Reluctantly Increasing Our Vocabularies

The people of Toronto – and others who follow the news – learned a new word last week in a horrible way. A young man who apparently self-identified as an “incel” used a van as a weapon to mow down 10 innocent people walking down a main street, while injuring 16 others. He also inflicted psychological damage on dozens of horrified bystanders and caused irreparable grief to a number of families worldwide, given the multicultural nature of our city.

Incel, we discovered, refers to a loosely affiliated group of misogynistic men who are involuntarily celibate, and, rather than looking inward for the reasons they have difficulties finding dates – or hookups – blame women for rejecting them.

There is so much wrong with this term that I don’t even know where to begin, but let’s start here: no one is entitled to intimate relations. It’s not written in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, legislated by Parliament, nor written in the Ten Commandments. Sex, whether casual or meaningful, is a consensual act. If it’s absent in your life, look in the mirror before you blame others for a failure to make human connections. Ask a counsellor for help in relating better to others. Don’t resort to violence; the world has enough of that already.

While the vicious attack in Toronto didn’t spawn any new words, it did give rise to a new hashtag: #TorontotheGood. Instinct, it seemed, drove Canadians to respond to hatred and violence with caring.

Dozens of area employees and residents offered first aid to the injured before first responders arrived. A local pizzeria owner brought pizzas to first responders working at the scene. A makeshift memorial on Yonge Street blossomed and bloomed. A florist on the affected stretch of sidewalk offered free flowers to all passersby. The #TorontoStrong campaign raised more than $1.5 million (and growing) to help victims. People throughout the city paid it forward by purchasing coffee for strangers. Vigils at the site drew everyone from locals to the Prime Minister.

So, thank heavens that in addition to learning a new word because of a vile attack, we also became reacquainted with old words: kindness and community. #TorontoStrong, indeed.

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Names and Fame

A recent CBC-Radio broadcast of Terry O’Reilly’s advertising show focused on products, such as the Granny Smith apple, that carried the names of their inventors/popularizers.granny-smith-apples It started me thinking about how odd it is to be immortalized without really being remembered as an individual. Your name lives on, but it becomes just another word in a crowded lexicon, rather than conjuring an image of you as a person with talents and foibles.

Think of baseball player Thomas Edward John II, for instance. His name is synonymous with Tommy John surgery, the surgical reconstruction technique that replaces the damaged ulnar ligament in the arm with one from elsewhere in the body. Numerous professional baseball players, as well as amateurs, are pitching today thanks to this revolutionary technique first attempted on John in 1974 and the term is embedded in baseball lingo.

But John, himself? Only fans of baseball history remember that he was a pitcher in the Major Leagues from 1963 to 1989, playing for six teams during his 26-year career. In fact, he was a four-time Major League all-star and played in three World Series. Quite a surprise to me!

Then, there are buildings and other civic structures who bear the names of those whose accomplishments are often forgotten. Take the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, the world’s longest span bridge when it opened in 1964. As the bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, it’s a name that recurs in traffic reports, but, undoubtedly, very few people today connect it back to Giovanni da Verrazano, the first European explorer to sail into New York Harbour, way back in 1524.

Interesting, eh? There is evidence of history all around us if we take a moment to think about and delve a bit deeper. In this age of smartphones, it’s easier than ever to learn more, so take advantage of the opportunity whenever an unfamiliar name crops up.

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Vocabulary and the Olympics

Last month, I made a vow to counter the vitriol and ignorance that spew forth from the American president’s mouth and Twitter account by incorporating better vocabulary into my daily life. As the Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea, end and the athletes trickle back to Canada and elsewhere, what better way to highlight their achievements than with words other than “great”?

Enjoy my abbreviated Olympic dictionary, a verbal tribute to the 2018 Winter Games, courtesy of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

Zenith, n., the highest or culminating point in prosperity, power, etc. Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir reached the zenith of their Olympic careers in Pyeongchang, winning gold medals in both ice dancing and team skating.

Turbulent, adj., varying irregularly, causing disturbance. The turbulent winds played havoc with some of the ski and snowboard events, upsetting some of the athletes and making it impossible to predict winners.

Effervescent, adj., lively, energetic and vivacious. Who could fail to enjoy the effervescent performance of the only North Koreans to genuinely qualify for the Olympics, pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik? They won the hearts of the crowd on hand, as well as viewers worldwide.

Tenacious, adj., persistent, stubborn.

Resilient, adj., readily recovering from shock, depression

The Canadian men’s hockey team was tenacious and resilient after its shocking loss to Germany, rebounding to proudly win a bronze medal.

Trailblazer, n., pioneer, innovator. Women’s luger Alex Gough won Canada’s first-ever Olympic medal in her sport, a bronze, after finishing fourth twice at Sochi in 2014.

