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Grammar Girl's 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know
By Mignon Fogarty, Arnie Ten
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Mignon Fogarty, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Ad hoc is literally Latin meaning "for this." We use ad hoc in English to describe something temporary, something that was created for a specific purpose or is a one-off. For example, an ad hoc decorations committee could be created for the sole purpose of organizing the prom decorations, and an ad hoc theme song meeting could be called to address the one specific issue of what theme song should be chosen. After their duties are fulfilled, the ad hoc committees disband and the ad hoc meetings adjourn.
It's my belief that [the CIA's] assassinations have always been ad hoc efforts, organized usually at the behest of policymakers above the agency — and usually unsuccessful.
— Aldrich Ames, CIA officer who spied for other countries, in William Safire's book The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time
Don't worry, the whole book won't be Latin, but the Latin ad word shows up a couple of times in important phrases. Ad hominem means "to the man" in Latin. We use it in English to describe a particular type of logical fallacy — an argument that attacks the opponent's character instead of addressing the point of the debate.
An ad hominem attack assumes that just because a person is bad (e.g., a liberal, a conservative, a puppy killer) his or her argument can hold no merit, whereas in reality, a flawed person may still have a good point.
As we all felt keenly throughout the 2010 campaigns, name-calling and ad hominem attacks do more than insult the opponent: They insult the audience, as well.
— Margaret McDonald, American columnist
Anecdote comes from a Greek word that means "unpublished." Anecdotes are personal stories.
Anecdotes can be useful or deceptive depending on the situation; they can spice up a talk or supply the weak basis for a conclusion. For example, speaking coaches often encourage presenters to engage the audience by including amusing or compelling anecdotes. On the other hand, scientists often caution the public against making too much of mere anecdotal evidence such as the testimonials of a few happy supplement customers when there aren't any scientific studies proving the supplement works (or doesn't).
You know everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. ... Your stories have none of that. They're not even amusing accidentally!
— Steve Martin playing Neal Page (addressing Del Griffith) in the movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles
The next time you hear a Lady Antebellum song, remember that antebellum literally means "before the war" in Latin (ante = "before"; bellum = "war"). In the United States, antebellum usually refers only to the period before the Civil War; for example, you may read about antebellum architecture or antebellum collectibles that were made during this period. The Old South is sometimes used to describe the antebellum South, although Old South can also have a geographic or political meaning. (You're much more likely to hear about the antebellum South than about the antebellum North, since there were more changes in the South after the war.)
Cotton was king of the antebellum South, and befitting its regal position many retainers were necessary to bring each year's crop from the field to its ultimate destination in the North or abroad.
— Marilyn Anne Lavin in William Bostwick, Connecticut Yankee in Antebellum Georgia
Archetype comes from a Greek word that means "an original," in the sense of an original mold, stamp, or template from which copies are made. Archetype is pronounced like architect — with a ki sound in the middle, not a ch sound.
In literature, an archetype is a type of character who appears in stories throughout the ages. The wise wizard (e.g., Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore from Harry Potter) and the hero who can wield a special weapon (e.g., King Arthur and the sword Excalibur, Luke Skywalker and the Jedi sword from Star Wars) are examples of archetypes that are often found in literature. Once you start looking for archetypes, you'll find them everywhere.
Carl Jung popularized the archetype as a concept in psychology to represent ideas present in the collective unconscious.
I'm a man, Fleischman. We are born with an image of woman imprinted on our psyches. We spend our whole lives searching for the embodiment of that female archetype. And there she sits! In the flesh! You tell me what man could resist the fantasy of having her as his wife?
— Adam Arkin playing Adam in the TV show Northern Exposure
Something that is austere is simple, cold, harsh, or severe, especially in a way that limits pleasure or luxury. For example, an ascetic could be said to lead an austere life. A student's windowless room with only a simple bed and desk could be said to be austere.
Austere comes from Greek roots that mean "bitter, harsh, and dry" (as in how your mouth becomes parched). You can remember at least some of the meanings of austerity by noting that the ster in the middle is part of stern and sterile.
The truth is, there's nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it's such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging.
— Nick Hornby in The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
Something banal is common, mundane, trivial, or lacking originality. The word often carries a sense of how depressing it is to be confronted with such commonness. It comes from the Old French word ban, which described something that was common to the entire community.
These memories ... lay on the far side of a great divide in time, as significant as B.C. and A.D. Before prison, before the war, before the sight of a corpse became a banality.
— Ian McEwan, British writer, in Atonement
Bellicose means "warlike," so a bellicose person or country likes to fight.
In the Star Wars video games and books, an Empire star destroyer ship named Bellicose makes an appearance; and in the Harry Potter books, the violent and sadistic character Bellatrix Lastrange can trace her first name to the same Latin root word as bellicose — bellum, which means "war" and is also the root of belligerent. Think of Bellatrix Lastrange, and you've got a good way to remember the meaning of bellicose.
Chinese are losing patience with their erratic and bellicose ally [North Korea].
— William Pesek, Bloomberg News columnist, in an opinion piece for Bloomberg.
Blasphemy is speaking or writing against something sacred or holy; for example, being irreverent about God is blasphemy. In early years, blasphemers were often put to death — and today, they still are in certain countries.
