Category Archives: Words

Sunny-Side Up

neuron

This month, I have explored the connection between synopses and synapses. Though only one letter apart, these words have very different meanings. As you may recall from grade school, a synopsis is a summary of a novel, movie, play, etc. (Another name for this: book report.) A synapse is the small gap across which nerve impulses pass. (Remember the illustration of a neuron in your science textbook, the fried egg with a long tail?) When all your synapses are firing, you’re focused and your mind feels electric.

To write synopses for stories that don’t exist yet requires that your synapses be firing—allowing communication from one brain cell to the next, thereby facilitating the creation of characters, plots, settings, and themes. But synapses are squirrelly. They don’t like pressure. They won’t produce synopses on demand. All you can do is ask them a question (“How does the protagonist get from point A to point B?” “When does he learn to speak German?” “What are good names for conjoined twin sisters?”) and then wait, as patiently as a perfectionist with a self-imposed deadline can, for an answer.

So far, I have written synopses for six short stories in six weeks, and I’m working on the seventh (out of ten). I won’t lie; there has been a fair deal of panic. I choose a new story idea every Thursday. When Saturday rolls around, and the characters, plot, setting, and theme aren’t clear yet, I’m tempted to yell at the synapses, “Think harder!” At this stage, I can be seen staring into space a lot. I know I must commit to something, any direction, and start writing—because it will be next Thursday before I know it.

Each synopsis feels like an experiment: I am discovering something unknown, and it may or may not be viable. I won’t know if it holds together until I flesh it out in 5,000 words. And even then, I won’t know if it’s any good until someone reads it and feels like he or she hasn’t wasted half an hour.

I anticipate further panic.

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Are You a Consonant or a Vowel?

img_8883_croppedI apologize in advance for the scatological nature of this post. Sometimes I think in metaphors, and sometimes those metaphors involve excrement. Especially when I’m playing Words with Friends. To get the disgustingness behind us, when my tile rack contains all or nearly all consonants, I liken it to constipation. When the letters are vowel-heavy, it’s similar to diarrhea. Too many consonants, and there’s no flow; too many vowels, and there’s only flow. (Either way, a satisfactory move is unlikely.) I guess that means a word, which has the requisite balance of consonants and vowels, is like a healthy bowel movement. Again, I’m sorry.

The other day, I got to wondering if people (aside from their digestive tracts) might be like consonants and vowels. I recalled a scene from the movie Husbands and Wives, in which Judy Davis’s character muses about whether people in her life are hedgehogs or foxes:

I thought how different Michael was from Jack. How much deeper his vision of life was. And I thought Michael was a hedgehog and Jack was a fox. And then I thought Judy was a fox and Gabe was a hedgehog. And I thought about all the people I knew, and which were hedgehogs and which were foxes.

The scene refers to a famous essay in which Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin puts writers and thinkers into two categories: those with a singular world-view (hedgehogs), and those who have a new idea for every situation (foxes). Though others took Berlin’s metaphor seriously, he had meant it to be humorous. Indeed, applying a dichotomy to the entire human race can be quite amusing.

Referring to this helpful page from Macquarie University, I compiled the following table, which compares the characteristics of consonants and vowels:

Consonant Vowel
Closed Open
Constricted Flowing
Discordant Melodious
Less prominent More intense
Valley Peak

So, which list of characteristics describes you better? Do you seek out those possessing the opposite qualities? Are your relationships with these people balanced? Do you have good conversations? How are your bowel movements?

When I asked my husband if he was a consonant or a vowel, he said both: “FU.”

 

Who Was Lady Mondegreen?

Lady Mondegreen

Have you ever been shocked to discover that the words of a song you’ve heard countless times were not the actual lyrics—or even close? Would you also be shocked to know there is a term for this kind of error? A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting something auditory, such as a song. The listener substitutes words that sound similar to the misheard content and that seem sufficiently plausible in context.

A famous mondegreen is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” a line from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”). Another oft-cited musical mondegreen is “There’s a bathroom on the right” (rather than “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” Creedence Clearwater Revival). Examples of mondegreens in everyday language include “for all intensive purposes” (“for all intents and purposes”), “deep-seeded” (“deep-seated”), and “one in the same” (“one and the same”). I am always surprised to find that someone thinks the name of the HBO series about Carrie Bradshaw and her friends is Sex in the City (not Sex and the City).

