Wordists & Their Discontents

One of the earliest series of posts on this platform, wordsmithing was a way for us to say something about words we like, words we avoid, and important words almost lost to history. A fun, useful, if shortlived series. On August 12, 2011 we started the Bird of the Day series, where photos tell colorful stories with no words other than species name and photo location. Yesterday’s BOTD marks the 3,251st entry in that series, whereas the wordsmithing ended after the 26th entry. Parsimony of words combined with excellent photography wins the series longevity contest. But I find I still care enough about words to post on the topic. I cringed when I heard this news below, but was glad to read more about the decision to include a nonsensical word creation in the dictionary (I am 100% with the teacher who will still mark it as incorrect):

Regardless Of What You Think, ‘Irregardless’ Is A Word

Merriam-Webster raised the hackles of stodgy grammarians last week when it affirmed the lexical veracity of “irregardless.”

The word’s definition, when reading it, would seem to be: without without regard.

“Irregardless is included in our dictionary because it has been in widespread and near-constant use since 1795,” the dictionary’s staff wrote in a “Words of the Week” roundup on Friday. “We do not make the English language, we merely record it.”

Merriam-Webster defines irregardless as “nonstandard” but meaning the same as “regardless.” “Many people find irregardless to be a nonsensical word, as the ir– prefix usually functions to indicates negation; however, in this case it appears to function as an intensifier,” the dictionary writes. Continue reading

The Word Is Out

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Oxford said the choice reflected the rise in climate awareness and the language we use to discuss it. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

These annual declarations are often silly, but even when silly they say something about what we are thinking and talking more about. This is not exactly good news, except that it beats the alternative (not thinking or talking about it):

Oxford Dictionaries declares ‘climate emergency’ the word of 2019

Usage of the term increased 100-fold in the space of 12 months, dictionary says

Oxford Dictionaries has declared “climate emergency” the word of the year for 2019, following a hundred-fold increase in usage that it says demonstrated a “greater immediacy” in the way we talk about the climate.

Defined as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it”, Oxford said the words soared from “relative obscurity” to “one of the most prominent – and prominently debated – terms of 2019.” Continue reading

For The Wordies In Our Midst


A galley proof shows some of the work that went into adding “ginormous” to Merriam-Webster’s 2007 collegiate dictionary. Charles Krupa/AP

We care about the meaning and use of words about as much as we care about the specific themes words are used in these pages to evoke in all manner of variation: conservation, community, collaboration, food, etc. Among us are perhaps some repentant grammar scolds, so thanks to the Atlantic’s Megan Garber for this review, which I was led to read after listening to an interview with Kory Stamper (click the image above to go to that podcast):

The Case Against the Grammar Scolds

The lexicographer Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, is an eloquent defense of a “live and let live” approach to English.

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Louis du Mont / Getty

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Last Of A Kind


The word “endling” has given artists, writers, and others a new way to reckon with the meaning of extinction. ILLUSTRATION BY BJØRN LIE

Douglas Adams provided my first adult consideration of extinction, after a childhood fascination with dinosaurs, which I loved in part because of the mythology that their extinction seemed to encourage; Last Chance to See was an eye-opener, sad, funny and more. So this post on the New Yorker website catches my attention. Same depressing topic, with a New Yorker twist of wit:


By Michelle Nijhuis

When Robert Webster, a physician in Jasper, Georgia, died, in 2004, he was survived by his wife of more than half a century, two daughters, four grandchildren, and a single word, which he had coined himself: “endling,” defined as the last person, animal, or other individual in a lineage.

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Organic Is A Word Well Suited To Curiosity

From the Oxford English Dictionary, skipping past the obsolete and rare definitions of the word organic, and picking the ones we find most interesting for our purposes, all of which predate by decades, and even centuries, one of the latest uses of the word organic in the categorization of a method of agriculture:

Belonging to the constitution of an organized whole; structural.

Of or relating to an organized structure compared to a living being.

Of, relating to, or characterized by connection or coordination of parts into a single, harmonious whole; organized; systematic.

Designating a work of art in which the parts seem naturally or necessarily coordinated into the whole; (Archit.) (in the writings of Frank Lloyd Wright) designating a style which attempts to make a unity of a building and its setting and environment; (also, more generally) designating any of various styles in which the character of buildings is more or less reminiscent of a living organism.

Characterized by continuous or natural development; (Business) designating expansion generated by a company’s own resources, as opposed to that resulting from the acquisition of other companies.

We care about these definitions because the word organic comes into our conversations constantly. We have avoided overuse in these pages of this and other words that we care about. But recently this word stands out, worthy of more of our attention. We will use it more, but carefully. A balance is required.


Did Scrabble Almost Fail to Take Off?

