Shale Gas and Lexicography: NSFW?

A recent piece on NPR’s Morning Edition contained a startling assertion: that the proper shortened name for the method of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing is “frac’ing.” Contractions, of course, have a long and distinguished history in English writing, but they don’t typically come in the middle of gerunds. The maker of this assertion is Larry Fulmer, an employee of the energy industry, who feels that the more commonly used “fracking” was dreamed up by opponents of the process. “Fracking” bears an unflattering resemblance to “fucking,” you see, and that pun is played out in any number of ways at environmental demonstrations across the country.*

Some bewildered lexicographers from Merriam-Webster make a cameo—the fact that they added the k-spelling to the dictionary this month apparently having provided the inspiration for the piece—but they ultimately provide a possible peaceable solution as well. While “fracking” is the current dictionary spelling, they will “have their eye on” any variations in the future.

*The story doesn’t note that, before fracking was a well-known issue, “frak” (and variations) was used as a stand-in for “fuck” on the popular science fiction show “Battlestar Galactica.”

Arcane (Social Science) Vocabulary: NIMBY, Cultural Capital, and Pipelines

"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" appear...

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” appeared in Rosalind and Helen, 1819. Probably this post doesn’t measure up. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Working in social science publishing, I encounter some pretty boring stuff.  While I like living in a world of ideas, not all of them are for everybody; as a reader, not maker, of intellectual output, my personal investment in familiarizing myself with anything that doesn’t inspire me is minimal.  There are a few exceptions, however–ideas that have intrigued, then beckoned, then set up shop in my head.  They’re words that explain things that I have encountered in my daily life and that help us express what’s going on under the hood of society (which, hopefully, is social science’s reason for being–or the good examples of it, anyhow).  Here are three.

Note: where I’m able, I’ve provided links; if articles are behind paywalls, I’ve provided full citations.

NIMBY refers to a well-documented phenomenon in local activism.  Say the newspapers that you read are full of the negative effects of fracking.  You ignore the news, day after day, year after year . . . until a company tries to set up a well in the field behind your house.  Suddenly you’re calling your senator, carrying signs in demonstrations, and chaining yourself to menacing construction equipment.  All because as soon as you heard the news, you thought to yourself, “Not In My BackYard.”  You’ll find a scholarly treatment in “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 95, no. 1 (July 1989), pp. 1-37.

The second useful concept I’ve stumbled upon is “cultural capital.”  French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses this term in his masterpiece Distinction (Harvard University Press, 1984) to describe the system by which privilege functions and persists.  Bourdieu uses an economic metaphor to explain how knowledge and experience in various types of cultural fields can be used by some people to protect or increase their advantage.  For example, a white-collar professional with a college education, professional clothing, and an acquaintance with art history would have an easier time making wealthy friends at an upscale  gallery opening than, say, a worker wearing overalls whose primary expertise lies in landscaping.  In other words, the white-collar professional arrives at the gallery with more “capital” (that is, knowledge and experience) to spend than the landscaper, and can invest that capital in such a way to to advance herself in a high-status context.

The third term is the flexible concept of the “pipeline.”  Social science scholars use this word to refer to the long-term process by which careers are built (or really, as we’ll see, denied).  One example of this is the tenure pipeline for women; while women have been achieving parity in incoming classes of many graduate programs for years, the number of full professors who are female is still relatively small.  Where is the “leak” in the pipe, asks this International Studies Perspectives article?  Another common application of the term “pipeline” is to the difficulties of young, poor minorities, particularly men: the school-to-prison pipeline.  Have overly punitive, zero-tolerance policies in high schools created a direct path from the principal’s office to the courtroom?  If you’re interested in more, check out  Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor M. Rios (NYU Press, 2011).

And so . . . welcome to my world!  Or at least the fun part, with the neat ideas.  I’ll censor the reams and reams of (subjectively) boring stuff I read for the benefit of you, my readers.  Your gratitude may be directed toward the comments section.

Twenty-Two Insults: A Guide to Yiddish Words in American English

a page from Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary

A page from Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the melting pot that is American English, Yiddish has contributed considerably to the alchemy of the language.  And while the oldest Jewish congregation was founded in New York in 1654, Jewish immigration to the United States was small until the 1880s.  After that it was relatively high until choked off by the 1925 restrictions designed to limit ethnically undesirable immigrants.  Jews had already established flourishing communities in the interim, however, and were busy speaking, writing, and publishing in their own melting-pot language, which combined influences from Hebrew, German, and other European languages.  For the past 130 years, Yiddish has given America a rainbow of fun, silly, and just plain useful terms.

