Wordsmith.org: the magic of words


A.Word.A.Day

What's New | Search | Site Map | Contact Us  


Home

Today's Word

Yesterday's Word

Archives

FAQ


A Chat With Richard Lederer

Richard Lederer's picture
Date:Dec 13, 2001
Topic:The play of words
Duration:One hour

Richard Lederer is the author of more than 2,000 books and articles about language and humor, including his best-selling Anguished English series. More...

Transcript

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the twelfth online chat at Wordsmith.Org! This marks one year of Wordsmith Chat.

Our guest in today's chat is Richard Lederer, author of books on language and humor. Richard is also the guest wordsmith this week.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
This is a moderated chat. Your questions are first sent to the moderator and the moderator in turn sends questions one by one to the guest speaker.

Welcome, Richard!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I'm delighted to be joining my fellow logolepts, verbivores, and wordaholics in this chat.

sg-usa
This week of words is great. Thanks Mr. Lederer.

Ann Violet
Hi. Happy to "see" you both again!

pjstreet
The guest words are a lot of fun this week.

Ann Violet
Yes, I'm loving them!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
You're welcome. The nyms are among the most nymble of words about words in our language.

The nyms are also a tribute to the unremitting drive of human beings to name everything including word categories. You'll find a lot more about these nyms in my CRAZY ENGLISH.

tsuwm
On one of the AWAD forums we've had an ongoing discussion in regards to cleave/cleave, two homonyms which are actually opposite in meaning. do you know of any other such pairs of words?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Regarding cleave/cleave, you'll find a listing of more than 50 of these contronyms also in CRAZY ENGLISH. If any of you need specific material like this, just email me at richard.lederer@pobox.com and I'll attach it and send it to you personally.

Faldage
Mr. Lederer, your -nym word today was capitonym. You defined it as though the two words were the same word and the mere fact of capitalizing it caused it to be pronounced differently. I would say that it is two words and just a special case of a heteronym. The words Polish and polish are no more the same word than are cleave and cleave.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Yes, capitonyms are special types of heteronyms.

Wilba
Is there a nym for all the nyms?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
The secret of nym is that there is no nymble word for all the nyms, although "taxonomy" is a term for this kind of categorization.

Graham
Certainly not nymphomania.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Actually, nymphomania is an excellent word for this love of words about words! I'll be sure to steal it in the future.

keiva
nymphomania? NIMBY

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Wow, I like NIMBY, too. Apparently, we have a lot of pun ladies and pun gents out there in the chat room today.

Gita
How long have you been interested in words?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I have always enjoyed words, but that joy of lex started to become professionalized when I got my doctorate in morphology.

Dude
How long did it take you to do all your research for the book Crazy English?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
The research for CRAZY ENGLISH took years. It's hard to say how long it takes me to write a book because I'm pumping out a weekly column, "Looking at Language," and ultimately they begin to cohere into a book.

Faldage
How do you feel about cyberacronyms?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I generally like acronymble acronyms because they typify the American desire to do everything faster and more concisely.

ruth
Mr. Lederer, you've supplied me with several superb holiday gifts this year. I gave _Anguished English_ to a coworker today and the office enjoyed a good long laugh. Later in the afternoon, one of them announced to a room full of people that we should do the easily attainable tasks first; we need to "catch the low-flying fruit"! Clearly he was "under the influence" with respect to your book. Have you committed any memorable verbal bloopers (which you would be willing to disclose)?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I hate to be ruthless, but I can't recall any embarrassing verbal bloopers that I've perpetrated.

duganek
I heard a lovely example of Anguished English last week on BBC-TV, Channel 1 news: "A memorial has been set up for the victims of the atrocity outside the west door of Westminster Abbey."

cinsh
Where does one access your weekly column and do you think puns are really the lowest form of humor?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
My weekly column appears in a few newspapers and magazines, but you'll find a number of those pieces on my Web site: verbivore.com. Yes, a pun is the lowest form of humor because it is, according to Henry Erskine, the foundation of all humor. Here's a timely one: What do you get when you cross a gorilla with a ceramist? A hairy potter!

