The rich and content-free educational jargon is not included here; these are words used by those desiring to express meaning, but failing.
Troubles with words like affect/effect, principal/principle, who/whom are common signs of the language-challenged individual. The more educated have different problems with vocabulary when they exceed their linguistic grasp, and sometimes it makes it difficult to understand what they mean. An unfamiliar word will be seen in context, and the context will be misunderstood, or the form of the word will suggest the wrong meaning. There is often confusion with a similar-sounding word. By whatever process, an intelligent person assigns an incorrect meaning to a word or phrase. Here are some words that are often misused in the United States by those of low word power trying to appear more erudite, like newspaper writers, the military, or government officials. All of these self-important people generally possess an exalted view of their limited vocabulary. I do not presume to tell people how to speak, I only observe what they say. These aren't the usual grammar bickerings, but concern words used without knowledge of their meanings, something quite different. Incidentally, I use Fowler's The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 4th edition, as a standard for current spelling and meaning.
O.K. was first used in the Boston Morning Post on 23 March 1839, according to the word sleuth Allen Walker Read. It means "Oll Korrect" in the alleged spelling of the uneducated who were always targets of American humor, which relied largely on personal insults. It was picked up the next year by the presidential campaign of Van, Van, the Used-up Man, who had a house named Old Kinderhook. It was not enough to overcome the threat of a Log Cabin and Hard Cider, the slogan of the Whigs for the distinguished man who lived in a mansion at North Bend, Ohio and was a teetotaler.
I have noticed lately more trouble with the relative pronoun who/whom. There is a good reason why the case is distinguished here. The object is generally pointed out in English by word order, but at the beginning of a relative clause the object may come first. Compare "I saw the man who I believe is the one you are seeking" and "I saw the man whom I believe you seek." In the first, it is "who is" and in the second "you seek whom." The relative takes the proper case for its clause. This is a clue for those who appreciate the case difference, but probably makes no sense at all to one who does not. I read today: "...goes after whomever is in office," which jars the word sense. A teacher might say "I shall give a prize to whomever spells the most words correctly." These words are being attracted into whoms by the main clause, both seeking an object, but the whole dependent clause is the object, not the relative! They sound like someone trying to be smart, but failing utterly. It is probably best to stick to "who" if in doubt, since this sounds more colloquial than erroneous, and is more often right than not.
- Spike: not the concrete noun, but the verb. Crude oil prices are often now said to "spike", but the writer only means "rise abruptly". To spike is not only to rise abruptly, but to fall abruptly soon after, so the graph of price against time resembles a sharp peak, or spike. Oil did spike several times, but now it is just rising steadily, not spiking.
- Fulsome: cloying, excessive, disgusting by excess. However, Fareed Zakaria says about Russian cooperation in Newsweek (5 May 2008) that "How fulsome is that likely to be...?". Not very, I suppose. What could he possibly mean? I can imagine a copy editor missing this in these days of Basic English. If he had written "probable" it might have made sense, but that's a long way from fulsome.
- Exponentially: does not mean simply rapidly; exponential growth is growth proportional to the amount of what is growing. Population grows exponentially. Consumer Reports (Jun 08, p. 46) says "aerodynamic drag increases exponentially the faster you drive". This is ignorant; it increases roughly as the square of the speed.
- Status quo: a previous condition, not the present one. "Maintain the status quo" makes one wonder "Before what?" The phrase comes from "status quo ante bellum," the way things were before the war. It is not currently used this way, of course, where it means the presently existing condition. In this meaning, status in quo would be better. In many cases, just "status" would be sufficient. For those who know Latin, the ablative "quo" always implies some reference.
- Deprecate: to call down curses upon, to anathematize. A "self-deprecating" person curses his own existence, saving a priest or his wife the job. What is meant is usually "self-effacing" or "self-depreciating."
