Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

More unexpected stops

with 22 comments


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

22 Responses

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  1. Right now a sitting president could potentially decline to work with a floor leader working the angles to lay the groundwork to issue what will become standing orders.
    One of my granddads told me that in the army, SOP meant “standing operating procedure,” just like “standing orders” in a hospital, but I think nowadays everyone pretty much says “standard operating procedure.”

    Robert Parker

    November 13, 2022 at 8:18 AM

    • I’m glad you have standing to pursue this case. It wouldn’t sit well with me if you didn’t. Regarding interpretations of SOP, the stand in standing is the same as in standard, which is etymologically stand hard.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2022 at 1:41 PM

      • And “stand fast?” That always sounds like an oxymoron. I try to be an upstanding citizen, participating and not just a bystander, maintaining standards even if I’m not outstanding.

        Robert Parker

        November 13, 2022 at 1:56 PM

  2. The appearance of a pair of coots in one of my recent posts brought to mind the name of the coot for Cajuns: poule d’eau. It’s a lot more fun to say than ‘coot.’ And speaking of words, El Malpais reminded me of Bayou Mauvais Bois in the area of Louisiana where I’ve spent the most time. Sure enough, those ‘bad woods’ are related to the ‘bad lands’ that you saw on this trip.


    November 13, 2022 at 8:20 AM

    • And I take it you also prefer a poule d’eau to a pool cue. I’ve read that certain places in western North America got called badlands because they presented problems to Americans who wanted to move across them as they migrated westward. And speaking of that, I just learned that in addition to the badlands I’m familiar with from places like the Dakotas, the Painted Desert in eastern Arizona also includes badlands. Had I known that last month, I might have pushed a few hours further west from the area featured in today’s post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2022 at 1:50 PM

  3. Apart from enjoying the photos of your memorable trip through New Mexico, I also liked your critical remarks about the erosion of the English language.

    Peter Klopp

    November 13, 2022 at 12:04 PM

    • It’s interesting how the same phenomenon can occur in two such different domains.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2022 at 1:54 PM

    • It’s interesting how the same phenomenon can occur in two such different domains, geology and language.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2022 at 1:59 PM

  4. Your link between erosion in geology and erosion of words was unexpected but I like it. “At this point in time” was an expression which infuriated my father. He also hated “momentarily” and “grass roots”. You may have heard that New Zealand now has a Plain Language Act. Whether it makes any difference remains to be seen. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/20/new-zealand-passes-plain-language-bill-to-jettison-jargon


    November 14, 2022 at 1:36 AM

    • I’m glad you appreciated how I slid from erosion in stone to erosion in words. I hadn’t heard about the Plain Language Act, whose goal I approve. Its opponents had one fear I share, that the PLA would create a new group of bureaucrats policing the language of other bureaucrats. What I hope will happen is that the head of each governmental department will bring to the attention of workers below them any examples in which they used unnecessarily complicated language. That way no separate group of language bureaucrats would have to be created.

      The one weak point I see in that arrangement is that the people in charge of government departments may themselves be abusers of language, and citizens would still need people to straighten out the language of the people at the top. When I taught in a public high school here in Austin more than 40 years ago I couldn’t help noticing that the school’s principal often issued messages in bureaucratese. My first instinct was to correct him, or have someone else correct him. Then I realized it was better if he wrote in jargon because sane people would quickly recognize that he was just a mindless bureaucrat.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 14, 2022 at 6:41 AM

      • I think mindless bureaucrats may already have found a way to get round ‘plain language’ requirements by making their paperwork twice or thrice as long as necessary. Recently I came across a well-written 6 page questionnaire in plain language. However, the bureaucrats were not content with 6 pages because they added 18 pages of instructions ( in plain language) on how to fill out the questionnaire.


        November 14, 2022 at 10:15 PM

        • Now that’s an indictment: 18 pages of instructions for how to fill out a 6-page questionnaire.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 14, 2022 at 10:17 PM

  5. […] hours stopping a bunch of times on October 14th at scenic spots along Interstate 40 and then New Mexico 117, we finally arrived at our ostensible destination 90 miles west of Albuquerque: a natural stone […]

  6. That second image reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of some European cities with crowded houses on cliffs overlooking the ocean.

    Steve Gingold

    November 18, 2022 at 4:30 PM

    • Were you thinking of any country or city in particular?

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 18, 2022 at 4:37 PM

      • Since I’ve never been anywhere but the northeast U.S. I can only go by remembered impressions but Greece comes to mind.

        Steve Gingold

        November 18, 2022 at 4:42 PM

        • I was wondering if Greece might have been the country you had in mind, probably because so many of its houses have traditionally been white.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 18, 2022 at 4:46 PM

  7. […] A November 13th commentary discussed the way people add an unnecessary qualifier to a word. Here’s another example. News is called news because it’s new. In spite of that, news announcers on television now almost always call it breaking news. News flash: if it weren’t breaking it wouldn’t be news, so drop the breaking and just call it news. […]

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