Word Study postsTuesday December 22, 2009
Words I Never Use and Why - I
arguably (adv.): as can be shown by argument.
I cringe every time I see this word. It feels like the writer is trying to make a bold statement but wants it to be a bold and objective so adds this and ruins everything. Now it's meaningless. Because what can't be shown by argument? "Oxygen is arguably our most important element." "George Bush is arguably the greatest president in the history of the United States." "I am arguably the sexiest man alive."
The other day, Michael Rand, a Star-Tribune blogger, disagreed with some of Rob Neyer's top 100 baseball players of the decade, including Joe Mauer at no. 40 (Rand felt he should've been higher), and wrote that Mauer's accomplishments included winning "two consecutive Gold Gloves while playing arguably baseball's most demanding position." Dude, just say it's baseball's most demanding position. Or say it's, with pitcher, one of baseball's two most demanding positions. Adding "arguably" is like letting left fielders or second basemen into the equation. Just look at injuries, games played, career length. Now: Which position's demanding? Write your sentence.
"Statistically" would've worked there as well. Here, too. It's from a 2006 AP story:
"Texas has arguably the most extreme separation between the well off and everyday people in the United States," said Don Baylor, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank that advocates for lower-income families.
I should cut the guy some slack since it's just a quote, but policy analysts for think tanks should know better. They should know that what's being talked about here can be measured, so it's less an argument than a matter for statistics.
On subjective matters, I prefer "probably" or "one of the" or "I feel," since none of these have the pretensions that "arguably" does. Unfortunately, more and more, people are using both, as in this short Zimbio bio of Tiger Woods:
Tiger Woods (born December 30, 1975) is a professional golfer. He is arguably one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport..."
I don't know golf but Woods has won 14 majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus' 18. Tiger Woods is one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport. There's no argument there, Zimbio.
This may be the saddest usage I came across. From an amazon.com customer review of "Bella":
It is arguably the best independent film I've ever seen.
You don't know? Why don't you have that argument with yourself, son. Then get back to us.
Words I Learned While Reading Christopher Buckley’s “Losing Mum and Pup”
In 1980, while a junior at Washburn High School in south Minneapolis (before it was sexy), I took two courses of “Word Study” with Mr. Beck, an autocratic teacher who, according to student rumor, had been a POW during WWII, and who often excused himself mid-class to get a nicotine fix in the hallway. I remember his white beard was stained yellow around the mouth.
This was an era of increasing and unfocused student rambunctiousness, but everyone knew you didn’t mess with Mr. Beck. Pejorative version: Once in the middle of class I was smiling because of something a friend said, and Mr. Beck looked at me and asked, sharply, “What are you laughing at, Smiley?” (It was traumatic then; it sounds funny now.) Positive version: I learned a lot. Every period we’d read Newsweek magazine and Mr. Beck would expound on the words we didn’t know. I remember him talking about gaffe, for example, in relation to first mom Lillian Carter’s allusion to the possible assassination of Ted Kennedy, who was then politicking to get the Democratic nomination away from her son. (She said something like: “I hope nothing happens to him. I really do.”) I also remember the word fugacious, which means “fleeting or transitory,” but which my friend Nathan Kaatrud, who became Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, used, in our junior year, for just about everything. “That’s so fugacious.” “Hey, don’t get all fugacious with me.” Etc.
Mr. Beck began “Word Study” in 1962 but retired (and, with him, it) during my junior year. It’s in his spirit that I present the words I learned while reading Christopher Buckley’s short, humorous memoir “Losing Mum and Pup.” All I can say is: Thank god I'm taking beginning French or there would've been a lot more.
froideur (n.): coldness (French). “At length a certain froideur encroached as the thought formed, So, you’re an orphan now.”
minatory (adj.): having a menacing quality; threatening. “A moving vehicle was now, in his hands, a potential weapon of mass destruction far more minatory than anything in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein.”
edematous (adj.): describing a watery swelling of plant organs. “I drew up a chair and held what I could of her hand, which was cold and bony and edematous with fluid.”
amanuenses (n.): those employed to write from dictation or copy manuscripts. “Generations of WFB amanuenses had to learn this cuneiform in order to edit his manuscripts and articles.”
blancmange (n.): a sweetened and flavored dessert made from gelatinous or starchy ingredients and milk. “I was impressed, yet again, by the superiority of the Book of Common Prayer to the pasteurized blancmange of the modern Catholic liturgy.”
adipose (adj.): of or relating to animal fat. “...afternoons I hauled my adipose carcass up and down various mountainsides...”
contra naturam (???) against nature; against the natural order of things. “It is contra naturam (to use a WFB term) to say no to someone who has raised you, clothed you, fed you from day one—well, even if, in Pup’s case, these actual duties were elaborately subcontracted.”
avoirdupois (n.): heaviness; weight, particularly personal weight: “Pup, superbly slender figured all his life, had in recent years added some avoirdupois—as indeed had I...”
consanguinity (n.): the quality or state of being of the same blood origin. “Embarrassing One’s Young is in some ways the entire point of having children. I discovered the joy myself when Cat was perhaps three years old and I did something (a public burp) that caused her to turn crimson with shame and to renounce all consanguinity with me.”