Have you ever used the word ineffable? Have you ever heard it used? The first time I stumbled across this word was while reading a poem by the 12th century abbot and poet Bernard de Clairvaux:
O Jesus, King most wonderful!
O Conqueror renowned!
O Source of peace ineffable,
In whom all joys are found.
The word "ineffable" simply means "too great to be expressed with words." So another way of saying that third line would be, "Source of indescribable peace."
As you would expect, since this word begins with the prefix "in," there is another English word which can be obtained by removing the prefix. That word is "effable." If ineffable means "too great to be expressed with words," you would probably guess -- and correctly so -- that effable means "not too great to be expressed with words," or simply, "describable."
What makes this interesting to me is that the original word, "effable," is far less common than the derived word, "ineffable."
How often have you heard the word "effable" used? I would be very surprised if you said that you hear the word "effable" more often than you hear the word "ineffable." After all, if something is describable, is there really any point to saying that it's describable? If it's describable, you just describe it, instead of mentioning the fact that it can be described!
According to Google's Ngram Viewer, when "effable" was at its most popular, "ineffable" was still about four times as popular. This happened in the early 1700s. In modern times, both words have declined in usage, but "effable" has declined much more than "ineffable." "Ineffable" is used approximately 100 times as often as effable.
Interestingly, the spell-checker I'm using while I type this blog post recognizes the word "ineffable," but tells me that I have a typo whenever I type "effable."
And since I have just described the word "ineffable," I guess we could conclude by saying that ineffable is effable.
It's now 2017, so it is time to present our 2016 Word of the Year. That's right; we're chosen a single word that we think represents 2016 perfectly.
The word is tendentious. When I hear this word, I automatically think of the word "contentious." Tendentious doesn't mean the same thing as contentious, but as you will see, tendentiousness tends to lead to contentiousness.
To be tendentious means that you are expressing or promoting a particular cause or point of view. It would be fair to say that being tendentious means that you are more interested in promoting a cause or view than in promoting what is true.
The root of tendentious is the word tendency. We have a tendency to accept and promote information that fits with our pre-existing viewpoints. An online thesaurus lists "prejudicial," "one-sided," and "partisan" as synonyms. "Biased" would be another synonym.
This has certainly been a perfect year for tendentiousness. Aside from the unavoidable bias implicit in the choice of what is important enough to print, this year has seen a massive proliferation of both right-wing and left-wing media sources that have absolutely no interest in posting anything that doesn't promote their pre-existing views. Did a liberal politician do something wonderful? Don't expect to see a word about it on any right-wing site. Did he do something horrible? Don't expect to read it in a left-wing source. (And by the way, if he did do or say something wonderful, right-wing media sources will find a way to take it out of context and make it sound horrible!) It's important for all of us to learn to notice and acknowledge this when it happens, even and especially when it happens on our own "side."
And it's not just corporate media. With the ever-increasing usage of social media platforms, every one of us is now a media source. We can't complain about "corporate media bias" when we are guilty of exactly the same sins -- to an even greater degree. We see tweets and Facebook memes and we assume they must be true solely on the basis that they fit our pre-existing notions. Since they fit our ideas, we automatically retweet or share, without a moment's hesitation or reflection. And certainly without any research.
Woe unto the social media user who decides to challenge these postings with a, "Wait a minute. That's not even true!" comment. The response to "that's not true" is almost always a variation on "but they make a good point," and a refusal to remove the false content from their personal media platform.
In one of the greatest ironies of the year, people who defend the importance of truth amidst the onslaught of media fiction seem to be just as often accused of tendentiousness. I find nothing more depressing than my friends on one side of the political spectrum claiming that concern about the proliferation of "fake news" is a partisan invention of the other side. In other words, opposition to tendentiousness is seen as tendentious.
All of this tendentiousness leads to more and more contentiousness.
After selecting our 2016 Word of the Year, we learned that the Oxford Dictionary has selected "post-truth" as its word of the year. We think our word and theirs fit well together.
It's getting toward the end of the month, and I was trying to think of a good word to write about for the blog, and suddenly, I had an epiphany! Have you ever had an epiphany? If you've ever had a sudden flash of insight or realization, then yes, you've had an epiphany.
If you want to understand the word epiphany, you should remember that old story of Archimedes, jumping out of the bathtub and running down the streets of Syracuse, shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" because he had suddenly realized that a bathtub (and the water it contained) could be a wonderful tool for determining the volume of an object.
Mind you, an epiphany does not require you to shout "eureka," and it also doesn't require you to run down the streets of the city in your bath-time wardrobe. But it is -- like Archimedes' realization -- a sudden, startling insight.
