Do-gooder Is Not a Positive Term

A reader questions the positive use of the epithet do-gooder:
One use of the language that disturbs me is the use by my local paper of the term “Do-gooder” [to refer] to people who are indeed doing good deeds by helping or contributing. However the only definitions I have seen for the term appear to refer to those who are trying to do good, but do so in unrealistic or wrong means. I feel the current use is not considering the older, perhaps archaic, usage.
The OED does list one example of the noun Do-Good to mean “a person who does good,” but the only citation given is dated 1654 and the usage is labeled obsolete. In subsequent usage, the nouns do-good and do-gooder have not been intended as compliments.
These OED examples from the 1920s reflect the pejorative usage:
1923 There is nothing the matter with the United States except…the parlor socialists, up-lifters, and do-goods.
1925  He could not stand them—no decently constituted American can—nor the uplifters and do-gooders who rule us to-day.
The Web offers numerous examples of do-gooder in headlines that introduce stories that make it clear that the term is meant in a positive sense:
Ebola-stricken doc described as driven do-gooder
Africa [has become] the hottest continent for A-list do-gooders like Bono and Brangelina.
Salvation Army honors Mon Valley do-gooders
Brooklyn Do Gooder Awards to honor community service
The misuse of do-gooder to mean “one who does genuine good” may have gone too far to reverse. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate.
We need a word that describes a person who acts according to his own idea of what doing good is without considering the consequences that might affect the recipients of the supposed good.
For example, a corporation or celebrity might think that giving free shoes and free shirts to every person in a poor village is an excellent way to do good, whereas in reality the act would create worse poverty for the village cobblers, weavers, tailors, and seamstresses.
English has other words to describe a person who tries to improve the lives of others. Philanthropist is an obvious choice, but many speakers might share the difficulty of the Wizard of Oz when he tries to use the word:
Back where I come from there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phila…er, phila…er, yes, er, Good Deed Doers.
Ruling out philanthropist as too difficult to pronounce, we still have benefactor, humanitarian, altruist, and social reformer. And, perhaps, “Good Deed Doer.”
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Source: Vocabulary

The Changing Meaning of Mural

Because I am used to thinking of a mural as a painting on a wall, I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists to submit designs to paint “murals” on storm drains.
Storm drains are on the ground. They are also rather small. I think of murals as being quite large.
Here’s the definition from the OED:
mural (noun): a painting executed directly on to a wall or ceiling as part of a scheme of decoration.
I was surprised to see ceiling included in the definition. Mural derives from the Latin word for wall: murus. The Latin adjective is muralis, “of or relating to a wall.”
According to the OED, mural in the context of painting is an American coinage dating from 1908. In earlier British usage, a mural was “a fruit tree grown against and fastened to a wall.”
In US urban settings, mural is used in its customary sense, but recently it has come to be used of paintings made on sidewalks, on streets, and even on such things as benches.
Here are some examples from news stories originating in different parts of the country:
Last year, the CARE neighborhood in partnership with Banner Neighborhoods painted a street mural in the intersection at the south side of the market. —Maryland.
University Facilities and Services is coordinating a project featuring storm drain murals to encourage pollution awareness. —Illinois.
Monroe Municipal Mural on sidewalk —Georgia.
This year another ten local artists were chosen to paint murals on ten storm drains in the Springfield area. —Missouri.
The new FABnyc sidewalk mural, fashioned by Ecuadorian artist Raúl Ayala is among our favorite public artworks to surface this year. —New York.
“Only rain down the drain,” reads a mural painted on a concrete bench on the west side of Matthews Street halfway between Green Street and Springfield Avenue. —Illinois.
This expanded meaning for mural has resulted in the creation of the retronym “wall mural.”
For Drew and me, painting wall murals has been a great source of extra income.
It’s finally time to put the finishing touches on the Library Wall Mural and seal it.
We completed a big full color wall mural in Naga Gallery.
Purists may cringe at the idea of “sidewalk murals,” but if the painting on a ceiling can be called a mural, I suppose that a large painting on the floor or the ground might reasonably share the term. To refer to a painting or design on a small surface such as a bench or a storm drain as a mural, however, seems to be an unnecessary stretch of meaning.
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Source: Vocabulary

