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You keep using that word…

I have a confession to make. By all rights, it should get me fired.

For the last 25 years, in my writing, I have been using the adjectives “epistemological” and “ontological” interchangeably and without actually knowing what either means. Sure, I have looked them up, but their definitions are so gauzy and academic that they are meaningless to me, and forgettable. So I forget them. I don’t even go back to check anymore.

But here is the amazing thing: Not once in 25 years has anyone called me out on this. There has been not one phone call or online comment or letter to the editor pointing out that, philosophically, I have my head up my arse, which I obviously do. There is only one conclusion I can reach: No one else has any idea what these words mean, either.

Gene Weingarten on consensus ignorance.

I’ve seen this article posted around a few places and people basically have two reactions to it. The first is to laugh and say something along the lines of, “IKR? WTF are those words good for other than sounding pretentious? Ain’t English funny!” And the second is to make some ponderous announcement along the lines of, “It helps if you use them in a sentence”, then proceed to sprout off a bunch of example sentences that in no way whatsoever clarify the words’ meanings and, thus, end up proving exactly the point Weingarten was trying to make in the first place.

Like, let’s be clear, Weingarten literally won a Pulitzer for a piece in which he used the word “epistemological” in a context without knowing if that context was correct or not. Like, a Pulitzer, man!

So, yanno. Next time you get mocked on the internet for using a word without really knowing what it means? Remember you’re in good company.

2018-04-27T13:58:51+10:004th November, 2016|Tags: english, language, writing|

The hardest words.

Some of the most commonly misused English words.

I can never get “affect” and “effect” right, and my beta readers will tell you I also constantly mess up “bought” and “brought” even though they’re not even slightly the same word. (In my defence, I pronounce them almost identically in speech.)

I will also confess I’m one of those people who doesn’t care much about the difference between “less” and “fewer”, given how interchangeable they are in modern spoken English. And, yes. I also use “literally” figuratively. Fight me.

2017-07-17T11:37:15+10:0024th May, 2016|Tags: english, language|

Ye Olde English.

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur sounded like.

Chaucer’s English is the weirdest for me to listen to, since it sounds a lot like a half-half transition between English and Old Norse, even moreso than Old English does (which I can “understand” more from knowing a bit of ON than I can from speaking modern English).

Basically, modern English is super, super modern. Which makes the stereotype we have of people in Ye Olde Medieval Fantasy England speaking in RP… interesting.

2018-11-26T07:58:33+11:0020th April, 2015|Tags: english|

It’s an adjective, jackass.

Using “female” […] as a noun erases the subject—making “female” the subject of the sentence. In the most technical sense, it’s correct, but by employing this word that is usually an adjective as a noun, you’re reducing her whole personhood to the confines of that adjective. It’s calling someone “a white” instead of a white person, “a black” instead of a black person, and so on.

“When you refer to a woman as a female, you’re ignoring the fact that she is a female human,” write [BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton], pointing out the connotation that follows: “It reduces a woman to her reproductive parts and abilities.” The focus shifts away from the personal and onto onto her qualities as an object—qualities that have, historically, not been used in the best interest of women.

-Kara Brown on word choice.

I swear to the language gods that using “females” as a noun is a new thing; I never remember it as a kid, but I’m not sure if it’s because people didn’t do it (as much), or because I never noticed it. Either way, it’s ugly, and nasty, and some men get so prissy when you tell them to cut that shit out. I’ve literally had dudes permanently stop talking to me because of how highly the valued their “right” to use females as a noun. It’s like, dude. Maybe that attitude is, yanno. Part of your fucking problem.

2017-11-16T11:19:55+11:0018th March, 2015|Tags: culture, english, language|

Kids these days and their Norman English.

Literally everything ruins the English language.

2017-09-28T13:48:06+10:0018th March, 2015|Tags: english, language|

A post about swearing.

Swearing can be elaborate, hilarious and glorious. But even monotonous swearing of the kind that makes people tut about ‘poverty of vocabulary’ can be used to brilliant effect. Look at Trainspotting, which uses monotonous swearing to convey everything about its narrators – Scottish, rage-filled, of varying education, all of them spiralling into heroin and self-destruction and a mass of unfocused fury, turned inwards as much as out: You fucking knew that fucking cunt would fuck some cunt.

