Diminish, Decline, and Dwindle

A reader asks,
Can you please post an article on the correct usage of the words diminish, decline, and dwindle? I believe diminish is used with uncountable nouns such as the light diminishes, decline is used with abstract and uncountable nouns such as “decline in quality” or “decline in performance,” and dwindle is used only with countable nouns such as “the population of tigers has dwindled.”
This question, so intellectual and logic-seeking, made me aware in striking fashion how differently speakers approach language.
Were I debating which of the three verbs to use—diminish, decline, or dwindle—I would weigh their distinctive emotive qualities, never giving a thought to whether they refer to countable or non-countable nouns.
As it happens, all three of these verbs may be used with countable or uncountable nouns when the intended meaning is “to lessen” or “to become smaller.” Deciding which to choose depends upon context and the connotation wanted.
Diminish descends from a Latin verb meaning “to cut small. Ancient Latin had the verb diminuere, “to break into small pieces, and diminuere, “to make smaller, to reduce in size.”
Decline derives from Latin declinare, “to turn or bend away or aside from the straight course.”
Dwindle derives from dwine, an archaic English verb meaning, “to waste or pine away.”
That all three are used interchangeably in modern English is illustrated by the following examples from the Web:
As populations age and revenues diminish, government and private pension funds around the world are facing insolvency.
Nevada and Strip gaming revenues decline in February
Chicago food fest struggles as revenues dwindle
Diminish conveys a lessening of the strength or quality of something. Its most common use is with uncountable nouns:
Are we getting more stupid? Researchers claim our intelligence is diminishing as we no longer need it to survive
Researchers have some new insights into how power diminishes a person’s capacity for empathy.
Our smartphones supply endless possibilities for entertainment, but a new study shows they can diminish the quality of users’ time away from work or school.
Decline connotes a gradual diminishing, like something moving down a slope.
We had watched our children decline, fall into drug and alcohol abuse, fail to perform at school, lose jobs, abandon relationships, become unable to function in the family or society, and we hadn’t known why. 
Agriculture is declining day by day.
The six months…had been for me a sorrowful waiting game of watching [my mother] decline and wondering which day would be her last.
Dwindle suggests a gradual diminution into nothingness or something close to it. A novel’s plot might dwindle to a disappointing close. A dying battery causes a flashlight’s illumination to dwindle. The liquid in the “Drink Me” vial causes Alice to dwindle in size.
An excellent photographic visualization of dwindling is what the Wicked Witch of the West does when Dorothy throws water on her in The Wizard of Oz.
A quotation that I associate with the word dwindle is the line that concludes Millamant’s monologue to her fiancé Mirabell in Congreve’s Way of the World. After listing the freedoms she enjoyed as an unmarried woman as conditions (articles) that he must agree to if he wants her to go through with the marriage, she concludes with this statement:
These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife.
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Source: Vocabulary

Whose Little Brainchild Are You?

A reader sent me this example of the use of brainchild:
According to Tesla’s brainchild, Elon Musk, demand for stationary storage batteries has skyrocketed to the point that an expansion of the gigafactory may have to be considered before it is even built.”
Opines the reader, “Either Nicola Tesla invented Elon Musk, or something more surreal took place.”
According to a Wikipedia article, Elon Musk is “a South African-born, Canadian-American business magnate, engineer, inventor, and investor.” In brief, Elon Musk is a living human being.
A brainchild, on the other hand, is “the product of a person’s mind; an idea or invention that is the creation of a particular person, organization, etc.” A fictional character may be someone’s brainchild, but a human being cannot be.
The error of referring to a real person as somebody’s brainchild is widespread enough for Paul Brians to give it an entry in his Common Errors in English Usage:
Some people misuse “brainchild,” as in “Steve Jobs is the brainchild behind the iPhone.” A brainchild is not a person, but the child (product) of someone’s brain. So the iPhone is the brainchild of Steve Jobs.
Buffy Summers (the Vampire Slayer) is the brainchild of Joss Whedon. Microsoft is the brainchild of Bill Gates.
Here are some examples from the Web in which the expression is used correctly:
The Kentucky Derby was the brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. He was the grandson of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame).
Jack Kimble is the Congressman from California’s faux 54th District. In reality he is the brainchild of a Chicago school teacher. 
The concept of evolution by natural selection is sometimes referred to as Charles Darwin’s brainchild.
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Source: Vocabulary