The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. When Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from an eighteenth-century collection of ballads and popular songs. One of Wright’s favorite poems, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray,” began as follows:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright envisaged Lady Mondegreen as a woman with dark curls and a green dress, her throat pierced by an arrow; she lay at the earl’s side, holding his hand. However, the real fourth line of the verse was not “And Lady Mondegreen” but “And laid him on the green.” In other words, there was no Lady Mondegreen! Wright memorialized her tragic yet nonexistent heroine in the name of the phenomenon she exemplified.

I believe I have proof that a musician succumbed to a mondegreen—in his own song! Duran Duran released the album Seven and the Ragged Tiger in November 1983. Here is the chorus of the second track, “New Moon on Monday” (scanned from the inner sleeve):

New Moon chorus
The first few times I heard the song, I mistook “firedance through the night” for “five days through the night”—words that romantically evoked a night so long and full of adventure that it was equivalent to five days. (This line has stumped others, as well.) I caught my mistake, however, while studying the actual lyrics. When the video for “New Moon on Monday” premiered, I was astonished to see that John Taylor, the group’s bassist, seemed to have the same misunderstanding! Near the end of the video, while enthusiastically lip-syncing “And a firedance through the night,” he twice held up his hand as if indicating the number five—as in “five days through the night”!

five days

“Five days through the night”?

It seems inconceivable that a guitarist would hear his own song incorrectly, so perhaps I misperceived the gesture and substituted my own interpretation—you know, a new moon.

Statistics for Word Nerds

word stats

As an editor, I consult online dictionaries on a daily—sometimes hourly or momentary—basis. Occasionally, I need to learn the meaning of a word with which I am unfamiliar. More often, my goal is to confirm a term’s style—whether it’s one word, two words, hyphenated, capitalized, etc. For a conservative opinion, I go to Merriam-Webster. For the prevailing usage of a contemporary word or phrase, I visit Dictionary.com. If I can’t find a ruling in either place, I search for a New York Times article containing the term, and mimic its treatment there. Now you know my word-referencing secrets. (Be grateful I spared you my Web-thesauri strategies.)

As if looking up words in dictionaries weren’t exciting enough, these online resources now offer amusing lexical statistics. Last month, Dictionary.com introduced its “difficulty index,” which ranks words based on their complexity and frequency of use. Here are the various categories, with examples of each:

  • All English speakers likely know this word (book, dog, house)
  • Most English speakers likely know this word (aluminum, butterfly, secretary)
  • Many English speakers likely know this word (chlorophyll, encyclopedia, pancreas)
  • Some English speakers likely know this word (begonia, marjoram, paranormal)
  • Few English speakers likely know this word (glockenspiel, kerflop, macrobiotic)

I have spent an embarrassing amount of time looking up words and trying to guess their difficulty levels. I suspect the algorithm may be flawed, however, because cupcake comes up as a term that few English speakers are likely to know (yet I’m pretty sure it was my first word). Further, I think the classifications could be a little more practical:

  • Using this word will make you sound snobbish.
  • This word is not acceptable in Words With Friends.
  • Microsoft Word puts an annoying red squiggle under this word.
  • Do not attempt to use this abstruse word in a sentence. (This category would include the word abstruse.)
  • Only James Woods knows the meaning of this word. (The Academy Award–nominated actor has an IQ of 180!)

factoidAnother entertaining (and addicting) dictionary tool is Merriam-Webster’s popularity meter, which indicates how frequently a word has been looked up in the last seven days, compared with other words, and whether it is on an upward trend. For example, at the moment of this writing, factoid is in the top 1 percent of lookups, is the site’s most popular word, and is a “fast mover”—that is, it has increased significantly in lookups over the past week. (The foregoing brief and unimportant piece of information is an example of a factoid.)

Last week, when I checked Merriam-Webster’s list of most popular words, I found a very peculiar item at the top: chin music. I understood why people would need to look up this rather obscure term (according to Dictionary.com, few English speakers are likely to know it), but why were they searching for it now? The only potential reason I could discover was a recent sports article with the phrase in its title. (In baseball, “chin music” refers to a high inside pitch meant to intimidate the batter. It’s also slang for idle talk.)

Merriam-Webster lists the most popular words for three recent periods: 24 hours, seven days, and four months. The following words appear in the top 25 in all three categories, demonstrating continued popularity: bigot, comradery, empathy, holistic, insidious, integrity, pedantic (the most popular word in the last 120 days), and pragmatic. I’m not sure what to make of this collection of terms, but it strikes me as reflective of the duality of the human experience: empathy, comradery, and integrity versus bigotry and insidiousness.

I hope this post hasn’t been overly pedantic.