Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Dangers of Slang: Hork, Horking Up

I've always used the phrase "horking up" as in these examples:

  • The cat horked up a hairball into the spaghetti *again*?
  • Nothing like waking up in the middle of the night to a dog horking up undigested rawhide all over the carpet.
  • That wild driving trip in the mountains made me hork up my Wheaties.
To my surprise, in a FaceBook post, someone I know who lives on the opposite coast (2800 miles [4500 km] from here, FYI) used it like this:

  • Just horked up some cashew chicken, which I haven't had in ages, as a gift to myself. I wonder if this is why I can't seem to lose weight?

I was a little stunned; horking up--as in vomiting-- doesn't strike me as something that most people would do as a gift to themselves. Her second sentence, though, clued me in: She must have meant that she *ate* the chicken. Curiouser and curiouserNote1.

Hork does not appear in my Webster's, nor in my OED.

I went to my favorite online word-lookup site,, which searches through many online dictionaries. It provided me with a link to this page, which shows the following meanings:
  1. (slang) To foul up; to be broken.
  2. (slang, regional) To steal.
  3. (slang) To throw.
  4. (slang, offensive) To snort from the sinuses. (Similar to hocking.)
  5. (slang) To vomit.
  6. (slang) To gobble.
  7. (slang, transitive) To move; specifically in an egregious fashion
So, the same slang word has opposite meanings (#5 and #6)--as well as a host of others meanings to truly confuse the befuddled listener.

And that's the danger of slang: There is no "real" or "official" definition, and so it means whatever the user intends it to mean, which might change from person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood, state to state, or region to region.

So, I'm curious--do YOU use "hork," "horking," or "horking up"? What do YOU mean when you say it?

Note1 If you're not familiar with "curiouser and curiouser," see it in context here. But that's the beginning of chapter 2; start here to read the whole thing. Cultural literacy, you know, that's important, too.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

He and I, Him and I, He and Me, or Him and Me?

Question 1:
When you and JoeBob are telling mom where you'll be on this fine afternoon, do you say:

A. Him and me are going to the movies.
B. Him and I are going to the movies.
C. He and me are going to the movies.
D. He and I are going to the movies.

Question 2:
OK, now if you're asking mom for money for popcorn, do you say:

A. Please give him and me $20.
B. Please give him and I $20.
C. Please give he and me $20.
D. Please give he and I $20.

Write down your answers now. You'll get a chance to answer a second time and then compare and contrast your answers.

I've never quite grasped why these are so hard for so many people--even many very well educated, literate people sometimes pick the wrong ones. My puzzlement peaked when a friend posted this week on Facebook: "I already dropped off Joe Bob and I's absentee ballots." "I's"?! Wow. The friend blamed it on doing Facebook before ingesting the morning coffee dose, but still--

I think the inappropriate use of "I" goes back to so many childhood episodes where you say, "Joe Bob and me are going down to the creek to look for frogs," and Mom would say for the thirty-seven-hundredth time, "Joe Bob and *I*." And so children grow up thinking that any grouping involving another person and oneself ALWAYS requires "I," which just isn't true. (Although, in the example given here, Mom was, of course, correct.)

The reason I don't find it complicated is because--well--it isn't. When in doubt, simply figure out which word you'd use if it were SINGULAR--that is, there's only one person involved.

Question 3:
I'll bet everyone will choose the right answer from among these two:
A. I am going to the movies.
B. Me am going to the movies.

and from these two:

C. He is going to the movies.
D. Him is going to the movies.

If you answered A and C, you are, of course, correct, and voila, now you know, when saying who's going to the movies, that it is "I" and "He," even if you're both going. So go back to Question 1 and see how you answer now.

Question 4:
So now, do the same thing here: pick the word that you'd use if the sentence were singular--involving only one person. Bet you get this right, too:

A. Please give me some money.
B. Please give I some money.

and this:

C. Please give him some money.
D. Please give he some money.

The answers are, of course, A and C. So now you know how to answer Question 2.

So that there's no confusion, the correct answers are:
1. He and I are going to the movies.
2. Please give him and me $20.

Remember: Pause and think which word you'd use if only one person were involved, and you'll then have the correct word to use even when there's someone else involved.

P.S. The same strategy works for other pronoun forms. For example, it would be, "I already dropped off my absentee ballot" and "I already dropped off Joe Bob's absentee ballot," hence, "I already dropped off Joe Bob's and my absentee ballots."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lying Down Off the Job

Vocabulary: What's the difference between prone, supine, recumbent, prostrate, lying down, and lying around?

This morning, lolling in bed, it occurred to me suddenly, as I'm sure it would occur to many of you on an ordinary morning, "Huh, I'm prone in my bed." Then I rolled over so that I could say to myself, "I'm now supine in my bed." At that point in my smug self-congratulatory mood, the dogs insisted that, if I were going to play vocabulary games, I was awake enough to get up and get to playing some REAL games, and that put an end to that. So I didn't have a chance to ponder whether I was also prostrate or, furthermore, recumbent.