Don’t Be Despondent Over Slough and Slew

The spelling slough represents two meanings and two distinct pronunciations.
1. slough (rhymes with now) noun: soft, miry, muddy ground.
This is the kind of slough that John Bunyan describes in his allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress:
Now I saw in my dream, that, just as they [Christian and Pliable] had ended this talk, they drew nigh to a very miry Slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they, being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog; the name of the Slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.
2. slough (rhymes with muff) noun: of a serpent or similar reptile, the cast-off skin. verb: to cast or shed the skin. Often used figuratively:
Putin, like Yeltsin, is constantly looking for ways to slough off responsibility for his decisions and their consequences…— Russia–Lost in Transition, by Liliia Fedorovna Shevtsova.
Slew, sometimes spelled slue, has more than one meaning.
The verb slew originated as a nautical term meaning “to turn a thing round upon its own axis, or without shifting it from its place. Slewed became nautical slang for “drunk” and a slew-foot was “a clumsy person who walks with feet turned out.” In Texas folklore, Pecos Bill marries a woman named “Slue-Foot Sue.”
The usual modern meaning of slew as a verb is “to turn a thing around on its own axis.” Here’s an example from fiction:
Near the top of the ramp a motorist in a gray Toyota panicked, slamming into the car behind it. Chrome and plastic hanging from its front, it slewed around blocking both lanes, effectively cutting off the Aviator. Robert Ludlum’s (TM) The Bourne Betrayal, Eric Van Lustbader.
As a noun, slew means “a very large number” or “a great amount.” For example:
Baltimore City legislators prepare for new Annapolis session with a slew of bills. City Paper, Baltimore.
A less common use of slew (also spelled slue) is in reference to “a marshy or reedy pool, pond, small lake, backwater, or inlet,” as in this description of a journey along the upper Mississippi River:
A continual variation of scene now opened to the view, marred only by an occasional ungraceful slew or marsh…
Some American speakers conflate the spelling and pronunciation of the words slough (miry ground) and slew (wetlands). They take their cue from Merriam-Webster whose entry for slough lumps the following definitions together:
1a. a place of deep mud or mire.
1b. a small marshy place.
1c. also slew or slue, a side channel or inlet
I’ll give the last word on the spelling and pronunciation of these words to The Chicago Manual of Style:
slew; slough; slue
Slew is an informal word equivalent to many or lots (you have a slew of cattle). It is sometimes misspelled slough (a legitimate noun meaning “a grimy swamp” and pronounced to rhyme with now) or slue (a legitimate verb meaning “to swing around”).
The phrase slough of despond (from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress [1678]) means a state of depression. This is etymologically different from slough (/sləf/), meaning “to discard” (slough off dry skin).
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Source: Vocabulary

