Editorial: Fun with Words | AIChE

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Editorial: Fun with Words

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October
2017

This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appears in the October 2017 issue of CEP

Imagine my excitement when I saw the cover of the latest Reader’s Digest; it was the Genius issue — boasting “Secrets to a sharper mind” and “Why it pays to increase your word power.” I couldn’t wait to dig in! I’m a long-time subscriber — I started reading my parents’ copies when I was in elementary school — and I have always enjoyed the monthly vocabulary quizzes. And now, here was an entire issue with words as its theme. How exciting!

The cover story, “Why It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” discusses research showing that people who read books for as little as 30 minutes a day over several years lived an average of two years longer than people who didn’t read anything at all, and that books provided a bigger boost to longevity than newspapers or magazines. The researchers believe books encourage “deep reading,” which forces the brain to think critically and make connections; that in turn helps build new pathways in the brain, which can promote quicker thinking and may provide a defense against cognitive decay. I’d like to think that their sample of magazine readers did not include AIChE members reading CEP, as we, too, strive to encourage deep reading and critical thinking.

Another article, “Logophile Heaven!,” is a “tour of [the editors’] 89 favorite underappreciated words, offbeat phrases, and brainteasing grammar.” Among them: Phrases coined by the military, such as blockbuster (a bomb big enough to take out most of a city block) and deadline (a line that, if crossed, a prisoner would be shot dead). Words that mean the opposite of what they sound like, such as inflammable (which we ChEs know means easily inflamed, not fireproof) and noisome (meaning obnoxiously smelly, not noisy as it’s sometimes used). And words that are their own opposite, like dust (meaning either to add fine particles, or to remove particles), left (remaining, or departed), oversight (watchful care, or an inadvertent error), and screen (to show, or to hide). Plus a page that explains and demonstrates graphically how “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” can be a real, grammatically correct sentence. (See below for the explanation.)

The article that really spoke to me is “Confessions of a Word Nerd,” probably because I, too, am a word nerd, as you may have figured out by now. Its author, Kory Stamper, is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, one of “a couple dozen people who spend their workweek doing nothing but writing dictionary definitions … sifting the language, categorizing it, describing it, alphabetizing it. They are word nerds who spend the better parts of their lives thinking deeply about adverbs …” She says that to be a lexicographer, “First and foremost, you must be possessed of something called sprachgefühl [pronounced shprahkh-guh-fyl], a German word we’ve stolen into English that means ‘a feeling for language.’” Other definitions include “a sensitivity to language,” “a flair for language,” and “linguistic instinct.”

I’ve said many times that I love my job, that I’ve found my niche, that editing is the perfect job for me. Now I know why — surely I’m possessed of sprachgefühl. You can teach someone vocabulary and grammar, but sprachgefühl is the key to the CEP team’s editorial success.

So as you devour this 96-page issue, read deeply, think critically, build neurological pathways, and live long and prosper!

How can “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” be a grammatically correct sentence? Let’s break it down.

As a noun, “buffalo” refers to animals; as a verb, it means “bully;” capitalized, “Buffalo” is a city in New York and is used here as an adjective to tell us where the animals are from. Another quirk is that “buffalo” is both singular and plural.

At its core, the sentence says that buffalo bully buffalo:

Buffalo buffalo [that] Buffalo buffalo buffalo [i.e., bully] buffalo [i.e., bully] Buffalo buffalo.

or:

buffalo (from Buffalo) [that are] bullied by (other) buffalo (from Buffalo) bully (yet other) buffalo (from Buffalo).

You can find Reader’s Digest’s explanation here: www.rd.com/culture/this-one-word-repeated-8-times-forms-a-sentence

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