- Disinterested: impartial, without advantage in the outcome. Not "uninterested" as in "He was disinterested in sport." Judges and umpires should always be disinterested. This word is widely abused, even by scholars like Kay Seymour House, who should know better.
- Prophesy, prophecy: the first is a verb, the latter a noun. Even professors can mangle this one. Go ahead, spell the past tense!
- Beg the question: to assume the truth of a statement, without proof, in subsequent argument. Its Latin name is petitio principii, a logical fallacy. "When did you stop beating your wife?" begs the question of "Did you beat your wife?" Fowler adduces "Capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase." Some users appear to mean "to evade the question." It doesn't mean to "bring up the question" or to "demand the question" or to "suggest the question." This ignorant misuse now appears very commonly on television. It has been used by Charlie Rose, as well as the History Detectives, for example, and other good people, and has recently become a habit on PBS.
- Plethora: An abundance, yes, but a special abundance. One that is not only excessive, but also unhealthy. "A plethora of things to do" is not a positive statement about an amusement park. A Denver Post business reporter wrote of DIA that it had a "plethora of shops" and enjoyed a "prolific Continental Airways." Did he really mean that it had an unhealthy excess of shops, and that Continental made lots of little airlines? His vocabulary is too large for his writing skill.
- Appraise and Apprise: These two words are very similar in pronunciation, and can be inadvertently confused, though their meanings are very different. Whenever you see "appraised of" the author probably means "apprised of". To appraise is to evaluate, while to apprise means to inform.
- Burgeon: To grow, but only from seed or beginnings, and promising abundance. A "burgeoning population" is one that has just begun, like flowers that bloom in the spring. It may still be a small population.
- Nemesis: When the Aurora, Colorado police chief says "Auto theft continues to be our nemesis" he's saying "Auto theft continues to be the deserved punishment for our wrongdoing and hubris." Nemesis is the goddess of retribution or divine wrath, who evens the score. She's not just a big problem, and likes to be capitalized.
- Devolve: The Time writer said that "compassionate conservatism had devolved into just another euphemism...," perplexing to those of us who know what devolve means, as neither he nor his editor did. He probably meant "degenerated" or something. To devolve is for an action or duty to fall to, or descend to, a subordinate or similar: "emptying the trash devolved upon the husband." Devolved is not de-evolved, and it's against the rules to subject others to your own secret meanings. The Denver Post struck again on 12 June 03 with "Protest in Iran Devolves Into Violent Clash." On 23 January 05, Jim Spencer of the Post claimed that Hunter Thompson "devolved into a caricature of himself." The 5 April 2008 Newsweek has Yemen devolving into a failed state (p.10). "Devolved into" is a sure sign of not knowing what the word means.
- Maieutic: Directly from Greek--relating to midwifery, obstetric. Used by Socrates to describe his method of eliciting what is already in the student's mind. Tony Snow used it properly in a newspaper column, but I wonder how many readers understood it. It's not in my usual reference for words in circulation, the Oxford Concise, nor in Funk and Wagnall's Desk, but is in Webster's Collegiate with the Socratic sense. This is a good show word, and helps to overawe the reader, if not to impart information. You can make up your own rare words from Greek very easily, and they will never fail to amaze.
- Kudos: I believe the Denver Post thinks this is more than one kudo. It's straight Greek, meaning "glory" or "renown," and is singular, pronounced kudoss, not kudoes. It is learned slang. The plural would be kude (pron. kuday) if it had one. The way it is used in print usually doesn't give the writer away. It's good to know, however, to avoid possible embarrassment--on the other hand, few have ever looked it up in a dictionary, and wouldn't know anyway.
- Ubiquitous: This is a very impressive word, but only means "omnipresent"--that is, present everywhere, if not everywhen. Sometimes when it is seen, it seems quite uncomfortable, and what the writer intended is obscure. It may be that it has been called into action to mean "continually present." Gods and laws may be ubiquitous, but individuals cannot be. Being somewhat ubiquitous is like being somewhat pregnant.