Nous, Noology, and the Noosphere

My introduction to nous to mean “common sense” came from my reading of the Inspector Morse mystery novels by Colin Dexter. Morse frequently tells his long-suffering sergeant, Robbie Lewis, to use his:
Morse interrupted him. “Christ man, you’re not in apron strings. Use your nous!’”
Nous comes from ancient Greek philosophy in which it is the word for mind. It entered English with the meanings “mind, intellect, intelligence,” and “intuitive apprehension.”
British speakers use nous colloquially to mean “common sense, practical intelligence, or gumption.” Some speakers make it rhyme with house; others with noose.
Also deriving from the Greek word for mind are the words noology and noosphere:
noology noun: the branch of learning that deals with the mind or thinking; the study of the spiritual or distinctively human aspects of humanity.
noosphere noun: the part of the biosphere occupied by thinking humanity; (with reference to the writing of P. Teilhard de Chardin) a stage or sphere of evolutionary development characterized by (the emergence or dominance of) consciousness, the mind, and interpersonal relationships, postulated as following the stage of the establishment of human life.
Since the 1940s, these words have been gaining popularity in discussions of cybernetics.
We swim in imagination and bring the noosphere alive with collective consciousness. Wired, 1996.
This paper also introduces Noology, which is the study of the intellect and intellectual phenomena and explains how Noosphere is connected with Cyberspace.—Abstract of a paper titled Application of Cybernetics in Cyber Criminology.
Some people are going beyond the interaction between the noosphere and the physical world and see a link between the Internet and the noosphere.—Waking Times, a news blog.
Princeton University’s Global Consciousness Project measures changes in global human consciousness. When random number generators indicate that some great event has “[synchronized] the feelings of millions of people,” the researchers “calculate one in a trillion odds that the effect is due to chance.” According to the project’s website, “the evidence suggests an emerging noosphere or the unifying field of consciousness described by sages in all cultures.”
There can be no question that human interaction with computers is affecting the way people think and behave, not necessarily in a desirable way. Computer scientist Jaron Lanier sounds a warning against the consequences of a Web culture dominated by advertising and aimed at imposing conformity in his book You Are Not a Gadget, Knopf, 2010 (paperback, 2011).
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Source: Vocabulary

Another meaning for Dope

This headline on Buzzfeed caused me to do a double-take:
The 4 Dopest Quotes From Ruth Bader Ginsburg On Marriage Equality
Initially, I thought the article so headed would list quotations considered by the writer to be especially misguided or stupid (i.e., “dopey”). As I read further, I realized that the writer admired Associate Justice Ginsberg’s opinions as expressed in the quotations. The word dopest was intended as a compliment.
The word dope has a long and checkered history in English.
In its original use, dope referred to a thick liquid or semi-fluid used as an article of food or as a lubricant. The word is thought to derive from Dutch doop, “a dipping” or “a sauce.” The Dutch verb doopen means “to dip.”
Other meanings related to the gooey nature of dope include or have included:
A preparation, mixture, or drug which is not specifically named.
A varnish applied to the cloth surface of early airplanes to strengthen and keep them taut.
A substance added to gasoline or other fuel to increase its efficiency.
Opium, “especially the thick treacle-like preparation used in opium-smoking.” US speakers extended this use of dope to include stupefying drugs and narcotics in general.
A medical preparation given to a racehorse for the purpose of affecting its performance.
Various figurative meanings have become attached to dope:
Information, especially on a particular subject or of a kind not widely disseminated or easily obtained.
Information, a statement, etc., designed to gloss over or disguise facts; flattering or misleading talk.
Something designed to deceive or bamboozle; a fraudulent design or action; a piece of deception or humbug.
A stupid person, a simpleton, a fool.
Dope is also used as a verb to mean “apply or to administer dope in one of its senses.”
The use of dope as an adjective entered English slang in the 1980s, by way of rap music:
1981 J. Spicer Money (song) in L. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 301 “Yo, man, them boys is dope… This record is dope.” (OED)
As for the word dopest used in the quotation about Justice Ginsberg, it is a slang expression meaning, “sickest, coolest, tightest, most awesome.” It is not standard usage and does not convey a positive connotation to speakers of standard English.
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Source: Vocabulary

