TIME Media

Genius, Mensch, Sad Clown: Dissecting What Robin Williams Really Meant to People

Robin Williams
Peter Hapak for TIME

The words used to describe the icon have a rich history that makes them even more appropriate than people realize

The world has lost a lot this week: a comedic genius, a real mensch, a sad clown. Remembrances of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who was found dead on Monday, have repeatedly summed him up with the same few words.

Some readers were learning the terms that cycled and recycled through the news. After Steve Martin tweeted his reaction to Williams’ death—“I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.”—mensch became the fifth most searched word on Google.

But even those who didn’t have to thumb through their dictionaries may be surprised to learn the history behind these suddenly ubiquitous words, much of which makes them even more appropriate for the sad task they’ve had this week.

“Robin Williams, an Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment”

— New York Times headline on August 11, 2014

genius (n.)

In the Middle Ages, a genius was a supernatural being. In classic Latin, the word referred to the male spirit living in the head of a family, which was then passed into everyone else through him. And in the Middle Ages, genius came to describe an attendant spirit that was assigned to each person at birth, and sometimes two mutually opposed spirits (you know, the good genius and the evil genius). This same root gave rise to the word genie, like the lamp-dwelling one Williams’ voiced in Aladdin, who could be good or evil depending on who his master was.

Because a genius was to accompany people through life, fulfilling their fortunes and then escorting them off the mortal coil, the word came to refer to the essential character of someone and their natural aptitudes for things. And so writers using it now to refer to Williams’ singular talents are also, likely unknowingly, connoting a battle of the selves that geniuses have represented throughout history.

I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.

— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) August 11, 2014

mensch (n.)

This Yiddish word is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person of integrity who is morally just. But there is more to the word’s aura than that. Yiddish scholars could argue endlessly about the precise nuances, but mensch is often used to describe someone who is not only admirable but who should be emulated, a willing mentor who thinks beyond themselves in a way that shows strong character, not passivity.

Writer H.L. Mencken described a mensch this way: “an upright, honorable, decent person” and “someone of consequence.” Others argue that a mensch must be approachable and that a true mensch would never call himself a mensch, probably because he’s too busy putting the community above himself.

Like many Yiddish words, this one has been adopted into the American vernacular in a way that is evolving and richly imprecise. But most qualities assigned to the word, however Steve Martin meant it, have been reflected in other words people have recently used to describe what Williams’ was like as a family member and neighbor. The local comedy club in Mill Valley, Calif., where Williams could often be found backstage encouraging young comedians, canceled their weekly comedy night for the first time in 10 years this Tuesday, out of respect for their mensch.

The word’s origins are related to those of mannish. No, not the mannish we use now to refer to hairy or masculine folk, but a long obsolete usage. In Old English, being “mannish” meant one was of mankind, exhibiting humanity itself and human nature. And being mannish is at the heart of comedy, the quality of unspoken truths Williams’ indirectly told his audiences about, and made them laugh about, through his jokes and voices. You know, it’s funny because it’s true.

Robin Williams the ‘sad clown’

— Toronto Sun headline on August 11, 2014

(sad) clown (n.)

The word clown originally meant something along the lines of “lump.” From there, the word came to describe a clumsy boor or a lout—often some crass hayseed-type with no class or culture. Circa Shakespearean times, clowns evolved as fools who played up their ignorance or cultivated oddity for laughs, either in a court or on a stage. They were servants and sidekicks who might humiliate themselves, and hide their true selves, for others’ pleasure. And they could use that distance to mock more powerful figures by transforming themselves into something grotesque—and funny.

In Europe’s Romantic days, the notion of a sad clown—the type of character whose costume romantically masks inner turmoil—became popular. Part of this comes from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte theater that relied on certain stock characters that cropped up again and again. One of them was a bumpkin that actors began playing as a melancholy clown. Literary types were drawn to the sad clown as a character who was a creative master unappreciated by the public (no doubt because some of them felt that way themselves).

