Saturday, May 31, 2008

Word of the Week: kip

The other night I was on a sail boat coming back from a race when someone mentioned “heaving to”, which is a particular way of setting the sails. I had heard of it -- and had an idea of how you go about it -- but I never knew why you’d do it. Since none of us had ever done it, the skipper decided we should try it.

Though it was a very windy night, heaving to stabilized the boat almost immediately. After we completed the maneuver I asked why someone would do it and one of my fellow crewmembers said, “Oh, it’s a great thing to do if you’re out by yourself and you’ve been sailing for a long time and you want to get a bit of a kip, you just heave to and go below.”

A kip? I’d never heard that word. From the context I gathered it meant a nap -- but I wasn’t sure. So, of course, as soon as I got home I looked it up. I smiled when I read the second entry listed for the word on

1. bed (ready for the kip after this screwball day -- K. M. Dodson) 2 chiefly British : sleep, nap (roused the…family from their kip -- Sylvia Margolis)

What made me smile was the notation indicating that it’s mainly a British expression. Given who had used the term -- an older Canadian of British origin -- that made perfect sense.

I decided kip should be word of the week not just because it’s a word I learned this week, but because the dictionary entry reminded me that when trying to derive the meaning from the context, it can be useful to look at context in the bigger picture -- not just the sentence a word is used in, but things like who used the word.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Word of the Week: careen

If you’re like me (and everyone else I informally polled about this) -- any time you’ve heard the word careen, it's followed by “out of control” -- as in: The car careened out of control. Given this usage, my curiosity was piqued by an article in's e-magazine titled: The Delicate Art of Careening, especially given that the photo that accompanied it showed a sail boat lying on its side!

The article starts with an anecdote about when the author accidentally ran his sailboat aground outside Costa Rica. As the tide rolled out, the boat slipped further and further onto its side. Figuring other sailboats nearby probably had their binoculars trained on his little mishap, the author decided to make the best of it by pretending he had intentionally “careened” his boat. When the tide rolled completely out, and with his boat safely resting on its side, he scrambled off and began scraping the barnacles and slime off the keel and touching up the paint on the waterline.

Because I had always associated careening with being out of control, the idea of careening something intentionally just didn’t seem right, so I looked it up. Boy was I surprised when I found that, in fact, his usage was bang on. Here’s’s definition:

careen transitive verb 1: to put (a ship or boat) on a beach especially in order to clean, caulk, or repair the hull 2: to cause to heel over intransitive verb 1 a: to careen a boat b: to undergo this process 2: to heel over 3: to sway from side to side : lurch (a careening carriage being pulled wildly…by a team of runaway horses — J. P. Getty)

I never knew that careening related to boats (nor did anyone in my little straw poll, many of whom are fellow sailors). Well, regardless of the fact that apparently you can intentionally careen, I must say, I still hope no one ever has reason to use my name and careen in the same sentence!!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ahh, the things that end up in court ...

It's not every day you read about a law suit over a word -- but some suits are filed. Howard Richler wrote an entertaining article in the Toronto Star the other day about some residents of the Greek island of Lesbos who are "suing the association Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece for using the word "lesbian" in its name."

I can't help wonder whether the lawyers on the case are working on a contingency basis. My guess is they're not!

suggestion and put their efforts, instead, into a campaign to have island residents start to refer to themselves as In any event, if I were the judge, I think I'd just urge those who brought the suit to accept Richler'sLesbonians.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A must-read book about e-mail!!

I recently read Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. I have to admit, I bought it -- in part -- because I couldn’t imagine a whole book about e-mail (which I still hyphenate, despite how Shipley and Schwalbe spell it). I was also curious to read it because I usually (briefly) discuss e-mail in my writing seminars and I wondered whether my advice differed markedly from what others were saying.

Before reading the book I didn’t know anything about the authors. Turns out David Shipley is the deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed page editor of The New York Times and Will Schwalbe is the senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books. So, there's no doubt that they have the journalism/writing/editing expertise to warrant paying attention to what they have to say about this (relatively new) form of written communication.

I was quite pleased to see that many of the points I raise in my seminars are covered in the book, and that Shipley and Schwalbe offer essentially the same advice I do regarding the topics I cover. For example, I recommend that people write substantive subject lines. I urge people to do this for a number of reasons, including the fact that it helps readers locate specific e-mails later. I also advocate changing the subject line (even if you had simply hit “reply”) if you’re changing the subject or including new information in the reply -- same rationale applies. Shipley and Schwalbe advise the same thing (pages 83-84).

I especially loved the discussion of tone and how, whether the writer’s aware of it or not, e-mail often conveys a tone. As they say on page 9: “If you don’t consciously insert tone into an email, a kind of universal default tone won’t automatically be conveyed. Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties.”

