Let’s play a game

Tonight we’re going to play a game!  (I’m tired; it’s the best I’ve got.)

Without looking at a dictionary, let’s come up with as many words as we can that start with F with at least 3 syllables.  I’ll get us started.


Okay, I did fifteen.  Now it’s your turn!  Add some more in the comments, and remember, it’s a vocabulary challenge.  No dictionaries!



Tonight I made ratatouille.  It didn’t turn out that fabulous, but it did get me thinking about words from other languages.

Every language has words that come directly (or nearly so) from other languages.  My high school language teacher (who was also something of a linguist) referred to them as “borrowed words” which I think is pretty apt.  I’m not talking about the gradual offspring words that grow naturally from a language’s ancestor, words in English that bear a similarity to those of other French or Italian because they evolved from the same original Latin root.  I’m talking about words that we got directly from another language, because we didn’t have a word for that and we needed one.  It’s the “Hey, they already have a name for this, let’s just use it” mentality, and you find it in every language.

The immediate examples I can think of are food and technology.  We’ll get to technology in a minute; let’s start with food!  Food is very regional (has anybody outside of South Dakota ever heard of chislic?) and when it gets moved to different areas, it often keeps its original name.  You can order paella or ratatouille, cook some farfalle to eat with your chardonnay, and none of these words will ping your spellcheck even though they are Spanish, French, Italian, and French again, respectively.  This doesn’t just happen in English.  You can go to Japan and order a hanbaagaa and biiru if you’re craving some American food.  (Say the a “ah” and the ii “eee” and you should get it.)  I especially like the example of hanbaagaa, because it’s a Japanese version of an English word borrowed from a German place!  (It’s a double borrow!)

Now let’s talk technology.  This is an area where things go global quickly, so the name sometimes just gets moved around the world with the item itself.  For example, in Japanese, Korean, and Polish, the word for computer sounds remarkably like the English word “computer.”  Of course, the nicknames that develop are different regionally – think “mobile” (British) versus “cell” (American) to reference the same kind of phone.  There are also places (like France) where the people in charge of the language will actually make sure to find a suitable word within the language, even for new technology.  (According to my best friend, there are not a lot of borrowed words in French.  They are very protective of their language.)

At this point I need to step up on my mini-soapbox for a brief minute.  As a former student of Japanese, it makes me crazy when borrowed words end up mispronounced.  Karaoke becomes “carry-oh-key” and I make ugly faces.  I mean, really, in what other English word is the letter A pronounced “ee”?  Kah-rah-oh-kay, people.  And sake ends in “ay,” not “ee”!

Let’s get back on track and look at what this means for writing.  Fantasy authors make up words (and sometimes whole languages) all the time, for fictional races and species.  Given how the real world works, with different cultures using the same word for something, wouldn’t it make sense that two races (humans and elves, perhaps) would experience a similar effect?  This would especially be the case if they were connected very suddenly, with sharing of food and technology and many other things all at once.  (That’s why Japanese has so many borrowed words – when they rejoined the world from years of isolation, they got a sudden influx of lots of foreign stuff.)

Just something to think about the next time you order sushi and work on your novel!

Incorrect Word Assumptions

One of my mom’s pet peeves is the word “orientate.”  One of mine is “conversate.”  These two words have the same thing in common: someone has made an incorrect assumption about how the source words work.

In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher calls this process analogy, and he uses a classic example.  A little kid who has only ever seen forks with four tines may call a three-tined fork a “threek,” because of the coincidental sound of the number “four” in the word fork.

We’re used to the following relationships:  the noun education and the verb educate, the noun communication and the verb communicate, the noun fornication and, well, you get the idea.

Here’s the problem: the rule applies in the verb-to-noun direction.  Verbs that end in “-ate” turn into nouns that end in “-ation.”  Indicate becomes indication.  Vacate becomes vacation.  It doesn’t apply in the other direction, and most of the time we get it.  Interpretation comes from interpret, not interpretate.  Deprivation comes from deprive.  Exploration comes from explore.

In the cases at the start of this post, conversation comes from converse.  And orientation?  It comes from orient.

So what happened with the two I mentioned before?  Easy.  Someone didn’t know the right base verb, and they made an assumption based on how they knew other verbs worked.  Guy Deutscher argues that this force of analogy is one that helps to not only create new words (my spell check has no issue with orientate, for example) but that this is, in fact, a very good candidate for how complex language structures came into being.