Certainly Robin Williams was appreciated, though perhaps not for the whole artist he might have been, after deviating from the Flubber era into more serious, darker roles. But he came to the American public as a clown. His first big part, as an alien learning human behavior on Mork & Mindy, was a creature weird and unrefined, a figure on the margins of humanity that knew life on this planet in a different way than the rest of us, in all its cruel, lovely sense and nonsense.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

TIME language

Congress and Its Do-Nothing Code Words

Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation
Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation Alex Wong; Getty Images

Conditional phrasing is the red flag of uselessness. Congress no longer talks about the things it "will" do; only the things it "would" or "could do"

Time was, reading news stories about NASA was a thrilling experience. What helped make it that way was something most people didn’t even consider: the verbs. Even before the hardware had been built and the people had been launched, the space agency knew where it was going. And so the press releases and the reporters’ stories were filled with promises that “the Gemini program will allow astronauts to walk in space,” and “the Apollo program will achieve the first lunar landing before 1970.” In early 1969, NASA even issued a “Neil Armstrong to Be First Man on Moon” press release.

As history notes, the Gemini and Apollo programs did just as they promised and Neil Armstrong was indeed the first man on the moon, and the only reason NASA didn’t get called on its hubris was because — as baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, the subject of TIME’s April 15, 1935 cover, famously put it — it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

But then the Apollo program ended, the manned space program started to drift, and slowly the declaratives gave way to the conditionals. So reports trickled out about a new spaceplane NASA was building that would take off and land like a jet, and the new Mars program the agency was planning that could have humans on the Red Planet by 2019, and the return-to-the-moon Constellation program that should be ready to go by 2020. But the space plane never flew and the Mars and Constellation missions were scrapped and, in its defense, NASA could at least say, well, we never lied to you.

Now, as NASA finally, slowly rebounds, an entire branch of government — Congress — has descended to the land of the conditionals. Increasingly, lawmaking in Washington has been reduced to little more than a pantomime, with both parties retreating to their bicameral would-sheds, cranking out a lot of doomed, never-gonna-happen bills — base-pleasing legislation that could or would do a lot of things, but never actually will.

Google the phrase “the bill would,” along with the words “House” and “Senate” and you get 59.8 million hits. That’s an admittedly imprecise way to go about things, not least because it gathers in a lot of similarly partisan behavior in state legislatures — though all that may indicate is that the celebrated laboratories of democracy have begin working with the same inert chemicals the federal legislature has.

Still, there are more than enough examples of Congress taking the lead—introducing a river of proposed legislation that would defund Obamacare (50 times), or reform the immigration system, or turn Medicare into a voucher program, or raise taxes on the 1%, or lower taxes on the 1%, or require background checks for gun purchases, or streamline the tax code, or raise the minimum wage, but that never actually will do any of those things. On Friday, the GOP majority in the House moved toward approving a bill that would at last address the unfolding border crisis, but only at the cost of deporting the 500,000 so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The move faces a certain death in the Senate or White House veto but allows the legislators to go home to campaign, claiming that at least they tried something. President Obama — who has proposed plenty of his own dead-on-arrival legislation — dismissed the bill as “the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere.”

Showpiece legislation designed more to make a point than anything else is a part of every parliamentary body, and in the U.S. it has always been a bipartisan form of mischief — even if in the 112th and current 113th Congresses, the Republicans have been guiltier than the Dems. Both parties learned a powerful lesson in the uses of legislative vaporware 20 years ago, with the Republicans’ sweep of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterms.

The GOP surfed to power that year thanks in part to New Gingrich’s and Dick Armey’s celebrated Contract With America, an ingenious campaign gimmick that promised House action within 100 days of a Republican takeover on 10 bills dear to party stalwarts, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and capital-gains tax cuts. Every one of the proposals did come to a vote and cleared the House. And virtually none of them went anywhere — nor were they expected to, given a balky Senate and a Democratic president with a veto pen. But the strategy worked — at least insofar as shifting the balance of power in Washington — and that did not go unnoticed by strategists in either party.

Nobody at this point expects a return to the dew-kissed days of Ronnie and Tip and Lyndon and Everett, when politicians would maul one another for show, then quietly worked out deals for real. Even then, members of both parties would often take care to describe their bills humbly, hedging with the conditional would. But the will was usually implicit, because passing legislation was what they’d been sent to Washington to do.

That, however, no longer seems possible. The members of the current Congress are increasingly content to produce only hollow bills that benefit no one but themselves—and why not? It’s easy, it costs nothing, and it gets them re-elected. Voters — eventually — will catch wise and punish them for that behavior. History, surely, will pillory them for it — and on that last point, there is nothing conditional at all.

