Tomfoolery : Verbivore Treats

I dream of lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can.

~ Jack Gilbert, The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

This is a place for verbivores to dine.  Verbivores are those who "feast on the English language," according to Richard Lederer - who to my knowledge coined the term. Richard further explains that as "carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words." In the spirit of the hoof to mouth food movement, verbivores now consume not just words but all aspects of the English language: definitions, pronunciations, etymology, grammar, slang, etc.

It should be said that being a verbivore is an addiction. Typically not as destructive as some other addictions; but one that consumes you all the same. So I must confess. My name is Plunk, and I am a verbivore. If you are also one, then this page is for you. Indulge with me and relish in the joy, wonder, mystery, and perplexities of the English language. However, I caution you that being a verbivire is not entirely innocuous; it does have a dark side. At times it can increase your blood pressure, strain social relations, cause you to correct grammatical errors in posted signs. But overall, the pleasures of voraciously consuming our language are more ecstatic than tortuous; and it won't cause you to gain weight - that I know of.

Richard's website is worth checking out. He used to co-host a radio show called 'A Way With Words.' If you are curious or confused about any aspect of the English language, the current hosts - Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett - will address your questions and entertain your observations. If you don't have a specific question, you can listen to just have a little word play.

The verbal treats currently available for your consumption on this page are listed below. I will add to them as I find more delightful and delicious morsels to share. 


Litotes [ly-toh-teez]

First off, I must confess that I love pronouncing this word. It rolls off my tongue and just saying it makes me smile. But, there are a lot of words that are fun to pronounce. So on to the more important questions: What is it and how is it used?

The term litotes may be unfamiliar to you, so a definition is a good place to start. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines litotes as "a figure of speech by which an affirmation is made indirectly by denying its opposite, usually with an effect of understatement: common examples are no mean feat and not averse to a drink." The Columbia Encyclopedia describes it as "a form of irony, litotes is meant to emphasize by understating. Its opposite is hyperbole." And finally, Fowler's Modern English Usage provides examples that may be more familiar. According to Fowler, "typical modern examples include: not bad (= very good), not uncommon (= quite frequent), and it was nothing (as a statement dismissing one's own achievement). Litotes is therefore the opposite of hyperbole or overstatement." A common example I hear, and that grates on me, is the infamous "no problem" response awhen sking someone to do something.

I have my own definition of litotes. I am certainly not a professional lexicographer, and my definition may have inaccuracies or be incomplete. But, it helps guide me in using and recognizing them. To me, a litotes is the deliberate use of a double negative because it connotes more of the intended meaning - as in trying to make the point that a person is average looking and that is acceptable, or the amount of work that will be required is significant but not excessive - or because it is more effective in accomplishing the intended purpose (e.g., persuade or motivate someone, or criticize indirectly in an attempt to avoid insult or conflict) than a direct statement would.  

Because of the use of understatement, litotes are often used by by specific groups of individuals who do not want to directly criticize or say something negative - although admittedly, this characterization of those groups draws on stereotypes and generalizations. For instance, the British - as an example of a "polite" - are less inclined to make direct criticisms. Also stereotyped for using indirect, or sometimes passive-aggressive, criticisms are groups like mothers-in-law and... When you don't want to be impolite, litotes provide a roundabout means of doing being critical. But, litotes are not limited to specific populations. Certain situations - such as when you are trying to convince or motivate someone, or want to downplay a negative attribute - lend themselves to the use of litotes. Here are just some common examples of litotes.

The whole dating scene is rife with litotes. Suppose a matchmaker is trying to get two friends to go out on a date. Of course, the matchmaker will want to highlight to one friend the great attributes of the other. In speaking to the female, the woman may ask, "Does he have nice hair?" Not wanting to note the guy's thinning hair the matchmaker may respond with, "Well, he's not bald." Bingo...a litotes. The guy- inquiring about the female friend - may ask the matchmaker, "Is she hot?" And the answer may be, "She's not ugly." And litotes strikes again.

Understatement is often used when someone is trying to persuade, convince, or motivate another. Like the dating example, understatement allows you to downplay a negative while still telling at least a half-truth - or to use a litotes, allowing the teller to claim they did not lie. For instance, you are hiking a trail and your companion is getting tired. To motivate them to continue, you might say "it's not far." Or, you may try to convince your mate to go to a party  - using "we won't stay long" - or to a movie - using "there's not that much violence" - that your partner would rather avoid. 

To maintain plausible deniability, politicians frequently use litotes. We often hear lines like "it's not that big of a budget cut (or tax increase)" or "it's not difficult to comply with the regulations." As in politics, salespeople use litotes to downplay a negative and maintain deniability. A realtor may tell you "the property taxes are not excessive" or "the kitchen isn't small." Professional and trade services also frequently use litotes for similar reasons. How often have we heard "the audit won't be onerous" or "the plumbing repair won't be that disruptive" or from your boss, "this won't add that much to your workload." IT professional and salespeople seem to be trainined in the use of litotes, or maybe it's just in their genes. Some of my favorites from them include "the implementation won't be that complicated" or "the software is not that hard to learn" or "I'll have that resolved in no time."