Blasphemy is an old word, coming to English from a Greek word with the same meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary shows Geoffrey Chaucer as the first English author to use the word with the 1384 line "In blapheme of the gods" in the poem Lenvoy to Scogan (actually an earlier version of the word: blaspheme). At first, blasphemy applied only to religious beliefs, but later its meaning expanded to include speaking against closely held secular beliefs too.
RANDAL GRAVES: Which did you like better? [Jedi or The Empire Strikes Back?
DANTE HICKS: Empire.
RANDAL GRAVES: Blasphemy.
— Jeff Anderson (Randal) and Brian O'Halloran (Dante) in the movie Clerks
You're most likely to hear bohemian used to describe fashion these days, but in addition to dress-up bohemians, there are also real Bohemians — people who come from the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic.
However, bohemian is also used to describe a philosophy or lifestyle that is now disconnected from the Bohemia region. The French, believing Gypsies (Romani) came to their country through Bohemia, were the first to use bohemian to describe Gypsy-like behavior — being carefree, unrooted, poor, and artistic, and generally embracing an unconventional or loose lifestyle. The word has since been applied to many different lifestyles and artistic communities that have some or all of these vague attributes.
Everything everybody does is so — I don't know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much only in a different way.
— Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
A canard is a story — usually a damaging story — that's false, but purports to be true. It can be a rumor, a hoax, or an out-and-out lie.
Canard also has specialized meanings in aeronautics and cooking, and the cooking part isn't surprising because canard literally means "duck" in French.
So how do we get from a word for ducks to an absurd, baseless rumor? Many dictionaries cite the origin as an old French expression to describe a scheme or a hoax that literally means "to sell half a duck." Clearly, you can't sell half a duck, or at least not half a live duck, so presumably the story is about a seller who cheated a buyer by selling less than a full fowl.
Don't you think it's odd that I, a dragon, should eat homework for lunch? Of course it's odd, for it never happened. It was a falsehood, a canard, a prevarication. Oh, why beat about the bush. It was a simple lie told by a little girl named Sandy.
— Burgess Meredith voicing Puff in the TV movie Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of Living Lies
Chronic relates to time — it describes something that is persistent or has been going on for a long time — and fittingly, it comes from a Greek word, khronos, that means "time." Khronos is also the root word for chronology and chronically — other words that relate to time.
In medicine, the opposite of a chronic disease (something that comes on slowly and will progress over a long time) is an acute disease (something that comes on suddenly, is severe, and is likely to end). For example, type II diabetes is a chronic condition and a stroke is an acute condition.
Speaking of chronic conditions, happy anniversary.
— Vivian Blaine playing Miss Adelaide in the movie Guys and Dolls
When two things are correlated, they tend to happen together. A common scientific phrase is correlationdoes not equal causation — a reminder that studies often find that events happen at the same time without proving that one causes the other.
To use a silly example, it's important to remember that even though the girl you love seems to be scratching her head every time you walk by (the two events are correlated), you are not causing her to scratch her head. Perhaps your schedule means that you walk by at the same time she tends to study statistics, and it's statistics homework that makes her scratch her head.
The Lunar Effect is a myth. There is no statistical correlation between phases of the moon and human behavior.
— Pauley Perrette playing Abby Scuito in the TV show NCIS: Naval Criminal Intelligence Service
Crescendo comes from an Italian word that means "increasing." In a musical crescendo, the players gradually get louder until reaching a peak. Other things can also crescendo; political outrage can crescendo, romantic feelings can crescendo, a flurry of activity can crescendo, and a scene in a play can crescendo, for example.
Although it is sometimes used to describe a peak, technically, a crescendo is not the peak, but rather the lead-up to the peak.
Since the middle syllable of crescendo is pronounced "shen," I always had trouble remembering how to spell the word until I noticed that it's spelled like descend, which is something of its opposite in meaning.
A mosquito buzzed the King's ear with sudden crescendo.
— James Clavell in the novel King Rat
Deluge means flood, and the word comes from a Latin root that means "to wash away." A deluge can be a real flood, as in a heavy downpour of rain, or a metaphorical flood, as in a deluge of paperwork that shows up on your desk when you get a new job or a deluge of leaves that fall on your lawn. It can also be a verb; for example, if you work in human resources, you could be the person deluging the new hire with paperwork.
Getting caught in the warm, wet deluge that particular day in that terrible summer full of wars and fires that made no sense was a wonderful thing to have happen. It taught me to understand rain, not to dread it. There were going to be days, I knew, when it would pour without warning, days when I'd find myself without an umbrella. But my understanding would act as my all-purpose slicker and rubber boots. It was preparing me for stormy weather, arming me with the knowledge that no matter how hard it seemed, it couldn't rain forever. At some point, I knew, it would come to an end.
— Finding Fish: A Memoir by Antwone Quenton Fisher
Demagogue comes from a Greek word that means "the people's leader," but today in English it has a negative connotation. Demagogues seek to gain power, fame, money, or influence by inflaming an audience's emotions and prejudices with distortions and lies. Demagogues are usually persuasive speakers, and in short, they stir up trouble. Demagogue can also be used as a verb to describe the actions of such a person.
A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough. ... People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.
— Doris Lessing, British Nobel laureate
Excerpted from Grammar Girl's 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know by Mignon Fogarty, Arnie Ten. Copyright © 2011 Mignon Fogarty, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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