Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Becky Awards

The relentless and very often tiresome harping on initially interesting topics at Language Log has lately lead me to read the blog less faithfully than I used to (and how charmed I was after first reading about it in the NYT). One of its language mavens nonetheless caught my attention today by the best means possible: NPR. There was a segment on "Fresh Air" announcing the Beckys, Language Log's own version, with sneering added, of the Ig Nobel.

The awards went to a slate of half-assed scientific research done on language as it related to gender difference, and to the sensationalistic, shallow media coverage this research has received -- all items they've harped on recently.

OK, so it's very noble and enterprising of them to point out the poppycock in these cases. But me in my simplicity, I delighted much more in learning the tale behind the name of the award, and then following my own semantic train tracks away from the radio broadcast.

The Beckys are named for Johannes Goropius Becanus, a quack from 16th-century Antwerp, who theorized that Adam and Eve spoke Flemmish. From Becanus' middle name, Gottfried Leibniz coined the term goropizer, for someone who makes up cockamamie etymologies for words.

(Tangentially, the word reminded me of one that's been stuck in my head like a despicable pop tune these last few days: gourmandizer, one prone to overeating or eating messily. Which recalled to my mind CBGB, the iconic New York punk club, recently closed, whose subacronym, OMFUG, stands for Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers. [CBGB stands for Country Bluegrass Blues.])

Coming off the tangent, I was reminded by goropizer of another NPR broadcast months ago. It was "Whadaya Know," or that other, similarly obnoxious Sunday game/variety show. The panel of celebrity contestants were playing a game that may well have been called Goropizing. Each was given an obscure word and asked to define it. Three of them were BSing; one gave a real definition. The strangest of the bunch, and therefore the one with the real definition attached, was deipnosophist, one who excells at making dinner conversation. Not a word I use every day, but one I'm proud to know.

World Wide Words explains it is derived from two Greek words (but really, what English word isn't?), "deipnon, the chief meal or dinner, and sophistes, a master of his craft, a clever or wise man." Interesting, because sophist in modern times has a derogatory hue. We usually think of a sophist as someone who is adept at disguising counterfactual or immoral arguments in shrouds of apparent reason or morality, like Glaucon in Plato's Republic or Belial in Paradise Lost.

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