- Leeway: A nautical term used by lubbers without the slightest appreciation of its meaning, to signify "extra space" or something of the sort. Leeway is the sideways deviation from the course due to the crosswind. It could be used tellingly with precision, but usually it is not. You don't give someone leeway, you make allowances for it.
- Vis-à-vis: This phrase has been Anglicized enough to be found in English dictionaries. It means, in French, "face to face," of course, and in English should be used with this precise meaning, as in "we spoke vis-à-vis." It also refers to railway compartments where passengers sit on seats facing each other. Ludicrously, the semiliterate now use it to mean "with respect to," as in "I would like to complain vis-à-vis the lack of toilet paper in the employee restroom." How impressive. Actually, even in French it is used to mean simply with respect to in many cases, but it is more justified there than in English.
- Ensorcelled: This excellent word was used by a witchfinder in 1541, and again by Maureen Dowd in 2001 in the newspaper, where the reading level is supposed to be age 11. I had to go to the Oxford Universal Dictionary to find it; it is not in Johnson, Oxford Concise, Funk and Wagnalls or even in Roget's Thesarus, so it is definitely a rare word, used every 500 years. It means bewitched, and the connotation is probably rather sinister (I do not know for sure, of course), but Ms Dowd used it for spice, rather than communication. Incidentally, using Roget's to make your writing seem educated is dangerous, unless you are as skilled as Maureen. A reader informs me that this word appears rather often in fantasy literature, so Maureen isn't its only user.
- Problematic: Doubtful or uncertain. However, one now hears things like: "Tonight's Council meeting is expected to be problematic." The speaker doesn't mean that the meeting may or may not occur, but that it will be concerned with problems. Problematic, however, has nothing at all to do with problems.
- Rhetorical: A representative of the Bush administration recently said some members of the coalition for bombing Afghanistan would give military support, others rhetorical support. Rhetorical now means artificial, or extravagant in language. This leaves the hearer to wonder what the speaker might have meant (a common occurrence with Bush). Probably, "moral" was meant. Once upon a time, rhetorical meant dealing with rhetoric, but even this meaning leaves us wondering. It was rhetorical language.
- Aegis: An impregnable defense; the shield of Zeus or Athena. Peter Chronis, a Denver Post editor, quotes a retired brigadier general as saying (15 Oct 2001) that a war should be carried out under the aegis of freeing the Afghan people. What he probably means is pretense; it's hard to see how freeing the Afghans could be an impregnable defense, but it's a perfectly good excuse. Chronis is even of Greek extraction.
- Lieu: Just the ordinary French word for "place" but with a proper pronunciation impossible for the average English speaker, so it comes out as "loo," and gave us the British slang for toilet. Only used in the phrase "in lieu of," which has the connotation of "instead of" or "in place of," as in "he was given praise in lieu of salary." I have seen it used by journalists, however, as apparently meaning "in view of," which is quite strange but true. In any case, it is a totally unnecessary word in English, only useful for expressing a quasi-legal affectation.
- Eponymous: An eponym is someone who gives his name to a people, place or institution, and by popular extension, to anything. When the IEEE News and Views spoke of Robert van de Graaff's "eponymous electrostatic generator" in November 2001, it said that Bob was named after the generator, not the generator after him. The desired word, describing something that is named after an eponym, does not seem to exist--perhaps "eponymously named" could do, but a circumlocution is probably the best recourse.
- Pyrrhic Victory: The Denver Post headline writer made the eminent Joseph Szyliowicz seem as ignorant as newspaper writers by asking "Is Iraq a Pyrrhic Victory?" above a recent commentary. The empire-building King Pyrrhus of Epirus, coming to the aid of a local tyrant, defeated an army of the Roman Confederation in 280 BC in southern Italy. His battle losses were so prodigious, and those of the Romans so small, that the "victory" was, in fact, a defeat. A Pyrrhic victory is one gained at such a cost that it becomes worthless. Professor Szyliowicz never mentioned Pyrrhus in his article, certainly knowing better. Iraq seems quite a different variation--a victory gained at small cost so poorly exploited that it becomes a defeat. Perhaps "Bushic Victory" would be appropriate.
