June 30, 2009

n. An abbreviation consisting of initial letters that are pronounced separately.

I find this to be an incredibly useful word that I came across a while ago.  Despite the fact that it is particularly useful in helping with pronunciation, few people I’ve met know it.

Unlike a standard acronym, an initialism is spelled out when spoken.  U.S.A. is an initialism while N.A.S.A. and SCUBA are not.  Plenty of times, I have come across an acronym and had no idea how to pronounce it.  Knowing whether or not it is an initialism solves the problem completely.


June 29, 2009

adj. of questionable authenticity; specious

William Safire defined this word in his weekly New York Times column, On Language, when questioning a possible origin of the phrase “Location, location, location.”  He defined the word to mean “of questionable authenticity.”  The definition seemed reasonable (I later found it was straight from the O.E.D., but something didn’t sit right with me.  Often I’ve said that something was apocryphal when I’ve meant that it was untrue.  Safire’s definition seems to suggest that the word means something is questionably true.  This is a major difference.

So, I did some basic dictionary hunting., which draws from the Random House Dictionary, offers “of doubtful authorship or authenticity” as its first definition.  As its third, it “false; spurious.”  This suggests a difference between the actual definition and the common use definition.

The Oxford American Dictionary (via my desktop widget) offers “of doubtful authenticity, although widely being circulated as being true.”  It then directed me to an interesting note under spurious, listing the fine distinction between several words meaning false or not what they appear.  It stressed: for something to be apocryphal it must be widely distributed but is still of doubtful origins.

It didn’t look very good for my definition of apocryphal as false.  However, continued search seemed to support me.  Merriam-Webster online had a strange and contradictory entry “of doubtful authenticity: spurious.” I found this problematic because spurious, by its own definition, means “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin.”  There is no doubt involved.  The O.E.D. is a little less vague, offering both of doubtful authenticity and spurious as definitions with a semi-colon, not a colon in between.

Additionally, the Latin origin of the word, apochryphus, was defined by Whitaker’s Words, as “spurious, not genuine/canonical.”  The Greek origin, according to Wikipedia, simply means “those having been hidden away,” casting no judgment as to whether or not their is truth to it.

The earliest usages of the word tacked in the O.E.D. come from the late 16th/early 17th century (oddly late, I thought), and they all imply little doubt that something apocryphal is false, to the point that it is almost fantastic or delusional.

I could go on, but the point is that there appears to be no clear consensus about the actual meaning of this word.  Although it is not quite an auto-antonym, the word does not give a very clear impression of its own meaning.  How sad.

Argumentum ad logicam

June 26, 2009

n. A logical fallacy that presumes the outcome is incorrect on the basis that the argument is incorrect.

A few days ago, I finally got around to watching Bill Maher’s documentary/screed Religulous, mostly just to see the interview with Reginald Foster. While I found the discussion of religion fascinating, I found Maher and his tactics despicable.  Under the pretense of open discourse, Maher set out to “debate” the religious world, not to move from a hypothesis to synthesis, but to prove that he is right.  Unfortunately, he also served as judge and jury considering he ultimately had the power of editing the tape.

If Maher’s attempt was to prove religion foolish, as a sort of film version of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, he was certainly guilty of committing the fallacy of argumentum ad logicamWikipedia informed me that this is also known as argument from fallacy or fallacy fallacy.  The idea is a basic one: one argues that an idea must be false simply because the given argument for that idea is false:

e.g. Theodore Roosevelt was a great president because he helped America out of the depression.

Theodore Roosevelt did not help America out of the depression, but that does not mean he was not a great president.  Maher chooses many unimpressive to people to defend religion with specious arguments, and then uses their specious arguments as grounds for arguing against religion.  At the end of the day, all he has truly proven is that some people who defend religion are rather unthinking.

Simply put, one can not choose to refute the weakest defender of something to be successful but must chose the greatest defender.

