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Front Porch: Words can be fun – and irritating and confusing, Stefanie Pettit writes

I’m starting the new year with one of my favorite language games, Fun With Words – though I must say I find that some words are not so fun-filled these days.

I love language, how words can soar and lift our spirits, describe our emotions and inspire us with their power and beauty. I love when they are used to educate and inform and paint vivid mental images – whether from a favorite author or even a writer whose politics I don’t agree with.

I will remember forever conservative columnist George Will’s description of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s own words on a particular subject being vindicated many years after they had been decried. Will wrote that Moynihan “had been pilloried for being prematurely correct.” That phrase just sings for me.

But I also love it when words are just plain fun or interesting, and I gather little word items throughout the year to mull over or just enjoy. It’s an affliction. Take for example contronyms, words that are their own antonyms. How can the same word mean the exact opposite thing, you ask (or I ask for you)?

The word “left,” depending on usage, means “to remain” (I left my coat at home) or “to depart” (I left for home). “Dust” means to “add fine particles” (dust a cake with cinnamon sugar) or “remove fine particles” (dust the coffee table). There are really quite a few of these.

It’s also fun to find words for things you didn’t know have a real name. That little plastic piece at the tip of your shoelace is called an aglet, and the cardboard sleeve on the disposable coffee cup from your favorite coffee bar has an actual name – it’s a zarf. Really. But my favorite is “punt,” which we normally think of as a way to kick a football. Yes, it’s that, but it’s the name for a kind of boat and, even better, it’s also the word for the indentation in the bottom of a wine bottle. Who knew?

I also enjoy finding out what’s behind the creation of a word or phrase. Normally we think of “deadline” as a due date for something, but it started out with a most literal meaning. In the Civil War prisoners from one side or the other were held in areas bounded by a defined “dead line,” and should they venture beyond it, they could rightfully be shot dead.

During the heavy rainfall a few weeks ago, I heard someone use that often-heard phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs.” I decided to look it up. Turns out it originated in the 1500s in England when homes had thatched roofs of straw. Cats, other small animals and the occasional dog would wind up on the roofs as places to get warm. But when it rained hard, some of the animals would slide off and down onto the streets – and hence a phrase was born.

And, of course, there are words that irritate. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion has named “whatever” the most annoying word in the English language in 2017, for the ninth year in a row – with “no offense” and “literally” among other irritating words and phrases gaining ground.

And this brings us to the words of the year for 2017, which, sadly, are no fun at all, but they do reflect the culture of the moment. Back in 2013 the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year was “selfie.” As recently as 2015 it was “emoji,” particularly the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji. Ah, the whimsy. We could use a little of that these days.

Since then words of the year have taken a darker turn, with selections like “post-truth,” “dumpster fire,” “Brexit” and “paranoid” emerging as words of the year from a variety of sources in 2016. The trend continues.

“Fake news” was selected 2017 word of the year by both the American Dialect Society and Collins Dictionary, the latter citing an “unprecedented usage increase of 365 percent” since 2016. Cambridge Dictionary announced “populism” for its word of the year, noting that what separates it from other often-looked-up words is that it is both a local and a global phenomenon.

Merriam-Webster chose “feminism,” and Dictionary.com picked “complicit.” The Oxford Dictionaries chose a word that isn’t actually said out loud all that often: “youthquake,” which is defined as a significant cultural, political or social change that arises from the actions or influences of young people. The millennials have awakened in these past 12 months, it appears.

By the way, I learned that youthquake is not a new word, having first been coined by Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland in 1965 to explain how young people influenced changes in the fashion and music industries.

Interesting to note, too, some of the words on Oxford’s short list for 2017 – milkshake duck (person or phenomenon first thought to be positive and then revealed as deeply flawed), white fragility, unicorn, antifa and a few I frankly had never heard of. More things to look up.

On a more parochial level, we local folks should have our own say on the subject, and I do think that if the people of Spokane could pick a word of the year for 2017, we might have chosen “pothole.” No need to explain.

And with an eye to optimism and hoped-for good words in 2018, I close this little linguistic journey with a smile, in the form of an item I saw in Reader’s Digest.

“Q: What should you say to comfort a ruffled grammar fanatic?

A: There, their, they’re.”

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@comcast.net.