Personification vs. Anthropomorphism

A reader asks:
Is there a difference between Personification and Anthropomorphism? If they’re not the same, could you please explain it?
Both words convey the idea of attributing human characteristics to something not human.
Personification comes from the verb personify.
One meaning of personify is “to represent or imagine a thing or abstraction as a person.” For example, “Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. –Proverbs, 9:1.” The abstract concept wisdom is personified by the use of the feminine pronouns.
Another meaning of personify is “to be the embodiment of a quality or trait.” For example, “Adolf Hitler has become infamous as a personification of evil.”
Poets frequently employ personification, as in the opening lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats (1795–1821):
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst’ thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.
The subject of the poem is an ancient urn or vase depicting a pastoral scene in which male figures seem to be pursuing women. Keats humanizes the inanimate urn by addressing it with the pronoun thou and calling it a bride, a foster-child, and a historian. The concepts Silence and Time are also personified by identifying them as the parents of the urn.
Many of the ancient gods were personifications of natural phenomena or intellectual concepts. The goddess Iris, for example, is the personification of the rainbow. Cupid is the personification of desire or love (Latin cupere, “to love”).
English speakers personify ships as female, as Holmes does in his poem about the USS Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides”:
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
The word anthropomorphism has two main applications.
The first definition given for it in the OED is “ascription of a human form and attributes to the Deity.” Descriptions of God walking in a garden, having the whole world in His hands and “having His eye upon the sparrow” are examples of this kind of anthropomorphism.
A second definition of anthropomorphism is “ascription of a human attribute or personality to anything impersonal or irrational.” This is the kind of anthropomorphism that leads doting pet owners to stage weddings for their dogs.
Anthropomorphism is a popular story-telling trope. Puss in Boots, Black Beauty, and Rocket Raccoon are anthropomorphized animal characters.
Inanimate objects can also be anthropomorphized, like the vegetables in Veggie Tales and the vehicles in the movie Cars. Television advertising is rife with anthropomorphism, ranging from cute (M&M candies) to revolting (Mucus).
If there is a difference, it’s a subtle one. I think personification is more appropriate for discussions of literature and as a synonym for embodiment. Anthropomorphism seems to suit more general contexts. One drawback to this advice is that anthropomorphism is harder to say.
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Source: Vocabulary

Hack, Hacker and Hacking

A reader is puzzled by a new permutation of the word hack:
The word “hack”, until recently, meant to break into someone’s Internet account or system. Now I see it meaning “tips” or “suggestions”.  Am I correct?
Like this reader, the only meaning that hack held for me in regard to computers was as a verb meaning “to illegally enter a computer system.” I too was surprised to come across headlines like the following:
100 Life Hacks That Make Life Easier
23 Inventive Hacks That Every Parent Should Know
Millennials Are Ditching Delivery for This Dinner Hack
Best Travel Hacks
17 Thanksgiving Hacks For The Best Meal Of Your Life
How did hack go from “illegal computer activity” to “a tip for making things easier to do”?
Looking a little further, I find that hack and hacking to connote only malicious unauthorized access to computer files may reflect general usage, but not that of programmers who are proud to be known as “hackers.”
The OED has ten entries for the word hack: five as a noun, four as a verb, and one as a combining form.
The verb hack in the sense of “to cut with heavy blows” has been in the language since the early 13th century, but the use of hack in the context of computer programming dates from the 1970s.
Note: Hack in the sense of “to cope with” dates from 1955: “I can’t hack all this extra work.”
The etymology of the computer term hack is not certain. According to one theory, it derives from the noun hack used as tech slang for “one who works like a hack at writing and experimenting with software, one who enjoys computer programming for its own sake.” (OnlineEtymologyDictionary).
The noun hacker does not carry a connotation of illegal activity in the following OED citations from 1976:
The compulsive programmer, or hacker as he calls himself, is usually a superb technician.
The compulsive programmer spends all the time he can working on one of his big projects. ‘Working’ is not the word he uses; he calls what he does ‘hacking’.
The earliest citation that associates the word hacking with illegal activity is dated 1983:
Hacking, as the practice of gaining illegal or unauthorized access to other people’s computers is called.
Because hack, hacker, and hacking have such varied connotations, writers should consider the intended audience when using them.
In the programming community, hacker and hacking are good things, or at least neutral. Using an adjective to describe the bad kind might be useful when writing for programmers, for example, “malicious hacking” or “illegal hacking.”
As for the noun hack meaning “tip,” “suggestion,” or “work-around,” I expect the usage will become embedded in computer-speak.
The trendy use of hack in the context of cooking, parenting, and other non-computer-related fields, however, will probably eventually revert to tip or suggestion.
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Source: Vocabulary

