Tag Archives: Dictionary

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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Gender Confusion, Pronoun Style

In today’s gender-sensitive world, I know I am not the only one trying to wrap my head around the new realities of language usage. There are a plethora of words being tossed about as gender-neutral pronouns, but which ones shall I use – if any – in my writing?

The New York Times recently published a story noting that the American Dialect Society, an organization of etymologists, grammarians, lexicographers and linguists, recently named they – in singular pronoun form – as the word of 2015. The society suggests that they is appropriate for situations where someone’s gender is unknown or fluid, as well as for the gender binary individual, a person who doesn’t view gender as only male or female with no gradations (e.g., Mary said that they isn’t ready to take the exam.).

I understand the need for alternatives, but I’m not yet comfortable with the choices available. Using they as a singular pronoun still jangles my ear, although I now see it regularly on Facebook when Suzie or Charlie has updated their profile.

I am also unprepared to commit to other alternatives, such as ze or ey, as suggested by the office of campus life at The American University in Washington, D.C. Staff at AU  have embraced the new reality and taken the step of providing guidance to the university community on pronoun options and usage, but many other institutions lag behind.

Until I see wider uptake and more agreement — Oxford Canadian Dictionary and Canadian Press, I’m talking to you — I’ll undoubtedly follow the existing Canadian Press guidance, which suggests avoiding gender-based pronouns and using the singular they only as a last resort.

The gender revolution is underway. As writer Adrienne LaFrance notes in a recent Atlantic article, … “culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them.” Will your own language usage lead or follow? Do let me know!


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Expletive Deleted

Sitting on the subway or walking down the street, I often feel like cringing as I overhear nearby conversations where every other word seems to be “f*#!.”

The tight rein on polite language of decades past has evaporated. Words that once meant a mouth washed out with soap are now part of the everyday vocabulary. I’ve even found myself weakening when I’m upset, but I’m not proud of it. For the New Year, I’m aiming to use more interesting ways of expressing myself.

To find other options, I’ll simply travel back in time to 19th century Britain, where words were colourful without being quite so off colour. The richness of that period’s language never fails to make me smile.


For instance, while singer Carly Simon wouldn’t have had a hit if her song, You’re So Vain, had been titled, You’re a Coxcomb, she would certainly have sent people scrambling for their dictionaries. Conceited or vain is the definition, although the term once meant fool, because the fools (jesters) in the royal retinue wore caps adorned with bells and topped with a piece of red cloth shaped like a cock’s (rooster’s) comb.

Often, said coxcombs speak nothing but fustian — pretentious, pompous language. We’ve all certainly come across people in positions of power who hold forth as if every word is a pearl of wisdom, when we privately consider their words nothing but faradiddles (lies).

One of my personal favourites from the 1800s is rapscallion, which translates to rascal, scamp or rogue. Let it trip off your tongue and enjoy the sound.

So, time travel it is. The next time I’m in high dudgeon (angry) about something, don’t be surprised if I eschew an expletive in favour of balderdash (nonsense). It has a satisfying ring to it as we ring in the New Year.

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Oy! Such words!

Periodically, I’m struck by how clearly the English language mirrors Canada today: full of influences from the myriad cultures who have adopted it as their new native tongue.

My most recent epiphany came during preparations for a family celebration, when someone suggested we clear a coffee table of all the tchotchkes – or knickknacks — that decorated its surface. Tchotchke is a Yiddish word, and I was reminded about how many words from this language, once widely spoken by European Jews, are currently part of the English lexicon.

Growing up outside New York City, where there is a large Jewish population, I heard Yiddish words thrown into conversation regularly, but I’ve discovered that it isn’t merely a regional or ethnic peculiarity. Many of these terms have become integrated into the English language over the years.

For instance, how often do you schlep (carry or drag) groceries home from the market? When you attend a work function or a cocktail party, it’s natural to schmooze (chat, talk, network) with your co-workers and other guests. Movies are routinely dismissed as schmaltzy (overly sentimental), and common expressions are often given a bit of attitude by adding the common Yiddish prefix, schm; think of fancy-schmancy, for example.

Through the decades, immigrants have added spice to our cultural traditions, and they have also made English more interesting. Adding and embracing new words to our language is what keeps it alive and vibrant.

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Technology Has the Last Word … or Two

Language, as I have noted before, is fluid and ever-changing. Nothing is surer proof of its fluidity than the inclusion of many media and social media terms in the online version of that august tome, the Oxford English Dictionary. Fitting, I suppose, that these words are being featured in the free online OED.