TIME language

Russia’s Spin Job of the MH17 Crash Brings Back Soviet Memories

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia, July 16, 2014. Alexei Nikolskyi—Ria Novosti/Reuters

Moscow's response to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a return to the ham-handed ways of the Soviet days — and that portends bad things

A Russian disaster is almost never followed by Russian candor. This is true of most countries, but most countries are at least adept at explaining themselves — even if disingenuously — as the George W. Bush Administration showed with its flood-the-airwaves spin campaign after the weapons of mass destruction that were the casus belli of the Iraq War turned out not to exist. Not so Russia, and — as TIME’s Simon Shuster reports — its response to the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the murder of the 298 people on board is one more illustration of that fact. Even after what are purported to be recordings between a pro-Russian rebel and a Russian military officer discussing the destruction of the airliner surfaced, Moscow remained in defiant denial — even flipping the script to blame Ukraine. “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took a lower road, going for the ad hominem: “With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it,” he said to a Russian state-run news channel, “in fact I haven’t heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months.” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described this response with elegant understatement, labeling it “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.” Soviet Russia was even more ham-handed in its defense of itself. A few days after the April 26, 1986, explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Soviet Ambassador Eugene Pozdnyakov appeared with Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline. When Koppel asked him why Russia initially covered up the accident, coming clean only when radiation readings in Europe revealed the truth, Pozdnyakov blamed the calendar. “It happened on Saturday,” he said, “and the governments of proper countries are usually on holidays on weekends.” Koppel responded with frank incredulity, scolding the diplomat with a simple, “Oh, come on!” In the current crisis, Moscow could at least call on experience, since — depressingly, remarkably — it’s not even the first time Russia has been implicated in shooting down a civilian passenger plane. That first time occurred on Sept. 1, 1983, when a military interceptor jet blew Korean Airlines Flight 007 out of the sky, killing 269 people, after the plane accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. Moscow hedged and fudged and blamed the Korean pilot for being where he wasn’t supposed to be, and finally decided to fake transparency, releasing what were said to be air to ground transcripts between the interceptor plane and the base, intending to show, if nothing else, that the pilot seemed confused about what was happening. At one point during the attack, he was said to have exclaimed “yolki palki,” which TIME described then as “an exceedingly mild oath,” and indeed it is. Its literal translation is “sticks of the fir tree.” And it’s English equivalent? “Fiddlesticks.” The fighter pilot has not been born who speaks that way when engaging the enemy. Wordplay amounts to little for the 298 people killed in the new attack — or for the 298 grieving families. But it amounts to a lot as the rest of the world tries to reckon with Russia’s new aggression and its return to its old, opaque ways. The attack on the plane was over quickly; the aftermath promises to play out slowly and uncertainly.

TIME language

This Is the World’s Most Average Font

Universal Typeface Project

Better than Comic Sans!

Before we all give up handwriting for good in lieu of touchscreens, the Universal Typeface Project is attempting to figure out what exactly the world’s average handwriting looks like. The project aims to develop a new font determined by thousands of individuals writing out there ABC’s, traces that can be seen on the project’s website. The exact averages form an elegant kind of Comic Sans—which was supposed to approximate informal handwriting but failed utterly. These are the platonic ideals of English-language letters.

Mousing over each version of a letter brings up the name and location of the person who wrote it. Rather than standardizing our language, the Universal Typeface actually restores a sense of individuality to typefaces online—it’s poetically organic rather than strictly designed to always look the same. It’s possible to sort the handwriting by country or gender, seeing how it varies for different writers. The letters are even ever-changing as more people contribute their own handwriting.

TIME Media

The F-Word: Let’s Just Call It What It Is… [Bleep!]

Los Angeles Kings Victory Parade And Rally
Los Angeles Kings Mayor Eric Garcetti raises a beer and swears during the Los Angeles Kings Victory Parade and Rally on June 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Harry How—Getty Images

(But if you don't like hearing it, or saying it, or reading it, you should probably stop right here.)

In making headlines after declaring at a hockey rally, “This is a big fuckin’ day,” was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti having a big fuckin’ day himself? Or rather, one for the f-word?

