Monthly Archives: June 2013

How the dictionary defines “new”

Do you  go to a gastropub to get your favorite beer? Do you love Fox’s hit show Glee because of the original mash-ups the students of McKinley High perform? Or do you consider your man cave to be the best place to kick back and watch the game? While these questions all seem unrelated they do have one big thing in common. “Gastropub,” “mash-up,” and “man cave” are part of the list of new words added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition last year.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "man cave" as "a room or space (as in a basement) designed according to the taste of the man of the house to be used as his personal area for hobbies and leisure activities ." (Credit:  phillyburbs.com, Levittown, PA)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “man cave” as “A room or space (as in a basement) designed according to the taste of the man of the house to be used as his personal area for hobbies and leisure activities .”
(Credit: phillyburbs.com, Levittown, PA)

The dictionary is the resource we use to learn words and their definitions. After all, the dictionary confirms whether or not something truly is a word. It is used by Scrabble whizzes to verify whether or not the letter tiles placed by their opponents actually form an official word.  So if the dictionary determines what is and is not a word how does a word get added to it?  Who holds the power and  makes the careful selection? Why are some words chosen over others?

Credit: SportsGrid, LLC

Credit: SportsGrid, LLC

This month as we continue our focus on word choice we wanted to learn more about the ultimate choice when it comes to words – choosing new words for the dictionary. We spoke with Peter Sokolowski, life-long word lover and Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster. He explained the process for adding words to the dictionary and other great features Merriam-Webster offers like the Word of the Day and the Most Popular Words. We welcome his insights.

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When did you first become interested in words?
I always loved words — I’m from one of those families that read the encyclopedia at dinner. I think the Sherlock Holmes stories sent me to the dictionary often when I was 11.

Sherlock Holmes stories

Credit: Clarity Digital Group LLC d/b/a Examiner.com

Each year Merriam-Webster releases a list of new words being added to the annual update of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary. What were some of the new words added in 2012?
The new words give us a look at the culture as it changes through the prism of language. Terms like “systemic risk” and the financial sense of “underwater” reflect the financial crisis. Other new words are are more lighthearted, like “man cave” and “bucket list.” “Cloud computing” and “mash-up” reflect technology and media trends. My favorite of the new words is probably “gastropub.”

cover

Credit: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

How do  you determine that a word has become widespread enough to be added to the dictionary?
Editors read for the purpose of noticing words on a daily basis. Over months and years, this process produces a kind of census of the language — of new terms and existing words used in new ways. We then monitor this usage, and when a word is used by many people in many places, it’s time for it to be added to the dictionary. We look for words that show increasing use, not those that come and go quickly; we wait several years before a new term is added.

Merriam-Webster’s website shows a listing of the most popular words. These are words that are the most frequently looked up in either the past 24 hours, past seven days, or past four months. What makes these words so popular?
Some words, like “pragmatic,” “integrity,” and “paradigm” are looked up every day of the year. Others shift slowly and rise for a period of weeks or months — right now, “holistic” and “conscientious” are among these. Finally, we see words triggered by the news or pop culture; for instance, “socialism” and “capitalism” were looked up frequently during the presidential campaign last year, and “androgynous” spiked when actress Zoe Saldana used the word to describe herself in a much-discussed interview.

Actress Zoe Saldana referred to herself as androgynous in an interview with Allure magazine spiking

Actress Zoe Saldana referred to herself as “androgynous” in an interview with Allure magazine spiking searches for the word on Merriam-Webster’s website.
(Credit: http://www.latimes.com)

Your website also offers a word of the day. How did this start and how are featured words selected?
A team of editors choose the words in rotation. They choose words that have interesting histories or families of synonyms. I hear often from people that they love the Word of the Day. It’s also available as a podcast on iTunes.

What are some words that were popular a few years ago but their use has declined recently? Are there words that we said a few years ago that would sound strange being used today?
I don’t see the word “metrosexual” used often today — words can sometimes be just like fashion. They come and go and become evocative of a specific era (just think of “groovy”).

