Thursday, February 28, 2013

More confused words

The last time I wrote about oft-confused words, it wasn't meant to be an exhaustive list. This post isn't the last word on the matter either.

Douse vs Dowse
I have a proof copy of Adrian McGinty's splendid new detective novel, in which it says: "…he tried to dowse the flames…". I presume it got corrected in the published book, so I won't be scurrying off to to log it, though I was puzzled that a relatively rare word replaced a more common one. Normally, it's the other way round. 

In short, dousing means smothering something, usually a fire, with water. Dowsing is searching for water by waving a stick about.

If you want to douse >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
apply to your local fire brigade.

If you want to dowse >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
then the British Society of Dowsers is the club for you. This is a group of people who think it needs a special talent to find water in the rain-soaked British Isles.

Slander vs Libel
If you're going to sue me for anything I write here, sue me for libel. Slander is spoken defamation; libel is written.

So, was the fulminating Calvin Harris wrong to tweet "Looking into taking action on @BBCNewsbeat for that libellous broadcast" (Guardian, 22 November 2012)? In theory, a defamatory broadcast should be slanderous because its statements are spoken, but the courts in various jurisdictions are happy to classify broadcast defamation as libel, presumably because broadcasting is seen as a kind of publication and can be heard by millions.

If you need a mnemonic, remember that 'libel' is the only* word in English that rhymes with 'Bible', a rather well-known written collection of history, folklore, philosophy and libels.

Laws vary around the world, but under English law libel has to be both untrue and defamatory, i.e. damaging to the reputation of the person mentioned.

*Except in New Zealand, where libel also rhymes with 'stable'.

Illicit vs Elicit 
You'd think this was better known, but even Press Gazette recently stated: "The newspaper also insisted there was nothing “elicit or underhand” about the way it obtained the photographs" (8 January 2013; it was later corrected).

They're near-synophones and both come from Latin, but they're unrelated. "Elicit" means to draw out. 'Illicit' is the opposite of "licit", meaning lawful. Despite the similarity, it has no link with 'solicitor' (an English lawyer who doesn't appear in court), which appropriately comes from solicitare, meaning to shake, harass or disturb.

'Illicit' can also be used for something that is actually legal but is frowned upon by society, especially if it involves pleasures that society is annoyed about missing out on.

I know, you knew all that. But it's good to have some more information so you can carry on the conversation after you've humiliated someone by pointing out their mistake.

Scold vs Scald
'Scolding' is a woefully under-used word for a telling-off, and seems unable to break away from being something done only by women to their husbands or children. Who said sexism in language was dead? Oh, hang on, it was me, wasn't it

'Scalding' is burning with hot water. Mnemonic-mongers will remember that 'scOld' is 'cOld'. Latin-speaking mnemonic-mongers will remember that 'scAld' is 'cAlidus' (Latin for hot). English holidaymakers in Europe often scald their hands because they don't expect hot water from a tap labelled C (the cold tap is marked F, as in fridge, which is not a coincidence). 

Thanks to Sarah Townsend (@STEcopywriting) for reminding me of that one.

Though vs Although
Nobody mistakes these two words, because they mean the same thing. There are probably style guides that insist on 'although' being the proper form and excoriate 'though' as a barbarous interloper. Me, I couldn't care less. However, as an editor I always change 'though' to 'although' so the speed reader, the tired reader, the reader in a dimly lit pub or the foreign reader won't confuse it with 'through'. 

There's much to be said for purity of style, but the best style is the one that makes it easiest for the reader.

Founder vs Flounder
Fail vs Flail
The problem with these two pairs is that the similarity in spelling is matched by a similarity in meaning, such that either one will make sense in the same sentence. People who are flailing are probably failing too, while an organisation that is floundering could be in the process of foundering. And a person who is floundering in water will probably be flailing, while foundering is the ultimate failing.
Fail is the opposite of succeed
To flail is to flap aimlessly, or to whip someone (the stringy bit of a whip is the flail)
To flounder is to flail in water
Foundering means taking on water and sinking, and is related to 'profound', meaning deep
The important distinction between founder and flounder is that the flounderer can recover. A ship only founders when the waters close over it.

