My new column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the shifting and varied meanings of special—a word that can mean particular, extraordinary, dear, and having an intellectual disability. I consider special delivery, BlueLight Special, Afterschool Special, and more.
By the time Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics in 1968, the association of “special” with “mentally challenged” was firmly established. If anything, it was the word “Olympics” that was controversial: the U.S. Olympic Committee holds a tight grip on the word, but in 1971 it granted official approval—a special dispensation, you might say—to the Special Olympics.
Special Olympics, special needs, and special education are just a few examples of the exceptional flexibility of special. Since it first crossed the English Channel from France in the 13th century, special has taken on multiple meanings—particular, remarkable, dear—and become part of dozens of idioms and expressions, from special relativity in physics to special magistrate, special pleading, and special prosecutor in law; from special effects in TV and movies (earliest usage: 1909) to special teams in US football. Its literal meaning, from Latin specialis, is “individual” or “particular,” as opposed to “general.” (Compare the related words species and genus.) But its extended meanings range far and wide.
The fourteenth Special Olympics begins July 25 in Los Angeles. Its theme song, “Fly,” was written and performed by Avril Lavigne, who has said “her struggle with Lyme disease inspired her to work on the project.” The singer was bedridden for five months. She does not, however, have any lingering mental or intellectual disabilities.
Blog bonus #2:
“Isn't that special”: Dana Carvey as Church Lady, “Saturday Night Live.”
The headline is inaccurate and inadequate— “words” don’t “become startups”—and I take issue with the snarky attitude, but this list of short “real” (dictionary) words used as names of startups is worth a look. And the way they’re organized is downright poetic. (Hat tip: Karen Wise.)
Speaking of poetic, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead consideredthe favorite words of some writers (mostly British and Irish)—Hilary Mantel loves nesh, Taiye Selasi celebrates the Ghanaian colloquialism chale—and added a favorite of her own.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers (just $19.95 a year for lots of great content!). Here’s an excerpt:
Pout was an English verb meaning “to puff out of the lips in displeasure” since at least the 1300s; the noun form (which is what I’m talking about here) emerged in the 1590s. The word’s origins are uncertain, although it may be imitative of the shape your lips make while saying the word. (French has a related verb, bouder, which gave us boudoir — literally, a room for sulking.)For most of its history pout had generally negative connotations: petulant toddlers pout, as do sulky teens. Then, in 2002, a London weekly, News of the World, turned its attention to a British TV actress, Leslie Ash, who’d had silicone injections in her lips. The newspaper coined the term “trout pout” to describe the unfortunate results, and the catchy if catty rhyme caught on. (The label isn’t quite scientifically accurate: trout don’t have especially prominent mouths. Some other fish do, however. There’s even a species, Trisopterus luscus, whose common name is “pouting.”) In 2008, Ms. Ash appeared in a TV documentary about botched cosmetic surgery and talked to newspapers about “my trout pout hell.”
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the term “sharing economy” and the evolution of share from Old English—where it was a noun meaning “a cutting” or “a shearing”—to its use as a verb in 12-step meetings and beyond.
Access is free this month! Here’s an excerpt I’m pleased to share:
These activities—“ride booking,” chore marketplaces, textbook lending, short-term lodging rentals—have become known collectively as the sharing economy. The sharing economy is a growing sector of the U.S. and global economy as a whole, and its name represents the latest twist in the evolution of share, a word that’s practically inescapable in the social-media-dominated 21st century. Share appears in company names (SlideShare, ShareThis, Shareable, City CarShare) and product names (Sharewhat, Leafshare, Authentishare, ScholarShare); in advertising campaigns (“Share a Coke,” the 2014 program credited with reversing the soft-drink manufacturer’s decade-long decline in sales) and website prompts (“Share on Facebook,” “Share your thoughts”). It has even inspired at least one new word blend: sharewashing (softening the capitalistic edges of an enterprise by calling its activities “sharing”).
Gnomologist: A person who practices gnomology; a collector or researcher of quotations. Coined from the Greek gnome (thought, judgment, saying, or maxim) and the Latin suffix -ologist. Gnomologist first appeared in English in 1813 (“the gnomologists, or versifiers of short moral apophthegms”*); the adjective gnomic showed up two years later. Gnomology had been in use since 1645. Gnome in the sense of “short pithy saying” had been around since 1645; the alternate meaning—“one of a race of diminutive spirits fabled to inhabit the interior of the earth”—is believed to have been created by Alexander Pope in “The Rape of the Lock” (1714).
Gnomologist was in the news last week because of a misattributed quotation that appears on a new U.S. postage stamp. The stamp depicts Maya Angelou, the late author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but the quotation next to her photograph came from a children’s book written by Joan Walsh Anglund**.
