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AWADmail Issue 485

A Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Tidbits about Words and Language

From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Interesting stories from the net

How Babies Sort Out Language
The New York Times

Little Free Libraries Allow Neighbors to Share Books and a Bit of Themselves

From: Elio Schaechter (mschaech sunstroke.sdsu.edu)
Subject: picaresque
Def: 1. Of or relating to humorous or satiric fiction describing, in a series of episodes, the adventures of a roguish hero. 2. Of or relating to rogues or scoundrels.

Placing picaresque among the negative words does not ring entirely true. The term picaro ranges in meaning from scoundrel to someone who is clever, astute (in Italian, he would be called furbo, like Puccini's Gianni Schicchi). Picaros of all sorts are often admired in the Spanish-speaking world -- they get away with a lot. And rogues and scoundrels can be looked up to in the Anglophone world as well.

Elio Schaechter, San Diego, California

Email of the Week - (Sponsored by Have a Ball Marriage Jar! - Yes, you can buy me love.)

From: Gill Collingwood (gill.collingwood googlemail.com)
Subject: Miasma
Def: 1. Noxious emissions: smoke, vapors, etc., especially those from decaying organic matter. 2. An oppressive or unpleasant atmosphere.

Thie word miasma reminded me of what is probably the only time a song was rewritten in the light of new scientific knowledge: They Might be Giants rewrote their song Why Does The Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas) -- it became Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma, with new lyrics to match.

Gill Collingwood, Warrington, UK

From: Kiko Denzer (potlatch cmug.com)
Subject: miasma

For a stunning story about the scientific footwork that went into finally disproving the theory that cholera was due to miasma, see The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, by Stephen Johnson, about the Broad St. Cholera epidemic of 1854.

Kiko Denzer, Blodgett, Oregon

From: Naomi Dement (naomidem xtra.co.nz)
Subject: Miasma

A perfect example of miasma is from the present oil spill from the container ship Rena off Tauranga in New Zealand. Up to 300 tons of oil is washing up on the surfing beaches. The smell is so nauseous that people cleaning up the oil are wearing masks and those living nearby are keeping their windows shut.

Naomi Dement, Levin, New Zealand

From: Tom Priestly (tpriestl shaw.ca)
Subject: Negative Words

Your hunch (that there are more negative words in the English language than positive ones) is supported by two rough measures. First: the frequency with which "un-" words occur, as measured by Google hits: "unsweet" gets 311,000 and "unsour" gets 64,500 (the bad : good ratio is about 5:1). Other ratios: "ungood : unbad" - about 6:1 (but skewed by George Orwell, probably); "unbeautiful : unugly" - 11.5:1 (but skewed by a recent hit song); and "unkind : uncruel" - 12.5:1. One other is way off the scale, as would probably be expected: "unhappy : unsad" is 261 : 1. The second measure is using Roget's International Thesaurus: there are 197 adjectives listed as synonyms for "unpleasant" and almost exactly half that number, 96, adjectival synonyms for "pleasant".

Tom Priestly, Edmonton, Canada

From: Markus Jahn (mail platypus-translations.de)
Subject: Negative words

This week's topic (negative words) reminded me of an oddity of the English language (and a similar phenomenon in German). Did you ever notice that most English words beginning with 'sl' have a negative connotation: slob, sloppy, slut, slang, sly, slick, etc.?

The German equivalent would be words beginning with schl, such as Schlampe, schludrig, schlecht, schlimm, etc.

Markus Jahn, Berlin, Germany

From: Cashman Kerr Prince (cprince wesleyan.edu)
Subject: disingenuous

Linguists talk about marked and unmarked words. Unmarked are the words that are the norm, and marked words are the exception; most feminine nouns with separate endings are marked words, dating from when a woman could not be, say, a poet, only a poetess.

I am reminded of this by word, disingenuous. We encounter this so much more often than ingenuous, the earlier word by some 50 years according to citations in the OED. (Disingenious, the frequent 17th century error for disingenuous, has largely disappeared, too). Disingenuous would seem to have become the unmarked word despite the addition of the negative prefix dis-; what does that say about our interpersonal interactions today?

Cashman Kerr Prince, Norwood, Massachusetts

From: Cevdet Suner (csuner2000 yahoo.co.uk)
Subject: more negative words in English...

Destroy for example. Russian word "stroy" means "to construct" obviously from the same Latin root. In English I have not encountered "stroy" but only its negative version.

Cevdet Suner, Istanbul, Turkey

I have studied it often, but I never could discover the plot. -Mark Twain, author and humorist, on dictionary (1835-1910)

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