The editors of the OED don’t take new entries lightly. As the OED blog notes, “Each month, Oxford Dictionaries collects examples of around 150 million words in use from sources around the world, and adds these to the Oxford Corpus. The editors use this database to track and verify new and emerging word trends.” Their research leads to more than 1,000 new inclusions annually.

Included among recent entries are terms such as listicle, an online article in the form of a bulleted list, and live-tweeting, an activity undoubtedly common among Pan Am Games spectators – posting comments about an event on Twitter while the event is ongoing. In fact, those who hate-watch television shows can make the most of the experience by live-tweeting about them.

Perhaps you’ve already read about these entries – after all, in our hyperconnected world, this information in undoubtedly everywhere.

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Idyll Speculation — Word(s) of Wisdom

While giving a recent talk about the Glamour of Grammar, I touched on the subject of homophones — words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. For newcomers, It is one of the trickier aspects of learning the English language; even many native speakers find it confusing.

As I talked, I merrily wrote some examples on the board: bear and bare; principal and principle; where and wear; and finally, idle, idol and idyll. And that’s when things fell apart.

“It’s id-yll, not eye-dyll,” said a member of my audience. “At least, that’s what I’ve always been taught.”

I froze. I had been saying eye-dyll all my life, but was that something I had learned, or was it one of those words I had read and never heard pronounced?

We moved on to other topics, but when I reached home that evening, I headed straight for the dictionary. I flipped through the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary, the Bible for Canadian journalists. Id-yll, it read. Hmmm, I thought, and plucked Webster’s New World Dictionary from the shelf. Eye-dyll, said Webster, and I felt like pumping my fist in the air. I wasn’t wrong – I was just wrong in Canada. Id-yll is the British pronunciation and the one used north of the 49th. I grew up south of the 49th parallel and learned the American pronunciation, eye-dyll.

It was a lesson in context, but one I might never have learned, because idyll isn’t a word that comes up often in conversation.

So, when are idyll and idol homophones? In the United States, but not in Canada. U.S. Customs won’t let the Canadian pronunciation cross the border!


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Talking Temperance — Word(s) of Wisdom

While reading recently, I came across the word, temperance, and was startled to find it used in a rather ordinary sentence.

In my mind, temperance is associated with the U.S. anti-alcohol movement that began in the 1830s. Many people believed that liquor was at the root of societal ills, and led by groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, vocally protested its availability. These efforts led to passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. The amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” and ushered in its namesake Beer1Prohibition Era, complete with bootleggers, bathtub gin and speakeasies. For me, the word conjures images of women in Victorian-era dress marching and carrying signs denouncing alcohol.

Interestingly, I discovered that the word, temperance, itself is defined as “moderation or self restraint, especially in regard to eating and drinking.” Temperate, the adjective form of the word, means “avoiding excess or self-restrained; moderate.” Not abstinence, but moderation; no wonder I was confused.

Temperance is a good word for us in 21st North America, but we should apply it to food, rather than to drink. With obesity reaching epidemic proportions and restaurants dedicated to super-sized portions, perhaps we can give the word new meaning for our times.

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Digital Dictionaries Rock!

I want to give a shout out this week to one of my favourite online tools: the e-reader’s embedded dictionary.

Now, I know there’s a war of words going on between the printed book lovers and the e-reader fans, each clamouring for reader loyalties.

No matter which camp you’re in, however, it’s hard to deny the convenience of the e-dictionary. It’s easy for a reader to be lazy when coming upon an unfamiliar word if it means getting up from a comfy couch to pluck a dictionary off the bookshelf. But, when that dictionary is embedded in the reading device, there’s no excuse for failing to highlight the mysterious word to get the definition. Knowledge is only a finger swipe away!

In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve become so accustomed to the touch of a fingertip yielding a definition that I’ve found myself swiping at a word on the printed page, startled to realize that nothing will result.

So, here’s the sound of one hand tapping! I’ll always love books, but for their accessible dictionaries alone, I’m glad that e-readers are here to stay.

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Word(s) of Wisdom, March 10, 2015

Demonstrating verbal prowess

For writers like me, words are our currency, as well as our toys. We use them to earn a living, but we also enjoy playing with them, experimenting with their applications and test driving those we’ve newly acquired. In other words, we like to flaunt – show off – our verbal abilities.

Some writers, such as novelist William Faulkner, flout – or treat with scorn – literary convention by using words in an unusual way. His stream of consciousness writing style took readers of his era by surprise.

Flaunt and flout are two words that are often mistaken for one another, but they are actually dissimilar in both spelling and meaning. Flaunt – to show off boldly. Flout – to treat with scorn or contempt. Alas, not all writers who flout convention are able  to do so with enough skill that they can later flaunt a Nobel Prize, as Mr. Faulkner could. If only. …

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