Credit: SodaHead.com

Credit: SodaHead.com

With the rise of social media and the need to often communicate in 140 characters or less have you found that people are using more acronyms and abbreviations to communicate with in place of words? Do you see this new form of words being included in the dictionary some day?
“LOL” and “OMG” are already entered in the Collegiate dictionary. Most of the abbreviations used in texting have been in use for a long time, and there’s no need to worry about the decline of English because of the use of a specific abbreviation. The fact is that we are using the dictionary more than ever, and for reasons that are linked: on the one hand, the dictionary is more easily consulted than ever online and as an app in addition to print. But we are also both reading and creating more text than ever for communication — the way we work and study requires more written communication, and taking care with spelling and meaning is important.

Credit: Research Maniacs

Credit: Research Maniacs

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What words do you think should be added to the dictionary? For a sampling of more words added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary last year click here.

Liz Faris, Associate
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Blog: a one word online revolution

While we continue to explore words and word choice  this month we wanted to learn more about the origin and history of a word that is close to home for us and share our findings with you. Its the big “B.” We were curious to know where the word “blog” came from? This word has managed to catch on and stay on with users of the world wide web everywhere.

Credit: BloggingPro

Credit: BloggingPro

The word blog is a contraction of the words “web” and “log” and can be used as a noun or a verb. So you can have a blog and you can blog to add and update its content. Blog’s began to gain popularity in the 1990’s with the emergence of web publishing tools that allowed average users to post content to the Internet without having to know how to do web coding such as HTML.

While  blogs were originally created by single individuals as a type of an online diary, multi-author blogs began to emerge around 2009 as more social media programs came about and gained popularity. Today we see blogs by media outlets, politicians, celebrities, universities, major companies, brands, and public outreach agencies like us. You can hardly surf the web without running into a blog on your favorite hobby or most recent area of interest.

Credit:  Public Broadcasting Service

Pictured above are various blogs on food and cooking.
(Credit: Public Broadcasting Service)

Blogs have become one of the leading outlets for people to get their daily news and disseminate information. While some in the traditional media were initially  skeptical of blogging and its legitimacy, opinions began to change when bloggers started to uncover some major news stories. Bloggers have been responsible for breaking or advancing some of the biggest news stories in recent years including  President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. More recently the story on the National Security Agency‘s secret collection of cell phone data  was broken by lawyer turned blogger turned journalist Glen Greenwald. Today, users of other social media and microblogging outlets that provide real time information such as Twitter are continuing to change who reports the news and how it is first reported. Some major news stories that are credited with being broken on Twitter include, the 2009 emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River, and the exposure of a secret police operation scheduled to take place in New York City’s Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street movement in November 2011.

Credit: amnotdone.blogspot.com

Credit: amnotdone.blogspot.com

This one word and action, “blog”, has evolved from being known as an online diary to revolutionizing the news industry and social media.

Stay tuned as we continue to explore more words and word choices this month. Later this month we will hear from Peter Sokolowski the Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary on how new words are selected to be added to the dictionary.

Liz Faris, Associate
Collaborative Services, Inc.

When trying to persuade people make sure they understand you.

Earlier this week we showed you several famous people and asked you what they all have in common. The answer is that all of them are powerful speakers who have managed to make memorable speeches that influenced and inspired people throughout history.

So what makes a great speech memorable? Delivery, humor, emotion, and tone to name a few. What makes a great speech resonate with its audience? Word choice. Choosing the right words can make or break a speech. How the media or your opponent interprets your words can halt progress and change your image in an instant.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering his first inaugural address. (Credit: Youtube user Alexander Stern)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering his first inaugural address.
(Credit: Youtube user Alexander Stern)

A classic example was in 2010 when BP‘s Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg told reporters in Washington, days after the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf Coast, “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care, but that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people.” The media and many of those affected by the tragedy jumped on the second sentence, labeling him an out-of-touch elitist when it may have just been a slip in translation for the Swedish-born Svanberg. While these gaffes may not have been as noticeable a decade ago, smart phones, the Internet, and social media have helped to catapult them around the world and preserve them in a click of a mouse.