A surprisingly large number of English words from Yiddish are devoted to insulting name-calling.  In fact, there are so many insults that I had to break it down into categories and subcategories.  Consider the following:

People Worthy of Your Scorn

Subcategory: Fools

schlub: a stupid, worthless, or unattractive person (from the Yiddish zhlob or zhlub meaning yokel or boor; Merriam-Webster‘s online, hereafter M-W).

schmegeggy: a contemptible person, an idiot (Oxford English Dictionary online, hereafter OED).

shmendrik: a contemptible, foolish, or immature person (the name of a character in an operetta by Yiddish-language playwright Abraham Goldfaden; OED).

schmo: an idiot, a fool (delightfully described in the OED as “a person who stands watching a machine make doughnuts, and [1] cannot understand the process, [2] cannot get up will power to leave”).

schnook: a dupe, a sucker; a simpleton, a dope; a pitiful wretch (OED).

Subcategory: Everyone Else

klutz: a clumsy person (from the Yiddish for “wooden beam,” from Middle High German kloz meaning “lumpy mass”; M-W).

nebbish: a timid, meek, or ineffectual person.  Note that this is a noun, not an adjective (M-W).

pisher: a young, inexperienced, or insignificant person (OED).

schlemiel: an unlucky bungler; a chump (M-W).  See “schlimazel” below.

schlimazel: a consistently unlucky, accident-prone person, a “born loser” (OED).  The classical explanation of this idiomatic idea is that the schlemiel chronically spills the soup, but the schlimazel is the one the soup always seems to get spilled on.

People Who Complain

noodge: a person who persistently complains or nags; a pest, a bore (OED).

kvetch: a habitual complainer (from the Yiddish kvetshn, literally, to squeeze or pinch, from Middle High German quetsche; M-W).  Note that this is more often used as a verb.

People Who Are Interpersonally Annoying

nudnik: a person who is a bore or nuisance (from Polish nudzić, from nuda boredom; M-W).

schmuck: a jerk; literally, penis (M-W).

schnorrer: a beggar, especially one who wheedles others into supplying his wants (M-W).

People Who Infuriate You

ganef or gonif: a thief, a rascal (from the Hebrew gannābh, also meaning thief; M-W)

mamzer: a bastard (both literally and figuratively; OED).  A mamzer is clever at dishonestly turning things to his own advantage.

meshuggener: a foolish or crazy person (M-W).

People Who Infuriate You in a Seriously Non-PC Way

schvartze: a depreciative term for a black man (OED).

shiksa: a derogatory word for a non-Jewish woman (or, in moments of internecine nastiness, Orthodox people also use it for Jewish females who do not follow Jewish precepts).  This comes from the Hebrew word for “blemish” or “abomination” (M-W).

People Doing the Name-Calling (i.e., Gossips)

kibitzer: one who looks on and often offers unwanted advice or comment, or, in general, voices opinions (M-W).

yenta: one that meddles; a blabbermouth, a gossip.  This descends from the first name Yente (M-W).

Related articles

Describing the World around You: Architectural Terms

Dewey-Danforth House

Oh, right.  A left at that Italiante house. (Photo credit: jimmywayne)

Words describing how things look compose probably one of the most voluminous, and least accessible, of vocabularies.  My earlier post on the shapes of leaves is a good example of this, but perhaps architecture words are even better.  This nomenclature must express not only shapes, finishes, and structural techniques, but also the accumulated weight of thousands of years of culture and art—making it pretty opaque to the average reader.

This plain-but-useful illustrated dictionary provides pronunciations, definitions, and photographs explaining a wide range of terms.  This more accessible but less comprehensive article from the magazine Country Life contains some terrific, playful illustrations focusing on British residential architecture.

If you’re like me, you only encounter architectural terms in novels, and usually your eyes just slide right by.  But it’s worth pursuing the full mental picture the author meant to you have . . . and it’s also fun to befuddle your friends with directions like “take a left at the Italianate house on the corner.”


Treasure Untold: Textile Words from India

English: Map of the British Indian Empire from...

English: Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The British Empire didn’t just enrich Mother England—it also enriched the mother tongue.  Today we’ll talk about the astonishing number of words from the Indian subcontinent that, thanks to the economic connections between India and Britain, describe a wide variety of textiles.

