100 Words Every High School Student Should Know

From American Heritage, a new book 100 Words Every High School Student Should Know.

According to the promotional copy:

"The words we suggest," says senior editor Steven Kleinedler, "are not meant to be exhaustive but are a benchmark against which graduates and their parents can measure themselves. If you are able to use these words correctly, you are likely to have a superior command of the language."

I’m pleased that I know most of them. Though I would use only a fraction in my day to day vocabulary.

Also, I think the key word in the title is SHOULD. I’m sure testing a random sampling of people on the streets of any western, English-speaking, city would be discouraging if we used this list as a benchmark.

Update: A hat-tip to the good folk over at the CommonCraft blog for the link.

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Refreshingly Honest Obituary or This really is your life.

Hat-tip to Matthew Ingram for pointing out the Best.Obituary.Ever.

Obituaries, unlike eulogies, aren’t bound to the convention of presenting the deceased in the best possible light. In fact, good ones are highly accurate accounts of an individual’s life & impact – whatever it may be. However, it’s still common for them to paint a favourable portrait as the person writing them is often intimately acquainted with the person (friend, family, etc..).

So what to make of one that starts:

Count Gottfried von Bismarck, who was found dead on Monday aged 44, was a louche German aristocrat with a multi-faceted history as a pleasure-seeking heroin addict, hell-raising alcoholic, flamboyant waster and a reckless and extravagant host of homosexual orgies.

and ends:

He never married.

You can find the full obituary here. It’s definitely worth reading.

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Lost in Translation – A rose by any other name

Over the weekend I was watching the news on Radio-Canada as part of my ongoing struggle to gain some mastery of French. One of the main stories was the meeting of Presidents Bush and Putin at Dubya’s Kennebunkport estate.

This item was also featured on the scrolling news ticker found at the bottom of the screen. While reading this I was struck by the spelling of Putin’s name on the scrolling ticker….instead of spelling his name P-U-T-I-N, the ticker read "Bush et P-O-U-T-I-N-E…"

For those who don’t know, poutine is a delicious French-Canadian dish made up of French fries, gravy and cheese curds. This alone is funny. At first I thought it was merely a pronunciation/translation gaffe. But I was nearly on the floor laughing when my French-Canadian girlfriend told me that "p-u-t-i-n" is a French word for a prostitute. Of course, this makes the phrase "Bush et Putin recontrent" (or Bush and Putin meet) even more amusing. Especially when one considers how Putin – one of the world’s most powerful men, an ex-KGB boss and by all accounts a hard-nosed bastard – would react given the choice between being called a whore or a fast-food item.

A brief Technorati search suggests that "poutine" is the preferred Francophone spelling of Mr. Putin’s name. I can only imagine that is because using ‘putin’ would be indecent. It’s been my experience that people’s surnames remain intact when being conveyed in a foreign language…Presidente Bush, Monsiuer Dunn, etc…

This does remind though of the highly amusing instances where a person/culture’s grasp of English leads to inappropriate signs rife with double-entendres. But at least those cases could be prevented with this handy sign-translating gadget.

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Recent findings from the World Wide Word…

I’ve come across a number of interesting resources of late that emphasize the web as both saviour & propagator of language(s).

Using the Web as Warehouse: Project Gutenberg: A wiki-style database of free e-books. You won’t find the latest best sellers here. The site is populated with copyright-free works. There’s also 50+ languages represented and an RSS feed to receive newly uploaded contributions.

Using The Web as Map: Visual Thesaurus: An interactive dictionary and thesaurus that uses word maps and other visual representations to not only provide meanings, etc but also to promote knowledge of the linkages between words. It’s a fee-based service and I need to do more research to know if it’s really worth it. Cool idea though.

How the Web Makes Words: I also like this piece from Jack Kapica talking about "Weblish" – or the lexicon that the web has given us – things like blog, podcast, avatar, webinar, wiki, and so on. 

How the Web Saves Words: Though I can’t find the links for the life of me, I’ve also seen reported resources that are being developed to house dying (or dead) languages such as Welsh, Irish, and various African/Asian languages. But to prove the point, a search on Hieroglyphics yields over 1.5 million results and there are over 44 million results for learn Latin.

Of course, this definition of "the web" includes software and technology that powers these applications. But in this broad definition, the web is the platform we are increasingly using for having & storing our conversations. It’s also the toolkit we are using to invent new forms of conversation and new lexicons, reviving old ones, and verifying the ones we have every day.

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Are you a code-switcher or logophile?