BP Chairmam Carl-Henric Svanberg (Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

BP Chairmam Carl-Henric Svanberg
(Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

As we start our focus on word choice this month, Collaborative Services spoke with someone who knows the ins and outs of word choice. As a speechwriter Robert Lehrman has chosen the words used by our country’s leaders, corporate top dogs, and celebrities. Most notably Lehrman worked as the White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore from 1993 to 1995. Today, Lehrman is still in the business of choosing the right words but in addition to speeches, they are now often under his name. Lehrman has written several award-winning novels, teaches Speechwriting as an adjunct professor for American University (AU) and other schools, and is author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (CQ Press, 2009) in wide use on campuses and by politicians in both parties. He has been featured in the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Politico. In 2010 Lehrman and his colleague, AU Professor Leonard Steinhorn launched the website PunditWire as a place where political speechwriters comment on the news.

Collaborative Services spoke with Lehrman about his role as a speechwriter, author, and professor, how word choice helps persuade an argument and audience, and some of his favorite speeches. We welcome his insights.

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You’ve been a speechwriter for governors, senators, CEOs, and probably most notably, Vice President Al Gore. Can you talk about the role word choice plays in making a persuasive argument? Are there some words you lean on, and others you like to avoid?
It plays a central role — but not just in the way strategists suggest. They often focus on the implication of words.

For example: Frank Luntz, who writes a lot about how choosing the right words matters in persuasion, points to the difference between Colin Powell‘s term for what he recommends nations use in going to war—”decisive force”— and the way reporters describe Powell’s view: “overwhelming force.” There’s definitely a difference and those choices matter.

But what about choosing words people are more likely to understand?

Americans average a 7th grade reading level. When I write for politicians I choose “use” not “utilize,” “now” not “currently,” and dozens of other choices that let more people understand. Do you want to persuade people? Make sure they understand you.

Former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell (Credit: Press TV)

Former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell
(Credit: Press TV)

How does word choice differ when you’re writing for a political leader, a business leader, or other speakers?
If the topic is the same — and if the audience is the same — my approach to language doesn’t vary much. I always want to use language people understand, concrete detail, clarity, and some devices people use to make speeches memorable — antithesis, or alliteration, for example.

But there is one big difference between corporate and political speech. In politics it’s common to attack the other side (“Democrats have done nothing!”). Corporate CEOs don’t do that. The Merck CEO won’t say, “Novartis has done nothing.”

In fact, even when they complain about government regulation, which they do often, corporate speakers want to sound more temperate. So those attack words and litanies of complaint pretty much vanish when I do corporate. 

Are there any words that have positive or negative connotations that the average person might not think of?
Plenty. One reason? Our biases. Here’s one example. Someone who opposes abortion might think “pro-life” has no negative connotation. Because they believe an embryo is human, “pro-life” seems positive. To someone believing in Roe v. Wade the term might be infuriatingly negative — implying that those who support the right to abortion don’t care about life. The same thing is true — in reverse — about “pro-choice.”

When delivering a speech, which is more important – the writing, or the speaker’s execution?
There’s no one answer to that. When John F. Kennedy  gave his 1963 speech suggesting a limit to nuclear testing, the most important thing was what he proposed. He could have mumbled through the speech and still accomplished his goal — reaching out to the Soviets. And actually, he didn’t deliver it very well.

But Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “Dream” speech that same year? He has some powerful material. But it’s hard to imagine the speech succeeding without his resonant voice, enormous variety, effective use of pause and emphasis, and the way he raises his voice from step to step in his closing call to action.

Dr. Martin Luther King delivering his "I have a Dream" speech. (Credit: Hearst Communications Inc./timesunion.com

Dr. Martin Luther King delivering his famous “I have a Dream” speech.
(Credit: Hearst Communications Inc./timesunion.com

In addition to speeches, you’re also an award-winning novelist. You’ve written three books for young adults and one for adults. Can you talk about how you alter your word choice depending on whether you’re writing for young readers or more mature adults? How does word choice in novels differ from speeches?
I wrote my first novel, Juggling, as a book about adolescents aimed at adults. Harper & Row published it as a young adult (YA) book. But because I thought of my audience as adults I didn’t think at all about making sentences more accessible. Naturally, that can’t apply to every book for younger readers. You can’t write like Proust and hope to attract 12-year olds. Or at least many of them.

