now well on our way to surpassing some of them and endangering humanity’s survival on this planet going forward. The SRC has teamed up with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network to offer an ongoing series of free online courses that provide a good basic understanding of the situation and the solutions currently under development.

     Postliminary came up during an American Dialect Society list serve conversation. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “of, relating to, or involving postliminium.” According to Captura de pantalla 2014-12-20 a la(s) 23.24.12Wikipedia, “The principle of postliminium, as a part of public international law, is a specific version of the maxim ex injuria jus non oritur, providing for the invalidity of all illegitimate acts that an occupant may have performed on a given territory after its recapture by the legitimate sovereign.”  The Free Dictionary notes that the word hails back to Roman times, when it signified “the return to his own country, and his former privileges, of a person who had gone to sojourn in a foreign country, or had been banished, or taken by an enemy. George Long provided an interesting etymology of postliminium in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, published in 1875, citing the explanation handed down to Cicero from Scaevola that the word was a composite of post and limen: “what has been lost by us from its own limen, and then has afterwards (post) returned to the same limen, seems to have returned by Postliminium.” Long extrapolated from this theory that “the limen was the boundary or limit within which the thing was under the authority of Rome and an object of Roman law.” As postliminary is the antonym of preliminary, one can also use this word as a high-toned substitute for subsequent: “something done or carried on after something else or as a conclusion (M-W).”