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Archive for the tag “English usage”

More misused English words that make people look silly

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a link to an article 20 misused English words that make smart people look silly — Quartz that I thought was somewhat dated. It listed commonly confused word pairs of about fifty years ago. But there were a lot of words missing from the list that are commonly confused today.

I can’t remember when I last heard or saw anyone confuse accept and except. But I read and hear people confusing deny and refute every week.

When an election is in the offing, I hear newsreaders on radio and TV talking every day about people who are “illegible to vote”. That may be a pronunciation error, but it certainly creates confusion in the minds of listeners and viewers.

And even policemen are now apparently beginning to confuse perpetrators with suspects. Surely they should be trained to know the difference.

  • Deny — to deny something is to asset that it is not true.
  • Refute — to refute something is to produce evidence that it is not true.

It is sad to see the way the media connive at politicians’ lies when they report that they “refuted” something when they only denied it.

For more on the deny-refute difference see here: Rebut, Refute, Deny

  • Perpetrator — someone who has done something bad, like committing a crime
  • Suspect — someone who as been identified as the possible perpetrator of a crime

Bear in mind that speaking of “an unknown suspect” is a contradiction in terms. It means you think you know who did it, but you don’t know who it is. The perpetrator is someone who commits a crime, whether known or unknown. A suspect is someone you think was the perpetrator.

The difference between deny and refute also shows up another difference, but this time between US English and most other dialects of English, where the term moot point has almost opposite meanings.

If you deny something and I don’t accept your denial, it becomes, in my South African English, a moot point — that is something debatable, on which we may agree to differ, but differ nonetheless. If, however, you refute it, there can be no further debate, and it ceases to be a moot point, that is, it is no longer open to debate.

In US English, however, the meaning of moot point is almost the opposite: a moot point is not something open to debate, but rather something not worth debating. Something to beat in mind when you read something by authors using a different dialect of English from your own. Eish!



Enablement — a new pondian difference?

I’ve just discovered a new (to me) and hitherto entirely unsuspected difference in meaning of a word on the east and west sides of the herring pond that geographers call the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in North America “enablement” means something completely different from what it means in South Africa, and to all accounts, the UK. I’m not sure about other parts of the English-speaking world.

Someone posted this chart of virtues on Facebook:

VirtuesI reposted it, with the comment that I was puzzled by “Enablement”, as I could not see where it fitted. I would have said “Altruism” there, perhaps, even though it sounds a bit Ayn Randish.

Evan Kirshenbaum, an American and a respected language fundi, responded, “The notion is being so uncritical that you wind up helping somebody’s self-destructive behavior.

That seemed weird.

It is almost completely opposite to the way I have usually heard the world used. To me, and I’m sure to most South Africans, “enablement” means helping someone to do something for themselves rather than always relying on others to do it for them.

The classic example is teaching a child to tie its own shoe laces.

Tying your own shoe laces is self-destructive behaviour?

The mind boggles.

I’ve mainly heard the term used in the context of community development and political activism.

It meant enabling people to do things for themselves rather than waiting for the government to do things for them.

One of the classic examples was in a handbook for community development compiled by an American friend.

Back in the day (ie about 45 years ago) a deputation from a small rural community in Zululand went see the local magistrate to complain that they had no drinking water.

Magistrate: Why don’t you have water? The government just built a new dam.

Community leaders: “Yes, but we cannot drink the water in the dam.”

M: Why can’t you drink the water?

CL: There is a dead dog in it.

M: Why don’t you just remove the dog?

CL: It is the government’s dam. The government must remove the dog.

Now there are various  sub-texts about power relations in that story that are explored in the manual of community development. I am using the story here simply to illustrate the kind of attitude of dependency that enablement is intended to overcome, and it is the dependency, rather than the enablement, that is seen as self-destructive.

So how did a word get transformed to mean almost its opposite in the space of 45 years?

Update 26 January 2016

I have done some more historical research, and established that the difference is not pondian, in the sense that it has different meanings on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, since both meanings originated in the USA.

