Archive | March, 2012

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Part Two.

18 Mar

Last night, I played a game of Quelf with my best friends and my fifteen year old brother.  Quelf is a long, crazy game full of crazy questions and rules that test the limits of propriety.  In this way it is similar to the Republican Primary Debates, minus all the sweater vests and power ties.

One category of cards you might draw in Quelf is labeled “confidential,” and those cards instruct the person who has drawn the card to do something (usually strange or embarrassing) for a certain amount of time without explaining it.

My brother–who, it should be noted, was a great sport for playing Quelf in the middle of the night with a bunch of 25-year-old girls drinking wine out of a bottle with a straw–drew one of these cards.  He read the card, laughed, turned a little red, and then shrugged and stood up and did one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen him do: he pulled up his shirt, closed his eyes, and started jumping and doing alternating high-kicks while rubbing and slapping his belly.  After about thirty seconds, he finally stopped, and, wiping away tears of laughter, we asked him what his card had said.

He replied, “It said to belly dance.”  Then a pause: “I didn’t really know what that was.”

Sometimes people do not know what words mean.

So welcome to the next installment of our esteemed series When You Use These Words and Phrases Incorrectly, A Bunny Gets Strangled by a Rainbow: Part II.

1. Enormity

Enormity is often used to mean “hugeness.”  However, enormity is actually (primarily) defined as outrageous or evil character, or something especially heinous or atrocious.  If you want to talk about something hugeness, the word you’re looking for is “enormousness.”

2. Penultimate

Penultimate is sometimes used interchangeably with the word ultimate, meaning the last or the greatest.  However, penultimate actually means next to last: you know, like that lie you tell yourself about the status of the current potato chip you’re eating.  However, since the meaning of ultimate has changed (it technically means the last or final installment of something, but we’ve changed it to mean the greatest or top example of something), I’d argue that penultimate’s definition has shifted with it.  If ultimate’s meaning has changed from meaning “last” to meaning “first,” then it would be logical to say that penultimate’s meaning has changed from meaning “second to last” to “second best.”  Or you could use it like I do, which is as a fond nickname for my favorite fine-tipped, black ink Bics.

3. Discreet vs. discrete

Discreet means exercising self-restraint in character, word, or action.  Discrete means separate or distinct.

A version of the word was also used by street-wise tour guides in in Greece.  You know, as in, “Yo.  Dis Crete.”

4. Flammable vs. inflammable.

Surprise: they both mean the SAME THING!  Flammable and inflammable both mean easily ignited or burned.  Some people think that inflammable means the opposite of flammable, as in “not easily ignited or burned.”  But the word you’re looking for there is “water.”

5. Compliment vs. complement

Compliment means an expression of praise or gratitude, or the act of praising someone. Complement means to make something whole, to balance it out or to complete it.

If a compliment is a kind word, then, and a complement balances out something, then I would say that a compliment is the complement to what I have to assume is the perpetual theme at Clint Eastwood’s house: angry silence.  Also, belts made of chin gristle.

6.  Belly dancing.

A lot of people assume that this is a traditional Middle Eastern dance involving shimmying of the hips and general body undulations.  But actually, this is a mistaken Western understanding of an ancient art wherein pubescent boys rubbed their stomachs while doing high-kicks in an ancient move called “Santa Meets the Rockettes.”

Editor’s Note: The actual meeting between Santa and the Rockettes went nothing like this.  They actually did not have much to talk about, and after about an hour of awkward small talk, the Rockettes suddenly remembered that they had a job interview they had forgotten about, and they really wanted to get there early so they could … wait for it … get a leg up in the industry.


A Very Unique Post On Things You Can’t Actually Say

5 Mar

What I’ve learned through wedding planning is this: there are a lot of things you cannot say or do.

For example: did you know that you can only use the phrase “request the honor of your presence” on a wedding invitation if your ceremony will be held in a church?  You’re supposed to say “request the pleasure of your company” if the ceremony will be in a secular location, and for an informal ceremony, you get to use the phrase “would be delighted by your presence.”

Martha Stewart’s Wedding Etiquette website did not mention anything about the use of site-specific puns for destination weddings, but I’m assuming that if my invitations read, “We request the beachy-keen honor of your presence,” it would be pretty obvious that we were having our ceremony in a church on the beach, right?  The surprise will be that the church is a sandcastle I built that morning, the officiant is the Honorable Reverend the Lobster, who got ordained on the Internet especially for the occasion, and also, I’m crazy.

It is also considered to be “in poor taste” to ask for cash in lieu of gifts.  So you’re not allowed to ASK for money, but when I just take it from people, I get in trouble, too.  This world is ridiculous.

There are also practical rules that are useful in determining who should be expected to pay for what, what the roles of bridesbuddies and groomsbuddies are (Rule #1: Stop calling them “bridesbuddies”), etc.

There are a few other things you can’t technically say, and those things have nothing to do with weddings.  This blog is pretty much all about things you can’t say, but today we’re going to focus on a little topic called “modifying absolutes.”

The short lesson: you can’t modify absolutes.

The truth: you probably do.

Absolutes are words with black-and-white definitions.  Absolutes don’t have degrees–they either are or are not.  Examples include:






Let’s take the word “dead.”  Although The Princess Bride might disagree, there is not such a thing as being “mostly dead.”  You either are dead or you are not dead.  The same goes for the other words.  Something is either perfect–conforming absolutely to the definition or description of an ideal type–or it is not.

Because these words are absolute, they cannot be described by comparative (words like “more” or “better”) or superlative (words like “most” or “best”) adjectives.

So you shouldn’t technically say that a painting of a cantaloupe juggling humans is the “most unique” thing you’ve ever seen.  By definition, being unique means existing as the sole example of something or having no equal.  You could rephrase and say that the painting is the “most beautiful” or “most strange” thing you’ve ever seen, because beauty and strangeness exist on a continuum.

Now, the word unique has been watered down by popular usage, and people now commonly use it to mean “interesting.”  This doesn’t mean that the rule doesn’t still stand, but it’s worth acknowledging that most people probably won’t blink if you say something like “most unique.”

But the rule still stands, and it remains true for words whose meanings aren’t currently shifting, like “dead” or “finite.”  Stay away from those words (and the others on the list) with modifiers like very, more, most, better, and best.

However, I would argue that modifiers like almost or nearly can be used to modify absolutes.  While it is not possible for something to be more perfect than something else, I believe it is possible for something to be almost or nearly perfect. Most Pixar movies, for example.

All I’m hoping is that my wedding is the most perfect and most unique affair to ever occur, and the only way for that to happen, apparently, is to follow as many rules as I can.

Well, I’ll follow the logical ones, at least.  But I’m completely ignoring the rest–like expecting that I’m going to hire a calligrapher to address my invitations, or that I have to wear fancy shoes, or like the one about how it is considered to be “in poor taste” to mark your territory at a reception site by urinating around the perimeter.


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