Standard, Standardize, and Standardized

A reader has asked for a discussion of the words standard, standardize and standardized:
I ask because of a statement I made sometime ago, where I said, “we took a standard test”. But my friend thought it should have been “we took a standardized test”. I think I’m correct since standard in this context is an adjective that qualifies the noun test. On the other hand, standardize is a transitive verb and it should convey a sense of action.
However, when I surfed the internet to see how these words are used, I found a puzzling example: “There was no standardized time until train travel became common.” Would you consider this a correct way of using the word standardized?
The verb standardize derives from the noun standard. Among the different meanings of the noun and the verb, these are the ones relevant to this discussion:
standard noun: An authoritative or recognized exemplar of correctness, perfection, or some definite degree of any quality.
standardize verb: To bring to a standard or uniform size, strength, form of construction, proportion of ingredients, or the like.
Both standard and standardized function as adjectives, but with different meanings. One can speak of a “standard test” or a “standardized test,” but the two phrases do not mean the same thing.
A standard test is the usual test given. For example, a “standard driving test” requires the learner to parallel-park. A “standard joke” is one that is often repeated. A “standard excuse” for not doing something is “I didn’t have time.”
A standardized test is a test designed, administered and scored according to specific guidelines based on a standard that has been established by some authoritative body.
It’s even possible to speak of a “standard standardized test.” For example, a particular standardized test like the PARCC or ACT might be the “standard standardized test” in one state or district, but not in another.
As for the phrase “standardized time,” the same sort of contextual considerations apply. One may speak of “standardized time” and “standard time.”
Before train travel became common, local times, based on the sun or a locally chosen meridian, were sufficient. Once people had to plan journeys with departure and arrival times in different regions, a standardized method of telling time became necessary. The result of the 19th century standardization of time is standard time: a standard system of reckoning based on geographical time zones.
Context, of course, rules, but generally speaking, standard conveys “the usual,” whereas standardized conveys something systematically designed and administered.
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Source: Vocabulary

Remember the Tricolon

A tricolon is a rhetorical device that employs a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. The word derives from Greek tri (“three”) + colon (“section of a sentence”). The plural of tricolon is tricola.
Julius Caesar’s famous “Veni, vidi, vici” is a tricolon consisting of three verbs. The tricolon is phrased in ascending order, culminating with the most important action: “I came, I saw, [and] I conquered.”
Churchill’s famous line in praise of the Royal Air Force repeats a “so” phrase: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Phrased in descending order or with an unexpected combination of words, a tricolon can be used for humorous effect, as in this quotation ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “I require three things in a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”
Tricola are at work in the answers to these two questions:
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
—Practice, practice, practice.
What are the three things that matter in property?
—Location, location, location.
Quotations that remain in the memory long after one’s school days often contain tricola:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
of the people, by the people, for the people
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Many of our idioms, clichés, and fossilized legal phrases take the form of tricola:
Every Tom, Dick and Harry
Lock, stock, and barrel
Wine, women, and song
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Advertisers and PR agents understand the power of the tricola:
Power, beauty, and soul (Aston Martin)
Keeps going and going and going. (Energizer)
Grace…space…pace. (Jaguar)
Snap! Crackle! Pop! (Rice Krispies)
Buy it. Sell it. Love it. (Ebay)
Thinner, lighter, and faster. (iPad2)
Stop, Look, and Listen (Traffic safety slogan)
Drop, Cover, and Hold On (Earthquake/tornado safety slogan)
One of the most useful aspects of this rhetorical device is its effectiveness in embedding a thought in the memory.
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Source: Vocabulary

Comment, Suggestion, and Feedback

A reader asks about these three words:
I was wondering about the differences between comment, suggestion, and feedback. They often seem to be used interchangeably. I would like to know how to use each word appropriately in different contexts.
 
Here are the relevant definitions of these words in the context of social media:
comment noun: a remark or criticism on or upon anything.
suggestion noun: an idea or thought suggested, a proposal.
feedback noun: information about the result of a process, experiment, etc.
The word comment has the broadest application because a comment can contain a suggestion or provide feedback.
The comments that follow the posts on this site provide examples of all three terms.
Comment
Carnival – The word derives from a phrase meaning “the putting away of flesh”… as in the fasting from meat as Christians [according to traditional dogma] are supposed to do during Lent. It became an event of feasting and revelry because it’s the last chance for the next 6 weeks to indulge in that delicious pot roast, steak dinner, or other self-gratifications.
The reader has added information relating to a post about words derived from a Latin word meaning flesh. This kind of comment enriches the site by expanding the post in a relevant manner.
Suggestion
Could you also clarify and explain the origins of “chalk it up”. I’ve also seen “chock it up” which I assume is an error.  I’ve also heard “chop it up” in the same context.
This reader, in commenting on the post about chock-full, has made a suggestion for a future post. Such suggestions keep me supplied with topics.
Feedback
I think your spelling of “cockeyeed” is incorrect. I think it is spelled cockeyed. (minus one “e”)
Feedback can be positive or negative. Comments that express agreement or appreciation let writers know they’re on the right track with their intended audience. Comments that point out errors or ambiguity enable the writer to improve a published post.
NOTE: I like to receive feedback that points out typographical errors by way of email, rather than in the open comments section—and not just to minimize my embarrassment. When the error has been corrected in the post, the comment remains as a distraction to future readers.
The figurative use of feedback derives from a technical term relating to electronics:
feedback noun: The return of a fraction of the output signal from one stage of a circuit, amplifier, etc., to the input of the same or a preceding stage, “positive feedback” tending to increase the amplification; “negative feedback” tending to decrease the amplification. Also, a signal so returned.
I’ll take this opportunity to thank my readers for all three—comments, suggestions, and feedback. They are and have been of tremendous benefit to me, as a blogger and as a student of English.
Related post:
Comment Etiquette
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Source: Vocabulary