Ravenia
::groan @ hairy potter::

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for that groan, Ravenia. You're a real groan up. Special hello to Pat Street out there.

pjstreet
You've written so many word books...Do you have a favorite? Mine (of yours) is The Miracle of Language.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Actually, my personal favorite is also THE MIRACLE OF LANGUAGE because I think it captures what I'm about as a logophile. But THE WORD CIRCUS is the most creative thing I can ever attempt. Naturally, these two books are among my smallest sellers, way behind ANGUISHED ENGLISH, which has now sold a million. So it goes.

paula
Is a large vocabulary really an indicator of intelligence?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
A large vocabulary is a great predictor of success, according to the Johnson O'Connor studies and others. I believe that it is also one sign of certain kind of intelligences. It's a matter of simple math. The more words you have, the better you can describe and live in this world. As Holmes said, "Language is the skin of living thought."

Liz
A word is a word is a word is a word .. what would your reaction be to someone who says a word is only a ho hum symbol?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Great question, Liz. Words are our humanness. We have always had language because before we had it, we weren't human and it wasn't language. And we not only have language; we ARE language. So words are much more than just ho-hum symbols.

Ravenia
Do you have a favorite word book outside of yours? (Thank you) Mine are those by Peter Bowler.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I love Lincoln Barnett's The Treasure of Our Tongue because it was the first such book to lure me into this field. The single most useful book in my library nowadays is The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Feel free to write me for a complete bibliography.

Xie
Hi, I just logged on. I've enjoyed your books, Mr. Lederer!

Max
Have you read the entire dictionary?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
No, Max, but I've read the index. Of course, I go running to the dictionary almost every day to answer questions. A dictionary has so much more in it than most people think.

wilder
Have you been surprised by anything you have learned about human nature from your explorations of how people express themselves? And about how men and women express themselves differently?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
A huge question, Wilder. (Oscar was Wilde, but Thornton was Wilder.) As I indicate above, language is our deepest humanness. Yes, men and women definitely have different patterns and m.o.'s in their use of language.

Dick
What's your interpretation of "In the beginning was the word"?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Wow, we are getting philosophical My interpretation is that our beginning was the word because before we had the word we were pre-human.

Xie
I'm interested in how a person's language, and the way it's structured, affects the way the person thinks about his/her world. Turkish is a cumulative (if that's the correct term) language, with a base word having a series of prefixes and suffixes added to make a sentence. I think Americans and Turks have a difficult time learning each other's languages because of the great difference in this structure. What is your opinion on this?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Xie, you're restating the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis regarding the relationship between language and culture. Let's say you have a tribe that has no words for lying -- and nobody lies. Which causes which? I think it's a back-and-forth process, like radar.

pjstreet
I think women give a lot more feedback in conversations than men do. By acknowledging that the other person has spoken, even just by nodding or saying "Uh huh, right." Men don't do that as much. I often wonder if a man has even heard what I have just said. I don't wonder that with women!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
PJStreet, I completely agree with you, and maybe that's why you estrogeniuses live seven years longer than do we who are afflicted with preposterone -- because you do reach out and touch with language.

Ann Violet
Preposterone! Perfect!! Love it and going to keep it!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Ann, yes to keep "preposterone" -- and use it. That's the way language and culture accrete.

dragonblue
Are you saying that you can identify the gender of a writer through his or her language usage?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I believe that often one can identify gender by style. There's a famous letter of Charles Dickens to George Elliot in which he asks her if "he" is a she, just from the prose of hers he read. HEY, FOLKS, ANY WORD OR PHRASE ORIGIN QUESTIONS OR GRAMMATICAL QUESTIONS I CAN HELP YOU WITH?

Ann Violet
Is there a term for words written in such a way as to show a thick accent? I'm thinking of the humor item, "Room Service," in which the hotel guest calls Room Service and the phone is answered "Rune Sore Bees." It goes on from there in the same vein, with increasing hilarity. Have you seen it?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Ann, I know that piece, and I would call the method a special kind of "Anguish Languish," invented by Horace Chace, most famously in "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut."

