Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Useless New Word and a Picture of a Duckling

I honestly love English. I love the breadth of its vocabulary. Dozens of synonyms exist alongside each other, but often one word can encapsulate the exact concept you have in your head. It’s messy, as far as languages go, but it’s rich — like a tangled jungle where all manner of wild things can grow. English doesn’t have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. (As The Economist points out, that’s… just not a thing, when you think about it logically.) But it does offer some options to its speakers, and I’m proud to specialize in the language that affords speakers not just purple and violet but also indigo and magenta and mauve and lavender and freaking palatinate.

Still, sometimes it fails us. There are the autoantonyms. On the subject of color, there’s sinople, a word that basically no one ever uses but can refer to either red or green, depending on the context. There’s shelled, as in shelled pistachios, which you think would work in a straightforward fashion but I found does not, necessarily, when I asked a clerk at Trader Joe’s about them.
Him: Shelled pistachios? Like, pistachios with their shells on?

Me: No. Shelled pistachios as in pistachios that have their shells removed.

Him: So they’re shelled if they don’t have their shells on?

Me: Yes, they’ve been shelled.

Him: That’s confusing.
It’s not confusing to most people, but when you approach the expression shelled pistachio like you’d never heard it before and instead along the lines of a clothed person or a covered bridge, yeah, it seems counterintuitive. (And yes, the Trader Joe’s clerk must have been new.)

And then there’s the trouble with describing time. It’s maybe one of English’s greatest failings, simply because we need to describe yet-to-occur events quite often, and English sucks at it. Biannual is probably the biggest offender, simply because an event could just as likely occur every two years as it could twice a year. Because biannual can mean either, you can almost never be sure in the context of any sentence which meaning was intended. Bimonthly can mean either twice a month or every two months, and I suppose events could occur on either schedule. You’d think that biweekly wouldn’t post such a problem, since we can’t evenly divide our seven-day week and therefore events would be less likely to occur twice a week, but no. When I ran the opinion desk at the college paper and hire regular columnists, I had to ban the word biweekly from all the ad copy, just because every single applicant asked whether they’d need to write two columns a week or one column every two weeks. The modified copy read every two weeks, even thought that’s less succinct. (Fortnightly was rejected on grounds of sounding affected and quaint.)

This is the ambiguity that people are attempting to solve with oxt, an invented word that means “not this coming one but the next one,” as in “We’ll kill them this weekend and then bury the bodies oxt weekend.” Despite having its own promotional website, I’m guessing oxt will go the way of Esperanto and the interrobang, even if it does solve a longstanding problem has resulted in too many people being all dressed up with nowhere to go.

And it’s with all this that I present a strange and wonderful word — the first new one in about a year.
hebdomadal (heb-DOM-uh-dul) — adjective: 1. taking place once every seven days. 2. a weekly magazine, newspaper or other publication.
Like I described it in the post title, it’s useless. Most people won’t know what hebdomadal means, and besides we already have the word weekly, which may be one of the English words that doesn’t benefit from a synonym. In fact, the Etymonline entry for hebdomadally calls it “pedantic humor.” But in its favor is the fact that this word — which comes from the Greek hebdomas, “the number seven; a period of seven days” — is perfectly exact. It will only ever refer to something that happens every seven days.

As useless as hebdomadal may be, a related word could actually solve the biweekly ambiguity. If oxt is being dangled out there, then hell, why not dekatesseral?

“We’d need columns from you on a dekatesseral basis, and if you can’t figure out what that means, we don’t want you.”

I suppose that might discriminate against the non-Greek applicants. So it goes.

And here, as promised, is that picture of the duck.

Previous words of the week after the jump.


  1. Anonymous3:16 PM

    There's also "second", which means "one" when relating to time, but "two" when relating to position.

    1. Well, the the time sense, "second" doesn't actually mean "one." It's just the smaller unit of time. In fact, it still kind of retains that "not first" meaning, in that "minute" (the noun) comes from "minute" (the adjective), with "second" (the noun) being the next division down -- the number two division, if you will. Oof, this is hard to explain.

  2. I thought I would never see that word again, but somehow on a training session of HR today, it was mentioned as something casual and everyone seemed to know what that means. And that was odd.

    1. That is indeed unexpected.

  3. Anonymous12:14 AM

    that's why we have "biEnnial" to clarify!