The game also formerly known as It and Criss-Cross Words acquired its lasting moniker in 1948, but its story begins 15 years earlier, when a 32-year-old architect named Alfred Mosher Butts joined the millions who’d already lost their jobs in the Great Depression. PHOTO: Getty

The game also formerly known as It and Criss-Cross Words acquired its lasting moniker in 1948, but its story begins 15 years earlier, when a 32-year-old architect named Alfred Mosher Butts joined the millions who’d already lost their jobs in the Great Depression. PHOTO: Getty

A game played avidly by amateurs and pros alike. In jails and by the British Royal Family, and has fans even at The White House. No other game brings wordsmiths together like Scrabble. And to think it may not have seen the light of living rooms:

Though words are its currency, it’s really a game about anything but. It’s a spatial game, a game of patterns and of memory. No wonder many top players have a mathematical rather than a linguistic background. You certainly don’t need to know what an obscure two-letter filler like ‘ee’ or ‘da’ means in order to play it, only that it appears on the endorsed word lists.

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Defining A Word We All Use Constantly, And Are Concerned About

Illustration by Javier Jaén

Illustration by Javier Jaén

Thanks to one of the great writers on food-related ethical issues for getting us to think about a core definition for our everyday vocabulary, including taken-for-granted words like this one:

Why ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore


It isn’t every day that the definition of a common English word that is ubiquitous in common parlance is challenged in federal court, but that is precisely what has happened with the word “natural.” During the past few years, some 200 class-action suits have been filed against food manufacturers, charging them with misuse of the adjective in marketing such edible oxymorons as “natural” Cheetos Puffs, “all-natural” Sun Chips, “all-natural” Naked Juice, “100 percent all-natural” Tyson chicken nuggets and so forth. The plaintiffs argue that many of these products contain ingredients — high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colorings, chemical preservatives and genetically modified organisms — that the typical consumer wouldn’t think of as “natural.” Continue reading

Language Spoken Is Knowledge Saved For A Rainy Day


The consequences of losing a language may not be understood until it is too late.

At first glance, or quick skim, this will inject a darting depression into your soul, because of the seeming hopelessness. But then the grace of the writing, and the beauty of the story, will wash away the darkness and, very possibly, inspire you. Read it, and if you have thoughts, or actions, to share with us on the entrepreneurial (or other) conservation of intangible patrimony please share a comment below:

It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are—like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia—the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.

Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. Continue reading

Words, Landscapes, And Pondering Ethiopia

The most illuminating 75 minutes with earbuds on, in a long time or possibly ever (since my history with earbuds is only a few years old), by far, were spent listening to this. If you are a combined “words person” and “nature person”–how else would you have found your way to this blog?–then you will understand.

Ethiopia, from the perspective of our recent expedition which I have barely begun to process with words, was illuminated for me just a bit hearing this man talk about how we describe places and the impact that ecosystems have on us. Ecosystems serve as metaphors, he says. And that prepositions matter a great deal to how we communicate the impact ecoystems have on us, literally and metaphorically.

Ethiopia was an enriching experience, in these senses.  I will write separately on that illumination. For now, a bit more from Robert Macfarlane, the illuminator on nature, through words. After listening to the podcast of his lecture, I had to know who this was, and it brought me here:

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

Làirig – ‘a pass in the mountains’ (Gaelic). Photograph: Rosamund Macfarlane

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while afeadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”. Continue reading

Seeing in the Dark


Full moon shot Kayal Villa. Photo: Milo Inman

That traveling state of mind woke up a part of my brain that’s been sleeping for a while. I’ve been feeling my grey matter stretch as a fellow Raxa friend put it. An idea I’ve been thinking about started while on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage when a man told my friend and me not to walk the Camino at night. He said, “If God wanted us to walk the Camino at night, he would have put a light in the sky so we could see the Camino’s beauty”.

We were confused- why didn’t he see beauty in walking at night under the full moon and stars? After that, my friend and I began to contemplate how darkness has been associated in both sacred and secular literature with the lack of spiritual enlightenment, lack of awareness; in our language, to say something is dark has bad connotations. We felt more motivated than ever to walk at night.

We began to question how a society’s aversion to darkness could inform everything. We considered how the aversion to darkness could be a deeper layer to the resistance to female equality and even environmental understanding of the interdependency of nature and cycles of dark and light.

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Young Master Word-Crafters

Ansun Sujoe, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar, of Painted Post, N.Y., were named co-champions of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday. Their siblings helped them celebrate the first shared title since 1962. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Ansun Sujoe, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar, of Painted Post, N.Y., were named co-champions of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday. Their siblings helped them celebrate the first shared title since 1962. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for keeping us apprised of who’s who in the world of words, spelling edition:

For the first time in 52 years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee crowned two winners last night, after the final two competitors exhausted the word list. The winners were Sriram Hathwar, an eighth-grader from Painted Post, N.Y., and Ansun Sujoe, a seventh-grader from Fort Worth, Texas.