Indomitable, adj., can’t be subdued, unyielding, stubbornly persistent. Snowboarder Mark McMorris of Canada demonstrated his indomitable spirit by competing at the Olympics less than a year after a near-fatal boarding accident, earning a bronze medal and worldwide admiration.

Affable, adj., friendly, good-natured. The South Korean people were affable, welcoming hosts to athletes and spectators alike.

Actually, as an Olympics junkie, I could go on and on and on … but in the interest of brevity, I won’t. Suffice it to say that there are many other words to describe the recent Olympics, such as joyous, inclusive and heartwarming. What a treat!

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Refusing the Trump card

Six years ago, the Korean pop song, Gangnam Style, took the world by storm, bringing smiles to faces everywhere with its catchy beat and silly dance. Today, by contrast, the global community has been invaded by Trump style, discourse characterized by anger, insult and demeaning language.

People who value decency cringe every time the American president issues another tweet, insulted by his crude, disparaging language, even though they may not the targets of his vitriol. Each time they think his insults can’t get much worse, he proves that it is possible.

When Mr. Trump recently referred to the “___hole countries in Africa” something inside me snapped. Could those words possibly be coming from the mouth of the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the Western world? Although many politicians are disappointing, we still hope for – and expect — better. With such bigotry and hatred displayed openly, people in democratic countries worldwide are experiencing a massive betrayal at the hands of the America’s leader.

As a writer, I view language as a tool for growth, not destruction. Discourse among leaders may not be cordial at all times, but it is generally civil. I hold the leader of any nation’s highest office to a high standard; he/she should speak with dignity, rather than sounding like a mean, angry child calling names on a playground. After all, he/she is a role model, whether or not he/she wants to wear that mantle.

With three years still to unfold in Mr. Trump’s term, it’s difficult not to wonder what offensive language will spew forth next. There’s not much we can do, since he doesn’t take criticism kindly, even from his fellow Americans. What chance does a Canadian stand?

However, we can fight back in small ways. Personally, I plan to promote dignified language by expanding my vocabulary – and yours, perhaps. The more words we have in our arsenals, the less need there is to resort to curses and demeaning language.

In Hag-Seed, renowned author Margaret Atwood‘s recent retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the protagonist refuses to let his actors curse, unless they use insults from Shakespeare. Now, there’s a creative use of language!

As my battle begins, let’s look at the word NADIR. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the lowest point in one’s fortunes; a time of deep despair.” It seems quite appropriate in talking about the state of discourse in American politics.

Let’s all fight ignorance and hatred with the tools that suit us best. Stay tuned for more blog posts exploring words that relate to the news of the day.

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It’s the Ho Ho Ho-lidays!

The holiday season is upon us! While some of us are booming, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” with glee, others are groaning, “No, No, No,” as they look their lists of seasonal tasks.

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Is it truly a holiday – aka a day off from work in our modern world — if you have to labour away like a madman or madwoman to prepare for it? In fact, where did the term, holiday, originate?

Initially, the word holiday wasn’t synonymous only with relaxation, but with religious celebration, too. As the Daily Bulletin (www.dailybulletin.com) explains, it is a combination of the words holy and day that were first joined in Old English. Halig meant holy and daeg referred to day, and haligdaeg referred to a day of religious observance and recreation.

By saying, “Happy Holiday,” you were offering good wishes for a day free of toil. It generally referred to Christian observances in the days of Beowulf and Grendel, but, today, the word denotes a festival celebrated by people of any religious tradition, as well as public civic observances. Diwali and Canada Day are both holidays, for example. In Canada, the term, holiday season, usually encompasses Christmas; Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights; and the New Year.

Christmas is a term deriving from the Old English word, Cristesmaesse, or Christ’s Mass. The word, Christ, derives from the Latin, Christus, and the Greek, Christos, meaning the anointed one. Mass, the evolution of maesse, can refer to a festival, feast day or mass. Today, people rarely refer to the literal translation, but the name fits the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth perfectly.

As for Chanukah, the holiday’s name is an editor’s nightmare. The Hebrew word means dedication and it refers to the rededication of the Holy Temple after its destruction by the Greeks in the Second Century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). However, translating it to English phonetically from the Hebrew poses a problem, because English doesn’t have the CH sound that starts the word; it’s similar to the CH in Scottish words such as loch. Nor is there a worldwide standard for translating certain letters. So, use your style guide or take your pick: Chanukah, Hanukah, Hanukkah, Chanuka … any way you spell it, it’s a day to celebrate!

Happy Holidays, all! Despite all the seasonal commitments, here’s hoping you take some time to truly relax. Here’s to a wonderful New Year!

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Oh, my word!

