Tag Archives: language

Word of the Day: Polysyndeton

One of my friends used the word “polysyndeton” today, and I said, “OOO NEW WORD” and looked it up.[1]  Wikipedia explains polysyndeton as:

the use of several conjunctions in close succession, especially where some could otherwise be omitted (as in “he ran and jumped and laughed for joy”)

There’s something utterly delightful about loving a writing device and using it all the time and then realizing there’s a word for it.  Yay!

Upon further reading, I discovered I also use asyndeton a lot, which is the omitting all the conjunctions — for instance, I could write the example in the quote above using asyndeton as, “he ran, jumped, laughed for joy.”

The thinky part for me here is that I have, in the past, thought I should without exception use semicolons when juxtaposing independent clauses without conjunctions.  For instance, it seems one of the oft-cited examples of asyndeton is, “Veni, vidi vici” — “I came, I saw, I conquered.”  These are three independent clauses, so were I writing something similar, I would have felt I should have more correctly punctuated it as, “I came; I saw; I conquered.”

But the semicolon gives a different “feel,” doesn’t it?  It reads like three separate sentences joined up because there’s a common idea or because these things happened in quick succession.  The commas, on the other hand, give the sentence a different rhythm; the clear omission of a conjunction makes the words tumble into inevitability, as if they are less a statement of three separate but related facts and more an unquestionable domino effect.

I’m a huge fan of the correct use of semicolons — but there have been times I would have preferred to use commas for effect but wasn’t quite aware enough of what I was doing.  Learning this is a known literary device and putting the name “asyndeton” to it helps a lot: now, rather than wallowing in edits with, “but is this punctuation correct?,” I can consider the sentence and decide whether I want to use semicolons or employ asyndeton with what otherwise would be compound sentences with a conjunction.

So for me, this is a rather delightful example of how better learning the rules can help one break them!

(Usual disclaimer: I’m an armchair linguist.  Corrections and further elucidations are always welcome!)

  1. OH LOOK I didn’t even realize I did that. Whee!

The Hacker’s Definition of Morning

Back at MIT, we pulled a lot of all-nighters.  Linguistically, it became convenient to know when “tomorrow” or “morning” happened.  Midnight?  Sunrise?  First class of the day? Do you have to sleep and wake up for it to qualify as tomorrow?

I don’t know who came up with this originally, and I can’t find it in an Internet search, but common MIT culture was to refer to the “hacker’s definition” of morning — namely, that “tomorrow” occurs when two out of the following three things happen:

  • You wake up.
  • The sun rises.
  • You eat breakfast.

I have just gotten home.  And I ate some eggs!  But since the sun hasn’t risen and I didn’t wake up, it’s not Saturday yet.  In fact, I’m going to go to sleep now, and when I wake up the sun will be in the sky, so even if I skip breakfast it’ll officially be Tomorrow.

Word of the Day: Compersion

Compersion, as far as I know, is a neologism, and it means taking joy in another’s happiness or success.  From Wikipedia:

Compersion is an empathetic state of happiness and joy experienced when another individual experiences happiness and joy. It is sometimes identified with parents’ pride in their children’s accomplishments or one’s own excitement for friends’ and others’ successes. It is commonly used to describe when a person experiences positive feelings when a lover is enjoying another relationship. It is an opposite of jealousy.

“Compersion” was coined by (and appears to be used widely within) the polyamory community for the feeling of joy one can get over a lover’s pleasure with another person, but it can also be used platonically.  The Wikipedia article notes that it can also be considered an antonym to schadenfreude.

Folks, this is my new favorite word.

It makes my year when my friends experience great success or happiness.  I’ve always used the term “vicarious joy” when this happened before, but “vicarious” carries a tiny bit of a negative connotation, as if I don’t have (or pursue) my own accomplishments to make me happy.  Compersion, on the other hand, is absolutely perfect.

I also delight even in the success of strangers, and find no pleasure in their failures.  Growing up, I never watched the Olympics hoping for the figure skaters to fall or the skiers to wipe out.  No, I wanted to watch them be awesome.  I wanted to see them land the impossible trick, prove that the limits of the human body were not what we thought they were.  I have always found extreme competence to be so, so, so much more fascinating and thrilling to watch than failure—I find Cirque du Soleil well worth the money but see no appeal in America’s Funniest Home Videos.

And now I have a name for this.  Compersion FOR THE WIN!

Word of the Day: Erethism

I hope there never comes a point when I stop learning new words.

I came across “erethism” reading H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, yes-I-only-just-got-around-to-it-give-me-the-cap-of-scifi-shame.  (Incidentally, how about that Kindle lookup feature?  Awesome.)

The sentence in The War of the Worlds is:

The intense excitement of the events had no doubt left my perceptive powers in a state of erethism. I remember that dinner table with extraordinary vividness even now. My dear wife’s sweet anxious face peering at me from under the pink lamp shade, the white cloth with its silver and glass table furniture […]

My Kindle, I believe, uses this same dictionary, or at least gave me the same definition:

  1. excessive sensitivity or rapid reaction to stimulation of a part of the body, especially the sexual organs.
  2. a state of abnormal mental excitement or irritation.

This is a fantastic word, people!  And it even sounds like what it means!

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The Whole “PC Police” Thing, and Why It’s Ridiculous

I hate the term “politically correct.”

Notice how it’s never, ever used by, say, a person of color to tell someone to be less offensive.  It’s only used as a term to encapsulate, “Those silly women/POC/gay people/etc. are OVERSENSITIVE so I have to be, ew!, politically correct.

