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).”


The self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world: The poetry of Mark Strand

Today I read the news that Mark Strand, one of my favorite poets, passed away last Saturday in his daughter’s home in Brooklyn, New York. He was eighty years old. The poet had lived in Madrid from 2011 until the spring of this year.

I don’t remember precisely when it was that I read Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole” for the first time, but I have carried it around in my head like a mental talisman ever since.

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am an absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Before turning to poetry, Strand studied painting at Yale University under Josef Albers and was an accomplished artist in his own right. During his career as a writer he also produced short stories, children’s books, several respected works of art criticism, and translations of the poetry of Rafael Alberti and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

mark-strandWhile researching for this post, I came across an interview with Strand on the More Intelligent Life website that contained the following exchange about looking at art through the mind’s eye:

Interviewer: I was intrigued by the way you said that a lot of what you see in a painting comes from what you picture when you turn around. I’d never thought of using my minds eye (literally) to decide what I felt was important in a piece of work.

 Strand: After I’ve looked at a painting and I turn around, I try to remember what I have seen. I try to think about what the experience of looking at it was. It really is not so much the physical properties of the painting that I retain, but the experience of looking at it that I try to hold onto.

 I found the “hold onto” in Strand’s reply touching. After all, this is the poet that wrote: “I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets / I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road . . .” All the same, it squares with the exploration of the boundaries of one’s existence he seemed to be referring to when, during an interview with Wallace Shawn, he described his “poetic territory” as “the self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world.”

About halfway through that same interview (for The Paris Review), Shawn asked Strand if translating the poetry of others had been a valuable experience in terms of his own work. The poet’s reply touched on some of the points that mark the difference between translation, in which one grapples with something that already exists, and writing something completely new into existence:

Translating is almost like a game. It is a serious game, because, finally, it’s your reading of another poet’s work. But you develop a sense of syntactical possibility—you make choices, you have to say to yourself, when you’re translating, Should I do it this way, or should I do it that way? When you’re writing your own work, you’re not asking yourself those questions. Maybe at some much later stage in the writing of a poem, you may say to yourself, objectively, I need a two-syllable word here, with the accent on the first syllable. The line should end here, instead of there. There should be a slant rhyme, some assonance, or something here . . . But when you’re writing, at the beginning, when you’re writing, you’re not asking yourself those questions. When you’re translating, you always are.

New York Times obituary

El País obituary

The year in words: a recap of 2013

selfieA number of organizations throughout the English-speaking world publish annual lists of what they consider to be THE “words of the year.” Not surprisingly, many of the words that have made these lists over the last decade have been related to the Internet and social networking. Selfie made a big splash with those on the lookout for neologisms during 2013, as did qwerty monsters (adolescents addicted to mobile phone messaging), phubbing (a social snub that consists of focusing one’s attention on a mobile phone rather than interacting with other people), a barrage of new abbreviations using in digital media such as BYOD (bring your own device) and FOMO (fear of missing out), and click and collect (an arrangement whereby shoppers can order online and pick up merchandise at a local retail outlet). All of these terms were added to the Oxford Dictionary this year. Bitcoin is another term that is quickly becoming a household word, and digital fabrication has been making waves ever since newspapers started publishing stories about people producing handguns with “3-D” printers. Responsive website design was another word frequently bandied about during 2013. For the uninitiated out there, it’s a design that ensures online content is optimally displayed on a wide range of digital devices.

leaving-cupertino-650x0Thanks to Tom Chatfield’s list of “The ten best words the Internet has given English,” published in the Guardian way back in April, I now know the origins of two other Internet-related expressions that were coined prior to 2013 but were new to me: Scunthorpe problem and Cupertino effect. According to Mr. Chatfield, the term Scunthorpe problem was christened after a town in England whose residents were temporarily prevented from creating AOL accounts by “filth filters” that took exception to a four-letter word embedded in the name Scunthorpe. Apparently the folks in Penistone, South Yorkshire have had similar problems. The Cupertino effect takes its name from an early spell checker program’s failure to recognize an unhyphenated rendering of the word “cooperation,” which it automatically replaced it with the name of a city in California’s Silicon Valley.