First: Quick, without thinking too hard: when I was prone and then supine (pronounced suh-PINE or SOO-pine), which is face down and which is face up? I'll bet most people get this without realizing that they knew it. I'll answer in a moment, but next:

All four words mean lying down. (And there's another interesting phrase--would you ever be caught lying up? But I digress.) Ah, yes, the beauty of the English language--so many subtle variations on certain words to get exactly the nuance you're searching for. Is it scary that we have so many synonyms for just lying around?

Recumbent implies sleeping or resting; think of the recumbent bicycle, where one is in a relaxed, nearly horizontal position, although hopefully not sleeping, at least not while operating near heavy traffic.

Prostrate is not to be confused with one's prostate gland, although i wonder whether some people have a prostrate gland that makes them more inclined to spend time recumbent, say, when they should be washing the family pony? This word implies lying down full-length in defeat or submission.

Meanwhile, prone is, yes, you probably guessed it, face down. If you pay a little attention to the Latin sources of words, you might guess that "pro", meaning forward, plays a part in this word's formation. It's from the Latin pronus, meaning to lean forward. So imagine falling forward onto the ground; now you're prone.

And supine is the opposite; you're facing up. If you want a mnemonic for that, think sUPine. Also most likely from the Latin supinus, related to the prefix sup meaning, among other things, up (by means of being under)--think supplant which is equivalent to uproot.

Now, the next time you're snuggled up to someone special in bed, you can whisper fondly but knowledgeably into his or her ear, "I wonder whether there's a special word for 'lying on one's side'?" In my case, the dogs will most likely growl and go back to sleep.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Words for today: Metonym and Synecdoche

Metonym is a new word for me--and I thought I knew all the --nyms! You know, homonym, synonym, antonym...  Per, metonym is:
A word that denotes one thing but refers to a related thing. "Plastic is a metonym for credit card."
Websters elaborates on that:
A figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated, as "crown" in "lands belonging to the crown."
These are metonyms because:
  • Credit cards are made of plastic.
  • The king (or queen) wears a crown.
Trying to think of some other metonyms to make it stick in my brain. How about these:
  • The White House called today. (Someone who lives or works in the White House called.)
  • I'm thirsty for some suds. (Beer has suds; I want a beer.)
  • You can rent some fancy wheels. (Cars have wheels; you can rent fancy cars.)
Synecdoche is a specific type of metonym. (That is, synecdoches are metonyms, and apparently some people don't distinguish between them.) The distinction is this:
  • It is a synecdoche if it is an actual component of the thing referenced (like "plastic,", "suds," and "wheels," above).
  • It is a metonym if it is closely associated with the thing referenced but isn't actually a part of it (like "crown" (I think--although one could maybe argue it's a synecdoche also) and "White House").
Wikipedia provides great reading in these articles:
Now, go thee forth and metonymize!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Language and its relationship to our thinking patterns

This interesting article ("Lost in Translation," By LERA BORODITSKY) discusses how very differently people with different languages may perceive the world and react to it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

End-of-the-line Hyphenation

One has to pretty much be at the end of one's line to want to hyphenate words in the middle when they don't already have hyphens. Literally and figuratively at the end of the line. People used to have to know how to break words effectively back when we were all using typewriters to produce business documentation--do you remember in typing class learning about the maximum number of spaces to leave at the end of a line without it looking stupid and then figuring out the appropriate place to hyphenate a longer word, but to never hyphenate a word with fewer than so many letters even if it had more than one syllable? There were entire dictionaries published with nothing in them but proper hyphenation locations. Sometimes picking the hyphenation spot was not as obvious as one might have thought.

Today, with the wonders of proportionally spaced fonts, most of us never have to worry about hyphenating words; we don't care whether there's space at the end of the line. But we poor technical writers (or anyone publishing actual documents) still need to make the work look professional, which still means not leaving huge empty areas at the end of a line (when left justifying) or between words (with automated right/left justification).

Luckily for us, most good desktop publishing tools allow you to set your hyphenation preferences. For example, you can turn it off entirely. This is safe but not always pretty. You can specify the minimum word size to hyphenate when needed, although it usually has a good default.

But there are some things that software just has a rough time with. The other day, when reviewing my earlier writing, I found this word break:

[text filling up the line and then ] rear-

An astute reader soon realizes that this was just a bad hyphenation choice for "rearrange," but it takes a moment of thought. There has been much speculation on what "rear range" might refer to, but I think I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader. My point is simply: Don't rely on automatic hyphenation to be correct, any more than you rely on your spell-checker to give you the correct spelling or to find incorrect words.

I posted another silly example in Irish Noir.