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AWADmail Issue 527

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: Dispatches from Scandinavia - part 1

This is the first of a series (part 2, 3, 4) of vignettes from my recent travels.

Getting Across in Tallinn

After a long day of walking around the Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia I relaxed in a park just outside. That's where I met a burly man puffing away on his cigarette. Many Estonians are of Russian origin and speak only Russian. It turned out he spoke little English and I didn't speak any Russian so we didn't get very far beyond names. His name was Vladimir.

That's when his seventh-grader son Simon, who was playing nearby, came to our rescue and served as an interpreter. Simon had not learned the fine points of interpreting though. When I asked Vladimir what he did for a living, Simon didn't bother to translate it for his dad. He simply answered it himself, "He's a fireman."
"Oh, you are a firefighter," I said.

Vladimir picked up keywords in this conversation and said something to his son, perhaps: Tell him I save lives. Simon said to me, "He saves lives."

That conveyed to me the essence of what language is: something to make ourselves understood, to get across what we have on our minds, to share what is important to us.

While we chatted, Vladimir kept asking about his son, "How's his English?"
"Excellent," I said. Even though he didn't speak the language, its importance was not lost on him.

"Have you been to the US?" I asked.
"No, but my aunt lives in the US," Simon said.
"Bronx," Vladimir said in his thick accent.
"But I have been to Belorussiya," Simon piped in.
It took me a moment to realize what he meant -- the place I knew as Belarus. His grandparents lived there.

Soon Vladimir's wife stopped by. As it turned out she was also in the same business -- she was a nurse. She didn't speak English either.

It was past 10pm, but the sun hadn't set yet. People were still strolling in the park, on the sidewalks, and everywhere.

Read more: part 2, 3, 4

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

Writers Should Not Fear Jargon

How to Write
The New York Times

From: Rick Schwarz (e_j_schwarz yahoo.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--corps
Def: A group of persons associated in a common organization or engaged in a common activity.

Corps is a particularly difficult word for some people, in part because it so closely resembles corpse. In the 1980s, I worked for a federal agency that was often teamed with the US Army Corps of Engineers for design and construction management service. The Corps was often seen as inflexible and uncreative when responding to challenging projects. Some of my coworkers and many people I worked with at state agencies, local government, and in the general public pronounced the word corps as corpse. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if the mispronunciation was due to ignorance or if it was malicious. Either way, it was amusing (at least the first few times).

Rick Schwarz, Portland, Oregon

From: Lenny Maughan (freethoughtguy gmail.com)
Subject: Corps

Long before Apple (formerly Apple Computer) was associated with music, the Beatles created their own cleverly-named conglomerate as a tax shelter: Apple Corps.

Lenny Maughan, San Francisco, California

From: Lane Reynolds (lane.l.reynolds navy.mil)
Subject: corps

A corps is also a specific military formation consisting of two or more divisions. Two or more corps make up an army. In the introduction to her wonderful book covering the early weeks of the First World War, The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman mentions her consternation with the practice of using Roman numerals to designate corps in all of the armies involved. For some reason the practice bothered her but she said nothing could be done about it. Indeed nothing at all can be done about it.

Lane Reynolds, Poplarville, Mississippi

Email of the Week brought to you by Laxadaisical -- Chill flow, bro.

From: Pam Kaatz (kaatz airmail.net)
Subject: faux pas
Def: A blunder, especially a social mistake.


I was doing a long-term subbing assignment for a French teacher, because there were no other subs with any knowledge of French. I had been a Spanish teacher for 30 years and had studied 12 hours of French along the way, making me the best candidate.

First year classes were no problem, but the second year class was getting just beyond my level. One day the word faux came up when the students were asked to respond vrai or faux -- true or false. I did a little spontaneous lesson about the phrase faux pas. Not one of the 28 teenagers had ever heard the phrase used in English. After explaining that it literally means false step, I further explained that we use it to mean an accidental social blunder. I gave the example of inviting my niece and her new husband to dinner, ordering pepperoni and sausage pizza for all of us, then remembering that his religion did not permit him to eat pork. I predicted that, as it often happens when one learns a new word, within a few days, maybe even as long as a week or a month, they would hear faux pas being used on TV, read it in a book, or notice it in a real-life situation.

Then we began watching the video lesson in which it seemed to me that the boy was attempting to ask the girl out on a date, but she kept coming up with excuses. Since it was the second year class, I was not quite sure that I was understanding everything, so I paused the video.

Just as I was about to ask my question, a male vice-principal knocked on the door and asked to speak to one of the girls. As she was walking toward the door to speak to him, I posed my pending question concerning what was going on in the video: "Is he trying to ask her for a date?" Total silence.

I turned to the class and asked, "Well, is he or not?" Pointing to the screen, I said: "It seems like every time he mentions going somewhere, she has some excuse for not going." "The VIDEO!" someone yelled, breaking the silence. Then everyone started laughing. Offended by their making fun of me, I asked, "What's so funny? My French is not that good, so I just didn't understand. What did you think I was talking about?"

Everyone pointed to the door where the student was speaking to the administrator, both unaware of what was happening in the classroom. I was so embarrassed!! Then one of the students said, "Well, I guess we got a real-life example of a faux pax sooner than we expected!"

Pam Kaatz, Denton, Texas

From: Mary Barber (master tajar.com)
Subject: faux pas

As a teacher, I try to connect with my students. My middle schoolers know me to have a joke or pun to share. I teach at our foreign language schools (Spanish and French). I have asked my students at the French school, "what is a dog's prosthetic called?" or "what is another name for a step-father?" Both answers are today's word, faux pas!

Mary Barber, Columbus, Ohio

From: Colin Carton (boxey live.co.uk)
Subject: faux pas

Reminds me that the Clint Eastwood film production company is named "Malpaso Productions" See Wikipedia for an interesting discussion of the reasons this name was chosen.

Colin Carton, London, UK

From: Anne Golden (ag outtengolden.com)
Subject: Pince-nez
Def: A pair of eyeglasses held in place by a spring that grips the nose.

One of the great moments in my marriage occurred when my husband referred to "Chief Joseph of the Pince-Nez". (link)

Anne Golden, New York, New York

From: Sally M. Chetwynd (brasscastlearts gmail.com)
Subject: pince-nez

Pince-nez (and lorgnettes) were more likely a fashion statement as opposed to an intermediate step in the structural evolution of eyeglasses. Eyeglasses had temples (side arms) long before 1866. Among many more common examples, the bifocal eyeglasses of notable inventor Benjamin Franklin had temples, and the equally famous George Washington had spectacles with temples that telescoped for smaller folding space.

Sally M. Chetwynd, Wakefield, Massachusetts

From: Duncan Rodseth (drodseth icon.co.za)
Subject: Fleur de lys

I was tripped up by the pronunciation of this in France as I had always known it to be pronounced without the final "s". I checked in the Oxford dictionary and found that this is indeed the official English pronunciation -- how curious. I was staying in the Hotel du Lys and when I told a French friend the name of the hotel he heard "lit" -- bed. "You are staying in the hotel of the bed? But all hotels in Paris have beds!"

Duncan Rodseth, Johannesburg, South Africa

Languages, like our bodies, are in a perpetual flux, and stand in need of recruits to supply those words that are continually falling through disuse. -Cornelius Conway Felton, educator (1807-1862)

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