Eke-words

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These days, we usually hear the word concerted as part of the phrase, concerted effort, and it seems to be used generally to mean intensive, or vigorous.  Properly (or, at any rate, historically, for all you anti-prescriptionists out there), concerted means done in concert; co-operative; mutually contrived, undertaken, or performed.

American labor law preserves this meaning in the phrase, concerted action, meaning common action by workers for their mutual benefit or protection.  In order for a worker to be protected (supposedly) against reprisal by the employer, his or her action must be concerted:  it must be performed in concert with other workers, not by one worker alone.

Of course, in concert these days most often means, in “live” performance (as opposed to being recorded in the studio), so that we get stand-up comedians performing “in concert” by themselves.

I won’t go so far as to say that it’s wrong to use concert (or, for that matter, concerted) that way; but I do say that it’s best to keep words comfortably close to their historical meanings.  Language evolves, and all that; but in an age in which millions of paid praters generate verbiage for hire, and innovation is valued for its own sake, the accelerated metamorphosis of the language may take on the character of metastasis, and become a thing to be resisted.  (When that’s the case and when it’s not is a topic for another day.)

As things stand, concerted is in danger of becoming what I’ll call an eke-wordi.e., a word like eke, which has lost all contact with its historical meaning.  Eke, once upon a time, meant to augment, to supplement.  The phrase, to eke out a living, meant to supplement one’s income by some collateral activity, as in,

The poor curate eked out a living with a monthly column on gardening in the local newspaper.

In other words, the curate made a living—from being a curate—and he supplemented that—he eked it out—with what he received for writing for the paper.

Today, however, almost nobody uses eke to mean augment.  (By the way, eke and the aug- in augment both probably come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, aug-, meaning, to increase.  Compare German auch, Dutch ook, both meaning also.)  These days, eke means something like to squeezeto extract with difficulty, as in, “Carolina eked out a win over U.Va.”  Maybe it’s because eke sounds like squeak, I don’t know.

What I do know is that eke is never going back to meaning supplement in ordinary speech:  it’s almost completely detached from its historical meaning, and only language nerds like me even remember what its historical meaning was.  Concerted seems to be headed the same way, but maybe there’s time to save it.  Anybody want to save it?

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Modern Memos

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E-mail message circulated at a big New York law firm recently:

Good morning –
Tonight we are hosting a semi-annual morale event for the paralegals.  The event will take place from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm and is a great way for the firm to show its appreciation to the paralegals for all of their hard work.
As such, please do your best to relieve your paralegals from their overtime projects this evening.  .  .  .
Thank you.

(Emphasis supplied.)

Three observations:

1.  A nice party for the staff, it seems, is now a morale event.  Could HR possibly get more impersonal?

2.  The writer seems to think that <as such> means something to the effect of, “that being the case”.

Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary defines <such> as an adjective meaning,

1 a : of a kind or character to be indicated or suggested <a bag such as a doctor carries>
b : having a quality to a degree to be indicated <his excitement was such that he shouted>
2 : of the character, quality, or extent previously indicated or implied <in the past few years many such women have shifted to full-time jobs>
3 : of so extreme a degree or quality <never heard such a hubbub>
4 : of the same class, type, or sort <other such clinics throughout the state>
5 : not specified [e.g., I gather, <got it from such and such a person>];

and as a pronoun meaning,

1 : such a person or thing
2 : someone or something stated, implied, or exemplified <such was the result>
3 : someone or something similar : similar persons or things <tin and glass and such>.

In connection with which it gives this helpful illustration:

as such
: intrinsically considered : in itself <as such the gift was worth little>

3.  Doesn’t it seem a bit presumptuous to put a request and thanks in the same memo?  The writer doesn’t even say, “Thank you in advance,” as a way of expressing confidence that the recipient will cheerfully comply with the request.  The fact, though, is that Americans have reduced “Thank you” in this context to a meaningless cordiality like “Yours truly”.  The writer isn’t thanking anybody at all:  he’s merely signing off in a manner that vaguely indicates good will towards the reader.

What the BBC Has Come To

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Razia Iqbal of BBC World Service interviews Tom Bird of the Globe Theatre, London, Wednesday, 23 April 2014:

Iqbal:  Wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot . . . ?

Bird:  Y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know.

Iqbal:  And, and, and, and, and, and, and, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot, wot . . . ?

Bird:  Y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know, y’know.

I think there were some other words thrown in there, but that’s the gist of it.

Speaking of directions . . . .

She periodically stops to ask for directions from men, then offers them a ride and beckons them to follow her as she removes her clothes and sidles backward.

Stephen Holden, “A Much Darker Hitchhiker’s Guide: Scarlett Johansson as a Deadly Alien in ‘Under the Skin’”, New York Times, 4 April 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/movies/scarlett-johansson-as-a-deadly-alien-in-under-the-skin.html?src=dayp

Ouch!

Of the new movie, “Noah”:

Whenever you depict a religious figure, this kind of pricks up the eyes and ears of a certain kind of audience . . . .

Senior lecturer in screen studies Rajinder Dudrah, University of Manchester, on Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, 22 March 2013.

A Duck and a Girl Duck

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On this week’s This American Life, Ben Loory tells a story about a duck that falls in love with a rock.  Another duck, a “girl duck”, feels sorry for the first duck and befriends him.

Loory evidently forgets that every duck is a girl duck.  A boy duck is a drake.  Loory’s story is about a drake that falls in love with a rock.

We’re used to regarding the male as the archetype for a species:  lion, peacock, wolf.  We used to do the same with our own species. That has become politically unacceptable, but apparently not in the case of ducks:  Loory doesn’t identify his lovelorn duck as a boy duck.  For him, duck is presumptively masculine, or perhaps duck is presumptively male.  (That’s an important distinction, but pursuing it would take us too far afield.)

With domestic animals, we’ve historically used as the archetype whichever sex was most useful or familiar to us, which was sometimes the female, as with cows and geese, except in cases where the immature (and therefore effectively sexless) animal is the one that interests us most:  chicken, pig.  (Though I gather that while Americans raise chickens, Englishmen raise hens.)

With several animals, both sexes are equally useful, so we have names for each that are separate from the name of the species: ram, ewe; stallion, mare; boar, sow; Tom, Moggie; Jack, Jenny.  (I originally included hounds—dog, bitch—in that category, but the etymology of dog is mysterious, and although it is now used to designate males of other species, such as seals, I can’t prove that it ever referred specifically to the canine male.)  Oddly enough, a thousand years ago, we did the same thing for ourselves in Old English:  man meant a human being of either sex, while the male and female of the species were wer and wif, respectively.  Wif survives as wife, but wer has almost disappeared.  Its only remnant is in werewolf, where, paradoxically, it seems to mean human being, not merely male human being.  (There’s also the archaic legal term, weregild, where, again, it seems to include both sexes.)  Somehow, the generic term, man came to refer primarily to the male of the species, and only secondarily to the species as a whole; but that’s a topic for another day.  (One would think that a term that applies to the whole species ought to be the specific term, while the generic term should refer to gender.  One would be wrong.  English is seldom simple.)

Nobody seems to have much to say about drakes anymore, or ganders, for that matter.  I don’t know why.