After spending time in Britain this summer, I didn’t return with an accent, but I did collect some new vocabulary.

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Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace

It’s true that North American English resembles its British parents, but as children will, we Canucks and Yanks have insisted on forging our own identity. Words and phrases differ, so “translation” may be required when visiting the land of our linguistic forefathers.

Take vests, for instance. Who knew that in England the word refers to men’s undershirts? Not I – until I wandered through a Marks & Spencer department store. I also discovered that when something is impressive – a painting of Shakespeare created while he was alive, for instance – it’s “brilliant,” like a star shining above, perhaps. When I was peckish in mid-afternoon, it was time for a break for “cream tea,” aka a cup of tea and a scone served with clotted cream and jam. What a perfect way to take the edge off my hunger!

There were also times when I found myself reaching into my magician’s linguistic hat for a rabbit and pulling out a toad instead. It was both amusing and embarrassing.

I seemed to have most of my difficulties reaching for the correct word while travelling on trains. En route to Edinburgh, I automatically ordered chips in the refreshments car, even though I know the British word for potato chip is crisp. It earned me an admonishment from the server that I “ought to know better by now.” Really? No quarter given after only a month’s time?

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At the border

Even the cleaning staff on board got into the act. I’d eaten a sandwich and my “crisps” during the journey, but didn’t see a place to discard the wrappings. As I was collecting my luggage and the detritus of my meal at journey’s end, two men armed with a huge plastic bag walked by. I hailed them excitedly and asked if it was a trash bag they were carrying. They gave me a haughty look and told me the bag was for “rubbish.” Oops!

Faux pas notwithstanding, it’s these language differences that add spice to travelling. The country you’re visiting may look superficially like your own, but words can remind you that you’re far from home.

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Don’t get your knickers in a knot!

Since I’ll be spending my vacation in Britain this summer, it seems an appropriate moment to consider the language we have in common – or do we?

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British English is different from Canadian English which is different from American English, although I imagine that 90 per cent of the words we use are understandable to each other. A rose is a rose is a rose after all.

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Nonetheless, there are words that are used in both Britain and North America, but have different meanings depending on the continent. It’s these words that we travellers must beware, lest we receive puzzled looks, outright stares or requests for translation. In the interest of self-preservation, I’ve learned a few of them, but there are endless traps for unwary visitors:

  • Flat. We North Americans think of this word as an adjective that describes a piece of paper (not wrinkled) or the calm state of a body of water (Lake Ontario is flat today; not a hint of wind or waves). In Britain, it’s a noun synonymous with an apartment. (Suzy finally moved out of the house and is sharing a flat with two colleagues.)
  • Lift. In Canada, this is a verb used when one plans to pick something up from the ground or a shelf (Be careful when you lift that glass bowl – it’s heavier than it looks!). Across the pond, however, it refers to an elevator (Hold the door to the lift, please. I’m coming!)
  • Boot. When we hear this word, the thoughts of those of us in northern climes turn to the foot coverings we wear throughout the long winter (The snow comes nearly to the top of my boot.). In England’s more salubrious climate, it refers to the trunk of a car. (Open the boot so I can fetch my other pair of shoes.)
  • Jumper. In Toronto, this term is ghoulishly used for someone who commits suicide by throwing themselves in the path of an oncoming train, but it’s much more innocuous abroad; it simply refers to a sweater. (Did your grandmother knit you another ugly jumper for the holidays?)

So, pitfalls lurk everywhere – around any corner, there could be disaster. For hapless, helpless tourists who want to prepare, there is probably help online, but I think I’ll wait to be surprised – and, undoubtedly, embarrassed.

P.S. Feel free to send me your own examples – and how you learned to appreciate the other meaning. Vive la difference!

 

Photo credits: creativecommons.com

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Watch your (election) language!

On Nov. 8, voters and interested onlookers will be glued to their television sets to watch the outcome of what has been one of the nastiest American presidential campaigns in recent memory. It has set new lows in terms of intelligent discourse and in no-holds-barred attacks on opponents. election2

Rather than descend to those depths ourselves, let’s take a look at election-related words. It’s time to refresh our memories about some of the terms the pundits will use as coverage begins:

  • Blue State, Red State – Although it sounds like the title of a Dr. Seuss book, these are standard U.S. election terms, visual cues to voting tendencies and actual outcomes. Blue states are those whose population tends to vote for Democratic candidates and will be coloured blue on the election maps if Hillary Clinton wins them. Red states are those whose population generally votes for Republicans and will be coloured red on the election maps if Donald Trump captures them.
  • Electoral College — This process is the toughest for people – outsiders and Americans, too – to comprehend. The U.S. president and vice-president are not elected directly by popular vote. Instead, voters cast their ballot for electors who represent the candidates. In each state and the District of Columbia, political parties propose slates of electors to represent them.

