Speaking disfiguratively

Pam
Pam Frampton
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Words can amuse and give comfort, but they can also get twisted beyond all recognition

Language fascinates me - its origins, its evolution, how it can metamorphose on its journey to modern day usage.

Words can be like acquaintances you don't expect to meet while vacationing in foreign lands, but when you do, you are happy to see a familiar face.

In Italy, one of those words was "deviazione" - detour - a word my husband and I saw often. And even though it meant we would have to take the long way around, it was wonderful to stumble upon Italian - off-menu and wine list - that we could understand.

"Croce verde" - green cross - was another phrase that soon became familiar and reassuring, as it signifies a pharmacy.

Both croce and cross stem from the Latin "crux," which has since taken on an additional meaning, as in the most important point at issue. I like how both crux and its descendants exist side by side in modern language, like generations of a family.

Stumbling upon the origins of words can be fun, particularly if, like me, you work with words all day and sometimes take them for granted.

Jukebox, for example, takes its name from "juke" - a 1930s term for a roadhouse. "Juke" itself means "disorderly" and stems from Gullah, a Creole language. And so the drunken boisterousness of the tavern has given its name to a machine that stores and plays records.

The Latin word "scalprum" - meaning chisel, a tool you don't necessarily associate with detail work unless it's being wielded by a master - has evolved into today's "scalpel."

Other words' lineage is more uncertain, such as killick. Some dictionaries call it an etymological orphan with no known origins, while other sources, such as the "Dictionary of Newfoundland English," suggest it comes from the Anglo-Manx word "kellagh" - an anchor made of sticks and stone.

Some words are quick to conjure up images. If someone offers you up a whirligig, you just know you can expect something fun and whimsical. Feckless sounds like reckless - irresponsible. Hoodwink makes you think the wool might have been pulled over your eyes.

Mellifluous is musical, the way it rolls effortlessly off your tongue. Undulate sounds like sensual movement. Words like Zanzibar and Madagascar make you think of spicy scents and exotic plants and animals.

But words can be off-putting, as well; sinister, even. Somehow, you're not surprised to learn that nightshade is poisonous or that you should fear the reaper. You just know that murder is something most foul.

Spinster doesn't sound like anyone's idea of a good time.

And then there are words and phrases that have become banal through overuse. Here are a few of the ones that make me crazy:

1) The take-home lesson. Ever sat through a presentation where this phrase got trotted out? It makes you feel like you're eight years old and have to be nagged to do your homework.

2) Traveller volumes. Now, us human beings may be roughly two-thirds water, but the last time I checked we weren't measured or counted in volume, except by airport officials and tourism types.

3) Alternate service delivery. A fancy bureaucratic way of saying downsizing. Or, as the Treasury Board of Canada defines it: "the pursuit of new and appropriate organizational forms and arrangements, including partnerships with other levels of government and non- governmental sectors, in order to improve the delivery of programs and services." Got it? Improved service. Yeah, right - perhaps if it leads to a streamlined EI claims process for all those federal civil servants who suddenly find themselves off the payroll.

4) Least-cost option. Translation: cheapest. Why waste $10 words when a 50-cent word will do?

5) The white stuff. It's snow, people. It's not some mysterious "stuff." We actually know what it is.

6) The piece. As in, "Once we finish with the poverty reduction piece, we will move on to the homelessness initiative and blah, blah, blah." Derives from the Older English, "the file." Popular with politicians who want to sound like their work is monumental.

7) Growing my business. Your business might expand, branch out or get more profitable, but you aren't growing it. You're not farmers, you're business people and entrepreneurs.

8) Fish harvest. Fish are caught, hooked, netted, speared. They are not harvested, except maybe on fish farms. In the wild, they don't just sit there on the ocean floor in neat rows, waiting to be pulled up like turnips.

9) Seal fishery. Around here, seals are hunted, though less so these days. They used to be harpooned and clubbed and now they are shot. But at no time - and I don't care what the pope once said - have they been fished. Why? Because they are not fish any more than moose are. And no one ever talks about "prosecuting" the moose fishery.

10) Plex. It's not even a word, and yet we love to plaster it on the sides of buildings, joined on to other words or word fragments. A recreational complex becomes a "RecPlex." A series of movie theatres is a "cineplex." A health facility is a "HealthPlex." The only shred of legitimacy "plex" has as a word is as the root of "plexus," a network of nerves in the body. Well, I've got one nerve left and "plex" is getting on it.

OK, now I'm getting wound.

If you've got language dragons you'd like to slay, drop me a line at pframpton@thetelegram.com and tell me all about it.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Treasury Board of Canada

Geographic location: Italy, Zanzibar, Madagascar

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  • mike walsh
    April 07, 2012 - 16:55

    On a go forward basis...At the end of the day...Fishers?....Epic....The new normal...My bad...I could go on...Literally