Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Donald Trump's Use of the Word "Cyber" is Maddening

It is easy to make merry with Donald Trump’s grammar and elocution, his bizarre and byzantine flow, but for the most part I try not to go to that well too often, as deep as it may be. He broke out an old chestnut in tonight’s debate that has long been a bur in my saddle though, so I thought I’d outline it.

Trump’s understanding of the word, cyber is utterly fractured. In its purest usage, it’s not really a word. It is part of the word, cybernetics, which was coined in 1948 by a US mathematician to describe his study of devices that performed tasks at the behest of human beings. It derives from a Greek metaphor for navigation.

For a long time it was strictly a prefix for words, and a popular one at that. Cyberpunk, cyberspace and cybersex are just a few of the favorites, but more than one hundred words were coined in the 1990s that used cyber as a prefix, usually invoking computers interfacing with human realities. Somewhere along the way, cyber indeed became its own word, but it is always used as an adjective, and even subsequent to its newfound independence as a word on its own, it is almost always used in conjunction with another word. 

In any case, there is no such noun as cyber, as it by itself does not complete any kind of a thought. In its inception, cybernetics, cyber served as an adjectival prefix and in its solitary use, it may only be used as an adjective.

But Trump bloviates that we need to “get better at cyber,” and that "the Chinese are killing us in cyber." An impossible task. We can no more get better at cyber than the Chinese can kill us at it. We can develop newer, more sophisticated weapons of cyberwarfare. We can get better at defending against cyberterrorism. But we cannot get better at cyber. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is the Difference Between Fall and Autumn?

Trick question. There is no difference, but here's how the dual terminology came to be. The season that describes the transition from summer to winter was known as harvest for many years before autumn came into being. The usage horse race between harvest and autumn started in the 14th century with autumn’s first publication, and harvest and autumn would duke it out for centuries. Then along came fall in the 17th century, almost certainly a yin to the yang of the word spring, which had at that time just recently established its lexical dominance in describing the transition of winter to summer. Beginning in the 17th century then, a three-way war for prominence between harvest, fall and autumn began and by the 18th century, the urban class’s resentment of the agrarian term harvest (and other factors) contributed to its declining usage. So began the rise of fall and autumn, whose Hatfield/McCoy feud rages on to this day. By the numbers, fall is preferred about two to one. So what is the real difference now? Autumn is a little snootier. I prefer autumn.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Reveille / Revelry Confusion

This is a remedial piece to clear up an item that apparently remains an occasional usage gadfly to some. I am a trumpet player and recently attended a music festival with lots of after-hours ensemble playing. Most of the instruments are strings, so the trumpet is an oddity in that environment, and on more than two occasions over the course of the week, I was asked if I planned to play “Revelry” (sic) the following morning.

What they were aiming for is of course “Reveille” (pronounced re-və-lē), an abrupt, piercing bugle melody used to awaken soldiers. Every soldier learns quickly that the bugler’s morning call is not to be ignored, and so the little ditty is associated with sudden and hurried waking under pain of ferocious discipline. Nobody likes that song.

On the other hand, in the mood of its sense at least, the word “revelry” is the precise opposite of “Reveille.” Revelry is high-spirited ebullience up to and including marching bands, fireworks and pom-poms, whereas “Reveille” wakes soldiers routinely on days that will see their deaths.

The word, “Reveille” is derived from “reveillez,” French for “Wake up!” and the composition “Reveille” reflects that brash imperative. It is harsh, it is unapologetic, and it conveys its disinterest in your opinion from the V to the I to the III and tumbling back down again in a vicious arpeggio that is then repeated.

And if that weren’t enough, it then moves its tonal center further upward and continues to peck away at a sleeping soldier’s mind whose overnight replenishment remains cruelly incomplete. It finishes its sadistic labors by repeating the first figure yet again and typically, the entire melody gets played again, even three times, just so no excuses can be made.

Revelry is what happens when the war is over. “Reveille” is what happens while you’re still fighting one.