Is Ask a Noun?

A reader questions the use of ask as a noun:
“The ask was unreasonable.”
“I realize it’s a big ask, but I’m hoping you can do it.”
In these examples, “ask” seems to be a synonym for “request.” Merriam-Webster says “ask” is a verb, but increasingly I hear it used as a noun.  Is this use of “ask” increasingly prominent?  Is it appropriate?

Examples of ask as a noun can be found in Old English, and the OED includes a citation of its use as a card-playing term in 1886, but the uses illustrated in the reader’s question are fairly recent.
The financial idiom “bid and ask” appears on the Ngram Viewer graph in 1903. In the context of the stock market, the bid is the price a buyer is willing to pay for a stock, and the ask is the price the seller is willing to accept. This use of ask is business jargon for what in standard speech would be called “the asking price.”
After a brief flurry in the 1920s, the phrase “a big ask” appears on the Ngram Viewer in 1989 and soars from there. M-W labels this use of ask “chiefly British, informal.”
The OED agrees that ask as a noun is “colloquial,” but identifies the usage as “originally Australian” and observes that it occurs chiefly in the context of sports.
M-W defines noun ask as “something asked for, requested, or required of someone,” but the OED specifies that ask as a noun in modern usage is accompanied by a modifier like big, huge, or tough. Ask in this sense is not simply “something asked for,” but “something that is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount.”
Outside the context of the stock market, the reader’s first example, “The ask was unreasonable,” is not even good informal English. If the speaker is talking about the price of something, then the appropriate term is “asking price.” If the person is talking about a request, then the noun wanted is request or demand.
The second example, “I realize it’s a big ask, but I’m hoping you can do it,” passes muster as acceptable colloquial English because “a big ask” is not the same as a mere request. “A big ask” is an idiom like “a tall order,” something asked of a person that will require more than average effort to accomplish.
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Source: Vocabulary

A reader asks for clarification regarding the use of the phrase “anyone and everyone” in such sentences as these:

Everyone knows they love to talk on the phone to anyone and everyone.

Anyone and everyone is [sic] to speak to you on the phone.

You will speak to anyone and everyone who might listen.

Anyone means “an individual person”:
“I will give a free book to anyone in the audience who can solve this problem.”
—Only one person or a selected few (depending upon how the problem is presented) will win the book.

Everyone means “every person in a group”:
“Everyone in the audience received a video recorder.”
—All of the audience members received a free recording device.

The combination “anyone and everyone” is used in the context of a welcome or invitation as a way to emphasize inclusivity, as in these examples from the Web:

Anyone and Everyone are invited to join the server after we open, which is very soon. 

Anyone and everyone are invited to Roundtable. 

Anyone and everyone are welcome to come hack on things.

Sometimes the phrase is used in the sense of “people in general” or “people of no specific qualifications”:

Today anyone and everyone can set up an online business.
 
Amazon also maintains a flourishing side enterprise in self-publishing, where anyone and everyone can write an e-book.

And sometimes, especially when preceded by just, “anyone and everyone” occurs in the context of exclusion:

If just anyone and everyone are too easily included, we are saying in effect that anything goes. 

We don’t want just anyone and everyone, just a select few.

We will not sign on just anyone and everyone. We demand the best.

We don’t work for just anyone and everyone.

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Source: Daily Tips

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