News You Can Use To Improve Your Communications

Month: August, 2012

Wednesday’s Weird Word: Euplocomi

Wednesday’s Weird Words is a series of posts about obsolete, fun, or just plain weird words found in my great-grandfather’s 75-year-old dictionary.  More about the story of Weird Word Wednesdays here.

Today’s weird word is:

euplocomi

And it’s an obsolete word for people having curly hair.

If you’re a member of this elite bunch, as I am, should we add it to our resumes?

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How to Ruin a Good Blog Post #2: Use Acronyms No One Gets

It’s ironic.

Acronyms exist to speed things up.  The whole point of abbreviating a long title is so we don’t have to slog through reading the entire long title.

But unexplained acronyms can stop the reading flow altogether.   We stumble on them, wondering, “Should I know this?” Meanwhile, we’re missing the real content of the writing.

It used to be standard practice to spell out an acronym the first time you used it in a piece of writing.  For instance:

The Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things (SFPTOTOT) was a Monty Python sketch. 

Mary laughed until she snorted when the SFPTOTOT came on the air.

I hardly ever see this practice anymore, and pretty much never in blogs.

Seriously, sometimes it’s like being in high school, the way acronyms are thrown around online with no explanation.  It’s as if there are 500,000 e-cliques with their own secret handshakes, and the dorks who don’t get it stand around feeling like…well, dorks.

Here are some examples I’ve found in the last 24 hours.

  • A blog post about a fantastic meeting of professionals, in which the blogger used only an acronym to name the conference.  It was impossible to tell what the conference was about, or who it was for. 
  • The trend among “mommy bloggers” to refer to their husbands as “DH.”  I don’t get it. 
  • POTUS” and “FLOTUS,” routinely seen in journalistic writing.   Does the general public know these mean President of the United States and First Lady of the United States?  It would be clearer, and almost as short, to say “Prez” and “1st Lady,” or something.

I don’t think it’s realistic to say “stop using acronyms” in online writing.  But as writers we should be careful to tell our readers what they mean.

Do you have an acronym pet peeve?

Quick Editing Tip #1: Watch Your Jargon

Jargon WineNever use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.  George Orwell

Jargon is specialized language that functions as shorthand in a given field or industry.

Jargon is fine in the right context.  It plays an important role in helping us communicate with our small, local tribes.

But writers, especially those of us writing for general audiences, need to be careful with jargon.  Assuming that others understand our “lingo” is like traveling to another country and assuming the people there speak English.

Sometimes writers pepper their text with specialized language (or overly complex words) in an effort to sound smart.  Although tempting, this isn’t a good idea.  Readers end up feeling confused, stupid, or left out of the party.  Not fun.

It’s satisfying to read something that’s intelligently written, and connect with it.  We want to give our readers that experience.  We want them to enjoy our writing, and come back for more.

So, who’s your audience?  Do you write for computer programmers?  Children?  Garbage collectors?

We’d do well to match our use of jargon with what we think our audience knows about our subject.  If we don’t know who our readers are, or we’re trying to broaden our reach, it’s even more important to err on the side of simplicity.

It’s entirely possible to communicate complex ideas without a lot of specialized words.

Wednesday’s Weird Word: Doggess

One of my favorite family heirlooms is a 75-year-old leather-bound dictionary.  It belonged to my great-grandfather and has thousands and thousands of those ultra-thin pages like the dictionaries in libraries have.  In fact, I’m pretty sure this could be the dictionary in the Library of Congress.  It’s that marvelous.

Opening this book anywhere is like riding a magic carpet to Old Language Land.  I found some great old words recently, and will be sharing some on Wednesdays here on The Word Bath.

Today’s word is:

doggess

Now, doggess means just what it sounds like:  female dog.

I’m sure none of you fine people ever let fly with the other word for female dog, but if you ever wanted to and felt it wasn’t appropriate, now you have an alternative.

But beyond that, I just kind of like it.  It sounds a little like princess or duchess.

What do you think?  Will you be adding doggess to your vocabulary? 

Winners of Bad Sentence Contest Revealed

Every year the English Department at San Jose State University sponsors the Bulwer-Lytton* Fiction Contest for bad sentences. The event challenges writers to write the worst possible opening sentences for the worst possible novels.

Highlights from this year’s winning drivel:

*****

“The ‘clunk’ of the guillotine blade’s release reminded Marie Antoinette, quite briefly, of the sound of the wooden leg of her favorite manservant as he not-quite-silently crossed the polished floors of Versailles to bring her another tray of petit fours.” — Leslie Craven, Hataitai, New Zealand

****

Primum non nocere, from the Latin for “first, do no harm,” one of the principal tenets of the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians, was far from David’s mind (as he strode, sling in hand, to face Goliath) in part because Hippocrates was born about 100 years after David, in part because David wasn’t even a physician, but mainly because David wanted to kill the sucker.”  — David Larsen, San Francisco, CA

*****

“She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on … not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and – just like that cheap paint – the dress needed two more coats to cover her.” — Sue Fondrie, Appleton, WI

*****

*named to honor Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford opens with the cliched “It was a dark and stormy night.”  

What to Read to Improve Your Writing

What to Read to Improve Your Writing

Seen at a local thrift store. This will be on the test.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  Stephen King

One of the first things aspiring writers learn is that to write well, they also need to read.  A lot.

