Saturday, July 26, 2008

Word of the Week: lexpionage

It certainly comes as no surprise to me that there are lots of people as interested in words as I am. That said, I was surprised when I came upon Word Spy, a web site devoted to "lexpionage", which it describes as "sleuthing of new words and phrases". To make it onto Word Spy the word (or phrase) has to have appeared multiple times in newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites and other recorded sources.

I don't know who's behind the site, but it's a neat idea and fun to scroll through and see how creative some folks are with words. So, enjoy...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Word of the Week: boreal

Ontario will protect a huge swath of its northern boreal forest in an effort to fight climate change and save polar bears and other threatened species.” When I read this in an article in the Toronto Star on July 14, 2008, I thought to myself, “Gee, I wonder what kind of trees are in a “boreal forest”."

My confusion continued the next day (July 15th) when I read the lead in another story (by the same writer) in the Toronto Star. This one started out, “Ontario has made the largest conservation commitment in Canadian history, setting aside at least half the Northern Boreal region -- 225,000 square kilometres -- for permanent protection from development…”. Hmmm… capital N, capital B -- sounds like it’s a proper name. Now I’m really confused.

Unfortunately, an editorial on July 15th in the Toronto Star didn’t clear up my confusion -- it actually added to it. Here’s the first line of it: “For most Ontarians, the vast boreal forest that blankets the province's far north is little more than an abstraction.”

That makes me think (again) that a boreal forest is a type of forest. So, after that, I did what I should have done the first time I read about the boreal forest. I looked up boreal. Here’s how defines boreal: 1: of, relating to, or located in northern regions (boreal waters) 2: of, relating to, or comprising the northern biotic area characterized especially by dominance of coniferous forests.

Given this definition, my view is that unless the "Northern Boreal" forest is a proper name for a region, it’s redundant to refer to it as that, and it’s also redundant to tell readers that the boreal forest blankets the province’s far north -- where else would it be?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Word of the Week: altercation

A friend and I were driving and listening to the local news on the radio. One of the news stories was about a guy who was killed the previous night. Along with telling us where he was found, the newscaster also mentioned that the deceased had been in an altercation earlier in the evening. No other information was given, but my friend and I took this additional bit of information to mean that the fact he was involved in an altercation had something to do with his death.

Immediately after that news story my friend asked me the definition of altercation. I said I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was a fight -- a physical fight. My friend wasn’t sure, but he tended to agree with me. Both of us agreed that, in any event, “altercation” was vague.

When I got home, I looked altercation up. Here’s how defines it: “a noisy heated angry dispute; also: noisy controversy synonyms: see quarrel.

Clearly, I was wrong in thinking an altercation is a physical fight -- it is verbal. That being the case, it would have been lots clearer (to more listeners, I’d venture to say) had the newscaster simply said the guy got into a heated argument earlier in the evening.

So, the question I couldn't help wonder was why the newscaster didn't use argument instead? Did he think listeners would've thought less of him if he'd used a simpler, more widely-understood word? I don't think many would have minded. Indeed, if anything, I think more listeners would simply have understood what he said and would have listened for the next news item, rather than get distracted (like my friend and I did) trying to figure out what he meant.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Word of the Week: bloviate

The following is from a recent Toronto Star editorial about a Supreme Court of Canada case on free speech:
"In an on-air commentary, Rafe Mair, an ex-politician turned bloviator for a Vancouver radio station, compared Kari Simpson, an anti-gay activist, to Hitler, among others. She sued him on the grounds that his remarks suggested she condones violence against gays and were, therefore, defamatory. The British Columbia court of appeal sided with the plaintiff, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling. ...

"That's good news for talk-show hosts, newspaper columnists, bloggers ... and editorial writers."

I had certainly heard the word bloviate before, and, given the context in which it was used, I was pretty sure I knew what it meant. But, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it used in print. What I wondered was whether it’s a relatively new word -- like blog and blogosphere -- that’s now made its way into common usage -- or at least common enough for use in editorials.

So I looked it up. According to, bloviate means “to speak or write verbosely and windily”. The definition didn't surprse me; what did, however, was that it is hardly a new word. Indeed, according to it is “circa 1879”. So, I guess we can’t blame talk radio and the Internet for creating bloviators -- just for giving them a more wide-reaching forum.