- Coterminous: A word invented by the partially-educated to be used in place of conterminous, "having a common boundary."
- Cinch: A Denver Post business reporter said on 22 October 2002 that a certain company was in trouble for "cinching allegedly secret deals" in Minnesota. Apparently they were tightening them beneath the bellies of something or someone. Cinch comes from the Spanish cincha, a strap under a horse's belly to secure the saddle. In American slang, a "cinch" is something that is probably certain. This, no doubt was the source of the reporter's word creativity, when she really probably meant "clinch." Clinch is an alternative to clench, which would mean to hammer over the points of the deals where they came through literally, but has a long history of meaning "to make secure."
- Trial and Error: Commonly used depreciatingly for what is no more than random guesses. The phrase really means to use the error to correct the trials in an iterative process that rapidly converges to the desired result. For example, if the first cannon shot lands to the right of the target, you move the aim a little to the left and fire again. If this shot lands as much left of the target as the first did to the right, then you move the aim back half as much as you moved it the first time. The next shot will hit the target. This is often the most efficient solution to a problem. Trial and error is a powerful and efficient method, not just haphazard attempts.
- Dichotomy: Often used instead of distinction to give a false impression of erudition. A dichotomy is not a distinction, it is the state of one thing's being divided into two exactly equal parts. It is an astronomical term from antiquity, referring to the state of the moon in its cycle of phases when it is half light, half dark--the quarter moon. The use of "dichotomy between" is a flag of improper use; it is always "dichotomy of." One also hears the expression "false dichotomy," meaning heaven knows what.
- Misfire: A TV newsreader, reporting a regrettable event, said that a youth was killed when a gun he and his friends were playing with "misfired." Nobody can be killed when a gun misfires. When a gun misfires, it fails to go off, it miss-fires. Strange that with all the weapons around, people are so ignorant of gun lore. "Half-cocked" is also misunderstood--this was a position in which the hammer or flint could easily be fully cocked with one hand; to go off "half-cocked" is to go off unexpectedly, not unpreparedly. "Lock and load" comes from military rifle instruction, to ensure that the safety is on (locked) when loading, to prevent an unexpected discharge. It is certainly not a command to be ready to fire.
- Over and Out: radio operators never say this, only characters in television. Over is an invitation to transmit, while Out says no response is expected. Only one or the other is appropriate, never both.
- Hyperbolic: This is one I did not see in the 16 July 2003 Denver Post, but it was noted by Mr. Decker of Fort Collins. A sports writer had reported that the cyclist Lance Armstrong used a "hyperbolic" chamber for training. This ludicrous announcement only causes amusement, no confusion, since the newspaper writer is only applying the "sounds like" principle that so often troubles those with a small vocabulary. The sports reporter does not know what either hyperbolic or hyperbaric means, so exchanging them was effortless. Mr. Decker recommends, as I do, that newspaper writers at least consult the dictionary.
- High Tea: When a British youngster says, "I've had my tea," she means that she's eaten her supper. High tea is a meal popular in Scotland, where dinner was, until recently, taken in the middle of the day. High tea is an early evening meal involving some modest hot dish, such as a kipper or macaroni cheese, and may not include tea at all. In the United States, it is confused with afternoon tea, the "high" being assumed to refer somehow to social elevation, and to the refinement of a formal tea set. This snack almost always has tea, perhaps biscuits (cookies) or scones, and often buttered bread and jam. The signs proudly offering "high tea" should really read "afternoon tea." There are also "cream teas" featuring Devon clotted cream or something similar.
