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.”

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).

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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.

Look Smart at Graduate Student Parties: Obscure but Correct Word Pronunciations

Oh crap, is that how you pronounce that word?

The worst part of being within earshot of smart people is having to sound smart yourself.  Intimidate all around you with these technically correct but still confusing word pronunciations!  Merriam-Webster’s online edition is a good guide here, thanks to its recordings of the preferred pronunciations.

Dour: Meaning “sullen and gloomy,” by all rights this ought to pronounced in a way that rhymes with “sour,” right?  And you can . . . if you want to use the second, and therefore less preferred, pronunciation.  The first is “door”—not as in the method of ingress, but rather, rhyming with “moor.”

Divisive: Let the plebeians use the most logical pronunciation—the one that makes it sound like “divide.”  “Duh-VISS-ive” is also correct, and sure to sound more snobbish.

Derisive: The most common pronunciation is “duh-RY-siv,” but you can also opt for “duh-RY-ziv,” “duh-RIH-ziv” (the i in “rih” as in the i in “city”), and “duh-RIH-siv.”  As the weirdest, but still technically correct, I suggest duh-RIH-ziv.

Minuscule: The alternate version of this word is “mi-NUS-kyool,” a fact so little known as to cause immediate consultation of mental dictionaries.

Primer: Preferred pronunciation is “PRIM-er” (as in, “Priscilla is primmer than Gertrude”).  Secondary, though more commonly heard, pronunciation is “PRY-mer.”  If anyone questions you on this one, you can bust out a fascinating fact: “PRY-mer” is actually the preferred way in the United Kingdom—they don’t use “PRIM-er” at all.
Have you got any similar surprising pronunciations up your sleeve?  Please, feel free to share (in the comments section for the blog if you must, but preferably, over cocktails).

Arcane Vocabulary: Sapient

According to Merriam-Webster’s online edition, this means “possessing or expressing great sagacity,” and I have to say, you know you’re in trouble when you have to look up words in the definition to understand the original word.  “Sagacity” is, basically, being a really good judge, or being discerning.  But anyhow, “sapient” (SAY-pee-ent) should be familiar from the term “Homo sapiens,” literally meaning “wise man.”

That’s right, early white dude, show us your sagacity! Knap that flint!

People, Places, and Merriam-Webster’s

Cover of "Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Di...

Cover via Amazon

Two splendid things about the paper edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are the special, super, secret sections at the back, “Geographical Names” and “Biographical Names.”  Not only do they provide the proper spelling of the names of all manner of mystifying places and people, but they also show the proper capitalization and spacing (useful, for example, in the names of Dutch people, which often contain variations on “van der”).  And to top that off, entries have little nuggets of information, like population or profession.  Why oh why doesn’t the free online edition have this?