There are real data now to help answer such a question. Relatively recent technologies — cable television, satellite radio, and social network media — provide us with a not-too-unrealistic picture of how often people swear in public and what they say when they do. Before these new forms of reporting, the media provided a fairly sanitized view of spoken English. Newspapers today still swerve to avoid swearing, opting for euphemisms like “_____,” “PG-rated expletive,” or “an eight-letter word for animal excrement,” instead of telling us what was really said. Fortunately, YouTube now offers people like me, who study language and profanity, a more accurate picture.

Are widely reported acts of swearing by public figures like Garcetti’s typical or not? And are the rest of us any different? How frequently do regular people swear and what do we say?

We language scientists attempt to answer these questions. In one study reported in the journal Science, less than one percent of the words used by participants (who were outfitted with voice recorders over a period of time) were swear words. That doesn’t sound like very much, but if a person says 15,000 words per day, that’s about 80 to 90 “fucks” and such during that time. (Of course, there’s variability–some people don’t say any swear words while other people rival David Mamet). More recently, my research team reported in The American Journal of Psychology that “fuck” and “shit” appeared consistently in the vocabularies of children between 1 to 12 years of age. And you shouldn’t worry — there is no evidence to suggest a swear word would harm a youngster physically or psychologically.

So please, let’s not be shocked by swear word statistics, or by politicians swearing in public. Politicians get caught swearing all the time. In 2000, George W. Bush referred to a New York Times reporter as a “major league a–hole.” In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney told Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to go [bleep!] himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden called the passage of President Obama’s health care legislation “a big fucking deal.” (Granted, it was meant to be said more privately than the mic conveyed.) I place Mayor Garcetti’s profane celebration of the Kings’ Stanley Cup in the Biden category of Happiness-Induced Cussing.

But what happens when the viewer at home encounters these expletive-laced speeches on their TVs or the Internet? Some viewers take it personally, taking it as classless, or moral degradation; I would argue they’re only thinking of the historically sexual meaning of the word “fuck.” But both Garcetti and Biden (along with Bono at the Golden Globes) used “fucking” as an intensifier, not as a sexual obscenity. Yet most swear words are used connotatively (to convey emotion).

The Federal Communications Commission waffles on what to do about Garcetti-style “fleeting expletives.” Fox Sports apologized for Garcetti’s “inappropriate” speech but it’s not clear if Fox will be fined by the FCC. (My best guess: probably not, since Obama’s commissioners are dovish on profanity.) The FCC ruled less liberally during the Bush years when conservatives had more sway. It’s interesting that people don’t complain as much about alcohol ads in professional sports. Alcohol can kill you, but swearing won’t; swearing might even help you cope with life’s stressors, according to recent research.

Older generations who are less understanding of technology may perceive that profanity represents a change in language or societal habits, even when that is not the case. Swearing by people in positions of power has always been there; it just used to be better hidden. We have to learn to accept that we are now going to hear more Garcettis.

And there’s something else you might have noticed. The day after any swearing incident nothing happens. No one has to be hospitalized or medicated. Yes, sensibilities may get jangled, but coping with slight deviations from the expected is part of life. No one, not even your mother, dies from hearing “fuck.”

Timothy Jay is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has published numerous books and chapters on cursing, and a textbook for Prentice Hall on The Psychology of Language. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Careers & Workplace

10 Words People Who Lack Confidence Always Use

140288725
A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

Want to avoid giving the impression you lack confidence and authority? Avoid these words


This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

Nine-hundred and seventy-two.

That’s the total number of e-mails I received just in May, and it’s about my average. That’s not counting the hundreds and hundreds of messages Gmail dumped into categories for promotional mail, forum posts, and social networking updates. I’ve become proficient at jumping through messages quickly (using the J and K keys), but there’s one thing I’ve mastered even more than that: spotting a lack of confidence.

I also take quite a few cold calls–people who are not really sure what I do and have not really done too much research but have me on a phone list for some reason.

In most cases, it’s a pitch about a product or someone asking a question about marketing to journalists. He or she might say he or she “usually” does something. In a few cases, it’s someone with a business idea he or she “suspects” will be perfect. Most of the time, these messages are straightforward–the sender isn’t messing around. But a few seem hesitant. I fire back a question, and the response makes me question the person’s authority on the subject.