If you haven’t already, I’d urge you to read Ian Brown’s piece from the Globe & Mail this past Saturday (You can also find the link in the del.icio.us feed on the sidebar).

I quite enjoyed the piece, finding it insightful, but there are those with more expertise in matters linguistic that have taken issue with many of the article’s arguments. For a good analysis of the finer points made in the piece try English, Jack.

What I found most useful was the division of word-mongers into two camps – code-switchers and logophiles. In brief, logophiles are those who love words for their own sake – regardless of how obscure or flowery they may be. Code-switchers believe that there is really no such thing as a standard vocabulary and what we say and how we are understood is wholly dependant on our comprehension of and proficiency in a particular context.

Perhaps some examples to clarify. Conrad Black is a logophile. A lawyer in court before a judge and the lawyer at home with his kids is engaged in code-switching. He needs two different vocabularies to be proficient in each context.

I think I fall somewhere in between the two.

I like words for their own sake and can always admire how a finely wrought piece of verbiage hangs together – how it sounds even if what it’s saying is absolute rubbish. I do acknowledge that this can go to far. Something which becomes abundantly clear if you ever thumb through a medical, scientific or legal journal..

Equally I enjoy seeing how words are used in different contexts, how they become infused with meaning and influence how one interprets the other words around them. If pressed, I’d say favour this lens. I like trying to figure out how words are intended to be used, why one word was chosen over another and whether the author’s intentions match what can be interpreted.

Based on that, I guess I’m using this blog for code-breaking exercises…

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Lots of Fizz, not a lot of flavour

Hat-tip to Joe Thornley of ProPR for pointing out this clumsy example of self-inflating marketing/pr. Joe’s talking about the launch of Sprite Yard, a new social network/community from Coke. There are good points on the legitimacy of this as a social network and even better points about the hyperbole and audacious rhetoric used in this release.

Among the more egregious examples (which, to be fair, Joe already highlights):

Forget Myspace and Facebook. That’s old news. Now, there is Sprite’s exclusive network called the Sprite Yard.

Coca-Cola expects the Sprite Yard to set new benchmarks for consumer brand engagement

Measurement metrics have been built in so Coca-Cola can track, in real-time, which features consumers are using most to the direct impact on beverage sales. It enables Coca-Cola to react very quickly to what their market wants.

How do you look if you don’t grow to be bigger, more entrenched, than Facebook or MySpace? What if you don’t set new benchmarks for consumer brand engagement? Do you know what those benchmarks are? How about you share them with us so we can track how you’re doing too? What if you can’t react quickly to what the market wants (for the record, I know of very few nimble multi-billion dollar multi-national consumer goods companies)?

A big problem with this kind of hype is not so much that everyone’s going to think you’re a blow-hard (and quite likely loose interest as a result – though that is a problem), it’s more that you are now backed into a corner with nowhere to build up to if things go well and nowhere to hide if things go poorly.

Choose your words wisely. You’re settng expectations for how people (consumers, media, advertisers) will judge you.

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A watch in the hand is worth two days of news coverage

By now I’m sure the possible theft of George Bush’s watch while glad-handing in Albania is old news. For those who haven’t seen this yet, here’s the clip (about 50 seconds in is where you need to pay close attention):


However, recently recovered footage now reveals that the watch was not stolen as reported:


Regardless of whether or not the watch was actually stolen, this is a significant issue when you consider the potential security risk. Just look at how everyone is clamoring to get a grip on Mr. Bush. Even a fairly barren mind could come up with dozens of ways this could go horribly wrong. In that light, I found Tony Snow’s (White House press secretary) remarks to be quite revealing:

No, it was not. It was placed in his pocket, and I believe your network has actually looked through the tape carefully and has ascertained the same. But, no, the President put it in his pocket, and it returned safely home.

Mr Snow has demonstrated on numerous occasions that he has mastered the verbal gymnastics necessary to be a WH spokesperson. Watching him is amusing and frustrating in equal measure. But by most standards, the above statement would even count as plain English.

What I’d like to note here is the last phrase which suggests a number of things:

1. The watch is safe (security was not compromised)

2. By extension, the President is safe.(and loved by all the people of Albania)

3. The President retained control over the situation.(truly a man of action & leadership…)

4. So it was the President who secured the safety of the watch. (…who also delivers results)

Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps. But given the careful twisting of words and meanings that has been rampant in this administration (and political life generally), I think this is just a good example of how, in intense media situations, every word will be carefully crafted to, even subtly, deliver important messages.

PS. According to some reports, the watch is a $50 Timex. He really is just one of the people. And buys American, of course.

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