I did think about using shorter sentences, simpler language, and less detail for my two other YA novels — though not as much as you think, and it’s not easy. After all, you can say a lot with words of one syllable, but at some point you rob a passage of richness and nuance. Where is that point? I wrestled with that question, not always to my satisfaction. As for how this differs in speech — see the next question.

As a professor, how do you make your students aware about the importance of word choice?
We have two units in my course specifically about word choice — one on clarity, the other on how to be memorable. I could go into great detail about the things we talk about when it comes to being clear — but they’re not unusual. We work on being less wordy, concrete detail, and simple language.

Memorability?  That’s different. We work on something you will see in almost no other kind of writing: repetition. In most writing courses repetition is something to avoid. In speeches, litanies using the same grammatical structure adds power — there’s a reason Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream” about eight times.  And there are specific devices that make speeches memorable. I hate to load this down with the technical terms but don’t know another way to quickly give readers things to look up: antithesis, antimetablole, anaphora, epistrophe, chiasmus are some.

Finally, I urge students going into political work to write speeches average people can understand, which means writing at a seventh-grade level.  That’s controversial — there’s one academic who argues that this dumbs down rhetoric to the point that Presidents can’t make points with the sophistication that allows  them to lead. But a President is often heard by millions of people — even rallies see 30,000 people in the crowd. It’s undemocratic to present ideas in language most voters can’t follow. Even writing at an 11th grade level means half of the average voters won’t understand. In politics, you can’t go to your boss and say, “I have a profound speech for you — but half the audience won’t know what you’re talking about.”

Credit: Flickr user Kevin Gebhardt

Credit: Flickr user Kevin Gebhardt

This might be a good place to point out that in Microsoft Word we have an immensely useful tool, often ignored, that helps speechwriters do that. If you go to the “Spelling and Grammar” option, click on “Options”, and find the box under “Grammar” you’ll see the box next to “Readability Statistics.” If you check it and click “OK” each time you finish Spelling and Grammar, a box opens up with all kinds of useful information — average sentence length, percent passive voice, and other things. It tells you what grade level you’ve written at — and how many Americans can “easily understand” what you wrote.

Naturally, they use a formula for this — Google “Flesch-Kincaid” if you want to know more. It’s possible to fool the guide. But on the whole it’s pretty good. I use it for all my speeches and insist students do the same. It amazes them how high their passive voice level is — and how much more energetic their writing gets when they reduce it.

The Flesch-Kincaid readability formula. (Credit: Si Jobling)

The Flesch-Kincaid readability formula.
(Credit: Si Jobling)

Are there any well-known speeches that you consider a favorite, an inspiration for your own writing, or something you assign all your students to read? What about them makes them so powerful, in your opinion?
It’s rare to find a speech that’s powerful all the way through in politics. When people go to the famous speeches they will see a word or section that’s memorable (“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”) and be astonished to see how mediocre the rest is. And so, in this list of speeches I love to teach, none are perfect. But there’s usually one section that stands out. And so, in this list, it’s usually one section that stands out.

Ronald Reagan: 40th Anniversary of D-Day: Note the gripping way he uses the story of the invasion to compel us from the first 30 seconds.

Ronald Reagan: Farewell from the Oval Office: Here note the way he humanizes himself in the opening by describing the way things look outside the White House windows — and the windows of his motorcade — as well as the story about the Vietnamese boat people to symbolize his administration.

Barack Obama: 2008 Victory speech: Here’s a stunningly original close, in which Obama uses the story of one 106-year old woman to encapsulate the history of the last century — leading into his “Yes we Can” litany that sweeps the audience along.

Conan O’Brien: Harvard 2000 Class Day speech: Yes, it’s 12 years old — and a testament to whoever wrote this speech with more laughs per page than I have ever seen, and a great example of how effective humor can be in speech.

Comedian Conan O'Brian made hos speech to Harvard's class of 200 memorable using humor. (Credit: Dallas Movie Screenings)

Comedian and Talk Show host Conan O’Brien made his speech to Harvard’s Class of 200 memorable using humor.
(Credit: Dallas Movie Screenings)

As language changes and evolves, have you noticed speech writing changing in any way? Are there any words you would use now that you would never have used ten or twenty years ago, or vice versa?
As ideas become acceptable there are words you find in your speeches that wouldn’t have been there a decade back — like “same-sex marriage.”