These words are not always triggers about confidence level, but they are my first signal that something is amiss. They make me think the sender is not that sure about the product or service. And they are dead giveaways that I need to question what the person says.

1. Might

Be careful when you tell people you “might” do something. Are you sure about that? No one is asking you to solve world peace. When you say you “might” finish a report, it implies you lack some ability, don’t manage your time well, or have too many priorities.

2. Won’t

Here’s an obvious word to avoid in your emails. Anyone who says he or she “won’t” do something or “won’t” attend a meeting is generating a negative vibe. Be more decisive: Either accept an invitation or reject it; using the word won’t suggests hesitancy.

3. Usually

This is a trigger word in email that makes it obvious to everyone that you don’t have all the facts. If you say the accounting department “usually” doesn’t approve your expense report or the boss is “usually” late to work, it means you’re stretching the truth.

4. Suspect

Unless you are talking about a suspect in a trial, avoid saying you “suspect” anything. You’re not Sherlock Holmes. Just use direct terms: You know an investor is pulling out of the project, and here’s why; or you have facts to support your conclusion on a new marketing plan.

5. Impossible

I’ll bet Mark Zuckerberg has never used the word impossible in an email. The recipient will lose confidence in you quickly. State why something might be hard or difficult or just don’t agree to a course of action. Don’t bother telling people it’s impossible.

6. Worried

We all worry about the stresses of life. Telling people you are worried by email makes it seem as if you lack confidence in your abilities. If you are worried, don’t bother saying that to anyone–just express what you are concerned about and offer solutions.

7. Confused

Expressing your confusion will create even more confusion. It’s better to just say what you are confused about and ask questions. Saying you are “confused” gives people the impression that either you don’t understand something or that the topic is confusing to you.

8. Need

We all have needs in life. When you express those needs by email over and over again, it makes you look needy. I “need” you to come to work early, I “need” you to get that report done. Avoid saying “need” and express requirements more directly.

9. Quandary

Have you sent a message and said you were in a “quandary”? You should know that the word means you are in a total state of perplexity. I mean, you are really perplexed. That’s not often the case when it comes to a new business proposal or fundraising round.

10. Likely

Few of us are in the business of predicting the future. If you say something is “likely” in an email, you are expressing to the recipient that you are not really sure about the topic, and you don’t have all the facts yet. It’s likely that you just lack confidence.

More from Inc:

The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

7 Ways to Lose Friends and Your Influence at Work

The Seemingly Harmless Act That Leads to High Employee Turnover

Simple Ways to Deal With Negative People

How to Be More Likable in 10 Easy Steps

TIME language

You’ll Never Guess the Real Name for a Hashtag

492810755
Computer hashtag Richard Goerg—Getty Images

Nope, it isn’t “pound sign”

The word hashtag has officially been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED announced in a blog post Friday. But that’s not the most exciting thing in its announcement.

The word hashtag denotes the symbol deployed in front of a word or phrase on social media to loop the post into a wider conversation on the topic but it has #already taken on a #life of its own, used in #some #cases as a self-referential #joke or to #make #fun of #people whose social posts are #so2011.

But you, sophisticated TIME reader, already knew all of that. What you may not have known is that there was already a word for hashtag. And it isn’t the “number sign” or the “pound sign,” as it was called back in the #DarkAges before Twitter.

The technical term for a hashtag is “octothorp,” according to the OED; octo, in reference to the eight points in the figure, and Thorpe, OED says cryptically, from “the surname Thorpe.” Whatever that means.

“Hash probably arose as an alteration of ‘hatch’,” OED says in its blog post, “originally in the phrase ‘hatch mark’. By 1961 hash was being used in computing contexts to refer to the octothorp symbol, especially in computing and telecommunications contexts.”

#FarOut, right?

TIME Careers & Workplace

19 Words That Will Make People Like You More

79338440
Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

Want to make a better first impression and engender positive feelings that last a long time? Focus on what you say as much as what you do


This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

First impressions can lead to lasting impressions. So to improve, a lot of people will tell you to dress better, read more (so you’ll have interesting things to talk about), and ensure that your online presence is respectable (because many people will check you out online before meeting in person).

But, how far will that get you? Despite what many people would like to believe, the things you say often make an even greater early impression than the things you do. To take advantage of that and get you started easily, here are 19 words–grouped into a handful of easy phrases–that you should make a habit of saying every day. They’re virtually guaranteed to improve your standing with others if you use them often enough.