It's scandalous that so many words have to carry the burden of two meanings when there are plenty of English-sounding words that don't actually exist. Words such as 'sharn', 'thring' and 'oblendificacious' would not only beautify the language but would also have won me that last game of Scrabble. It's a vast, unused resource of gorgeous syllables. Really, there's no excuse for such a poorly organised language.

Moral: If we're ever playing Scrabble together, don't forget that "JUXQOCK" is a perfectly valid word, meaning 'a person too timid to challenge an obviously made-up word on a triple-word score'.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The gender agenda

A friend in her seventies tried this riddle on me recently. Perhaps you know it:
"A man and his son are involved in a road accident. They are taken to hospital. The doctor takes one look at the boy and cries out, "My son!" What's the explanation?"
I should probably have scratched my head for a few moments out of politeness (also, that medicated shampoo really isn't working) before saying, "What needs explaining? It's her son." Most people under fifty would say something similar, but this was a genuine riddle for my friend's generation, who grew up when professionals were always assumed to be male.

Terms such as 'woman doctor' and 'male nurse' were useful when some people had trouble imagining such things, but they are hardly necessary now and are rapidly falling out of fashion. The only such phrase that has any currency in the 21st Century is 'male prostitute', since this refers to an industry where the gender of the service provider will always be important to the customer and can crucially affect the nature of the service provided. 

Otherwise, the de-gendering of language has been moving apace, starting with the replacement of '-man' with '-person'. You can argue all you want that 'man' also means 'human person of either sex', but in English the word will always imply 'male person'. It's a pity that we don't have separate words like Latin did (homo as in hominid and vir as in virile), but we don't, and we just have to accept it.

But we shouldn't get over-zealous: the rather lovely song Homo Fugit Velut Umbra translates as 'Man flees like a shadow', and I challenge you to replace 'man' with something gender-neutral without robbing it of all its poetry. But then, art is allowed to break all the rules, or Randy Newman couldn't write a song from the point of view of a child-sex-murderer. But I digress.

Gender-neutral job titles risk mirroring the mealy-mouthed, euphemistic and wordy titles that seem designed to inflate the holder's apparent importance and confuse everyone else, as in person-centred transition facilitator or ambient replenishment controller. For me, whoever empties my bins will always be 'the dustman'. You can't call him (or her, though I've yet to see it) a 'dustperson', and "refuse collector" is a bit too wordy and too uncolloquial. Nor do I see any problem with 'steward' and 'stewardess' or 'waiter' and 'waitress'. There's no need for gender-distinct job titles, since they're exactly the same job, but what harm do they do?

I can't think of any political objection to 'chairperson', although it does lack warmth, which is probably why many people prefer 'chair'. Do we need to go any further? Decades ago, the general assumption was that women were less competent than men and so a recognisably female job title implied a lesser competence. You can't argue with feminists wanting to change that. But anything that replaces the expressiveness of language with long-winded phrases designed to purely to conceal something should be treated with caution. Is a heroine really less heroic than a hero? Is the dustman fooled into thinking his job is more glamorous because someone at the council has changed his job title?

It's not that big a deal nowadays. Generally, there's no need for job titles that specify a gender, but if they already exist and have survived into the 21st Century, perhaps they should be left alone. Good writers instinctively go for the most expressive terms they can. It's right that we've tackled words that misleadingly imply a gender (such as 'chairman'), but words that imply a gender without implying a value judgement (such as 'waiter') do no harm. 

The most misguided example of unsexing the language is the recent trend of actresses calling themselves 'actors'. Not only have they missed the boat by three decades, they seem to ignore the fact that the roles of actors and actresses are distinct. If I were directing Macbeth, I'd be looking for an actress to play Lady Macbeth, not an actor. A white man can play a black man (though it's understandably frowned upon nowadays) and vice versa: when I played King Duncan, Ross was black and nobody thought it odd to have a black nobleman in 11th Century Scotland. In theatre and film, the gender distinction is very clear: actors and actresses play different roles, unlike male and female doctors. If the prestige isn't the same, tinkering with the job title won't make an iota of difference.

If an actress insists on being called an actor, that suggests an unjustified inferiority complex. Helen Mirren calls herself an actress and it doesn't seem to have done her any harm. When "female actors" mount a serious campaign to abolish the Best Actress Oscar, I might take them a bit more seriously. 

And if you believe feminism has further to go, then micro-managing the language is no longer the main priority.

Moral: Language shouldn't be sexist, but nor should it be neutered.