The terms enabler and enabling (in the sense I have described) were introduced to South Africa in the mid-1960s by an American Episcopalian priest, Don Griswold, and the circumstances of the introduction were as follows.

The Anglican Bishop of Zululand, Tom Savage, wanted lay people to be more active in the church, and tried by various means to promote “the ministry of the laity”. At some point, presumably on a visit to the USA, he had been introduced to T-Groups, also referred to as Sensitivity Training, Encounter Groups or Group Dynamics. This method of experience-based education in group processes was endorsed by the US psychologist Carl Rogers.

Bishop Savage invited Don Griswold to come to South Africa, and he was the Rector of the parish of Holy Cross in Empangeni, and ran T-Group training at the diocesan conference centre at KwaNzimela. Bishop Savage encouraged all the clergy to take part in this training, and most of the groups were mixed clergy and laity, black and white, male and female, Zulu-speaking and English-speaking. As Bishop Savage had hoped, the training helped to break down barriers between clergy and laity, black and white. The latter aspect of the training was anathema to the government of the day, which appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate these breeding grounds of leftists (a headline in one Afrikaans newspaper was brooines van linkses onthul (breeding ground of leftists exposed) .

Anglican clergy from other dioceses also attended the T-Group training, and so it spread to other parts of the country, and it also spread to other denominations. By 1970 there were ecumenical CELT (Christian Education and Leadership Training) groups in most of the major centres. Some of the lay people who attended were businessmen, who introduced it as work in the form of team-building exercises and so on, so it became quite widespread. Some of those who had originally been trained in the church context set themselves up as management training consultants, and began doing it in purely secular contexts.

T-group and associated forms of experience-based education also introduced new terms (or new meanings for old terms) into the South African church (and later secular) vocabulary. I shall discuss just three of these terms here, but there were others.

  • Feedback. Before T-groups “feedback” had an largely negative meaning. It referred to an often-undesirable characteristic of electronic circuits, the most common example being the howling noise produced in public address systems when the output of loudspeakers was fed back into the microphone. In group dynamics jargon it referred to a response to something someone had said in a T-group, usually not to the content of what was said, but rather to the effect that it had on the group’s interaction. It was later extended to almost any kind of response, usually elicited by saying “Tell me what you think of this.”
  • Facilitator. Each small group in T-group training (see the Wikipedia article for more information on the training method) had a facilitator. The term facilitator was used because the role of the facilitator was not to be a leader or a teacher. The facilitators were not to initiate group interactions, but merely to give constructive feedback to the group on what was taking place, where necessary.
  • Enabler. As part of Bishop Savage’s vision for more active laity in the church, the role of the clergy was defined as being enablers. The clergy were not to be ministers, or do all the ministry of the church themselves. Their task was to enable the laity to do ministry. So enablement goes together with the related term empowerment. The difference between the two terms is that empowerment refers primarily to giving people the confidence to do things for themselves that they had been passively waiting for someone else to do for them, and enablement meant equipping them with the skills needed to do those things. And this conception of the clergy as enablers was introduced by an American, Don Griswold, so it is not a pondian difference.

This meaning of “enabler” and “enablement” was the primary one in my mind until I I saw it in the graphic of the “virtues” shown above, where it puzzled me. And it still puzzles me how a term can come to mean almost precisely its opposite in the space of 50 years or so.

I find it difficult to believe that the negative meaning was widespread when the positive one was introduced, otherwise a different term would surely have been used, to avoid confusion. So there is still a question of how the terms “enabler”, “enabling” and “enablement” came to mean their opposites in popular connotation in the space of 50 years.

Yes, you can probably distinguish them by context, but in the diagram where I first encountered the negative meaning, there are no contextual clues. It just assumes that the negative meaning is primary and that everyone knows it.

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised, because something similar happened to facilitator.

When I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, someone came to speak to the department about a new task group that had been set up in the university. The person told us, with a perfectly straight face, that the task group was set up to “facilitate conflict”, and wondered why the editors collapsed into helpless giggles.

So what do you think “enablement” means?