Words No. 1 and 2: “Sir” and “ma’am”

American culture is pretty informal compared to many other places in the world, but a little bit of formality can really make you stand out in a positive way. I carry this inclination from the military, and also from having been a lawyer in the federal court system. These are environments in which people use the titles “Sir” and “Ma’am” constantly–not just in talking with high ranking military officers, but also addressing civilians.

I know that this doesn’t work in every situation, but using these titles can be a sign of respect that gets people’s attention. It can be important in professional relationships, especially when dealing with people you don’t know well, and who are older or more experienced than you.

Words No. 3 and 4: “You’re welcome.”

Sometime in fairly recent history it seems people stopped saying, “You’re welcome,” and started substituting, “Yep,” or, “No problem.” At the risk of sounding older than I am, I think this is a step in the wrong direction–at least in a business or professional setting.

Why? Because ditching “you’re welcome” for these other phrases changes the message. “You’re welcome” acknowledges that you’ve done something worth someone else’s thanks, while “no problem” suggests that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Saying the former phrase conveys that you think it was a worthwhile favor. That’s an impressive message to send.

Words No. 5 to 7: “Here’s what’s happening.”

If you’ve ever worked in an environment in which people guarded information like a valuable commodity, you’ll appreciate how much affinity you develop for the few people who try to keep everyone else accurately informed.

Of course you don’t want to be a know-it-all or spread rumors. However, even if you don’t know the full story, being willing to share the information you have that affects others’ lives can make you instantly more likable.

Words No. 8 to 11: “How can I help?”

Nobody accomplishes anything amazing alone. Thus, with the exception of the sociopaths among us, we’re all eventually grateful to those who help us achieve great things. I think we’re especially grateful to those who proactively try to help.

This doesn’t mean you have to go way out of your way to offer assistance, but it’s often the case that you have access to something or the ability to do something that won’t take much on your part, but that can really have a positive impact on someone else’s success.

Words #12 to 15: “I’ll find out.”

This is one of my favorite phrases. It’s related to “how can I help,” but is even more proactive. It says that you’re not only willing to offer assistance, but that you’re willing to go out of your way to do so.

(By the way, this helpful phrase is also the diametric opposite of the most bureaucratic phrase known to humankind, uttered incessantly by some of the least likable people: “That’s not my job.”)

Words No. 16 to 19: “I believe in you.”

Henry Ford recalled that when he was still an unknown, and was working on gasoline engines, a few short words of encouragement from an already famous Thomas Edison were a massive shot in the arm.

It’s amazing how just a little bit of validation from other people can inspire people to work harder and achieve more. Four short words can have a huge, positive impact–both for the people you’re encouraging, and for their feelings toward you .

Read more from Inc.com:

The Most Important Success and Happiness Rules I’ve Learned From My Mom

The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

Steve Jobs’s 13 Most Inspiring Quotes

17 Things Happy People Say Every Day

12 Words That Will Change Everything You Think About Entrepreneurship

TIME language

Here’s What to Say to That Jerk Who Corrects Your Grammar

108151590
Willie B. Thomas / Getty Images / Vetta

A new book fights back against the marauding bands of linguistic snobs who want to make it clear how much smarter than you they are

Skip downward to go straight to the dirty tips and tricks.

Have you ever had a preening pedant correct you when you split an infinitive? Has a self-righteous scold kindly let you know that one thing cannot be “more unique” than another? Perchance you’ve had to sit through an apocalyptic screed about how young people are becoming illiterates, mutilating an English language that was once so revered—about how the day is nigh when we shall all just drool to each other through the Twitter!

Well, there is now a book full of ways that you can tell such people to put it where the sun don’t shine. Or at least let them know it ain’t nothing. Bad English, on sale June 3 from Perigree, is a 255-page takedown of linguistic snobbery—detailing the ways people are being hypocritical and arbitrary when they insist on a strict adherence to rules they learned in high school.

“You frequently hear people say, before attacking you, that they care about language,” says author Ammon Shea. “We all care about language. To me that seems like euphemistic shorthand for saying ‘I like to correct the language use of others,’ which I have always found unseemly.”