Two Bad Prefixes

The English prefix caco- comes from a Latinized form of Greek kakos, “bad, evil.” The English prefix mal- derives from Latin malus, “bad, evil.”
A familiar “caco” word in English is cacophony, which combines “bad” with phone, “sound.” One meaning of cacophony is “the use of harsh sounding words or phrases.” For example: “There are sounds in Gaelic which, though not guttural, are cacophony itself to English ears.”
In the context of speech, the opposite of cacophony is euphony. Literally “good sound,” euphony is the quality of having a pleasant sound.
Cacophony can also refer to a discordant combination of sounds produced in a musical context: “The song explodes into a grating cacophony of grimy analog synths.”
Apart from speech and music, cacophony is used to refer to any unpleasant combination of noises or to a confused variety of anything. For example:
[During the Nazi occupation of Paris] the cacophony of daily urban engagement — passersby, hawkers, street minstrels and performers, construction work, and especially traffic noise — was severely diminished.
This [daily market] was a proper, brick, glass and wrought-iron hangar which stacked up the genuine southern France in a red-blooded cacophony of sensual abundance.
Note: When the context relates to sound, the word cacophony is sufficient. Modifying the word with “of sound” in the following headline is unnecessary because the context clearly relates to musical sound: “Justin Timberlake’s New Song ‘Suit & Tie’ is a Cacophony of Sound.”
The main use of the prefix caco- in English is in the area of medical terminology. It’s combined with other Greek or Latin elements to create words to describe the bad state of bodily organs, for example:
cacoglossia: putrid state of the tongue (glossia=tongue)
cacophthalmia: malignant inflammation of the eyes (ophthalmos=eye)
English words that begin with the other bad prefix—mal- (“bad, badly”)—are numerous.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, most Modern English words with this prefix are 19th century coinages. Here are just a few:
maladroit: clumsy, the opposite of adroit.
malapropism: the ludicrous misuse of words, especially in mistaking a word for another resembling it. The word is an eponym, derived from a character in a play. The character’s name, “Mrs. Malaprop,” is a combination of mal+appropriate. One of her lines is, “Illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.” She’s reaching for the word obliterate.
malaria: a disease spread by mosquitoes. The name originates from a belief that diseases were caused by bad air. Malaria is an Italian borrowing: mal+aria (air).
malediction: a curse. Latin mal+dicere (to speak).
maleficent: given to evildoing. Maleficent is the name of an evil Disney character. In the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is unambiguously evil. I expect that in the new film, she’s just misunderstood.
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Source: Vocabulary

Acronym vs. Initialism

Every so often I’m taken to task for referring to an unpronounceable string of letters as an acronym instead of an initialism.
I’m sure there must be contexts in which the distinction is important, but I’ve never felt the need to distinguish between acronyms and initialisms in writing for a general audience.
For one thing, the word initialism in its modern sense is even newer than the word acronym.
There is no entry for initialism in either of my pre-digital dictionaries:
Websters New Collegiate Dictionary (1960).
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971).
The presumably more up-to-date Word spell checker puts a red line under the word initialism as I type this article.
Note: The word initialism illustrated by OED citations dated 1899 and 1928 was not being used in the modern sense of initials used to identify an entity like the FBI. It refers to the once-popular practice of signing a published work with initials in order to conceal the identity of the author.
Most readers probably know that an acronym is an invented word made up of the initial letters or syllables of other words, like NASA or NATO. Fewer probably know that an initialism is a type of acronym that cannot be pronounced as a word, but must be read letter-by-letter, like FBI or UCLA.
German had the word Akronym as early as 1921, meaning “a new word made up of initials.”
Americans adopted the word with the English spelling acronym in the 1940s. These dated citations from the OED show that from 1940 to the 21st century, what some speakers now prefer to call initialisms have been called acronyms since the word was adopted into English:
1947 The acronym DDT…trips pleasantly on the tongue and is already a household byword.
1975 The puns on the acronym, ‘CIA’, were spawned by recent disclosures about the intelligence agency.
1985 Called by the acronym SCSD (Schools Construction System Development).
2008 The acronym TSS—Tout Sauf Sarkozy (‘Anything But Sarkozy’).
If it is important to you to distinguish between acronyms (NATO, NASA) and initialisms (FBI, TGIF) then by all means, do so. But if you are speaking to or writing for a general audience, it’s not an error to generalize all words and labels created from initials or parts of words under the broad term acronym.
Related post:
Initialisms and Acronyms
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Source: Vocabulary