Bandana (from the Hindi and Urdu for tie-dyeing)
Calico (from Calicut, a city in Kerala)
Cashmere (from Kashmir, the geopolitically famous border region between India and Pakistan)
Chintz (from the Sanskirt word for spotted)
Dungaree (from the Hindi and Urdu word for a particular coarse kind of cotton; in effect, denim)
Khaki (from the Hindi and Urdu for dust-colored)
Seersucker (from the Hindi and Urdu for milk and sugar)

(Source: Merriam-Webster, online edition)

Note that all of these terms, save one, describe products made from cotton.  This is because India was the British Empire’s main source of cheap cotton fabrics until the southern United States became its largest supplier of raw materials (and British textile manufacturing began mass-mechanized production domestically).  Did you notice how many of the words describe not just cotton, but patterned cotton (bandana, calico, chintz, seersucker)?  It’s an underappreciated fact that clothing of the Georgian era (including, but not limited to, that of such august personages as America’s founding fathers) were not exactly understated, by current tastes.  In fact, men and women both proudly wore or displayed textiles with busy patterns and eye-searingly bright colors.

For further reading, consider picking up Victoria and Albert curator Rosemary Crill’s Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West.

What is an Epigram? For That Matter, What is an Epigraph?

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

What is an epigram?  Samuel Taylor Coleridge posed this question in a short, funny little couplet that’s its own answer.  Merriam Webster’s online edition defines it as “a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought . . . a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying.”  What, then, you might ask, is an epigraph?  Answer: it’s usually not an epigram.*  And, moreover, this blog posting has already answered that question, Coleridge-style . . . and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice.

An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a section that hints at its theme.  Academics love these, and for good reason.  They add color, interest—in a word, they’re punchy!  Here are some guidelines for making those epigraphs look professional.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (online 16th edition), and in something of a miraculous remission of the usual standards of academic writing, you don’t have to fully cite your epigraph.  Instead, after a dash, provide the author’s name and the title of the work (1.36).  No need even for quotation marks, though the block should be indented (either left or right) to set it off from the main text.**  The source should appear on a line below the text of the epigraph (13.34).

And now, friends, you can be correct.  Though correct is a long way from good; for advice on quality, perhaps you should recall what the soul of wit is.

*Nor is it an epitaph, though I imagine you could choose an epigram as an epitaph.
**Nitpickers should note that WordPress blogging software apparently does not believe in indentation.

Cure-all: A Synonym Fiesta!

English: Panacea Helping the Sick. The Verones...

“Panacea Helping the Sick,”1716, from The World is Deceived by False Doctors by Veronese physician J. Gazola. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever noticed how many words there are that mean “cure-all”?  Panacea, nostrum, elixir, even the more obscure catholicon.  Where did all these synonyms come from?  Why were people of the past so stuck on the one medicine that, logically, could never exist?  I decided to check the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for some help understanding the history of the concept.

Cure-all: In the sense of “universal remedy,” this word wasn’t documented until 1870, but as a type of plant, it debuted in 1793.

Panacea: Used to indicate “a medicine reputed to cure all diseases,” this arose in 1548 (and, interestingly, was personified as the daughter of Ascelapius, whose other daughters included Hygieia).  An earlier version, panace, dates to 1522.

Nostrum: This word has always had a negative connotation of a failed cure.  The OED‘s 1602 example, its oldest, refers to “witless nostrums.”  The figurative use, referring to a misguided cure for social problems, appears first in 1741.

Elixir: An ancient word (first documented use in English: 1386), this once referred both to a substance that could give eternal life and that could turn lead into gold.  It didn’t evolve into the sense of “a sovereign remedy for disease” until 1632.

Catholicon: This term plays on the often-forgotten meaning of “catholic” as “all-embracing.”  It was first used to indicate “a universal remedy or prophylactic” in 1611.

Close attention to the timeline of these words reveals an interesting pattern.  While they all seem as if they should date back to a medieval alchemist in a crumbling tower, scribbling mysterious Latin formulae in an incunabulum, that’s really not the case at all.  Elixir is the only particularly ancient word; two of the others cluster in the 1600s (as does the “sovereign remedy” sense of elixir).  By that time, the Scientific Revolution was gripping gentleman scholars with a mania for empirical fact.  It seems as if scorn for the past might actually have created a new vocabulary—a variety of words to express exactly what was wrong with “old” science, and, by implication, what was right about “new” science.