And so he dug through the centuries of history that led to these rules—like when one must use disinterested vs. uninterested—finding that, often as not, those rules used to be completely different than what they are today. Along the way he debunks linguistic factoids, like the assertion that Shakespeare invented 10% of the words he used, and defends unlikely, oft-maligned characters like Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and people who say like a lot.

On one level, of course, this fine book is just pedantry of one sort undermining pedantry of another sort. But Shea’s deeper message is that language isn’t fixed—and that inventiveness and playfulness, whether in the form of combining words, or using emoticons, or plopping because into an entirely new grammatical construction, should be celebrated rather than stifled. He also hopes that it “will relieve many of us of the vague yet persistent unease that we are doing something improper.”

“Telling people that they are wrong in a malicious fashion is useless,” says Shea, who has also written a book about his quest to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. “What would be helpful to acknowledge is not only are some of these rules incredibly capricious, they’re also constantly changing … The thing that is oft overlooked is that as language changes, the rules that govern it change as well.”

Here are some examples of the many of the comebacks you can use next time some jerk corrects your grammar or word usage:

“Stop saying like so much. It’s meaningless.”

Shea explains that while like might be a staple of the Valley girl caricature, the word is actually performing useful linguistic duties:

  • In the sentence “She was like, ‘Get out of my face,” the word signals the beginning of a quote and is known as a quotatative compartmentalizer.
  • In the sentence “It’s going to take me like forever to get there,” it functions as an approximative adverb, signaling how strongly to interpret the following word; almost and barely play similar roles.
  • In the sentences “I stole a panda. Like, I couldn’t live without him,” like is a discourse marker, a word used at the beginning of a sentence indicating that a clarification of what has just been said will now be given; one might similarly use I mean to introduce more information.

Like, BOOM.

“Don’t say something is ‘more unique.’ That’s like saying it’s ‘most best.’’”

The notion behind this common correction is that unique means something is truly one-of-a-kind, which a thing either is or is not, without degree—just like someone is the best or they are not the best. This word, Shea explains, does come from the Latin unicus, meaning one-of-a-kind, but when people started to widely use it in the 1800s, the meaning quickly broadened. In 1816, celebrated poet Sir Walter Scott wrote that celebrated satirist Jonathan Swift was “more unique” than any of his contemporaries. Today, dictionaries have largely relented. In a third definition, Merriam-Webster defines unique as simply “unusual.”

“You shouldn’t start sentences with and or but.”

This grievous error is committed no fewer than eight times in a little document called the Constitution. For those of a more religious bent, it may be worth pointing out that this sin is all over the Bible. The use of and to begin a sentence, Shea found, dates back to the year 855. And writers have been giving these conjunctions top billing ever since. Tell the next person precious about conjunction placement to put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means you don’t give a hoot.”

Fun fact: these words originally meant the exact opposite things that semantic samurai insist that they do now. Tracing the uses back to the 1600s, Shea explains that interchanging them didn’t seem to bother anyone for decades, until the “two met at some sort of unholy semantic swap meet and secretly agreed to change meanings.” Only in relatively modern times have grammarians found the mix-up to be cause for slapping the ruler on the desk.

“Potato is spelled sans ‘e.’”

“Dan Quayle,” Shea writes, “died for your sins”: Everyone now knows, because he was so pilloried for misspelling potato in public, how to spell that word. But potatoe, the albatross around the former vice president’s neck, was actually in use, in print, throughout the 20th century, appearing in such sources as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. Shea blames the joke-butting of Quayle on partisan politics and the tendency of those on the left to deride the intellectual abilities of those on the right.

“Only uneducated people split infinitives.”

An infinitive verb is the form with to in the front like, “to be” or “not to be.” Some traditionalists become apoplectic when an adverb is slipped between those two words, like “to boldly go.” But Shea discovered that infinitives have been split since the thirteenth century and that the reason we have this proscription today is because some grumpy grammarians from the 1800s decided that verbs would sound more like Latin, in which it is impossible to split infinitives, if they stayed in one piece. But, Shea points out, Chaucer has split, Shakespeare has split, and not to split sometimes just sounds terrible.

After all, while Shea acknowledges that some rules are useful and that standards have a time and place, he recommends that we let our ears be our guide—and if we can still understand somebody who is speaking in an heretic manner, we might take time to think about it rather than judge it.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,338 other followers