In her classic book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron said that artists and writers need to fill their minds regularly with new images–sensory experiences that give us raw material to draw from when we create.

Reading is a powerful way to do this.  Consider the richness of images in, say, The Grapes of Wrath.  I read the book when I was a teenager.   Decades later, I remember a bounty of images when I think of the book.  Green.  Brown.  Dry.  Cold.  Wet.  Suffering.  Reading the story, we see the heat and desolation of the Dust Bowl.  We feel the cold and wet of the Joads’ boxcar.

Writers are also admonished, constantly, to write what they know.   Even though we weren’t actually in California with the Joads, Steinbeck’s writing is so good that we feel as if we were.  The book’s images go into the file folder in our brains marked “What I Know.”   We can draw on these images as certainly as we draw on what we “know” about last night’s dinner.   In this way, reading adds profoundly to our data bank of writing material.

Reading also, obviously, exposes us to language.  Children learn language by exposure.  They pick up their parents’ accents, vocabulary, and bad grammar.  In similar way, if we read bad writing for a long time (no matter how old we are), eventually our brains are going to “learn” it.

There’s an acronym used in computer programming —  GIGO — that stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” It means that if you put messy code into a computer, you’ll get correspondingly bad programming results.

It’s the same with our brains.  If we feed them good language and rich, relevant images, our writing will be better than if, say, they consume National Enquirer.

So, when you’re looking for reading that supports your writing, consider these ideas:

  • Language is more important than subject matter.  A well-written cookbook is better than a badly written biography of Plato.
  • Older is better than newer.  In the last ten or fifteen years, publishers have basically stopped editing books — have you noticed?
  • Prize-winners are better than best-sellers.  As a one-year reading program, a person could do worse than to read fifty Pulitzer prize-winning novels.  Prize winners are chosen for literary quality.  Best-sellers?  Not necessarily.
  • Think about reading through a list of most-recommended literature for college students.  I’ve been working on one of these for over twenty years, and I’m amazed at how it’s enriched my life.
  • Online content doesn’t count.  It’s too fast, too short, and too prone to mistakes.

What do you think?  What would you add to this list?

Merriam-Webster’s New Words for 2012: How Many Do You Know?

The news about Merriam-Webster’s new words for 2012 was all over the Twitterverse yesterday.  I wanted to see the complete list, but the Huffington Post tells us the company — which leads the dictionary market — won’t reveal them all.

“Let [our competitors] find their own words,” company president John Morse, perhaps only partly joking.  ” It’s not a cutthroat business, but we like to say it’s a bare knuckles business.”

So, word lovers of the world:  if you don’t have anything to do for the next six weeks, buy the new dictionary and get looking.  Let us know when you find them all.

In the meantime, here’s a short list.

  • Sexting
  • Tipping point
  • Aha moment
  • Earworm
  • Craft beer
  • E-reader
  • Game-changer
  • Gassed (a new slang definition)
  • Geocaching
  • Gastropub
  • Shovel-ready
  • Obesogenic
  • Flexitarian
  • Systemic risk
  • Underwater (a new slang definition)
  • Copernicium

How many are new to you?

Thought for the Day, August 16

“People who say they slept like a baby usually don’t have one.”

Leo Burke — as quoted by @qikipedia on Twitter.

Communication Best Practices: Eye Contact, Of Course!

Eye Contact

A few years ago I went “contra dancing” with some gregarious pals.  Contra is a kind of fast, whirly folk dancing in which one could easily get nauseous.  Every woman dances with every man, and there’s a lot of partner swapping.

The way to avoid losing your dinner is to lock eyes with each partner as he whirls you.  Shy people might try to look at their partners’ hair or ears.  However, this doesn’t work (I tried).  Only unbroken eye contact seems to keep dizziness at bay.

Eye contact as a communication best practice seems obvious.  And yet in our frenzied lives of hyperconnectivity through all manner of screened devices, it’s easy to forget to look at the people we’re talking to — to stop multitasking, look them right in the eye, and simply take in what they’re saying.

Sentient animals do this.  Our dogs and cats and horses and maybe even turtles and birds look us in the eye, and that’s where we make our connections.

Eyes communicate emotions in ways nothing else can.  It’s said that the Mona Lisa is “enigmatic” and “mysterious” because Leonardo left the corners of her eyes blurred.  He did this on purpose, apparently, so that her viewers can’t know exactly what she’s feeling.  To understand someone’s emotional communication, we need to see their eyes as well as hear the words they’re saying.

Sometimes the best practice for good communication is the simplest.  Eye contact isn’t rocket science, but we might need to remind ourselves to use it.

Creativity Tip #1: Break a Routine

Creativity isn’t all that mysterious.  In one sense, it’s just the rearranging of familiar things into a fresh relationship.  The things could be words, colors, or soup ingredients.

Imagine your creative self as a highly intelligent toddler.  She loves novelty.  She lives completely in the present moment.

Today, give your inner toddler something new and break a routine.  Start with a small routine — not a big one like your marital status.

Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.

Drive to the grocery store via a new street.

Sit in a new place at the dinner table.

As you do this, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings.  Are you even a tiny bit more engaged with the here and now?  Do you find yourself looking at other routine experiences a little differently?

Creativity is all about noticing and experiencing the familiar in a fresh, unexpected way.

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