The Pot Pour-ee of the English Language

Okay. So call me quirky, but… Wait, don’t. I can only handle so much name calling in one day around this crazy nerd-based environment we call an office. I don’t need it dished to me virtually, too.

Anyway, I have this strange habit when reading quietly (in my head, that is) of saying words as they’re phonetically spelled. As a result, I often have to catch myself from saying them phonetically outloud in conversation.

For instance, the French word “potpourri,” which immediately brings to mind this peach-scented mixture of wood chips and dried flowers I had in my room as a child, has become a menace to me from the reading and speaking sense. Pronounced “po-pour-ee,” I relentlessly butcher it in my mind. “Pot-Pour-ee.” And, then I struggle to not say it out loud. Much to my chagrin, I’ve been caught a few times. It’s not pretty.

But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. “Hors d’oeuvre.”  Frankly, let me be honest. I had to look this one up to spell it correctly. Also a French word, my horribly off kilter phonetic pronunciation results in “Hor de vor.” Using the same response I gave my high school history teacher way back when, as we were studying something about the Prussian Regiment and I hopelessly attempted to read a passage from the text book… “No, I’ve never taken a lesson of French in my life. Is it that obvious?”

Some might squawk at my admission of these challenges I have… “How dare ye admit to such a weakness! And, you call yourself a professional communicator! Poppycock!” But, I consider it par for the course. I’d bet money that most of you have similar stories (though, perhaps not based in the French language). And, by golly, I find it humorous and fun to talk about.

Perhaps someday I will share my personal story about the weather term “wind chill.” But, hey, even I realize the need to take my communication transparency one step at a time.

-Abigail Borron, Academic Advisor

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So you’re writing a thesis…

Because this blog deals with all matters pertaining to writing, I’m sharing the following piece with any graduate students out there who could use a little encouragement in the thesis-writing process.
~ Mark Tucker

No one said writing a thesis is easy, and it’s not. After all, you’ve never done this before. So it’s natural to have questions or even doubts about the process. Consider the following points of advice …

Write and rewrite.
Don’t obsess over all the rules on “thesis writing.” Good writing is good writing and, most of all, it depends on good ideas. Granted, even good ideas must be packaged and polished – this is the writing process. Craft your prose into coherent, readable sentences. Be picky when it comes to wording and phrasing. I like to use strong verbs and active voice when possible. I try to avoid vague words like it, this and there to start sentences. If I must use technical terms, I explain them and provide a citation. Remember that developing a final draft is going to take time – several drafts may be necessary. This is normal, so don’t get discouraged.

Wash your car!
Good writing elevates me. Whether from the New York Times, Sports Illustrated or even a creative e-mail, good writing momentarily whisks me away from my routine daily chores – like charging from dead stop in a powerful muscle car…. Sadly, we must acknowledge that your master’s thesis is neither Mustang nor Maserati. Maybe it’s more like your grandfather’s 1965 Cadillac – big, slow and hard to maneuver. So what? It’s your Cadillac! Air up the tires! Shine up the chrome! Fuss over the tailfins! (Lose the fuzzy dice, though.) Take pride in your wheels – they’re yours and no one else’s! Your thesis can (and must!) sparkle with creative ideas, read well and make a compelling, compassionate case for your study. It can stir imagination – don’t let stuffy “thesis writing experts” tell you it can’t.

Take control.
Even the most capable professionals can become overwhelmed during the writing of a thesis. You may well be developing a literature review, applying theory, and wrestling with methodological details while you are writing. Multi-tasking is one thing, but all this is really more than anyone can accomplish at once. I find it useful to break larger tasks into manageable “chunks.” Then, identify the steps needed to accomplish each chunk. Work with your advisor to develop realistic timelines. The process may at times be manic, but it can be managed if you take control. Lean on your graduate committee to help you. They want you to succeed, but it’s up to you to make the first move.

Demand an explanation.
Master’s theses in agricultural communication typically deal with human perceptions, behaviors and interactions – abstract and complex phenomena indeed! Social science methods are similarly complex, and require important decisions about the literature, theory and methods you will use in your research. As questions arise, ask them at once! We all may worry at times about showing our ignorance. In such cases, we should remember the advice that E.B. White offered to aspiring writers: “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loudly! Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?” Speak up, social scientists! Demand discussion on important decisions, and don’t leave till you get an answer that you understand.

Now, please, resume writing!

May we have a word?

Tracing the unexpected twists and turns in language is one of my favorite pastimes. So, I’ve decided to use this blog to share thoughts about some of my favorite and least favorite words. And I would like you to join me, right now, in fact. The wonderfully eclectic nature of 21st century English assures we’ll never run out of topics. But where does one begin to demonstrate some of the bizarre mysteries of our language? How about with the word bizarre?

The etymology of this two-syllable gem shows that experts are unclear as to its origin, which is a common occurrence in English. In other words, we can’t always trace the history of words we use in everyday speech. It’s no wonder that some people literally don’t know what they’re talking about!

In the case of bizarre, was the word inspired by the French, who found very strange the beards (bizars) worn by Spanish soldiers? Or is the word Italian in origin and possibly a linguistic descendant of the word bizza, meaning fit of anger? Stumped modern-day etymologists can only scratch their beards and wonder!

And none of this speaks at all to the bizarre, er, weird situation involving bazaar, a phonetic impostor, or phonogram, that has absolutely no connection in meaning to bizarre even though it sounds identical! Oh my.

Words sometimes demand our attention because of their visual oddity – some simply look strange. Just yesterday (really, yesterday!), I had occasion to employ the word slid when developing an e-mail message. Odd word, slid. It’s one of those that looks like it’s not spelled correctly even when it is. Peering at the word on my computer screen, I began to wonder about usage – if the past tense of slide is slid, what about its past perfect form?

Today I slide.
Yesterday I slid.
I have often _____.

Slid? Slidden?

It turns out that that the past perfect forms of slide can in fact be slid or slid’s even clumsier cousin slidden! My compliments to our resourceful summer assistant, Lisa Schluttenhofer, whose word sleuthing finally settled the matter of proper form.

Proper or not, slidden looks and sounds awkward to me. I commented to Lisa that slidden may not have a place in the Queen’s English. Lisa retorted that the queen probably does not slide all that much anyway. We reckoned she has people who slide for her. Sometime, I must ask them if they prefer slid or slidden for past perfect usage.

Anyway, what are we to do with all these weird and wonderful word specimens? I suggest we use them. Enjoy and celebrate them. Share them. If you agree, why not slide over to your computer right now and reply with a post about the words that most puzzle, amuse and annoy you? Abigail, Lisa and I can’t be the only word stalkers who frequent this blog. Come on, agricultural communicators, we need a word from you!

~ Mark Tucker, Coordinator, Agricultural Communication