Archive | September 2011

30-Second Word Whoop: “Pedestrian”

On the surface, “pedestrian” means one who walks. As species skills go, walking upright is an impressive advancement.

How, then, has the word devolved into meaning plebian, plain, dull or unsophisticated?

Seems a long distance for a word to travel.

First encountered in 1793, the English word derives from the Latin pedester (“going on foot”). Pedester arose in contrast to equester (“on horseback”), cementing a class distinction right off. Think royal equestrian vs. barefoot peasant.

Once cars and jet planes surpassed horses for getting around, mass transit arrived as the great equalizer, right? Wrong. More “commoners” than “the well-heeled” seem to use public transportation — poor cleaning ladies, lugging home sacks of groceries in the rain.

Still, pedestrians possess power. They can stop traffic! Marching, they topple autocrats or push social change. Strength in numbers and, with all that walking, they’re perhaps stronger in constitution than fat cats out violating the HOV lane in their gas-guzzling SUVs.

Maybe someday, after our fossil fuel fixation cripples us, pedestrians will be in the power seat. It’ll be most civilized to walk in eco-smart walkable enclaves, and the “masses” will be distinguished only by body mass. Prosaic on Prozac.

And instead of pedestrian crossing signs, herald and hail … the zebra car!

9 Signs (and Co-Signs) of Our Times

30-Second Word Whoop: “Loath” to “Breathe”

SVG Version of Image:Pac_Man.png

Something’s eeeeeeeeating away at me. Image via Wikipedia

The prefix “e” — shorthand for “electronic” — exercises eminent domain in digitizing common English words:
e-mail, e-book, e-ticket, e-commerce. Like Pac-Man, it chomps through unnecessary syllables to create perfectly understandable fad words like “e-zine” and “e-vite.”

Amid this e-English racket, I want to give voice to the silent e, which has been around forever, a caboose working hard to make distinctions that are increasingly ignored by our e-audience.

It couldn’t be easier to remember the difference between, i.e., “breath” and “breathe,” or “loath” and “loathe,” yet I see these egregious errors daily. Pay attention; not gonna say it twice.

In these examples, the words ending in “e” are verbs. The others aren’t. You breathe breaths. “Breath” is the noun. Think of holding your breath, and please withhold the e.

“Loath” seems trickier for people; it’s an adjective. If you are loath to loathe someone, you are reluctant to detest them. Think of “loath,” like “breath,” as holding something back — unwilling, averse, disinclined.

Now, you can take a deep breath, and breathe easier when writing your
e-masterpieces —”e-pieces”?

Let’s hear it for the silent “e”! We are loath to use it incorrectly, because we loathe errors.

30-second Word Whoop: “Mulligan”

Caricatures: GOP Presidential Debate Participa...

Politics is not so much a war of ideas as a war of words. Monday night’s battlefield: the Republican presidential debate in Tampa.

I tuned in, and there’s that word again: “mulligan.” I heard it volleyed by Mitt Romney at last Wednesday’s debate in Simi Valley, Calif. (though I think Rick Perry started it …). Romney was being defensive, saying every candidate deserved to take “a mulligan” or two on bad decisions from the past.

This time, Michele Bachmann lobbed it repeatedly at Rick Perry as one of her talking points — saying that in the case of government-mandated inoculations against a virus that causes cervical cancer, “little girls don’t get a mulligan … they don’t get a do-over.”

I’ll leave it to the pundits to keep score; I just want to know what, exactly, it means.

I’ve heard of mulligan stew — a hodgepodge. It’s Irish, right? Maybe goes well with a swig of something?

The “Mulligan Man” pops to mind, like the Roto-Rooter guy. Oh, wait. It was “Hey, Culligan Man!” Thanks, YouTube:

Turns out, a “mulligan” relates to scorekeeping in golf. Its etymology is debatable. Could be Scottish; I lose track of who kicked whom out of whose country. First popularized in the 1940s, mulligan refers to a second shot allowed by an opponent after a player hacks his swing.

I thought candidates aimed to be folksy and speak to the American people, not use lexicon straight from the country club.

A pile of golf balls, not goofballs. 🙂

Maybe the term will come in handy as the 2012 presidential field tries to navigate the obstacle course in the remaining SWING states. (Maybe the mulligan stew even will start thinning out.)

30-Second Word Whoop: “Whelm”


The joke goes — overheard in both the newsroom and the comedy club — why are we always “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed”? What if I wanna be just plain “whelmed”?

Guffaws all around, as if the word doesn’t exist.

The joke’s on you. It does. There’s even “a picture in the dictionary,” as the popular joke set-up goes, showing a shell with water surrounding it. Yet nobody told the “spellcheck” tool; as I write, it underlines “whelm” as a red flag.

“Whelm,” which means to submerge, engulf, cover with water or bury, is also a synonym for “overwhelm.” That’s like “wet” being a synonym for “drenched.”

Why overdo it with the “over” overkill? You could say that, in usage, “whelm” has been overwhelmed by “overwhelm.” Or “overwhelmed” underwhelmed by “whelm.” Even the urban dictionary has downgraded the meaning to:

1. Verb. To Whelm. When someone or something is distinctly average and you are not moved by him/it at all.

2. To be in a state of inflicted normality. See also OVER and UNDER whelm.

Gee, if I were “whelm,” I’d first see a therapist.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Bologna”

Bologna by Bar-S Foods, Phoenix AZ (USA)

Image via Wikipedia

Bologna” … “baloney” … “boloney” … what nonsense (secondary definition)!

Many foodstuffs are named for geography, as this American mash of beef, pork, veal — or all of the above — and direct descendant of the Italian mortadella (yikes! — I spy the root for “death” in it) from its namesake city in Italy dating to the Bronze Age.

But comic Jim Gaffigan says it best.  Only 90 more seconds. Enjoy!