Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Wake (n.) and the matter of time (Extinction 02)

Today I read an article about the current stock market in which the phrase 'in the wake of' was used to mean its opposite.

The headline was "US stock slide was ‘appetizer’ with ‘main course’ still to come – Morgan Stanley." The news site was news to me, too: www.rt.com. Turns out RT stands for Russia Today but I didn't realize that when I first read the article.

Maybe the misuse of English reflects the Russian source. But when I started this post I hadn't thought about what RT meant. The mistake seemed like other mistakes English native speakers make. That is what this Extinction Series is all about: how we speakers of English are carelessly extinguishing the marvelous specificity and nuances of our language by not using words accurately. (UWA is shorthand I used in grading papers and I will use it in this blog from time to time.)

Back to the article. I can tell you that it is unsigned and that Morgan Stanley is not responsible for the phrase that caught my attention. The quotes from Morgan Stanley are in fact from a Bloomberg report quoting "the bank's strategists." The link is omitted on rt.com but it is easily found and it is here. The misuse of 'wake' comes in the anonymous commentary that follows the quotes:
Many analysts are comparing the current situation on the US stock markets to 2008 in the wake of the global financial crisis. At the time, stocks also hit several all-time highs, despite warning signs of the impending turmoil.
That first sentence brought me up short. A wake, in 21st century parlance, is a boat's version of a plane's contrail. It is behind, never in front. It is visible evidence after something has moved on. Who would compare the current situation to what happened AFTER the 2008 crisis? Has there been a stock market crisis this year already, and I missed it? But when I read the next sentence, I realized that 'wake' was not what was meant. The writer used 'in the wake of' to mean 'right before' or 'in the lead-up to.' Which is the opposite of its definition.

I can understand where the misuse came from. You WAKE in the morning, before you get on with the day. A wake-up call comes before it's too late. And so on. The verb 'wake' does indeed have elements of both before and after: you wake before you physically rise from a sleeping position but after you have mentally ceased sleeping. Waking occurs in between two states.

The noun WAKE has two meanings, too, but neither supports the 'the lead-up to' definition. In addition to being the choppy water after a vessel has passed, it can be a gathering of family and friends after someone has died. In any case, the phrase 'in the wake of' is a metaphor about boats and their wakes, not dead people and theirs.

The phrase has always meant 'after' and, more specifically, 'as a consequence of' something prior. But maybe not any more. The past is the future; who says it's not?

If you see other instances of writers muddying the temporal waters of 'wake,' please let me know.

* Note about "RT": You might guess, wrongly, that RT stands for Russian Telegraph if you click on the cited webpage's top tab "Projects." There's no "About" tab, by the way. But Wikipedia's entry for Russian Telegraph explains that the name is historical and says not a word about rt.com. Wikipedia does, however, have an entry for 'RT' that displays the same RT logo as the webpage. RT stands for Russia Today. Wikipedia also explains some of the words in the copyright notice at the bottom of the rt.com webpage: "© Autonomous Nonprofit Organization “TV-Novosti”, 2005–2017. All rights reserved." Novosti, Google Translate's language detector says, is Bosnian and means news. I guess Google chooses Bosnian because I typed the word using the Latin alphabet not the Russian. Google translates news into Russian as Новости which its disembodied voice pronounces novosti, emphasis on the no.

rjm 20180220

Reticent is not Reluctant (Extinction 01)

I wrote about this eight years ago. I think the horse had already been stolen by then. But in case someone still cares, here's that post.

rjm 20180220

The Extinction Series: Introduction

Some wonderful words and phrases, those with unique meanings or special nuances, are becoming extinct. Once they are used interchangeably with some other word or phrase, whether it is blander or just different, their special meaning is lost. A compact, precise way to communicate an idea is gone. Something longer and maybe fuzzier must be substituted. Or people stop putting the idea into words at all because it is just too difficult. So thoughts die, too.

I liken this to the problem with living species.

I was let to this analogy by someone who had written 'fulsome praise' and I wrote back that I didn't think she meant 'fulsome.' We had gone to school together and I had a high opinion of her writing. But she got huffy. She cited a dictionary that said 'fulsome' could mean 'full.'