Ann Violet
Oh, good! Now I know what to call it. Thanks. Will look for more Horace Chace. Some of your work does that same thing, doesn't it?

Will
Mr. Lederer: This an old question: Do we think only in words? Can we think otherwise?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I think we think largely in words but that some thoughts are extra-verbal, beyond language.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
For you fellow verbivores out there, here are some emerging Osamagrams -- anagrams of the name Osama Bin Laden:

IS A LONE BAD MAN
SANE? MAD! NO BAIL
END A SLOB MANIA
More to come...

Dude
Are you educated in Latin? My Latin teacher says when we learn Latin it helps us understand English better.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Hey, Dude, I taught myself Latin as a requirement for my Ph. D. (piled higher and deeper). 50% of our English words are cobbled from Latin word parts (etymons). So you're darn right that Latin helps people understand English. But so does an immersion in English itself.

wlsbadger
How is it that you were able to compile all of the information for your books?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
wlsbadger: First because I am at my core a teacher, and hence a compulsive sharer who wants everyone to share the joy of lex. Second, because of an accident of genetic roulette, I have a flypaper, hunter/gatherer mind that never forgets anything about language. My two older children are professional poker players in Lost Wages, NV. They do with numbers and symbols what I try to do with words.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
More Osamagrams: I'M NO BEAN SALAD. [I'm a fruitcake!]
AN ISLAM BAD ONE
NONE BID "SALAAM."
A MAD, INANE SLOB
I.E. DAMN ANAL S.O.B.

Ann Violet
LOLOL! Those are great, Mr. Lederer! Your work is play, and well done!

Ann Violet
Do you think you play better to an audience (like this appreciative one) or just talking to yourself?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Ann, I play better to an audience, as I hope you'll all see when, in March, I'll be the on-camera talent for Public Television. I hope you'll catch me on your local station, using my books and tapes to support a good cause.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
More Osamagrams: ABANDON A SLIME; A BAD MAN LESION; END A SLOB MANIA. And this timely palindrome: NO, I TAIL A TERRORIST, SIR -- OR RETALIATION!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
To keep y'all up to date: My two current books are The Circus of Words (letter play for kids 9-14, for whom hardly anyone writes language fun and skill) and Word Play Crosswords, 50 original crossword puzzles, each with a language theme.

pjstreet
Speaking of y'all, Don't you hate when people write ya'll? It's everywhere down here (in Florida).

Paulie02
Do you feel that today's youth (like me) are less 'in touch' with their own language than earlier generations? Or is it simply part of the development of the language?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Paulie02 -- and does that mean that you class of '02 at St. Paul's School, were I taught 1962-1989? It's both a development and, I fear, a disengagement from language as we olders define it. For example, I'm concerned about a generation -- yours -- that finds all sorts of ways of avoiding verbs that mean "to speak/say." Among the devices in youthspeak are go, like, and all. Scary.

>Paulie02
Yes, I am a senior this year at St. Paul's, and I'm glad to SAY that my parents gave me your books at a very early age. I have appreciated it ever since.

Max
Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Sorry about the typos from time to time, but I'm just trying to keep up with y'all out there. I have received a wonderful bag of e-missives from so many of you.

ina
I want to get THE CIRCUS OF WORDS for my grandson -- how would I go about getting an autographed book -- do you ever do signings in the Chicago area?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Ina: You can order signed copies of any of my words about words by checking out my Web site (verbivore.com). I get to Chicago a lot, and I must tell you that your Chicago Humanities Festival, at which I presented on November 3, is the most joyful noise that a city can make unto the human spirit and its preservation.

Graham
To Paulie: As a older person I can tell you the love of words continues to grow

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Graham: I agree that the love of language continues to grow throughout our lives. We get better at it as the years accumulate.

Faldage
Are they avoiding words for "to say, speak" or using new ones?

pjstreet
But the language changes, right? So if "go," "like," and "all" come into the language as verbs for "say," then we old fogies need to live with that, I think. Either it will disappear because it's stoopid, or stay because it's useful.

