Words – new, old and odd

Words matter to all of us, as it is arguably our ability to communicate that enabled the human race to progress as far as we have. I am very much a words person. Even though I do photography, spoken/written communication is very important in my life, particularly professionally. One of my treasured possessions is a 2-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which I received as a gift nearly 30 years ago. I like word games. Scrabble is the benchmark; Bananagrams is a new favorite.

Although I work with words all day every day, there is still the potential for confusion, annoyance and surprise …

I could go on endlessly about abuse of language. Why do people write [but not say] “loose” when they mean “lose”? [Actually, I know why, but I will not bore you with my theory.] The use of phraseology like “very unique” drives me wild, as it is meaningless and potentially damaging to the language. But I digress. I am about to go on a short vacation and I am in a much more positive state of mind …

The English language has numerous homonyms – pairs of words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. An obvious example is “there” and “their” – here the different meanings are clear enough. But what about the phrase “plain sailing”? This is commonly used in a metaphorical sense to suggest that the way forward to easy and clear of obstacles. The word “plain” clearly means featureless or simple. I was fine with that until I discovered that there is another term: “plane sailing”. This is a simplified means of navigation of a ship, where the surface of the sea is assumed to be flat [i.e. a plane] instead of curved as it is in reality. So which is correct?

Another expression which sounds vaguely nautical is “under way”, which is used to indicate that something has started and is making progress. I have always assumed that it should be written “under weigh”, as a ship, when setting off, needs to pull up – or “weigh” – the anchor. Again, which is correct?


Philosophically, I do wonder if these spellings actually matter. After all, when speaking there is no confusion, even though the words sound identical. There are also words which have numerous meanings with just one spelling – like “set” – and again, no confusion occurs.

Although I worry about misuse or – worse – abuse of English, as I mentioned, I do recognize that the language is a living thing and will evolve. Hence my proposal regarding spelling of homonyms. I am also fascinated by the appearance of new words, a couple of which have caught my attention recently:

A common expression is to say something has “got a green light”, which means that any necessary authorization has been obtained. A neatly compressed was of saying this the word “greenlit”. This might be used thus: “The project is greenlit and ready to go.”

Most people will know what an acronym is – a word formed from the initial letters of words that make up an expression. A good example is LASER, which comes from Light Amplification from Stimulated Emission of Radiation. The other day I saw some discussion about the programming language Perl. Someone said that it should be written “PERL” as it is an acronym for “Practical Extraction and Reporting Language”. Someone else responded by pointing out that it was actually a backronym – the expression was created later to fit the letters of the word. This is a strong example of a new word, as the context told me immediately what it meant.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2014/07/16/words-new-old-and-odd/