The Interesting Literature blog points out that not every word described as a neologism is actually new, noting that tote as an abbreviation for “total amount” can be traced back to 1772 and that unfriend was current as a noun as early as 1275 and appeared as a verb in a book published in 1659.

A word that has really picked up steam over the course of 2013 is affluenza, which has been used to describe the morally corrosive effect of wealth on a person’s character as well as rationalize the aberrant, criminal, or uncivil behavior of the well-heeled in a court of law. Other depressing new niche syndromes include wannarexia (suffered by those who aspire to be anorexic) and alcorexia (the habit of passing up food in order to fit alcoholic beverages into a reduced-calorie diet).

flippedgraphic(web1100px)_0MOOC (an abbreviation of massive open online course) has been the hottest word in educational circles this year, closely followed by flipped learning and flipped classroom, the most prevalent terms used to refer to a teaching method by which students are expected to absorb assigned content independently and classroom hours are reserved for group debate, discussion, and application of course material. Sugata Mitra Hole in the WallLess talked about, but no less worthy of notice, is the work of researcher Sugata Mitra, whose out-doctrination (as opposed to indoctrination) educational experiments in remote rural areas of India have shed light on children’s capacity to conduct their own independent group learning projects using Internet technology. He has developed SOLES (self organized learning environments) in which children all over the world have delved into complex subjects with little or no guidance from teachers. His work with “Hole in the Wall” gangs through India was rewarded with the 2013 TED prize for innovative ideas.

Bruce-Springsreen-Marriage-EqualityWords that appear on annual lists are, in most cases, selected on the basis of their notoriety and frequency of use rather than the quality of the ideas they represent. However, an American blog called The Web of Language has bucked this trend and chosen “marriage” as its word of the year for 2013. marriage-equality-supporters-washingtonAs blogger Dennis Baron notes, “Marriage was a highly visible and controversial term for much of 2013, with the defenders of marriage arguing either against same-sex marriage, or—and they are defenders of marriage, too—in favor of marriage equality. The Court came down, five to four, on the side of marriage equality, rewriting the definition of marriage in federal law. In addition to ratifying same-sex marriage in states where it is legal, the federal redefinition of marriage impacted a broad range of areas from estate planning, Social Security, and the IRS, to parent-teacher conferences, hospital visits, and basic human dignity.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary also seems to favor an intellectual approach to the word-of-the-year-game. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary’s word of the year for 2013 was science. According to M-W Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, “A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy. We saw heated debates about ‘phony’ science, or whether science held all the answers. It’s a topic that has great significance for us. And it fascinates us–enough so that it saw a 176% increase in lookups this year over last, and stayed a top lookup throughout the year.” Other words that figured this dictionary’s list of top words for 2013 were cognitive, rapport, communication, niche, ethic, paradox, visceral, integrity, and metaphor.

postingwAmong the interesting words and terms that have flown under the radar of most word-watchers this year is posted worker, a term that has cropped up continually in European Union debates about workforce mobility. According to the European Commission, “a worker is a posted worker when he is employed in one EU Member State but sent by his employer on a temporary basis to carry out his work in another Member State. For example, a service provider may win a contract in another country and send his employees there to carry out the contract. This trans-national provision of services, where employees are sent to work in a Member State other than the one they usually work in, gives rise to a distinctive category, namely that of posted workers. This category does not include migrant workers to go to another Member State to seek work and are employed there.” A number of service-sector firms that recruit workers in poorer EU countries to provide services in more affluent neighbor states have been accused of undercutting local wage standards, a situation the EC classifies as “social dumping.”

Some of the most thought-provoking neologisms I came across this year were mentioned in the book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, which introduced me to catchy labels for new social phenomena such as KIPPERS (kids in parent’s pockets eroding retirement savings) and IPODS (insecure, pressurized, overtaxed, debt-ridden and saving).

The UN Foundation’s Aaron Sherinian has been pitching a few new terms that are well worth acting upon in 2014, one of which is keynote listener:

keynote listener copia

He also talks a lot about philanthroteens—described by social activist Beth Kanter as “teens with a passion for social change and who grew up not knowing what it was like to not to have a cell phone or be connected to Facebook.” According to Tina Wells, CEO of the Buzz marketing Group, philantroteens and the prior generational cohort referred to by social scientists and marketers as millennials are making a shift from conspicuous consumption to conscious consumption. I’d love to see conscious consumption show up on words-of-the-year lists for 2014.

