Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for November 13th, 2022

More unexpected stops

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After a couple of hours at Sandstone Bluffs in west-central New Mexico’s El Malpais National Monument, on October 14th we drove the short distance back to New Mexico Highway 117 and continued south toward our ostensible destination. We hadn’t gone far when a fabulous cliff appeared on our left. NM 117 offered few safe spots to pull over, but I found one, determined as I was not to let the cliff pass unphotographed. I’m not sure how tall it is, but compare the trees in the picture’s lower right. When I looked more closely at the natural markings on the cliff, I easily imagined I was seeing some sort of fancy hieroglyphics or Sanskrit or Arabic writing engraved in stone, or perhaps delicate ivory carvings. Imagination aside, the markings might have been tafoni.



About 8 minutes after leaving this cliff and continuing south, we came to another majestic one:





As much as erosion is a common force in geology, it acts on words, too. That’s true for sound as well as meaning. A classic example in sound is the transformation of the Latin word for ‘water,’ aqua, into French eau. Aqua had four sounds in it: akwa. Its French descendant, strangely spelled eau, is pronounced as the single sound o. In the speech of English sailors, the part of a ship called the forecastle ended up getting pronounced fo’ks’l. That’s hardly a common word, so take the familiar three-syllable probably. Americans often now pronounce it in two syllables, probly, and some people further reduce the word by dropping the b and saying prolly. Similarly, twenty now often comes out twenny.

In the domain of meaning, speakers of a language sometimes weaken the sense of a word to the point that they feel the need to compensate by adding a formerly unnecessary word to make the same meaning as before. Here are five examples:

In recent years we’ve been hearing the phrase final decision, where traditionally it was enough to say a person or a group of people made a decision. If people were leaning in a certain direction but hadn’t yet decided, we would say they made a tentative decision. The default was that decision by itself meant what many are now calling a final decision.

The concise auxiliary verb could means ‘has the potential to.’ In spite of that, we often hear people saying could potentially, which redundantly means ‘has the potential to have the potential.’

When someone used to speak about the president of the United States, we understood that without further qualification the person meant the current president. Otherwise the person would say ex-president or former president or president-elect or future president. Suddenly it’s become common to hear about the sitting president, where plain old president was always the default.

In government-speak for the past two years we’ve been hearing about getting to the root cause of problems, where until recently it was good enough to get to the cause of a problem.

Now, which means ‘at this moment,’ often gets replaced by right now, which means the same. Bureaucrats go further and ditch now and even right now for at this point in time, with those 17 letters in five words meaning the same as the three-letter now. Inflating the number of words and deflating the meaning of individual words makes bureaucrats feel important.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 13, 2022 at 4:30 AM

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