You can hear the character in that line (roughly translated, ‘It was inevitable that the individual we’re discussing would one day cause severe injury to somebody’.) The accent, the words spat out like bullets, the incoherent emotion overwhelming any powers of expression. That’s character through poverty of language.

–KJ Charles on using the right tools for the job.

[Content warning for slurs, below.]

I swear a lot; it’s in the fuckin’ ‘Strayan National Character, after all. Still, I disagree with KJ here on one thing: no matter how common it is in the UK, “cunt” is still an inherently misogynistic word. It’s rarity or lack thereof has no bearing on whether or not it’s a gendered slur. Think about words like “retard” or “tranny” or “fag”. The fact that they’re commonly used–and, often, commonly used in a way that doesn’t “intend” offense–has literally zero bearing on the fact that these words are, in fact, slurs.

Also see “bitch”, which is super-duper common in US media–as I’ve mentioned before, I always feel a bit taken aback when US shows will censor “piss” but not this word–but is still, in fact, a gendered slur. There’s probably some argument in here African-American women in particular could make that parallels the British use of cunt (also see: the n-word). Which, yes. Okay.1

These words are still slurs.

I like cunt, but I like it as a descriptor for the body part it’s intended to describe. Using it as a synecdoche for women in general is sexist, since it carries implications of a) womanhood being “dirty” or “unspeakable”, and b) women as a subordinate sex-class. Using it as an aggressor against men is misogynistic, because–as with bitch–it implies that womanhood is so “lesser”, and gender so essential, that the absolute worst thing a man could be considered is a woman.

So… yeah. Tl;dr, KJ is awesome and y’all should buy her books.

  1. Although, Black women can legitimately reclaim these words in a way, say, a white man can’t. See also usage of “fag” and “homo” in the queer communities. []
2015-06-23T10:57:43+10:0027th September, 2014|Tags: cw: slurs, english, language|

Broken English.

The “Asian accent” tells the story of Chinese-American assimilation in a nutshell. Our parents have the accent that white Americans perceive as the most foreign out of all the possible alternatives, so our choice is to have no accent at all. The accent of our parents is the accent of the grimy streets of Chinatown with its mahjong parlors and fried food stalls and counterfeit jewelry, so we work to wipe away all traces of that world from our speech so we can settle comfortably into our roles as respectable middle-class doctors, lawyers, engineers, hundreds of miles from Chinatown.

No wonder we react so viscerally to the “ching-chong, ching-chong” schoolyard taunt. To attack our language, our ability to sound “normal,” is to attack our ability to be normal. It’s to attack everything we’ve worked for.

–Arthur Chu on the significance of the Chinese English accent.

Maybe it’s different in the US, but there is definitely a second+ generation1 “Asian Australian” accent. It’s kind of… softer-but-more-clipped than the three generally recognized Anglo Australian accents,2 and different again to the accent of Australians from Eastern and Southern European backgrounds.

It’s a strange thing to think about, because Australians tend to assume we have only one (or maybe two) “Australian accents”. There are a quite a few more, but because they tend to be linked to ethnicity rather than geographical region, it’s sort of like people want to… pretend they’re not “real Australian” or something.

Yeah. How about not, hey.

  1. “Second+” since Asian immigration to Australia started like eight or nine generations ago. A fact that tends to get glossed over by, in particular, more recently migrated Brits. Gee. I wonder why. []
  2. These are “Steve Irwin”, “Hugh Jackman”, and “Geoffrey Rush”, if you’re wondering. Also known as “broad”, “standard”, and “cultivated”. []
2017-11-16T11:19:58+11:0018th September, 2014|Tags: culture, english, language|

Words known by men, words known by women.

I know eleven of each. The only ones I’m not sure about are solenoid (“it’s like some engineering thing maybe?”) and decoupage (“a craft of some kind?”).

There’s probably some whole essay in here about male-versus-female socialisation that leads to word familiarity–most of the “male-known” words are STEM and “nerdy” things, most of the “female-known” ones are fashion and aesthetics–but I’ll leave that one up to someone else. Particularly because I imagine it has a very hard intersect with general socioeconomic status and thus education level (pretty much all these words I know thanks to reading a lot of genre novels and RPG sourcebooks).

 

2015-05-13T09:06:42+10:0010th August, 2014|Tags: culture, english, language|