Go figure

I’ve quite often seen the expression “Go figure”, and thought I knew what it meant.

Go figure!

Go figure!

Take, for example, the graphic on the right, which was recently posted on Facebook, referring to current fraud investigations in Britain. I would have thought that that was a classic example of the use of “Go figure”, meaning “Work out the significance or implications of these figures for yourself.”

But I’ve been told by the experts in American English in the alt.usage.english newsgroup that that is not what it means.

As one put it, “It means ‘this is surprising’, ‘I didn’t expect that to happen’.”

And another, “In my experience, it’s always used to express perplexity of some sort about something.”

Now in the example graphic on the right, there is no surprise at all. Britain has a Tory government, which can be expected to implement policies that favour the rich and screw the poor, so there is no element of surprise, and nothing to be perplexed about. It is exactly what one would expect. But I still think that “Go figure” is an appropriate comment, though it seems that most Americans wouldn’t.

I asked my wife what she thought it meant, and she said “Go and work it out?”

So it seems that it is an American metaphorical expression that has been exported, but in at least some places that it has been exported to, it has been misunderstood, and given the literal meaning rather than the metaphorical one.

It seems that the canonical explanation is here AUE: FAQ excerpt: “Go figure”:

This expands to “Go and figure it out”, and means: “The reasons for the fact just stated are unknown and possibly unknowable. You can waste your time thinking about what they might be, if you choose, but you’re not likely to accomplish anything.” (Kivi Shapiro)

“Go figure” comes from Yiddish Gey vays “Go know”. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yinglish (Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-452-26534-6), says: “In English, one says, ‘Go and see [look, ask, tell]…’ Using an imperative without any link to a conjunction is pure Yiddish, no doubt derived from the biblical phrase, translated literally: ‘Go tell…’ ‘Go praise the Lord…’ (In English this becomes ‘Come, let us praise the Lord.’)”

Gianfranco Boggio-Togna writes: “The expressions an Italian is likely to use to show bafflement correspond exactly to “go figure”: va a capire=’go understand’ or va a sapere=’go know’. The va a idiom is common in colloquial Italian.”

Are my wife and I the only ones who have misunderstood it, or have others misunderstood it as well?

What is a muffin?

In an online discussion of English usage recently the question of muffins came up. These kinds of discussions seem to recur every couple of years. Last time round it was on scones and biscuits and cookies. Each English-speaking country seems to have its own terminology for such things.

My wife Val putting muffin mixture into muffin pans, ready for baking

My wife Val putting muffin mixture into muffin pans, ready for baking

It just so happened that my wife was making muffins for breakfast today. which made it easy to take photos to illustrate the process. She happened to be making cheese muffins,  which are “savoury” rather than sweet. Americans seem to find it difficult to understand what “savoury” means, so I hope it will help to think of, say, blueberry muffins as “sweet” and cheese muffins as “savoury” (or savory, if you prefer).

These are South African muffins.

They may therefore differ from American muffins, American “English” muffins, and British English muffins, and possibly Australian muffins, New Zealand muffins, Canadian muffins, Indian muffins and muffins of any other English-speaking countries.

They are made in muffin pans, which are sold in shops as muffin pans. That seems to imply that calling them muffins is not un ique to our family, but quite widespread in South Africa.

In many tea or coffee shops you can order muffins, which are sometimes bigger than these homemade ones, but are basically the same shape. They come in various flavours — blueberry, bran, lemon & poppyseed, chocolate chip, carrot, and a number of others.

The homemade cheese ones can be eaten on their own, or you can cut them in half and butter them. Plain ones without cheese can also be buttered and have jam on them.

Val got the recipe from her mother, who wrote down all her children’s favourite recipes in notebooks which she gave to her daughters and a niece. Most of them, including this one, probably came from her own mother, Martha Ellwood, who was born in Whitehaven, Cumberland, England.

Muffins in a muffin pan ready for baking.

Muffins in a muffin pan ready for baking.

Cumberland is in the north-west of England, and so their muffins may be different from those in other parts of England. Cumberland cumpets are certainly different from crumpets elsewhere in England, and resemble Scottish pancakes, so perhaps the muffins are different too.