Can-doThe Oxford Dictionary blog (which chose the ubiquitous selfie as its word of the year) offers an amusing interactive timeline that lists newly minted words for every year from 1900 through 2004. If you’re wondering when expressions such as people-watch, chocoholic, ear-bending, or road rage first became popular (at least in Great Britain), you’ll love clicking through this feature.

The Global Language Monitor bases its word-of-the-year rankings on the number of times certain English words, phrases, and names appear in blogs, social media and news sites. It claims to track 275,000 media sources. Its number-one ranking of error code 404 this year indicates both the organization’s digital bias and our increasing disregard for discourse that takes place anywhere else. Pope Francis seems to know this better than almost anyone else: his Facebook page has over three million followers and his handle @pontifex made the number-four slot on this year’s Global Language Monitor list. This type of survey gives a rough idea of what English speakers were interested in 2013. While some of the words, phrases, and names listed are superficial, it’s interesting to note that global warming/climate change came in third after “toxic politics” and “federal shutdown” in the phrases category and ethical/sustainable fashion rounded out the fifteen-item list.

enough-with-these-postersWhat may seem clever at first hearing can eventually become nerve-racking. Lake Superior State University, which issues an annual list of hackneyed words and phrases we would do well to avoid, invites the members of the general public to submit words they would like to see and hear less often. This year’s selection includes bucket list, trending, fiscal cliff, double down, and spoiler alert. An article posted on Dictionary.com about LSSU’s latest list adds a few more we could give a rest such as skin in the game, debunking, and gift (when used as a verb). My personal pet peeve this year has been the proliferation of silly takes on the text of the widely reproduced World War II propaganda poster “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s high time to declare victory and move on.

Fernando Vincent for El PaísFew organizations publish Spanish word-of-the-year lists. Most results of Google searches for “palabras del año” highlight articles in Spanish about English words of the year. However, new words periodically accepted as legitimate in Spanish by the Real Academia Española (REA) are always widely reported and commented on. This year it has come a cropper with its new additions. Argentina’s Diariopanorama.com has taken exception to its admission of almóndiga (a variation of albóndiga, the Spanish word for meatball), toballa (a variation of toalla, the word for towel), as well as its decision to Hispanicize foreign words such as souvenir (suvenir), croissant (cruasán), and CD-ROM (cederrón). This year the academy has also been embroiled in gender issues. The Fundación de Español Urgente has characterized the academy’s refusal to accept the feminization of the titles of key liberal professions such as abogado (lawyer) médico (doctor), ingeniero (engineer), and arquitecto (architect) as “puerile discrimination” and urged professional women to adopt abogada, médica, ingeniera, and arquitecta. May the RAE have a better year in 2014.

1000015_mileurista_2013091006202020 minutos.es is one of the few publications in Spain to run an annual article about new and widely used words in Spanish. A few of the words on its 2013 list such as selfie, twerk and bitcoin coincide with words that have cropped up on English lists. Purely Spanish entries include escrache, a term used to describe public protests mounted at the private residences of politicians. As the Spanish government has recently announced that it will slap astronomic fines on citizens participating in these protests, this term may be heard less often in 2014. Marea granate, a term that evokes the color of a Spanish passport, has surfaced as a euphemism for the ongoing flood of Spanish citizens emigrating to other countries in search of work. A word not on the 20 minutos.es list but increasingly on everyone’s lips is miseurista, a play on mileurista, another term coined several years ago to describe young people stuck in €1,000-a-month jobs. slush fundWhat was considered a dead-end street before the crisis is now almost universally regarded as a career goal reserved for a lucky few. A miseurista is someone who is forced by circumstances to scrape by with much less than the now-envied worker who grosses €1,000 a month. Another word cited by 20 minutos is vapear, a verb that arrived on the heels of e-cigarettes (electronic vaping devices). I was surprised that “caja B,” a term equivalent to slush fund that has continually appeared in the headlines of Spanish dailies this year did not make the 20minutos list.