Obviously, I had unrealistic expectations for Maher, who ultimately is a comedian and demagogue at heart.  In addition to his argumentum ad logicam, he is clearly  guilty of ad hominum attacks (yes it is disturbing that Senator Mark Pryor makes up words, but that doesn’t mean that his argument is by definition wrong).  As a comedian, his most common weapon is the appeal to redicule: a specious attempt to prove your opponent wrong by making him seem foolish.

All of these things make good television, but if your point is to expose the unthinking nature of the religious world then you should use more thoughtful arguments.

P.S. An interesting website, and one I consulted in writing this, that discusses logical fallacies, is the Fallacy Files.


June 25, 2009

n. any of several piglike hoofed mammals of the genus Tayassu, of North and South America.

Thanks to the Random House dictionary for this definition, and thanks to John for today’s word.  In response to my question about the what sort of animal a peccadillo might resemble, John suggested a baby peccary.  I had never heard of such a thing, so I looked it up.  It looks like this.  I feel like I saw this guy (or his cousin) at the San Diego  Wild Animal Park but I’m not sure it was not some other sort of porcine creature (note the use of porcine, for while the peccary resembles a pig, it is not one).

According to Wikipedia, peccaries differ from pigs in that they are are omnivorous. Additionally, they are often called skunk pigs because of their smell.  Wikipedia also offers a picture of the rarely seen, and newly dubbed peccadillo with its mother (father?).


June 24, 2009

n. A small and relatively unimportant sin or offense.

This definition was taken from the Oxford American Dictionary.  It is a word whose meaning I always remember, but I would never think of using the word myself, partially because it is such a silly sounding word and far too close to an armadillo.  What would a peccadillo look like would that it were an animal?

Silly might be appropriate however, considering the definition.  A peccadillo is a venial sin, maybe even less; certainly it isnnothing to blow up about.  Maybe the word should sound whimsical.  On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be so nonchalant about venial sins, as in a sort of Broken Windows approach to sin.

Here is the interesting thing.  The word was brought to my intention by a New York Times article about Silvio Berlusconi.  “Berlusconi Pleads His Case as Tolerance of His Peccadilloes Wanes,” runs the headline.  Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy and owner/president of A.C. Milan, has made much news lately for attending 18th birthdays of pretty women and possibly paying women for his company, much to the shagrin of his wife.  When I went to find the article on the Times website, I couldn’t find it under the search of the word peccadillo.  They had removed it from the headline, which now reads “Berlusconi Pleads His Case as Italy’s  Tolerance Wanes.”  Hmm…

The question is, why remove the word? Could it be that some thought it was casting judgment on Berlusconi’s actions as sin? Could it be that others were upset that they were seen only as venial sins?


June 23, 2009

n. the property of being randomly determined so that one’s behavior can be analyzed statistically but not predicted precisely.

Today’s definition, which was reworded from the O.E.D., was the name of the most recent episode of N.P.R.’s wonderful show Radio Lab.  There seem to be plenty of synonyms for chance or randomness, but what I like about this one is the idea that there is a certain predictability to randomness.  As the episode of Radio Lab suggests, unlikely events occur quite predictably in a random world.  Here is a short story from the show to emphasize the point:

They described an experiment where the tester had two groups.  Group A was to flip a coin one hundred times and record the events.  Group B was to imagine flipping a coin one hundred time and record the imagined results.  When both groups finished, they wrote their results on the board (T, H, H, T, H, T, T, etc.).  The results of the two, at a layman’s glance, apparently looked quite similar.  The tester, however, immediately recognized which results belonged to which group.  The reason? Group A, early on, had a string of seven straight tails.  No one would imagine such a result, but statistically, there is a pretty good chance that it would happen (about one out of six if you flip a coin one hundred times and, I imagine, one out of three if you accepts seven straight heads as well).

This reminds me of the math equation to determine the odds that two people will share the same birthday.  If memory serves me correctly, it only takes a room of thirty-five people to make it more likely than not that two will share the same day.  I tested this in the days when I taught classes that large and it worked.

Hmm…is there a word for something that appears unlikely but is actually quite likely?