Dennis Miller said the expression “thinking outside the box” has gotten stale. He’s right. Not good for a once-snappy saying about not being stale. But instead of thinking up a newer, fresher metaphor, how about no metaphor at all? Next time you’re in a meeting, just tell everyone to try to think of something new. Then at least they won’t get stuck thinking about boxes or pushing envelopes.
Someone referred to Parvum Opus as “picayune and opinionated”. Picayune means small and unimportant, not picky, and I think the writer meant picky, even though parvum does mean small. Picayune is a Carib word, oddly enough, according to dict.org, yet pickaninny, a small black child, supposedly comes from the Spanish or Portuguese for small, pequeno (imagine a tilde over the n), and of course is now considered offensive. As Ambrose Bierce defined it a century ago in The Devil’s Dictionary, “The young of the Procyanthropos, or Americanus dominans. It is small, black and charged with political fatalities.” I couldn’t find a meaning for the prefix procy- (searches keep turning up proxy) but it’s interesting that Bierce coined Americanus dominans for this definition. Note that The Devil’s Dictionary, being out of copyright, appears on some web sites, but not all of them include the fatal pickaninny.
Cognates of the term appear in other languages and cultures, presumably also derived from the Portuguese word, and it is not controversial or derogatory in these contexts. It is in widespread use in Melanesian pidgin and creole languages such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea, as the word for "child" (or just young, as in the phrase pikinini pik, meaning piglet). In certain dialects of Caribbean English, the words pickney and pickney-negger are used to refer to children. Also in Sierra Leone Krio the term pikín refers to child or children. In Nigerian and Cameroonian Pidgin English, the term used is picken. In Chilapalapa, a pidgin language used in Southern Africa, the term used is pikanin. In Surinamese Sranan Tongo the term pikin may refer to children as well as to small or little.
Also, just so you’ll know, the word hermaphrodite is now considered not just passe but offensive, according to Oprah. People who are born with physical or genetic characteristics of both sexes (rather than psychological or sartorial proclivities) are to be called by the more medical-sounding term “intersexual”. Hermaphrodite combines (or is the offspring of) Hermes and Aphrodite, male and female Greek deities, respectively. I can see why people would go for the scientific-sounding word but why should this old word be offensive? “Intersexual” is kind of a come-down from Greek gods.
So many harmless words are now considered offensive simply because they’ve been used at times by unfriendly people. Sooner or later all words will be forbidden.
Bryan Garner daily e-mail on English usage was apropos the other day ~ from 1947:
We deeply sympathize, as individuals, with the development of better understanding among all groups, but we do not think that in this country there should be any groups, as was the intention of its Founders, and we deplore, as individuals, the development of group consciousness... . Nowadays, publishers are under pressure from all sorts of groups. What if they should trim their books to suit every point of view and every element of religious and racial pride? What, then, would remain of that one relatively free realm left, the republic of letters?
Letter of Maxwell E. Perkins (4 June 1947) (as quoted in Editors on Editing 306, 306 (Gerald Gross ed., rev. ed. 1985)).
Politicians used to utter inoperative truths or misspeak; now they’re inartful. But that’s not the word that even they want. Read William Safire’s excellent piece on the meaning of inartful, remembering that artful practically means Machiavellian.
One must read widely and carefully to grasp the nuances of word variants. The core word here, art, can take various prefixes and suffixes, as in artless, artful, inartful. But tacking on a positive or negative appendage doesn’t simply create a positive or negative variant. Historically, the various word forms traveled different paths. Art itself has various connotations: human invention can be creative or deceptive. Inartful does not mean artless (ingenuous, lacking guile), especially when applied to politicians. Politicians’ handlers oughtn’t to suggest that they would have been more artful if they could (though that’s the truth).
Here’s a mnemonic device for pre- and suffixes, a cute-kid quote heard on the radio: “That’s so outportant! ~ You know, the opposite of important.” Logical, but wrong.
Talula Does the Hula
New Zealanders seem to be suffering from having to live upside-down on the opposite side of the globe. The blood pools in their brains and it shows in the names some of them give their children, like Talula Does the Hula. It’s gotten so bad that birth registration officials have blocked some names, such as Fish and Chips, Yeah Detroit, Keenan Got Lucy, and Sex Fruit, but they allowed Number 16 Bus Shelter and Violence. OK, I was a hippy and gave my sons unusual names, but they were ancient saints’ names.
Engaging with Text for Fun
The New York Times ran an article called “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” about whether “engaging with text” on the Internet is reading or is replacing reading. Someone named “they” said that fewer teens read books for fun (as if that’s all books are for) and that kids can’t be expected to read To Kill a Mockingbird or Pride and Prejudice for fun. This is the result of parents and kids believing that learning must be fun or it won’t occur. I met a woman today who said her 11-year-old son is just beginning to hate her, quite naturally, and one of the things he hates is that he’s taking Latin, which isn’t fun. Fred didn’t think Latin was fun when he took four years of it in high school, but now he says it was one of the most important courses he ever had. If he hadn’t worked at it then, he wouldn’t be buying and reading Latin books now for fun, which he has been for weeks.
I can’t remember when I read To Kill a Mockingbird but I was reading “serious” fiction by the time I hit puberty. I didn’t really appreciate Jane Austen, though, till I was maybe around 30. Also around that time, an older man mentioned Anthony Trollope to me and when I said I’d never been able to get through a Trollope novel, he said, “Maybe when you’re older” and I flippantly (and rudely) said I didn’t think I wanted to be that old. But I’m old enough now. I guess it’s time to hit the library.
Herb H. corrected me on “No one can underestimate the scale of the challenge that climate change represents.” I do think it’s a sort of double negative, which is usually best avoided, and I also think “the scale of” is redundant. The writer meant that the challenge will always be bigger than you think, or that everyone underestimates it, or something like that. But, but I was hasty, careless, and wrong, in analyzing the logic of the sentence. Herb wrote:
If one underestimates the scale of the challenge, then one estimates the scale to be lower than it really is. If the scale has any appreciable magnitude, then one CAN INDEED estimate it to be lower. The only way the condition can be met, that no one can underestimate the scale, is that the true dimension of the scale is minuscule so that no one could estimate it lower than it really is.
He’s right. The writer should have said, “No one can overestimate the scale of the challenge”, which is undoubtedly why Mike Sykes sent it as a bad example in the first place.
It’s also true that “scale” here is used colloquially and imprecisely to mean “big size” rather than a measurement of size (just as “size” sometimes means largeness and “quality” means good).
Fred, by the way, wrote a 2,800-word letter to his friend Herb on it. I’ll pass it on to anyone who’s interested.
Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at http://www.geocities.com/keithops/. Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.