Ana BotellaSpain’s financial daily Expansión recently published a list of the most memorable quotes by Spanish politicians during 2013, some of which involved hilarious attempts to be clever in English. While politicians on the left said little of note over the last twelve months, their colleagues on the right rushed in to fill the vacuum. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy started out the year on a colorful note by informing Tobias Buck and Lionel Barber of the Financial Times that the Spanish banking system had “done a complete striptease.” Bits and pieces of the often unintentionally hilarious presentation made by Madrid’s mayor Ana Botella to the International Olympic Committee, including her invitation to “have a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor,” went viral this year. Not long afterward, she outdid this much-parodied performance by blurting out in a heated city council meeting that the ideology of the Popular Party, represented by conservative councilmen and women present at that session, constituted the driving force behind “the greatest progress achieved in the history of mankind,” a statement that could perhaps be best described as tróspido—a mothers and sonsnonsense word of obscure origin resurrected a few years ago by a blogger in A Coruña to describe the contestants participating in a pathetic TV reality show called ¿Quién quiere casarse con mi hijo? Tróspido could possibly be an offshoot of cróspido, a slang adjective occasionally used in Latin America to describe the erratic, fumbling gait of drunks. The blogger who made it popular in Spain claimed in an interview with lainformación.com that a friend “had heard it somewhere,” and a participant in a playful online discussion of the word’s origins suggested that it had been uttered by comic Luis Sanchez Polack (better known by his stage name “Tip”) on February 24, 1981 “to describe a three-cornered hat.” As a contingent of disaffected army officers who had stormed the Spanish parliament and held its members hostage for almost twenty-four hours were finally flushed out of that building on February 24, 1981 following an address by King Juan Carlos, this comment appears to be utterly facetious. Regardless of its origin and beyond its strong association with a lowest common denominator reality show that is now thankfully history, tróspido is still sometimes used to describe bizarre, awkward, embarrassing, ignorant, or shameless people and bizarre situations in which people fail to pull something off with the brio they had originally intended to demonstrate—the type of folks that Americans perennially describe as “the gang that can’t shoot straight.”

Portugal storm MyModernMetThe last term in Spanish that took me by surprise this year was ciclogénisis explosiva, a term used to describe a collision of cold air from the north with warm, humid air from the south over the North Atlantic, a zone referred to by meteorologists as “Europe’s weather kitchen.” Cyclone Dirk, which formed over North America and “explosively deepened” in the North Atlantic jet stream on its way to Europe, affected parts of England, France, and Spain this Christmas but thankfully skirted most of Aragon. According to Wikipedia, “Cyclogenesis is an umbrella term for several different processes, all of which result in the development of some sort of cyclone.” Such events that occur in Europe are sometimes referred to as “European windstorms.” According to current forecasts, large swathes of Europe are set for a relatively pleasant New Year’s Day with temperatures ranging from a high of 9º Celsius in London and Paris and 10º in Madrid to a balmy 15º in Athens. As this post is  already long enough to fall into the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) category, I’ll end by wishing my fellow word lovers a happy and meaningful 2014.

The photograph of storm reproduced above first appeared in the blog My Modern Met.

Speaking up for imperiled Afghani translators

Governments that sent troops to Afghanistan were quick to recruit local translators. Lured by high salaries and assurances that they would be protected from possible Taliban reprisals, many qualified experts signed on, risking their lives alongside foreign troops.

matt_zeller_janis_shinwariAccording to US army captain Matt Zeller, who waged a long campaign to secure an American visa for Janis Shinwari, an Afghan translator who saved his life, “American troops and diplomats relied on these men and women to be their eyes and ears throughout both of these military engagements. So it’s no exaggeration to say that pretty much everything the Americans did over there was thanks to a translator.”* Not every local translator who served foreign troops in Afghanistan has been as lucky as Janis Shinwari.

Although foreign troops posted in Afghanistan relied on the linguistic abilities, integrity, and courage of native translators, most of whom now live under the constant threat of Taliban reprisals, many of the governments that sent these intervention units have had less-than-sterling records regarding the provision of visas to the linguists who served them. Concerned individuals in various countries have launched petitions in Change.org to support the extension of visas to threatened translators and their families. Interested readers in The United States, Great Britain, and Spain can help convince their government officials to provide a safe haven for Afghani translators by clicking on the links below.

