erik lundegaard

Word Study posts

Tuesday March 11, 2014

Word of the Day: Agnotology

Agnotology (n.): The study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt.

I came across it in Michael Hiltzik's article about Robert Proctor, “Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study,” in The LA Times.

Proctor's field of research has taken him from the Nazis to Big Tobacco to Climate-change deniers to ACA opponents. I like this quote:

Early in his career ... he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. “Of course,” he was told. “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he “watches Fox News all the time.”

The big questions, for our Age of Misinformation, are at the end:

Given the torrent of misinformation washing about the public space and the multiplicity of pathways for its distribution, is there any hope for beating back the tide? Agnotologists are divided. “I don't see any easy out,” says UCLA's Wise. “All of the forces are on the side of undermining public trust in science.”

But Proctor has hope. “My whole career is devoted to pushing back,” he told me. “There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace.”

The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. “You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy.”

Bill O'Reilly

The History of Nonsense, Chapter 1,472.

Posted at 05:04 AM on Tuesday March 11, 2014 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 31, 2013

The Lesson of Adolf Hitler or Taylor Swift

A friend posted a link to The Atlantic's quiz, “Who Said It, Adolf Hitler or Taylor Swift?” and I took it and got 8 out of 10. I missed the first two, then realized the key: It's in language and metaphor. Hitler wouldn't say “flaws” or “over-achiever.” Swift wouldn't use magicians or bridges as a metaphor. In the end, it's not that hard.

This is how the whole thing started:

This “Hitler or Taylor” joke started with a Pinterest user named Emily Pattinson, who juxtaposed pretty images of Taylor Swift with quotes from the “real Taylor Swift” ... [Except] the quotes Pattinson was using actually belong to the likes of Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Joseph Stalin — and no one noticed.

Then The Atlantic tries to draw a lesson from it all:

So are Taylor Swift fans gullible? Do Swift's words resemble Nazi propaganda?  Is Hitler the voice of the millennial generation? The answer isn't so obvious. Or is it?

Here's the lesson to me. A quote isn't validated or invalidated by who said it. None of us are 100 percenters. Just because Hitler said something doesn't make it awful. Just because Lincoln said something doesn't make it moral. Just because Swift said something doesn't make it fatuous. Look to the words and the meaning.

Taylor Swift with an Adolf Hitler quote

Question #1.

Posted at 11:07 AM on Saturday August 31, 2013 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

Monday April 01, 2013


On the site today:

"Olympus Has Fallen" and prescience

Two things:

  1. If the script was written years ago and real-life events now mimic it, that means it is prescient. I think that's the dictionary definition of “prescient.”
  2. Yet “Olympus” is still hardly prescient. In terms of global villains, who's left for Hollywood? Russian yadda-yaddas, Middle Eastern badaboobs, and the North Koreans. You certainly can't use the Chinese. You see the box office there these days? Look, even “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” with its moronic villains, still uses North Korea for its cold open.


Posted at 06:25 PM on Monday April 01, 2013 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 04, 2012

Words I Learned While Reading Gore Vidal

The day after Gore Vidal died I went a little crazy with Gore Vidal quotes; but they were just sitting there, in the Vidal books I owned, marked and underlined, ready to be disseminated.

I also came across about two dozen words that I didn't know when I first read the book. Back then, being the good student, I looked them up and wrote the definition in the margins. These are just sitting there, too. Here's a sampling:

  • l'espirit de l'escalier: the wit of the staircase; any witticism or cleverness that comes too late, as on the staircase away from the debate
  • ex cathedra: with the authority derived from one's office or position: esp. of the pope's infallibility as defined in Roman Catholic doctrine
  • collyrium: an eye lotion
  • bibulous: fond of alcoholic beverages; highly absorbent
  • recondite: hidden from sight; deep
  • vatic: prophetic; oracular
  • velleities: inclinations; slight wishes or tendencies; the lowest degree of volition
  • quotidian: occurring every day
  • caveat lector: let the reader beware
  • manqué: short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one's aspirations or talents — used postpositively
  • faute de mieux: for lack of something better or more desirable
  • plangent: having a loud reverberating sound; having an expressive and especially plaintive quality

Of these, only 'quotidian' became part of my regular writing vocabulary. Shame. I could've used l'espirit de l'escalier, since, like most (but unlike Vidal, one imagines), it's generally the only wit I know. It might even make a good tagline for this site. Or I could always go with: Faute de mieux. Or: Caveat lector. Or: Movie critic manqué.

Endless choices.

Posted at 08:12 AM on Saturday August 04, 2012 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 26, 2012

Another Example of Why You Should Never Quote Someone for Only One or Two Words headline:

M's GM 'surprised' by injury to Yankees' Pineda

Although maybe the headline was written by a Yankees fan.

Posted at 06:51 PM on Thursday April 26, 2012 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

Tuesday 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 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.

Posted at 01:31 PM on Tuesday December 22, 2009 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

Tuesday June 02, 2009

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.”

Posted at 03:08 PM on Tuesday June 02, 2009 in category Word Study   |   Permalink  

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