Nature’s chief masterpiece

Of all those arts in which the wise excel,
Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.

The quote used to appear in a Time magazine ad long ago. Hardly anyone remembers the author, John Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham (1648-1721), for his poetry, but maybe that is why I love the quote all the more. I am no word maven but am seduced by words. [Read more...]

The seven ages of language

Stephen King

Stephen King

Don’t make any conscious effort to improve your vocabulary, says Stephen King in his book, Stephen King: On Writing. Your vocabulary will grow as you read, he adds. And then he says:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe you’re a little ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”…

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

Write simply, let the words flow, don’t be stiff and laboured. That’s what King is saying. And he is right. You don’t want to pause and look up a word or read a sentence twice to get its meaning. [Read more...]

GIF and Gatsby’s ‘orgastic future’

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
(Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

Huh! That’s not how writers and creators feel. Ask Steve Wilhite, the man who created the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). [Read more...]

Magazine changes and the Oxford English Dictionary

The pen is mightier than the sword. Look at what happened to the word, “magazine”.

There was a time when it meant an arsenal, an armoury, a storehouse for arms and ammunition. Maybe that is how the cartridge-holder for rifles and machine-guns came to be called a “magazine”.

[Read more...]

IOU, vowels

Imagine a world without vowels. We wouldn’t be able to speak or sing. We would be able to make various sounds — mmff! grr! hmm! — but not actually speak.

You only have to move your lips to pronounce letters like b,m,p,v and press your tongue against your teeth or some part inside your mouth to pronounce other consonants such as c,d,g,j,k,l,n,r,s,t,x,z.

To pronounce a vowel, you have to open your mouth and allow air to flow through it, as the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary points out. [Read more...]

Cliches in the news

ClichesA list of clichés has gone viral, which is not surprising, considering  such words are contagious. They pop up left, right and centre every time we speak or write. What makes this list notable is that now journalists are fighting journalese. These are clichés flogged by American journalists past the endurance of their editors.

Carlos Lozada, who put up the list on the Washington Post, says he is not alone in deriding clichés.  But there is no stopping them. They are as inevitable as rain when journalists hit their keyboards or go on air.

Here is the list of clichés clogging the air waves and column inches of American media. Many of them are global, in fact. Now let’s see how many we have come across in India or Singapore. [Read more...]

Google, “ungoogleable”: From trademarks to words

Google doesn’t like the word, “ungoogleable”. Naturally. You can’t google the world’s total nuclear arsenal, the precise age of the universe, the bottom line of unlisted companies, the actual – not estimated – wealth of billionaires, what the Queen of England had for breakfast yesterday, or locate heaven on Google Map. Even the world’s greatest search engine has its limitations which, of course, Google doesn’t want to be bandied about through expressions like “ungoogleable”.

“Google”, as another word for “search”, entered the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in 2006. But I am not surprised that Google set its foot down on “ogooglebar”, the Swedish word for “ungoogleable”, and prevented it from being officially accepted by the Swedish Language Academy.

English, thank goodness, has no official watchdog minding the language, deciding what is acceptable and what isn’t. Google’s crackdown on “ungoogleable” has given the word new momentum, I think. It is being bandied about freely, far and wide, by every media outlet with newspapers, websites or air time to fill.

[Read more...]

Who/whom howler

The dean of the law school of the National University of Singapore recently wrote an article in the Straits Times for students who want to go to university. But there was a problem with the headline: Students considering university education should ask themselves whom, not what they want to be.

The punctuation is wrong. There should be a comma after “what”.  The two words, “not what”, are in parenthesis. Drop those two words and it will still be a complete sentence: “Students considering university education should ask themselves whom they want to be.”

But the sentence will still have to be corrected. The pronoun here should be “who”, not “whom”.

[Read more...]

Beyonce unbeknownst

Beyonce got a peck on the cheek from President Obama after she sang The Star-Spangled Banner at his inauguration ceremony in Washington on January 21. Now we are told she may have lip-synced her performance over a recording she had made earlier.

The US Marine Band, which provided the musical accompaniment for Beyonce, is neither confirming nor denying that she lip-synced to a prerecorded track, although earlier a spokeswoman said the pop star “did not actually sing”, reports CNN. The Marine Band did explain that Beyonce, like all singers at the inauguration, made a recording of the song she was scheduled to sing which would be played “in case of freezing temperatures, equipment failure or extenuating circumstances”.

If Beyonce lip-synced, it was unbeknownst to her fans. They have reacted with predictable outrage. [Read more...]