Cheese muffins, baked and ready for eating, either cut in half and buttered, or plain

Cheese muffins, baked and ready for eating, either cut in half and buttered, or plain

And here, for anyone who wants to try it, is the recipe for Dorothy Greene’s Cheese Muffins:

Dorothy Greene's Cheese Muffin Recipe

Dorothy Greene’s Cheese Muffin Recipe


Bloated job titles and other examples of diseased language

There’s an outfit called TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday, in case you didn’t know) that holds weekly Christian discussion meetings in the Seattle Coffee Shop Brooklyn Mall at 6:00 am on Fridays. I’ve been to a few of them when the topic has interested me, and I get the weekly notices of topics to see whether they may be of interest. This week’s notice had some comments on inflated job titles, which I thought were worth sharing:

Job title inflation: It started when the guy who fixed my washing machine introduced himself as the Maintenance Engineer, only to be trumped by the plumber who became a Drain Surgeon. Run-of-the-mill assistants are now Facilities Administrators, 1-person organisations are headed by CEOs or Presidents, and Churchianity has seen a few (self-appointed?) Apostles of Faith and Anointed Prophets. The herbalists whose pamphlets you get given at the traffic lights are all “Dr” or “Prof”, except for the one who promotes himself as “Almighty Healer, Spirit from the Mountain and the Head of all Healers Herbalists in Africa” (sic).

Job title stuffing has resulted in descriptors like Chief Executive Twitterer, Manager of Deep Web Research, Central Interactions Architect, Lifestyle Design Coach, Person-Centred Transition Facilitator, Global Troubleshooter, Head of Knowledge Creation, Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner, and Dynamic Paradigm Orchestrator. Soon, movers and shakers might become (respectively) Location Change Management Specialists and Arthymic Oscillation Technicians. [1]

While on the topic of language and usage, I also recently saw this on Facebook:

And while we were on holiday recently we stopped for lunch at Maxi’s Cafe in Bethal in Mpumalanga, and there we saw this sign.

I used to know that as the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”, but Maxi’s isn’t a greengrocer.

Oh well, at least I’m not seeing “a waist of time” as much as I used to see it online in the early 1990s, so some things are improving.

As the saying went in the early 1990s, “Put knot yore trussed inn spell chequers.”

Seth’s Blog: Solving problems (vs. identifying them)

Someone pointed me to this blog post: Seth’s Blog: Solving problems (vs. identifying them):

Often, we’re hesitant to identify a problem out of fear we can’t solve it. Knowing that we have to live with something that we’re unable to alter gives us a good reason to avoid verbalizing it–highlighting it just makes it worse.

While this sort of denial might be okay for individuals (emphasis on might), it’s a lousy approach for organizations of any size. That’s because there are almost certainly resources available that can solve a problem if you decide it’s truly worth solving.

In my experience, people opt for avoiding both identifying problems and solving them. Instead of doing either of those things, they simply “address” the problem.

Talk nicely to the problem and it will go away.

If that doesn’t work, then don’t call it a problem, call it an “issue”.

No problem.

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration

It has long been known that bureaucratic language is diseased language, and this is just one of the latest instances of it

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration – Telegraph

Brussels bureaucrats were ridiculed yesterday after banning drink manufacturers from claiming that water can prevent dehydration.

NHS health guidelines state clearly that drinking water helps avoid dehydration, and that Britons should drink at least 1.2 litres per day

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.”

The actual text, from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which has been discussed in the alt.usage.english newsgroup is a true masterpiece of bureaucratic obfuscation, a classic example of bureaucratese.

For reduction of disease risk claims, the beneficial physiological effect (which the Regulation requires to be shown for the claim to be permitted) is the reduction (or beneficial alteration) of a risk factor for the development of a human disease (not reduction of the risk of disease). However, undersupply with water would not be considered as a risk factor for dehydration (the disease) in this context as the beneficial alteration of the factor (increased consumption of water) is not a beneficial physiological effect as required by the Regulation.