Words and language can be so much fun!

Provocative Statements

Sometimes there are ways that things can be worded which create a very specific response in a reader.  For example, how would you respond to the following opening line?

The girl was clearly asking for it.

See what I mean?  While this doesn’t have to be a negative statement, it immediately puts certain images/connotations/responses in your mind!

As a writer, there are some reasons to use phrases like this, and some reasons to avoid them.  There may be times when you want to bring the “typical” response into a reader’s mind.  Putting someone in a specific emotional state, however minor, can be useful.  In the case of the sentence in question, it can generate suspicion of the narrator or character with point of view, or it can unsettle someone enough to keep reading.  It also creates innuendo, because the reader is now in a potentially icky place and may take innocent things that follow in the wrong way.

That’s both a potential reason to use and reason to avoid.  It can be tricky to write something innocuous when your readers’ minds are already on a certain path.  You also run the risk of offending a reader; sometimes a positive, but it is usually not a great idea if you want to keep your readers.

I happen to like the concept of using a phrase like this and then shaking the reader’s expectations by following it with something that clarifies and makes innocent the words that, on their own, have no weight of negative.

She couldn’t even talk, or at least hadn’t spoken to me, but her outstretched hand and giant, pleading eyes made the message plain.  When I handed her the bright pink carnation, the grin that crossed her face confirmed it; she’d wanted the flower all along.

Not what you were expecting, was it?

Can you think of any other phrases that might work like this one, creating an immediate gut reaction which may not be warranted or accurate?

Under the Weather

I love to contemplate words and their usage, especially when they are applicable to my own life.  Feeling a bit ill myself, I have found sick to be an interesting word and concept.

First, there is the fact that this is one of the things in the English language for which there are many euphemisms.  Under the weather.  Not myself.  Less than 100 percent.  Feeling poorly.  (Or the kid version: I don’t feel good.)

The other interesting thing is that “sick” is a somewhat blanket concept.  I am sick right now because I have a sinus infection with a secondary ear infection.  A person is sick if their digestive tract is not their friend, in either direction, or if they are trying to cough up a lung.  It’s kind of odd though; you wouldn’t refer to someone with a broken leg as sick.  Perhaps there is a requirement for some level of perceived ick factor on which the concept of ill or sick hinges; maybe you need mucus or blood or some other bodily fluid involved to count as sick.

Since I am fighting off whatever microscopic being has decided to invade my sinuses and ears, I think some sleep is in order.  Hopefully my ear won’t feel like it’s stuffed full of cotton balls tomorrow.  🙂

Words, Just for Fun

Just for fun, here are some words that I think are awesome!

Non sequitur – something that isn’t really related to the thing that came before it.  For example, “Bob sent me flowers at work, a dozen roses.  Why did you open the window?”

Colloquial – a word or phrase that is a step up from slang; often one that is more commonly used by a specific region or generation.

Filial – related to family, especially an offspring-type relationship.  “He had to go to his dad’s party to fulfill a filial obligation.”

Lassitude – a fancy way of describing someone who is lying around, either because they are sick or because they are relaxing.  “The combination of the hammock and the sun filled her with lassitude.”



For some unknown reason, I used the word “wicked” somewhat excessively today, specifically in the context of cold.  “It was wicked cold,” I said frequently.  (It was, both today and Saturday, which were the days under discussion.)  This got me to thinking about the word wicked, since it has several official meanings, some of which are opposites.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, there are four definitions of wicked.  The first is the expected definition, meaning evil.  The second and third are related to this, but not specifically related to morality.  One is “fierce” or “marked by mischief.”  The other is “unpleasant” or causing distress.  (That would be the wicked cold of South Dakota in January.)  All of these are typically bad.

It’s the fourth definition that has some room for the interpretation and leaves the possibility for a positive spin on wicked.  The exact definition is “going beyond reasonable or predictable limits” which could be good or bad. This would be the “wicked” of admiring fans of extreme sports or impressed young men in British movies.

As I think about it, the cold today was “beyond reasonable limits” and “evil,” at least in my opinion.  Maybe those definitions aren’t too far different, after all.

And apparently it makes me sound like I’m from Canada. 😉

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