Erin McKean, the founder of the dictionary site Wordnik.com, picks up the story in an op-ed published April 9 in the New York Times:
This is not an instance of plagiarism — it doesn’t seem that Ms. Angelou, who died last year, claimed the words as her own. It’s far more likely that the very appealing line struck a chord with the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” who quoted it herself in many interviews. (The Postal Service noted that Ms. Angelou’s family approved the line for use on the stamp.) But the subsequent misattribution is a textbook example of a widespread phenomenon in the world of quotations: Churchillian Drift.
The term was coined by the quotations expert (or gnomologist) Nigel Rees, who maintains the “Quote ... Unquote” newsletter and who broadcasts a quiz show of the same name on BBC Radio 4 in Britain. Essentially, Churchillian Drift is the process by which any particularly apt quotation is mistakenly attributed to a more famous person in the same field.
Another good source for gnomology is the website Quote Investigator, which has researched quotations ascribed to such perennial favorites as Mark Twain (who never said or wrote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”), Benjamin Franklin (who did indeed write “Time is money”), and, of course, Winston Churchill (who probably never said “If you’re going through hell, keep going”).
* Easier to pronounce than to spell: AP-uh-them.
** It’s merely coincidental, I’m sure, that both authors’ surnames begin with Ang-.
“Clickspittle: an unquestioningly loyal follower who obediently shares every trivial thought of their idol on social media.” Post-modern portmanteaus from The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, excerpted in The Independent. (Via @Catchword)
“Most important, it stood for Internet. But it also stood for other valuable i things, like individual, imagination, i as in me, etc. It also did a pretty good job of laying a solid foundation for future product naming.” A knowledgeable Quora answer to the question “What is the history of the i prefix in Apple product names?”(Via @AlanBrew)
“Around the time of the birth of OK, there was a fad for komical Ks instead of Cs on the pages of newspapers … including from 1839: ‘The gentleman to the left of the speaker, in klaret kolored koat with krimson kollar, is Mr. Klay, member of Kongress from Kentucky’.”Allan Metcalf, author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, marks the 176th anniversary of “OK” with a post about the word’s “konspicuous, kurious, komical” … uh, kwalities. (Read my 2010 post about “OK.”)
What do we lose when dictionaries delete words like bluebell, catkin, lark, and mistletoe to make room for blog, broadband, MP3 player, and chatroom? British nature writer Robert Macfarlane—most recently the author of Landmarks—writes in The Guardian about “the importance of preserving and plenishing a diverse language for landscape.” His essay includes some beautiful, obscure words like ammil, “a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs, and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.” Plenishing is pretty wonderful, too. (Via @StanCarey)
This month Scratch Magazine, an online publication “about the intersection of writing and money,” celebrates its first anniversary. In “Scratch,” founder and publisher Jane Friedman (to whom I’m not related) nailed the perfect dual-meaning title: scratch has been an informal synonym for write since at least the early 19th century, and it’s been a slang term for “money” (especially paper currency) in the U.S. since the early 20th century.
My January column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at how smart came to be attached to so many inanimate objects, from phones to skin lotion, from bombs to highways, from quotation marks to fabric. Along the way, I consider the multiple senses of this very old word, which can mean “stylish,” “cheeky,” or “to cause pain,” as well as “witty” or “intelligent.”
No subscription needed to view the column this month (not always the case!). Here’s a taste:
The sense of smart = shrewd extends to the slangy smart-ass, which first appeared in print in 1951 in an American detective novel. (OED on smart-ass: “orig. and chiefly U.S.; characterized by an overly clever or smug display of intelligence or [esp. professional] knowledge.”) The term’s mild vulgarity might seem to preclude its incorporation into branding and advertising, but that’s not the case at all.
Blog extra: A smart gun is one that uses biometrics to recognize its user. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about one such gun for the January 18, 2015, Sunday Review:
Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?
Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17-year-old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.
“I started with iris recognition, and that seemed a good idea until you realize that many people firing guns wear sunglasses,” Kloepfer recalls. “So I moved on to fingerprints.”
Smart guns are “smart” in at least two senses of the word: clever and connected. And yet, Kristof writes, “The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory.”
“There seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year,” writes Allan Metcalf, executive director of the American Dialect Society, in the Lingua Franca blog. That lack, he maintains, “will make discussion and voting more lively” at the ADS’s annual meeting in Portland next month. No question that the discussion will be lively—it always is—but I beg to differ about “no leading candidate.” It may not be as controversial as the 2013 selection, because, or as social-media-friendly as 2012’s hashtag, but it’s still the clear front-runner.
My submissions to the ADS vote, to be held January 9: