17 December 2010

Christmastime is here...

I recognize i tend to go off on miniature rants, or at least take more of a negative spin on language as i find it addressed in life around me. In light of the season (as well as taking into account my thoughts my thoughts on a typographic video of Stephen Fry), i thought it would be nice to elucidate and illuminate the meanings of words we toss around willy-nilly at the end of the year, often without knowing what in angels we heard on high we are talking about.

Advent: It comes from the Middle English, from the Latin word adventus which means 'arrival;' it's used to mark the arrival of Jesus as a baby. Quite appropriately, it's also used in some circles to talk about his return. Seems Jesus is all about the advent.

Myrrh: Most of us don't even know how to spell this one, let alone what it is. (I had to use google's autocorrect to get the proper spelling.) It's an aromatic resin that comes from trees found in eastern Africa and Arabia (the around called the Horn of Africa). The Egyptians used it on their mummies, but most everyone else considered it a medicine, equal to its weight in gold.

Frankincense: Like myrrh, frankincense is a resin from a tree, also from the Horn of Africa. It is used as an incense, hence its name, and because the smell is said to represent life, it's often used to anoint newborns or individuals entering a new spiritual phase of life.

Yule: Comes from the Old Norse 'jōl', a pagan midwinter festival. Still called 'Jul' by Scandinavians today.

Christmas: The origin of the word is in Old English, that language that predates the English as we know it. Christmas, or Cristes mæsse, literally means 'Christ's Mass.' There is probably not a singular source for the cause of celebration on December 25. There were a plethora of winter feasts during the winter months: Roman Saturnalia, Scandinavian Yule, Germanic feasts and celebrations. Most pointed was a later Roman festival which took place on the specific date we now take to be Christmas Day. It was a celebration called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and it centered around 'the birthday of the unconquered sun,' or as we call it, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The way the Romans they saw things, Sol invictus, the 'unconquered sun,' would be born anew and take back the heavens, slowly reclaiming winter's kingdom. Some early scholars link the festivals with the birth of Jesus, calling him the 'unconquered' one.

Nativity: It means, at its simplest, 'the process of being born.' So this isn't really a holiday word, except when we add 'the' to the beginning of it. My own nativity was in September, and my roommate's was in June. There might not be Christmas in July, but nativity in July, very possible.

Noel: This is the French word for Christmas. It comes from the Latin natalis, meaning 'birth.' When it's not capitalized, it also refers to a Christmas carol. Not sure how that fits in with 'birth.'

Grinch: Invented by Dr. Seuss specifically for his beloved Christmas story, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' it refers to someone who's a killjoy. BONUS: Seuss also invented the word 'nerd' for his story 'If I Ran the Zoo.'

Merry Yule, and happy New Year to all.

In case this wasn't enough on language, a recent poll described 'whatever' as the most irritating word. Discuss.

03 December 2010

I Refudiate the Use of This Word

A couple weeks back, the New Oxford American Dictionary released their words for 2010. Various dictionaries, worldwide, release words every year that came to prominence. The fact a word makes it on the list means nothing in regard to usefulness, longevity, newness or even correctness. The criterion that most matters, in the words of NOAD's Ammon Shea, is whether a word 'has attracted a great deal of new interest' that calendar year.

The word NOAD picked as this year's top word was 'refudiate.'

Thank you, Sarah Palin.

It started when she used it on a cable news show, asking Michelle Obama to 'refudiate' that the Tea Party movement is racist. That same weekend, she tweeted the following:
'Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.'
I've already touched on the use of the moniker 'Ground Zero mosque' in another post, so i don't feel the need to say anything more on that subject.

She didn't initially mean to use the word. Her original tweet was taken down and replaced with
'Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.'

*emphasis mine
. She originally acknowledged that her use was wrong. Then, as politicians tend to do, she stood her ground that English is alive and ever-changing.
' "Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!'

I agree. English is alive, fluid and changing, and nothing can stop that. It's a natural evolution to any language that is only prevented once the language dies, as it has with Latin.

She also grouped herself with Shakespeare, the originator of over 1,000 new words to the English language. Not to belittle Sarah Palin any, but the words he coined--the likes of 'eyeball', 'apostrophe,' and 'obscene'--he truly invented, purposefully. Palin did not.

Refudiate is by no means a new word. The New Oxford American Dictionary blog lists the first recorded use in a Texas newspaper in the late 1800s. It is also mentioned in a headline in the 1920s, and, more recently, by a senator in 2006. What brings Palin's use to prominence in both her personality, as well as her continued insistence upon using the word.

I take issue with her use of both the 'living language' argument as well as the 'Shakespeare: word maker' argument. If she had intended to use 'refudiate' from the beginning, that pairing would make sense. However, she did not.

Given that her impact on American society has been so prevalent, regardless that she's only been in the spotlight for 3 years, it amazes me she can have such an impact, even accidentally, as to make a misspoken word a national news story.