Well, she hadn't mean to give 'full praise,' either. I would use 'full praise' when the praised person has received criticism or, at best, faint praise and I wished to convey disagreement with the disparagers. Like 'full marks': you don't bother to say you give someone 'full marks' for something when all the other judges have already given the person 10 out of 10. Or so my mental ear tells me.
Yes, when I read or write, I hear. I explain that "I read with my ears" and that the words I read appear in my mind's ear not my mind's eye. I've only recently discovered that not everyone reads that way. But I believe that the best writers read their own work with their ears. In fact they write with their ears without conscious effort. When people ask me to look over something they've written, I can always tell if they are eye-readers. If so, I recommend that they read their work aloud or have someone else read it to them. Once they do that, they can fix their writing all by themselves. Good writing - yes, even technical writing and legal writing - can be read aloud easily and smoothly.
What my schoolmate meant was not 'fulsome' but 'great' or 'heartfelt' praise and certainly 'sincere' praise. What she did not mean was praise so excessive that it conveyed that she meant the opposite of praise, which is what - to my mind's ear - 'fulsome praise' is. By the way, I rarely resort to dictionaries. That is because my years of reading by ear inform my definitions and give me confidence that I am right. It's also because of what I think of as the Wordly Wise problem with modern dictionaries and modern vocabulary teaching. See future post.

The writer of 'fulsome' also argued that language is always changing, words are created and destroyed all the time, and I should chill, not be a pedant, get over it, suck it up. Or anyway, that was her subtext.

I didn't continue the thread but that's when it occurred to me that living species are constantly being created and destroyed, too. Yet that is not the end of the story. The problem today is that the creation of species seems to be lagging far behind the destruction. Known species are becoming extinct faster than new species are being discovered. And I don't think that's for lack of looking.

I fear it is the same with words. We are losing more than we are gaining.

This series will serve as an Endangered Species List for the English language.
rjm 20180220

CONTENTS (To be updated whenever I add to the series. Please use the comment box to suggest words and phrases I should include.)

01. RETICENT too often is confused with reluctant. Link appears in Extinction 01.

02. WAKE - X in the WAKE of Y - refers only to an X that comes after Y, never to an X that comes before Y. A sighting of a misused WAKE on 2/20/18 is the subject of Extinction 02.

03. BEGS THE QUESTION now means 'raises the question' almost all the time. (A long-ago email to NPR, which I like to think was somewhat successful at the time, will be turned into a post.)

04. DISINTERESTED now means UNINTERESTED, more often than not. In these corrupt and truth-disparaging times, we need a word that clearly means what careful speakers and writers meant when they wrote DISINTERESTED. (An entry for a 1992 Legal Writing coursepack and several emails will be turned into a post.)


July 12, 2013 (Except that I didn't post it then. I revised it on 2/20/18 and posted it, but then started another revision and left it in limbo. Today, 3/1/18 I'll post it again.)

Welcome to WORDS WELL USED, my blog for comments on writing errors in the books I read.

I'll complain whenever the author or the author's copy editor were not as careful as ne ought to have been.  I'll praise in the rare instances when the copy editor's work is flawless, or, as I believe may happen even more often, when the author holds nerself to such a high standard that, before submitting the manuscript for publication, ne catches what I would have caught, had ne asked me to read it.

I've decided the first post should be one of praise.  See Binocular Vision. (Well, maybe later, because on 2/20/18 I started the Extinction Series.)

I read with my ears. That is, I hear the words as I read them. This may explain why I notice when a writer uses a word that is not quite right.  Often these errors arise from either (1) the wordly wise problem, or (2) the bad habit of not using _____. (That is, leaving a blank space instead of a word you know is wrong:  if you include a word, you'll forget to fix it but if you include a _____, you won't think you're done until you put in the right word -- at least in theory)..

I call such things stoppers.  Other stoppers are ordinary typographical errors, awkward phrasing, inconsistent parallels, etc.

I am also a stickler for facts. Things that strike me as possibly untrue grab my attention and will make their way onto this blog.  As a lawyer, particularly at Fish & Neave (now in 2013 part of Ropes & Gray), I learned from such excellent writers as Eric C. Woglom, David J. Lee, Kenneth B. Herman, Robert C. Morgan and Jesse J. Jenner, that you NEVER write something you are not 100% sure of.  The credibility of counsel can affect a judge's decisions even more than that of the witnesses.  Worse (for the non-credible), it can do so in the early stages, when the roles of bad guy and good guy have not yet been assigned in the judge's mind.  Even writers of fiction need to worry about their credibility, with this judgmental reader if not the general public or History (capital H).  But I think History will share my views.

Draft begun 10/12/2012, rev 11/16/12,
rev and intended to post 7/12/13,
posted then further rev begun 2/20/18,
rev and posted 3/1/18