What is Grammar?

A Web search for the word grammar brings up about 171,000,000 hits. Many of the links lead to discussions of “bad grammar.” In popular usage, grammar can mean anything from misspelling a word to putting an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong.

In Modern English Usage (1926-1964), Fowler defines grammar as “a general term for the science of language.” In the 1965 revision, Gower points out that the science of language is now called linguistics and that grammar is a branch of it.

Linguistics is concerned with such terms as phonology, morphology, accidence, orthoepy, orthography, composition, semantics, syntax, and etymology. Language blogs may attract readers who are interested in all of these aspects of language, but as Fowler points out and Gower echoes, orthography, accidence, and syntax are what most English speakers focus on when they talk about grammar–bad or good.

Orthography: the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage. Misspelled words are errors of orthography. So are misplaced apostrophes.

Accidence: the part of grammar that deals with changes in words to change their meaning, for example, adding endings to verbs or changing their spelling to indicate different tenses (walk/walked, run/ran, go/went), adding letters to nouns or changing their spelling to indicate number (boy/boys, man/men), and spelling pronouns differently to indicate subject or object. “Has went” and “between you and I” are examples of errors of accidence.

Syntax: the arrangement of word forms to show their mutual relations in the sentence.
“Coming out of the auditorium, a purse was lost” is an error of syntax.

Here are Fowler’s and Gower’s simple definitions of the other terms:

phonology: how sounds are made and depicted.
morphology: how words are made.
orthoepy: how words are said.
composition: how words are fused into compounds.
semantics: how words are to be understood.
etymology: how words are derived and formed.

Related post:
Inflections in English

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Source: Daily Tips


A reader asks,
What is the meaning of “wayward”? When would it be used in a positive context? When would it be used in a negative context?
Because wayward is a negative sort of word, I can’t think of a context in which it would be used positively.
Modern speakers use wayward as an adjective, but it began as a directional adverb. To go “(a)wayward” was to go in a direction away from something. One modern meaning of the adjective is “disposed to go counter to the wishes or advice of others.”
In a religious context, “wayward children” are those who have departed from childhood teachings.
“A wayward animal” is one that has strayed from its owner.
“A wayward bullet” is one that has gone astray from the intended direction.
“A wayward government” is one that is not following the rules.
“A wayward boy” may mean simply that the boy has emotional problems, whereas the description “a wayward girl” often has sexual connotations.
Here are some examples of usage seen in headlines and articles on the Web:
Wayward Tortoise Detained by Los Angeles Police, Eventually Claimed by Owner
Sam rolled over in the bed and encountered a wayward pillow instead of his wife. 
Blueprint for reforming a wayward press council
Faithful Parents and Wayward Children: Sustaining Hope While Overcoming Misunderstanding
[Father Flanagan] founded Boys Town as a humble home for wayward youngsters nearly a century ago.
By the turn of the century…reformers had come to view sexually active women not as victims but as delinquents, and they called for special police, juvenile courts, and reformatories to control wayward girls. 
Wayward Capitalists: Targets of the Securities and Exchange Commission (book title)

Here are some synonyms for the different connotations of wayward:
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Source: Vocabulary