“I like sharing the victory with someone else,” Ansun said. “It’s been quite shocking and quite interesting, too. It’s very rare.”

Here are the words that brought Thursday night’s competition to a close, from the Scripps Spelling Bee site (we’re including the definitions just in case you’ve forgotten them): Continue reading

Dictionary As Map To Identity

English writer and broadcaster Robert Robinson holding the first volume of A Supplement To The Oxford English Dictionary in 1977. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We love dictionaries, but apart from the Scrabble usage, we do not always know why. Thanks to Alva Noe for these clues (click the image above to go to the story on NPR’s Cosmos & Culture website):

Among the clutter and furniture of our intellectual lives, there are dictionaries. Although they have probably disappeared from the bookshelves of most college students, they haven’t disappeared. They’ve migrated online.

I thought of this while reading an article in The New York Times on the truly Herculean labors going on at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary, where a team of scholars are busy producing the OED’s third edition. They started in 1994 and now anticipate finishing in 2037. It’s going to be a long book, if it ever comes out in book form. The second edition, published in 1989, was nearly 22,000 pages. (As reported in The New York Times.) Continue reading

A Few Etruscan Tombs

Polyphemus the Cyclops (Tomb of Orcus)

The Etruscans are, for all their great cultural influence on the Romans, a  poorly understood people. We know they once dominated northern Italy and much of its western coast and that they interacted extensively with not only the Romans but also many other native Italic tribes in the 1st milennium BC. Some of this contact is reflected linguistically: the modern English word “person,” deriving from Latin persona, entered the Latin language from Etruscan phersu Continue reading

Punctilious Wordplay


Wordplay sometimes distracts or diverts attention, on purpose, for the sake of levity.  Other times, such as punning in headlines, the opposite occurs and attention is drawn to something that might otherwise have been ignored or missed. The history of the pun is not as ignoble as an English major might have thought according to this story in the BBC Magazine (click the image above to go to the story):

…”Arrant puns” were the subject of attacks by the likes of Joseph Addison, 18th Century London’s pre-eminent literary tastemaker.  He decried them as debased witticisms and exulted that they had been “banished out of the learned world”. Continue reading

Orion Nature Quarterly’s Online Evolution

From a magazine we appreciate for its 30+ years of awesome long form non-fiction writing on important issues related to nature, as much as its audio-visual contributions on the same, in the item featured here:

Photographer Douglas Gayeton explains the genesis of his giant-sized, mural-like photos designed to protect from corporate marketing the meaning behind the words we use to describe sustainability. The project began as a language experiment in Tuscany, Italy.

Many Stripes. Many Tales. Few Tigers.

When I decided to come to Kerala this summer for my internship, I got most excited not entirely about my work, but really about seeing a tiger. I can’t even remember the last time I went to a zoo, but I know deep in my closet I have a dusty photo of me and a tamed tiger from Thailand. At this time, seeing a wild tiger was actually more of a WILD idea. Since I’m working next to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a home to approximately 40 tigers and many other animals, I’m practically neighbors with them and awaiting a miraculous moment to see a tiger before my trip to Delhi.

As a Korean descendent, I must introduce you all to some Korean culture and explain why I’m writing a blog post that is dedicated just to tigers. I’m sure a lot of my Korean folks will agree that tigers and Koreans go way back. My relationship with tigers started when I was 3 years old when my grandmother told me a story about a tiger that smoked using bamboo pipes.  My reaction was: “Really? Tigers smoke, too?”

Source & Credit: Picture of a Tiger at SamChunSa (삼천사) at BookHanSan (북한산)

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Being Full of It: A Meaningful Word

Since arriving in Kerala, I have been greeted many ways.  I have exchanged many smiles and hellos, and I have been veiled with jasmine garland and pressed with traditional dika.  However, the greeting I find most profound lies in a single word: Namaskaram.

Two people, worlds apart, meet with this word.  Each of their hands draws together in a prayerful pose in the nest of their individual chests.  With a bow of their heads, they utter, “Namaskaram.”  At first, it seemed like a simple interaction, yet when I asked the native people for the meaning, I learned that it has a much deeper connotation.

A signal of respect.  A promise of hospitality.  A notion of putting aside one’s ego.  All of these meanings are understood with Namaskaram.  I witness and experience them with nearly every interaction among the people here at Cardamom County, but the latter meaning, putting aside one’s ego, has struck a powerful chord in me. Continue reading