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Anybody wanna know where we get "the whole nine yards" -- or any other such expression? I don't do correspondences, but I'll be happy to wing y'all quick answers if you write me at richard.lederer@pobox.com.

Graham
This has bee a fast enjoyable hour. Many thanks.

Xie
To Paulie: You are lucky in having such parents . I too grew up surrounded by books and, in early childhood, living in Turkey, so I was bilingual for many years. It has to start early in life, I think, to really enjoy words and language.

Max
I am sooooo interested in finding out what your favorite word is!!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Max: My favorite word logologically is USHERS because in it we have the human race, with letters adjacent: US, SHE, HE, HER, HERS. And ushers don't ush anymore than haberdashers haberdash. That's crazy English for you!

nids
And the favorite play on word?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
I have compiled a list of the ten greatest puns of the last millennium, which you're welcome to request via email. My top pick for a prey on words was Dorothy Parker's incomparable "I'd rather have a bottle in front on me than a frontal lobotomy!"

Anu Garg (Moderator)
The chat ends in five minutes.

Ann Violet
Oh, no! -- we aren't done yet!

Well, come back soon, okay?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Ann: We are almost done because when one has a ball with language, the minutes melt away. As one frog said to the other, "Time's fun when you're having flies!" I've had a lot of flies with you verbivores out there.

Max
In your opinion, what is the most beautiful word in the English language?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Max: See my chapter in CRAZY ENGLISH for an extended answer, or ask me to attach it via email. Dorothy Parker said the most beautiful words are "Check is in the mail."

John
In Australia, "youse" is sometimes used as a plural form of "you", but is considered vulgar and not suitable for an educated speaker. Other languages usually include a plural "you", and it seems quite useful to have one. You use "y'all", which sounds very Southern to me. Is it considered to be good English in the US?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Yes, mate, many languages have a plural second-person pronoun, and we used to have one: "ye" was a bunch" of "thou"s. In the USA, "y'all" is an acceptable southernism, but it doesn't fly outside that region. We also have "youse" and "youns." We really do need a second-person-plural in our standard dialect.

ruth
In Pittsburgh, "yinz" (you ones) is the plural you. But no part of the US seems to have a good gender neutral singular pronoun...

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Ruth: This'll shock you, but we DO have a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It's "they!" Check out its use in the OED, and you'll find that it goes back 500 years.

Colors
LOL- yous and yas is used sometimes in the US too... I BELIEVE that you WAS once the plural form, and that thee etc. was the singular form... like tu and vosotros in Spanish or tu and vous in French...

wlsbadger
Where did the expression 'Verbivore' originate?

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
wlsbadger: I believe that I made up the term "verbivore." Carnivores consume meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables. Verbivores (note spelling) eat words -- sometimes their own.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time.

Thank you, Richard, for being here today and thanks to all the participants.

Laura
No, no, please don't go. We'll eat you up, we love you so!

Graham
Thank you, Anu

Ann Violet
Likewise, I'm sure!

Richard Lederer (Guest Speaker)
Thanks, Anu. We are all excited about the widespread success of AWAD. All participants are welcome to email me their inquiries and observations about language. Thanks for joining us today.

pjstreet
Thanks Anu and thanks Richard -- this was fun.

Dan
Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and your quick wit with us, Mr. L.

Max
Oh, Richard. It's been a blast.

Graham
Thanks to moderator.

John
Thanks, mate.

wlsbadger
Lots of fun, but I bet some were hoping for a pun war.


Chat Events:  

Schedule  

Chat Transcripts:  

Barbara Wallraff  
Atlantic Monthly  

Joseph Pickett  
American Heritage  
Dictionary  
`
Sreenath Sreenivasan  
Columbia University  

Lisa Simeone  
National Public Radio  

David Crystal  
Encyclopedia of English  

Steven Pinker  
Brain & Language  

Wendalyn Nichols  
Random House  

Robert & Jean H.  
Dante's Inferno  

Joseph Bruchac  
Poet  

John Simpson  
Oxford English Dictionary  

Subscriber Services
Awards | Stats | Links | Privacy Policy
Contribute | Advertise

© 2014 Wordsmith