- Gnarl: "Icy roads gnarl traffic..." says the Denver Post. This creates an odd picture in the minds of those of us who know what gnarled is, which the reporter clearly does not. "Gnarl" probably seems close to "snarl," which would be clearer, but not as innovative. There is no objection to forming a verb from "gnarled," either. However, the reporter probably did not intend to say: "Icy roads cover traffic with knobs," which is what he actually told us.
- Dispositive (1): Jeffrey Kluger wrote in Time (15 Mar 2004, p. 75) that certain findings of the Mars rovers were "not dispositive." What he meant was "conclusive," but wanted to show off. This word is not in my Oxford Concise, nor in Webster's Collegiate, nor even in Roget's Thesaurus, so it is indeed a rara avis. However, Johnson's Dictionary does define it, so it is a real English word. Two meanings are given, the first of which is "inclinable," as in "the pastor is dispositive to drink." The second is "connected with the disposal of property." Clearly, neither of these can refer to findings. Perhaps it is an on-the-spot coinage, connected with "dispose," as to dispose of a matter, but we can't know. Again, we must blame the editor, who should know better, not Jeffrey.
- Dispositive (2): On The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, 6 October 2004, Shields and Brooks traded this word back and forth several times. I didn't know what it meant, so I looked it up. It was not in my Oxford Concise, or in Webster's Collegiate, or in Funk and Wagnalls. It was, however, in Johnson's, defined as: "That which implies disposal or any property," or "decretive." Johnson didn't bother to put decretive in his dictionary (Blackadder note), but it clearly means dealing with decrees. I don't think Shields and Brooks had this in mind. Probably they derived it from "positive" rather than from "dispose", and pretended to know what it meant when confronted by it. We see that everyone who uses this word seems to have a private meaning for it!.
- Redaction: This is preparation for publication, or in a general sense a revision or editing. A member of the 9/11 Commission said the report contained no "redactions". This is a jargon use; in these circles "redactions" are the blacking out of names and embarrassing prose. People using the word in this sense probably have no idea of what redaction actually is.
- Jade: Jade is a green, fibrous rock that can be carved, either of the minerals jadeite or nephrite. However, as a verb it means "worn out by hard work." An excellent Colorado writer, Hal Walter, recently wrote: "...but a new baby in the house can jade your point of view." I don't think he meant that his point of view was worn out with hard work. Actually, I can't conceive of what he meant, not knowing his private definition of "to jade."
- Singular: In a newspaper article, a woman described an unfortunate behavioral lapse of her daughter's as singular. From the context, I gathered after some study that she meant isolated, not habitual. Singular does indeed mean single, individual, so she was not at all wrong in her usage. However, most readers would think of singular as meaning unusual, striking, surprising, extraordinary, and so forth, when used in this way, which would give her statement an unintended significance. This illustrates the importance of recognizing figurative meanings.
- Electrocute: This word isn't misused, but it probably is used without recognizing its precise meaning. It is a portmanteau word from "electric" and "execute" and really refers to the peculiarly American form of judicial execution promoted by T. A. Edison to show how dangerous his competitor's alternating current was. AC voltage can be stepped up by transformers to the required degree, while Tom's DC stayed at 120 V, which was safe. Safe, that is, unless a low-resistance path is provided by salty water or sweat, and a good contact with both poles. This is what makes a toaster a poor bath toy. We guarantee the danger by grounding one side of the power line. A fatal shock may occur, but it is really not an electrocution. This also gave us the 120V household power, inferior to the 240V used elsewhere, since it was not a higher voltage than Edison's DC. Actually, AC does paralyze muscles, which DC does not, so you can't let go.
- Flaccid: This word really doesn't belong here, since it is not misused in writing. It means limp, devoid of stiffness. It seems, however, to be widely mispronounced as "flassid" when it is really "flakcid." This was pointed out on Conan O'Brien's program by Kelsey Grammer some time ago.
