Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Spun with Foonerisms

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Lard chips are mind-explodingly good.

They’re not actually marketed as lard chips, but Good’s Potato Chips aren’t cooked in soybean oil or partially-hydrogenated anything. They’re literally cooked in lard, which I’m sure is what makes them the best potato chips on the planet.

What’s this have to do with language? Well, lard chips were pretty much omnipresent in my college apartment. And my friends and I had a little game of swapping the sounds between two words to see if it would make new, funnier words.

It was inevitable that we transposed the initial sounds of “lard chips” to get “charred lips.” And that just tickled my linguistic funny bone.

That silliness has a name? Read the rest of this entry »

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June 1, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Using “Over” with Numbers is More Than Acceptable

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bridge in mexicoEarly in my copywriting career, I got into a heated debate with an editor about using the word over to mean more than.

I had drafted a headline on a flyer saying something along the lines of “over 5,000 whatsits” on a promotion for one of the magazines my company produced. The editor took issue with my copy, saying that it should be “more than 5,000.”

I thought that that was total crap.

Either is fine in most instances, and in the promotional piece I was working on — fewer words worked much better. But the editor was insistent on her point, trying to tell me that it’s not just a matter of style, but that using over is blatantly ungrammatical.

Why is using over before a number ungrammatical?

It’s not. But here’s why some people think it is: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nathanael Green

May 21, 2009 at 6:02 pm

How to Pronounce “Ghoti” (Or Why You Can’t Sound Out Words)

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Remember those grade-school teachers who told you to “sound it out” when you were learning to read the big words?

It eventually worked out OK for Billy Madison when his word was couch, but for me? Gotta’ tell you, Mrs. Dalius, that wasn’t very helpful advice when you gave me words like drought, cough, hiccough or colonel.

So what gives with the weird spellings and pronunciations? Read the rest of this entry »

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May 6, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Buzz, Plop, Boom, Hiccup … Smush?

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Today’s topic: words that sound like stuff.

In my previous post, I mentioned how words are just random noises that don’t mean anything until we associate meaning with them. Now I’m going to talk about words that aren’t random noises.

Onomato … wha?plink

Onomatopoeia, pronounced like on-uh-mot-uh-pee-ah. It’s the word teachers keep in their arsenal during spelling bees for the kids they don’t like. But also, it’s when a word is created in association with the sound it’s describing.

Think of buzz and sizzle and plink. They’re real words, but they started with people imitating a sound.

Do you remember your kindergarten lessons? Read the rest of this entry »

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April 29, 2009 at 9:53 am

How to Make Your Words Meaningless

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There’s a really easy way to make any word in any language mean absolutely nothing – even children can do it.

I remember one time when I was young, sitting in the back of my parents’ car as we drove to visit family out of state. As we passed a road sign that showed the direction to New York, I said those two words over and over again to myself.

“New York. New York. New York. New York.”

And suddenly, I had no idea what I was saying. My mouth was making the appropriate sounds for “New York”, but it meant nothing to me. It was a jumble of silly syllables. Read the rest of this entry »

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April 23, 2009 at 7:44 am

In Defense of the $10 Word

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The quintessential cantankerous old man.

The quintessential cantankerous old man.

Ever heard the saying that you shouldn’t use a ten-dollar word when a two-cent one will do?

I agree. There’s no point in tossing giant Latinate words into your writing when a simple, single-syllable will do.

He masticated the tuna? Nah. He just chewed it.

Using big words needlessly can be a turnoff for your readers. It can muddy your meaning while making your writing sound stilted at best, possibly irritating and pompous. Plus, you have to be careful because sometimes that giant word you think means one thing really means something else and could be a big embarrassment. (Insert mastication jokes here.)

So sure, it’s often wise to avoid the big words when a little one will do.

But notice the qualifier on that statement: “when a little one will do.” Read the rest of this entry »

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April 13, 2009 at 8:39 am

You, Yes You, Have an Accent.

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In following up with my previous post on accents, I’ve collected a few interesting tidbits about accents that you may find interesting.

But first things first.

You have an accent. I don’t care where you’re from or how many elocution classes you’ve taken. If you speak, you speak with an accent.

An accent simply describes the way you produce your words. An accent is necessary in speech like a gait is necessary in your walk – whether you notice it or not, you have to have one.

“But wait,” you say. “Other people have accents, I don’t.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nathanael Green

April 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Linguistics

Why I Can’t Speak English in England.

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In this, the first of two posts discussing accents, I want to talk about an issue for which I have no answers. It’s a question that I’ve discussed with friends over many a beer and is still unresolved, so I’d like to hear what other people think about it.

Let me start with a scenario: Pretend for a moment that you’re going about a regular day. And in this regular day, you meet a new coworker who seems like a nice, normal lady. Soon you find out that she recently moved to the US from Australia … but she doesn’t have an Australian accent.

Is that weird? Did she lose her accent or put on an American one? Or would someone with the same native tongue subdue their natural accent and put on a different one to try to fit in? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nathanael Green

March 26, 2009 at 7:30 am

Posted in Linguistics

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5 Reasons to Never Use “he/she” Again.

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I can’t stand the phrase “he or she.”

You know what I’m talking about. We used to say “he” or “they” to talk about a person whose gender was unknown, but now this often shows up as “he/she” or “his or her” and no matter what form it takes, it makes me cringe.


Read the rest of this entry »

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January 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm

English As It Is, Or As It Should Be?

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Yesterday, I was enjoying my word-nerdery in the reference section at Barnes and Noble (a not uncommon occurrence) when my wife showed me a book100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces.

I smiled. Then I wondered.

If we all mispronounce the same words the same way, doesn’t that mean that language is evolving and our pronunciation is actually correct? English by popular vote?

Or is our language sacred and we should learn to speak it properly?

That got me thinking about how people look at the rules of English, from sentence structure to spelling to pronunciation. Do we get laws handed down to us, or do we just speak however we want?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nathanael Green

January 26, 2009 at 9:03 pm