The number of electors allocated to each state is based on population and equals the number of senators plus members of the House of Representatives for the state; the number of U.S. electors equals 538, the total of senators and representatives in Congress. The winner must receive votes from 270 electors, a majority. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who receives the majority of popular votes wins all the electors.

Although the election is held in November, the electors do not meet until January to cast their votes, making the election results technically unofficial until that date.

  • Lame Duck – an elected official who is still serving out his/her term, even though his/her successor has been elected.
  • Popular Vote – The total votes cast by voters in the one-person, one-vote system. In the U.S., a presidential  candidate can win a majority of the popular vote, but not be elected president.
  • Split- and Straight-Ticket Voting – A split ticket refers to an individual ballot containing a vote for a candidate from one party for president and a candidate from a second party for legislator. A straight ticket refers to a ballot containing votes for one party only.

With these terms in hand, you can confidently enter any election discussion that arises — and there will be many in the coming days!

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Batter Up, Word Wonks!

It’s October, and to baseball fans and the Boys of Summer (i.e., baseball players) this month is synonymous with the baseball postseason – and this year, that’s especially true in Toronto. The playoffs and the World Series are the culmination of a hard-fought, six-month campaign – or, what often seems to non-enthusiasts like a painfully long, 162-game season.BaseballImage1.jpg

In honour of the Toronto Blue Jays — and the other teams unlucky enough to face them in the playoffs – let’s look, once again, at some of the oddball terminology used in baseball, with thanks to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary:

  • Boys in Blue – The umpires. The term was borrowed from the nickname given both to Union soldiers during the American Civil War and to modern police forces, based on their blue uniforms.
  • Ducks on the Pond – Runners on base. The term was introduced to baseball in 1939 by a broadcaster, Arch McDonald, himself colourfully called the Barnum of the Bushes.
  • Four Bagger – A home run. The term derives from the necessity for the hitter to circle the bases and touch all four bases – which are referred to as bags — before he scores the run.
  • Money Player – A player who performs at his best when there is a lot on the line.
  • Moon Shot – A home run. This slang term merged perfectly with baseball’s penchant for statistics in 1986 when statisticians determined that former Philadelphia Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt did his best hitting when the moon was full.
  • Speed Merchant – A particularly fast runner who is likely to steal bases. The term can be traced back to Baseball magazine in 1910.
  • The Mendoza Line – Pity poor Mario Mendoza. The shortstop, who played eight years total for three teams in the major leagues and had a career batting average of .215, low by professional standards. The term is actually used to refer to any major leaguer whose batting average is below .200, embarrassing for any pro.

And, last but not least, for Blue Jays fans:

  • The Mistake on the Lake – Cleveland, referring to a city that was generally, until this year’s NBA basketball championship, unlucky in sports. Canadians can only hope the bad luck continues!

Let’s go, Blue Jays!

 

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Talking Rio: Olympic Sports Terminology

The 2016 Summer Olympics are in full swing in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and Canada is busy cheering its athletes to the podium. The temptation to ignore everything else and watch the action 24/7 is overwOlympic rings logohelming; luckily, many Canadians take a vacation in August!

Join me for an Olympic tour of some sports terms that may help clear that look of confusion from your eyes:

  • Dig – No, it’s not an insult aimed at your buddy; it’s a volleyball term that refers to the ability to prevent a ball hit by the opposing team to touch the ground in your own court.
  • False start – In a track or a swimming contest, this term refers to a competitor who begins moving before the starting bell, generally leading to automatic disqualification from the race.
  • Heat – Yes, it’s hot in Rio, but we’re not referring to temperature here. A heat is a preliminary round of competition held to whittle the field to the strong competitors. Generally, only a couple of entrants in each heat advance to the next round.
  • Ledecky Slam – Winning the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-metre freestyle swimming races at one meet. It is named after Katie Ledecky, the 19-year old American swimming phenom, who has accomplished it .
  • Omnium – A multiple race event in track cycling (e.g., time trial, individual pursuit). Cyclists participate in all the events and earn points for their finishes in each. The overall points leader at the completion of the events is the winner.
  • Pike position – A diving position where the body is bent at the waist, but the legs are straight.
  • Repechage — Second chance. A term used in rowing and cycling. Participants who don’t automatically qualify for the next round of competition by placing well in their heats have another shot at qualification.
  • Penny – We all know soccer greats Pele and Ronaldo, but now Canada has its own single-moniker athlete: young Penny Oleksiak, the 16-year-old swimmer who earned four medals in Rio and is now the country’s most-decorated athlete at one Summer Games.

The 2016 Olympics continue through Aug. 21. Don’t miss the fun – or the chance to impress your friends with your knowledge of sports nomenclature!

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