A few paragraphs later Shipley and Schwalbe offer what I think is some of the best advice in the whole book (page 9): “Email demands, then, that we figure out who we are in relation to the person we’re writing and that we get our tone right from the outset -- but this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. …”

I could go on and on about the book, but instead, I urge you to read it. It offers great advice mixed in with a healthy dose of the sociology and psychology of a particular tool that has -- and is -- changing the way we communicate with each other.

[If you're interested in more from this book, I also featured a passage from it in an earlier posting: Word of the Week: please.]

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Word of the Week: conflate

I was watching Bill Moyers Journal the other day and one of his guests, Christopher Edley, used a word I’d never head before: conflate. Curios about the word, I jotted it down and looked it up afterward. Here’s how my dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)) defines it:

conflate: to combine or mix (two variant readings into a single text, etc.)

After looking up the word, I went on Bill Moyers Journal’s web site to see if I could find some background about Christopher Edley. (I had missed the introduction on the show.) Turns out he’s dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley. (I was pretty sure he was an academic, I just didn’t know what discipline.)

On the web site there’s a video of the discussion and the transcript. I scrolled through the transcript to find conflate because I wanted to see whether I could tell what it meant from the context in which Edley used it. Here’s the relevant section:

CHRIS EDLEY: I believe that she [Hillary Clinton] conflated two different ideas. She conflated the campaign rhetoric about hard-working Americans with the dry demographic analysis of the voting patterns. And she stuck those two things together in a simple phrase, which made it seem uglier than anything that was in her heart. …”

Had I read this instead of just heard it, I probably wouldn’t have had to look the word up, as Dean Edley pretty much defined it for us. Neat, eh?

Mind you, though I’m featuring conflate as Word of the Week, I’m not suggesting you necessarily make it part of your everyday vocabulary. I say keep it for special occasions -- like the next time you find yourself chatting with Bill Moyers.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Word of the Week: please

Word of the Week isn’t just about the meanings of words, or the misuse of them. Word of the Weeks is about human communication using words.

This week I was reading a great book called SEND, The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. There’s lot of great stuff in the book and I plan on doing a separate blog posting about it, but there was one particular passage about the word please that I loved and knew immediately was something appropriate for Word of the Week.

The passage (pages 127-128) is so eloquent there’s nothing I can say that would be nearly as clever or accurate – so I simply offer it here for your enjoyment:

Please, Thank You, and Other Insulting Terms

Common sense might tell you that adding “please” or “thank you” to an email will always make it more polite. Common sense would be wrong.

“Would you please remember to include me on the email whenever you respond to a customer?” conveys a sense of exasperation. You’ve been told this before, it says. Why can’t you remember this? Is it so hard?

“Please” is a slippery word. Even though we are taught, from a very young age, to use it whenever we want something, it’s almost impossible to use in writing without coming across as obnoxious. The best option is simply to omit it. “Remember to include me…” works just fine. (Strangely, the abbreviation “pls.” doesn’t seem to convey this frosty tone, although obviously it can be used only in informal communication.)

“Thank you” is much less tricky if you remember a simple rule. It’s appropriate after a favor, snotty when used before. “Thank you for making sure I got the report” works nicely. “Than you for making sure I get the report” has an edge to it because it’s a command crudely cloaked in premature gratitude.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Word of the Week: bannock

A couple weeks ago I wrote about gormless, a word that came up in a book review in the Toronto Star. I was annoyed at being side-tracked in my reading by a word I didn’t know. In that post I mentioned that I don’t mind looking up words, which is true. (The fact that I run “Word of the Week” is an indication of my fascination with words and language, and of my general interested in learning new words.)

The point I was making by writing about gormless was that the writer could easily have used a more common word instead (like “slow-witted” or “stupid”, which is how my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.) defines it). Indeed, I couldn’t help feel that one of the main reasons the writer used the word was to impress the reader with her vocabulary. But, in doing that, she also risked alienating readers, which a writer should not take lightly. Had I been the newspaper’s copy editor, I would have changed the word.

So, that brings us to this week’s word of the week: bannock. Here’s how my Webster’s defines it: a thick, flat cake made of oatmeal or barley meal baked on a griddle.

Bannock came to my attention recently when I was reading “Three Day Road”, a captivating novel by Joseph Boyden. The story is about two young Cree who grew up together and went off to World War I. The word came up a few times and from the context I could tell it was a type of food. When I finished the book, I decided to look it up -- mainly to see whether it was a food that was particularly associated with natives. (Like pemmican, which, as someone American born, I had never heard of but which all Canadians I've come across seem to know. For those interested, pemmican is a concentrated food that Hudson’s Bay fur traders learned to make from the natives. It's made of dried meat (typically Buffalo) and fat (about a 50/50 ratio!) and sometimes dried fruit is added.)

Anyway, I didn’t object to looking up bannock (as I did with having to look up gormless) because when you read a novel you're doing so to be entertained and enriched, so coming across a new word is part of the adventure of such reading. When reading a newspaper article, however, you're reading to get information and the use of highbrow words -- especially when a very simple, straightforward word would do just as well -- is an unwelcome distraction.