Impossible to Define This Word?

What is a “woman”?

“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” the senator asked the female judge, a candidate for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, on March 22, 2022.

“Can I provide a definition? No,” the candidate responded. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?” the senator asked.

“Not in this context, I’m not a biologist,” the judge replied.[1]

I realize that Supreme Court candidates are grilled mercilessly prior to confirmation, so I sympathize with the judge, who was thrown for a loop by a difficult question completely outside her field of expertise. I mean, let’s be real here. For example . . .

  • Would you ask me for directions to my house? Good luck! I’m no cartographer.
  • Should I be expected to tell you if it’s sunny or raining outside? Excuse me, do you think I’m a meteorologist?
  • How does one flush a toilet? C’mon, man, I’m not a plumber, for pity’s sake!

I’m no biologist either, but I know a thing or two about the English language. And being a married man,[2] I know enough about women to assure you that I ain’t one. But I digress.

Allow me to help the good judge by explaining for her what a woman is. I’ll restrict my comments to the realms of lexicography and etymology.[3]

Okay, here we go, your honor! Are you ready? I’ll type slowly, because this can be pretty hard:

A woman is “AN ADULT FEMALE PERSON.”[4]

Let’s break it down further: An (indefinite article) adult (as opposed to a child or youth) female (as opposed to a male) person (as opposed to an animal, plant, fish, etc.).

That’s the lexicographical answer. Are you still with me, your honor? Good! I know you’re in uncharted territory now, so when you catch your breath, we’ll look at etymology. Fasten your seatbelt!

Woman has been a part of the English language since  approximately AD 1250. It can be traced back several centuries before that. It probably developed out of wumman or womman (before AD 1200), and before that from the Old English wimman (c. AD 1000), which probably evolved from wīfman (before c. AD 766), a compound of wīf (woman) and man (human being).[5] (You might notice, incidentally, that the word wife originated from wīf—woman). Not exactly rocket science—I mean, biology—now, is it?

I do sincerely hope this little tutorial helps your honor in addressing matters of jurisprudence, biology, or simple word definitions going forward. We don’t want you to be caught off guard again. You’re welcome!


[1] Source: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ketanji-brown-jackson-bidens-supreme-court-pick-refuses-to-define-the-word-woman

[2] I’m married to a woman, by the way, which, in the history of the world until very recently no one would have thought to question. But now, I recognize, we are much more enlightened.

[3] That is, dictionaries (lexicography) and word origins (etymology).

[4] Merriam-Webster. 2020. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. Frederick C. Mish, ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[5] Barnhardt, Robert, ed. 1995. The Barnhardt Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: HarperCollins (p. 847). Partridge, Eric. 1983. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, (p. 776).


EDITOR’S UPDATE (7/14/22): Unless a person is (1) deliberately lying, (2) mentally ill, (3) well-intentioned (perhaps even smart) but duped, or (4) an intellectual wee one, every otherwise honest, sane, sincere, intelligent person knows there are but two sexes: male and female. That’s it. There are therefore two—and only two—basic categories of human beings: men and women (or boys and girls, depending on one’s age). Period. There aren’t three, or ten, or fifty genders. There are two. This is not rocket science (or even biology, as the good judge contends).

It’s also not rocket science to recognize this insanity as part of a deliberate strategy to dismantle the traditional Judeo-Christian values that are the bedrock of Western Civilization, which is a central aim of Marxism.

For further reading, check out these thoughtful articles:

And the well-written book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, by Abigail Shrier, available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Irreversible-Damage-Transgender-Seducing-Daughters/dp/168451228X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=NURE312G392F&keywords=irreversible+damage+book+by+abigail+shrier&qid=1663077476&s=books&sprefix=irre%2Cstripbooks%2C226&sr=1-1

Momento and Parenthesee

Two common oddities.

Want to listen to an audio podcast version of this post? Here you go:

Momento vs. Memento

When I stopped into a gift shop to purchase a souvenir, the clerk said it would make a “nice momento.” This is a common spoken mistake; the correct word is memento.

Momento is not a word. At least not in English.

