Word of the Day

Thursday, June 25, 2020

mondegreen

[ mon-di-green ]

noun

a word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of another word or phrase, especially in a song or poem.

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What is the origin of mondegreen?

The trouble with mondegreens is that they are usually so hysterically funny that you cannot stop citing examples of them instead of describing their “taxonomy” and history. Mondegreen was coined by the U.S. writer and humorist Sylvia Wright (1917-81), who wrote in an article in Harper’s Magazine: “When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: ‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen,’” the last line being a child’s mishearing and consequent misunderstanding of “laid him on the green.” Ms. Wright persisted in her idiosyncratic version because the real words were less romantic than her own (mis)interpretation in which she always imagined the Bonnie Earl o’ Moray dying beside his faithful lover Lady Mondegreen.

how is mondegreen used?

We’ve been misunderstanding song lyrics for decades, Elton John’s “hold me closer, Tony Danza”—er, “tiny dancer”—­included. These funky musical mishearings even have their own name: mondegreens.

Sara Kiley Watson, "This is why you mishear popular song lyrics," Popular Science, January 23, 2020

We still have mondegreen moments. Even though I know Creedence Clearwater Revival is singing, “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” lately it sounds suspiciously like “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

Liane Kupferberg Carter, "We've celebrated our 35th anniversary with an usual gift: His-and-hers hearing aids," Washington Post, December 18, 2016

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

withershins

[ with-er-shinz ]

adverb

Chiefly Scot.

in a direction contrary to the natural one, especially contrary to the apparent course of the sun or counterclockwise: considered as unlucky or causing disaster.

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What is the origin of withershins?

All you have to remember is that withershins (or widdershins) is the exact opposite of deasil, and you’ll get back home all safe and sound. Withershins is an adverb meaning “going contrary to the natural direction, contrary to the course of the sun, counterclockwise (and therefore unlucky).” Deasil, from Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic deiseal “to the right, clockwise, following the sun,” is restricted to Scots. Withershins comes from Middle Low German weddersins, weddersinnes “against the way, in the opposite direction,” formed from wider “back, again” (cognate with the prefix with– in withstand) and sinnes, the genitive case (used as an adverb) of sin “way, course, direction.” Withershins entered English in the first half of the 16th century.

how is withershins used?

The fishermen, when about to proceed to the fishing, think they would have bad luck, if they were to row the boat “withershins” about.

The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol. XV, 1845

Abel had walked slowly around the outside of the building, first clockwise and then withershins, but there was still no sign of his quarry, and the rest of the lower hollow was just as empty. 

Kate Sedley, The Brothers of Glastonbury, 1997

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

ad hominem

[ ad hom-uh-nuhm -nem, ahd‐ ]

adjective

attacking an opponent's character or motives rather than answering the argument or claim.

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What is the origin of ad hominem?

The phrase ad hominem, literally “to a person,” originally meant in rhetoric and logic “by appealing to the audience’s feelings, emotions, or interests, not to their intelligence or reason.” Nowadays the usual meaning of ad hominem is “by attacking an opponent’s character or motives, not their arguments.” Hominem, the object of the preposition ad “to,” is the accusative singular case of the Latin noun homō (inflectional stem homin-) “human being (of either sex), individual, person.”Homō is also used colloquially in Roman comedy (Plautus): Mī homō et mea mulier, vōs salūtō, literally “My man and my woman, I greet you.” In the example from Plautus we can clearly see that homō “man” is contrasted with mulier “woman.” In fact, all the Romance languages use a form of homin– to mean “man” as opposed to woman, e.g., Italian uomo, Spanish hombre (dissimilated from omne, which is contracted from omine), Portuguese homem, Catalan home, French homme, Sardo (Sardinian) omine, and Romanian om. The unpleasant counterpart ad fēminam “appealing to one’s personal feelings about or prejudices against women,” appeared in the 19th century. Ad hominem entered English in the 16th century.

how is ad hominem used?

In the case of online harassment, that instinctive preference for “free speech” may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad-hominem abuse.

Kefela Sanneh, "The Hell You Say," The New Yorker, August 3, 2015

Greta Thunberg, at age 16, has quickly become one of the most visible climate activists in the world. Her detractors increasingly rely on ad hominem attacks to blunt her influence.

Scott Waldman, E&E News, "Climate Deniers Launch Personal Attacks on Teen Activist," Scientific American, August 9, 2019

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