Category Archives: words

Word picks for the savvy verbal investor, February 2008

(being the latest installment in the series begun here.)

  • It is what it is — BUY — disclaimer: I am heavily invested in this one, and have been for at least a year. This one has been gaining steam. It was spotted by William Safire (sort of the fastidious Warren Buffet of verbal investing) as early as spring 2006, and this Slate article from a few days back calls it a sports cliché for our time. So this is not going to appeal to the value investors out there. The Slate pice criticizes it as an essentially meaningless cop-out. Like all tautologies, sure, if you are parsing it for its logical content, yes, it means little. But it is a short, zen-like way of accepting things the way they are, instantly pulling you out of the imaginary worlds of what might have been and into the present tense, real world. It’s something that everybody needs now and again, and right now, there’s no other phrase that can provide this universal value with such an economy of words. Buy while you still can, kids.
  • What have you — SELL — It’s not going to tank tomorrow, but you’re not going to surprise anybody by pulling this one out, you’re just going to sound sort of lazy.

Word picks for the savvy verbal investor, October 2007

Palimpsest — SELL — This word no longer speaks to the zeitgeist. Ditch it now and cut your losses.
Autochthonous — STRONG BUY — So much cooler and evocative than “indigenous”; anything “chtonic” is hot, hot, hot.
“Not so much” — HOLD — Naysayers have denigrated it for almost a year now, but it’s still going strong. Keep a close eye on it, though, and prepare for its demise; perhaps use it…. not so much.

Simulated Ignorance

According to this, the word “irony” comes from the Greek word eir?neia, which referred to the Socratic argument technique of feigning ignorance to get your opponent to say something you can poke holes in.
American Heritage gives the etymology as

French ironie, from Old French, from Latin ?r?n?a, from Greek eir?neia, feigned ignorance, from eir?n, dissembler, probably from eirein, to say.

I like the idea of simulated ignorance, and I think it’s kind of amazing that it is linked with both the ideas of dissembling and speech.

While I’m attracted to these things, I am also not a fundamentally ironic person. I think if you try to live on feigned igorance alone, you sort of starve. Eventually, you have to try to know something.


Of the many words I love, “quiddity” as been very close to the top of the list since I discovered it. I forget the context, but I feel like it was a summer or two ago, it came up (I have no idea how or why) when I was visiting the parents. My mom was looking it up, but I tried to guess what it meant from my smidgie of Latin: I guessed “what-ness” or “thingitude”. I was close:

quid di ty (kwi(d’i(-te-) pronunciation
n., pl. -ties.

  1. The real nature of a thing; the essence.
  2. A hairsplitting distinction; a quibble.

Or even better, from WordNet,

The noun quiddity has 2 meanings:

  1. Meaning #1: an evasion of the point of an argument by raising irrelevant distinctions or objections
    Synonym: quibble
  2. Meaning #2: the essence that makes something the kind of thing it is and makes it different from any other

On the Latin theme, I may start writing error messages in Latin after reading this.

The Narcissism of Minor Differences

I just stumbled on a useful idea of Freud’s called “the narcissism of minor differences”. File under “I never knew there was a word for that”. It seems like such a prevalent part of human experience & behavior that it seems obvious that there should be. Here’s a succinct definition which I lifted from here:

Why are Republicans so hateful toward Bill Clinton when he is more like them than virtually any other Democrat? He has pushed through many of their favorite policies, such as cutting welfare, promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement and proposing that portions of Social Security reserves be privatized. You would think Republicans would regard him among their favorite Democratic presidents. Instead, the opposite is true. They seem determined to kill him politically through character assassination fueled by a hatred that is hard to understand.

Sigmund Freud had a brilliant explanation for this type of animosity: the narcissism of minor differences. The psychoanalyst contended that human beings express their most virulent hatred toward those who are just slightly different from themselves. This is because slight differences pose a greater psychological threat to ones core sense of self (ergo: narcissism) than those who are extremely different from ourselves. Freud used this concept as an explanation for the most heinous forms of aggression.

I originally saw it in this Globe article about transatlantic relations.