The implication is that you don’t want to express yourself in a way that is not offensive, but you HAVE to because of, y’know, those silly whiny oversensitive people.  By extension, this means that not only do you not care about the opinions of women/POC/gay people/etc. regarding how they themselves are represented in discourse, but you are dismissing all of those people as being oversensitive whiners.  Which is not only rude and patronizing as hell, but how is it possibly helpful to the larger conversation?

One of the main things I hate about the phrase “politically correct,” however, is that it’s just plain wrong.  The “politically” part of it implies that “PC” means being polite/tactful to the world in order to avoid getting people mad (which, again, patronizing).  But if you look at the way the world actually works, particularly in America, the actual politically correct thing is to be a white straight cis-gendered Christian man who doesn’t make any effort to make sure the issues of women, POC, QUILTBAG people, or anyone else are a part of his platform.

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Ranting About Learning Curves (Linguistically and Mathematically, That Is)

A little while ago I was corrected by someone on my use of the phrase, “steep learning curve.”  I discussed the phrase with some mathy friends the other day, and they concurred with the person who corrected me.  (Traitors.)

See, I always thought a “steep learning curve” described a skill that could be learned extremely fast, and a “shallow learning curve” described a skill that took a lot of effort to progress in.  I have been told I am WRONG.

Which ticks.  Me.  Off.

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Linky Linkage! Lots of Amazing Links for You!

This seems like a good time for a linkage post, since most people are still probably off enjoying the holidays.  And if you aren’t busy having holiday cheer somewhere, it will give you some awesome reading material to pass the time!

I unfortunately didn’t think to keep track of where I owe the hat tips for these links, but primary purveyors of awesome include sites like Not Exactly Rocket Science, Slashdot, Racialicious, Bad Astronomy, and Neuroskeptic.

First, the sciency ones!  You knew there would be sciency ones.

Is the Cure for Cancer Inside You? gave me the shakes, because holy crap, it sounds like this could actually lead to a cure for cancer.  Like, for real.  And the personal story of Dr. Steinman’s life and ultimate death from the disease he was researching inside his own body is wrenchingly compelling:

In the long struggle that was to come, Steinman would try anything and everything that might extend his life, but he placed his greatest hope in a field he helped create, one based on discoveries for which he would earn his Nobel Prize. He hoped to reprogram his immune cells to defeat his cancer — to concoct a set of treatments from his body’s own ingredients, which could take over from his chemotherapy and form a customized, dynamic treatment for his disease. These would be as far from off-the-shelf as medicines can get: vaccines designed for the tumor in his gut, made from the products of his plasma, that could only ever work for him.

Steinman would be the only patient in this makeshift trial, but the personalized approach for which he would serve as both visionary and guinea pig has implications for the rest of us. It is known as cancer immunotherapy, and its offshoots have just now begun to make their way into the clinic, and treatments have been approved for tumors of the skin and of the prostate. For his last experiment, conducted with no control group, Steinman would try to make his life into a useful anecdote — a test of how the treatments he assembled might be put to work. “Once he got diagnosed with cancer, he really started talking about changing the paradigm of cancer treatment,” his daughter Alexis says. “That’s all he knew how to do. He knew how to be a scientist.”

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A Rant on the Word “Said” and Dialogue Tags

So, the conventional writing wisdom these days seems to be that “said” is OMG THE ONLY DIALOGUE TAG ONE SHOULD EVER USE.  People claim it’s “invisible.”  That readers won’t notice it.  That therefore, any fancier dialogue tag is to be considered purple prose.

When I first started reading about writing, this trend utterly shocked me.

I’ve always been a voracious reader.  And when I was little, I discovered early on that I hated it when authors reused the word “said” too much.  Did I hate it because someone else claiming to be an expert had told me to?  Of course not; I was a little kid!  I hated it because its overuse distracted me as a reader.  And I came to this conclusion on my own, from the fact that it distracted me as a reader!

From practically the time I could first read, I have been distracted by overuse of “said” as opposed to a variety of dialogue tags.  When authors use “said” exclusively, or “said” and “asked” only, it sticks out at me and throws me out of the story.

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Language Pet Peeve of the Day: Bemuse

It does not mean what you think it means.

People always seem to use “bemused” to mean, “slightly amused, sometimes in a curious and/or eye-rolly way.”  But that’s not what it means.  It means “confused” or “preoccupied.”  Bewildered.  Dazed.

Here are the reasons I am particularly peeved about “bemused” today:

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Miscellaneous Links of Madness or Awesome

The Cool and the Sciency:

A brine lake under the ocean.  It’s an underwater lake.  A lake!  Under water!

Zombie bacteria.  They’re dead.  But they’re ALIIIIIVE.

Participate in a word association study!  (Only takes a minute or two, and it’s fun!  And it’s for SCIENCE!)  My favorite of my associations was “probability” associated with the word “replacement,” because I’m so used to seeing “with/without replacement” in combinatorics problems.  Also, “crenellations” was one of my top three associations for “fortify.”  Too much fantasy, yo.

Nice, undeniable visual of how effective vaccines are at saving people’s lives.

Mount Doom exploded.

The Humor (Some a Little Sciency):

The Avengers go out for beers and shawarma.  Batman expresses confusion that they don’t sit in a dark basement and brood over their dead parents.

The Oatmeal’s take on being a freelancer.  This is SO TRUE.

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