Change.org petition to British Foreign Minister William Hague

Matt Zeller’s petition to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in support of his unit’s second interpreter, who has been waiting for his visa since June 2012

Jennifer Eshaqzai’s petition in favor of her husband Fazil

Petition launched by Ana Ballesteros in support of local translators who worked with Spanish troops in Afghanistan. Support for these translators is especially urgent, as the Spanish government has done nothing more than offer equivocal responses to translators’ requests for asylum.


About Change.org (from its website):

Change.org is the world’s largest petition platform, empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see.

There are more than 45 million Change.org users in 196 countries, and every day people use our tools to transform their communities – locally, nationally and globally.

We live in an amazing time, when the opportunity to make a difference is greater than ever before. Gathering people behind a cause used to be difficult, requiring lots of time, money, and a complex infrastructure. But technology has made us more connected than ever.

It’s now possible for anyone to start a campaign and immediately mobilize hundreds of others locally or hundreds of thousands around the world, making governments and companies more responsive and accountable.

We want to accelerate this dramatic shift – by making it easier to make a difference, and by inspiring everyone to discover what’s possible when they stand up and speak out.

We’re working for a world where no one is powerless, and where creating change is a part of everyday life. We’re just getting started, and we hope you’ll join us.

* From an NPR interview available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=241786392

A Winter Daybreak

daybreakCaptura de pantalla 2013-12-06 a la(s) 23.44.34When I received this month’s Poetry Foundation’s online newsletter, I immediately clicked on a link that led to a list of winter poems. There, below Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” and William Carlos William’s “Blizzard,” the title of a poem by James Wright caught my eye. I read it once to make certain that my eyes hadn’t tricked me and a second time to be sure my memory hadn’t failed, but there it was: “A Winter Daybreak above Venice.”

The early dawn in 1978 that left James Wright feeling as though he were “sitting strangely on top of the sunlight” was written in southern France, not northern Italy. The city below him was Vence, not Venice. The error, which originally appeared in two places on the Poetry Center website, has since been corrected in one, but not the other. As of December 10, the copyright notice at the end of the poem still erroneously identified it as “A Winter Daybreak Above Venice.” My eyes narrowed and Captura de pantalla 2013-12-06 a la(s) 23.37.00squinted as they homed in on the treatment of letter “a” in the word “above.” It appears in lowercase in the title directly above the poem as stipulated in Chicago 8.157, but has been capitalized in the initial list of winter poems and the copyright notice. This is not meant to be a criticism of the Poetry Foundation website, which adheres to very high standards, but rather a confession of a possessed copy editor who never stops scanning texts for infelicities, not even while reading a few poems to relax before turning off the computer at the end of the day.

As I buried my head in my pillow that night, “A Winter Daybreak above Vence” sparked reveries of poets staring out at the Mediterranean Sea and contemplating the splendors of Venice (for Wright, in fact, also wrote poems in Venice) as well as reflections about how people move from one point to another in their lives. Wright James Wrightstudied English at Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill after leaving the army. As I lay in bed, I wondered what chance the children of working class parents anywhere in the world today have of growing up to be university professors, receiving Guggenheim Fellowships or Pulitzer Prizes, traveling to other countries, or translating poems from other languages. I felt a sudden, sharp pang of gratitude for the scholarships granted to American World War II army veterans to study whatever they wanted – including the humanities, even if the main purpose of the G.I. Bill was to control post-war unemployment rather than educate university professors and poets. I thought about Wright’s translations of George Trakl, César Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, and I struggled to recall fragments of his poem about Dwight Eisenhower’s detente with Francisco Franco (Antonio Machado follows the moon down a road of white dust . . .) and reconstruct his description of Indian ponies in “The Blessing” (the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear that is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist . . .) One of the last things I remember doing that night was chuckling to myself over the title of his poem “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me” before I drifted off to sleep lulled by the music of the dark cricket he captured in that verse. I too have occasionally trotted off to a deserted pasture somewhere in my mind to recover after a long session with a less than perfect text.

