Know Your Words

Blurb, Cognitive Overhead, and More: This Week in Words

Welcome to the Butter Lamb’s first (and hopefully not last) installment of This Week in Words. The aim here is to dig in to the words and word-related news I’ve come across in the past week.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that this more topical approach differs from my usual and somewhat random way of writing about whatever word has been piquing my interest. This is not an accident. A few weeks ago, I promised some different kinds of posts … and then right back to doing the same old thing. This is my attempt to rectify that.

Enjoy.

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1. Word Histories: Blurb

BlurbMarch 7, 2019 was World Book Day in the United Kingdom.* To celebrate, Merriam-Webster published a fun history of the word “blurb” on its website, which you should read.

I won’t steal MW’s thunder, but it seems the word was coined by the humorist Gelett Burgess at the annual dinner of the American Bookseller’s Association in 1907. Seven years later, Burgess officially defined the word in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed.

Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.

Blurb, v. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.

This got me thinking: Who else had weighed in on this word? To my dismay, neither Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary nor William Lambdin’s Doublespeak Dictionary bother to define blurb, but the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory does. Unfortunately, the definition in this latter text isn’t very sarcastic or snarky. It reads:

A brief description of the contents of a book printed on the dust jacket. Often couched in enthusiastic and, at times, extravagant terms. The word is believed to have been coined by the American author Gelett Burgess who defined it as “a sound like a publisher.” Earlier the term “puff” was used, probably after [the character] Mr. Puff in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s satire, The Critic (1779).

I don’t know about you, but I find it oddly comforting that people have deemed blurbs untrustworthy since the early 20th century.

* Apparently, we in the US of A celebrate World Book Day on April 23 … you’d think everyone would celebrate “world” book day on the same day, but what do I know….

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2. New Euphemism: Cognitive Overload

ScrewheadOn March 7, 2019 The Atlantic published an article, “The People Who Eat the Same Meal Everyday.” As its title implies, the piece investigates the people content to eat the same thing (mostly for lunch) day after day and explains their reasons (i.e., rationalizations?) for embracing dietary monotony.

Full disclosure: I am one of these people. In high school, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch almost every day, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Why? Because I liked it that way. But I digress….

At one point in the article, readers are introduced to a computer engineer in New York City who explains (defends?)  her tendency to eat the same thing for lunch this way:

… she noticed that when her company brings in catered lunch, she always picks a salad when it’s available. She came to think of this default selection as reducing her “cognitive overhead”—a way of not expending mental energy on something that wasn’t a high priority for her…. She says she took inspiration from tech moguls such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who essentially automated their own daily attire decisions.

So, in other words, this engineer was merely trying to simplify her life by not thinking too hard (or perhaps thinking at all) about what to have for lunch. I get that. We all have a lot to think about these days. But why must she go so far as to use this overly technical term rather than admit she couldn’t be bothered?  Is this the fear of appearing “lazy” run amok? To twist not thinking about something into reducing cognitive overhead is to suggest one can boost efficiency through mindlessness. Is this really where we want to go? If you don’t want to think about something then don’t, but don’t try to disguise it as some kind of “productivity hack.” Own it.

One could register a similar complaint about the phrase “expending mental energy,” but I’ll let that one go. I don’t want to add to my cognitive overhead.

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3. What Is a Manifesto?

József_Borsos-_The_Dissatisfied_Painter_(Crisis_in_the_Life_of_a_Painter),_1852Speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, you may have caught wind of the statement he released on Facebook about messaging and privacy on the social media site. The statement, which took the form of a 3,000 word Facebook post, was repeatedly referred to as a “manifesto.”

Really? A manifesto? I’ve always deemed manifestos to be something more significant and far-reaching, a document that presents a person’s ideas or outlook on a particular matter and then ties it into a larger philosophy or vision. (I’m thinking here of Marx’s Communist Manifesto or the document issued by the Unabomber, aka: Ted Kaczynski.)

Then again, I could be wrong. I admit I have no idea what makes a manifesto different from an opinion-editorial or even an essay, so I decided to look into it. Here’s what I found.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines manifesto as “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.” Hmmm, I guess this applies to Zuk’s statement. (Can I call him Zuk?) Still, as far as definitions go this seems kind of “thin,” so I checked the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to see what it had to offer. Its definition largely agreed with that of Merriam-Webster.

A public declaration by a sovereign prince or state, or by an individual or body of individuals whose proceedings are of public importance, making known past actions and explaining the motives for actions announced as forthcoming.

Okay, that’s a better definition and it seems I’m still wrong. I can accept that. Now if you wouldn’t mind, sit tight while I pen my forthcoming manifesto concerning the need to reconsider the definition of manifesto.

PS) In case you’re wondering, the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories notes that English manifesto “is an adoption of the Italian word from the verb manifestare, which comes from a Latin verb meaning to “make public.” The Latin word manifestus, meaning “obvious” is the root of the word.

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4. Neologism Watch: Allokataplixis

Winslow_Homer_-_The_Guide_and_Woodsman_(1889)(1)A neologism is a fancy term for “new word” and, this week, I came across an article in Aeon that gives birth to the word allokataplixis, or “the heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place. The author (Liam Heneghan, a professor at DePaul University) even goes so far as to explain how he came up with it — by joining the Greek words allo, meaning “other,” and katapliktiko, meaning “wonder.” I like it!

Now, who will coin a word that captures that special type of indigestion you get from eating too much “road food” (e.g., crap from gas station convenience stores).

Should you want to read more about Prof. Heneghan’s “new word for the feeling when travel makes everything new,” check it out here.

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5. Words New to Me: Surcease

skeleton-endI bet this happens to you: you come across a new word (or at least a word that’s new to you) in a book or magazine and, once it is lodged in your brain, you begin to notice it everywhere. That happened to me this past week with the word surcease.

If you’re new to this word too, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it this way:

1. To leave off, stop, cease from some action (finally or temporarily); to
come to an end
2. To come to an end, be discontinued; to cease
3. To desist from, to discontinue; to give up a course of action; also, to refrain from
4. To put a stop to, bring to an end; to stay (legal proceedings)

Interestingly, Partridge’s Short Etymological Dictionary of the English Langue traces the word’s history back to sedere, the Latin word for “sit”:

Latin supersedere, in its legal sense “to stay” becomes Old French/French sureoir, past participle sursis, whence, influenced by cease, the English “to surcease,” to desist.

I know: that’s not particularly helpful, but it’s all I can find on the word. So if it’s okay with you, I’m going to surcease with this foray into the word’s etymology.

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Well, that’s it for this week. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and look forward to another installment of TWIW in roughly seven days.

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