Another place where litotes are common is in comedy. It's a great way of expressing irony. Litotes are often used in comedy as a means of expressing irony.  

Now that you've learned that a litotes is not uncommon, listen up my verbivore friends and you shall hear - litotes, far and near.

The Importance of Grammar In One Sentence

Grammar: The difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit.

Enough said?

Don't Be A Serial Killer: A Vote In Support Of The Serial Comma 

First, what is the serial comma?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the serial comma as: A comma used after the penultimate (note: check the definition of penultimate; it may not mean what you think.) item in a list of three or more items, before 'and' or 'or' (e.g., an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect). Also called Oxford comma, Harvard comma.

If you don't want know what 'penultimate' means and don't want to bother looking it up, defines the Oxford comma as: a comma between the final items in a list, often preceding the word 'and' or 'or', such as the final comma in the list newspapers, magazines, and books.

So, what's the big deal? It may seem like such a small thing. But, one comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Here are just a few examples demonstrating the power of that little piece of punctuation.

One of the classic examples is reportedly - although I do not have the reference - from an academic thesis in which the dedication read "I would like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa." I think it would be quite the headline news if the Pope and Mother Teresa had a child, much less one who authored this thesis/book. But, that is how the dedication reads. I would guess that the dedication should have stated "I would like to thank my parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa."

For some reason, Nelson Mandela seems to have particularly suffered from the absence of the serial comma. A Sky News Top Stories headline read 'World Leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set..." The Times of London once reported “…highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” I guess those aren't some very personal and not well known facts about Mr. Mandela.

But Nelson Mandela has not been the only one to suffer from the absence of the serial comma in news articles. It was reprted that “A notorious gambler, Charlie Sheen owed money to his ex-wives, Billy Bob Thornton and Hugh Grant.” ï»¿ï»¿Now Charlie has had some pretty wild public displays, but I don't think they include these two failed marriages.

Similar to the first example is another dedication. "I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah Winfrey.” Besides suggesting that a child was born to Jesus and Oprah, the lack of a serial comma also implies that Jesus’s last name is Winfrey. Other examples, including some humorous cartoons can be found in this BuzzFeed article

So what should you do?

Unfortunately, there is no set rule about the use of the serial comma. Arguements are made for and against. This is a pretty good summary of the pro and con arguements. Personally, I think the arguments against its use are weak, and in most cases any ambiguity from the use of the serial comma can be avoided by rewriting the sentence or better use of punctuation.

According to experts, the serial comma is generally used in American English. It is not commonly used in the United Kingdom, Australia, or South Africa. The major exception in American English is that it is uncommon in journalism. It's absence in journalism may be due to the early days of typesetting publications, in which every space was precious. But, we have moved far beyond those times, and now including the serial comma is a simple key stroke. 

So the best advice that I can give is to always use your commas wisely. The purpose of punctuation os to add clarity and not confusion. I think you will find that the serial comma will help you better express your intended message more often than not. 

Sometimes an 'and' is just too much

The Gettysburg Address, I could go on and on about it's eloquence and power. It is certainly one, and maybe the, best speech in the English language. Beautifully and artfully written - so few words, yet saying so much. For this small commentary, I am going to focus on just one part of one line.

The closing of the Gettysburg Address reads: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Consider the way Lincoln phrased "...government of the people, by the people, for the people..." Notice anything unusual?

There is no 'and' in that sequence. Lincoln intentionally chose to do that, because doing so has a specific affect - conveys a message he wanted to make.

Not using the 'and' gives equal priority and weight to all three of the items. For Lincoln these are the three core elements for a government to serve the needs of the populous. Without any one of them, the government will be less representative, less democratic, less just. 

Choosing the right word is always important and should be made with careful consideration. And omitting a word can have an equally powerful impact. In the case of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's purposefull omission of just one, three letter word in that sentence made the point even stronger and the speech more effective. ï»¿

Jesse Pinkman's Pronunciation Tip

Niche is a frequently mispronounced word. Most egregiously by those who are supposed to be professionals in word usage, such as journalists. I'm talking to you, too, NPR reporters. 

Niche is most often mispronounced as "Neesh" - rhyming with "leash" or "quiche." The correct pronunciation rhymes with "ditch" and "witch." Or "bitch," as Jesse would note.

Mispronunciations are often made in a misguided attempt to sound sophisticated or intelligent. For some reason, they often result in a pronunciation that sounds French - Frenchifying the pronunciation, as I call it. For "niche," the Frenchification may be further promoted because of the similarity in spelling to "quiche."

Ironically, such mistaken affectations demonstrate both less intelligence on the part of the speaker and an overeagerness to impress others. So stop trying to sound smarter and just be smarter. Yah bitch, linguistic phonetics and such, yo.

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