It’s understandable why a lot of people (and I do mean a lot of people) get this one wrong. I can think of two reasons: (1) Momento is a Spanish word that means moment, and (2) it makes sense that the souvenir from your vacation will help you remember a particular moment—thus a momento, right? Sorry, but no. Again, sadly, momento is not a word in English.

Here’s how to keep it straight: a memento is a MEMory aid that helps you reMEMber a person, place, or thing, or comMEMorate something. That should be easy to MEMorize.

Parenthesee vs. Parenthesis

This is kind of a joke, but I have actually heard parenthesee used by more than one person. However, parentheses is the plural of the singular parenthesis, referring to the curved symbol we place around a parenthetical word or phrase. We almost always use those symbols in pairs; thus the plural parentheses is more common. (E.g., “Remember to enclose verbal asides in parentheses in your script.”)

Parenthesee, as the singular form to refer to just one of those curved things, is incorrect; it’s not a word. Nope, nope, nope. The word is parenthesis. (Yes, really!)

Both of these can be found in the chapter “Usage Uncertainties” in my new book, Whatever Happened to English? available on Amazon in both paperback and e-book versions.

Whatever Happened to English?

Now available, in time for the holidays!

My newest book, five-plus years in coming, based on this blog, is now a reality. It’s available on Amazon in paperback (e-book to come).

Here are some details:

Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.

Speakers and writers of American English don’t have to know how to diagram sentences or write grammatically perfect sentences at all times, but we should aim for a solid grasp of the basics of good usage, syntax, and punctuation—what teachers and copyeditors call the “mechanics” of English, or simply “Standard Written English.” Our goal should be to communicate in writing more clearly, concisely, coherently, and correctly.

Liberally lacing Whatever Happened to English? with practical grammar, usage, and punctuation tips and examples, often with a humorous edge, the author includes nearly one hundred essays of varying lengths—from a single paragraph to several pages. Approximately half of these essays originally appeared in The Dean’s English blog. The other half are brand new. The book is organized into these chapters:

  • Whatever Happened to English?
  • Usage Uncertainties
  • Punctuation Perplexities
  • A Grammar Miscellany
  • Fun with Words
  • A Dean’s English Potpourri
  • English at the Holidays

Whatever Happened to English? is for writers as young as middle school and as old as Methuselah.

I hope you’ll check it out!

Quote of the Day

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

Attributed to Carl Sandburg

What Are Portmanteau Words?

For your edutainment.

Listen to a one-minute audio version of this post:

Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, coined a term for words created by combining the sounds and meanings of two (or more) different words: he called it a portmanteau [port-MAN-toe] word.[1] The next time something tickles your funny bone and makes you chuckle and snort, you can thank Mr. Carroll for the descriptive word chortle. He also gave us galumph (gallop + triumph, or a triumphant gallop). I challenge you to work those words into a meaningful conversation tomorrow with a loved one, teacher, or client. They will be impressed.

alice-in-wonderland-mad-hatterA portmanteau word is created when smoke is blended with fog (=smog), when gigantic is combined with enormous (=ginormous), when information is combined with commercial (=infomercial), when education is combined with entertainment (=edutainment), and when Oxford is combined with Cambridge (=Oxbridge).

Now that we’ve been enlightened by this life-changing term, portmanteau word, here’s a list of ten more, used somewhere in the world every day:

  • aerobicize (aerobic + exercise)
  • blog (web + log)
  • brunch (breakfast + lunch)
  • docudrama (documentary + drama)
  • emoticon (emotion + icon)
  • fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous)
  • motel (motor + hotel)
  • simulcast (simultaneous + broadcast)
  • televangelist (television + evangelist) 
  • Vitameatavegamin (a portmanteau word on steroids: vitamins + meat + vegetables + minerals. From I Love Lucy, season 1, episode 30.)

Your turn. Please share a portmanteau word you’ve used or have heard used. If it’s your own made-up word, that’s great—as long as it’s one you have actually used with real people. Kindly observe proper netiquette (Internet + etiquette) at all times.

You can find this essay and much, much more in my book Whatever Happened to English.


[1] Linguists use the term blend.

©  2021 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

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