The short excerpt below about one of Wright’s many trips to Europe is from a long and fascinating conversation between Wright and Peter A. Stitt published in The Paris Review No. 62.

We’d planned a trip to Europe, but it was late spring and I was trying to finish up the Collected Poems. I felt empty, but Annie kept me going. She even did all the typing. So we finished the book, the contract was signed, the manuscript delivered, and off we went. And for the second time in my life I thought I was done with poetry forever. I always think I am done with poetry forever. We stayed several days in Paris, where we would walk out in the morning. We would go to market, then we would go to a cathedral to see what was going on in town. Then we would go with our cheese, our paté, our wine, and have lunch. Then we went to bed. Then in the late afternoon we would go out and have an aperitif. And to my utter, miraculous astonishment, I started to write poems again. And they turned out to be love poems, love poems of gratitude. And that went on all summer, all the way drifting down through from Paris to the south of France, and then to Italy.

James Wright died of cancer in 1980. His son, Franz Wright, is a fine poet in his own right. They are the only father and son to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category.

The Art & Science of looking at a text

Recently I came across a French video that compared the eye movements of a professional editor and those of a layperson  correcting a text. There is no doubt that the eyes of a professional editor scan a document differently than those of the average reader and that this distinction has important implications for the successful rendering of any document into  another language.

The purpose of the French video was to demonstrate a method of assessing work efficiency known as “eye tracking”, the process of measuring either the point of the human gaze or the motion of the eye relative to the head and of tracing the route of the gaze and plotting the points at which it pauses to study a detail.  Eye tracking has been widely used in advertising design and has proven to be useful in evaluating the efficiency of web layouts. Eye_movements_of_drivers

The Swiss government has even used eye tracking to compare the visual analysis of road conditions made by novice and experienced drivers. In these images, for example, the novice is busy estimating the distance between the wall on his left and a parked car, while the experienced driver is using his peripheral vision for this task while concentrating his direct gaze on the dangerous point in the curve ahead.

A very interesting post in Greta and David Munger’s psychology blog Cognitive Daily (marred only by the use of the word “different” where “differently” should have been used) cites a study by Stine Vogt and Svein Magnussen that compares the eye tracking of an artist and a psychologist when looking at a picture. It turns out that the scan pattern of the artist was far more complex than that of the psychologist, a result that elicited numerous comments from readers with arts training.

Vogt and Magnussen have put forward the theory that artists are trained to identify the real details of a picture, not just the ones that are immediately obvious perceptually, an idea seconded in the blog’s comments section where Dan Lurie noted, “ Artists look at framing, proportion, balance, symmetry, and rhythm (among other things) when examining the world around us. We are trained in composition as it relates to where the eye will go first, and where it will travel …”

I use my arts training every day in my translation and editing work, not only to scan the original document, but also to pre-visualize the possibilities of the target document I’m aiming for. Every gesture that can make or ruin a work of art has its correlative in translation, copywriting, and editing, whether the project is a corporate report or a novel.  With words, as with images, bad decisions, poor craftsmanship, and a failure to capture a concept as a whole can result in a finished document that is stilted, difficult to appreciate or understand, and of little interest or use to the intended reader.

A good translator or editor, like a good driver, is continuously using his peripheral vision to gauge the relationships between textual elements while concentrating his attention on the “dangerous point in the curve ahead” that may be lurking in what first appeared to be a straight-forward document.  Dan Lurie’s list of an artist’s preoccupations (framing, proportion, balance, symmetry, and rhythm) is similar to the list of elements that a translator or editor must keep in mind to achieve a readable final text. “Where the eye will go first and where it will travel” is an important factor to consider in the translation of any document and a crucial element to keep in mind when translating and editing literature, advertising texts, and instructions.  Part of a translator or editor’s job is taking care of what Brian Mossop calls the “writer-reader relationship”. If the intended audience doesn’t consider the document readable, all the work put into it has been done in vain and the client and original author have been poorly served. Regardless of topic it addresses, a well-translated and edited text that is a pleasure to read has a greater chance of being distributed in its entirety and being quoted by others—an essential consideration in today’s viral world.