Collision and Collusion

A philosophical question from a reader prompts this post:
I find it very interesting how collision is so close to collusion, considering the strange financial shenanigans that occur in that business [insurance and collision repair].  What is the background of these two words?  Are they actually related in any way?
Clearly, the reader has had less fortunate experiences with insurance companies and collision repair centers than I have. The only connection between collision and collusion that I can discern is the prefix col-, which is a rendering of the Latin preposition cum (with).
In English words, cum has produced the prefixes com-, con-, and col-. These prefixes convey the idea of “together, together with, in combination or union.” For example, the noun companion combines com- with panis (bread). A companion is “a person to eat bread with.” Sharing a meal with someone is often a sign of intimacy.
Collision comes from the verb collide (col + laedere). The Latin verb laedere means “to injure” or “to damage.” When things collide, they strike or clash together.
Collusion comes from the verb collude (col + ludere), The Latin verb ludere means, “to play.” When people collude, they “play” together. The kind of play meant here is not the friendly kind. It’s the deceptive activity implied in the expressions “to play at,” “to play one false,” and “to play into someone’s hands.”
Collision is “the violent encounter of a moving body with another.” On the street, a collision usually involves vehicles. In physics, particles collide. Both collision and collide are used figuratively to indicate a clash of wills. The noun collision may also be used attributively (i.e., to modify another noun). Here are examples of usage:
Both of the Washington State Patrol troopers injured in collisions Sunday night near Northgate have been released from the hospital.
Two Metro-North Railroad trains collided after a derailment near Fairfield, Conn., at the height of the evening rush on Friday.
Somalia: What happens when political and humanitarian goals collide?
Global Markets and National Politics: Collision Course or Virtuous Circle?
Collusion is a secret agreement for purposes of trickery or fraud. In law, collusion is an agreement between two or more parties for the purpose of defrauding others or to gain an unfair market advantage, for example, price-fixing and inside trading. Here are some recent headlines:
Big Tech Companies Agree To Pay Up Over Hiring Collusion
Shell and BP accused of collusion in South Africa
How Hospitals and Health Insurers Collude at Your Expense
Business and Government Collude over Education Policy and Funding
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Source: Vocabulary


A reader was puzzled by the use of clip in the following sentence:
Amazon has been adding distribution facilities at a clip.
Says the reader,
I have typically seen this as “rapid clip,” and in looking in the dictionary noted that “clip” as a noun refers to rate, which means it would need some type of modifier to signify speed. However, I also noted at there is a definition of it as a verb meaning “to move swiftly.” As a result, I’m wondering if use of “clip” as a noun has taken on this meaning so that an adjective is no longer necessary.
Clip has more than one meaning, both as a noun and as a verb.
The verbs came before the nouns.
The verb that gives us the “holding on” sense of clip derives from the Old English verb, clyppan: “to clasp with the arms, to embrace, or to hug.” From this verb we get nouns with the following meanings:
clip: an embrace or a hug (now obsolete)
clip: a device that grips objects tightly. Examples of this kind of clip are: hair clips, bicycle clips, a potato chip bag clip, etc. A synonym is clamp.
clip: a receptacle containing several cartridges held together at the base for insertion bodily into the magazine of a repeating firearm.
clip: a piece of jewelry that may be clipped onto clothing.
Other nouns come from a different verb that means “to cut with scissors or shears.” This clip came into Middle English from a Scandinavian source. From it come the following nouns:
clip: shears (for cutting wool)
clip: a piece that has been clipped off of something
clip: a smart blow, stroke, or “cut.” For example, He gave him a clip across the mouth.
clip: a rate of speed; a rapid pace or motion (colloquial)
Now I’ll address the reader’s two-part question.
Clip used as a verb to mean ‘to move rapidly” is first cited in 1833. It may have acquired this meaning from the fact that clippers in the hand of an expert move very fast.
The earliest date for the noun meaning “rate” is later than for the verb (1867), so there probably is a connection between them. However, clip may be used with or without a modifier.
The following citations illustrate the use of the noun clip with and without modifiers:
1867 It is believed that he can go a four-minute clip.
1887 We are goin’ wi’ a clip now. (We are going with a clip now.)
1893 In three days I could drive him any ‘clip’ I chose by just talking to him.
1893 Lastly, the bicyclists rode from six to ten miles daily at a stiff clip.
1901 [The ship] traveled at a 12-knot clip.
1911 You’ll never finish your book at all at the clip you’re hitting now.
1929 The infield was functioning at an improved clip during this second game.
1941 That dog can keep up a terrific clip.
1967 Romance and marriage among corporations is rolling along at a torrid pace…The brisk clip continues this year.
The reader’s example fits right in: “Amazon has been adding distribution facilities at a clip.”
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Source: Vocabulary

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