Can you make sense of that?

I can’t.

But the bigger danger, it seems to me, is that while we are straining at the gnat of bureaucratic jargon, we can overlook the camel of the privatisation of water implied in the term “drink manufacturers”.

The claim that I refuse to accept is not the one complained of by the bureaucrats. It is the claim that there are “drink manufacturers” who are in a position to make such claims in the first place.

The only “drinks manufacturer” I recognise in that sense is God, who makes rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.

Atheists who reject that as naive “creationism” are, of course, free to disagree. Perhaps for them “drinks manufacturers” are a product random evolution. Viva Coca Cola! Viva! Viva capitalism! Viva!

Give a dog a bad name

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Such was the reply often given to playground taunts and insults in my youth.

But a recent discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup puts a new slant on it.

People were discussing the remake of the film The Dam Busters, a true story of how the British attacked German dams in WW2 by using an ingenious technique to drop bombs where they would be most effective.

Apparently the remake hit a snag.

Squadron Leader Guy Gibson, who led the raid, had a pet dog, a black Labrador called “Nigger”, and it was decided to use the dog’s name as a code name to indicate that the first raid had been successful.

The WikiPedia page on the film, and the proposed remake, describes the problem as follows The Dam Busters (film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The British Channel 4 screened the censored American version in July 2007, in which the dialogue was dubbed so as to call the dog Trigger, this screening taking place just after the planned remake was announced. For the remake, Peter Jackson has said no decision has been made on the dog’s name, but is in a “no-win, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario”, as changing the name could be seen as too much political correctness, while not changing the name could offend people. Further, executive producer Sir David Frost was quoted in The Independent as stating: “Guy sometimes used to call his dog Nigsy, so I think that’s what we will call it. Stephen has been coming up with other names, but this is the one I want.” In June 2011, Stephen Fry mentioned in an interview that the dog would be called Digger in the remake to avoid offending modern audiences. In September 2007, as part of the BBC Summer of British Film series, The Dam Busters was shown at selected cinemas across the UK in its uncut format.

The discussion on alt.usage.english was mainly concerned with the issue of the dog’s name. The original name is now regarded as offensive in America, so using it might harm the film at the box office. But changing the name of the dog would be historically inaccurate.

Discussion went back and forth for a while, and eventually someone said:

I don’t see what harm it does to change the dog’s name consistently in the dialogue, just so people don’t repeatedly cringe until it gets run over. (I haven’t seen the original film; I’m trusting what someone else said in this thread.) They could put a note up at the beginning or end of the film briefly explaining the deviation from historical accuracy.

And Peter Brooks of Cape Town made a comment that put the whole discussion in perspective:

Cringe? There’s a film showing people getting ready to kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians by drowning and people watching it cringe because of the name given to a dog? What kind of perverted system of values could lead to that?

Another Wikipedia article describes the results of the first raid Möhne Reservoir – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The resulting huge floodwave killed at least 1579 people, 1026 of them foreign forced labourers held in camps downriver. The small city of Neheim-Hüsten was particularly hard-hit with over 800 victims, among them at least 526 victims in a camp for Russian women held for forced labour.

Kentucky Fried Quidditch

6 Harry Potter Films According to Someone Who Never Saw Them | “If you’re anything like me, you’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen a Harry Potter movie. Statistically speaking, you are nothing like me, as the latest installment of the Potter franchise is already poised to smash all relevant box office records, everywhere. (I should make it clear that when I say, ‘relevant box office records,’ I mean, ‘only box office records that pertain to The Dark Knight.’) Despite my lack of interest in and familiarity with the franchise, I’m not against the idea of it and I don’t hate the people who love it or the cultural impact it’s made (even though being a non-fan when a new movie comes out sort of feels like being the only Jewish kid during Christmas time). This franchise just missed me completely.”

Franchise? What do you mean franchise?

No wonder you’ve never seen it — it’s a film, not a Bic Mac.

One you see at the bioscope, the other you buy at a hamburger joint.

Hat-tip to whatisname.

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