Friday, March 31, 2006

Recapitulating the perquisites

There are a number of words for which the shortened (slang) form is more well known than the original. In fifty years, I predict dictionaries will use the following definitions:

perquisite : a perk. Pedantic.
recapitulate : to recap. Pedantic.

Gender and Sex

The word sex properly refers to the trait of being male or female. Sex is now commonly used to mean sexual intercourse (aka sexual congress). Not that anyone really has a problem with this usage.

The controversial usage is that of the word gender. It is a grammatical term. A noun's gender is masculine, feminine, or neuter. According to Fowler c. 1926, if you use gender in a serious manner to mean "male or female", then you are an utter fool, and you should be beaten. Or something like that.

But wait, let's go back to the dictionary of Samuel Johnson ("SaJo") from 1755. His #1 definition of gender is "a kind; a sort". What's the #2? "A sex." And #3 is the grammatical sense.

The third edition of Fowler's (1996) mentions that some people are using gender outside of its grammatical sense, but Burchfield doesn't take a stand.

A sociology textbook I have defines gender as social meanings related to biological sex. But then again, the word sociology is a barbaric Latin(French)/Greek hybrid. I mean, really, who are they to give usage advice?

The big question: is it okay to use gender instead of sex? My answer: only to avoid confusion (e.g. the first Austin Powers movie--"Yes, please"). In general, though, this use of gender should be avoided, because it makes the writer seem like a euphemizer. And that's bad.

Oddly enough, in the OED, one of the obsolete definitions of the verb gender is "[to] copulate".

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Words for the collegiate weekend

To pigeon-hole something is to put it away for consideration in the future. A pigeon hole was originally a recess that a pigeon could nest in. The term came to be applied to recesses in which things could be stored. Hence the verb's definition.

To button-hold someone is to sequester him at a party (and talk his ear off). Notice that it is button-hold and not button-hole. It comes from the act of grabbing someone's button so as not to let him or her leave.

Basket case is slang for a soldier who has lost all four limbs. Its meaning is extended to those who are unable to function. The OED's earliest listed citation is from 1919.

Mental case is slang for someone who has mental problems.

Punch-drunk describes a mental state similar to drunkenness caused by blows to the head.

Nauseous describes something that causes nausea.

Nauseated describes someone who is affected by nausea.

To black-out at a party means to get to the point of drunkenness where (later on) one cannot remember what happened.

To pass out is to become unconscious.

Inmate is a fairly general word to describe someone who lives in a structure that houses many. For instance, the OED defines collegian as a "member or inmate of a college". It is most frequently used, however, to describe patients in a hospital or residents of a jail.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Of Dams and Breaches

It was apparent to me a few weeks ago that not everyone in the press is in the same boat when it comes to the meaning of the word breach. Is a breached levee a broken levee? Is a levee breached when water flows over it?

Breach is a cousin of the word break. In fact, almost every OED definition for the noun uses some form of the word break. A breached levee is one with a physical break in it. A gap. After a storm, one can look at a breached levee and say something like, "Check out that breach," or "Wow, that's a big breach." When water flows over a levee, we say that the levee is topped. Or at least that's what I say.

A breeched levee is a levee that is wearing pants.

Is a levee a dam? Yes. A levee is a type of dam. When I think dam, I usually think something that cuts across a river at a perpendicular angle. But dam is far more general than that. Levee specifically refers to the type of dam which runs parallel to a river. The first few citations for levee in the OED refer to New Orleans. Indeed, the word comes into English through French (from the feminine version of the past participle of 'lever').

The problem with dike is that it can mean both embankment/levee and ditch/pond. Of course, it's also a quasi-pejorative term for lesbian, but I can't imagine a context in which that meaning is confused with one of the others.

I have absolutely no idea what is meant by a 'dry levee'. I guess I don't really know what/who an American Pie is either.