Reading similar material in both source and target languages helps translators keep their peripheral vision in peak condition. I try to reserve time each week to read well-written articles and reports in both Spanish and English related to the fields I work in, as well as a selection of major international newspapers in both languages.  All these activities pay off in the moment I’m faced with a new text.

OriginalFilm_Gilbreth timeclockEye tracking and similar techniques are used by translators and editors to enhance their perform and output. A few of the techniques currently being touted remind me of those described in the 1950s best-seller Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of the dozen children of time and motion study experts Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. The world of  communications media spins at an ever faster pace and professionals in all communications fields struggle to keep up with it. For today’s translators and editors, the trick is not to compromise one’s standards of quality or lose one’s sense of humor while keeping up with the rhythm of the times.

Do translators really need a saint? – A whimsical reflection on Saint Jerome’s lion

st-jerome-Celebrating International Translation Day on a day traditionally devoted to a Christian saint has always seemed a bit sectarian to me, but September 30, the day the Catholic church honors Saint Jerome, is now irrevocably identified with translators all over the world. Although Saint Jerome has long been the patron saint of translators, it must be admitted that he had a repulsive side. For example, he reportedly exhorted a young Roman society woman to fast until the poor creature died of anorexia. Furthermore, as a translator who often altered the texts he worked on to support his own theological agenda, he’s less than a shining example for those plying the trade today. On the other hand, he did provide the intellectual basis for later Biblical archeology and his surviving correspondence provides modern readers with a vivid glimpse of his times. It certainly was not his fault that thousands of prints and paintings executed long after his death show him decked out with incongruous accessories such as a cardinal’s red hat and cloak, objects related to an office not instituted by the church until the tenth century.

I have to admit that it’s easy to like a guy who plucked a thorn from the swollen foot of a suffering lion, although according to religious scholars, the attribution of that feat to Jerome rests on a confusion between the name of Geronimus, the late Latin rendering of the name Jerome, and Gerasimos of the Jordan, another saint with a more legitimate claim to the legend.

St. JerasimosJerome’s lion has always seemed a bit sad to me. In the legends of Saint Jerome, he’s described as wandering into the monastery seeking help and later playing the role of a servant. In contrast, Gerasimos’s lion is an integral part of the story of that saint’s life and a mechanism for conveying moral lessons. According to this tradition, Gerasimos came across the suffering lion while fasting in the wilderness. After he extracted a thorn from the lion’s foot, the grateful beast willingly followed him back to his monastery, where he became a part of the monastic community, helping the monks with their daily chores and even watching over the monastery’s donkey as it carried water back to the monastery from the river. However, the story goes that one day a passing trader made off with the donkey while the lion slept on the job. Believing that he had succumbed to an overpowering urge to eat his charge, Gerasimos nevertheless praised him for not running away after committing such a dreadful deed and gave him the opportunity to redeem himself by assigning him the donkey’s daily job of carrying water from the river to the monastery. The beast assumed this task with humility and resignation. However, when he spotted the trader again with the donkey and a string of camels in tow, he bellowed so loud that the man fled in terror. The lion then proudly led the entire caravan back to the monastery. Realizing that they had St. Jerome2unfairly judged the noble creature, Gerasimos and his fellow monks promptly dubbed him Jordanes. The rehabilitated lion remained a beloved member of the religious community until the death of his friend and mentor five years later. Legend has it that the distraught Jordanes threw himself down on the Gerasimos’s grave and died of grief. In contrast, Jerome’s lion seems to have never been given a name or assigned a fanciful, dramatic end. There’s no love, moral message, or meaningful relationship between man and nature in this version. The lion is nothing but a stiff, lifeless symbol tacked onto the life of the saint by an error (horror of horrors) in the translation of a name. As far as legends go, Gerasimos’s followers wove a richer, more interesting tale than Jerome’s. In reading stories that link the lion to Jerome, the editor in me sees shoddy plagiarism instead of creative inspiration.

For his high profile as one of many translators of the Bible, the contentious Saint Jerome seems fated to be our standard-bearer. However, I can’t help thinking that it would be nice to celebrate a truly International Translation Day not weighed down by geo-specific religious overtones. After all, we are an international community that represents many different cultures.