- Podium: This word is sometimes used to designate a lectern: "The speaker went to the podium." Actually, a podium is a continuous raised platform or base around a room or arena. Seats arranged around the walls of a room could very well be called a podium, but better if a continuous bench.
- Subserve: This doesn't mean "to serve beneath" or anything like that. It means to serve as a means in promoting some purpose. This and the preceding word, podium, were suggested to me by W. K. Solberg, who is also interested in these matters.
- Decimate: I saw this word again today used to imply severe destruction. It should probably be avoided for this purpose, since it means something different. It comes from the rare but occasional use of the practice in Roman military discipline to handle cases of mass offenses that would, individually, be worthy of the death penalty, such as mutiny. Every tenth man was put to death in these cases, which was regarded as a sufficient lesson. It could be used for some event that put fear and respect into a body without actually resulting in extensive destruction. I have, however, never seen it used this way.
- Fortuitous: "The institution of electoral monarchy turned out to be less fortuitous for the Polish-Lithuanian Republic," says the historian. I suppose it was more certain? Although they start with the same five letters, "fortunate" and "fortuitous" are unrelated, except from being derived from Latin "fors", chance. Fortuitous means accidental or by chance, and the author certainly didn't mean that. A letter to AARP magazine (May/June 2007) praises Helen Mirren, then states "It's fortuitous, too, that she finally got a film role--Queen Elizabeth II equal to her brilliance...". What, accidentally, by chance? We have no idea what the writer may have meant.
- Problematic: Authors seem to need a simple adjective that means something like "presenting problems", but problematic will not do. It already has a meaning, that of "doubtful" or "questionable", and has nothing to do with problems. One author says that X "...is one of the most problematic political figures in the region." What, he may be a political figure or may not be? It is often difficult to determine what an author means by the word, as "doubtful" may be a rational meaning.
- Dissemble: A reporter in a recent Science News said: "Many have clumps that form and dissemble ..." with reference to Saturn's rings. To dissemble is to conceal or hide by lying or by suggestive references. I can't imagine rocks forming clumps which then attempt to conceal their feelings. I suppose he thought it sounded like "disassemble". He could have said "dissolve".
- Inobliterably: I do not object at all to this word, which may have been invented by Bryan Morgan in his excellent work on railway civil engineering. It is not a beautiful word, but its meaning is clear. Mr Morgan did not hear the word, then misapply it by mistaking its meaning. Its use is apposite, and its meaning unmistakable. Coined words should always be as well-founded, since the object is, after all, to communicate.
- Confabulate: In a recent article, Martin Gardner uses this word to mean "to form fables",or perhaps to prevaricate. This attractive word, however, only means to converse or chat, as in its derivative "confabulation", and has nothing to do with fables.
- Conflicted: This is a passive past participle of the verb "conflict", which, however, is not transitive. It is now used to describe one affected by a dilemma, who cannot come to terms with alternatives. It will probably appear in dictionaries, in spite of its barbarity, since it saves a more careful description of a person's quandary. Happily, it is not a misuse of a pre-existing word.
- Complement, Stationary: These words are only misused when the speaker or writer does not know that compliment and stationery mean something very different. Complement is directly from Latin, meaning a completion or satisfaction. Compliment comes via Spanish or Italian, and means to satisfy the demands of courtesy with courteous praise. Booksellers used to be of two varieties. Pedlars sold books from a movable barrow, while a stationer possessed a shop, which was stationary, of course. Stationery is, then, the wares of a bookseller with a bookshop.
- Invaluable: In everyday use, this word seems to mean the same thing as its apparent opposite, valuable. Originally, valuable referred to something whose value could be estimated. That is, something might be valuable, but if that value was zero, then it would be worthless. These days, saying that something is valuable implies that the value is high. The opposite, invaluable, has undergone a similar reinterpretation. It originally meant that the value could not be estimated, but now the reason for this is assumed to be because the value is too high. Therefore, something that is invaluable is just very valuable. It seems, though, that at present this distinction is seldom meant, and so we have a word that means the same as its opposite! Flammable and inflammable are a different matter. The original word was inflammable, something that would inflame. This looked negative to some observers, so they invented the new word flammable.