Not all the changes over the last few decades involve word choice, though. Since I started writing speeches I see three changes. First, litanies of repetition — popularized by JFK and King. Second, the use of antithesis, or repetition to show contrast (“Ask not what your country can do for you …”), which also probably came from JFK and which you’ll see as many as 10-15 times in an Obama speech.

The third, using story to move or dramatize. There are no stories in the JFK Inagural address, or in King’s “Dream.” Reagan’s writers used story so effectively it influenced other writers to do the same — I know that influenced me.

President Ronald Reagan (Credit: Wally McNamee/Corbis/Guardian News and Media Limited)

President Ronald Reagan
(Credit: Wally McNamee/Corbis/Guardian News and Media Limited)

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Next time you are tasked with writing remember the goal is to persuade or influence as many people as possible.  Know your speaker, their audience, and the opposition if there is one, and evaluate how readable what you wrote is. To learn more about writing and word choice from Robert Lehrman you can purchase his books here.

Liz Faris, Associate
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Next up word choice

What do these folks have in common? We’ll let you know later this week.

President John F. Kennedy

Credit: Clarity Digital Group LLC d/b/a Examiner.com

Credit: Clarity Digital Group LLC d/b/a Examiner.com

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Credit: El Diamante High School Web Design

Credit: El Diamante High School Web Design

President Ronald Reagan

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Credit: Mental Floss

Credit: Mental Floss

Eva Perón, First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952

Credit: YouBioIt.com

Credit: YouBioIt.com

Labor and Community Organizer Mary Harris Jones “Mother Jones”

Mother Jones

Credit: Mother Jones Museum

Comedian and talk show host Conan O’Brien

Credit: Jason R. Henske/Associated Press

Credit: Jason R. Henske/Associated Press

Comedian and talk show host Ellen Degeneres

Credit: Business Insider, Inc.

Credit: Business Insider, Inc.

Media Mogul and former Talk Show Host Oprah Winfrey

Credit: My Urban Report

Credit: My Urban Report

Find out this week as we learn about what makes it takes to make a great speech when we talk to speechwriter and professor Robert Lehrman and move in to exploring word choice.

Collaborative Services Blog Team

Words make the world go round

Words make the world go round and societies function. We rely heavily on words. We use words to communicate with each other, to direct us, to instruct us, to describe something, to name something, just to name a few. Can you imagine how different and extremely difficult life would be without words?

Credit: Innovations in Civic Participation

Credit: Innovations in Civic Participation

This month we looked at the different ways  in which we use words and how these uses are changing as our world and vocabularies continue to expand.We looked at web tools to analyze words and content. We learned what words are so overused or misused that they end up on a list to banish them (oh no!)  We re-examined some words banished at the beginning of this year. We also spoke with a professional “verbivore”  about why the words we use matter.

As humans we are fascinated, enamored, and obsessed with words. From Scrabble to Words with Friends to Banagrams we have always had a healthy interest in using words to entertain us.

Credit: Slide to Play

Credit: Slide to Play

From Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to Urban Dictionary words and their definitions are something we need to know in our academic, professional, and personal lives.

Credit: Urban Dictionary

Credit: Urban Dictionary

From 140 characters to hashtags to word clouds, how we use and display words online is changing as quickly as our twitter feed.

CSI Twitter

We want to thank the word experts who contributed to our blog this month. They are:

Ryan Stuart, software engineer and co-creator of textisbeautiful.net

Richard Lederer, author, columnist and radio and television contributor

Tom Pink, Director of Public Relations at Lake Superior State University and member of the committee that determines the university’s “Annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness

But what happens when we choose the wrong word? One word is all it takes to tarnish a reputation, lose waves of support, or just cause a lot of unnecessary confusion. As we move into June we wanted to explore words further by looking at Word Choice. Knowing how to distinguish words and their meanings is important to us  in our roles as consumers, voters, and stakeholders. Learning the difference between words can make a huge difference in all aspects of our lives.

Credit: printwand

Credit: printwand

Thank you for reading and please keep sharing your thoughts in your own words with us.

Catherine Smith, President
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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