The word epiphany comes to us from Greek, by way of Old French and Latin. The Greek word was epiphainein, and it simply meant "reveal." This definition fits nicely with our modern understanding of the word; when we have a flash of insight, we often have the feeling that the answer has been there all along, but it was hidden from us -- right up until the moment it was revealed.
Epiphany is also a "December word" -- in the sense that it is closely tied to the Christian Advent season. The Greek word epiphainÅ, (another form of the Greek word mentioned above) appears in the book of Titus chapter 2, in the following contexts:
Titus 2:11 -- "For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men."
Titus 2:13 -- "Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ."
These two verses encapsulate one of the main themes of the Advent celebration -- that The Christ appeared (was revealed), and that he will appear (be revealed) again.
After Christmas, the holiday of the "Three Kings" is celebrated. This holiday is also called "Epiphany," because it represents the revealing of the child to the kings of this world. In the eastern tradition, the holiday celebrates the baptism of Christ, because it was his revealing to the people of Israel.
As one last bit of Christmasy trivia, Bishop Nicholaus of Myra (the man we typically refer to as Santa Claus), was a 3rd century man who lived in Asia Minor. His father's name was Epiphanius, which is, of course, a variation on the word epiphainÅ.
May your Christmas season be filled with epiphanies!
This month's Word of the Month is "contrapositive." If you've ever taken a course in geometry or logic, you've likely heard the word "contrapositive" before. One definition of contrapositive is: "The contrapositive of a conditional statement is formed by negating both the hypothesis and the conclusion, and then interchanging the resulting negations."
That's a reasonable definition, but if your logic course isn't fresh in your mind, it might not mean much. So let's break it down into pieces that are a little more manageable.
A conditional statement is a statement in the form: If ______ then _______. Here are a few examples:
If it is snowing, then the ground is white.
If x = 3 then x + 2 = 5.
If the clock strikes 13 then it's time to get your clock fixed.
In each of these conditional statements, the "if" part is called the hypothesis, and the "then" part is called the conclusion.
So the hypotheses are:
It is snowing.
x = 3.
The clock strikes 13.
The conclusions are:
The ground is white
x + 2 = 5
It's time to get your clock fixed.
With that in mind, we can determine the contrapositve of each statement. We swap the order of the hypothesis and the conclusion, and then write the opposite of each.
Let's look at the third example: If the clock strikes 13 then it's time to get your clock fixed.
The opposite of the hypothesis is "The clock does not strike 13" and the opposite of the conclusion is "It's not time to get your clock fixed." If we now swap the order of these in the original statement, we get the following:
If it's not time to get your clock fixed, then your clock did not strike 13.
It turns out that a conditional statement and its contrapositive are equivalent statements. In other words, if a statement is true, its contrapositive is also true, and if a conditional statement is false, its contrapositive is also false.
Can you find the contrapositives of the other two examples?
While you're trying to work out those contrapositives (the answers are posted below), it is interesting to break the word down into its component parts:
Contra = in contrast to
posit = to assume or argue
ive = pertaining to
So a contrapositive is a statement which is in contrast to an argued statement.
And finally, here are your other two contrapositives:
If the ground is not white then it's not snowing.
If x + 2 does not equal 5 then x does not equal 3.
If you see with your eyes, speak with words, or eat tuna fish in a safe haven, then maybe it's possible you're indulging in pleonasms.
What's a pleonasm? A pleonasm is when you use more words than are necessary for clear expression. For example, you don't usually need to specify that you're using your eyes to see, or words to speak. We all know that a tuna is a fish without being told, and havens are - by definition - safe. Furthermore, maybe and possible carry the same meaning, so one of them could be left out.
To use another pleonasm, a pleonasm is a repetitive redundancy.
Pleonasms crop up all over the place, and usually we don't even notice them. We all have seen terms and conditions, or have heard that something was declared null and void.
Every time you open a Bible and read from the book of Psalms or Proverbs, you are reading a form of pleonasm, since ancient Hebrew poetry was often written in couplets that have a "rhymed" meaning. For example (from Psalm 2):
He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
The pleonasm is used here either to refine or to emphasize a particular meaning. Obviously, this is not always a bad thing. Authors, teachers, preachers, and other communicators may use pleonasms for dramatic effect or to drive a point home. In fact, if we completely remove pleonasms from our speech and writing, what is left can sometimes feel stilted and unnatural.
Speaking of "stilted" and "unnatural," those words are synonyms; did you notice that pleonasm?