- O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!: A Newsweek writer refers to "Shakespeare's 'tangled web' of deceit" but it's really Sir Walter Scott's (Marmion, canto VI, verse XVII) web.
- Sclerotic: A BBC World Service reporter described a certain Middle Eastern negotiating process as "sclerotic". I do not think she meant the process was covered by a tough opaque layer. She could have used "sclerous", which would mean the process was bony. Probably she did not mean either, and created her own divergent meaning for a word that already existed. Arthritic may have been what she meant.
The American Heritage College Dictionary editors made a list of 100 words every college student should know (Denver Post, 16 October 2002, p. 6F). It's a good list, of uncommon words that can be used to express shades of meaning, and the editors even got 93% of the definitions correct. The ones they missed are these: (1)hubris-"overbearing or arrogant." It's a noun, not an adjective, and means a proud attitude inviting divine retribution. (2)bowdlerize-"to shorten a book by skewing its content." This is actually removing unseemly material, usually sexual or referring to the underworld or underwear. Otherwise, it might refer to the Reader's Digest. (3)epiphany-"a revelation." Well, one of a kind--the appearance of a god in physical, or at least visual, form. (4)fatuous-"smugly foolish." No smugly, just foolish, unintelligent, or naive. (5)homogeneous-"the same or similar in kind." No, that's "same" or "similar." Homogeneous means uniform. (6)parabola-"the curve formed by slicing a cone." The curve formed by slicing a cone is usually an ellipse, unless one is very careful to make the slice parallel to a generator. The definition is too ignorant to make it useful. (7)yeoman-"a servant or dependable worker." Originally, a small freeholder, later extended to the members of the middle class, a dependable person worthy of civic duties and responsibilities, between servile workers and the rich.
Love's Labour's Lost: the title of this Shakespeare comedy may surprise because of the apostrophes. They are quite correct, however, though the play's title has been spelled variantly over the years. Recent newspaper ads in Denver have had Love's Labor's Lost, a rather barbaric respelling of labour to the American form labor, where it might be given the respect of retaining its original spelling. However, what the title says is that "love's labour is lost," so the second apostrophe is for an elided "i", not a possessive.
A word with a possibly interesting etymology is the term "bigot." This is now used pejoratively to describe a person with prejudiced views of other people or their activities. In past times it generally meant, however, a person who holds certain views irrespective of good evidence and maintains them with vigor (not an uncommon characteristic today). The word was borrowed into English from the Continent, a word related to the Spanish bigote, a distinctive kind of beard (like that worn by Asterix). If so, the word is a modified version of Visigoth, the handsome, blond and illiterate Gothic warriors who were assigned the rule of Spain in the fifth century. The part -goth is, of course, pronounced "got" in Spanish, while the "v" is sounded like "b" and s's tend to disappear, as in French. Hence, Visigoth becomes Bi-got without much difficulty. But why should they be so distinguished? It was not the beard; the beard became known as a "bigote" by the same process, like a "Mohawk" haircut. The Visigoths were, however, strong Arians, a creed anathema to the Orthodox Spaniards, and in the normal Christian way, the two groups contested with sword and fire and murder. Visigoths stoutly resisted conversion in spite of heated argument: hence the use of their name to describe such obnoxious persistence. Later, the Visigoths were converted to Orthodoxy anyway, not too long before they were expelled by los moros in 711. This is, at least, my interpretation of the story.
An interesting word site with a completely different purpose is Word Spy, which presents new word coinages. Most of these seem to me of rather low value, but there are some interesting and even useful entries. There is no overlap with this site, of course.
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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 26 January 2001
Last revised 13 June 2008